The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
In these days Rolfe had abandoned even the pretence of study. He could not feel at home among his books; they were ranked about him on the old shelves, but looked as uncomfortable as he himself; it seemed a temporary arrangement; he might as well have been in lodgings. At Pinner, after a twelvemonth, he was beginning to overcome the sense of strangeness; but a foreboding that he could not long remain there had always disturbed him. Here, though every probability pointed to a residence of at least two or three years, he scarcely made an effort to familiarise himself with the new surroundings; his house was a shelter, a camp; granted a water-tight roof, and drains not immediately poisonous, what need to take thought for artificial comforts? Thousands of men, who sleep on the circumference of London, and go each day to business, are practically strangers to the district nominally their home; ever ready to strike tent, as convenience bids, they can feel no interest in a vicinage which merely happens to house them for the time being, and as often as not they remain ignorant of the names of streets or roads through which they pass in going to the railway station. Harvey was now very much in this case. That he might not utterly waste his time, he had undertaken regular duties under Cecil Morphew's direction, and spent some hours daily in Westminster Bridge Road. Thence he went to his club, to see the papers; and in returning to Gunnersbury he felt hardly more sense of vital connection with this suburb than with the murky and roaring street in which he sat at business. By force of habit he continued to read, but only books from the circulating library, thrown upon his table pell-mell -- novels, popular science, travels, biographies; each as it came to hand. The intellectual disease of the time took hold upon him: he lost the power of mental concentration, yielded to the indolent pleasure of desultory page-skimming. There remained in him but one sign of grace: the qualms that followed on every evening's debauch of mind, the headachey impression that he was going through a morbid experience which somehow would work its own cure.
Alma seemed quite unaware of any change in him. To his physical comfort she gave all due attention, anxious lest he should catch cold in this hideous weather, and doing her best to rule the house as he desired; but his intellectual life was no concern to her. Herein, of course, Harvey did but share the common lot of men married; he recognised the fact, and was too wise to complain of it, even in his own mind. Yet it puzzled him a little, now and then, that a woman so intelligent as Alma should in this respect be simply on a level with the brainless multitude of her sex. One evening, when they were together in his room, he took down a volume, and blew the dust off it, saying as he did so ----
'They're not often disturbed nowadays, these solid old fellows.'
'But I suppose you like to have them about you?' Alma replied carelessly, as she glanced at the shelves.
'Why, yes, they're good furniture; help to warm the room.'
'No doubt they do,' Alma replied. 'It's always more comfortable here than in the drawing-room.'
Daily he asked himself whether she was reconciled to the loss of her ambitions, and he could not feel any certainty. In the present state of her health it might be natural for her to acquiesce in a humdrum life; but when the next few months were over, and she found herself once more able to move about as she pleased, would her mind remain the same? Happy she was not, and probably nothing in his power to do could make her so. Marriage rarely means happiness, either for man or woman; if it be not too grievous to be borne, one must thank the fates and take courage. But Harvey had a troublesome conscience. In acting with masculine decision, with the old-fashioned authority of husbands, he had made himself doubly responsible for any misery that might come to Alma through the conditions of her life. It might be that, on the higher plane of reasoning, he was by no means justified; there might have been found a middle way, which, whilst guarding Alma from obvious dangers, still left her free to enjoy and to aspire. What he had done was very much like the clipping of wings. Practically it might be needful, and of safe result; but there is a world beyond the barnyard, for all that; and how should he know, with full assurance, whether Alma had not suffered a grave wrong! He durst not reopen the discussion with her. He had taken his stand, and must hold it, or lose all self-respect. Marriage is like life itself, easiest to those who think least about it. Rolfe knew that well enough, and would gladly have acted upon the knowledge; he came nearest to doing so at the times when Hughie was his companion. Relieved by the nursemaid from duties she had only borne by the exertion of something like heroism, Alma once more drew a broad line of demarcation between nursery and drawing-room; it was seldom she felt in a mood for playing with the child, and she had no taste for 'going walks'. But Harvey could not see too much of the little boy, indoors or out, and it rejoiced him to know that his love was returned in full measure; for Hughie would at any time abandon other amusements to be with his father. In these winter months, when by rare chance there came a fine Saturday or Sunday, they went off together to Kew or Richmond, and found endless matter for talk, delightful to both of them. Hughie, now four years old, was well grown, and could walk two or three miles without weariness. He had no colour in his cheeks, and showed the nervous tendencies which were to be expected in a child of such parentage, but on the whole his health gave no cause for uneasiness. If anything chanced to ail him, Harvey suffered an excessive disquiet; for the young life seemed to him so delicate a thing that any touch of pain might wither it away. Because of the unutterable anguish in the thought, he had often forced himself to front the possibility of Hughie's death, and had even brought himself to feel that in truth it would be no reason for sorrow; how much better to fall asleep in playtime, and wake no more, than to outlive the happiness and innocence which pass for ever with childhood. And when the fear of life lay heaviest upon him, he found solace in remembering that after no great lapse of time he and those he loved would have vanished from the earth, would be as though they had not been at all; every pang and woe awaiting them suffered and forgotten; the best and the worst gone by for ever; the brief flicker of troubled light quenched in eternal oblivion. It was Harvey Rolfe's best substitute for the faith and hope of the old world.
He liked to feel the soft little hand clasping his own fingers, so big and coarse in comparison, and happily so strong. For in the child's weakness he felt an infinite pathos; a being so entirely helpless, so utterly dependent upon others' love, standing there amid a world of cruelties, smiling and trustful. All his heart went forth in the desire to protect and cherish. Nothing else seemed of moment beside this one duty, which was also the purest joy. The word 'father' however sweet to his ear, had at times given him a thrill of awe; spoken by childish lips, did it mean less than 'God'? He was the giver of life, and for that dread gift must hold himself responsible. A man in his agony may call upon some unseen power, but the heavens are mute; can a father turn away in heedlessness if the eyes of his child reproach him? All pleasures, aims, hopes that concerned himself -alone, shrank to the idlest trifling when he realised the immense debt due from him to his son; no possible sacrifice could discharge it. He marvelled how people could insist upon the duty of children to parents. But did not the habit of thought ally itself naturally enough with that strange religion which, under direst penalties, exacts from groaning and travailing humanity a tribute of fear and love to the imagined Author of its being?
With delight he followed every step in the growth of understanding; and yet it was not all pleasure to watch the mind outgrowing its simplicity. Intelligence that has learnt the meaning of a doubt compares but sadly with the charm of untouched ingenuousness -- that exquisite moment (a moment, and no more) when simplest thought and simplest word seek each other unconsciously, and blend in sweetest music. At four years old Hughie had forgotten his primitive language. The father regretted many a pretty turn of tentative speech, which he was wont to hear with love's merriment. If a toy were lost, a little voice might be heard saying, 'Where has that gone now to?' And when it was found again -- 'There is it!' After a tumble one day, Hughie was cautious in running. 'I shall fall down and break myself.' Then came distinction between days of the week. 'On Sunday I do' so and so; 'on Monday days I do' something else. He said, 'Do you remember?' and what a pity it seemed when at last the dull grown-up word was substituted. Never again, when rain was falling, would Hughie turn and plead, 'Father, tell the sun to come out!' Nor, when he saw the crescent moon in daytime, would he ever grow troubled and exclaim, 'Someone has broken it!'
It was the rule now that before his bedtime, seven o'clock, Hughie spent an hour in the library, alone with his father. A golden hour, sacred to memories of the world's own childhood. He brought with him the book that was his evening's choice -- Grimm, or Andersen, or AEsop. Already he knew by heart a score of little poems, or passages of verse, which Rolfe, disregarding the inept volumes known as children's anthologies, chose with utmost care from his favourite singers, and repeated till they were learnt. Stories from the Odyssey had come in of late; but Polyphemus was a doubtful experiment -- Hughie dreamt of him. Great caution, too, was needful in the matter of pathos. On hearing for the first time Andersen's tale of the Little Tin Soldier, Hughie burst into tears, and could scarce be comforted. Grimm was safer; it seemed doubtful whether Andersen was really a child's book at all, every page touched with the tears of things, every line melodious with sadness.
And all this fostering of the imagination -- was it right? was it wise? Harvey worried himself with doubts insoluble. He had merely obeyed his own instincts. But perhaps he would be doing far better if he never allowed the child to hear a fairy-tale or a line of poetry. Why not amuse his mind with facts, train him to the habit of scientific thought? For all he knew, he might be giving the child a bias which would result in a life's unhappiness; by teaching him to see only the hard actual face of things, would he not fit him far more surely for citizenship of the world?
He would have liked to talk about the child with Mary Abbott, but there never came an opportunity. Though it shamed and angered him to be under such constraint, he felt obliged to avoid any private meeting with her. Alma, he well understood, still nursed the preposterous jealousy which had been in her mind so long; and in the present state of things, dubious, transitional, it behoved him to give no needless occasion of disquiet. As the months went on, he saw her spirits fail; with the utmost difficulty she was persuaded to leave the house, and for hours at a time she sat as if in melancholy brooding, unwilling to talk or to read. Harvey tried reading to her, but in the daytime she could not keep her thoughts from wandering, and after dinner it merely sent her to sleep. Yet she declared that there was nothing to trouble about; she would be herself again before long.
But one day the doctor who was attending her had a few words in private with Rolfe, and told him that he had made an unpleasant discovery -- Mrs Rolfe was in the habit of taking a narcotic. At first, when the doctor asked if this was the case, she had denied it, but in the end he had elicited a confession, and a promise that the dangerous habit should be relinquished.
'I was on no account to mention this to you, and you mustn't let it be seen that I have done so. If it goes on, and I'm rather afraid it will for a short time, I shall tell her that you must be informed of it.'
Harvey, to whom such a suspicion had never occurred, waited anxiously for the doctor's further reports. As was anticipated, Alma's promise held good only for a day or two, and when again she confessed, her husband was called into counsel. The trio went through a grave and disagreeable scene. On the doctor's departure, Alma sat for a long time stubbornly and dolorously mute; then came tears and passionate penitence.
'You mustn't think I'm a slave to it,' she said. 'It isn't so at all. I can break myself off it at once, and I will.'
'Then why did you go on after the doctor's first warning?'
'Out of perversity, nothing else. I suffer much from bad nights, but it wasn't that; I could bear it. I said to myself that I should do as I liked.' She gave a tearful laugh.
'That's the whole truth. I felt just like a child when it's determined to be naughty.'
'But this is far too serious a matter ----'
'I know, I know. There shall be an end of it. I had my own way, and I'm satisfied. Now I shall be reasonable.'
Judging from results, this seemed to be a true explanation. From that day the doctor saw no reason for doubt. But Harvey had a most uncomfortable sense of strangeness in his wife's behaviour; it seemed to him that the longer he lived with Alma, the less able he was to read her mind or comprehend her motives. It did not reassure him to reflect that a majority of husbands are probably in the same case.
Meanwhile trouble was once more brewing in the back regions of the house. The cook made an excuse for 'giving notice'. Rolfe, in his fury, talked about abandoning the house and going with wife and child to some village in the heart of France; yet this was hardly practicable. Again were advertisements sent forth; again came the ordeal of correspondence -- this time undertaken by Harvey himself, for Alma was unequal to it. The cook whom they at length engaged declared with fervour that the one thing she panted for was downright hard work; she couldn't abide easy places, and in fact had left her last because too little was expected of her.
'She will stay for two months,' said Harvey, 'and then it will be time for the others to think of moving. Oh, we shall get used to it.'
At the end of March, Alma's second child was born -- a girl. Remembering what she had endured at Hughie's birth, Rolfe feared that her trial would be even worse this time; but it did not prove so. In a few days Alma was well on the way to recovery. But the child, a lamentable little mortal with a voice scarce louder than a kitten's, held its life on the frailest tenure; there was doubt at first whether it could draw breath at all, and the nurse never expected it to live till the second day. At the end of a week, however, it still survived; and Alma turned to the poor weakling with a loving tenderness such as she had never shown for her first-born. To Harvey's surprise she gladly took it to her breast, but for some reason this had presently to be forbidden, and the mother shed many tears. After a fortnight things looked more hopeful. Nurse and doctor informed Harvey that for the present he need have no uneasiness.
It was a Saturday morning, and so cheerful overhead that Rolfe used his liberty to have a long stretch towards the fields. Hughie, who had no school today, would gladly have gone with him, but after such long restraint Harvey felt the need of four miles an hour, and stole away. He made for Twickenham and Hampton Court, then by a long circuit came round into Richmond Park. The Star and Garter gave him a late luncheon, after which he lit his cigar and went idly along the terrace. There, whom should he meet but Mary Abbott.
She was seated, gazing at the view. Not till he came quite near did Harvey recognise her, and until he stopped she did not glance in his direction. Thus he was able to observe her for a moment, and noticed that she looked anything but well; one would have thought her overworked, or oppressed by some trouble. She did not see what her eyes were fixed upon, and her features had a dreaming tenderness of expression which made them more interesting, more nearly beautiful, than when they were controlled by her striving will. When Harvey paused beside her she gave him a startled smile, but was at once herself again.
'Do you care for that?' he asked, indicating the landscape.
'I can't be enthusiastic about it.'
'Nor I. A bit of ploughed field in the midlands gives me more pleasure.'
'It was beautiful once.'
'Yes; before London breathed upon it. -- Do you remember the view from Cam Bodvean?'
'Oh, indeed I do! The larches are coming out now.'
'And the gorse shines, and the sea is blue, and the mountains rise one behind the other! -- Did you talk about it with Mr. Thistlewood? I found that he knew all that country.'
'We spoke of it,' replied Mrs. Abbott, taking a step forward.
'An interesting man, don't you think?'
Harvey glanced at her, remembering the odd suggestion he had heard from Alma; and in truth it seemed that his inquiry caused her some embarrassment.
'Yes, very interesting,' answered his companion quietly, as she walked on.
'You had met him before ----?'
'He always comes to the Langlands' at Christmas.' She added in another voice, 'I was glad to hear from Hughie yesterday that all was well at home.'
They sauntered along the path. Harvey described the walk he had had this morning. Mrs. Abbott said that the bright day had tempted her to an unusual distance; she had come, of course, by train, and must now think of turning back towards the station.
'Let me go so far with you,' said Harvey. 'What is your report of the boy? He gives you no trouble, I hope?'
She replied in detail, with the conscientiousness which always appeared in her when speaking of her work. It was not the tone of one who delights in teaching; there was no spontaneity, no enthusiasm; but every word gave proof of how seriously she regarded the duties she had undertaken. And she was not without pride in her success. The little school had grown, so that it now became a question whether she should decline pupils or engage an assistant teacher.
'You are resolved to go on with the infantry?' said Rolfe, smiling.
'The little ones -- yes. I begin to feel some confidence with them; I don't think I'm in danger of going far wrong. But I shouldn't have the least faith in myself, now, with older children. -- Of course I have Minnie Wager. She'll soon be eleven, you know. I do my best with her.'
'Mrs. Langland says you have done wonders.'
'Minnie will never learn much from books; I feel pretty sure of that. But' -- she laughed -- 'everyone has a strong point, if it can be discovered, and I really think I have found Minnie's at last. It was quite by chance. The other day I was teaching my maid to make pastry, and Minnie happened to stand by. Afterwards, she begged me to let her try her hand at it, and I did, and the result was surprising. For the very first time she had found something that she enjoyed doing. She went to it with zeal, and learnt in no time. Since then she has made tarts, and puddings, and cake ----'
Harvey broke into laughter. It was an odd thing that the employment he had suggested for this girl, in his talk at Greystone, should prove to be her genuine vocation.
'Don't you think it's as well to encourage her?' said Mrs. Abbott.
'By all manner of means! I think it's a magnificent discovery. I should give her the utmost encouragement. Let her learn cookery in all its branches, steadily and seriously.'
'It may solve the problem of her future. She might get employment in one of the schools of cookery.'
'Never again be uneasy about her,' cried Rolfe delightedly. 'She is provided for. She will grow old with honour, love, obedience, troops of friends! -- A culinary genius! Why, it's the one thing the world is groaning and clamouring for. Let her burn her school-books. Sacrifice everything to her Art. -- You have rejoiced me with this news.'
Slenderly endowed on the side of humour, Mary Abbott could not feel sure whether he was really pleased or not; he had to repeat to her, with all gravity, that he no longer felt anxious on the girl's account.
'For my own part,' said Mary, 'I would rather see her a good cook in a lady's kitchen, if it came to that, than leading a foolish life at some so-called genteel occupation.'
'So would any one who has common-sense. -- And her brother; I don't think we can go wrong about him. The reports from school are satisfactory; they show that he loathes everything but games and fighting. At fifteen they'll take him on a training ship. -- I wonder whether their father's alive or dead?'
'It is to be hoped they'll never see him again.'
Harvey was smiling -- at a thought which he did not communicate.
'You say you wouldn't trust yourself to teach older children. You mean, of course, that you feel much the difficulty of the whole thing -- of all systems of education.'
'Yes. And I dare say it's nothing but foolish presumption when I fancy I can teach babies.'
'You have at all events a method,' said Harvey, 'and it seems to be a very good one. For the teaching of children after they can read and write, there seems to be no method at all. The old classical education was fairly consistent, but it exists no longer. Nothing has taken its place. Muddle, experiment, and waste of lives -- too awful to think about. We're savages yet in the matter of education. Somebody said to me once: "Well, but look at the results; they're not so bad." Great heavens! not so bad -- when the supreme concern of mankind is to perfect their instruments of slaughter! Not so bad -- when the gaol and the gallows are taken as a matter of course! Not so bad -- when huge filthy cities are packed with multitudes who have no escape from toil and hunger but in a wretched death! Not so bad -- when all but every man's life is one long blunder, the result of ignorance and unruled passions!'
Mrs. Abbott showed a warm assent.
'People don't think or care anything about education. Seriously, I suppose it has less place in the thoughts of most men and women than any other business of life?'
'Undoubtedly,' said Rolfe. 'And one is thought a pedant and a bore if one ever speaks of it. It's as much against good manners as to begin talking about religion. But a pedant must relieve his mind sometimes. I'm so glad I met you today; I wanted to hear what you thought about the boy.'
For the rest of the way, they talked of lighter things; or rather, Rolfe talked and his companion listened. Nothing more difficult than easy chat between a well-to-do person of abundant leisure and one whose days are absorbed in the earning of a bare livelihood. Mary Abbott had very little matter for conversation beyond the circle of her pursuits; there was an extraordinary change in her since the days of her married life, when she had prided herself on talking well, or even brilliantly. Harvey could not help a feeling of compassion as she walked at his side. For all his admiration of her self-conquest, and of the tasks to which she had devoted herself, he would have liked to free her from the daily mill. She was young yet, and should taste of joy before the years began to darken about her. But these are the thoughts that must not be uttered. To show pity is to insult. A merry nod to the friend who staggers on beneath his burden; and, even at his last gasp, the friend shall try to nod merrily back again.
He took leave of her at the station, saying that he meant to walk by the river homeward. A foolish scruple, which would never have occurred to him but for Alma's jealousy.
When he reached his house at about four o'clock, he felt very tired; it was a long time since he had walked so far. Using his latch-key to enter, he crossed the hall to the study without seeing anyone or hearing a sound. There was a letter on his table. As he opened it, and began to read, the door -- which he had left ajar -- was pushed softly open; there entered Hughie, unusually silent, and with a strange look in his bright eyes.
'Father -- Louie says that baby is dead.'
Harvey's hand fell. He stared, stricken mute.
'Father -- I don't want baby to be dead! Don't let baby be dead!'
The child's voice shook, and tears came into his eyes. Without a word, Rolfe hastened from the room and up the stairs. As he reached the landing, a wail of grief sounded from somewhere near; could that be Alma's voice? In a moment he had knocked at her door. He durst not turn the handle; the beating of his heart shook him in every limb. The door opened, and the nurse showed her face. A hurried whisper; the baby had died two hours ago, in convulsions.
Alma's voice sounded again.
'Who is that? -- Harvey -- oh, come, come to me! My little baby is dead!'
He sat alone with her for an hour. He scarcely knew her for his wife, so unlike herself had she become under the stress of passionate woe; her face drawn in anguish, yet illumined as he had never seen it; her voice moving on a range of notes which it had never sounded. The little body lay pressed against her bosom; she would not let it be taken from her. Consolation was idle. Harvey tried to speak the thought which was his first and last as he looked at the still, waxen face; the thought of thankfulness, that this poor feeble little being was saved from life; but he feared to seem unfeeling. Alma could not yet be comforted. The sight of the last pitiful struggles had pierced her to the heart; she told of it over and over again, in words and tones profoundly touching.
The doctor had been here, and would return in the evening. It was Alma now who had to be cared for; her state might easily become dangerous.
When Harvey went downstairs again, he met Hughie and his nurse in the hall. The little boy ran to him.
'Mayn't I come to you, Father? Louie says I mustn't come.'
'Yes, yes; come, dear.'
In the library he sat down, and took Hughie upon his knee, and pressed the soft little cheek against his own. Without mention of baby, the child asked at once if his father would not read to him as usual.
'I don't think I can tonight, Hughie.'
'Why not, Father? Because baby is dead?'
'Yes. And Mother is very poorly. I must go upstairs again soon.'
'Is Mother going to be dead?' asked the child, with curiosity rather than fear.
'But -- but if mother went there, she could fetch baby back again.'
Hughie made a vague upward gesture.
'Louie says baby is gone up into the sky.'
Perhaps it was best so. What else can one say to a little child of four years old? Harvey Rolfe had no choice but to repeat what seemed good to Louie the nursemaid. But he could refrain from saying more.
Alma was in a fever by night-time. There followed days and days of misery; any one hour of which, as Rolfe told himself, outbalanced all the good and joy that can at best be hoped for in threescore years and ten. But Alma clung to life. Harvey had thought she would ask for her little son, and expend upon him the love called forth by her dead baby; she seemed, however, to care even less for Hughie than before. And, after all, the bitter experience had made little change in her.