The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
The Leach family gave it to be understood by their friends that they had moved out of town because of Mrs. Leach's health. Other explanations were suspected; for the new establishment seemed to be on a more modest footing than that in Elgin Road, and the odd arrangement whereby Mr Leach came home only on Saturday could not be without significance. Mrs Leach, it was true, suffered from some obscure affection of the nerves, which throughout the whole of her married life had disabled her from paying any continuous regard to domestic affairs; this debility had now reached such a point that the unfortunate lady could do nothing but collapse in chairs and loll on sofas. As her two daughters, though not debilitated, had never dreamt of undertaking household management, all such matters were left to a cook-housekeeper, changed every few months, generally after a quarrel, wherein Mrs. Leach put forth, for an invalid, very surprising energy. Mr. Leach, a solicitor, had no function in life but to toil without pause for the support of his family in genteel leisure; he was a mild man, dreading discord, and subservient to his wife. For many years he had made an income of about L2000, every penny of which, excepting a small insurance premium, had been absorbed by expenses of the house. At the age of fifty, prematurely worn by excessive labour, he was alarmed to find his income steadily diminishing, with no corresponding diminution -- but rather the opposite -- in the demands made upon him by wife and daughters. In a moment of courage, prompted by desperation, he obtained the consent of Dora and Gerda to this unwelcome change of abode. It caused so much unpleasantness between himself and Mrs. Leach, that he was glad to fit up a sleeping-room at his office and go home only once a week; whereby he saved time, and had the opportunity of starving himself as well as of working himself to death.
Dora and Gerda, having grown up in such domestic circumstances, accepted them with equanimity. When their father spoke nervously of retrenchment, saying that he grew old and must save money to provide for their future, they made no objection, but were as far as ever from perceiving the sordid tragedy of his lot. Dora lived for her music; Gerda sang a little, but was stronger on the social side, delighting in festivities and open-air amusements. They were amiable and intelligent girls, and would have been amazed had anyone charged them with selfishness; no less if it had been suggested to them that they personally might rectify the domestic disorder of which at times they were moved to complain. They had no beauty, and knew it; neither had received an offer of marriage, and they looked for nothing of the kind. That their dresses cost a great deal, was taken as a matter of course; also that they should go abroad when other people did, and have the best places at concert or theatre, and be expansively 'at home'. With all sincerity they said of themselves that they lived a quiet life. How could it be quieter? -- unless one followed the example of Alma Rolfe; but Alma was quite an exceptional person -- to be admired and liked, not to be imitated.
Yet even Alma, it seemed, had got tired of her extraordinary freak. She was back again within the circle of civilisation; or, as she put it in her original, amusing way, 'on the outer edge of the whirlpool'. She had a very nice little house, beautifully furnished; everyone knew Alma's excellent taste. She came frequently to Kingsbury-Neasden, and ran up to town at least as often as they (Dora and Gerda) did. Like them she found it an annoyance to have to rush to the station before midnight; but, being married, she could allow herself more freedom of movement than was permissible to single young women, and having once missed the last train, she simply went to a hotel where she was known, and quietly returned to Pinner next morning. That Mrs. Rolfe had such complete liberty and leisure seemed to them no subject for remark; being without cares, she enjoyed life; a matter of course. And she was so very clever. No wonder Mr. Rolfe (charming man) always had admiration in his eyes when he looked at her. Some husbands (miserable churls) can see nothing in their wives, and never think of encouraging what talent they may have. But when Alma grew a little dissatisfied with her violin (a 'Vuillaume', which poor Mr. Bennet Frothingham had given her in the days gone by), Mr Rolfe did not hesitate to spend fifty pounds on an instrument more to her liking; and the dear girl played on it divinely.
There was no shadow of envy in Dora Leach. 'I don't play quite badly,' she said to Alma. 'Goodness knows, I oughtn't to, after all the lessons I've had and the pains I've given. But with you it's different, dear. You know very well that, if you liked, you could become a professional, and make a name.
'I might have done,' Alma admitted; 'but marriage put an end to that. You have too much sense to think I mean that I repent it.'
'I don't see why marriage should put an end to it,' urged Dora. 'I'm quite sure your husband would be very proud if you came out and had a great success.'
'But if I came out and made a fiasco?'
That was in the summer of 1890, when the Rolfes had been living at Pinner for eight months. The new violin (new to her, old and mellow in itself) had inspired Alma to joyous exertions. Again she took lessons from Herr Wilenski, who was sparing of compliment, but, by the mere fact of receiving her at all, showed his good opinion. And many other people encouraged her in a fine conceit of herself. Mrs. Strangeways called her 'an unrecognised genius', and worshipped at her feet. To be sure, one did not pay much attention to Mrs. Strangeways, but it is sweet to hear such phrases, and twice already, though against her better judgment, Alma had consented to play at that lady's house.
On both these occasions Cyrus Redgrave was present. Choosing his moment, he approached her, looked in her face with a certain timidity to which Alma was not insensible, and spoke as an ordinary acquaintance. There was no helping it; the man had been formally introduced, and, as he suggested, they had begun to know each other afresh. Alma liked to remember how severely she had treated him at that first encounter; perhaps that was enough for dignity. Mr. Redgrave would hardly forget himself again. For the rest, she could not pretend, within herself, to dislike him; and if he paid homage to her beauty, to her social charm, to her musical gifts (all of which things Alma recognised and tabulated), it might be only just to let him make amends for something known to both of them. The insult Alma was far from forgiving. But when she had talked twice with Redgrave distantly, as a stranger to all his affairs -- it began to steal upon her mind that there would be a sweetly subtle satisfaction in allowing the man to imagine that her coldness was not quite what it seemed; that so, perchance, he might be drawn on and become enslaved. She had never been able to congratulate herself on a conquest of Cyrus Redgrave. The memory of Bregenz could still, at moments, bring the blood to her face; for it was a memory of cool, calculating outrage, not of passion that had broken bounds. To subdue the man in good earnest would be another thing, and a peculiarly delicious morsel of revenge. Was it possible? Not long ago she would have scoffed at the thought, deeming Redgrave incapable of love in any shape. But her mind was changing in an atmosphere of pleasure and flattery, and under the influence of talk such as she heard in this house and one or two others like it.
To her husband, she represented Mrs. Strangeways as a very pleasant woman with a passion for all the arts; formerly wife of a painter, and now married to a wealthy man who shared her tastes. This satisfied Harvey; but Alma had not deceived herself, and could not be quite comfortable with Mrs. Strangeways. She no longer puzzled over the flow of guests to the house in Porchester Terrace, having discovered not only that most of these were people, as Sibyl said, of no account, who had few houses open to them, but that several would not be admitted to any circle of scrupulous respectability. The fact was that Mrs. Strangeways largely entertained the demi-monde, to use in its true sense a term persistently misapplied. Not impossibly she thought the daughter of Bennet Frothingham might, from one point of view, be included among such persons; on the other hand, her warmth proved that she regarded Mrs Rolfe as a social acquisition, if indeed she was not genuinely attracted to her. What circumstances had led, or forced, Mrs. Strangeways into this peculiar position, Alma could not discover; it might be simply one result of an unfortunate marriage, for undoubtedly there was something sinister in the husband, a coarseness varnished with sham geniality, which made Alma dislike to be near him. In the woman herself she found little that was objectionable; her foolish effusiveness, and her artificial complexion, seemed to indicate merely a weak character; at times her talk was interesting, and she knew many people of a class superior to that represented in her drawing-room. But for the illumination she had received, Alma would have felt surprised at meeting Cyrus Redgrave in these assemblies; formerly she had thought of him as belonging to a sphere somewhat above her own, a quasi-aristocratic world, in which Sibyl Carnaby, the daughter of Mrs. Ascott Larkfield, also moved by right of birth and breeding. Sibyl, however, was not above accepting Mrs. Strangeways' invitations, though she continued to speak of her slightingly; and Redgrave had known the lady for a long time -- even, it appeared, before her first marriage.
In a year's time Alma had made and renewed a large number of acquaintances. She spoke of herself as living 'in the country', and still professed a dislike of mere gaiety, a resolve to maintain her simple, serious mode of existence. At half-an-hour's journey from town, she was protected against the time-wasting intrusion of five-o'clock babblers; a luncheon or two in the season, and a modest dinner at long intervals, would discharge her social liabilities; and she had the precious advantage of being able to use London for all legitimate purposes, without danger of being drawn into the vortex of its idle temptations. Once more she was working earnestly at her music -- much, it seemed, to Harvey's satisfaction. He wanted her to go on also with water-colours, but she pointed out to him that one art was all she had time for.
'It's all very well for mere amateurs to take up half-a-dozen things. I aim at more than that. You would like me, wouldn't you, to become really something as a violinist?'
'And you understand,' she pursued, regarding him with her bright smile, 'that the life of an artist can't be quite like that of other women?'
'Of course, I understand it. You know I don't wish to put the least restraint upon you.'
'My one fear was, that you might think I went about rather too much -- didn't pay enough attention to home ----'
'We manage pretty well, I think. You needn't have any such fear.'
'Of course, when Hughie gets older -- when I can really begin to teach him ----'
The child was now approaching the close of his third year, and, in Harvey's opinion, needed more than the attention of an ordinary nursemaid. They had recently engaged a nursery-governess, her name Pauline Smith; a girl of fair education and gentle breeding, who lived as a member of the family. It appeared to Rolfe that Hughie was quite old enough to benefit by his mother's guidance and companionship; but he had left himself no ground for objection to Alma's ordering of her life. The Welsh servant, Ruth, still remained with them, acting to a great extent as housekeeper, and having under her a maid and a boy. Ruth, a trustworthy woman, was so well paid that they had not to fear her desertion. Regularity and comfort prevailed to a much greater extent than might have been looked for under the circumstances. Expenditure had of course greatly increased, and now touched the limit of Harvey's ordinary income; but this was a matter which did not immediately concern Mrs. Rolfe. For domestic and private purposes she had a bank-account of her own; an arrangement made on their removal to Pinner, when Harvey one morning handed her a pass-book and a cheque-book, remarking that she would find to her credit a couple of hundred pounds. Alma pretended to think this unnecessary, but her countenance betrayed pleasure. When he thought the fund must be nearly exhausted, he made a new payment to the account, without saying anything; and Alma preserved an equally discreet silence.
One of her new acquaintances was Mrs. Rayner Mann, a lady who desired to be known as the patroness of young people aiming at success on the stage or as musicians. Many stories were told of Mrs. Mann's generosity to struggling artists, and her house at Putney swarmed with the strangest mingling of people, some undoubtedly in society others no less decidedly out of it. Here Alma encountered Felix Dymes, whose reputation and prosperity had much advanced since their meeting at Munich. The comic opera of which he then spoke had been brought out at a provincial theatre with considerable success, and was shortly to be produced in London; his latest songs, 'The Light of Home', and 'Where the Willow Dips', had caught the ear of the multitude. Alma ridiculed these compositions, mocking at the sentimentalism of the words, and declaring that the airs were mere popular tinkle; but people not inferior to her in judgment liked the music, which certainly had a sweetness and pathos not easy to resist. The wonder was how such a man as Felix Dymes could give birth to such tender melody. The vivacity of his greeting when of a sudden he recognised Alma, contrasted markedly with Cyrus Redgrave's ill-concealed embarrassment in the like situation. Dymes had an easy conscience, and in the chat that followed he went so far as to joke about his ill-luck some four years ago.
'You didn't think much of me. But I'm going ahead, you know. You have to admit I'm going ahead.'
Prosperity was manifest in his look and voice. He had made no advance in refinement, and evidently thought himself above the necessity of affecting suave manners; his features seemed to grow even coarser; his self-assertion was persistent to the point of grotesque conceit.
'Is your husband musical?' he asked.
'Well, there's something to be said for that. One doesn't always want to be talking shop. -- I can't help looking at you; you've altered in a queer sort of way. You were awfully fetching, you know, in those days.'
'You were awfully impertinent,' replied Alma, with a laugh. 'And I don't see that you've altered at all in that respect.'
'Do you play still?'
'A good deal better than I used to.'
'Really? If it's true, why don't you come out? I always believed in you -- I did really. There's no better proof of it than what I said at Munich; you were the only girl that could have brought me to that, you know; it was quite against my principles. Have you heard of Ada Wellington? -- a girl I'm going to bring out next spring -- a pianist; and she'll make a hit. I should like you to know her.'
'How do you mean you are going to bring her out?'
'Do all the business for her, you know; run the show. Not as a speculation; I don't want to make anything out of it, more than expenses. I know her 'people; they're very badly off, and I shall be glad if I can do them a good turn. There's nothing between us; just friends, that's all. If ever you come out, put the business into my hands, will you?'
'I won't promise,' replied Alma, 'until I see how you succeed with Miss Wellington.'
'Shall it be an understanding? If I float Ada, you'll let me have a try with you?'
'We'll talk of it, Mr. Dymes, when you have learnt the elements of good manners.'
She nodded in a friendly way, and left him.
Their next meeting was at a music-shop, where Dymes came in whilst Alma was making purchases. The composer, clad in a heavy fur overcoat, entered humming a tune loudly, by way of self-advertisement; he was at home here, for the proprietors of the business published his songs. On perceiving Alma, he dropped his blustering air, bowed with exaggerated politeness, and professed himself overjoyed.
'I looked in just to try over a thing I've got in my head. Do come and listen to it -- will you? It would be so kind of you to give me your opinion.'
He pointed to a room at the back, visible between plush curtains. Alma, wishing to refuse, murmured that she had very little time; but Dymes prevailed, and she followed him. They passed into the pleasant warmth of a blazing fire. The musician flung off his coat, and at once sat down at the grand piano, open for the convenience of such favoured persons as himself; whilst Alma seated herself in an easy-chair, which she had pushed forward so as to allow of her being seen from the shop. After some preliminary jingling, Dymes played an air which the listener could not but like; a dainty, tripping melody, fit for a fairy song, with strange little echoes as of laughter, and a half-feigned sadness in the close. With hands suspended, Dymes turned to see the effect he had produced.
'Is that your own?' Alma asked.
'I'm under that impression. Rather good, I think -- don't you?'
She hardly believed his assurance, so strong was the contrast between that lightsome lyric and the coarse vanity of the man himself. He played it again, and she liked it still better, uttering a more decided word of praise.
'Dicky must write me patter for that!' Dymes exclaimed, when he saw that she smiled with pleasure. 'You don't know Dicky Wellington? A cousin of Ada's. By-the-bye, her concert will be at the end of May -- Prince's Hall, most likely. You shall have a ticket.'
'Very kind of you.'
'You know that Mrs. Rayner Mann is giving a charity concert next week?'
'I have been asked to take part in it,' said Alma quietly.
'I'm awfully glad of that!' shouted Dymes. 'So I shall hear you again. The fact is, you know, I don't think of you as an amateur. I can't stand amateurs, except one or two. I've got it into my head that you've been one of us, and retired. Queer thing, isn't it?'
Alma enjoyed the flattery. Comfortable in her chair, she showed no disposition to move. Dymes asked her what she thought of playing, and she told him, Hauser's 'Rhapsodie Hongroise'.
'I'm always being bored by amateurs,' he resumed. 'A silly woman who belongs to a Symphony Society asked me yesterday to go and hear her play in the C minor! I begged to be told what harm I had ever done her, and she said I was very rude. But I always am to people of that sort; I can't help it. Another of them asked me to tell her of a nice piece for the piano -- a really nice piece. At once I suggested Chopin's A flat major Polonaise. Do you know it?'
'Of course I do. Could you play it yourself?'
'I? Of course not. You don't imagine that because one is a successful composer he must be a brilliant virtuoso. I hardly ever touch a musical instrument. Wagner was a very poor player, and Berlioz simply couldn't play at all. I'm a musical dreamer. Do you know that I literally dreamt "The Light of Home"? Now, that's a proof of genius.'
'But it is! Do you know how most songs get made nowadays? There's Sykes' "Come when the Dawn" -- you remember it? I happen to know all about that. A fellow about town somehow got hold of an idea for a melody; he didn't know a note, but he whistled it to Sykes, and Sykes dotted it down. Now, Sykes knows no more of harmony than a broomstick, so he got another man to harmonise it, and then a fourth fellow wrote an orchestral accompaniment. That's the kind of thing -- division of labour in art.'
'You're quite sure you do everything for yourself?' said Alma mischievously, rising at length.
'I forgive you, because you're really one of us -- you are, you know. You haven't the look of an amateur. Now, when you've gone out, I'll ask Sammy, behind the counter there, who he thinks you are, and I'll give Mrs. Rayner Mann a guinea for her charity if he doesn't take you for a professional musician.'
'You will be good enough, Mr. Dymes,' said Alma severely, 'not to speak of me at all to anyone behind a counter.'
'It was only a joke. Of course, I shouldn't have done anything of the kind. Goodbye; shall see you at Putney.'
For all that, no sooner was Mrs. Rolfe gone than Dymes did talk of her with the salesman, and in a way peculiar to his species, managing, with leers and half-phrases, to suggest not only that the lady was a performer of distinction, but that, like women in general, she had found his genius and his person fatally attractive. Dymes had the little weaknesses of the artistic temperament.
As usual, Mrs. Rayner Mann's concert was well attended, and Alma's violin solo, though an audience more critical than she had yet faced made her very nervous to begin with, received much applause. Felix Dymes, not being able to get a seat at her side, stood behind her, and whispered his admiration.
'You've gone ahead tremendously. That isn't amateur playing. All the others are not fit to be heard in the same day. Really, you know, you ought to think of coming out.'
Many other persons were only less complimentary, and one, Mrs Strangeways, was even more so; she exhausted herself in terms of glowing eulogy. At the end of the concert this lady drew Alma apart.
'Dear Mrs. Rolfe, I wonder whether I could ask you to do me a kindness? Are you in any hurry to get home?'
It was six o'clock, on an evening of January. Delighted with her success, Alma felt very much like a young man whose exuberant spirits urge him to 'make a night of it'. She declared that she was in no hurry at all, and would be only too glad to do Mrs. Strangeways any kindness in her power.
'It will sound rather odd to you,' pursued the lady in a low voice, 'but I would rather trust you than anyone else. You know that Mr. Redgrave and I are very old friends -- such old friends that we are really almost like brother and sister.'
'You've heard us speak of his bungalow at Wimbledon. Just now he is in Paris, and he happens to want a portrait, a photograph, out of an album in the bungalow. Naturally he would have asked his sister to look for it and send it, but Mrs. Fenimore is also away from home; so he has written to me, and begged me to do him the kindness. I know exactly where the photo is to be looked for, and all I have to do is to drive over to Wimbledon, and a servant will be waiting to admit me. Now, you will think it childish, but I really don't like to go alone. Though Mr Redgrave and I are such great friends, of course I have only been to the bungalow when he had people there -- and -- of course it's very foolish at my age -- but I'm sure you understand me ----'
'You mean you would like me to go with you?' said Alma, with uncertain voice.
'Dare I ask it, dear Mrs. Rolfe? There will be no one but the servant, who is told to expect a friend of her master's. I am very foolish, but one cannot be too careful, you know, and with you I shall feel everything so simple and natural and straightforward. I'm sure you understand me.'
'Certainly,' faltered Alma. 'Yes -- I will go ----'
'Oh, how sweet of you, dear! Need I say that I should never breathe a word to Mr. Redgrave? He will think I went alone -- as of course I very well might ----'
'But -- if the servant should mention to him ----?'
'My dear, keep your fall down. And then it is perfectly certain he will never ask a question. He thinks it such a trivial matter ----'
Alma did not entertain the least doubt of her friend's veracity, and the desire to have a companion on such an expedition seemed to her natural enough; yet she felt so uneasy at the thought of what she had consented to do, that even whilst descending the stairs she all but stopped and begged to be excused. The thought of stealing into Redgrave's bachelor home, even with Mrs. Strangeways, startled and offended her self-respect; it seemed an immodesty. She had never been invited to the bungalow; though Mrs. Carnaby had received and accepted such an invitation for an afternoon in the summer, when Mrs. Strangeways did the honours. Redgrave was now scrupulously respectful; he would not presume so far on their revived acquaintance as to ask her to Wimbledon. For this very reason -- and for others -- she had a curiosity about the bungalow. Its exotic name affected her imagination; as did the knowledge that Cyrus Redgrave, whom she knew so particularly well, had built it for his retreat, his privacy. Curiosity and fear of offending Mrs. Strangeways overcame her serious reluctance. On entering the carriage she blushed hotly. It was the first time in her life that she had acted with deliberate disregard of grave moral compunction, and conscience revenged itself by lowering her in her own eyes.
Mrs. Strangeways talked all the way, but not once of Redgrave; her theme was the excellence of Alma's playing, which, she declared, had moved everyone with wonder and delight.
'Several people took it for granted that you were a professional violinist. I heard one man saying, "How is it I don't know her name?" Of course, your playing in an amateur is altogether exceptional. Did it ever occur to you to come forward professionally?'
'I thought of it once, before my marriage.'
'Ah! you really did? I'm not at all surprised. Would Mr. Rolfe look with disapproval ----?'
'I hardly know,' replied Alma, who was not mistress of herself, and paid little attention to what she was saying. 'I dare say he wouldn't mind much, one way or another.'
The intimate significance of this word warned Alma that she had spoken too carelessly. She hastened to add that, of course, in such a matter, her husband's wish would be final, and that she had never thought of seeking his opinion on the subject.
'If ever you should take that step, my dear, it will mean a great triumph for you -- oh! a great triumph! And there is room just now for a lady violinist -- don't you think? One has to take into account other things besides mastery of the instrument; with the public naturally, a beautiful face and a perfect figure ----'
This was too much even for Alma's greediness of flattery; she interrupted the smooth, warm adulation with impatient protest and told herself -- though she did not quite know the reason -- that after that day she would see less of Mrs. Strangeways.
The carriage stopped. Glancing to either side, Alma saw that they were in a country road, its darkness broken at this spot by the rays of two gas-lamps which flanked a gateway. The footman had alighted; the gate was thrown open; the carriage passed through on to a gravel drive. Her nerves strung almost beyond endurance, and even now seeking courage to refuse to enter the house, Alma felt the vehicle turn on a sharp curve, and stop.
'We shall not be more than a minute,' said Mrs. Strangeways, just above her breath, as though she spoke with effort.
Involuntarily, Alma laid a hand on her arm
'I will -- wait for you here -- please ----'
'But, dear, your promise! Oh, you wouldn't fail me?'
The carriage door had opened; the footman stood beside it. Scarce knowing what she did, Alma stepped out after her companion, and in the same moment found a glow of light poured suddenly about her; it came from the entrance-hall of a house, where a female servant had presented herself. A house of unusual construction, with pillars and a veranda; nothing more was observable by her dazzled and confused senses. Mrs Strangeways said something to the servant; they entered, crossed a floor of smooth tiles, under electric light ruby-coloured by glass shades, and were led into a room illumined only by a fire until the servant turned on a soft radiance like that in the hall.
Mrs. Strangeways glanced about her as if surprised.
'You are riot expecting Mr. Redgrave?' she said quickly.
'No, madam. We always have fires against the damp.'
Thereupon the woman withdrew, closing the door, and Mrs. Strangeways, who was very pale save for her rouge spots, said in a low tone of great relief ----
'I began to fear there might be some mistake. Put up your veil for a moment, dear, and glance at the pictures. Every one has cost a small fortune. Oh, he is immensely rich -- and knows so well what to buy!'