Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter V. A Land of Twilight
It happened that Mrs. Jarmey, the landlady of the house in which the sisters lived, had business in the neighbourhood of the 'Prince Albert,' and chanced to exchange a word with an acquaintance who had just come away after hearing Thyrza sing. Returning home, she found Lydia at the door, anxiously and impatiently waiting for Thyrza's appearance. The news, of course, was at once communicated, with moral reflections, wherein Mrs. Jarmey excelled. Not five minutes later, and whilst the two were still talking in the passage, the front door opened, and Thyrza came in. Lydia turned and went upstairs.
Thyrza, entering the room, sought her sister's face; it had an angry look. For a moment Lydia did not speak; the other, laying aside her hat, said: 'I'm sorry I'm so late, Lyddy.'
'Where have you been?' her sister asked, in a voice which strove to command itself.
Thyrza could not tell the whole truth at once, though she knew it would have to be confessed eventually; indeed, whether or no discovery came from other sources, all would eventually be told of her own free will. She might fear at the moment, but in the end kept no secret from Lydia.
'I've been about with Totty,' she said, averting her face as she drew off her cotton gloves.
'Yes, you have! You've been singing at a public-house.'
Lydia was too upset to note the paleness of Thyrza's face, which at another moment would have elicited anxious question. She was deeply hurt that Thyrza made so little account of her wishes; jealous of the influence of Totty Nancarrow; stirred with apprehensions as powerful as a mother's. On the other hand, it was Thyrza's nature to shrink into coldness before angry words. She suffered intensely when the voice which was of wont so affectionate turned to severity, but she could not excuse herself till the storm was over. And it was most often from the elder girl that the first words of reconcilement came.
'That's your Totty Nancarrow,' Lydia went on, with no check upon her tongue. 'Didn't I tell you what 'ud come of going about with her? What next, I should like to know! If you go on and sing in a public-house, I don't know what you won't do. I shall never trust you out by yourself again. You shan't go out at night at all, that's about it!'
'You've no right to speak to me like that, Lydia,' Thyrza replied, with indignation. The excitement and the fainting. fit had strung her nerves painfully; and, for all her repentance, the echo of applause was still very sweet in her ears. This vehement reproach caused a little injury to her pride. 'It doesn't depend on you whether I go out or not. I'm not a child, and I can take care of myself. I haven't done nothing wrong.'
'You have--and you know you have! You knew I shouldn't have let you go near such a place. You know how I've begged you not to go with Totty Nancarrow, and how you've promised me you wouldn't be led into no harm. I shall never be able to trust you again. You are only a child! You show it! And in future you'll do as I tell you!'
Thyrza caught up her hat.
'I'm not going to stop here whilst you're in such a bad temper,' she said, in a trembling voice; 'you'll find that isn't the way to make me do as you wish.'
She stepped to the door. Lydia, frightened, sprang forward and barred the way.
'Go and sit down, Thyrza!'
'Let me go! What right have you to stop me?'
Then both were silent. At the same moment they became aware that a common incident of Saturday night was occurring had got thus far on their way home, the wife's shrill tongue in the street below. A half-tipsy man and a nagging woman running over every scale of scurrility and striking every note of ingenious malice. The man was at length worked to a pitch of frenzy, and then--thud, thud, mingled with objurgations and shrill night-piercing yells. Fury little short of murderous was familiar enough to dwellers in this region, but that woman's bell-clapper tongue had struck shame into Lydia. She could not speak another angry word.
'Thyrza, take your hat off,' she said quietly, moving away a little from the door. Her cheeks burned, and she quivered in the subsidence of her temper.
Her sister did not obey, but, unable to stand longer, she went to a chair at a distance. The uproar in the street continued for a quarter of an hour, then by degrees passed on, the voice of the woman shrieking foul abuse till remoteness stifled it. Lydia forced herself to keep silence from good or ill; it was no use speaking the thoughts she had till morning. Thyrza sat with her eyes fixed on vacancy; she was so miserable, her heart had sunk so low, that tears would have come had she not forced them back. More than once of late she had known this mood, in which life lay about her barren and weary. She was very young to suffer that oppression of the world-worn; it was the penalty she paid for her birthright of heart and mind.
By midnight they were lying side by side, but no 'goodnight' had passed between them. When Thyrza's gentle breathing told that she slept, Lydia still lay with open eyes, watching the flicker of the street lamp upon the ceiling, hearing the sounds that came of mirth or brutality in streets near and far. She did not suffer in the same way as her sister; as soon as she had gently touched Thyrza's unconscious hand love came upon her with its warm solace; but her trouble was deep, and she looked into the future with many doubts.
The past she could scarcely deem other than happy, though a stranger would have thought it sad enough. Her mother she well remembered--a face pale and sweet, like Thyrza's: the eyes that have their sad beauty from foresight of death. Her father lived only a year longer, then she and the little one passed into the charge of Mr. Boddy, who was paid a certain small sum by Trent's employers, in consideration of the death by accident. Then came the commencement of Mr. Boddy's misfortunes; his shop and house were burnt down, he lost his limb in an endeavour to save his property, he lost his wife in consequence of the shock. Dreary things for the memory, yet they did not weigh upon Lydia; she was so happily endowed that her mind selected and dwelt on sunny hours, on kind looks and words which her strong heart cherished unassailably, on the mutual charities which sorrow had begotten rather than on the sorrow itself. Above all, the growing love of her dear one, of her to whom she was both mother and sister, had strengthened her against every trouble. Yet of late this strongest passion of her life had become a source of grave anxieties, as often as circumstance caused her to look beyond her contentment. Thyrza was so beautiful, and, it seemed to her, so weak; always dreaming of something beyond and above the life which was her lot; so deficient in the practical qualities which that life demanded. At moments Lydia saw her responsibility in a light which alarmed her.
They worked at a felt-hat factory, as 'trimmers;' that is to say, they finished hats by sewing in the lining, putting on the bands, and the like. In the busy season they could average together wages of about a pound a week; at dull times they earned less, and very occasionally had to support themselves for a week or two without employment. Since the age of fourteen Lydia herself had received help from no one; from sixteen she had lived in lodgings with Thyrza, independent. Mr. Boddy was then no longer able to do more than supply his own needs, for things had grown worse with him from year to year. Lydia occasionally found jobs for her free hours, and she had never yet wanted. She was strong, her health had scarcely ever given her a day's uneasiness; there never came to her a fear lest bread should fail. But Thyrza could not take life as she did. It was not enough for that imaginative nature to toil drearily day after day, and year after year, just for the sake of earning a livelihood. In a month she would be seventeen; it was too true, as she had said to-night, that she was no longer a child. What might happen if the elder sister's influence came to an end? Thyrza loved her: how Lydia would have laughed at anyone who hinted that the love could ever weaken! But it was not a guard against every danger.
It was inevitable that Lydia should have hoped that her sister might marry early. And one man she knew in whom--she scarcely could have told you why--her confidence was so strong that she would freely have entrusted him with Thyrza's fate. Thyrza could not bring herself to think of him as a husband. It was with Ackroyd that Lydia's thoughts were busy as she lay wakeful. Before to-night she had not pondered so continuously on what she knew of him. For some two years he had been an acquaintance, through the Bowers, and she had felt glad when it was plain that he sought Thyrza's society. 'Yes,' she had said to herself, 'I like him, and feel that he is to be relied upon.' Stories, to be sure, had reached her ears; something of an over-fondness for conviviality; but she had confidence. To-night she seemed called upon to review all her impressions. Why? Nothing new had happened. She longed for sleep, but it only came when dawn was white upon the blind.
When it was time to rise, neither spoke. Lydia prepared the breakfast as usual--it seemed quite natural that she should do nearly all the work of the home--and they sat down to it cheerlessly.
Since daybreak a mist had crept over the sky; it thinned the sunlight to a suffusion of grey and gold. Within the house there was the silence of Sunday morning; the street was still, save for the jodeling of a milkman as he wheeled his clattering cans from house to house. In that London on the other side of Thames, known to these girls with scarcely less of vagueness than to simple dwellers in country towns, the autumn-like air was foretaste of holiday; the martyrs of the Season and they who do the world's cleaner work knew that rest was near, spoke at breakfast of the shore and the mountain. Even to Lydia, weary after her short sleep and unwontedly dejected, there came a wish that it were possible to quit the streets for but one day, and sit somewhere apart under the open sky. It was not often that so fantastic a dream visited her.
In dressing, Thyrza had left her hair unbraided. Lydia always did that for her. When the table was cleared, the former took up a story-paper which she bought every week, and made a show of reading. Lydia went about her accustomed tasks.
Presently she took a brush and comb and went behind her sister's chair. She began to unloosen the rough coils in which the golden hair was pinned together. It was always a joy to her to bathe her hands in the warm, soft torrent. With delicate care she combed out every intricacy, and brushed the ordered tresses till the light gleamed on their smooth surface; then with skilful fingers she wove the braid, tying it with a blue ribbon so that the ends hung loose. The task completed, it was her custom to bend over the little head and snatch an inverted kiss, always a moment of laughter. This morning she omitted that; she was moving sadly away, when she noticed that the face turned a little, a very little.
'Isn't it right?' she asked, keeping her eyes down.
'I think so--it doesn't matter.'
She drew near again, as if to inspect her work. Perhaps there was a slight lack of smoothness over the temple; she touched the spot with her fingers.
'Why are you so unkind to me, Thyrza?'
The words had come involuntarily; the voice shook as they were spoken.
'I don't mean to be, Lyddy--you know I don't.'
'But you do things that you know 'll make me angry. I'm quick-tempered, and I couldn't bear to think of you going to that place; I ought to have spoke in a different way.'
'Who told you I'd been singing?'
'Mrs. Jarmey. I'm very glad she did; it doesn't seem any harm to you, Thyrza, but it does to me. Dear, have you ever sung at such places before?'
Thyrza shook her head.
'Will you promise me never to go there again?'
'I don't want to go. But I get no harm. They were very pleased with my singing. Annie West was there, and several other girls. Why do you make so much of it, Lyddy?'
'Because I'm older than you, Thyrza; and if you'll only trust me, and do as I wish, you'll see some day that I was right. I know you're a good girl; I don't think a wrong thought ever came into your head. It isn't that, it's because you can't go about the streets and into public-houses without hearing bad things and seeing bad people. I want to keep you away from everything that isn't homelike and quiet. I want you to love me more than anyone else!'
'I do, Lyddy! I do, dear! It's only that I--'
'I don't know how it is. I'm discontented. There's never any change. How can you be so happy day after day? I love to be with you, but-- if we could go and live somewhere else! I should like to see a new place. I've been reading there about the seaside what it must be like! I want to know things. You don't understand me?'
'I think I do. I felt a little the same when I heard Mrs. Isaacs and her daughter talking about Margate yesterday. But we shall he better off some day, see if we aren't! Try your best not to think about those things. Suppose you ask Mr. Grail to lend you a book to read? I met Mrs. Grail downstairs last night, and she asked if we'd go down and have tea to-day. I can't, because Mary's coming, but you might. And I'm sure he'd lend you something nice if you asked him.'
'I don't think I durst. He always sits so quiet, and he's such a queer man.'
'Yes, he is rather queer, but he speaks very kind.'
'I'll see. But you mustn't speak so cross to me if I do wrong, Lyddy. I felt as if I should like to go away, some time when you didn't know. I did, really!'
Lydia gazed at her anxiously.
'I don't think you'd ever have the heart to do that, Thyrza,' she said, in a low voice.
'No,' she shook her head, smiling. 'I couldn't do without you. And now kiss me properly, like you always do.'
Lydia stood behind the chair again, and the laughing caress was exchanged.
'I should stay,' Thyrza went on, 'if it was only to have you do my hair. I do so like to feel your soft hands!'
'Soft hands! Great coarse things. Just look!'
She took one of Thyrza's, and held it beside her own. The difference was noticeable enough; Lydia's was not ill-shapen, but there were marks on it of all the rough household work which she had never permitted her sister to do. Thyrza's was delicate, supple, beautiful in its kind as her face.
'I don't care!' she said laughing. 'It's a good, soft, sleepy hand.'
'I mean it always makes me feel dozy when it's doing my hair.'
There was no more cloud between them. The morning passed on with sisterly talk. Lydia had wisely refrained from exacting promises; she hoped to resume the subject before long--together with another that was in her mind. Thyrza, too, had something to speak of, but could not bring herself to it as yet.
Though it was so hot, they had to keep a small fire for cooking the dinner. This meal consisted of a small piece of steak, chosen from the odds and ends thrown together on the front of a butcher's shop, and a few potatoes. It was not always they had meat; yet they never went hungry, and, in comparing herself with others she knew, it sometimes made Lydia a little unhappy to think how well she lived.
Then began the unutterable dreariness of a Sunday afternoon. From the lower part of the house sounded the notes of a concertina; it was Mr. Jarmey who played. He had the habit of doing so whilst half asleep, between dinner and tea. With impartiality he passed from strains of popular hymnody to the familiar ditties of the music hall, lavishing on each an excess of sentiment. He shook pathetically on top notes and languished on final chords. A dolorous music!
The milkman came along the street. He was followed by a woman who wailed 'wa-ater-creases!' Then the concertina once more possessed the stillness. Few pedestrians were abroad; the greater part of the male population of Lambeth slumbered after the baked joint and flagon of ale. Yet here and there a man in his shirt-sleeves leaned forth despondently from a window or sat in view within, dozing over the Sunday paper.
A rattling of light wheels drew near, and a nasal voice cried ''Okey-pokey! 'Okey-'okey-'okey Penny a lump!' It was the man who sold ice-cream. He came to a stop, and half a dozen boys gathered about his truck. The delicacy was dispensed to them in little green and yellow glasses, from which they extracted it with their tongues. The vendor remained for a few minutes, then on again with his ''Okey'-okey-'okey!' sung through the nose.
Next came a sound of distressful voices, whining the discords of a mendicant psalm. A man, a woman, and two small children crawled along the street; their eyes surveyed the upper windows. All were ragged and filthy; the elders bore the unmistakable brand of the gin-shop, and the children were visaged like debased monkeys. Occasionally a copper fell to them, in return for which the choragus exclaimed 'Gord bless yer!'
Thyrza sat in her usual place by the window, now reading for a few minutes, now dreaming. Lydia had some stockings to be darned; she became at length so silent that her sister turned to look at her. Her head had dropped forward. She slumbered for a few minutes, then started to consciousness again, and laughed when she saw Thyrza regarding her.
'I suppose Mary'll be here directly?' she said. 'I'd better put this work out of sight.' And as she began to spread the cloth, she asked: 'What'll you do whilst we're at chapel, Thyrza?'
'I think I'll go and have tea with Mrs. Grail; then I'll see if I dare ask for a book.'
'You've made up your mind not to go out?'
'There was something I wanted to tell you. I met Mr. Ackroyd as I was coming home last night. I told him I couldn't come out alone, and I said I couldn't be sure whether you'd come or not.'
'But what a pity!' returned Lydia. 'You knew I was going to chapel. I'm afraid he'll wait for us.'
'Yes, but I somehow didn't like to say we wouldn't go at all. What time is he going to be there?'
'He said at six o'clock.'
'Would you mind just running out and telling him? Perhaps you'll be going past with Mary, not long after?'
'That's a nice job you give me!' remarked Lydia, with a half smile.
'But I know you don't mind it, Lyddy. It isn't the first thing you've done for me.'
It was said with so much naivete that Lydia could not but laugh.
'I should like it much better if you'd go yourself,' she replied. 'But I'm afraid it's no good asking.'
'Not a hit! And, Lyddy, I told Mr. Ackroyd that it would always be the same. He understands now.'
The other made no reply.
'You won't be cross about it?'
'No, dear; there's nothing to be cross about. But I'm very sorry.'
The explanation passed in a tone of less earnestness than either would have anticipated. They did not look at each other, and they dismissed the subject as soon as possible. Then came two rings at the house-bell, signifying the arrival of their visitor.
Mary Bower and Lydia had been close friends for four or five years, yet they had few obvious points of similarity, and their differences were marked enough. The latter increased; for Mary attached herself more closely to religious observances, whilst Lydia continued to declare with native frankness that she could not feel it incumbent upon her to give grave attention to such matters. Mary grieved over this attitude in one whose goodness of heart she could not call in question; it troubled her as an inconsequence in nature; she cherished a purpose of converting Lydia, and had even brought herself to the point of hoping that some sorrow might befall her friend--nothing of too sad a nature, but still a grief which might turn her thoughts inward. Yet, had anything of the kind come to pass, Mary would have been the first to hasten with consolation.
Thyrza went downstairs, and the two gossiped as tea was made ready. Mary had already heard of the incident at the 'Prince Albert;' such a piece of news could not be long in reaching Mrs. Bower's. She wished to speak of it, yet was in uncertainty whether Lydia had already been told. The latter was the first to bring forward the subject.
'It's quite certain she oughtn't to make a friend of that girl Totty,' Mary said, with decision. 'You must insist that it is stopped, Lydia.'
'I shan't do any good that way,' replied the other, shaking her head. 'I lost my temper last night, like a silly, and of course only harm came of it.'
'But there's no need to lose your temper. You must tell her she's not to speak to the girl again, and there's an end of it!'
'Thyrza's too old for that, dear. I must lead her by kindness, or I can't lead her at all. I don't think, though, she'll ever do such a thing as that again. I know what a temptation it was; she does sing so sweetly. But she won't do it again now she knows how I think about it.'
Mary appeared doubtful. Given a suggestion of iniquity, and it was her instinct rather to fear than to hope. Secretly she had no real liking for Thyrza; something in that complex nature repelled her. As she herself had said: 'Thyrza was not easy to understand,' but she did understand that the girl's essential motives were of a kind radically at enmity with her own. Thyrza, it seemed to her, was worldly in the most hopeless way.
'You'll be sorry for it if you're not firm,' she remarked.
Lydia made no direct reply, but after a moment's musing she said:
'If only she could think of Mr. Ackroyd!'
She had not yet spoken so plainly of this to Mary; the latter was surprised by the despondency of her tone.
'But I thought they were often together?'
'She's only been out with him when I went as well, and last night she told him it was no use.'
'Well, I can't say I'm sorry to hear that,' Mary replied with the air of one who spoke an unpleasant truth.
'Why not, Mary?'
'I think he's likely to do her every bit as much harm as Totty Nancarrow.'
'What do you mean, Mary?' There was a touch of indignation in Lydia's voice. 'What harm can Mr. Ackroyd do to Thyrza?'
'Not the kind of harm you're thinking of, dear. But if I had a sister I know I shouldn't like to see her marry Mr. Ackroyd. He's got no religion, and what's more he's always talking against religion. Father says he made a speech last week at that place in Westminster Bridge Road where the Atheists have their meetings. I don't deny there's something nice about him, but I wouldn't trust a man of that kind.'
Lydia delayed her words a little. She kept her eyes on the table; her forehead was knitted.
'I can't help what he thinks about religion,' she replied at length, with firmness. 'He's a good man, I'm quite sure of that.'
'Lydia, he can't be good if he does his best to ruin people's souls.'
'I don't know anything about that, Mary. Whatever he says, he says because he believes it and thinks it right. Why, there's Mr. Grail thinks in the same way, I believe; at all events, he never goes to church or chapel. And he's a friend of Mr. Ackroyd's.'
'But we don't know anything about Mr. Grail.'
'We don't know much, but it's quite enough to talk to him for a few minutes to know he's a man that wouldn't say or do anything wrong.'
'He must be a wonderful man, Lydia.'
These Sunday conversations were always fruitful of trouble. Mary was prepared by her morning and afternoon exercises to be more aggressive and uncompromising than usual. But the present difficulty appeared a graver one than any that had yet risen between them. Lydia had never spoken in the tone which marked her rejoinder:
'Really, Mary, it's as if you couldn't put faith in no one! You know I don't feel the same as you do about religion and such things, and I don't suppose I ever shall. When I like people, I like them; I can't ask what they believe and what they don't believe. We'd better not talk about it any more.'
Mary's face assumed rather a hard look.
'Just as you like, my dear,' she said.
There ensued an awkward silence, which Lydia at length broke by speech on some wholly different subject. Mary with difficulty adapted herself to the change; tea was finished rather uncomfortably.
It was six o'clock. Lydia, hearing the hour strike, knew that Ackroyd would be waiting at the end of Walnut Tree Walk. She was absent-minded, halting between a desire to go at once, and tell him that they could not come, and a disinclination not perhaps very clearly explained. The minutes went on. It seemed to be decided for her that he should learn the truth by their failure to join him.
Church bells began to sound. Mary rose and put on her hat, then, taking up the devotional books she had with her, offered her hand as if to say good-bye.
'But,' said Lydia in surprise, 'I'm going with you.'
'I didn't suppose you would,' the other returned quietly.
'But haven't you had tea with me?'
Mary had not now to learn that her friend held a promise inviolable; her surprise would have been great if Lydia had allowed her to go forth alone. She smiled.
'Will there be nice singing?' Lydia asked, as she prepared herself quickly. 'I do really like the singing, at all events, Mary.'
The other shook her head, sadly.
They left the house and turned towards Kennington Road. Before Lydia had gone half a dozen steps she saw that Ackroyd was waiting at the end of the street. She felt a pang of self-reproach; it was wrong of her to have allowed him to stand in miserable uncertainty all this time; she ought to have gone out at six o'clock. In a low voice she said to her companion:
'There's Mr. Ackroyd. I want just to speak a word to him. If you'll go on when we get up, I'll soon overtake you.'
Mary acquiesced in silence. Lydia, approaching, saw disappointment on the young man's face. He raised his hat to her--an unwonted attention in these parts--and she gave him her hand.
'I'm going to chapel,' she said playfully.
He had a sudden hope.
'Then your sister'll come out?'
'No, Mr. Ackroyd; she can't to-night. She's having tea with Mrs. Grail.'
He looked down the street. Lydia was impelled to say earnestly:
'Some time, perhaps! Thyrza is very young yet, Mr. Ackroyd. She thinks of such different things.'
'What does she think of?' he asked, rather gloomily.
'I mean she--she must get older and know you better. Good-bye! Mary Bower is waiting for me.'
She ran on, and Ackroyd sauntered away without a glance after her.