Thyrza by George Gissing
Chapter IX. A Golden Prospect
It wanted a week to Christmas. For many days the weather had been as bad as it can be even in London. Windows glimmered at noon with the sickly ray of gas or lamp; the roads were trodden into viscid foulness; all night the droppings of a pestilent rain were doleful upon the roof, and only the change from a black to a yellow sky told that the sun was risen. No wonder Thyrza was ailing.
It was nothing serious. The inevitable cold had clung to her and become feverish; it was necessary for her to stay at home for a day or two. Lydia made her hours of work as short as possible, hastening to get back to her sister. But fortunately there was a friend always at hand; Mrs. Grail could not have been more anxious about a child of her own. Her attendance was of the kind which inspires trust; Lydia, always fretting herself into the extreme of nervousness if her dear one lost for a day the wonted health, was thankful she had not to depend on Mrs. Jarmey's offices.
Thyrza had spent a day in bed, but could now sit by the fire; her chair came from the Grails' parlour, and was the very one which had always seemed to her so comfortable. Her wish that Lyddy should sit in it had at length been gratified.
It was seven o'clock on Friday evening. The table was drawn near to Thyrza's chair, and Thyrza was engaged in counting out silver coins, which she took from a capacious old purse. Lydia leaned on the table opposite.
'Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six! I'm sure I saw a very nice overcoat marked twenty-five shillings, not long ago; but we can't buy one without knowing grandad's measure.'
'Oh, but you know it near enough, I think.'
'Near enough! But I want it to look nice. I wonder whether I could take a measure without him knowing it? If I could manage to get behind him and just measure across the shoulders, I think that 'ud do.'
'Go now. He's sure to be sitting with the Bowers. Take the tape and try.'
'No, I'll take a bit of string; then he wouldn't think anything if he saw it.'
Lydia put on her hat and jacket.
'I'll be back as soon as ever I can. Play with the money like a good baby. You're sure you're quite warm?'
Thyrza was wrapped in a large shawl, which hooded over her head. Lydia had taken incredible pains to stop every possible draught at door and window. A cheerful fire threw its glow upon the invalid's face.
'I'm like a toast. Just look up at the shop next to Mrs. Isaac's, Lyddy. There was a sort of brownish coat, with laps over the pockets; it was hanging just by the door. We must get a few more shillings if it makes all the difference, mustn't we?'
'We'll see. Good-bye, Blue-eyes.'
Lydia went her way. For a wonder, there was no fog tonight, but the street lamps glistened on wet pavements, and vehicles as they rattled along sent mud-volleys to either side. In passing through Lambeth Walk, Lydia stopped at the clothing shop of which Thyrza had spoken. The particular brownish coat had seemingly been carried off by a purchaser, but she was glad to notice one or two second-hand garments of very respectable appearance which came within the sum at her command. She passed on into Paradise Street and entered Mrs. Bower's shop.
In the parlour the portly Mr. Bower stood with his back to the fire; he was speaking oracularly, and, at Lydia's entrance, looked up with some annoyance at being interrupted. Mr. Boddy sat in his accustomed corner. Mrs. Bower, arrayed in the grandeur suitable to a winter evening, was condescending to sew.
'Mary out?' Lydia asked, as she looked round.
'Yes, my dear,' replied Mrs. Bower, with a sigh of resignation. 'She's at a prayer meetin', as per us'l. That's the third night this blessed week. I 'old with goin' to chapel, but like everything else it ought to be done in moderation. Mary's gettin' beyond everything. I don't believe in makin' such a fuss o' religion; you can be religious in your mind without sayin' prayers an' singin' 'ymns all the week long. There's the Sunday for that, an' I can't see as it's pleasin' to God neither to do so much of it at other times. Now suppose I give somebody credit in the shop, on the understandin' as they come an' pay their bill once a week reg'lar; do you think I should like to have 'em lookin' in two or three times every day an' cryin' out: "Oh, Mrs. Bower, ma'am, I don't forget as I owe you so and so much; be sure I shall come an' pay on Saturday!" If they did that, I should precious soon begin to think there was something wrong, else they'd 'old their tongues an' leave it to be understood as they was honest. Why, an' it's every bit the same with religion!'
Mr. Boddy listened gravely to this, and had the air of probing the suggested analogy. He had a bad cold, poor old man, and for the moment it made him look as if he indulged too freely in ardent beverages; his nose was red and his eyes were watery.
'How's the little un, my dear?' he asked, as Lydia took a seat by him.
'Oh, she's much better, grandad. Mrs. Grail is so kind to her, you wouldn't believe. She'll be all right again by Monday, I think.'
'Mrs. Grail's kind to her, is she?' remarked Mr. Bower. Why, you're getting great friends with the Grails, Miss Lydia.'
'Yes, we really are.'
'And do you see much of Grail himself?'
'No, not much. We sometimes have tea with them both.'
'Ah, you do? He's a very decent, quiet fellow, is Grail. I dare say he tells you something about Egremont now and then?'
Mr. Bower put the question in a casual way; in truth, it was designed to elicit information which he much desired. He knew that for some time Grail had been on a new footing with the lecturer, that the two often remained together after the class had dispersed; it was a privilege which he regarded disapprovingly, because it lessened his own dignity in the eyes of the other men. He wondered what the subject of these private conversations might be; there had seemed to him something of mystery in Grail's manner when he was plied with a friendly inquiry or two.
'I've heard him speak of the lectures,' said Lydia. 'He says he enjoys them very much.'
'To be sure. Yes, they're very fair lectures, very fair, in their way. I don't know as I've cared quite so much for 'em lately as I did at first. I've felt he was falling off a little. I gave him a hint a few weeks ago; just told him in a quiet way as I thought he was going too far into things that weren't very interesting, but he didn't seem quite to see it. It's always the way with young men of his kind; when you give them a bit of advice, it makes them obstinate. Well, he'll see when he begins again after Christmas. Thomas and Linwood are giving it up, and I shall be rather surprised if Johnson holds out for another course'
'But I suppose you'll go, Mr. Bower?' said Lydia.
Bower stuck his forefingers into his waistcoat pockets, held his head as one who muses, clicked with his tongue.
'I shall see,' he replied, with a judicial air. 'I don't like to give the young feller up. You see, I may say as it was me put him on the idea. We had a lot of talk about one thing and another one day at the works, and a hint of mine set him off. I should like to make the lectures successful; I believe they're a good thing, if they are properly carried out. I'm a believer in education. It's the educated men as get on in the world. Teach a man to use his brains and he'll soon be worth double wages. But Egremont must keep up to the mark if he's to have my support. I shall have to have a word or two with him before he begins again. By-the-by, I passed him in Kennington Road just now; I wonder what he's doing about here at this time. Been to the works, perhaps.'
Whilst the portly man thus delivered himself, Lydia let her arm rest on Mr. Boddy's shoulder. It was a caress which he sometimes received from her; he looked round at her affectionately, then continued to pay attention to the weighty words which fell from Mr. Bower. Mrs. Bower, who was loss impressed by her husband's utterances, bent over her sewing. In this way Lydia was able craftily to secure the measurement she needed. And having got this, she was anxious to be back with Thyrza.
'I suppose it's no use waiting for Mary,' she said, rising.
'I don't suppose she'll be back not before nine o'clock,' Mrs. Bower replied. 'Did you want her partic'lar?'
'Oh no, it'll do any time.'
'Whilst I think of it,' said Mrs. Bower, letting her sewing fall upon her lap and settling the upper part of her stout body in an attitude of dignity; 'you and your sister 'll come an' eat your Christmas dinner with us?'
Lydia east down her eyes.
'It's very kind of you, Mrs. Bower, but I'm sure I don't know whether Thyrza 'll be well enough. I must be very careful of her for a time.'
'Well, well, you'll see. It'll only be a quiet little fam'ly dinner this year. You'll know there's places kep' for you.'
Lydia again expressed her thanks, then took leave. As she left the shop, she heard Mr. Bower's voice again raised in impressive oratory.
On entering the house in Walnut Tree Walk, she found Mrs. Grail just descending the stairs. The old lady never spoke above her breath at such casual meetings outside her own door.
'Come in for a minute,' she whispered.
Lydia followed her into the parlour. Gilbert was settled for the evening at the table. A volume lent by Egremont lay before him, and he was making notes from it. At Lydia's entrance he rose and spoke a word, then resumed his reading.
'I've just taken Thyrza a little morsel of jelly I made this afternoon,' Mrs. Grail said, apart to the girl. 'I'm sure she looks better to-night.'
'How good you are, Mrs. Grail! Yes, she does look better, but I couldn't have believed a day or two 'ud have made her so weak. I shan't let her go out before Christmas.'
'No, I don't think you ought, my dear.'
As Mrs. Grail spoke, the knocker of the house-door sounded an unusual summons, a rat-tat, not loud indeed, but distinct from the knocks wont to be heard here.
'Mr. and Mrs. Jarmey are both out,' said Lydia. 'They're gone to the theatre. Perhaps it's for you, Mrs. Grail?'
'No, that's not at all likely.'
Lydia opened. A gentleman stood without; he inquired in a pleasant voice if Mr. Grail was at home.
'I think so,' Lydia said. 'Will you please wait a minute?'
She hurried back to the parlour.
'It's a gentleman wants to see Mr. Grail,' she whispered, with the momentary excitement which any little out-of-the-way occurrence produces in those who live a life void of surprises. And she glanced at Gilbert, who had heard what she said. He rose:
'I wonder whether it's Mr. Egremont! Thank you, Miss Trent; I'll go to the door.'
Lydia escaped up the stairs. Gilbert went out into the passage, and his surmise was confirmed. Egremont was there, sheltering himself under an umbrella from rain which was once more beginning to fell.
'Could I have a word with you?' he said, with friendly freedom. 'I should have written, but I had to pass so near--'
'I'm very glad. Will you come in?'
It was the first time that Egremont had been at the house. Gilbert conducted him into the parlour, and took from him his hat and umbrella.
'This is my mother,' he said. 'Mr. Egremont, mother; you'll be glad to see him.'
The old lady regarded Walter with courteous curiosity, and bowed to him. A few friendly words were exchanged, then Egremont said to Grail:
'If you hadn't been in, I should have left a message, asking you to meet me to-morrow afternoon.'
Mrs. Grail was about to leave the room; Egremont begged her to remain.
'It's only a piece of news concerning our library scheme. I think I've found a building that will suit us. Do you know a school in Brook Street, connected with a Wesleyan Chapel somewhere about here?'
Gilbert said that he knew it; his mother also murmured recognition.
'It'll be to let at the end of next quarter: they're building themselves a larger place. I heard about it this afternoon, and as I was told that evening classes are held there, I thought I'd come and have a look at the place to-night. At last it is something like what we want. Could you meet me there, say at three, to-morrow afternoon, so that we could see it together in daylight--if daylight be granted us?'
Grail expressed his readiness.
'You were reading,' Waiter went on, with a glance at the table. 'I mustn't waste your time.'
He rose, but Gilbert said:
'I should be glad if you could stay a few minutes. Perhaps you haven't time?'
'Oh yes. What are you busy with?'
Half an hour's talk followed, of course mainly of books. Egremont looked over the volumes on the shelves; those who love such topics will know how readily gossip spun itself from that centre. He was pleased with Grail's home; it was very much as he had liked to picture it since he had known that Gilbert lived with his mother. Mrs. Grail sat and listened to all that was said, a placid smile on her smooth face. At length Egremont declared that he was consuming his friend's evening.
'Perhaps you'll let me come some other night?' he said, as he took up his hat. 'I know very few people indeed who care to talk of these things in the way I like.'
Gilbert came back from the door with a look of pleasure.
'Now, isn't he a fine fellow, mother? I'm so glad you've seen him.'
'He seems a very pleasant young man indeed,' Mrs. Grail replied. 'He's not quite the picture I'd made of him, but his way of speaking makes you like him from the very first.'
'I never heard him say a word yet that didn't sound genuine,' Gilbert added. 'He speaks what he thinks, and you won't find many men who make you feel that. And he has a mind; I wish you could hear one of his lectures; he speaks in just the same easy running way, and constantly says things one would be glad to remember. They don't understand him, Bower, and Bunce, and the others; they don't feel his words as they ought to. I'm afraid he'll only have two or three when he begins again.'
Mrs. Grail turned presently to a different topic.
'Would you believe, Gilbert!' she murmured. 'Those two girls have saved up more than a pound to buy that poor old Mr. Boddy a top-coat for Christmas. When I went up with the jelly, Thyrza had the money out on the table; she told me as a great secret what it was for. Kind-hearted things they are, both of them.'
Gilbert assented silently. His mother seldom elicited a word from him on the subject of the sisters.
On the following afternoon, Gilbert and Egremont met at the appointed place just as three was striking. Already night had begun to close in, a sad wind moaned about the streets, and the cold grey of the sky was patched about with dim shifting black clouds. Egremont was full of cheeriness as he shook hands.
'What a wonderful people we are,' he exclaimed, 'to have developed even so much civilisation in a climate such as this!'
The school building which they were about to inspect stood at the junction of two streets, which consisted chiefly of dwellings. In the nature of things it was ugly. Three steps led up to the narrow entrance, which, as well as the windows on the ground floor, was surrounded with a wholly inappropriate pointed arch. Iron railings ran along the two sides which abutted upon pavements, and by the door was a tall iron support for a lamp; probably it had never been put to its use. There was only one upper storey, and the roof was crowned with a small stack of hideous metal chimneys.
'We must go round to the caretaker's house,' said Egremont, when they had cast their eyes over the face of the edifice.
The way was by a narrow passage between the school itself and the whitewashed side of an adjacent house; this led them into a small paved yard, upon which looked the windows of the caretaker's dwelling, which was the rear portion of the school building. A knock at the door brought a very dirty and very asthmatical old woman, who appeared to resent their visit. When Egremont expressed his desire to go over the school, she muttered querulously what was understood to be an invitation to enter. Followed by Gilbert, Egremont was conducted along a pitch-dark passage.
'Mind the steps!' snarled their guide.
Egremont had already stumbled over an ascent of two when the warning was given, but at the same moment a door was thrown open, giving a view of the main schoolroom.
''Tain't swep' out yet,' remarked the old woman. 'I couldn't tell as nobody was a-comin'. You can complain to them if you like; I'm used to it from all sorts, an' 'taint for much longer, praise goodness! Though there's nothink before me but the parish when the time does come.'
Egremont glanced at the strange creature in surprise, but it seemed better to say nothing. He began to speak of the aspects of the room with his companion.
The place was cheerless beyond description. In a large grate the last embers of a fire were darkening; the air was chill, and, looking up to the ceiling, one saw floating scraps of mist which had somehow come in from the street. The lower half of each window was guarded with lattice-work of thin wire; the windows themselves were grimy, and would have made it dusk within even on a clear day. The whitewash of the ceiling was dark and much cracked. Benches and desks covered half the floor. There were black-boards and other mechanical appliances for teaching, and on the walls hung maps and diagrams.
'The walls seem quite dry,' observed Walter, 'which is a great point.'
They laid their palms against the plaster. The old woman stood with one hand pressed against her bosom, the other behind her back; her head was bent; she seemed to pay no kind of attention to what was said.
'There's room here for some thousands of volumes,' Egremont said, moving to one of the windows. 'It will serve tolerably as a reading-room, too. Nothing like as large as it ought to be, of course, but we must be content to feel our way to better things.'
Gilbert nodded. In spite of his companion's resolute cheerfulness, he felt a distressing dejection creep upon him as he stood in the cold, darkening room. He could not feel the interest and hope which hitherto this project had inspired him with. The figure of the old caretaker impressed him painfully. For any movement she made she might have been asleep; the regular sound of her heavy breathing was quite audible, and vapour rose from her lips upon the air.
'What do you think?' Egremont asked, when Grail remained mute.
'I should think it will do very well. What is there upstairs?'
'Two class-rooms. We should use those for lectures. Let us go up.'
The old woman walked before them to a door opposite that by which they had entered. They found themselves in a small vestibule, out of which, on one hand, a door led into a cloak-room, while on the other ascended a flight of stone stairs. There was nothing noticeable in the rooms above; the windows here were also very dirty, and mist floated below the ceilings.
The caretaker had remained below, contenting herself with indicating the way.
'You seem disappointed,' Walter said. He himself had ceased to talk, he felt cold and uncomfortable.
'No, no, indeed I'm not,' Grail hastened to reply. 'I think it is as good a place as you could have found.'
'We don't see it under very inspiriting conditions. Fire and light and comfortable furniture would make a wonderful difference, even on a day like this.'
Gilbert reproached himself for taking so coldly his friend's generous zeal.
'And books still more,' he replied, 'The room below will be a grand sight with shelves all round the walls.'
'Well, I must make further inquiries, but I think the place will suit us.'
They descended, their footsteps ringing on the stone and echoing up to the roof. The old woman still stood at the foot of the stairs, her head bent, the hand against her side.
'Will you go out here,' she asked, 'or do you want to see anythink else?'
'I should like to see the back part again,' Egremont replied.
She led them across the schoolroom, through the dark passage, and into a small room which had the distant semblance of a parlour. Here she lit a lamp; then, without speaking, guided them over the house, of which she appeared to be the only inhabitant. There were seven rooms; only three of them contained any furniture. Then they all returned to the comfortless parlour.
'Your chest is bad,' Egremont remarked, looking curiously at the woman.
'Yes, I dessay it is,' was the ungracious reply.
'Well, I don't think we need trouble you any more at present, but I shall probably have to come again in a day or two.'
'I dessay you'll find me here.'
'And feeling better, I hope. The weather gives you much trouble, no doubt.'
He held half a crown to her. She regarded it, clasped it in the hand which was against her bosom, and at length dropped a curtsy, though without speaking.
'What a poor crabbed old creature!' Egremont exclaimed, as they walked away. 'I should feel relieved if I knew that she went off at once to the warmth of the public-house opposite.'
'Yes, she hasn't a very cheerful home.'
'Oh, but it can be made a very different house. It has fallen into such neglect. Wait till spring sunshine and the paperhangers invade the place.'
They issued into a main street, and after a little further talk, shook hands and parted.
That night, and through the Sunday that followed, Gilbert continued to suffer even more than his wont from mental dreariness; Mrs. Grail was unable to draw him into conversation.
About four o'clock she said:
'May I ask Lydia and Thyrza to come and have tea with us, Gilbert?'
He looked up absently.
'But they were here last Sunday.'
'Yes, my dear, but I think they like to come, and I'm sure I like to have them.'
'Let us leave it till next Sunday, mother. You don't mind? I feel I must be alone to-night.'
It was a most unusual thing for Gilbert to offer opposition when his mother had expressed a desire for anything. Mrs. Grail at once said:
'I dare say you're right, my dear. Next Sunday 'll be better.'
The next morning he went to his work through a fog so dense that it was with difficulty he followed the familiar way. Lamps were mere lurid blotches in the foul air, perceptible only when close at hand; the footfall of invisible men and women hurrying to factories made a muffled, ghastly sound; harsh bells summoned through the darkness, the voice of pitiless taskmasters to whom all was indifferent save the hour of toil. Gilbert was racked with headache. Bodily suffering made him as void of intellectual desire as the meanest labourer then going forth to earn bread; he longed for nothing more than to lie down and lose consciousness of the burden of life.
Then came Christmas Eve. The weather had changed; to-night there was frost in the air, and the light of stars made a shimmer upon the black vault. Gilbert always gave this season to companionship with his mother. About seven o'clock they were talking quietly together of memories light and grave, of Gilbert's boyhood, of his sister who was dead, of his father who was dead. Then came a pause, whilst both were silently busy with the irrecoverable past.
Mrs. Grail broke the silence to say:
'You're a lonely man, Gilbert.'
'Why no, not lonely, mother. I might be, but for you.'
'Yes, you're lonely, my dear. It's poor company that I can give you. I should like to see you with a happier look on your face before I die.'
Gilbert had no reply ready.
'You think too poorly of yourself,' his mother resumed, 'and you always have done. But there's people have a better judgment of you. Haven't you thought that somebody looks always very pleased when you read or talk, and sits very quiet when you've nothing to say, and always says good-night to you so prettily?'
'Mother, mother, don't speak like that! I've thought nothing of the kind. Put that out of your head; never speak of it again.'
His voice was not untender, but very grave. The lines of his face hardened. Mrs. Grail glanced at him timidly, and became mute.
A loud double knock told that the postman had delivered a letter at the house. Whilst the two still sat in silence Mrs. Jarmey tapped at their door and said:
'A letter for you, Mr. Grail.'
'From Mr. Egremont,' said Gilbert, as he resumed his seat and opened the envelope. 'More about the library I expect.'
He read to himself.
'My dear Grail,--I have decided to take the school building on a lease of seven years, after again carefully examining it and finding it still to my mind. It will be free at the end of March. By that time I hope to have sketched out something of a rudimentary catalogue, and before summer the library should be open.
'I asked you to come and look over this place with me because I had a project in my mind with reference to the library which concerns yourself. I lay it before you in a letter, that you may think it over quietly and reply at your leisure. I wish to offer you the position of librarian: I am sure I could not find anyone better suited for the post, and certainly there is no man whom I should like so well to see occupying it. I propose that the salary be a hundred pounds a year, with free tenancy of the dwelling-house at present so dolorously occupied--I am sure it can be made a comfortable abode--and of course, gas and fuel. I should make arrangements for the necessary cleaning, &c., with some person of the neighbourhood; your own duties would be solely those of librarian and reading-room superintendent.
'The library should be open, I think, from ten to ten, for I want to lose no possibility of usefulness. If one loafer be tempted to come in and read, the day's object is gained. These hours are, of course, too long for you alone; I would provide you with an assistant, so that you could assure for yourself, let us say, four hours free out of the twelve. But details would be easily arranged between us. By-the-by, Sunday must not be a day of closing; to make it so would be to deprive ourselves of the greatest opportunity. Your freedom for one entire day in the week should be guaranteed.
'I offer this because I should like to have you working with me, and because I believe that such work would be more to your taste than that in which you are now occupied. It would, moreover, leave you a good deal of time for study; we are not likely to be overwhelmed with readers and borrowers during the daytime. But you will consider the proposal precisely as you would do if it came from a stranger, and will accept or reject it as you see fit.
'I leave town to-day for about a week. Will you write to me at the end of that time?--Always yours, my dear Grail,
Mrs. Grail showed no curiosity about the letter; the subject of the interrupted conversation held her musing. When Gilbert had folded the sheets, and, in the manner of one who receives few letters, returned it to its envelope, he said:
'Yes, it's about the library. He's taken the house for seven years.'
His mother murmured an expression of interest. For another minute the clock on the mantel-piece ticked loud; then Gilbert rose, and without saying anything, went out.
He entered his bedroom. The darkness was complete, but he moved with the certainty of habit to a chair by the head of the bed, and there seated himself. Presently he felt a painful surging in his throat, then a gush of warm tears forced its way to his eyes. It cost him a great effort to resist the tendency to sob aloud. He was hot and cold alternately, and trembled as though a fever were coming upon him.
In a quarter of an hour he lit the candle, and, after a glance at himself in the glass, bathed his face. Then he took down his overcoat from the door, and put it on. His hat, too, he took, and went to the parlour.
'I have to go out, mother,' he said, standing at the door. 'I'll be back by supper-time.'
'Very well, my dear,' was the quiet reply.
He walked out to the edge of the pavement, and stood a moment, as if in doubt as to his direction. Then he looked at the upper windows of the house, as we saw him do one night half a year ago. There was a light this time in the sisters' room.
He turned towards Lambeth Walk. The market of Christmas Eve was flaring and clamorous; the odours of burning naphtha and fried fish were pungent on the wind. He walked a short distance among the crowd, then found the noise oppressive and turned into a by-way. As he did so, a street organ began to play in front of a public-house close by. Grail drew near; there were children forming a dance, and he stood to watch them.
Do you know that music of the obscure ways, to which children dance? Not if you have only heard it ground to your ears' affliction beneath your windows in the square. To hear it aright you must stand in the darkness of such a by-street as this, and for the moment be at one with those who dwell around, in the blear-eyed houses, in the dim burrows of poverty, in the unmapped haunts of the semi-human. Then you will know the significance of that vulgar clanging of melody; a pathos of which you did not dream will touch you, and therein the secret of hidden London will be half revealed. The life of men who toil without hope, yet with the hunger of an unshaped desire; of women in whom the sweetness of their sex is perishing under labour and misery; the laugh, the song of the girl who strives to enjoy her year or two of youthful vigour, knowing the darkness of the years to come; the careless defiance of the youth who feels his blood and revolts against the lot which would tame it; all that is purely human in these darkened multitudes speaks to you as you listen. It is the half-conscious striving of a nature which knows not what it would attain, which deforms a true thought by gross expression, which clutches at the beautiful and soils it with foul hands.
The children were dirty and ragged, several of them barefooted, nearly all bare-headed, but they danced with noisy merriment. One there was, a little girl, on crutches; incapable of taking a partner, she stumped round and round, circling upon the pavement, till giddiness came upon her and she had to fall back and lean against the wall, laughing aloud at her weakness. Gilbert stepped up to her, and put a penny into her hand; then, before she had recovered from her surprise, passed onwards.
He came out at length by Lambeth parish church, which looks upon the river; the bells were ringing a harsh peal of four notes, unchangingly repeated. Thence he went forward on to Lambeth Bridge.
Unsightliest of all bridges crossing Thames, the red hue of its iron superstructure, which in daylight only enhances the meanness of its appearance, at night invests it with a certain grim severity; the archway, with its bolted metal plates, its wire-woven cables, over-glimmered with the yellowness of the gas-lamps which it supports, might be the entrance to some fastness of ignoble misery. The road is narrow, and after nightfall has but little traffic.
Gilbert walked as far as the middle of the bridge, then leaned upon the parapet and looked northwards. The tide was running out; it swept darkly onwards to the span of Westminster Bridge, whose crescent of lights it repeated in long unsteady rays. Along the base of the Houses of Parliament the few sparse lamps contrasted with the line of brightness on the Embankment opposite. The Houses themselves rose grandly in obscure magnitude; the clock-tower beaconed with two red circles against the black sky, the greater tower stood night-clad, and between them were the dim pinnacles, multiplied in shadowy grace. Farther away Gilbert could just discern a low, grey shape, that resting-place of poets and of kings which to look upon filled his heart with worship.
In front of the Embankment, a few yards out into the stream, was moored a string of barges; between them and the shore the reflected lamp-light made one unbroken breadth of radiance, blackening the mid-current. From that the eye rose to St. Thomas's Hospital, spreading block after block, its windows telling of the manifold woe within. Nearer was the Archbishop's Palace, dark, lifeless; the roofs were defined against a sky made lurid by the streets of Lambeth. On the pier below signalled two crimson lights.
The church bells kept up their clangorous discord, softened at times by the wind. A steamboat came fretting up the stream; when it had passed under the bridge, its spreading track caught the reflected gleams and flung them away to die on unsearchable depths. Then issued from beneath a barge with set sail, making way with wind and tide; in silence it moved onwards, its sail dark and ghastly, till the further bridge swallowed it.
The bells ceased. Gilbert bent his head and listened to the rush of the water, voiceful, mysterious. Sometimes he had stood there and wished that the dread tide could whelm him. His mood was far other now; some power he did not understand had brought him here as to the place where he could best realise this great joy that had befallen him.
But the wind blew piercingly, and when at length he moved from the parapet, he found that his arms were quite numb; doubtless he had stood longer than he thought. Instead of returning by the direct way, he walked along the Embankment It was all but deserted; the tread of a policeman echoed from the distance. But in spite of the bitter sky, two people were sitting together on one of the benches-- a young man and a work-girl; they were speaking scarcely above a whisper. Gilbert averted his face as he passed them, and for the moment his eyes had their pain-stricken look.
Issuing into Westminster Bridge Road, he found himself once more amid a throng. And before he had gone far he recognised a figure that walked just ahead of him. It was Ackroyd; he was accompanied by a girl of whom Gilbert had no knowledge--Miss Totty Nancarrow. They were talking in a merry, careless way: Ackroyd smoked a cigar, and Totty walked with her usual independence, with that swaying of the haunches and swing of the hands with palm turned outwards which is characteristic of the London work-girl. Her laugh now and then rose to a high note; her companion threw back his head and joined in the mirth. Clearly Ackroyd was in a way to recover his spirits.
At the junction of two ways they stopped. Gilbert stopped too, for he did not care to pass them and be recognised. He crossed the road, and from the other side watched them as they stood talking. Now they were taking leave of each other. Ackroyd appeared to hold the girl's hand longer than she liked; when she struggled to get away, he suddenly bent forward and snatched a kiss. With a gesture of indignation she escaped from him.
Gilbert had a desire to join Ackroyd, now that the latter was alone. But as he began to recross the street, the young man moved on and turned into a public-house. Gilbert again stopped, and, disregarding the crowds about him, lost himself in thought. He determined at length to go his way.
Mrs. Grail had supper ready, with some mince pies of her own making.
'Each lot I make,' she said, as they sat down, 'I say to myself they'll be the last.'
'No, no, mother; we shall eat a good many together yet,' Gilbert replied, cheerily. The wind had brought a touch of colour to his cheeks and made his eyes glisten.
'Have you taken any upstairs?' he asked presently.
'No, my dear. Do you think I may?'
'Oh, I should think so.'
The old lady looked at him and grew thoughtful.
There was no work to rise to on the morrow. With a clear conscience Gilbert could sit on into the still hours which were so precious to him. And again, before going to rest, he stepped quietly from the house to look at the upper windows.