Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XXXI. An Old Man's Rest
It was not without much reluctance, much debate with conscience, that Bunce allowed his child to remain at Eastbourne. He could not, of course, have finally refused consent to a plan which might be the means of saving Bessie's life, and to be relieved of the cost of her support, receiving into the bargain a small monthly sum which Mrs. Ormonde represented as the value to her of Bessie's services at The Chestnuts, was a great consideration to a man in his perpetual state of struggle to make ends meet. But he had a suspicion that Mrs. Ormonde desired to get the girl away from him that Bessie might be, as he would have phrased it, perverted to the debasing superstition of Christianity.
Mrs. Ormonde had interviews with him, and it helped her to understand the man. She soon found out what it was that troubled him, and went directly to the point with an assurance that no attempt whatever should be made to prejudice Bessie against her father's views. Any printed matter he chose to send her would be uninterfered with. Another woman would have thought Bunce a mere bear when she parted with him, but Mrs. Ormonde had that blessed gift of divination which comes of vast charity; she did not misjudge him. And he in turn, though he went away with his face still set in the look of half-aggressive pride which it had assumed when he entered, found in a day or two that Mrs. Ormonde's tones made a memory as pleasant as any he had. He felt a little uncomfortable in remembering how ungraciously he had borne himself.
Another woman there was who had begun to exercise influence of an indefinable kind on the rugged fellow, a woman whom he saw a good deal of; and to whom he had grown accustomed to look for a good deal of help. This was Miss Totty Nancarrow. Totty was no slight help with little Nelly, and even with Jack. For the former she ceased to be 'Miss Nanco,' and became 'Totty' simply; to Jack she was a most estimable acquaintance, who never grudged flattering wonder at his school achievements, even though they involved no more than a mastery of compound multiplication, and occasionally he felt a wish that some one of his schoolfellows would call Miss Nancarrow names, that he might punch the rascal's head. But in the father's mind there was an obstacle to complete appreciation. Totty was a Roman Catholic. She often went to St. George's Cathedral, in Southwark, and even for the purpose of confession. When this fact was strongly before Bunce's consciousness, he was inclined to scorn Totty and to feel an uneasiness about her associating with his children. Somehow, the scorn and the mistrust would not hold out in Totty's presence. He found himself taking more pains to be polite to her than to any other person. When she had had Nelly in her room, and brought the child to him on his coming home, he invented excuses to get her to talk for a few moments. Unfortunately, Totty appeared little disposed to talk.
Luke Ackroyd was not infrequently in Bunce's room. These two discussed religion and politics together, and their remarks on these subjects lacked neither vigour nor perspicuity. Ye gods! how they went to the root of things! Ackroyd had persevered in his pronounced Antinomianism; he did not take life as 'hard' as his companion, and consequently was not as sincere in his revolt, but he represented very fairly the modern type of brain-endowed workman, who is from birth at issue with the lingering old world. That is, he represented it intellectually; there was, however, much in his character which does not mark the proletarian as such. Essentially his nature was very gentle and ductile, and be had strong affections. Probably he could not have told you, with any approach to accuracy, how often he had been in love, or fancied himself so, and for Ackroyd being in love was, to tell the truth, a matter of vastly more importance than all the political and social and religious questions in the world.
He and Totty were still on the terms of that compact which had Christmas in view. His own part was discharged conscientiously; he visited no public-houses and was steady at his work. In fact, he had never had those tastes which bring a man to hopeless sottishness. More than half his dissipation had come of that kind of vanity whereof young gentlemen of the best families have by no means the monopoly. He liked people to talk about him; he liked to know that it was deemed a pity for such a clever young fellow to go to the dogs. Even in his recklessness after the loss of Thyrza there was much of this element; disappointment in love is known to make one interesting, and if Luke could have brought on a mild fever, so that people could say he was in danger of dying, it would probably not have displeased him. That was over now. He persuaded himself that he was in love with Totty, and he told himself daily how glad he was in the thought of marrying her shortly after Christmas.
For all that, they quarrelled, he and she. It would not be easy to say how many times they quarrelled and made it up again during the latter half of the year. There was a certain unlikeness of temperament, which perpetually made them think more of their difficulties in getting on together than of the pleasure they received from each other's society. Ackroyd frequently pondered on the question of how this matter would arrange itself after they were married; at times he was secretly not a little alarmed. As his wont was, he talked over the question exhaustively with his sister, Mrs. Poole. The latter for a time refused to converse on the subject at all. She was by no means sure that Miss Nancarrow was in any sense a desirable acquisition to the family, having conceived a great prejudice against her from the night when Ackroyd had dealings with the police. A hint to this effect led to a furious outbreak on Luke's part; he was insulted, he would leave the house and find quarters elsewhere, his sister was a narrow-minded, calumniating woman. He was bidden to take his departure as soon as he liked, but somehow he did not do so. Then Mrs. Poole got her husband to make private inquiries about Miss Nancarrow. Good-natured Jim obeyed her, and had to confess that the report was tolerable enough; the girl was perhaps a little harum-scarum, no worse.
'Oh, you're always so soft when there's talk about women!' exclaimed his wife, disappointed. 'I declare you're as bad as Luke himself. I shall see what I can find out for myself.'
She too found that no evil report was current about Totty, save that she was a Roman Catholic. To be sure, this was bad enough, but could not perhaps be made a ground of serious objection to the girl. So Mrs. Poole fell back on an old line of argument.
'I'm tired of hearing about your girls!' she exclaimed, when Luke next broached the subject. 'When it ain't one, it's another. You must find somebody else to talk to. One thing I do know--if I was a girl, I wouldn't marry you, no, not if you'd a fortune.'
But in the end she yielded, for she saw that the matter was serious.
'I want to bring Totty here,' Luke said one night. 'I can't always see her in the street, and there's no other handy place. What do you say, Jane?'
'You must do as you like. There's the parlour you're welcome to. But you mustn't go bringing her down here, mind. I've an idea her and me won't quite hit it. You're welcome to the parlour.'
Further quarrels and reconcilements led to a modification of this standpoint; Mrs. Poole at length said that she was willing to be introduced to Totty, and sent an invitation to tea for Sunday evening.
'Let him get married, and have done with it,' she said to her husband. 'I shall have no peace till he does. He worrits my life out.'
'He'll worrit you a good deal more afterwards, if I'm not mistook,' remarked Jim, with a dry chuckle.
But an unforeseen difficulty presented itself. Totty positively declined to visit Mrs. Poole at present. There was plenty of time for that, she said; wait till Christmas was nearer.
So Ackroyd and Totty once more fell out, and this time very gravely. For a fortnight they did not see each other. And even when the inevitable renewal of kindness came about, Totty made it a condition that she must not be asked to visit Mrs. Poole. Time enough for that.
Mrs. Poole was, of course, offended. It took her longer than a fortnight before she could hear any reference to Totty.
Early in December Totty had a bit of news to impart which gave Ackroyd a good deal of anxiety. She had been talking with Mrs. Bower, and that lady had as good as said that she could no longer keep old Mr. Boddy in her house.
'He's three weeks behind with his rent,' Totty said, 'and he's sold everything he had to sell, except his fiddle, to pay even so long.'
'But do you think Lydia Trent knows that?'
'I can't say. I should think most likely she doesn't. She's nothing to do with none of the Bowers, and hasn't had for a long time; and you may be quite sure Mr. Boddy wouldn't be the first to tell her how things was. Thyrza often said what work they had to get him to take anything from them.'
'He's got no work then?'
'Only a shilling now and then. Mrs. Bower says he's getting too slow for the people as employed him. I shouldn't wonder if he's as good as starved most days.'
'What brutes those Bowers are! And now, I suppose, they're going to turn the old man into the street. That's the Christianity that their girl has taught them. I tell you what, I'll see if I can't find a bit of something for him to do. But then, what's the good? It'll only keep him a day or two. Lydia 'll have to be told about it.'
'It's all very well,' remarked Totty, 'but I don't see how she's to keep him. Besides, I think she might have found out for herself how things was going before now.'
'You may depend upon it, it's only because the old man's hidden it from her so that she couldn't have an idea. I don't like to hear you speak like that of Lydia, Totty.'
'I don't see that there's any harm in what I said.'
'Well, I know you didn't mean it to be unkind, but it sounded so.'
'You're always very sharp about Lydia.'
'I know I am. She's a good girl, and she's a great deal to bear. I think everybody ought to respect her.'
It was perilously near a misunderstanding, but Totty was not altogether in earnest, and had good sense enough to refrain from unworthy suggestions on such a subject. Ackroyd had sometimes half suspected that she quarrelled on trivial grounds of set purpose, for he was well aware of her native sincerity and honest plainness of dealing.
Her bad news was unfortunately true enough. For half a year Mr. Boddy had been breaking up; the process began very suddenly, and was all the harder to bear. Under any circumstances he could not have held his own in the battle with society much longer--the battle for the day's food of which society does its best to rob each individual--and the catastrophe in the home of the girls who were dear to him as though they had been his own children, sounded the note of retreat. Thyrza was not so much to him as Lydia, but still was very much, and the sorrow which darkened Lydia's life was to him the beginning of the end of all things.
Yes, he hid the state of things very skilfully from Lydia's eyes. He told her that he was working, when he had no work to do; he laughed at her questions as to whether he had comfortable meals, when he had had no meal at all. The Bowers never invited him to come to the parlour now and sit at their table; they were so indifferent about him, so long as he paid his rent, that for a long time they did not know how hard beset he was. Lydia had ventured to ask him if he would change his lodgings, provided she found him a room in a house where she could visit him without unpleasantness; but the old man avoided her request. If he moved, all sorts of things would become known to Lydia which at present he was able to conceal.
One thing he could not hide. His hand had become so unsteady that the bow would no longer strike true notes from the violin; so he ceased to play to the girl when she came. Lydia did not press him, thinking that probably it was too painful for him to revive memories of the old days. When hardships thickened, he would have sold the instrument, in spite of every pang, but for the certainty that Lydia would miss it from his room.
He lived more and more to himself. Till the beginning of November he was able just to keep body and soul together after paying his rent, then the rent was no longer forthcoming. Not one article remained to him for which he could obtain money, not one save the violin. He durst not sell it. In spite of everything, he clung to a vague hope that someone would find work for him. To Ackroyd he could not go; that would be the same as telling Lydia, for he could trust no one in the state of mind which he had reached; even to strangers he was afraid to appeal with overmuch earnestness, lest stories should get about. Still an odd shilling came to him now and then. Poor old fellow, he did sad things. One morning he took the old blacking-brushes which he had used for years for his one boot, and a little pot of blacking, and an old box, and walked far away across the river, to a place where no one could know him, and there tried to earn a little by rivalling with the shoeblacks. It was useless; in three days he had earned but as many pence; he could not waste time thus. It was a terrible moment when he had first to tell Mrs. Bower that he could not discharge his due to her. He tried to put on a half-jesting air, to make out that his difficulty was of the most passing kind. Mrs. Bower ungraciously bade him not to trouble himself, to pay as soon as he could. But when the second day of default came, the landlady was even less gracious.
'I ain't an unreasonable woman, Mr. Boddy,' she said, 'and nobody could never say I was. But then I've a 'ome to keep up, as you know. Isn't it time as you thought things over a bit? I dessay there's them as 'll see you don't want, if only you'll speak a word. I don't want to be disagreeable to a old lodger, but then reason is reason, ain't it?'
That Saturday night hunger drove him out. He stumped painfully into the busy region on the south side of London Bridge, and there, at midnight, he succeeded in begging a handful of fried potatoes from a fish-shop that was just closing. It was all he could do, after a dozen vain efforts to earn a copper.
But, when he got home in the early morning, a strange thing had happened. On his table lay half a loaf of bread, a piece of butter, and some tea twisted up in paper. How came these things here? He was in anguish lest Lydia had left them, lest Lydia had somehow discovered his condition and had come in his absence.
But it was not so. Lydia came, as usual, on Sunday afternoon, and clearly knew nothing of that gift. He had eaten, and was able once more to talk so cheerfully--in his great relief--that the girl went away happy in the thought that he had got over a turn of ill-health. They had talked, as always, of Thyrza. With Thyrza it was well, outwardly at all events; Lydia had just seen her, and could report that she seemed even happy. Mr. Boddy rejoiced at this. Might not he see the little one some day? Yes, surely he should; Lydia would try for that.
Who had left him the food, then? No one entered his room to do anything for him, save at intervals of a fortnight, when Mrs. Bower sent up a charwoman; otherwise he had always waited upon himself. Two days went by, then the offering was renewed, just in the same way, and this time with the addition of some sugar. The giver could be but one person. Mary Bower knew of his need, and was doing what she could for him. He knew it in meeting her on the stairs the morning after; she said a kind 'Good-day,' and reddened, and went by with her head bent.
But it was bitter to receive such help. He could not refuse it, for otherwise he must have lain down in helplessness, and he trusted yet that there would come a turn in things. The winter cold began. Mrs. Bower had not refused coals; he always burned so little that fuel was allowed to be covered by the rent. But now he scarcely ventured to keep his fire alight long enough to boil his kettle; he still had a little supply for burning, and felt that he durst not go down to the cellar for more, when that was done.
Then came the day when his landlady told him with decisive brevity that she could trust him no longer. He must not be a foolish old man, but must ask help from those whose duty it was to give it him.
That was in the afternoon. Mrs. Bower had come up to his room and had asked for the rent. He waited until it was dark, then stole out of the house, carrying his violin.
He would not sell it, only borrow a sum at the pawn-broker's, then he could some day recover the instrument. Nor must he go to a pawn-shop in this neighbourhood, whence tales would spread. He stumped over into Southwark, and found a quiet street where the three brass halls hung above an illuminated shop front. The entrance to the pawning department was beneath a dark archway. At the door he stopped; there was a great lump in his throat, and suddenly, with great physical anguish, tears broke from his eyes. He stood away from the door until he could master the flow of tears; then he went in, carefully selected a box which was empty, and pledged the violin for ten shillings. The man refused to lend him more, and he could not argue.
That fit of weeping seemed to have affected him for ill; going forth again into the cold, he trembled violently, and by no effort could recover himself. He had to sit down upon a door-step. The chillness of his blood, which yet beat feverishly at his temples, affected him with a dread lest he should not have strength to reach home. His thoughts would not obey his will; again and again he fell into torment of apprehension, asking himself how to find money for the rent that was due, and only with a painful effort of mind remembering the ten shillings in his pocket. The door beneath which he was sitting suddenly opened; he staggered up and onwards.
But the cold and the weakness and the anguish of dread grew upon him. He could not remember the streets by which he had come. He stumped on, fancying that he recognised this and that object, and at length knew that he had reached Westminster Bridge Road, The joy of drawing near home supported him. He had only to go the length of Hercules Buildings, and then he would be close to the end of Paradise Street. He reached the grave-yard, walking for the most part as in a terrible dream, among strange distorted shapes of men and women, the houses tottering black on either hand, and ever that anvil-beat of the blood at his temples. Then of a sudden his wooden limb slipped, and he fell to the ground.
He was precisely in front of the Pooles' house. A woman just passing, who happened to know Mrs. Poole, ran up to the door and knocked, and, when Mrs. Poole came, asked for some water to throw over a poor old man who was in a fit on the pavement. Jane, going in for the water, spoke to her brother, who was sitting in the kitchen. Ackroyd went forth to see what could be done.
'Why, it's Boddy!' he exclaimed. 'We must carry him in. Jane, go and tell Jim to come here.'
Of course a crowd had already collected, dark as the street was.
'Hadn't we better take him over to the Bowers'?' asked Jim.
'Yes, it's old Mr. Boddy!' cried a voice. 'He lives at Mrs. Bower's.'
'I know that very well,' said Ackroyd, 'but it's no good taking him there. Lend a hand, Jim; see, he's coming round a bit.' And he added, muttering, 'I expect he's starved to death, that's about it.'
Only the night before, Totty had told him of the old man's position, and he had been casting about for a way of giving help. He did not like to tell Lydia what was going on, yet the inquiries he had made of the men who occasionally employed Mr. Boddy convinced him that there was no hope of the latter's continuing to support himself. In his present state, the old man must at least have friends about him, and not cold-blooded pinchers and parers, who had come to dislike him because of his relation to the Trent girls. With characteristic impulsiveness, Luke made up his mind that Mr. Boddy should be brought into the house and kept there; if need be he would provide for him out of his own pocket.
Mrs. Poole was no grumbler when a fellow-creature needed her kindness. In a moment a match was put to the fire in the parlour; thither Jim and Ackroyd bore the old man, and laid him upon the couch.
He did not seem wholly unconscious, for his eyes regarded first one, then the other, of those who were ministering to him, but he made no effort to speak; spoken to, he gave no sign of understanding. It was found that there was blood upon his head; he must have injured himself in falling. For a quarter of an hour the attempts at restoring him were vain. Then Luke said:
'I shall have to run round for the doctor. For all we know, he may be dying, for want of the proper things.'
'Aye, go, lad,' assented Jim. 'I don't like the look of his face. Do you, Jane?'
Husband and wife whispered together during Luke's absence. They knew from the latter into what a miserable state the old man had sunk, and Jane was vigorous in reprobation of the Bowers. Ackroyd returned, saying that the doctor would be at hand in a minute or two.
'Oughtn't you to go and tell Miss Trent?' Jane asked him, as all three stood helpless, waiting.
'I've thought of it, but I'd rather not, if it can be helped. Wait till the doctor comes.'
The old man lay quite still, breathing heavily. His eyes were yet open, but had fixed themselves in one direction.
The doctor came. He directed that the sufferer should at once be put into a warm bed.
'My room, then,' said Luke. 'Come and help, Jim.'
The directions were soon carried out, and the doctor went off, asking someone to follow for medicine.
The wound proved to be of no moment; graver causes must have led to the state of coma in which the old man lay. When Luke returned from the doctor's, he reported that the latter had spoken rather seriously.
'I must go and see Lydia,' he said to his sister. 'You don't mind this bother, Jane, eh? You'll sit by him?'
'Of course I will. Go and fetch her; it's my belief he hasn't very long to live.'
It seemed to Ackroyd a long time since he had knocked at the door in Walnut Tree Walk; very much had come about since then. Impatient, he had to repeat his knock before any one came. Then Mr. Jarmey appeared. No, he knew Miss Trent was not in; she had gone out with his wife half an hour ago, but it was getting late, and they were sure to be soon back.
'Is Mr. Grail in?'
'I think so. I'll just knock and see.'
Gilbert was at home, and Ackroyd went into the parlour. The two were very friendly whenever they met, but that was seldom; Grail was surprised at the visit. He was sitting with his mother; they seemed to have been talking, for no book lay on the table. Luke explained why he had come to the house.
'Will you let me sit here till she comes in, Grail?'
A chair was at once brought forward, with quiet readiness. One chair there was in the room which no one ever used, though at evening it was always put in a particular position, between the table and the fireplace. Gilbert kept his hand on the back of it as he talked.
Ackroyd railed against the Bowers. Gilbert did not seem able to express very strong feeling, even when he had heard all that the other knew and suspected; his brows darkened, however, and he was anxious on Lydia's account.
An oppressive silence had fallen upon the three, when at length they heard the front-door open.
'Would you like mother to go upstairs to her and tell her?' Gilbert asked.
'I should. It would be kind of you, Mrs. Grail. But only just speak as if it was an accident; I wouldn't say anything else.'
Mrs. Grail left the room without speaking. She returned in a few minutes, and, leaving the door a little open, said in her very low, tremulous voice, that Lydia was waiting in the passage. Ackroyd shook hands with the two, and went out.
Lydia looked eagerly into his face.
'Is he very bad, Mr. Ackroyd?' she whispered.
'I hope he's come round by this time,' was his reply. 'My sister's attending to him, and we've got things for him from the doctor.'
They passed into the street, and walked quickly side by side.
'It was very good of you to take him in,' Lydia said. 'It would have been very hard to ask Mrs. Bower for help.'
'Yes, yes; We don't want them.'
Lydia and Mrs. Poole had never met. They looked with interest at each other. Ackroyd went down into the kitchen, leaving them together in the room with the old man.
The night went on. Ackroyd and his brother-in-law smoked innumerable pipes by the kitchen fire. Jim often nodded, but Luke was far from sleep; the sad still half-hour spent with the Grails had troubled his imagination, and thoughts of Thyrza had been revived in him. Yes, he had loved Thyrza; all folly put aside, he knew that the memory of the sweet-voiced, golden-haired girl would for ever remain with him. And all this night he did not once think of Totty Nancarrow.
Fortunately, as it was Saturday, they had no need to think of work next morning. Jim would not go to bed; he kept up the most determined struggle with sleep, subduer of mortals. His wife came down now and then, and was angry with him for his useless obstinacy, so plain it was that he could scarcely hold up his great thick head. There was nothing good to report of the patient; he had not recovered consciousness.
At five o'clock, when, in spite of fire and lamp, the little kitchen looked haggard, Mrs. Poole entered hurriedly.
'Do you think the doctor 'ud come, Luke, if you went for him? He can't get breath. Lydia does want the doctor fetching.'
Luke was off in an instant.
Lydia stood by the bed, pale, anguished. Happily, that struggle, which seemed of death, did not last very long. The worn old face, almost venerable at length in spite of the grotesqueness of its features, fell into calm. Then, almost as m a natural waking from sleep, the eyes opened and were aware of things.
'Are you feeling better, grandad dear?' Lydia asked.
He looked surprised, tried to speak; but there was no voice.
Luke was long.
The two women stood side by side. The old man kept endeavouring to utter words; his powerlessness was dreadful to him, his face showed. But at length he spoke.
'She shall come and see you, grandad. She shall come very soon.'
Again a vain endeavour to speak. His face altered; it expressed Lydia knew not what. A supreme effort, and he again spoke.
'Mary Bower gave me all I wanted, Be friends with her, Lyddy!'
No more than that. Gradually, an end of struggle, an end of pain, an end of all things.
The doctor came. He said that no doubt there would have to be an inquest.
They left Lydia alone in the room, When it was midway through the winter morning, Mrs. Poole came down and told Luke that the girl wished to speak to him; he would find her in the parlour.
She had swollen eyes, but spoke with perfect calmness.
'Mr. Ackroyd, what did he mean? The last thing he said was, 'Mary Bower gave me all I wanted.' I don't know what he meant. Your sister says you'll tell me.'
Luke could only guess at the sense of the words, but he told her all he knew.
'I only heard it on Friday night, from Totty,' he said. 'I was thinking of every way I could to help him.'
'Oh, but to think that you never told me!' she exclaimed. 'You'd no right to keep such a thing from me. It wasn't kindness; it wasn't kindness at all, See what's come of it!
'I do wish I had told you.'
Early in the afternoon Lydia went home. But before leaving, she searched in the poor old garments to see if; indeed, he had been penniless. The discovery of the money at first astonished her, but immediately after she found the pawn ticket. It was proof enough.
She was sitting in her room, at nightfall, when someone knocked. She went to the door. Mary Bower was there.
'May I come in, Lydia?' Mary asked, with eyes downcast.
Lydia had started. She drew back, leaving the door open. Mary entered, closed the door behind her, and stood in agitation.
'I know you hate me more than ever, Lydia,' she began, tremulously; 'but I did what I could for him. I want to tell you that I did what I could for him, and I'd never have let mother give him notice. I told her last night that, if she did, I'd leave home. I put food in his room, and nobody knew about it. Perhaps you don't believe me; if he could speak, he'd tell you someone did, and it was me.'
Lydia covered her face and wept. Mary, drawing nearer, went on with broken voice:
'I've been very much to blame, Lydia. I've been hard and unforgiving. But that night when you told me you hated me, I wanted to say how sorry I was for you. I never spoke a word against Thyrza, not a word. And now I couldn't help coming to you. I want to be friends again, Lyddy dear. Don't send me away! I've been to blame in everything; I've been bad-hearted. You might well not believe my religion when you saw me acting as I did.'
She ceased, drawn to Lydia's heart and kissed with more than the old affection.
'I know what you did for him, Mary. He told me--the last words he spoke. He asked me to be friends with you again. I do want a friend, Mary; I'm very lonely. I'll love you as long as I live for being kind to him.'
They lit no light, but sat together by the glow of the fire, speaking in very low voices, often with long intervals of silence. Two poor girls, the one as ignorant as the other, but speaking with awed spirit of death and the hope that is thereafter.