Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XVI. Sea Music
Returning to the upper room, Thyrza sat down as if she were very tired.
'No, I don't want anything to eat,' she said to Lydia. 'I shall go to bed at once. We must be up very early in the morning.'
Still she made no preparations. Her mirth and excitement were at an end. Her eyelids drooped heavily, and one of her hands hung down by the side of the chair. Lydia showed no extreme desire for an account of the proceedings below. Yes, Thyrza said, she had enjoyed herself. And presently:
'Mr. Egremont says he wants to begin putting up the books by the first of May.'
'Did he say when the house would be ready?'
Thyrza shook her head. Then:
'He told us about foreign countries. He's been everywhere.'
'Gilbert told me he had been to America.'
'Lyddy, is Canada the same as America?'
'I believe it is,' said the other doubtfully. 'I think it is a part. America's a very big country, you know.'
'What do you think Gilbert says? He says Mr. Ackroyd told him last night that he was going to Canada.'
Lydia gave no sign of special interest.
'I don't think he means it.'
'Perhaps he'll take Totty Nancarrow with him,' remarked Lydia, with a scarcely noticeable touch of irony.
The other did not reply, but she looked pained. Then Lydia declared that she too was weary. They talked little more, though it was a long time before either got to sleep.
Thyrza saw Grail in the breakfast hour next morning, and received his advice for the day. Bunce had already conveyed the little box of Bessie's clothing to the hospital; thence Thyrza and the child would go in a cab to Victoria.
She was at the hospital by nine o'clock. Bessie, a weakly, coughing child, who seemingly had but a short term of suffering before her, was at first very reticent with Thyrza, but when they were seated together in the train at Victoria, she brightened in the expectation of renewing her experiences of Mrs. Ormonde's home, and at length talked freely. Bessie was very old; she had long known the difficulties of a pinched home, and of her own ailments she spoke with a curious gravity as little child-like as could be.
'It's my chest as is weak,' she said. 'The nurse says it'll get stronger as I get older, but it's my belief that it's just the other way about. You never had a weak chest, had you, Miss Trent? You haven't that look. I dessay you're always well; I shouldn't mind if I was the same.' She laughed, and made herself cough. 'I can't see why everybody shouldn't be well. Father says the world's made wrong, and it seems to me that's the truth. Perhaps it looks different to you, Miss Trent.'
'You had better call me Thyrza, Bessie. That's my name.'
'Is it? Well, I don't mind, if you don't. I never knew anybody called Thyrza. But I dessay it's a lady's name. You're a lady, ain't you?'
'No, I'm not a lady. I go to work with Miss Nancarrow. You know her?'
'I can't say as I know her. She lives in the next room to us, but we don't often speak. But I remember now; I've seen yea on the stairs.'
'Miss Nancarrow has made friends with your brother and sister whilst you've been in the hospital.'
'Have she now! They didn't tell me about that when they come to see me last time. I suppose things is all upside down. By rights I'd ought to have gone home for a day or two, just to see that the room was clean. Mrs. Larrop comes in wunst a week, you know, she's a charwoman. But I haven't much trust in her; she's such a one for cat-licking. The children do make such a mess; I always tell them they'd think twice about coming in with dirty shoes if only they had the cleaning to see after.'
Then she began to talk of Mrs. Ormonde, and Thyrza encouraged her to tell all she could about that lady.
'I tell you what, Thyrza,' said Bessie, confidentially, 'when Nelly gets old enough to keep things straight and look after father, do you know what I shall do? I mean to go to Mrs. Ormonde and ask to be took on for a housemaid. That's just what 'ud suit me. My chest ain't so bad when I'm there, and I'd rather be one of Mrs. Ormonde's servants than work anywhere else. But then I perhaps shan't live long enough for that. It's a great thing for carrying people off, is a weak chest.'
Both grew excited as the train neared their destination. Bessie recalled the stations, and here and there an object by the way. It was Thyrza who felt herself the child.
The train entered the station. Bessie had her head at the window. She drew it back, exclaiming:
'There's Mrs. Ormonde! See, Thyrza! the lady in black!'
Thyrza looked timidly; that lady's face encouraged her. Mrs. Ormonde had seen Bessie, and was soon at the carriage door.
'So here you are again!' was her kindly greeting. 'Why, Bessie, you must have been spending all your time in growing!'
She kissed the child, whose thin face was coloured with pleasure.
'This is Miss Trent, mum,' said Bessie, pointing to her companion, who had descended to the platform. 'She's been so kind as to take care of me.'
Mrs. Ormonde turned quickly round.
'Miss Trent?' She viewed the girl with surprise which she found it impossible to conceal at once. Then she said to Thyrza: 'Arc you the young lady of whom I have heard as Mr. Grail's friend?'
'Yes, ma'am,' Thyrza replied modestly.
'Then how glad I am to see you! Come, let us get Bessie's box taken to the carriage.'
Mrs. Ormonde was not of those philanthropists who, In the midst of their well-doing, are preoccupied with the necessity of preserving the distinction between classes. She always fetched the children from the station in her own unpretending carriage. Her business was to make them happy, as the first step to making them well, and whilst they were with her she was their mother. There are plenty of people successfully engaged in reminding the poor of the station to which Providence has called them: the insignificant few who indulge a reckless warmth of heart really cannot be seen to do appreciable harm.
'Mrs. Ormonde, mum,' whispered Bessie, when they were seated in the carriage.
'What is it, Bessie?'
'Would you take us round by the front road? Miss Trent hasn't never seen the sea, and she'd like to as soon as she can; it's only natural.'
Mrs. Ormonde had cast one or two discreet glances at Thyrza. As she did so her smile subdued itself a little; a grave thought seemed to pass through her mind. She at once gave an order to the coachman in compliance with Bessie's request.
'Mr. Grail is quite well, I hope?' she said, feeling a singular embarrassment in addressing Thyrza.
Thyrza replied mechanically. To ride in an open carriage with a lady, this alone would have been an agitating experience; the almost painful suspense with which she waited for the first glimpse of the sea completed her inability to think or speak with coherence. Her eyes were fixed straight onwards. Mrs. Ormonde continued to observe her, occasionally saying something in a low voice to the child.
The carriage drove to the esplanade, and turned to pass along it in the westerly direction. The tide was at full; a loud surge broke upon the beach; no mist troubled the blue line of horizon. Mrs. Ormonde looked seawards, and her vision found a renewal in sympathy with the thought she had read on Thyrza's face.
You and I cannot remember the moment when the sense of infinity first came upon us; we have thought so much since then, and have assimilated so much of others' thoughts, that those first impressions are become as vague as the memory of our first love. But Thyrza would not forget this vision of the illimitable sea, live how long she might. She had scarcely heretofore been beyond the streets of Lambeth. At a burst her consciousness expanded in a way we cannot conceive. You know that she had no religion, yet now her heart could not contain the new-born worship. Made forgetful of all else by the passionate instinct which ruled her being, she suddenly leaned forward and laid her hand on Mrs. Ormonde's. The latter took and pressed it, smiling kindly.
Bessie, happy in her superior position, looked about her with a satisfied air. She sat with Mrs. Ormonde on the fore-seat; presently she leaned aside to look westward, and informed Thyrza that the promontory visible before them was Beachy Head. Thyrza had no response to utter.
The carriage turned inland again. Thyrza lost sight of the sea. As if she cared to look at nothing else, her eyes fell.
When they arrived at The Chestnuts, Mrs. Ormonde led her companions to an upper room, where Mrs. Mapper sat talking with two or three children.
'I think Bessie can have her old bed, can't she?' she said, after introducing Thyrza. 'I wonder whether she knows any of our children now? I dare say Miss Trent would like to rest a little.'
A few words were spoken to the matron apart, and Mrs. Ormonde withdrew. Half an hour later, Thyrza, after seeing the children and all that portion of the house which was theirs, was led by Mrs. Mapper to the drawing-room. The lady of the house was there alone; she invited her guest to sit down, and began to talk.
'Are you obliged to be home to-night? Couldn't you stay with us till to-morrow?'
Thyrza checked a movement.
'I promised Mr. Grail to be back before dark,' she said.
'Oh, but that will scarcely leave you any time at all. Is there any other need for you to return to-day? Suppose I telegraphed to say that I was keeping you--wouldn't Mr. Grail forgive me?'
'I think I might stay, if I could be back to-morrow by tea-time. I must go to work on Monday morning.'
Mrs. Ormonde sighed involuntarily. That work, that work: the consumer of all youth and joy!
'Unfortunately there's no train to-morrow that would help us.'
Thyrza longed to stay; the other could read her face well enough.
'There's an early train on Monday morning,' she continued doubtfully. 'Do you live with parents?'
'Oh, no, ma'am. My parents died a long time ago. I live with my sister. We two have a room to ourselves; it's in the same house where Mr. Grail lives: that's how I got to know him.'
'And is your sister older than yourself?'
'Yes, ma'am; four years older. Her name's Lydia. We've always kept together. When I'm married, she's coming to live with us.'
Mrs. Ormonde listened with ever deepening interest. She formed a picture of that elder sister. The words 'We've always kept together,' touched her inexpressibly; they bore so beautiful a meaning on Thyrza's lips.
'And would your sister Lydia scold me very much if I made you lose your Monday morning's work?' she asked, smiling.
'Oh, it's always the other way, ma'am. Lyddy's always glad when I get a holiday. But I never like her to have to go to work alone.'
'Well now, I shall telegraph to Lyddy, and then tomorrow I shall write a letter to her and beg her to forgive me. If I do so, do you think you could stay?'
'I--I think so, ma'am.'
'And Mr. Grail?'
'He's just as kind to me as Lyddy is.'
'Then I think we won't be afraid. The telegram shall go at once, so that if there were real need for your return, they would have time to reply.'
The message despatched, they talked till dinner-time. Fulfilment of joy soon put an end to Thyrza's embarrassment; she told all about her life and Lydia's, about their work, about Mr. Boddy, about Gilbert and his books. Mrs. Ormonde led her gently on, soothed by the music.
In the afternoon she decided to drive with Thyrza to the top of Beachy Head; on the morrow the sky might not be so favourable to the view. The children would go out in the usual way; she preferred to be alone with her visitor for a while.
'Will they have the telegraph yet?' Thyrza asked, as she again seated herself in the carriage.
'Oh, long since. We could have had an answer before now.'
Thyrza sighed with contentment, for she knew that Lyddy was glad on her behalf.
So now the keen breath of the sea folded her about and made warmth through her whole body; it sang in her ears, the eternal sea music which to infinite generations of mortals has been an inspiring joy. Upward, upward, on the long sweep of the climbing road, whilst landward the horizon retired from curve to curve off the wild Downs, and on the other hand a dark edge against the sky made fearful promise of precipitous shore. The great snow-mountains of heaven moved grandly on before the west wind, ever changing outline, meeting to incorporate mass with mass, sundering with magic softness and silence. The bay of Pevensey spread with graceful line its white fringe of breakers now low upon the strand, far away to the cliffs of Hastings.
'Hastings!' Thyrza exclaimed, when Mrs. Ormonde had mentioned the name. 'Is that where the battle of Hastings was?'
'A little further inland. You have read of that?'
'Gilbert--Mr. Grail is teaching me history. Yes, I know about Hastings.'
'And what country do you think you would come to, if you went right over the sea yonder?'
'That must be--really?--where William the Conqueror came from? That was Normandy, in France.'
'Yes, France is over there.'
No, it was too hard to believe. She murmured the name to herself. Gilbert had shown it her on the map, but how difficult to transfer that dry symbol into this present reality!
They left the carriage near the Coastguard's house, and walked forward to the brow of the great cliffs. Mrs. Ormonde took Thyrza's hand as they drew near. They stood there for a long time.
Two or three other people were walking about the Head. In talking, Mrs. Ormonde became aware that someone had approached her; she turned her head, and saw Annabel Newthorpe.
They shook hands quietly. Thyrza drew a little away.
'Are you alone?' Mrs. Ormonde asked.
'Yes, I have walked.'
'Who do you think this is?' Mrs. Ormonde murmured quickly. 'Mr. Grail's future wife. She has just brought one of my children down; I am going to keep her till Monday. Come and speak; the most loveable child!'
Thyrza and Annabel were presented to each other with the pleasant informality which Mrs. Ormonde so naturally employed. Each was impressed with the other's beauty; Thyrza felt not a little awe, and Annabel could not gaze enough at the lovely face which made such a surprise for her.
'Why did Mr. Egremont give me no suggestion of this?' she said to herself.
She had noticed, in drawing near, how intimately her friend and the stranger were talking together. Her arrival had disturbed Thyrza's confidence; she herself did not feel able to talk quite freely. So in a few minutes she turned and went by the footway along the edge of the height. Just before descending into a hollow which would hide her, she cast a look back, and saw that Thyrza's eyes were following her.
'But how could he speak of her and yet tell me nothing?'
His delicacy explained it, no doubt. He had not liked to say of the simple girl whom Grail was to marry that she was very beautiful. Annabel felt that most men would have been less scrupulous: it was characteristic of Egremont to feel a subtle propriety of that kind.
Annabel was at all times disposed to interpret Egremont's motives in a higher sense than would apply to the average man.
On her return, Thyrza had tea with Mrs. Mapper and the children, then went with them to the large room upstairs in which evenings were spent till the early bedtime. It was an ideal nursery, with abundant picture-books, with toys, with everything that could please a child's eye and engage a child's mind. There was a piano, and on this Mrs. Mapper sometimes played the kind of music that children would like. She taught them songs, moreover, and a singing evening was always much looked forward to. Saturday was always such; when the little choir had got a song perfect, Mrs. Ormonde was wont to come up and hear them sing it, making them glad with her praise.
It happened that to-night there was to be practising of a new song; Mrs. Mapper had chosen 'Annie Laurie,' and she began by playing over the air. One or two of the children knew it, but not the words; these, it was found, were always very quickly learnt by singing a verse a few times over.
'Do you know 'Annie Laurie,' Miss Trent?' Mrs. Mapper asked.
It was one of old Mr. Boddy's favourites; Thyrza had sung it to him since she was seven years old.
'Let us sing it together then, will you?'
They began. Thyrza was already thoroughly at home, and this music was an unexpected delight. After a line or two, Mrs. Mapper's voice sank. Thyrza stopped and looked inquiringly, meeting a wonder in the other's eyes. Mrs. Mapper was a woman of much prudence; she merely said:
'I find I've got a little cold. Would you mind singing it alone?'
So Thyrza sang the song through. A moment or two of quietness followed.
'Now I think you'll soon know it, children,' said Mrs. Mapper. 'Lizzie Smith, I see you've got it already. Miss Trent will be kind enough to sing the first verse again; you sing with her, Lizzie-- and you too, Mary. That's a clever girl! Now we shall get on.'
The practising went on till all were able to join in fairly well. After that, Mrs. Mapper played the favourite dance tunes, and the children danced merrily. Whilst they were so enjoying themselves, Mrs. Ormonde came into the room. She had dined, and wanted Thyrza to come and sit with her, for she was alone. But first she had five minutes of real laughter and play with the children. They loved her, every one of them, and clung to her desperately when she said sue could stay no longer.
'Good-bye!' she said, waving her hand at the door.
'No, no!' cried several voices. 'There's 'good-night' yet, Mrs. Ormonde!'
'Why, of course there is,' she laughed; 'but that's no reason why I shouldn't say good-bye.'
She took Thyrza's hand and led her down.
'You shall have some supper with me afterwards,' she said 'The little ones have theirs now; but it's too early for you.'
If the drawing-room had been a marvel to Thyrza in the daylight, it was yet more so now that she entered it and found two delicately shaded lamps giving a rich uncertainty to all the beautiful forms of furniture and ornaments. She had thought the Grails' parlour luxurious. And the dear old easy-chair, now so familiar to her, how humble it was compared with this in which Mrs. Ormonde seated her! These wonders caused her no envy or uneasy desire. In looking at a glorious altarpiece, one does not feel unhappy because one cannot carry it off from the church and hang it up at home. Thyrza's mood was purely of admiration, and of joy in being deemed worthy to visit such scenes. And all the time she kept saying to herself, 'Another whole day! I shall be by the sea again tomorrow! I shall sleep and wake close by the sea!'
Presently Mrs. Ormonde had to absent herself for a few minutes.
'You heard what the children said about 'good-night.' I always go and see them as soon as they are tucked up in bed. I don't think they'd sleep if I missed.'
The kind office over, she spoke with Mrs. Mapper about the evening's singing.
'Did you know,' the latter asked, 'what a voice Miss Trent has?'
'She sings? I didn't know.'
'I was so delighted that I had to stop singing myself. I'm sure it's a wonderful voice.'
'Indeed! I must ask her to sing to me.'
She found Thyrza turning over the leaves of a volume of photographs. Without speaking, she sat down at the piano, and began to play gently the air of 'Annie Laurie.' Thyrza looked up, and then came nearer.
'You are fond of music?' said Mrs. Ormonde.
'Very fond. How beautiful your playing is!'
'To-morrow you shall hear Miss Newthorpe play; hers is much better. Will you sing this for me?'
When it was sung, she asked what other songs Thyrza knew. They were all, of course, such as the people sing; some of them Mrs. Ormonde did not know at all, but to others she was able to play an accompaniment. Her praise was limited to a few kind words. On leaving the piano, she was thoughtful.
At ten o'clock Mrs. Mapper came to conduct Thyrza to her bedroom.
'We have breakfast at half-past eight to-morrow,' Mrs. Ormonde said.
'If I am up in time,' Thyrza asked, 'may I go out before breakfast?'
'Do just as you like, my dear,' the other answered, with a smile. 'I want you to enjoy your visit.'
In spite of the strangeness of her room, and of the multitude of thoughts and feelings to which the day had given birth, Thyrza was not long awake. She passed into a dreamland where all she had newly learnt was reproduced and glorified. But the rising sun had not to wait long for the opening of her eyes. She sprang from bed and to the window, whence, how. ever, she could only see the tall chestnuts and a neighbouring cottage. The day was again fine; she dressed with nervous speed--there was no Lyddy to do her hair, for the very first time in her life--then went softly forth on to the landing. No one seemed to be stirring; she had no watch to tell her the time, but doubtless it was very early. Softly she began to descend the stairs, and at length recognised the door of the drawing-room. She did not like to enter: it was only Mrs. Ormonde's kindness that had given her a right to sit there the evening before. But the house-door would not be open yet, she feared. Just as she was reluctantly turning to go up and wait a little longer in her bedroom, a sound below at once startled and relieved her. Looking over the banisters, she saw a servant coming from one of the rooms on the ground floor. She hurried down. The servant looked at her with surprise.
'Good-morning!' she said. 'Can I get out of the house?'
'I'll open the door for you, Miss.'
'What time is it, please?'
'It isn't quite half-past six, Miss, You're an early riser.'
'Yes, I want to go out before breakfast. Please will you tell me which way goes to the sea?'
The servant gave her good-natured directions, and Thyrza was soon running along with a glimpse of blue horizon for guidance. She ran like a child, ran till the sharp morning air made her breathless, then walked until she was able to run again. And at length she was on the beach, down at length by the very edge of the waves. Here the breeze was so strong that with difficulty she stood against it, but its rude caresses were a joy to her. Each breaker seemed a living thing; now she approached timidly, now ran back with a delicious fear. She filled her hands with the smooth sea-pebbles; a trail of weed with the foam fresh on it was a great discovery. Then her eye caught a far-off line of smoke. That must be a steamer coming from a foreign country; perhaps from France, which was--how believe it?-- yonder across the blue vast.
You have watched with interest some close-folded bud; one day all promise is shut within those delicate sepals, and on the next, for the fulness of time has come, you find the very flower with its glow and its perfume. So it sometimes happens that a human soul finds its season, and at a touch expands to wonderful new life.
Mrs. Ormonde perceived at breakfast that Thyrza desired nothing more than to be left to pass her day in freedom. So she gave her visitor a little bag with provision against seaside appetite, and let her go forth till dinner-time; then again till the hour of tea. In the evening Thyrza was again bidden to the drawing-room. She found Miss Newthorpe there.
'Come now, and tell us what you have been doing all day long,' Mrs. Ormonde said. 'Why, the sun and the wind have already touched your cheeks!'
'I have enjoyed myself,' Thyrza replied, quickly, seating herself near her new friend.
She could give little more description than that. Annabel talked with her, and presently, at Mrs. Ormonde's request, went to the piano. When the first notes had sounded, Thyrza let her head droop a little. Music such as this she had not imagined. When Annabel came back to her seat, she gazed at her, admiring and loving.
'Now will you sing us 'Annie Laurie'?' said Mrs. Ormonde. 'I'll play for you.'
'What is that child's future?' Mrs. Ormonde asked of Annabel, when Thyrza had left them together.
'Not a sad one, I think,' said Annabel, musingly. 'Happily, her husband will not be an untaught working man.'
'No, thank goodness for that! I suppose they will be married in two or three weeks. Her voice is a beautiful thing lost.'
'We won't grieve over that. Her own happiness is of more account. I do wish father could have seen her!'
'Oh, she must come to us again some day. Your father would have alarmed her too much. Haven't you felt all the time as if she were something very delicate, something to be carefully guarded against shocks and hazards? As I saw her from my window going out of the garden this morning, I felt a sort of fear; I was on the point of sending a servant to keep watch over her from a distance.
There was a silence, then Mrs. Ormonde murmured:
'I wonder whether she is in love with him?'
Annabel smiled, but said nothing.
'She told me that he is very kind to her. 'Just as kind as Lyddy,' she said. Indeed, who wouldn't be?'
'We have every reason to think highly of Mr. Grail,' Annabel remarked. 'He must be as exceptional in his class as she is.'
'Yes. But the exceptional people--'
Annabel looked inquiringly.
'Never mind! The world has beautiful things in it, and one of the most beautiful is hope.'