The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
This reply despatched, Harvey congratulated himself on being quits with Miss Frothingham. Her letter, however amusing, was deliberate impertinence; to have answered it in a serious tone would have been to encourage ill-mannered conceit which merited nothing but a snub.
But what had excited her anger? Had Mrs. Frothingham been guilty of some indiscretion, or was it merely the result of hotheaded surmises and suspicions on the girl's part? Plainly, Alma had returned to England in no amiable mood; in all probability she resented her step-mother's behaviour, now that it had been explained to her; there had arisen 'unpleasantness' on the old, the eternal subject -- money. Ignoble enough; but was it a new thing for him to discern ignoble possibilities in Alma's nature?
Nevertheless, his thoughts were constantly occupied with the girl. Her image haunted him; all his manhood was subdued and mocked by her scornful witchery. From the infinitudes of reverie, her eyes drew near and gazed upon him -- eyes gleaming with mischief, keen with curiosity; a look now supercilious, now softly submissive; all the varieties of expression caught in susceptible moments, and stored by a too faithful memory. Her hair, her lips, her neck, grew present to him, and lured his fancy with a wanton seduction. In self-defence -- pathetic stratagem of intellectual man at issue with the flesh -- he fell back upon the idealism which ever strives to endow a fair woman with a beautiful soul; he endeavoured to forget her body in contemplation of the spiritual excellencies that might lurk behind it. To depreciate her was simpler, and had generally been his wont; but subjugation had reached another stage in him. He summoned all possible pleadings on the girl's behalf: her talents, her youth, her grievous trials. Devotion to classical music cannot but argue a certain loftiness of mind; it might, in truth, be somehow akin to 'religion'. Remembering his own follies and vices at the age of four-and-twenty, was it not reason, no less than charity, to see in Alma the hope of future good? Nay, if it came to that, did she not embody infinitely more virtue, in every sense of the word, than he at the same age?
One must be just to women, and, however paltry the causes, do honour to the cleanliness of their life. Nothing had suggested to him that Alma was unworthy of everyday respect. Even when ill-mannered, she did not lose her sexual dignity. And after all she had undergone, there would have been excuse enough for decline of character, to say nothing of a lapse from the articles of good breeding. This letter of hers, what did it signify but the revolt of a spirit of independence, irritated by all manner of sufferings, great and small? Ought he not to have replied in other terms? Was it worthy of him -- man of the world, with passions, combats, experience multiform, assimilated in his long, slow growth -- to set his sarcasm against a girl's unhappiness?
He was vexed with himself. He had not behaved as a gentleman. And how many a time, in how many situations, had he incurred this form of self-reproach!
When a week went by without anything more from Alma, Harvey ceased to trouble. As the fates directed, so be it. He began to pack the books which he would take with him into Wales.
One day he found himself at Kensington High Street, waiting for a City train. In idleness, he watched the people who alighted from carriages on the opposite side of the platform, and among them he saw Alma. On her way towards the stairs she was obliged to pass him; he kept his position, and only looked into her face when she came quite near. She bent her head with a half-smile, stopped, and spoke in a low voice, without sign of embarrassment.
'I was quite wrong. I found it out soon after I had written, and I have wanted to beg your pardon.'
'It is my part to do that,' Harvey replied. 'I ought not to have answered as I did.'
'Perhaps not -- all things considered. I'm rather in a hurry. Good-morning!'
As a second thought, she offered her hand. Harvey watched her trip up the stairs.
Next morning he had a letter from her. 'Dear Mr. Rolfe,' she wrote, 'did you let Mamma know of my hasty and foolish behaviour? If not -- and I very much hope you didn't -- please not to reply to this, but let us see you on Wednesday afternoon, just in the ordinary way. If Mamma has been told, still don't trouble to write, and in that case I dare say you will not care to come. If you are engaged this Wednesday, perhaps you could come next.' And she signed herself his sincerely.
He did not reply, and Wednesday saw him climbing once more to the little flat; ashamed of being here, yet unable to see how he could have avoided it, except by leaving London. For that escape he had no longer much mind. Quite consciously, and with uneasiness which was now taking a new form, he had yielded to Alma's fascination. However contemptible and unaccountable, this was the state of things with him, and, as he waited for the door to be opened, it made him feel more awkward, more foolish, than for many a long year.
Mrs. Frothingham and her step-daughter were sitting alone, the elder lady occupied with fancy-work, at her feet a basket of many-coloured silks, and the younger holding a book; nothing could have been quieter or more home-like. No sooner had he entered than he overcame all restraint, all misgiving; there was nothing here today but peace and good feeling, gentle voices and quiet amiability. Whatever shadow had arisen between the two ladies must have passed utterly away; they spoke to each other with natural kindness, and each had a tranquil countenance.
Alma began at once to talk of their common friends, the Carnabys, asking whether Rolfe knew that they were in Australia.
'I knew they had decided to go,' he answered. 'But I haven't heard for at least two months.'
'Oh, then I can give you all the news; I had a letter yesterday. When Mrs. Carnaby wrote, they had spent a fortnight at Melbourne, and were going on to Brisbane. Mr. Carnaby is going to do something in Queensland -- something about mines. I'll read you that part.'
The letter lay in the book she was holding. Sibyl wrote indefinitely, but Harvey was able to gather that the mining engineer, Dando, had persuaded Carnaby to take an active interest in his projects. Discussion on speculative enterprises did not recommend itself to the present company, and Rolfe could only express a hope that his friend had at last found a pursuit in which he could interest himself.
'But fancy Sibyl at such places!' exclaimed Alma, with amusement. 'How curious I shall be to see her when she comes back! Before she left England, I'm sure she hadn't the least idea in what part of Australia Brisbane was, or Melbourne either. I didn't know myself; had to look at a map. You'll think that a shameful confession, Mr. Rolfe.'
'My own ideas of Australian geography are vague enough.'
'Oh, but haven't you been there?'
'Not to any of the new countries; I don't care about them. A defect, I admit. The future of England is beyond seas. I would have children taught all about the Colonies before bothering them with histories of Greece and Rome. I wish I had gone out there myself as a boy, and grown up a sheep-farmer.'
'That's one of the things you say just to puzzle people. It contradicts all sorts of things I've heard you say at other times. -- Do you think, Mamma, that Mr. Rolfe missed his vocation when he didn't become a sheep-farmer?'
Mrs. Frothingham gently shook her head. No trace of nervousness appeared in her today; manipulating the coloured silks, she only now and then put in a quiet word, but followed the talk with interest.
'But I quite thought you had been to Australia,' Alma resumed. 'You see, it's very theoretical, your admiration of the new countries. And I believe you would rather die at once in England than go to live in any such part of the world.'
'Weakness of mind, that's all.'
'Still, you admit it. That's something gained. You always smile at other people's confessions, and keep your own mind mysterious.'
'Mysterious? I always thought one of my faults was over-frankness.'
'That only shows how little we know ourselves.'
Harvey was reflecting on the incompleteness of his knowledge of Alma. Intentionally or not, she appeared to him at this moment in a perfectly new light; he could not have pictured her so simple of manner, so direct, so placid. Trouble seemed to have given her a holiday, and at the same time to have released her from self-consciousness.
'But you have never told us,' she went on, 'about your wanderings in France this summer. English people don't go much to that part, do they?'
'No. I happened to read a book about it. It's the old fighting-ground of French and English -- interesting to any one pedantic enough to care for such things.'
'But not to people born to be sheep-farmers. And you had a serious illness. -- Did Mr. Rolfe tell you, Mamma dear, that he nearly died at some miserable roadside inn?'
Mrs. Frothingham looked startled, and declared she knew nothing of it. Harvey, obliged to narrate, did so in the fewest possible words, and dismissed the matter.
'I suppose you have had many such experiences,' said Alma. 'And when do you start on your next travels?'
'I have nothing in view. I half thought of going for the winter to a place in North Wales -- Carnarvonshire, on the outer sea.'
The ladies begged for more information, and he related how, on a ramble with a friend last spring (it was Basil Morton), he had come upon this still little town between the mountains and the shore, amid a country shining with yellow gorse, hills clothed with larch, heathery moorland, ferny lanes, and wild heights where the wind roars on crag or cairn.
'No railway within seven miles. Just the place for a pedant to escape to, and live there through the winter with his musty books.'
'But it must be equally delightful for people who are not pedants!' exclaimed Alma.
'In spring or summer, no doubt, though even then the civilised person would probably find it dull.'
'That's your favourite affectation again. I'm sure it's nothing but affectation when you speak scornfully of civilised people.'
'Scornfully I hope I never do.'
'Really, Mamma,' said Alma, with a laugh, 'Mr. Rolfe is in his very mildest humour today. We mustn't expect any reproofs for our good. He will tell us presently that we are patterns of all the virtues.'
Mrs. Frothingham spoke in a graver strain.
'But I'm sure it is possible to be too civilised -- to want too many comforts, and become a slave to them. Since I have been living here, Mr Rolfe, you can't think how I have got to enjoy the simplicity of this kind of life. Everything is so easy; things go so smoothly. Just one servant, who can't make mistakes, because there's next to nothing to do. No wonder people are taking to flats.'
'And is that what you mean by over-civilisation?' Alma asked of Rolfe.
'I didn't say anything about it. But I should think many people in large and troublesome houses would agree with Mrs. Frothingham. It's easy to imagine a time when such burdens won't be tolerated. Our misfortune is, of course, that we are not civilised enough.'
'Not enough to give up fashionable nonsense. I agree with that. We're wretched slaves, most of us.'
It was the first sentence Alma had spoken in a tone that Rolfe recognised. For a moment her face lost its placid smile, and Harvey hoped that she would say more to the same purpose; but she was silent.
'I'm sure,' remarked Mrs. Frothingham, with feeling, 'that most happiness is found in simple homes.'
'Can we be simple by wishing it?' asked Alma. 'Don't you think we have to be born to simplicity?'
'I'm not sure that I know what you mean by the word,' said Harvey.
'I'm not sure that I know myself. Mamma meant poverty, I think. But there may be a simple life without poverty, I should say. I'm thinking of disregard for other people's foolish opinions; living just as you feel most at ease -- not torturing yourself because it's the custom.'
'That's just what requires courage,' Rolfe remarked.
'Yes; I suppose it does. One knows people who live in misery just because they daren't be comfortable; keeping up houses and things they can't afford, when, if they only considered themselves, their income would be quite enough for everything they really want. If you come to think of it, that's too foolish for belief.'
Harvey felt that the topic was growing dangerous. He said nothing, but wished to have more of Alma's views in this direction. They seemed to strike her freshly; perhaps she had never thought of the matter in this way before.
'That's what I meant,' she continued, 'when I said you must be born to simplicity. I should think no one ever gave up fashionable extravagance just because they saw it to be foolish. People haven't the strength of mind. I dare say,' she added, with a bright look, 'anyone who was strong enough to do that kind of thing would be admired and envied.'
'By whom?' Rolfe asked.
'Oh, by their acquaintances who were still slaves.'
'I don't know. Admiration and envy are not commonly excited by merely reasonable behaviour.'
'But this would be something more than merely reasonable. It would be the beginning of a revolution.'
'My dear,' remarked Mrs. Frothingham, smiling sadly, 'people would never believe that it didn't mean loss of money.'
'They might be made to believe it. It would depend entirely on the persons, of course.'
Alma seemed to weary of the speculation, and to throw it aside. Harvey noticed a shadow on her face again, which this time did not pass quickly.
He was so comfortable in his chair, the ladies seemed so entirely at leisure, such a noiseless calm brooded about them, unbroken by any new arrival, that two hours went by insensibly, and with lingering reluctance the visitor found it time to take his leave. On reviewing the afternoon, Harvey concluded that it was probably as void of meaning as of event. Alma, on friendly terms once more with her step-mother, felt for the moment amiably disposed towards everyone, himself included; this idle good humour and insignificant talk was meant, no doubt, for an apology, all he had to expect. It implied, of course, thorough indifference towards him as an individual. As a member of their shrunken circle, he was worth retaining. Having convinced herself of his innocence of undue pretensions, Alma would, as the children say, be friends again, and everything should go smoothly.
He lived through a week of the wretchedest indecision, and at the end of it, when Wednesday afternoon came round, was again climbing the many stairs to the Frothinghams' flat; even more nervous than last time, much more ashamed of himself, and utterly doubtful as to his reception. The maid admitted him without remark, and showed him into an empty room. When he had waited for five minutes, staring at objects he did not see, Alma entered.
'Mamma went out to lunch,' she said, languidly shaking hands with him, 'and hasn't come back yet.'
No greeting could have conveyed less encouragement. She seated herself with a lifeless movement, looked at him, and smiled as if discharging a duty.
'I thought' -- he blundered into speech -- 'that Wednesday was probably your regular afternoon.'
'There is nothing regular yet. We haven't arranged our life. We are glad to see our friends whenever they come. -- Pray sit down.'
He did so, resolving to stay for a few minutes only. In the silence that followed, their eyes met, and, as though it were too much trouble to avert her look, Alma continued to regard him. She smiled again, and with more meaning.
'So you have quite forgiven me?' fell from her lips, just when Harvey was about to speak.
'As I told you at the station, I feel that there is more fault on my side. You wrote under such a strange misconception, and I ought to have patiently explained myself.'
'Oh no! You were quite right in treating me sharply. I don't quite remember what I said, but I know it must have been outrageous. After that, I did what I ought to have done before, just had a talk with Mamma.'
'Then you took it for granted, without any evidence, that I came here as a meddler or busybody?'
His voice was perfectly good-humoured, and Alma answered in the same tone.
'I thought there was evidence. Mamma had been talking about her affairs, and mentioned that she had consulted you about something -- Oh, about Mrs. Abbott.'
'Very logical, I must say,' remarked Rolfe, laughing.
'I don't think logic is my strong point.'
She sat far back in the easy chair, her head supported, her hands resting upon the chair arms. The languor which she hardly made an effort to overcome began to invade her companion, like an influence from the air; he gazed at her, perceiving a new beauty in the half-upturned face, a new seductiveness in the slim, abandoned body. A dress of grey silk, trimmed with black, refined the ivory whiteness of her flesh; its faint rustling when she moved affected Harvey with a delicious thrill.
'There's no reason, now,' she continued, 'why we shouldn't talk about it -- I mean, the things you discussed with Mamma. You imagine, I dare say, that I selfishly objected to what she was doing. Nothing of the kind. I didn't quite see why she had kept it from me, that was all. It was as if she felt afraid of my greediness. But I'm not greedy; I don't think I'm more selfish than ordinary people. And I think Mamma is doing exactly what she ought; I'm very glad she felt about things in that way.'
Harvey nodded, and spoke in a subdued voice.
'I was only consulted about one person, whom I happened to know.'
'Yes -- Mrs. Abbott.'
Her eyes were again fixed upon him, and he read their curiosity. Just as he was about to speak, the servant appeared with tea. Alma slowly raised herself, and, whilst she plied the office of hostess, Harvey got rid of the foolish hat and stick that encumbered him. He had now no intention of hurrying away.
As if by natural necessity, they talked of nothing in particular whilst tea was sipped. Harvey still held his cup, when at the outer door sounded a rat-tat-tat, causing him silently to execrate the intruder, whoever it might be. Unheeding, and as if she had not heard, Alma chatted of trifles. Harvey's ear detected movements without, but no one entered; in a minute or two, he again breathed freely.
'Mrs. Abbott ----'
Alma just dropped the name, as if beginning a remark, but lapsed into silence.
'Shall I tell you all about her?' said Rolfe. 'Her husband's death left her in great difficulties; she had hardly anything. A friend of hers, a Mrs. Langland, who lives at Gunnersbury, was very kind and helpful. They talked things over, and Mrs. Abbott decided to take a house at Gunnersbury, and teach children; -- she was a teacher before her marriage.'
'No children of her own?'
'No. One died. But unfortunately she has the care of two, whose mother -- a cousin of hers -- is dead, and whose father has run away.'
'Literally. Left the children behind in a lodging-house garret to starve, or go to the workhouse, or anything else. A spirited man; independent, you see; no foolish prejudices.'
'And Mrs. Abbott has to support them?'
'No one else could take them. They live with her.'
'You didn't mention that to Mamma.'
'No. I thought it needless.'
The silence that followed was embarrassing to Harvey. He broke it by abruptly changing the subject.
'Have you practised long today?'
'No,' was the absent reply.
'I thought you looked rather tired, as if you had been working too hard.'
'Oh, I don't work too hard,' said Alma impatiently.
'Forgive me. I remember that it is a forbidden subject.'
'Not at all. You may ask me anything you like about myself. I'm not working particularly hard just now; thinking a good deal, though. Suppose you let me have your thoughts on the same subject. No harm. But I dare say I know them, without your telling me.'
'I hardly think you do,' said Rolfe, regarding her steadily. 'At all events' -- his voice faltered a little -- 'I'm afraid you don't.'
'Afraid? Oh' -- she laughed -- 'don't be afraid. I have plenty of courage, and quite enough obstinacy. It rather does me good when people show they have no faith in me.'
'You didn't understand,' murmured Harvey.
'Then make me understand,' she exclaimed nervously, moving in the chair as if about to stand up, but remaining seated and bent forward, her eyes fixed upon him in a sort of good-humoured challenge. 'I believe I know what you mean, all the time. You didn't discuss me with Mamma, as I suspected, but you think about me just as she does. -- No, let me go on, then you shall confess I was right. You have no faith in my powers, to begin with. It seems to you very unlikely that an everyday sort of girl, whom you have met in society and know all about, should develop into a great artist. No faith -- that's the first thing. Then you are so kind as to have fears for me -- yes, it was your own word. You think that you know the world, whilst I am ignorant of it, and that it's a sort of duty to offer warnings.'
Harvey's all but angry expression, as he listened and fidgeted, suddenly stopped her.
'Well! Can you deny that these things are in your mind?'
'They are not in my mind at this moment, that's quite certain,' said Harvey bluntly.
'Then, what is?'
'Something it isn't easy to say, when you insist on quarrelling with me. Why do you use this tone? Do I strike you as a pedagogue, a preacher -- something of that sort?'
His energy in part subdued her. She smiled uneasily.
'No. I don't see you in that light.'
'So much the better. I wanted to appear to you simply a man, and one who has -- perhaps -- the misfortune to see in you only a very beautiful and a very desirable woman.'
Alma sat motionless. Her smile had passed, vanishing in a swift gleam of pleasure which left her countenance bright, though grave. In the same moment there sounded again a rat-tat at the outer door. Through his whirling senses, Harvey was aware of the threatened interruption, and all but cursed aloud. That Alma had the same expectation appeared in her moving so as to assume a more ordinary attitude; but she uttered the word that had risen to her lips.
'The misfortune, you call it?'
Harvey followed her example in disposing his limbs more conventionally; also in the tuning of his voice to something between jest and earnest.
'I said perhaps the misfortune.'
'It makes a difference, certainly.' She smiled, her eyes turned to the door. 'Perhaps is a great word; one of the most useful in the language. -- Don't you think so, Mamma?'
Mrs. Frothingham had just entered.