Chapter XXXIX. Her Return
 

It was a rainy autumn, and to Thyrza the rain was welcome. A dark, weeping sky helped her to forget that there was joy somewhere in the world, that there were some whom golden evenings of the declining year called forth to wander together and to look in each other's faces with the sadness born of too much bliss. When a beam of sunlight on the wall of her chamber greeted her as she awoke, she turned her face upon the pillow and wished that night were eternal. If she looked out upon the flaming heights and hollows of a sunset between rain and rain, it seemed strange that such a scene had ever been to her the symbol of hope; it was cold now and very distant; what were the splendours of heaven to a heart that perished for lack of earth's kindly dew?

To the eyes of those who observed her, she was altered indeed, but not more so than would be accounted for by troubles of health, consequent upon a sort of fever--they said--which had come upon her in the hot summer days. In spite of her desire this weakness had obliged her to give up her singing-practice for the present; Dr. Lambe, Mrs. Ormonde's acquaintance, had said that the exertion was too much for her. What else that gentleman said, in private to Mrs. Ormonde, it is not necessary to report; it was a graver repetition of something that he had hinted formerly. Mrs. Ormonde had been urgent in her entreaty that Thyrza would come to Eastbourne for a time, but could not prevail. Mrs. Emerson refused to believe that the illness was anything serious. 'I assure you,' she said to Mrs. Ormonde, 'Thyrza is in anything but low spirits as a rule. She doesn't laugh quite so much as she used to, but I can always make her as bright as possible by chatting with her in my foolish way for a few minutes. And when her sister comes on Sunday, there's not a trace of gloom discoverable. I've noticed it's been the same with her the last two autumns; she'll be all right by winter.'

It was true that she disguised her mood with almost entire success during Lydia's visits. Lydia herself, for some cause, was very cheerful throughout this season; she believed with more readiness than usual when Thyrza spoke of her ailments as trifling. Every Sunday she brought a present of fruit; Thyrza knew well with how much care the little bunch o grapes or the sweet pears had been picked out on Saturday night at the fruit-shop in Lambeth Walk.

'You're a foolish old Lyddy, to spend your money on me in this way,' she said once. 'As if I hadn't everything I want.'

'Yes, but,' said Lydia, laughing, 'if I don't give you something now and then, you'll forget I'm your elder sister. And I shall forget it too, I think. I've begun to think of you as if you was older than me, Thyrza.'

'So I am, dear, as I told you a long time ago.'

'Oh, you can talk properly, which I can't, and you can write well, and read hard books, but I used to nurse you on my lap for all that. And I remember you crying for something I couldn't let you have, quite well.'

Thyrza laughed in her turn, a laugh from a heart that mocked itself. Crying for something she might not have--was she then so much older?

To Lydia nothing was told of the cessation of lessons, and on Sunday all signs of needlework were hidden away. Mrs, Emerson of course knew the change that had been made, but it was explained to her as all being on the score of health, and Thyrza had begged her to make no allusion to the subject on the occasional evenings when Lydia had tea in Clara's room. And Clara was of opinion that it was very wise to rest for a while from books. 'Depend upon it, it's your brain-work that brought about all this mischief,' she said.

And after bidding her sister good-bye with a merry face, Thyrza would go up to her room, and sink down in weariness of body and soul, and weep her fill of bitter tears.

The nights were so long. She never lay down before twelve o'clock, knowing that it was useless; then she would hear the heavy-tongued bells tolling each hour till nearly dawn. It was like the voice of a remorseless enemy. 'I am striking the hour of Two. You think that you will not hear me when I strike next; you weep and pray that sleep may close your ears against me. But wait and see!' She would sometimes, in extremity of suffering, fling her body down, and let her arms fall straight, and whisper to herself: 'I look now so like death, that perchance death will come and take me.' That she might die soon was her constant longing.

There were times when her youth asserted itself and bade her strive, bade her put away the vain misery and look out again into the world of which she had seen so little. A few weeks ago she had rejoiced in the acquiring of knowledge, and longed to make the chambers of her mind rich from the fields to which she had been guided, and which lay so sunny-flowered before her. But that was when she had looked forward to sharing all with her second and dearer self. Now, when her thoughts strayed, it was to gather the flowers of deadly fragrance which grow in the garden of despair. The brief glimpses of health made the woe which followed only darker.

A strange, unreal hope, an illusion of her tortured mind, even now sometimes visited her. It was certain that Egremont knew where she lived; it might be that even yet he would come. Perhaps Miss Newthorpe would not receive him as he hoped. Perhaps Mrs. Ormonde would have pity, and would tell him the truth, and then he could not let her perish of vain longing. What other could love him as she did? Who else thought of him: 'You are all to me; in life or death there is nothing for me but you?' If he knew that, he would come to her.

She had read a story somewhere of someone being drawn to her who loved him by the very force of her passionate longing. In the dread nights she wondered if such a thing were possible. She would lie still, and fix her mind on him, till all of her seemed to have passed away save that one thought. She was back again in the library, helping to put books on the shelves. Oh, that was no two years ago; it was yesterday, this morning! Not a tone of his voice had escaped her memory. She had only to think of the moment when he held his hand to her and said, 'Let us be friends,' and her heart leaped now as it had leaped then. Could not her passion reach him, wherever he was? Could he sleep peacefully through nights which for her were one long anguish?

So it went on to winter, and now she had more rest; her brain was dulled with the foul black atmosphere; she slept more, though a sleep which seemed to weigh her down, an unhealthful torpor. The passion of her misery had burned itself out.

Lydia came and spent Christmas Day with her. They talked of their memories, and Thyrza asked questions about Gilbert Grail, as she had several times done of late. Lydia had no very cheerful news to give of him.

'Mrs. Grail can't do any work now. She sits by the fire all day, and at night she won't let him do anything but talk to her. It isn't at all a good servant they've got. She's expected to come at eight in the morning, but it's almost always nine before she gets there.'

'Couldn't you find someone better, Lyddy?'

'I'm trying to, but it isn't easy. I do what I can myself. Mrs. Grail sometimes seems as if she doesn't like me to come about. She wouldn't speak to me this morning; I'm sure I don't know why. She's changed a great deal from what she was when you knew her. And she can't bear to have things moved in the room for cleaning; she gets angry with the servant about it, and then the girl talks to her as she shouldn't, and it makes her cry.'

'Is she impatient with Gilbert?' Thyrza asked.

'No, I don't think so. But she always wants him to be by her. If he's a few minutes late, she knows it, and begins to fret and worry.'

'So he sits all the evening just keeping her company?'

'Yes. He reads to her a good deal, generally out of those religious books--you remember? I feel sorry for her; I'm so sure there's other things he might read would give her a deal more comfort. And you'd think he never got a bit tired, he's that kind and good to her, Thyrza.'

'Yes, I know he must be. Does Mr. Ackroyd ever come to see him?'

'Not to the house, no. Nobody comes.'

Thyrza was very silent after this.

Two weeks later, when the new year was frost-bound, Lydia received this letter from her sister

'I want to come and see you in the old room, as I said I should, and at the same time I want to see Gilbert. But I must see him alone. I could come at night, and you could be at the door to let me in, couldn't you, dear? You said that Mrs. Grail goes to bed early; I could see Gilbert after that. You may tell him that I am coming, and ask him if he will see me. I hope he won't refuse. Write and let me know when I shall be at the door--to-morrow night, if possible. You will be able to send a letter that I shall get by the first post in the morning.'

Had the visit proposed been a secret one, to herself alone, Lydia would not have been much surprised, as Thyrza had several times of late said that she wished to come. But the desire to see Gilbert was something of which no hint had been given till now. Strange fancies ran through her head. She doubted so much on the subject, that she resolved to say nothing to Gilbert; if Thyrza persisted in her wish, it would be possible to arrange the interview when she was in the house. She wrote in reply that she would be standing at the front door at half-past eight on the following evening.

Exactly at the moment appointed, a closely-wrapped figure hurried through the darkness out of Kennington Road to the door where Lydia had been waiting for several minutes. The door was at once opened. Thyrza ran silently up the stairs; her sister followed; and they stood together in their old home.

Thyrza threw off her outer garments. She was panting from haste and agitation; she fixed her eyes on Lydia, but neither spoke nor smiled.

'Are you sure you did right to come, dearest?' Lydia said in a low voice.

'Yes, Lyddy, quite sure,' was the grave answer.

'You look worse to-night--you look ill, Thyrza.'

'No, no, I am quite well. I am glad to be here.'

Thyrza seated herself where she had been used to sit, by the fireside. Lydia had made the room as bright as she could. But to Thyrza how bare and comfortless it seemed! Here her sister had lived, whilst she herself had had so many comforts about her, so many luxuries. That poor, narrow bed--there she had slept with Lyddy; there, too, she had longed vainly for sleep, and had shed her first tears of secret sorrow. Nothing whatever seemed altered. But yes, there was something new; above the bed's head hung on the wall a picture of a cross, with flowers twined about it, and something written underneath. Noticing that, Thyrza at once took her eyes away.

'It's a bitter night,' Lydia said, approaching her and examining her face anxiously. 'You must be very careful in going back; you seem to have got a chill now, dear; you tremble so. I'll stir the fire, and put more coals on.'

'You told Gilbert?' Thyrza asked, suddenly. 'You didn't mention it in your letter. He'll see me, won't he?'

'No, I haven't spoken to him yet, dear. I thought it better to leave it till you were here. I'm sure he'll see you, if you really wish.'

'I do wish, Lyddy. I'm sorry you left it till now. Why did you think it better to leave it?'

'I don't quite know,' the other said, with embarrassment. 'It seemed strange that you wanted to see him.'

'Yes, I wish to.'

'Then I'll go down in a few minutes and tell him.'

They ceased speaking. Lydia had knelt by her sister, her arm about her. Thyrza still trembled a little, but was growing more composed. Presently she bent and kissed Lydia's hair.

'You didn't believe me when I said I should come,' she whispered, smiling for the first time.

'Are you sure you ought to have come? Would Mrs. Ormonde mind?'

'I am quite free, Lyddy. I can do as I like. I would come in daylight, only perhaps it would be disagreeable for you, if people saw me. I know they have given me a bad name.'

'No one that we need to care about, Thyrza.'

'Gilbert has no such thoughts now?'

'Oh, no!'

'Shall I see much change in him?'

'Not as much as he will in you, dearest.'

They were silent again for a long time, then Lydia went to speak with Gilbert. Alone, Thyrza tried to recall the mind with which she had gone down to have tea with the Grails on a Sunday evening. It used to cause her excitement, but that was another heart-throb than this which now pained her, In those days Gilbert Grail was a mystery to her, inspiring awe and reverence. How would he meet her now? Would he have bitter words for her? No, that would be unlike him. She must stand before him, and say something which had been growing in her since the dark days of winter began. Only the utterance of those words would bring her peace. No happiness; happiness and she had nothing to do with each other. She thought she would not live very long; she must waste no more of the days that remained to her. There was need of her here at all events. The parting from her sister would be at an end; Lydia would rejoice. He too, yes, he would be glad, for he would know nothing of the truth. It might be that his whole future life would be made lighter by this act of hers. Mrs. Ormonde alone would understand; it would give her pleasure to know that Gilbert Grail's sorrow was at an end.

So many people to be benefited, and the act itself so simple, so merely a piece of right-doing, the reparation of so great an injury. Strange that her whole mind had undergone this renewal. Half a year ago, death would have been chosen before this.

Lydia returned.

'Mrs. Grail will be gone in half an hour. He will see you then, Thyrza.'

Very few words were interchanged as the time passed. They held each other by the hand. At length Lydia, hearing a sound below, went to the door.

'You can go now,' she said, returning. 'Shall I come down with you?'

'No, Lyddy.'

'Oh, can you bear this, Thyrza?'

The other smiled, made a motion with her hand, and went out with a quick step.

The parlour door--entrance so familiar to her--was half open. She entered, and closed it. Gilbert came forward. His face was not at all what she had feared; he smiled pleasantly, and offered his hand.

'So you have come to see me as well as Lydia. It is kind of you.'

The words might have borne a very different meaning from that which his voice and look gave them. He spoke with perfect simplicity, as though no painful thought could be excited by the meeting. Thyrza saw, in the instant for which her eyes read his countenance, that he did not often smile thus. He was noticeably an older man than when she abandoned him; his beard was partly grizzled, his eyes were yet more sunken. There was some change, too, in his voice; its sound did not recall the past quite as she had expected.

But the change in her was so great that he could not move his eyes from her. When she looked up again, he still seemed to be endeavouring to recognise her.

'I didn't know whether you would see me,' she said with hurried breath.

'I am very, very glad to see you.'

He seemed about to ask her to sit down. His eyes fell on the chair which was always called hers. Thyrza noticed it at the same time. From it she looked to him. Gilbert averted his eyes.

'I did not come to see Lyddy,' Thyrza said, forcing her voice to steadiness. 'It was to speak to you. I didn't dare to hope you would be so----'

'Don't say what it pains you to say,' Gilbert spoke, when her words failed. 'It will pain me even more. Speak to me like an old friend, Miss Trent.'

'Can you still feel like a friend to me?'

'I don't change much,' he said. 'And it would be a great change that would make me have any but friendly thoughts of you.'

She raised her face.

'I behaved so cruelly to you. If I could hope that you would forgive that----'

A sob broke her voice.

'Don't talk of forgiveness!' Gilbert replied, with less self-control. 'I have never thought a hard thought of you. I can't bear to hear you speak in that voice to me.'

The tenderness he had concealed found expression in the last words. Her wonderful new beauty, the humility of her bowed head, her tears, overcame the show he had made of easy friendliness. He saw her eyes turned to him again, and this time he met their gaze.

'Do you know all of my life since I left you?' Thyrza asked. 'Lyddy knows how I have lived all the time, from that day to this. Has she told you?'

'Yes, she has told me.'

'Will you let me fulfil the promise I made to you? Can you forget what I have done? Will you let me be your companion--do all I can to make your home a happy one? I have no right to ask, but if--if not now--if some day I could be a help to you! I will come to live with Lyddy. We will find a room somewhere else. I will work with Lyddy, till you can let me come----'

Her pallor turned to a deep flush. She spoke brokenly, till her lips became mute, the last word dying in a whisper. She had not known what it would cost her to say this. A deadly shame enfolded her; she could have sunk to the ground before him after the first sentence.

Gilbert listened and was shaken. He knew that this was no confession of love for him, but of the sincerity of what she had said he could have no doubt. There was not disgrace upon her; she humbled herself solely in grief for the suffering she had caused him. He loved her, loved her the more for the awe her matured beauty inspired in him. That Thyrza should come and speak thus, was more like a dream than simple reality. And for all his longing, he durst not touch her hand.

'What you offer me,' he said, in low, tremulous accents, 'I should never have dared to ask, for it is the greatest gift I can imagine. You are so far above me now, Thyrza. I should take you into a life that you are no longer fit for. My home must always be a very poor one; it would shame me to give you nothing better than that.'

'I want nothing more than to be with you, Gilbert. I am not above you; you are better in everything. I broke a promise which ought to have been sacred. If you let me share your life, that is your forgiveness. I want you to forgive me; I want to be a help to you still; I wish to forget all that came between us. You won't reject me?'

'Oh, Thyrza, I love you too much. I am too selfish to act as I ought to! Thyrza! That you can be my wife still, when no spark of hope was left to me!' . . .

It did not seem to Lydia that she had waited long when she heard her sister's step on the stairs again.

'I mustn't stay another minute,' Thyrza said, going at once to where her hat and cloak lay. 'It will be late before I get home.'

'I shall come with you as far as the 'bus.'

Lydia would have asked no question, though agitated with wonder and a surmise she scarcely dared to entertain. When they were both ready to go out, Thyrza turned to her.

'Gilbert has been very good to me, Lyddy. He will forget all the harm I have done him, and I shall be his wife.'

The other could find no word for a moment.

'Are you glad of this, Lyddy?'

'I don't know what to think or say,' her sister replied, looking at her with half-tearful earnestness. 'Did you always mean this, when you said you were coming here soon?'

'No, not always. But I was able to do it at last. Now I shall rest, dear sister.'

'You are sure that this is right? It isn't only a fancy, that you'll be sorry for, that'll make everything worse in the end?'

'I shall never be sorry, and everything will be better, Lyddy.'

They kissed each other.

'Come, dear, I mustn't wait.'

They walked quickly and without speaking as far as the lights and noise of Westminster Bridge Road. For them the everyday movement of the street had no meaning; such things were the mere husk of life; each was absorbed in her own being.

'I shall come again on Saturday night,' Thyrza said hurriedly, as they parted. 'And perhaps I shall stay over Sunday. May I?'

'Do!'

'Be at the door again at the same time.'