The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
A cab crawling at the upper end of the terrace took him quickly home. He entered with his latch-key as a church clock tolled one.
It was a large house, within a few minutes' walk of Royal Oak Station. Having struck a match, and lit a candle which stood upon the hall table (indicating that he was the last who would enter tonight), Harvey put up the door-chain and turned the great key, then went quietly upstairs. His rooms were on the first floor. A tenancy of five years, with long absences, enabled him to regard this niche in a characterless suburb as in some sort his home; a familiar smell of books and tobacco welcomed him as he opened the door; remnants of a good fire kept the air warm, and dispersed a pleasant glow. On shelves which almost concealed the walls, stood a respectable collection of volumes, the lowest tier consisting largely of what secondhand booksellers, when invited to purchase, are wont to call 'tomb-stones' that is to say, old folios, of no great market value, though good brains and infinite labour went to the making of them. A great table, at one end of which was a tray with glasses and a water-bottle, occupied the middle of the floor; nearer the fireplace was a small writing-desk. For pictures little space could be found; but over the mantelpiece hung a fine water-colour, the flood of Tigris and the roofs of Bagdad burning in golden sunset. Harvey had bought it at the gallery in Pall Mall not long ago; the work of a man of whom he knew nothing; it represented the farthest point of his own travels, and touched profoundly his vague historico-poetic sensibilities.
Three letters lay on the desk. As soon as he had lit his lamp, and exchanged his boots for slippers, he looked at the envelopes, and chose one addressed in a woman's hand. The writer was Mrs. Bennet Frothingham.
'We have only just heard, from Mrs. Carnaby, that you are back in town. Could you spare us tomorrow evening? It would be so nice of you. The quartet will give Beethoven's F minor, and Alma says it will be well done -- the conceit of the child! We hope to have some interesting people What a shocking affair of poor Mrs. Carnaby's! I never knew anything quite so bad. -- Our united kind regards.'
Harvey thrust out his lips, in an ambiguous expression, as he threw the sheet aside. He mused before opening the next letter. This proved to be of startling contents: a few lines scribbled informally, undated, without signature. A glance at the postmark discovered 'Liverpool'.
'The children are at my last address, -- you know it. I can do no more for them. If the shabby Abbotts refuse -- as I dare say they will -- it wouldn't hurt you to keep them from the workhouse. But it's a devilish hard world, and they must take their chance.'
After a stare and a frown, Harvey woke the echoes with boisterous laughter. It was long since any passage in writing had so irresistibly tickled his sense of humour. Well, he must let Abbott know of this. It might be as well, perhaps, if he called on Mrs. Abbott tomorrow, to remove any doubt that might remain in her mind. The fellow Wager being an old acquaintance of his, he could not get rid of a sense of far-off responsibility in this matter; though, happily, Wager's meeting with Mrs Abbott's cousin, which led to marriage and misery, came about quite independently of him.
The last letter he opened without curiosity, but with quiet interest and pleasure. It was dated from Greystone; the writer, Basil Morton, had a place in his earliest memories, for, as neighbours' children, they had played together long before the grammar-school days which allied him with Hugh Carnaby.
'For aught I know,' began Morton, 'you may at this moment be drifting on the Euphrates, or pondering on the site of Alexandreia Eschate. It is you who owe me an account of yourself; nevertheless, I am prompted to write, if only to tell you that I have just got the complete set of the Byzantine Historians. A catalogue tempted me, and I did buy.'
And so on in the same strain, until, in speaking of nearer matters, his style grew simpler.
'Our elder boy begins to put me in a difficulty. As I told you, he has been brought up on the most orthodox lines of Anglicanism; his mother -- best of mothers and best of wives, but in this respect atavistic -- has had a free hand, and I don't see how it could have been otherwise. But now the lad begins to ask awkward questions, and to put me in a corner; the young rascal is a vigorous dialectician and rationalist -- odd result of such training. It becomes a serious question how I am to behave. I cannot bear to distress his mother, yet how can I tell him that I literally believe those quaint old fables? Solvetur vivendo, of course, like everything else, but just now it worries me a little. Generally I can see a pretty clear line of duty; here the duty is divided, with a vengeance. Have you any counsel?'
Harvey Rolfe mumbled impatiently; all domestic matters were a trial to his nerves. It seemed to him an act of unaccountable folly to marry a woman from whom one differed diametrically on subjects that lay at the root of life; and of children he could hardly bring himself to think at all, so exasperating the complication they introduced into social problems which defied common-sense. He disliked children; fled the sight and the sound of them in most cases, and, when this was not possible, regarded them with apprehension, anxiety, weariness, anything but interest. In the perplexity that had come upon him, Basil Morton seemed to have nothing more than his deserts. 'Best of mothers and of wives', forsooth! An excellent housekeeper, no doubt, but what shadow of qualification for wifehood and motherhood in this year 1886? The whole question was disgusting to a rational man -- especially to that vigorous example of the class, by name Harvey Rolfe.
Late as it was, he did not care to go to bed. This morning he had brought home a batch of books from the London Library, and he began to turn them over, with the pleasure of anticipation. Not seldom of late had Harvey flattered himself on the growth of intellectual gusto which proceeded in him together with a perceptible decline of baser appetites, so long his torment and his hindrance. His age was now seven and thirty; at forty he might hope to have utterly trodden under foot the instincts at war with mental calm. He saw before him long years of congenial fellowship, of bracing travel, of well-directed studiousness. Let problems of sex and society go hang! He had found a better way.
On looking back over his life, how improbable it seemed, this happy issue out of crudity, turbulence, lack of purpose, weakness, insincerity, ignorance. First and foremost he had to thank good old Dr Harvey, of Greystone; then, his sister, sleeping in her grave under the old chimes she loved; then, surely himself, that seed of good within him which had survived all adverse influences -- watched, surely, by his unconscious self, guarded long, and now deliberately nurtured. Might he not think well of himself.
His library, though for the most part the purchase of late years, contained books which reminded him of every period of his life. Up yonder, on the top shelf, were two score volumes which had belonged to his father, the share that fell to him when he and his sister made the ordained division: scientific treatises out of date, an old magazine, old books of travel. Strange that, in his times of folly, he had not sold these as burdensome rubbish; he was very glad now, when love and reverence for things gone by began to take hold upon him. There, at the same height, stood a rank of school-books preserved for him by his sister till she died; beside them, medical works, relics of his abortive study when he was neither boy nor man. Descending, the eye fell upon yellow and green covers, dozens of French novels, acquired at any time from the year of his majority up to the other day; in the mass, they reminded him of a frothy season, when he boasted a cheap Gallicism, and sneered at all things English. A sprinkling of miscellaneous literature accounted for ten years or more when he cared little to collect books, when the senses raged in him, and only by miracle failed to hurl him down many a steep place. Last came the serious acquisitions, the bulk of his library: solid and expensive works --historians, archaeologists, travellers, with noble volumes of engravings, and unwieldy tomes of antique lore. Little enough of all this had Rolfe digested, but more and more he loved to have erudition within his reach. He began to lack room for comely storage; already a large bookcase had intruded into his bedroom. If he continued to purchase, he must needs house himself more amply; yet he dreaded the thought of a removal.
He knew enough and to spare of life in lodgings. His experience began when he came up as a lad to Guy's Hospital, when all lodgings in London shone with the glorious light of liberty. It took a wider scope when, having grasped his little patrimony, he threw physic to the dogs, and lived as a gentleman at large. In those days he grew familiar with many kinds of 'apartments' and their nomadic denizens. Having wasted his substance, he found refuge in the office of an emigration agent, where, by slow degrees, he proved himself worth a couple of hundred pounds per annum. This was the 'business' to which Hugh Carnaby vaguely referred when people questioned him concerning his friend's history.
Had he possessed the commercial spirit, Harvey might have made his position in this office much more lucrative. Entering nominally as a clerk, he undertook from the first a variety of duties which could only be discharged by a man of special abilities; for instance, the literary revision of seductive pamphlets and broadsheets issued by his employer to the public contemplating emigration. These advertisements he presently composed, and, from the point of view of effectiveness, did it remarkably well. How far such work might be worthy of an honest man, was another question, which for several years scarcely troubled his conscience. Before long a use was found for his slender medical attainments; it became one of his functions to answer persons who visited the office for information as to the climatic features of this or that new country, and their physical fitness for going out as colonists. Of course, there was demanded of him a radical unscrupulousness, and often enough he proved equal to the occasion; but as time went on, bringing slow development of brain and character, he found these personal interviews anything but agreeable. He had constantly before him the spectacle of human misery and defeat, now and then in such dread forms that his heart sank and his tongue refused to lie. When disgust made him contemplate the possibility of finding more honourable employment, the manifest difficulties deterred him.
He held the place for nearly ten years, living in the end so soberly and frugally that his two hundred pounds seemed a considerable income; it enabled him to spend his annual month of holiday in continental travel, which now had a significance very different from that of his truancies in France or Belgium before he began to earn a livelihood. Two deaths, a year's interval between them, released him from his office. Upon these events and their issue he had not counted; independence came to him as a great surprise, and on the path of self-knowledge he had far to travel before the significance of that and many another turning-point grew clear to his backward gaze.
Seeking for a comfortable abode, he discovered these rooms in Bayswater. They were to let furnished, the house being occupied by a widow not quite of the ordinary type of landlady, who entertained only bachelors, and was fairly conscientious in the discharge of her obligations. Six months later, during Harvey's absence abroad, this woman died, and on his return the house had already been stripped of furniture. For a moment he inclined to take a house of his own, but from this perilous experiment he was saved by an intimation that, if he were willing to supply himself with furniture and service, an incoming tenant would let him occupy his old quarters. Harvey grasped at the offer. His landlord was a man named Buncombe, a truss manufacturer, who had two children, and seemingly no wife. The topmost storey Buncombe assigned to relatives of his own -- a middle-aged woman, Mrs. Handover, with a sickly grownup son, who took some part in the truss business. For a few weeks Rolfe was waited upon by a charwoman, whom he paid extravagantly for a maximum of dirt and discomfort; then the unsatisfactory person fell ill, and, whilst cursing his difficulties, Harvey was surprised by a visit from Mrs. Handover, who made an unexpected suggestion -- would Mr. Rolfe accept her services in lieu of the charwoman's, paying her whatever he had been accustomed to give? The proposal startled him. Mrs. Handover seemed to belong pretty much to his own rank of life; he was appalled at the thought of bidding her scrub floors and wash plates; and indeed it had begun to dawn upon him that, for a man with more than nine hundred a year, he was living in a needlessly uncomfortable way. On his reply that he thought of removing, Mrs. Handover fell into profound depression, and began to disclose her history. Very early in life she had married a man much beneath her in station, with the natural result. After some years of quarrelling, which culminated in personal violence on her husband's part, she obtained a judicial separation. For a long time the man had ceased to send her money, and indeed he was become a vagabond pauper, from whom nothing could be obtained; she depended upon her son, and on the kindness of Buncombe, who asked no rent. If she could earn a little money by work, she would be much happier, and with tremulous hope she had taken this step of appealing to her neighbour in the house.
Harvey could not resist these representations. When the new arrangement had been in operation for a week or so, Harvey began to reflect upon Mrs Handover's personal narrative, and in some respects to modify his first impulsive judgment thereon. It seemed to him not impossible that Mr Handover's present condition of vagabond pauper might be traceable to his marriage with a woman who had never learnt the elements of domestic duty. Thoroughly well-meaning, Mrs. Handover was the most incompetent of housewives. Yet such was Harvey Rolfe's delicacy, and so intense his moral cowardice, that year after year he bore with Mrs. Handover's defects, and paid her with a smile the wages of two first-rate servants. Dust lay thick about him; he had grown accustomed to it, as to many another form of sluttishness. After all, he possessed a quiet retreat for studious hours, and a tolerable sleeping-place, with the advantage of having his correspondence forwarded to him when he chose to wander. To be sure, it was not final; one would not wish to grow old and die amid such surroundings; sooner or later, circumstance would prompt the desirable change. Circumstance, at this stage of his career, was Harvey's god; he waited upon its direction with an air of wisdom, of mature philosophy.
Of his landlord, Buncombe, he gradually learnt all that he cared to know. The moment came when Buncombe grew confidential, and he, too, had a matrimonial history to disclose. Poverty played no part in it; his business flourished, and Mrs. Buncombe, throughout a cohabitation of five years, made no complaint of her lot. All at once -- so asserted Buncombe -- the lady began to talk of dullness; for a few months she moped, then of a sudden left home, and in a day or two announced by letter that she had taken a place as barmaid at a music-hall. There followed an interview between husband and wife, with the result, said Buncombe, that they parted the best of friends, but with an understanding that Mrs Buncombe should be free to follow her own walk in life, with a moderate allowance to supplement what she could earn. That was five years ago. Mrs. Buncombe now sang at second-rate halls, and enjoyed a certain popularity, which seemed to her an ample justification of the independence she had claimed. She was just thirty, tolerably good-looking, and full of the enjoyment of life. Her children, originally left in the care of her mother, whom Buncombe supported, were now looked after by the two servants of the house, and Buncombe seemed to have no conscientious troubles on that score; to Harvey Rolfe's eye it was plain that the brother and sister were growing up as vicious little savages, but he permitted himself no remark on the subject.
After a few conversations, he gained an inkling of Buncombe's motive in taking a house so much larger than he needed. This magnificence was meant as an attraction to the roaming wife, whom, it was clear, Buncombe both wished and hoped to welcome back before very long. She did occasionally visit the house, though only for an hour or two; just to show, said Buncombe, that there was no ill-feeling. On his part, evidently, there was none whatever. An easy-going, simple-minded fellow, aged about forty, with a boyish good temper and no will to speak of, he seemed never to entertain a doubt of his wife's honesty, and in any case would probably have agreed, on the least persuasion, to let bygones be bygones. He spoke rather proudly than otherwise of Mrs. Buncombe's artistic success.
'It isn't every woman could have done it, you know, Mr. Rolfe.'
'It is not,' Harvey assented.
Only those rooms were furnished which the little family used, five or six in all; two or three stood vacant, and served as playgrounds for the children in bad weather. Of his relatives at the top, Buncombe never spoke; he either did not know, or viewed with indifference, the fact that Mrs. Handover served his lodger in a menial capacity. About once a month he invited three or four male friends to a set dinner, and hilarity could be heard until long after midnight. Altogether it was a strange household, and, as he walked about the streets of the neighbourhood, Harvey often wondered what abnormalities even more striking might be concealed behind the meaningless uniformity of these heavily respectable housefronts. As a lodger he was content to dwell here; but sometimes by a freak of imagination he pictured himself a married man, imprisoned with wife and children amid these leagues of dreary, inhospitable brickwork, and a great horror fell upon him.
No. In his time he had run through follies innumerable, but from the supreme folly of hampering himself by marriage, a merciful fate had guarded him. It was probably the most remarkable fact of his life; it heightened his self-esteem, and appeared to warrant him in the assurance that a destiny so protective would round the close of his days with tranquillity and content.
Upon this thought he lay down to rest. For half an hour Basil Morton's letter had occupied his mind: he had tried to think out the problem it set forth, not to leave his friend quite unanswered; but weariness prevailed, and with it the old mood of self-congratulation.
Next morning the weather was fine; that is to say, one could read without artificial light, and no rain fell, and far above the house-tops appeared a bluish glimmer, shot now and then with pale yellowness. Harvey decided to carry out his intention of calling upon Mrs. Abbott. She lived at Kilburn, and thither he drove shortly before twelve o'clock. He was admitted to a very cosy room, where, amid books and pictures, and by a large fire, the lady of the house sat reading. Whatever the cause, it seemed to him that his welcome fell short of cordiality, and he hastened to excuse himself for intruding at so early an hour.
'I received a letter last night which I thought you had better know of without delay.'
'From that man -- Mr. Wager?' said Mrs. Abbott quickly and hopefully, her face brightening.
'Yes. But there's nothing satisfactory in it. He writes from Liverpool, and merely says that the children are at his lodgings, and he can do no more for them.'
Mrs. Abbott set her lips in an expression almost of sullenness. Rolfe had never seen her look thus, but it confirmed a suspicion which he had harboured concerning her. Why, he hardly knew -- for she always presented a face of amiability, and talked in gentle, womanly tones -- doubt as to Abbott's domestic felicity haunted his mind. Perhaps he now saw her, for the first time, as she commonly appeared to her husband -- slightly peevish, unwilling to be disturbed, impatient when things did not run smoothly.
'You saw my husband yesterday?' was her next remark, not very graciously uttered.
'We met in the street last night -- before I got Wager's letter. He was suffering horribly from neuralgia.'
Harvey could not forbear to add this detail, but he softened his voice and smiled.
'I don't wonder at it,' returned the lady; 'he takes no care of himself.'
Harvey glanced about the room. Its furnishing might be called luxurious, and the same standard of comfort prevailed through the house. Considering that Edgar Abbott, as Rolfe knew, married on small means, and that he had toiled unremittingly to support a home in which he could seldom enjoy an hour's leisure, there seemed no difficulty in explaining this neglect of his own health. It struck the visitor that Mrs. Abbott might have taken such considerations into account, and have spoken of the good fellow more sympathetically. In truth, Harvey did not quite like Mrs. Abbott. Her age was about seven and twenty. She came of poor folk, and had been a high-school teacher; very clever and successful, it was said, and Harvey could believe it. Her features were regular, and did not lack sweetness; yet, unless an observer were mistaken, the last year or two had emphasised a certain air of conscious superiority, perchance originating in the schoolroom. She had had one child; it struggled through a few months of sickly life, and died of convulsions during its mother's absence at a garden-party. To all appearances, her grief at the loss betokened tenderest feeling. When, in half a year's time, she again came forth into the world, a change was noted; her character seemed to have developed a new energy, she exhibited wider interests, and stepped from the background to become a leader in the little circle of her acquaintances.
'Have you read this?' asked his hostess abruptly, holding up to him a French volume, Ribot's L'Heredite Psychologique.
'No. That kind of thing doesn't interest me much.'
'Indeed! I find it intensely interesting.'
Harvey rose; he was in no mood for this kind of small-talk. But no sooner had he quitted his chair, than Mrs. Abbott threw her book aside, and spoke in another tone, seriously, though still with a perceptible accent of annoyance.
'Of course that man's children are here, and I suppose it is our duty to provide for them till some other arrangement is made. But I think we ought to put the matter in the hands of the police. Don't you, Mr Rolfe?'
'I'm afraid there's small chance of making their father support them. He is certainly out of England by now, and won't easily be caught.'
'The worst of it is, they are anything but nice children. What could one expect with such a father? Since their poor mother died, they have been in the hands of horrible people -- low-class landladies, no doubt; their talk shocks me. The last amusement they had, was to be taken by somebody to Tussaud's, and now they can talk of nothing but "the hunted murderer" -- one sees it on the walls, you know; and they play at being murderer and policeman, one trying to escape the other. Pretty play for children of five and seven, isn't it?'
Rolfe made a gesture of disgust.
'I know the poor things can't help it,' pursued Mrs. Abbott, with softer feeling, 'but it turns me against them. From seeing so little of their father, they have even come to talk with a vulgar pronunciation, like children out of the streets almost. It's dreadful! When I think of my cousin -- such a sweet, good girl, and these her children -- oh, it's horrible!'
'They are very young,' said Harvey, in a low voice, perturbed in spite of himself. 'With good training ----'
'Yes, of course we must put them in good hands somewhere.'
Plainly it had never occurred to Mrs. Abbott that such a task as this might, even temporarily, be undertaken by herself; her one desire was to get rid of the luckless brats, that their vulgarity might not pain her, and the care of them encumber her polite leisure.
After again excusing himself for this call, and hearing his apology this time more graciously received, Harvey withdrew from the cosy study, and left Mrs, Abbott to her Heredite Psychologique. On his way to lunch in town, he thought of the overworn journalist groaning with neuralgia, and wondered how Mrs. Abbott would relish a removal to the town of Waterbury.