Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter IV. Thyrza Sings
Lydis, too, betrayed some disturbance of thought as she pursued her way. Her face was graver than before: once or twice her lips moved as if she were speaking to herself.
After going a short distance along Lambeth Walk, she turned off into a street which began unpromisingly between low-built and poverty-stained houses, but soon bettered in appearance. Its name is Walnut Tree Walk. For the most part it consists of old dwellings, which probably were the houses of people above the working class in days when Lambeth's squalor was confined within narrower limits. The doors are framed with dark wood, and have hanging porches. At the end of the street is a glimpse of trees growing in Kennington Road.
To one of these houses Lydia admitted herself with a latch-key; she ascended to the top floor and entered a room in the front. It was sparely furnished, but with a certain cleanly comfort. A bed stood in one corner; in another, a small washhand-stand; between them a low chest of drawers with a looking-glass upon it. The rest was arranged for day use; a cupboard kept out of sight household utensils and food. Being immediately under the roof, the room was much heated after long hours of sunshine. From the open window came a heavy scent of mignonette.
Thyrza had laid the table for tea, and was sitting idly. It was not easy to recognise her as Lydia's sister; if you searched her features the sisterhood was there, but the type of countenance was so subtly modified, so refined, as to become beauty of rare suggestiveness. She was of pale complexion, and had golden hair; it was plaited in one braid, which fell to her waist. Like Lydia's, her eyes were large and full of light; every line of the face was delicate, harmonious, sweet; each thought that passed through her mind reflected itself in a change of expression, produced one knew not how, one phase melting into another like flitting lights upon a stream in woodland. It was a subtly morbid physiognomy, and impressed one with a sense of vague trouble. There was none of the spontaneous pleasure in life which gave Lydia's face such wholesome brightness; no impulse of activity, no resolve; all tended to preoccupation, to emotional reverie. She had not yet completed her seventeenth year. and there was still something of childhood in her movements. Her form was slight, graceful, and of lower stature than her sister's. She wore a dress of small-patterned print, with a broad collar of cheap lace.
'It was too hot to light a fire,' she said, rising as Lydia entered. 'Mrs. Jarmey says she'll give us water for the tea.'
'I hoped you'd be having yours,' Lydia replied. 'It's nearly six o'clock. I'll take the tea-pot down, dear.'
When they were seated at the table, Lydia drew from her pocket a shilling and held it up laughingly.
'That from Mrs. Isaacs?' her sister asked.
'Yes. Not bad for Saturday afternoon, is it? Now I must take my boots to be done. If it began to rain I should be in a nice fix; I haven't a sole to walk on.'
'I just looked in at Mrs. Bower's as I passed,' she continued presently. 'Mr. Ackroyd was there. He'd come to tell grandad of some work. That was kind of him, wasn't it?'
Thyrza assented absently.
'Is Mary coming to tea to-morrow?' she asked.
'Yes. At least she said she would if I'd go to chapel with her afterwards. She won't be satisfied till she gets me there every Sunday.'
'How tiresome, Lyddy!'
'But there's somebody wants you to go out as well. You know who.'
'You mean Mr. Ackroyd?'
'Yes. He met me when I came out of Mrs. Bower's, and asked me if I thought you would.'
Thyrza was silent for a little. then she said:
'I can't go with him alone, Lyddy. I don't mind if you go too.'
'But that's just what he doesn't want,' said her sister, with a smile which was not quite natural.
Thyrza averted her eyes, and began to speak of something else. The meal was quickly over, then Lydia took up some sewing. Thyrza went to the window and stood for a while looking at the people that passed, but presently she seated herself, and fell into the brooding which her sister's entrance had interrupted. Lydia also was quieter than usual; her eyes often wandered from her work to Thyrza. At last she leaned forward and said:
'What are you thinking of, Blue-eyes?'
Thyrza drew a deep sigh.
'I don't know, Lyddy. It's so hot, I don't feel able to do anything.'
'But you're always thinking and thinking. What is it that troubles you?'
'I feel dull.'
'Why don't you like to go out with Mr. Ackroyd?' Lydia asked.
'Why do you so much want me to, Lyddy?'
'Because he thinks a great deal of you, and it would be nice if you got to like him.'
'But I shan't, never;--I know I shan't.'
'Why not, dear?'
'I don't dislike him, but he mustn't get to think it's any thing else. I'll go out with him if you'll go as well,' she added, fixing her eyes on Lydia's.
The latter bent to pick up a reel of cotton.
'We'll see when to-morrow comes,' she said.
Silence again fell between them, whilst Lydia's fingers worked rapidly. The evening drew on. Thyrza took her chair to the window, leaned upon the sill, and looked up at the reddening sky. The windows of the other houses were all open; here and there women talked from them with friends across the street. People were going backwards and forwards with bags and baskets, on the business of Saturday evening; in the distance sounded the noise of the market in Lambeth Walk.
Shortly after eight o'clock Lydia said
'I'll just go round with my boots, and get something for dinner to-morrow.'
'I'll come with you,' Thyrza said. 'I can't bear to sit here any longer.'
They went forth, and were soon in the midst of the market. Lambeth Walk is a long, narrow street, and at this hour was so thronged with people that an occasional vehicle with difficulty made slow passage. On the outer edges of the pavement, in front of the busy shops, were rows of booths, stalls, and harrows, whereon meat, vegetables, fish, and household requirements of indescribable variety were exposed for sale. The vendors vied with one another in uproarious advertisement of their goods. In vociferation the butchers doubtless excelled; their 'Lovely, lovely, lovely!' and their reiterated 'Buy, buy, buy!' rang clangorous above the hoarse roaring of costermongers and the din of those who clattered pots and pans. Here and there meat was being sold by Dutch auction, a brisk business. Umbrellas, articles of clothing, quack medicines, were disposed of in the same way, giving occasion for much coarse humour. The market-night is the sole out-of-door amusement regularly at hand for London working people, the only one, in truth, for which they show any real capacity. Everywhere was laughter and interchange of good-fellowship. Women sauntered the length of the street and back again for the pleasure of picking out the best and cheapest bundle of rhubarb, or lettuce, the biggest and hardest cabbage, the most appetising rasher; they compared notes, and bantered each other on purchases. The hot air reeked with odours. From stalls where whelks were sold rose the pungency of vinegar; decaying vegetables trodden under foot blended their putridness with the musty smell of second-hand garments; the grocers' shops were aromatic; above all was distinguishable the acrid exhalation from the shops where fried fish and potatoes hissed in boiling grease. There Lambeth's supper was preparing, to be eaten on the spot, or taken away wrapped in newspaper. Stewed eels and baked meat pies were discoverable through the steam of other windows, but the fried fish and potatoes appealed irresistibly to the palate through the nostrils, and stood first in popularity.
The people were of the very various classes which subdivide the great proletarian order. Children of the gutter and sexless haunters of the street corner elbowed comfortable artisans and their wives; there were bareheaded hoidens from the obscurest courts, and work-girls whose self-respect was proof against all the squalor and vileness hourly surrounding them. Of the women, whatsoever their appearance, the great majority carried babies. Wives, themselves scarcely past childhood, balanced shawl-enveloped bantlings against heavy market-baskets. Little girls of nine or ten were going from stall to stall, making purchases with the confidence and acumen of old housekeepers; slight fear that they would fail to get their money's worth. Children, too, had the business of sale upon their hands: ragged urchins went about with blocks of salt, importuning the marketers, and dishevelled girls carried bundles of assorted vegetables, crying, 'A penny all the lot! A penny the 'ole lot!'
The public-houses were full. Through the gaping doors you saw a tightly-packed crowd of men, women, and children, drinking at the bar or waiting to have their jugs filled, tobacco smoke wreathing above their heads. With few exceptions the frequenters of the Walk turned into the public-house as a natural incident of the evening's business. The women with the babies grew thirsty in the hot, foul air of the street, and invited each other to refreshment of varying strength, chatting the while of their most intimate affairs, the eternal 'says I,' 'says he,' 'says she,' of vulgar converse. They stood indifferently by the side of liquor-sodden creatures whose look was pollution. Companies of girls, neatly dressed and as far from depravity as possible, called for their glasses of small beer, and came forth again with merriment in treble key.
When the sisters had done their business at the boot-maker's, and were considering what their purchase should be for Sunday's dinner, Thyrza caught sight of Totty Nancarrow entering a shop. At once she said: 'I won't be late back, Lyddy. I'm just going to walk a little way with Totty.'
Lydia's face showed annoyance.
'Where is she?' she asked, looking back.
'In the butcher's just there.'
'Don't go to-night, Thyrza. I'd rather you didn't.'
'I promise I won't be late. Only half an hour.'
She waved her hand and ran off, of a sudden changed to cheerfulness. Totty received her in the shop with a friendly laugh. Mrs. Bower's description of Miss Nancarrow as a lad in petticoats was not inapt, yet she was by no means heavy or awkward. She had a lithe, shapely figure, and her features much resembled those of a fairly good-looking boy. Her attire showed little care for personal adornment, but it suited her, because it suggested bodily activity. She wore a plain, tight-fitting grey gown, a small straw hat of the brimless kind, and a white linen collar about her neck. Totty was nineteen; no girl in Lambeth relished life with so much determination, yet to all appearance so harmlessly. Her independence was complete; for five years she had been parentless and had lived alone.
Thyrza was attracted to her by this air of freedom and joyousness which distinguished Totty. It was a character wholly unlike her own, and her imaginative thought discerned in it something of an ideal; her own timidity and her tendency to languor found a refreshing antidote in the other's breezy carelessness. Impurity of mind would have repelled her, and there was no trace of it in Totty. Yet Lydia took very ill this recently-grown companionship, holding her friend Mary Bower's view of the girl's character. Her prejudice was enhanced by the jealous care with which, from the time of her own childhood, she had been accustomed to watch over her sister. Already there had been trouble between Thyrza and her on this account. In spite of the unalterable love which united them, their points of unlikeness not seldom brought about debates which Lydia's quick temper sometimes aggravated to a quarrel.
So Lydia finished her marketing and turned homewards with a perturbed mind. But the other two walked, with gossip and laughter, to Totty's lodgings, which were in Newport Street, an offshoot of Paradise Street.
'I'm going with Annie West to a friendly lead,' Totty said; 'will you come with us?'
Thyrza hesitated. The entertainment known as a 'friendly lead' is always held at a public-house, and she knew that Lydia would seriously disapprove of her going to such a place. Yet she had even a physical need of change, of recreation. Whilst she discussed the matter anxiously with herself they entered the house and went up to Totty's room. The house was very small, and had a close, musty smell, as if no fresh air ever got into it. Totty's chamber was a poor, bare little retreat, with low, cracked, grimy ceiling, and one scrap of carpet on the floor, just by the diminutive bed. On a table lay the provisions she had that afternoon brought in from Mrs. Bower's. On the mantel-piece was a small card, whereon was printed an announcement of the friendly lead; at the bead stood the name of a public-house, with that of its proprietor; then followed: 'A meeting will take place at the above on Saturday evening, August 2, for the benefit of Bill Mennie, the well-known barber of George Street, who has been laid up through breaking of his leg, and is quite unable to follow his employment at present. We the undersigned, knowing him to be thoroughly respected and a good supporter of these meetings, they trust you will come forward on this occasion, and give him that support he so richly deserve, this being his first appeal.--Chairman:--Count Bismark. Vice:--Dick Perkins. Assisted by' (here was a long list, mostly of nicknames) 'Little Arthur, Flash Bob, Young Brummy, Lardy, Bumper, Old Tacks, Jo at Thomson's, Short-pipe Tommy, Boy Dick, Chaffy Sam Coppock,' and others equally suggestive.
Whilst Thyrza perused this, Totty was singing a merry song.
'I've had ten shillin's sent me to-day,' she said.
'An old uncle of mine, 'cause it's my birthday to-morrow. He's a rum old fellow. About two years ago he came and asked me if I'd go and live with him and my aunt, and be made a lady of. Honest, he did! He keeps a shop in Tottenham Court Road. He and father 'd quarrelled, and he never come near when father died, and I had to look out for myself. Now, he'd like to make a lady of me; he'll wait a long time till he gets the chance!'
'But wouldn't it be nice, Totty?' Thyrza asked, doubtfully.
'I'd sooner live in my own way, thank you. Fancy me havin' to sit proper at a table, afraid to eat an' drink! What's the use o' livin', if you don't enjoy yourself?'
They were interrupted by a knock at the door, followed by the appearance of Annie West, a less wholesome-looking girl than Totty, but equally vivacious.
'Well, will you come to the "Prince Albert," Thyrza?' Totty asked.
'I can't stay long,' was the answer; 'but I'll go for a little while.'
The house of entertainment was at no great distance. They passed through the bar and up into a room on the first floor, where a miscellaneous assembly was just gathering. Down the middle was a long table, with benches beside it, and a round-backed chair at each end; other seats were ranged along the walls. At the upper end of the room an arrangement of dirty red hangings--in the form of a canopy, surmounted by a lion and unicorn, of pasteboard--showed that festive meetings were regularly held here. Round about were pictures of hunting incidents, of racehorses, of politicians and pugilists, interspersed with advertisements of beverages. A piano occupied one corner.
The chairman was already in his place; on the table before him was a soup-plate, into which each visitor threw a contribution on arriving. Seated on the benches were a number of men, women, and girls, all with pewters or glasses before them, and the air was thickening with smoke of pipes. The beneficiary of the evening, a portly person with a face of high satisfaction, sat near the chairman, and by him were two girls of decent appearance, his daughters. The president puffed at a churchwarden and exchanged genial banter with those who came up to deposit offerings. Mr. Dick Perkins, the Vice, was encouraging a spirit of conviviality at the other end. A few minutes after Thyrza and her companions had entered, a youth of the seediest appearance struck introductory chords on the piano, and started off at high pressure with a selection of popular melodies. The room by degrees grew full. Then the chairman rose, and with jocular remarks announced the first song.
Totty had several acquaintances present, male and female; her laughter frequently sounded above the hubbub of voices. Thyrza, who had declined to have anything to drink, shrank into as little space as possible; she was nervous and self-reproachful, yet the singing and the uproar gave her a certain pleasure. There was nothing in the talk around her and the songs that were sung that made it a shame for her to be present. Plebeian good-humour does not often degenerate into brutality at meetings of this kind until a late hour of the evening. The girls who sat with glasses of beer before them, and carried on primitive flirtations with their neighbours, were honest wage-earners of factory and workshop, well able to make themselves respected. If they lacked refinement, natural or acquired, it was not their fault; toil was behind them and before, the hours of rest were few, suffering and lack of bread might at any moment come upon them. They had all thrown their hard-earned pence into the soup-plate gladly and kindly; now they enjoyed themselves.
The chairman excited enthusiasm by announcement of a song by Mr. Sam Coppock--known to the company as 'Chaffy Sem.' Sam was a young man who clearly had no small opinion of himself; he wore a bright-blue necktie, and had a geranium flower in his button-hole; his hair was cut as short as scissors could make it, and as he stood regarding the assembly he twisted the ends of a scarcely visible moustache. When he fixed a round glass in one eye and perked his head with a burlesque of aristocratic bearing, the laughter and applause were deafening.
'He's a warm 'un, is Sem!' was the delighted comment on all hands.
The pianist made discursive prelude, then Mr. Coppock gave forth a ditty of the most sentimental character, telling of the disappearance of a young lady to whom he was devoted. The burden, in which all bore a part, ran thus:
We trecked 'er little footprints in the snayoo, We trecked 'er little footprints in the snayoo, I shall ne'er forget the d'y When Jenny lost her w'y, And we trecked 'er little footprints in the snayoo!
It was known that the singer had thoughts of cultivating his talent and of appearing on the music-hall stage; it was not unlikely that he might some day become 'the great Sam.' A second song was called for and granted; a third--but Mr. Coppock intimated that it did not become him to keep other talent in the background. The chairman made a humorous speech, informing the company that their friend would stand forth again later in the evening. Mr. Dick Perkins was at present about to oblige.
The Vice was a frisky little man. He began with what is known as 'patter,' then gave melodious account of a romantic meeting with a damsel whom he had seen only once to lose sight of for ever. And the refrain was:
She wore a lov-e-lie bonnet With fruit end flowers upon it, End she dwelt in the henvirons of 'Ol-lo-w'y!
As yet only men had sung; solicitation had failed with such of the girls as were known to be musically given. Yet an earnest prayer from the chairman succeeded at length in overcoming the diffidence of one. She was a pale, unhealthy thing, and wore an ugly-shaped hat with a gruesome green feather; she sang with her eyes down, and in a voice which did not lack a certain sweetness. The ballad was of springitime and the country and love.
Underneath the May-tree blossoms Oft we've wandered, you and I, Listening to the mill-stream's whisper, Like a stream soft-gliding by.
The girl had a drunken mother, and spent a month or two of every year in the hospital, for her day's work overtaxed her strength. She was one of those fated toilers, to struggle on as long as any one would employ her, then to fall among the forgotten wretched. And she sang of May-bloom and love; of love that had never come near her and that she would never know; sang, with her eyes upon the beer-stained table, in a public-house amid the backways of Lambeth.
Totty Nancarrow was whispering to Thyrza:
'Sing something, old girl! Why shouldn't you?'
Annie West was also at hand, urging the same.
'Let 'em hear some real singing, Thyrza. There's a dear.'
Thyrza was in sore trouble. Music, if it were but a street organ, always stirred her heart and made her eager for the joy of song. She had never known what it was to sing before a number of people; the prospect of applause tempted her. Yet she had scarcely the courage, and the thought of Lydia's grief and anger--for Lydia would surely hear of it--was keenly present.
'It's getting late,' she replied nervously. 'I can't stay; I can't sing to-night.'
Only one or two people in the room knew her by sight, but Totty had led to its being passed from one to another that she was a good singer. The landlord of the house happened to be in the room; he came and spoke to her.
'You don't remember me, Miss Trent, but I knew your father well enough, and I knew you when you was a little 'un. In those days I had the "Green Man" in the Cut; your father often enough gave us a toon on his fiddle. A rare good fiddler he was, too! Give us a song now, for old times' sake.'
Thyrza found herself preparing, in spite of herself. She trembled violently, and her heart beat with a strange pain. She heard the chairman shout her name; the sound made her face burn.
'Oh, what shall I sing?' she whispered distractedly to Totty, whilst all eyes were turned to regard her.
'Sing "A Penny for your thoughts."'
It was the one song she knew of her father's making, a half-mirthful, half-pathetic little piece in the form of a dialogue between husband and wife, a true expression of the life of working folk, which only a man who was more than half a poet could have shaped.
The seedy youth at the piano was equal to any demand for accompaniment; Totty hummed the air to him, and he had his chords ready without delay.
Thyrza raised her face and began to sing. Yes, it was different enough from anything that had come before; her pure sweet tones touched the hearers profoundly; not a foot stirred. At the second verse she had grown in confidence, and rose more boldly to the upper notes. At the end she was singing her best--better than she had ever sung at home, better than she thought she could sing. The applause that followed was tumultuous. By this time much beer had been consumed; the audience was in a mood for enjoying good things.
'That's something like, old girl!' cried Totty, clapping her on the back. 'Have a drink out of my glass. It's only ginger-beer; it can't hurt you. This is jolly! Ain't it a lark to be alive?'
The pale-faced girl who had sung of May-blossoms looked across the table with eyes in which jealousy strove against admiration. There were remarks aside between the men with regard to Thyrza's personal appearance.
She must sing again. They were not going to be left with hungry ears after a song like that. Thyrza still suffered from the sense that she was doing wrong, but the praise was so sweet to her; sweeter, she thought, than anything she had ever known. She longed to repeat her triumph.
Totty named another song; the faint resistance was overcome, and again the room hushed itself, every hearer spellbound. It was a voice well worthy of cultivation, excellent in compass, with rare sweet power. Again the rapturous applause, and again the demand for more. Another! she should not refuse them. Only one more and they would be content. And a third time she sang; a third time was borne upwards on clamour.
'Totty, I must go,' she whispered. 'What's the time?'
'It's only just after ten,' was the reply. 'You'll soon run home.'
'After ten? Oh, I must go at once!'
She left her place, and as quickly as possible made her way through the crowd. Just at the door she saw a face that she recognised, but a feeling of faintness was creeping upon her, and she could think of nothing but the desire to breathe fresh air. Already she was on the stairs, but her strength suddenly failed; she felt herself falling, felt herself strongly seized, then lost consciousness.
She came to herself in a few minutes in the bar-parlour; the landlady was attending to her, and the door had been shut against intruders. Her first recognition was of Luke Ackroyd.
'Don't say anything,' she murmured, looking at him imploringly. 'Don't tell Lyddy.'
'Not I,' replied Ackroyd. 'Just drink a drop and you'll be all right. I'll see you home. You feel better, don't you?'
Yes, she felt better, though her head ached miserably. Soon she was able to walk, and longed to hasten away. The landlady let her out by the private door, and Ackroyd went with her.
'Will you take my arm?' he said, speaking very gently, and looking into her face with eloquent eyes. 'I'm rare and glad I happened to be there. I heard you singing from downstairs, and I asked, Who in the world's that? I know now what Mr. Boddy means when he talks so about your voice. Won't you take my arm, Miss Trent?'
'I feel quite well again, thank you,' she replied. 'I'd no business to be there, Mr. Ackroyd. Lyddy 'll be very angry; she can't help hearing.'
'No, no! she won't be angry. You tell her at once. You were with Totty Nancarrow, I suppose? Oh, it'll be all right. But of course it isn't the kind of place for you, Miss Trent.'
She kept silence. They were walking through a quiet street where the only light came from the gas-lamps. Ackroyd presently looked again into her face.
'Will you come out to-morrow?' he asked, softly.
'Not to-morrow, Mr. Ackroyd.' She added: 'If I did I couldn't come alone. It is better to tell you at once, isn't it? I don't mind with my sister, because then we just go like friends; but I don't want to have people think anything else.'
'Then come with your sister. We are friends. aren't we? I can wait for something else.'
'But you mustn't, Mr. Ackroyd. It'll never come. I mean it; I shall never alter my mind. I have a reason.'
'What reason?' he asked, standing still.
She looked away.
'I mean that--that I couldn't never marry you.'
'Don't say that! You don't knew what I felt when I heard you singing. Have you heard any harm against me. Thyrza? I haven't always been as steady a fellow as I ought to be, but that was before I came to know you. It's no good, whatever you say--I can't give up hope. Why, a man 'ud do anything for half a kind word from you. Thyrza (he lowered his voice), there isn't anyone else, is there?'
She was silent.
'You don't mean that? Good God! I don't know what'll become of me if I think of that. The only thing I care to live for is the hope of having you for my wife.'
'But you mustn't hope, Mr. Ackroyd. You'll find someone much better for you than me. But I can't stop. It's so late, and my head aches so. Do let me go, please.'
He made an effort over himself. The nearest lamp showed him that she was very pale.
'Only one word, Thyrza. Is there really any one else?'
'No; but that doesn't alter it.'
She walked quickly on. Ackroyd, with a great sigh of relief, went on by her side. They came out into Lambeth Walk, where the market was as noisy as ever; the shops lit up, the stalls flaring with naphtha lamps, the odour of fried fish everywhere predominant. He led her through the crowd and a short distance into her own street. Then she gave him her hand and said: 'Good-night, Mr. Ackroyd. Thank you for bringing me back. You'll be friends with me and Lyddy?'
'You'll come out with her to-morrow?'
'I can't promise. Good-night!'