The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Second
'It shows one's ignorance of such matters,' said Harvey Rolfe, with something of causticity in his humour, when Alma came home after midnight. 'I should have thought that, by way of preparing for tomorrow, you would have quietly rested today.'
He looked round at her. Alma had entered the study as usual, and was taking off her gloves; but the effort of supporting herself seemed too great, she trembled towards the nearest chair, and affected to laugh at her feebleness as she sank down.
'Rest will come after,' she said, in such a voice as sounds from a parched and quivering throat.
'I'll take good care of that,' Harvey remarked. 'To look at you is almost enough to make me play the brutal husband, and say that I'll be hanged if you go out tomorrow at all.'
She laughed -- a ghostly merriment.
'Where have you been?'
'Oh, at several places. I met Mr. Carnaby at lunch,' she added quickly. 'He told me he was going somewhere -- I forget -- oh, to Weymouth, to see Mrs. Larkfield.'
Harvey was watching her, and paid little attention to the news.
'Do you know, it wouldn't much surprise me if you couldn't get up tomorrow morning, let alone play at a concert. Well, I won't keep you talking. Go to bed.'
She rose, but instead of turning to the door, moved towards where Harvey was sitting.
'Don't be angry with me,' she murmured in a shamefaced way. 'It wasn't very wise -- I've over-excited myself but I shall be all right tomorrow; and afterwards I'll behave more sensibly -- I promise ----'
He nodded; but Alma bent over him, and touched his forehead with her lips.
'You're in a fever, I suppose you know?'
'I shall be all right tomorrow. Goodnight, dear.'
In town, this morning, she had called at a chemist's, and purchased a little bottle of something in repute for fashionable disorder of the nerves. Before lying down she took the prescribed dose, though with small hope that it would help her to a blessed unconsciousness. Another thing she did which had not occurred to her for many a night: she knelt by the bedside, and half thought, half whispered through tearless sobs, a petition not learnt from any book, a strange half-heathen blending of prayer for moral strength, and entreaty for success in a worldly desire. Her mind shook perilously in its balance. It was well for Alma that the fashionable prescription did not fail her. In the moment of despair, when she had turned and turned again upon her pillow, haunted by a vision in the darkness, tortured by the never-ending echo of a dreadful voice, there fell upon her a sudden quiet; her brain was soothed by a lulling air from dreamland; her limbs relaxed, and forgot their aching weariness; she sighed and slept.
'I am much better this morning,' she said at breakfast. 'Not a trace of fever -- no headache.'
'And a face the colour of the table-cloth,' added Harvey.
There was a letter from Mrs. Frothingham, conveying good wishes not very fervently expressed. She had decided not to come up for the concert, feeling that the excitement would be too much for her; but Alma suspected another reason.
She had not asked her husband whether he meant to have a seat in Prince's Hall this afternoon; she still waited for him to speak about it. After breakfast he asked her when she would start for town. At noon, she replied. Every arrangement had been completed; it would be enough if she reached the Hall half an hour before the time of the recital, and after a light luncheon at a neighbouring restaurant.
'Then we may as well go together,' said her husband.
'You mean to come, then?' she asked dreamily.
'I shall go in at the last moment -- a seat at the back.'
Anything but inclined for conversation, Alma acquiesced. For the next hour or two she kept in solitude, occasionally touching her violin, but always recurring to an absent mood, a troubled reverie. She could not fix her thoughts upon the trial that was before her. In a vague way she feared it; but another fear, at times amounting to dread, dimmed the day's event into insignificance. The morning's newspapers were before her, sent, no doubt, by Dymes's direction, and she mused over the eye-attracting announcements of her debut. 'Mrs. Harvey Rolfe's First Violin Recital, Prince's Hall, this afternoon, at 3.' It gave her no more gratification than if the name had been that of a stranger.
The world had grown as unreal as a nightmare. People came before her mind, people the most intimately known, and she seemed but faintly to recognise them. They were all so much changed since yesterday. Their relations to each other and to her were altered, confused. Scarce one of them she could regard without apprehension or perplexity.
What faces would show before her when she advanced upon the platform? Would she behold Sibyl, or Hugh Carnaby, or Cyrus Redgrave? Their presence would all but convince her that she had passed some hours of yesterday in delirium. They might be present; for was not she -- she herself -- about to step forward and play in public? Their absence -- what would it mean? Where were they at this moment? What had happened in the life of each since last she saw them?
When it was time to begin to dress, she undertook the task with effort, with repugnance. She would have chosen to sit here, in a drowsy idleness, and let the hours go by. On her table stood the little vial with its draught of oblivion. Oh to drink of it again, and to lay her head upon the pillow and outsleep the day!
Nevertheless, when she had exerted herself, and was clad in the fresh garments of spring, the mirror came to her help. She was pale yet; but pallor lends distinction to features that are not commonplace, and no remark of man or woman had ever caused her to suspect that her face was ordinary. She posed before the glass, holding her violin, and the picture seemed so effective that she began to regain courage. A dreadful thing had happened -- perhaps more dreadful than she durst imagine -- but her own part in it was nothing worse than folly and misfortune. She had no irreparable sin to hide. Her moment of supreme peril was past, and would not return. If now she could but brace her nerves, and pass successfully through the ordeal of the next few hours, the victory for which she had striven so hard, and had risked so much, would at length be won. Everything dark and doubtful she must try to forget. Success would give her new strength; to fail, under any circumstances ignominious, would at this crisis of her life he a disaster fraught with manifold and intolerable shame.
She played a few notes. Her hand was steady once more; she felt her confidence revive. Whenever she had performed before an audience, it had always seemed to her that she must inevitably break down; yet at the last minute came power and self-control. So it would be today. The greater the demand upon her, so much the surer her responsive energy. She would not see faces. When all was over, let the news be disclosed, the worst that might be waiting; between now and then lay an infinity of time.
So, when she went downstairs to meet Harvey, the change in her appearance surprised him. He had expected a bloodless countenance, a tremulous step; hut Alma came towards him with the confident carriage of an earlier day, with her smile of superiority, her look that invited or demanded admiration.
'Well? You won't be ashamed of me?'
'To tell the truth,' said Harvey, 'I was going because I feared someone would have to look after you in the middle of the affair. If there's no danger of that, I think I shall not go into the place at all.'
'I don't care for it. I prefer to hear you play in private.'
'You needn't have the least fear for me,' said Alma loftily.
'Very well. We'll lunch together, as we arranged, and I'll be at the door with a cab for you after the people have gone.'
'Why should you trouble?'
'I had rather, if you don't mind.'
They drove from Baker Street to the Hall, where Alma alighted for a minute to leave her instrument, and thence to a restaurant not far away. Alma felt no appetite, but the necessity of supporting her strength obliged her to choose some suitable refreshment. When their order had been given, Harvey laid his hand upon an evening newspaper, just arrived, which the waiter had thrown on to the next table. He opened it, not with any intention of reading, but because he had no mind to talk; Alma's name, exhibited in staring letters at the entrance of the public building, had oppressed him with a sense of degradation; he felt ignoble, much as a man might feel who had consented to his own dishonour. As his eyes wandered over the freshly-printed sheet, they were arrested by a couple of bold headlines: 'Sensational Affair at Wimbledon -- Mysterious Death of a Gentleman'. He read the paragraph, and turned to Alma with a face of amazement.
'Look there -- read that ----'
Alma took the paper. She had an instantaneous foreboding of what she was to see; her heart stood still, and her eyes dazzled, but at length she read. On the previous evening (said the report), a gentleman residing at Wimbledon, and well known in fashionable circles, Mr. Cyrus Redgrave, had met his death under very strange and startling circumstances. Only a few particulars could as yet be made public; but it appeared that, about nine o'clock in the evening, a medical man had been hastily summoned to Mr. Redgrave's house, and found that gentleman lying dead in a room that opened upon the garden. There was present another person, a friend of the deceased (name not mentioned), who made a statement to the effect that, in consequence of a sudden quarrel, he had struck Mr. Redgrave with his fist, knocking him down, and, as it proved, killing him on the spot. Up to the present moment no further details were obtainable, but it was believed that the self-accused assailant had put himself in communication with the police. There was a rumour, too, which might or might not have any significance, that Mr. Redgrave's housekeeper had suddenly left the house and could not be traced.
The word fell from her lips involuntarily.
'And who killed him?' said Harvey, just above his breath.
'It isn't known -- there's no name ----'
'No. But I had a sudden thought. Absurd -- impossible ----'
As Harvey whispered the words, a waiter drew near with the luncheon. It was arranged upon the table, but lay there disregarded. Alma took up the newspaper again. In a moment she leaned towards her husband.
'What did you think?'
'Nothing -- don't talk about it.'
Two glasses of wine had been poured out; Harvey took his and drank it off.
'It's a pity I saw this,' he said; 'it has shaken your nerves. I ought to have kept it to myself.'
Alma dipped a spoon in the soup before her, and tried to swallow. Her hand did not tremble; the worst had come and gone in a few seconds; but her palate refused food. She drank wine, and presently became so collected, so quiet, that she wondered at herself. Cyrus Redgrave was dead -- dead! -- the word kept echoing in her mind. As soon as she understood and believed the fact of Redgrave's death, it became the realisation of a hope which she had entertained without knowing it. Only by a great effort could she assume the look of natural concern; had she been in solitude, her face would have relaxed like that of one who is suddenly relieved from physical torment. She gave no thought to wider consequences: she saw the event only as it affected herself in her relations with the dead man. She had feared him; she had feared herself; now all danger was at an end. Now -- now she could find courage to front the crowd of people and play to them. Her conscience ceased from troubling; the hope of triumph no longer linked itself with dread of a fatal indebtedness. No touch of sorrow entered into her mood; no anxiety on behalf of the man whose act had freed her. He, her husband's friend, would keep the only secret which could now injure her. Cyrus Redgrave was dead, and to her it meant a renewal of life.
Harvey was speaking; he reminded her of the necessity of taking food.
'Yes, I am going to eat something.'
'Look here, Alma,' -- he regarded her sternly, -- 'if you have any fear, if you are unequal to this, let me go and make an excuse for you.'
'I have not the least fear. Don't try to make me nervous.'
She ate and drank. Harvey, the while, kept his eyes fixed on the newspaper.
'Now I must go,' she said in a few minutes, after looking at her watch. 'Don't come out with me. Do just as you like about going into the Hall and about meeting me afterwards. You needn't be the least bit anxious, I assure you; I'm not going to make myself ridiculous.'
They stood up.
'I shall be at the door with a cab,' said Harvey.
'Very well; I won't keep you waiting.'
She left him, and walked from the restaurant with a quick step. Harvey drank a little more wine, and made a pretence of tasting the dish before him, then paid his bill and departed. He had now no intention whatever of going to hear Alma play; but he wished to know whether certain persons were among her audience, and, as he could not stand to watch the people entering, he took the only other means of setting his mind at rest -- this was to drive forthwith to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions.
On his knocking at the Carnabys' door, a servant informed him that neither her master nor her mistress was at home. Something unusual in the girl's manner at once arrested his attention; she was evidently disinclined to say anything beyond the formula of refusal, but with this Harvey would not be satisfied. He mentioned his name, and urged several inquiries, on the plea that he had urgent business with his friends. All he could gather was that Carnaby had left home early this morning, and that Mrs. Carnaby was out of town; it grew more evident that the girl shrank from questions.
'Has anyone been here before me, anxious to see them?'
'I don't know, sir; I can't tell you anything else.'
'And you have no idea when either of them will be back?'
'I don't know at all; I don't know anything about it.'
He turned away, as if to descend the stairs; but, as there was no sound of a closing door, he glanced back, and caught a glimpse of the servant, who stood looking after him. No sooner did their eyes meet than the girl drew hastily in and the door was shut.
Beset by a grave uneasiness, he walked into Edgware Road, and followed the thoroughfare to its end at the Marble Arch. One thing seemed certain: neither Carnaby nor his wife could be at Prince's Hall. It was equally certain that only a serious cause could have prevented their attendance. The servant manifestly had something to conceal; under ordinary circumstances she would never have spoken and behaved in that strange way.
At the Marble Arch boys were crying newspapers. He bought two, and in each of them found the sensational headlines; but the reports added nothing to that he had already seen; all, it was clear, came from the same source.
He turned into the Park, and walked aimlessly by crosspaths hither and thither. Time had to be killed; he tried to read his papers, but every item of news or comment disgusted him, and he threw the sheets away. When he came out at Knightsbridge, there was still half an hour to be passed, so he turned eastward, and walked the length of Piccadilly. Now at length Alma's fate was decided; the concert drew to its close. In anxiety to learn how things had gone with her, he all but forgot Hugh Carnaby, until, just as he was about to hail a cab for the purpose of bringing Alma from the Hall, his eye fell on a fresh newspaper placard, which gave its largest type to the Wimbledon affair, and promised a 'Startling Revelation'. He bought the paper, and read. It had become known, said the reporter, that the gentleman who, on his own avowal, had caused Mr. Redgrave's death, was Mr. H. Carnaby, resident at Oxford and Cambridge Mansions. The rumour that Mr. Carnaby had presented himself to the authorities was unfounded; as a matter of fact, the police had heard nothing from him, and could not discover his whereabouts. As to the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Redgrave's housekeeper -- Mrs. Lant by name -- nothing new could be learnt. Mrs. Lant had left all her personal belongings, and no one seemed able to conjecture a reason for her conduct.
Harvey folded up the paper, and crushed it into his pocket. He felt no surprise; his brooding on possibilities had prepared him for this disclosure, and, from the moment that his fears were confirmed, he interpreted everything with a gloomy certainty. Hugh's fatal violence could have but one explanation, and that did not come upon Harvey with the shock of the incredible. Neither was he at any loss to understand why Hugh had failed to surrender himself. Ere-long the newspapers would rejoice in another 'startling revelation', which would make the tragedy complete.
In this state of mind he waited for Alma's coming forth. She was punctual as she had promised. At the first sight of her he knew that nothing disagreeable had befallen, and this was enough. As soon as the cab drove off with them he looked an inquiry.
'All well,' she answered, with subdued exultation. 'Wait till you see the notices.'
Her flushed face and dancing eyes told that she was fresh from congratulation and flattery. Harvey could not spoil her moment of triumph by telling what he had just learnt. She wished to talk of herself, and he gave her the opportunity.
'A very good hall. They say such an audience at a first recital has hardly ever been known.'
'You weren't nervous?'
'I've often been far more when I played in a drawing-room; and I never played so well -- not half so well!'
She entered upon a vivid description of her feelings. On first stepping forward, she could see nothing but a misty expanse of faces; she could not feel the boards she trod upon; yet no sooner had she raised her violin than a glorious sense of power made her forget everything but the music she was to play. She all but laughed with delight. Never had she felt so perfect a mastery of her instrument. She played without effort, and could have played for hours without weariness. Her fellow-musicians declared that she was 'wonderful'; and Harvey, as he listened to this flow of excited talk, asked himself whether he had not, after all, judged Alma amiss. Perhaps he had been the mere dull Philistine, unable to recognise the born artist, and doing his paltry best to obstruct her path. Perhaps so; but he would look for the opinion of serious critics -- if any such had been present.
At Baker Street they had to wait for a train, and here it happened that Alma saw the evening placards. At once she changed; her countenance was darkened with anxiety.
'Hadn't you better get a paper?' she asked in a quick undertone.
'I have one. Do you wish to see it now?'
'Is there anything more?'
'Yes, there is. You don't know, I suppose, whether Carnaby and his wife were at the Hall?'
'I could hardly distinguish faces,' she replied, with tremor. 'What is it? Tell me.'
He took out his newspaper and pointed to the paragraph which mentioned Carnaby's name. Alma seemed overcome with painful emotion; she moved towards the nearest seat, and Harvey, alarmed by her sudden pallor, placed himself by her side.
'What does it mean?' she whispered.
'Who can say?'
'They must have quarrelled about business matters.'
'Do you think he -- Mr. Carnaby -- means to hide away -- to escape?'
'He won't hide away,' Harvey answered. 'Yet he may escape.'
'What do you mean? Go by ship? -- get out of the country?'
'I don't think so. He is far more likely to be found somewhere -- in a way that would save trouble.'
Alma flashed a look of intelligence.
'You think so,' she panted. 'You really think he has done that?'
'I feel afraid of it.'
Alma recovered breath; and, but that her face was bent low over the newspaper, Harvey must have observed that the possibility of his friend's suicide seemed rather to calm her agitation than to afflict her with fresh dismay.
But she could speak no more of her musical triumph. With the colour of her cheeks she had lost all animation, all energy; she needed the support of Harvey's arm in stepping to the railway carriage; and on her arrival at home, yielding, as it seemed, to physical exhaustion, she lay pallid, mute, and nerveless.