The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
Mrs. Morton felt a lively interest in Mrs. Rolfe's musical enterprise, and would have liked to talk about it, but she suspected that the topic was not very agreeable to her guest. In writing to Morton, Harvey had just mentioned the matter, and that was all. On the second day of his visit, when he felt much better, and saw things in a less troubled light, he wished to remove the impression that he regarded Alma's proceedings with sullen disapproval; so he took the opportunity of being alone with his hostess, and talked to her of the great venture with all the good humour he could command. Mrs. Morton had seen two notices of Alma's debut; both were so favourable that she imagined them the augury of a brilliant career.
'I doubt that,' said Harvey; 'and I'm not sure that it's desirable. She has made herself miserably ill, you see. Excitement is the worst possible thing for her. And then there's the whole question of whether professional life is right and good for a married woman. How do you think about it?'
The lady instanced cases that naturally presented themselves. She seemed to have no prejudice. Mrs. Rolfe appeared to her a person of artistic temper; but health was of the first importance; and then ----
Harvey waited; but only a thoughtful smile completed the remark.
'What other consideration had you in mind?'
'Only a commonplace -- that a married woman would, of course, be guided by her husband's wish.'
'You think that equivalent to reason and the will of God?' said Harvey jocosely.
'If we need appeal to solemn sanction.'
Rolfe was reminded, not unpleasantly, that he spoke with a woman to whom 'the will of God' was something more than a facetious phrase.
'I beg your pardon; let us say reason alone. But is it reasonable for the artist to sacrifice herself because she happens to have married an everyday man?'
Mrs. Morton shook her head and laughed.
'If only one know what is meant by the everyday man! My private view of him is rather flattering, perhaps. I'm inclined to think him, on the whole, not inferior to the everyday woman; and she -- she isn't a bad sort of creature, if fairly treated. I don't think the everyday man will go very far wrong, as a rule, in the treatment of his wife.'
'You really believe that?' asked Harvey, with a serious smile.
'Why, is it such a heresy?'
'I should rather have thought so. One is so accustomed to hear the other view I mean, it's in the air. Don't think I'm asking your sympathy. I have always wished Alma to act on her own judgment; she has been left quite free to do so. But if the results seem worse than doubtful, then comes the difficulty.'
'To be settled, surely, like all other difficulties between sensible people.'
Mrs. Morton's faith was of enviable simplicity. She knew, as a matter of fact, that husbands and wives often found their difficulties insuperable; but why this should be so, seemed to her one of the dark and mournful enigmas of life. It implied such a lack not only of good sense, but of right feeling. In her own experience she had met with no doubt, no worry, which did not yield to tact, or generous endeavour, or, at worst, to the creed by which she lived. One solicitude, and one only, continued to affect her as wife and mother; that it could not overcome her happy temper was due to the hope perpetually inspired by her husband's love -- a hope inseparable from her profoundest convictions. She and Morton differed in religious views, and there had come a grave moment when she asked whether it would be possible to educate her children in her own belief without putting a distance between them and their father. The doubt had disappeared, thanks to Morton's breadth of view, or facility of conscience; there remained the trouble in which it had originated, but she solaced herself with the fond assurance that this also would vanish as time went on. In the same mood of kindly serenity she regarded the lives of her friends, always hoping for the best, and finding it hard to understand that anyone could deliberately act with unkindness, unreasonableness, or any other quality opposed to the common good.
Rolfe had no desire of talking further about his private affairs. He had made up his mind on the points at issue, and needed no counsel, but the spirit of Mrs. Morton's conversation helped him to think tranquilly. The great danger was that he might make things worse by his way of regarding them. Most unluckily, Alma's illness had become connected in his imagination with the tragedy of the Carnabys; he could not keep the things apart. Hugh Carnaby's miserable doom, and the dark surmises attaching to his wife, doubtless had their part in bringing about a nervous crisis; why could he not recognise this as perfectly natural, and dismiss the matter? In spite of all reasoning, Alma's image ever and again appeared to him shadowed by the gloom which involved her friend -- or the woman who was her friend. He knew it (or believed it) to be the merest illusion of his perturbed mind; for no fact, how trivial soever, had suggested to him that Alma knew more of the circumstances of Redgrave's death than she seemed to know. On the one hand, he was glad that Alma and Sibyl no longer cared to meet; on the other, he could not understand what had caused this cessation of their friendship, and he puzzled over it. But these idle fancies would pass away; they were already less troublesome. A long country walk with Morton, during which they conversed only of things intellectual, did him much good. Not long ago Morton had had a visit from an old Cambridge friend, a man who had devoted himself to the study of a certain short period of English history, and hoped, some ten years hence, to produce an authoritative work on the subject.
'There's a man I envy!' cried Rolfe, when he had listened to Basil's humorous description of the enthusiast. 'It's exactly what I should like to do myself.'
'What prevents you?'
'Idleness -- irresolution -- the feeling that the best of my life is over. I have never been seriously a student, and it's too late to begin now. But if I were ten years younger, I would make myself master of something. What's the use of reading only to forget? In my time I have gone through no small library of historical books -- and it's all a mist on the mind's horizon. That comes of reading without method, without a purpose. The time I have given to it would have made me a pundit, if I had gone to work reasonably.'
'Isn't my case the same?' exclaimed Morton. 'What do I care! I enjoyed my reading and my knowledge at the time, and that's all I ever expected.'
'Very well -- though you misrepresent yourself. But for me it isn't enough. I want to know something as well as it can be known. Purely for my own satisfaction; the thought of "doing something" doesn't come in at all. I was looking at your county histories this morning, and I felt a huge longing to give the rest of my life to some little bit of England, a county, or even a town, and exhaust the possibilities of knowledge within those limits. Why, Greystone here -- it has an interesting history, even in relation to England at large; and what a delight there would be in following it out, doggedly, invincibly -- making it one's single subject -- grubbing after it in muniment-rooms and libraries -- learning by heart every stone of the old town -- dying at last with the consolation that nobody could teach one anything more about it!'
'I know the mood,' said Morton, laughing.
'I'm narrowing down,' pursued Harvey. 'Once I had tremendous visions -- dreamt of holding half a dozen civilisations in the hollow of my hand. I came back from the East in a fury to learn the Oriental languages -- made a start, you know, with Arabic. I dropped one nation after another, always drawing nearer home. The Latin races were to suffice me. Then early France, especially in its relations with England; -- Normandy, Anjou. Then early England, especially in its relations with France. The end will be a county, or a town -- nay, possibly a building. Why not devote one's self to the history of a market-cross? It would be respectable, I tell you. Thoroughness is all.'
When they were alone in the library at night, Morton spoke of his eldest boy, expressing some anxiety about him.
'The rascal will have to earn his living -- and how? There's time, I suppose, but it begins to fidget me. He won't handle corn -- I'm clear as to that. At his age, of course, all lads talk about voyages and so on, but Harry seems cut out for a larger sphere than Greystone. I shan't balk him. I'd rather he hadn't anything to do with fighting -- still, that's a weakness.'
'We think of sending Wager's lad into the navy,' said Rolfe, when he had mused awhile. 'Of course, he'll have to make his own way.'
'Best thing you can do, no doubt. And what about his little sister?'
'That's more troublesome. It's awkward that she's a relative of Mrs Abbott. Otherwise, I should have proposed to train her for a cook.'
'Do you mean it?'
'Why not? She isn't a girl of any promise. What better thing for her, and for the community, than to make her a good cook? They're rare enough, Heaven knows. What's the use of letting her grow up with ideas of gentility, which in her case would mean nothing hut uselessness? She must support herself, sooner or later, and it won't he with her brains. I've seriously thought of making that suggestion to Mrs. Abbott. Ten years hence, a sensible woman cook will demand her own price, and be a good deal more respected than a dressmaker or a she-clerk. The stomach is very powerful in bringing people to common-sense. When all the bricklayers' daughters are giving piano lessons, and it's next to impossible to get any servant except a lady's-maid, we shall see women of leisure develop a surprising interest in the boiling of potatoes.'
Morton admitted the force of these arguments.
'What would you wish your own boy to be?' he asked presently.
'Anything old-fashioned, unadventurous, happily obscure; a country parson, perhaps, best of all.'
'I understand. I've had the same thoughts. But one Ii to get over that kind of thing. It won't do to be afraid of life -- nor of death either.'
'And there's the difficulty of education,' said Rolfe. 'If I followed my instincts, I should make the boy unfit for anything but the quietest, obscurest life. I should make him hate a street, and love the fields. I should teach him to despise every form of ambition; to shrink from every kind of pleasure, but the simplest and purest; to think of life as a long day's ramble, and death as the quiet sleep that comes at the end of it. I should like him not to marry -- never to feel the need of it; or if marry he must, to have no children. That's my real wish; and if I tried to carry it out, the chances are that I should do him an intolerable wrong. For fear of it, I must give him into the hands of other people; I must see him grow into habits and thoughts which will cause me perpetual uneasiness; I must watch him drift further and further away from my own ideal of life, till at length, perhaps, there is scarce a possibility of sympathy between us.'
'Morbid -- all morbid,' remarked the listener.
'I don't know. It may only mean that one sees too clearly the root facts of existence. I have another mood (less frequent) in which I try to persuade myself that I don't care much about the child; that his future doesn't really concern me at all. Why should it? He's just one of the millions of human beings who come and go. A hundred years hence -- what of him and of me? What can it matter how he lived and how he died? The best kind of education would be that which hardened his skin and blunted his sympathies. What right have I to make him sensitive? The thing is, to get through life with as little suffering as possible. What monstrous folly to teach him to wince and cry out at the sufferings of other people! Won't he have enough of his own before he has done? Yet that's what we shall aim at -- to cultivate his sympathetic emotions, so that the death of a bird shall make him sad, and the sight of human distress wring his heart. Real kindness would try to make of him a healthy ruffian, with just enough conscience to keep him from crime.'
'Theory for theory, I prefer this,' said Morton. 'To a certain extent I try to act upon it.'
'Just because I know that my own tendency is to over-softness. I have sometimes surprised my wife by bidding Harry disregard things that appealed to his pity. You remember what old Hobbes says: "Homo malus, puer robustus"? There was more truth in it in his day than in ours. It's natural for a boy to be a good deal of a savage, but our civilisation is doing its best to change that. Why, not long ago the lad asked me whether fishing wasn't cruel. He evidently felt that it was, and so do I; but I couldn't say so. I laughed it off, and told him that a fish diet was excellent for the brains!'
'I hope I may have as much courage,' said Harvey.
'Life is a compromise, my dear fellow. If the world at large would suddenly come round to a cultivation of the amiable virtues -- well and good. But there's no hope of it. As it is, our little crabs must grow their hard shell, or they've no chance.'
'What about progress? In educating children, we are making the new world.'
'But there's no hurry. The growth must be gradual -- will be, whether we intend it or not. The fact is, I try not to think overmuch about my children. It remains a doubt, you know, whether education has any influence worth speaking of.'
'To me,' said Harvey, 'the doubt seems absurd. In my own case, I know, a good system of training would have made an enormous difference. Practically, I was left to train myself, and a nice job I made of it. Do you remember how I used to talk about children before I had one? I have thought it was the talk of a fool; but, perhaps, after all, it had more sanity than my views nowadays.'
'Medio tutissimus,' murmured Basil.
'And what about your girls?' asked the other, when they had smoked in silence. 'Is the difficulty greater or less?'
'From my point of view, less. For one thing, I can leave them entirely in the hands of their mother; if they resemble her, they won't do amiss. And there's no bother about work in life; they will have enough to live upon -- just enough. Of course, they may want to go out into the world. I shall neither hinder nor encourage. I had rather they stayed at home.'
'Don't lose sight of the possibility that by when they are grown up there may be no such thing as "home". The word is dying out.'
Morton's pedantry led him again to murmur Latin ----
'Multa renascentur quoe jam cecidere.'
'You're the happiest man I know, or ever shall know,' said Rolfe, with more feeling than he cared to exhibit.
'Don't make me think about Croesus, King of Lydia. On the whole, happiness means health, and health comes of occupation. In one point I agree with you about yourself: it would have been better if someone had found the right kind of work for you, and made you stick to it. By-the-bye, how does your friend, the photographic man, get on?'
'Not at all badly. Did I tell you I had put money into it? I go there a good deal, and pretend to do something.'
'Why pretend? Couldn't you find a regular job there for a few hours every day?'
'I dare say I could. It'll be easier to get backwards and forwards from Gunnersbury. How would you like,' he added, with a laugh, 'to live at Gunnersbury?'
'What does it matter where one lives? I have something of a prejudice against Hoxton or Bermondsey; but I think I could get along in most other places. Gunnersbury is rather pleasant, I thought. Isn't it quite near to Kew and Richmond?'
'Do those names attract you?'
'They have a certain charm for the rustic ear.'
'It's all one to me. Hughie will go to school, and make friends with other children. You see, he's had no chance of it yet. We know a hundred people or so, but have no intimates. Is there such a thing as intimacy of families in London? I'm inclined to think not. Here, you go into each other's houses without fuss and sham; you know each other, and trust each other. In London there's no such comfort, at all events for educated people. If you have a friend, he lives miles away; before his children and yours can meet, they must travel for an hour and a half by bus and underground.'
'I suppose it must be London?' interrupted Morton.
'I'm afraid so,' Harvey replied absently, and his friend said no more.
He had meant this visit to be of three days at most; but time slipped by so pleasantly that a week was gone before he could resolve on departure. Most of the mornings he spent in rambles alone, rediscovering many a spot in the country round which had been familiar to him as a boy, but which he had never cared to seek in his revisitings of Greystone hitherto. One day, as he followed the windings of a sluggish stream, he saw flowers of arrowhead, white flowers with crimson centre, floating by the bank, and remembered that he had once plucked them here when on a walk with his father, who held him the while, lest he should stretch too far and fall in. To reach them now, he lay down upon the grassy brink; and in that moment there returned to him, with exquisite vividness, the mind, the senses, of childhood; once more he knew the child's pleasure in contact with earth, and his hand grasped hard at the sweet-smelling turf as though to keep hold upon the past thus fleetingly recovered. It was gone -- no doubt, for ever; a last glimpse vouchsafed to him of life's beginning as he set his face towards the end. Then came a thought of joy. The keen sensations which he himself had lost were his child's inheritance. Somewhere in the fields, this summer morning, Hughie was delighting in the scent, the touch, of earth, young amid a world where all was new. The stereotyped phrase about parents living again in their children became a reality and a source of deep content. So does a man repeat the experience of the race, and with each step onward live into the meaning of some old word that he has but idly echoed.
On the day before he left, a letter reached him from Alma. He had felt surprise at not hearing sooner from her; but Alma's words explained the delay.
'I have been thinking a great deal,' she wrote, 'and I want to tell you of my thoughts. Don't imagine they are mere fancies, the result of ill-health. I feel all but well again, and have a perfectly clear head. And perhaps it is better that I should write what I have to say, instead of speaking it. In this way I oblige you to hear me out. I don't mean that you are in the habit of interrupting me, but perhaps you would if I began to talk as I am going to write.
'Why can't we stay at Pinner?
'There, that shall have a line to itself. Take breath, and now listen again. I dislike the thought of removing to Gunnersbury -- really and seriously I dislike it. You know I haven't given you this kind of trouble before; when we left Wales I was quite willing to have stayed on if you had wished it -- wasn't I? Forgive me, then, for springing this upon you after all your arrangements are made; I could not do it if I did not feel that our happiness (not mine only) is concerned. Would it be possible to cancel your agreement with the Gunnersbury man? If not, couldn't you sublet, with little or no loss? The Pinner house isn't let yet -- is it? Do let us stay where we are. I think it is the first serious request I ever made of you, and I think you will see that I have some right to make it.
'I had rather, much rather, that Hughie did not go to Mrs. Abbott's school. Don't get angry and call me foolish. What I mean is, that I would rather teach him myself. In your opinion I have neglected him, and I confess that you are right. There now! I shall give up my music; at all events, I shall not play again in public. I have shown what I could do, and that's enough. You don't like it -- though you have never tried to show me why -- and again I feel that you are right. A professional life for me would mean, I see it now, the loss of things more precious. I will give it up, and live quietly at home. I will have regular hours for teaching Hughie. If you prefer it, Pauline shall go, and I will take charge of him altogether. If I do this, what need for us to remove? The house is more comfortable than the new one at Gunnersbury; we are accustomed to it; and by being farther from London I shall have less temptation to gad about. I know exactly what I am promising, and I feel I can do it, now that my mind is made up.
'Need I fear a refusal? I can't think so. Give the matter your best thought, and see whether there are not several reasons on my side. But, please, answer as soon as you can, for I shall be in suspense till I hear from you.
Alma signed herself 'Yours ever affectionately', but Harvey could find no trace of affection in the letter. It astonished and annoyed him. Of course, it could have but one explanation; Alma might as well have saved herself trouble by writing, in a line or two, that she disliked Mrs Abbott, and could not bear that the child should be taught by her. He read through the pages again, and grew angry. What right had she to make such a request as this, and in the tone of a demand? Twice in the letter she asserted that she had a right, asserted it as if with some mysterious reference. Had he sat down immediately to reply, Harvey would have written briefly forcibly; for, putting aside other grounds of irritation, there is nothing a man dislikes more than being called upon at last moment to upset elaborate and troublesome arrangements. But he was obliged to postpone his answer for a few hours, and in the meantime he grew more tolerant of Alma's feelings. Had her objection come earlier, accompanied by the same proposals, he would have been inclined to listen; but things had gone too far. He wrote, quite good-temperedly, but without shadow of wavering. There was nothing sudden, he pointed out, in the step he was about to take; Alma had known it for months, and had acquiesced in it. As for her music, he quite agreed with her that she would find it better in every way to abandon thoughts of a public career; and the fact of Hughie's going to school for two or three hours a day would in no wise interfere with her wish to see more of him. What her precise meaning was in saying that she had some 'right' to make this request, he declared himself unable to discover. Was it a reproach? If so, his conscience afforded him no light, and he hoped Alma would explain the words in a letter to him at Pinner.
This correspondence clouded his last evening at Greystone. He was glad that some acquaintances of Morton's came, and stayed late; sitting alone with his friend, he would have been tempted to talk of Alma, and he felt that silence was better just now.
By a train soon after breakfast next morning, he left the old town, dearer to him each time that he beheld it, and travelled slowly to the main-line junction, whence again he travelled slowly to Peterborough. There the express caught him up, and flung him into roaring London again. Before going to Pinner, he wished to see Cecil Morphew, for he had an idea to communicate -- a suggestion for the extending of business by opening correspondence with out of the way towns, such as Greystone.
On reaching the shop in Westminster Bridge Road, he found that Morphew also had a communication to make, and of a more exciting nature.