Chapter XVIII. Drawing Nearer
 

Lydia had a little rule of self-discipline which deserved to be, and was, its own reward. If ever personal troubles began to worry her she diligently bent her thoughts upon someone for whose welfare she was anxious, and whom she might possibly aid. The rule had to submit to an emphatic exception; the person to be thought of must be any one save that particular one whose welfare she especially desired, and whom she might perchance have aided if she had made a great endeavour. However, the rule itself had become established long before this exception was dreamt of. Formerly she was wont to occupy her mind with Thyrza. Now that her sister seemed all but beyond need of anxious guarding, and that the necessity for applying the rule was greater than ever before, Lydia gave her attention to Mr. Boddy.

The old man had not borne the winter very well; looking at him, Lydia could not help observing that he stooped more than was his habit, and that his face was more drawn. He did his best to put a bright aspect on things when he talked with her, but there were signs that he found it increasingly difficult to obtain sufficient work. A few months ago she would have had no scruple in speaking freely on the subject to Mary Bower, or even to Mrs. Bower, and so learning from them whether the old man paid his rent regularly and had enough food. But from Mary she was estranged--it seemed as if hopelessly--and Mrs. Bower had of late been anything but cordial when Lydia went to the shop. The girl observed that Mr. Boddy was now never to be found seated in the back parlour: she always had to go up to his room. She could not bring herself to mention this to him, or indeed to say anything that would suggest her coolness with the Bowers. Still, it was all tacitly understood, and it made things very uncomfortable.

She was still angry with Mary. Every night she chid herself for doing what she had never done before--for nourishing unkindness. She shed many tears in secret. But forgiveness would not grow in her heart. She thought not seldom of the precepts she had heard at chapel, and--curiously--they by degrees separated themselves from her individual resentment; much she desired to make them her laws, for they seemed beautiful to her conscience. Could she but receive that Christian spirit, it would be easy to go to Mary and say, 'I have been wrong; forgive me!' The day was not yet come.

So she had to turn over plans for helping the poor old man who long ago had so helped her and Thyrza. Of course she thought of the possibility of his coming to live in Thyrza's house; yet how propose that? Thyrza had so much to occupy her; it was not wonderful that she took for granted Mr. Boddy's well-being. And would it be justifiable to impose a burden of this kind upon the newly-married pair? To be sure she could earn enough to pay for the little that Mr. Boddy needed. Thyrza had almost angrily rejected the idea that her sister should pay rent in the new house; payment for board she would only accept because Lydia declared that if it were not accepted she would live elsewhere. So there would remain a margin for the old man's needs. But his presence in the house was the difficulty. It might be very inconvenient, and in any ease such a proposal ought to come from Gilbert first of all. The old man, moreover, was very sensitive on the point involved; such a change would have to be brought about with every delicacy. Still, it must come to that before long.

Perhaps the best would be to wait until Thyrza was actually married, and discover how the household arrangements worked. Thyrza herself would then perhaps notice the old man's failing strength.

Lydia went to see him on Sunday afternoon. The bright day suggested to her that she should take him out for a walk. She had waited until Mary would be away at the school. Mr. Bower lay on the sofa snoring: the after-smell of roast beef and cabbage was heavy in the air of the room. Mrs. Bower would have also slept but for the necessity of having an eye to the shop, which was open on Sunday as on other days; her drowsiness made her irritable, and she only muttered as Lydia went through to the staircase. Lydia had come this way for the sake of appearances; she resolved that on the next occasion she would ring Mr. Boddy's bell at the side door. Upstairs, the old man was reading his thumbed Bible. He never went to a place of worship, but read the Bible on Sunday without fail.

He was delighted to go out into the sunshine.

'And when did the little one get back?' he asked, as he drew out his overcoat--the Christmas gift--from a drawer in which it was carefully folded.

'Why, what do you think? She won't be back till tomorrow. Yesterday, when I got back from work, there was a telegraph waiting for me. It was from the lady at Eastbourne, Mrs. Ormonde, and just said she was going to keep Thyrza till Monday, because it would do her good. How she will be enjoying herself!

They left the house by the private door and went in the direction of the river. Lydia ordinarily walked at a good pace; now she accommodated her steps to those of her companion. Her tall shapely figure made that of the old man look very decrepit. When he had anything of importance to say, Mr. Boddy came to a stand, and Lydia would bend a little forward, listening to him so attentively that she was quite unaware of the glances of those who passed by. So they got to the foot of Lambeth Bridge.

'We mustn't go too far,' Lydia said, 'or you'll be tired, grandad. Suppose we walk a little way along the Embankment. It's too cold, I'm afraid, to sit down. But isn't it nice to have sunshine? How that child must be enjoying herself, to be sure! She was almost crazy yesterday morning before she got off; I'm certain she didn't sleep not two hours in the night. It's very kind of that lady to keep her, isn't it? But everybody is kind to Thyrza, they can't help being.'

'No more they can, Lyddy; no more they can. But there's somebody else as I want to see enjoying herself a little. When 'll your turn come for a bit of a holiday, my dear? You work year in year out, and you're so quiet over it any one 'ud forget as you wanted a rest just like other people.'

'We shall see, grandad. Wait till the summer comes, and Thyrza's well settled down, and then who knows but you and me may run away together for a day at the seaside! I'm going to be rich, because they won't let me pay anything for my room. We'll keep that as a secret to ourselves.'

'Well, well,' said the old man, chuckling from sheer pleasure in her affection, 'there's no knowin'. I'd like to go to the seaside once more, and I'd rather you was with me than any one else. We always find something to talk about, I think, Lyddy. And 'taint with everybody I care to talk nowadays. It's hard to find people as has the same thoughts. But you and me, we remember together, don't we, Lyddy? Now, do you remember one night as there come a soldier into the shop, a soldier as wanted to buy--'

'A looking-glass!' Lydia exclaimed. 'I know! I remember!'

'A looking-glass! And when he'd paid for it, he took up his stick an' smashed the glass right in the middle, then walked off with it under his arm!'

'Why, what years it must be since I thought of that, grandad! And I ran away, frightened!'

'I was frightened myself too. And we never could understand it! Last night, when I was lying awake, that soldier came back to me, and I laughed so; and I thought, I'll ask Lyddy to-morrow if she remembers that.'

They both laughed, then pursued their walk.

'Why look,' said Mr. Boddy presently, 'here's Mr. Ackroyd a-comin' along!'

Lydia had already seen him; that was why she had become silent.

'You're not going to stop, are you, grandad?' she asked, under her breath.

'Why no, my dear? Not if you don't wish.'

'I'd rather not.'

Ackroyd was walking with his hands in his pockets, looking carelessly about him. He recognised the two at a little distance, and drew one hand forth. Till he got quite near he affected not to have seen them; then, without a smile, he raised his hat, and walked past, his pace accelerated. Lydia, also with indifferent face, just bent to the greeting. Mr. Boddy had given a friendly nod.

There was silence between the companions, then Lydia said:

'I've thought it better, grandad, not to--not to be quite the same with Mr. Ackroyd as I used to be.'

'Yes, yes, Lyddy; I understand, There's a deal of talk about him. I'm sorry. He's done me more than one good turn, and I hope he'll get straight again yet. I'm afraid, my dear, as--you know--the disappointment--'

Lydia interrupted with firmness.

'That's no excuse at all--not a bit! If he really felt the disappointment so much he ought to have borne it like a man. Other people have as much to bear. I never thought he was a man of that kind, never! We won't say anything more about him.'

Their conversation so lightened the way that they reached Westminster Bridge, and returned by the road which runs along the rear of the hospital.

'You won't come in, Lyddy?' said the old man, when they were near the shop again.

'Not to-day, grandad. I'm going to tea with Mrs. Grail and Gilbert, because Thyrza's away.'

He acquiesced, trying to conceal the sadness he felt. Lydia kissed his cheek, and left him.

All through tea in the Grails' parlour the talk was of Thyrza. How was she passing her time? Was it as fine at Eastbourne as here in London? What sort of a lady was Mrs. Ormonde? And when the three drew chairs about the fire, Gilbert had something of moment to communicate, something upon which he had resolved since Thyrza's departure.

'Lyddy,' he began, 'mother and I think Thyrza had better not go to work again. As she is going to miss to-morrow morning, it'll be a good opportunity for making the change. Isn't it better?'

Lydia did not reply at once. Such a decided step as this reminded her how near the day was when, though they would still be near to each other, Thyrza and she must in a sense part. The thought was always a heavy one; she did not willingly entertain it.

'Do you think,' she asked at length, 'that Thyrza will feel she ought to stay at home?'

'I think she will, when I've spoken to her about it. We want you both to have your meals with us. Thyrza can help mother, and she'll have more time for her reading. Of course you must be just as much together as you like, but it would be pleasant if you would come down here to meals. Will you do us that kindness, Lyddy?'

'But,' Lydia began, doubtfully. Mrs. Grail interrupted her:

'Now I know what you're going to say, my dear, It isn't nice of you, Lyddy, if you spoil this little plan we've made. Just for the next three weeks! After that you can be as independent as you please; yes, my dear, just as proud as you please. There's a great deal of pride in you, you know, and I don't like you the worse for it.'

'I don't think I'm proud at all,' said Lydia, smiling and reddening a little. 'If Thyrza agrees, then I will. Though I--'

'There now, that's all we want,' interposed the old lady. 'That's very good of you.'

By the first post in the morning arrived a letter addressed to 'Miss Trent,' bearing the Eastbourne post-mark. Lydia for a moment had a great fear, but, when she had torn the envelope open, the first lines put her at rest. It was Mrs. Ormonde who wrote, and in words which made Lydia feel very happy. With the exception of a line once or twice from Mary Bower, she had never received a letter in her life; she was very proud of the honour. Gilbert had just come home for breakfast, and all rejoiced over the news of Thyrza.

It was hard for Lydia to sit through her morning at the workroom. Thyrza was to be at home by twelve o'clock. As soon as the dinner-hour struck, Lydia flung her work aside, and was in Walnut Tree Walk in less time than it had ever before taken her. Instinct told her that the child would be waiting upstairs alone, and not in the Grails' room. She flew up. Thyrza rose from a chair and met her.

Not, however, with the outburst of childish rapture which Lydia had anticipated. Their parts were reversed. When the elder sister sprang forward, breathless with her haste, unable to utter anything but broken terms of endearment, Thyrza folded her in her arms, and, without a spoken word, kissed her with grave tenderness. Her cheeks had the most unwonted colour; her eyes gleamed, and as Lydia's caresses continued, glistened with moisture.

'Dear Lyddy!' she murmured. A tear formed upon her eyelashes, and her voice made trembled music. 'Dear sister! You're glad to see me again?'

'It seems an age, my own darling! You can't think what Sunday was like to me without you. And how well you look, my beautiful! See what a letter I've had from Mrs. Ormonde. Do tell me what she's like! How did she come to ask you if you'd stay! To think of you saying I should be cross with her! But of course that was only fun. My dear one! And what's the sea like? Were you on the shore again this morning?'

'How many questions does that make, I wonder, Lyddy?' Thyrza said, with a smile still much graver than of wont. 'I shan't tell you anything till you've had dinner. It's all ready for you downstairs.'

'You know what they want us to do?'

'Oh, I've talked it all over with Mrs. Grail. I don't think we ought to refuse, Lyddy. And so I'm not to go to work any more? I wish it was the same for you, dear. Shall you find it very hard to go alone?'

'Hard? Not I! Why, whatever should I do with myself if I stayed at home? It's different with you; you must learn all you can, so as to be able to talk to Gilbert.'

'Come to dinner!'

Lydia paused at the door.

'What has come to you, Thyrza?' she asked, looking in her sister's face. 'You're not the same, somehow. Oh, how did you manage to do your own hair? But there's something different in you, Blue-eyes.'

'Is there? Yes, perhaps. Oh, we've a deal to talk about to-night, Lyddy!'

'But Gilbert 'll want you to-night.'

'No. That must be to-morrow.'

And so it was. When all had sat together for an hour at Gilbert's late meal, the sisters went up to their room. Gilbert understood this perfectly well. The next evening would be his.

When it came, Mrs. Grail made an excuse to go and sit with Lydia. Thyrza had her easy-chair; Gilbert was at a little distance. The privileges he asked were very few. Sometimes, when Thyrza and he were alone, he would bold her hand for a minute, and at parting he kissed her, but more of acted tenderness than that he did not allow himself. To-night, whilst she was speaking, he gazed at her continuously. He too observed the change of which Lydia had at once become aware. Thyrza seemed to have grown older in those two days. Her very way of sitting was marked by a maturer dignity, and in her speech it was impossible not to be struck with the self-restraint, the thoughtful choice of words, which had taken the place of her former impulsiveness.

She dwelt much upon the delight she had received from Miss Newthorpe's playing. That had clearly made a great impression upon her.

'There was something she played, Gilbert, that told just what I felt when I first saw the sea. Do you know what I mean? Does music ever seem to speak to you in that way? It's really as if it spoke words.'

'I understand you very well, Thyrza,' he answered, in a subdued voice. And he added, his eyes brightening: 'Shall I take you some night to a concert, a really good concert, at one of the large halls?'

'Will you?'

'Yes, I will. I'll find out from the newspaper, and we'll go together.'

She looked at him gratefully, but did not speak. As she remained silent, he drew his chair nearer and held his hand for hers. She gave it, without meeting his look.

'Thyrza, I heard from Mr. Egremont this morning. He wants to know if I can be ready to begin at the library on May 7, that's a Monday. It won't be opened then, but we shall be able to begin arranging the books. The house will be ready before the end of this month. Will you come and be married to me three weeks from to-day?'

'Yes, Gilbert, I will.'

No flush, but an extreme pallor came upon her face.

He felt a coldness in her hand.

'Then we shall go for a week to the seaside again,' he continued, his voice uncertain, 'and be back in time to get our house in order before the 7th of May.'

'Yes, Gilbert.'

She still did not look at him. He released her hand, and went on in a more natural tone:

'I had a letter from my brother this morning, as well. He'll have to come to London on business in about a month, he says; so I hope we shall be able to have him stay with us.'

'I hope so.'

She spoke mechanically, and then followed a rather long silence. Both were lost in thought. Nor did the conversation renew itself after this, for Thyrza seemed to have no more to tell of her Eastbourne experiences, and Gilbert found it enough to sit near her at times searching her face for the meaning which was new-born in it.

She rose at length, and, when they had exchanged a few words with regard to her occupations now that she would remain at home, Thyrza approached him to say good-night. Instead of bending to kiss her at once, he held her hand in both his and said:

'Thyrza, look at me.'

She did so. His hands were trembling, and his features worked nervously.

'You have never said you love me,' he continued, just above a whisper. 'Will you say that now?'

For an instant she looked down, then raised her eyes again, and breathed:

'I love you, Gilbert.'

'I don't think words were ever spoken that sounded sweeter than those!'

She spoke again, with an earnestness unlike anything he had ever seen in her, quite different from that which had inspired similar words when first she pledged herself to him.

'Gilbert, I will try with all my strength to be a good wife to you! I will!'

'And I hope, Thyrza, that the day when I fail in perfect love and kindness to you may be the last of my life!'

She raised her face, For the first time he put his arms about her and kissed her passionately.

Mrs. Grail said good-night and went downstairs as soon as Thyrza appeared. Thyrza seated herself and pressed a hand against her side; her heart beat painfully.

'Why there!' Lydia exclaimed of a sudden. 'She's left the photographs!'

'What photographs?' Thyrza asked.

Lydia took from the table an envelope which contained some dozen cartes-de-visite. They were all the portraits which Mrs. Grail and her son possessed, and the old lady was very fond of looking over them and gossiping about them. She had brought them up to-night because she anticipated an evening of especial intimacy with Lydia.

Thyrza held out her hand for them. She knew them all, including the latest addition, which was a photograph of Walter Egremont. Egremont had given it to Grail about three weeks ago; it was two years old. She turned them out upon her lap.

'I think I'd better take them down now, hadn't I?' said Lydia.

'I wouldn't trouble till morning,' Thyrza answered, in a tired voice.

Two lay exposed before her: that of Gilbert, taken six years ago. and that of Egremont. Lydia, looking over her shoulder, remarked:

'What a boy Mr. Egremont looks, compared with Gilbert!'

Thyrza said nothing.

'Come, dear, put them in the envelope, and let me take them down.'

'Oh, never mind till morning, Lyddy!'

The voice was rather impatient.

'But I'm afraid Mrs. Grail 'll remember, and have the trouble of coming up.'

'She won't think it worth while. And I want to look at them.'

'Oh, very well, dear.'

The two unlike faces continued to lie uppermost.