The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
It was half past ten when Rolfe knocked at the door in Hamilton Terrace. He learnt from the servant that Mr. Carnaby was at home, and had company. In the room known as the library, four men sat smoking; their voices pealed into the hall as the door opened, and a boisterous welcome greeted the newcomer's appearance.
'Come to condole?' cried Hugh, striding forward with his man-of-the-wide-world air, and holding out his big hand. 'No doubt they're having a high old time at the club. Does it please them? Does it tickle them?'
'Why, naturally. There's the compensation, my boy -- you contribute to the gaiety of your friends.'
Carnaby was a fair example of the well-bred, well-fed Englishman -- tall, brawny, limber, not uncomely, with a red neck, a powerful jaw, and a keen eye. Something more of repose, of self-possession, and a slightly more intellectual brow, would have made him the best type of conquering, civilising Briton. He came of good family, but had small inheritance; his tongue told of age-long domination; his physique and carriage showed the horseman, the game-stalker, the nomad. Hugh had never bent over books since the day when he declined the university and got leave to join Colonel Bosworth's exploring party in the Caucasus. After a boyhood of straitened circumstances, he profited by a skilful stewardship which allowed him to hope for some seven hundred a year; his elder brother, Miles, a fine fellow, who went into the army, pinching himself to benefit Hugh and their sister Ruth. Miles was now Major Carnaby, active on the North-West Frontier. Ruth was wife of a missionary in some land of swamps; doomed by climate, but of spirit indomitable. It seemed strange that Hugh, at five and thirty, had done nothing particular. Perhaps his income explained it -- too small for traditional purposes, just large enough to foster indolence. For Hugh had not even followed up his promise of becoming an explorer; he had merely rambled, mostly in pursuit of fowl or quadruped. When he married, all hope for him was at an end. The beautiful and brilliant daughter of a fashionable widow, her income a trifle more than Carnaby's own; devoted to the life of cities, wherein she shone; an enchantress whose spell would not easily be broken, before whom her husband bowed in delighted subservience -- such a woman might flatter Hugh's pride, but could scarce be expected to draw out his latent energies and capabilities. This year, for the first time, he had visited no wild country; his journeying led only to Paris, to Vienna. In due season he shot his fifty brace on somebody's grouse-moor, but the sport did not exhilarate him.
An odd and improbable alliance, that between Hugh Carnaby and Harvey Rolfe. Yet in several ways they suited each other. Old-time memories had a little, not much, to do with it; more of the essence of the matter was their feeling of likeness in difference. Ten years ago Carnaby felt inclined to call his old school-fellow a 'cad'; Harvey saw nothing in Hugh but robust snobbishness. Nowadays they had the pleasant sense of understanding each other on most points, and the result was a good deal of honest mutual admiration. The one's physical vigour and adroitness, the other's active mind, liberal thoughts, studious habits, proved reciprocally attractive. Though in unlike ways, both were impressively modern. Of late it had seemed as if the man of open air, checked in his natural courses, thrown back upon his meditations, turned to the student, with hope of guidance in new paths, of counsel amid unfamiliar obstacles. To the observant Rolfe, his friend's position abounded in speculative interest. With the course of years, each had lost many a harsher characteristic, whilst the inner man matured. That their former relations were gradually being reversed, neither perhaps had consciously noted; but even in the jests which passed between them on Harvey's arrival this evening, it appeared plainly enough that Hugh Carnaby no longer felt the slightest inclination to regard his friend as an inferior.
The room, called library, contained one small case of books, which dealt with travel and sport. Furniture of the ordinary kind, still new, told of easy circumstances and domestic comfort. Round about the walls hung a few paintings and photographs, intermingled with the stuffed heads of animals slain in the chase, notably that of a great ibex with magnificent horns.
'Come, now, tell me all about it,' said Rolfe, as he mixed himself a glass of whisky and water. 'I don't see that anything has gone from this room.'
'Don't you?' cried his host, with a scornful laugh. 'Where are my silver-mounted pistols? Where's the ibex-hoof made into a paperweight? And' -- he raised his voice to a shout of comical despair -- 'where's my cheque-book?'
'I wish I did. It must break the record for a neat house-robbery, don't you think? And they'll never be caught -- I'll bet you anything you like they won't. The job was planned weeks ago; that woman came into the house with no other purpose.'
'But didn't your wife know anything about her?'
'What can one know about such people? There were references, I believe -- as valuable as references usually are. She must be an old hand. But I'm sick of the subject; let's drop it. -- You were interrupted, Hollings. What about that bustard?'
A very tall, spare man, who seemed to rouse himself from a nap, resumed his story of bustard-stalking in Spain last spring. Carnaby, who knew the country well, listened with lively interest, and followed with reminiscences of his own. He told of a certain boar, shot in the Sierras, which weighed something like four hundred pounds. He talked, too, of flamingoes on the 'marismas' of the Guadalquivir; of punting day after day across the tawny expanse of water; of cooking his meals on sandy islets at a fire made of tamarisk and thistle; of lying wakeful in the damp, chilly nights, listening to frogs and bitterns. Then again of his ibex-hunting on the Cordilleras of Castile, when he brought down that fine fellow whose head adorned his room, the horns just thirty-eight inches long. And in the joy of these recollections there seemed to sound a regretful note, as if he spoke of things gone by and irrecoverable, no longer for him.
One of the men present had recently been in Cyprus, and mentioned it with disgust. Rolfe also had visited the island, and remembered it much more agreeably, his impressions seeming to be chiefly gastronomic; he recalled the exquisite flavour of Cyprian hares, the fat francolin, the delicious beccaficoes in commanderia wine; with merry banter from Carnaby, professing to despise a man who knew nothing of game but its taste. The conversation reverted to technicalities of sport, full of terms and phrases unintelligible to Harvey; recounting feats with 'Empress' and 'Paradox', the deadly results of a 'treble A', or of 'treble-nesting slugs', and boasting of a 'right and left with No. 6'. Hugh appeared to forget all about his domestic calamity; only when his guests rose did he recur to it, and with an air of contemptuous impatience. But he made a sign to Rolfe, requesting him to stay, and at midnight the two friends sat alone together.
'Sibyl has gone to her mother's,' began Hugh in a changed voice. 'The poor girl takes it pluckily. It's a damnable thing, you know, for a woman to lose her rings and bracelets and so on -- even such a woman as Sibyl. She tried to laugh it off, but I could see -- we must buy them again, that's all. And that reminds me -- what's your real opinion of Frothingham?'
'When such a lot of people go about asking that question, it would make me rather uneasy if I had anything at stake.'
'They do? So it struck me. The fact is, we have a good deal at stake. The dowager swears by Frothingham. I believe every penny she has is in the "Britannia", one way or another.'
'It's a wide net,' said Rolfe musingly. 'The Britannia Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company, Limited. Very good name, I've often thought.'
'Yes; but, look here, you don't seriously doubt --'
'My opinion is worthless. I know no more of finance than of the Cabala. Frothingham personally I rather like, and that's all I can say.'
'The fact is, I have been thinking of putting some of my own -- yet I don't think I shall. We're going away for the winter. Sibyl wants to give up the house, and I think she's right. For people like us, it's mere foolery to worry with a house and a lot of servants. We're neither of us cut out for that kind of thing. Sibyl hates housekeeping. Well, you can't expect a woman like her to manage a pack of thieving, lying, lazy servants. The housekeeper idea hasn't been a conspicuous success, you see, and there's nothing for it but hotel or boarding-house.'
'If you remember,' said Rolfe, 'I hinted something of the kind a year ago.'
'Yes; but -- well, you know, when people marry they generally look for a certain natural consequence. If we have no children, it'll be all right.'
Rolfe meditated for a moment.
'You remember that fellow Wager -- the man you met at Abbott's? His wife died a year ago, and now he has bolted, leaving his two children in a lodging-house.'
'What a damned scoundrel!' cried Hugh, with a note of honest indignation.
'Well, yes; but there's something to be said for him. It's a natural revolt against domestic bondage. Of course, as things are, someone else has to bear the bother and expense; but that's only our state of barbarism. A widower with two young children and no income -- imagine the position. Of course, he ought to be able to get rid of them in some legitimate way -- state institution -- anything you like that answers to reason.'
'I don't know whether it would work.'
'Some day it will. People talk such sentimental rubbish about children. I would have the parents know nothing about them till they're ten or twelve years old. They're a burden, a hindrance, a perpetual source of worry and misery. Most wives are sacrificed to the next generation -- an outrageous absurdity. People snivel over the deaths of babies; I see nothing to grieve about. If a child dies, why, the probabilities are it ought to die; if it lives, it lives, and you get survival of the fittest. We don't want to choke the world with people, most of them rickety and wheezing; let us be healthy, and have breathing space.'
'I believe in that,' said Carnaby.
'You're going away, then. Where to?'
'That's the point,' replied Hugh, moving uneasily. 'You see, with Sibyl --. I have suggested Davos. Some people she knows are there -- girls who go in for tobogganing, and have a good time. But Sibyl's afraid of the cold. I can't convince her that it's nothing to what we endure here in the beastliness of a London winter. She hates the thought of ice and snow and mountains. A great pity; it would do her no end of good. I suppose we must go to the Riviera.'
He shrugged his shoulders, and for a moment there was silence.
'By-the-bye,' he resumed, 'I have a letter from Miles, and you'd like to see it.'
From a pile of letters on the table he selected one written on two sheets of thin paper, and handed it to Rolfe. The writing was bold, the style vigorous, the matter fresh and interesting. Major Carnaby had no graces of expression; but all the more engrossing was his brief narrative of mountain warfare, declaring its truthfulness in every stroke of the pen.
'Fine fellow!' exclaimed Rolfe, when he had read to the end. 'Splendid fellow!'
'Isn't he! And he's seeing life.'
'That's where you ought to be, my boy,' remarked Rolfe, between puffs of tobacco.
'I dare say. No use thinking about it. Too late.'
'If I had a son,' pursued Harvey, smiling at the hypothesis, 'I think I'd make a fighting man of him, or try to. At all events, he should go out somewhere, and beat the big British drum, one way or another. I believe it's our only hope. We're rotting at home -- some of us sunk in barbarism, some coddling themselves in over-refinement. What's the use of preaching peace and civilisation, when we know that England's just beginning her big fight -- the fight that will put all history into the shade! We have to lead the world; it's our destiny; and we must do it by breaking heads. That's the nature of the human animal, and will be for ages to come.'
Carnaby nodded assent.
'If we were all like your brother,' Rolfe went on. 'I'm glad he's fighting in India, and not in Africa. I can't love the buccaneering shopkeeper, the whisky-distiller with a rifle -- ugh!'
'I hate that kind of thing. The gold grubbers and diamond bagmen! But it's part of the march onward. We must have money, you know.'
The speaker's forehead wrinkled, and again he moved uneasily. Rolfe regarded him with a reflective air.
'That man you saw here tonight,' Carnaby went on, 'the short, thick fellow -- his name is Dando -- he's just come back from Queensland. I don't quite know what he's been doing, but he evidently knows a good deal about mines. He says he has invented a new process for getting gold out of ore -- I don't know anything about it. In the early days of mining, he says, no end of valuable stuff was abandoned, because they couldn't smelt it. Something about pyrites -- I have a vague recollection of old chemistry lessons. Dando wants to start smelting works for his new process, somewhere in North Queensland.'
'And wants money, I dare say,' remarked the listener, with a twinkle of the eye.
'I suppose so. It was Carton that brought him here for the first time, a week ago. Might be worth thinking about, you know.'
'I have no opinion. My profound ignorance of everything keeps me in a state of perpetual scepticism. It has its advantages, I dare say.'
'You're very conservative, Rolfe, in your finance.'
'Quite right, no doubt. Could you join us at Nice or some such place?'
'Why, I rather thought of sticking to my books. But if the fogs are very bad --'
'And you would seriously advise us to give up the house?'
'My dear fellow, how can you hesitate? Your wife is quite right; there's not one good word to be said for the ordinary life of an English household. Flee from it! Live anywhere and anyhow, but don't keep house in England. Wherever I go, it's the same cry: domestic life is played out. There isn't a servant to be had -- unless you're a Duke and breed them on your own estate. All ordinary housekeepers are at the mercy of the filth and insolence of a draggle-tailed, novelette-reading feminine democracy. Before very long we shall train an army of menservants, and send the women to the devil.'
'Queer thing, Rolfe,' put in his friend, with a laugh; 'I've noticed it of late, you're getting to be a regular woman-hater.'
'Not a bit of it. I hate a dirty, lying, incapable creature, that's all, whether man or woman. No doubt they're more common in petticoats.'
'Been to the Frothinghams' lately?'
'I used to think you were there rather often.'
Rolfe gave a sort of grunt, and kept silence.
'To my mind,' pursued the other, 'the best thing about Alma is that she appreciates my wife. She has really a great admiration for Sibyl; no sham about it, I'm sure. I don't pretend to know much about women, but I fancy that kind of thing isn't common -- real friendship and admiration between them. People always say so, at all events.'
'I take refuge once more,' said Rolfe, 'in my fathomless ignorance.'
He rose from his chair, and sat down again on a corner of the table. Carnaby stood up, threw his arms above his head, and yawned with animal vehemence, the expression of an intolerable ennui.
'There's something damnably wrong with us all -- that's the one thing certain.'
'Idleness, for one thing,' said Rolfe.
'Yes. And I'm too old to do anything. Why didn't I follow Miles into the army? I think I was more cut out for that than for anything else. I often feel I should like to go to South Africa and get up a little war of my own.'
Rolfe shouted with laughter.
'Not half a bad idea, and the easiest thing in the world, no doubt.'
'Nigger-hunting; a superior big game.'
'There's more than that to do in South Africa,' said Harvey. 'I was looking at a map in Stanford's window the other day, and it amused me. Who believes for a moment that England will remain satisfied with bits here and there? We have to swallow the whole, of course. We shall go on fighting and annexing, until -- until the decline and fall of the British Empire. That hasn't begun yet. Some of us are so over-civilised that it makes a reaction of wholesome barbarism in the rest. We shall fight like blazes in the twentieth century. It's the only thing that keeps Englishmen sound; commercialism is their curse. Happily, no sooner do they get fat than they kick, and somebody's shin suffers; then they fight off the excessive flesh. War is England's Banting.'
'You'd better not talk like that to Sibyl.'
'Why, frankly, old man, I think that's your mistake. But you'll tell me, and rightly enough, to mind my own business.'
'Nonsense. What do you mean exactly? You think I ought to --'
Hugh hesitated, with an air of uneasiness.
'Well,' pursued his friend cautiously, 'do you think it's right to suppress your natural instincts? Mightn't it give her a new interest in life if she came round a little to your point of view?'
'Queer thing, how unlike we are, isn't it?' said Carnaby, with a sudden drop of his tone to amiable ingenuousness. 'But, you know; we get along together very well.'
'To be sure. Yet you are going to rust in the Riviera when you want to be on the Himalayas. Wouldn't it do your wife good to give up her books and her music for a while and taste fresh air?'
'I doubt if she's strong enough for it.'
'It would make her stronger. And here's a good opportunity. If you give up housekeeping (and housekeepers), why not reform your life altogether? Go and have a look at Australia.'
'Sibyl hates the sea.'
'She'd soon get over that. Seriously, you ought to think of it.'
Carnaby set his lips and for a moment hung his head.
'You're quite right. But --'
'A little pluck, old fellow.'
'I'll see what can be done. Have another whisky?'
They went out into the hall, where a dim light through coloured glass illumined a statue in terracotta, some huge engravings, the massive antlers of an elk, and furniture in carved oak.
'Queer feeling of emptiness,' said Carnaby, subduing his voice. 'I feel as if they'd carried off everything, and left bare walls. Sibyl couldn't stay in the place. Shall I whistle for a cab? By Jove! that reminds me, the whistle has gone; it happened to be silver. A wedding present from that fool Benson, who broke his neck in a steeplechase three weeks after.' Harvey laughed, and stepped out into the watery fog.