Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XXXII. Totty's Luck
'The Little Shop with the Large Heart' had suffered a grave loss: Miss Totty Nancarrow had withdrawn her custom from it.
Totty had patronised Mrs. Bower very steadily for some five years. It was true that the large-hearted shop put a rather large price on certain things, in comparison with what they could be bought for in Lambeth. If you wanted a pot of marmalade, for instance, Mrs. Bower sold it for sixpence, whereas it was notoriously purchasable for fivepence-halfpenny at grocers in Lambeth Walk. If you went for a quarter of a pound of butter, you had no choice of quality, and paid fourpence three farthings, whilst in Lambeth Walk you obtained a better article for the even fourpence. Totty, however, had a principle that one ought to deal rather with acquaintances than with strangers, and another principle that it was better to pay a halfpenny more for an article to be had by crossing the street than a halfpenny less and go a whole street's length for it. True girl of the people was Totty, herein as in other respects. It was a simple fact that Mrs. Bower's business depended on the indolence and indifference to small economies of those women who lived in her immediate neighbourhood. It is the same kind of thing that leads working people to pay for having meat badly cooked at the baker's instead of cooking it cheaply and well themselves; that leads them to buy expensive, ready-prepared suppers at the pork butcher's and the fried-fish shop, instead of tossing up an equally good and very cheap supper for themselves.
Considering her income, Totty had spent a great deal with Mrs. Bower, as you remember that lady once remarking. Totty had a mind to live on luxuries; if she had not money enough for both bread and marmalade, she chose to have the marmalade alone; if she could not buy meat and pickles at the same time, she would have pickles and go without meat. Marmalade and pickles she deemed the indispensables of life; if you could not get those--well, it was no uncommon thing for poor creatures to be driven to the workhouse. And the strange thing was that she looked so well on such diet. Since the age of fifteen, when, in truth, she had been a little peaked and terribly tenuous at the waist, her personal appearance had steadily improved. Her spirits had, by degrees, reached their present point of perpetual effervescence. But Totty could be grave, and, if occasion were, sad.
She had been both grave and sad many a time since Thyrza had gone away. She reproached herself in secret for her 'nastiness' to the little one at their last meeting, nastiness for which, as it proved, there was no justification whatever. Now she was sad for poor old Mr. Boddy's death. She knew that it was another hard blow to Lydia, and, as you are aware, in her heart she respected Lydia profoundly. Her sorrow led to that one practical result--no more marmalade and pickles from Mrs. Bower. The Bowers had behaved vilely; from every point of view, that was demonstrable. Under the circumstances, they ought to have done without their rent, if need were, till Doomsday when, as Totty understood, all such arrears are made good to one with the utmost accuracy--nay, with interest to boot. She had not seen any reason for quarrelling with the Bowers on the score of the scandal they spread about Thyrza, since there really seemed ground for their stories; and it was right that 'goings on' of that kind should be put a stop to. Totty would always--that is, as often as she could--be scrupulously just. But this last affair was beyond endurance. Not another penny went from her pocket to 'The Little Shop with the Large Heart.'
Her income this past year had fallen short of what she usually counted upon; not to a great extent, but the sum deducted had been wont to come to her as a pure grace, and she felt the loss of it. Her uncle had omitted to send his usual present on her birthday. Nor had he visited her to renew the proposal that she should surrender her liberty in return for being housed and dressed respectably. What did this mean? Had he--it was probable enough--grown tired of her, and said to himself that, as she wished to go her own way, go her own way she should? He was a crusty old fellow. Totty had often wondered that he 'stood her cheek' so good-humouredly. Yet somehow she did not think it likely that he would break off intercourse with her in this abrupt way; no, it was not like him. He would have, at all events, seen her for a last time, and have given her a well-understood last chance. Was he dead? Possible enough; his age must be nearer seventy than sixty. If dead, well, there was an end of it. No more birthday presents; no more offers to 'be made a lady of.'
It did not greatly matter, of course. Totty could not be expected to nurture an affection for her crusty uncle with his shop in Tottenham Court Road; in fact, he had behaved badly to her branch of the family, and such behaviour cannot always be made up for. As to the offer, she had declined it in perfect good faith. Yes, she preferred her liberty, her innocent nights at the Canterbury Music Hall, her scampering about the streets at all hours, her marmalade and pickles eaten off a table covered with a newspaper in company with half a dozen friends as harum-scarum as herself. Deliberately, she preferred these joys to anything she could imagine as entering into the life of a 'lady.'
However, it was a fact that Christmas was very near, also a fact that she stood pledged to marry Luke Ackroyd any day after Christmas that he chose to claim her. She was a little sorry that she could not inform her uncle in Tottenham Court Road of the change she was about to make in her life; there was no knowing how he might have behaved on such an occasion. Luke had been saving a little money of late, but it was naturally a very little; he, foolish fellow, had a way of buying her things which she did not in the least want, but which she could not refuse since it gave him such enormous pleasure to offer them. Luke was very generous, whatever his faults might be. Certain presents of his she had returned to him, in wrath, probably once a fortnight, and when, in the course of things, she had to take them back again, some object was always added. The presents cost little, it is true; Totty did not ask the price of them, but liked the kindness which suggested their purchase. She liked many things about Luke Ackroyd; whether she really liked him himself, liked him in 'the proper way'--well, that was a question she asked herself often enough without any very definite answer.
No matter, she had promised to marry him, and she was not the girl to break her word. Now, if her uncle had still been in communication with her, was it not a very likely thing that he would have felt a desire to--in fact, to do something for them? It was not nice to begin married life in furnished lodgings, especially if prudence dictated the living in a single room, as such numbers of her acquaintances did. Totty had discovered that couples who wedded and went to live in one furnished room seldom got along well together. It was well if the wife did not shortly go about with ugly-looking bruises on her face, or with her arm in a sling. No, to be sure, Luke Ackroyd was not a man of that kind; it was inconceivable that he should ever be harsh to her, let alone brutal. Still, it was not nice to begin in furnished lodgings. And perhaps her uncle in Tottenham Court Road--he was, in fact, a furniture dealer--would have seen his way to garnish for them a modest couple of rooms, by way of wedding present. But, he having drawn back from communication, Totty could not bring herself to his notice again, not she.
She was thinking over all these things a week before Christmas. It was Sunday afternoon, and, for a wonder, she was sitting alone in her room. Mr. Bunce was at home, or she would have had little Nelly to keep her company. Still, she said to herself that she was not sorry to have a minute or two to put certain things straight in her mind. What a mind it was, Totty Nancarrow's!
The landlady looked in at the door.
'Here's a gemman wants to see you, Miss Nancarrow.'
'Oh? What sort of a gentleman?'
'Why, oldish--five-an'-forty, I dessay. Greyish beard and a big nose. Speaks very loud and important like.'
Not her uncle; he had no beard and a very small nose, and could not thus have altered since she last saw him.
'All right. I'll go and ask him what he wants.'
Totty gave a glance at her six square inches of looking-glass, made a movement with her hand which was like a box on each ear, then went downstairs in her usual way, swinging by the banisters down three steps at a time. At the door she found a person answering very fairly to the landlady's graphic description. The experienced eye would have perceived that he was not, in the restricted sense of the word, a gentleman; still, he wore good clothing, and had of a truth an important air.
'You want me, sir?' Totty asked, coming to a sudden stand in front of him, and examining him with steady eye.
He returned the gaze with equal steadiness. Both hands rested on the top of his umbrella, and his attitude was very much that of a man who views a horse he has thoughts of purchasing.
'You are Miss Nancarrow, I think?' he said, clearing his throat. 'Christian name, Totty.'
'That's me, I believe.'
'Jusso! I should like to have a word with you, Miss Nancarrow, if you will allow me.'
'You can't say it here, sir?'
'Why, no, I can't. If you could----'
Totty did not wait for him to finish, but ran away to get permission to use the landlady's parlour. To this she introduced her visitor, who seated himself without invitation, and, after gazing about the room, said:
'Pray sit down, Miss Nancarrow. I've come to see you on a matter of some importance. I am Mr. Barlow, an old friend of your uncle's. You have possibly heard of me?'
'No, I haven't,' Totty replied.
As she spoke, it struck her that there was a broad black band round Mr. Barlow's shiny hat.
'Ah, you haven't; jusso!'
Mr. Barlow again cleared his throat, looking about the floor as if he were in the habit of living near a spittoon. And then he paused a little, elevating and sinking his bushy eye. brows. Totty, who had taken the edge of a chair, moved her feet impatiently.
'Well, Miss Totty Nancarrow,' resumed her visitor, using his umbrella to prop his chin, and rolling out his words with evident enjoyment of his task, 'I have the unpleasant duty of informing you that your late uncle is dead.'
The phrase might have excited a smile. Totty kept an even countenance and said she was sorry to hear it.
'Jusso! He has been dead nearly a month, and he was ill nearly six. I am appointed one of the executors by his will--me and a friend of mine, Mr. Higgins. I dare say you haven't heard of him. We've been putting your late uncle's affairs in order.'
'Have you?' said Totty, because she had nothing else to say.
'We have. I have come to see you, Miss Nancarrow, because you are interested in the will.'
'Oh, am I?'
It was said with a kind of disinterested curiosity. Mr. Barlow, having regarded her fixedly for a moment, bent his head till his forehead rested upon the umbrella, and seemed to brood.
'Don't you feel well, sir?' Totty asked, with a naivete which betrayed her impatience.
'Quite well, quite well.'
'You was saying something about my uncle's will.'
'Jusso! Your name is in the will, Miss Nancarrow. Your uncle has bequeathed to you the sum of two hundred and fifty pounds.'
'Have you brought it with you, sir?'
'No, the money.'
'My dear Miss Nancarrow, things are not done in that way,' remarked Mr. Barlow, smiling at her ingenuousness.
'How then, sir?'
'There are conditions attached to this bequest. It is my duty to explain them to you. I shall avoid the terms of the law, out of consideration to you, Miss Nancarrow, and try to express myself very simply. I hope you'll be able to follow me.'
Totty regarded him with wide eyes and smiled.
'I'll do my best, sir.'
'Now please listen.' He rested one elbow on his umbrella, and with the other hand made demonstrations in the air as he proceeded. Throughout he spoke as one who addresses a person partly imbecile.
'This sum of two hundred and fifty pounds, Miss Nancarrow, is not-- you follow me?--is not to be given to you at once--you grasp that?--I am trustee for the money; that means--attend, please-- it lies in my hands until the time and the occasion comes for-- mind--for giving it to you. You understand so far?'
'I shouldn't mind a harder word now and then, sir, if it makes it easier for you.'
Mr. Barlow examined her, but Totty's face was very placid. She cast down her eyes, and watched her toes tapping together.
'Well, well; I think you follow me. Now the conditions are these. The money is payable to you--payable, you see--on your marriage.'
'I beg you not to interrupt me. Is payable to you on your marriage, and then--now pray attend--not unless you obtain the approval of myself and of Mr. Higgins--unless you obtain our approval of the man you propose to marry.'
'You have understood, I hope?'
'I shall marry who I like, sir,' observed Totty, quietly.
Mr. Barlow looked at her with surprise.
'My dear Miss Nancarrow, nobody ever said you shouldn't. It isn't a question of your marrying, but of two hundred and fifty pounds.'
'I don't see what it's got to do with anybody who I choose to marry.'
'Jusso, jusso! nothing could be truer. It's only a question of two hundred and fifty pounds.'
Totty was about to make another indignant remark, but she checked herself. Her toes were tapping together very rapidly; she watched them for half a minute, then asked:
' And suppose I don't choose to marry anybody at all?'
'I see you are capable of following these things,' said Mr. Barlow, smiling. 'If you reach the age of five-and-twenty without marrying, the money goes to another purpose, of which it is not necessary to speak.'
'Oh! I don't see why my uncle bothered himself so much about me marrying.'
'No doubt your late uncle had some good reason for these provisions, Miss Nancarrow,' said the other, gravely. 'We should speak respectfully of those who are no more. It seems to me your late uncle took very kind thought for you.'
Totty considered that, but neither assented nor differed.
'Will you tell me,' she asked after a silence, speaking with a good deal of hauteur, 'what sort of a man you'd approve of?'
'With pleasure, Miss Nancarrow; with very great pleasure. Mr. Higgins and me have thought over the subject, have given it our best attention. We think that by laying down three conditions we shall meet the case.'
He stared at the ceiling, till Totty asked:
'Well, and what are they, sir?'
'Pray do not interrupt me; I was about to tell you. First, then, this man's age must be at least three-and-twenty. You understand?'
'I think I do.'
'Secondly, he must have a recognised profession, business, trade, or handicraft, and must satisfy me and Mr. Higgins that he is able to support a wife.'
'And then, as you say, Miss Nancarrow, he must be able to prove to me and Mr. Higgins that he has lived in one and the same house for a year previous to his marriage with you.'
Mr. Barlow delivered this with slow emphasis, as if such a test of respectability were the finest fruit of administrative wisdom.
Totty laughed. She had expected something quite different.
'You smile, Miss Nancarrow?' remarked Mr. Barlow, with a slightly offended air.
'No, I was laughing.'
'And at what, pray?'
'H'm. Well, I hope I have made everything clear to you.'
'All the same, sir, I shall marry whoever I like.'
'I've no doubt whatever you will. I shall leave you my address, Miss Nancarrow, so that you can communicate with me at any moment.'
'Thank you, sir.' She took the offered card and thrust it into her pocket. 'And if I don't want to marry at all, I shan't.'
'It is at your option, Miss Nancarrow. Now I'll say good-morning to you. Perhaps you'll allow me to shake hands with you and congratulate you upon this--this little fortune.'
Totty gave Mr. Barlow's fat hand a jerk. He drew himself up, cleared his throat, and stalked to the door, regarding with lofty patronage the signs of poverty about him. At the door he took off his hat, bowed, departed.
Totty returned to her room. She resumed her former seat, and began to hum a slow air. Then she tilted her chair back against the wall, and turned her face upwards musing.
It was not easy for her to realise the meaning of two hundred and fifty pounds. Reckon it up, for instance, in marmalade and pickles; it became confusing very soon. Reckon it up in tables and chairs; ah, that was more to the point. But even then, what a stupendous margin! For twenty pounds you could furnish a couple of rooms in a way to make all your neighbours envious. It was like attempting to comprehend infinity by making clear to one's mind the distance to the moon.
The three conditions; Luke Ackroyd could satisfy them all. How often he had said that what he wanted was a little capital to establish a comfortable home of his own, when he would feel settled for life. No thought now of furnished lodgings. Fancy making one's husband a present of two hundred and fifty pounds! Much better that than receiving presents oneself.
She was to meet Luke to-night, and it was time that a definite arrangement was made as to their marriage. Somehow, Totty did not feel quite so joyous as she ought to have done; she could not fix her mind on the two hundred and fifty pounds, but it wandered off to other things which had nothing to do with money. 'Come now,' she said to herself at length, 'do I care for anybody more than for him? No; it's quite certain I don't. Do I care much for him himself? Do I care for him properly?' Suddenly she thought of Thyrza; she remembered Thyrza's question: 'Do you love him, Totty?'
No, she did not love him. She had known it for a good many weeks. And, what was more, she had known perfectly well that he did not love her.
There it was, no doubt. 'If he loved me, I should love him. I could; I think I could. Not like Thyrza loved Mr. Egremont, to go mad about him; that isn't my style; I wouldn't be so foolish about any man, not I! But I could be very fond of him. And--there's no hiding it --I'm not--I shouldn't grieve a bit if we said good-bye to-night and never saw each other again.'
How did she know he didn't love her? 'As if I couldn't tell! Just listen when he speaks about Thyrza; he'd never speak about me like that, if I ran away from him. And how he speaks about Lydia; why, even about Lydia he thinks a good deal more than he does about me. He often talks to me as if I was a man; he wouldn't if he--if he loved me.'
Totty found it difficult to say that word even to herself. 'The fact of the matter is, I don't think as I shall ever care proper for anybody. I've a good mind not to marry at all, as I always said I wouldn't. I was right enough as long as I kept to that. The girls 'll only make fun of me.'
Yes, but her promise?--She began to feel gloomy. Perhaps nightfall had something to do with it. Should she make tea? No, she didn't care for it. She would go out--somewhere.
She walked from Newport Street to Lambeth Road, passed Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam), and came to St. George's Cathedral. It is a long, vast, ugly building, unfinished, for it still lacks towers; in the dark it looked very cold and forbidding, but Totty had a sense that there was warmth within, warmth and shelter of a kind that she needed just now.
She entered, and, at the proper place, dropped to her knees and crossed herself. Then she stood looking about. Near her, hanging against a pillar, was a box with the superscription: 'For the Souls in Purgatory.' She always put a penny into this box, and did so now.
Then she walked softly to an image of the Virgin, at whose feet someone had laid hothouse flowers. A poor woman was kneeling there, a woman in rags; her head was bent in prayer, her hands clasped against her breast. Totty knelt beside her, bent her own head and clasped her hands.
Yes, it was good to be here. All was very still; but few lights were burning. When Totty needed a mother's counsel, a mother's love, she was wont to come here and whisper humble thoughts to the image which looked down so soothingly upon all who made appeal. To Totty her religion was a purely private interest. It would never, for instance, have occurred to her to demand that her husband should be a Catholic, not even that he should view her faith with sympathetic tolerance. No word on this subject would ever pass her lips. What was it to any one else if she had in secret a mother to whom she breathed her troubles and her difficulties? Could any one grudge her that? The consolation was too sacred to speak of. Her thoughts did not rise to a Deity; she thought but seldom of the story which told her that Deity had taken man's form. The Madonna was enough, the mother whose gentle heart was full of sorrows and who had power to aid the sorrowful.
The poor ragged woman sighed deeply, rose and went forth with humble step--went forth to who knows what miseries, what cruelties and despairs. But in her sigh there had been consolation.'
Even so with Totty. When at length she left the church, her way was by no means clear of all obstacles, but the trouble which had come upon her with unwonted force was much simplified. It was plain to her that she could give herself to Ackroyd, and that to give him the two hundred and fifty pounds would be a very substantial pleasure. Growing accustomed to the thought of her wealth, she derived from it a quiet pride, which made her walk homewards more staidly than usual. Luke could never forget that she had been a great help to him.
She would let him settle everything to-night, then would tell him.
These winter nights were troublesome to an unfortunate pair who wished to talk in a leisurely way together, yet had no shelter save that of a place of public entertainment, or an archway under the line. And to-night it was particularly cold; there had even fallen a little snow. Totty and Ackroyd met, as usual, at the end of Paradise Street. It being Sunday, they could not go to the music-hall, and it was really impossible to stand about in the open air.
'Look here, Totty,' said Ackroyd, 'you must come into the house. You needn't see any one, unless you like. We can have the sitting-room to ourselves. The others always sit downstairs.'
Totty hesitated, but at length assented. If the truth were known, her two hundred and fifty pounds had probably something to do with her yielding on this point. At present she could face Mrs. Poole on equal terms.
So they entered the house, and Luke, having left his companion in the parlour, went down to apprise his sister. Jane came up, and gave the girl a civil greeting. It was not cordial, nor did Totty affect warmth of feeling. Mrs. Poole speedily left the two to themselves.
Totty sat in her chair rather stiffly. She was not accustomed to take her ease in rooms even as well appointed as this. Luke tried to be merry, to show that be was delighted, to be affectionate; he did not succeed very well. Presently they were sitting at a little distance from each other, each waiting for the other to speak.
'When is it to be?' Ackroyd said at length, bending forward.
'I don't know. Is it really to be?'
'Why not? Of course it is.'
Totty had felt colder to him than ever before, since she had entered this room. The strangeness of the surroundings affected her disagreeably. She wished they had walked about in the snowy streets.
'Of course you know we shall always be quarrelling,' she said, with a laugh.
'No, we shan't. It'll be different then. At all event, it'll be your fault if we do.'
Silence came again.
'What day?' Luke asked.
'When you like, If you really mean it.'
'Now what's the use of talking in that way? Why shouldn't I mean it?'
'If I ask you a question will you answer me honest?'
She was leaning forward, with a touch of colour on her cheeks, and a sudden curious light in her eyes; she seemed ashamed at something, and both eager and reluctant.
'What is it? Yes, I'll answer you the truth.'
'The very truth? No, I shan't ask you. What day do you want it to be?'
'Nonsense! What was the question? I won't listen to anything till you've told me.'
'It was a silly question. I don't really want to ask you. I forget what it was.'
Totty was strangely unlike herself, hesitating, diffident, ashamed. He insisted; she refused to speak. He got vexed, turned mute.
'Well then, I will ask you,' Totty exclaimed of a sudden. 'And mind, I shall know if you're honest or not. Suppose both Thyrza Trent and me was in this room, and you had your choice between us, which would it be?'
Ackroyd flushed, then looked seriously offended.
'Won't you answer?'
'I don't like to joke about such things.'
'And I don't either, that's the truth; that's why such a thing came into my head. You needn't answer; I'd rather you didn't. Of course I know what you'd have to say.'
'You are talking nonsense. There couldn't be a choice, because I've made my choice. Will you marry me or not?'
'Yes, I will. Any day you like.'
'Yes, and afterwards keep asking me questions like this.'
'It wasn't right, I know. But you're wrong when you say I should ever speak of it again.'
'I don't know what to think, Totty. It looks very much as if you didn't want to have me. Now look, here's a question for you. Suppose I'd never asked you before to-night, and now I came and asked you to marry me, what would you say? Now, honest.'
'You've not answered me.'
He spoke it significantly, and she understood him.
'Now, what would you say, Totty?'
'I should say, that I couldn't say neither yes nor no for certain, and I wanted to wait.'
'You're an honest girl. Shake hands, and let us wait another six months.'
Totty reddened, and inwardly reproached herself with complete meanness. But she was glad--and Luke Ackroyd was glad.