Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter VII. The Work in Progress
On the sheltered side of Eastbourne, just at the springing of the downs as you climb towards Beachy Head, is a spacious and heavy-looking stone house, with pillared porch, oriel windows on the ground floor of the front, and a square turret rising above the fine row of chestnuts which flanks the road. It was built some forty years ago, its only neighbours then being a few rustic cottages; recently there has sprung up a suburb of comely red-brick houses, linking it with the visitors' quarter of Eastbourne. The builder and first proprietor, a gentleman whose dignity derived from Mark Lane, called the house Odessa Lodge; at his death it passed by purchase into the hands of people to whom this name seemed something worse than inappropriate, and the abode was henceforth known as The Chestnuts.
One morning early in November, three months after the date of that letter which he addressed to Gilbert Grail and other working men of Lambeth, our friend Egremont arrived from town at Eastbourne station and was conveyed thence by fly to the house of which I speak. He inquired for Mrs. Ormonde. That lady was not within, but would shortly return from her morning drive. Egremont followed the servant to the library and prepared to wait.
The room was handsomely furnished and more than passably supplied with books, which inspection showed to be not only such as one expects to find in the library of a country house, but to a great extent works of very modern issue, arguing in their possessor the catholicity of taste which our time encourages. The solid books which form the substratum of every collection were brought together by Mr. Brook Ormonde, in the first instance at his house in Devonshire Square; when failing health compelled him to leave London, the town establishment was broken up, and until his death, three years later, the family resided wholly at The Chestnuts. During those years the library grew appreciably, for the son of the house, Horace Ormonde, had just come forth from the academic curriculum with a vast appetite for literature. His mother, moreover, was of the women who read. Whilst Mr. Ormonde was taking a lingering farewell of the world and its concerns, these two active minds were busy with the fire-new thought of the scientific and humanitarian age. Walter Egremont was then a frequent visitor of the house; he and Horace talked many a summer night into dawn over the problems which nowadays succeed measles and scarlatina as a form of youthful complaint. But Horace Ormonde had even a shorter span of life before him than his invalid father. He was drowned in bathing, and it was Egremont who had to take the news up to The Chestnuts. A few months later, there was another funeral from the house. Mrs. Ormonde remained alone.
It was in this room that Egremont had waited for the mother's coming, that morning when he returned companionless from the beach. He was then but two-and-twenty; big task was as terrible as a man can be called upon to perform. Mrs. Ormonde had the strength to remember that; she shed no tears, uttered no lamentations. When, after a few questions, she was going silently from the room, Walter, his own eyes blinded, caught her hand and pressed it passionately in both his own. She was the woman whom he reverenced above all others, worshipping her with that pure devotion which young men such as he are wont to feel for some gracious lady much their elder. At that moment he would have given his own life to the sea could he by so doing have brought her back the son who would never return. Such moments do not come often to the best of us, perhaps in very truth do not repeat themselves. Egremont never entered the library without having that impulse of uttermost unselfishness brought back vividly to his thoughts; on that account he liked the room, and gladly spent a quiet half-hour in it.
In a little less than that Mrs. Ormonde returned from her breathing of the sea air. At the door she was told of Egremont's arrival, and with a look of pleased expectancy she went at once to the library.
Egremont rose from the fireside, and advanced with the quiet confidence with which one greets only the dearest friends.
'So the sunshine has brought you,' she said, holding his hand for a moment. 'We had a terrible storm in the night, and the morning is very sweet after it. Had you arrived a very little sooner, you would have been in time to drive with me.'
She was one of those women who have no need to soften their voice when they would express kindness. Her clear and firm, yet sweet, tones uttered with perfection a nature very richly and tenderly endowed. During the past five years she had aged in appearance; the grief which she would not expose had drawn its lines upon her features, and something too of imperfect health was visible there. But her gaze was the same as ever, large, benevolent, intellectual. In her presence Egremont always felt a well-being, a peace of mind, which gave to his own look its pleasantest quality. Of friends she was still, and would ever be, the dearest to him. The thought of her approval was always active with him when he made plans for fruitful work; he could not have come before her with a consciousness of ignoble fault weighing upon his mind.
She passed upstairs, and he followed more slowly. Behind the first landing was a small conservatory; and there, amid evergreens, sat two children whose appearance would have surprised a chance visitor knowing nothing of the house and its mistress. They obviously came from some very poor working-class home; their clothing was of the plainest possible, and, save that they were very clean and in perfect order, they might have been sitting on a doorstep in a London back street. Mrs. Ormonde had thrown a kind word to them in hurrying by. At the sight of Egremont they hushed their renewed talk and turned shamefaced looks to the ground. He went on to the drawing-room, where there was the same comfort and elegance as in the library. Almost immediately Mrs. Ormonde joined him.
'So you want news!' she said, with her own smile, always a little sad, always mingling tenderness with reserve on the firm lips. 'Really, I told you everything essential in my letter. Annabel is in admirable health, both of body and mind. She is deep in Virgil and Dante--what more could you wish her? Her father, I am sorry to say, is not altogether well. Indeed, I was guilty of doing my best to get him to London for the winter.'
'Ah! That is something of which your letter made no mention.'
'No, for I didn't succeed. At least, he shook his head very persistently.'
'I heartily wish you had succeeded. Couldn't you get help from Annabel--Miss Newthorpe?'
'Never mind; let it be Annabel between us,' said Mrs. Ormonde, seating herself near the fire. 'I tried to, but she was not fervent. All the same, it is just possible, I think, that they may come. Mr. Newthorpe needs society, however content he may believe himself. Annabel, to my surprise, does really seem independent of such aids. How wonderfully she has grown since I saw her two years ago! No, no, I don't mean physically--though that is also true--but how her mind has grown! Even her letters hadn't quite prepared me for what I found.'
Egremont was leaning on the back of a chair, his hands folded together. He kept silence, and Mrs. Ormonde, with a glance at him, added:
'But she is something less than human at present. Probably that will last for another year or so.'
'Less than human?'
'Abstract, impersonal. With the exception of her father, you were the only living person of whom she voluntarily spoke to me.'
'She spoke of me?'
'Very naturally. Your accounts of Lambeth affair. interest her deeply, though again in rather too--what shall we call it?--too theoretical a way. But that comes of her inexperience.'
'Still she at least speaks of me.'
Mrs. Ormonde could have made a discouraging rejoinder. She said nothing for a moment, her eyes fixed on the fire. Then:
'But now for your own news.'
'What I have is unsatisfactory. A week ago the class suffered a secession. You remember my description of Ackroyd?'
'Ackroyd? The young man of critical aspect?'
'The same. He has now missed two lectures, and I don't think he'll come again.'
'Have you spoken to Bower about him?'
'No. The fact is, my impressions of Bower have continued to grow unfavourable. Plainly, he cares next to nothing for the lectures. There is a curious pomposity about him, too, which grates upon me. I shouldn't have been at all sorry if he had been the seceder; he's bored terribly, I know, yet he naturally feels bound to keep his place. But I'm very sorry that Ackroyd has gone; he has brains, and I wanted to get to know him. I shall not give him up; I must persuade him to come and have a talk with me.'
'What of Mr. Grail?'
'Ah, Grail is faithful. Yes, Grail is the man of them all; that I am sure of. I am going to ask him to stay after the lecture to-morrow. I haven't spoken privately with him yet. But I think I can begin now to establish nearer relations with two or three of them. I have been lecturing for just a couple of months; they ought to know something of me by this time, On the whole, I think I am succeeding. But if there is one of them on whom I found great hopes, it is Grail. The first time I saw him, I knew what a distinction there was between him and the others. He seems to be a friend of Ackroyd's, too; I must try to get at Ackroyd by means of him.'
'Is he--Grail, I mean--a married man?'
'I really don't know. Yet I should think so. I shouldn't be surprised if he were unhappily married. Certainly there is some great trouble in his life. Sometimes he looks terribly worn, quite ill.'
'And Mr. Bunce?' she asked, with a look of peculiar interest.
'Poor Bunce is also a good deal of a mystery to me. He, too, always looks more or less miserable, and I'm afraid his interest is not very absorbing. Still, he takes notes, and now and then even puts an intelligent question.'
'He has not attacked you on the subject of religion yet.
'Oh, no! We still have that question to fight out. But of course I must know him very well before I approach it. I think he bears me goodwill; I caught him looking at me with a curious sort of cordiality the other night.'
'I must have that little girl of his down again,' Mrs. Ormonde said. 'I wonder whether she still reads that insufferable publication. By-the-by, I found you had told them the story at Ullswater.'
'Yes. It came up a propos of my scheme.'
A gong sounded down below.
'Twelve o'clock' remarked Mrs. Ormonde. 'My birds are going to their dinner--poor little town sparrows! We'll let them get settled, then go and have a peep at them--shall we?'
'Yes, I should like to see them--and,' he added pleasantly, 'to see the look on your face when you watch them.'
'I have much to thank them for, Walter,' she said, earnestly. 'They brighten many an hour when I should be unhappy.'
Presently Mrs. Ormonde led the way downstairs and to the rear of the house. A room formerly devoted to billiards had been converted into a homely but very bright refectory; it was hung round with cheerful pictures, and before each of the two windows stood a large aquarium, full of water-plants and fishes. At the table were seated seven little girls, of ages from eight to thirteen, all poorly clad, yet all looking remarkably joyous, and eating with much evidence of appetite. At the head of the table was a woman of middle age and motherly aspect--Mrs. Mapper. She had the superintendence of the convalescents whom the lady of the house received and sent back to their homes in London better physically and morally than they had ever been in their lives before. The children did not notice that Mrs. Ormonde and her companion had entered; they were chatting gaily over their meal. Now and then one of them drew a gentle word of correction from Mrs. Mapper, but on the whole they needed no rebuke. Those who had been longest in the house speedily instructed new arrivals in the behaviour they had learned to deem becoming. A girl waited at table. On that subject Mrs. Ormonde had amusing stories to relate; how more than one servant had regretfully but firmly declined to wait upon little ragamuffins (female, too), and how one in particular had explained that she made no objection to doing it only because she regarded it as a religious penance.
Egremont had his pleasure in regarding her face, nobly beautiful as she moved her eyes from one to another of her poor little pensioners. She had said at first that it would be impossible ever again to live in this house, when she quitted it for a time after her husband's death. How could she pass through the barren rooms, how dwell within sight and sound of the treacherous waves which had taken her dearest? It was a royal thought which converted the sad dwelling into a home for those whose reawakening laughter would chide despondency from beneath the roof; whose happiness would ease the heavy heart and make memory a sacred solace. She had her abounding reward, and such as only the greatly loving may attain to.
They withdrew without having excited attention; Mrs. Mapper saw them, but Mrs. Ormonde made sign to her to say nothing.
'Two are upstairs, I'm sorry to say,' she remarked as they went back to the drawing-room. 'They have obstinate colds; I keep them under the bed-clothes. The difficulty these poor things have in getting rid of a cold! With many of them I believe such a condition is chronic; it goes on, I suppose, until they die of it.'
They talked together till luncheon time. Egremont led the conversation back to Ullswater, where Mrs. Ormonde had just spent a fortnight.
'I think I must go and see them at Christmas,' he said, 'if they don't come south.'
The other considered.
'Don't go so soon,' she said at length.
'So soon? It will be six mortal months.'
Egremont sighed and left the subject.
'Tell me what you have been doing of late,' Mrs. Ormonde resumed, 'apart from your lectures.'
'Very little of which any account can be rendered. I read a good deal, and occasionally come across an acquaintance.'
'Have you seen the Tyrrells since they returned?'
'No. I had an invitation to dine with them the other day, but excused myself.'
'On what grounds?'
'I mean to see less of people in general.'
Mrs. Ormonde regarded him.
'I hope,' she said, 'that you will pursue no such idea. You mean, of course, that your Lambeth work is to be absorbing. Let it be so, but don't fall into the mistake of making it your burden. You are not one of those who can work in solitude.'
'I am getting a distaste for ordinary society.'
'Then I beg of you to resist the mood. Go into society freely. You are in danger as soon as you begin to neglect it.'
'Yes.' She smiled at the deprecating look he turned on her. 'Let me be your moral physician. Already I notice that you fall short of perfect health: the refusal of that invitation is a symptom. Pray give faith to what I say; if any one knows you, I think it is I.'
He kept silence. Mrs. Ormonde continued:
'I hear that the Tyrrells have made the acquaintance of Mr. Dalmaine. Paula mentions him in a letter.'
'Ha! With enthusiasm probably?'
'No. They met him somewhere in Switzerland. He gave them the benefit of his experience on the education question.'
'Of course. Well, I am prejudiced against the man, as you know.'
'He is a force. It looks as if we should hear a good deal of him in the future.'
'Doubtless. The incarnate ideal of British philistinism is sure to have a career before him.'
The lady laughed.
Early in the afternoon Egremont took leave of his friend and returned to London. It was his habit when in England, to run down to Eastbourne in this way about once a month.
Since the death of his father, his home had been represented by rooms in Great Russell Street. He chose them on account of their proximity to the British Museum; at that time he believed himself destined to produce some monumental work of erudition: the subject had not defined itself, but his thoughts were then busy with the origins of Christianity, and it seemed to him that a study of certain Oriental literatures would be fruitful of results. Characteristically, he must establish himself at the very doors of the great Library. His Oriental researches, as we know, were speedily abandoned, but the rooms in Great Russell Street still kept their tenant. They were far from an ideal abode, indifferently furnished, with draughty doors and smoky chimneys, and the rent was exorbitant; the landlady, who speedily gauged her lodger's character, had already made a small competency out of him. Even during long absences abroad Egremont retained the domicile; at each return he said to himself that he must really find quarters at once more reputable and more homelike, but the thought of removing his books, of dealing with new people, deterred him from the actual step. In fact, was indifferent as to where or how he lived; all he asked was the possibility of privacy. The ugliness of his surroundings did not trouble him, for he paid no attention to them. Some day he would have a beautiful home, but what use in thinking of that till he had someone to share it with him? This was a mere pied a terre; it housed his body and left his mind free.
The real home which he remembered was a house looking upon Clapham Common. His father dwelt there for the last fifteen years of his life; his mother died there, shortly after the removal from the small house in Newington where she went to live upon her marriage. With much tenderness Egremont thought of the clear-headed and warm-hearted man whose life-long toil had made such provision for the son he loved. Uneducated, homely, narrow enough in much of his thinking, the manufacturer of oil-cloth must have had singular possibilities in his nature to renew himself in a youth so apt for modern culture as Walter was; thinking back in his maturity, the latter remembered many a noteworthy trait in his father, and wished the old man could have lived yet a few more years to see his son's work really beginning. And Egremont often felt lonely. Possibly he had relatives living, but he knew of none; in any case they could not now be of real account to him. The country of his birth was far behind him; how far, he had recognised since he began his lecturing in Lambeth. None the less, he at times knew home-sickness: not seldom there seemed to be a gap between him and the people born to refinement who were his associates, his friends. That phase of feeling was rather strong in him just now; disguising itself in the form of sundry plausible motives, it had induced him to decline Mrs. Tyrrell's invitation, and was fostering his temporary distaste for the society in which he had always found much pleasure. What if in strictness he belonged to neither sphere? What if his life were to be a struggle between inherited sympathies and the affinities of his intellect? All the better, perchance, for his prospect of usefulness; he stood as a mediator between two sections of society. But for his private happiness, how?
He spent this evening very idly, sometimes pacing his large, uncomfortable room, sometimes endeavouring to read one or other of certain volumes new from the circulating library. Of late he had passed many such evenings, for it was very seldom that any one came to see him, and for the amusements of the town he had no inclination. He was thinking much of Annabel; he could not imagine her other than calm, intellectual; he could not hear her voice uttering passionate words. A great change must come over her before her reserved maidenliness could soften to such sweet humility.
And he had no faith in his power so to change her.
The next day was Thursday. This and Sunday were his lecture days; his class met at half-past eight. Precisely at that hour he reached a small doorway in High Street, Lambeth, and ascended a flight of stairs to a room which he had furnished as he deemed most suitable. Several rows of school-desks faced a high desk at which he stood to lecture. The walls were washed in distemper, the boarding of the floor was uncovered, the two windows were hidden with plain shutters. The room had formerly been used for purposes of storage by a glass and china merchant; below was the workshop of a saddler, which explained the pervading odour of leather.
A little group of men stood in conversation near the fire; on Egremont's appearance they seated themselves at the desks, each producing a note-book which he laid open before him. Thus ranged they were seen to be eight in number. Out of fourteen to whom invitations were addressed, nine had presented themselves at the preliminary meeting; one, we know, had since proved unfaithful. Egremont looked round for Ackroyd on entering, but the young man was not here.
On the front bench were two men whom as yet you know only by name. Mr. Bower was clearly distinguishable by his personal importance and the ennui, not to be disguised, with which he listened to the opening sentences of the lecture. He leaned against the desk behind him, and carefully sharpened the point of his pencil. He was a large man with a spade-shaped beard; his forehead was narrow, and owed its appearance of height to incipient baldness; his eyes were small and shrewd. He habitually donned his suit of black for these meetings. At the works, where he held a foreman's position, he was in good repute: for years he had proved himself skilful, steady, abundantly respectful to his employers. In private life he enjoyed the fame of a petty capitalist; since his marriage, thirty years ago, he and his wife had made it the end of their existence to put by money, with the result that his obsequiousness when at work was balanced by the blustering independence of his leisure hours. The man was a fair instance of the way in which prosperity affects the average proletarian; all his better qualities--honesty, perseverance, sobriety--took an ignoble colour from the essential vulgarity of his nature, which would never have so offensively declared itself if ill fortune had kept him anxious about his daily bread. Formerly Egremont had been impressed by his intelligent manner; closer observation had proved to him of how little worth this intelligence was, in its subordination to a paltry character. Bower regarded himself as the originator of this course of lectures; through all his obsequiousness it was easy to see that he deemed his co-operation indispensable to the success of the project. At first, as was natural, Egremont had sometimes seemed to address words specially to him; of late he had purposely avoided doing so, and Bower began to feel that his services lacked recognition.
The other, of whom there has been casual mention, was Joseph Bunce. Of spare frame and with hollow cheeks which suggested insufficiency of diet, he yet had far more of manliness in his appearance than the portly Bower. You divined in him independence enough, and of worthier origin than that which secretly inflated his neighbour. His features were at first sight by no means pleasing; their coarseness was undeniable, but familiarity revealed a sensitive significance in the irregular nose, the prominent lips, the small chin and long throat. Egremont had now and then caught a light in his eyes which was warranty for more than his rough tongue could shape into words. He often appeared to have a difficulty in following the lecture; would shrug nervously, and knit his brows and mutter. Whenever he noticed that, Egremont would pause a little and repeat in simpler form what he had been saying, with the satisfactory result that Bunce showed a clearer face and jotted something on his dirty note-book with his stumpy pencil.
Gilbert Grail we know. It was impossible not to remark him as the one who followed with most consecutive understanding, even if his countenance had not declared him of higher grade than any of those among whom he sat. It had needed only the first ten minutes of the first lecture to put him at his ease with regard to Egremont's claims to stand forward as a teacher; the preliminary meeting, indeed, had removed the suspicions suggested by Ackroyd. To him these evenings were pure enjoyment. He delighted in this subject, and had an inexpressible pleasure in listening continuously to the speech of a cultivated man. Had the note-books of the class been examined (Egremont had strongly advised their use), Gilbert's jottings would probably have alone been found of substantial value, seeing that he alone possessed the mental habit necessary for the practice. Bunce's would doubtless have come next, though at a long distance; a Carlylean editor might have disengaged from them many a rudely forcible scrap of comment. Bower's pages would have smelt of the day-book. It was to Grail that Egremont mentally directed the best things he had to say; not seldom he was repaid by the quick gleam of sympathy on that grave interesting face.
The remaining five hearers were average artisans of the inquiring type; they followed with perseverance, though at times one or the other would furtively regard his watch or allow his eyes to stray about the room. They had made a bargain, and were bent on honourably carrying out their share in it. But Egremont already began to doubt whether he was really fixing anything in their thoughts. How were they likely to serve him for the greater purpose whereto this instruction was only preliminary? When he looked forward to that, he had to fix his eyes on Grail and forget the others. He was beginning to regret that the choice of those to whom his invitations were sent had depended upon Bower; another man might have aided him more effectually. Yet the fact was that Bower's selection had been a remarkably good one. It would have been difficult to assemble nine Lambeth workmen of higher aggregate intellect than those who responded to the summons; it would have been, on the other hand, the easiest thing to find nine with not a man of them available for anything more than futile wrangling over politics or religion. Egremont would know this some day; he was yet young in social reform.
And the lectures? It is not too much to say that they were good. Egremont had capacity for teaching; with his education, had he been without resources, he would probably have chosen an academic career, and have done service in it. There was nothing deep in his style of narrative and criticism, and here depth was not wanted; sufficient that he was perspicuous and energetic. He loved the things of which he spoke, and he had the power of presenting to others his reason for loving them. Not one in five hundred men inexperienced in such work could have held the ears of the class as he did for the first two or three evenings. It was impossible for them to mistake his spirit--ardent, disinterested, aspiring--impossible not to feel something of a respondent impulse. That familiarity should diminish the effect of his speech was only to be anticipated. He was preaching a religion, but one that could find no acceptance as such with eight out of nine who heard him. Common minds are not kept at high-interest mark for long together by exhibition of the merely beautiful, however persuasively it be set forth.
He had chosen the Elizabethan period, and he led up to it by the kind of introduction which he felt would be necessary. Trusting himself more after the first fortnight, he ceased to write out his lectures verbatim; free utterance was an advantage to himself and his audience. He read at large from his authors; to expect the men to do this for themselves--even had the books been within their reach--would have been too much, and without such illustration the lectures were vain. This reading brought him face to face with his main difficulty: how to create in men a sense which they do not possess. The working man does not read, in the strict sense of the word; fiction has little interest for him, and of poetry he has no comprehension whatever; your artisan of brains can study, but he cannot read. Egremont was under no illusion on this point; he knew well that the loveliest lyric would appeal to a man like Bower no more than an unintelligible demonstration of science. Was it impossible to bestow this sense of intellectual beauty? With what earnestness he made the endeavour! He took sweet passages of prose and verse, and read them with all the feeling and skill he could command. 'Do you yield to that?' he said within himself as he looked from face to face. 'Are your ears hopelessly sealed, your minds immutably earthen?' Grail--Oh yes, Grail had the right intelligence in his eyes; but Ackroyd, but Bunce? Ackroyd thought of the meaning of the words; no more. Poor Bunce had darkling throes of mind, but struggled with desperate nervousness and could not be at ease till the straightforward talk began again. And Bower?--Nay, there goes more to this matter than mere enthusiasm in a teacher. Who had instructed Gilbert Grail to discern the grace of the written word? On the other hand, it was doubtful whether Walter Egremont, left to himself in the home of his good plain father, would have felt what now he did. The soil was there, but how much do we not owe to tillage. Read what Egremont on one occasion read to these men:
'"He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margins with interpretations and load the memory with doubtfulness: but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the well-enchanting skill of music and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you--with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner."'
What were that to you, save for the glow of memory fed with incense of the poets?--save for innumerable dear associations, only possible to the instructed, which make the finer part of your intellectual being? Walter was attempting too much, and soon became painfully conscious of it.
He came to the dramatists, and human interest thenceforth helped him. He could read well, and a scene from those giants of the prime had efficiency even with Bower. Hope revived in the lecturer.
To-night he was less happy than usual, for what reason he could not himself understand. His thoughts wandered, sometimes to Eastbourne, sometimes to Ullswater; yet he was speaking of Shakespeare. Bower was more owl-eyed than usual; the five doubtful hearers obviously felt the time long. Only Grail gave an unfailing ear. Egremont closed with a sense of depression.
Would Bower come and pester him with fatuous questions and remarks? No; Bower turned away and reached his hat from the peg. The doubtful five took down their hats and followed the portly man from the room. Bunce was talking with Grail, pointing with dirty forefinger to something in his dirty note-book. But he, too, speedily moved to the hat-pegs. Grail was also going, when Egremont said:
'Could you spare me five minutes, Mr. Grail; I should like to speak to you.'