The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
A visit was due from Mrs. Frothingham, who had not been seen at Pinner for more than six months. She would have come at New Year, but an attack of influenza upset her plans. Now she wrote to announce her arrival on Saturday.
'I wish it had been Monday,' said Alma; 'I have to go to the Crystal Palace.'
'Is it imperative?' asked her husband.
'Yes; there's something new of Sterndale Bennett's, and I've asked Dora.'
It seemed to Harvey that this arrangement might have been put aside without great inconvenience, but, as usual, he made no comment. As he would be in town on Saturday, he promised to meet their visitor at Waterloo. Alma, he thought, had never shown much gratitude for her step-mother's constant kindness; during the past half-year she had now and then complained of the trouble of answering Mrs. Frothingham's letters, and the news of illness at Basingstoke drew from her only a few words of conventional sympathy. To Hughie, who frequently received presents from 'Grandmamma', she rarely spoke of the affectionate giver. A remark of hers recently on some piece of news from Mrs. Frothingham bore an obvious suggestion.
'I wonder,' she said, 'if a single person has been really benefited by all the money Mamma has given away? Isn't it likely she has done much more harm than good?'
There was truth in his surmise that Alma sometimes thought with jealousy of Mrs. Frothingham's having had control of a fortune, whilst she, the only child of him who made the money, possessed nothing of her own. The same trend of feeling appeared in a word or two of Alma's, when a daily paper, in speaking of a paltry dividend offered at last to the creditors in one branch of Bennet Frothingham's speculations, used a particularly bitter phrase.
'I should have felt that once; now ----'
In these days Alma suffered from a revival of the indignation which had so perturbed her in the time just before her marriage. If now she had possessed even a little money, it would have made her independent in a sense far more tangible than that of the friendly understanding with her husband. She strongly disliked the thought of making Harvey responsible for the expenses of her 'recital'. Had it been possible to procure a small sum by any honest means, she would eagerly have turned to it; but no method seemed discoverable. On her journey homeward after the interview with Felix Dymes, her mind was full of the money question. What did Dymes mean by bidding her take no thought for expenses? Could it have occurred to his outrageous vanity that she might be persuaded to become his debtor, with implied obligation of gratitude?
Not with impunity could her thought accustom itself to stray in regions forbidden, how firm soever her resolve to hold bodily aloof. Alma's imagination was beginning to show the inevitable taint. With Cyrus Redgrave she had passed from disdainful resentment, through phases of tolerance, to an interested flirtation, perilous on every side. In Felix Dymes she easily, perhaps not unwillingly, detected a motive like to Redgrave's, and already, for her own purposes, she was permitting him to regard her as a woman not too sensitive, not too scrupulous. These tactics might not be pleasant or strictly honourable, but she fancied they were forced upon her. Alma had begun to compassionate herself -- a dangerous situation. Her battle had to be fought alone; she was going forth to conquer the world by her mere talents, and can a woman disregard the auxiliary weapons of beauty? If Dymes chose to speculate in hopes ludicrously phantasmal, was that her affair? She smiled at the picture of two men, her devoted servants, exerting themselves t9 the utmost for her advantage, yet without a syllable of express encouragement, and foredoomed to a disappointment which would be perfectly plain to them could they but use their common-sense.
Throughout this week Harvey did not behave quite as usual to her; or so Alma thought. He had not the customary jocoseness when they met at the close of day; he asked no questions about how she had spent her time; his manner was preoccupied. One evening she challenged him.
'You are worrying about what you think my foolishness.'
'Foolishness? Of what folly are you guilty?'
'My ambition, then.'
'Oh no!' He laughed as if the thought genuinely amused him. 'Why should I worry about it? Don't work too hard, that's all. No, I was thinking of a squalid little ambition of my own. I have an idea Morphew may make something of that business; and I want him to, for the fellow's own good. It's wonderful how near he has been to going to the devil, once for all. I fancy I've got him now by the coat-tail; I may hold him.'
'You can't call that a squalid ambition,' said Alma, wishing to be amiable.
'Not that side of it -- no. But I've decided to put a little money into the business -- nothing that matters, but it may just as well be made safe, if a little trouble will do it. I was wondering how it would be if I worked a little down yonder -- kept Morphew in sight. Distance is the chief objection.'
'But you think of moving to Gunnersbury?'
'Yes, I do. I'm thinking of it seriously. Will you go over with me one day next week! Better be Saturday -- Mrs. Abbott will be free.'
It was unfortunate that Alma had not been able to establish an intimacy with Mary Abbott. They saw each other very rarely, and, as Harvey perceived, made no progress in friendship. This did not surprise him; they were too unlike in temper, intellect, and circumstances. Whether to these obstacles should be added another more serious, Harvey could not quite assure himself. He had suspected that Alma entertained a slight jealousy -- natural, perhaps, though utterly without substantial cause. He even reckoned with this when proposing to put the child under Mrs Abbott's care, thinking that, in revolt against such an alternative, Alma might be impelled to take the duty upon herself. That nothing of the kind had resulted, seemed to prove that, whatever feeling might occasionally have arisen in Alma, she did not regard his friend with any approach to hostility. For his own part, he had always felt that the memory of Bennet Frothingham must needs forbid Mrs. Abbott to think with unrestrained kindliness of Alma, and, but for Alma herself, he would scarce have ventured to bring them together. That they were at least on amiable terms must be held as much as could be hoped for. With regard to Mary's efficiency as a teacher, his opinion had grown more favourable since he had seen her in her own home. Time and experience were moulding her, he thought, to a task undertaken first of all in a spirit of self-discipline. She appeared to be successful in winning the confidence of parents, and she no longer complained of inability to make herself liked by her little pupils. Best of all, she was undoubtedly devoting herself to the work with all the powers of her mind, making it the sole and sufficient purpose of her life. Harvey felt no misgiving; he spoke his true thought when he said that he would rather trust Hughie to Mrs Abbott than to any other teacher. It was with surprise, therefore, and some annoyance, that he received Alma's reply to his proposal for their going over to Gunnersbury next week.
'Are you quite sure,' she said, rather coldly, 'that Mrs. Abbott will teach better than Pauline?'
'It isn't only that. Hughie must have companions. I thought we had agreed about it.'
'Have you inquired who his companions will be?'
'Oh -- the ordinary children of ordinary people,' he replied, with some impatience. 'I don't know that babies are likely to corrupt each other. But, of course, you will ask Mrs. Abbott all about that kind of thing -- or anything else you wish.'
Alma shook her head, laughing carelessly.
'No, no. That is all in your hands. You have discussed it with her, haven't you?'
'I haven't so much as mentioned it. But, of course, I am quite willing to relieve you of all trouble in the matter.'
His tone seemed to startle Alma, for she looked up at him quickly, and spoke in a more serious voice.
'I don't think we quite understand each other about Hughie. Why should you be so anxious? He seems to me to be doing very well. Remember, he's only a little more than three years old -- quite a baby, as you say. I don't think he would feel the want of companions for another year at least.'
Harvey met her look, and replied quietly.
'It isn't that I'm anxious about him. I have to plan for his education, that's all.'
'You're beginning rather early. Fathers don't generally look after their children so young.'
'Unfortunately, they don't,' said Harvey, with a laugh. 'Mothers do, here and there.'
'But surely you don't mean that I am neglectful, Harvey?'
'Not at all. Teaching isn't your metier, Alma.'
'I have always confessed that. But, then, the time for teaching Hughie has hardly come. What can Pauline do but just see that he doesn't get into mischief?'
'That's the very reason why he would be better for two or three hours a day with some one who knows how to teach a child of his age. It isn't as unimportant as you think. Pauline does very well, but Mrs. Abbott will do better.'
Vexed at his own cowardliness -- for he could not utter the words that leaped to his tongue -- Harvey fell into a perverse insistence on Mrs Abbott's merits. He had meant to confine himself within the safe excuse that the child needed companionship. Forbidden the natural relief of a wholesome, hearty outburst of anger -- which would have done good in many ways -- his nerves drove him into smothered petulance, with the result that Alma misread him, and saw in his words a significance quite apart from their plain meaning.
'I have not the least intention of interfering, Harvey,' she said, with her distant smile. 'For the next few months I shall be very busy indeed. Only one thing I would ask -- you don't think of leaving this house before midsummer?'
'Because I shall probably give my recital in May, and it would be rather inconvenient ----'
'Everything shall be arranged to suit you.'
'Not at all, not at all!' she exclaimed cheerfully. 'I don't ask so much as that; it would be unreasonable. We are neither of us to stand in the other's way -- isn't that the agreement? Tell me your plans, and you shall know mine, and I'm sure everything will be managed very well.'
So the conversation ended, satisfactorily to neither. Harvey, aware of having spoken indiscreetly, felt that he was still more to blame for allowing his wife a freedom of which she threatened to make absurd use; and Alma, her feelings both as wife and mother sensibly perturbed, resented the imputation which seemed to have been thrown upon her conduct. This resentment was of course none the less enduring because conscience took her husband's side. She remembered her appointment tomorrow (practically an appointment) with Cyrus Redgrave at the Crystal Palace; would not that be more difficult to confess than anything she could reasonably suppose to have happened between Harvey and Mary Abbott? Yet more than ever she hoped to meet Redgrave, to hold him by a new link of illusory temptation, that he might exert himself to the utmost in promoting her success. For among the impulses which urged her forward, her reasons for desiring a public triumph, was one which Harvey perhaps never for a moment imagined -- a desire to shine gloriously in the eyes of her husband. Harvey would never do her justice until constrained by the voice of the world. Year after year he held her in less esteem; he had as good as said that he did not think her capable of taking a place among professional violinists. Disguise it how he might, he secretly wished her to become a mere domestic creature, to abandon hopes that were nothing better than a proof of vanity. This went to Alma's heart, and rankled there. He should see! He should confess his error, in all its injurious and humiliating extent! At whatever cost -- at all but any cost -- the day of her triumph should come about! Foreseeing it, she had less difficulty in keeping calm when the excellencies of Mrs. Abbott were vaunted before her, when Harvey simply ignored all that in herself compensated the domestic shortcoming. Of course, she was not a model of the home-keeping virtues; who expected an artist to be that? But Harvey denied this claim; and of all the motives contributing to her aspiration, none had such unfailing force as the vehement resolve to prove him wrong.
Next morning the weather was so bad that Harvey asked whether she had not better give up her expedition to the Crystal Palace. Alma smiled and shook her head.
'You think I go only for amusement. It's so difficult to make you understand that these things are serious.'
'Congestion of the lungs is serious. I don't think Mrs. Frothingham will face it. There'll probably be a telegram from her.'
But by midday the fierce wind and driving sleet had abated, though the outlook remained cheerless enough. After an early lunch, Alma set forth. Dora Leach joined her in the train, and thus they travelled, through sooty gloom, under or above ground, from the extreme north to the farthest south of London; alighting at length with such a ringing of the ears, such an impression of roar and crash and shriek, as made the strangest prelude to a feast of music ever devised in the world's history. Their seats having been taken in advance, they entered a few moments before the concert began, and found themselves amid a scanty audience; on either side of them were vacant places. Alma did not dare to glance round about. If Redgrave were here, and looked for her, he would have no difficulty in discovering where she sat; probably, too, he could manage to take possession of the chair at her side. And this was exactly what happened, though not until the first piece had been performed.
'I congratulate you on your zeal,' spoke the voice which always put her in mind of sunny mountains and a blue lake.
'Inviting a compliment in return,' said Alma, with a sudden illumination of her features. 'Are you one of the regular attendants?'
'Don't you remember?' His voice dropped so low that he hardly seemed to address her. 'I promised myself the pleasure ----'
Alma pretended not to hear. She turned to her companion, spoke a word, and renewed the very slight acquaintance which had existed a few years ago between Redgrave and Miss Leach. Then the sound of an instrument imposed silence.
It was not the first time that Alma affected to be absorbed in music when not consciously hearing it at all. Today the circumstances made such distraction pardonable; but often enough she had sat thus, with countenance composed or ecstatic, only seeming to listen, even when a master played. For Alma had no profound love of the art. Nothing more natural than her laying it completely aside when, at home in Wales, she missed her sufficient audience. To her, music was not an end in itself. Like numberless girls, she had, to begin with, a certain mechanical aptitude, which encouraged her through the earlier stages, until vanity stepped in and urged her to considerable attainments. Her father's genuine delight in music of the higher kind served as an encouragement whenever her own energies began to fail; and when at length, with advancing social prospects, the thought took hold of her that, by means of her violin, she might maintain a place of distinction above ordinary handsome girls and heiresses, it sufficed to overcome her indolence and lack of the true temper. She founded her Quartet Society, and queened it over amateurs, some of whom were much better endowed than herself. Having set her pride on winning praise as a musician, of course she took pains, even working very hard from time to time. She had first-rate teachers, and was clever enough to profit by their lessons. With it all, she cared as little for music as ever; to some extent it had lost even that power over her sensibilities which is felt by the average hearer. Alma had an emotional nature, but her emotions responded to almost any kind of excitement sooner than to the musical. So much had she pretended and posed, so much had she struggled with mere manual difficulties, so much lofty cant and sounding hollowness had she talked, that the name of her art was grown a weariness, a disgust. Conscious of this, she was irritated whenever Harvey begged her to play simple things; for indeed, if she must hear music at all, it was just those simple melodies she would herself have preferred. And among the self-styled musical people with whom she associated, were few, if any, in whom conceit did not sound the leading motive. She knew but one true musician, Herr Wilenski. That the virtuoso took no trouble to bring her in touch with his own chosen circle, was a significant fact which quite escaped Alma's notice.
Between the pieces Redgrave chatted in a vein of seductive familiarity, saying nothing that Dora Leach might not have heard, but frequently softening his voice, as though to convey intimate meanings. His manner had the charm of variety; he was never on two occasions alike; today he seemed to relax in a luxurious mood, due in part to the influence of sound, and in part, as his eyes declared, to the sensuous pleasure of sitting by Alma's side.
'What an excellent fellow Carnaby is!' he remarked unexpectedly. 'I have been seeing a good deal of him lately -- as you know, I think?'
'So I have heard.'
'I like him all the better because I am rather sorry for him.'
'Don't you feel that he is very much out of place? He doesn't belong to our world at all. He ought to be founding a new civilisation in some wild country. I can sympathise with him; I have something of the same spirit.'
'I never observed it,' said Alma, allowing her glance to skim his features.
'Perhaps because you yourself represent civilisation in its subtlest phase, and when I am with you I naturally think only of that. I don't say I should have thriven as a backwoodsman; but I admire the type in Carnaby. That's one of our privileges, don't you think? We live in imagination quite as much as in everyday existence. You, I am sure, are in sympathy with infinite forms of life -- and,' he added, just above his breath, 'you could realise so many of them.'
'I shall be content with one,' replied Alma.
'And that ----?'
She nodded towards the concert platform, where, at the same moment, a violinist stepped forward. Redgrave gazed inquiringly at her, but she kept silence until the next interval. Then, in reply to his direct question, she told him, with matter-of-fact brevity, what her purpose was. He showed neither surprise nor excessive pleasure, but bent his head with a grave approving smile.
'So you feel that the time has come. Of course I knew that it would. Are any details arranged? -- or perhaps I mustn't ask?'
'I wanted to talk it over with you,' she answered graciously.
After the concert they had tea together. Redgrave was very attentive to Miss Leach, whom his talk amused and flattered. Alma's enterprise was discussed with pleasant freedom, and Redgrave learnt that she had decided to employ Mr. Felix Dymes as her agent. The trio set forth at length on their homeward journey in a mood of delightful animation, and travelled together as far as Victoria.
'I haven't said that you can rely on me for all possible assistance,' Redgrave remarked, as he walked along the roaring platform by Alma's side. 'That is a matter of course. We shall meet again before long?'
'In Porchester Terrace perhaps?'
Alma met his eyes, and took away with her the consciousness of having dared greatly. But the end was a great one.
In spite of the bad weather, Mrs. Frothingham had travelled up from Basingstoke. Alma found her in the drawing-room, and saw at a glance that there had been conversation on certain subjects between her and Harvey; but not until the next day did Mrs. Frothingham speak of what she had heard, and make her private comments for Alma's benefit.
'I thought Harvey was joking, dear. Have you reflected how many reasons there are why you shouldn't ----?'
The pathetic gaze of appeal produced no effect.
'Did Harvey ask you to talk about it, Mamma?'
'No. He takes it in the kindest way. But, Alma, you surely see that it pains him?'
'Pains him? That shows you don't understand us, dear Mamma. We could neither of us possibly do anything that would pain the other. We are in perfect harmony, yet absolutely independent. It has all been talked over and settled. You must have misunderstood Harvey altogether.'
From this position Alma could not be moved, and Mrs. Frothingham, too discreet to incur the risk of interference, spoke no more of the matter as it concerned man and wife. But another objection she urged with almost tearful earnestness. Did Alma forget that her appearance in public would give occasion to most disagreeable forms of gossip? And even if she disregarded the scandal of a few years ago, would not many of her acquaintances say and believe that necessity had driven her into a professional career?
'They may say what they like, and think what they like,' was Alma's lofty reply. 'If artists had always considered such trivial difficulties, where should we have been? Suppose gossip does its worst -- it's all over in a few months; then I stand by my own merit. Dear Mamma, don't be old fashioned! You look so young and so charming -- indeed you do -- that I can't bear to hear you talk in that early Victorian way. Art is art, and all these other things have nothing whatever to do with it. There, it's all over. Be good, and amuse yourself whilst you are with us. I assure you we are the most reasonable and the happiest people living.'
Mrs. Frothingham smiled at the compliment to herself; then sighed, and held her peace.