Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XX. Rapids
In the crowd with which they mingled on passing out again, Thyrza saw men in evening dress; she looked in every direction for Egremont, but was disappointed. Gilbert had begged her to hold his arm; he moved forward as quickly as possible, and with Lydia following they were soon in the street. Gilbert wished to cross, for the sake of quickly getting out of the throng. Thyrza threw one glance back. A hat was raised by someone going in the opposite direction, who also had turned his head. She had seen him. She was glad he did not come up to speak. Could he discern the flash of joy which passed over her face as she recognised him? She hoped he had, but at once hoped that he had not.
There was waiting for an omnibus. Thyrza still had her arm within Gilbert's; she was unconscious of all the bustle amid which she stood, unconscious of the pressure with which Gilbert drew her nearer to him. When at length bidden, she entered the vehicle, and leaned back with her eyes closed.
How dark and quiet these streets of Lambeth seemed As she passed the threshold of the house, a sudden chill fell upon her, and she shook. How sombre the passage was, with its dim lamp suspended against the wall! Voices seemed strange; when Mrs. Grail welcomed her in the parlour, she did not recognise the sound.
She could not be persuaded to get to bed immediately. Neither could she sit still, but walked restlessly about the floor.
'How hot it is!' she complained to Lydia. 'Do you mind if I open the window just a little?'
'I don't, but I'm afraid it'll give you cold. Now do undress, there's a dear!'
'Just for a minute.'
She threw the window up, and stood breathing the air. Her thoughts strayed into the darkness. Had Mr. Egremont gone to the concert just because she mentioned that she was going? It was not likely, but perhaps so. When should she see him to speak of it? Would he still be arranging books the next morning?
'Now, Thyrza, you must shut the window! I shall be angry. Do as I tell you, and get to bed at once.'
At the voice, Thyrza drew the window down, then turned and stood before her sister, as if she were going to say something. But she did not speak.
'Do you feel ill, dear?' Lydia asked, anxiously.
'Not well, Lyddy. Don't get cross with me. I'll go to bed directly.'
She walked again the length of the room, then began to hum an air. It was the first song of the concert. She took the crumpled programme from her pocket, and glanced over it. Lydia moved impatiently. Thyrza put the programme down on the table, and began to loosen her dress.
'Are you glad you went, Lyddy?' she asked, in a tired voice.
'I shan't be glad we any of us went if it's going to make you ill, Thyrza.'
'I shall be all right to-morrow, I dare say. I wonder whether Mr. Egremont often goes to concerts?'
'Very likely. He can afford it.'
'I mustn't go again for a long time.'
She had seated herself on the bed and was undoing the braid of her hair. She spoke the last words thoughtfully. In a minute or two the light was out.
Lydia soon fell asleep. In the very early morning a movement of her sister's awoke her. She found that Thyrza was sitting up in the bed.
'What is it, dear?' she asked, 'Lie down and go to sleep.'
'I can't, Lyddy, I can't! I am so tired, and I haven't closed my eyes. Keep awake with me a minute, will you?'
Lydia took the sleepless girl in her arms.
'The music won't leave me,' Thyrza moaned. 'It's just as if I heard them playing now.'
Lydia nursed her into a fitful sleep.
Though Thyrza had no work to go to, she still always rose together with her sister, and, whilst the latter put the room in order, went down to assist Mrs. Grail in getting the breakfast. But on the morning after the concert Lydia was glad to see that the head beside her own was weighed down with sleep when the hour for rising had come. She dressed as quietly as possible, leaving the blind drawn, and descended to say that Thyrza would be a little longer than usual. Gilbert was in the parlour.
'Has she slept well?' he asked.
'Not very well. She couldn't get the sound of the music out of her ears. But she's fast now.'
'We shall have to be careful of her, Lyddy,' Gilbert said, anxiously.
For he had had her face before him all night, with its pale, wearied look of over-excitement. He knew how delicate a nature it was that he was going to take into his charge, and already his love was at times gently mingled with fear.
Lydia went upstairs again, and softly into the room. Thyrza had just awoke and was sitting with her hands together upon her face.
'What time is it?' she asked. 'Why did you let me sleep? Have you been up long?'
Lydia constrained her to lie down again. She was unwilling at first, but in the end fell back with a sigh of relief.
'What day is it, Lyddy? Oh, Tuesday, of course. I suppose the days 'll go very slow till Saturday. I'm sure I don't know what I shall do all the time.'
'Don't trouble about it now, dear. Try and sleep a little more, and I'll bring you up some breakfast just before I go.'
'That'll be like when I was poorly, won't it, Lyddy?'
She lay and laughed quietly.
'You feel better?'
'Oh yes. Is it a fine morning?'
'The pavement's just drying.
She drew the clothes over her head. Lydia could hear her still laughing, and wondered. Thyrza could not have told what it was that amused her.
She did not sleep again, but had breakfast in bed. Lydia sat with her as long as possible. Thyrza, as soon as she heard the front door close behind her sister, sprang on to the floor and began to dress with nervous rapidity; her hands were so unsteady that she had all sorts of difficulties with buttons and hooks and eyes.
'Don't trouble with your hair,' Lydia had said. 'I'll do it at dinner-time.'
But Thyrza could not obey in this. She did the plaiting twice over, being dissatisfied with the first result, and even took a new piece of blue ribbon for the ends.
The sun was shining. That always affected her pleasurably, and this morning, as soon as she was dressed, a gladness altogether without conscious reason made her sing, again the song of the concert. The air, which she could not wholly remember the night before, had grown to completeness in her mind; she longed to know the words, that the whole song might henceforth stay with her. And the sun, so rare in our dull skies, seemed to warm the opposite houses. She threw open the window, and heard the clocks striking nine.
'I'll just make the bed and put things straight, then--oh, then I must really go and do something for Mrs. Grail. I left her alone nearly all yesterday. And then I might go and meet Lyddy. But it's a long time till half-past twelve. Perhaps--'
Having made the bed she sat down to rest for a moment. After all, the headache was certainly not gone, though it had been disguising itself. The moment grew to a quarter of an hour. Her eyes seemed to behold something very clearly, just in front, down there on the floor. But the floor itself had made way for a large hall; among rows of people she saw a tall lady in a red cloak, and a bald-headed gentleman, and between them someone whose face was at an angle which allowed her to see it very well, to note even the look, not quite a smile, of pleasure which made it so interesting. She knew no other face which affected her as that did. She desired it to turn full upon her, to look straight into hers with its clear, gentle eyes, which seemed to be so full of wonderful knowledge. Once or twice, yes, in truth, once or twice it had done so, but never for long enough. It would do so yet again. Oh but not for long enough! A look not of instants, but of minutes, of full minutes ticked to their last second; what would she give for that! One such gaze and she would be satisfied. It was not to ask much, surely not much.
But she was going to live there, behind the library, and he would come often, very often. For a time he would certainly come every day. To be sure, she could not see him daily. Her duties would be in the house; she would be a wife; people would call her 'Mrs. Grail.'
A voice whispered, a very timid, one would have said a guilty, voice, 'Who will be called 'Mrs. Egremont'?' Not once; the voice, faint as it was, had an echo, a tingling echo from her heart outwards to the smallest vein. Who will bear that name? Some tall, beautiful, richly-clad lady, such as Miss Newthorpe. Was there any one who at this moment sat alone, longing for one look of his eyes? Did ladies think and feel in that way? or only foolish little work-girls, who all their lives had dreamed dreams of a world that was not theirs? Did ladies ever press down a heart beating almost to anguish and say, half-aloud, to themselves: 'I love you!'
No; a stately life theirs, no weakness, no sense of a measureless need, self-respect ever, and ever respect from all about them. Think of Miss Newthorpe's face. How noble it was! How impossible that it should plead for anything It might concede with a high, gracious smile, but not beseech anything. That was the part of poor girls who had not been taught, in whom it was no shame to look up to one far above them and long--long for kindness.
The sunlight was creeping along the floor, nearer to her. Oh sun of spring! nearer, nearer! Your warmth upon my hands, upon my face! Your warmth upon my heart, that something warm may press there!
The clocks were striking ten. It was unkind to leave Mrs. Grail alone. The girl hired to do rough work was coming today, but for all that it behoved her to be attentive to the good old lady, who never spoke to her save with good, motherly words.
Yes, away with it all! She must go down and be company to Gilbert's mother. Had she forgotten that in less than a week she would be Gilbert's wife? A simple test: could she speak out these thoughts of hers to Lyddy? The hot current in her veins was answer enough. And that had been the criterion of right and wrong with her since she was a little child. Lyddy knew the right instinctively, and never failed to act upon her knowledge. What had been Lyddy's thoughts of Luke Ackroyd? Perhaps not very different from these to which she had been listening; for Lyddy too was a work-girl, not a lady. Yet the brave sister had kept it all hidden away; more, had done her very best to bring together Luke and someone else whom he loved. How was it possible to reach that height of unselfishness? But the example should not be without its effect.
Thyrza presented herself in the parlour. The room was in some disorder; a girl was on her knees by the fireplace, cleaning. Thyrza went down to the little back kitchen, which was behind the room where Mr. and Mrs. Jarmey practically lived. It was dark and cold. Mrs. Grail was making a pudding,
'Good-morning, my dear!' she said, nodding several times. 'Better now? I hoped you wouldn't be down yet, but I suppose you couldn't sleep for the sunshine. I don't think you ought to sit here.'
'Oh, but I'm going to help you. Please give me something to do. Shall I clean these knives?'
'The idea! Charlotte 'll be down to do those directly. If you really don't find it too cold here, you may tell me something about the concert.'
'Yes, I'll tell you, but I must work at the same time. I want to, I must! Yes, I shall do the knives. Please don't be cross!'
She was bent on it; Mrs. Grail quietly acquiesced. For ten minutes Thyrza wrought strenuously at the knife-board, speaking only a few words. Then the girl Charlotte made her appearance.
'Now, Thyrza,' Mrs. Grail said, 'if you really want something to do, suppose you go and dust upstairs. You haven't dusted yet, have you, Charlotte?'
'No, mum, not yet.'
Thyrza rubbed away for a minute longer, then agreed to go up to the lighter work. Her head had not profited by the violent exercise.
Dusting is an occupation not incompatible with reverie. How hard it was to keep her mind from the subject which she had determined not to think of! As often as her face turned to the sunlight, that longing came back.
Mrs. Grail joined her presently. We know that the old lady had no fondness for domestic bustle. She sat down, and at length persuaded Thyrza to do the same.
At half-past eleven Mrs. Grail said:
'My dear, I think you ought to go out for a little, while it's so bright. I'm not at all sure that the sun 'll last till dinnertime; it's getting rather uncertain. Just go into Kennington Road and back.'
Thyrza shook her head.
'Not this morning. I'm a little tired.'
'Yes, but it'll make you feel more cheerful, and you'll have an appetite for dinner, which I'm sure you haven't had for a week and more. How ever you live on the few mouthfuls you eat is a wonder to me. You ought to have half an hour's walk every day, indeed you ought.'
It was sorely against her will to go forth, yet desire called to her from the sunlit ways. Slowly down the stairs, slowly to the end of Walnut Tree Walk.
Look at that white billow of cloud on its fathomless ocean! Even now there were clouds like that high up over Eastbourne. One such had hung above her as she drove with Mrs. Ormonde up Beachy Head. At this moment the sea was singing; this breeze, which swept the path of May, made foam flash upon the pebbled shore. Sky and water met on that line of mystery; far away and beyond was the coast of France.
More quickly now. Whither was she tending? She had at first kept southwards, straight along Kennington Road; now she had crossed, and was turning into a street which might--only might--conduct her round into Brook Street. Desire was in her feet; she could no longer check them; she must hasten on whithersoever they led.
Oh, why had she left the house! Why had Mrs. Grail--a cruel mother --bidden her go forth when her will was to stay, and work, and forget! Could she not stop, even now, and turn?
She stopped. Was it likely that he would be there this morning? No, not very likely. He would finish all the books yesterday. Yet others might have been brought.
If he would give her one long look--the look for which she fainted --then that should be the end. That should be the very end. She would not play with danger after that. For now she knew that it was danger; that thought of Lyddy had made everything terribly clear. He would never know anything of what had been in her foolish heart, and it would cost him nothing to look once at her with a rich, kind look. He was all kindness. He had done, was doing, things such as no other man in his position ever thought of. She would like to tell him the immeasurable worship with which his nobleness inspired her; but the right words would never come to her, and the wrong would be so near her lips. No, one look for him, and therewith an end.
The library was within sight; she had walked very quickly. If he should not be there! Her hand was on the door; the bitterness of it if the door proved to be locked.
It was open. She was in the little entrance hall. At the door of the library itself she stood listening.
Was that a sound of someone within? No, only the beat of her own heart, the throb which seemed as if it must kill her. She could not open the door! She had not the strength to stand. The pain, the pain!
Yet she had turned the handle, and had entered. He was in the act of placing volumes on the shelves. She moved forward and he looked round.
That was not the look she desired. Surprise at first, surprise blent with pleasure; but then a gravity which was all but disapproval.
Yet he gave his hand.
'Good-morning, Miss Trent!' The voice was scrupulously subdued, as inflexionless as he could make it. 'I am still at my secret work, you see. When I went away for lunch yesterday something prevented me from returning, so I came down again this morning.'
'You have got them nearly all put up.'
She could not face him, but kept her eyes on the almost empty cases.
'Yes. But I expect some more this afternoon.'
He walked away from her, with books in his hands. Thyrza felt ashamed. What must he think of her? It was almost rude to come in this way--without shadow of excuse. Doubtless he was punishing her by this cold manner. Yet he could not unsay what he had said yesterday; and his recognition of her just outside the Hall last night had been so friendly. She felt that her mode of addressing him had been too unceremonious; the 'Sir' of their former intercourse seemed demanded again. Yet to use it would be plain disregard of his request.
Must she speak another word and go? That would be very hard. Shame and embarrassment notwithstanding, it was so sweet to be here; nay, the shame itself was luxury.
'I am so sorry I haven't a chair to offer you. If I put the top on this box? That is a very rude sort of seat, but--'
Then he wished her to remain a little? Or was it mere politeness, which modesty should direct her to meet with similar refusal? It was so hard that she did not know what was proper, how she was expected to behave.
In the meantime, the seat was improvised. He asked her with a smile if she would take it.
'Thank you, Mr. Egremont. I'm afraid I mustn't stay. Or only a minute.'
He glanced at the inner door, leading to the house. Had some sound come thence?
Thyrza seated herself. With one hand she held the edge of the box nervously. Her eyes were bent downwards. Egremont again walked away from her. On returning, he said, in the same almost expressionless tone:
'I hope you enjoyed the concert last night?'
This was what she had wished, that he would speak of the concert.
'I did, so very much,' she replied.
And, as she spoke, her face was lifted. He was regarding her, and did not at once avert his eyes. For an appreciable space of time they looked at each other.
Was she then satisfied? Could she leave him now and draw a hard line between this hour and the future? Less satisfied than ever. His gaze was a mystery; it seemed so cold, and yet, and yet--what did it suggest to her? That just observable tremor on his lip; that slight motion of the forehead, those things spoke to her miraculously sharpened sense, and yet she could not interpret their language. It was very far from the look she had yearned for, yet perhaps it affected her more profoundly than a frank gaze of kindness would have done.
He moved a little, again glancing at the inner door.
'I was there myself,' were his next words.
'Yes, I saw you. In the Hall, I mean; not only afterwards.'
Uttered without forethought--she desired to say that and had said it.
'Did you?' he said, more coldly still.
'Gilbert pointed you out to us.'
It was true, and it involved a falsehood. Egremont happened to regard her as she spoke, and at once a blush came to her cheeks. To what was she falling? Why did she tell untruths without the least need? She could not understand the motive which had impelled her to that.
Egremont had a distinct frown on his face. It was as though he read her deceit and despised her for it. Thyrza added, confusedly:
'My sister went with us. She hadn't meant to, but Gilbert persuaded her at last.'
'Do you remember which piece you liked best?'
'No, I couldn't say. It was all so beautiful. I liked the songs so much.'
'But Mr. Grail must take you to hear better singers than those.'
'Weren't they good?' she asked in astonishment.
'Certainly not bad, but not really excellent.'
He mentioned one or two world-echoed names, and spoke in particular of a concert shortly to be given, at which such singers would be heard.
'You have heard them?' Thyrza asked, gazing at him.
'I should be almost afraid.'
He thought it a wonderful word to come from this untaught girl. Again their eyes met. He laughed.
'Something like my own feeling when I got out at Niagara Station, and began to walk towards the Falls. I dreaded the first sight of them.'
He was purposely turning it to a jest. He durst not reply to her in her own mood. And he saw that she had not understood.
'You have heard of Niagara?'
'No, Mr. Egremont. Will you tell me about it?'
He made a very brief pause, and she noticed it with fear. Did he despise her ignorance, or did he think her troublesome? Yet he began to explain, and was soon speaking much more freely, almost as he had spoken that evening in the Grails' room, when he told of his sea-experiences.
He ended somewhat abruptly, and went to the shelves with books. Thyrza rose and followed him. He looked back, strangely, as if startled.
'May I look at the books I put up yesterday?' she asked, timorously.
'Ah yes! There is old Gibbon, our corner-stone. He hasn't much elbow-room now.'
Again he laughed. The laugh troubled her; she preferred him to be grave.
'And some more books are coming to-day?' she said.
'Yes, this afternoon.'
'Mr. Egremont, may I come and help to put up a few to-morrow morning?'
Again her tongue uttered words in defiance of herself. She could not believe it when the words were spoken.
Egremont perused the floor. The slight frown had returned.
'But perhaps I shall be in your way,' she continued, hastily. 'I didn't think. I am troublesome.'
'Indeed you are not at all, Miss Trent. I should be very glad. If-- if you are sure you can spare the time?'
'I can quite well. I do a little work for Mrs. Grail, but that doesn't take anything like all the morning.'
A word was on his tongue. He was about to say that perhaps it would be as well, after all, to tell Grail, and for Thyrza to ask the latter's permission. He even began to speak, but hesitated, ceased.
'Shall I come at this same time?' Thyrza inquired, her voice almost failing her.
'I shall be here at about eleven; certainly by half-past.'
'Then I will come. I shall be so glad to help.'
A pronoun was lost; something prevented its utterance. Egremont made no reply. Thyrza found power to hold her hand out and take leave. How often they seemed to have held each other's hand!