Chapter XXXVII. A Friendly Office
 

On the Friday when Thyrza, in her happiness, had said 'Tomorrow he comes,' Mrs. Ormonde also was thinking of a visitor, who might arrive at any hour. Nine days ago she had received a telegram from New York, informing her that Walter Egremont was there and about to embark for England. She, too, avoided leaving the house. Her impatience and nervousness were greater than she had thought such an event as this could cause her. But it was years now since she had begun to accept Walter in the place of her own dead son, and in that spirit she desired his return from the exile of twice twelve months. It was with joy that she expected him, though with one uncertainty which would give her trouble now and then, a doubt which was, she felt, shadowy, which the first five minutes of talk would put away.

She had dined, and was thinking that it was now too late to expect an arrival, when the arrival itself was announced.

'A gentleman asks if you will see him,' said the servant, 'Mr. Egremont.'

'I will see him.'

He came quickly to her over the carpet, and they clasped hands. Then, as he heard the door close, Walter kissed the hand he held, kissed it twice with affection. They did not speak at first, but looked at each other. Mrs. Ormonde's eyes shone.

'How strong and well you look!' were her first words. 'You bring a breath from the Atlantic.'

'Rather from a pestilent English railroad car!'

'We say 'railway' and 'carriage,' Walter.'

'Ah! I confused a cabman at Liverpool by talking the 'depot.''

He laughed merrily, a stronger and deeper laugh than of old. Personally he was not, however, much changed. He was still shaven, still stood in the same attitude; his smile was still the same inscrutable movement of the features. But his natural wiriness had become somewhat more pronounced, and the sea-tan on his cheeks prepared one for a robuster kind of speech from him than formerly.

'Of course you have not dined. Let me go away for one moment.'

'I thank you. Foreseeing this, I dined at the station.'

'Then you behaved with much unkindness. Stand with your face rather more to the light. Yes, you are strong and well. I shall not say how glad I am to see you; perhaps I should have done, if you had waited to break bread under my roof.'

'I shall sit down if I may. This journey from Liverpool has tired me much. Oh yes, I was glad as I came through the Midlands; it was poetry again, even amid smoke and ashes.'

'But you must not deny your gods.'

'Ah, poetry of a different kind. From Whitman to Tennyson.

And one an English home; grey twilight poured--

No, I deny nothing; one's moods alter with the scene.'

'I find that Mr. Newthorpe has good words for your Whitman.'

'Of course he has. What man of literary judgment has not? He is here still?'

'Not at present. They went a fortnight ago to Ullswater.'

'To stay there till winter, I suppose?'

'Or till late in autumn.'

Walter did not keep his seat, in spite of the fatigue he had spoken of. In a minute or two he was moving about the room, glancing at a picture or an ornament.

'That photograph is new, I think,' he said. 'A Raphael?'

'Andrea del Sarto.'

'Barbarian that I am! I should have known Lucrezia's face. And your poor little girls? I was grieved to hear of the death of Bunce's child. I always think of poor Bunce as a heavily-burdened man.'

'He came a month ago to see Bessie's grave. He talked to me in a very human way. And things are better with him. Pray sit down! No, there is nothing else new in the room.'

He seemed to obey with reluctance; his eyes still strayed. Mrs. Ormonde kept a subdued smile, and did her best to talk with ease of matters connected with his voyage, and the like. Walter's replies grew briefer. He said at last:

'The two years come to an end to-morrow.'

'They do.'

Mrs. Ormonde joined her hands upon her lap. She avoided his look.

'What have you to tell me of Thyrza?' he went on to ask, his voice becoming grave. 'When did you see her?'

'Quite recently. She is well and very cheerful.'

'Always so cheerful?'

'Yes.'

'And you will tell me now where she is?'

She looked him steadily in the face.

'You wish to know, Walter?'

'I have come to England to ask it.'

'Yes, I will tell you.'

And she named the address. Walter made a note of it in his pocket-book.

'And now will you also tell me fully about her life since I went away? I should like to know with whom she has been living, exactly how she has spent her time----'

'Man of business!'

Mrs. Ormonde tried to jest, but did it nervously.

'Do I seem to you coarser-grained than I used to be?'

'More a man of the world, at all events. No, not fallen off in the way you mean. But I think you judge more soberly about grave matters. I think you know yourself better.'

'Much better, if I am not mistaken.'

'But still can have la tete montee, on occasion? Still think of many things in the idealist's fashion?'

'I sincerely hope so. Of everything, I trust.'

'Could make great sacrifices for an imaginary obligation?'

He left his seat again. Mrs. Ormonde was agitated, and both kept silence for some moments.

'It grieves me that you say that,' Walter spoke at length, earnestly. 'This obligation of mine is far from imaginary. That is not very like yourself, Mrs. Ormonde.'

'I cannot speak so clearly as I should like to, Walter. I, too, have my troublesome thoughts.'

'Let us go back to my questioning. Tell me everything about her, from the day when you decided what to do. Will you?'

'Freely, and hide nothing whatever that I know.'

For a long time her narrative, broken by questioning, continued. Egremont listened with earnest countenance, often looking pleased. At the end, he said:

'You have done a good work. I thank you with all my heart.'

'Yes, you owe me thanks,' Mrs. Ormonde returned, quietly. 'But perhaps you give them for a mistaken reason.'

'In what you have told me of the growth of her character, there is nothing that I did not foresee. It is good to know that, even then, I was under no foolish illusion. But the circumstances were needed, and you have supplied them. How can I be mistaken in thanking you for having so tended her who is to be my wife?'

'Wait, Walter. You foresaw into what she might develop; it is true, and it enables us to regard the past without too much sadness. Did you foresee her perfect equanimity, when once she had settled down to a new life?'

He said hesitatingly, 'No.'

'Believing that she had taken such a desperate step purely through love of you, you thought it more than likely that she would live on in great unhappiness?'

'Her cheerfulness surprises me. But it isn't impossible to offer an explanation. She has foreseen what is now going to happen. She knows you are my friend; she sees that you are giving great pains to raise her from her former standing in life; what more likely than that she explains it all by guessing the truth? And so her cheerfulness is the most hopeful sign for me.'

'That is plausible; but you are mistaken. Long ago I talked to her with much seriousness of all her future. I spoke of the chances of her being able to earn a living with her voice, and purposely discouraged any great hope in that direction. Her needlework, and what she had been trained to at the Home, were, I showed her, likely to be her chief resources. I have even tested her on the subject of her returning to live with her sister.'

'Hope has overcome all these considerations. You kept her sister from knowing where she was. Why, if there was not some idea of severing her from her old associations?'

'I explained it to her in one of our talks. I showed her that her rashness had made it very difficult to aid her.'

'You spoke of me to her?'

'Never, as I have told you. Nor has she ever mentioned you. I pointed out to her that of course I could not explain the state of things to the Emersons, and therefore Lydia had better not visit her for some time.'

Egremont sat down at a distance, and brooded.

'But a contradiction is involved!' he exclaimed presently. 'How can a girl of her character have forgotten so quickly such profound emotion?'

'You must not forget that weeks passed between my finding her and her going to live with the Emersons. During all that time the poor girl was wretched enough.'

'Weeks!'

'Her cheerfulness only came with time, after that.'

'And it is your conviction that she has absolutely put me out of her mind? That she has found sufficient happiness in the progress she has felt herself to be making?'

'That is my firm belief. Her character is not so easy to read as to-day's newspaper. She can suffer, I think, even more than most women, but she has, too, far more strength than most women, a mind of a higher order, purer consolations. And she has art to aid her, a resource you and I cannot judge of with assurance.'

Walter looked up and said:

'You are describing a woman who might be the most refined man's ideal.'

'I think so.'

'You admit that Thyrza is in every way more than fit to be my wife.'

'I will admit that, Walter.'

'Then I am astonished at your tone in speaking of what I mean to do.'

'You have asked me two questions,' said Mrs. Ormonde, her face alight with conviction. 'Please answer two of mine. Is this woman worthy of a man's entire love?'

He hesitated, but answered affirmatively.

'And have you that entire love to give her? Walter, the truth, for she is very dear to me.'

(In her room in London Thyrza sat, and said to herself, 'To-morrow he comes!')

He answered: 'I have not.'

'Then,' Mrs. Ormonde said, a slight flush in her cheeks, 'how can you express surprise at what I do?'

A long silence fell. Walter brooded, something of shame on his face from that confession. Then he came to Mrs. Ormonde's side, and took her hand.

'You are incapable,' he said gently, 'of conscious injustice. Had you said nothing of this to me, I should have gone to Thyrza to-morrow, and have asked her to marry me. She would not have refused; even granting that her passion has gone, you know she would not refuse me, and you know too that I could enrich her life abundantly. My passion, too, is over, but I know well that love for such a woman as she is would soon awake in me. I do not think I should do her any injustice if I asked her to be my wife: shall I be unjust to her if I withhold?'

Mrs. Ormonde did not answer at once. She retained his hand, and her own showed how strongly she felt.

'Walter, I think it would be unjust to her if you asked her-- remembering her present mind. It is not only that your passion for her is dead; you think of another woman.'

'It is true. But I do not love her.'

She smiled.

'You are not ready to behave crazily about her; no. But I believe that you love her in a truer sense than you ever loved Thyrza. You love her mind.'

'Has not Thyrza a mind?'

'You do not know it, Walter. I doubt whether you would ever know it. Recall a letter you wrote to me, in which you dissected your own character. It was frank and in a very great measure true. You are not the husband for Thyrza.'

'You place Thyrza above Annabel Newthorpe?'

It was asked almost indignantly, so that Mrs. Ormonde smiled and raised her hand.

'You, it is clear, resent it.'

He reddened. Mrs. Ormonde continued:

'I compare them merely. I don't think Thyrza will find the husband who is worthy of her, but I think it likely that she will win more love than you could ever give her. I have told you that she is dear to me. To you I would give a daughter of my own with entire confidence, for you are human and of noble impulses. But I do not wish you to marry Thyrza. Yes, you read my thought. It is not solely the question of love. I wish you--I have so long wished you--to marry Annabel. To Thyrza you do not the least injustice by withholding your offer; she is happy without you. You are entirely free to consult your own highest interests. If I counsel wrongly, the blame is mine. But, Walter, you must after all decide for yourself. It is a most hazardous part this that I am playing; at least, it would be, if I did not see the facts of the case so clearly. Rest till to-morrow; then let us sneak again. Shall it be so?'

Egremont left The Chestnuts and walked along the shore in moonlight. His mind had received a shock, and the sense of disturbance affected him physically. He was obliged to move rapidly, to breathe the air.

He had left America with fixity of purpose. His plain duty was to go to Thyrza and ask her to marry him. Be her position what it might, his own was clear enough. He looked forward with a certain pleasure to the mere discharge of so plain an obligation.

Mrs. Ormonde had studiously refrained from expressing any thought with regard to the future in her letters. He quite expected that she would repeat to him with a certain emphasis the fact of Thyrza's present cheerfulness; but he did not anticipate serious opposition to the course he had decided upon. Practically Thyrza had lived in preparation for a life of refinement; Mrs. Ormonde, he concluded, knew that he could act but in one way, and, though refusing to do so ostensibly, had in fact been removing the rougher difficulties. Her attitude now surprised him, made him uneasy.

Yet he knew his own inability to resist her. He knew that she spoke on the side of his secret hope. He knew that a debate which had long gone on within himself, to himself unavowed, had at length to find its plain-spoken issue.

His passion for Thyrza was dead; he even wondered how it could ever have been so violent. It seemed to him that he scarcely knew her; could he not count on his fingers the number of times that he had seen her? So much had intervened between him and her, between himself as he was then and his present self. It was with apprehension that he thought of marrying her. He knew what miseries had again and again resulted from marriages such as this, and he feared for her quite as much as for himself. For there was no more passion.

Neither on her side, it seemed. Was not Mrs. Ormonde right? Was it not to incur a wholly needless risk? And suppose the risk were found to be an imaginary one, what was the profit likely to be, to each of them?

But as often as he accepted what he held to be the common sense of the case, something unsettled him again. The one passion of his life had been for Thyrza. He called it dead; does not one mourn over such a death? He would not have recourse to the old dishonesty, and say that his love had been folly. Was it not rather the one golden memory he had? Was it not of infinite significance?

One loves a woman madly, and she gives proof of such unworthiness that love is killed. Why, even then the dead thing was inestimably precious; one would not forget it. And Thyrza was no woman of this kind. She had developed since he knew her; Mrs. Ormonde spoke of her as few can be justly spoken of. Was it good to let the love for such a woman pass away, when perchance the sight of her would revive it and make it lasting?

The stars and the night wind and the breaking of the sea--the sea which Thyrza loved--spoke to him. Could he not understand their language? . . .

On Monday morning he took the train to London, thence northwards. A visit to the Newthorpes after two years of absence was natural enough.