Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter II. The Idealist
When Egremont began his acquaintance with the Newthorpes he was an Oxford undergraduate. A close friendship had sprung up between him and a young man named Ormonde, and at the latter's home he met Mr. Newthorpe, who, from the first, regarded him with interest. A year after Mrs. Newthorpe's death Egremont was invited to visit the house at Ullswater; since then he had twice spent a week there. This personal intercourse was slight to have resulted in so much intimacy, but he had kept up a frequent correspondence with Mr. Newthorpe from various parts of the world, and common friends aided the stability of the relation.
He was the only son of a man who had made a fortune by the manufacture of oil-cloth. His father began life as a house-painter, then became an oil merchant in a small way, and at length married a tradesman's daughter, who brought him a moderate capital just when he needed it for an enterprise promising greatly. In a short time he had established the firm of Egremont & Pollard, with extensive works in Lambeth. His wife died before him; his son received a liberal education, and in early manhood found himself, as far as he knew, without a living relative, but with ample means of independence. Young Walter Egremont retained an interest in the business, but had no intention of devoting himself to a commercial life. At the University he had made alliances with men of standing, in the academical sense, and likewise with some whose place in the world relieved them from the necessity of establishing a claim to intellect. In this way society was opened to him, and his personal qualities won for him a great measure of regard from those whom he most desired to please.
Somebody had called him 'the Idealist,' and the name adhered to him. At two-and-twenty he published a volume of poems, obviously derived from study of Shelley, but marked with a certain freshness of impersonal aspiration which was pleasant enough. They had the note of sincerity rather than the true poetical promise. The book had no successor. Having found this utterance for his fervour, Egremont began a series of ramblings over sea, in search, he said, of himself. The object seemed to evade him; he returned to England from time to time, always in appearance more restless, but always overflowing with ideas, for which he had the readiest store of enthusiastic words. He was able to talk of himself without conveying the least impression of egotism to those who were in sympathy with his intellectual point of view; he was accused of conceit only by a few who were jealous of him or were too conventional to appreciate his character. With women he was a favourite, and their society was his greatest pleasure; yet, in spite of his fervid temperament--in appearance fervid, at all events--he never seemed to fall in love. Some there were who said that the self he went so far to discover would prove to have a female form. Perhaps there was truth in this; perhaps he sought, whether consciously or no, the ideal woman. None of those with whom he companioned had a charge of light wooing to bring against him, though one or two would not have held it a misfortune if they had tempted him to forget his speculations and declare that he had reached his goal. But his striving always seemed to be for something remote from the world about him. His capacity for warm feeling, itself undeniable, was never dissociated from that impersonal zeal which was the characteristic of his expressions in verse. In fact, he had written no love-poem.
Annabel and her father observed a change in him since his last visit. This was the first time that he had come without an express invitation, and they gathered from his speech that he had at length found some definite object for his energies. His friends had for a long time been asking what he meant to do with his life. It did not appear that he purposed literary effort, though it seemed the natural outlet for his eager thought; and of the career of politics he at all times spoke with contempt. Was he one of the men, never so common as nowadays, who spend their existence in canvassing the possibilities that lie before them and delay action till they find that the will is paralysed? One did not readily set Egremont in that class, principally, no doubt, because he was so free from the offensive forms of self-consciousness which are wont to stamp such men. The pity of it, too, if talents like his were suffered to rust unused; the very genuineness of his idealism made one believe in him and look with confidence to his future.
Having dined, all went forth to enjoy the evening upon the lawn. The men smoked; Annabel had her little table with tea and coffee. Paula had brought out a magazine, and affected to read. Annabel noticed, however, that a page was very seldom turned.
'Have you seen Mrs. Ormonde lately?' Mr. Newthorpe asked of Egremont.
'I spent a day at Eastbourne before going to Jersey.'
'She has promised to come to us in the autumn,' said Annabel; 'but she seems to have such a difficulty in leaving her Home. Had she many children about her when you were there?'
'Ten or twelve.'
'Do they all come from London?' asked Annabel.
'Yes. She has relations with sundry hospitals and the like. By-the-by, she told me one remarkable story. A short time ago out of eight children that were in the house only one could read--a little girl of ten--and this one regularly received letters from home. Now there came for her what seemed to be a small story-paper, or something of the kind, in a wrapper. Mrs. Ormonde gave it her without asking any questions, and, in the course of the morning, happening to see her reading it, she went to look what the paper was. It proved to be an anti-Christian periodical, and on the front page stood a woodcut offered as a burlesque illustration of some Biblical incident. "Father always brings it home and gives it me to read," said the child. "It makes me laugh!"'
'Probably she knew nothing of the real meaning of it all,' said Mr. Newthorpe.
'On the contrary, she understood the tendency of the paper surprisingly well; her father had explained everything to the family.'
'One of the interesting results of popular education,' remarked Mr. Newthorpe philosophically. 'It is inevitable.'
'What did Mrs. Ormonde do?' Annabel asked.
'It was a difficult point. No good would have been done by endeavouring to set the child against her father; she would be home again in a fortnight. So Mrs. Ormonde simply asked if she might have the paper when it was done with, and, having got possession, threw it into the fire with vast satisfaction. Happily it didn't come again.'
'What a gross being that father must be!' Annabel exclaimed.
'Gross enough,' Egremont replied, 'yet I shouldn't wonder if he had brains above the average in his class. A mere brute wouldn't do a thing of that kind; ten to one he honestly believed that he was benefiting the girl; educating her out of superstition.'
'But why should the poor people be left to such ugly-minded teachers?' Annabel exclaimed. 'Surely those influences may be opposed?'
'I doubt whether they can be,' said her father. 'The one insuperable difficulty lies in the fact that we have no power greater than commercial enterprise. Nowadays nothing will succeed save on the commercial basis; from church to public-house the principle applies. There is no way of spreading popular literature save on terms of supply and demand. Take the Education Act. It was devised and carried simply for the reason indicated by Egremont's friend Dalmaine; a more intelligent type of workmen is demanded that our manufacturers may keep pace with those of other countries. Well, there is a demand for comic illustrations of the Bible, and the demand is met; the paper exists because it pays. An organ of culture for the people who enjoy burlesquing the Bible couldn't possibly be made to pay.'
'But is there no one who would undertake such work without hope of recompense in money? We are not all mere tradespeople.'
'I have an idea for a beginning of such work, Miss Newthorpe,' said Egremont, in a voice rather lower than hitherto. 'I came here because I wanted to talk it over.'
Annabel met his look for a moment, expressing all the friendly interest which she felt. Mr. Newthorpe, who had been pacing on the grass, came to a seat. He placed himself next to Paula. She glanced at him, and he said kindly:
'You are quite sure you don't feel cold?'
'I dare say I'd better go in,' she replied, checking a little sigh as she closed her magazine.
'No, no, don't go, Paula!' urged her cousin, rising. 'You shall have a shawl, dear; I'll get it.'
'It is very warm,' put in Egremont. 'There surely can't be any danger in sitting till it grows dark.'
This little fuss about her soothed Paula for a while.
'Oh, I don't want to go,' she said. 'I feel I'm getting very serious and wise, listening to such talk. Now we shall hear, I suppose, what you mean by your "local preacher"?'
Annabel brought a shawl and placed it carefully about the girl's shoulders. Then she said to her father:
'Let me sit next to Paula, please.'
The change of seats was effected. Annabel secretly took one of her cousin's hands and held it. Paula seemed to regard a distant object in the garden.
There was silence for a few moments. The evening was profoundly calm. A spirit of solemn loveliness brooded upon the hills, glorious with sunset. The gnats hummed, rising and falling in myriad crowds about the motionless leaves. A spring which fell from a rock at the foot of the garden babbled poetry of the twilight.
'I hope it is something very practicable,' Annabel resumed, looking with expectancy at Egremont.
'I will have your opinion on that. I believe it to be practical enough; at all events, it is a scheme of very modest dimensions. That story of the child and her paper fixed certain thoughts that had been floating about in my mind. You know that I have long enough tried to find work, but I have been misled by the common tendency of the time. Those who want to be of social usefulness for the most part attack the lowest stratum. It seems like going to the heart of the problem, of course, and any one who has means finds there the hope of readiest result--material result. But I think that the really practical task is the most neglected, just because it does not appear so pressing. With the mud at the bottom of society we can practically do nothing; only the vast changes to be wrought by time will cleanse that foulness, by destroying the monstrous wrong which produces it. What I should like to attempt would be the spiritual education of the upper artisan and mechanic class. At present they are all but wholly in the hands of men who can do them nothing but harm--journalists, socialists, vulgar propagators of what is called freethought. These all work against culture, yet here is the field really waiting for the right tillage. I often have in mind one or two of the men at our factory in Lambeth. They are well-conducted and intelligent fellows, but, save for a vague curiosity, I should say they live without conscious aim beyond that of keeping their families in comfort. They have no religion, a matter of course; they talk incessantly of politics, knowing nothing better; but they are very far above the gross multitude. I believe such men as these have a great part to play in social development--that, in fact, they may become the great social reformers, working on those above them-- the froth of society--no less than on those below.'
He had laid down his half-finished cigar, and, having begun in a scrupulously moderate tone, insensibly warmed to the idealist fervour. His face became more mobile, his eyes gave forth all their light, his voice was musically modulated as he proceeded in his demonstration. He addressed himself to Annabel, perhaps unconscious of doing so exclusively.
Mr. Newthorpe muttered something of assent. Paula was listening intently, but as one who hears of strange, far-off things, very difficult of realisation.
'Now suppose one took a handful of such typical men,' Egremont went on, 'and tried to inspire them with a moral ideal. At present they have nothing of the kind, but they own the instincts of decency, and that is much. I would make use of the tendency to association, which is so strong among them. They have numberless benefit clubs; they stand together resolutely to help each other in time of need and to exact terms from their employers--the fair fight, as the worthy Member for Vauxhall calls it. Well, why shouldn't they band for moral and intellectual purposes? I would have a sort of freemasonry, which had nothing to do with eating and drinking, or with the dispensing of charity; it should be wholly concerned with spiritual advancement. These men cannot become rich, and so are free from one kind of danger; they are not likely to fall into privation; they have a certain amount of leisure. If one could only stir a few of them to enthusiasm for an ideal of life! Suppose one could teach them to feel the purpose of such a book as "Sesame and Lilies," which you only moderately care for, Miss Newthorpe--'
'Not so!' Annabel broke in, involuntarily. 'I think it very beautiful and very noble.'
'What book is that?' asked Paula with curiosity.
'I'll give it to you to read, Paula,' her cousin replied.
'The work of people who labour in the abominable quarters of the town would be absurdly insignificant in comparison with what these men might do. The vulgar influence of half-taught revolutionists, social and religious, might be counteracted; an incalculable change for good might be made on the borders of the social inferno, and would spread. But it can only be done by personal influence. The man must have an ideal himself before he can create it in others. I don't know that I am strong enough for such an undertaking, but I feel the desire to try, and I mean to try. What do you think of it?'
'Thinking it so clearly must be half doing it,' said Annabel.
Egremont replied to her with a clear regard.
'But the details,' Mr. Newthorpe remarked. 'Are you going to make Lambeth your field?'
'Yes, Lambeth. I have a natural connection with the place and my name may be of some service to me there; I don't think it is of evil odour with the workmen. My project is to begin with lectures. Reserve your judgment; I have no intention of standing forth as an apostle; all I mean to do at first is to offer a free course of lectures on a period of English literature. I shall not throw open my doors to all and sundry, but specially invite a certain small number of men, whom I shall be at some pains to choose. We have at the works a foreman named Bower; I have known him, in a way, for years, and I believe he is an intelligent man. Him I shall make use of, telling him nothing of my wider aims, but simply getting him to discover for me the dozen or so of men who would be likely to care for my lectures. By-the-by, the man of whom I was speaking, the father of Mrs. Ormonde's patient, lives in Lambeth; I shall certainly make an effort to draw him into the net!'
'I shall be curious to hear more of him,' said Mr. Newthorpe. 'And you use English literature to tune the minds of your hearers?'
'That is my thought. I have spent my month in Jersey in preparing a couple of introductory lectures. It seems to me that if I can get them to understand what is meant by love of literature, pure and simple, without a thought of political or social purpose-- especially without a thought of cash profit, which is so disastrously blended with what little knowledge they acquire--I shall be on the way to founding my club of social reformers. I shall be most careful not to alarm them with hints that I mean more than I say. Here arc certain interesting English books; let us see what they are about, who wrote them, and why they are deemed excellent. That is our position. These men must get on a friendly footing with me. Little by little I shall talk with them more familiarly, try to understand each one. Success depends upon my personal influence. I may find that it is inadequate, yet I have hope. Naturally, I have points of contact with the working class which are lacking to most educated men; a little chance, and I should myself have been a mechanic or something of the kind. This may make itself felt; I believe it will.'
Night was falling. The last hue of sunset had died from the swarth hills, and in the east were pale points of starlight.
'I think you and I must go in, Paula,' said Annabel, when there had been silence for a little.
Paula rose without speaking, but as she was about to enter the house she turned back and said to Egremont:
'I get tired so soon, being so much in the open air. I'd better say good-night.'
Her uncle, when he held her hand, stroked it affectionately. He often laughed at the child's manifold follies, but her prettiness and the naivete which sweetened her inbred artificiality had won his liking. Much as it would have astonished Paula had she known it, his feeling was for the most part one of pity.
'I suppose you'll go out again?' Paula said to her cousin as they entered the drawing-room.
'No; I shall read a little and then go to bed.' She added, with a laugh, 'They will sit late in the study, no doubt, with their cigars and steaming glasses.'
Paula moved restlessly about the room for a few minutes; then from the door she gave a 'good-night,' and disappeared without further ceremony.
The two men came in very shortly. Egremont entered the drawing-room alone, and began to turn over books on the table. Then Annabel rose.
'It promises for another fine day to-morrow,' she said. 'I must get father away for a ramble. Do you think he looks well?'
'Better than he did last autumn, I think.'
'I must go and say good-night to him. Will you come to the study?'
He followed in silence, and Annabel took her leave of both.
The morning broke clear. It was decided to spend the greater part of the day on the hills. Paula rode; the others drove to a point whence their ramble was to begin. Annabel enjoyed walking. Very soon her being seemed to set itself to more spirited music; the veil of reflection fell from her face, and she began to talk light-heartedly.
Paula behaved with singularity. At breakfast she had been very silent, a most unusual thing, and during the day she kept an air of reserve, a sort of dignity which was amusing. Mr. Newthorpe walked beside her pony, and adapted himself to her favourite conversation, which was always of the town and Society.
Once Annabel came up with a spray of mountain saxifrage.
'Isn't it lovely, Paula?' she said. 'Do look at the petals.'
'Very nice,' was the reply, 'but it's too small to be of any use.'
There was no more talk of Egremont's projects. Books and friends and the delights of the upland scenery gave matter enough for conversation. Not long after noon the sky began to cloud, and almost as soon as the party reached home again there was beginning of rain. They spent the evening in the drawing-room. Paula was persuaded to sing, which she did prettily, though still without her native vivacity. Again she retired early.
After breakfast on the morrow it still rained, though not without promise of clearing.
'You'll excuse me till lunch,' Paula said to Annabel and Egremont, when they rose from the table. 'I have a great deal of correspondence to see to.'
'Correspondence' was a new word. Usually she said, 'I have an awful heap of letters to write.' Her dignity of the former day was still preserved.
Having dismissed her household duties, Annabel went to the morning room and sat down to her books. She was reading Virgil. For a quarter of an hour it cost her a repetition of efforts to fix her attention, but her resolve was at length successful. Then Egremont came in.
'Do I disturb you?' he said, noticing her studious attitude.
'You can give me a little help, if you will. I can't make out that line.'
She gave him one copy and herself opened another. It led to their reading some fifty lines together.
'Oh, why have we girls to get our knowledge so late and with such labour!' Annabel exclaimed at length. 'You learn Greek and Latin when you are children; it ought to be the same with us. I am impatient; I want to read straight on.'
'You very soon will,' he replied absently. Then, having glanced at the windows, which were suddenly illumined with a broad slant of sunlight, he asked: 'Will you come out? It will be delightful after the rain.'
Annabel was humming over dactylics. She put her book aside with reluctance.
'I'll go and ask my cousin.'
Egremont averted his face. Annabel went up to Paula's room, knocked, and entered. From a bustling sound within, it appeared likely that Miss Tyrrell's business-like attitude at the table had been suddenly assumed.
'Will you come out, Paula? The rain is over and gone.'
'Mr. Egremont wishes to go for a walk. Couldn't you come?'
'Please beg Mr. Egremont to excuse me. I am tired after yesterday, dear.'
When her cousin had withdrawn Paula went to the window. In a few minutes she saw Egremont and Annabel go forth and stroll from the garden towards the lake. Then she reseated herself, and sat biting her pen.
The two walked lingeringly by the water's edge. They spoke of trifles. When they were some distance from the house, Egremont said:
'So you see I have at last found my work. If you thought of me at all, I dare say my life seemed to you a very useless one, and little likely to lead to anything.'
'No, I had not that thought, Mr. Egremont,' she answered simply. 'I felt sure that you were preparing yourself for something worthy.'
'I hope that is the meaning of these years that have gone so quickly. But it was not conscious preparation. It has often seemed to me that in travelling and gaining experience I was doing all that life demanded of me. Few men can be more disposed to idle dreaming than I am. And even now I keep asking myself whether this, too, is only a moment of idealism, which will go by and leave me with less practical energy than ever. Every such project undertaken and abandoned is a weight upon a man's will. If I fail in perseverance my fate will be decided.'
'I feel assured that you will not fail. You. could not speak as you did last night and yet allow yourself to falter in purpose when the task was once begun. What success may await you we cannot say; the work will certainly be very difficult. Will it not ask a lifetime?'
'No less, if it is to have any lasting result.'
'Be glad, then. What happier thing can befall one than to have one's life consecrated to a worthy end!'
He walked on in silence, then regarded her.
'Such words in such a voice would make any man strong. Yet I would ask more from you. There is one thing I need to feel full confidence in myself, and that is a woman's love. I have known for a long time whose love it was that I must try to win. Can you give me what I ask?'
The smile which touched his lips so seldom was on them now. He showed no agitation, but the light of his eyes was very vivid as they read her expression. Annabel had stayed her steps; for a moment she looked troubled. His words were not unanticipated, but the answer with which she was prepared was more difficult to utter than she had thought it would be. It was the first time that a man had spoken to her thus, and though in theory such a situation had always seemed to her very simple, she could not now preserve her calm as she wished. She felt the warmth of her blood, and could not at once command her wonted voice. But when at length she succeeded in meeting his look steadily her thought grew clear again.
'I cannot give you that, Mr. Egremont.'
As his eyes fell, she hastened to add:
'I think of you often. I feel glad to know you, and to share in your interest. But this is no more than the friendship which many people have for you--quite different from the feeling which you say would aid you. I have never known that.'
He was gazing across the lake. The melancholy always lurking in the thoughtfulness of his face had become predominant. Yet he turned to her with the smile once more.
'Those last words must be my hope. To have your friendship is much. Perhaps some day I may win more.'
'I think,' she said, with a sincerity which proved how far she was from emotion, 'that you will meet another woman whose sympathy will be far more to you than mine.'
'Then I must have slight knowledge of myself. I have known you for seven years, and, though you were a child when we first spoke to each other, I foresaw then what I tell you now. Every woman that I meet I compare with you; and if I imagine the ideal woman she has your face and your mind. I should have spoken when I was here last autumn, but I felt that I had no right to ask you to share my life as long as it remained so valueless. You see'--he smiled--'how I have grown in my own esteem. I suppose that is always the first effect of a purpose strongly conceived. Or should it be just the opposite, and have I only given you a proof that I snatch at rewards before doing the least thing to merit them?'
Something in these last sentences jarred upon her, and gave her courage to speak a thought which had often come to her in connection with Egremont.
'I think that a woman does not reason in that way if her deepest feelings are pledged. If I were able to go with you and share your life I shouldn't think I was rewarding you, but that you were offering me a great happiness. It is my loss that I can only watch you from a distance.'
The words moved him. It was not with conscious insincerity that he spoke of his love and his intellectual aims as interdependent, yet he knew that Annabel revealed the truer mind.
'And my desire is for the happiness of your love!' he exclaimed. 'Forget that pedantry--always my fault. I cannot feel sure that my other motives will keep their force, but I know that this desire will be only stronger in me as time goes on.'
Yet when she kept silence the habit of his thought again uttered itself.
'I shall pursue this work that I have undertaken, because, loving you, I dare not fall below the highest life of which I am capable. I know that you can see into my nature with those clear eyes of yours. I could not love you if I did not feel that you were far above me. I shall never be worthy of you, but I shall never cease in my striving to become so.'
The quickening of her blood, which at first troubled her, had long since subsided. She could now listen to him, and think of her reply almost with coldness. There was an unreality in the situation which made her anxious to bring the dialogue to an end.
'I have all faith in you,' she said. 'I hope--I feel assured--that something will come of your work; but it will only be so if you pursue it for its own sake.'
The simple truth of this caused him to droop his eyes again with a sense of shame. He grew impatient with himself. Had he no plain, touching words in which to express his very real love--words such as every man can summon when he pleads for this greatest boon? Yet his shame heightened the reverence in which he held her; passion of the intellect breathed in his next words.
'If you cannot love me with your heart, in your mind you can be one with me. You feel the great and the beautiful things of life. There is no littleness in your nature. In reading with you just now I saw that your delight in poetry was as spirit-deep as my own; your voice had the true music, and your cheeks warmed with sympathy. You do not deny me the right to claim so much kinship with you. I, too, love all that is rare and noble, however in myself I fall below such ideals. Say that you admit me as something more than the friend of the everyday world! Look for once straight into my eyes and know me!'
There was no doubtful ring in this; Annabel felt the chords of her being smitten to music. She held her hand to him.
'You are my very near friend, and my life is richer for your influence.'
'I may come and see you again before very long, when I have something to tell you?'
'You know that our house always welcomes you.'
He released her hand, and they walked homewards. The sky was again overcast. A fresh gust came from the fell-side and bore with it drops of rain.
'We must hasten,' Annabel said, in a changed voice. 'Look at that magnificent cloud by the sun!'
'Isn't the rain sweet here?' she continued, anxious to re-establish the quiet, natural tone between them. 'I like the perfume and the taste of it. I remember how mournful the rain used to be in London streets.'
They regained the house. Annabel passed quickly upstairs. Egremont remained standing in the porch, looking forth upon the garden. His reverie was broken by a voice.
'How gloomy the rain is here! One doesn't mind it in London; there's always something to do and somewhere to go.'
It was Paula. Egremont could not help showing amusement.
'Do you stay much longer?' he asked.
'I don't know.'
She spoke with indifference, keeping her eyes averted.
'I must catch the mail at Penrith this evening,' he said. 'I'm afraid it will be a wet drive.'
'You're going, are you? Not to Jersey again, I hope?
'It seems to make people very dull. I shall warn all my friends against it.'
She hummed an air and left him.
Late in the afternoon Egremont took leave of his friends. Mr. Newthorpe went out into the rain, and at the last moment shook hands with him heartily. Annabel stood at the window and smiled farewell.
The wheels splashed along the road; rain fell in torrents. Egremont presently looked back from the carriage window. The house was already out of view, and the summits of the circling hills were wreathed with cloud.