Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XXI. Mischief Afoot
It would have been a remarkable thing if Egremont had succeeded, even for a day or two, in keeping secret his work at the library. The vulgar in Lambeth are not a jot less diligent in prying and gossip than are their kin in Mayfair. And chance is wont to be mischief-making all the world over.
When Mr. Bower passed the library in the dinner-hour on Monday, and, after seeing Thyrza Trent come out, forthwith observed Mr. Egremont standing within at the window, his mind busied itself with the coincidence very much as it might have been expected to do. When he reached home he privately reported the little incident to his wife. They looked at each other, and Mr. Bower lowered first one eyelid, then the other.
'Is Grail still at his work?' Mrs. Bower inquired.
'Safe enough. He goes on till Saturday. Ackroyd told me so yesterday.'
'And her sister's at work too?'
'Is the workmen there still?'
'No, they're all out. Safe enough.'
Mr. Bower seemed to find a satisfaction in repeating the significant phrase. He chuckled disagreeably.
'It looks queer,' remarked his wife, with a certain contemptuousness.
'It looks uncommon queer. I wonder whether old Mrs. Butterfield happened to be safe likewise.' He nodded. 'I'll look in and have a word with the old lady to-night, eh?'
Mrs. Butterfield's husband, some years deceased, had been a fellow-workman with Bower. The latter, prying about the school-building as soon as he heard that Egremont was going to convert it into a library, had discovered that the caretaker was known to him. There seemed at the time no particular profit to be derived from the circumstance, but Mr. Bower regarded it much as he would have done a piece of lumber that might have come into his possession, as a thing just to be kept in mind, if perchance some use for it should some day be discovered. It is this habit of thought that helps the Bower species to become petty capitalists. We call it thrift, and--respecting public opinion--we do not refuse our admiration.
On Monday evening, about eight o'clock, Mr. Bower went up to the house-door in the rear of the building, and knocked. The door was opened about two inches, and an aged voice asked who was there.
'It's me, Mrs. Butterfield--Bower,' was the pleasantly modulated reply.
The door opened a little wider.
'Does Mr. Egremont happen to be here?' the visitor went on to ask.
'No, Mr. Bower, he ain't here, nor likely to come again to night, I shouldn't think.'
'Never mind. I dare say you'd let me have a look in, just to see how things is goin' on. I saw him at the window as I passed at dinner-time, and we just nodded to each other, but I hadn't time to stop.'
The old woman admitted him. In the house was an exultant savour of frying onions; a hissing sound came from the sitting-room.
'Cooking your supper, eh, Mrs. Butterfield?' said Bower, with genial familiarity. 'Why, that's right make yourself comfortable. Don't you fuss about, now; I'll sit down here; I like the smell.'
Mrs. Butterfield was not at all the same woman with this visitor that she was with strangers. For one thing, he brought back to her the memory of days when she had possessed a home of her own, and had not yet been soured by ill-hap; then again, Bower belonged to her own class, for all his money saved up and his pomposities of manner. There is a freemasonry between the members of the pure-blooded proletariat; they are ever ready in recognition of each other, and their suspicion of all above them, whether by rank or by nature, is a sense of the utmost keenness. Mrs. Butterfield varied somewhat from the type, inasmuch as she did not care to cringe before her superiors; but that was an accident; in essentials of feeling she and Bower were at one.
The table was half covered with a dirty cloth, on which stood a loaf of bread (plateless), a small dish ready to receive the fry, and a jug of beer. In the midst of the newly painted and papered room, which seemed ready to receive furniture of a more elegant kind than that of working-class homes, these things had an incongruity.
'And how does the world use you, Mrs. Butterfield, ma'am?' Bower asked, as he settled his bulky body on the small chair.
'I earn my bed and my victuals, Mr. Bower,' was the reply, as the old woman stirred her hissing mess with a fork.
'And a thing to be proud of at your age, ma'am.'
From such friendly dialogue, Bower gradually turned the talk to Egremont, of whom he spoke at first as a respected intimate. Observation of his collocutor led him shortly to alter his tone a little. When he had heard that books were already arriving, he remarked:
'That's as much as to say that you'll soon be turned out, Mrs. Butterfield. Well, I call it hard at your age, ma'am. Now if Egremont had acted like a gentleman and had offered me to be librarian, you'd still have kept your place here. I don't want to say disagreeable things, but if ever there was a mean and indecent action, it was when he passed over me and gave the place to a stranger. Why, Mrs. Butterfield, he has to thank me for everything! But for me he'd never have had a soul to hear his lectures. Well, well, it don't matter. And what do you think o' the young girl as is coming to keep house here after you?'
Mrs. Butterfield was turning out her supper into the dish. She gave him a peculiar look.
'When's she goin' to be wed?' was her question in reply.
'And does the man as is goin' to marry her know as she comes here to meet this young gent?'
'She comes to meet him? Does she, now? Tut--tut--tut! But we needn't think harm, Mrs. Butterfield--though you can tell from her face she'll need a good deal of looking after. And does she come regular, now?'
The old woman confessed that she only knew of two meetings, with a very long interval, but she hinted that the first had taken place under circumstances very suspicious; in fact, that it was obviously an appointment. And this morning, as soon as she knew of Thyrza's presence in the library (by the borrowing of the hammer), she had kept a secret espial through the key-hole of the inner door, with the result that she witnessed the two chatting together in a way sufficiently noteworthy, considering the difference of their stations.
The matter having been made to bear all the fruit it would in malevolent discussion, Mr. Bower left the old woman at her supper, and with a candle went to explore the state of the library. He did not remain long, for the big room was very cold, and shortly after rejoining the caretaker he bade her the friendliest good-evening.
'I consider you've done very right to tell me this,' he said, as she went to let him out. 'In my opinion it's something as Grail ought to know. You keep an eye open to-morrow morning; depend upon it, you're doing a good work. I shouldn't wonder if I look in to-morrow night. And I dare say you could do with a nice bit of cheese, eh? I'll see if I can pick a bit out of the shop.'
On Tuesday night he repeated his visit, bringing half a pound of very strong American in his pocket. He heard a shocking story. Thyrza had again been to the library, and so secretly that but for her station at the key-hole Mrs. Butterfield would have known nothing of it.
'Well, well, now! Tut--tut--tut!' commented portly Mr. Bower. 'To think! You never can trust these young men as have more money than they know what to do with! But I didn't think it of Egremont. That's the kind of fellow as comes to preach to the working man and tell him of his faults! Bah! Well, I'm not one for going about spreading storie. Grail must take his chance. Perhaps it 'ud be as well, Mrs. Butterfield, if you kept this little affair quiet--just between you and me, you know. There's no knowing.--Eh? A time may come.-- Eh? It's none of our business just now.--Eh? You understand, Mrs. Butterfield? It might be as well to keep an eye open to the end of the week.'
Mr. Bower, on the way home, turned into his club, just to drink a glass of whisky at the club price. In the reading-room were a few men occupied with newspapers or in chat. In a corner, reading his favourite organ of 'free thought,' sat Luke Ackroyd.
Bower got his glass of spirits, brought it into the reading-room, and sat down by Ackroyd.
'So our friend Egremont's begun to get his books together,' he began.
Luke was indifferent. Of late he had entered upon a new phase of his mental trouble. He was averse from conversation, shrank from his old companions, seemed to have resumed studious habits. It had got about that he was going to marry Totty Nancarrow, but he refused to answer questions on the subject. Banter he met with so grim a countenance that the facetious soon left him to himself. He no longer drank, that was evident. But his face was pale, thin, and unwholesome. One would have said that just now he was more seriously unhappy than he had been throughout his boisterous period.
Bower, after one or two glances at him, lowered his voice to say:
'I can't think it's altogether the right thing for Thyrza Trent to be there every morning helping him. Of course you and me know as it's all square, but other people might--eh? Grail ought to think of that--eh?'
Now it had seemed to Mr. Bower, in his native wisdom, that any scandal about Thyrza would tickle Ackroyd immensely. He imagined Luke bearing a deep grudge against the girl and against Grail--for he knew that the friendship between Luke and the latter had plainly come to an end. In his love of gossip, he could not keep the story to himself, and he thought that Ackroyd would be the safest of confidants. In fact, though he spoke to Mrs. Butterfield as if he had conceived some deep plan of rascality, the man was not capable of anything above petty mischief. He liked to pose in secret as a sort of transpontine schemer; that flattered his self-importance; but his ambition did not seriously go beyond making trouble in a legitimate way. He did indeed believe that something scandalous was going on, and it would be all the better fun to have Ackroyd join him with malicious pleasure in a campaign against reputations. Luke was a radical of the reddest; surely it would delight him to have a new cry against the patronising capitalist.
Ackroyd, having heard that whisper, looked up from his paper slowly. And at once Bower knew that he had made a great miscalculation.
'Other people might think what?' Luke asked, with gravity passing into anger.
'Well, well; you must take it as I meant it, old man.' Bower was annoyed, and added: 'No doubt Egremont likes to have a pretty gyurl to talk to every morning. I don't blame him. Still, if I was Grail --'
'What the devil do you mean, Bower? What's all this about?'
Ackroyd clearly knew nothing. The other recovered some of his confidence.
'Well, you needn't let it go further. It's no good thinking the worst of people. For all I know Grail sends her to help with the books, just because he can't go himself.'
Luke laid down the paper, and said quietly:
'Will you tell me all about it? It's the first I've heard. What's going on?'
Bower brought out his narrative, even naming the authority for it. He took sips of whisky in between. Ackroyd heard in silence, and seemed to dismiss his indignation.
'There's nothing in all that,' he said at length. 'Of course Grail knows all about it. This Mrs. What's-her-name seems to have too little to do.'
'Well, there's no knowing.'
'And you're going to tell this story all over Lambeth?'
'Why, didn't I ask you to keep it quiet?'
'Yes, Bower, you did. And I mean to. And--look here! If you'd been a man of my own age, for all we've known each other a goodish time, I should have sent you spinning half across the room before now. So that's plain language, and you must make what you like of it!'
Therewith Luke thrust back his chair and walked out of the room.
He did not pause till he was some distance from the club. His blood was tingling. But it was not in anger that he at length stood still and asked himself whither he should go. His heart had begun to sink with fear.
Had he done wisely in insulting Bower? The fellow would take his revenge in an obvious way. That calumny would be in every one's mouth by the morrow.
And yet, as if that would not have come about in any case! How long was anything likely to remain a secret that was known in Mrs. Bower's shop? No, it made no difference.
Such stories going round with regard to Thyrza Trent! What was the meaning of it? Had there been some imprudence on Grail's part, some thoughtlessness in keeping with his character, which had in it so little of the everyday man? It was a monstrous thing that opportunities should have been given to that lying old woman!
He walked on, in the direction of home. There was a hideous voice at his ear. Suppose Grail in truth knew nothing about those meetings in the library? How explain the first of them, two months ago?
He altered his course, and, without settled purpose, hurried towards Walnut Tree Walk. As he drew near to the house he saw someone about to enter. He ran forward. It was Gilbert.
'How does the library get on?' he asked, with an abruptness which surprised Grail.
'Oh, all the carpenter's work is finished.'
'Any books come yet?'
'No, not yet.'
He passed on, leaving Gilbert still in surprise, for it was perhaps the first word Ackroyd had spoken to him concerning the library.
Luke began to run, and did not cease until he was in Brook Street in front of the library. He tried to look in at the windows, but found that the blinds were drawn. A policeman passed and scrutinised him.
'Do you know whether any one lives on these premises?' Luke asked at once.
He excited suspicion, but after a short dialogue the constable showed him the approach to the caretaker's house. He knocked at the door several times; at length it was barely opened.
'Is that Mrs. Butterfield?'
'Yes. What may you want?'
'I want to know, if you please, if Mr. Egremont called here to-day and left a message for Mr. Smith about some books.'
'He's been here, but he left no message.'
'Was he here long?'
'All the morning.'
'Putting books on the shelves?'
'Thank you. If there was no message, it's all right.'
Luke went off. In Kennington Road he again stood still. He felt chilled and wretched to the heart's core. Thyrza! Thyrza Trent! Was it possible?
He moved on. This time it was to Newport Street. Half-past ten had just gone; would Totty be up still? Whether or no, he must see her. He rang the bell which was a summons to her part of the house. Bunce opened.
'I want to see Miss Nancarrow,' Luke said to him in a low voice. 'Will you please knock at her door? I must see her.'
Totty came down immediately. She had her hat on and a shawl thrown about her.
'What ever is it?' she asked.
'Just come a little way off, Totty; I want to speak to you.'
She accompanied him to the dark side of the street, and, having got her there, he could find no fitting word with which to begin. He had no intention of telling her what he had heard and what he had discovered for himself, but she was a close friend of Thyrza's and might know or suspect something; moreover, she was a good girl, a girl thoroughly to be trusted, he felt sure of her. Perhaps a hint would be enough to induce her to share a secret with him, when she understood what his suspicions pointed to.
'Yes, you frighten me. What is it?'
'Have you seen Thyrza Trent lately?'
She tried to read his face through the darkness. Her yesterday's conversation with Thyrza was vivid in her mind. Suspicion was irritated at the sound of Thyrza's name on Luke's tongue.
'Totty, I want to ask you something.' He spoke with deepest earnestness, taking her hand. 'You won't keep anything from me, now? I want to know if Thyrza has talked to you about--about her marriage.'
'Why do you want to know that?' the girl asked, in a hard voice.
'I'll speak plainer, Totty. Be a good girl, Totty dear! Tell me what I want to know! Has she ever said anything to make you think that-- that she liked any one better than Grail?'
What a coil was here! She had pulled her hand away, furious with him for his shamelessness. Yet self-respect did not allow her to speak vehemently.
'It seems to me,' she said, 'you'd better go and ask her.'
He hung in doubt. Totty added, with more show of feeling:
'Thyrza Trent's a little fool. You may tell her I said so, if you like. If you know all about it, what do you come bothering me for at this time o' night? I'm not going to be mixed up in such things, so I tell you! And there's an end of it!'
She left him. He stood and saw her re-enter the house.
Then is was true. 'If you know all about it,' . . . 'I'm not going to be mixed up in such things.' . . . Totty had been told, either by Thyrza herself or by someone already spreading the story. The story was true.
He was struck with weakness. Sweat broke out from all his body. Nothing he had ever heard had seemed to him so terrible. A girl like Thyrza! He had held her honesty as sure as the rising of day out of night.
Half an hour later he sat in his bedroom writing:
'Dear Miss Trent,--I want very much to see you. I will wait in Kennington Road, opposite the end of your street, from eight o'clock to-morrow night (Wednesday). Please do come. I must see you, and I wish no one to know of our meeting. 'Yours truly,
He addressed this to Lydia, 'Miss Lydia Trent,' that there might be no mistake, and went out to post it. But at the letter-box he altered his intention. If it was delivered by the postman, Thyrza would see it; it would lead to questionings.
He determined to deliver it at the hat factory in the morning, with his own hand.