The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
Alma returned to Basingstoke, and remained there until the new house was ready for her reception. With the help of her country friends she engaged two domestics, cook and housemaid, who were despatched to Gunnersbury in advance; they had good 'characters', and might possibly co-operate with their new mistress in her resolve to create an admirable household. Into this ambition Alma had thrown herself with no less fervour than that which carried her off to wild Wales five years ago; but her aim was now strictly 'practical', she would have nothing more to do with 'ideals'. She took lessons in domestic economy from the good people at Basingstoke. Yes, she had found her way at last! Alma saw it in the glow of a discovery, this calm, secure, and graceful middle-way. She talked of it with an animation that surprised and pleased her little circle down in Hampshire; those ladies had never been able to illumine their everyday discharge of duty with such high imaginative glory. In return for their humble lessons, Alma taught them to admire themselves, to see in their place and functions a nobility they had never suspected.
For a day or two after her arrival at Gunnersbury, Harvey thought that he had never seen her look so well; certainly she had never shown the possibilities of her character to such advantage. It seemed out of the question that any trouble could ever again come between them. Only when the excitement of novelty had subsided did he perceive that Alma was far from having recovered her physical strength. A walk of a mile or two exhausted her; she came home from an hour's exercise with Hughie pale and tremulous; and of a morning it was often to be noticed that she had not slept well. Without talking of it, Harvey planned the holiday which Alma had declared would be quite needless this year; he took a house in Norfolk for September. Before the day of departure, Alma had something to tell him, which, by suggesting natural explanation of her weakness, made him less uneasy. Remembering the incident which had brought to a close their life in Wales, he saw with pleasure that Alma no longer revolted against the common lot of woman. Perhaps, indeed, the announcement she made to him was the cause of more anxiety in his mind than in hers.
They took their servants with them, and left the house to a caretaker. Pauline Smith, though somewhat against Harvey's judgment, had been called upon to resign; Alma wished to have Hughie to herself, save during his school hours; he slept in her room, and she tended him most conscientiously. Harvey had asked whether she would like to invite any one, but she preferred to be alone.
This month by the northern sea improved her health, but she had little enjoyment. After a few days, she wearied of the shore and the moorland, and wished herself back at Gunnersbury. Nature had never made much appeal to her; when she spoke of its beauties with admiration, she echoed the approved phrases, little more; all her instincts drew towards the life of a great town. Sitting upon the sand, between cliff and breakers, she lost herself in a dream of thronged streets and brilliant rooms; the voice of the waves became the roar of traffic, a far sweeter music. With every year this tendency had grown stronger; she could only marvel, now, at the illusion which enabled her to live so long, all but contentedly, in that wilderness where Hughie was born. Rather than return to it, she would die -- rather, a thousand times. Happily, there was no such danger. Harvey would never ask her to leave London. All he desired was that she should hold apart from certain currents of town life; and this she was resolved to do, knowing how nearly they had swept her to destruction.
'Wouldn't you like to take up your sketching again?' said Harvey one day, when he saw that she felt dull.
'Sketching? Oh, I had forgotten all about it. It seems ages ago. I should have to begin and learn all over again. No, no; it isn't worth while. I shall have no time.'
She did not speak discontentedly, but Rolfe saw already the justification of his misgivings. She had begun to feel the constant presence of the child a restraint and a burden.
Happily, on their return home, Hughie would go to school for a couple of hours each morning. Alma could have wished it any other school than Mary Abbott's, but the thought was no longer so insupportable as when she suffered under her delusion concerning the two children. Now that she had frequently seen Minnie Wager, she wondered at the self-deception which allowed her to detect in the child's face a distinct resemblance to Harvey. Of course, there was nothing of the kind. She had been the victim of a morbid jealousy -- a symptom, no doubt, of the disorder of the nerves which was growing upon her. Yet she could not overcome her antipathy to Mary Abbott. Harvey, she felt sure, would never have made himself responsible for those children, but that in doing so he benefited their teacher; and it was not without motive of conscience that he kept the matter secret. By no effort could Alma banish this suspicion. She resolved that it should never appear; she commanded her face and her utterance; but it was impossible for her ever to regard Mrs Abbott with liking, or even with respect.
In a darker corner of her mind lay hidden another shape of jealousy -- jealousy unavowed, often disguised as fear, but for the most part betraying itself through the mask of hatred.
Times innumerable, in nights that brought no rest, and through long hours of weary day, Alma had put her heart to the proof, and acquitted it of any feeling save a natural compassion for the man Hugh Carnaby had killed. She had never loved Redgrave, had never even thought of him with that curiosity which piques the flesh; yet so inseparably was he associated with her life at its points of utmost tension and ardour, that she could not bear to yield to any other woman a closer intimacy, a prior claim. At her peril she had tempted him, and up to the fatal moment she was still holding her own in the game which had become to her a passion. It ended -- because a rival came between. Of Sibyl's guilt she never admitted a doubt; it was manifest in the story made public by Hugh Carnaby, the story which he, great simple fellow, told in all good faith, relying absolutely on his wife's assertion of innocence. Saving her husband, who believed Sibyl innocent?
She flattered herself with the persuasion that it was right to hate Sibyl -- a woman who had sold herself for money, whose dishonour differed in no respect from that of the woman of the pavement. And all the more she hated her because she feared her. What security could there be that Redgrave's murderer (thus she thought of him) had kept the secret which he promised to keep? That he allowed no hint of it to escape him in public did not prove that he had been equally scrupulous with Sibyl; for Hugh was a mere plaything in the hands of his wife, and it seemed more than likely that he had put his stupid conscience at rest by telling her everything. Were it so, what motive would weigh with Sibyl to keep her silent? One, and one only, could be divined: a fear lest Alma, through intimacy with Redgrave, might have discovered things which put her in a position to dare the enmity of her former friend. This, no doubt, would hold Sibyl to discretion. Yet it could not relieve Alma from the fear of her, and of Hugh Carnaby himself -- fear which must last a lifetime; which at any moment, perhaps long years hence, might find its bitter fulfilment, and work her ruin. For Harvey Rolfe was not a man of the stamp of Hugh Carnaby: he would not be hoodwinked in the face of damning evidence, or lend easy ear to specious explanations. The very fact that she could explain her ambiguous behaviour was to Alma an enhancement of the dread with which she thought of such a scene between herself and Harvey; for to be innocent, and yet unable to force conviction of it upon his inmost mind, would cause her a deeper anguish than to fall before him with confession of guilt. And to convince him would be impossible, for ever impossible. Say what she might, and however generous the response of his love, there must still remain the doubt which attaches to a woman's self-defence when at the same time she is a self-accuser
In the semi-delirium of her illness, whilst waiting in torment for the assurance that Carnaby had kept her secret, she more than once prayed for Sibyl's death. In her normal state of mind Alma prayed for nothing; she could not hope that Sibyl's life would come to a convenient end; but as often as she thought of her, it was with a vehemence of malignity which fired her imagination to all manner of ruthless extremes. It revolted her to look back upon the time when she sat at that woman's feet, a disciple, an affectionate admirer, allowing herself to be graciously patronised, counselled, encouraged. The repose of manner which so impressed her, the habitual serenity of mood, the unvarying self-confidence -- oh, these were excellent qualities when it came to playing the high part of cold and subtle hypocrisy! She knew Sibyl, and could follow the workings of her mind: a woman incapable of love, or of the passion which simulates it; worshipping herself, offering luxuries to her cold flesh as to an idol; scornful of the possibility that she might ever come to lack what she desired; and, at the critical moment, prompt to secure herself against such danger by the smiling, cynical acceptance of whatsoever shame. Alma had no small gift of intuition; proved by the facility and fervour with which she could adapt her mind to widely different conceptions of life. This characteristic, aided by the perspicacity which is bestowed upon every jealous woman, perchance enabled her to read the mysterious Sibyl with some approach to exactness. Were it so, prudence should have warned her against a struggle for mere hatred's sake with so formidable an antagonist. But the voice of caution had never long audience with Alma, and was not likely, at any given moment, to prevail against a transport of her impetuous soul.
Harvey, meanwhile, fearing her inclination to brood over the dark event, tried to behave as though he had utterly dismissed it from his thoughts. He kept a cheerful countenance, talked much more than usual, and seemed full of health and hope. As usual between married people, this resolute cheerfulness had, more often than not, an irritating effect upon Alma. Rolfe erred once more in preferring to keep silence about difficulties rather than face the unpleasantness of frankly discussing them. One good, long, intimate conversation about Mrs. Carnaby, with unrestricted exchange of views, the masculine and the feminine, with liberal acceptance of life as it is lived, and honest contempt of leering hypocrisies, would have done more, at this juncture, to put healthy tone into Alma's being than any change of scene and of atmosphere, any medicament or well-meant summons to forgetfulness. Like the majority of good and thoughtful men, he could not weigh his female companion in the balance he found good enough for mortals of his own sex. With a little obtuseness to the 'finer' feelings, a little native coarseness in his habits towards women, he would have succeeded vastly better amid the complications of his married life.
Troubles of a grosser kind, such as heretofore they had been wonderfully spared, began to assail them during their month in Norfolk. One morning, about midway in the holiday, Harvey, as he came down for a bathe before breakfast, heard loud and angry voices from the kitchen. On his return after bathing, he found the breakfast-table very carelessly laid, with knives unpolished, and other such neglects of seemliness. Alma, appearing with Hughie, spoke at once of the strange noises she had heard, and Harvey gave his account of the uproar.
'I thought something was wrong,' said Alma. 'The cook has seemed in a bad temper for several days. I don't like either of them. I think I shall give them both notice, and advertise at once. They say that advertising is the best way.'
The housemaid (in her secondary function of parlour-maid) waited at table with a scowl. The fish was ill fried, the eggs were hard, the toast was soot-smeared. For the moment Alma made no remark; but half an hour later, when Harvey and the child had rambled off to the sea-shore, she summoned both domestics, and demanded an explanation of their behaviour. Her tone was not conciliatory; she had neither the experience nor the tact which are necessary in the mistress of a household, and it needed only an occasion such as this to bring out the contemptuousness with which she regarded her social inferiors. Too well-bred to indulge in scolding or wrangling, the delight of a large class of housewives, Alma had a quiet way of exhibiting displeasure and scorn, which told smartly on the nerves of those she rebuked. No one could better have illustrated the crucial difficulty of the servant-question, which lies in the fact that women seldom can rule, and all but invariably dislike to be ruled by, their own sex; a difficulty which increases with the breaking-up of social distinctions.
She went out into the sunshine, and found Harvey and Hughie building a great castle of sand. Her mood was lightsome for she felt that she had acted with decision and in a way worthy of her dignity.
'They will both go about their business. I only hope we may get meals for the rest of the time here.'
Harvey nodded, with closed lips.
'It's a pity Pauline went,' he remarked presently.
'I'm afraid it is. I hadn't quite realised what it would mean.'
'I rather think I ventured to say something of that kind, didn't I? She may not have taken another place. Suppose you write to her?'
Alma seemed to waver.
'What I am thinking,' she said in a lower tone, 'is that -- before long -- we shall need -- I suppose -- someone of a rather different kind -- an ordinary nurse-girl. But you wouldn't like Hughie to be with anyone of that sort?'
'It wouldn't matter now.'
'Here's the philosophy of the matter in a nut-shell,' said Harvey afterwards. 'Living nowadays means keeping up appearances, and you must do it just as carefully before your own servants as before your friends. The alternatives are, one general servant, with frank confession of poverty, or a numerous household and everything comme il faut. There's no middle way, with peace. I think your determination to take care of Hughie yourself was admirable; but it won't work. These two women think you do it because you can't afford a nurse, and at once they despise us. It's the nature of the beasts -- it's the tone of the time. Nothing will keep them and their like in subordination but a jingling of the purse. One must say to them all day long, "I am your superior; I can buy you by the dozen, if need be; I never need soil my finger with any sort of work, and you know it." Ruth was a good creature, but I seriously doubt whether she would have been quite so good if she hadn't seen us keeping our horse and our gardener and our groom down yonder -- everything handsome about us. For the sake of quietness we must exalt ourselves.'
'You're quite right about Ruth,' replied Alma, laughing. 'Several times she has let me see how she admired my life of idleness; but it's just that I don't want to go back to.'
'No need. Ruth was practically a housekeeper. You can manage your own house, but you must have a servant for everything. Get a nurse, by all means.'
Alma drew a breath of contentment.
'You are not dissatisfied with me, Harvey?'
'Of course not.'
'But tell me -- how does Mrs. Morton manage? Why isn't she despised by her servants when she's always so busy?'
Harvey had to close his lips against the first answer which occurred to him.
'For one thing,' he replied, 'there's a more natural state of things in those little towns; something of the old spirit still lives. Then the Mortons have the immense advantage of being an old family, settled there for generations, known and respected by everyone. That's a kind of superiority one can't buy, and goes for a great deal in comfortable living. Morton's servants are the daughters of people who served his parents. From their childhood they have thought it would be a privilege to get into that house.'
'Impossible in London.'
'Unless you are a duchess.'
'What a pleasant thing it must be,' said Alma musingly, 'to have ancestors.'
'The next best thing is to have descendants.'
'Why, then,' exclaimed Alma, 'we become ancestors ourselves. But one ought to have an interesting house to live in. Nobody's ancestors ever lived in a semi-detached villa. What I should like would be one of those picturesque old places down in Surrey quite in the country, yet within easy reach of town; a house with a real garden, and perhaps an orchard. I believe you can get them very cheap sometimes. Not rent the house, but buy it. Then we would have our portraits painted, and ----'
Harvey asked himself how long Alma would find satisfaction in such a home; but it pleased him to hear her talking thus of the things which were his own hopeless dream.
'That reminds me, Alma, you have never sat yet for your picture, as I said you should.'
'We must wait -- now.'
'It shall be done next year.'
They were content with each other this evening, and looked forward to pleasures they might have in common. For Harvey had learnt to nourish only the humblest hopes, and Alma thought she had subdued herself to an undistinguished destiny.