The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
Morphew was engaged upstairs with the secretary of an Amateur Photographic Society. Waiting for this person's departure, Rolfe talked with the shopman -- a capable fellow, aged about thirty, whose heart was in the business; he looked at a new hand-camera, which seemed likely to have a good sale, and heard encouraging reports of things in general. Then Morphew came down, escorting his visitor. As soon as he was free, he grasped Harvey by the arm, and whispered eagerly that he had something to tell him. They went upstairs together, into a room furnished as an office, hung about with many framed photographs.
'He's dead!' exclaimed Cecil -- 'he's dead!'
A name was needless. Only one man's death could be the cause of such excitement in Morphew, and it had been so long awaited that the event had no touch of solemnity. Yet Harvey perceived that his friend's exultation was not unmixed with disquietude.
'Yesterday morning, early. I heard it by chance. Of course, she hasn't written to me, but no doubt I shall hear in a few days. I walked about near the house for hours last night -- like an idiot. The thing seemed impossible; I had to keep reminding myself, by looking at the windows, that it was true. Eight years -- think of that! Eight years' misery, due to that fellow's snobbishness!'
In Harvey's mind the story had a somewhat different aspect. He knew nothing personally of this Mr. Winter, who might indeed be an incarnation of snobbery; on the other hand, Cecil Morphew had his defects, and even to a liberal-minded parent might not recommend himself as a son-in-law. Then again, the young lady herself, now about six and twenty, must surely have been influenced by some other motive than respect for her parents' wishes, in thus protracting her engagement with a lover who had a secure, though modest, income. Was it not conceivable that she inherited something of the paternal spirit? or, at all events, that her feelings had not quite the warmth that Morphew imagined?
'I'm glad it's over,' he replied cordially. 'Now begins a new life for you.'
'But eight years -- eight years of waiting ----'
'Hang it, what is your age? Thirty! Why, you're only just old enough. No man ought to marry before thirty.'
Morphew interrupted vehemently.
'That's all rot! Excuse me; I can't help it. A man ought to marry when he's urged to it by his nature, and as soon as he finds the right woman. If I had married eight years ago ----.' He broke off with an angry gesture, misery in his eyes. 'You don't believe that humbug, Rolfe; you repeat it just to console me. There's little consolation, I can assure you. I was two and twenty; she, nineteen. Mature man and woman; and we longed for each other. Nothing but harm could come of waiting year after year, wretched both of us.'
'I confess,' said Harvey, 'I don't quite see why she waited after twenty-one.'
'Because she is a good, gentle girl, and could not bear to make her father and mother unhappy. The blame is all theirs -- mean, shallow, grovelling souls!'
'What about her mother now?'
'Oh, she was never so obstinate as the old jackass. She'll have little enough to live upon, and we shall soon arrange things with her somehow. Is it credible that human beings can be so senseless? For years now, their means have been growing less and less, just because the snobbish idiot would keep up appearances. If he had lived a little longer, the widow would have had practically no income at all. Of course, she shared in the folly, and I'm only sorry she won't suffer more for it. They didn't enjoy their lives -- never have done. They lived in miserable slavery to the opinion of their fellow-snobs. You remember that story about the flowers at their silver wedding: two hundred pounds -- just because Mrs. Somebody spent as much -- when they couldn't really afford two hundred shillings. And they groaned over it -- he and she -- like people with the stomachache. Why, the old fool died of nothing else; he was worn out by the fear of having to go into a smaller house.'
Harvey would have liked to put a question: was it possible that the daughter of such people could be endowed with virtues such as become the wife of a comparatively poor man? But he had to ask it merely in his own thoughts. Before long, no doubt, he would meet the lady herself and appease his curiosity.
Whilst they were talking, there came a knock at the door; the shopman announced two ladies, who wished to inquire about some photographic printing.
'Will you see them, Rolfe?' asked Cecil. 'I don't feel like it -- indeed I don't. You'll be able to tell them all they want.'
Harvey found himself equal to the occasion, and was glad of it; he needed occupation of some kind to keep his thoughts from an unpleasant subject. After another talk with Morphew, in which they stuck to business, he set off homeward.
Here news awaited him. On his arrival all seemed well; Ruth opened the door, answered his greeting in her quiet, respectful way, and at once brought tea to the study. When he rang to have the things taken away, Ruth again appeared, and he saw now that she had something unusual to say.
'I didn't like to trouble you the first thing, sir,' she began -- 'but Sarah left yesterday without giving any notice; and I think it's perhaps as well she did, sir. I've heard some things about her not at all nice.'
'We must find someone else, then,' replied Harvey. 'It's lucky she didn't go at a less convenient time. Was there some unpleasantness between you?'
'I had warned her, for her own good, sir, that was all. And there's something else I had perhaps better tell you now, sir.' Her voice, with its pleasant Welsh accent, faltered ominously. 'I'm very sorry indeed to say it, sir, but I shall be obliged to leave as soon as Mrs. Rolfe can spare me.'
Harvey was overwhelmed. He looked upon Ruth as a permanent member of the household. She had made herself indispensable; to her was owing the freedom from domestic harassment which Alma had always enjoyed -- a most exceptional blessing, yet regarded, after all this time, as a matter of course. The departure of Ruth meant conflict with ordinary servants, in which Alma would assuredly be worsted. At this critical moment of their life, scarcely could anything more disastrous have happened. Seeing her master's consternation, Ruth was sore troubled, and hastened to explain herself.
'My brother's wife has just died, sir, and left him with three young children, and there's no one else can be of help to him but me. He wanted me to come at once, but, of course, I told him I couldn't do that. No one can be sorry for his wife's death; she was such a poor, silly, complaining, useless creature; he hasn't had a quiet day since he married her. She belonged to Liverpool, and there they were married, and when he brought her to Carnarvon I said to myself as soon as I saw her that she wouldn't be much use to a working-man. She began the very first day to complain and to grumble, and she's gone on with it ever since. When I was there in my last holiday I really wondered how he bore his life. There's many women of that kind, sir, but I never knew one as bad as her -- never. Everything was too much trouble for her, and she didn't know how to do a thing in the house. I didn't mean to trouble you with such things, sir. I only told you just to show why I don't feel I can refuse to go and help him, and try to give him a little peace and quiet. He's a hard-working man, and the children aren't very healthy, and I'm sure I don't know how he'd manage ---- '
'You have no choice, Ruth, I see. Well, we must hope to find some one in your place -- but ----'
Just as he shook his head, the house-bell rang, and Ruth withdrew to answer it. In a minute or two the study door opened again. Harvey looked up and saw Alma.
'I was obliged to come,' she said, approaching him, as he rose in astonishment. 'I thought at first of asking you to come on to Basingstoke, but we can talk better here.'
No sign of pleasure in their meeting passed between them. On Harvey's face lingered something of the disturbance caused by Ruth's communication, and Alma understood it as due to her unexpected arrival; the smile with which she had entered died away, and she stood like a stranger doubtful of her reception.
'Was it necessary to talk?' asked Rolfe, pushing forward a chair, and doing his best to show good humour.
'Yes -- after your reply to my letter this morning,' she answered coldly.
'Well, you must have some tea first. This is cold. Won't you go and take your things off, and I'll tell Ruth. By-the-bye, we re in confusion.'
He sketched the position of things; but Alma heard without interest.
'It can't be helped,' was her absent reply. 'There are plenty of servants.'
Fresh tea was brought, and after a brief absence Alma sat down to it. Her health had improved during the past week, but she looked tired from the journey, and was glad to lean back in her chair. For some minutes neither of them spoke. Harvey had never seen an expression on Alma's features which was so like hostility; it moved him to serious resentment. It is common enough for people who have been several years wedded to feel exasperation in each other's presence, but for Rolfe the experience was quite new, and so extremely disagreeable, that his pulses throbbed with violence, and his mouth grew dry. He determined to utter not a word until Alma began conversation. This she did at length, with painful effort.
'I think your answer to me was very unkind.'
'I didn't mean it so.'
'You simply said that you wouldn't do as I wished.'
'Not that I wouldn't, but that it was impossible. And I showed you the reasons -- though I should have thought it superfluous.'
Alma waited a moment, then asked ----
'Is this house let?'
'I don't know. I suppose not.'
'Then there is no reason whatever why we shouldn't stay here.'
'There is every reason why we shouldn't stay here. Every arrangement has been made for our leaving -- everything fully talked over. What has made you change your mind?'
'I haven't really changed my mind. I always disliked the idea of going to Gunnersbury, and you must have seen that I did; but I was so much occupied with -- with other things; and, as I have told you, I didn't feel quite the same about my position as I do now.'
She expressed herself awkwardly, growing very nervous. At the first sign of distress in her, Harvey was able to change his tone.
'Things are going horribly wrong somehow, Alma. There's only one way out of it. Just say in honest words what you mean. Why do you dislike the thought of our moving?'
'I told you in my letter,' she answered, somewhat acridly.
'There was no explanation. You said something I couldn't understand, about having a right to ask me to stay here.'
She glanced at him with incredulous disdain.
'If you don't understand, I can't put it into plainer words.'
'Well now, let me put the whole matter into plainer words than I have liked to use.' Rolfe spoke deliberately, and not unkindly, though he was tempted to give way to wrath at what he imagined a display of ignoble and groundless jealousy. 'All along I have allowed you to take your own course. No, I mustn't say "allowed", the word is inapplicable; I never claimed the right to dictate to you. We agreed that this was the way for rational husband and wife. It seemed to us that I had no more right to rule over you than you to lay down the law for me. Using your freedom, you chose to live the life of an artist -- that is to say, you troubled yourself as little as possible about home and family. I am not complaining -- not a bit of it. The thing was an experiment, to be sure; but I have held to the conditions, watched their working. Latterly I began to see that they didn't work well, and it appears that you agree with me. This is how matters stand; or rather, this is how they stood until, for some mysterious reason, you seemed to grow unfriendly. The reason is altogether mysterious; I leave you to explain it. From my point of view, the failure of our experiment is simple and natural enough. Though I had only myself to blame, I have felt for a long time that you were in an utterly false position. Now you begin to see things in the same light. Well and good; why can't we start afresh? The only obstacle is your unfriendly feeling. Give me an opportunity of removing it. I hate to be on ill terms with you; it seems monstrous, unaccountable. It puts us on a level with married folk in a London lodging-house. Is it necessary to sink quite so low?'
Alma listened with trembling intensity, and seemed at first unable to reply. Her agitation provoked Harvey more than it appealed to his pity.
'If you can't do as I wish,' she said at length, with an endeavour to speak calmly, 'I see no use in making any change in my own life. There will be no need of me. I shall make arrangements to go on with my professional career.'
Harvey's features for a moment set themselves in combativeness, but as quickly they relaxed, and showed an ambiguous smile.
'No need of you -- and Ruth going to leave us?'
'There oughtn't to be any difficulty in finding someone just as good.'
'Perhaps there ought not to be; but we may thank our stars if we find anyone half as trustworthy. The chances are that a dozen will come and go before we settle down again. I don't enjoy that prospect, and I shall want a good deal of help from you in bearing the discomfort.'
'What kind of help? Of course, I shall see that the house goes on as usual.'
'Then it's quite certain you will have no time left for a "professional career".'
'If I understand you, you mean that you don't wish me to have any time for it.'
Harvey still smiled, though he could not conceal his nervousness.
'I'm afraid it comes to that.'
So little had Alma expected such a declaration, that she gazed at him in frank surprise.
'Then you are going to oppose me in everything?'
'I hope not. In that case we should do much better to say good-bye.'
The new tone perplexed her, and a puzzled interest mingled with the lofty displeasure of her look.
'Please let us understand each other.' She spoke with demonstrative calmness. 'Are we talking on equal terms, or is it master and servant?'
'Husband and wife, Alma, that's all.'
'With a new meaning in the words.'
'No; a very old one. I won't say the oldest, for I believe there was a time when primitive woman had the making of man in every sense, and somehow knocked a few ideas into his head; but that was very long ago.'
'If I could be sure of your real meaning ----.' She made an irritated gesture. 'How are we going to live? You speak of married people in lodging-houses. I don't know much about them, happily, but I imagine the husband talks something like this -- though in more intelligible language.'
'I dare say he does -- poor man. He talks more plainly, because he has never put himself in a false position -- has never played foolishly with the facts of life.'
Alma sat reflecting.
'Didn't I tell you in my letter,' she said at length, 'that I was quite willing to make a change, on one condition?'
'An impossible condition.'
'You treat me very harshly. How have I deserved it? When I wrote that, I really wished to please you. Of course, I knew you were dissatisfied with me, and it made me dissatisfied with myself. I wrote in a way that ought to have brought me a very different answer. Why do you behave as if I were guilty of something -- as if I had put myself at your mercy? You never found fault with me -- you even encouraged me to go on ----'
Her choking voice made Harvey look at her in apprehension, and the look stopped her just as she was growing hysterical.
'You are right about my letter,' he said, very gravely and quietly. 'It ought to have been in a kinder tone. It would have been, but for those words you won't explain.'
'You think it needs any explanation that I dislike the thought of Hughie going to Mrs. Abbott's?'
'Indeed I do. I can't imagine a valid ground for your objection.'
There was a word on Alma's tongue, but her lips would not utter it. She turned very pale under the mental conflict. Physical weakness, instead of overcoming her spirit, excited it to a fresh effort of resistance.
'Then,' she said, rising from the chair, 'you are not only unkind to me, but dishonest.'
'You are making yourself ill again. We had far better not talk at all.'
'I came up for no other purpose. We have to settle everything.'
'As far as I am concerned, everything is settled.'
'Then I have no choice,' said Alma, with subdued passion. 'We shall live as we have done. I shall accept any engagement that offers, in London or the country, and regard music as my chief concern. You wished it, and so it shall be.'
Rolfe hesitated. Believing that her illness was the real cause of this commotion, he felt it his duty to use all possible forbearance; yet he knew too well the danger of once more yielding, and at such a crisis. The contest had declared itself -- it was will against will; to decide it by the exertion of his sane strength against Alma's hysteria might be best even for the moment. He had wrought himself to the point of unwonted energy, a state of body and mind difficult to recover if now he suffered defeat. Alma, turning from him, seemed about to leave the room.
'One moment ----'
She looked round, carelessly attentive.
'That wouldn't be living as we have done. It would be an intolerable state of things after this.'
'It's your own decision.'
'Far from it. I wouldn't put up with it for a day.'
'Then there's only one thing left: I must go and live by myself.'
'I couldn't stand that either, and wouldn't try.'
'I am no slave! I shall live where and how I choose.'
'When you have thought about it more calmly, your choice will be the same as mine.'
Trembling violently, she backed away from him. Harvey thought she would fall; he tried to hold her by the arm, but Alma shook him off, and in the same moment regained her -strength. She faced him with a new defiance, which enabled her at last to speak the words hitherto unutterable.
'How do you think I can bear to see Hughie with those children?'
Rolfe stood in amaze. The suddenness of this reversion to another stage of their argument enhanced his natural difficulty in understanding her. 'What children?'
'Those two -- whatever their name may be.'
'Wager's boy and girl?'
'You call them so.'
'Are you going crazy? I call them so? -- what do you mean?'
A sudden misgiving appeared in Alma's eyes; she stared at him so strangely that Harvey began to fear for her reason.
'What is it, dear? What have you been thinking? Tell me -- speak like yourself ----'
'Why do you take so much interest in them?' she asked faintly.
'Heavens! You have suspected ----? What have you suspected?'
'They are your own. I have known it for a long time.'
Alarm notwithstanding, Rolfe was so struck by the absurdity of this charge that he burst into stentorian laughter. Whilst he laughed, Alma sank into a chair, powerless, tearful.
'I should much like to know,' exclaimed Harvey, laying a hand upon her, 'how you made that astounding discovery. Do you think they are like me?'
'The girl is -- or I thought so.'
'After you had decided that she must be, no doubt.' Again he exploded in laughter. 'And this is the meaning of it all? This is what you have been fretting over? For how long?'
Alma brushed away her tears, but gave no answer.
'And if I am their father,' he pursued, with resolute mirthfulness, 'pray, who do you suppose their mother to be?'
Still Alma kept silence, her head bent.
'I'll warrant I can give you evidence against myself which you hadn't discovered,' Rolfe went on -- 'awful and unanswerable evidence. It is I who support those children, and pay for their education! -- it is I, and no other. See your darkest suspicion confirmed. If only you had known this for certain!'
'Why, then, do you do it?' asked Alma, without raising her eyes.
'For a very foolish reason: there was no one else who could or would.'
'And why did you keep it a secret from me?'
'This is the blackest part of the whole gloomy affair,' he answered, with burlesque gravity. 'It's in the depraved nature of men to keep secrets from their wives, especially about money. To tell the truth, I'm hanged if I know why I didn't tell you before our marriage. The infamous step was taken not very long before, and I might as well have made a clean breast of it. Has Mrs. Abbott never spoken to you about her cousin, Wager's wife?'
'A word or two.'
'Which you took for artful fiction? You imagined she had plotted with me to deceive you? What, in the name of commonsense, is your estimate of Mrs. Abbott's character?'
Alma drew a deep breath, and looked up into her husband's face. 'Still -- she knew you were keeping it from me, about the money.'
'She had no suspicion of it. She always wrote to me openly, acknowledging the cheques. Would it gratify you to look through her letters?'
'I believe you.'
'Not quite, I fancy. Look at me again and say it.'
He raised her head gently.
'Yes, I believe you -- it was very silly.'
'It was. The only piece of downright feminine foolishness I ever knew you guilty of. But when did it begin?'
Alma had become strangely quiet. She spoke in a low, tired voice, and sat with head turned aside, resting against the back of the chair; her face was expressionless, her eyelids drooped. Rolfe had to repeat his question.
'I hardly know,' she replied. 'It must have been when my illness was coming on.'
'So I should think. It was sheer frenzy. And now that it's over, have you still any prejudice against Mrs. Abbott?'
The syllable fell idly from her lips.
'You are tired, dear. All this sound and fury has been too much for you. Lie down on the sofa till dinner-time.'
She allowed him to lead her across the room, and lay down as he wished. To his kiss upon her forehead she made no response, but closed her eyes and was very still. Harvey seated himself at his desk, and opened two or three unimportant letters which had arrived this morning. To one of them he wrote an answer. Turning presently to glance at Alma, he saw that she had not stirred, and when he leaned towards her, the sound of her breathing told him that she was asleep.
He meditated on Woman.
A quarter of an hour before dinner-time he left the room; on his return, when the meal was ready, he found Alma still sleeping, and so soundly that it seemed wrong to wake her. As rays of sunset had begun to fall into the room, he drew the blind, then quietly went out, and had dinner by himself.
At ten o'clock Alma still slept. Using a closely-shaded lamp, Harvey sat in the room with her and read -- or seemed to read; for ever and again his eyes strayed to the still figure, and his thoughts wandered over all he knew of Alma's life. He wished he knew more, that he might better understand her. Of her childhood, her early maidenhood, what conception had he? Yet he and she were one -- so said the creeds. And Harvey laughed to himself, a laugh more of melancholy than of derision.
The clock ticked on; it was near to eleven. Then Alma stirred, raised herself, and looked towards the light.
'Harvey ----? Have I been asleep so long?'
'Nearly five hours.'
'Oh! That was last night ----'
'You mean, you had no sleep?'
'Didn't close my eyes.'
'And you feel better now?'
Rolfe laughed. He had seated himself on the couch by her and held her in his arms.
'Why, then we'll have some supper -- a cold fowl and a bottle of Burgundy -- a profligate supper, fit for such abandoned characters; and over it you shall tell me how the world looked to you when you were ten years old.'