The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
Mrs. Frothingham was overjoyed. In private talk with Harvey she sang the praises of her step-daughter, whom, she declared, any man might be proud to have won. For Alma herself had so much pride; the characteristic, said Mrs. Frothingham, which had put dangers in her path, and menaced her prospects of happiness.
'There's no harm in saying, Mr. Rolfe, that I never dared to hope for this. I thought perhaps that you -- but I was afraid Alma wouldn't listen to any one. Just of late, she seemed to feel her position so much more than at first. It was my fault; I behaved so foolishly; but I'm sure you'll both forgive me. For months I really wasn't myself. It made the poor girl bitter against all of us. But how noble she is! How high-minded! And how much, much happier she will be than if she had struggled on alone -- whatever she might have attained to.'
It was clear to Harvey that the well-meaning lady did not quite understand Alma's sudden enthusiasm for the 'simple life', that she had but a confused apprehension of the ideal for which Alma panted. But the suggestion of 'economy' received her entire approval.
'I feel sure you couldn't do better than to go and live in the country for a time. There are so many reasons why Alma will be happier there, at first, than in London. I don't know whether that place in North Wales would be quite -- but I mustn't meddle with what doesn't concern me. And you will be thoroughly independent; at any moment you can make a change.'
To a suggestion that she should run down into Carnarvonshire, and see her proposed home before any practical step was taken, Alma replied that she had complete faith in Harvey Rolfe's judgment. Harvey's only doubt was as to the possibility of finding a house. He made the journey himself, and after a few days' absence returned with no very hopeful report; at present there was nothing to be had but a cottage, literally a cotter's home, and this would not do. He brought photographs, and Alma went into raptures over the lovely little bay, with its grassy cliffs, its rivulet, its smooth sand, and the dark-peaked mountains sweeping nobly to a sheer buttress above the waves. 'There must be a house! There shall be a house!' Of course, said Harvey, one could build, and cheaply enough; but that meant a long delay. Regarding the date of the marriage nothing was as yet decided, but Harvey had made up his mind to be 'at home' for Christmas. When he ventured to hint at this, Alma evaded the question.
A correspondent would inform him if any house became tenantless. 'I shall bribe someone to quit!' he cried. 'One might advertise that all expenses would be paid, with one year's rent of a house elsewhere.' Harvey was in excellent spirits, though time hung rather heavily on his hands.
On an appointed day the ladies paid him a visit at his rooms. Mrs Handover, requested to prepare tea for a semi-ceremonious occasion, was at once beset with misgivings, and the first sight of the strangers plunged her into profound despondency. She consulted her indifferent relative, Buncombe; had he any inkling of the possibility that Mr. Rolfe was about to change his condition? Buncombe knew nothing and cared nothing; his own domestic affairs were giving him more than usual anxiety just now. 'I didn't think he was fool enough' -- thus only he replied to Mrs. Handover's anxious questions.
Alma surveyed the book-shelves, and took down volumes with an air of interest; she looked over a portfolio of photographs, inspected mementoes of travel from Cyprus, Palestine, Bagdad. Mrs. Frothingham noted to herself how dusty everything was.
'That woman neglects him scandalously,' she said afterwards to Alma. 'I wish I had to look after her when she is at work.'
'I didn't notice any neglect. The tea wasn't very well made, perhaps.'
'My dear child! the room is in a disgraceful state -- never dusted, never cleaned -- oh dear!'
'I'm quite sure, Mamma, you are much happier now -- in one way -- than when you never had to think of such things. You have a genius for domestic operations. When I have a house of my own I shall be rather afraid of you.'
'Oh, of course you will have good servants, my dear.'
'How often have I to tell you, Mamma, that we're not going to live in that way at all! The simplest possible furniture, the simplest possible meals -- everything subordinate to the higher aims and pleasures.'
'But you must have servants, Alma! You can't sweep the rooms yourself, and do the cooking?'
'I'm thinking about it,' the girl answered gravely. 'Of course, I shall not waste my time in coarse labour; but I feel sure we shall need only one servant -- a competent, trustworthy woman, after your own heart. It's snobbish to be ashamed of housework; there are all sorts of things I should like to do, and that every woman is better for doing.'
'That is very true indeed, Alma. I can't say how I admire you for such thoughts. But ----'
'The thing is to reduce such work to the strictly necessary. Think of all the toil that is wasted in people's houses, for foolish display and luxury. We sweep all that away at one stroke! Wait till you see. I'm thinking it out, making my plans.'
In the pleasant little drawing-room, by the fireside (for it was now October and chilly), Harvey and Alma had long, long conversations. Occasionally they said things that surprised each other and led to explanations, debates, but harmony was never broken. Rolfe came away ever more enslaved; more impressed by the girl's sweet reasonableness, and exalted by her glowing idealism. Through amorous mists he still endeavoured to discern the real Alma; he reflected ceaselessly upon her character; yet, much as she often perplexed him, he never saw reason to suspect her of disingenuousness. At times she might appear to excite herself unduly, to fall into excess of zeal; it meant, no doubt, that the imaginative fervour she had been wont to expend on music was turned in a new quarter. Alma remained herself -- impulsive, ardent, enthusiastic, whether yearning for public triumphs, or eager to lead a revolution in domestic life. Her health manifestly improved; languor was unknown to her; her cheeks had a warmer hue, a delicate carnation, subtly answering to her thoughts.
She abhorred sentimentality. This was one of her first intimate declarations, and Harvey bore it in mind. He might praise, glorify, extol her to the uttermost, and be rewarded by her sweetest smiles; but for the pretty follies of amatory transport she had no taste. Harvey ran small risk of erring in this direction; he admired and reverenced her maidenly aloofness; her dignity he found an unfailing charm, the great support of his own self-respect. A caress was not at all times forbidden, but he asserted the privilege with trembling diffidence. It pleased her, when he entered the room, to be stately and rather distant of manner, to greet him as though they were still on formal terms; this troubled Harvey at first, but he came to understand and like it. In Mrs Frothingham's presence, Alma avoided every sign of familiarity, and talked only of indifferent things.
Early in November there came news that a certain family in the little Welsh town would be glad to vacate their dwelling if a tenant could at once be found for it. The same day Harvey travelled northwards, and on the morrow he despatched a telegram to Alma. He had taken the house, and could have possession in a week or two. Speedily followed a letter of description. The house was stone-built and substantial, but very plain; it stood alone and unsheltered by the roadside, a quarter of a mile from the town, looking seaward; it had garden ground and primitive stabling. The rooms numbered nine, exclusive of kitchen; small, but not diminutive. The people were very friendly (Harvey wrote), and gave him all aid in investigating the place, with a view to repairs and so on; by remaining for a few days he would be able to consult with a builder, so as to have necessary work set in train as soon as the present occupants were gone.
Alma's engagement had been kept strictly secret. When Harvey returned after a week of activity, he found her still reluctant to fix a day, or even the month, for their wedding. He did not plead, but wrote her a little letter, saying that the house could be ready by -- at all events -- the second week in December; that he would then consult with her about furniture, and would go down to superintend the final putting in order. 'After that, it rests with you to say when you will enter into possession. I promise not to speak of it again until, on coming into the room, I see your atlas lying open on the table; that shall be a sign unto me.'
On his return to London he received a note from Mrs. Frothingham, requesting him to be at home at a certain hour, as she wished to call and speak privately with him. This gave him an uneasy night; he imagined all manner of vexatious or distracting possibilities; but Mrs Frothingham brought no ill news.
'Don't be frightened,' she began, reading his anxious face. 'All's well, and I am quite sure Alma will soon have something to say to you. I have come on a matter of business -- strictly business.'
Harvey felt a new kind of uneasiness.
'Let me speak in a plain way about plain things,' pursued the widow, with that shadow on her face which always indicated that she was thinking of the mournful past. 'I know that neither Alma nor you would hear of her accepting money from me; I know I mustn't speak of it. All the better that you have no need of money. But now that you are my relative -- will be so very soon -- I want to tell you how my affairs stand. Will you let me? Please do!'
Impossible to refuse a hearing to the good little woman, who delighted in confidential gossip, and for a long time had been anxious to pour these details into Harvey's ear. So she unfolded everything. Her capital at Bennet Frothingham's death amounted to more than sixteen thousand pounds, excellently invested -- no 'Britannia' stocks or shares! Of this, during the past six months, she had given away nearly six thousand to sufferers by the great catastrophe. Her adviser and administrator in this affair was an old friend of her husband's, a City man of honourable repute. He had taken great trouble to discover worthy recipients of her bounty, and as yet had kept the source of it unknown.
'I mustn't give very much more,' she said, looking at Harvey with a pathetic deprecation of criticism. 'I want to keep an income of three hundred pounds. I could live on less, much less; but I should like still to have it in my power to do a little good now and then, and I want to be able to leave something to my sister, or her children. The truth is, Mr. Rolfe -- no, I will call you Harvey, once for all -- the truth is, I couldn't live now without giving a little help here and there to people poorer than myself. Don't think it foolish.' Her voice quivered. 'I feel that it will be done in the name of my poor husband as if he himself were doing it, and making amends for a wrong he never, never intended. If I had given up everything -- as some people say I ought to have done -- it wouldn't have seemed the same to me. I couldn't earn my own living, and what right had I to become a burden to my relatives? I hope I haven't done very wrong. Of course, I shall give up the flat as soon as Alma is married. In taking it I really thought more of her than of my own comfort. I shall live with my sister, and come up to town just now and then, when it is necessary.'
The listener was touched, and could only nod grave approval.
'There's another thing. Alma thinks with me in everything -- but she says I ought to let it be known who has given that money. She says it would make many people less bitter against her father's memory. Now, what is your opinion? If she is right in that ----'
Harvey would offer no counsel, and Mrs. Frothingham did not press him. She must think about it. The disclosure, if wise, could be made at any time.
'That's all I had to say, Harvey. Now tell me about the house, and then go arid see Alma. I have business in the City.'
He went, but only to be disappointed; Alma was not at home. To make amends, she sent him a note that evening, asking him to call at twelve the next day, and to stay to luncheon. When he entered the room, the first object his eye fell upon was the old school atlas, lying open on the table at the map of England and Wales.
And the day appointed was the twentieth of December.
The wedding was to be the simplest conceivable. No costume, no bridesmaid or hulking groomsman, no invitations; no announcement to anyone until the day had passed, save only to Dora Leach, who would be summoned as if for some ordinary occasion of friendship, and then be carried off to the church.
'It will insure my smiling all through the ordeal,' said Alma to her step-mother; 'Dora's face will be such a study!'
'My dear,' began Mrs. Frothingham very earnestly, 'you are quite sure ----'
'More than sure, if that's possible. And Harvey throws up his hat at being let off so easily. He dreaded the ceremony.'
Which was very true, though Rolfe had not divulged it.
His personal possessions were now to be made ready for removal. The books represented nearly all that he could carry away from his old rooms, but they were a solid addendum to the garnishing of home. For a moment he thought of selling a few score of volumes. Would he ever really want those monumental tomes -- the six folios of Muratori, for instance, which he liked to possess, but had never used? Thereby hung the great, the unanswerable question: How was he going to spend his life as a married man? Was it probable that he would be come a serious student, or even that he would study as much as heretofore? No foreseeing; the future must shape itself, even as the past had done. After all, why dismember his library for the sake of saving a few shillings on carriage? If he did not use the books himself ----
A thought flashed through him which made his brain, unsteady. If he did not use the books himself, perhaps ----
He tried to laugh, but for five minutes was remarkably sober. No, no; of course he would keep his library intact.
And now there was a duty to perform: he must write to his friends, make known his marriage; the letters to be posted only on the day of fate. Dear old Basil Morton -- how he would stare! Morton should soon come down into Wales, and there would be great quaffing and smoking and talking into the small hours; a jolly anticipation! And Hugh Carnaby! Hugh would throw up his great arms, clench his huge red fists, and roar with mocking laughter. Good old boy! out there on the other side of the world, perhaps throwing away his money, with the deft help of a swindler. And the poor lad, Cecil Morphew! who assuredly would never pay back that fifty pounds -- to which he was heartily welcome. Morphew had kept his promise to quit the garret in Chelsea, but what was since become of him Harvey knew not; the project of their going together into Wales had, of course, fallen through.
Lastly, Mary Abbott -- for so had Harvey come to name his friend's widow. Mary Abbott! how would she receive this news? It would come upon her as the strangest surprise; not the mere fact of his marrying, but that he had chosen for a wife, out of the whole world, the daughter of Bennet Frothingham. Would she be able to think kindly of him after this? Of Mrs. Frothingham she could speak generously, seeming to have outlived natural bitterness; but the name must always be unwelcome to her ears. Alma would cease to bear that name, and perhaps, in days to come, Mary Abbott might forget it. He could only hope so, and that the two women might come together. On Alma's side, surely, no reluctance need be feared; and Mary, after her ordeal, was giving proof of sense and character which inspired a large trust. He would write to her in the most open-hearted way; indeed, no other tone was possible, having regard to the relations that had grown up between them.
How the aspect of his little world was changing! A year ago, what things more improbable than that he should win Alma Frothingham for a wife, and become the cordial friend of Mary Abbott?
When the revelation could be postponed no longer, he made known to Mrs Handover that he was about to be married. It cost him an extraordinary effort, for in a double sense he was shamed before the woman. Mrs Handover, by virtue of her sex, instinctively triumphed over him. He saw in her foolish eyes the eternal feminine victory; his head was bowed before her slatternly womanhood. Then again, he shrank from announcing to the poor creature that she could no longer draw upon him for her livelihood.
'I'm very sorry, Mr. Rolfe,' she began, in her most despondent voice. 'That is, of course, I'm very glad you're going to be married, and I'm sure I wish you every happiness -- I do indeed. But we are sorry to lose you -- indeed we are.'
Of her sincerity herein there could be no sort of doubt. Harvey coughed, and looked at the window -- which had not been cleaned for some months.
'May I ask, without rudeness, whether it is the young lady who came ----'
'Yes, Mrs, Handover.'
He was uncommonly glad that Alma's name had never been spoken. There, indeed, would have been matter for gossip.
'A very handsome young lady, Mr. Rolfe, and I'm sure I wish her all happiness, as well as yourself.' She fidgeted. 'Of course, I don't know what your plans may be, sir, but -- perhaps there's no harm if I mention it -- if ever you should be in need of a housekeeper -- you've known me a long time, sir ----'
'Yes -- yes -- certainly.' Harvey perspired. 'Of course, I should bear you in mind.'
Thereupon he had to listen whilst Mrs. Handover discoursed at large upon her dubious prospects. At the close of the Interview, he gave her a cheque for ten pounds, concealed in an envelope. 'A little present -- of course, I shall be hearing of you -- every good wish ----'
On the eve of his marriage day he stood in the dismantled rooms, at once joyful and heavy at heart. His books were hidden in a score of packing-cases, labelled, ready to be sent away. In spite of open windows, the air was still charged with dust; since the packing began, everyone concerned in it had choked and coughed incessantly; on the bare floor, footsteps were impressed in a thick flocky deposit. These rooms could have vied with any in London for supremacy of filthiness. Yet here he had known hours of still contentment; here he had sat with friends congenial, and heard the walls echo their hearty laughter; here he had felt at home -- here his youth had died.
Where all else was doubtful, speculative, contingent, that one thing he certainly knew; he was no longer a young man. The years had passed like a shadow, unnoted, uncounted, and had brought him to this point of pause, of change momentous, when he must needs look before and after. In all likelihood much more than half his life was gone. His mother did not see her thirtieth year; his father died at little over forty; his grandparents were not long-lived; what chance had he of walking the earth for more than half the term already behind him? Did the life of every man speed by so mockingly? Yesterday a school-boy; tomorrow -- 'Rolfe? you don't say so? Poor old fellow!'
And he was going to be married. Incredible, laughter-moving, but a fact. No more the result of deliberate purpose than any other change that had come about in his life, than the flight of years and the vanishment of youth. Fate so willed it, and here he stood.
Someone climbed the stairs, breaking upon his reverie. It was Buncombe, who smiled through a settled gloom.
'All done? I shan't be much longer here myself. House too big for me.'
'Ah! it is rather large.'
'I'm thinking of changes. -- You know something about my affairs. -- Yes -- changes ----'
Rolfe had never seen the man so dismal before; he tried to inspirit him, but with small result.
'It's the kids that bother me,' said Buncombe. Then he dropped his voice, and brought his head nearer.
'You're going to get married.' His eyes glinted darkly. 'I'm -- going to get divorced.'
And with a grim nod the man moved away.