Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XVII. Adrift
It was partly out of kindness to Thyrza that Totty Nancarrow had changed her mind about going to Eastbourne. Having seen her and mentioned the matter, Totty saw at once how eagerly Thyrza would accept such a chance. But it happened that within the same hour she saw Luke Ackroyd, and Luke had proposed a meeting on Saturday afternoon. Totty had no extreme desire to meet him, and yet-- perhaps she might as well. He talked of going up the river to Battersea Park, as the weather was so fine.
So at three on Saturday, Totty stood by the landing-stage at Lambeth. In fact, she was there at least five minutes before the appointed time. But her punctuality was wasted. Ten minutes past three by Lambeth parish church, and no Mr. Ackroyd.
'Well, I call this nice!' Totty exclaimed to herself. 'Let him come now if he likes; he won't find me waiting for him. And a lot I care!'
She went off humming a tune and swinging her hands. On the Embankment she met a girl she knew. They went on into Westminster Bridge Road, and there came across another friend. It was decided that they should all go and have tea at Totty's. And before they reached Newport Street, yet another friend joined them. The more the merrier! Totty delighted in packing her tiny room as full as it would hold. She ran into Mrs. Bower's for a pot of jam. Who more mirthful now than Totty Nancarrow!
With subdued gossip and laughter all ran up the narrow staircase and into Totty's room. A fire had first of all to be lit; Totty was a deft hand at that; not a girl in Lambeth could start a blaze and have her kettle boiling in sharper time on a cold dark morning. But, after all, there would not be bread enough. Tilly Roach would be off for that. 'Mind you bring the over-weight!' the others screamed after her, and some current joke seemed to be involved in the injunction, for at once they all laughed as only work-girls can.
Tilly was back in no time. She was a little, slim girl, with the palest and shortest of gold hair, and a pretty face spoilt with freckles. As at all times, she had her pocket full of sweets, and ate them incessantly. As a rule, Tilly cannot have eaten less than a couple of pounds of lollipops every week, and doubtless would have consumed more had her pocket-money allowed it. The second of Totty's guests was Annie West, whom you know already, for she was at the 'friendly lead' when Thyrza sang; she was something of a scapegrace, constantly laughed in a shrill note, and occasionally had to be called to order. The third was a Mrs. Allchin, aged fifteen, a married woman of two months' date; her hair was cut across her forehead, she wore large eardrops, and over her jacket hung a necklace with a silver locket. Mrs. Allchin, called by her intimates 'Loo,' had the air of importance which became her position.
There were only two chairs in the room; the table had to be placed so that the bed could serve for sitting. Tablecloth there was none; when friends did her the honour of coming to tea, Totty spread a newspaper. The tea-service was, to say the least, primitive; four cups there were, but only two saucers survived, and a couple of teaspoons had to be shared harmoniously. No one ever gave a thought to such trifles at Totty Nancarrow's.
Whilst the kettle boiled, Annie West provided diversion of a literary kind. She had recently purchased a little book in cover of yellow paper, which, for the sum of one penny, purported to give an exhaustive description of 'Charms, Spells, and Incantations;' on the back was the picture of a much-bejewelled Moorish maiden, with eyes thrown up in prophetic ecstasy; above ran the legend, 'Wonderfully mysterious and peculiar.' The work included, moreover, 'a splendid selection of the best love songs.'
'It's cheap at a penny,' was Miss West's opinion.
She began by reading out an infallible charm for the use of maidens who would see in dreams their future husband. It was the 'Nine-key Charm.'
''Get nine small keys, they must all be your own by begging or purchase (borrowing will not do, nor must you tell what you want them for), plait a three-plaited band of your own hair, and tie them together, fastening the ends with nine knots. Fasten them with one of your garters to your left wrist on going to bed, and bind the other garter round your head; then say:
St. Peter, take it not amiss, To try your favour I've done this. You are the ruler of the keys, Favour me, then, if you please; Let me then your influence prove, And see my dear and wedded love.
This must be done on the eve of St. Peter's, and is an old charm used by the maidens of Rome in ancient times, who put great faith in it.''
'When is the eve of St. Peter's?' asked Tilly Roach. 'Totty, you're a Catholic, you ought to know.'
'Don't bother me with your rubbish!' cried Totty.
'It ain't rubbish at all,' retorted Annie West. 'Now didn't you see your husband, Loo, with a card charm before you'd ever really set eyes on him?'
'Course I did,' assented Mrs. Allchin, aged fifteen.
'Here's another book I'm going to get,' pursued Annie, referring to an advertisement on the cover. 'It tells you no end of things--see here!' 'How to bewitch your enemies,' 'How to render yourself invisible,' 'How to grow young again,' 'How to read sealed letters,' 'How to see at long distances,' and heaps more. 'Price one and sixpence, or, post free, twenty stamps.''
'Don't be a fool and waste your money!' was Totty's uncompromising advice. 'It's only sillies believes things like that.'
'Totty ain't no need of charms!' piped Tilly, with sweets in her mouth. 'She knows who she's going to marry.'
'Do I, miss?' Totty exclaimed, scornfully. 'Do you know as much for yourself, I wonder?'
'Oh, Tilly's a-going to marry the p'liceman with red hair as stands on the Embankment!' came from Mrs. Allchin; whereupon followed inextinguishable laughter.
But they wore determined to tease Totty, and began to talk from one to the other about Luke Ackroyd, not mentioning his name, but using signs and symbols.
'If you two wait for husbands till I'm married,' said Totty at length to the laughing girls, 'you've a good chance to die old maids. I prefer to keep my earnings for my own spending, thank you.'
'When's Thyrza Trent going to be married?' asked Mrs. Allchin. 'Do you know, Totty?'
'In about a fortnight, I think.'
'Is the bands puts up?'
'They're going to be married at the Registry Office.'
'Well, I never!' cried Annie West. 'You wouldn't catch me doing without a proper wedding! I suppose that's why Thyrza won't talk about it. But I believe he's a rum sort of man, isn't he?'
Nobody could reply from personal acquaintance with Gilbert Grail. Totty did not choose to give her opinion.
'I say,' she exclaimed, 'we've had enough about marriages. Tilly, make yourself useful, child, and cut some bread.'
For a couple of hours at least gossip was unintermittent. Then Mrs. Allchin declared that her husband would be 'making a row' if she stayed from home any later. Tilly Roach took leave at the same time. Totty and Miss West chatted a little longer, then put on their hats to have a ramble in Lambeth Walk.
They had not gone many paces from the house when they were overtaken by some one, who said:
'Totty! I want to speak to you.'
Totty would not look round. It was Ackroyd's voice.
'I say, Totty!'
But she walked on. Ackroyd remained on the edge of the pavement. In a minute or two he saw that Miss Nancarrow was coming towards him unaccompanied.
'Oh, it's you, is it?' she said. 'What do you want, Mr. Ackroyd?'
'Why didn't you come this afternoon?'
'Well, I like that! Why didn't you come?'
'I was a bit late. I really couldn't help it, Totty. Did you go away before I came?'
'Why, of course I did. How long was I to wait?'
'I'm very sorry. Let's go somewhere now. I've been waiting about for more than an hour on the chance of seeing you.'
He mentioned the chief music-hall of the neighbourhood.
'I don't mind,' said Totty. 'But I can't go beyond sixpence.'
'Oh, all right! I'll see to that.'
'No, you won't. I pay for myself, or I don't go at all. That's my rule.'
'As you like.'
The place of entertainment was only just open; they went in with a crowd of people and found seats. The prevailing odours of the hall were stale beer and stale tobacco; the latter was speedily freshened by the fumes from pipes. Ackroyd ordered a glass of beer, and deposited it on a little ledge before him, an arrangement similar to that for different purposes in a church pew; Totty would have nothing.
Ackroyd had changed a good deal during the last few months. The coarser elements of his face had acquired a disagreeable prominence, and when he laughed, as he did constantly, the sound lacked the old genuineness. To-night he was evidently trying hard to believe that he enjoyed the music-hall entertainment; in former days he would have dismissed anything of the kind with a few contemptuous words. When the people about him roared at imbecilities unspeakable, he threw back his head and roared with them; when they stamped, he raised as much dust as any one. Totty had no need to affect amusement; her tendency to laughter was such that very little sufficed to keep her in the carelessly merry frame of mind which agreed with her, and on the whole it was not disagreeable to be sitting by Luke Ackroyd; she glanced at him surreptitiously at times.
He drank two or three glasses of beer, then felt a need of stronger beverage. Totty remonstrated with him: he laughed, and drank on out of boastfulness. At length Totty would countenance it no longer; after a useless final warning, she left her place and pressed through the crowd to the door. Ackroyd sprang up and followed her. His face was flushed, and grew more so in the sudden night air.
'What's the matter?' he said, putting his arm through the girl's. 'You're not going to leave me in that way, Totty? Well, let's walk about then.'
'Look here, Mr. Ackroyd,' began Totty, 'I'm surprised at you! It ain't like a man of your kind to go muddling his head night after night, in this way.'
'I know that as well as you do, Totty. See!' He made her stop, and added in a lower voice, 'Say you'll marry me, and I'll stop it from to-night.'
'I've told you already I shan't do nothing of the kind. So don't be silly! You can be sensible enough if you like, and then I can get along well enough with you.'
'Very well, then I'll drink for another week, and then be off to Canada.'
'You'd better go at once, I should think.'
She had moved a little apart from him. Just then a half-drunken fellow came along the pavement, and in a freak caught Totty about the waist. Ackroyd was in the very mood for an incident of this kind. In an instant he had planted so direct a blow that the fellow staggered back into the gutter, Totty with difficulty preventing herself from being dragged with him. The thoroughfare was crowded, street urchins ran together with yells of anticipatory delight, and maturer loafers formed the wonted ring even before the man assaulted had recovered himself. Then came the play of fists; Ackroyd from the first had far the best of it, but the other managed to hold his ground.
And the result of it was that in something less than a quarter of an hour from his leaving the music-hall, Ackroyd found himself on the way to the police-station, his adversary following in the care of a second constable, all the way loudly accusing him of being the assailant.
Totty walked in the rear of the crowd; she had been frightened by the scene of violence, and there were marks of tears on her cheeks. She entered the station, eager to get a hearing for a plain story. Ackroyd turned and saw her.
'It's no good saying anything now,' he said to her. 'This blackguard has plenty more lies ready. Go to the house and tell my brother-in-law, will you? I dare say he'll come and be bail.'
She went at once, and ran all the way to Paradise Street, so that when in reply to her knock Mrs. Poole appeared at the door, she had to wait yet a moment before her breath would suffice for speaking. She did not know Mrs. Poole.
'I've got a message from Mr. Ackroyd for Mr. Poole,' she said.
The other was alarmed.
'What's happened now?' she inquired. 'I'm Mrs. Poole, Mr. Ackroyd's sister.'
Totty lowered her voice, and explained rapidly what had come to pass. Mrs. Poole eyed her throughout with something more than suspicion.
'And who may you be, if you please?' she asked at the end.
'I'm Miss Nancarrow.'
'I'm not much wiser. Thank you. I'll let Mr. Poole know.'
She closed the door. Totty, thus unceremoniously shut out, turned away; she felt miserable, and the feeling was so strange to her that before she had gone many steps she again began to cry She had understood well enough the thought expressed in Mrs. Poole's face; it was gratuitous unkindness, and just now she was not prepared for it. There was much of the child in her still, for all her years of independence in the highways and by-ways of Lambeth, and, finding it needful to cry, she let her tears have free course, only now and then dashing the back of her hand against the corner of her lips as she walked on. Why should the woman be so ready to think evil of her? She had done nothing whatever to deserve it, nothing; she had kept herself a good girl, for all that she lived alone and liked to laugh. At another time most likely she would have cared something less than a straw for Mrs. Poole's opinion of her, but just now-- somehow--well, she didn't know quite how it was. Why would Luke keep on drinking in that way, and oblige her to run out of the music-ball? It was his fault, the foolish fellow. But he had been quick enough to defend her; a girl would not find it amiss to have that arm always at her service. And in the meantime he was in the police cell.
Mrs. Poole, excessively annoyed, went down to the kitchen. Her husband sat in front of the fire, a long clay pipe at his lips, his feet very wide apart on the fender; up on the high mantelpiece stood a half finished glass of beer. Though he still held the pipe, he was nodding; as his wife entered, his head fell very low.
'Jim!' exclaimed his wife, as if something had been added to her annoyance.
'Eh? Well, Jane?--eh?'
'Then you will set your great feet on the fender! The minute I turn my back, of course! If you're too lazy to take your boots off, you must keep your heels under the chair. I won't have my fender scratched, so I tell you!'
He was a large-headed man, sleepy in appearance at the best of times, but enormously good-natured. He bent down in a startled way to see if his boots had really done any harm.
'Well, well, I won't do it again, Jenny,' he mumbled.
'Of course, I wonder how often you've said that. As it happens, it's as well you have got your boots on still. There's a girl o' some kind just come to say as Luke's locked up for fightin' in the street. He sent for you to bail him out.'
'Why, there! Tut-tut-tut! What a fellow that is! Fightin'? Why now, didn't I tell him this afternoon as he looked like pickin' a quarrel wi' somebody? But, I say, Jane, it's a low-life kind o' thing for to go a-fightin' in the streets.'
'Of course it is. What'll he come to next, I wonder? The sooner he gets off to Canada, the better, I sh'd say. But he'll not go; he talks an' talks, an' it's all just for showin' off.'
Mr. Poole had risen.
'Bail? Why, I don't know nothin' about bail, Jane! How d'you do it? I hadn't never nothing to do with folks as got locked up.'
'I don't suppose you never had, Jim, till now.'
'Nay, hang it, Jenny, I wasn't for alludin' to that! Give me my coat. How much money have we in the house? I've sixpence 'apenny i' my pocket.'
'It ain't done with money; you'll have to sign something, I think.'
'All right. But I'll read it first, though. Who was it as come, did you say?'
'Nay, I don't know. She called herself Miss Nancarrow. I didn't care to have much to say to her.'
Mrs. Poole was a kindly disposed woman, but, like her average sisters, found charity hard when there was ever so slight an appearance against another of her sex. We admire this stalwart virtue, you and I, reverencing public opinion; all the same, charity has something to be said for it.
'Miss Nancarrow, eh?' said Poole, dragging on his big overcoat. 'Don't know her. Kennington Road station, is it?'
'You'd better finish your beer, Jim.'
'So I will. Have a bit o' supper ready for the lad.'
Totty walked as far as the police-station. She could not bring herself to enter and make inquiries; that look of Mrs. Poole's would be hard to bear from men. Her tears were dry now; she stood reading the notices on the board. A man had deserted his wife and left her chargeable to the parish; there was a reward for his apprehension, 'That's the woman's fault,' Totty said to herself, 'She's made his home miserable for him. If I had a husband, I don't think he'd want to run away from me. If he did, well, I should say, 'good riddance.' Catch me setting the p'lice after him! The body of a child had been found; a woman answering to a certain description was wanted. 'Poor thing!' thought Totty. 'She's more likely to pity than to blame. They shouldn't take her if I could help it.' So she commented on each notice, in accordance with her mood.
It was very cold. She had no gloves on, and her hands were getting quite numb. Would Mr. Poole answer the summons? If not, Luke would, she supposed, remain in the cell all night. It would be cold enough there, poor fellow!
She had waited about twenty minutes, when a large-headed man in a big overcoat came up, and, after eyeing the edifice from roof to pavement, ascended the steps and entered.
'I shouldn't wonder if that's him,' murmured Totty. And she waited anxiously.
In a quarter of an hour, the man appeared again, and after him came --oh yes, it was Luke! He had his eyes on the ground. The rescuer put his arm in Luke's, and they walked off together.
He had not seen her, and she was disappointed. She followed at a short distance behind them. The large-headed man spoke occasionally, but Ackroyd seemed to make brief reply, if any. Their way took them along Walnut Tree Walk; Totty saw that, in passing the house where Lydia and Thyrza lived, Luke cast a glance at the upper windows; probably he knew nothing of Thyrza's absence at Eastbourne. They turned into Lambeth Walk, then again into Paradise Street, Totty still a little distance in the rear. At their house, they paused. Luke seemed to be going further on, and, to the girl's surprise, he did so, whilst Mr. Poole entered.
He turned to the left, this time into Newport Street. Totty felt a strange tightness at her chest, for all at once she guessed what his purpose was.
It was still only half-past ten; people were moving about. Newport Street has only one inhabited side; the other is formed by the railway viaduct, the arches of which are boarded up and made to serve for stables, warehouses, workshops. Moreover, the thoroughfare is very badly lighted; on the railway side one can walk along at night-time without risk of recognition. Totty availed herself of this gloom, and kept nearly opposite to Luke. He stopped before her house, hesitated, was about to approach the door. Then Totty--no stranger being near--called softly across the street:
He turned at once, and came over.
'Why, is that you?' he said. 'What are you doing there, Totty?'
'Oh, nothing. So they've let you go?'
She spoke indifferently. It had been on her tongue to say that she had followed from the police-station, but the other words came instead.
'I shall have to turn up on Monday morning,' Luke replied.
'What a shame! Did they keep that man?'
'Yes. They kept us both. He kept swearing I'd an old grudge against him, and that he'd done nothing at all. The blackguard had the impudence to charge me with assault; so I charged him too. Then that constable said he'd had us both in charge before for drunk and disorderly. Altogether, it wasn't a bad lying-match.'
'Why do you run the chance of getting into such rows?'
'Well, I like that, Totty! Was I to let him insult you and just stand by?'
'Oh, I don't mean that. But it wouldn't have happened at all but for you going on drinking--you know that very well, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'I suppose it wouldn't. It doesn't matter. I just wanted to see you'd got home all right. Good-night!'
'Good-night! Mind you get home safe, that's all.'
She turned away. He turned away. But he was back before she had crossed the street.
'I say, Totty!'
'What is it?'
'You haven't told me what you were doing, standing here.'
'I don't see as it matters to you, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'No, I suppose it doesn't. Well, good-night!'
Each again turned to depart; again Ackroyd came hack.
'What is it, Mr. Ackroyd?' she exclaimed, fretfully.
'I can't for the life of me make out what you were doing standing there.'
'I don't see as it's any business of yours, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'Still, I'd rather you told me. I suppose you were waiting for somebody?'
'If you must know--yes, I was.'
'H'm, I thought so. Well, I won't stop to be in the way.'
'I say, Mr. Ackroyd!'
'There's a notice outside the station as says a man has deserted his wife.'
'Is there? How do you know?'
'I read it.'
'Oh, you've been waiting there, have you?'
'And another thing. It wasn't no use you looking up at Thyrza Trent's window. She's away.'
'How do you know I looked up?'
He came nearer, a smile on his face. Totty averted her eyes.
'I suppose it wasn't me you were waiting for, Totty?' She said nothing.
'Give me a kiss, Totty.'
'I'm sure I shan't, Mr. Ackroyd!'
'Then let me take one.'
She made no resistance.
'When, Totty?' he whispered, drawing her near.
'Next Christmas, if you haven't taken a drop too much before then. If I find out you have--it's no good you coming after Totty Nancarrow.'
She walked with him to the end of the street, then watched him to his house. She was pleased; she was ashamed; she was afraid. Turning to go home, she crossed herself and murmured something.