Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter III. A Corner of Lambeth
A working man, one Gilbert Grail, was spending an hour of his Saturday afternoon in Westminster Abbey. At five o'clock the sky still pulsed with heat; black shadows were sharp edged upon the yellow pavement. Between the bridges of Westminster and Lambeth the river was a colourless gleam; but in the Sanctuary evening had fallen. Above the cool twilight of the aisles floated a golden mist; and the echo of a footfall hushed itself among the tombs.
He was a man past youth, but of less than middle age, with meagre limbs and shoulders, a little bent. His clothing was rough but decent; his small and white hands gave evidence of occupation which was not rudely laborious. He had a large head, thickly covered with dark hair, which, with his moustache and beard, heightened the wanness of his complexion. A massive forehead, deep-set eyes, thin, straight nose, large lips constantly drawn inwards, made a physiognomy impressive rather than pleasing. The cast of thought was upon it; of thought eager and self-tormenting; the mark of a spirit ever straining after something unattainable. At moments when he found satisfaction in reading the legend on some monument his eyes grew placid and his beetling brows smoothed themselves; but the haunter within would not be forgotten, and, as if at a sudden recollection, he dropped his eyes in a troubled way, and moved onwards brooding. In those brief intervals of peace his countenance expressed an absorbing reverence, a profound humility. The same was evident in his bearing; he walked as softly as possible and avoided treading upon a sculptured name.
When he passed out into the sunny street, he stood for an instant with a hand veiling his eyes, as if the sudden light were too strong. Then he looked hither and thither with absent gaze, and at length bent his steps in the direction of Westminster Bridge. On the south side of the river he descended the stairs to the Albert Embankment and walked along by St. Thomas's Hospital.
Presently he overtook a man who was reading as he walked, a second book being held under his arm. It was a young workman of three- or four-and-twenty, tall, of wiry frame, square-shouldered, upright. Grail grasped his shoulder in a friendly way, asking:
'Well, it's tempted eighteenpence out of my pocket,' was the other's reply, as he gave the volume to be examined. 'I've wanted a book on electricity for some time.'
He spoke with a slight North of England accent. His name was Luke Ackroyd; he had come to London as a lad, and was now a work-fellow of Grail's. There was rough comeliness in his face and plenty of intelligence, something at the same time not quite satisfactory if one looked for strength of character; he smiled readily and had eyes which told of quick but unsteady thought; a mouth, too, which expressed a good deal of self-will and probably a strain of sensuality. His manner was hearty, his look frank to a fault and full of sensibility.
'I found it at the shop by Westminster Bridge,' he continued. 'You ought to go and have a look there to-night. I saw one or two things pretty cheap that I thought were in your way.'
'What's the other?' Grail inquired, returning the work on electricity, which he had glanced through without show of much interest.
'Oh, this belongs to Jo Bunce,' Ackroyd replied, laughing. 'He's just lent it me.'
It was a collection of antitheistic discourses; the titles, which were startling to the eye, sufficiently indicated the scope and quality of the matter. Grail found even less satisfaction in this than in the other volume.
'A man must have a good deal of time to spare,' he said, with a smile, 'if he spends it on stuff of that kind.'
'Oh, I don't know about that. You don't need it, but there's plenty of people that do.'
'And that's the kind of thing Bunce gives his children to read, eh?'
'Yes; he's bringing them up on it. He's made them learn a secularist's creed, and hears them say it every night.'
'Well, I'm old-fashioned in such matters,' said Grail, not caring to pursue the discussion. 'I'd a good deal rather hear children say the ordinary prayer.'
'Have you heard any talk,' he asked presently, 'about lectures by a Mr. Egremont? He's a son of Bower's old governor.'
'No, what lectures?'
'Bower tells me he's a young fellow just come from Oxford or Cambridge, and he's going to give some free lectures here in Lambeth.'
'No. Something to do with literature.'
Ackroyd broke into another laugh--louder this time, and contemptuous.
'Sops to the dog that's beginning to show his teeth!' he exclaimed. 'It shows you what's coming. The capitalists are beginning to look about and ask what they can do to keep the people quiet. Lectures on literature! Fools! As if that wasn't just the way to remind us of what we've missed in the way of education. It's the best joke you could hit on. Let him lecture away; he'll do more than he thinks.'
'Where does he give them?' Grail inquired.
'He hasn't begun yet. Bower seems to be going round to get men to hear him. Do you think you'd like to go?'
'It depends what sort of a man he is.'
'A conceited young fool, I expect.'
In such conversation they passed the Archbishop's Palace; then, from the foot of Lambeth Bridge, turned into a district of small houses and multifarious workshops. Presently they entered Paradise Street.
The name is less descriptive than it might be. Poor dwellings, mean and cheerless, are interspersed with factories and one or two small shops; a public-house is prominent, and a railway arch breaks the perspective of the thoroughfare midway. The street at that time--in the year '80--began by the side of a graveyard, no longer used, and associated in the minds of those who dwelt around it with numberless burials in a dire season of cholera. The space has since been converted into a flower-garden, open to the children of the neighbourhood, and in summer time the bright flower-beds enhance the ignoble baldness of the by-way.
When they had nearly reached the railway arch Ackroyd stopped.
'I'm just going in to Bower's shop,' he said; 'I've got a message for poor old Boddy.'
'You know of him from the Trent girls, don't you?'
'Yes, yes,' Grail answered, nodding. He seemed about to add something, but checked himself, and, with a 'good-bye,' went his way.
Ackroyd turned his steps to a little shop close by. It was of the kind known as the 'small general'; over the door stood the name of the proprietor--'Bower'--and on the woodwork along the top of the windows was painted in characters of faded red: 'The Little Shop with the Large Heart.' Little it certainly was, and large of heart if the term could be made to signify an abundant stock. The interior was so packed with an indescribable variety of merchandise that there was scarcely space for more than two customers between door and counter. From an inner room came the sound of a violin, playing a lively air.
When the young man stepped through the doorway he was at once encompassed with the strangest blend of odours; every article in the shop--groceries of all kinds, pastry, cooked meat, bloaters, newspapers, petty haberdashery, firewood, fruit, soap--seemed to exhale its essence distressfully under the heat; impossible that anything sold here should preserve its native savour. The air swarmed with flies, spite of the dread example of thousands that lay extinct on sheets of smeared newspaper. On the counter, among other things, was a perspiring yellow mass, retailed under the name of butter; its destiny hovered between avoirdupois and the measure of capacity. A literature of advertisements hung around; ginger-beer, blacking, blue, &c., with a certain 'Samaritan salve,' proclaimed themselves in many-coloured letters. One descried, too, a scrubby but significant little card, which bore the address of a loan office.
The music issued from the parlour behind the shop; it ceased as Ackroyd approached the counter, and at the sound of his footsteps appeared Mrs. Bower. She was a stout woman of middle age, red of face, much given to laughter, wholesomely vulgar. At four o'clock every afternoon she laid aside her sober garments of the working day and came forth in an evening costume which was the admiration and envy of Paradise Street. Popular from a certain wordy good-humour which she always had at command, she derived from this evening garb a social superiority which friends and neighbours, whether they would or no were constrained to recognise. She was deemed a well-to-do woman, and as such--Paradise Street held it axiomatic-- might reasonably adorn herself for the respect of those to whom she sold miscellaneous pennyworths. She did not depend upon the business. Her husband, as we already know, was a foreman at Egremont & Pollard's oilcloth manufactory; they were known to have money laid by. You saw in her face that life had been smooth with her from the beginning. She wore a purple dress with a yellow fichu, in which was fixed a large silver brooch; on her head was a small lace cap. Her hands were enormous, and very red. As she came into the shop, she mopped her forehead with a handkerchief; perspiration streamed from every pore.
'What a man you are for keepin' yourself cool, Mr. Hackroyd!' she exclaimed; 'it's like a breath o' fresh air to look at you, I'm sure. If this kind o' weather goes on there won't be much left o' me. I'm a-goin' like the butter.'
'It's warmish, that's true,' said Luke, when she had finished her laugh. 'I heard Mr. Boddy playing in there, and I've got a message for him.'
'Come in and sit down. He's just practisin' a new piece for his club to-night.'
Ackroyd advanced into the parlour. The table was spread for tea, and at the tray sat Mrs. Bower's daughter, Mary. She was a girl of nineteen, sparely made, and rather plain-featured, yet with a thoughtful, interesting face. Her smile was brief, and always passed into an expression of melancholy, which in its turn did not last long; for the most part she seemed occupied with thoughts which lay on the borderland between reflection and anxiety. Her dress was remarkably plain, contrasting with her mother's, and her hair was arranged in the simplest way.
In a round-backed chair at a distance from the table sat an old man with a wooden leg, a fiddle on his knee. His face was parchmenty, his cheeks sunken, his lips compressed into a long, straight line; his small grey eyes had an anxious look, yet were ever ready to twinkle into a smile. He wore a suit of black, preserved from sheer decay by a needle too evidently unskilled. Wrapped about a scarcely visible collar was a broad black neckcloth of the antique fashion; his one shoe was cobbled into shapelessness. Mr. Boddy's spirit had proved more durable than his garments. Often hard set to earn the few shillings a week that sufficed to him, he kept up a long-standing reputation for joviality, and, with the aid of his fiddle, made himself welcome at many a festive gathering in Lambeth.
'Give Mr. Hackroyd a cup o' tea, Mary,' said Mrs. Bower. 'How you pore men go about your work days like this is more than I can understand. I haven't life enough in me to drive away a fly as settles on my nose. It's all very well for you to laugh, Mr. Boddy. There's good in everything, if we only see it, and you may thank the trouble you've had as it's kep' your flesh down.'
Ackroyd addressed the old man.
'There's a friend of mine in Newport Street would be glad to have you do a little job for him, Mr. Boddy. Two or three chairs, I think.'
Mr. Boddy held forth his stumpy, wrinkled hand.
'Give us a friendly grip, Mr. Ackroyd! There's never a friend in this world but the man as finds you work; that's the philosophy as has come o' my three-score-and-nine years. What's the name and address? I'll be round the first thing on Monday morning.'
The information was given.
'You just make a note o' that in your head, Mary, my dear,' the old mam continued. ''Taint very likely I'll forget, but my memory do play me a trick now and then. Ask me about things as happened fifty years ago, and I'll serve you as well as the almanac. It's the same with my eyes. I used to be near-sighted, and now I'll read you the sign-board across the street easier than that big bill on the wall.'
He raised his violin, and struck out with spirit 'The March of the Men of Harlech.'
'That's the teen as always goes with me on my way to work,' he said, with a laugh. 'It keeps up my courage; this old timber o' mine stumps time on the pavement, and I feel I'm good for something yet. If only the hand'll keep steady! Firm enough yet, eh, Mr. Ackroyd?'
He swept the bow through a few ringing chords.
'Firm enough,' said Luke, 'and a fine tone, too. I suppose the older the fiddle is the better it gets?'
'Ah, 'taint like these fingers. Old Jo Racket played this instrument more than sixty years ago; so far back I can answer for it. You remember Jo, Mrs. Bower, ma'am? Yes, yes, you can just remember him; you was a little 'un when he'd use to crawl round from the work'us of a Sunday to the "Green Man." When he went into the 'Ouse he give the fiddle to Mat Trent, Lyddy and Thyrza's father, Mr. Ackroyd. Ah, talk of a player! You should a' heard what Mat could do with this 'ere instrument. What do you say, Mrs. Bower, ma'am?'
'He was a good player, was Mr. Trent; but not better than somebody else we know of, eh, Mr. Hackroyd?'
'Now don't you go pervertin' my judgment with flattery, ma'am,' said the old man, looking pleased for all that. 'Matthew Trent was Matthew Trent, an' Lambeth 'll never know another like him. He was made o' music! When did you hear any man with a tenor voice like his? He made songs, too, Mr. Ackroyd--words, music, an' all. Why, Thyrza sings one of 'em still.'
'But how does she remember it?' Ackroyd asked with much interest. 'He died when she was a baby.'
'Yes, yes, she don't remember it of her father. It was me as taught her it, to be sure, as I did most o' the other songs she knows.'
'But she wasn't a baby either,' put in Mrs. Bower. 'She was four years; an' Lydia was four years older.'
'Four years an' two months,' said Mr. Boddy, nodding with a laugh. 'Let's be ac'rate, Mrs. Bower, ma'am. Thirteen year ago next fourteenth o' December, Mr. Ackroyd. There's a deal happened since then. On that day I had my shop in the Cut, and I had two legs like other mortals. Things wasn't doing so bad with me. Why, it's like yesterday to remember. My wife she come a-runnin' into the shop just before dinner-time. "There's a boiler busted at Walton's," she says, "an' they say as Mr. Trent's killed." It was Walton's, the pump-maker's, in Ground Street.'
'It's Simpson & Thomas's now,' remarked Mrs. Bower. 'Why, where Jim Candle works, you know, Mr. Hackroyd.'
Luke nodded, knowing the circumstance. The whole story was familiar to him, indeed; but Mr. Boddy talked on in an old man's way for pleasure in the past.
'So it is, so it is. Me an' my wife took the little 'uns to the 'Orspital. He knew 'em, did poor Mat, but he couldn't speak. What a face he had! Thyrza was frighted and cried; Lyddy just held on hard to my hand, but she didn't cry. I don't remember to a' seen Lyddy cry more than two or three times in my life; she always hid away for that, when she couldn't help herself. bless her!'
'Lydia grows more an' more like her father,' said Mrs. Bower.
'She does, ma'am, she does. I used to say as she was like him, when she sat in my shop of a night and watched the people in and out. Her eyes was so bright-looking, just like Mat's. Eh, there wasn't much as the little 'un didn't see. One day--how my wife did laugh!--she looks at me for a long time, an' then she says: "How is it, Mr. Boddy," she says, "as you've got one eyelid lower than the other?" It's true as I have a bit of a droop in the right eye, but it's not so much as any one 'ud notice it at once. I can hear her say that as if it was in this room. An' she stood before me, a little thing that high. I didn't think she'd be so tall. She growed wonderful from twelve to sixteen. It's me has to look up to her now.'
A customer entered the shop, and Mrs. Bower went out.
'I don't think Thyrza's as much a favourite with any one as her sister,' said Ackroyd, looking at Mary Bower, who had been silent all this time.
'Oh, I like her very much,' was the reply. 'But there's something-- I don't think she's as easy to understand as Lydia. Still, I shouldn't wonder if she pleases some people more.'
Mary dropped her eyes as she spoke, and smiled gently. Ackroyd tapped with his foot.
'That's Totty Nancarrow,' said Mrs. Bower, reappearing from the shop. 'What a girl that is, to be sure! She's for all the world like a lad put into petticoats. I should think there's a-goin' to be a feast over in Newport Street. A tin o' sardines, four bottles o' ginger-beer, two pound o' seed cake, an' two pots o' raspberry! Eh, she's a queer 'un! I can't think where she gets her money from either.'
'It's a pity to see Thyrza going about with her so much,' said Mary, gravely.
'Why, I can't say as I know any real harm of her,' said her mother, 'unless it is as she's a Catholic.'
'Totty Nancarrow a Catholic!' exclaimed Ackroyd. 'Why, I never knew that.'
'Her mother was Irish, you see, an' I don't suppose as her father thought much about religion. I dessay there's some good people Catholics, but I can't say as I take much to them I know.'
Mary's face was expressing lively feeling.
'How can they be really good, mother, when their religion lets them do wrong, if only they'll go and confess it to the priest? I wouldn't trust anybody as was a Catholic. I don't think the religion ought to be allowed.'
Here was evidently a subject which had power to draw Mary from her wonted reticence. Her quiet eyes gleamed all at once with indignation.
Ackroyd laughed with good-natured ridicule.
'Nay,' he said, 'the time's gone by for that kind of thing, Miss Bower. You wouldn't have us begin religious persecution again?'
'I don't want to persecute anybody,' the girl answered; 'but I wouldn't let them be misled by a bad and false religion.'
On any other subject Mary would have expressed her opinion with diffidence; not on this.
'I don't want to be rude, Miss Mary,' Luke rejoined, 'but what right have you to say that their religion's any worse or falser than your own?'
'Everybody knows that it is--that cares about religion at all,' Mary replied with coldness and, in the last words, a significant severity.
'It's the faith, Mary, my dear,' interposed Mr. Boddy, 'the faith's the great thing. I don't suppose as form matters so much.'
The girl gave the old man a brief, offended glance, and drew into herself.
'Well,' said Mrs. Bower, 'that's one way o' lookin' at it but I can't see neither as there's much good in believin' what isn't true.'
'That's to the point, Mrs. Bower,' said Ackroyd with a smile.
There was a footstep in the shop--firm, yet light and quick--then a girl's face showed itself at the parlour door. It was a face which atoned for lack of regular features by the bright intelligence and the warmth of heart that shone in its smile of greeting. A fair broad forehead lay above well-arched brows; the eyes below were large and shrewdly observant, with laughter and kindness blent in their dark depths. The cheeks were warm with health; the lips and chin were strong, yet marked with refinement; they told of independence, of fervid instincts; perhaps of a temper a little apt to be impatient. It was not an imaginative countenance, yet alive with thought and feeling--all, one felt, ready at the moment's need --the kind of face which becomes the light and joy of home, the bliss of children, the unfailing support of a man's courage. Her hair was cut short and crisped itself above her neck; her hat of black straw and dark dress were those of a work-girl--poor, yet, in their lack of adornment, suiting well with the active, helpful impression which her look produced.
'Here's Mary an' Mr. Hackroyd fallin' out again, Lydia,' said Mrs. Bower.
'What about now?' Lydia asked, coming in and seating herself. Her eyes passed quickly over Ackroyd's face and rested on that of the old man with much kindness.
'Oh, the hold talk--about religion.'
'I think it 'ud be better if they left that alone,' she replied, glancing at Mary.
'You're right, Miss Trent,' said Luke. 'It's about the most unprofitable thing anyone can argue about.'
'Have you had your tea?' Mrs. Bower asked of Lydia.
'No; but I mustn't stop to have any, thank you, Mrs. Bower. Thyrza 'll think I'm never coming home. I only looked in just to ask Mary to come and have tea with us tomorrow.'
Ackroyd rose to depart.
'If I see Holmes I'll tell him you'll look in on Monday, Mr. Boddy.'
'Thank you, Mr. Ackroyd, thank you; no fear but I'll be there, sir.'
He nodded a leave-taking and went.
'Some work, grandad?' Lydia asked, moving to sit by Mr. Boddy.
'Yes, my dear; the thing as keeps the world a-goin'. How's the little 'un?'
'Why, I don't think she seems very well. I didn't want her to go to work this morning, but she couldn't make up her mind to stay at home. The hot weather makes her restless.'
'It's dreadful tryin'!' sighed Mrs. Bower.
'But I really mustn't stay, and that's the truth.' She rose from her chair. 'Where do you think I've been, Mary? Mrs. Isaacs sent round this morning to ask if I could give her a bit of help. She's going to Margate on Monday, and there we've been all the afternoon trimming new hats for herself and the girls. She's given me a shilling, and I'm sure it wasn't worth half that, all I did. You'll come tomorrow, Mary?'
'I will if--you know what?'
'Now did you ever know such a girl!' Lydia exclaimed, looking round at the others. 'You understand what she means, Mrs. Bower?'
'I dare say I do, my dear.'
'But I can't promise, Mary. I don't like to leave Thyrza always.'
'I don't see why she shouldn't come too,' said Mary. Lydia shook her head.
'Well, you come at four o'clock, at all events, and we'll see all about it. Good-bye, grandad.'
She hurried away, throwing back a bright look as she passed into the shop.
Paradise Street runs at right angles into Lambeth Walk. As Lydia approached this point, she saw that Ackroyd stood there, apparently waiting for her. He was turning over the leaves of one of his books, but kept glancing towards her as she drew near. He wished to speak, and she stopped.
'Do you think,' he said, with diffidence, 'that your sister would come out to-morrow after tea?'
Lydia kept her eyes down.
'I don't know, Mr. Ackroyd,' she answered. 'I'll ask her; I don t think she's going anywhere.'
'It won't be like last Sunday?'
'She really didn't feel well. And I can't promise, you know Mr. Ackroyd.'
She met his eyes for an instant, then looked along the street There was a faint smile on her lips, with just a suspicion of some trouble.
'But you will ask her?'
'Yes, I will.'
She added in a lower voice, and with constraint:
'I'm afraid she won't go by herself.'
'Then come with her. Do! Will you?'
'If she asks me to, I will.'
Lydia moved as if to leave him, but he followed.
'Miss Trent, you'll say a word for me sometimes?'
She raised her eyes again and replied quickly:
'I never say nothing against you, Mr. Ackroyd.'
'Thank you. Then I'll be at the end of the Walk at six o'clock, shall I?'
She nodded, and walked quickly on. Ackroyd turned back into Paradise Street. His cheeks were a trifle flushed, and he kept making nervous movements with his head. So busy were his thoughts that he unconsciously passed the door of the house in which he lived, and had to turn when the roar of a train passing over the archway reminded him where he was.