The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
As a last resource against Cecil Morphew's degeneration, Harvey had given up his daily work in Westminster Bridge Road. 'I shall go no more,' he wrote. 'I am quite unable to manage the business alone, and if you won't attend to it, it must smash. But please to remember that I took a share on certain conditions.' For a week he had stayed at home. Morphew did not reply, but the fact that no appeals arrived from the trusty shopman seemed to prove that this last step had been effectual. This morning Rolfe was half-minded to go up to town, but decided that he had better not. Thus the telegram from Oxford and Cambridge Mansions came into his hands at about twelve o'clock.
Alma, after giving Hughie his morning's lesson, had gone out with him for an hour. As soon as she returned, Harvey showed her the message.
'Why does he want both of us to go?' he asked uneasily.
Alma merely shook her head, as if the matter interested her very little, and turned to leave the room again.
'I think I had better go alone,' said Harvey, his eyes on the telegram.
'Just as you like,' answered Alma, and withdrew.
She spent the afternoon much as usual. Rolfe had said at lunch that he would go to Carnaby's immediately after dinner. Mrs. Langland and one of her daughters called; they thought Mrs. Rolfe rather absent-minded, but noticed nothing else. At dinner-time she said carelessly to her husband ----
'I think I had better go with you, as I was asked.'
'No, no; I think not.'
'I had rather, Harvey, if you don't mind. I am quite ready; shall only have to put my hat on.'
He made no further objection, but looked a little displeased, and was silent through the meal.
They travelled by rail to Edgware Road, exchanging scarce a word on the way. On the stairs of the Mansions, Alma found the ascent too much for her; she stopped, and put out a hand to support herself. Rolfe looked round.
'Nothing. You have made me walk rather quickly.'
'I'm sorry. Rest a moment.'
But Alma hastened upwards.
They were shown at once into the drawing-room, where Mrs. Carnaby, who was sitting alone, rose at the announcement of their names. Alma stepped forwards, and seemed about to offer her hand, but she was disregarded. Their hostess stood with her eyes on Rolfe, who, observing the strangeness of this reception, bowed and said nothing.
'It was I who sent the telegram, Mr. Rolfe.' Sibyl's voice had its wonted refinement, and hardly disturbed the silence. 'My husband would have postponed the pleasure of seeing you, but I thought it better you should meet him at once.' Her finger touched an electric bell. 'And I particularly wished Mrs. Rolfe to be with you; I am so glad she was able to come. Pray sit down.'
Harvey, with no thought of accepting this invitation, cast stern glances at the speaker and at his wife.
'What does all this mean, Mrs. Carnaby?'
'Your old friend will tell you.'
The door had opened, and Hugh Carnaby slouched in. At the sight of Alma he stood still. Then meeting Harvey's eyes, he exclaimed, with hoarse indistinctness, 'Rolfe!' Each advanced, and their hands clasped.
'Rolfe! -- old fellow! -- I'm the most miserable devil on earth.'
Tears were in his eyes and in his voice. He held Harvey's hand tight prisoned in both his own, and stood tottering like a feeble old man. 'Old friend, I can't help myself -- don't feel hard against me -- I have to tell you something.'
He looked towards Alma, who was motionless. Sibyl had sat down, and watched as at a play, but with no smile.
'Come into the next room with me,' added the choking voice.
'No. Here, if you please, Hugh,' sounded with gentle firmness.
'Sibyl -- then tell it. I can't.'
'It's a simple story, Mr. Rolfe,' began Sibyl. 'I am sure you are not aware that Mrs. Rolfe, ever since our great misfortune, has lost no opportunity of slandering me. She has told people, in plain words, that she knew me to be guilty of what my husband was for a moment trapped into suspecting. Among others, she told it to her friend Miss Leach. Not long ago, she went so far as to call upon me here and accuse me to my face, telling me I was afraid of what she knew against me. I have thought of taking legal measures to protect myself; perhaps I shall still do so. Today something has come to my knowledge which possibly explains Mrs. Rolfe's singular malice. My husband tells me -- and it's a sad pity he kept it a secret so long -- that there was a third person present that evening when he came upon Mr. Redgrave. I dare say you remember the details of the story told in court. All was perfectly true; but my husband should have added that a woman was with Mr. Redgrave, talking alone with him in the dark; and when the blow had been struck, this woman, who had quickly disappeared from the veranda into the house, was found to be Mrs. Rolfe.'
Hugh's hand had fallen on to his friend's shoulder. He spoke as soon as Sibyl ceased.
'She said she had done no wrong. I had no proof of any -- no proof whatever.'
Rolfe was looking at Alma. She, through the unimpassioned arraignment, stood with eyes fixed upon her enemy, rather as if lost in thought than listening; her mouth was tortured into a smile, her forehead had the lines of age and misery. At the sound of Hugh's voice, she turned to him, and spoke like one recovering consciousness.
'You have told the truth.'
'Why did you compel me to make this known, Mrs. Rolfe?'
'Oh, that's quite a mistake. It was she who made you tell it -- as she will make you do anything, and believe anything, she likes. I can imagine how delighted she was. But it doesn't matter. If you care to know it, either of you' -- she included Carnaby and her husband in one glance, as equally remote from her -- 'I haven't gone about seeking to injure her. Perhaps I let one or two people know what I thought; but they had heard the truth already. It wasn't prudent; and it wasn't a right return for the kindness you had shown me, Mr. Carnaby. But I'm not sure that I should have done better in helping to deceive you. Has she anything more to say? If not, I will leave you to talk about it.'
The tone of this speech, so indifferent that it seemed light-headed, struck the hearers mute. Rolfe, speaking for the first time since Hugh's entrance, said at length, with troubled sternness ----
'Alma, you have repeated your charge against Mrs. Carnaby; what grounds have you for it?'
She looked at him with a vague smile, but did not answer.
'Surely you don't make an accusation of this kind without some proof?'
'Harvey!' The cry quivered on a laugh. 'O Harvey! who would know you with that face?'
Sibyl rose. The men exchanged a quick glance. Rolfe moved to his wife's side, and touched her.
'Yes, yes, I know,' she went on, drawing away -- 'I know what you asked me. Keep quiet, just a little. There are three of you, and it's hard for me alone. It isn't so easy to make you believe things, Harvey. Of course, I knew how it would be if this came out. I can tell you, but not now; some other time, when we are alone. You won't believe me; I always knew I shouldn't be believed. I ought to have been cautious, and have kept friends with her. But it wasn't as if I had anything to hide -- anything that mattered. Let me go, and leave you three to talk. And when you come home ----'
Turning, looking for the door, she fell softly on to her knees. In a moment Harvey had raised her, and seated her in the chair which Hugh pushed forward. Sibyl, motionless, looked on. Seeing that Alma had not lost consciousness, she awaited her next word.
'We will go away,' said Hugh, under his breath; and he beckoned to Sibyl. Reluctantly she took a step towards him, but was stopped by Alma's voice.
'Don't go on my account. Haven't you any question to ask me? When I go, I shan't be anxious to see you again. Don't look frightened; I know what I am talking about. My head went round for a moment -- and no wonder. Stand there, face to face. -- Leave me alone, Harvey; I can stand very well. I want her to ask me anything she has to ask. It's her only chance, now. I won't see her again -- never after this.'
'Mrs. Carnaby,' said Rolfe, 'there must be an end of it. You had better ask Alma what she has against you.'
Sibyl, summoning all her cold dignity, stood before the half-distraught woman, and looked her in the eyes.
'What harm or wrong have I done you, Mrs. Rolfe, that you hate me so?'
'None that I know of, until you brought me here today.'
'But you have said that you think me no better than a guilty hypocrite, and isn't it natural that I should defend myself?'
'Quite natural. You have done it very cleverly till now, and perhaps you will to the end. I feel sure there is no evidence against you, except the word of the woman who told your husband; and even if she comes forward, you have only to deny, and keep on denying.'
'Then why do you believe that woman rather than me?'
Alma answered only with a frivolous laugh. Sibyl, turning her head, looked an appeal to the listeners.
'Mrs. Rolfe,' said Hugh, in a rough, imploring voice, 'have you no other answer? You can't ruin people's lives like this, as if it were sport to you.'
Alma gazed at him, as if she had but just observed his face.
'You have gone through dreadful things,' she said earnestly. 'I'm sorry to cause you more trouble, but the fault is hers. She got that secret from you, and it delighted her. Go on believing what she says; it's the best way when all's over and done with. You can never know as I do.'
She laughed again, a little spurt of joyless merriment. Upon that, in the same moment, followed a loud hysterical cry; then sobs and wailing, with movements as if to tear open the clothing that choked her. Sibyl hastened away, and returned with her vinaigrette, which she handed to Rolfe. But already the crisis was over. Alma lay back in a chair, sobbing quietly, with head bent aside.
Carnaby and his wife, after an exchange of signals, silently left the room. Rolfe paced backwards and forwards for a minute or two, until he heard his name spoken; then he drew near, and Alma looked at him with her own eyes once more.
'I won't go back home unless you wish, Harvey.'
'Do you feel able to go?'
'If you wish me. If not, I'll go somewhere else.'
He sat down by her.
'Are you yourself, Alma? Do you know what you are saying?'
'Yes -- indeed I do. I know I lost myself; my head went round; but I am well again now.'
'Then tell me in a word -- is there any reason why you should not go home with me?'
'What's the use? You won't believe me. You can't believe me!'
He grasped her hand, and spoke imperatively, but not unkindly.
'Stop that! Answer me, and I will believe what you say.'
'There is no reason. I have done no wrong.'
'Then come, if you feel able to.'
She rose without help, and walked to a mirror, at which she arranged her dress. Harvey opened the door, and found all quiet. He led her through the passage, out into the common staircase, and down into the street. Here she whispered to him that a faintness was upon her; it would pass if she could have some restorative. They found a four-wheeled cab, and drove to a public-house, where Rolfe obtained brandy and brought it out to her. Then, wishing to avoid the railway station until Alma had recovered her strength, he bade the cabman drive on to Notting Hill Gate.
'May I sit at your side?' she asked, bending towards him in the darkness, when they had been silent for a few minutes.
Harvey replied by changing his own place.
'I want to tell you,' she resumed, her face near to his. 'I can't wait, and know you are thinking about me. There isn't much to tell. Are you sure you can believe me?'
'I have promised that I will.'
'I don't ask you to be kind or to love me. You will never love me again. Only believe that I tell the truth, that's all. I am not like that woman.'
'Tell me,' he urged impatiently.
'I wanted to make use of Mr. Redgrave to use his influence with people in society, so that I could have a great success. I knew he wasn't to be trusted, but I had no fear; I could trust myself. I never said or did anything -- it was only meeting him at people's houses and at concerts, and telling him what I hoped for. You couldn't take any interest in my music, and you had no faith in my power to make a success. I wanted to show you that you were wrong.'
'I was wrong in more ways than one,' said Harvey.
'You couldn't help it. If you had tried to make me go another way, it would only have led to unhappiness. At that time I was mad to make my name known, and, though I loved you, I believe I could have left you rather than give up my ambition. Mr. Redgrave used to invite people to his house in the summer to afternoon tea, and I went there once with a lady. Other people as well -- a lot of other people. That's how I knew the house. I was never there alone until that last evening. -- Don't shrink away from me!'
'I didn't. Go on, and be quick.'
'I suspected Sibyl from the moment you told me about her husband and Mr Redgrave. You did, too, Harvey.'
'Leave her aside.'
'But it was because of her. I saw she was getting to dislike me, and I thought she knew Mr. Redgrave was doing his best for me, and that she was jealous, and would prevent him -- do you understand? He was my friend, nothing else; but she would never believe that. And a few days before my recital he seemed to lose interest, and I thought it was her doing. Can you understand how I felt? Not jealousy, for I never even liked him. I was living only for the hope of a success. Do you believe me, Harvey?' 'Easily enough.'
Thereupon she related truly, without omission, the train of circumstances that brought her to Wimbledon on the fatal night, and all that happened until she fled away into the darkness.
'It would be silly to say I oughtn't to have gone there. Of course, I knew all I was risking; but I felt I could give my life to detect that woman and have her in my power.
'It's just that I don't understand. If it had been ordinary jealousy -- why, of course ----'
'Men never can understand why women hate each other. She thought herself so superior to me, and showed it in every look and word; and all the time I knew she was a wicked hypocrite.'
'How did you know that?' Rolfe broke in vehemently, staring into her white face as a ray from the street illumined it.
'Oh, I can't tell you!' she replied, in a moaning, quivering voice. 'I knew it -- I knew it -- something told me. But I don't ask you to believe that. Only about myself -- can you believe about myself?'
He replied mechanically, 'Yes.' Alma, with a sigh as much of hopelessness as of relief, lay back and said no more.
At Notting Hill Gate they waited for a train. Alma wandered about the platform, her head bent, silent and heeding nothing. In the railway carriage she closed her eyes, and Harvey had to draw her attention when it was time to alight. On entering the house she went at once upstairs. Harvey loitered about below, and presently sat down in the study, leaving the door ajar.
He was trying to persuade himself that nothing of much moment had come to pass. A doubt troubled him; most likely it would trouble him for the rest of his life; but he must heed it as little as possible. What other course was open to a sensible man? To rave and swear in the high tragic style would avail nothing, one way or the other; and the fact was -- whatever its explanation -- that he felt no prompting to such violence. Two years had passed; the man was dead; Alma had changed greatly, and was looking to new life in new conditions. His worst uneasiness arose from the hysteria which had so alarmingly declared itself this evening. He thought of Bennet Frothingham, and at length rose from his chair, meaning to go upstairs. But just then a step sounded in the hall; his door was pushed open, and Alma showed herself.
'May I come?' she asked, looking at him steadily
He beckoned with his head. She closed the door, and came slowly forward, stopping at a few paces from him.
'I want you to decide tonight. If you think it would be better for both of us, let me go. I shouldn't part from you unkindly; I don't mean that. I should ask you to let me have money as long as I needed it. But you know that I could support myself very soon. If you think it better, do say so, and we'll talk about it as friends.'
'I don't think anything of the kind. I shouldn't let you go, say what you might.'
'You wouldn't? But if you find that you can't believe me ----'
'It would make no difference, even that. But I do believe you.'
She drew nearer, looking wistfully into his face.
'But she has made her husband believe her. You will always think of that -- always.'
'You must remember, Alma, that I have no serious reason for doubting her word.'
She uttered a cry of distress.
'Then you doubt mine! -- you doubt mine!'
'Nonsense, dear. Do try to think and talk more reasonably. What is it to you and me whether she was guilty or not? I may doubt your judgment about her, and yet believe perfectly all you tell me about yourself.'
'Then you think I have slandered her?'
'There's no earthly use in talking about it. You can give no reasons; you have no reasons. Your suspicion may be right or wrong; I don't care the toss of a button. All I know is, that we mustn't talk of it. Sit down and be quiet for a little. Oughtn't you to eat something before you go up?'
Alma put her hands upon his shoulders, bending her face so as to hide it from him.
'Dear -- if you could just say that you believe me; not about myself -- I know you do -- but about her. Could you say that?'
He hesitated, all a man's common-sense in revolt against the entreaty; but he saw her quiver with a sob, and yielded.
'Very well, I will believe that too.'
Her touch became an embrace, gentle and timid; she threw her head back, gazing at him in rapture.
'You will never again doubt it?'
'Oh, you are good! -- you are kind to me, dear! And will you love me a little? Do you think you can, just a little?'
His answer satisfied her, and she lay in his arms, shedding tears of contentment. Then, for a long time, she talked of the new life before them. She would be everything he wished; no moment's trouble should ever again come between him and her. Nothing now had any charm for her but the still, happy life of home; her ambitions were all dead and buried. And Harvey answered her with tenderness; forgetting the doubt, refusing to look forward, knowing only that Alma had a place for ever in his heart.
Tonight she must sleep. Whilst undressing she measured the familiar draught of oblivion, and said to herself: 'The last time.' She lay down in darkness, closed her eyes, and tried to think only of happy things. But sleep would not come, and quiet thoughts would not linger with her. More than an hour must have passed, when she heard Harvey come upstairs. His step paused near her door, and she raised herself, listening. He went on, and his own door closed.
Then, for a short time, she lost herself, but in no placid slumber. Startled to wakefulness, she found that she had left her bed and was sitting on the chair beside it. She felt for the matches, and lit a candle. A great anguish of mind came upon her, but she could not shed tears; she wished to escape from her room to Harvey's, but durst not look out into the dark passage.
When her heart grew quieter, she went again to the drawer in which she kept her remedy for insomnia. Saying to herself, 'The last time -- I shall be well again after tomorrow,' she measured another dose, a larger, and drank it off. Trembling now with cold, she crept into bed again, and lay watching the candle-flame.
Half an hour after this -- it was about two o'clock -- the handle of her door was turned, and Rolfe quietly looked in. He had awoke with an anxious feeling; it seemed to him that he heard Alma's voice, on the borderland of dream, calling his name. But Alma lay asleep, breathing steadily, her face turned from the light. As the candle had nearly burnt down, he blew it out, and went back to his bed.
At breakfast time Alma did not appear. The housemaid said that, half an hour ago, she was still sleeping. When he had had his meal with Hughie, Rolfe went up and entered his wife's room. Alma lay just as he had seen her in the night. He looked close -- laid his hand upon her ----
A violent ringing of the bedroom bell brought up the servant. Harvey met her at the door, and bade her run instantly to the doctor's house, which was quite near.
The doctor could only say, 'We warned her.'