Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XV. A Second Visit to Walnut Tree Walk
The man of reserve betrays happiness by disposition for companionship. Surprised that the world all at once looks so bright to his own eyes, he desires to learn how others view it. The unhappy man is intensely subjective; his own impressions are so inburnt that those of others seem to him unimportant--nay, impertinent. And what is so bitter as the spectacle of alien joy when one's own heart is waste!
Gilbert Grail was no longer the silent and lonely man that he had been. The one with whom he had formed something like a friendship had gone apart; in the nature of things Ackroyd and he could never again associate as formerly, though when need was they spoke without show of estrangement; but others whom he had been wont to hold at a distance by his irresponsiveness were now of interest to him, and, after the first surprise at the change in him, they met his quiet advances in a friendly way. Among his acquaintances there were, of course, few fitted to be in any sense his associates. Two, however, he induced to attend Egremont's lectures, thus raising the number of the audience to eight. These recruits were not enthusiastic over 'Thoughts for the Present;' one of them persevered to the end of the course, the other made an excuse for absenting himself after two evenings.
Gilbert held seriously in mind the pledge he had given to Egremont to work for the spread of humane principles. One of those with whom he often spoke of these matters was Bunce--himself a man made hard to approach by rude experiences. Bunce was a locksmith; some twelve years ago he had had a little workshop of his own, but a disastrous marriage brought him back to the position of a journeyman, and at present he was as often out of work as not. Happily his wife was dead; he found it a hard task to keep his three children. The truth was that his domestic miseries had, when at their height, driven him to the public-house, and only by dint of struggles which no soul save his own was aware of was he gradually recovering self-confidence and the trust of employers. His attendance at Egremont's lectures was part of the cure. Though it was often hard to go out at night and leave his little ones, he did so that his resolve might not suffer. He and they lived in one room, in the same house which sheltered Miss Totty Nancarrow.
On the evening which Egremont spent at Eastbourne, Grail came across Bunce on the way home from the factory. They resumed a discussion interrupted a day or two before, and, as they passed the end of Newport Street, Bunce asked his companion to enter for the purpose of looking at a certain paper in which he had found what seemed to him cogent arguments. They went up the dark musty staircase, and entered the room opposite to Totty's.
'Hollo!' Bunce cried, finding no light. 'What's up? Nellie! Jack!'
It was usual, since the eldest child was at the hospital, for the landlady to come and light a lamp for the two little ones when it grew dusk. Bunce had an exaggerated fear of giving trouble, and only sheer necessity had compelled him to request this small service.
'They'll be downstairs, I suppose,' he muttered, striking a match.
The hungry room had no occupants. On the floor lay a skeleton doll, a toy tambourine, a whipping-top, and a wried tin whistle. There was one bedstead, and a bed made up on a mattress laid on the floor. On a round clothless table stood two plates, one with a piece of bread and butter remaining, and two cups and saucers. The fire had died out.
A shrill voice was calling from below stairs.
'Mr. Bunce! Mr. Bunce! Your children is gone out with Miss Nancarrow as far as the butcher's. They won't be more than five minutes, I was to say, if you came in.'
'Thank you, Mrs. Ladds,' Bunce replied briefly.
He came in and closed the door.
'That's a new thing,' he said, as if doubtful whether to be satisfied or not. 'I hope she won't begin taking 'em about. Still, she isn't a bad lot, that girl. Do you know anything of her?'
'Why, yes. I've heard of her often from Miss Trent. Isn't she a good deal with Ackroyd?'
'Can't say. She's not a bad lot. She's going to take my Bessie down to Eastbourne at the end of the week.'
'But why don't you go yourself? It would do you good.'
Bunce shrugged his shoulders.
'No, I can't go myself. Just for the child's sake, I have to put up with that kind of thing, but I don't like it. It's charity, after all, and I couldn't face those people at the home.'
'What home is it?' Grail asked. He knew, but out of delicacy wished the explanation to come from Bunce.
'I don't know as it has any name. It seems to be in connection with the Children's Hospital. The matron, or whatever you call her, is a Mrs. Ormonde.'
'Oh, I know about her!' Gilbert exclaimed. 'She's a friend of Mr. Egremont's. He's s spoken of her once or twice to me. You needn't be afraid of meeting her. She's a lady who has given up her own house for this purpose: as good a woman, I believe, as lives.'
'Well,' said Bunce, doggedly, 'I'm thankful to her, but I can't face her. What's this, I'd like to know?'
His eye caught something that looked like a small pamphlet lying near the fireplace. He stooped to pick it up.
'If they're beginning to throw my papers about--'
The sudden silence caused Gilbert to look at him. Bunce was not a well-favoured man, but ordinarily a rugged honesty helped the misfortunes of his features, a sort of good-humour, too, which seemed unable to find free play. But of a sudden his face had become ferocious, startling in its exasperated surprise, its savage wrath. His eyes glared blood-shot, his teeth were uncovered, his jaws protruded as if in an animal impulse to rend.
'How's this got here?' he almost roared. 'Who brings things o' this kind into my room? Who's put this into my children's hands?'
'What on earth is it?' Gilbert asked in amazement.
'What is it? Look at that! Look at that, I say! If this is the landlady's work, I'll find a new room this very night!'
Gilbert tried to take the paper, but Bunce's hand, which trembled violently, held it with such a grip that there was no getting possession of it. With difficulty Grail perceived that it was a religious tract.
'Why, there's no great harm done,' he said. 'The children can't read, can they?'
'Jack can! The boy can! I'm teaching him myself.'
He raved. The sight of that propagandist document affected him, to use the old simile, as scarlet does a bull. Gilbert knew the man's prejudices, but, in his own more cultured mind, could not have conceived such frenzy of hatred as this piece of Christian doctrine excited in Bunce. For five minutes the poor fellow was possessed; sweat covered his face; he was shaken as if by bodily anguish. He read scraps aloud, commenting on them with scornful violence. Last of all he flung the paper to the ground and trampled it into shreds. Gilbert had at first difficulty in refraining from laughter; then he sat down and waited with some impatience for the storm to spend itself.
'Come, come, Bunce,' he said, when he could make himself heard, 'remember Mr. Egremont's lecture on those things. I think pretty much as you do about Christianity--about the dogmas, that is; but we've no need to fear it in this way. Let's take what good there is in it, and have nothing to do with the foolish parts.'
Bunce seated himself, exhausted. Not a few among the intelligent artisans of our time are filled with that spirit of hatred against all things Christian; in him it had become a mania. Egremont's eirenicon had been a hard saying to him; he had tried to think it over, because of his respect for the teacher, but as yet it had resulted in no sobering. His mind was not sufficiently prepared for lessons of wisdom; had Egremont witnessed this scene, he might well have groaned in spirit over the ineffectualness of his prophesying.
Gilbert spoke with earnestness. To him his friend's teaching had come as true and refreshing, and he could not lose such an opportunity as this of pushing on the work. He insisted on the beauty there was in the Christian legend, on its profound spiritual significance, on the poverty of all religious schemes which man had devised to replace it.
'We want no religion!' cried Bunce angrily. 'It's been the curse of the world. Look at the Inquisition! Look at the religious wars! Look at the Jesuits!'
He was primed with such historic instances out of books and pamphlets spread broadcast by the contemporary apostles of 'free thought.' Of history proper he of course knew nothing, but these splinters of quasi-historic evidence had run deep into his flesh. Despise him, if you like, but try to understand him. It was his very humaneness which brought him to this pass; recitals of old savagery had poisoned his blood, and the 'spirit of the age' churned his crude acquisitions into a witch's cauldron. Academic sweetness and light was a feeble antidote to offer him.
Gilbert soothed his companion for the time. He knew where to stop, and promised himself to find a fitter season for pursuing the same subject. Just as he had reverted to the topic of conversation which brought him here, there came a knock at the door.
'Come in!' growled Bunce.
Totty Nancarrow appeared. One of her hands led a little fellow of seven, a bright lad, munching a 'treacle-stick;' the other, a little girl a year younger, who exclaimed as she entered:
'Been a walk with Miss Nanco!'
'We've been to the butcher's with Miss Nancarrow, father,' declared the boy, consciously improving on his sister's report.
Totty had drawn back a step at the sight of Grail. He and she knew each other by sight, but had not yet exchanged words.
'I found them in the dark, Mr. Bunce,' she said, half laughing. 'Mrs. Ladds was out, and couldn't get back in time to light the lamp for them. I hope you don't mind. I thought a little bit of a walk 'ud do them good.'
Bunce always softened at the sight of his little ones.
'I'm much obliged to you, Miss Nancarrow,' he said.
'Miss Nanco bought me sweets,' remarked little Nelly, when her father had drawn her between his knees. And she exhibited a half-sucked lollipop. Her brother hid away his own delicacy, feeling all at once that it compromised his masculine superiority.
'Then I'm very angry with Miss Nanco,' replied Bunce. 'I hope she'll never do anything o' the kind again.'
Totty laughed and drew back into the passage. Thence she said:
'Could I speak to you a minute, Mr. Bunce?'
He went out to her, and half closed the door behind him. Totty led him a step or two down the stairs, then whispered:
'I'm so sorry, Mr. Bunce, but I find I can't very well go on Saturday. But I've just seen Miss Trent, the one that's going to marry Mr. Grail, you know; and she says she'd be only too glad to go, that is if Mr. Grail 'll let her, and she's quite sure he will. Would you ask Mr. Grail? Thyrza--that's Miss Trent, I mean--was so anxious; she's never been to the seaside. Will you just ask him?'
'Oh yes, I will.'
'I'm sorry I've had to draw back, Mr. Bunce, after offering--'
'It don't matter a bit, Miss Nancarrow. Miss Trent 'll do just as well, if she really don't mind the trouble.'
'Trouble! Why, she'd give anything to go! Please get Mr. Grail to let her.'
Bunce returned to his room and closed the door. Gilbert had taken Nelly on his knee, and was satisfying her by tasting the remnant of lollipop.
'I say, Jack!' cried the father, his eye again catching sight of the bruised tract on the floor. 'Who brought that here?'
'I did, father,' answered the youngster stoutly, though he saw displeasure in his father's face.
'Where did you get it, eh?' was asked sharply.
'A lady gave it me at the door.'
'Then I'd thank ladies to mind their own business. And you never take anything else at the door; do you understand that, Jack?'
Bunce turned to Gilbert, who was waiting to depart.
'Miss Nancarrow tells me she can't go to Eastbourne on Saturday. But she says Miss Trent's very anxious to go instead of her. What do you think of it?'
Grail reflected. The plan pleased him on the whole, though he had just a doubt whether Thyrza ought to travel by herself.
'I see no reason why she shouldn't,' he said. 'It'll be a pleasure to her, and I shall be glad to have her do you the kindness.'
'Then could I see her before Saturday?'
'Come in to-morrow night, will you?'
The second course of lectures was at an end. Egremont had only delivered one a week since Christmas, and even so it cost him no little effort to spread his 'Thoughts for the Present' over the three months, Latterly he had blended a good deal of historical disquisition with his prophecy: the result was to himself profoundly unsatisfactory. He sighed with relief as he dismissed his poor little audience for the last time. For the future he had made no promises, beyond saying that in his library-building there were two rooms which were to be devoted to lectures. The library itself was now his chief care. This was something solid; it would re-establish him in his self-confidence.
Yes; 'Thoughts for the Present' had been a failure.
The first lecture was far away the best. It dealt with Religion. Addressed to an audience ready for such philosophical views, it would have met with a flattering reception. Egremont's point of view was, strictly, the aesthetic; he aimed at replacing religious enthusiasm, as commonly understood, by aesthetic. The loveliness of the Christian legend--from that he started. He dealt with the New Testament very much as he had formerly dealt with the Elizabethan poets. He would have no appeal to the vulgar by aggressive rationalists. Let rationalism filter down in the course of time; the vulgar were not prepared for it as yet. It was bad that they should be superstitious, but worse, far worse, that they should be brutally irreverent, and brutal irreverence inevitably came of atheism preached at the street corner. The men who preached it were themselves the very last to guide human souls; they were of coarsest fibre, without a note of music in them, fit only for the world's grosser purposes. And they presumed to attack the ministry of Christ! It was good, all that he had to say on that point, the better that it made two or three of his hearers feel a little sore and indignant. Yet, as a whole, the lecture appealed to but one of the audience. Gilbert Grail heard it with emotion, and carried it away in his heart. To the others it was little more than the sounding of brass and the tinkling of cymbals.
To-night--Friday--he was going to Grail's. Of course no ceremonious preparation was necessary, yet he wasted a couple of hours previous to his time for setting forth. He could not apply himself to anything; he paced his room. Indeed, he had paced his room much of late. Week by week he seemed to have grown more unsettled in mind. He had said to himself that all would be well when he had seen Annabel. He had seen her, and his trouble was graver than before.
At the hour when Egremont set out for Lambeth Lydia was busy dressing her sister's hair. Perhaps such a thing had never happened before, as that Thyrza's hair should have needed doing twice in one day. She had begged it this evening.
'You won't mind, Lyddy? I feel it's rough, and I think I ought to look nice--don't you?'
'You're a vain little thing!'
'I don't think I am, Lyddy. It's only natural.'
A moment or two, and Thyrza said:
'Lyddy, I think you ought to come down as well.'
'I've told you that I shan't, so do have done!'
'Well, dear, it's only because I want you to see Mr. Egremont.'
'I've seen him, and that's enough. If you're going to be a lady and make friends with grand people, that's no reason why I should.'
'You'll have to some day.'
'I don't think I shall,' said Lydia, as she began the braiding. 'You and me are very different, dear. I shall go on in my own way. Do keep still! How am I to tie this ribbon?'
'Kiss me, Lyddy! Say that you love me!'
'I don't think I shall.'
It was said so gravely that Lydia, having finished her task, came round before the chair and looked in her sister's face.
'I think I should die if I hadn't someone to love me.'
'I don't think you'll ever want that, Thyrza.'
The other drew a profound sigh, so profound that it left her bosom trembling. And for a few moments she sat in a dream.
Then she proceeded to change her dress and make ready for her formal appearance downstairs on the occasion of Egremont's visit. She had never been so anxious to look well. Lydia affected much impatience with her, but in truth was profoundly happy in her sister's happiness. She looked often at the beautiful face, and thought how proud Gilbert must be.
'Do you think I ought to shake hands with Mr. Egremont?' Thyrza asked.
'If he offers to, you must,' was Lydia's opinion. 'But not if he doesn't.'
'He did when he said good-bye at the school.'
Before long they heard the expected double knock at the house-door. They had left their own door ajar that they might not miss this signal. Thyrza sprang to the head of the stairs and listened. She heard Gilbert admit his visitor, and she heard the latter's voice. It was now a month since the meeting at the school, but the voice sounded so exactly as she expected that it brought back every detail of that often-recalled interview, and made her heart throb with excitement.
She was now to wait a whole quarter of an hour.
'Sit down and read,' said Lydia, who had herself begun to sew in the usual methodical way.
Thyrza pretended to obey. For two minutes she sat still, then asked how they were to know when a quarter of an hour had passed.
'I'll tell you,' said the other. 'Sit quiet, there's a good baby, and I'll buy you a cake next time we go out.'
Thyrza drew in her breath--and somehow the time was lived through.
'Now I think you may go,' Lydia said.
Thyrza seemed to have become indifferent. She turned over a page of her book, and at length rose very slowly. Lydia watched her askance; she thought she saw signs of timidity. But Thyrza presently moved to the door and went downstairs with her lightest step.
Gilbert had told her not to knock. Her hand was on the knob some moments before she ventured to turn it. She heard Egremont laughing --his natural laugh which was so attractive--and then there fell a silence. She entered.
No, Gilbert had not seated his visitor in the easy chair; that must be reserved for someone of more importance. Egremont rose with a look of pleasure.
'You know Miss Trent already?' Gilbert said to him.
Thyrza drew near. She did not hear very distinctly what Egremont was saying, but certainly he was offering to shake hands. Then Gilbert placed the easy chair in a convenient position, and she did her best to sit as she always did. Her manner was not awkward--it was impossible for her to be awkward--but she was afraid of saying something that 'wasn't grammar,' and to Egremont's agreeable remarks she replied shortly. Yet even this only gave her an air of shyness which was itself a grace. When Grail had entered into the conversation she was able to collect herself.
Gilbert said presently: 'Miss Trent is going to take Bunce's child to Eastbourne to-morrow, to Mrs. Ormonde's.'
'Indeed!' Egremont exclaimed. 'I was there on Wednesday and heard that the child was coming. But this arrangement hadn't been made then, I think?'
'No. Somebody else was to have gone, but she has found she can't.'
'You will be glad to know Mrs. Ormonde, I'm sure,' Egremont said to Thyrza.
'And I'm glad to go to the seaside,' Thyrza returned. 'I've never seen the sea.'
'Haven't you? How I wish I could have your enjoyment of to-morrow, then!'
Mrs. Grail was knitting. She said: 'I think you have voyaged a great deal, sir?'
It led to talk of travel. Egremont was drawn into stories of East and West. Ah, how good it was to get out of the circle of social prophecy! It was like breathing the very mid Atlantic sky to talk gaily and freely of things wherein no theory was involved, which left aside every ideal save that of joyous living. Thyrza listened. He--he before her--had trodden lands whereof the names were to her like echoes from fairy tales; he had passed days and nights on the bosom of the great sea, which she looked forward to beholding almost with fear; he had seen it in tempest, and the laughing descriptions he gave of vast green rolling mountains made to her inward sight an awful reality.
'You never thought of going to one of the Colonies?' Egremont asked of Gilbert.
'Yes, years ago,' was the reply, in the tone of a man who sees the trouble of life behind him. 'I think at one time my mother rather despised me because I couldn't make up my mind to go and seek my fortune.'
'I never despised you, my dear,' said the old lady, 'but that was when some friends of ours were sending wonderful news from Australia, sir, and I believe I did half try to persuade Gilbert to go. His health was very bad, and I thought it might have done him good in all ways.'
'By-the-by,' remarked Gilbert, 'Ackroyd talks of going to Canada.'
'Ackroyd?' said Egremont. 'I'm not surprised to hear that.'
Thyrza had looked at Gilbert anxiously.
'Who told you that?' she asked.
'He told me himself, Thyrza, last night.'
She saw that Egremont was gazing at her; her eyes fell, and she became silent.
Egremont, in the course of the talk, wondered at his position in this little room. He knew that it was one of very few houses in Lambeth in which he could have been at his ease; perhaps there was not another. It seemed to him that he had thrown off a great deal that was artificial in behaviour and in habits of speech, that he had reverted to that self which came to him from his parents, and he felt better for the change. The air of simplicity in the room and its occupants was healthful; of natural refinement there was abundance, only affectation was missing. Would it have been a hardship if his father had failed to amass money, and he had grown up in such a home as this? He knew well enough that by going, say, next door he could pass into a domestic sphere of a very different kind, to the midst of a life compact of mean slavery, of ignorance, of grossness. This was enormously the exception. But his own home would have been not unlike this. Poverty could not have taken away his birthright of brains, and perhaps some such piece of luck might have fallen to him as had now to Gilbert Grail. Perhaps, too--why not, indeed!--he would have known Thyrza Trent. Certainly he would have seen her by chance here or there in Lambeth, and he--the young workman he might have been--assuredly would not have let her pass and forget her. Why, in that case, perchance he might have--
He had lost himself for a moment. Thyrza was standing before him with a cup of tea: he noticed that the cup shook a little in the saucer.
'Will you have some tea, sir?' she said.
Mrs. Grail had been perturbed somewhat on the question of refreshments. Gilbert decided that to offer a cup of tea would be the best thing; Egremont, he knew, dined late, and would not want anything to eat.
'Thank you, Miss Trent.'
She brought him sugar and milk. This was quite her own idea. 'Some people don't take sugar, some don't take milk; so you ought to let them help themselves to such things.' He took both. She noticed his hand, how shapely it was, how beautiful the finger-nails were. And then he looked at her with a smile of thanks, not more than of thanks. Could anyone convey thanks more graciously?
'I hope,' Egremont said, turning to Gilbert as he stirred his tea, 'that we shall get our first books on the shelves by the first day of next month.'
Grail made no reply, and all were silent for a little.
The visitor did not remain much longer. To the end he was animated in his talk, making his friends feel as much at their ease as he was himself. When he was about to depart, he said to Thyrza:
'I hope you will have a fine day to-morrow. There is promise of it.'
'Oh, I think it'll be fine,' she replied. 'It would be too cruel if it wasn't!'
Surely--thought Egremont as he smiled--to you if to any one the sky should show a glad face. How many a time thereafter did he think of those words--'It would be too cruel!' She could not believe that fortune would be unkind to her; she had faith in the undiscovered day.