The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
Alma's agitation did not permit her to examine details. The interior of Redgrave's house was very much what she had imagined; its atmosphere of luxurious refinement, its colour, perfume, warmth, at once allured and alarmed her. She wished to indulge her senses, and linger till she had seen everything; she wished to turn at once and escape. Mrs. Strangeways, meanwhile, seemed to be looking for the album of which she had spoken, moving hither and thither, with a frequent pause as of one who listens, or a glance towards the door.
'You won't be long?' said Alma, turning abruptly to her.
'It's my silly nervousness, dear. I thought I remembered perfectly where the album lay. How foolish of me! I quite tremble -- anyone would think we were burglars.'
She laughed, and stood looking about the room.
'Is that it?' asked Alma, pointing to a volume on a table near her.
'Yes! -- no -- I'm not sure.'
An album it was; Mrs. Strangeways unclasped it, and turned over a few pages with quivering hand.
'No, I thought not. It's a smaller one. Oh, what a good photo of Mrs Carnaby! Have you seen this one?'
Alma stepped forward to look, strangely startled by the name of her friend; it was as though Sibyl herself had suddenly entered the room and found her here. The photograph she already knew; but its eyes seemed to regard her with the very look of life, and at once she drew back.
'Do find the right one, Mrs. Strangeways,' she spoke imploringly. 'It must be -- What bell was that?'
An electric bell had rung within the house; it still trembled in her ears, and she turned sick with fright. Mrs. Strangeways, flushing red, stammered a reassurance.
'There -- here is the right one -- in a minute ----'
The door opened. As she saw it move, a dreadful certainty of what was about to happen checked Alma's breath, and a sound like a sob escaped her; then she was looking straight into the eyes of Cyrus Redgrave. He, wearing an ulster and with a travelling-cap in his hand, seemed not to recognise her, but turned his look upon her companion, and spoke with mirthful friendliness.
'What! I have caught you, Mrs. Strangeways? Police! Oh, I am so sorry I didn't send you a wire. I thought you would come tomorrow, or the day after. How very kind of you to take this trouble immediately. I had to run over at a moment's notice. -- Mrs. Rolfe! Forgive me; for the moment I didn't know you, coming out of the darkness. So glad to see you.'
He had shaken hands with both of them, behaving as though Mrs. Rolfe's presence were the most natural thing in the world. But Alma's strength failed her; she trembled towards the nearest chair, and sank upon it. Mrs. Strangeways, who had watched her with anxiety, took a step to her side, speaking hurriedly.
'Mr. Redgrave, I took the liberty to use your house as if it were my own. Mrs. Rolfe has over-tired, over-excited herself. She has been playing this afternoon at a concert at Mrs. Rayner Mann's. We were to drive back together, and came this way that I might call here -- for the photo. But Mrs. Rolfe became faint -- after her exertions ----'
Redgrave surpassed himself in graceful courtesy. How could Mrs Strangeways dream of offering excuses? Why had she not called for tea -- or anything? He would give orders at once, and the ladies would permit him to get rid of his travelling attire, whilst they rested. He was turning to leave the room when Alma rose and commanded her voice.
'I am perfectly well again -- thank you so much, Mr. Redgrave -- indeed I mustn't stay ----'
With admirable suavity Redgrave overcame her desire to be gone. Pleading, he passed playfully from English into French, of which he had a perfect command; then, in his own language, declared that French alone permitted one to make a request without importunity, yet with adequate fervour. Alma again seated herself. As she did so, her host and Mrs Strangeways exchanged a swift glance of mutual intelligence.
'How can I hope you will forgive me?' the lady murmured at Alma's ear as soon as they were alone.
'It's very annoying, and there's nothing more to be said,' was the cold reply.
'But it isn't of the least importance -- do believe me. We are such old friends. And no one can ever know -- though it wouldn't matter if all the world did.'
'I dare say not. But, please, let our stay be as short as possible.'
'We will go, dear, as soon as ever we have had a cup of tea. I am so sorry; it was all my foolishness.'
The tea was brought, and Mrs. Strangeways, her nervousness having quite passed away, began to talk as if she were in her own drawing-room. Alma, too, had recovered control of herself, held the teacup in an all but steady hand, and examined the room at her leisure. After ten minutes' absence, Redgrave rejoined them, now in ordinary dress; his face warm from rapid ablution, and his thin hair delicately disposed. He began talking in a bright, chatty vein. So Mrs. Rolfe had been playing at a concert; how he regretted not having been there! What had she played? Then, leaning forward with an air of kindness that verged on tenderness ----
'I am sure it must be very exhausting to the nerves; you have so undeniably the glow, the fervour, of a true artist; it is inspiring to watch you as you play, no less than to hear you. You do feel better now?'
Alma replied with civility, but did not meet his look. She refused another cup of tea, and glanced so meaningly at her friend that in a few moments Mrs. Strangeways rose.
'You won't leave me yet to my solitude?' exclaimed Redgrave. With a sigh he yielded to the inevitable, inquired gently once more whether Mrs Rolfe felt quite restored, and again overwhelmed Mrs. Strangeways with thanks. Still the ladies had to wait a few minutes for their carriage, which, at Redgrave's direction, had made a long detour in the adjacent roads; and during this delay, as if the prospect of release inspirited her, Alma spoke a few words in a more natural tone. Redgrave had asked what public concerts she usually attended.
'None regularly,' was her reply. 'I should often go on Saturdays to the Crystal Palace, if it were not so far for me. I want to get there, if possible, on Saturday week, to hear Sterndale Bennett's new concerto.'
'Ah, I should like to hear that!' said Redgrave. 'We may perhaps see each other.'
This time she did not refuse to encounter his look, and the smile with which she answered it was so peculiarly expressive of a self-confident disdain that he could scarcely take his eyes from her. Cyrus Redgrave knew as well as most men the signals of challenge on a woman's features; at a recent meeting he had detected something of the sort in Alma's behaviour to him, and at this moment her spirit could not be mistaken. Quite needlessly she had told him where he might find her, if he chose. This was a great step. To be defied so daringly meant to him no small encouragement.
'It's fortunate,' said Alma, as the carriage bore her away, 'that we had this adventure with a gentleman.'
The remark sounded surprising to Mrs. Strangeways.
'I'm so glad you have quite got over your annoyance, dear,' she replied.
'It was as bad for you as for me, under the circumstances. But I'm sure Mr. Redgrave won't give it another thought.'
And Alma chatted very pleasantly all the way back to town, where she dined with Mrs. Strangeways. At eleven o'clock she reached home. Her husband, who was recovering from a sore throat, sat pipeless and in no very cheerful mood by the library fire; but the sight of Alma's radiant countenance had its wonted effect upon him; he stretched his arms, as if to rouse himself from a long fit of reverie, and welcomed her in a voice that was a little husky.
'Well, how did it go?'
'Not badly, I think. And how have you been getting on, poor old boy?'
'So so; swearing a little because I couldn't smoke. But Hughie has a cold tonight; caught mine, I dare say, confound it! Miss Smith took counsel with me about it, and we doctored him a little.'
'Poor dear little man! I wish I had been back in time to see him. But there was no getting away -- had to stay to dinner ----'
Alma had not the habit of telling falsehoods to her husband, but she did it remarkably well -- even better, perhaps, than when she deceived her German friend, Fraulein Steinfeld, in the matter of Cyrus Redgrave's proposal; the years had matured her, endowing her with superior self-possession, and a finish of style in dealing with these little difficulties. She was unwilling to say that she had dined in Porchester Terrace, for Harvey entertained something of a prejudice against that household. His remoteness nowadays from the world in which Alma amused herself made it quite safe to venture on a trifling misstatement.
'I have a note from Carnaby,' said Rolfe. 'He wants to see me in town tomorrow. Says he has good news -- "devilish good news", to be accurate. I wonder what it is.'
'The lawsuit won, perhaps.'
'Afraid not; that'll take a few more years. Odd thing, I have another letter -- from Cecil Morphew, and he, too, says that he has something hopeful to tell me about.'
Alma clapped her hands, an unusual expression of joy for her. 'We are cheering up all round!' she exclaimed. 'Now, if only you could light on something fortunate.'
He gave her a quick look.
'What do you mean by that?'
'Only that you haven't seemed in very good spirits lately.'
'Much as usual, I think. -- Many people at Putney?'
'About a hundred and twenty. Compliments showered on me; I do so wish you could have heard them. Somebody told me that some man asked her how it was he didn't know my name -- he took me for a professional violinist.'
'Well, no doubt you are as good as many of them.'
'You really think that?' said Alma, pulling her chair a little nearer to the fire and looking eagerly at him.
'Why shouldn't you be? You have the same opportunities, and make all possible use of them.'
Alma was silent for a few ticks of the clock. Once, and a second time, she stole a glance at Harvey's face; then grasping with each hand the arms of her chair, and seeming to string herself for an effort, she spoke in a half-jesting tone.
'What should you say if I proposed to come out -- to be a professional?'
Harvey's eyes turned slowly upon her; he read her face with curiosity, and did not smile.
'Do you mean you have thought of it?'
'To tell you the truth, it is so often put into my head by other people. I am constantly being asked why I'm content to remain an amateur.'
'By professional musicians?'
'All sorts of people.'
'It reminds me of something. You know I don't interfere; I don't pretend to have you in surveillance, and don't wish to begin it. But are you quite sure that you are making friends in the best class that is open to you?'
Alma's smile died away. For a moment she recovered the face of years gone by; a look which put Harvey in mind of Mrs. Frothingham's little drawing-room at Swiss Cottage, where more than once Alma had gazed at him with a lofty coldness which concealed resentment. That expression could still make him shrink a little and feel uncomfortable. But it quickly faded, giving place to a look of perfectly amiable protest.
'My dear Harvey, what has caused you to doubt it?'
'I merely asked the question. Perhaps it occurred to me that you were not exactly in your place among people who talk to you in that way.'
'You must allow for my exaggeration,' said Alma softly. 'One or two have said it -- just people who know most about music. And there's a way of putting things.'
'Was Mrs. Carnaby there today?'
'You don't see her very often now?'
'Perhaps not quite so often. I suppose the reason is that I am more drawn to the people who care about music. Sibyl really isn't musical -- though, of course, I like her as much as ever. Then -- the truth is, she seems to have grown rather extravagant, and I simply don't understand how she can keep up such a life -- if it's true that her husband is only losing money. Last time I was with her I couldn't help thinking that she ought to -- to deny herself rather more. It's habit, I suppose.'
Harvey nodded -- twice, thrice; and kept a grave countenance.
'And you don't care to see much of Mrs. Abbott?' he rather let fall than spoke.
'Well, you know, dear, I don't mean to be at all disagreeable, but we have so little in common. Isn't it so? I am sure Mrs. Abbott isn't anxious for my society.'
Again Rolfe sat silent, and again Alma stole glances at him.
'Shall I tell you something I have in mind?' he said at length, with deliberation. 'Hughie, you know, is three years old. Pauline does very well with him, but it is time that he had companions -- other children. In half a year or so he might go to a kindergarten, and' -- he made an instant's pause -- 'I know only of one which would be really good for him. I think he will have to go to Mrs. Abbott.'
Their eyes met, and the speaker's were steadily fixed.
'But the distance?' objected Alma.
'Yes. If we want to do that, we must go to Gunnersbury.'
Alma's look fell. She tapped with her foot and meditated, slightly frowning. But, before Harvey spoke again, the muscles of her face relaxed, and she turned to him with a smile, as though some reflection had brought relief.
'You wouldn't mind the bother of moving?'
'What is that compared with Hughie's advantage? And if one lives in London, it's in the nature of things to change houses once a year or so.'
'But we don't live in London!' returned Alma, with a laugh.
'Much the same thing. At Gunnersbury you would be nearer to everything, you know.'
'Then you would send away Pauline?'
Harvey made a restless movement, and gave a husky cough.
'Well, I don't know. You see, Hughie would be with Mrs. Abbott only a few hours each day. Who is to look after the little man at other times? I suppose I can't very well undertake it myself -- though I'm glad to see as much of him as possible; and I won't let him be with a servant. So ----'
Alma was gazing at the fire, and seemed to give only a divided attention to what her husband said. Her eyes grew wide; their vision, certainly, was of nothing that disturbed or disheartened her.
'You have given me two things to think about, Harvey. Will you reflect on the one that I suggested?'
'Then you meant it seriously?'
'I meant that I should like to have your serious opinion about it. Only we won't talk now. I am very tired, and you, I'm sure, oughtn't to sit late with your bad throat. I promise to consider both the things you mentioned.'
She held her hands to him charmingly, and kissed his cheek as she said goodnight.
Harvey lingered for another hour, and -- of all people in the world -- somehow found himself thinking of Buncombe. Buncombe, his landlord in the big dirty house by Royal Oak. What had become of Buncombe? It would be amusing, some day to look at the old house and see if Buncombe still lived there.