Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XIII. Thyrza Sings Again
Egremont had a fear that he might seem ungrateful to the man Bower. It was Bower to whom he had gone for help when he first sought to gather an audience, and on the whole the help had been effectual. Yet Bower had not borne the test of nearer acquaintance; Egremont soon knew the vulgarity of his nature, and had much difficulty in sustaining the show of friendly intercourse with him. One evening in mid-February, he called the portly man to speak with him after lecture, and, with what geniality he could, explained to him the details of his library project and told whom he had chosen for librarian. Bower professed himself highly satisfied with everything, and, as usual, affected Egremont disagreeably with his subservience. The latter was not surprised to find that Grail had kept silence on the subject; but it was time now for the arrangements to be made public.
From the lecture-room, Mr. Bower went to a club where he was wont to relax himself of evenings; here he discussed the library question with such acquaintances as were at hand. He reached home just after the closing of the shop. Mary was gone to bed. Mrs. Bower had just finished her supper, and was musing over the second half of her accustomed pint of ale. Her husband threw himself into a chair, with an exclamation of scornful disgust.
'What's wrong now?' asked Mrs. Bower.
'Well, I don't know what you'll call it, but I call it the damnedest bit of sneaking behaviour as I ever knew! He's given the librarianship to that fellow Grail. There's the 'ouse at the back for him to live in, and rent free, no doubt; and there's a good lumping salary, that you may go bail. Now what do you think o' that job?'
'And him not as much as offerin' it to you!'
'Not so much as offerin' it! How many 'ud he have got to hear his lectures without me, I'd like to know! I shouldn't have taken it; no, of course I shouldn't; it wouldn't a' suited me to take a librarianship. But it was his bounden duty to give me the first offer. I never thought he'd make one of us librarian; if it had been some stranger, I shouldn't have made so much of it. But to give it to Grail in that sneaking, underhanded way! Why, I'd be ashamed o' myself. I've a rare good mind never to go near his lectures again.'
'You'd better go,' said Mrs. Bower, prudently. 'He might pay you out at the works. It 'ud be a trick just like him, after this.'
'I'll think about it,' returned the other, with dignity, sitting upright, and gathering his broad beard into his hand.
'Why, there now!' cried his wife, struck with a sudden thought. 'If that doesn't explain something! Depend upon it--depend upon it-- that's how Grail got Thyrza Trent to engage herself to him. He'll a' known it for some time, Grail will a' done. He's a mean fellow, or he'd never a' gone and set her against Mr. Ackroyd, as it's easy to see he did. He'll a' told her about the 'ouse and the salary, of course he will! If I didn't think there was something queer in that job!'
Mr. Bower saw at once how highly probable this was.
'And that is why they've put on such hairs, her an' Lydia,' Mrs. Bower pursued. 'It's all very well for Mary to pretend as there's nothing altered. It's my belief Mary's got to know more than she'll tell, and Lydia's quarrelled with her about it. It's easy enough to see as they have fell out. Lydia ain't been to chapel since Christmas, an' you know yourself it was just before Christmas as Egremont went to the 'ouse to see Mr. Grail. If she'd been a bit sharper, she'd never a' told Mary that. I ain't surprised at Thyrza doin' of under-handed things; I've never liked her over-much. But I thought better of Lydia.'
'I've not quarrelled with them,' said Mr. Bower, magnanimously. 'And girls must look out for themselves, and do the best for themselves they can. But that soft-spoken, sneaking Hegremont! You should a' seen him when he had the cheek to tell me about it; you'd a' thought he was going to give me a five-pound note.'
'Now, you'll see,' said Mrs. Bower, 'they'll take off old Boddy to live with them.'
'So much the better. He can't earn his living much longer, and who was to pay us for his lodging and keep, I'd like to know?'
Thus did the worthy pair link together conjectural cause and effect, on principles which their habit of mind dictated.
On one point Mrs. Bower was right. Mary and Lydia had not come together since the former's triumph over her friend. Lydia still visited the shop to see Mr. Boddy, but generally at the times when Mary was away at prayer-meetings.
There was no sign that she suffered at all, the good Lyddy; the trouble of those days before Christmas was lost in the anticipation of the great change that was soon to come upon her sister's life. To that she had resolved to look forward cheerfully; the better she came to know Gilbert, the warmer grew her affection for him. They were made to be friends; in both were the same absolute honesty of character, the same silent depths of tenderness, the same stern self-respect. Brother and sister henceforth, with the bond of a common love which time, whether it brought joy or sorrow, could but knit closer.
From the first there was, of course, an understanding that the marriage should take place as soon as the house was ready for Gilbert's tenancy. Thyrza went secretly and examined the dwelling from the outside, more than once. That Lydia would come and live there went without saying. She pretended to oppose this plan at first; said she must be independent.
'Very well,' said Thyrza, crossing her hands on her lap, 'then I shan't be married at all, Lyddy, and Mr. Grail had better be told at once.'
There was laughing, and there were kind words.
'I don't think you ought still to call him Mr. Grail,' said Lydia.
'Gilbert? I shall have to say it to myself for a few days. Still, it's a nice name, isn't it?'
Yes, that point needed no discussion; where Thyrza abode, there abode Lydia, until--but sadness lay that way. Mrs. Grail was equally clear as to the arrangements concerning herself; she would keep two rooms and continue to live m Walnut Tree Walk. Thyrza thought this would be unkindness to the old lady, but Mrs. Grail had a store of wisdom and was resolute. In practice, she said, she would not at all feel the loneliness; she could often be at the house, and it had occurred to her that her son in the Midlands would be glad to send one of his two girls to live with her for, say, half a year at a time. Gilbert understood the good sense of this disposition.
The weather continued doleful, until at length, in the last week of February, there came a sudden change. A rioting east wind fell upon the murky vapours of the lower sky, broke up the league of rain and darkness, and through one spring-heralding day drove silver fleece over deeps of clear, cold blue. The streets were swept of mire; eaves ceased to distil their sooty rheum; even in the back-ways of Lambeth there was a sunny gleam on windows and a clear ring in all the sounds of life.
It was Saturday. Between Egremont and Grail it had been decided that the latter should to-day take Thyrza to inspect the house. Egremont had gained the surly compliance of the caretaker--the most liberal treatment made no difference in the strange old woman's moroseness-- and Grail, promising himself pleasure from Thyrza's surprise, said nothing more than that he wished to see her at three in the afternoon.
The sisters did not come home together from their work, Lydia had an engagement with Mrs. Isaacs, of whom we have heard, and went to snatch a pretence of a dinner in a little shop to which she resorted when there was need. Thyrza, leaving the work-room at half-past one, did not take the direct way to Walnut Tree Walk; the sun and the keen air filled her with a spirit of glad life, and a thought that it would be nice to see how her future home looked under the bright sky came to her temptingly. The distance was not great; she soon came to Brook Street and, with some timidity, turned up the narrow passage, meaning to get a glimpse of the house and run away again. But just as she reached the entrance to the rear-yard, she found herself face to face with someone whom she at once knew for the caretaker whom Gilbert had described to her. The old woman's eye held her. She was half frightened, yet in a moment found words.
'Please,' she said--it seemed to her the only way of explaining her intrusion--'is there any one in the school now?'
The old woman examined her, coldly, searchingly.
'No, there ain't,' she replied. 'Is it you as is a-goin' to live here?'
This was something like witchcraft to Thyrza.
'Yes, I am,' fell from her lips.
'All right. You can go in and look about. I ain't get nothink to hide away.'
Thyrza was in astonishment, and a little afraid. Yet she dearly wished to see the interior of the house. The old woman turned, and she followed her.
'There ain't no need for me to go draggin' about with you,' said the caretaker, when they were within the door. 'I've plenty o' work o' my own to see to.'
'May I look into the rooms, then?'
'Didn't I say as you could? What need o' so many words?'
Thyrza hesitated; but, the old creature having begun to beat a door-mat, she resolved to go forward boldly. She peeped into all the cheerless chambers, then returned to the door.
'Don't you want to see the school-rooms?' the old woman asked. 'Go along that passage, and mind the step at the end.'
Thyrza was bolder now. The aspect of the house had not depressed her, for she knew that it was to be thoroughly repaired and furnished, and she was predisposed to like everything she saw. It would be her home, hers and Lyddy's; the dignity of occupying a whole house would have compensated for many little discomforts. Thanking the old woman for her direction she went along the dark passage, and came into the large school-room. And this was to be filled with books! She looked at the maps and diagrams for a few moments; though it was so bright a day, the place still kept much of its chill and gloom. Gilbert had told her of the rooms up above, and she thought she might as well complete her knowledge of the building by seeing them. At the first landing on the staircase she came to a window by which the sun streamed in brilliantly: the rays gladdened her. It was nice that the old woman had remained behind; the sense of being quite alone, together with the sudden radiance, affected her with a desire to utter her happiness, and as she went on she sang in a sweet undertone, sang without words, pure music of her heart.
In one of the two rooms above, Egremont happened to be taking certain measurements. Impatient to get his plans completed in detail, he had resolved to come for half an hour on this same day which had been appointed for Grail's visit. Curious as he was to see the woman whom Grail was about to marry--as yet he knew nothing more of her than her casually learnt name--delicacy prevented him from using the opportunity this afternoon would give; the two were to arrive at three o'clock, and long before that time he would have finished his measuring and be gone. And now he was making his last notes, when the sound of as sweet a voice as he had ever heard made him pause and listen. The singer was approaching; her voice grew a little louder, though still in the undertone of one who sings but half consciously. He caught a light footstep, then the door was pushed open.
His hand fell. Even such a face as this would he have desired for her whose voice had such a charm. Her dress told him her position; the greater was his wonder at the features, which seemed to him of faultless delicacy--more than that, of beauty which appealed to him as never beauty had yet. Thyrza stood in alarm; the murmur had died instantly upon her lips, and for a moment she met his gaze with directness. Then her eyes fell; her cheeks recovered with interest the blood which they had lost. She turned to retreat.
But Egremont stepped rapidly forward, saying the first words that came to him.
'Pray don't let me be in your way! I'm this moment going--this moment.'
From her singing, he concluded that she was accustomed to be here. Thyrza again met his look. She guessed who this must be. The kindness of his face as he stood before her caused her to speak the words she was thinking:
'Are you Mr. Egremont, sir?'
Then she was shocked at her boldness; she did not see the smile with which he replied:
'Yes, that is my name.'
'I am Miss Trent. Perhaps you have--perhaps Mr. Grail has told you --'
This, Miss Trent? This, Gilbert Grail's wife? His astonishment scarcely allowed him to relieve her promptly.
'Oh then, we already know each other, by name at least. You have come to look at the building. Mr. Grail is downstairs?'
'No, sir. I came in alone. I thought I should like to see--'
'Of course. You have been over the house?'
He wondered rather at her coming alone, but supposed that Grail was withheld by some business.
'Yes, sir,' she answered.
'I'm afraid you think it doesn't look very promising. But I'm sure we can do a great deal to improve it.'
'I think it's very nice,' Thyrza said, not at all out of politeness, but because she did indeed think so.
'I will do my best to make it so, as soon as it is vacant. These two rooms,' he added, loth to take leave at once, 'we shall use for lectures. Have you been into the other one?'
He led the way, taking up his hat from the desk. Thyrza was overcoming her timidity. All she had ever heard of Egremont prepared her to find him full of gentleness and courtesy and good-humour; already she thought that far too little had been said in his praise. His singular smile occupied her imagination; she wished to keep her eyes on his face, for the pleasure of following its changes. Indeed, like her own, his features were very mobile, and the various emotions now stirring within him animated his look. She kept at a little distance from him, and listened with the keenest interest to all he said. When he paused, after telling her the number of books he had decided to begin with, she said:
'Mr. Grail does so look forward to it. I'm sure nothing could have made him so happy.'
Egremont was pleased with a note of sincerity, of self forgetfulness in these words. He replied:
'I am very glad. I know he'll be at home among books. Are you fond of reading?'
'Yes, sir. Mr. Grail lends me books, and explains what I don't understand.'
'No doubt you will find plenty of time.'
'Yes, sir. I shan't go to work then. But of course there'll be the house to look after.'
Egremont glanced towards the windows and murmured an assent. Thyrza moved a little nearer the door.
'I think I'll go, now I've seen everything.'
'I am going myself.'
She preceded him down the stairs. He watched her ungloved hand touch place after place on the railing, watched her slightly bent head with its long braid of gold and the knot of blue ribbon. At the turning to the lower flight, he caught a glimpse of her profile, and felt that he would not readily forget its perfectness. At the foot he asked:
'Do you wish to pass through the house? If not, this door is open.'
'I'll go this way, sir.'
She just raised her face.
'Good-bye, Miss Trent,' he said, offering his hand.
Then he opened the door for her. After standing for a few moments in the vestibule, he went to speak a word to the caretaker.
Thyrza walked home, looking neither to right nor to left. There was a little spot of colour on each cheek which would not melt away. Reaching the room upstairs, she sat down without taking off her things. She ought to have prepared her dinner, but did not think of it, and at length she was startled by hearing a clock strike three.
She ran down to the Grails' room. Gilbert and his mother had just finished their meal. The latter gossiped for a moment, then went out.
'I want you to go somewhere with me,' Gilbert said.
'Yes, I'm quite ready; but--'
'I have something to tell you, Gilbert. I wonder whether you'll be cross.'
'When was I cross last, Thyrza?'
'No, but I'm not sure whether I ought to have done something. As I was coming home, I thought I'd walk past the house. When I got there, I thought I'd just go up the passage and look. And that old woman met me, and asked me if it was me that was going to live there. How did she know?'
'That's more than I can tell.'
'But that isn't all. She said I might go in and look about if I liked. And I thought I would--did I do wrong?'
She saw a shade of disappointment on his face. But he said:
'Not at all. Did you go over all the rooms?'
'Yes. But there's something else. I went into those school-rooms upstairs, never thinking there was any one there, because the old woman told me there wasn't. But there was--and it was Mr. Egremont.'
'Really? Did he knew who you were?'
'I told him, Gilbert.'
He laughed again, and there was a look of pride in his eyes.
'Well, there's nothing very dreadful yet. And did he speak nicely?'
'Yes, very nicely. And when I went away, he shook hands.'
'It's a very queer thing that you happened to go just to. day. That's exactly where I meant to take you this afternoon. I'm rather disappointed.'
'I'm very sorry. But couldn't I go with you again? We shall be alone this time: Mr. Egremont said he was just going.'
'It won't tire you?'
'Oh, but I should like to go! I made up my mind which'll be Lyddy's room. I wonder whether you'll guess the same.'
'Come along, then!'