The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
Major Carnaby, Hugh's brother, was now in England. A stranger to the society in which Mrs. Carnaby had lived, he knew nothing of the gossip at one time threatening her with banishment from polite circles. An honest man, and taking for granted the honesty of his kinsfolk, he put entire faith in Hugh's story, despatched to him by letter a few days after the calamitous event at Wimbledon. On arriving in London, the good Major was pleased, touched, flattered by the very warm welcome with which his sister-in-law received him. Hitherto they had seen hardly anything of each other; but since the disaster their correspondence had been frequent, and Sibyl's letters were so brave, yet so pathetic, that Major Carnaby formed the highest opinion of her. She did not pose as an injured woman; she never so much as hinted at the activity of slanderous tongues; she spoke only of Hugh, the dear, kind, noble fellow, whom fate had so cruelly visited The favourable impression was confirmed as soon as they met. The Major found that this beautiful, high-hearted creature had, among her many virtues, a sound capacity for business; no one could have looked after her husband's worldly interests with more assiduity and circumspection. He saw that Hugh had been quite right in assuring him (at Sibyl's instance) that there was no need whatever for him to neglect his military duties and come home at an inconvenient time. Hugh's affairs were in perfect order; all he would have to think about was the recovery of health and mental tranquillity.
To this end, they must decide upon some retreat in which he might pass a quiet month or two. That dear and invaluable friend, to whom Sibyl owed 'more than she could tell' (much more than she could tell to Major Carnaby), was ready with a delightful suggestion. Lady Isobel (that is to say, her auriferous husband, plain Mr. Barker) had a little house in the north, cosy amid moor and mountain, and she freely offered it. There Hugh and his wife might abide in solitude until the sacred Twelfth, when religious observance would call thither a small company of select pilgrims. The offer was gratefully accepted. Major Carnaby saw no reason for hesitating, and agreed with Sibyl that the plan should be withheld from Hugh until the last moment, as a gratifying surprise. By some means, however, on the day before Hugh's release, there appeared in certain newspapers a little paragraph making known to the public this proof of Lady Isabel's friendship for Sibyl and her husband.
'It's just as well,' said Mrs. Carnaby, after appearing vexed for a moment. 'People will be saved the trouble of calling here. But it really is mysterious how the papers get hold of things.'
She was not quite sure that Hugh would approve her arrangement, and the event justified this misgiving. Major Carnaby was to bring his brother to Oxford and Cambridge Mansions, and, if possible, all were to travel northward that same day. But Hugh, on hearing what was proposed, made strong objection: he refused to accept the hospitality of people quite unknown to him; why, with abundant resources of their own, should they become indebted to strangers? So vehement was his resistance, and so pitiful the state of body and mind which showed itself in his all but hysterical excitement, that Sibyl pretended to abandon the scheme. Today they would remain here, talking quietly; by tomorrow they might have decided what to do.
At ten o'clock next morning, when Sibyl had been up for an hour, Hugh still lay asleep. She went softly into the room, lighted by the sun's yellow glimmer through blind and lace curtains, and stood looking at him, her husband. To him she had given all the love of which she was capable; she had admired him for his strength and his spirit, had liked him as a companion, had prized the flattery of his ardent devotion, his staunch fidelity. To have married him was, of course, a mistake, not easy of explanation in her present mind; she regretted it, but with no bitterness, with no cruel or even unkind thought. His haggard features, branded with the long rage of captivity; his great limbs, wasted to mere bone and muscle, moved her indignant pity. Poor dear old boy!
He believed her; he still believed her. She saw that these two years of misery had made his faith in her something like a religion; he found it his one refuge from despair. 'But for that, Sibyl, I shouldn't be alive now!' She had known self-reproach; now again it touched her slightly, passingly -- poor old boy! But unfaithful to him? To call that unfaithfulness? The idea was too foolish.
Her fears were all outlived. She had dared the worst, and daring was grown an easy habit. But in the life that lay before them, her judgment, her ambitions, must prevail and direct. Yesterday she had no course save yielding; today her rule must begin.
Hugh was stirring. He groaned, and threw out one of his arms; muttered, as if angrily. She touched him, and on the instant he awoke.
'Sibyl? Good God! that's a queer thing -- I dreamt that yesterday was a dream, and that I had woke up to find myself ---- Did you ever do that -- dream you were dreaming?'
She stroked his head, laughing playfully.
'You've had a good long night. Don't you feel better? Shall I bring you some breakfast here?'
'No; I must get up. What's the time? Miles will be coming.'
Sibyl knew that the Major would not be here until two o'clock; but she said nothing, and left him to dress.
On the breakfast-table were delicacies to tempt his palate, but Hugh turned from them. He ate for a few minutes only, without appetite, and, as on the day before, Sibyl was annoyed by the strange rudeness with which he fed himself; he seemed to have forgotten the habits of refinement at table. Afterwards he lighted a cigar, but soon threw it aside; tobacco made him sick. In the drawing-room he moved aimlessly about, blundering now and then against a piece of furniture, and muttering a curse. The clothes he wore, out of his old wardrobe, hung loose about him; he had a stoop in the shoulders.
'Sibyl, what are we going to do?'
For this she had waited. She sat looking at him with a compassionate smile. It was an odd thing if this poor broken-down man could not be made subservient to her will.
'I still think, dear boy, that we ought to accept Lady Isobel's invitation.'
A nervous paroxysm shook him.
'Damn Lady Isobel! I thought that was done with.'
'I don't think you would speak of her like that, Hugh, if you knew all her kindness to me. I couldn't tell you all yesterday. May I now? Or shall I only irritate you?'
'What is it? Of course, I don't want you to offend her. But I suppose she has common-sense?'
'More than most women. There's no fear of offending her. I have another reason. Come and sit quietly by me, and let us talk as we used to do. Do you know, dear, it's a good thing for me that I had powerful friends; I needed all their help against my enemies.'
'Have you forgotten what you yourself said, and felt so strongly, at that time -- what a danger I was exposed to when we determined to tell the whole truth? You knew what some people would say.'
'They've said it, no doubt; and what harm has it done you? Tell me a name, and if it's a man ----'
'Don't! I can't bear to see that look on your face, Hugh. You could do nothing but endless harm, trying to defend me that way. I have lived it down, thinking of you even more than of myself. There was a time when I almost despaired; people are so glad to think evil. If I had been a weak woman, I should have run away and hidden myself; and then everybody would have said, "I told you so." But I had to think of you, and that gave me strength. What could I do? Truth alone is no good against the world; but truth with a handle to its name and with a million of money -- that's a different thing. It was life or death, dear boy, and I had to fight for it. So I went to Lady Isobel Barker. I only knew her by name. She, of course, knew me by name, and cold enough she was when I got admitted to her. But half an hour's talk -- and I had won! She was my friend; she would stand by me, and all the world should know it. Stay! The worst is over, but there's still a good deal to be done. It has to be known that my friends are your friends also. There was a paragraph in the papers yesterday, saying that you and your wife were going as Lady Isobel's guests to that house of hers. She did that for me. And now, do you think we ought to seem even seem -- to slight her kindness?' Hugh was turning about, chafing impotently.
'Then you mean to go on here?' he asked, with half-appealing, half-resentful eyes.
Sibyl made a gesture of entreaty.
'What other life is there for me? What would you have me do?'
His arms fell; for a minute he sat with head hanging, his eyes fixed and blank like those of a drunken man. Then, as if goaded suddenly ----
'Who are these enemies you talk about?'
Sibyl's look wandered; her lips moved in hesitancy.
'Name one of them.'
'Isn't it better to try to forget them?'
'Women, I suppose? -- You say you haven't seen Rolfe. Has he heard this talk about you, do you think?'
'No doubt,' she answered distantly. 'Isn't he coming to see you?'
'If he saw that in the papers, he won't think I am here. But I should like to see him. I've a good mind to telegraph -- but I don't know his address. Yes -- I forgot -- there's a letter from him somewhere.'
'I know the address,' said Sibyl, in the same tone of reserve.
'I should like to see old Rolfe -- poor old Rolfe.'
'Why do you pity him?'
'Oh -- only a way of speaking. You know the address, you say? Has he written? Has she written?'
'You haven't seen her?'
Sibyl evaded the question.
'Doesn't it seem to you rather strange,' she said, 'that the Rolfes should keep away from me -- never call or write?'
Hugh's lips were set. When she repeated her inquiry more urgently, he gave a peevish answer.
'You cared very little about her at the last. And Rolfe -- when a man marries -- No, I won't see him just yet. I'll write to him when we're away.'
'It wouldn't astonish you' -- Sibyl spoke in a thin voice, not quite under her control -- 'if you heard that Mrs. Rolfe had done her best and her worst against me?'
'She? Against you?'
'I don't know that it matters. You said "poor Rolfe". I should fancy he is poor, in every sense. As I have said so much, it's better to let you know all; it will show you that I am not exaggerating what I have gone through. People knew, of course, that she had called herself a friend of mine; and just then she came into notice -- just enough to give her opportunities of being dangerous. Well, I heard before long that she was slandering me to all her acquaintances. Oh, she knew all about me! It was lucky for me I had a credulous husband. And it still goes on. She came here not long ago; yes, she came. She told me that she knew I was afraid of her, and she threatened me.'
Hugh sat staring like a paralytic.
'She? Rolfe's wife did this?'
'Her motive, I don't know. Pure hatred, it seemed. But I've had a strange fancy. She talked about a woman I used to know very slightly, a Mrs. Strangeways, and seemed to be in fear of her; she said that woman and I were circulating stories about her. And I have wondered -- Why are you looking like that?'
'She must be mad. -- I'll tell you. I only wish I had told you before. She was there that night -- at Redgrave's. But for her it would never have happened. I saw him standing with her, by the window of his room -- that is, I saw a woman, but it wasn't light enough to know her; and all at once she ran back, through the open French windows into the house; and then I rushed in and found her there -- it was Rolfe's wife.'
'Why did you keep this from me?'
'She implored me -- vowed there was nothing wrong -- cried and begged. And I thought of Rolfe. I see now that I ought to have told him. The woman must be crazy to have behaved like this to you.'
Sibyl's face shone.
'Now I understand. This explains her. Oh, my dear, foolish husband! After all, you did not tell the whole truth. To spare your friend's feelings, you risked your wife's reputation. And I have been at the mercy of that woman's malice! Don't you think, Hugh, that I have had to bear a little more than I deserved? Your distrust and what came of it -- I have long forgiven you all that. But this -- wasn't it rather too hard upon me?'
He flinched under her soft reproach.
'I couldn't be sure, Sibyl. Perhaps it was true -- perhaps she was only there ----'
A flash of scorn from her eyes struck him into silence.
'Perhaps? And perhaps she meant no harm in lying about me! You will send at once for Rolfe and tell him.'
Hugh moved from her, and stood with his face averted.
'Can you hesitate for a moment?' she asked severely
'Why need I tell Rolfe? Send for her, and say what you like. Won't that be enough? It's awful to think of telling Rolfe. Don't ask me do to that, Sibyl.'
He approached her, voice and attitude broken to humility. Sibyl grew only more resolute.
'You must tell him. Don't you owe it me?'
'By God, I can't do that! -- I can't do that! Have her here, before us both. Shame her and threaten her as much as you like; but don't tell Rolfe. It's like you and me, Sibyl. Suppose she has really done no wrong, and we put that thought into his mind?'
'Have you lost all your senses?' she exclaimed passionately. 'Must I keep reminding you what she has done to me? Is a woman that will behave in that way likely to be innocent? Is her husband to be kept in the dark about her, deceived, cheated? I can't understand you. If you are too cowardly to do your plain duty -- Hugh, how am I talking? You make me forget myself. But you know that it's impossible to spare your friend. It wouldn't be just to him. Here's a form; write the telegram at once.'
'Write it yourself,' he answered, in a low, nerveless voice, moving away again.
It was quickly done, though Sibyl paused to reflect after the first word or two. The message ran thus ----
'I want to see you and Mrs. Rolfe before going away. Please both come this evening if possible. If you cannot, reply when.'
Without showing what she had written, she left the room, and despatched a servant to the post-office.