The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
Turning regretfully from the place of rest, with its lulling sounds and noble prospects, they began to descend the other side of the mountain, which was more rugged than that by which they had come up. Harvey timed the walk so well, that they reached the point of the road where Alma would meet them, at a few minutes before the time agreed upon. No one was in sight. The road in its inland direction could be scanned for a quarter of a mile; the other way it curved rapidly, and was soon hidden by gorse-bushes.
'I hear nothing,' said Rolfe, when they had stood silent for a little. 'A mistake is impossible; the man has driven to meet us here before. Shall we walk on?'
They proceeded slowly, stopping from time to time. Harvey was puzzled by this unpunctuality; it would soon be a quarter to two. He began to feel hungry, and his companion looked tired. Of a sudden they heard the sound of a vehicle approaching behind them.
'It can't be Alma. She wouldn't have gone farther than ----'
But the horse appeared round the curve of the road, and behind it was a dogcart, and in the dogcart sat Alma, alone. At sight of them she pulled up abruptly, so abruptly that the horse reared a little. Harvey walked forward.
'You've been driving yourself?'
'Of course. Why not?' replied Alma in a strangely high key.
'How have we missed you?'
As he put this question he became aware of something very unusual in his wife's appearance. Alma was pallid and shaking; her small felt hat had got out of position, and her hair was disordered, giving her a wild, rakish aspect. He saw, too, that the horse dripped with sweat; that it glared, panted, trembled, and could not for a moment stand still.
'What on earth have you been doing? She's run away with you!'
'No, no!' cried Alma, laughing, as she looked at Mrs. Abbott, who had just come up. 'She was rather fresh, and I gave her a good run, that's all. I'm sorry I missed you at the place ----'
'Why didn't Williams drive?' asked Harvey in a voice turning to anger.
'Williams? Why should Williams drive?' Alma returned, her eyes flashing. 'I'm only a few minutes late; I don't see anything to make a fuss about!'
This temper was as strange in Alma as the personal appearance she presented. Harvey said no more, but, after quickly examining the horse, helped Mrs. Abbott to a seat at the back of the vehicle; he then jumped up to his wife's side, and without a word took the reins from her hand. Alma made no remark as she surrendered them.
'Put your hat straight,' he said to her in a low voice.
'My hat? What's the matter with it The wind, I suppose. Did you enjoy it, Mrs. Abbott?'
She turned, in speaking, so as to have her back towards Harvey, and kept this position all the way, talking with her guest as if nothing had happened. Rolfe, his face grimly set, uttered only a word or two. He had to drive very slowly and with all caution, for the animal shied every other minute, and he felt heartily glad when they all alighted. Williams, who ran out from the stable, stood in astonishment at sight of the horse's condition.
'Rather fresh this morning,' said Harvey, as the ladies went in. 'Mrs Rolfe had a little trouble with her.'
This mild explanation by no means satisfied the coachman, though he pretended to acquiesce. Seeing him give a look at the horse's knees, Harvey did the same; nothing was wrong there. Williams pointed to marks on one of the wheels; the cart had evidently grazed against a wall. Alma must have lost control of the horse, and have been carried a considerable distance before, somehow, it was stopped. Without doubt, she had had a very narrow escape. Her anger seemed to be the result of nerves upset and mortified vanity; she wished to show Mrs. Abbott that she could drive -- the explanation of the whole matter. Harvey was vexed at such a piece of childishness; irritated, too, by the outbreak of temper with which Alma had replied to his very natural alarm. Of course, he would say nothing more; it would be interesting to await the outcome of his wife's mature reflection on her folly.
As he stepped into the house, something like a cry for help sounded from above stairs. He shouted, 'What's that?' and in the same moment Mary Abbott called to him that Mrs. Rolfe had fainted. On rushing up, he found Mary with difficulty supporting Alma's unconscious form.
'I saw she could hardly get upstairs,' said Mrs. Abbott. 'Just here on the landing she gave a moan and fell back. I was luckily close by her.'
They carried her into her room, and gave what help they could whilst the doctor was being summoned. In a few minutes Alma regained consciousness, and declared herself quite well again; but when she tried to rise, strength failed her; she began to moan in physical distress. Harvey went downstairs, whilst Mrs. Abbott and Ruth tended the sufferer.
Their ordinary medical man was far away among the hills; his assistant had to be searched for, and came only after the lapse of two hours, by which time Rolfe had worked himself into a fever. Whilst Mrs. Abbott, faint with agitation and weariness, took a hurried meal, he went to the bedside, and tried to learn whether Alma was suffering merely from shock, or had sustained an actual injury; but she still nursed her grievance against him, and would say very little. Why did not the doctor come? She wished to see the doctor; no one else was of any use.
'Go down and have lunch with Mrs. Abbott properly. Do go, please; I hate all this fuss, and it's quite unnecessary. Let me be alone till the doctor comes.'
Before the arrival of Dr Evans's assistant she again fainted, and upon that followed an attack of hysteria. When at length the medical man had seen her, Harvey received an adequate, but far from reassuring, explanation of the state of things. At nightfall Dr Evans came in person, and was with the patient for a long time. He spoke less gravely of the case, offered a lucid diagnosis, and thought that the services of an ordinary nurse for a few days would meet every necessity. Williams was sent with a hired vehicle to the market town, seven miles away, and late at night returned with the woman recommended. Alma meanwhile had lain quietly, and the household at length went to rest without renewal of alarms.
Twice before dawn Harvey left his room and stepped silently to Alma's door. The first time, he heard low voices; the second, there was no sound. When, about eight o'clock, he went down and out into the garden, he was surprised to meet Mrs. Abbott. She had already seen the nurse this morning, and reported that all was going well. Rolfe talked cheerfully again, and would not listen to his guest's timid suggestion that she should take leave today. Not a bit of it; she was to go down to the seashore and enjoy the sunshine, and worry herself just as little as possible. At breakfast-time came a message from Alma to the same effect. Mrs. Abbott was on no account to cut short her visit, and Harvey was to do his duty as host. She herself, said Mrs. Rolfe, would be as well as ever in a day or two.
For all that, when the appointed day for the guest's departure came, Alma still lay blanched and feeble, not likely to leave her bed for another week. She was, however, in a remarkably cheerful frame of mind. Having to start on her journey as early as half-past eight, Mrs. Abbott bade good-bye to her hostess the evening before, and nothing could have been kinder or more amiable than Alma's behaviour.
'Don't bear a grudge against me for spoiling your holiday,' she said, holding her guest's hand and smiling brightly. 'If I say all is for the best, perhaps you'll understand me, and perhaps you won't; it sounds pious at all events, doesn't it? We must see each other again, you know -- here or somewhere else. I'm quite sure we can be friends. Of course, Harvey will go with you in the morning.'
Mrs. Abbott begged he would do nothing of the kind, but Alma was imperative.
'Of course he will! If it rains, a covered carriage will be here in time. And write to me -- mind you write to me; not only to say you've got safe home, but in future. You promise?'
In the morning it did rain, and heavily, so Harvey and his friend drove to the station shut up together, with scarce a glimpse of anything beyond the boulder walls and gorse hedges and dripping larch-trees. They spoke a good deal of Alma. As soon as she was well again, said Rolfe, he must take her for a thorough change. In truth, he was beginning, he said, to doubt whether she could live in this out-of-the-world place much longer. She liked it -- oh yes, she liked it -- but he feared the solitude was telling upon her nerves. Mrs. Abbott admitted that there might be something in this.
'Should you return to London?' she asked.
Whereupon Harvey stared before him, and looked troubled, and could only answer that he did not know.
When, two days after, the promised letter came from Mrs. Abbott, Harvey took it up to the invalid's room, and sat by her whilst she read it.
'She writes so nicely,' said Alma, who never in her life had showed such sweetness of disposition as during this convalescence. 'Read it for yourself, Harvey. Isn't it a nice letter? I feel so sorry we haven't known each other before. But we're going to be friends now.'
'I'm sure I'm very glad.'
'Nothing from Mamma? I almost think I could write to her to-day. Of course, she'll fall into a dreadful state of mind, and want to know why she wasn't sent for, and lament over -- everything. But it's no use her coming here now. When we go away we must manage to see her.'
'Yes. Have you thought where you would like to go?'
'Not yet. There's plenty of time.'
Not a word had passed between them with reference to the perilous drive. Alma spoke as if her illness were merely natural, due to nothing in particular; but her husband fancied that she wished to atone, by sweet and affectionate behaviour, for that unwonted ill-usage of him. He saw, too, beyond doubt, that the illness seemed to her a blessing; its result, which some women would have wept over, brought joy into her eyes. This, in so far as it was unnatural, caused him some disturbance; on the other hand, he was quite unable to take a regretful view of what had happened, and why should he charge upon Alma as a moral fault that which he easily condoned in himself?
A few days more and the convalescent was allowed to leave her room. As if to welcome her, there arrived that morning a letter from Melbourne, with news that Sibyl and her husband would sail for England in a fortnight's time after the date of writing, by the Orient Line steamer Lusitania.
'You know what you suggested?' cried Alma delightedly. 'Shall we go?'
'What -- to Naples? We should have to be off immediately. If they come by the next ship after the one that brought this letter, they are now only a fortnight from the end of the voyage. That means -- allowing for their nine days from Naples to London -- that we should have to be at Naples in four or five days from now.'
'Well? That's easily managed, isn't it?'
'Not by anyone in your state of health,' replied Harvey gently.
'I am perfectly well! I could travel night and day. Why not? One eats and sleeps as usual. Besides, are you quite sure They may be longer than you think. Telegraph to the London office and ask when the Lusitania will reach Naples.'
'If you like. But, for one thing, it's quite certain you oughtn't to travel in less than a week; and then -- what about Hughie?'
Alma's face darkened with vexation.
'It doesn't matter,' she said coldly. 'I had counted on it; but, of course, that's nothing. There's the baby to be considered first.'
Harvey had never been so near the point of answering his wife in rough, masculine fashion. This illness of hers had unsettled his happy frame of mind, perturbing him with anxious thoughts, and making confusion of the quiet, reasonable prospect that lay before him only a week or two ago. He, too, could much have enjoyed the run to Naples and the voyage back, and disappointment taxed his patience. Irritated against Alma, and ashamed of himself for not being better tempered, he turned and left the room. A few minutes afterwards he walked to the post-office, where he addressed a telegram of inquiry to the Orient Line people in London. It was useless, of course; but he might as well satisfy Alma.
The reply telegram was delivered to him as he sauntered about in the garden. It merely confirmed his calculation; there might possibly be a clear five days before the Lusitania touched at Naples -- most likely not more than four. He went into the sitting-room, but Alma was not there; he looked into the study, and found it vacant. As Ruth happened to pass, he bade her take the telegram to Mrs. Rolfe upstairs.
He had no mind for reading or for any other occupation. He shut his door, and began to smoke. In the whiffs curling from his pipe he imagined the smoke of the great steamer as she drove northward from Indian seas; he heard the throb of the engines, saw the white wake. Naples; the Mediterranean; Gibraltar frowning towards the purple mountains of Morocco; the tumbling Bay; the green shores of Devon; -- his pulses throbbed as he went voyaging in memory. And he might start this very hour, but for the child, who could not be left alone to servants. With something like a laugh, he thought of the people who implored Mary Abbott to relieve them of their burdensome youngsters. And at that moment Alma opened the door.
Her face, thinned a little by illness, had quite recovered its amiable humour.
'Of course you are quite right, Harvey. We can't rush across Europe at a moment's notice.'
He rose up, the lover's light in his eyes again, and drew her to him, and held her in a laughing embrace.
'What has been wrong between us? It's a new thing for you and me to be scowling and snarling.'
'I hope I neither scowled nor snarled, dear boy, though I'm not sure that you didn't. No doubt, Mrs. Abbott went away thinking we lead rather a cat and dog life.'
'Hang it, no! How could she have any such thoughts?'
'Oh, the drive home that day.'
'Why, whose fault was that? I should have been all right, except that I couldn't understand why you had run the chance of killing yourself.'
'I don't think I should have cared very much that morning,' said Alma idly. 'I was more miserable than you can imagine.'
'Oh, I don't know -- foolishness. But you never gave me a word of praise, and I'm sure I deserved it. Why, she galloped with me like mad for nearly two miles, and I never lost hold of the reins, and I pulled her up by myself and got her round, and drove back to meet you as if nothing had happened. I told Mrs. Abbott all about it, and she was astonished at my pluck.'
'Must have been. So am I.'
'I doubt it. I doubt whether you ever think much of anything I do.'
'That's rather unkind, because you know it isn't true.'
'I always thought very much the same, you know.'
'Rubbish! But come, what are we going to do? Naples seems out of the question; but there's no reason why we shouldn't go to meet them in London.'
'You would much rather wait here, and let them come,' said Alma. 'I don't care particularly about going away. So long as we keep on good terms with each other -- that's the chief thing.'
'There has never been a dream of anything else. We are on good terms as a matter of course. It's part of the order of the universe.'
'I'm very sorry, dear, that I threatened the universe with catastrophe; but I won't do it again -- indeed I won't. I will watch your face, and be on my guard. And really, you know, under ordinary circumstances, I am good-tempered enough.'
'What's all this about?' cried Harvey. For she seemed to be in earnest, and spoke with a soft humility, such as might have become the least original of wives. 'Watch my face, and be on your guard? Since when have I desired you to be a simpleton?'
'I'm quite serious. It isn't foolish at all. I want to please you; that's all I mean, dear.'
He gazed at her, wondering, inclined to laugh, yet withheld from it by an uneasy feeling.
'This kind of talk means defective circulation, lost appetite, and so on,' was his half-joking answer. 'The way to please me is to get some colour into your cheeks again, and snub me for my ignorance of music, and be your own arrogant self. But listen. You're quite mistaken in thinking I want to stay here till Hugh and his wife come. It won't do. You're getting far too sweet and docile, and everything detestable. I had no idea of marrying an angel; it's too bad if you turn seraphic upon my hands. I wonder, now, whether, by way of pleasing me, you would answer a plain question?'
'Have you been wanting to get away from this place -- I mean, to live somewhere else?'
'I? What can have made you think so?'
'That isn't trying to answer a question, you know.'
Alma, after looking keenly at him, had turned her face to the window. She kept silence, and wore a look of calm reflectiveness.
'Have you been bored and wearied by this life?' Harvey asked in his most good-natured tone.
'I don't think I have ever for a moment shown a sign of it,' replied Alma, with grave conviction.
'So much the worse, if it meant that you concealed your thoughts.'
'I shall always be content, Harvey, so long as I see you are living the kind of life that suits you.'
He uttered a shout of humorous, yet half-genuine, exasperation.
'Do you want me to swear it's a long time since I lost the habit, but it might strike you as manly, and perhaps I had better practise again. What has it to do with you, the kind of life that suits me? Don't you remember my talking about that before we were married? I've had a suspicion that you were getting rather into that state of mind. You dropped your music, and partly, I've no doubt, because you didn't find enough intelligent sympathy in me. You went in for painting, and you've dropped that ----'
'It was winter, you see,' Alma interrupted.
'Yes, but that wasn't the only reason. It meant general failure of energy -- the kind of thing I've known myself, only too well.'
'What -- here?' asked Alma, with some alacrity.
'I meant now and again, all through my life. No; here I've gone on right enough, with a tolerably even mind; and for that very reason I haven't noticed any signs of the other thing in you -- till just now, when you lost your head. Why haven't you been frank with me?'
'You take it for granted that I had anything to be frank about,' Alma remarked.
'Yes -- and you don't contradict me.'
'Then what were you going to say, Harvey?'
She bent towards him, with that air of sweet reasonableness which showed her features at their best: eye tranquil and intelligent, lips ingenuously smiling; a countenance she wore not thrice in a twelvemonth, but by Harvey well remembered amid all changes, and held to express the true being of the woman he loved.
'Why, I was going to say, dear,' he replied tenderly, 'that no good can come of sacrificing your instincts. You have not to ask yourself whether I am lazily comfortable -- for that's what it amounts to -- but what you are making of your life. Remember, for one thing, that I am considerably older ----'
'Please!' She checked him with an extended hand. 'I don't want to remember anything of the kind.'
'There's no harm in it, I hope.' He laughed a little. 'The difference isn't distressing, but just enough to be taken into account. At forty, or near it, a man who is happily married gets used to his slippers and his pipe -- especially if comfort, and all the rest of it, have come after half a lifetime of homelessness. I might often say to myself that I was wasting time, rusting, and so on; but the next day I should fall back into the easy-chair again, and hate the thought of changes. But you, with thirty still far ahead, slippers and pipe have no particular attraction for you.'
He saw a thought in her eyes, and paused.
'Hughie will soon be able to talk,' fell from Alma, her look no longer that of ingenuous sweetness, but of virtue just a trifle self-conscious. And her husband, though he read this meaning in the change, was yet pleased by the words that accompanied it.
'Yes; and then there will be more for you to do, you were going to say. But that won't occupy you entirely, and it doesn't bind you to any particular spot.'
She had become almost demure. Harvey took his eyes away.
'It comes to this -- you're not to subordinate your life to mine. That's the old idea, and it still works well with some people. Yet I don't know; perhaps it doesn't, really; one knows little enough about people's lives. At all events, it won't work in our case, and remember that we never thought it would. We talked it all over, with no humbug on either side -- rather an unusual sort of talk, when one comes to think of it. I liked you for the common-sense you showed, and I remember patting myself on the back for a rational bit of behaviour at a time when I felt rather crazy.'
Alma laughed in her gayest key.
'You were delicious. I didn't quite know what to make of you. And perhaps that was the very reason ----'
'Reason for what?' asked Harvey, when she broke off and looked not quite so pale as a moment before.
'I forget what I was going to say. But please go on. It's very interesting -- as your talk always is.'
'I've said about all. You're not to be dutiful and commonplace; that's the matter in a nutshell.'
'I don't think you can accuse me of ever being commonplace.'
'Perhaps not,' said Harvey.
'And as for dutiful, our duty is to be consistent, don't you think?'
'Yes -- if by consistency you mean the steady resolve to make the most of yourself. That's what you had in mind when you came here. As soon as you begin to grow limp, it's time to ask what is the matter. I don't offer any advice; you know yourself better than I can know you. It's for you to tell me what goes on in your mind. What's the use of our living together if you keep your most serious thoughts to yourself?'
Harvey Rolfe glowed with a sense of his own generous wisdom. He had never felt so keen a self-approval. Indeed, that emotion seldom came to solace him; for the most part he was the severest critic of his own doings and sayings. But for once it appeared to him that he uttered golden words, the ripe fruit of experience and reflection. That personal unrest had anything to do with the counsel he offered to his wife, he did not for the moment even suspect. Alma had touched him with her unfamiliar note of simple womanhood, and all at once there was revealed to him a peril of selfishness, from which he strongly recoiled. He seemed to be much older, and Alma much more youthful, than he was wont to perceive. Very gently and sweetly she had put him in mind of this fact; it behoved him to consider it well, and act upon the outcome of such reflection. Heavens! was he in danger of becoming the typical husband -- the man who, as he had put it, thinks first of his pipe and slippers? From the outside, no man would more quickly or more contemptuously have noted the common-sense moral of this present situation. Being immediately concerned, he could see nothing in his attitude but a wise and noble disinterestedness. And thus, at a moment when he wittingly held the future in his hands, he prided himself on leaving to Alma an entire responsibility -- making her, in the ordinary phrase, mistress of her own fate, and waiting upon her decisions.
'I will think a little longer,' said Alma, sighing contentedly, 'and then we'll talk about it again. It's quite true I was getting a little run down, and perhaps -- but we'll talk about it in a day or two.'
'Could we decide anything for the present? Would you care to go and meet the steamer at Plymouth?'
'And take Hughie? Suppose I wrote very nicely to Mamma, and asked if we might leave Hughie with her, in Hampshire, for a few days? I dare say she would be delighted, and the other people too. The nurse could be with him, I dare say. We could call there on our way. And Ruth would look after the house very well.'
'Write and ask.'
'Then you and I' -- Alma began to talk joyously -- 'might ramble about Devonshire till the ship comes. Let me see -- if we travelled on Monday, that would give us several days, wouldn't it? And the Carnabys might either land at Plymouth, or we go on with them in the ship to London. That's a very good plan. But why lose time by writing? Send a telegram to Mamma -- "Could we leave Hughie and nurse with you for a day or two?"'
Harvey again turned his steps to the post-office, and this message was despatched. A few hours elapsed before the reply came, but it was favourable.
'Then we'll leave on Monday!' exclaimed Alma, whose convalescence was visibly proceeding. 'Just send another telegram -- a word or two, that they may be ready.'
'Might as well have mentioned the day in the other,' said Harvey, though glad to have something more to do.
'Of course; how thoughtless!'
And they laughed, and were in the best of tempers.
On the morrow, Sunday, they walked together as they had used to do in the first spring after their marriage; along the grassy cliffs, then down to the nook where the sand is full of tiny shells, and round the little headland into the next bay, where the quaint old fishing-village stands upon the edge of the tide. And Alma was again in love, and held her husband's hand, and said the sweetest things in the most wonderful voice. She over-tired herself a little, so that, when they ascended the cliff again, Harvey had to support her; and in the sunny solitude she thanked him with her lips -- in two ways.
It was a second honeymoon.