The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
A morning of April, more than two years after his marriage, found Harvey Rolfe in good health and very tolerable spirits. As his wont was, he came down at half-past eight, and strolled in the open air before breakfast. There had been rain through the night; a grey mist still clung about the topmost larches of Cam Bodvean, and the Eifel summits were densely wrapped. But the sun and breeze of spring promised to have their way; to drive and melt the clouds, to toss white wavelets on a blue sea, to make the gorse shine in its glory, and all the hills be glad.
A gardener was at work in front of the house; Harvey talked with him about certain flowers he wished to grow this year. In the small stable-yard a lad was burnishing harness; for him also the master had a friendly word, before passing on to look at the little mare amid her clean straw. In his rough suit of tweed and shapeless garden hat, with brown face and cheery eye, Rolfe moved hither and thither as though native to such a life. His figure had filled out; he was more robust, and looked, indeed, younger than on the day when he bade farewell to Mrs Handover and her abominations.
At nine o'clock he entered the dining-room, where breakfast was ready, though as yet no other person had come to table. The sun would not touch this window for several hours yet, but a crackling fire made the air pleasant, and brightened all within. Seats were placed for three. An aroma of coffee invited to the meal, which was characterised by no suggestion of asceticism. Nor did the equipment of the room differ greatly from what is usual in middle-class houses. The clock on the mantelpiece was flanked with bronzes; engravings and autotypes hung about the walls; door and window had their appropriate curtaining; the oak sideboard shone with requisite silver. Everything unpretentious; but no essential of comfort, as commonly understood, seemed to be lacking.
In a minute or two appeared Mrs. Frothingham; alert, lightsome, much improved in health since the first year of her widowhood. She had been visiting here for a fortnight, and tomorrow would return to her home in the south. Movement, variety, intimate gossip, supported her under the affliction which still seemed to be working for her moral good. Her bounty (or restitution) had long ago ceased to be anonymous, but she did not unduly pride herself upon the sacrifice of wealth; she was glad to have it known among her acquaintances, because, in certain quarters, the fact released her from constraint, and restored her to friendly intercourse. For her needs and her pleasures a very modest income proved quite sufficient. To all appearances, she found genuine and unfailing satisfaction in the exercise of benevolent sympathies.
'Alma will not come down,' was her remark, as she entered. 'A little headache -- nothing. We are to send her some tea and dry toast.'
'I thought she didn't seem quite herself last night,' said Harvey, as he cut into a ham.
Mrs. Frothingham made no remark, but smiled discreetly, taking a place at the head of the table.
'We shall have to go somewhere,' Harvey continued. 'It has been a long winter. She begins to feel dull, I'm afraid.'
'A little, perhaps. But she's quite well -- it's nothing ----'
'Why won't she go on with her water-colours? She was beginning to do really good things -- then all at once gives it up.'
'Oh, she must! I think those last sketches simply wonderful. Anyone would suppose she had worked at it all her life, instead of just a few months. How very clever she is!'
'Alma can do anything,' said Harvey, with genial conviction.
'Almost anything, I really think. Now don't let her lose interest in it, as she did in her music. You have only to show that you think her drawings good, and speak about them. She depends rather upon encouragement.'
'I know. But it wasn't for lack of my encouragement that she dropped her violin.'
'So unfortunate! Oh, she'll come back to it, I'm sure.'
When Mrs. Frothingham paid her first visit to the newly-married couple, it amused her to find a state of things differing considerably from her anxious expectations. True, they had only one servant within doors, the woman named Ruth, but she did not represent the whole establishment. Having bought a horse and trap, and not feeling called upon to act as groom, Harvey had engaged a man, who was serviceable in various capacities; moreover, a lad made himself useful about the premises during the day. Ruth was a tolerable cook, and not amiss as a housemaid. Then, the furnishing of the house, though undeniably 'simple', left little to be desired; only such things were eschewed as serve no rational purpose and are mostly in people's way. Alma, as could at once be perceived, ran no risk of overexerting herself in domestic duties; she moved about of mornings with feather-brush, and occasionally plied an unskilful needle, but kitchenward she never turned her steps. Imprudently, Mrs. Frothingham remarked that this life, after all, much resembled that of other people; whereat Alma betrayed a serious annoyance, and the well-meaning lady had to apologise, to admit the absence of 'luxuries', the homeliness of their diet, the unmistakable atmosphere of plain living and high thinking.
She remained for nearly a month, greatly enjoying herself. Late in autumn, Alma begged her to come again, and this time the visit lasted longer; for in the first week of December the house received a new inhabitant, whose arrival made much commotion. Alma did not give birth to her son without grave peril. Day after day Harvey strode about the wintry shore under a cloud of dread. However it had been with him a year ago, he was now drawn to Alma by something other than the lures of passion; the manifold faults he had discerned in her did not seriously conflict with her peculiar and many-sided charm; and the birth of her child inspired him with a new tenderness, an emotion different in kind from any that he had yet conceived. That first wail of feeblest humanity, faint-sounding through the silent night, made a revolution in his thoughts, taught him on the moment more than he had learnt from all his reading and cogitation.
It seemed to be taken as a matter of course that Alma would not nurse the baby; only to Harvey did this appear a subject for regret, and he never ventured to speak of it. The little mortal was not vigorous; his nourishment gave a great deal of trouble; but with the coming of spring he took a firmer hold on life, and less persistently bewailed his lot. The names given to him were Hugh Basil. When apprised of this, the strong man out in Australia wrote a heart-warming letter, and sent with it a little lump of Queensland gold, to be made into something, or kept intact, as the parents saw fit. Basil Morton followed the old tradition, and gave a silver tankard with name and date of the new world-citizen engraved upon it.
Upon her recovery, Harvey took his wife to Madeira, where they spent three weeks. Alma's health needed nothing more than this voyage; she returned full of vitality. During her absence Mrs. Frothingham superintended the household, the baby being in charge of a competent nurse. It occurred to Harvey that this separation from her child was borne by Alma with singular philosophy; it did not affect in the least her enjoyment of travel. But she reached home again in joyous excitement, and for a few days kept the baby much in view. Mrs Frothingham having departed, new visitors succeeded each other: Dora and Gerda Leach, Basil Morton and his wife, one or two of Alma's relatives. Little Hugh saw less and less of his mother, but he continued to thrive; and Harvey understood by now that Alma must not be expected to take much interest in the domestic side of things. It simply was not her forte.
She had ceased to play upon her violin, save for the entertainment and admiration of friends. After her return from Madeira she made the acquaintance of a lady skilled in water-colour drawing, and herewith began a new enthusiasm. Her progress was remarkable, and corresponded to an energy not less than that she had long ago put forth in music. In the pursuit of landscape she defied weather and fatigue; she would pass half the night abroad, studying moonlight, or rise at an unheard-of hour to catch the hues of dawn. When this ardour began to fail, her husband was vexed rather than surprised. He knew Alma's characteristic weakness, and did not like to be so strongly reminded of it. For about this time he was reading and musing much on questions of heredity.
In a moment of confidence he had ventured to ask Mrs. Frothingham whether she could tell him anything of Alma's mother. The question, though often in his mind, could hardly have passed his lips, had not Mrs. Frothingham led up to it by speaking of her own life before she married: how she had enjoyed the cares of country housekeeping; how little she had dreamt of ever being rich; how Bennet Frothingham, who had known her in his early life, sought her out when he began to be prosperous, therein showing the fine qualities of his nature, for she had nothing in the world but gentle birth and a lady's education. Alma was then a young girl of thirteen, and had been motherless for eight years. Thus came Harvey's opportunity. Alma herself had already imparted to him all she knew: that her mother was born in England, emigrated early with her parents to Australia, returned to London as a young woman, married, and died at twenty-seven. To this story Mrs. Frothingham could add little, but the supplement proved interesting. Bennet Frothingham spoke of his first marriage as a piece of folly; it resulted in unhappiness, yet, the widow was assured, with no glaring fault on either side. Alma's mother was handsome, and had some natural gifts, especially a good voice, which she tried to use in public, but without success. Her education scarcely went beyond reading and writing. She died suddenly, after an evening at the theatre, where, as usual, she had excited herself beyond measure. Mrs Frothingham had seen an old report of the inquest that was held, the cause of death being given as cerebral haemorrhage. In these details Harvey Rolfe found new matter for reflection.
Their conversation at breakfast this morning was interrupted by the arrival of letters; two of them particularly welcome, for they bore a colonial postmark. Hugh Carnaby wrote to his friend from an out-of-the-way place in Tasmania; Sibyl wrote independently to Alma from Hobart.
'Just as I expected,' said Harvey, when he had glanced over a few lines. 'He talks of coming home: -- "There seems no help for it. Sibyl is much better in health since we left Queens land, but I see she would never settle out here. She got to detest the people at Brisbane, and doesn't like those at Hobart much better. I have left her there whilst I'm doing a little roaming with a very decent fellow I have come across, Mackintosh by name. He has been everywhere and done everything -- not long ago was in the service of the Indo-European Telegraph Company at Tehran, and afterwards lived (this will interest you) at Badgered, where he got a date-boil, which marks his face and testifies to his veracity. He has been trying to start a timber business here; says some of the hard woods would be just the thing for street paving. But now his father's death is taking him back home, and I shouldn't wonder if we travel together. One of his ideas is a bicycle factory; he seems to know all about it, and says it'll be the most money-making business in England for years to come. What do you think? Does this offer a chance for me?"'
Harvey interrupted himself with a laugh. Smelting of abandoned gold ores, by the method of the ingenious Dando, had absorbed some of Hugh's capital, with very little result, and his other schemes for money-making were numerous.
'"The fact is, I must get money somehow. Living has been expensive ever since we left England, and it's madness to go on till one's resources have practically run out. And Sibyl must get home again; she's wasting her life among these people. How does she write to your wife? I rather wish I could spy at the letters. (Of course, I don't seriously mean that.) She bears it very well, and, if possible, I have a higher opinion of her than ever."'
Again Harvey laughed.
'Good old chap! What a pity he can't be cracking crowns somewhere!'
'Oh! I'm sure I'd rather see him making bicycles.'
''Tisn't his vocation. He ought to go somewhere and get up a little war of his own -- as he once told me he should like to. We can't do without the fighting man.'
'Will you bring Hughie up to it, then?'
Harvey fixed his eyes on a point far off.
'I fear he won't have the bone and muscle. But I should like him to have the pluck. I'm afraid he mayn't, for I'm a vile coward myself.'
'I should like a child never to hear or know of war,' said Mrs Frothingham fervently.
'And so should I,' Harvey answered, in a graver tone.
When Mrs. Frothingham went upstairs with the letter for Alma, he broke open another envelope. It was from Mary Abbott, who wrote to him twice a year, when she acknowledged the receipt of his cheque. She sent the usual careful report concerning Wager's children -- the girl now seven years old, and the boy nine. Albert Wager, she thought, was getting too old for her; he ought to go to a boys' school. Neither he nor his sister had as yet repaid the care given to them; never were children more difficult to manage. Harvey read this between the lines; for Mary Abbott never complained of the task she had undertaken. He rose and left the room with a face of anxious thoughtfulness.
The day was wont to pass in a pretty regular routine. From half-past nine to half-past one Harvey sat alone in his study, not always energetically studious, but on the whole making progress in his chosen field of knowledge. He bought books freely, and still used the London Library. Of late he had been occupying himself with the authorities on education; working, often impatiently, through many a long-winded volume. He would have liked to talk on this subject with Mary Abbott, but had not yet found courage to speak of her paying them a visit. The situation, difficult because of Alma's parentage, was made more awkward by his reticence with Alma regarding the payment he made for those luckless children. The longer he kept silence, the less easily could he acquaint his wife with this matter -- in itself so perfectly harmless.
This morning he felt indisposed for study, and cared just as little to go out, notwithstanding the magnificent sky. From his windows he looked upon the larch-clad slopes of Cam Bodvean; their beauty only reminded him of grander and lovelier scenes in far-off countries. From time to time the wanderer thus awoke in him, and threw scorn upon the pedantries of a book-lined room. He had, moreover, his hours of regret for vanished conviviality; he wished to step out into a London street, collect his boon-companions, and hold revel in the bygone way. These, however, were still but fugitive moods. All in all, he regretted nothing. Destiny seemed to have marked him for a bookish man; he grew more methodical, more persistent, in his historical reading; this, doubtless, was the appointed course for his latter years. It led to nothing definite. His life would be fruitless ----
Fruitless? There sounded from somewhere in the house a shrill little cry, arresting his thought, and controverting it without a syllable. Nay, fruitless his life could not be, if his child grew up. Only the chosen few, the infinitesimal minority of mankind, leave spiritual offspring, or set their single mark upon the earth; the multitude are but parents of a new generation, live but to perpetuate the race. It is the will of nature, the common lot. And if indeed it lay within his power to shape a path for this new life, which he, nature's slave, had called out of nothingness, -- to obviate one error, to avert one misery, -- to ensure that, in however slight degree, his son's existence should be better and happier than his own, -- was not this a sufficing purpose for the years that remained to him, a recompense adequate to any effort, any sacrifice?
As he sat thus in reverie, the door softly opened, and Alma looked in upon him.
'Do I interrupt you?'
'I'm idling. How is your headache?'
She answered with a careless gesture, and came forward, a letter in her hand.
'Sibyl says she will certainly be starting for home in a few weeks. Perhaps they're on the way by now. You have the same news, I hear.'
'Yes. They must come to us straight away,' replied Harvey, knocking the ash out of his pipe 'Or suppose we go to meet them? If they come by the Orient Line, they call at Naples. How would it be to go overland, and make the voyage back with them?'
Alma seemed to like the suggestion, and smiled, but only for a moment. She had little colour this morning, and looked cold, as she drew up to the fire, holding a white woollen wrap about her shoulders. A slow and subtle modification of her features was tending to a mature beauty which would make bolder claim than the charm that had characterised her in maidenhood. It was still remote from beauty of a sensual type, but the outlines, in becoming a little more rounded, more regular, gained in common estimate what they lost to a more refined apprehension. Her eyes appeared more deliberately conscious of their depth and gleam; her lips, less responsive to the flying thought, grew to an habitual expression -- not of discontent, but something akin unto it; not of self-will, but something that spoke a spirit neither tranquil nor pliant.
'Had you anything else?' she asked, absently.
'A letter from Mrs. Abbott.'
Alma smiled, with a shade of pleasantry not usual upon her countenance. Harvey generally read her extracts from these letters. Their allusion to money imposed the reserve; otherwise they would have passed into Alma's hands. From his masculine point of view, Harvey thought the matter indifferent; nothing in his wife's behaviour hitherto had led him to suppose that she attached importance to it.
'The usual report of progress?'
'Yes. I fancy those two children are giving her a good deal of trouble. She'll have to send the boy to a boarding school.'
'But can she afford it?'
'I don't know.'
'I've never understood yet why you take so much interest in those children.'
Her eyes rested upon him with a peculiarly keen scrutiny, and Harvey, resenting the embarrassment due to his own tactics, showed a slight impatience.
'Why, partly because I wish to help Mrs. Abbott with advice, if I can: partly because I'm interested in the whole question of education.'
'Yes, it's interesting, of course. She has holidays, I suppose?'
'It's holiday time with her now.'
'Then why don't you ask her to come and see us?'
'I would at once,' Harvey replied, with hesitation, 'if I felt sure that ----' He broke off, and altered the turn of his sentence. 'I don't know whether she can leave those children.'
'You were going to make a different objection. Of course there's a little awkwardness. But you said long ago that all that sort of thing would wear away, and surely it ought to have done by now. If Mrs. Abbott is as sensible as you think, I don't see how she can have any unpleasant feeling towards me.'
'I can't suppose that she has.'
'Then now is the opportunity. Send an invitation. -- Why shouldn't I write it myself?'
Alma had quite shaken off the appearance of lassitude; she drew herself up, looked towards the writing-table, and showed characteristic eagerness to carry out a project. Though doubtful of the result, Harvey assented without any sign of reluctance, and forthwith she moved to the desk. In a few minutes she had penned a letter, which was held out for her husband's perusal.
'Admirable!' he exclaimed. 'Couldn't be better. Nihil quod tetigit non ornavit.'
'And pray what does that mean?' asked Alma, her countenance a trifle perturbed by the emotions which blended with her delight in praise.
'That my wife is the most graceful of women, and imparts to all she touches something of her own charm.'
'Latin, you must know, is the language of compression.'
They parted with a laugh. As she left the study, Alma saw her little son just going out; the nurse had placed him in his mail-cart, where he sat smiling and cooing. Mrs. Frothingham, who delighted in the child, had made ready for a walk in the same direction, and from the doorway called to Alma to accompany them.
'I may come after you, perhaps,' was the reply. 'Ta-ta, Hughie!'
With a wave of her hand, Alma passed into the sitting-room, where she stood at the window, watching till Mrs. Frothingham's sunshade had disappeared. Then she moved about, like one in search of occupation; taking up a book only to throw it down again, gazing vacantly at a picture, or giving a touch to a bowl of flowers. Here, as in the dining-room, only the absence of conventional superfluities called for remark; each article of furniture was in simple taste; the result, an impression of plain elegance. On a little corner table lay Alma's colour-box, together with a drawing-board, a sketching-block, and the portfolio which contained chosen examples of her work. Not far away, locked in its case, lay her violin, the instrument she had been wont to touch caressingly; today her eyes shunned it.
She went out again into the little hall. The front door stood open; sunshine flooded the garden; but Alma was not tempted to go forth. All the walks and drives of the neighbourhood had become drearily familiar; the meanest of London streets shone by contrast as a paradise in her imagination. With a deep sigh of ennui, she turned and slowly ascended the stairs.
Above were six rooms; three of them the principal chambers (her own, Harvey's, and the guest-room), then the day-nursery, the night nursery, and the servant's bedroom. On her first coming, she had thought the house needlessly spacious; now it often seemed to her oppressively small, there being but one spare room for visitors. She entered her own room. It could not be called disorderly, yet it lacked that scrupulous perfection of arrangement, that dainty finish, which makes an atmosphere for the privacy of a certain type of woman. Ruth had done her part, preserving purity unimpeachable; the deficiency was due to Alma alone. To be sure, she had neither dressing-room nor lady's-maid; and something in Alma's constitution made it difficult for her to dispense with such aids to the complete life.
She stood before the mirror, and looked at herself, blankly, gloomily. Her eyes fell a little, and took a new expression, that of anxious scrutiny. Gazing still, she raised her arms, much as though she were standing to be measured by a dressmaker; then she turned, so as to obtain a view of her figure sideways. Her arms fell again, apathetically, and she moved away.
Somehow, the long morning passed. In the afternoon she drove with Harvey and Mrs. Frothingham, conversing much as usual, giving no verbal hint of her overwhelming ennui. No reference was made to Mrs. Abbott. Harvey had himself written her a letter, supporting Alma's invitation with all possible cordiality; but he gravely feared that she would not come.
At tea, according to custom, little Hugh was brought into the room, to be fondled by his mother, who liked to see him when he was prettily dressed, and to sit upon his father's knee. Hugh, aged sixteen months, began to have a vocabulary of his own, and to claim a share in conversation; he had a large head, well formed, and slight but shapely limbs; the sweet air of sea and mountain gave a healthful, though very delicate, colouring to his cheeks; his eyes were Alma's, dark and gleaming, but with promise of a keener intelligence. Harvey liked to gaze long at the little face, puzzled by its frequent gravity, delighted by its flashes of mirth. Syllables of baby-talk set him musing and philosophising. How fresh and young, yet how wondrously old! Babble such as this fell from a child's lips thousands of years ago, in the morning of the world; it sounded on through the ages, infinitely reproduced; eternally a new beginning; the same music of earliest human speech, the same ripple of innocent laughter, renewed from generation to generation. But he, listening, had not the merry, fearless pride of fathers in an earlier day. Upon him lay the burden of all time; he must needs ponder anxiously on his child's heritage, use his weary knowledge to cast the horoscope of this dawning life.
'Why are you looking at him in that way?' exclaimed Alma. 'You'll frighten him.'
'How did I look?'
'As if you saw something dreadful.'
Harvey laughed, and ran his fingers through the soft curls, and bade himself be of good heart. Had he not thrown scorn upon people who make a 'fuss' about their children. Had he not despised and detested chatter about babies? To his old self what a simpleton would he have seemed!
On the morrow Mrs. Frothingham took her departure; leaving it, as usual, uncertain when she would come again, but pleasantly assured that it could not be very long. She thought Harvey the best of husbands; he and Alma, the happiest of married folk. In secret, no doubt, she sadly envied them. If her own lot had fallen in such tranquil places!
Two more days, and Alma received a reply to her invitation. Yes, Mrs Abbott would come, and be with them for a week; longer she could not. Her letter was amiable and well-worded as Alma's own. Harvey felt a great relief, and it pleased him not a little to see his wife's unfeigned satisfaction. This was Monday; the visitor promised to arrive on Tuesday evening.
'Of course you'll drive over with me to meet her,' said Harvey.
'I think not. I dislike making acquaintance at railway stations. If it should rain, you'll have to have a covered carriage, and imagine us three shut up together!'
Alma laughed gaily at the idea. Harvey, though at a loss to interpret her merriment, answered it with a smile, and said no more. Happily, the weather was settled; the sun shone gallantly each morning; and on Tuesday afternoon Harvey drove the seven miles, up hill and down, between hedges of gorse and woods of larch, to the little market-town where Mary Abbott would alight after her long journey.