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Saying that, she met his eyes. There was a smile in them, and one so reassuring, so--she knew not what--that she was tempted to add:
'You know best what I want. I shall trust you.'
Something shook the man from head to foot. The words which came from him were involuntary; he heard them as if another had spoken.
'You trust me? You believe that I would do my best to please you?'
Thyrza felt a strangeness in his words, but replied to them with a frank smile:
'I think so, Mr. Grail.'
He was holding his hand to her; mechanically she gave hers. But in the doing it she became frightened; his face had altered, it was as if he suffered a horrible pain. Then she heard:
'Will you trust your life to me, Thyrza?'
It was like a flash, dazzling her brain. Never in her idlest moment had she strayed into a thought of this. He had always seemed to her comparatively an old man, and his gravity would in itself have prevented her from viewing him as a possible suitor. He seemed so buried in his books; he was so unlike the men who had troubled her with attentions hitherto. Yet he held her hand, and surely his words could have but one meaning.
Gilbert saw how disconcerted, how almost shocked, she was.
'I didn't mean to say that at once,' he continued hurriedly, releasing her hand. 'I've been too hasty. You didn't expect that. It isn't fair to you. Will you sit down?'
He still spoke without guidance of his tongue. He was impelled by a vast tenderness; the startled look on her face made him reproach himself; he sought to soothe her, and was incoherent, awkward. As if in implicit obedience, she moved to a chair. He stood gazing at her, and the love which had at length burst from the dark depths seized upon all his being.
She began, but her voice failed. She looked at him, and he was smitten to the heart to see that there were tears in her eyes.
'If it gives you pain,' he said in a low voice, drawing near to her, 'forget that I said anything. I wouldn't for my life make you feel unhappy.'
Thyrza smiled through her tears. She saw how gentle his expression had become; his voice touched her. The reverence which she had always felt for him grew warmer under his gaze, till it was almost the affection of a child for a father.
'But should I be the right kind of wife for you, Mr. Grail?' she asked, with a strange simplicity and diffidence. 'I know so little.'
'Can you think of being my wife?' he said, in tones that shook with restrained emotion. 'I am so much older than you, but you are the first for whom I have ever felt love. And'--here he tried to smile --'it is very sure that I shall love you as long as I live.'
Her breast heaved; she held out both her hands to him and said quickly:
'Yes, I will marry you, Mr. Grail. I will try my best to be a good wife to you.'
He stood as if doubting. Both her hands were together in his he searched her blue eyes, and their depths rendered to him a sweetness and purity before which his heart bowed in worship. Then he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Thyrza reddened and kept her eyes down.
'May I go now?' she said, when, after kissing her hands, he had released them at the first feeling that they were being drawn away.
'If you wish to, Thyrza.'
'I'll stay if you like, Mr. Grail, but--I think--'
She had risen. The warmth would not pass from her cheeks, and the sensation prevented her from looking up; she desired to escape and be alone.
'Will you come down and speak to mother in the morning?' Gilbert said, relieving her from the necessity of adding more. 'She will have something to tell you.'
'Yes, I'll come. Good-night, Mr. Grail.'
Both had forgotten the book that was to have been selected. Thyrza gave her hand as she always did when taking leave of him, save that she could not meet his eyes. He held it a little longer than usual, then saw her turn and leave the room hurriedly.
An hour later, when Mrs. Grail came into the parlour, Gilbert drew from its envelope and handed to her the letter he had received from Egremont on Christmas Eve. She read it, and turned round to him with astonishment.
'Why didn't you tell me this, child? Well now, if I didn't _think_ there was something that night! Have you answered? Oh no, you're not to answer for a week.'
'What's your advice?'
'Eh, how that reminds me of your father!' the old lady exclaimed. 'I've heard him speak just with that voice and that look many a time. Well, well, my dear, it's only waiting, you see; something comes soon or late to those that deserve it. I'm glad I've lived to see this, Gilbert.'
He said, when they had talked of it for a few minutes:
'Will you show this to Thyrza to-morrow morning?'
She fixed her eyes on him, over the top of her spectacles, keenly.
'To be sure I will. Yes, yes, of course I will.'
'She's been here for a few minutes since tea. I told her if she'd come down in the morning you'd have something to tell her.'
'She's been here? But why didn't you call me? I must go up and speak.'
'Not to-night, mother. It was better that you weren't here. I had something to say to her--something I wanted to say before she heard of this. Now she has a right to know.'
Lydia returned shortly after eight o'clock. She had walked about aimlessly for an hour and a half, avoiding the places where she was likely to meet anyone she knew. She was chilled and wretched.
Thyrza said nothing till her sister had taken off her hat and jacket and seated herself.
'When did you see Mr. Ackroyd last?' she inquired.
'I'm sure I don't know,' was the reply. 'I passed him in the Walk about a week ago.'
'But, I mean, when did you speak to him?'
'Oh, not for a long time,' said Lydia, smoothing the hair upon her forehead. 'Why?'
'He seems to have forgotten all about me, Lyddy.'
The other looked down into the speaker's face with eyes that were almost startled.
'Why do you say that, dear?'
'Do you think he has?'
'He may have done,' replied Lydia, averting her eyes. 'I don't know. You said you wanted him to, Thyrza.'
'Yes, I did--in that way. But I asked him to be friends with us, I don't see why he should keep away from us altogether.'
'But it's only what you had to expect,' said Lydia, rather coldly. In a moment, however, she had altered her voice to add: 'He couldn't be friends with us in the way you mean, dear. Have you been thinking about him?'
She showed some anxiety.
'Yes,' said Thyrza, 'I often think about him--but not because I'm sorry for what I did. I shall never be sorry for that. Shall I tell you why? It's something you'd never guess if you tried all night. You could no more guess it than you could--I don't know what!'
Lydia looked inquiringly.
'Put your arm round me and have a nice face. As soon as you'd gone to chapel, I thought I'd go down and ask Mr. Grail to lend me a book. I went and knocked at the door, and Mr. Grail was there alone. And he asked me to come and choose a book, and we began to talk, and --Lyddy, he asked me if I'd he his wife.'
Lydia's astonishment was for the instant little less than that which had fallen upon Thyrza when she felt her hand in Grail's. Her larger experience, however, speedily brought her to the right point of view; in less time than it would have taken her to express surprise, her wits had arranged a number of little incidents which remained in her memory, and had reviewed them all in the light of this disclosure. This was the meaning of Mr. Grail's reticence, of his apparent coldness at times. Surely she was very dull never to have surmised it. Yet he was so much older than Thyrza; he was so confirmed a student; no, she had never suspected this feeling.
All this in a flash of consciousness, whilst she pressed her sister closer to her side. Then:
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