Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XXVIII. Hope Surprised
Mrs. Tyrrell and Annabel were lunching with friends somewhere: Mr. Newthorpe had just taken a solitary meal in the room which he used for a study. Thither Mrs. Ormonde was conducted.
She noticed that he looked by no means so well as he had done before leaving Eastbourne. His greeting was nervous. He would not sit down, preferring to move restlessly from one position to another.
'I was about to write to you,' he said. 'What news do you bring?'
'I have come to you for news.'
'But you have seen Egremont?'
'Neither seen nor heard from him.'
'Then I suppose that settles the matter. I went to his place once, but could hear nothing of him, and since then I have just waited till the muddy water should strain itself clear again.'
'But I am in ignorance yet of the state of things in Lambeth,' said Mrs. Ormonde. 'Do you know anything about the library?'
'Dalmaine keeps our world supplied with the latest information,' Mr. Newthorpe replied, with cold sarcasm. 'The library scheme, I suppose, is at an end. The man Grail, we are told, pursues his old occupation.'
Mrs. Ormonde kept silence. The other continued, assuming a tone of cheerful impartiality:
'Really it is very instructive, an affair of this kind. One knows very well, theoretically, how average humanity fears and hates a nature superior to itself; but one has not often an opportunity of seeing it so well illustrated in practice. Tyrrell's attitude has especially amused me; his lungs begin to crow like chanticleer as often as the story comes up for discussion. He has a good deal of personal liking for Egremont, but to see 'the idealist' in the mud he finds altogether too delicious. His wife feels exactly in the same way, though she expresses her feeling differently. And Dalmaine --if I were an able-bodied man I rather think I should have kicked Dalmaine downstairs before this. 'Lo you, what comes of lofty priggishness!'--that is his text, and he enlarges on it in a manner worthy of himself. And the amazing thing is that it never occurs to these people to explain what has happened on any but the least charitable hypothesis.'
'What of Annabel?' Mrs. Ormonde asked.
'She seems to have no interest in the matter. So far so good, perhaps.' He added, with a smile, 'She is revenging herself for her years of retirement.'
'I supposed so. And really seems to be enjoying herself?'
'Astonishingly. I don't see much of her. She came in the other night to tell me that a Captain Somebody had proposed to her after six minutes of acquaintance, and laughed more gaily over it than I ever saw her. It's part of her education, of course; probably it was wise to postpone it no longer. I wait with curiosity to hear her opinion of this world at the end of July.'
Mrs. Ormonde mused. Mr. Newthorpe walked about a little, then asked:
'What do you prophesy of their future?
'Of whose future?'
'Egremont's and his wife.'
'You are premature. He is not married.'
'Oh, then you are not altogether without news?'
'I shall take you into my confidence. I find the responsibility a little too burdensome. The fact is, this girl, Thyrza Trent, is at present in my care.'
She gave a succinct account of the recent events, and explained them as far as her information allowed. The all-important point still remained obscure, but she showed her reasons for believing that something had passed between Egremont and Thyrza which could lead to but one result if they met again, now that the old objections were at an end.
'My desire is,' she pursued, 'to prevent that meeting. I have racked my brains over the matter, with no better result than Mrs. Grundy would at once have arrived at by noble intuition. It would he a grave mistake for Walter to marry this girl.'
'On general grounds, or from your special knowledge of her character?'
'Both. A third reason is--that I have long ago made up my mind whom he is to marry.'
'Yes,' said Mr. Newthorpe, gravely, the worry he no longer cared to conceal making him look old and feeble, 'yes, but that project has hardly become more hopeful during the last few weeks.'
'We have to think of a lifetime. I have by no means lost hope. I fear the atmosphere in which you are living has some effect upon you. The case stands thus: Walter has done nothing in the least dishonourable, but he has been carried away, as any imaginative young fellow would probably have been under the circumstances. The girl is very beautiful, wonderfully sweet and lovable; if a man ruined himself to obtain her I dare say it would be a long time before he repented.'
'At least six months.'
'No, I can't joke about Thyrza. I love her myself, and if I can by any means guide her life into a smooth channel it will make me very happy. But she must not marry Walter; that would assuredly not be for her happiness. The prospect before her was ideal, too good, of course, to be realised. We must devise some other future for her.'
'You think of taking her definitively from her former sphere?'
'There is no choice. She can't go and work for her living in the old way; I foresee too well what the end of that would be. She must either be raised or fall into the black gulfs--so beautifully is our society constructed. For the present she has to recover her health; the doctor tells me her constitution is very delicate. She must come to the sea-side as soon as she is well enough. I mustn't have her in my house, because Walter may come any day; but it will have to be Eastbourne, I fancy, as I don't know how to make plans for her elsewhere. And in the meantime we must think.'
'A question occurs to me. Is it quite certain that she won't of her own motion communicate with Egremont?'
'It is a question, of course. But I can't do more than take all reasonable precautions. I have a hope, though, that before long she will confide in me completely. The poor child knows nothing of this scandal; she even believes that Mr. Grail will take the librarianship as if nothing had happened. I can't with certainty foresee what effect it will have upon her when she hears the truth. Of course she must see her sister before very long. In the meantime, I have to tell her that things are going on quite smoothly; it is the only way to keep her calm.'
'What of the sister? Is she a person to be trusted?'
'I don't know her; but from the way in which Thyrza always speaks of her, I should think she is very trustworthy. She is some years older.'
After some further conversation, Mr. Newthorpe asked:
'What is Egremont doing, then, do you suppose?'
'I can form no idea.'
'Won't you write to him?'
'I think not. The poor fellow is, no doubt, going through his 'everlasting Nay,' as he used to say a few years ago; I fear it has come in earnest this time. He will come to me when I can really be of use to him. If I see him just now I shall have to act too much-- I am bad at that.'
'Had I better try to find him?'
'Write, if you like, and see what answer you get.'
'A gloomy business for that poor fellow in Lambeth.'
'Yes, it's hard that one can give so little thought to him. If I speak the very truth, I still have a secret hope that she may marry him. But all in good time. What a blessed thing Time is! It makes everything easy.'
'It does. Most of all, when it destroys itself.'
He said it with a sad smile. Mrs. Ormonde turned again to the subject of Annabel. They decided that it was better to say nothing to her as yet.
In a fortnight Thyrza went to Eastbourne. She had written a letter to Lydia a few days after her establishment with Mrs. Emerson--a letter without any address at the head of it. Mrs. Emerson posted it in a remote district, that the office stamp might give no clue. Mrs. Ormonde provided her with lodgings at the side of Eastbourne farthest from The Chestnuts, in the house of a decent woman who did sewing for the Home. That her days might not become wearisome for lack of occupation, it was arranged that Thyrza should give her landlady occasional help with the needle.
Her main task, however, was to recover health and strength. The sea air helped her a little, but the heaviness of her heart kept her frame languid. At first she could walk only the shortest distances; as soon as she reached the sands, she would sit down wearily and fix her eyes seawards, gazing with what other thoughts than when that horizon met her vision for the first time! She had great need of uttering all her sorrow, but could not do so to Mrs. Ormonde; it seemed to her that it would be an unpardonable presumption to speak of Mr. Egremont as she thought of him, and perhaps she could not have brought herself to tell such a secret, whoever had been involved in it, to one who, kind as she was, remained in many senses a stranger. To Lyddy, and to her alone, she could have poured out all her heart. The longing for her sister was now ceaseless. She grieved that she had left London without seeing her. In the night she sometimes cried for hours because Lyddy was so far from her.
Mrs. Ormonde came to see her every other day. Though nothing had been said on the point, Thyrza understood that, for some reason, she was not expected to go to The Chestnuts. And, indeed, it was too far for her to walk in her present weak state.
But one evening she was drawn in that direction. Her landlady had gone to Hastings, and would be absent till the next day. It was not the day for Mrs. Ormonde's visit, and rain since morning had made it impossible to leave the house; the hours had dragged wearily. After tea the clouds broke, and soon there were warm rays from the westering sun. Thyrza was glad to leave her room. She walked into the main street of the town, for her solitude was become a pain, and she felt a desire to be among people, even though she could speak to no one. She came to the tree-shadowed road which, as she well remembered, led to Mrs. Ormonde's house. It tempted her on: she would like to look at the house. A friend lived there, and her heart ached to be near someone who cared for her. The prime need of her life was love, and love alone could restore her strength and give her courage to live.
It was nearer than she thought. Though troubled by the consciousness that she ought not to have come so far in this direction, and that perhaps her strength would be overtaxed before she could reach home again, she went still on and on, until, reaching the point where another road joined that by which she had come, she found The Chestnuts just before her. Beyond the house, the hill rose darkly and hid the setting sun. As she stood, a man issued from the adjoining road and walked straight towards the entrance of the garden. Her eyes followed him, and, though for a moment she did not believe their evidence, they told her that Egremont had passed so near to her that a whisper would have drawn his attention.
She was in the shade of thick trees; perhaps that circumstance, and the dark colour of her dress, accounted for his not observing her. He was walking quickly, too, and was looking fixedly at the house.
She followed. Had her voice been at her command, in that instant of recognition she would have called to him. But all her powers seemed to desert her, and she was rather borne onwards than advanced by any effort of her own.
He had passed through the gate when she reached the end of the garden wall. Losing him from sight, she understood what she was doing, and stayed her steps. A sense of having escaped a great danger made her tremble so that she feared she must fall to the ground if she could not find some place in which to rest. A few steps brought her into a piece of common ground, which lay in the rear of the garden, and here, at the foot of the wall, were some pieces of timber, the severed limbs of a tree that had fallen in the past winter. Here she could sit, leaning against the brickwork and letting her heart throb itself into quietness.
The wall was a low one, and above it in this place rose a screen of trellis, overgrown with creepers, making the rear of a spacious summer-house, which Mrs. Ormonde had had constructed for the use of children who had to be sheltered from too much either of sun or breeze when they were brought out of doors. Thyrza had not been resting for more than a minute or two, when a voice spoke from the other side of the wall, so plainly that she started, thinking she was observed and addressed. The voice was Mrs. Ormonde's.
'So at last,' she said, 'you have come.'
There was a brief silence, then the tones for which she waited once more fell upon her ear.
'You are alone to-night?' asked Egremont.
'Quite. I have been reading and thinking. Shall we go into the house?'
'If you will let me, I had rather sit with you here.'
Again there was silence. When Mrs. Ormonde spoke, it was in a lower voice, and such as one uses in reply to a look of affection.
'Why have you kept me in anxiety about you for so long, Walter?'
'I have had no mind to speak to any one, not even to you. I had nothing to tell you that would please you to hear. Often I have resolved to leave England for good, and give no account of myself to any one. It seemed unkind of you not to write. I waited till I knew you must have heard all that people had to say of me, and then every day I expected your letter. You could only be silent for one reason.'
'Why, then, have you come now?'
'Because I am ill and can be alone no longer.'
Thyrza scarcely breathed. It was as though all her senses had merged in one--that of hearing. Her eyes beheld nothing, and she was conscious of no more bodily pain. She listened for the very breathing of the two, who were so close to her that she might almost have touched them.
'How do you know that people are occupying themselves with your concerns at all?'
'From Jersey I went to France. When I reached London again, knowing nothing of what had happened whilst I was away, I met Dalmaine and his wife at Charing Cross station. They turned away, and refused to speak to me. When I got home, I found what it meant. Grail told me plainly what the general opinion was.'
'You saw Grail?'
'Of course. You think, naturally, that I should have hidden my face from him.'
'Don't be so harsh with me. You forget that I have still to learn everything.'
'Yes, I will tell you; I will explain; I will defend myself. I want your sympathy, and I will do my best to prove that I am not contemptible.'
'Hush! Be quiet for a moment. I have not written to you because I thought it needless to make conjectures, and ask questions, and give assurances, when you were sure, sooner or later, to come and tell me the whole story. I won't pretend that I have not had my moments of uneasiness. For instance, I wrote to you to Jersey, and the letter was returned to me; that came disagreeably, in connection with news I just then had from London; it was only human to suppose that for some reason you had talked of going to Jersey, and then had not gone there at all.'
'Grail followed me there, and, failing to find me, of course had the same thought.'
'And yet, you know, I could think more calmly than was possible for him. Now tell me all that you wish. What had happened, that this suspicion fell upon you?'
Thyrza heard a complete and truthful account of all that had passed between herself and Egremont, from the first meeting in the library to their parting near Lambeth Bridge.
Then Mrs. Ormonde asked:
'And where is she?'
'If only I knew: She has written to her sister, but without saying where she is, only that she has been ill, and is safe with people who are kind to her.'
'And what is your explanation of her disappearance?'
'I believe she could not marry Grail, loving another man.'
The silence that followed seemed very long to the listener. She dreaded lest they should end their conversation here. In that story of those meetings and partings, as told by Egremont, there had now and then been a word, a tone, that seemed to bear meaning yet incredible to her. By degrees she was realising all that her flight had entailed upon those she left, things undreamt of hitherto. But the last word of explanation was still to come. She did not dare to anticipate it, yet her life seemed to depend upon his saying something more.
'Have you made efforts to find her?' Mrs. Ormonde at length asked.
'Every possible effort.'
'With what purpose?'
'Need I tell you?
'You think it is your duty to offer her reparation for what she has suffered, because you were unwillingly the cause of it?'
'Yes, if that is the same thing as saying that I love her, and that I wish to make her my wife.'
'In a sense I suppose it is the same thing. You have been compelled to think so much of her, that pity and a desire to do your best for an unhappy girl have come to seem love. Remember that, by your own admission, you are ill; you cannot judge soundly of anything, even of your own feelings. You have done a good deal of harm, Walter, though unintentionally; do you wish to do yet more?'
'By binding yourself for life to a poor girl who can never by any possibility be a fit companion for you. I have seen such marriages; I have seen the beginning of them and the end. You, least of all men, should fall into such an error. Oh yes, I know; you are not brutal; you would never as much as speak an unkind word. No, but you would do what in this case would be worse. Brutally treated, Thyrza would die and be out of her misery; with you, she would drag through years of increasing wretchedness. Your thwarted life would be her long torture. Remember how often I have told you that you have much that is feminine in your character. You have little real energy; you are passive in great trials; it is easier to you to suffer than to act. Your idealism is often noble, but never heroic. You have talked to me of your natural nearness to people of the working class, and I firmly believe that you are further from them--for any such purpose as this in question--than many a man who counts kindred among the peerage. You have a great deal of spiritual pride, and it will increase as your mind matures. You think you are mature; tell me in ten years (if I am alive, old woman that I am!) how you look back on your present self. Walter Egremont, if ever you ask Thyrza to marry you, you will be acting with cruel selfishness--yes, selfishness, for all that you would pay bitterly for it in the end. You will be acting in a way utterly unworthy of a man who has studied and reflected.'
Thyrza heard Egremont laugh.
'To hear all this from you,' he said, 'surprises me very much.'
'You credit me with so little power of mind?'
'I thought you were the last to talk the common talk of the world that has outlived its generous instincts.'
'Pray believe that there is such a thing as outliving youthful passion, and yet retaining all the generous feeling that you speak of. I am not an ignoble schemer, and you know that I am not. Think over my arguments before you scorn me.'
'You think me so boyish and weak-minded that I cannot distinguish between pure love and base? One thing I left out of my narrative just now. I ought to have said that I was not wholly without blame in that intercourse. I strove with myself to seem nothing more than friendly to her, and yet I know that at times I spoke as no mere friend would have done, and simply because I could not help it. I loved Thyrza even then with more intensity of pure feeling than I had ever before known, and now I love her with a love which lasts a lifetime. You have no right to pronounce so confidently upon her fitness or unfitness to mate with me; your knowledge of her is very slight. I know her as a woman can only be known by the man who loves her. You cannot judge for me in this case; no one could judge for me. I shall act on my conviction; it is poor waste of life to do otherwise.'
A pause, whereof the seconds were to one ear beaten out in heart-throbs. Then Mrs. Ormonde said, very quietly:
'You have told Mr. Grail of this intention?'
'It has never occurred to you that the great wrongs this man has suffered might yet be repaired, perchance, if you were willing to let them be?'
'I have suffered on his account more than I can say. But it is certain that he and Thyrza would never marry after this.'
'I see no such certainty.'
'Then it merely comes to this, that he and I love the same woman, and must abide by her decision.'
'Gone. I can give no thought to it, for I am suffering a greater lose. Be human! Be honest! Would you not despise me if, loving her as I do, I came to you and puled about the overthrow of my schemes for founding a public library? Let it go! Let the people rust and rot in ignorance! I am a man of flesh and blood, and the one woman that the world contains is lost to me!'
Mrs. Ormonde seemed to think long over this passionate outcry. Egremont broke the silence.
'Once more, be human! She writes to her sister that she has been ill, but is now taken care of by friends. What friends? You are not ignorant of the world. How small a chance it is that she has fallen among people who will protect her! A girl with her beauty, and so simple, so trustful--friends, indeed! I am all but frenzied to think of the dangers that may surround her. She is more to me than my life's blood, and perhaps even now she is in terrible need of some honest man to protect her. And you can talk coldly about prudence, about what we shall think and say years hence! Well, I can talk no more. To-morrow morning I shall go back to London and go on searching for her, walking about the streets day and night, wearing my life away in longing for her. I have done with the past, and all those I used to call my friends. There is no room in my thought for anything but her memory and the desire to find her. Let us say good-bye, Mrs. Ormonde. If I am wrong and selfish as you say, then it is beyond my power to conquer the faults.'
The listener heard a deep sigh. Then:
'Walter, sit down; you are not going from me like that.'
'I can't stay; I can't talk as you wish to! I am so utterably miserable, and I came to you because I had always known you gentle and sympathetic.'
'I would never be anything else with you. But listen--have you entirely forgotten Annabel?'
'She is as little to me as if I had never seen her. You cannot say that I have any obligation to her. I asked her to be my wife, and she refused me; that was the end. There indeed, if you like, I was misled. I admired and respected her, and made myself believe that it was love. Again and again I doubted myself, even then. Since I first knew that I loved Thyrza, I have never doubted one moment. You, for all your subtle analysis of my character, do not know me. You think I must have a woman of fine intellect for my companion. You are wrong. What I need, I have seen in one face, and one only.'
Mrs. Ormonde spoke in a changed voice.
'On one point I can set your mind at rest, and I will, for I cannot bear to see you suffering. It is true that Thyrza is with friends. I know the people with whom she is living.'
'You know them? You know where Thyrza is?'
'I found her where she lay ill; the chance of her having my address in her possession led the people of the house to send for me. I took her away, and put her in good care.'
'And you could keep this from me?'
'You see why I did. Can I trust you not to abuse my kindness?'
'That it will be wholly dishonourable if you make any attempt to discover her after this. Do so, and we are friends no longer.'
'How can you exact any such promise as that?'
'Because I am within my right in exacting it. I make a bargain with you, Walter. For two years from now Thyrza remains under my guardianship. At the end of that time, you are at liberty to see her. I give you my word that neither directly nor indirectly will I seek to influence her affections as regards either you or Grail; I shall never speak to her on such subjects, nor will any one with whom I have authority. Is it agreed?'
Poor heart, again beating out the seconds!
'Will Grail know where she is living?'
'He will not. She must see her sister from time to time, but it shall be away from her ordinary dwelling, and Thyrza will understand the conditions. I shall offer her no explanation; it shall merely be my desire, and if she prove untrustworthy in this small matter, I think you will admit that no harm has been done--you and I will only have a new light on her character. It is very simple, provided that we two can trust each other, and that Thyrza is what you think her. I need not say, by-the-by, that she will not be living here; you can freely come to me as often as you please.'
Would he never reply?
'For two years? That is a long time.'
'Not at all, the circumstances considered. Are you afraid of submitting your love to the test?'
'You asked me to trust you implicitly. It is a great thing, you being my enemy to begin with.'
'Your enemy? Well, then, your enemy; and still I ask you to trust me. I have never yet betrayed man or woman, Walter.'
'Never; that I know well! Forgive me. On this day, this day of the month, two years hence, I may go to her?'
'On this day of the month, two years hence. Is it a bargain?'
'I agree. Thyrza could not be in safer keeping.'
He went on:
'What a load you have lifted from me! If that suspense had continued much longer, I don't know how I should have borne it. And you were with her in her illness? Tell me about her. Was she gravely ill? Tell me where you found her.'
'No; it is needless. I am a bad one to hear love confidences; I get impatient, and am apt to be satirical. I shall never talk to you of Thyrza.'
'But if she falls ill again, I must know.'
'I hope for better things. Tell me just one thing, before we change the subject. What is your opinion of her sister? What do you really know of her?'
'I know nothing save what I have gathered from Thyrza's talk, and from Grail's. I never saw her. But there can be little doubt that she is of sterling character.'
'Well, let it be. Now come in with me. I suppose you have had no thought for such a foolish ceremony as dinner?'
Their voices passed into silence. By this time it was dark, and the tall chestnuts beyond the house rustled in a cool breeze from the sea. Thyrza did not move for several minutes; when at length she endeavoured to rise, her numbed limbs would scarcely sustain her. She looked up and saw the yellow crescent of a young moon sailing in a sky of delicate pearl hue.
One glance at the upper windows of the house, and then, with strength which seemed to pass into her limbs from the sharp air, she set out for the cottage which was her present home.