The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
On Monday morning Hugh Carnaby received a letter from Mrs. Ascott Larkfield. It was years since Sibyl's mother had written to him, and the present missive, scrawled in an unsteady hand, gave him some concern. Mrs. Larkfield wrote that she was very ill, so ill that she had abandoned hope of recovery. She asked him whether, as her son-in-law, he thought it right that she should be abandoned to the care of strangers. It was the natural result, no doubt, of her impoverished condition; such was the world; had she still been wealthy, her latter days would not have been condemned to solitude. But let him remember that she still had in her disposal an income of about six hundred pounds, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have passed to Sibyl; by a will on the point of being executed, this money would benefit a charitable institution. To him this might be a matter of indifference; she merely mentioned the fact to save Sibyl a possible disappointment.
Hugh and his wife, when both had read the letter, exchanged uneasy glances.
'It isn't the money,' said Carnaby. 'Hang the money! But -- after all, Sibyl, she's your mother.'
'And what does that mean?' Sibyl returned coldly. 'Shall I feel the least bit of sorrow if she dies? Am I to play the hypocrite just because this woman brought me into the world? We have always hated each other, and whose fault? When I was a child, she left me to dirty-minded, thieving servants; they were my teachers, and it's wonderful enough that -- that nothing worse came of it. When I grew up, she left me to do as I pleased -- anything so that I gave her no trouble. Do you wish me to go and pretend ----'
'I tell you what -- I'll run down to Weymouth myself, shall I? Perhaps I might arrange something -- for her comfort, I mean.'
Sibyl carelessly assented. Having business in town, Hugh could not start till afternoon, but he would reach Weymouth by half-past six, and might manage to be back again in time for Mrs. Rolfe's concert tomorrow.
'I shouldn't put myself to any inconvenience on that account,' said Sibyl, smiling.
'Out of regard for Rolfe, that's all.'
He left home at eleven, transacted his business, and at half-past one turned in for lunch at a Strand restaurant before proceeding to Waterloo. As he entered, he saw Mrs. Rolfe, alone at one of the tables; she was drawing on her gloves, about to leave. They met with friendly greeting, though Hugh, from the look with which Mrs. Rolfe recognised him, had a conviction that his growing dislike of her was fully reciprocated. In the brief talk before Alma withdrew, he told her that he was going down into the country.
'To Coventry?' she asked, turning her eyes upon him.
'No; to Weymouth. Mrs. Larkfield is no better, I'm afraid, and -- Sibyl wants me to see her.'
'Then you won't be back ----'
'For tomorrow? -- oh yes, I shall certainly be back in time, unless anything very serious prevents me. There's a good train from Weymouth at 10.10 -- gets in about half-past two. I shall easily get to Prince's Hall by three.'
Alma again regarded him, and seemed on the point of saying something, but she turned her head, rose, and rather hastily took leave. Hugh remarked to himself that she looked even worse by daylight than in the evening; decidedly, she was making herself ill -- perhaps, he added, the best thing that could happen.
For his luncheon he had small appetite. The journey before him was a nuisance, and the meeting at the end of it more disagreeable than anything he had ever undertaken. What a simple matter life would be, but for women! That Sibyl should detest her mother was perhaps natural enough, all things considered; but he heartily wished they were on better terms. He felt that Sibyl must have suffered in character, to some extent, by this abnormal antipathy. He did not blame her; her self-defence this morning proved that she had ground for judging her mother sternly; and perhaps, as she declared, only by her own strength and goodness had she been saved from the worst results of parental neglect. Hugh did not often meditate upon such things, but just now he felt impatience and disgust with women who would not care properly for their children. Poor old Rolfe's wife, for instance, what business had she to be running at large about London, giving concerts, making herself ill and ugly, whilst her little son was left to a governess and servants! He had half a mind to write a letter to old Rolfe. But no; that kind of thing was too dangerous, even between the nearest friends. Men must not quarrel; women did more than enough of that. Sibyl and Alma had as good as fallen out; the less they saw of each other the better. And now he had to face a woman, perhaps dying, who would doubtless rail by the hour at her own daughter.
O heaven! for a breath of air on sea or mountain or prairie! Could he stand this life much longer?
Driving to Waterloo, he thought of Mrs. Larkfield's bequest to the charitable institution. Six hundred pounds might be a paltry income, but one could make use of it. A year ago, to be sure, he would have felt more troubled by the loss; at present he had reason to look forward hopefully, so far as money could represent hope. The cycle business was moving; as likely as not, it would ultimately enrich him. There was news, too, from that fellow Dando in Queensland, who declared that his smelting process, gradually improved, had begun to yield results, and talked of starting a new company. Hugh's business of the morning had been in this connection: by inquiry in the City he had learnt that Dando's report might be relied upon, and that capital which had seemingly vanished would certainly yield a small dividend this year. He was thankful that he could face Mrs. Larkfield without the shame of interested motives. Let her do what she liked with her money; he went to see the woman merely out of humane feeling, sense of duty; and assuredly no fortune-hunter had ever imposed upon himself a more distasteful office.
On alighting at the station, he found that the only coin, other than gold, which he had in his pocket was a shilling. In accordance with usage, he would have given the cabman an extra sixpence, had he possessed it. When the man saw a tender of his legal fare, he, also in accordance with usage, broadened his mouth, tossed the coin on his palm, and pointedly refrained from thanks. At another time Hugh might have disregarded this professional suavity, but a little thing exasperated his present mood.
'Well?' he exclaimed, in a voice that drew the attention of everyone near. 'Is it your fare or not? Learn better manners, vicious brute!'
Before the driver could recover breath to shout a primitive insult, Hugh walked into the station. Here, whilst his wrath was still hot, a man tearing at full speed to catch a train on another platform bumped violently against him. He clenched his fist, and, but for the gasped apology, might have lost himself in blind rage. As it was, he inwardly cursed railway stations, cursed England, cursed civilisation. His muscles were quivering; sweat had started to his forehead. A specialist in nervous pathology would have judged Hugh Carnaby a dangerous person on this Monday afternoon.
He took his ticket, and, having some minutes to wait, moved towards the bookstall. By his side, as he scanned the papers, stood a lady who had just made a purchase; the salesman seemed to have handed her insufficient change, for she said to him, in a clear, business-like voice, 'It was half-a-crown that I gave you.'
At the sound of these words, Hugh turned sharply and looked at the speaker. She was a woman of thirty-five, solidly built, well dressed without display of fashion; the upper part of her face was hidden by a grey veil, through which her eyes shone. Intent on recovering her money, she did not notice that the man beside her was looking and listening with the utmost keenness; nor, on turning away at length, was she aware that Hugh followed. He pursued her, at a yard's distance, down the platform, and into the covered passage which leads to another part of the station. Here, perhaps because the footstep behind her sounded distinctly, she gave a backward glance, and her veiled eyes met Carnaby's. At once he stepped to her side. 'I don't think I can be mistaken,' were his low, cautiously-spoken words, whilst he gazed into her face with stern fixedness. 'You remember me, Mrs. Maskell, no doubt.'
'I do not, sir. You certainly are mistaken.'
She replied in a voice which so admirably counterfeited a French accent that Hugh could not but smile, even whilst setting his teeth in anger at her impudence.
'Oh! that settles it. As you have two tongues, you naturally have two names -- probably more. I happened to be standing by you at the bookstall a moment ago. It's a great bore; I was just starting on a journey; but I must trouble you to come with me to the nearest police station. You have too much sense to make any fuss about it.'
The woman glanced this way and that. Two or three people were hurrying through the passage, but they perceived nothing unusual.
'You have a choice,' said Carnaby, 'between my companionship and that of the policeman. Make up your mind.'
'I don't think you will go so far as that, Mr. Carnaby,' said the other, with self-possession and in her natural voice.
'Because I can tell you something that will interest you very much -- something that nobody else can.'
'What do you mean?' he asked roughly.
'It refers to your wife; that's all I need say just now.'
'You are lying.'
'As you please. Let us go.'
She moved on with unhurried step, and turned towards the nearest cab-rank. Pausing within sight of the vehicles, she looked again at her companion.
'Would you rather have a little quiet talk with me in a four-wheeler, or drive straight to ----?'
Hugh's brain was in commotion. The hint of secrets concerning his wife had not its full effect in the moment of utterance; it sounded the common artifice of a criminal. But Mrs. Maskell's cool audacity gave significance to her words; the two minutes' walk had made Hugh as much afraid of her as she could be of him. He stared at her, beset with horrible doubts.
'Won't it be a pity to miss your train?' she said, with a friendly smile. 'I can give you my address.'
'No doubt you can. Look here -- it was a toss-up whether I should let you go or not, until you said that. If you had begged off, ten to one I should have thought I might as well save myself trouble. But after that cursed lie ----'
'That's the second time you've used the word, Mr. Carnaby. I'm not accustomed to it, and I shouldn't have thought you would speak in that way to a lady.'
He was aghast at her assurance, which, for some reason, made him only the more inclined to listen to her. He beckoned a cab.
'Where shall we drive to?'
'Say Clapham Junction.'
They entered the four-wheeler, and, as soon as it began to move out of the station, Mrs. Maskell leaned back. Her claim to be considered a lady suffered no contradiction from her look, her movements, or her speech; throughout the strange dialogue she had behaved with remarkable self-command, and made use of the aptest phrases without a sign of effort. In the years which had elapsed since she filled the position of housekeeper to Mrs. Carnaby, she seemed to have gained in the externals of refinement; though even at that time her manners were noticeably good.
'Raise your veil, please,' said Hugh, when he had pulled up the second window.
She obliged him, and showed a face of hard yet regular outline, which would have been almost handsome but for its high cheek-bones and coarse lips.
'And you have been going about all this time, openly?'
'With discretion. I am not perfect, unfortunately. Rather than lose sixpence at the bookstall, I forgot myself. That's a woman's weakness; we don't easily get over it.'
'What put it into your head to speak of my wife?'
'I had to gain time, had I not?'
In a sudden burst of wrath, Hugh banged the window open; but, before he could call to the cabman, a voice sounded in his ear, a clear quick whisper, the lips that spoke all but touching him.
'Do you know that your wife is Mr. Redgrave's mistress?'
He fell back. There was no blood in his face; his eyes stared hideously.
'Say that again, and I'll crush the life out of you!'
'You look like it, but you won't. My information is too valuable.'
'It's the vilest lie ever spoken by whore and thief.'
'You are not polite, Mr. Carnaby.'
She still controlled herself, but in fear, as quick glances showed. And her fear was not unreasonable; the man glared murder.
'Stop that, and tell me what you have to say.'
Mrs. Maskell raised the window again.
'You have compelled me, you see. It's a pity. I don't want to make trouble.'
'What do you know of Redgrave?'
'I keep house for him at Wimbledon.'
'Yes. I have done so for about a year.'
'And does he know who you are?'
'Well -- perhaps not quite. He engaged me on the Continent. A friend of his (and of mine) recommended me, and he had reason to think I should be trustworthy. Don't misunderstand me. I am housekeeper -- rien de plus. It's a position of confidence. Mr. Redgrave -- but you know him.'
The listener's face was tumid and discoloured, his eyes bloodshot. With fearful intensity he watched every movement of Mrs. Maskell's features.
'How do you know I know him?'
'You've been at his place. I've seen you, though you didn't see me; and before I saw you I heard your voice. One remembers voices, you know.'
'Go on. What else have you seen or heard?'
'Mrs. Carnaby has been there too.'
'I know that!' Hugh shouted rather than spoke. 'She was there with Mrs Fenimore -- Redgrave's sister -- and several other people.'
'Yes; last summer. I caught sight of her as she was sitting in the veranda, and it amused me to think how little she suspected who was looking at her. But she has been there since.'
Mrs. Maskell consulted her memory, and indicated a day in the past winter. She could not at this moment recall the exact date, but had a note of it. Mrs. Carnaby came at a late hour of the evening, and left very early the next day.
'How are you going to make this lie seem probable?' asked Hugh, a change of voice betraying the dread with which he awaited her answer; for the time of which she spoke was exactly that when Redgrave had offered himself as a partner in the firm of Mackintosh & Co. 'Do you want me to believe that she came and went so that every one could see her?'
'Oh no. I was new to the place then, and full of curiosity. I have my own ways of getting to know what I wish to know. Remember, once more, that it's very easy to recognise a voice. I told you that I was in a position of confidence. Whenever Mr. Redgrave wishes for quietness, he has only to mention it; our servants are well disciplined. I, of course, am never seen by visitors, whoever they may be, and whenever they come; but it happens occasionally that I see them, even when Mr. Redgrave doesn't think it. Still, he is sometime very careful indeed, and so he was on that particular evening. You remember that his rooms have French windows -- a convenient arrangement. The front door may be locked and bolted, but people come and go for all that.'
'That's the bungalow, is it?' muttered Carnaby. 'And how often do you pretend you have heard her voice?'
'Only that once.'
It was worse than if she had answered 'Several times.' Hugh looked long at her, and she bore his gaze with indifference.
'You don't pretend that you saw her?'
'No, I didn't see her.'
'Then, if you are not deliberately lying, you have made a mistake.'
Mrs. Maskell smiled and shook her head.
'What words did you hear?'
'Oh -- talk. Nothing very particular.'
'I want to know what it was.'
'Well, as far as I could make out, Mrs. Carnaby was going to get a bicycle, and wanted to know what was the best. Not much harm in that,' she added, with a silent laugh.
Hugh sat with his hands on his knees, bending forward. He said nothing for a minute or two, and at length looked to the window.
'You were going back to Wimbledon?'
'Yes. I have only been in town for an hour or two.'
'Is Redgrave there?'
'No; he's away.'
'Very well; I am going with you. You will find out for me on what date that happened.'
'Certainly. But what is the understanding between us?'
Hugh saw too well that any threat would be idle. Whether this woman had told the truth or not, her position in Redgrave's house, and the fact of Redgrave's connection with the firm of Mackintosh -- of which she evidently was not aware -- put it in her power to strike a fatal blow at Sibyl. He still assured himself that she was lying -- how doubt it and maintain his sanity? -- but the lie had a terrible support in circumstances. Who could hear this story without admitting the plausibility of its details? A man such as Redgrave, wealthy and a bachelor; a woman such as Sibyl, beautiful, fond of luxurious living; her husband in an embarrassed position -- how was it that he, a man of the world, had never seen things in this light? Doubtless his anxiety had blinded him; that, and his absolute faith in Sibyl, and Redgrave's frank friendliness. Even if he obtained (as he would) complete evidence of Sibyl's honesty, Mrs. Maskell could still dare him to take a step against her. How many people were at her mercy? He might be sure that she would long ago have stood in the dock but for her ability to make scandalous and ruinous revelations. Did Redgrave know that he had a high-class criminal in his employment? Possibly he knew it well enough. There was no end to the appalling suggestiveness of this discovery. Hugh remembered what he had said in talk with Harvey Rolfe about the rottenness of society. Never had he felt himself so much a coward as in face of this woman, whose shameless smile covered secrets and infamies innumerable.
The cabman was bidden drive on to Wimbledon, and, with long pauses, the dialogue continued for an hour. Hugh interrogated and cross-examined his companion on every matter of which she could be induced to speak, yet he learned very little in detail concerning either her own life or Redgrave's; Mrs. Maskell was not to be driven to any disclosure beyond what was essential to her own purpose. By dint of skilful effrontery she had gained the upper hand, and no longer felt the least fear of him.
'If I believed you,' said Carnaby, at a certain point of their conversation, 'I should have you arrested straight away. It wouldn't matter to me how the thing came out; it would be public property before long.'
'Where would you find your witnesses?' she asked. 'Leave me alone, and I can be of use to you as no one else can. Behave shabbily, and you only make yourself look foolish, bringing a charge against your wife that you'll never be able to prove. You would get no evidence from me. Whether you want it kept quiet or want to bring it into court, you depend upon my goodwill.'
They reached the end of the road in which was the approach to Redgrave's house.
'You had better wait here,' said the woman. 'I shall be ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. You needn't feel uneasy; I haven't the least intention of running away. Our interests are mutual, and if you do your part you can trust me to do mine.'
She stopped the cab, alighted, told the driver to wait, and walked quickly down the by-road. Hugh, drawn back into a corner, sat with head drooping; for a quarter of an hour he hardly stirred. Twenty minutes, thirty minutes, passed, but Mrs. Maskell did not show herself. At length, finding it impossible to sit still any longer, he sprang out, and paced backwards and forwards. Vastly to his relief, the woman at length appeared.
'He is there,' she said. 'I couldn't get away before.'
'Is he alone?'
'Yes. Don't do anything foolish.' Carnaby had looked as if he would move towards the house. 'The slightest imprudence, and you'll only harm yourself.'
'Tell me that date.'
She named it.
'I can't stay longer, and I advise you to get away. If you want to write to me, you can do so without fear; my letters are quite safe. Address to Mrs. Lant. And remember ----!'
With a last significant look she turned and left him. Hugh, mentally repeating the date he had learnt, walked back to the cab, and told the man to drive him to the nearest railway station, whichever it was.
When he reached home, some four hours had elapsed since his encounter with Mrs. Maskell (or Mrs. Lant) at Waterloo; it seemed to him a whole day. He had forgotten all about his purposed journey to Weymouth. One sole desire had possession of him to stand face to face with Sibyl, and to see her innocence, rather than hear it, as soon as he had brought his tongue to repeat that foul calumny. He would then know how to deal with the creature who thought to escape him by slandering his wife.
He let himself in with his latchkey, and entered the drawing-room; it was vacant. He looked into other rooms; no one was there. He rang, and a servant came.
'Has Mrs. Carnaby been out long?'
She had left, was the reply, at half-past two. Whilst she sat at luncheon a telegram arrived for her, and, soon after, she prepared to go out, saying that she would not return tonight.
Not return tonight? Hugh scarcely restrained an exclamation, and had much ado to utter his next words.
'Did she mention where she was going?'
'No, sir. I took the dressing-bag down to the cab, and the cabman was told to drive to the post-office.'
'Very well. That will do.'
'Shall you dine at home, sir?'
Sibyl gone away for the night? Where could she have gone to? He began to look about for the telegram she had received; it might be lying somewhere, and possibly would explain her departure. In the waste-paper basket he found the torn envelope lying at the top; but the despatch itself was not to be discovered.
Gone for the night? and just when he was supposed to have left town? The cabman told to drive to the post-office? This might be for the purpose of despatching a reply. Yet no; the reply would have been written at once and sent by the messenger in the usual way. Unless -- unless Sibyl, for some reason, preferred to send the message more privately? Or again, she might not care to let the servant know whither the cab was really to convey her.
Sheer madness, all this. Had not Sibyl fifty legitimate ways of spending a night from home? Yet there was the fact that she had never before done so unexpectedly. Never before ----?
He looked at his watch; half-past six. He rang the bell again.
'Has any one called since Mrs. Carnaby left home?'
'Yes, sir; there have been three calls. Mrs. Rolfe ----'
'Yes, sir. She seemed very disappointed. I told her Mrs. Carnaby would not be back tonight.'
'And the others?'
Two persons of no account. Hugh dismissed them, and the servant, with a wave of the hand.
He felt a faintness such as accompanies extreme hunger, but had no inclination for food. The whisky bottle was a natural resource; a tumbler of right Scotch restored his circulation, and in a few minutes gave him a raging appetite. He could not eat here; but eat he must, and that quickly. Seizing his hat, he ran down the stairs, hailed a hansom, and drove to the nearest restaurant he could think of.
After eating without knowledge of the viands, and drinking a bottle of claret in like unconsciousness, he smoked for half an hour, his eyes vacantly set, his limbs lax and heavy, as though in the torpor of difficult digestion. When the cigar was finished, he roused himself, looked at the time, and asked for a railway guide. There was a train to Wimbledon at ten minutes past eight; he might possibly catch it. Starting into sudden activity, he hastily left the restaurant, and reached Waterloo Station with not a moment to spare.
At Wimbledon he took a cab, and was driven up the hill. Under a clouded sky, dusk had already changed to darkness; the evening was warm and still. Impatient with what he thought the slow progress of the vehicle, Hugh sat with his body bent forward, straining as did the horse, on which his eyes were fixed, and perspiring in the imaginary effort. The address he had given was Mrs. Fenimore's; but when he drew near he signalled to the driver: 'Stop at the gate. Don't drive up.'
From the entrance to Mrs. Fenimore's round to the by-road which was the direct approach to Redgrave's bungalow would be a walk of some ten minutes. Hugh had his reasons for not taking this direction. Having dismissed his cab, he entered by the lodge-gate, and walked up the drive, moving quickly, and with a lighter step than was natural to him. When he came within view of the house, he turned aside, and made his way over the grass, in the deep shadow of leafy lime-trees, until the illumined windows were again hidden from him. He had seen no one, and heard no sound. A path which skirted the gardens would bring him in a few minutes to Redgrave's abode; this he found and followed.
The bungalow was built in a corner of the park where previously had stood a gardener's cottage; round about it grew a few old trees, and on two sides spread a shrubbery, sheltering the newly-made lawn and flower-beds. Here it was very dark; Hugh advanced cautiously, stopping now and then to listen. He reached a point where the front of the house became visible. A light shone at the door, but there was no movement, and Hugh could hear only his own hard breathing.
He kept behind the laurels, and made a half-circuit of the house. On passing to the farther side, he would come within view of those windows which opened so conveniently, as Mrs. Maskell had said -- the windows of Redgrave's sitting-room, drawing-room, study, or whatever he called it. To this end it was necessary to quit the cover of the shrubs and cross a lawn. As he stepped on to the mown grass, his ear caught a sound, the sound of talking in a subdued tone; it came, he thought, from that side of the building which he could not yet see. A few quick silent steps, and this conjecture became a certainty: someone was talking within a few yards of him, just round the obstructing corner, and he felt sure the voice was Redgrave's. It paused; another voice made reply, but in so low a murmur that its accents were not to be recognised. That it was the voice of a woman the listener had no doubt. Spurred by a choking anguish, he moved forward. He saw two figures standing in a dim light from the window-door -- a man and a woman; the man bareheaded, his companion in outdoor clothing. At the same moment he himself was perceived. He heard a hurried 'Go in!' and at once the woman disappeared.
Face to face with Redgrave, he looked at the window; but the curtain which dulled the light from within concealed everything.
'Who was that?'
'Why -- Carnaby? What the deuce ----?'
'Who was that?'
'Who? -- what do you mean?'
Carnaby took a step; Redgrave laid an arresting hand upon him. There needed but this touch. In frenzied wrath, yet with the precision of trained muscle, Hugh struck out; and Redgrave went down before him -- thudding upon the door of the veranda like one who falls dead.