The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
The house had stood for a century and a half, and for eighty years had been inhabited by Mortons. Of its neighbours in the elm-bordered road, one or two were yet older; all had reached the age of mellowness. 'Sicut umbra praeterit dies' -- so ran the motto of the dial set between porch and eaves; to Harvey Rolfe the kindliest of all greetings, welcoming him to such tranquillity as he knew not how to find elsewhere.
It was in the town, yet nothing town-like. No sooty smother hung above the house-tops and smirched the garden leafage; no tramp of crowds, no clatter of hot-wheel traffic, sounded from the streets hard by. But at hours familiar, bidding to task or pleasure or repose, the music of the grey belfries floated overhead; a voice from the old time, an admonition of mortality in strains sweet to the ear of childhood. Harvey had but to listen, and the days of long ago came back to him. Above all, when at evening rang the curfew. Stealing apart to a bowered corner of the garden, he dreamed himself into the vanished years, when curfew-time was bed-time, and a hand with gentle touch led him from his play to that long sweet slumber which is the child's new birth.
Basil Morton was one of three brothers, the youngest. His father, a corn-factor, assenting readily to his early inclination for the Church, sent him from Greystone Grammar-School to Cambridge, where Basil passed creditably through the routine, but in no way distinguished himself. Having taken his degree, he felt less assured of a clerical vocation, and thought that the law might perhaps be more suitable to him. Whilst he thus wavered, his father died, and the young man found that he had to depend upon himself for anything more than the barest livelihood. He decided, after all, for business, and became a partner with his eldest brother, handling corn as his father and his grandfather had done before him. At eight and twenty he married, and a few years afterwards the elder Morton's death left him to pursue commerce at his own discretion. Latterly the business had not been very lucrative, nor was Basil the man to make it so; but he went steadily on in the old tracks, satisfied with an income which kept him free from care.
'I like my trade,' he said once to Harvey Rolfe; 'it's clean and sweet and useful. The Socialist would revile me as a middleman; but society can't do without me just yet, and I ask no more than I fairly earn. I like turning over a sample of grain; I like the touch of it, and the smell of it. It brings me near to the good old Mother Earth, and makes me feel human.'
His house was spacious, well built, comfortable. The furniture, in great part, was the same his parents had used; solid mahogany, not so beautiful as furniture may be made, but serviceable, if need be, for another fifty years. He had a library of several thousand volumes, slowly and prudently collected, representing a liberal interest in all travail of the mind, and a special taste for the things of classical antiquity. Basil Morton was no scholar in the modern sense, but might well have been described by the old phrase which links scholar with gentleman. He lived by trade, but trade did not affect his life. The day's work over, he turned, with no feeling of incongruity, to a page of Thucydides, of Tacitus, or to those less familiar authors who lighted his favourite wanderings through the ruins of the Roman Empire. Better grounded for such studies than Harvey Rolfe, he pursued them with a steadier devotion and with all the advantages of domestic peace. In his mental habits, in his turns of speech, there appeared perhaps a leaning to pedantry; but it was the most amiable of faults, and any danger that might have lurked in it was most happily balanced and corrected by the practical virtues of his life's companion.
Mrs. Morton had the beauty of perfect health, of health mental and physical. To describe her face as homely was to pay it the highest compliment, for its smile was the true light of home, that never failed. Filia generosi, daughter of a house that bred gentlewomen, though its ability to dower them had declined in these latter days, she conceived her duty as wife and mother after the old fashion, and was so fortunate as to find no obstacle in circumstance. She rose early; she slept early; and her day was full of manifold activity. Four children she had borne -- the eldest a boy now in his twelfth year, the youngest a baby girl; and it seemed to her no merit that in these little ones she saw the end and reason of her being. Into her pure and healthy mind had never entered a thought at conflict with motherhood. Her breasts were the fountain of life; her babies clung to them, and grew large of limb. From her they learnt to speak; from her they learnt the names of trees and flowers and all things beautiful around them; learnt, too, less by precept than from fair example, the sweetness and sincerity wherewith such mothers, and such alone, can endow their offspring. Later she was their instructress in a more formal sense; for this also she held to be her duty, up to the point where other teaching became needful. By method and good-will she found time for everything, ruling her house and ordering her life so admirably, that to those who saw her only in hours of leisure she seemed to be at leisure always. She would have felt it an impossible thing to abandon her children to the care of servants; reluctantly she left them even for an hour or two when other claims which could not be neglected called her forth. In play-time they desired no better companion, for she was a child herself in gaiety of heart and lissom sportiveness. No prettier sight could be seen at Greystone than when, on a summer afternoon, they all drove in the pony carriage to call on friends, or out into the country. Nowadays it was often her eldest boy who held the reins, a bright-eyed, well-built lad, a pupil at the old Grammar-School, where he used the desk at which his father had sat before him. Whatever fault of boyhood showed itself in Harry Morton, he knew not the common temptation to be ashamed of his mother, or to flout her love.
For holiday they never crossed the sea. Morton himself had been but once abroad, and that in the year before his father's death, when he was trying to make up his mind what profession he should take up; he then saw something of France and of Italy. Talking with travelled friends, he was wont to praise himself in humorous vein for the sober fixity of his life, and to quote, in that mellow tone which gave such charm to his talk, the line from Claudian, 'Erret et extremos alter scrutetur Iberos; for he had several friends to whom a Latin or a Greek quotation was no stumbling-block. Certain of his college companions, men who had come to hold a place in the world's eye, were glad to turn aside from beaten tracks and smoke a pipe at Greystone with Basil Morton -- the quaint fellow who at a casual glance might pass for a Philistine, but was indeed something quite other. His wife had never left her native island. 'I will go abroad,' she said, 'when my boys can take me.' And that might not be long hence; for Harry, who loved no book so much as the atlas, abounded in schemes of travel, and had already mapped the grand tour on which the whole family was to set forth when he stood headboy at the Grammar-School.
In this household Harvey Rolfe knew himself a welcome guest, and never had he been so glad as now to pass from the noisy world into the calm which always fell about him under his friend's roof. The miseries through which he had gone were troubling his health, and health disordered naturally reacted upon his mind, so that, owing to a gloomy excitement of the imagination, for several nights he had hardly slept. No sooner had he lain down in darkness than every form of mortal anguish beset his thoughts, passing before him as though some hand unfolded a pictured scroll of life's terrors. He seemed never before to have realised the infinitude of human suffering. Hour after hour, with brief intervals of semi-oblivion, from which his mind awoke in nameless horror, he travelled from land to land, from age to age; at one moment picturing some dread incident of a thousand years ago; the next, beholding with intolerable vividness some scene of agony reported in the day's newspaper. Doubtless it came of his constant brooding on Redgrave's death and Hugh Carnaby's punishment. For the first time, tragedy had been brought near to him, and he marvelled at the indifference with which men habitually live in a world where tragedy is every hour's occurrence.
He told himself that this was merely a morbid condition of the brain, but could not bring himself to believe it. On the contrary, what he now saw and felt was the simple truth of things, obscured by everyday conditions of active life. And that History which he loved to read -- what was it but the lurid record of woes unutterable? How could he find pleasure in keeping his eyes fixed on century after century of ever-repeated torment -- war, pestilence, tyranny; the stake, the dungeon; tortures of infinite device, cruelties inconceivable? He would close his books, and try to forget all they had taught him.
Tonight he spoke of it, as he sat with Morton after everyone else had gone to bed. They had talked of Hugh Carnaby (each divining in the other a suspicion they were careful not to avow), and their mood led naturally to interchange of thoughts on grave subjects.
'Everyone knows that state of mind, more or less,' said Morton, in his dreamy voice -- a voice good for the nerves. 'It comes generally when one's stomach is out of order. You wake at half-past two in the morning, and suffer infernally from the blackest pessimism. It's morbid -- yes; but for all that it may be a glimpse of the truth. Health and good spirits, just as likely as not, are the deceptive condition.'
'Exactly. But for the power of deceiving ourselves, we couldn't live at all. It's not a question of theory, but of fact.'
'I fought it out with myself,' said Basil, after a sip of whisky, 'at the time of my "exodus from Houndsditch". There's a point in the life of every man who has brains, when it becomes a possibility that he may kill himself. Most of us have it early, but it depends on circumstances. I was like Johnson's friend: be as philosophical as I might, cheerfulness kept breaking in. And at last I let cheerfulness have its way. As far as I know' -- he gurgled a laugh -- 'Schopenhauer did the same.'
Harvey puffed at his pipe before answering.
'Yes; and I suppose we may call that intellectual maturity. It's bad for a man when he can't mature -- which is my case. I seem to be as far from it as ever. Seriously, I should think few men ever had so slow a development. I don't stagnate: there's always movement; but -- putting aside the religious question -- my stage at present is yours of twenty years ago. Yet, not even that; for you started better than I did. You were never a selfish lout -- a half-baked blackguard ----'
'Nor you either, my dear fellow.'
'But I was! I've got along fairly well in self-knowledge; I can follow my course in the past clearly enough. If I had my rights, I should live to about a hundred and twenty, and go on ripening to the end. That would be a fair proportion. It's confoundedly hard to think that I'm a good deal past the middle of life, yet morally and intellectually am only beginning it.'
'It only means, Rolfe, that we others have a pretty solid conceit of ourselves. -- Listen! "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow." I don't apply the name to you; but you'll be none the worse for a good night's sleep. Let us be off.'
Harvey slept much better than of late. There was an air of comfort in this guest-chamber which lulled the mind. Not that the appointments were more luxurious than in his own bedroom, for Morton had neither the means nor the desire to equip his house with perfections of modern upholstery; but every detail manifested a care and taste and delicacy found only in homes which are homes indeed, and not mere dwelling-places fitted up chiefly for display. Harvey thought of the happiness of children who are born, and live through all their childhood, in such an atmosphere as this. Then he thought of his own child, who had in truth no home at all. A house in Wales -- a house at Pinner -- a house at Gunnersbury -- presently a house somewhere else. He had heard people defend this nomad life -- why, he himself, before his marriage, had smiled at the old-fashioned stability represented by such families as the Mortons; had talked of 'getting into ruts', of 'mouldering', and so on. He saw it from another point of view now, and if the choice were between rut and whirlpool ----
When he awoke, and lay looking at the sunlit blind, in the stillness of early morning he heard a sound always delightful, always soothing, that of scythe and whetstone; then the long steady sweep of the blade through garden grass. Morton, old stick-in-the-mud, would not let his gardener use a mowing machine, the scythe was good enough for him; and Harvey, recalled to the summer mornings of more than thirty years ago, blessed him for his pig-headedness.
But another sound he missed, one he would have heard even more gladly. Waking thus at Pinner (always about six o'clock), he had been wont to hear the voice of his little boy, singing. Possibly this was a doubtful pleasure to Miss Smith, in whose room Hughie slept; but, to her credit, she had never bidden the child keep quiet. And there he lay, singing to himself, a song without words; singing like a little bird at dawn; a voice of innocent happiness, greeting the new day. Hughie was far off; and in a strange room, with other children, he would not sing. But Harvey heard his voice -- the odd little bursts of melody, the liquid rise and fall, which set to tune, no doubt, some childish fancy, some fairy tale, some glad anticipation. Hughie lived in the golden age. A year or two more, and the best of life would be over with him; for boyhood is but a leaden time compared with the borderland between it and infancy; and manhood -- the curse of sex developed ----
It was a merry breakfast-table. The children's sprightly talk, their mother's excellent spirits, and Morton's dry jokes with one and all, made Harvey feel ashamed of the rather glum habit which generally kept him mute at the first meal of the day. Alma, too, was seldom in the mood for breakfast conversation; so that, between them, they imposed silence upon Hughie and Miss Smith. One might have thought that the postman had brought some ill news, depressing the household. Yet things were not wont to be so bad in Wales; at that time, the day, as a rule, began cheerfully enough. Their life had darkened in the shadow of London; just when, for the child's sake, everything should have been made as bright as possible. And he saw little hope of change for the better. It did not depend upon him. The note of family life is struck by the house-mistress, and Alma seemed fallen so far from her better self that he could only look forward with anxiety to new developments of her character.
'School?' he exclaimed, when Harry, with satchel over shoulder, came to bid him good morning. 'I wish I could go in your place! It's just thirty-one years since I left the old Grammar-School.'
The boy did not marvel at this. He would not have done so if the years had been sixty-one; for Mr. Rolfe seemed to him an old man, very much older than his own father.
As usual when at Greystone, Harvey took his first walk to the spots associated with his childhood. He walked alone, for Morton had gone to business until midday. On the outskirts of the town, in no very pleasant situation, stood the house where he was born; new buildings had risen round about it, and the present tenants seemed to be undesirable people, who neglected the garden and were careless about their window curtains. Here he had lived until he was ten years old -- till the death of his father. His mother died long before that; he just, and only just, remembered her. He knew from others that she was a gentle, thoughtful woman, always in poor health; the birth of her second child, a girl, led to a lingering illness, and soon came the end. To her place as mistress of the house succeeded Harvey's aunt, his father's sister. No one could have been kinder to the children, but Harvey, for some reason yet obscure to him, always disliked her. Whom, indeed, did he not dislike, of those set over him? He recalled his perpetual rebellion against her authority from the first day to the last. What an unruly cub! And his father's anger when he chanced to overhear some boyish insolence -- alas! alas!
For he saw so little of his father. Mr. Rolfe's work as a railway engineer kept him chiefly abroad; he was sometimes absent for twelve months at a time. Only in the last half-year of his life did he remain constantly at home, and that because he was dying. Having contracted a fever in Spain, he came back to recruit; but his constitution had suffered from many hardships, and now gave way. To the last day (though he was ten years old) Harvey never dreamt of what was about to happen. Self-absorbed in a degree unusual even with boys, he feared his father, but had not learnt to love him. And now, looking back, he saw only too well why the anxious parent treated him with severity more often than with gentleness and good humour. A boy such as he must have given sore trouble to a father on his death-bed.
When it was too late, too late by many a year, he mourned the loss which had only startled him, which had seemed hardly a loss at all, rather an emancipation. As a man of thirty, he knew his father much better than when living with him day after day. Faults he could perceive, some of them inherited in his own character; but there remained the memory of a man whom he could admire and love -- whom he did admire and love more sincerely and profoundly the older he grew. And he held it the supreme misfortune of his life that, in those early years which count so much towards the future, he had been so rarely under his father's influence.
Inevitable, it seemed. Yet only so, perhaps, because even a good and conscientious man may fail to understand the obligation under which he lies towards his offspring.
He and his sister Amy passed into the guardianship of Dr Harvey, Mr Rolfe's old friend, the boy's godfather, who had done his best to soothe the mind of the dying man with regard to his children's future. There were no pecuniary difficulties; the children's education was provided for, and on coming of age each would have about two thousand pounds. Dr Harvey, a large-hearted, bright-witted Irishman, with no youngsters of his own, speedily decided that the boy must be sent away to a boarding-school, to have some of the self-will knocked out of him. Amy continued to live with her aunt for two years more; then the good woman died, and the Doctor took Amy into his own house, which became Harvey's home during holidays.
The ivy-covered house, in the best residential street of Greystone. Harvey paused before it. On the railings hung a brass plate with another name; the good old Doctor had been in his grave for many a year.
What wonder that he never liked the boy? Harvey, so far as anyone could perceive, had no affection, no good feeling, no youthful freshness or simplicity of heart; moreover, he exhibited precocious arrogance, supported by an obstinacy which had not even the grace of quickening into fieriness; he was often a braggart, and could not be trusted to tell the truth where his self-esteem was ever so little concerned. How unutterably the Harvey Rolfe of today despised himself at the age of fifteen or so! Even at that amorphous age, a more loutish, ungainly boy could scarcely have been found. Bashfulness cost him horrid torments, of course exasperating his conceit. He hated girls; he scorned women. Among his school-fellows he made a bad choice of comrades. Though muscular and of tolerable health, he was physically, as well as morally, a coward. Games and sports had I no attraction for him; he shut himself up in rooms, and read a great deal, yet even this, it seemed, not without an eye to winning admiration.
Brains he had -- brains undeniably; but for a long time there was the greatest doubt as to what use he could make of them. Harvey remembered the day when it was settled that he should study medicine. He resolved upon it merely because he had chanced to hear the Doctor say that he was not cut out for that.
He saw himself at twenty, a lank, ungainly youth, with a disagreeable complexion and a struggling moustache. He was a student at Guy's; he had 'diggings'; he tasted the joy of independence. As is the way with young men of turbid passions and indifferent breeding, he rapidly signalised his independence by plunging into sordid slavery. A miserable time to think of; a wilderness of riot, folly, and shame. Yet it seemed to him that he was enjoying life. Among the rowdy set of his fellow-students he shone with a certain superiority. His contempt of money, and his large way of talking about it, conveyed the impression that abundant means awaited him. He gave away coin as readily as he spent it on himself; not so much in a true spirit of generosity (though his character had gleams of it), as because he dreaded above all things the appearance of niggardliness and the suspicion of a shallow purse.
Then came the memorable interview with his guardian on his twenty-first birthday. Harvey flinched and grew hot in thinking of it. What an ungrateful cur! What a self-sufficient young idiot! The Doctor had borne so kindly with his follies and vices, had taken so much trouble for his good, was it not the man's right and duty to speak grave words of counsel on such an occasion as this? But to counsel Mr. Harvey Rolfe was to be guilty of gross impertinence. With lofty spirit the young gentleman proclaimed that he must no longer be treated as a school-boy! Whereupon the Doctor lost his temper, and spoke with a particularly strong Hibernian accent -- spoke words which to this moment stung the hearer's memory. He saw himself marching from the room -- that room yonder, on the ground-floor. It was some small consolation to remember that he had been drinking steadily for a week before that happened. Indeed, he could recall no scene quite so discreditable throughout the course of his insensate youth.
Well, he had something like two thousand pounds. Whether he had looked for more or less he hardly knew, or whether he had looked for anything at all. At one-and-twenty he was the merest child in matters of the world. Surely something must have arrested the natural development of his common-sense. Even in another ten years he was scarcely on a level, as regards practical intelligence, with the ordinary lad who is leaving school.
He at once threw up his medical studies, which had grown hateful to him. He took his first taste of foreign travel. He extended his reading and his knowledge of languages. And insensibly a couple of years went by.
The possession of money had done him good. It clarified his passions, or tended that way. A self-respect, which differed appreciably from what he had formerly understood by that term, began to guard him against grossness; together with it there developed in him a new social pride which made him desire the acquaintance of well-bred people. Though he had no longer any communication with the good old Doctor, Amy frequently wrote to him, and in one of her letters she begged him to call on a family in London, one of whose younger members lived at Greystone and was Amy's friend. After much delay, he overcame his bashfulness, and called upon the worthy people -- tailored as became a gentleman at large. The acquaintance led to others; in a short time he was on pleasant terms with several well-to-do families. He might have suspected -- but at the time, of course, did not -- that Dr Harvey's kindly influence had something to do with his reception in these houses. Self-centred, but painfully self-distrustful, he struggled to overcome his natural defects of manner. Possibly with some success; for did not Lily Burton, who at first so piqued him by her critical smile, come to show him tolerance, friendliness, gracious interest?
Lily Burton! -- how emptily, how foolishly the name tinkled out of that empty and foolish past! Yet what a power it had over him when he was three and twenty! Of all the savage epithets which he afterwards attached to its owner, probably she merited a few. She was a flirt, at all events. She drew him on, played upon his emotions, found him, no doubt, excellent fun; and at last, when he was imbecile enough to declare himself, to talk of marriage, Lily, raising the drollest eyes, quietly wished to know what his prospects were.
The intolerable shame of it, even now! But he laughed, mocking at his dead self.
His mind's eye beheld the strange being a year later. Still in good clothes, but unhealthy, and at his last half-crown; four and twenty, travelled, and possessed of the elements of culture, he had only just begun to realise the fact that men labour for their daily bread. Was it the peculiar intensity of his egoism that so long blinded him to common anxieties? Even as the last coins slipped between his fingers, he knew only a vaguely irritable apprehension. Did he imagine the world would beg for the honour of feeding and clothing Mr. Harvey Rolfe?
It came back to him, his first experience of hunger -- so very different a thing from appetite. He saw the miserable bedroom where he sat on a rainy day. He smelt the pawnshop. His heart sank again under the weight of awful solitude. Then, his illness; the letter he wrote to Amy; her visit to him; the help she brought. But she could not persuade him to go back with her to Greystone to face the Doctor. Her money was a loan; he would bestir himself and find occupation. For a wonder, it was found -- the place at the Emigration Agency; and so, for a good many years, the notable Mr. Harvey Rolfe sank into a life of obscure routine.
Again and again his sister Amy besought him to visit Greystone. Dr Harvey was breaking up; would he not see the kind old man once more? Yes, he assured himself that he would; but he took his time about it, and Dr Harvey, who at threescore and ten could not be expected to wait upon a young man's convenience, one day very quietly died. To Amy Rolfe, who had become as a daughter to him, he left the larger part of his possessions, an income of nine hundred a year. Not long after this, Harvey met his sister, and was astonished to find her looking thin, pale, spiritless. What did it mean? Why did she gaze at him so sadly? Come, come, he cried, she had been leading an unnatural life, cloistered, cheerless. Now that she was independent, she must enjoy herself, see the world! Brave words; and braver still those in which he replied to Amy's entreaty that he would share her wealth. Not he, indeed! If, as she said, the Doctor meant and hoped it, why did he not make that plain in his will? Not a penny would he take. He had all he wanted. And he seemed to himself the most magnanimous of men.
Amy lived on at Greystone; amid friends, to be sure, but silent, melancholy; and he, the brother whom she loved, could spare her only a day or two once a year, when he chattered his idle self-conceit. Anyone else would have taken trouble to inquire the cause of her pallor, her sadness. He, forsooth, had to learn with astonishment, at last, that she wished to see him -- on her deathbed.
He had often thought of her, and kindly. But he knew her not at all, took no interest in her existence. She, on the other hand, had treasured every miserable little letter his idleness vouchsafed; she had hoped so for his future, ever believing in him. When Amy lay dead, he saw the sheet of paper on which she had written the few lines necessary to endow him with all she left -- everything 'to my dear brother'. What words could have reproached him so keenly?
His steps turned to the churchyard, where on a plain upright stone he read the names of his mother, of his father. Amy's grave was hard by. He, too, if he had his wish, would some day rest here; and here his own son would stand, and read his name, and think of him. Ah, but with no such remorse and self-contempt! That was inconceivable. The tenderness which dimmed his eyes would have changed to misery had be dreamed it possible that his own boy could palter so ignobly with the opportunities of life.
Upon these deep emotions intruded the thought of Alma. Intruded; for he neither sought nor welcomed his wife's companionship at such a moment, and he was disturbed by a perception of the little claim she had to be present with him in spirit. He could no longer pretend to himself that he loved Alma; whatever the right name for his complex of feelings -- interest, regard, admiration, sexual attachment -- assuredly it must be another word than that sacred to the memory of his parents, to the desires and hopes centring in his child. For all that, he had no sense of a hopeless discord in his wedded life; he suffered from no disillusion, with its attendant bitterness. From this he was saved by the fact, easy at length to recognise, that in wooing Alma he had obeyed no dictate of the nobler passion; here, too, as at every other crisis of life, he had acted on motives which would not bear analysis, so large was the alloy of mere temperament, of weak concession to circumstance. Rather than complain that Alma fell short of the ideal in wifehood, should he not marvel, and be grateful that their marriage might still be called a happy one? Happiness in marriage is a term of such vague application: Basil Morton, one in ten thousand, might call himself happy; even so, all things considered, must the husband who finds it just possible to endure the contiguity of his wife. Midway between these extremes of the definition stood Harvey's measure of matrimonial bliss. He saw that he had no right to grumble.
He saw, moreover, and reflected constantly upon it in these days, how largely he was himself to blame for the peril of estrangement which threatened his life with Alma. Meaning well, and thinking himself a pattern of marital wisdom, he had behaved, as usual, with gross lack of discretion. The question now was, could he mend the harm that he had done? Love did not enter into the matter; his difficulty called for common-sense -- for rational methods in behaviour towards a wife whom he could still respect, and who was closely bound to him by common interest in their child.
He looked up, and had pleasure once more in the sunny sky. After all, he, even he, had not committed the most woeful of all blunders; though it was a mystery how he had escaped it. The crown of his feeble, futile career should, in all fitness, have been marriage with a woman worse than himself. And not on his own account did he thank protecting fortune. One lesson, if one only, he had truly learnt from nature: it bade him forget all personal disquietude, in joy that he was not guilty of that crime of crimes, the begetting of children by a worthless mother.