Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XIV. Mists
Paula Tyrrell was married at Easter. Convenience dictated this speed --in other words, Paula resolved to commence the season as Mrs. Dalmaine and in a house of her own. Mr. Dalmaine had pointed out the advantage of using the Easter recess. As there was scarcely time to select and make ready an abode for permanence, it was decided to take a house in Kensington, which friends of the Tyrrells desired to let for the year.
Annabel was not present at the wedding. It was the second week in March before Mr. Newthorpe felt able to leave Ullswater, and Annabel had little mind to leave him for such a purpose immediately after their establishment at Eastbourne. Indeed, she would rather not have attended the wedding under any circumstances.
Her father had been gravely ill. There was organic disease, and there was what is vaguely called nervous breakdown; it was too clear that Mr. Newthorpe must count upon very moderate activity either of mind or body henceforth. He himself was not quite unprepared for this collapse; he accepted it with genial pessimism. Fate had said that his life was to result in nothing--nothing, that is, from the point of view of his early aspirations. Yet there was Annabel, and in her the memory of his life's passion. As he lay in silence through the days when spring combated with winter, he learned acquiescence; after all, he was among the happier of men, for he could look back upon a few days of great joy, and forward without ignoble anxiety.
He felt that the abandonment of Ullswater was final, yet would not say so to Annabel. Mrs. Ormonde had made ready a house at a short distance from her own, and here the two would live at all events into the summer; beyond that, all must hinge on circumstances. They broke the journey for a couple of days in London, staying with their relatives. During those days Paula behaved very prettily. A certain affection had grown up between her and her uncle whilst she was at Ullswater, and the meeting under these dolefully changed conditions touched her best feelings. Yet with her cousin she was reserved; her behaviour did not bear out the evidence of latent tenderness and admiration contained in that letter of hers which we saw. Annabel had looked for something more. Just now she was longing for affection and sympathy, and Paula was the only girl friend she had. But Paula would only speak of Mr. Dalmaine and, absurdest thing, of politics. Annabel retired into herself. She was glad to reach at length the quiet house by the sea, glad to be near Mrs. Ormonde.
The circumstances of Annabel's early life had worked happily with her inherited disposition. Her father, had he been free to choose, would have planned her training differently, but in all likelihood with less advantage than she derived from the compromise between her parents. Though at the time of her mother's death she still waited for formal recognition as a member of Society, being but sixteen, she was of riper growth than the majority of young ladies who in that season were being led forth for review and to perfect themselves in arts of civilisation. From her mother she had learnt, directly or indirectly, much of that little world which deems the greater world its satellite; from her father she received love of knowledge and reverence for the nobler modes of life. She was marked by a happy balance of character; all that came to her from without she seemed naturally to assimilate in due proportions; her tastes were those of an imaginative temper, tending to joyousness but susceptible of grave impressions. She relished books, yet never allowed them to hold her from bodily exercise; she knew the happiness of solitude, yet could render welcomest companionship; at one time she conversed earnestly with those older and wiser than herself, at another she was the willing playmate of laughing girls. She was loved by those who could by no possibility have loved one another, and in turn she seemed to discover with sure insight what there was of strength and beauty in the most diverse characters. With this breadth of sympathy she developed a self-consciousness of the kind to which most women never attain; habitually studying herself, and making comparison of herself with others, she cultivated her understanding and her emotions simultaneously.
Her time of serious study only began when she exchanged London for the mountain solitude. Henceforth her father's influence exerted itself freely, and Annabel had just reached the age for profiting most by it. Her bringing up between a brilliant drawing-room and a well-stocked library had preserved her from the two dangers to which English girls of the free-born class are mainly exposed: she escaped Puritanism, yet was equally withheld from frivolous worldliness. But it was well that this balance, admirably maintained thus far, should not be submitted to the risks of such a life as awaited her, if there had come no change of conditions. She would be a beautiful woman, and was not unaware of it; her social instincts, which Society would straightway do its best to abuse, might outweigh her spiritual tendencies. But a year of life by Ullswater consolidated her womanhood. She bent herself to books with eagerness. The shock of sorrow compelled her to muse on problems which as yet she had either not realised, or had solved in the light of tradition, childwise. Her mind was ripe for those modern processes of thought which hitherto had only been implicit in her education.
To her father Annabel's companionship was invaluable. She repaid richly out of the abundance of her youthful life that anxious guidance which he gave to her thoughts. Her loving tact sweetened for him many an hour which would else have been spent in profitless brooding: when the signs of which she had become aware warned her that he needed to be drawn from himself, she was always ready with her bright converse, her priceless sympathy. Without her he would seldom have exerted himself to wander far from the house, but Annabel could at any time lead him over hill and valley by pretending that she had need of a holiday. Their communion was of a kind not frequently existing between father and daughter; fellowship in Study made them mental comrades, and respect for each other's intellectual powers was added to their natural love. What did they not discuss? From classical archaeology to the fire-new theories of the day in art and science, something of all passed at one time or another under their scrutiny.
Yet there was the limit imposed by fine feeling. Mr. Newthorpe never tried to pass the sacred bound which parts a father's province from that of a mother. There was much in the girl's heart that he would gladly have read, yet could not until she should of herself reveal it to him. For instance, they did not very often speak of Egremont. When a letter arrived from him, Mr. Newthorpe always gave it to Annabel to read; at other times that was a subject on which he spoke only when she introduced it. After Walter's departure there had been one conversation between them in which Annabel told what had come to pass; she went so far as to speak of a certain trouble she had on Paula's account.
'I think you must use your philosophy with regard to Paula,' her father replied. 'Of course I know nothing of the circumstances, but,' he smiled not unkindly, 'the child I think I know pretty well. Don't be troubled. I have confidence in Egremont.'
'I have the same feeling in truth, father,' Annabel said, 'and--I feel nothing more than that.'
'Then let it rest, dear. I certainly have no desire to lose you.'
So much between them. Thereafter, both spoke of Egremont, when at all, in an unconstrained way. Annabel showed frank interest in all that concerned him, but, as far as Mr. Newthorpe could discern, nothing more than the interest of friendliness. As the months went on, he discerned no change. Her life was as cheerful and as steadily industrious as ever; nothing betrayed unsettlement of the thought. If her father by chance entered the room where she studied, he found her bent over books, her face beautiful in calm zeal.
The first grave symptoms of illness in her father opened a new chapter of Annabel's life. It was time to lay aside books for a little; the fated scheme of her existence required at this point new experiences. The student's habit does not readily reconcile itself to demands for practical energy and endurance, and when the first strain of fear-stricken love was relaxed, Annabel fell for a few days into grievous weakness of despondency; summoned from her study to all the miseries of a sick-room, it was mere nervous force that failed her. When her father had his relapse, she was able to face the demand upon her more sternly. But the trial through which she was passing was a severe one. With the invalid she could keep a bright face, and make her presence, as ever, a blessing to him. Alone, she cared no longer for her books, nor for the beauty that was about her home. You remember that passage in her letter to Egremont: 'The world seems to me very dark, and life a dreadful penalty.' She could have uttered much on that text to one from whom she had had no secret.
One day, when Mr. Newthorpe was again recovering strength, there came a letter from Mrs. Tyrrell which announced the date of Paula's marriage. Annabel received the letter to read. As she was sitting with her father a little later, he said, with a return of his humorous mood:
'I wonder on what footing Egremont will be in the new household?'
'I suppose,' Annabel replied, 'his acquaintance with Mr. Dalmaine will continue to be of the slightest.'
He paused a little, then, quietly:
'I am glad of this marriage.'
Annabel said nothing.
'It proves,' he continued, 'that we did well in not thinking too gravely of a certain incident.'
Annabel led the conversation away. She had singular thoughts on this subject. Paula's letter, first announcing the engagement, made mention of Egremont in a curious way; and it was at least a strange hap that Paula should be about to marry the man against whom Egremont had expressed such an antipathy.
Her father said no more, but Annabel had a new care for her dark mood to feed upon. She felt that the words 'I am glad of this marriage' concerned herself. They meant that her father was glad of the removal of what was perchance one barrier between Egremont and herself. And in these long weeks in which she was anguished by the spectacle of suffering, it had become her first desire to be of comfort to the sufferer. Her ideal of a placid life was shattered; the things which availed her formerly now seemed weak to rely upon. In so dark a world, what guidance was there save by the hand of love?
With Egremont she was in full intellectual sympathy, and the thought of becoming his wife had no painful associations; but could she bring herself to abandon that ideal of love which had developed with her own development? Must she relinquish the hope of a great passion, and take the hand of a man whom she merely liked and respected? It was a question she must decide, for Walter, when they again met, might again seek to win her. The idealism which she derived from her father would not allow her yet to regard life as a compromise, which women are so skilled in doing practically, though the better part in them to the end revolts. Yet who was she, that life should bestow its highest blessing upon her?
When at the Tyrrells' house in London, she feared lest Egremont should come. Mrs. Tyrrell spoke much of him the first evening, lamenting that he had so withdrawn himself from his friends. But he did not come.
At Eastbourne, Mr. Newthorpe's health began to improve. Even in a week the change was very marked. He seemed to have taken a resolve to restore the old order of things by force of will. Doubtless his conversations with Mrs. Ormonde about Annabel were an incentive to effort; relieved from the weight of suffering, he could see that the girl was not herself. On Paula's marriage day, he said, in the course of conversation with Annabel:
'Your aunt desires very much to have you with her for a part of the season. What do you think of it? Would you care to go up in May?'
Annabel did not at once reject the idea.
'It is my opinion that you need some such change,' her father continued. 'The last quarter of a year has done you harm. In a month I hope to be sound enough.'
'I will think of it,' she said. And there the subject rested.
The town was secretly attracting her. The odour of the Tyrrells' house had exercised a certain seduction. Though she saw but one or two old acquaintances there, the dining-room, the drawing-room, brought the past vividly back to her. She was not so wholly alien to her mother's blood that the stage-life of the world was without appeal to her, and circumstances were favourable to a revival of that element in her character which I touched upon when speaking of her growth out of childhood. It is a common piece of observation that studious gravity in youth is succeeded by a desire for action and enjoyment. Annabel's disposition to study did not return, though quietness was once more restored to her surroundings. And thus, though the settlement at Eastbourne seemed a relief, she soon found that it did not effect all she hoped. Her father began to take up his books again, though in a desultory, half-hearted way. Annabel could not do even that. A portion of each day she spent with Mrs. Ormonde; often she walked by herself on the shore; a book was seldom in her hand.
Two or three days before the end of March, Mr. Newthorpe spoke of Egremont.
'I should like to see him. May I ask him to come and spend a day with us, Annabel?'
'Do by all means, father,' she answered. 'Mrs. Ormonde heard from him yesterday. He came into possession of his library-building the other day.'
'I will write, then.'
This was Monday; on Wednesday morning Egremont came. The nine months or so which had passed since these three met had made an appreciable change in all of them. When Egremont entered the room where father and daughter were expecting him, he was first of all shocked at the wasting and ageing of Mr. Newthorpe's face, then surprised at the difference he found in Annabel--this, too, of a kind that troubled him. He thought her less beautiful than she had been. With no picture of her to aid him, he had for long periods been unable to make her face really present to his mind's eye--one of the sources of his painful debates with himself. When it came, as faces do, at unanticipated moments, he saw her as she looked in walking back with him from the lake-side, when she declared that the taste of the rain was sweet. Is it not the best of life, that involuntary flash of memory upon instants of the eager past? Better than present joy, in which there is ever a core of disappointment; better, far better, than hope, which cannot warm without burning. Annabel was surpassingly beautiful as he knew her in that brief vision. Beautiful she still was, but it was as if a new type of loveliness had come between her and his admiration; he could regard her without emotion. The journey from London had been one incessant anticipation, tormented with doubt. Would her presence conquer him royally, assure her dominion, convert his intellectual fealty to passionate desire? He regarded her without emotion.
Yet Annabel was not so calm as she wished to be. Only by force of will could she exchange greetings without evidence of more than friendly pleasure. This irritated her, for up to an hour ago she had said that his coming would in no way disturb her. When, after an hour's talk, she left her father and the guest together, and went up to her room, the first feeling she acknowledged to herself was one of disappointment. Egremont had changed, and not, she thought, for the better. He had lost something--perchance that freshness of purpose which had become him so well. He seemed to talk of his undertakings less spontaneously, and in a tone--she could not quite say what it was, but his tone perhaps suggested the least little lack of sincerity. And her agitation when he entered the room? It had meant nothing, nothing. Her nerves were weak, that was all.
She wished she could shed tears. There was no cause for it, surely none, save a physical need. Such a feeling was very strange to her.
They had luncheon; then, as his custom was, Mr. Newthorpe went apart to rest for a couple of hours. Mrs. Ormonde was coming to dine; the hour of the meal would be early, to allow of Egremont's return to town. In the meantime the latter obtained Annabel's consent to a walk. They took the road ascending to Beachy Head.
'You still have opportunity of climbing,' Egremont said.
'On a modest scale. But I am not regretting the mountains. The sea, I think, is more to me at present.'
They were not quite at ease together. Conversation turned about small things, and was frequently broken. The day was not very bright, and mist spoiled the view landwards. The sea was at ebb, and sluggish.
Annabel of her own accord reverted to Lambeth.
'You must have had many pleasures arising from your work,' she said, 'but one above all I envy you. I mean that of helping poor Mr. Grail so well.'
'Yes, that is a real happiness,' he answered, thoughtfully. 'The idea of making him librarian came to me almost at the same moment as that of establishing the library. I didn't know then all that it would mean to him. I was fortunate in meeting that man, one out of thousands.'
'He must be deeply grateful to you.'
'We are good friends. I respect him more than I can tell you. I don't think you could find a man, in whatever position, of more sterling character. His love of knowledge touches me as something ideal. It is monstrous to think that he might have spent all his life in that candle factory.'
Annabel reflected for a moment. Then a look of pleasure fighted her face, and she spoke with a revival of the animation which had used to appeal so strongly to his sympathies.
'See what one can do! You become a sort of providence to a man. Indeed, you change his fate; you give him a new commencement of life. What a strange thought that is? Do you feel it as I do?'
'Quite, I think. And can you understand that it has sometimes shamed me? Just because I happen to have money I can do this! Isn't it a poor sordid world? Not one man, but perhaps a hundred, could be raised into a new existence by what in my hands is mere superfluity of means. Doesn't such a thought make life a great foolish game? Suppose me saying, 'Here is a thousand pounds; shall I buy a yacht to play with, or--shall I lift a living man's soul out of darkness into light?''
He broke off and laughed bitterly. Annabel glanced at him. She noticed that thoughts of this cast were now frequent in his mind, though formerly they had been strange to him. He used to face problems with simple directness, in the positive spirit or with an idealist's enthusiasm; now he leaned to scepticism, though it was his endeavour to conceal the tendency. She was struck with the likeness of this change in him to that which she herself was suffering; yet it did not touch her sympathies, and she was anxious forthwith to avoid coincidence with him.
'You yourself offer the answer to that,' she replied. 'The very fact that you have exerted such power, never mind by what means, puts you in a relation to that man which is anything but idle or foolish. Isn't it rather a great and moving thing that one can be a source of such vast blessing to another? Money is only the accident. It is the kindness, the human feeling, that has to be considered. You show what the world might be, if all men were human. If I could do one act like that, Mr. Egremont, I should cry with gratitude!'
He looked at her, and found the Annabel of his memory. With the exception of Mrs. Ormonde, he knew no woman who spoke thus from heart and intellect at once. The fervour of his admiration was rekindled.
'It is to you one should come for strength,' he said, 'when the world weighs too heavily.'
Annabel was sober again.
'Do you often go and see him at his house?' she asked, speaking of Grail.
'I am going on Friday night. I have not been since that one occasion which I mentioned in a letter to Mr. Newthorpe. I had to write to him yesterday about the repair of the house he is going to live in, and in his reply this morning he asked me to come for an hour's talk.'
'You were curious, father told me, about the wife he had chosen. Have you seen her yet?'
'Yes. She is quite a young girl.'
He was looking at a far-off sail, and as he replied his eyes kept the same direction. Annabel asked no further question. Egremont laughed before he spoke again.
'How absurdly one conjectures about unknown people I suppose it was natural to think of Grail marrying someone not quite young and very grave.'
'But I hope she is grave enough to be his fitting companion?'
He opened his lips, but altered the words he was about to speak.
'I only saw her for a few minutes--a chance meeting. She impressed me favourably.'
They walked in a leisurely way for about half an hour, then turned, Mists were creeping westward over Pevensey, and the afternoon air was growing chill. There was no sound from the sea, which was divided lengthwise into two tracts of different hue, that near the land a pale green, that which spread to the horizon a cold grey.
Nothing passed between them which could recall their last day together, nothing beyond that one exclamation of Egremont's, which Annabel hardly appeared to notice. Neither desired to prolong the conversation. Yet neither had ever more desired heart-sympathy than now.
Annabel said to herself: 'It is over.' She was spared anxious self-searching. The currents of their lives were slowly but surely carrying them apart from each other. When she came into the drawing-room to offer tea, her face was brighter, as if she had experienced some relief.
Mrs. Ormonde had not seen Egremont for some six weeks. The tone of the one or two letters she had received from him did not reassure her against misgivings excited at his latest visit. To her he wrote far more truly than to Mr. Newthorpe, and she knew, what the others did not, that he was anything but satisfied with the course he had taken since Christmas in his lecturing. 'After Easter,' was her advice, 'return to your plain instruction. It is more fruitful of profit both to your hearers and to yourself.' But Egremont had begun to doubt whether after Easter he should lecture at all.
'Mr. Bunce's little girl is coming to me again,' she said, in the talk before dinner. 'You know the poor little thing has been in hospital for three wreks?'
'I haven't heard of it,' Egremont replied. 'I'm sorry that I haven't really come to know Bunce. I had a short talk with him a month ago, and he told me then that his children were well. But he is so reticent that I have feared to try further, to get his confidence.'
'Why, Bunce is the aggressive atheist, isn't he?' said Mr. Newthorpe.
Mrs. Ormonde smiled and nodded.
'I fear he is a man of misfortunes,' she said. 'My friend at the hospital tells me that his wife was small comfort to him whilst she lived. She left him three young children to look after, and the eldest of them--she is about nine--is always ill. There seems to be no one to tend them whilst their father is at work.'
'Who will bring the child here?' Egremont asked.
'She came by herself last time. But I hear she is still very weak; perhaps someone will have to be sent from the hospital.'
During dinner, the library was discussed. Egremont reported that workmen were already busy in the school-rooms and in Grail's house.
'I'm in correspondence,' he said, 'with a man I knew some years ago, a scientific fellow, who has heard somehow of my undertakings, and wrote asking if he might help by means of natural science. Perhaps it might be well to begin a course of that kind in one of the rooms. It would appeal far more to the Lambeth men than what I am able to offer.'
This project passed under review, then Egremont himself led the talk to widely different things, and thereafter resisted any tendency it showed to return upon his special affairs. Annabel was rather silent.
An hour after dinner, Egremont had to depart to catch his train. He took leave of his friends very quietly.
'We shall come and see the library as soon as it is open,' said Mr. Newthorpe.
Egremont smiled merely.
Mr. Newthorpe remarked that Egremont seemed disappointed with the results of his work.
'I should uncommonly like to hear one of these new lectures,' he said. 'I expect there's plenty of sound matter in them. My fear is lest they are over the heads of his audience.'
'I fear,' said Mrs. Ormonde, 'it is waste both of his time and that of the men. But the library will cheer him; there is something solid, at all events.'
'Yes, that can scarcely fail of results.'
'I think most of Mr. Grail,' put in Annabel.
'A true woman,' said Mrs. Ormonde, with a smile. 'Certainly, let the individual come before the crowd.'
And all agreed that in Gilbert Grail was the best result hitherto of Egremont's work.