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favourite organ of 'free thought,' sat Luke Ackroyd.
Bower got his glass of spirits, brought it into the reading-room, and sat down by Ackroyd.
'So our friend Egremont's begun to get his books together,' he began.
Luke was indifferent. Of late he had entered upon a new phase of his mental trouble. He was averse from conversation, shrank from his old companions, seemed to have resumed studious habits. It had got about that he was going to marry Totty Nancarrow, but he refused to answer questions on the subject. Banter he met with so grim a countenance that the facetious soon left him to himself. He no longer drank, that was evident. But his face was pale, thin, and unwholesome. One would have said that just now he was more seriously unhappy than he had been throughout his boisterous period.
Bower, after one or two glances at him, lowered his voice to say:
'I can't think it's altogether the right thing for Thyrza Trent to be there every morning helping him. Of course you and me know as it's all square, but other people might--eh? Grail ought to think of that--eh?'
Now it had seemed to Mr. Bower, in his native wisdom, that any scandal about Thyrza would tickle Ackroyd immensely. He imagined Luke bearing a deep grudge against the girl and against Grail--for he knew that the friendship between Luke and the latter had plainly come to an end. In his love of gossip, he could not keep the story to himself, and he thought that Ackroyd would be the safest of confidants. In fact, though he spoke to Mrs. Butterfield as if he had conceived some deep plan of rascality, the man was not capable of anything above petty mischief. He liked to pose in secret as a sort of transpontine schemer; that flattered his self-importance; but his ambition did not seriously go beyond making trouble in a legitimate way. He did indeed believe that something scandalous was going on, and it would be all the better fun to have Ackroyd join him with malicious pleasure in a campaign against reputations. Luke was a radical of the reddest; surely it would delight him to have a new cry against the patronising capitalist.
Ackroyd, having heard that whisper, looked up from his paper slowly. And at once Bower knew that he had made a great miscalculation.
'Other people might think _what_?' Luke asked, with gravity passing into anger.
'Well, well; you must take it as I meant it, old man.' Bower was annoyed, and added: 'No doubt Egremont likes to have a pretty gyurl to talk to every morning. I don't blame him. Still, if I was Grail --'
'What the devil do you mean, Bower? What's all this about?'
Ackroyd clearly knew nothing. The other recovered some of his confidence.
'Well, you needn't let it go further. It's no good thinking the worst of people. For all I know Grail sends her to help with the books, just because he can't go himself.'
Luke laid down the paper, and said quietly:
'Will you tell me all about it? It's the first I've heard. What's going on?'
Bower brought out his narrative, even naming the authority for it. He took sips of whisky in between. Ackroyd heard in silence, and seemed to dismiss his indignation.
'There's nothing in all that,' he said at length. 'Of course Grail knows all about it. This Mrs. What's-her-name seems to have too little to do.'
'Well, there's no knowing.'
'And you're going to tell this story all over Lambeth?'
'Why, didn't I ask you to keep it quiet?'
'Yes, Bower, you did. And I mean to. And--look here! If you'd been a man of my own age, for all we've known each other a goodish time, I should have sent you spinning half across the room before now. So that's plain language, and you must make what you like of it!'
Therewith Luke thrust back his chair and walked out of the room.
He did not pause till he was some distance from the club. His blood was tingling. But it was not in anger that he at length stood still and asked himself whither he should go. His heart had begun to sink with fear.
Had he done wisely in insulting Bower? The fellow would take his revenge in an obvious way. That calumny would be in every one's mouth by the morrow.
And yet, as if that would not have come about in any case! How long was anything likely to remain a secret that was known in Mrs. Bower's shop? No, it made no difference.
Such stories going round with regard to Thyrza Trent! What was the meaning of it? Had there been some imprudence on Grail's part, some thoughtlessness in keeping with his character, which had in it so little of the everyday man? It was a monstrous thing that opportunities should have been given to that lying old woman!
He walked on, in the direction of home. There was a hideous voice at his ear. Suppose Grail in truth knew nothing about those meetings in the library? How explain the first of them, two months ago?
He altered his course, and, without settled purpose, hurried towards Walnut Tree Walk. As he drew near to the house he saw someone about to enter. He ran forward. It was Gilbert.
'How does the library get on?' he asked, with an abruptness which surprised Grail.
'Oh, all the carpenter's work is finished.'
'Any books come yet?'
'No, not yet.'
He passed on, leaving Gilbert still in surprise, for it was perhaps the first word Ackroyd had spoken to him concerning the library.
Luke began to run, and did not cease until he was in Brook Street in front of the library. He tried to look in at the windows, but found that the blinds were drawn. A policeman passed and scrutinised him.
'Do you know whether any one lives on these premises?' Luke asked at once.
He excited suspicion, but after a short dialogue the constable showed him the approach to the caretaker's house. He knocked at the door several times; at length it was barely opened.
'Is that Mrs. Butterfield?'
'Yes. What may you want?'
'I want to know, if you please, if Mr. Egremont called here to-day and left a message for Mr. Smith about some books.'
'He's been here, but he left no message.'
'Was he here long?'
'All the morning.'
'Putting books on the shelves?'
'Thank you. If there was no message, it's all right.'
Luke went off. In Kennington Road he again stood still. He felt chilled and wretched to the heart's core. Thyrza! Thyrza Trent! Was it possible?
He moved on. This time it was to Newport Street. Half-past ten had just gone; would Totty be up still? Whether or no, he must see her. He rang the bell which was a summons to her part of the house. Bunce opened.
'I want to see Miss Nancarrow,' Luke said to him in a low voice. 'Will you please knock at her door? I must see her.'
Totty came down immediately. She had her hat on and a shawl thrown about her.
'What ever is it?' she asked.
'Just come a little way off, Totty; I want to speak to you.'
She accompanied him to the dark side of the street, and, having got her there, he could find no fitting word with which to begin. He had no intention of telling her what he had heard and what he had discovered for himself, but she was a close friend of Thyrza's and might know or suspect something; moreover, she was a good girl, a girl thoroughly to be trusted, he felt sure of her. Perhaps a hint would be enough to induce her to share a secret with him, when she understood what his suspicions pointed to.
'Yes, you frighten me. What is it?'
'Have you seen Thyrza Trent lately?'
She tried to read his face through the darkness. Her yesterday's conversation with Thyrza was vivid in her mind. Suspicion was irritated at the sound of Thyrza's name on Luke's tongue.
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