Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XXIII. Confession
This Wednesday morning Lydia went to her work reluctantly. Thyrza was so strange; it looked as if she was going to have an illness. Again there had been a night of sleeplessness; if the girl fell for a moment into slumber she broke from it with an inarticulate cry as if of fear. It was now nearly a week since Thyrza had really slept through the night, but it was growing worse. She was feverish; she muttered, so that Lydia was terrified lest she had become delirious. And there was no explaining it all. The excitement of the concert, surely, could not have such lasting results; indeed, Thyrza seemed no longer to give a thought to the music. All she begged for was that she might be allowed to remain alone. She did not wish Mrs. Grail to come up to the room. She said she would go out in the course of the morning, and that would do her good.
So Lydia went forth reluctantly. At the entrance to the factory she met Totty Nancarrow. They just gave each other a good-morning. Totty seemed dull. She did not run up the stairs as usual, but walked with a tired step.
Lydia, following her, broke her habit, and spoke.
'Thyrza isn't at all well.'
'Isn't she?' said the other, without turning her head, and in a tone of little interest.
Lydia bit her lip, vexed that she had said anything.
They came into the work-room. There were a number of tables, at which girls and women were beginning to seat themselves. A portion of the room was divided off by a glass partition, and within the little office thus formed sat the fore-woman, surrounded with felt hats, some finished, some waiting for the needle to line them and put the band on. Sitting here, she overlooked the workers, some fifty when all were assembled.
There was much buzzing and tittering and laughing aloud. All belonged to the class of needlewomen who preserve appearances; many of them were becomingly dressed, and none betrayed extreme poverty. Probably a fourth came from homes in which they were not the only wage-earners, and would not starve if work slackened now and then, having fathers or brothers to help them. Whether they liked coming to work or not, all showed much cheerfulness at the commencement of the day. They greeted each other pleasantly, sometimes affectionately, and not one who lacked a story of personal incident to be quickly related to a friend whilst the work was being given out. So much seemed to happen in the hours of freedom.
Lydia was much quieter than usual. It was not her wont to gossip of her own affairs, or to pry into the secrets of her acquaintances; but with the little group of those with whom she was intimate she had generally some piece of merriment to share, always marked by kindness of feeling. She was a favourite with the most sensible girls of her own age. Thyrza had never been exactly a favourite, though some older than herself always used to pet her, generally causing her annoyance.
About a quarter of an hour had passed, and work was getting into trim, when a girl, a late arrival, in coming to her place, handed Lydia a letter.
'Someone downstairs asked me to give it you,' she whispered. 'You needn't blush, you know.'
Lydia was too surprised to manifest any such self-consciousness. She murmured thanks, and looked at the address. It was a man's writing, but she had no idea whose. She opened the envelope and found Ackroyd's short note.
What did this mean? It at once flashed across Lydia's mind that there might be some connection between this and Thyrza's strange disorder. Old habit still brought Ackroyd and Thyrza together in her thoughts. Yet how was it possible? Ackroyd was engaged to Totty Nancarrow, and Thyrza had never shown the least interest when she mentioned him of late. Was he going to make trouble, now at the last moment, when everything seemed to have taken the final form?
Since Thyrza's engagement to Gilbert, there was no longer need of subtle self-deceptions, but, though she might now freely think of him, Lydia soon found that Ackroyd was not the same in her eyes. The first rumours of his abandonment to vulgar dissipation she utterly refused to credit, but before long she had to believe them in spite of herself. She saw him one night coming out of a public-house, singing a drunken song. It was a terrible blow to her; she had to question herself much, and to make great efforts to understand a man's nature. She had thought him incapable of such things. The vague stories of earlier wildness she had held no account of. When a woman says 'Oh, that is past,' she means 'It does not exist, and never did exist.'
It surprised her that she still thought of him with heartache. Her quarrel with Mary Bower seemed an encouragement to the love she kept so secret. She found a thousand excuses for him; she pitied him deeply; she longed to go and speak to him. Why could she not do so? Often and often she rehearsed conversations with him, in which she told him how unworthy it was to fall so, and implored him for his own sake to be a man again. She might have realised such a dialogue --though it would have cost her much--but for the news that he had begun to pay attention to Totty Nancarrow.
Then she knew jealousy. Of Thyrza she could not be jealous, but to imagine him giving his affection to a girl like Totty Nancarrow made her rebellious and scornful. How little could any of her work-room companions know what was passing in Lydia's breast when she had one of her days of quietness and bent with such persistence over her sewing! If spoken to, she raised the same kind, helpful face as ever; you could not imagine that a minute ago a tear had all but come to her eyes, that in thought she had been uttering words of indignant passion. They were rare, those days in which she could not be quite herself. It was not her nature to yield when weakness tempted.
And now he had written to her. Having read the note, she put it into the bosom of her dress, and, whilst her fingers were busy, she turned over every possible explanation in her mind. She knew that he had abandoned his evil habits of late, and she could be just enough not to refuse Totty some credit for the change. Gilbert himself had said that the girl's influence seemed on the whole good. But some mystery was now going to reveal itself. It concerned Thyrza; she was sure it did. The fact that the note was delivered in this way, and the request for secrecy which it contained, made this certain.
At dinner-time, and again in the evening, Thyrza was still in the same state of depression and feverishness. Lydia said nothing of the business which would take her out at eight o'clock. When the time came, and she had to make an excuse, Thyrza said that she too would go out; she wanted to see Totty.
'You'll tell Gilbert?' Lydia replied, afraid to make any opposition herself.
'No. He'd say it wasn't good for me to go out, and I want to go. You won't say anything, Lyddy?'
'I ought to, dear. You're not well enough to go, that's quite certain.'
'I won't be long. I must go just for half an hour.'
'Why do you want to see her?' Lydia asked, masking her curiosity with a half-absent tone.
'Oh, nothing to explain. I feel I want to talk, that's all.'
From time to time--in her more difficult moments--Lydia had felt a little hurt that the course of circumstances made no difference in Thyrza's friendship for Totty. When her truer mind was restored, she knew that the reproach was a foolish one. More likely it was she herself who was to blame for having always nourished a prejudice against Totty. At present, Thyrza's anxiety to go out was another detail connecting itself with Ackroyd's summons. Something unexplained was in progress between those three, Totty and Ackroyd and Thyrza. Her resentment against the first of them revived.
She would soon know what it all meant. Thyrza and she left the house together and went in opposite directions. Lydia crossed Kennington Road, and found Luke waiting for her. She approached him with veiled eyes.
'I'm so glad you've come,' he began, with signs of disturbance, 'It's kind of you to come. I have a great deal to say, and I can't speak here. Will you come round into Walcot Square?--it'll be quieter.'
She said nothing, but walked beside him. It was a new and strange sensation to be thus accompanying Ackroyd.
She was conscious that her pulses quickened. They went on in silence till they reached the spot which Luke had mentioned, an irregular little square, without traffic, dark.
'I don't know how to begin to tell you, Miss Trent,' Ackroyd said, when he stopped and turned towards her. 'It's your sister I have to speak about.'
She had foreseen truly. Her heart sank.
'What can you have to say about my sister, Mr. Ackroyd?' she asked in a hard voice.
'I'm not surprised that you speak in that way. I know that I shall seem a busybody, or perhaps something worse, meddling with things that don't concern me. It would be easier for me to leave it alone, but I couldn't do that, because I can't think of you and your sister as strangers. I've heard something said about Thyrza that you ought to know. Be friendly to me, and believe I'm only telling you this because I think it's my duty.'
Lydia was looking at him in astonishment.
'You've heard something? What? What has anybody to say about my sister?'
'I shall make no secret of anything--it's the only way to prove I'm behaving honestly to you. I was at the club last night, and Bower came and sat down by me, and he began to talk about Thyrza. He said it looked strange that she should be alone with Mr. Egremont in the library every morning. The woman that takes care of the place told him about it, and he's seen Thyrza himself coming away at dinner-time, when Mr. Egremont was there. He says she goes to help him to put books on the shelves. He spoke of it in a way that showed he was telling the story to all sorts of people, and in a way that means harm. I'd sooner bite my tongue out than repeat such things about your sister, if it wasn't that you ought to know. I might have told Grail, but I felt it was better to see you first. I know I'm making trouble enough any way, but I believe you will give me credit for acting honestly. Don't think of me as the kind of man I've seemed since Christmas. You used to think well of me, and you must do so now, Miss Trent. I'm speaking as a true friend.'
He hurried out his words of self-justification, for he saw the anger in her face.
'And you believe this?' Lydia exclaimed, when she could use her voice. 'You believe a man that will go saying things like this about my sister? Why is he trying to do us harm? Why, there is no books to put on the shelves! No books have come to the library yet!'
She laughed scornfully, and, before he could speak, continued with the same vehemence.
'What have we done to Mr. Bower? I suppose it's because we're not so friendly with them as we were. So he does his best to take away our good name, and to ruin Thyrza's life! Of course, I knew very well what you mean. I know what he means. He's a cruel coward! It's a lie that he's seen Thyrza coming out of the library! Why, I tell you there is no books there! How could she help to put them on the shelves? You shall come with me this minute to the Bowers' house! You can't refuse to do that, Mr. Ackroyd: it's only fair, it's only justice. You shall come and repeat to them all you've told me, and then see if he'll dare to say it again. I'm glad you didn't tell Gilbert; you was right to tell me first. I'm not angry with you; you mustn't think that; though you speak as if you believed his lies. I should have thought you knew Thyrza better. Come with me, this minute! You shall come, if you're an honest man, as you say you are!'
She laid her hand upon his arm. Ackroyd took the hand and held it whilst he compelled her to listen to him.
'Lydia, we can't go till you've heard everything. I've got more to tell you.'
'More? What is it? A man that 'll say so much 'll say anything. You've told me quite enough, I should think, considering it's about my own sister.'
'But, Lydia, do listen to me, my poor girl! Try and quiet yourself, and listen to me. There's nothing more of Bower's telling; he didn't say any more; and there was more harm in his way of telling it than in the story itself. But I have something to tell you that I've found out myself.'
She looked him in the face. Her hand she had drawn away.
'And you are going to say harm of Thyrza!' she said under her breath, eyeing him as though he were her deadliest enemy.
'Think and say of me what you like, Lydia. I've got something that I must tell you; if I don't, I'd a deal better never have said anything at all. You're not right about the library. There are books there, and Mr. Egremont has been busy with them of a morning.'
'But how can you know better than Gilbert?' she cried.
'I know, because I went last night to find out. As soon as I'd heard Bower's tale, I went. And I was there again to-day, at dinner-time, and I saw your sister come out of the door.'
She was silent. In spite of her passionate exclamations, a suspicion had whispered within her from the first, a voice to which she would lend no ear. Now she was constrained to think. She remembered Thyrza's lateness at dinner on Monday; she remembered that Thyrza had been from home each morning this week. And if it were true that books had arrived at the library, and that Gilbert knew nothing of it--Was this the explanation of Thyrza's illness, of her inexplicable agitations, of her sleeplessness?
She could not raise her head. Ackroyd too kept silent. She asked at length: 'Have you anything more to tell me?'
'Yes, I have something more. It's another thing that I found out last night, after leaving Bower. Say that you don't accuse me of conduct as bad as Bower's!' he added, vehemently. 'I must tell you everything, and it makes me seem as if I told it for the sake of telling. Say you believe in my honesty, at all events!'
'I don't accuse you of anything,' she replied, still under her breath. 'What is it you have to say?'
'I went to see Miss Nancarrow. I had no thought of repeating the story to her--you must believe me or not, as you like, but I am telling you the truth. I wanted to see if she had heard anything from the Bowers, and I wanted to try and find out, if I could, whether Thyrza had told her any secret. It wasn't out of a wish to pry into things I'd no concern with, but because I felt afraid for Thyrza, and because I wanted to be sure that there was sufficient reason for it before I came to you to put you on your guard. I said to Totty: 'Have you any reason to think that Thyrza cares for somebody else more than for Grail?' She got angry at once. and said she knew all about it, that she'd no patience with Thyrza, and that she wasn't going to have anything more to do with the affair. I've told you plainly, Lydia, told you everything. I hope I've done it for the best.'
She stood as if she heard nothing. Her arms hung down; her eyes were fixed on the ground. She was thinking that now she understood Thyrza's urgency in wishing to see Totty. Now she understood everything.
She moved, as if to go away. Ackroyd could find no word. All he had to say was so much sheer cruelty, and to attempt comfort would be insult. But Lydia faced him again.
'And you think the worst of my sister?'
Again her look was defiant. She had no enemy in the world like the man who could accuse Thyrza of guilt. It was one thing to point out that Thyrza was in danger of being columniated, another to believe that the evil judgment was merited.
'I don't think the worst of her, Lydia,' he replied, firmly. 'I think it likely that she has been doing something very thoughtless, and I am quite sure that that man Egremont has been doing something for which he deserves to be thrashed. But no more than that. More than that I won't believe!'
'Thank you, Mr. Ackroyd! A minute ago I hated you, now I know that I have always been right in thinking you had a good heart. Thyrza may have been foolish in keeping things from me, but she's no more to blame than that. You can believe me. I would say it, if it was my life or death!'
He took her hand and pressed it.
'And you think Mr. Bower is telling everyone?' she asked, her voice wonderfully changed, for all at once she became a woman, and felt her need of a strong man's aid.
'I'm afraid so. When he'd done his tale to me last night, I told him that if he hadn't been a man so much older than myself I'd have struck him in face of all in the club. I'd perhaps better not have angered him, but it wouldn't make much difference. He's got ill feeling against Egremont, I believe.'
Lydia's eyes flashed when she heard of that speech to Bower.
'And you think he's doing this more to harm Mr. Egremont than Thyrza?'
'I do. He's a gossiping fool, but I don't believe he'd plot to ruin a girl in this way. Still, I'm quite sure the story 'll have got about, and it comes to the same thing.'
Both stood in thought. Lydia felt as if all the bright future were blasted before her eyes. Thyrza loved Egremont. Egremont was the falsest of friends to Gilbert, the most treacherous of men. Her darling had been artfully drawn by him into this secret intercourse; and how was it all to end?
'I must go home to Thyrza, Mr. Ackroyd. I don't know what to do, but it will come to me when I see my sister.'
She reflected a moment, then added:
'She went to see Totty Nancarrow, at the same time when I came out. Perhaps she'll be there still. If I don't find her at home, I must go to the other house. Good-bye!'
'I do wish I could be some help to you, Lydia!' he said, holding her hand and looking very kindly at her.
'You can't. Nobody can help. Whatever happens Thyrza and me will be together, and I shall keep her from harm. But you've been a good friend to me to-night, Mr. Ackroyd. I can't do more than say I'm grateful to you. I shall be that, as long as I live.'
'Lydia--I don't want to pry into anything between you and your sister, but if I can do anything to be of use to her--or to you-- you'll tell me? You could easily send a message to me.'
'Thank you. I will ask you if there is anything. Let me go home alone, Mr. Ackroyd.'
She came to the house, and saw that there was no light in the window of their room. Still, Thyrza might be sitting there. She ran upstairs. The room was vacant.
Then she hurried to Newport Street. Mrs. Ladds told her that Totty had not come in yet, and that Thyrza had been and was gone away again. She turned on her steps slowly, and after a short uncertainty went home again, in the hope that Thyrza might have returned. As she entered, Gilbert met her in the passage.
'Is Thyrza come back?' she asked.
'No, she isn't in the house. Where did she go to?'
'She went just to see Totty Nancarrow.' Nothing was to be gained by concealing this now. 'I've been there, but she's gone away. I dare say she'll be back in a few minutes.'
Lydia went upstairs, not feeling able to talk. Gilbert, who since Monday had fallen into ever deeper trouble, left the house and walked towards Newport Street, hoping to find Thyrza. It was thus that he came to be met by Egremont. He was back in half an hour. Lydia came down when she heard him enter.
'Lydia,' he said, gravely, 'you shouldn't have allowed her to go out. She isn't in a fit state to leave the house.'
'It was wrong, I know,' she said, standing just inside the door of the parlour.
Gilbert mentioned that he had seen Egremont. Before she could check herself, Lydia exclaimed:
He looked at her in surprise. She turned very pale. Mrs. Grail was also gazing at her.
'It was at the end of Newport Street,' Gilbert replied. 'Why are you so anxious to know where?'
'I'm sure I don't know. I'm worrying so about that child. I spoke without thinking at all.'
Half an hour more passed, then, as all sat silently together, they heard the front door opening. Lydia started up.
'Don't move, Gilbert! Let me go up with her. She'll be afraid of being scolded.'
She went out into the passage. The little lamp hung against the wall as usual, and when by its light she saw Thyrza, she was made motionless by alarm. Not only was the girl's face scarcely recognisable; her clothing was stained and in disorder.
'Thyrza!' she whispered. 'My darling, what has happened?'
The other, with a terrified look at the Grails' door, ran past and up the stairs, speaking no word. Her sister followed.
In the room, Thyrza did not sit down, though her whole body trembled. She took off her hat, and tried to undo her jacket.
'What is it?' Lydia asked, coming near to her. 'Where have you been? What's made you like this?'
She was almost as pale as her sister, and fear pressed on her throat. Knowing what she did, she imagined some dreadful catastrophe. Thyrza seemed unable to speak, and her eyes were so wild, so pain-stricken, that they looked like madness. She tried to smile, and at length said disconnectedly:
'It's nothing, Lyddy--only frightened--somebody--a drunken man-- frightened me, and I fell down. Nothing else!'
Lydia could make no reply. She did not believe the story. Silently she helped to remove the jacket, and led Thyrza to a chair. Then she drew the dear head to her and held it close against her breast.
'You are so cold, Thyrza! Where have you been? Tell me, tell Lyddy!'
'Totty wasn't at home. I walked a little way. Gilbert doesn't know? You haven't told him?'
'No, no, dear, it's all right. Come nearer to the fire: oh, how cold you are! Sit on my lap, dearest; rest your head against me. Why have you been crying, Thyrza?'
There was no answer. Held thus in her sister's arms, Thyrza abandoned herself, closed her eyes, let every limb hang as it would, tried to be as though she were dead. Lydia thought at first that she had lost consciousness, but her cry brought an answer. They sat thus for some minutes.
Then Thyrza whispered:
'I'm poorly, Lyddy. Let me go to bed.'
'You shall, dear. I'll sit by you. You'll let me stay by you?'
As her clothes were removed she shook feverishly.
'They won't come up?' she asked several times. 'Mrs. Grail won't come? Go and tell them I've got a headache, and that it'll be all right in the morning.'
'They won't come, dear. Get into bed, and I'll go and tell them directly.'
She could have wept for misery, but she must be strong for Thyrza's sake. Whatever hope remained depended now upon her own self-command and prudence. When Thyrza had lain down, Lydia succeeded in showing almost a cheerful face.
'I'll just go down and say you're poorly. You won't move till I come back?'
Thyrza shook her head.
Her sister was only away for a minute or two. She reentered the room panting with the speed she had made. And she sat down at the bedside.
There was no word for a long time. Thyrza's eyes were closed; her lips quivered every now and then with a faint sob. The golden braid, which Lydia had not troubled to undo, lay under her cheek.
Lydia held counsel with herself. Something had happened, something worse, she thought, than a mere fit of wretchedness in the suffering heart. There was no explaining the disordered state in which the girl had come back.
Gilbert said that he had met Mr. Egremont at the end of Newport Street. Was it conceivable that Thyrza had had an appointment with Egremont at Totty's house? No; that was not to be credited, for many reasons. Totty--by Luke's account--was angry with Thyrza, and refused to hear anything of what was going on. Yet it was very strange that he should be going to see Mr. Bunce just at the same time that Thyrza was there, and in Totty's absence too.
What to think of Mr. Egremont? There was the central question. She knew him scarcely at all; had only seen him on that one occasion when she opened the house-door to him, There was Gilbert's constant praise of him, but Lydia knew enough of the world to understand that Gilbert might very easily err in his judgment of a young man in Egremont's position. Ackroyd seemed to have no doubt at all; he had said at once that Egremont deserved to be thrashed. Clearly he believed the worst of Egremont, attributed to him a deliberate plot. If he was right, then what might not have befallen?
She had said to herself that she would not dishonour her sister by fearing more than a pardonable weakness. Now there was a black dread closing in upon her.
How to act with Thyrza? Must she reveal all that Ackroyd told her, and so compel a confession?
Not that, if it could possibly be avoided. It would drive Thyrza to despair. No; it must be kept from her that prying eyes had watched her going and coming. Already it might be too late; the marriage with Gilbert might he impossible, if only because Thyrza would inevitably betray her love for Egremont; but there was all the future to think of, and Thyrza must not be driven to some irreparable folly.
There was one hypothesis which Lydia quite left aside. She did not ask herself whether Egremont might not truly and honestly love her sister. It was natural enough that she should not think of it. Every tradition weighed in favour of rascality on the young man's part, and Lydia's education did not suffice to raise her above the common point of view in such a matter. A gentleman did not fall in love with a work-girl, not in the honest sense. Lydia had the prejudices of her class, and her judgment went full against Egremont from the outset. He had encouraged secret meetings, the kind of thing to be expected. He must have known perfectly what a blow he was preparing for Gilbert, if the fact of these meetings should be discovered. What did he care for that? His selfishness was proof against every scruple, no doubt.
She could not argue as an educated person might have done. Egremont's zeal in his various undertakings made no plea for his character, in her mind. To be sure, a more subtle reasoner might have given it as little weight, but that would have been the result of conscious wisdom. Lydia could only argue from her predisposition regarding the class of 'gentlemen.' We know how she had shrunk from meeting Egremont. Guided by Gilbert and Thyrza, she had taught herself to think well of him, but, given the least grounds of suspicion, class-instinct was urgent to condemn.
Only one way recommended itself to her, and that the way of love. She must lead Thyrza to confide in her, must get at the secret by constraint of tenderness. She might seem to suspect, but the grounds of her suspicion must be hidden.
Having resolved this, she leaned nearer and spoke gentle words such as might soothe. Thyrza made no response, save that she raised her lids and looked wofully.
'Dear one, what is it you're keeping from me?' Lydia pleaded. 'Is it kind, Thyrza, is it kind to me? It isn't enough to tell me you're poorly; there's more than that. Do you think I can look at you and not see that you have a secret from me?'
Thyrza had closed her eyes again, and was mute.
'Dear, how can you be afraid of me, your old Lyddy? When there's anything you're glad of, you tell me; oughtn't I to know far more when you're in trouble? Speak to me, dear sister! I'll put my head near yours; whisper it to me! How can I go on in this way? Every day I see you getting worse. I'm miserable when I'm away at work; I haven't a minute's peace. Be kind to me, and say what has happened.'
There was silence.
'Do you think there's anything in me but love for you, my dearest, my Thyrza? Do you think I could say a cruel word, tell me whatever you might? Do you think I shan't love you only the better, the more unhappy you are? Perhaps I half know what it is, perhaps--'
Thyrza started and gazed with the same wildness as when she first came in.
'You know? What do you know? Tell me at once, Lyddy!'
'I don't really know anything, love--it's only that I can't help thinking--I've noticed things.'
Thyrza raised herself upon one arm. She was terror-stricken.
'What have you noticed? Tell me at once! You've no right to say things of that kind! Can't I be poorly without you talking as if I'd done something wrong? What have I done? Nothing, nothing! Leave me alone, Lyddy! Go downstairs, and leave me to myself!'
'But you don't understand me,' pleaded the other. 'I don't think you've done anything, but I know you're in trouble--how can I help knowing it?'
'But you said you've noticed things. What do you mean by that? You'd no right to say it if you don't mean anything! You're trying to frighten me! I can't bear you sitting there! I want to be alone! If you must stay in the room, go away and sit by the fire. Haven't you no sewing to do? You've always got plenty at other times. Oh, you make me feel as if I should go mad!'
Lydia withdrew from the bedside. She sat down in a corner of the room and covered her face with her hands.
Thyrza fell back exhausted. She had wrought herself almost to hysteria, and, though she could not shed tears, the dry sobs seemed as if they would rend her bosom.
Minutes passed. She turned and looked at her sister. Lydia was bent forward, propping her forehead.
'Lyddy, I want you.'
Lydia came forward. She had been crying. She fell on her knees by the bed.
'Lyddy, what did you mean? It's no good denying it, you meant something. You said you'd noticed things You've no right to say that and say no more.
'You won't tell me what your secret is without me saying what I've thought?'
'I've got no secret! I don't know what you mean by secret!'
'Thyrza--have you--have you seen Mr. Egremont tonight?'
They looked at each other. Thyrza's lips were just parted; she drew herself back, as if to escape scrutiny. The arm with which she supported herself trembled violently.
'Why do you ask that?' she said, faintly.
'That's what I meant, Thyrza,' the other whispered, with a face of fear.
'Have I seen Mr. Egremont? I don't know what you're thinking of? Why should I see Mr. Egremont? What have I to do with him?'
Lydia put her hand forward and touched her sister.
'Thyrza!' she cried, passionately. 'Tell me! Tell me everything! I can't bear it! If you have ever so little love for me in your heart --tell me!'
Thyrza could no longer keep her raised position. She fell back. Then with one hand she caught the railing at the head of the bed and held it convulsively, whilst she buried her face in the pillow.
Lydia bent over her, and said in low, quick tones:
'I think no harm of you! Perhaps you've got to like him too much, and he's persuaded you to go to meet him. It's only what I've thought to myself. Tell me, and let me be a sister to you; let me help you! No one else shall hear a word of it, Thyrza. Only Lyddy! We'll talk about it, and see what can be done. You shall tell me how it began--tell me all there is in your heart, poor child. It'll comfort you to speak of it. The secret is killing you, my darling. There's no harm--none--none! You couldn't help it. Only let us both know, and talk to each other about it, like sisters!'
Thyrza's grasp of the iron loosened, and her hand fell. She turned her face to the light again.
'Lyddy, how do you know this?'
'I thought it. You've been out every morning. You spoke of him in a way--'
'Has any one said anything to you? Has Gilbert?'
'No, no! Gilbert hasn't such a thought. It's all myself. Oh, what has he been saying to you, Thyrza?'
A change was coming about in the sufferer. What had at the first suggestion been a terror now grew upon her as an assuagement of pain. She clung to her sister's hand.
'I don't know how it began,' she whispered. 'It seems so sudden; but I think it's been coming for a long time. Ever since I saw him that day at the library--the first time I ever saw him. Ever since, there hasn't been a day I haven't thought of him. I never saw any one else that made me think like that. Day and night, Lyddy! But it didn't trouble me at first. It was only after I came back from Eastbourne. I seemed to think of everything in a different way after that. I dreamt of him every night, and I did so want to see him. I don't know why. Then I saw him at last--on Monday--at the library.'
'You hadn't met him--alone--before then?'
'No, never since that first time.'
'But why did you go there on Monday?'
'Oh, I can't--can't think! Something seemed to tell me to go there. I found there was some books come, and he was putting them on the shelves. He said he didn't want Gilbert to know--just for fun--and I promised not to say anything.'
'You mean last Monday? This week?'
'Yes. Not before then. And it seems--oh, it seems a month ago, Lyddy!'
She lay back, pressing Lydia's hand against her heart.
'But did he ask you to go again, dear?'
'No, he didn't. It was all myself. Lyddy, I couldn't keep away. I couldn't. Will you believe I'm telling the truth? I tried--I did try so hard! I knew I oughtn't to go, because I wanted to so much. I knew it was wrong. I don't think I should have gone if Mrs. Grail hadn't forced me to go out for a walk, because she said it would take my headache away. I was holding myself back all the morning. And when I got out--I couldn't help it--I was drawn there! And then I asked him if I might come again to-day. He said I might, but I could see he thought it was wrong of me. And, Lyddy, he never came. I stayed there waiting. Oh, do you know what I suffered? I can't tell you!'
'My dearest, I know, I feel with you! But it will be better now you've told me. And to-night? Didn't you see him to-night?'
'How do you know? Who told you?' she asked, nervously.
'No one, dear. I only think it. The way you came in--'
Thyrza suddenly bent forward, listening.
'Can any one hear us?' she whispered. 'Go and see any one's outside.'
'There's no one, dear.'
'Go and look. I'm afraid.'
Lydia went and opened the door. She closed it again, and came back shaking her head.
'I didn't think I should see him,' Thyrza continued. 'I was waiting in Totty's room, and he came to see Mr. Bunce. I heard his voice. When he went away, I followed him. I couldn't help myself. I would have given my life for a word from him. I wanted to know why he hadn't come this morning. I followed him, and walked with him over the bridge. Then he told me he was going away, somewhere out of England, and I shouldn't see him again till after--after I was married.'
She choked. Lydia soothed her again, and she continued, with growing agitation:
'Then he said good-bye--he went away very quickly, after just saying he hoped I should be happy. Happy! How can I be happy? And when he was gone, I went somewhere and fell down and cried-- somewhere where nobody could see me. He's gone, Lyddy! How am I to live without him?'
They held each other. Thyrza sobbed out her anguish until strength failed, then lay in her sister's arms, pale as a corpse.
When there had been utter silence for a while, Lydia asked:
'And he has never said anything to you that--that he oughtn't to have said!'
'Said? What did you think? You thought he--he loved me?'
'I didn't know, dearest.'
'Oh, if he did! He asked me not to call him 'sir,' and to be his friend--never more than that. You thought he loved me? How could he love a girl like me, Lyddy?'
Lydia had followed the unfolding of the tale with growing surprise. It was impossible to doubt Thyrza's truthfulness. Yet there must be more on Egremont's part than appeared. Why did he exact secrecy about those meetings in the library? There was little doubt that Thyrza had betrayed herself to him. True, he had refrained from keeping the appointment for this morning, and it seemed he was going away till after the marriage. But all this was too late.
Still he was innocent of the guilt she had suspected. Thyrza had not come to the dreaded harm. Though heartbroken, she was saved. Lydia felt almost joyous for an instant. Bower's gossip might yet be deprived of its sting, for Mr. Egremont would be gone, and--Monday was so near.
It was the reaction from her terror. She could think of nothing for the moment but that Thyrza must be preserved from future risk by marriage.
Thyrza was lying exhausted. Lydia, deep in thought, was surprised to see a faint smile on the beautiful pale face.
'You thought he loved me?' was whispered. 'Oh, if he did! If he did!'
Lydia was still kneeling. New fears were making themselves heard. Was it possible for Thyrza to marry Gilbert under such circumstances, and within five days? What if Gilbert heard Bower's story? Nay, in any case, what of the future? Egremont would be constantly at the library.
'Thyrza, do you never think of Gilbert?'
Thyrza raised herself, again the look of wild dread in her eyes.
'Lyddy, I can't marry him! You know now that I can't, don't you? It would be wrong. I shall love him as long as ever I live--love him and think of him every minute. I can't marry Gilbert.'
There was silence. Lydia looked up with tearful, appealing eyes.
My dearest, think--think what that means? How can you break your word to him--now, when the day's almost here? Think what it'll mean to him. You'll have to tell him the reason, and then--'
'I'll tell him everything. I'll bear it. Can I help it, Lyddy? Am I happy?'
'But you haven't thought, Thyrza. It means that Gilbert will have to go on with his work at the factory.'
'Why? His mother will go and live with him at the library.'
Her voice sank. She began to understand.
'Do you suppose he can take that place from Mr. Egremont after he knows this, Thyrza?'
Thyrza was mute for a little. Then she said, under her breath:
'He needn't know the reason. He must think it's something else.'
'That's impossible. What a cruel thing it'll be to him! You know how he's looked forward. And then he loves you; he loves you more than you think. It will be dreadful! Thyrza, I don't think you'll make poor Gilbert suffer in that way. You couldn't do that, dear! You know what love means; have some pity for him!'
'I cant! He shan't know the reason; he shall go to the library just the same. We'll say it's only put off. I can't marry him on Monday! I'd sooner kill myself!'
There was a ring of terrible earnestness in the words. Lydia was afraid to plead any more at present. She affected to admit that there was no help. Yes, the marriage should be postponed; perhaps that would be a way.
The hour was late. After her sister's acquiescence Thyrza had fallen into brooding. She moved constantly. There was fire in her cheeks.
Only a few words were exchanged whilst Lydia undressed and lay down by her sister. Sleep was impossible to either of them. Yet Thyrza had not closed her eyes the night before. She was very feverish, could not lie in one position for more than a few minutes. When neither had spoken for nearly an hour, she said of a sudden:
'Lyddy, I want you to promise me that you'll never tell Gilbert nor Mrs. Grail one word of this. I want you to promise.'
'I promise you, dear. How could I think of doing so without your leave?'
There was a pause, then Thyrza resumed:
'I think you'll do as you say. Kiss me, and promise again.'
'I will keep your secret, dearest. I promise you.'
The other sighed deeply, and after that lay still.