The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
The inconceivable had come to pass. By a word and a look Harvey had made real what he was always telling himself could never be more than a dream, and a dream of unutterable folly. Mrs. Frothingham's unconscious intervention availed him nothing; he had spoken, and must speak again. For a man of sensitive honour there could be no trilling in such a matter as this with a girl in Alma Frothingham's position. And did he not rejoice that wavering was no longer possible?
This was love; but of what quality? He no longer cared, or dared, to analyse it. Too late for all that. He had told Alma that he loved her, and did not repent it; nay, hoped passionately to hear from her lips the echoed syllable. It was merely the proof of madness. A shake of the head might cure him; but from that way to sanity all his blood shrank.
He must consider; he must be practical. If he meant to ask Alma to marry him, and of course he did, an indispensable preliminary was to make known the crude facts of his worldly position.
Well, he could say, with entire honesty, that he had over nine hundred pounds a year. This was omitting a disbursement of an annual fifty pounds, of which he need not speak -- the sum he had insisted on paying Mrs. Abbott that she might be able to maintain Wager's children. With all the difficulty in the world had he gained his point. Mrs. Abbott did not wish the children to go into other hands; she made it a matter of conscience to keep them by her, and to educate them, yet this seemed barely possible with the combat for a livelihood before her. Mrs. Abbott yielded, and their clasp of hands cemented a wholesome friendship -- frank, unsuspicious -- rarest of relations between man and woman. But all this there was certainly no need of disclosing.
At midnight he was penning a letter. It must not be long; it must not strike the lyrical note; yet assuredly it must not read like a commercial overture. He had great difficulty in writing anything that seemed tolerable. Yet done it must be, and done it was; and before going to bed he had dropped his letter into the post. He durst not leave it for reperusal in the morning light.
Then came torture of expectancy. The whole man aching, sore, with impatience; reason utterly fled, intellect bemused and baffled; a healthy, competent citizen of nigh middle age set all at once in the corner, crowned with a fool's cap, twiddling his thumbs in nervous fury. Dolorous spectacle, and laughable withal.
He waited four-and-twenty hours, then clutched at Alma's reply. 'Dear Mr Rolfe, -- Will you come again next Wednesday?' That was all. Did it amuse her to keep him in suspense? The invitation might imply a fulfilment of his hopes, but Alma's capriciousness allowed no certainty; a week's reflection was as likely to have one result as another. For him it meant a week of solitude and vacancy.
Or would have meant it, but for that sub-vigorous element in his character, that saving strain of practical rationality, which had brought him thus far in life without sheer overthrow. An hour after receiving Alma's enigmatical note, he was oppressed by inertia; another hour roused him to self-preservation, and supplied him with a project. That night he took the steamer from Harwich to Antwerp, and for the next four days wandered through the Netherlands, reviving his memories of a journey, under very different circumstances, fifteen years ago. The weather was bright and warm; on the whole he enjoyed himself; he reached London again early on Wednesday morning, and in the afternoon, with a touch of weather on his cheek, presented himself at Alma's door.
She awaited him in the drawing-room, alone. This time, he felt sure, no interruption was to be feared; he entered with confident step and a cheery salutation. A glance showed him that his common-sense had served him well; it was Alma who looked pale and thought-worn, who betrayed timidity, and could not at once command herself.
'What have you been doing?' she asked, remarking his appearance.
'Rambling about a little,' he replied good-humouredly.
'Where? You look as if you had been a voyage.'
'So I have, a short one.'
And he told her how his week had passed.
'So that's how you would like to spend your life -- always travelling?'
'Oh no! I did it to kill time. You must remember that a week is something like a year to a man who is waiting impatiently.'
She dropped her eyes.
'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. But I never thought you very impatient. You always seemed to take things philosophically.'
'I generally try to.'
There was a pause. Alma, leaning forward in her chair, kept her eyes down, and did not raise them when she again spoke.
'You have surprised and perplexed and worried me. I thought in a week's time I should know what to say, but -- Doesn't it strike you, Mr. Rolfe, that we're in a strange position towards each other? You know very little of me -- very little indeed, I'm sure. And of you, when I come to think of it, all I really know is that you hardly care at all for what has always been my one great interest.'
'That is putting it in a matter-of-fact way -- or you think so. I see things rather differently. In one sense, I care very much indeed for everything that really makes a part of your life. And simply because I care very much about you yourself. I don't know you; who knows any other human being? But I have formed an idea of you, and an idea that has great power over my thoughts, wishes, purposes -- everything. It has made me say what I thought I should never say to any woman -- and makes me feel glad that I have said it, and full of hope.'
Alma drew in her breath and smiled faintly. Still she did not look at him.
'And of course I have formed an idea of you.'
'Will you sketch the outline and let me correct it?'
'You think I am pretty sure to be wrong?' she asked, raising her eyes and regarding him for a moment with anxiety.
'I should have said "complete" it. I hope I have never shown myself to you in an altogether false light.'
'That is the one thing I have felt sure about,' said Alma, slowly and thoughtfully. 'You have always seemed the same. You don't change with circumstances -- as people generally do.'
Harvey had a word on his lips, but checked it, and merely gazed at her till her eyes again encountered his. Then Alma smiled more naturally.
'There was something you didn't speak of in your letter. What kind of life do you look forward to?'
'I'm not sure that I understand. My practical aims -- you mean?'
'Yes,' she faltered, with embarrassment.
'Why, I'm afraid I have none. I mentioned the facts of my position, and I said that I couldn't hope for its improvement ----'
'No, no, no! You misunderstand me. I am not thinking about money. I hate the word, and wish I might never hear it again!' She spoke with impetuosity. 'I meant -- how and where do you wish to live? What thoughts had you about the future?'
'None very definite, I confess. And chiefly because, if what I desired came to pass, I thought of everything as depending upon you. I have no place in the world. I have no relatives nearer than cousins. Of late years I have been growing rather bookish, and rather fond of quietness -- but of course that resulted from circumstances. When a man offers marriage, of course he usually says: My life is this and this; will you enter into it, and share it with me? I don't wish to say anything of the kind. My life may take all sorts of forms; when I ask you to share it, I ask you to share liberty, not restraint.'
'A gipsy life?' she asked, half playfully.
'Is your inclination to that?'
Alma shook her head.
'No, I am tired of homelessness. -- And,' she added as if on an impulse, 'I am tired of London.'
'Then we agree. I, too, am tired of both.'
Her manner altered; she straightened herself, and spoke with more self-possession.
'What about my art -- my career?'
'It is for me to ask that question,' replied Harvey, gazing steadfastly at her.
'You don't mean that it would all necessarily come to an end.'
'Why? I mean what I say when I speak of sharing liberty. Heaven forbid that I should put an end to any aim or hope of yours -- to anything that is part of yourself. I want you to be yourself. Many people nowadays revolt against marriage because it generally means bondage, and they have much to say for themselves. If I had been condemned to a wearisome occupation and a very small income, I'm sure I should never have asked anyone to marry me; I don't think it fair. It may seem to you that I haven't much right to call myself an independent man as it is ----'
Alma broke in, impatiently.
'Don't speak of money? You have enough -- more than enough.'
'So it seems to me. You are afraid this might prevent you from becoming a professional musician?'
'I know it would,' she answered with quiet decision.
'I should never dream of putting obstacles in your way. Do understand and believe me. I don't want to shape you to any model of my own; I want you to be your true self, and live the life you are meant for.'
'All the same, you would rather I did not become a professional musician. Now, be honest with me! Be honest before everything. You needn't answer, I know it well enough; and if I marry you, I give up my music.'
Rolfe scrutinised her face, observed the tremulous mouth, the nervous eyelid.
'Then,' he said, 'it will be better for you not to marry me.'
And silence fell upon the room, a silence in which Harvey could hear a deep-drawn breath and the rustle of silk. He was surprised by a voice in quite a new tone, softly melodious.
'You give me up very easily.'
'Not more easily than you give up your music.'
'There's a difference. Do you remember what we were saying, last Wednesday, about simplicity of living?'
'Last Wednesday? It seems a month ago. Yes, I remember.'
'I have thought a good deal of that. I feel how vulgar the life is that most people lead. They can't help it; they think it impossible to do anything else. But I should like to break away from it altogether -- to live as I chose, and not care a bit what other people said.'
Harvey had the same difficulty as before in attaching much significance to these phrases. They were pleasant to hear, for they chimed with his own thoughts, but he could not respond with great seriousness.
'The wife of a man with my income won't have much choice, I fancy.'
'How can you say that?' exclaimed Alma. 'You know that most people would take a house in a good part of London, and live up to the last penny -- making everyone think that their income must be two or three thousand pounds. I know all about that kind of thing, and it sickens me. There's the choice between vulgar display with worry, and a simple, refined life with perfect comfort. You fancied I should want a house in London?'
'I hardy thought anything about it.'
'But it would ease your mind if I said that I would far rather live in a cottage, as quietly and simply as possible?'
'What does ease my mind -- or rather, what makes me very happy, is that you don't refuse to think of giving me your companionship.'
Alma flushed a little.
'I haven't promised. After all my thinking about it, it came to this -- that I couldn't make up my mind till I had talked over everything with you. If I marry, I must know what my life is going to be. And it puzzles me that you could dream of making anyone your wife before you had asked her all sorts of questions.'
In his great contentment, Harvey laughed.
'Admirable, theoretically! But how is a man to begin asking questions? How many would he ask before he got sent about his business?'
'That's the very way of putting his chance to the test!' said Alma brightly. 'If he is sent about his business, how much better for him than to marry on a misunderstanding.'
'I agree with you perfectly. I never heard anyone talk better sense on the subject.'
Alma looked pleased, as she always did when receiving a compliment.
'Will you believe, then, Mr. Rolfe, that I am quite in earnest in hating show and pretences and extravagance, and wishing to live in just the opposite way?'
'I will believe it if you cease to address me by that formal name -- a show and a pretence, and just a little extravagant.'
Her cheeks grew warm again
'That reminds me,' she said; 'I didn't know you had a second name -- till I got that letter.'
'I had almost forgotten it myself, till I answered a certain other letter. I didn't know till then that you had a second name. Your "Florence" called out my "Radcliffe" -- which sounds fiery, doesn't it? I always felt that the name over-weighted me. I got it from my mother.'
'And your first -- Harvey?'
'My first I got from a fine old doctor, about whom I'll tell you some day -- Alma.'
'I named your name. I didn't address you by it.'
'But you will?'
'Let us talk seriously. -- Could you live far away from London, in some place that people know nothing about?'
'With you, indeed I could, and be glad enough if I never saw London again.'
An exaltation possessed Alma; her eyes grew very bright, gazing as if at a mental picture, and her hands trembled as she continued to speak.'
'I don't mean that we are to go and be hermits in a wilderness. Our friends must visit us -- our real friends, no one else; just the people we really care about, and those won't be many. If I give up a public career -- as of course I shall -- there's no need to give up music. I can go on with it in a better spirit, for pure love of it, without any wish for making money and reputation. You don't think this a mere dream?'
Harvey thought more than he was disposed to say. He marvelled at her sudden enthusiasm for an ideal he had not imagined her capable of pursuing. If he only now saw into the girl's true character, revealed by the awakening of her emotions, how nobly was his ardour justified! All but despising himself for loving her, he had instinctively chosen the one woman whose heart and mind could inspire him to a life above his own. 'I should think it a dream,' he answered, 'if I didn't hear it from your lips.'
'But it is so easy! We keep all the best things, and throw off only the worthless -- the things that waste time and hurt the mind. No crowded rooms, no wearying artificial talk, no worry with a swarm of servants, no dressing and fussing. The whole day to one's self, for work and pleasure. A small house -- just large enough for order and quietness, and to keep a room for the friend who comes. How many people would like such a life, but haven't the courage to live it!'
'Where shall it be, Alma?'
'I have given no promise. I only say this is the life that IJ should like. Perhaps you would soon weary of it?'
'I? Not easily, I think.'
'There might be travel, too,' she went on fervently. 'We should be rich, when other people, living in the ordinary vulgar way, would have nothing to spare. No tours where the crowd goes; real travel in out-of-the-way parts.'
'You are describing just what I should choose for myself; but I shouldn't have dared to ask it of you.
'And why? I told you that you knew so little of me. We are only just beginning to understand each other.'
'What place have you in mind?'
'None. That would have to be thought about Didn't you say you were going to some beautiful spot in Wales?'
'I wonder whether you would like that ----'
'We are only supposing, you know. But show me where it is. If you wait a moment, I'll fetch a map.'
She rose quickly. He had just time to reach the door and open it for her; and as she rapidly passed him, eyes averted, the faintest and sweetest of perfumes was wafted upon his face. There he stood till her return, his pulses throbbing.
'This is my old school atlas,' she said gaily; 'I always use it still.'
She opened it upon the table and bent forward.
'North Wales, you said? Show me ----'
He pointed with a finger that quivered. His cheek was not far from hers; the faint perfume floated all about him; he could Imagine it the natural fragrance of her hair, of her breath.
'I see,' she murmured. 'That's the kind of place far off, but not too far. And the railway station?'
As he did not answer, she half turned towards him.
'The station? -- Yes. -- Alma! ----