Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter XL. Her Reward
This was on Thursday. The two days which followed wers such as come very rarely in a London winter. Fog had vanished; the ways were clean and hard; between the housetops and the zenith gleamed one clear blue track of frosty sky. The sun--the very sun of heaven-- made new the outline of every street, flashed on windows, gave beauty to spires and domes, revealed whiteness in untrodden places where the snow still lingered. The air was like a spirit of joyous life, tingling the blood to warmth and with a breath freeing the brain from sluggish vapours. Such a day London sees but once in half a dozen winters.
Thyrza felt the influence of the change. She breathed more easily; her body was no longer the weary weight she had failed under. When she rose and saw such marvellous daylight at her window, involuntarily she let her voice run over a few notes. The power of song was still in her; ah, if health and happiness had companioned with her, would she not have sung as few ever did!
But henceforth that was part of the past, part of what she must forget and renounce. When she said to Mrs. Ormonde that she would still try to keep up her singing, there was a thought in her mind worthy of a woman cast in such a mould as hers. She had a vision of herself, on some day not far off, sending forth her voice in glorious song, and knowing that among the crowd before her he sat and listened. He would know her then. To him her voice would say what no one else understood, and for a moment--she wished it to be for no more than a moment--he would scorn himself for having forgotten her.
It was all gone into the past, buried for ever out of sight. She would no longer even sigh over the memory. If the sky were always as to-day, if there were always sunlight to stand in and the living air to drink, she might find the life before her in truth as little of a burden as it seemed this morning But the days would again be wrapped in nether fumes, the foul air would stifle her, her blood would go stagnant, her eyes would weep with the desolate rain. Why should Gilbert remain in England? Were there no countries where the sun shone that would give a man and a woman toil whereby to support themselves? Luke Ackroyd had spoken of going to Canada. He said it cost so little to get there, and that life was better than in England. Could not Gilbert take her yonder? But there was his mother, old, weary; no such change was possible for her. And the thought of her reminded Thyrza of one of the first duties she must take upon herself. It mattered little where she lived--mattered little if the sun-dawn never broke again. Her life was to be in a narrow circle, and to that she would accustom herself.
What of to-morrow? To-day she was full of courage, even of a kind of hope. Never should Gilbert feel that she was not wholly his; never would she wrong his faithfulness by slighting the claims of his love. In her misery she had said that there were things she could not do--could not bear; as if a woman cannot take up any burden that she wills, and carry it faithfully even as far as the gates of death! And this duty before her she would not even think of as a burden. There are some women who never know what love is, who marry a man because they respect and like him, and are good wives their life long. She would be even as one of these. Suppose love to be something she had outgrown; the idleness of girls. Now was the season of her womanhood, and the realities of life left no room for folly.
How long since she had felt so well! She sewed through the morning, and had but little trouble to keep her thoughts always forward-looking. She sang a little to herself, for who but must sing when there is sunlight? She ate when dinner was brought to her. Then she prepared to go out for half an hour.
Clara just then came up.
'Ah, you are going out! Do come with us into the park, will you? You haven't to go anywhere. My husband has taken a half-holiday on purpose to skate. Reckless man! He says you don't get skating weather like this every day. Can you skate?'
Thyrza shook her head, smiling.
'No more can I. Harold wants to teach me, but it seems absurd to bruise oneself all over, and make oneself ridiculous too, to learn an amusement you can't practise once in five years. But do come with us. It really is nice to watch them skating.'
'Yes, I will come, gladly,' Thyrza said.
And so they went to the ice in Regent's Park, and Mr. Emerson put on his skates, and was speedily exhibiting his skill amid the gliding crowd. Clara and her companion walked along the edge. Thyrza, regarding this assembly of people who had come forth to enjoy themselves, marvelled inwardly. It was so hard to understand how any one could enter with such seriousness into mere amusement. How many happy people the world contained! Of all this black-coated swarm, not one with a trouble that could not be flung away at the summons of a hard frost! They sped about as if on wings, they shouted to friends, they had catastrophes and laughed aloud over them. And, as she looked on, the scene grew so unreal that it frightened her. These did not seem to be human beings. How came it that they were exempt from the sorrow that goes about the world, blighting lives and breaking hearts? Or was it she that lived in a dream, while these were really awake? She was not sorrowful now, but light-hearted pastime such as this was unintelligible to her.
Clara chatted and ran, and thoroughly enjoyed herself. At one spot she came at length to a pause, having lost sight of her husband, fretting that she could not find him. Her eye discovered him at length, however, and just as she spoke her satisfaction she was surprised by a laugh from Thyrza--a real laugh, sweet and clear as it used to be.
'What is it?' she asked in wonder.
'Oh, look! Do look!'
Just before them, on the ice, a little troop of ducks was going by, fowl dispossessed of their wonted swimming-ground by the all-hardening frost. Of every two steps the waddlers took, one was a hopeless slip, and the spectacle presented by the unhappy birds in their effort to get along at a good round pace was ludicrous beyond resistance. They sprawled and fell, they staggered up again with indignant wagging of head and tail, they rushed forward only to slip more desperately; now one leg failed them, now the other, now both at once. And all the time they kept up a cackle of annoyance; they looked about them with foolish eyes of amazement and indignation; they wondered, doubtless, what the world was coming to, when an honest duck's piece of water was suddenly stolen from him, and he was subjected to insult on the top of injury.
Thyrza gazed at them, and the longer she gazed the more merrily she laughed.
'Poor ducks! I never saw anything so ridiculous. There, look! The one with the neck all bright colours! He'll be down again; there, I said he would! Why will they try to go so quickly? They wouldn't stumble half so much if they walked gently.'
Thyrza had thought that nothing in the world could move her to unfeigned laughter. Yet as often as she thought of the ducks it was with revival of mirth. She laughed at them long after, alone in her room.
It was as bright a day on the morrow, and still she knew that lightness of heart, that freedom of the breath which is physical happiness. Had she by the mere act of redeeming her faith to Gilbert brought upon herself this reward? It was so strangely easy to keep dark thoughts at a distance. She had not lain awake in the night, for her a wonderful experience. Could it last?
There was a letter this morning from Gilbert. She did not open it at once, for she knew that there would be more pain than content in reading it. Yet, when she had read it, she found that it was not out of harmony with her mood. He wrote because he could say things in this silent way which would not come to his lips so well. The gratitude he expressed--simply, powerfully--moved Thyrza; not as the words of one she loved would have moved her, but to a feeling of calm thankfulness that she had it in her power to give so much joy. And perhaps some day she could give him affection. She had, in her belief, spoken truly when she said that he was above her. He was no ignorant man, without a thought save of his day's earnings. She could respect his mind, as she had always done, and his character she could reverence. It was well.
She told Mrs. Emerson that she was going to see her sister again, and that probably she would not return till Sunday night.
On setting forth, she had a letter to post. It was to Mrs. Ormonde. Purposely she had delayed writing this till Saturday afternoon; she wished to show that there had been a couple of days for thought since the step was taken, and that she could speak with calm consciousness of what she had done. The posting of this letter was like saying a last good-bye.
Lydia was again waiting just at the door, and again they reached the room without having been observed.
'I shall go down at once,' Thyrza said. 'Gilbert expects me. I am going to speak to Mrs. Grail.'
Lydia was pleased to see that the pale face had not that terrible look to-night. To-night there were smiles for her, and many affectionate words. During Thyrza's absence of half an hour, she sat puzzling over the mystery, as she had puzzled since Thursday night. Would all indeed be well? It was so sudden, so unthought of, so hard to believe. For Lydia had by degrees come to think of her sister as raised quite above this humble station. Though she could not reconcile herself to it; though she would above all things have chosen that Thyrza should still marry Gilbert, yet there was a contradictory sort of pride in knowing that her sister was a lady. Lyddy, we are aware, was little given to logical processes of thought; her feelings often got her into troublesome perplexities.
Thyrza came up again. Mrs. Grail had received her with tears and silence at first, but soon with something of the gratitude which Gilbert felt.
'I told them I was going to stay till to-morrow. I shall have tea with them then. You'll spare me for an hour, Lyddy?'
There was no talk between them as yet on the main subject of their thoughts. Something that was said caused Lydia to go to her cupboard and bring forth an object which Thyrza at once recognised. It was Mr. Boddy's violin.
'I shall always keep it,' she said. 'I have had offers to buy it, but I shall have to be badly in want before it goes.'
She had redeemed it from the pawnbroker's, and no one had opposed her claim to possess it. The expenses of the old man's burial had been defrayed by a subscription Ackroyd got up among those who remembered Mr. Boddy with kindness.
Thyrza touched the strings, and shrank back frightened at the sound. The ghost of dead music, it evoked the ghost of her dead self.
They fell into solemn talk. Thyrza had resolved that she would not tell her sister the truth of everything for a long time; some day she would do so, when the new life had become old habit. But, as they sat by the fire and spoke in low voices, she was impelled to make all known. Why should there any longer be a secret between Lyddy and herself? It would be yet another help to her if she told Lyddy; she felt at length that she must.
So the story was whispered. Lydia could only hold her sister in her arms, and shed tears of love and pity.
'We will never speak of it again, dearest,' Thyrza said; 'never, as long as we live!'
'No, never as long as we live!'
'It's all very long ago, already,' Thyrza added. 'I don't suffer now, dear one. I have borne so much, that I think I can't feel pain any more. With you, here in our home, I am happy, and, wherever I am, I don't think I shall ever be unhappy. I have written to Mrs. Ormonde, and she will let him know. He will think I came back because I had long forgotten him, and was sorry that I ever left Gilbert. You see, that's what I wish him to believe. Now there'll be nothing to prevent him from marrying who he likes. No one can say that he has done harm which can never be undone, can they? I shall rest now, and life will seem easy. So little will be asked of me; I shall do my best so willingly.'
In the morning Thyrza said:
'I have a fancy, Lyddy. I want you to do my hair for me again.'
'Like you wear it now?'
'No, I mean in the old way. Will it make me look a child again? Never mind, that is what I should like. I'll have it so when I go downstairs to tea.'
And whilst Lydia was busy with the golden tresses, Thyrza laughed suddenly. She had only just thought again of the ducks in the park. She told all about them, and they laughed together.
'I wonder whether Mrs. Jarmey knows I'm here,' Thyrza said. 'You think not? Won't someone be coming to see you? Won't Mary?'
'Yes. She always calls for me to go to chapel. Would you rather not see her?'
'Not to-day, Lyddy. Not till I'm in my own home.'
'But I may tell her you're here? I'll go down in time to meet her, and I won't go to chapel this morning. No, I'll stay with you this morning, dear.'
So it was arranged. And they cooked their dinner as they used to; only Thyrza declared that Lydia had been extravagant in providing.
'I see how you indulge yourself, now that I'm away! Oh yes, of course you pretend it's only for me.'
How could she be so merry? Lydia thought. But this smile was not always on her face.
The day passed very quickly. Lydia said she would go out whilst Thyrza was with the Grails; she had promised to see someone. Thyrza did not ask who it was.
When she came upstairs again the other had not yet returned. She was yet a quarter of an hour away. Then she appeared with signs of haste.
'I was afraid you'd be here alone,' she said.
'But have you had tea, Lyddy?'
This 'yes' was said rather mysteriously. And Lydia's subsequent behaviour was also mysterious. She took her hat off and stood with it in her hand, as if not knowing where to put it. Then she sat down, forgetting that she still wore her jacket. Reminded of this, she stood about the room, undecidedly.
'What are you thinking of, Lyddy?'
She sat down at last, but had so singular a countenance that Thyrza was obliged to remark on it.
'What have you been doing? Never mind, if you'd rather not tell me.'
Two or three minutes passed before Lydia could make up her mind to tell. She began by saying:
'You know when I went down to see Mary this morning?'
'She said she'd seen--that she'd seen Mrs. Poole, and that I was to be sure to go round to Mrs. Poole's some time in the afternoon, as she wanted to see me, particular.'
'Yes. And that's where you went?'
Lydia seemed to have no more to say. Thyrza looked at her searchingly.
'Well, Lyddy, there's nothing in that. What else? I know there's something else.'
'Yes, there is. I went to the house, and, when I knocked at the door, Mr. Ackroyd opened it.'
Thyrza had begun to tremble. Her eyes watched her sister's face eagerly; she read something in the heightened colour it showed.
'And then, Lyddy? And then?'
'He asked me to come into the sitting-room. And then he--he said he wanted me to marry him, Thyrza.'
'Lyddy! It is true? At last?'
Thyrza could scarcely contain herself for joy. She had longed for this. No happiness of her own would have been in truth complete until there came like happiness to her sister. She knew how long, how patiently, with what self-sacrifice, Lydia had been faithful to this her first love. Again and again the love had seemed for ever hopeless; yet Lydia gave no sign of sorrow. The sisters were unlike each other in this. Lydia's nature, fortunately for herself, was not passionate; but its tenderness none knew as Thyrza did, its tenderness and its steadfast faith.
'Thyrza, any one would think you are more glad of it than I am.'
'There are no words to tell my gladness, dearest! Good Lyddy! At last, at last!'
Her face changed from moment to moment; it was now flushed, now again pale. Once or twice she put her hand against her side.
'How excitable you always were, little one!' Lydia said. 'Come and sit quietly. It's bad luck when any one makes so much of a thing.'
Thyrza grew calmer. Her face showed that she was suppressing pain. In a few minutes she said:
'I'll just lie down, Lyddy. I shall be better directly. Don't trouble, it's nothing. Come and sit by me. How glad I am! Look pleased, just to please me, will you?'
Both were quiet. Thyrza said it had only been a feeling of faintness; it was gone now.
The fire was getting low. Lydia went to stir it. She had done so and was turning to the bed again, when Thyrza half rose, crying in a smothered voice:
Then she fell back. Her sister was bending over her in an instant, was loosening her dress, doing all that may restore one who has fainted. But for Thyrza there was no awaking.
Had she not herself desired it? And what gift more blessed, of all that man may pray for?
She was at rest, the pure, the gentle, at rest in her maidenhood. The joy that had strength to kill her was not of her own; of the two great loves between which her soul was divided, that which was lifelong triumphed in her life's last moment.
She who wept there through the night would have lain dead if that cold face could in exchange have been touched by the dawn to waking. She felt that her life was desolate; she mourned as for one on whom the extremity of fate has fallen. Mourn she must, in the anguish of her loss; she could not know the cruelty that was in her longing to bring the sleeper back to consciousness. The heart that had ached so wearily would ache no more; for the tired brain there was no more doubt. Had existence been to her but one song of thanksgiving, even then to lie thus had been more desirable. For to sleep is better than to wake, and how should we who live bear the day's burden but for the promise of death.
On Monday at noon there arrived a telegram, addressed to 'Miss Thyrza Trent.' Gilbert received it from Mrs. Jarmey, and he took it upstairs to Lydia, who opened it. It was from Mrs. Ormonde; she was at the Emersons', and wished to know when Thyrza would return; she desired to see her.
'Will you write to her, Gilbert?' Lydia asked.
'Wouldn't it be better if I went to see her?'
Yes, that was felt to be better. It was known that Thyrza had written to Mrs. Ormonde on Saturday, so that nothing needed to be explained; Gilbert had only to bear his simple news.
Arrived at the house, he had to wait. Mrs. Ormonde was gone out for an hour, and neither Mr. Emerson nor his wife was at home. He sat in the Emersons' parlour, seldom stirring, his eyes unobservant. For Gilbert Grail there was little left in the world that he cared to look at.
Mrs. Ormonde came in. She regarded Gilbert with uncertainty, having been told that someone waited for her, but nothing more. Gilbert rose and made himself known to her. Then, marking his expression, she was fearful.
'You have come from Miss Trent--from Thyrza,' she said, giving him her hand.
'She could not come herself, Mrs. Ormonde.'
'Thyrza is ill?'
He hesitated. His face had told her the truth before he uttered:
'She is dead!'
It is seldom that we experience a simple emotion. When the words, incredible at first, had established their meaning in her mind, Mrs. Ormonde knew that with her human grief there blended an awe-struck thankfulness. She stood on other ground than Lydia's, on other than Gilbert's; her heart had been wrung by the short unaffected letter she had received from Thyrza, and, though she could only acquiesce, the future had looked grey and joyless. To hear it said of Thyrza, 'She is dead!' chilled her; the world of her affections was beyond measure poorer by the loss of that sweet and noble being. But could she by a word have reversed the decision of fate, love would not have suffered her to speak it.
They talked together, and at the end she said:
'If Lydia will let me come and see her, I shall be very grateful. Will you ask her, and send word to me speedily?'
The permission was granted. Mrs. Ormonde went to Walnut Tree Walk that evening, and Gilbert conducted her to the door of the room. The lamp gave its ordinary stinted light. There was nothing unusual in the appearance of the chamber. In the bed one lay asleep.
Mrs. Ormonde took Lydia's hands and without speaking kissed her. Then Lydia raised the lamp from the table, and held it so that the light fell on her sister's face. No remnant of pain was there, only calm, unblemished beauty; the lips were as naturally composed as if they might still part to give utterance to song; the brow showed its lines of high imaginativeness even more clearly than in life. The golden braid rested by her neck as in childhood.
'Have you any picture of her?' Mrs. Ormonde asked.
'Will you let me have one made--drawn from her face now, but looking as she did in life? It shall be done by a good artist; I think it can be done successfully.'
Lydia was in doubt. The thought of introducing a stranger to this room to sit and pore upon the dead face with cold interest was repugnant to her. Yet if Thyrza's face really could be preserved, to look at her, for others dear to her to look at, that would be much. She gave her assent.
Mary Bower came frequently; her silent presence was a help to Lydia through the miseries of the next few days.
One other there was who asked timidly to be allowed to see Thyrza once more--her friend Totty. She sought Mary Bower, and said how much she wished it, though she feared Lydia would not grant her wish. But it was granted readily, Totty had her sad pleasure, and her solemn memory.
Mrs. Ormonde knew that it was better for her not to attend the funeral. On the evening before, she left at the house a small wreath of white flowers. Lydia, Gilbert, Mary Bower, Luke Ackroyd and his sister, these only went to the cemetery. He whom Thyrza would have wished to follow her, in thought at least, to the grave, was too far away to know of her death till later.
The next day, Lydia sat for an hour with Ackroyd. They did not speak much. But before she left him, Lydia looked into his face and said:
'Do you wish me to believe, Luke, that I shall never see my sister again?'
He bent his face and kept silence.
'Do you think that I could live if I believed that she was gone for ever? That I should never meet Thyrza after this, never again?'
'I shall never wish you to think in that way, Lyddy,' he answered, kindly. 'I've often talked as if I knew things for certain, when I know nothing. You're better in yourself than I am, and you may feel more of the truth.'
The next morning, Lydia went to her work as usual. Gilbert had already returned to his. The clear winter sunshine was already a thing of the far past; in the streets was the slush of thaw, and darkness fell early from the obscured sky.