Part the Third
Chapter 5
 

Determined to have done once for all with a task she loathed, Alma wrote out her advertisements for cook, house-parlourmaid, and nurse, and sent them to half a dozen newspapers. After three weeks of correspondence with servants and mistresses -- a correspondence which, as Rolfe said, would have made a printed volume of higher sociological interest than anything yet published, or likely to be -- the end of her patience and her strength compelled her to decide half desperately, and engage the three young women who appeared least insolent. At the same time she had to find a new boy for boots, windows, knives, and coals, the youngster hitherto employed having been so successful with his 'book' on Kempton Park and Hurst Park September meetings that he relinquished menial duties and devoted himself wholly to the turf; but this was such a simple matter, compared with the engaging of indoor domestics, that she felt it almost a delight. When a strong, merry-looking lad presented himself, eager for the job, and speaking not a word that was beside the point, Alma could have patted his head.

She amused Harvey that evening by exclaiming with the very accent of sincerity ----

'How I like men, and how I detest women!'

Her nerves were so upset again that, when all was over, she generally slept pretty well, but now her insomnia returned, and had to keep her bed for a day or two. At the sea-side she had once more she had recourse to the fashionable specific. Harvey knew nothing of this; she was careful to hide it from him; and each time she measured out her dose she assured herself that it should be the last.

Oh, but to lie through those terrible small hours, her brain feverishly active, compelling her to live again in the scenes and the emotions she most desired to forget! She was haunted by the voice of Cyrus Redgrave, which at times grew so distinct to her hearing that it became an hallucination. Her memory reproduced his talk with astonishing fidelity; it was as though she had learnt it by heart, instead of merely listening to it at the time. This only in the silence of night; during the day she could not possibly have recalled a tenth of what her brain thus treacherously preserved.

In sleep she sometimes dreamt of him, and that was perhaps worse; for whilst the waking illusion only reproduced what he had actually said, with all his tricks of tone, his suavities of expression, sleep brought before her another Redgrave. He looked at her with a smile, indeed, but a smile of such unutterable malignity that she froze with terror. It was always the same. Redgrave stood before her smiling, silent; stood and gazed until in a paroxysm of anguish she cried out and broke the dream. Once, whilst the agony was upon her, she sprang from bed, meaning to go to her husband and tell him everything, and so, it might be, put an end to her sufferings. But with her hand upon the door she lost courage. Impossible! She could not hope to be believed. She could never convince her husband that she had told him all.

Upon her lay the guilt of Redgrave's death. This had entered slowly into her consciousness; at first rejected, but ever returning until the last argument of self-solace gave way. But for her visit to the bungalow that evening, Hugh Carnaby would not have been maddened to the point of fatal violence. In the obscurity he had mistaken her figure for that of Sibyl; and when Redgrave guarded her retreat, he paid for the impulse with his life.

On the Sunday before her concert, she had thought of going to see Redgrave, but the risk seemed too great, and there was no certainty of finding him at home. She wished above all things to see him, for there was a suspicion in her mind that Mrs. Strangeways had a plot against her, though of its nature she could form no idea. It might be true that Redgrave was purposely holding aloof, whether out of real jealousy, or simply as a stratagem, a new move in the game. She would not write to him; she knew the danger of letters, and had been careful never to write him even the simplest note. If she must remain in uncertainty about his attitude towards her, the approaching ordeal would be intensified with a new agitation: was he coming to her recital, or was he not? She had counted upon triumphing before him. If he could stay away, her power over him was incomplete, and at the moment when she had meant it to be irresistible.

The chance encounter on Monday with Hugh Carnaby made her think of Sibyl, and she could not rest until she had endeavoured to learn something of Sibyl's movements. As Carnaby was leaving town, his wife would be free; and how did Sibyl use her freedom? On that subject Mrs Strangeways had a decided opinion, and her knowledge of the world made it more than probable that she was right. Without any scheme of espionage, obeying her instinct of jealous enmity, Alma hastened to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions. But Sibyl had left home, and -- was not expected to return that night.

How she spent the next few hours Alma could but dimly remember. It was a vortex of wretchedness. As dark fell she found herself at the gate leading to the bungalow, lurking, listening, waiting for courage to go farther. She stole at length over the grass behind the bushes, until she could see the lighted window of Redgrave's study. The window was open. She crept nearer and nearer, till she was actually in the veranda and looking into the room. Redgrave sat within, smoking and reading a newspaper. She purposely made a movement which drew his attention.

How would it have ended but for Hugh Carnaby?

Beyond ascertaining that Sibyl was not there, she had of course discovered nothing of what she wished to know. As likely as not she had come too early. Redgrave's behaviour when she drew his attention suggested that such a sound at the open window did not greatly surprise him; the surprise appeared when he saw who stood there -- surprise and momentary embarrassment, which would be natural enough if he expected a different visitor. And he was so anxious that she should come in at once. Had she done so, Redgrave's life would have been saved; but ----

Its having been publicly proved that Mrs. Carnaby was then far away from Wimbledon did not tend to shake Alma's conviction. The summons to her mother's deathbed had disturbed Sibyl's arrangements, that was all. Most luckily for her, as it turned out. But women of that kind (said Alma bitterly) are favoured by fortune.

Locked in a drawer of her writing-table lay a bundle of letters and papers which had come to her immediately after the concert. To none of the letters had she replied; it was time for her to go through them, and answer, with due apologies, those which deserved an answer. Several did not; they were from people whom she hoped never to see again -- people who wrote in fulsome terms, because they fancied she would become a celebrity. The news of her breakdown had appeared in a few newspapers, and brought her letters of sympathy; these also lay unanswered. On a day of late autumn she brought herself to the task of looking through this correspondence, and in the end she burnt it all. Among the half-dozen people to whom she decided to write was Felix Dymes; not out of gratitude, or any feeling of friendliness, but because she could not overcome a certain fear of the man. He was capable of any meanness, perhaps of villainy; and perhaps he harboured malice against her, seeing that she had foiled him to the last. She penned a few lines asking him to let her have a complete statement of the financial results of her recital, which it seemed strange that he had not sent already.

'My health,' she added, 'is far from re-established, and I am unable either to go to town or to ask you to come and see me. It is rather doubtful whether I shall ever again play in public.'

In her own mind there lingered no doubt at all, but she thought it better not to be too abrupt with Dymes.

After burning all the letters, she read once more through the press notices of her performance. It was significant that the musical critics whose opinion had any weight gave her only a word or two of cautious commendation; her eulogists were writers who probably knew much less about music than she, and who reported concerts from the social point of view. Popular journalism represented her debut as a striking success. Had she been able to use her opportunity to the utmost, doubtless something of a 'boom' -- the word then coming into fashion -- might have resulted for her; she could have given two or three more recitals before the end of the season, have been much photographed and paragraphed, and then have gone into the country 'to spread her conquests farther'. This was Felix Dymes's hope. Writing with all propriety, he had yet allowed it to be seen how greatly he was vexed and disappointed at her failure to take the flood. Alma, too, had regretful moments; but she fought against the feeling with all her strength. Today she all but found courage to throw these newspapers into the fire; it would be a final sacrifice, a grave symbolic act, and might bring her peace. Yet she could not. Long years hence, would it not be a legitimate pride to show these things to her children? A misgiving mingled with the thought, but her reluctance prevailed. She made up a parcel, wrote upon it, 'My Recital, May 1891', and locked it up with other most private memorials.

She had not long to wait for her answer from Dymes. He apologised for his delay in the matter of business, and promised that a detailed statement should be sent to her in a very few days. The unfortunate state of her health -- there Alma smiled -- moved him to sympathy and profound regret; her abandonment of a professional career could not, must not, be a final decision!

Something prompted her to hand this letter to Harvey.

'I took it for granted,' he said humorously, 'that the man had sent you a substantial cheque long ago.'

'I believe the balance will be on my side.'

'Would you like me to see to the rest of the business for you?'

'I don't think that's necessary, is it?'

To her relief, Harvey said no more. She waited for the promised balance-sheet, but weeks passed by and it did not arrive. An explanation of this readily occurred to her: Dymes calculated upon bringing her to an interview. She thought of Harvey's proposal, and wished she could dare to accept it; but the obscure risks were too great. So, months elapsed, till the affair seemed forgotten.

They never spoke to each other of Hugh Carnaby or of Sibyl.

Meanwhile, Alma did not lack society. Mrs. Abbott, whom, without change of feeling, she grew accustomed to see frequently, introduced her to the Langland family, and in Mrs. Langland she found a not uncongenial acquaintance. This lady had known many griefs, and seemed destined to suffer many more; she had wrinkles on her face which should not have been there at forty-five; but no one ever heard her complain or saw her look downhearted.

In her zeal for housewifery, Alma saw much to admire and to imitate in Mrs. Langland. She liked the good-humoured modesty with which the elder lady always spoke of herself, and was not displeased at observing an air of deference when the conversation turned on such high matters as literature and art. Mrs. Langland knew all about the recital at Prince's Hall; she knew, moreover, as appeared from a casual remark one day, that Mrs. Rolfe had skill in 'landscape painting'.

'Who told you that?' asked Alma, with surprise.

'I hope it wasn't a secret. Mrs. Abbott spoke of your water-colours once. She was delighted with them.'

Praise even from Mary Abbott gratified Alma; it surprised her, and she doubted its sincerity, but there was satisfaction in knowing that her fame went abroad among the people at Gunnersbury. Without admiration she could not live, and nothing so severely tested her resolution to be content with the duties of home as Harvey's habit of taking all for granted, never remarking upon her life of self-conquest, never soothing her with the flatteries for which she hungered.

She hailed with delight the first visit after several months from her friends Dora and Gerda Leach. During the summer their father's health had suffered so severely that the overwrought man found himself compelled to choose between a long holiday abroad and the certainty of complete collapse if he tried to pursue his ordinary life. The family went away, and returned in November, when it seemed probable that the money-making machine known as Mr. Leach had been put into tolerable working order for another year or so. Not having seen Alma since her recital, the girls overflowed with talk about it, repeating all the eulogies they had heard, and adding such rapturous laudation of their own that Alma could have hung upon their necks in gratitude. They found it impossible to believe that she would no more play in public.

'Oh, but when you are quite well!' they exclaimed. 'It would be a shame -- a sin!'

In writing to them, Alma had put her decision solely on the ground of health. Now, assuming a countenance of gentle gravity, she made known her higher reasons.

'I have felt it to be my duty. Remember that I can't consider myself alone. I found that I must either devote myself wholly to music or give it up altogether. You girls can't very well understand. When one is a wife and a mother -- I thought it all over during my illness. I had been neglecting my husband and Hughie, and it was too bad -- downright selfishness. Art and housekeeping won't go together; I thought they might, butt found my mistake. Of course, it cost me a struggle, but that's over. I have learnt to renounce.'

'It's very noble of you!' murmured Dora Leach.

'I never heard anything so noble!' said her sister.

Alma flushed with pleasure.

'And yet you know,' Dora pursued, 'artists have a duty to the world.'

'I can't help questioning,' said Gerda, 'whether you had a right to sacrifice yourself.'

Alma smiled thoughtfully.

'You can't quite see it as I do. When one has children ----'

'It must make a great difference' -- 'Oh, a great difference!' -- responded the sisters. And again they exclaimed at the spectacle of such noble devotedness.

By natural transition the talk turned to Mrs. Carnaby. The girls spoke of her compassionately, but Alma soon perceived that they did not utter all their thoughts.

'I'm afraid,' she said, 'that some people take another view. I have heard -- but one doesn't care to repeat such things.'

Dora and Gerda betrayed a lively interest. Yes, they too had heard disagreeable gossip; what a shame it was!

'Of course, you see her?' said Dora.

Alma shook her head, and seemed a trifle embarrassed.

'I don't even know whether she still lives there.'

'Oh yes, she does,' replied Miss Leach eagerly. 'But I've been told that very few people go. I wondered -- we rather wished to know whether you did.'

Again Alma gently shook her head.

'I haven't even heard from her. I suppose she has her reasons. To tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure that my husband would like me to call. It isn't a pleasant subject, is it? Let us talk of something else.'

So, when Dora and Gerda went away, they carried with them the conviction that Mrs. Carnaby was an 'impossible' person and of course lost no opportunity of imparting it to their friends.

About a week before Christmas, when the new servants seemed to have settled to their work, and the house routine needed less supervision, Alma and her husband dined at the Langlands', to meet a few quiet people. Among the guests was Mrs. Langland's brother, of whom Alma had already heard, and whom, before the end of the evening, she came to regard with singular interest. Mr. Thistlewood had no advantages of physique, and little charm of manner; his long, meagre body never seemed able to put itself at ease; sitting or standing, he displayed the awkwardness of a naturally shy man who has not studied the habits of society. But his features, in spite of irregularity, and a complexion resembling the tone of 'foxed' paper, attracted observation, and rewarded it; his eye had a pleasant twinkle, oddly in contrast with the lines of painful thought upon his forehead, and the severity of strained muscles in the lower part of his face. He was head-master of a small school of art in a northern county; a post which he had held only for a twelvemonth. Like his sister's husband, Thistlewood suffered from disappointed ambition, for he had aimed at great things as a painter; but he accepted his defeat, and at thirty-five was seeking content in a 'sphere of usefulness' which promised, after all, to give scope to his best faculties. Not long ago he would have scorned the thought of becoming a 'teacher'; yet for a teacher he was born, and the truth, in dawning upon his mind, had brought with it a measure of consolation.

A finger missing from his left hand told a story of student life in Paris. It was a quarrel with a young Frenchman, about a girl. He and his rival happening to sit opposite to each other at a restaurant table, high words arose between them, and the Frenchman eventually made a stab at Thistlewood's hand with his dinner-fork. That ended the dispute, but the finger had to come off. Not long afterwards Thistlewood accepted an engagement to go as artist with a party of English explorers into Siberia. On his return he lingered for a week or two in St Petersburg, and there chanced to meet the girl who had cost him one of his digits. She, like himself, had been in pursuit of adventures; but, whereas the artist came back with a well-filled purse, the wandering damsel was at her last sou. They journeyed together to London, and for the next year or two Thistlewood had the honour of working himself almost to death to support a very expensive young woman, who cared no more for him than for her cast-off shoes. Happily, some richer man was at length found who envied him his privilege, and therewith ended Thistlewood's devotion to the joys of a bohemian life. Ever since, his habits had been excessively sober -- perhaps a little morose. But Mrs. Langland, who now saw him once a year; thought him in every respect improved. Moreover, she had a project for his happiness, and on that account frequently glanced at him during dinner, as he conversed, much more fluently than of wont, with his neighbour, Mrs. Abbott.

Alma sat on the other side of the table, and was no less observant than the hostess of a peculiar animation on Mr. Thistlewood's dark visage. To be sure, she knew nothing of him, and it might be his habit to wear that look when he talked with ladies; but Alma thought it unlikely. And it seemed to her that Mary Abbott, though much as usual in manner, had a just perceptible gleam of countenance beyond what one was accustomed to remark in her moments of friendly conversation. This, too, might be merely the result of a little natural excitement, seeing that the school-mistress so seldom dined from home. But, in any case, the proximity of these two persons was curiously interesting and suggestive.

In the drawing-room, presently, Alma had a pleasant little talk with Mr Thistlewood. By discreet experiment, she satisfied herself that Mrs Abbott's name certainly quickened his interest; and, having learnt so much, it was easy, by representing herself as that lady's old and intimate friend, to win from the man a significant look of pleasure and confidence. They talked of art, of landscape, and it appeared that Thistlewood was acquainted with the part of Carnarvonshire where Alma had lived. What was more, he had heard of her charming water-colours, and he would so much like to see them.

'Some enemy has done this,' replied Alma, laughing gaily. 'Was it Mrs Abbott?'

'No, it was not,' he answered, with corresponding vivacity.

'Why, then, it must have been Mrs. Langland, and I have a good mind to put her to open shame by asking you to come and see my wretched daubs.'

Nothing would please him better, declared Thistlewood; and thereupon he accepted an invitation to tea for the following afternoon.

Alma asked no one else. She understood that this man was only to be observed under favourable conditions by isolating him. She wished, moreover, to bring him into fireside conversation with Harvey, and to remark her husband's demeanour. By way of preparation for this conjuncture, she let fall, in private chat with Harvey, a word or two which pointed humorously at her suspicions concerning Thistlewood and Mary Abbott. The hearer exhibited an incredulous surprise.

'It was only a fancy,' said Alma, smiling rather coldly; and she felt more desirous than ever of watching her husband in Thistlewood's presence.

Unexpectedly, from her point of view, the two men got along together very well indeed. Harvey, thoroughly cordial, induced their guest to speak of his work at the School of Art, and grew so interested in it that the conversation went on for a couple of hours. Thistlewood had pronounced and enthusiastic ideas on the subject.

'My difficulty is,' he exclaimed, 'that I can't get hold of the children young enough. People send their boys and girls to be taught drawing as an "accomplishment" -- the feeble old notion. I want to teach it as a most important part of elementary education -- in fact, to take youngsters straight on from the kindergarten stage.'

'Did I tell you,' put in Alma, 'that our little boy goes to Mrs Abbott's?' and her eyes were on both men at once.

'I should say you couldn't have done better than send him there,' replied Thistlewood, shuffling his feet and fidgeting with his hands. 'Mrs. Abbott is an admirable teacher. She quite agrees with me -- I should say that I quite agree with her. But I am forgetting, Mrs. Rolfe, that you know her better than I do.'

Hughie was allowed to come into the room for a little while, and to give an account of what he learnt at school. When at length Thistlewood took his leave, it was with a promise that he would come again and dine a few days hence. His visit at Mrs. Langland's would extend over another fortnight. Before the day of his departure northwards, Alma met him several times, and succeeded in establishing almost an intimate friendship with him. He came to bid her goodbye on a black and bitter January afternoon, when it happened that Harvey was away. As soon as he entered, she saw upon his face a look of ill augury, a heavy-eyed dejection very unlike the twinkling hopefulness with which he had hitherto regarded her.

'What's the matter?' she asked, holding his hand for a moment. 'Don't you like going back to work?'

'I enjoy my work, Mrs. Rolfe, as you know.'

'But you are not like yourself.'

'My friends here have made the time very pleasant. Naturally, I don't like leaving them.'

He was a little abrupt, and decidedly showed the less genial phase of his disposition.

'Have some tea,' said Alma, 'and warm yourself at the fire. You will thaw presently, Mr. Thistlewood. I suppose, like other unregenerate men, you live in rooms? Has that kind of life an irresistible charm for you?'

He looked at her with a frown which, to say the least, was discouraging; it changed, however, to a more amiable expression as she handed him his tea.

'What do you imagine my income is, Mrs. Rolfe?' came growlingly from him.

'I have no idea. You mean, I'm afraid' -- Alma's voice fell upon its gentlest note -- 'that it doesn't allow you to think of -- of any change?'

'It ought not to allow me,' replied the other. 'I have about two hundred pounds a year, and can't hope much more for a long time.'

'And that,' exclaimed Alma, 'seems to you insufficient? I should have thought in a little town -- so far away -- Oh! you want to surround yourself with luxuries ----'

'I don't! -- I beg your pardon, Mrs. Rolfe, I meant to say that you surely know me better.' His hand trembled and spilt the tea, which he had not yet touched. 'But how can you suppose that -- that anyone ----?'

He turned his face to the fire, the light of which made his eyes glare fiercely. Forthwith, Alma launched upon a spirited remonstrance. Never, even in the days just before her marriage, had she been so fervid and eloquent on behalf of the 'simple life'. Two hundred pounds! Why, it was wealth for rational people! She inveighed against display and extravagance.

'You are looking round the room. -- Oh, don't apologise; it was quite natural. I confess, and I'm ashamed of myself. But ask Mrs. Abbott to tell you about our little house in Wales; she came once to see us there. We lived -- oh so simply and cheaply; and it was our happiest time. If only we could go back to it! But the world has been too much for us. People call it comfort; it means, I assure you, ceaseless trouble and worry. Who knows? some day we may come to our senses, and shake off the burden.'

Thistlewood smiled.

'If we could all have cottages among the mountains,' he said. 'But a little provincial town ----'

'Set an example! Who would have a better right to defy foolish prejudice? A teacher of the beautiful -- you might do infinite good by showing how beautifully one can live without obeying mere fashion in a single point.'

'I heartily agree with you,' replied Thistlewood, setting down his empty cup. 'You express my own thoughts much better than I could myself. And your talk has done me good, Mrs. Rolfe. Thank you for treating me with such friendly kindness.'

Therewith he rose and said goodbye to her, with a hope that they might meet again. Alma was vexed that he would not stay longer and take her more completely into his confidence; but she echoed the hope, and smiled upon him with much sweetness.

His behaviour could have only one interpretation: he had proposed to Mary Abbott, and she had refused him. The longer Alma thought, the more certain she was -- and the more irritated. It would be very difficult to continue her civility to Mrs. Abbott after this.