The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
Half an hour after sunset Alma heard the approach of wheels. She had long been ready to receive her visitor, and when the horse stopped, she stood by the open door of the sitting-room, commanding her nervousness, resolute to make an impression of grace and dignity. It would have eased her mind had she been able to form some idea of Mrs. Abbott's personal appearance; Harvey had never dropped a hint on the subject, and she could not bring herself to question him. The bell rang; Ruth hastened to answer it; Harvey's voice sounded.
'It turns chilly after the warm sunshine. I'm afraid we ought to have had a covered carriage.'
'Then I should have seen nothing,' was replied in softer tones. 'The drive was most enjoyable.'
There came into the lamplight a rather tall figure in plain, serviceable travelling-costume. Alma discerned a face which gave her a shock of surprise, so unlike was it to anything she had imagined; the features regular and of intelligent expression, but so thin, pallid, worn, that they seemed to belong to a woman of nearly forty, weighted by years of extreme suffering. The demeanour which Alma had studiously prepared underwent an immediate change; she stepped forward with an air of frank kindliness, of cordial hospitality.
'Wasn't your train late? How tired you must be -- and how cold! In these fine spring days we have been living as if it were midsummer, but I'm sure you oughtn't to have had that long drive in the open trap so late. Harvey thinks everybody as robust as himself ----'
But the guest was in very good spirits, though manifestly fatigued. She spoke with pleasure of the beautiful wild country, glowing in sunset. A little tired, yes; she had not travelled so far for a long time; hut the air had braced her wonderfully, and after a night's rest ----
At dinner Alma behaved with the same friendliness, closely observing her guest, and listening to all she said, as if anxious not to miss a word. Mrs. Abbott conversed in a very low voice; her manner was marked by a subdual which might partly be attributable to weariness, but seemed in a measure the result of timidity under novel circumstances. If she looked at either of her companions, her eyes were instantly withdrawn. A smile never lingered on her features; it came and passed, leaving the set expression of preoccupied gravity. She wore a dress of black silk, close at the neck; and Alma perceived that it was by no means new.
An hour after the meal she begged permission to retire to her room. The effort to talk had become impossible; she was at the end of her strength, and could hold up no longer.
When Alma came down again, she stood for a minute before the fire, smiling and silent. Harvey had picked up a newspaper; he said nothing.
'How very nice she is!' fell at length from Mrs. Rolfe's lips.
'Astonishingly altered,' was her husband's murmured reply.
'Indeed? In what way?'
'Looks so wretchedly ill, for one thing.'
'We must take her about. What do you think of doing tomorrow?'
By feminine device of indirect question, Alma obtained some understanding of the change that had come upon Mrs. Abbott during the past three years. Harvey's disclosures did not violate the reticence imposed upon him by that hour in which he had beheld a woman's remorseful anguish; he spoke only of such things as were manifest to everyone who had known Mary Abbott before her husband's death; of her social pleasures, her intellectual ambitions, suddenly overwhelmed by a great sorrow.
'I suppose she ought to be doing much better things than teaching children,' said Alma.
'Better things?' repeated Harvey, musing. 'I don't know. It all depends how you regard it.'
'Is she very clever?'
'Not appallingly,' he answered, with a laugh. 'It's very possible she is doing just what she ought to be -- neither more nor less. Her health seems to be the weak point.'
'Do you think she has enough to live upon?'
Harvey knitted his brows and looked uneasy.
'I hope so. Of course it must be a very small income; but I dare say those friends of hers at Gunnersbury make life a little easier.'
'I feel quite sorry for her,' said Alma, with cheerfulness. 'I hadn't realised her position. We must make her stay as long as she can. Yes, if it's fine again, we might drive to Tre'r Caeri. That would interest her, no doubt. She likes history, doesn't she? -- the same things that you are fond of.'
At breakfast Mrs. Abbott appeared with a much brighter countenance; refreshed in body and mind, she entered gladly into the plans that had been made for the day, talked with less restraint, and showed an interest in all her surroundings. But her demeanour still had the air of self-subdual which seemed at moments to become a diffidence bordering on humility. This was emphasised by its contrast with the bearing of her hostess. Alma had never shown herself to more brilliant advantage; kind interpretation might have thought that she had set herself to inspirit the guest in every possible way. Her face was radiant with good humour and vivacity; she looked the incarnation of joyous, healthy life. The flow of her spirited talk seemed to aim at exhibiting the joys and privileges of existence in places such as this. She represented herself as glorying in the mountain heights, and in solitary tracts of shore. Here were no social burdens, or restrictions, or extravagances; one lived naturally, simply, without regrets for wasted time, and without fear of the morrow. To all this Mary Abbott paid the tribute of her admiration, perhaps of her envy; and Alma grew the more animated, the more she felt that she had impressed her hearer.
Harvey wondered at this sudden revival of his wife's drooping energies. But he did not consider the phenomenon too curiously; enough that Alma was brilliant and delightful, that she played her part of hostess to perfection, and communicated to their guest something of her own vitality.
They had an exhilarating drive through the mountains to Tre'r Caeri, a British fastness on a stern bare height; crumbled dwellings amid their great protecting walls, with cairn and cromlech and mystic circles; where in old time the noise of battle clanged amid these grey hills, now sleeping in sunlight. And from Tre'r Caeri down into the rocky gloom of the seaward chasm, Nant Gwrtheyrn, with its mound upon the desolate shore, called by legend the burial-place of Vortigern. Here Mrs. Abbott spoke of the prehistoric monuments she had seen in Brittany, causing Alma to glance at her with a sudden surprise. The impulse was very significant. Thinking of her guest only as a poverty-stricken teacher of children, Alma forgot for the moment that this subdued woman had known happier days, when she too boasted of liberty, and stored her mind in travel. After all, as soon appeared, the travels had been of very modest extent; and Alma, with her knowledge of many European countries, and her recent ocean voyage, regained the confident superiority which kept her in such admirable humour.
Mary Abbott, reluctant to converse on things that regarded herself, afforded Alma every opportunity of shining. She knew of Mrs. Rolfe's skill as a musician, and this same evening uttered a hope that she might hear her play. The violin came forth from its retirement. Playing, it seemed at first, without much earnestness, as though it were but a pastime, Alma presently chose one of her pageant pieces, and showed of what she was capable. Lack of practice had told upon her hand, but the hearers were uncritical, as she well knew.
'That's magnificent,' said Harvey, with a mischievous smile. 'But do condescend now to the primitive ear. Let us have something of less severity.'
Alma glanced at Mrs. Abbott, who had softly murmured her thanks; then turned an eye upon her husband, saying wickedly, 'Home, Sweet Home?'
'I've no doubt you could play it wonderfully -- as you would "Three Blind Mice".'
Alma looked good-natured disdain, and chose next a Tarantelle of Schubert. The exertion of playing brought warm colour into her face; it heightened her beauty, and she was conscious of it; so that when she chanced to find Mrs. Abbott's look fixed upon her, a boundless gratification flashed from her own dark eyes, and spoke in the quiver of her lips.
Next evening, when again requested to play, she sat down to the piano. On this instrument Alma had not the same confidence as with the violin; but she could not refrain from exhibiting such skill as she possessed, Mrs. Abbott having declared that her own piano-playing was elementary. Meantime, the portfolio of water-colours had of course been produced for exhibition. In this art, though she did not admit it, Mrs. Abbott had formerly made some progress; she was able to form a judgment of Alma's powers, and heard with genuine surprise in how short a time this point had been attained. Alma again glowed with satisfaction.
She found a new source of pride in her motherhood. Not having been told, or having forgotten, that Mrs. Abbott had lost a child, she playfully offered assurance that the guest should not be worried with nursery talk.
'Children are anything but a delight to you, I'm afraid; you must have too much of them.'
'They often give me trouble,' Mrs. Abbott replied. 'But I wish I had one more to trouble me. My little girl would have been six years old by now.
Alma gave one of those looks which occasionally atoned for many less amiable glances.
'I'm so sorry -- I didn't know ----'
Mrs. Abbott did not dwell on the subject. Her reserve was still unbroken, though there never appeared the least coldness in her manner; she talked with perfect freedom of everything that contained no allusion to herself. The change was manifestly doing her good; even by the second day she showed an increase of vigour, and no longer wore the preoccupied, overstrained look. Becoming familiar with her face, Alma thought it more attractive than at first, and decidedly younger. She still had a great deal of curiosity to satisfy with regard to Mrs Abbott; especially it seemed strange to her that Harvey and his friend were so little inclined for conversation; they talked only of formal, uninteresting things, and she wondered whether, after all, they really had much in common.
'Take Mrs. Abbott for a walk tomorrow morning,' she said in private; 'you must have so many things to talk about -- by yourselves.'
'I don't know that we have,' Harvey returned, looking at her with some surprise. 'I want to hear a little more about those youngsters, that's all.'
Mrs. Abbott wished to climb Cam Bodvean the great hill, clad in tender green of larch-woods, which overlooked the town. For the toil of this ascent Alma had no mind; pleasantly excusing herself, she proposed at breakfast that Harvey and Mrs. Abbott should go alone; they might descend on the far side of the mountain, and there, at a certain point known to her husband, she would meet them with the dogcart. Harvey understood this to mean that the man would drive her; for Alma had not yet added the art of driving to her various accomplishments; she was, indeed, timid with the reins. He readily assented to the plan, which, for some reason, appeared to amuse and exhilarate her.
'Don't be in a hurry,' she said. 'There'll be a good view on a day like this, and you can have a long rest at the top. If you meet me at half-past one, we shall be back for lunch at two.'
When they started, Alma came out to the garden gate, and dismissed them with smiling benignity; one might have expected her to say 'Be good!' as when children are trusted to take a walk without superintendence. On re-entering, she ran quickly to an upper room, where from the window she could observe them for a few minutes, as they went along in conversation. Presently she bade her servant give directions for the dogcart to be brought round at one o'clock.
'Williams to drive, ma'am?' said Ruth, who had heard something of the talk at breakfast.
'No,' Alma replied with decision. 'I shall drive myself.'
The pedestrians took their way along a winding road, between boulder walls thick-set with the new leaves of pennywort; then crossed the one long street of the town (better named a village), passing the fountain, overbuilt with lichened stone, where women and children filled their cans with sweet water, sparkling in the golden light. Rolfe now and then received a respectful greeting. He had wished to speak Welsh, but soon abandoned the endeavour. He liked to hear it, especially on the lips of children at their play. An old, old language, symbol of the vitality of a race; sounding on those young lips as in the time when his own English, composite, hybrid, had not yet begun to shape itself.
Beyond the street and a row of cottages, they began to climb; at first a gentle ascent, on either hand high hedges of flowering blackthorn, banks strewn with primroses and violets, and starred with the white stitchwort; great leaves of foxglove giving promise for future days. The air was bland, yet exquisitely fresh; scented from innumerable sources in field and heath and wood. When the lane gave upon open ground, they made a pause to look back. Beneath them lay the little grey town, and beyond it the grassy cliffs, curving about a blue bay. Near by rose the craggy slopes of a bare hill, and beyond it, a few miles to the north, two lofty peaks, wreathed against the cloudless heaven with rosy mist.
'Sure it won't be too much for you?' said Harvey looking upwards to the wooded height.
'I feel equal to anything,' answered his companion brightly. 'This air has given me new life.'
There was a faint colour on her cheeks, and for the first time Harvey caught an expression which reminded him of the face he had known years ago, when Mrs. Abbott looked upon life much as Alma did now.
They entered upon a rising heath, green with mosses where the moisture of a hidden stream drew downwards, brown with dead bracken on dry slopes. Just above was a great thicket of flowering gorse; a blaze of colour, pure, aerial, as that of the sky which illumined it. Through this they made their way, then dropped into a green nook of pasture, among sheep that raised their heads distrustfully, and loud-bleating lambs, each running to its mother.
'If you can scale this wall, it will save us a quarter of an hour.'
'If you can, I can,' was the laughing reply.
Protruding boulders made it an easy clamber. They were then at the base of Cam Bodvean, and before them rose steep mountain glades. Mrs. Abbott gazed upwards with unspoken delight.
'There are no paths,' said Harvey. 'It's honest woodland. Some day it will be laid out with roads and iron benches, with finger-posts, "To the summit".'
'You think so?'
'Why, of course. It's the destiny of every beautiful spot in Britain. There'll be a pier down yonder, and a switchback railway, and leagues of lodging-houses, and brass bands.'
'Let us hope we shall be dead.'
'Yes -- but those who come after us? What sort of a world will it be for Hugh? I often think I should be wrong if I taught him to see life as I do. Isn't it only preparing misery for him? I ought to make him delight in piers, and nigger minstrels, and switchbacks. A man should belong to his time.'
'But a man helps to make his time,' replied Mary Abbott.
'True. You are hopeful, are you?'
'I try very hard to be. What use am I, if I don't put a few thoughts into children's heads which will help to make their lives a little better?'
Their feet sank in the mossy ruin of immemorial summers. Overhead, the larch-boughs dangled green tresses, or a grove of beech shook sunlight through branches decked with translucent gold. Now and then they came out into open spaces, where trees rent from the soil, dead amid spring's leafage, told of a great winter storm; new grass grew thickly about the shattered trunks, and in the hollows whence the roots had been torn. One moment they stood in shadow; the next, moved upward into a great splash of sunshine, thrown upon moss that still glistened with the dews of the night, and on splints of crag painted green and gold with lichen. Sun or shadow; the sweet fir-scents breathed upon their faces, mingled with many a waft of perfume from little woodland plants.
More than once Mrs. Abbott had to pause. Midway she was tempted by a singular resting-place. It was a larch tree, perhaps thirty feet high; at the beginning of its growth, the stem had by some natural means been so diverted as to grow horizontally for a yard or more at a couple of feet above the ground; it had then made a curve downwards, and finally, by way of a perfect loop across itself, had shot again in the true direction, growing at last, with straight and noble trunk, like its undistorted neighbours. Much wondering at so strange a deformity, Mrs Abbott seated herself on the level portion, and Harvey, as he stood before her, told a fancy that had come to him when for the first time he chanced to climb this way. Might not the tree represent some human life? A weak, dubious, all but hopeless beginning; a check; a return upon itself; a laboured circling; last a healthful maturity, upright, triumphing. He spoke with his eyes on the ground. Raising them at the end, he was astonished to see that his companion had flushed deeply; and only then it occurred to him that this parable might be applied by the hearer to herself.
'To make a confession,' he added at once, 'it forcibly reminded me of my own life -- except that I can't pretend to be "triumphing".'
His laugh did not cover the embarrassment with which he discovered that, if anything, he had made matters worse. Here was an instance of his incorrigible want of tact; much better to have offered no application of the fable at all, and to have turned the talk. He had told a simple truth, but with the result of appearing to glorify himself, and possibly at his friend's expense. Vexed beyond measure, he crushed his heel into the soft ground.
'That is a very striking thought,' said Mary Abbott, her look still downcast. 'I shall never forget it.'
And she rose to move onward. They climbed in silence, the flank of the mountain growing steeper.
'I should have brought you my old alpenstock,' jested Harvey. 'Go slowly; we have plenty of time.'
'I like to exert myself. I feel so well, and it does me good!'
He ventured to look at her again. All her confusion had passed away; she had the light of enjoyment in her eyes, and returned his look with a frankness hitherto lacking.
'You must stay a second week. Alma won't let you go.'
'Go, I must. The two children can't be left longer at Mrs. Langland's -- it would be presuming upon her kindness.'
'I want to talk about them, but one hasn't much breath here. When we get to the top ----'
Last of all came a slippery scramble on broken stones, to where a shapeless cairn rose above tree-tops, bare to the dazzling sky. As they issued from the shelter of the wood, a breeze buffeted about them, but only for a moment; then the air grew still, and nothing was audible but a soft whispering among the boughs below. The larches circling this stony height could not grow to their full stature; beaten, riven, stunted, by fierce blasts from mountain or from wave, their trunks were laden, and their branches thickly matted, with lichen so long and hoary that it gave them an aspect of age incalculable. Harvey always looked upon them with reverence, if not with awe.
In the sunny stillness their eyes wandered far and wide, around a vast horizon. On two sides lay the sea; to the west, bounded only where it met the blue sky above (though yonder line of cloud might perchance be the hills of Wicklow); eastward, enfolded by the shores of a great bay, with mountains on the far side, faintly visible through silvery vapour. Northward rose a noble peak, dark, stern, beautiful in the swift fall of curving rampart to the waves that broke at its foot; loftier by the proximity of two summits, sharp-soaring like itself, but unable to vie with it. Alone among the nearer mountains, this crest was veiled; smitten by sea-gusts, it caught and held them, and churned them into sunny cloudlets, which floated away in long fleecy rank, far athwart the clear depths of sky. Farther inland, where the haze of the warm morning hung and wavered, loomed at moments some grander form, to be imagined rather than descried; a glimpse of heights which, as the day wore on, would slowly reveal themselves and bask in the broad glow under crowning Snowdon.
'We have time! We can stay here!' said Mrs. Abbott, moved with a profound delight.
'We have an hour at least. The sun is too hot; you must sit on the shadowed side of the cairn.'
The great silence had nothing of that awesomeness which broods in the mountain calm of wilder solitudes. Upon their ear fell the long low hushing of the wood, broken suddenly from time to time by a fitful wind, which flapped with hollow note around the great heap of stones, whirled as if in sport, and was gone. Below, in leafy hollows, sounded the cry of a jay, the laugh of a woodpecker; from far heath and meadow trembled the bleat of lambs. Nowhere could be discovered a human form; but man's dwellings, and the results of his labour, painted the wide landscape in every direction. On mountain sides, and across the undulating lowland, wall or hedge mapped his conquests of nature, little plots won by the toil of successive generations for pasture or for tillage, won from the reluctant wilderness, which loves its fern and gorse, its mosses and heather. Near and far were scattered the little white cottages, each a gleaming speck, lonely, humble; set by the side of some long-winding, unfrequented road, or high on the green upland, trackless save for the feet of those who dwelt there.
From talk of the scenery they passed, by no agreeable transition, to the subject which as yet they had not found an opportunity of discussing. It was necessary to arrive at some new arrangement regarding Wager's children; for the boy, Albert, would soon be nine years old, and, as Mrs Abbott confessed, he had given her a great deal of trouble. Both the children were intractable, hated lessons, and played alarming pranks; Master Albert's latest feat might have cost him his life, for he struck furiously through a pane of glass at a child mocking him from the other side, and was all but fainting from loss of blood when Mrs. Abbott came to his help. Plainly this youngster must be sent to a boarding-school. Minnie, his sister, would be more easily managed after he had gone.
'He'll grow up a fighter,' said Harvey. 'We can't do without fighters. I'll make inquiry at once about a school for him, and in a year or two we'll take counsel with his teachers. Perhaps he might go into the navy.'
'The cost of it all,' fell from his companion in a nervous undertone.
'We had that out long ago. Don't think about it.'
'Of course, you will send only half the money when Albert leaves me,' said Mrs. Abbott earnestly. 'I shall be in no difficulty. I have had letters from several people, asking me to take their little children to live with me. Albert's place will be filled at once. I can't take more into the house; there's no room. With them, and my kindergarten, and the lessons I give in the evening, I can live very well.'
Harvey mused. Wishing to feel himself in complete sympathy with his friend, he knew that something of the old criticism still tempered his liking. Mary Abbott had fine qualities, but lacked the simplicity, the directness, which would have made her courage wholly admirable. He suspected that she continually mourned over what seemed to her a waste of life. Proud of her 'culture', remembering her distinction as a teacher of grown-up girls, she had undertaken as a penitence the care of little children, and persevered in it with obstinacy rather than with inspired purpose. Mary Abbott, doubtless, had always regarded life as a conflict; she had always fought for her own hand. When such a nature falls into genuine remorse, asceticism will inevitably follow; with it comes the danger of more or less conscious embitterment. Harvey had a conviction of his friend's sincerity, and believed her in every way a better woman than in the days before her great sorrow; but he could not yet assure himself that she had found her true vocation.
They spoke of the people who were so anxious to be relieved of their children.
'One lady wrote to me that she would pay almost anything if I would take her little boy and keep him all the year round; she has only a small house, and the child utterly upsets her life. Of course, I understand her; I should have sympathised with her once.'
'It's intelligible enough,' replied Harvey, with a laugh. 'Presently there will be huge establishments for the young children of middle-class people. Naturally, children are a nuisance; especially so if you live in a whirlpool.'
'Yes, I know it too well, the whirlpool way of life,' said Mrs. Abbott, her eyes on the far mountains. 'I know how easily one is drawn into it. It isn't only idle people.'
'Of course not. There's the whirlpool of the furiously busy. Round and round they go; brains humming till they melt or explode. Of course, they can't bother with children.'
'One loses all sense of responsibility.'
'Rather, they have never had it, and it has no chance of developing. You know, it isn't a matter of course for people to see that they are under an enormous obligation to the children they bring into the world; except in a parent here and there, that comes only with very favourable circumstances. When there's no leisure, no meditation, no peace and quietness, -- when, instead of conversing, people just nod or shout to each other as they spin round and round the gulf, -- men and women practically return to the state of savages in all that concerns their offspring. The brats have come into existence, and must make the best of it. Servants, governesses, schoolmasters -- anybody but the parents -- may give thought to children. Well, it's a matter for the individual. I shouldn't feel comfortable myself.'
'It's a matter for the world, too,' said Mary.
Harvey nodded. As he sat at the foot of the piled stones, his hand touched a sprig of last year's heather; the stem was hung with dry, rustling, colourless bells, which had clung there all through the cold, stormy months, telling of beauty that was past, and of beauty that was to come. He broke it off, and showed it to his companion. Until the time for moving, they talked of simpler things, and Mary Abbott recovered her spirits.