The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
Since the removal from Pinner, Rolfe had forgotten his anxieties with regard to money. Expenses were reduced; not very greatly, but to a point which made all the difference between just exceeding his income and living just within it. He had not tried to economise, and would scarcely have known how to begin; it was the change in Alma's mode of life that brought about this fortunate result. With infinite satisfaction he dismissed from his mind the most hateful of all worries.
It looked, too, as if the business in Westminster Bridge Road might eventually give a substantial return for the money he had invested in it. Through the winter, naturally, little trade was done; but with springtime things began to look brisk and hopeful. Harvey had applied himself seriously to learning the details of the business; he was no longer a mere looker-on, but could hold practical counsel with his partner, make useful suggestions, and help in carrying them out.
In the sixth month after her father's decease, Rolfe enjoyed the privilege of becoming acquainted with Miss Winter. Morphew took him one afternoon to the house at Earl's Court, where the widow and her daughter were still living, the prospect of Henrietta's marriage having made it not worth while for them to change their abode in the interim. With much curiosity, with not a little mistrust, Harvey entered the presence of these ladies, whose names and circumstances had been so familiar to him for years. Henrietta proved to be very unlike the image he had formed of her. Anticipating weakness, conventionality, and some affectation, he was surprised to meet a lady of simple, grave manners; nervous at first, but soon perfectly self-possessed; by no means talkative, but manifesting in every word a well-informed mind and a habit of reflection. It astonished him that such a man as Cecil Morphew should have discovered his ideal in Henrietta Winter; it perplexed him yet more that Cecil's attachment should have been reciprocated.
Mrs. Winter was a very ordinary person; rather pretentious, rather too fluent of speech, inclined to fretfulness, and probably of trying temper. Having for many years lived much beyond his means (in the manner so often described by Morphew), Mr. Winter had left his family as good as unprovided for. There was money to be divided between mother and daughter, but so small a sum that it could not be regarded as a source of income. To the widow was bequeathed furniture; to Henrietta, a library of two thousand volumes; finally, the testator directed that the sum of five hundred pounds should be spent on a window of stained glass (concerning which full particulars were given), to be set up, in memory of himself, in the church he had been wont to honour with his pious attendance. This item of her husband's will had so embittered Mrs Winter, that she hardly ever spoke of him; if obliged to do so, it was with cold severity that she uttered his name. Immediately, she withdrew all opposition to Henrietta's marriage with the man she had considered so objectionable; she would not have been sorry had her daughter chosen to be married with the least possible delay. As for the future, of course she must live in her daughter's house; together, they must make what they could of their small capital, and hope that Cecil's business would prosper.
Harvey had been acquainted with these facts since Mr. Winter's death. Bearing them in mind as he talked with Henrietta, and exerting his powers of observation to the utmost, he still found himself as far as ever from a definite opinion as to the wisdom of the coming marriage. That Mrs. Winter would be a great obstacle to happiness admitted of no doubt; but Henrietta herself might or might not prove equal to the change of circumstances. Evidently one of her characteristics was an extreme conscientiousness; it explained, perhaps, her long inability to decide between the claims of parents and lover. Her tastes in literature threw some light upon the troubles which had beset her; she was a student of George Eliot, and spoke of the ethical problems with which that author is mainly concerned, in a way suggestive of self-revelation. Conversing for the first time with Morphew's friend, and finding him sufficiently intelligent, she might desire to offer some indirect explanation of the course she had followed. Harvey could not question her sincerity, but she seemed to him a trifle morbid. It might be natural reaction, in a temper such as hers, against the monstrous egotism by which her life had been subdued and shadowed. She inclined to mystical views; mentioned Christina Rossetti as one of her favourites; cared little or nothing for the louder interests of the time. Impossible to detect the colour of her thoughts with regard to Cecil; she spoke of him gravely and gently, but without the least perceptible emotion. Harvey noticed her when Morphew was saying goodbye; her smile was sweet, and perhaps tender, but even then she seemed to be debating with herself some point of conscience. Perhaps Cecil had pressed her hand rather too fervently?
The friends walked away in silence along the dim-lighted street, between monotonous rows of high sombre houses, each with its pillared portico which looked like the entrance to a tomb. Glancing about him with a sense of depression, Harvey wondered that any mortal could fix his pride on the fact of residence in such a hard, cold, ugly wilderness.
'Has she altered much since you first knew her?' he asked at length.
'A good deal,' answered the other. 'Yes, a good deal. She used to laugh sometimes; now she never does. She was always quiet -- always looked at things seriously -- but it was different. You think her gloomy?'
'No, no; not gloomy. It's all natural enough. Her life wants a little sunlight, that's all.'
For the rest, he could speak with sincere admiration, and Cecil heard him delightedly.
The choice of a dwelling was a most difficult matter. As it must be quite a small house, the remoter suburbs could alone supply what was wanted; Morphew spent every Saturday and Sunday in wearisome exploration. Mrs. Winter, though in theory she accepted the necessity of cheapness, shrank from every practical suggestion declaring it impossible to live in such places as Cecil requested her to look at. She had an ideal of the 'nice thinks nothing of. And herself the cause of it, if only I had dared to tell her so!'
'The old story, I suppose,' said Harvey. 'Some other woman?'
'I was very near telling you, that day you came to my beastly garret in Chelsea; do you remember? It was the worst time with me then -- except when you found me in Brussels. I'd been gambling again; you knew that. I wanted money for something I felt ashamed to speak of. -- You know the awful misery I used to suffer about Henrietta. I was often enough nearly mad with -- what is one to call it? Why isn't there a decent name for the agony men go through at that age? I simply couldn't live alone any longer -- I couldn't; and only a fool and a hypocrite would pretend to blame me. A man, that is; women seem to be made different. -- Oh, there's nothing to tell. The same thing happens a hundred times every day in London. A girl wandering about in the Park -- quarrel at home -- all the rest of it. A good many lies on her side; a good deal of selfishness on mine. I happened to have money just then. And just when I had no money -- about the time you met me -- a child was born. She said it was mine; anyway, I had to be responsible. Of course I had long ago repented of behaving so badly to Henrietta. But no woman can understand, and it's impossible to explain to them. You're a beast and a villain, and there's an end of it.'
'And how has this become known to Miss Winter?' Harvey inquired, seeing that Morphew lost himself in gloom.
'You might almost guess it; these things always happen in the same way. You've heard me speak of a fellow called Driffel -- no? I thought I might have mentioned him. He got to know the girl. He and I were at a music-hall one night, and she met us; and I heard, soon after, that she was living with him. It didn't last long. She got ill, and wrote to me from Westminster Hospital; and I was foolish enough to give her money again, off and on, up to only a few months ago. She talked about living a respectable life, and so on, and I couldn't refuse to help her. But I found out it was all humbug, and of course I stopped. Then she began to hunt me, Out of spite. And she heard from someone -- Driffel, as likely as not -- all about Henrietta; and yesterday Henrietta had a letter from her. This morning I was sent for, to explain myself.'
'At one time, then, you had lost sight of her altogether?'
'She has always had money from me, more or less regularly, except at the time that Driffel kept her. But there has been nothing else between us, since that first year. I kept up payments on account of the child, and she was cheating me in that too. Of course she put out the baby to nurse, and I understood it lived on; but the truth was it died after a month or two -- starved to death, no doubt. I only learnt that, by taking a good deal of trouble, when she was with Driffel.'
'Starved to death at a month or two old,' murmured Rolfe. 'The best thing for it, no doubt.'
'It's worse than anything I have done,' said Morphew, miserably. 'I think more of it now than I did at the time. A cruel, vile thing!'
'And you told Miss Winter everything?'
'Everything that can be spoken about. The plain truth of the story. The letter was a lie from beginning to end, of course. It made me out a heartless scoundrel. I had been the ruin of the girl -- a helpless innocent; and now, after all these years, wanted to cut her adrift, not caring what became of her. My defence seemed to Henrietta no defence at all. The fact that there had been such an episode in my life was quite sufficient. Everything must be at an end between us, at once and for ever. She could not live with me, knowing this. No one should learn the cause; not even her mother; but I must never see her again. And so I came away, meaning to end my life. It wasn't cowardice that prevented me; only the thought that she would be mixed up in it, and suffer more than I had made her already.'
Voice and look constrained Harvey to believe this. He spoke more sympathetically.
'It's better that it happened before than after.'
'I've tried to think that, but I can't. Afterwards, I could have made her believe me and forgive me.'
'That seems to me more than doubtful.'
'But why should it have happened at all?' cried Cecil, in the tone of despairing bitterness. 'Did I deserve it? Haven't I behaved better, more kindly, than most men would have done? Isn't it just because I was too good-natured that this has come on me?'
'I myself readily take that view,' answered Rolfe. 'But I can perfectly understand why Miss Winter doesn't.'
'So can I -- so can I,' groaned Cecil. 'It's in her nature. And do you suppose I haven't cursed myself for deceiving her? The thought has made me miserable, often enough. I never dreamt she would get to know of it; but it weighed upon me all the same. Yet who was the cause of it, really and truly? I'm glad I could keep myself from saying all I thought. She wouldn't have understood; I should only have looked more brutal in her eyes. But if she had married me when she might have done! There was the wrong that led to everything else.'
Harvey nodded and muttered.
'At one and twenty she might have taken her own way. I wasn't a penniless adventurer. My name is as good as hers. We could have lived well enough on my income, until I found a way of increasing it, as I should have done. Girls don't know what they are doing when they make men wait year after year. No one can tell them. But I begged -- I prayed to her -- I said all I dared. It was her cursed father and mother! If I had had three thousand, instead of three hundred, a year, they would have rushed her into marriage. No! we must have a big house, like their own, and a troop of thieving servants, or we were eternally disgraced. How I got the money didn't matter, so long as I got it. And she hadn't courage -- she thought it wrong to defy them. As if the wrong wasn't in giving way to such a base superstition! I believe she has seen that since her father's death. And now ----'
He broke down, shaking and choking in an agony of sobs. Harvey could only lay a kind hand upon him; there was no verbal comfort to offer. Presently Cecil talked on again, and so they sat together as twilight passed into darkness. Rolfe would gladly have taken the poor fellow home with him, out of solitude with its miseries and dangers, but Cecil refused. Eventually they walked westward for a few miles; then Morphew, with a promise to see his friend next day, turned back into the crowd.