The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
He forced the window; he rushed into the room, and there before him, pallid, trembling, agonising, stood Alma Rolfe.
She panted incoherent phrases. She was here to speak with Mr. Redgrave on business -- about her concert tomorrow. She had not entered the house until this moment. She had met Mr. Redgrave in the garden ----
'What is that to me?' broke in Hugh, staring wildly, his fist still clenched. 'I am not your husband.'
'Mr. Carnaby, you will believe me? I came for a minute or two -- to speak about ----'
'It's nothing to me, Mrs. Rolfe,' he again interrupted her, in a hoarse, faint voice. 'What have I done?' He looked to the window, whence came no sound. 'Have I gone mad? By God, I almost fear it!'
'You believe me, Mr. Carnaby?' She moved to him and seized his hand. 'You know me too well -- you know I couldn't -- say you believe me! Say one kind, friendly word!'
She looked distracted. Clinging to his hand, she burst into tears. But Hugh hardly noticed her; he kept turning towards the window, with eyes of unutterable misery.
'Wait here; I'll come back.'
He stepped out from the window, and saw that Redgrave lay just where he had fallen -- straight, still, his face turned upwards. Hugh stooped, and moved him into the light; the face was deathly -- placid, but for its wide eyes, which seemed to look at his enemy. No blood upon the lips; no sign of violence.
'Where did I hit him? He fell with his head against something, I suppose.'
From the parted lips there issued no perceptible breath. A fear, which was more than half astonishment, took hold upon Carnaby. He looked up -- for the light was all at once obstructed -- and saw Alma gazing at him.
'What is it?' she asked in a terrified whisper. 'Why is he lying there?'
'I struck him -- he is unconscious.'
He drew her into the room again.
'Mrs. Rolfe, I shall most likely have to send for help. You mustn't be seen here. It's nothing to me why you came -- yes, yes, I believe you -- but you must go at once.'
'You won't speak of it?'
Her appeal was that of a child, helpless in calamity. Again she caught his hand, as if clinging for protection. Hugh replied in thick, hurried tones.
'I have enough trouble of my own. This is no place for you. For your own sake, if not for your husband's, keep away from here. I came because someone was telling foul lies -- the kind of lies that drive a man mad. Whatever happens -- whatever you hear -- don't imagine that she is to blame. You understand me?'
'No word shall ever pass my lips!'
'Go at once. Get home as soon as you can.'
Alma turned to go. Outside, she cast one glance at the dark, silent, unmoving form, then bowed her head, and hastened away into the darkness.
Again Hugh knelt by Redgrave's side, raised his head, listened for the beating of his heart, tried to feel his breath. He then dragged him into the room, and placed him upon a divan; he loosened the fastenings about his neck; the head drooped, and there was not a sign of life. Next he looked for a bell; the electric button caught his eye, and he pressed it. To prevent any one from coming in, he took his stand close by the door. In a moment there was a knock, the door opened, and he showed his face to the surprised maid-servant.
'Is Mrs. Lant in the house?'
'Mr. Redgrave wants her at once; he is ill.'
The servant vanished. Keeping his place at the door, and looking out into the hall, Hugh, for full two minutes, heard no movement; then he was startled by a low voice immediately behind him.
'What are you doing here?'
The housekeeper, who had entered from the garden, and approached in perfect silence, stood gazing at him; not unconcerned, but with full command of herself.
'Look!' he replied, pointing to the figure on the divan. 'Is he only insensible -- or dead?'
She stepped across the room, and made a brief examination by the methods Carnaby himself had used.
'I never saw any one look more like dead,' was her quiet remark. 'What have you been up to? A little quiet murder?'
'I met him outside. We quarrelled, and I knocked him down.'
'And why are you here at all?' asked the woman, with fierce eyes, though her voice kept its ordinary level.
'Because of you and your talk -- curse you! Can't you do something? Get some brandy; and send someone for a doctor.'
'Are you going to be found here?' she inquired meaningly.
Hugh drew a deep breath, and stared at the silent figure. For an instant his face showed irresolution; then it changed, and he said harshly -- 'Yes, I am. Do as I told you. Get the spirits, and send someone -- sharp!'
'Mr. Carnaby, you're a great blundering thickhead -- if you care for my opinion of you. You deserve all you've got and all you'll get.'
Hugh again breathed deeply. The woman's abuse was nothing to him.
'Are you going to do anything!' he said. 'Or shall I ring for someone else?'
She left the room, and speedily returned with a decanter of brandy. All their exertions proved useless; the head hung aside, the eyes stared. In a few minutes Carnaby asked whether a doctor had been sent for.
'Yes. When I hear him at the door I shall go away. You came here against my advice, and you've made a pretty job of it. Well, you'll always get work at a slaughter-house.'
Her laugh was harder to bear than the words it followed. Hugh, with a terrible look, waved her away from him.
'Go -- or I don't know what I may do next. Take yourself out of my sight! --out!'
She gave way before him, backing to the door; there she laughed again, waved her hand in a contemptuous farewell, and withdrew.
For half an hour Carnaby stood by the divan, or paced the room. Once or twice he imagined a movement of Redgrave's features, and bent to regard them closely; but in truth there was no slightest change. Within doors and without prevailed unbroken silence; not a step, not a rustle. The room seemed to grow intolerably hot. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Hugh went to the window and opened it a few inches; a scent of vegetation and of fresh earth came to him with the cool air. He noticed that rain had begun to fall, large drops pattering softly on leaves and grass and the roof of the veranda. Then sounded the rolling of carriage wheels, nearer and nearer. It was the doctor's carriage, no doubt.
Uncertainty soon came to an end. Cyrus Redgrave was beyond help: he must have breathed his last -- so said the doctor -- at the moment when he fell. Not as a result of the fall; the blow of Carnaby's fist had killed him. There is one stroke which, if delivered with sufficient accuracy and sufficient force, will slay more surely than any other: it is the stroke which catches an uplifted chin just at the right angle to drive the head back and shatter the spinal cord. This had plainly happened. The man's neck was broken, and he died on the spot.
Carnaby and the doctor stood regarding each other. They spoke in subdued voices.
'It was not a fight, you say?'
'One blow from me, that was all. He said something that maddened me.'
'Shall you report yourself?'
'Yes. Here is my card.'
'A sad business, Mr. Carnaby, Can I be of any use to you?'
'You can -- though I hesitate to ask it. Mrs. Fenimore should be told at once. I can't do that myself.'
'I know Mrs. Fenimore very well. I will see her -- if she is at home.'
On this errand the doctor set forth. As soon as he was gone, Hugh rang the bell; the same domestic as before answered it, and again he asked for Mrs. Lant. He waited five minutes; the servant came back, saying that Mrs. Lant was not in the house. This did not greatly surprise him, but he insisted on a repetition of the search. Mrs. Lant could not be found. Evidently her disappearance was a mystery to this young woman, who seemed ingenuous to the point of simple-mindedness.
'You are not to go into that room,' said Hugh. (They were talking in the hall.) 'The doctor will return presently.'
And therewith he left the house. But not the grounds; for in rain and darkness he stood watching from a place of concealment, watching at the same time Redgrave's curtained window and the front entrance. His patience was not overtaxed. There sounded an approaching vehicle; it came up the drive and stopped at the front door, where at once alighted the doctor and a lady. Hugh's espial was at an end. As the two stepped into the house he walked quickly away.
Yes, he would 'report himself', but not until he had seen Sibyl. To that end he must go home and wait there. The people at Wimbledon, who doubtless would communicate with the police, might cause him to be arrested before his wife's return. He feared this much more than what was to follow. Worse than anything that could befall him would be to lose the opportunity of speaking in private with Sibyl before she knew what had happened.
In the early hours of the morning he lay down upon his bed and had snatches of troubled sleep. Knowing that he was wrong in the particular surmise which led him to Redgrave's house, Sibyl's absence no longer disturbed him with suspicions; a few hours would banish from his mind the last doubt of her, if any really remained. He had played the madman, bringing ruin upon himself and misery incalculable upon his wife, just because that thieving woman lied to him. She, of course, had made her speedy escape; and was it not as well? For, if the whole story became known, what hope was there that Sibyl would come out of it with untarnished fame? Merely for malice' sake, the woman would repeat and magnify her calumnies. If she successfully concealed herself, it might be possible to avoid a mention of Sibyl's name. He imagined various devices for this purpose, his brain plotting even when he slept.
To Alma Rolfe he gave scarcely a thought. If the worst were true of her, Rolfe had only to thank his own absurdity, which allowed such a conceited simpleton to do as she chose. The case looked black against her. Well, she had had her lesson, and in that quarter could come to no more harm. What sort of an appearance was she likely to make at Prince's Hall today? -- feather-headed fool!
Before five o'clock the sunlight streamed into his bedroom. Sparrows twittered about the window, and somewhere close by, perhaps in a neighbour's flat, a caged throstle piped as though it were in the fields. Then began the street noises, and Hugh could lie still no longer. Remembering that at any moment his freedom might come to an end, he applied himself to arranging certain important matters. The housemaid came upon him with surprise; he bade her get breakfast, and, when the meal was ready, partook of it with moderate appetite.
The postman brought letters; nothing of interest for him, and for Sibyl only an envelope which, as one could feel, contained a mere card of invitation. But soon after nine o'clock there arrived a telegram. It was from Sibyl herself, and -- from Weymouth.
'Why are you not here? She died yesterday. If this reaches you, reply at once.'
He flung the scrap of paper aside and laughed. Of all natural explanations, this, of course, had never occurred to him. Yesterday's telegram told of Mrs. Larkfield's serious condition, and Sibyl had started at once for Weymouth, expecting to meet him there. One word of hers to the servant and he would simply have followed her. But Sibyl saw no necessity for that word. She was always reserved with domestics.
By the messenger, he despatched a reply. He would be at Weymouth as soon as possible.
He incurred the risk of appearing to run away; but that mattered little. Sibyl could hardly return before her mother's burial, and by going yonder to see her he escaped the worse danger, probably the certainty, of arrest before any possible meeting with her in London. Dreading this more than ever, he made ready in a few minutes; the telegraph boy had hardly left the building before Hugh followed. A glance at the timetables had shown him that, if he travelled by the Great-Western, he could reach Weymouth at five minutes past four; whereas the first train he could catch at Waterloo would not bring him to his destination until half an hour later; on the other hand, he could get away from London by the South-Western forty minutes sooner than by the other line, and this decided him. Yesterday, Waterloo had been merely the more convenient station on account of his business in town; today he chose it because he had to evade arrest on a charge of homicide. So comforted was he by the news from Sibyl, that he could reflect on this joke of destiny, and grimly smile at it.
At the end of his journey he betook himself to an hotel, and immediately sent a message to Sibyl. Before her arrival he had swallowed meat and drink. He waited for her in a private room, which looked seaward. The sight of the blue Channel, the smell of salt breezes, made his heart ache. He was standing at the window, watching a steamer that had just left port, when Sibyl entered; he turned and looked at her in silence.
'What are these mysterious movements?' she asked, coming forward with a smile. 'Why did you alter your mind yesterday?'
'I wasn't well.'
He could say nothing more, yet. Sibyl's face was so tranquil, and she seemed so glad to rejoin him, that his tongue refused to utter any alarming word; and the more he searched her countenance, the more detestable did it seem that he should insult her by the semblance of a doubt.
'Not well? Indeed, you look dreadfully out of sorts. How long had I been gone when you got home again?'
'An hour or two. But tell me first about your mother. She died before you came?'
'Very soon after they sent the telegram.'
Gravely, but with no affectation of distress, she related the circumstances; making known, finally, that Mrs. Larkfield had died intestate.
'You are quite sure of that?' asked Hugh, with an eagerness which surprised her.
'Quite. Almost with her last breath she talked about it, and said that she must make her will. And she had spoken of it several times lately. The people there knew all about her affairs. She kept putting it off -- and as likely as not she wished the money to be mine, after all. I am sure she must have felt that she owed me something.'
Carnaby experienced a profound relief. Sibyl was now provided for, whatever turn his affairs might take. She had seated herself by the window, and, with her gloved hands crossed upon her lap, was gazing absently towards the sea. How great must be her relief! thought Hugh. And still he looked at her smooth, pure features; at her placid eyes, in which, after all, he seemed to detect a little natural sadness; and the accusation in his mind assumed so grotesque an incredibility that he asked himself how he should dare to hint at it.
'Isn't there something you haven't told me?' she said, regarding him with anxiety, when he had just uttered her name and then averted his look. 'I never saw you look so ill.'
'Yes, dear, there is something.'
It was not often he spoke so gently. Sibyl waited, one of her hands clasping the other, and her lips close set.
'I was at Wimbledon last night -- at Redgrave's.'
He paused again, for the last word choked him. Unless it were a tremor of the eyelids, no movement betrayed itself in Sibyl's features; yet their expression had grown cold, and seemed upon the verge of a disdainful wonder. The pupils of her eyes insensibly dilated, as though to challenge scrutiny and defy it.
'What of that?' she said, when his silence urged her to speak.
'Something happened between us. We quarrelled.'
Her lips suddenly parted, and he heard her quick breath; but the look that followed was of mere astonishment, and in a moment, before she spoke, it softened in a smile.
'This is your dreadful news? You quarrelled -- and he is going to withdraw from the business. Oh, my dear boy, how ridiculous you are! I thought all sorts of horrible things. Were you afraid I should make an outcry? And you have worried yourself into illness about this? Oh, foolish fellow!'
Before she ceased, her voice was broken with laughter -- a laugh of extravagant gaiety, of mocking mirth, that brought the blood to her face and shook her from head to foot. Only when she saw that her husband's gloom underwent no change did this merriment cease. Then, with abrupt gravity, which was almost annoyance, her eyes shining with moisture and her cheeks flushed, she asked him ----
'Isn't that it?'
'Worse than that,' Hugh answered.
But he spoke more freely, for he no longer felt obliged to watch her countenance. His duty now was to soften the outrage involved in repeating Mrs. Maskell's fiction by making plain his absolute faith in her, and to contrive his story so as to omit all mention of a third person's presence at the fatal interview.
'Then do tell me and have done!' exclaimed Sibyl, almost petulantly.
'We quarrelled -- and I struck him -- and the blow was fatal.'
'Fatal? -- you mean he was killed?'
The blood vanished from her face, leaving pale horror.
'A terrible accident -- a blow that happened to -- I couldn't believe it till the doctor came and said he was dead.'
'But tell me more. What led to it? How could you strike Mr. Redgrave?'
Sibyl had all at once subdued her voice to an excessive calmness. Her hands were trembling; she folded them again upon her lap. Every line of her face, every muscle of her body, declared the constraint in which she held herself. This, said Hugh inwardly, was no more than he had expected; disaster made noble proof of Sibyl's strength.
'I'll tell you from the beginning.'
He recounted faithfully the incidents at Waterloo Station, and the beginning of Mrs. Maskell's narrative in the cab. At the disclosure of her relations with Redgrave, he was interrupted by a short, hard laugh.
'I couldn't help it, Hugh. That woman! -- why, you have always said you were sure to meet her somewhere. Housekeeper at Mr. Redgrave's! We know what the end of that would be!'
Sibyl talked rapidly, in an excited chatter -- the kind of utterance never heard upon her lips.
'It was strange,' Hugh continued. 'Seems to have been mere chance. Then she began to say that she had learnt some of Redgrave's secrets -- about people who came and went mysteriously. And then -- Sibyl, I can't speak the words. It was the foulest slander that she could have invented. She meant to drive me mad, and she succeeded -- curse her!'
Drops of anguish stood upon his forehead. He sprang up and crossed the room. Turning again, he saw his wife gazing at him, as if in utmost perplexity.
'Hugh, I don't in the least understand you. What was the slander? Perhaps lam stupid -- but ----'
He came near, but could not look her in the eyes.
'My dearest' -- his voice shook -- 'it was an infamous lie about you -- that you had been there ----'
'Why, of course I have! You know that I have.'
'She meant more than that. She said you had been there secretly -- at night ----'
Hugh Carnaby -- the man who had lived as high-blooded men do live, who had laughed by the camp-fire or in the club smoking-room at many a Rabelaisian story and capped it with another, who hated mock modesty, was all for honest openness between man and woman -- stood in guilty embarrassment before his own wife's face of innocence. It would have been a sheer impossibility for him to ask her where and how she spent a certain evening last winter; Sibyl, now as ever, was his ideal of chaste womanhood. He scorned himself for what he had yet to tell.
Sibyl was gazing at him, steadily, inquiringly.
'She made you believe this?' fell upon the silence, in her softest, clearest tones.
'No! She couldn't make me believe it. But the artful devil had such a way of talking ----'
'I understand. You didn't know whether to believe or not. Just tell me, please, what proof she offered you.'
Hugh hung his head.
'She had heard you talking -- in the house -- on a certain ----'
He looked up timidly, and met a flash of derisive scorn.
'She heard me talking? Hugh, I really don't see much art in this. You seem to have been wrought upon rather easily. It never occurred to you, I suppose, to ask for a precise date?'
He mentioned the day, and Sibyl, turning her head a little, appeared to reflect.
'It's unfortunate; I remember nothing whatever of that date. I'm afraid, Hugh, that I couldn't possibly prove an alibi.'
Her smiling sarcasm made the man wince. His broad shoulders shrank together; he stood in an awkward, swaying posture.
'Dear, I told her she lied!'
'That was very courageous. But what came next? You had the happy idea of going to Wimbledon to make personal inquiries?'
'Try to put yourself in my place, Sibyl,' he pleaded. 'Remember all the circumstances. Can't you see the danger of such a lie as that? I went home, hoping to find you there. But you had gone, and nobody knew where -- you wouldn't be back that night. A telegram had called you away, I was told. When I asked where you told the cabman to drive you to -- the post-office.'
'Oh, it looked very black! -- yes, yes, I quite understand. The facts are so commonplace that I'm really ashamed to mention them. At luncheon-time came an urgent telegram from Weymouth. I sent no reply then, because I thought I knew that you were on your way. But when I was ready to start, it occurred to me that I should save you trouble by wiring that I should join you as soon as possible -- so I drove to the post-office before going to Paddington. -- Well, you rushed off to Wimbledon?'
'Not till later, and because I was suffering damnably. If I hadn't -- been what would it have meant? When a man thinks as much of his wife as I do of you ----'
'He has a right to imagine anything of her,' she interrupted in a changed tone, gently reproachful, softening to tenderness. A Singularity of Sibyl's demeanour was that she seemed utterly forgetful of the dire position in which her husband stood. One would have thought that she had no concern beyond the refutation of an idle charge, which angered her indeed, but afforded scope for irony, possibly for play of wit. For the moment, Hugh himself had almost forgotten the worst; but he was bidden to proceed, and again his heart sank.
'I went there in the evening. Redgrave happened to be outside -- in that veranda of his. I saw him as I came near in the dark, and I fancied that -- that he had been talking to someone in the room -- through the folding windows. I went up to him quickly, and as soon as he saw me he pulled the window to. After that -- I only remember that I was raving mad. He seemed to want to stop me, and I struck at him -- and that was the end.'
'You went into the room?'
'Yes. No one was there.'
Both kept silence. Sibyl had become very grave, and was thinking intently. Then, with a few brief questions, vigilant, precise, she learnt all that had taken place between Hugh and Mrs. Maskell, between Hugh and the doctor; heard of the woman's disappearance, and of Mrs Fenimore's arrival on the scene.
'What shall you do now?'
'Go back and give myself up. What else can I do?'
'And tell everything -- as you have told it to me?'
Hugh met her eyes and moved his arms in a gesture of misery.
'No! I will think of something. He is dead, and can't contradict; and the woman will hide -- trust her. Your name shan't come into it at all. I owe you that, Sibyl. I'll find some cause for a quarrel with him. Your name shan't be spoken.'
She listened, her eyes down, her forehead lined in thought.
'I know what!' Hugh exclaimed, with gloomy resolve. 'That woman -- of course, there'll be a mystery, and she'll be searched for. Why' -- he blustered against his shame -- 'why shouldn't she be the cause of it? Yes, that would do.'
His hoarse laugh caused a tremor in Sibyl; she rose and stepped close to him, and laid a hand upon his shoulder.
'So far you have advised yourself. Will you let me advise you now, dear?'
'Wouldn't that seem likely?'
'I think not. And if it did -- what is the result? You will be dealt with much more severely. Don't you see that?'
'What's that to me? What do I care so long as you are out of the vile business? You will have no difficulties. Your mother's money; and then Mackintosh ----'
'And is that all?' asked Sibyl, with a look which seemed to wonder profoundly. 'Am I to think only of my own safety?'
'It's all my cursed fault -- just because I'm a fierce, strong brute, who ought to be anywhere but among civilised people. I've killed the man who meant me nothing but kindness. Am I going to drag your name into the mud -- to set people grinning and winking ----'
'Be quiet, Hugh, and listen. I have a much clearer head than yours, poor boy. There's only one way of facing this scandal, and that is to tell everything. For one thing, I shall not let you shield that woman -- we shall catch her yet. I shall not let you disgrace yourself by inventing squalid stories. Don't you see, too, that the disgrace would be shared by -- by the dead man? Would that be right? And another thing -- if shame comes upon you, do you think I have no part in it? We have to face it out with the truth.'
'You don't know what that means,' he answered, with a groan. 'You don't know the world.'
Sibyl did not smile, but her lips seemed only to check themselves when the smile was half born.
'I know enough of it, Hugh, to despise it; and I know you much better than you know yourself. You are not one of the men who can tell lies and make them seem the truth. I don't think my name will suffer. I shall stand by you from first to last. The real true story can't possibly be improved upon. That woman had every motive for deceiving you, and her disappearance is all against her. You have to confess your hot-headedness -- that can't be helped. You tell everything -- even down to the mistake about the telegram. I shall go with you to the police-station; I shall be at the inquest; I shall be at the court. It's the only chance.'
'Good God! how can I let you do this?'
'You had rather, then, that I seemed to hide away? You had rather set people thinking that there is coldness between us? We must go up tonight. Look out the trains, quick.'
'But your mother, Sibyl ----'
'She is dead; she cares nothing. I have to think of my husband.'
Hugh caught her and crushed her in his arms.
'My darling, worse than killing a man who never harmed me was to think wrong of you!'
Her face had grown very pale. She closed her eyes, smiled faintly as she leaned her head against him, and of a sudden burst into tears.