The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
So day by day Alma's violin sounded, and day after day Harvey heard it with a growing impatience. As is commonly the case with people of untrained ear, he had never much cared for this instrument; he preferred the piano. Not long ago he would have thought it impossible that he could ever come to dislike music, which throughout his life had been to him a solace and an inspiration; but now he began to shrink from the sound of it. As Alma practised in the morning, he was driven at length to alter his habits, and to leave home after breakfast. Having no other business, he went to Westminster Bridge Road, met Cecil Morphew at the shop, watched the progress of alterations that seemed advisable, picked up a little knowledge of photography, talked over prices, advertisements, and numerous commercial matters of which he had hitherto been contentedly ignorant. Before long, his loan to Morphew was converted into an investment; he became a partner in the concern, which, retaining the name of the old proprietor, they carried on as Den bow & Co.
The redemption of his debentures kept him still occupied with a furtive study of the money-market. He did not dare to face risk on a large scale; the mere thought of a great reduction of income made him tremble and perspire. So in the end he adopted the simple and straightforward expedient of seeking an interview with his banker, by whom he was genially counselled to purchase such-and-such stock, a sound security, but less productive than that he had previously held. An unfortunate necessity, seeing that his expenses increased and were likely to do so. But he tried to hope that Westminster Bridge Road would eventually reimburse him. With good luck, it might do more.
His days of quietude were over. He, too, was being drawn into the whirlpool. No more dreaming among his books; no more waking to the ordinary duties and cares of a reasonable life. As a natural consequence of the feeling of unsettlement, of instability, he had recourse more often than he wished to the old convivial habits, gathering about him once again, at club or restaurant, the kind of society in which he always felt at ease -- good, careless, jovial, and often impecunious fellows, who, as in days gone by, sometimes made a demand upon his purse which he could not resist, though he had now such cause for rigid economy. Was it that he grew old? -- he could no longer take his wine with disregard of consequence. The slightest excess, and too surely he paid for it on the morrow, not merely with a passing headache, but with a whole day's miserable discomfort. Oh, degeneracy of stomach and of brain! Of will, too; for he was sure to repeat the foolish experience before a week had passed.
It was not till Mrs. Frothingham had left them after a fortnight's visit that he reminded Alma of her promise to go with him to Gunnersbury.
'Did I promise?' she said. 'I thought we agreed that you should settle all that yourself.'
'I had rather you came with me to see Mrs. Abbott. Shall it be Saturday?'
'Can't,' replied Alma, with a shake of the head and a smile. 'I have to see Mr. Dymes.'
'Dymes? Who is he?'
'Oh! very well; then I'll go alone.'
He would not permit himself any further inquiry. Alma had never spoken to him of Dymes, her 'agent'. Harvey pictured an ill-shaven man in a small office, and turned from the thought with disgust. Too late to interpose, to ask questions; anything of that kind would but make him seem small, ridiculous, fussy. He had chosen his course, and must pursue it.
Not that Alma behaved in such a way as to suggest estrangement; anything but so. Her manner was always amiable, frequently affectionate. When they spent an evening together -- it did not often happen -- she talked delightfully; avoiding, as did Harvey himself, the subjects on which they were not likely to agree. Her gaze had all the old directness, her smile was sweet as ever, and her laugh as melodious. If ever he felt uneasy during her long absences in town, one of these evenings sufficed to reassure him. Alma was Alma still, and could he but have reconciled himself to the thought of her playing in public, she would have been yet the wife he chose, frankly self-willed, gallantly independent.
Until a certain day at the end of March, when something happened of which Harvey had no suspicion, but which affected Alma in a way he soon perceived.
That morning he had left home early, and would not return till late. Alma practised as usual, had luncheon alone, and was thinking of going out, when the post delivered two letters -- one for herself from Dymes, the other for her husband. A glance showed her that Harvey's correspondent was Mrs. Abbott, and never till today had one of Mrs Abbott's letters come into her hand. She regarded it with curiosity, and the longer she looked the stronger her curiosity became. Harvey would of course tell her what his friend wrote about -- as he always did; but the epistle itself she would not be asked to read. And did she, as a matter of fact, always know when Harvey heard from Mrs. Abbott? A foolish question, probably; for if the correspondence were meant to be secret, it would be addressed to Harvey at his club, not to the house. All the same, a desire of years concentrated itself in this moment. Alma wished vehemently to read one of Mary Abbott's letters with her own eyes.
She turned the envelope. It was of very stout paper, and did not look quite securely gummed. Would not a touch of the finger -- almost ----? Why, there, just as she thought; a mere touch, and the envelope came open. 'Now, if I ever wrote a dangerous word,' mused Alma -- 'which I don't, and never shall -- this would be a lesson to me.'
Well, it was open, and, naturally enough, the letter came forth. What harm? There could be nothing in it that Harvey would wish to hide from her. So, with hands that trembled, and cheeks that felt warm, she began to read.
The letter was Mrs. Abbott's acknowledgment of the quarterly cheque she received from Rolfe. Alma was surprised at the mention of money in the first line, and read eagerly on. As Mary Abbott and her friend had seen each other so recently, there was no need of a full report concerning Minnie Wager (her brother had long since gone to a boarding-school), but the wording allowed it to be understood that Harvey paid for the child, and, what was more, that he held himself responsible for her future. What could this mean? Alma pondered it in astonishment; gratified by the discovery, but disturbed beyond measure by its mysterious suggestiveness. The letter contained little more, merely saying, towards the end, how very glad the writer would be to give her utmost care to little Hugh when presently he came into her hands. Last of all -- 'Please remember me kindly to Mrs. Rolfe.'
At this point of her life Alma had become habitually suspicious of any relation between man and woman which might suggest, however remotely, dubious possibilities. Innocence appeared to her the exception, lawlessness the rule, where man and woman were restrained by no obvious barriers. It was the natural result of her experience, of her companionship, of the thoughts she deliberately fostered. Having read the letter twice, having mused upon it, she leaped to a conclusion which seemed to explain completely the peculiar intimacy subsisting between Harvey and Mary Abbott. These two children, known as Albert and Minnie Wager, were Harvey's offspring, the result of some liaison before his marriage; and Mrs. Abbott, taking charge of them for payment, had connived at the story of their origin, of their pitiful desertion. What could be clearer?
She did not go further in luminous conjectures. Even with her present mind, Alma could not conceive of Mary Abbott as a wanton, of Harvey Rolfe as a shameless intriguer; but it stung her keenly to think that for years there had been this secret between them. Probably the matter was known to Mrs. Abbott's husband, and so, at his death, it had somehow become possible for Harvey to suggest this arrangement, whereby he helped the widow in her misfortunes, and provided conscientiously for his own illegitimate children. Harvey was so very conscientious about children!
Did they resemble him? She had seen the little girl, but only once, and without attention. She would take an early opportunity of going over to Gunnersbury, to observe. But no such evidence was necessary; the facts stared one in the face.
That Harvey should have kept this secret from her was intelligible enough; most men, no doubt, would have done the same. But it seemed to Alma only another proof of her husband's inability to appreciate her. He had no faith in her as artist; he had no faith in her as woman. Had she not felt this even from the very beginning of their intimate acquaintance? Perhaps the first thing that awakened her interest in Harvey Rolfe was the perception that he did not, like other men, admire her unreservedly, that he regarded her with something of criticism. She could attract him; she could play upon his senses; yet he remained critical. This, together with certain characteristics which distinguished him from the ordinary drawing-room man, suggestions of force and individuality, drew her into singular relations with him long before she dreamt that he would become her husband. And his attitude towards her was unchanged, spite of passionate love-making, spite of the tenderness and familiarity of marriage; still he viewed her with eyes of tolerance, rather than of whole-hearted admiration. He compared, contrasted her with Mary Abbott, for whose intellect and character he had a sincere respect. Doubtless he fancied that, if this secret became known to her, she would sulk or storm, after the manner of ordinary wives. What made him so blind to her great qualities? Was it that he had never truly loved her? Had it been owing to mere chance, mere drift of circumstances, that he offered her marriage, instead of throwing out a proposal such as that of Cyrus Redgrave at Bregenz?
Though but darkly, confusedly, intermittently conscious of the feeling, Alma was at heart dissatisfied with the liberty, the independence, which her husband seemed so willing to allow her. This, again, helped to confirm the impression that Harvey held her in small esteem. He did not think it worth while to oppose her; she might go her frivolous way, and he would watch with careless amusement. At moments, it was true, he appeared on the point of ill-humour; once or twice she had thought (perhaps had hoped) that he could lay down the law in masculine fashion; but no -- he laughed, and it was over. When, at the time of her misery in Wales -- her dim jealousy of Mrs. Abbott, and revolt against the prospect of a second motherhood -- she had subdued herself before him, spoken and behaved like an everyday dutiful wife, Harvey would have none of it. He wished -- was that the reason? -- to be left alone, not to be worried with her dependence upon him. That no doubt of her fidelity ever seemed to enter his mind, was capable of anything but a complimentary interpretation; he simply took it for granted that she would be faithful -- in other words, that she had not spirit or originality enough to defy conventional laws. To himself, perhaps, he reserved a much larger liberty. How could she tell where, in what company, his evenings were spent? More than once he had been away from home all night -- missed the last train, he said. Well, it was nothing to her; but his incuriousness as to her own movements began to affect her sensibly, now that she imagined so close a community of thoughts and interests between Harvey and Mary Abbott.
Before his return tonight other letters had arrived for him, and all lay together, as usual, upon his desk. Alma, trying to wear her customary face, waited for him to mention that he had heard from Gunnersbury, but Harvey said nothing. He talked, instead, of a letter from Basil Morton, who wanted him to go to Greystone in the spring, with wife and child.
'You mustn't count on me,' said Alma.
'But after your concert -- recital -- whatever you call it; it would be a good rest.'
'Oh, I shall be busier than ever. Mr. Dymes hopes to arrange for me at several of the large towns.'
Harvey smiled, and Alma observed him with irritation she could scarcely repress. Of course, his smile meant a civil scepticism.
'By-the-bye,' he asked, 'is Dymes the comic opera man?'
'Yes. I rather wondered, Harvey, whether you would awake to that fact. He will be one of our greatest composers.'
She went on with enthusiasm, purposely exaggerating Dymes's merits, and professing a warm personal regard for him. In the end, Harvey's eye was upon her, still smiling, but curiously observant.
'Why hasn't he been here? Doesn't he think it odd that you never ask him?'
'Oh, you know that I don't care to ask people. They are aware' -- she laughed -- 'that my husband is not musical.'
Harvey's countenance changed.
'Do you mean that you tell them so?'
'Not in any disagreeable way, of course. It's so natural, now, for married people to have each their own world.'
'So it is,' he acquiesced.
Alma would have gone to Gunnersbury the very next day, but she feared to excite some suspicion in her husband's mind. He little imagined her capable of opening his letters, and to be detected in such a squalid misdemeanour would have overwhelmed her with shame. In a day or two she would be going to Mrs. Rayner Mann's, to meet a certain musical critic 'of great influence', and by leaving home early she could contrive to make a call upon Mrs. Abbott before lunching at Putney. This she did. She saw little Minnie Wager, scrutinised the child's features, and had no difficulty whatever in discerning Harvey's eyes, Harvey's mouth. Why should she have troubled herself to come? It was very hard to control her indignation. If Mrs. Abbott thought her rather strange, rather abrupt, what did it matter?
At Mrs. Rayner Mann's she passed into a soothing and delicious atmosphere. The influential critic proved to be a very young man, five-and-twenty at most; he stammered with nervousness when first addressing the stranger, but soon gave her to understand, more or less humorously, that his weekly article was 'quite' the most important thing in latter-day musical criticism, and that he panted for the opportunity of hearing a new violinist of real promise. But Alma had not brought her violin; lest she should make herself cheap, she never played now at people's houses. The critic had to be satisfied with hearing her talk and gazing upon her beauty. Alma was become a very fluent talker, and her voice had the quality which fixes attention. At luncheon, whilst half-a-dozen persons lent willing ear, she compared Sarasate's playing of Beethoven's Concerto with that of Joachim, and declared that Sarasate's cadenza in the first movement, though marvellous for technical skill, was not at all in the spirit of the work. The influential writer applauded, drawing her on to fresh displays of learning, taste, eloquence. She had a great deal to say about somebody's 'technique of the left hand', of somebody else's 'tonal effects', of a certain pianist's 'warmth of touch'. It was a truly musical gathering; each person at table had some exquisite phrase to contribute. The hostess, who played no instrument, but doted upon all, was of opinion that an executant should 'aim at mirroring his own nature in his interpretation of a tone-poem'; whereupon another lady threw out remarks on 'subjective interpretation', confessing her preference for a method purely 'objective'. The influential critic began to talk about Liszt, with whom he declared that he had been on intimate terms; he grew fervent over the master's rhapsodies, with their 'clanging rhythm and dithyrambic fury'.
'I don't know when I enjoyed myself so much,' said Alma gaily, as the great young man pressed her hand at parting and avowed himself her devoted admirer.
'My dear Mrs. Rolfe,' said the hostess privately, 'you were simply brilliant! We are all looking forward so eagerly!'
And as soon as Alma was gone, the amiable lady talked about her to the one remaining guest.
'Isn't she delightful! I do so hope she will be a success. I'm afraid so much depends upon it. Of course, you know that she is the daughter of Bennet Frothingham? Didn't you know? Yes, and left without a farthing. I suppose it was natural she should catch at an offer of marriage, poor girl, but it seems to have been most ill-advised. One never sees her husband, and I'm afraid he is anything but kind to her. He may have calculated on her chances as a musician. I am told they have little or nothing to depend upon. Do drum up your friends -- will you? It is to be at Prince's Hall, on May the 16th -- I think. I feel, don't you know, personally responsible; she would never have come out but for my persuasion, and I'm so anxious for a success!'
The day drew near for Ada Wellington's debut. Alma met this young lady, but they did not take to each other; Miss Wellington was a trifle 'loud', and, unless Alma mistook, felt fiercely jealous of any one admired by Felix Dymes. As she could not entertain at their own house (somewhere not far south of the Thames), Mrs. Wellington borrowed Dymes's flat for an afternoon, and there, supported by the distinguished composer, received a strange medley of people who interested themselves in her daughter's venture. Alma laughed at the arrangement, and asked Dymes if he expected her congratulations.
'Don't make fun of them,' said Felix. 'Of course, they're not your sort, Alma. But I've known them all my life, and old Wellington did me more than one good turn when I was a youngster. Ada won't make much of it, but she'll squeeze in among the provincial pros after this send off.'
'You really are capable of generosity?' asked Alma.
'I swear there's nothing between us. There's only one woman living that I have eyes for -- and I'm afraid she doesn't care a rap about me; at all events, she treats me rather badly.'
This dialogue took place in a drawing-room the evening before Miss Wellington's day. Alma had declined to meet her agent a second time at the Apollo Theatre; they saw each other, by arrangement, at this and that house of common friends, and corresponded freely by post, Dymes's letters always being couched in irreproachable phrase. Whenever the thing was possible, he undisguisedly made love, and Alma bore with it for the sake of his services. He had obtained promises from four musicians of repute to take part in Alma's concert, and declared that the terms they asked were lower than usual, owing to their regard for him. The expenses of the recital, without allowing for advertisements, would amount to seventy or eighty pounds; and Dymes guaranteed that the hall should produce at least that. Alma, ashamed to appear uneasy about such paltry sums, always talked as though outlay mattered nothing.
'Don't stint on advertisements,' she said.
'No fear! Leave that to me,' answered Felix, with a smile of infinite meaning.
Ada Wellington could not afford to risk much money, and Alma thought her announcements in the papers worth nothing at all. However, the pianist was fairly successful; a tolerable audience was scraped together (at Steinway Hall), and press notices of a complimentary flavour, though brief, appeared in several quarters. With keen anxiety Alma followed every detail. She said to herself that if her appearance in public made no more noise than this, she would be ready to die of mortification. There remained a fortnight before the ordeal; had they not better begin to advertise at once? Thus she wrote to Dymes, who replied by sending her three newspapers, in each of which a paragraph of musical gossip informed the world that Mrs. Harvey Rolfe was about to give her first public violin recital at Prince's Hall. Mrs. Rolfe, added the journalists in varying phrase, was already well known to the best musical circles as an amateur violinist, and great interest attached to her appearance in public, a step on which she had decided only after much persuasion of friends and admirers. Already there was considerable demand for tickets, and the audience would most certainly be both large and distinguished. Alma laughed with delight.
The same day, by a later post, she received a copy of a 'society' journal, addressed in a hand unknown to her. Guided by a red pencil mark, she became aware of no less than a quarter of a column devoted to herself. From this she might learn (if she did not already know it) that Mrs. Harvey Rolfe was a lady of the utmost personal and social charm; that her beauty was not easily described without the use of terms that would sound extravagant; that as a violinist she had stood for a year or two facile princeps amid lady amateurs; that she had till of late lived in romantic seclusion 'amid the noblest scenery of North Wales', for the sole purpose of devoting herself to music; and that only with the greatest reluctance had she consented to make known to the public a talent -- nay, a genius -- which assuredly was 'meant for mankind'. She was the favourite pupil of that admirable virtuoso, Herr Wilenski. At Prince's Hall, on the sixteenth of May, all lovers of music would have, &c, &c.
This batch of newspapers Alma laid before dinner on Harvey's desk, and about an hour after the meal she entered the library. Her husband, smoking and meditating, looked up constrainedly.
'I have read them,' he remarked, in a dry tone.
Alma's coldness during the last few weeks he had explained to himself as the result of his failure to take interest in her proceedings. He knew that this behaviour on his part was quite illogical; Alma acted with full permission, and he had no right whatever to 'turn grumpy' just because he disliked what she was doing. Only today he had rebuked himself, and meant to make an effort to restore goodwill between them; but these newspaper paragraphs disgusted him. He could not speak as he wished.
'This is your agent's doing, I suppose?'
'Of course. That is his business.'
'Well, I won't say anything about it. If you are satisfied, I have no right to complain.'
'Indeed, I don't think you have,' replied Alma, putting severe restraint upon herself to speak calmly. Thereupon she left the room.
Harvey rose to follow her. He took a step forward -- stood still -- returned to his chair. And they did not see each other again that night.
In the morning came a letter from Dymes. He wrote that a certain newspaper wished for an 'interview' with Mrs. Rolfe, to be published next week. Should the interviewer call upon her, and, if so, when? Moreover, an illustrated paper wanted her portrait with the least possible delay. Were her new photographs ready? If so, would she send him a dozen? Better still if he could see her today, for he had important things to speak of. Might he look for her at Mrs. Littlestone's at about four o'clock?
At breakfast Alma was chatty, but she directed her talk almost exclusively to Pauline Smith and to little Hugh, who now had his place at table -- a merry, sunny-haired little fellow, dressed in a sailor suit. Harvey also talked a good deal -- he, too, with Pauline and the child. When Alma rose he followed her, and asked her to come into the library for a moment.
'I'm a curmudgeon,' he began, facing her with nervous abruptness. 'Forgive me for that foolery last night, will you?'
'Of course,' Alma replied distantly.
'No, but in the same spirit, Alma. I'm an ass! I know that if you do this thing at all, you must do it in the usual way. I wish you success heartily, and I'll read with pleasure every scrap of print that praises you.'
'I'm hurrying to town, Harvey. I have to go to the photographer, and see Mr. Dymes, and all sorts of things.'
'The photographer? I hope they'll be tolerable; I know they won't do you justice. Will you sit to a painter if I arrange it? Unfortunately, I can't afford Millais, you know; but I want a good picture of you.'
'We'll talk about it,' she replied, smiling more pleasantly than of late. 'But I really haven't time now.'
'And you forgive me my idiotics?'
She nodded and was gone.
In the afternoon she met Dymes at Mrs. Littlestone's, a house of much society, for the most part theatrical. When they had moved aside for private talk, he began by asking a brusque question.
'Who got that notice for you into the West End?'
'Why, didn't you?'
'Know nothing about it. Come, who was it?'
'I have no idea. I took it for granted ----'
'Look here, Alma, I think I'm not doing badly for you, and the least you can do is to be straight with me.'
Alma raised her head with a quick, circuitous glance, then fixed her eyes on the man's heated face, and spoke in an undertone: 'Please, behave yourself, or I shall have to go away.
'Then you won't tell me? Very well. I chuck up the job. You can run the show yourself.'
Alma had never looked for delicacy in Felix Dymes, and his motives had from the first been legible to her, but this revelation of brutality went beyond anything for which she was prepared. As she saw the man move away, a feeling of helplessness and of dread overcame her anger. She could not do without him. The only other man active on her behalf was Cyrus Redgrave, and to seek Redgrave's help at such a juncture, with the explanation that must necessarily be given, would mean abandonment of her last scruple. Of course, the paragraph in the West End originated with him; since Dymes knew nothing about it, it could have no other source. Slowly, but very completely, the man of wealth and social influence had drawn his nets about her; at each meeting with him she felt more perilously compromised; her airs of command served merely to disguise defeat in the contest she had recklessly challenged. Thrown upon herself, she feared Redgrave, shrank from the thought of seeing him. Not that he had touched her heart or beguiled her senses; she hated him for his success in the calculated scheme to which she had consciously yielded step by step; but she was brought to the point of regarding him as inseparable from her ambitious hopes. Till quite recently her thought had been that, after using him to secure a successful debut, she could wave him off, perhaps tell him in plain words, with a smile of scorn, that they were quits. She now distrusted her power to stand alone. To the hostility of such a man as Dymes -- certain, save at intolerable cost -- she must be able to oppose a higher influence. Between Dymes and Redgrave there was no hesitating on whatever score. This advertisement in the fashionable and authoritative weekly paper surpassed Dymes's scope; his savage jealousy was sufficient proof of that. All she could do for the moment was to temporise with her ignobler master, and the humiliation of such a necessity seemed to poison her blood.
She rose, talked a little of she knew not what with she knew not whom, and moved towards the hostess, by whom her enemy was sitting. A glance sufficed. As soon as she had taken leave, Dymes followed her. He came up to her side at a few yards from the house, and they walked together, without speaking, until Alma turned into the first quiet street.
'I give you my word,' she began, 'that I know nothing whatever about that paper.'
'I believe you, and I'm sorry I made a row,' Dymes replied. 'There's no harm done. I dare say I shall be hearing more about it.'
'I have some photographs here,' said Alma, touching her sealskin bag. 'Will you take them?'
'Thanks. But there's a whole lot of things to be arranged. We can't talk here. Let's go to my rooms.'
He spoke as though nothing were more natural. Alma, the blood throbbing at her temples, saw him beckon a crawling hansom.
'I can't come -- now. I have a dreadful headache.'
'You only want to be quiet. Come along.'
The hansom had pulled up. Alma, ashamed to resist under the eyes of the driver, stepped in, and her companion placed himself at her side. As soon as they drove away he caught her hand and held it tightly.
'I can't go to your rooms,' said Alma, after a useless resistance. 'My head is terrible. Tell me whatever you have to say, and then take me to Baker Street Station. I'll see you again in a day or two.'
She did not feign the headache. It had been coming on since she left home, and was now so severe that her eyes closed under the torture of the daylight.
'A little rest and you'll be all right,' said Dymes.
Five minutes more would bring them to their destination. Alma pulled away her hand violently.
'If you don't stop him, I shall.'
'You mean it? As you please. You know what I ----'
Alma raised herself, drew the cabman's attention, and bade him drive to Baker Street. There was a short silence, Dymes glaring and muttering inarticulately.
'Of course, if you really have a bad headache,' he growled at length.
'Indeed I have -- and you treat me very unkindly.'
'Hang it, Alma, don't speak like that! As if I could be unkind to you!'
He secured her hand again, and she did not resist. Then they talked of business, settled one or two matters, appointed another meeting. As they drew near to the station, Alma spoke impulsively, with a bewildered look.
'I shouldn't wonder if I give it up, after all.'
'Rot!' was her companion's amazed exclamation.
'I might. I won't answer for it. And it would be your fault.'
Stricken with alarm, Dymes poured forth assurances of his good behaviour. He followed her down to the platform, and for a quarter of an hour she had to listen, in torment of mind and body, to remonstrances, flatteries, amorous blandishments, accompanied by the hiss of steam and the roar of trains.
On reaching home she could do nothing but lie down in the dark. Her head ached intolerably; and hour after hour, as often happens when the brain is over-wearied, a strain of music hummed incessantly on her ear, till inability to dismiss it made her cry in half-frenzied wretchedness.
With sleep she recovered; but through the next day, dull and idle, her thoughts kept such a gloomy colour that she well-nigh brought herself to the resolve with which she had threatened Felix Dymes. But for the anticipation of Harvey's triumph, she might perhaps have done so.