The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
Uncertain to the last moment, Harvey did at length hurry into his dress clothes, and start for Fitzjohn Avenue. He had little mind for the semi-fashionable crowd and the amateur music, but he could not answer Mrs. Bennet Frothingham with any valid excuse, and, after all, she meant kindly towards him. Why he enjoyed so much of this lady's favour it was not easy to understand; intellectual sympathy there could be none between them, and as for personal liking, on his side it did not go beyond that naturally excited by a good-natured, feather-brained, rather pretty woman, whose sprightliness never passed the limits of decorum, and who seemed to have better qualities than found scope in her butterfly existence. Perhaps he amused her, being so unlike the kind of man she was accustomed to see. His acquaintance with the family dated from their social palingenesis, when, after obscure prosperity in a southern suburb, they fluttered to the northern heights, and were observed of the paragraphists. Long before that, Bennet Frothingham had been known in the money-market; it was the 'Britannia' -- Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company, Limited -- that made him nationally prominent, and gave an opportunity to his wife (in second marriage) and his daughter (by the first). Three years ago, when Carnaby (already lured by the charms of Sibyl Larkfield) presented his friend Rolfe as 'the man who had been to Bagdad', Alma Frothingham, not quite twenty-one, was studying at the Royal Academy of Music, and, according to her friends, promised to excel alike on the piano and the violin, having at the same time a 'really remarkable' contralto voice. Of late the young lady had abandoned singing, rarely used the pianoforte, and seemed satisfied to achieve distinction as a violinist. She had founded an Amateur Quartet Society, whose performances were frequently to be heard at the house in Fitzjohn Avenue.
Last winter Harvey had chanced to meet Alma and her stepmother at Leipzig, at a Gewandhaus concert. He was invited to go with them to hear the boys' motet at the Thomaskirche; and with this intercourse began the change in their relations from mere acquaintance to something like friendship. Through the following spring Rolfe was a familiar figure at the Frothinghams'; but this form of pleasure soon wearied him, and he was glad to escape from London in June. He knew the shadowy and intermittent temptation which beckoned him to that house; music had power over him, and he grew conscious of watching Alma Frothingham, her white little chin on the brown fiddle, with too exclusive an interest. When 'that fellow' Cyrus Redgrave, a millionaire, or something of the sort, began to attend these gatherings with a like assiduity, and to win more than his share of Miss Frothingham's conversation, Harvey felt a disquietude which happily took the form of disgust, and it was easy enough to pack his portmanteau.
Through the babble of many voices in many keys, talk mingling with laughter more or less melodiously subdued, he made his way up the great staircase. As he neared the landing, there sounded the shrill squeak of a violin and a 'cello's deep harmonic growl. His hostess, small, slender, fair, and not yet forty, a jewel-flash upon her throat and in the tiara above her smooth low forehead, took a step forward to greet him.
'Really? How delightful! I shot at a venture, and it was a hit after all!'
'They are just beginning?'
'The quartet -- yes. Herr Wilenski has promised to play afterwards.'
He moved on, crossed a small drawing-room, entered the larger room sacred to music, and reached a seat in the nick of time. Miss Frothingham, the violin against her shoulder, was casting a final glance at the assembly, the glance which could convey a noble severity when it did not forthwith impose silence. A moment's perfect stillness, and the quartet began. There were two ladies, two men. Miss Frothingham played the first violin, Mr. AEneas Piper the second; the 'cello was in the hands of Herr Gassner, and the viola yielded its tones to Miss Dora Leach. Harvey knew them all, but had eyes only for one; in truth, only one rewarded observation. Miss Leach was a meagre blonde, whose form, face, and attitude enhanced by contrast the graces of the First Violin. Alma's countenance shone -- possibly with the joy of the artist, perhaps only with gratified vanity. As she grew warm, the rosy blood mantled in her cheeks and flushed her neck. Every muscle and nerve tense as the strings from which she struck music, she presently swayed forward on the points of her feet, and seemed to gain in stature, to become a more commanding type. Her features suggested neither force of intellect or originality of character: but they had beauty, and something more. She stood a fascination, an allurement, to the masculine sense. Harvey Rolfe had never so responded to this quality in the girl; the smile died from his face as he regarded her. Of her skill as a musician, he could form no judgment; but it seemed to him that she played very well, and he had heard her praised by people who understood the matter; for instance, Herr Wilenski, the virtuoso, from whom -- in itself a great compliment -- Alma was having lessons.
He averted his eyes, and began to seek for known faces among the audience. His host he could not discover; Mr. Frothingham must be away from home this evening; it was seldom he failed to attend Alma's concerts. But near the front sat Mrs. Ascott Larkfield, a dazzling figure, and, at some distance, her daughter Mrs. Carnaby, no shadow of gloom upon her handsome features. Hugh was not in sight; probably he felt in no mood for parties. Next to Mrs. Carnaby sat 'that fellow', Cyrus Redgrave, smiling as always, and surveying the people near him from under drooping brows, his head slightly bent. Mr. Redgrave had thin hair, but a robust moustache and a short peaked beard; his complexion was a rifle sallow; he lolled upon the chair, so that, at moments, his head all but brushed Mrs. Carnaby's shoulder.
Long before the close of the piece, Rolfe had ceased to listen, his thoughts drifting hither and hither on a turbid flood of emotion. During the last passage -- Allegro molto leggieramente -- he felt a movement round about him as a general relief, and when, on the last note, there broke forth (familiar ambiguity) sounds of pleasure and of applause, he at once stood up. But he had no intention of pressing into the throng that rapidly surrounded the musicians. Seeing that Mr. Redgrave had vacated his place, whilst Mrs. Carnaby remained seated, he stepped forward to speak with his friend's wife. She smiled up at him, and lifted a gloved finger.
'No! Please don't!'
'Not sit down by you?'
'Oh, certainly. But I saw condolence in your face, and I'm tired of it. Besides, it would be mere hypocrisy in you.'
Harvey gave a silent laugh. He had tried to understand Sibyl Carnaby, and at different times had come to very different conclusions regarding her. All women puzzled, and often disconcerted, him; with Sibyl he could never talk freely, knowing not whether to dislike or to admire her. He was not made on the pattern of Cyrus Redgrave, who probably viewed womankind with instinctive contempt, yet pleased all with the flattery of his homage.
'Well, then, we won't talk of it,' he said, noticing, in the same moment, that her person did not lack the adornment of jewels. Perhaps she had happened to be wearing these things on the evening of the robbery; but Rolfe felt a conviction that, under any circumstances, Sibyl would not be without rings and bracelets.
'They certainly improve,' she remarked, indicating the quartet with the tip of her fan.
Her opinions were uttered with calm assurance, whatever the subject. An infinite self-esteem, so placid that it never suggested the vulgarity of conceit, shone in her large eyes and dwelt upon the beautiful curve of her lips. No face could be of purer outline, of less sensual suggestiveness; it wore at times an air of cold abstraction which was all but austerity. Rolfe imagined her the most selfish of women, thought her incapable of sentiment; yet how was her marriage to be accounted for, save by supposing that she fell in love with Hugh Carnaby? Such a woman might surely have sold herself to great advantage; and yet -- odd incongruity -- she did not impress one as socially ambitious. Her mother, the ever-youthful widow, sped from assembly to assembly, unable to live save in the whirl of fashion; not so Sibyl. Was she too proud, too self-centred? And what ambition did she nourish?
Or was it all an illusion of the senses? Suppose her a mere graven image, hollow, void. Call her merely a handsome woman, with the face of some remarkable ancestress, with just enough of warmth to be subdued by the vigorous passion of such a fine fellow as Carnaby. On the whole, Rolfe preferred this hypothesis. He had never heard her say anything really bright, or witty, or significant. But Hugh spoke of her fine qualities of head and heart; Alma Frothingham made her an exemplar, and would not one woman see through the vacuous pretentiousness of another?
Involuntarily, he was gazing at her, trying to read her face.
'So you think we ought to go to Australia,' said Sibyl quietly, returning his look.
Hugh had repeated the conversation of last night; indiscreet, but natural. One could not suppose that Hugh kept many secrets from his wife.
'I?' He was confused. 'Oh, we were talking about the miseries of housekeeping ----'
'I hate the name of those new countries.'
It was said smilingly, but with what expression in the word 'hate'!
'Vigorous cuttings from the old tree,' said Rolfe. 'There is England's future.'
'Perhaps so. At present they are barbarous, and I have a decided preference for civilisation. So have you, I am quite sure.'
Rolfe murmured his assent; whereupon Sibyl rose, just bent her head to him, and moved with graceful indolence away.
'Now she hates me,' Harvey said in his mind; 'and much I care!'
As a matter of courtesy, he thought it well to move in Miss Frothingham's direction. The crowd was thinning; without difficulty he approached to within a few yards of her, and there exchanged a word or two with the player of the viola, Miss Leach -- a good, ingenuous creature, he had always thought; dangerous to no man's peace, but rather sentimental, and on that account to be avoided. Whilst talking, he heard a man's voice behind him, pretentious, coarse, laying down the law in a musical discussion.
'No, no; Beethoven is not Klaviermaszig. His thoughts ate symphonic -- they need the orchestra. . . . A string quartet is to a symphony what a delicate water-colour is to an oil-painting. . . . Oh, I don't care for his playing at all! he has not -- what shall I call it? -- Sehnsucht.'
Rolfe turned at length to look. A glance showed him a tall, bony young man, with a great deal of disorderly hair, and shaven face; harsh-featured, sensual, utterly lacking refinement. He inquired of Miss Leach who this might be, and learnt that the man's name was Felix Dymes.
'Isn't he a humbug?'
The young lady was pained and shocked.
'Oh, he is very clever,' she whispered. 'He has composed a most beautiful song -- don't you know it? -- "Margot". It's very likely that Topham may sing it at one of the Ballad Concerts.'
'Now I've offended her,' said Rolfe to himself. 'No matter.'
Seeing his opportunity, he took a few steps, and stood before Alma Frothingham. She received him very graciously, looking him straight in the face, with that amused smile which he could never interpret. Did it mean that she thought him 'good fun'? Had she discussed him with Sibyl Carnaby, and heard things of him that moved her mirth? Or was it pure good nature, the overflowing spirits of a vivacious girl?
'So good of you to come, Mr. Rolfe. And what did you think of us?'
This was characteristic. Alma delighted in praise, and never hesitated to ask for it. She hung eagerly upon his unready words.
'I only show my ignorance when I talk of music. Of course, I liked it.'
'Ah! then you didn't think it very good. I see ----'
'But I did! Only my opinion is worthless.'
Alma looked at him, seemed to hesitate, laughed; and Harvey felt the conviction that, by absurd sincerity, he had damaged himself in the girl's eyes. What did it matter?
'I've been practising five hours a day,' said Alma, in rapid, ardent tones. Her voice was as pleasant to the ear as her face to look upon; richly feminine, a call to the emotions. 'That isn't bad, is it?'
'Oh, music is my religion, you know. I often feel sorry I haven't to get my living by it; it's rather wretched to be only an amateur, don't you think?'
'Religion shouldn't be marketable,' joked Harvey.
'Oh, but you know what I mean. You are so critical, Mr. Rolfe. I've a good mind to ask Father to turn me out of house and home, with just half-a-crown. Then I might really do something. It would be splendid! -- Oh, what do you think of that shameful affair in Hamilton Terrace? Mrs Carnaby takes it like an angel. They're going to give up housekeeping. Very sensible, I say. Everybody will do it before long. Why should we be plagued with private houses?'
'There are difficulties ----'
'Of course there are, and men seem to enjoy pointing them out. They think it a crime if women hate the bother and misery of housekeeping.'
'I am not so conservative.'
He tried to meet her eyes, which were gleaming fixedly upon him; but his look fell, and turned as quickly from the wonderful white shoulders, the throbbing throat, the neck that showed its colour against swan's-down. To his profound annoyance, someone intervened -- a lady bringing someone else to be introduced. Rolfe turned on his heel, and was face to face with Cyrus Redgrave. Nothing could be suaver or more civil than Mr Redgrave's accost; he spoke like a polished gentleman, and, for aught Harvey knew, did not misrepresent himself. But Rolfe had a prejudice; he said as little as possible, and moved on.
In the smaller drawing-room he presently conversed with his hostess. Mrs Frothingham's sanguine and buoyant temper seemed proof against fatigue; at home or as a guest she wore the same look of enjoyment; vexations, rivalries, responsibilities, left no trace upon her beaming countenance. Her affections were numberless; her ignorance, as an observer easily discovered, was vast and profound; but the desire to please, the tact of a 'gentlewoman, and thorough goodness of heart, appeared in all her sayings and doings; she was never offensive, never wholly ridiculous. Small-talk flowed from her with astonishing volubility, tone and subject dictated by the characteristics of the person with whom she gossiped; yet her preference was for talk on homely topics, reminiscences of a time when she knew not luxury. 'You may not believe it,' she said to him in a moment of confidence, 'but I assure you I am a very good cook.' Rolfe did not quite credit the assurance, but he felt it not improbable that Mrs. Frothingham would accept a reverse of fortune with much practical philosophy; he could imagine her brightening a small house with the sweetness of her disposition, and falling to humble duties with sprightly goodwill. In this point she was a noteworthy exception among the prosperous women of his acquaintance.
'And what have you been doing?' she asked, not as a mere phrase of civility, but in a voice and which a look of genuine interest.
'Wasting my time, for the most part.'
'So you always say; but it can't be true. I know the kind of man who wastes his time, and you're not a bit like him. Nothing would gratify my curiosity more than to be able to watch you through a whole day. What did you think of the quartet?'
'I'm sure they would make wonderful progress, and Alma does work so hard! I'm only afraid she may injure her health.'
'I see no sign of it yet.'
'She's certainly looking very well,' said Mrs. Frothingham, with manifest pride and affection. Of Alma she always spoke thus; nothing of the step-mother was ever observable.
'Mr. Frothingham is not here this evening!'
'I really don't know why,' replied the hostess, casting her eyes round the room. 'I quite expected him. But he has been dreadfully busy the last few weeks. And people do worry him so. Somebody called whilst we were at dinner, and refused to believe that Mr. Frothingham was not at home, and made quite a disturbance at the door -- so they told me afterwards. I'm really quite nervous sometimes; crazy people are always wanting to see him -- people who really ought not to be at large. No doubt they have had their troubles, poor things; and everybody thinks my husband can make them rich if only he chooses.'
A stout, important-looking man paused before Mrs. Frothingham, and spoke familiarly.
'I'm looking for B. F. Hasn't he put in an appearance yet?'
'I really hope he's enjoying himself somewhere else,' replied the hostess, rising, with a laugh. 'You leave him no peace.'
The stout man did not smile, but looked gravely for a moment at Rolfe, a stranger to him, and turned away.
Herr Wilenski, the virtuoso, was about to play something; the guests moved to seat themselves. Rolfe, however, preferred to remain in this room, where he could hear the music sufficiently well. He had not quite recovered from his chagrin at the interruption of his talk with Alma -- a foolishness which made him impatient with himself. At the same time, he kept thinking of the 'crazy people' of whom Mrs. Frothingham spoke so lightly. A man such as Bennet Frothingham must become familiar with many forms of 'craziness', must himself be responsible for a good deal of folly such as leads to downright aberration. Recalling Mrs. Frothingham's innocent curiosity concerning his own life, Harvey wished, in turn, that it were possible for him to watch and comprehend the business of a great finance-gambler through one whole day. What monstrous cruelties and mendacities might underlie the surface of this gay and melodious existence! Why was the stout man looking for 'B. F.'? Why did he turn away with such a set countenance? Why was that old bore at the club in such a fidget about the 'Britannia'?
Ha! There indeed sounded the violin! It needed no technical intelligence to distinguish between the playing of Wilenski and that of Alma Frothingham. Her religion, forsooth! Herr Wilenski, one might be sure, talked little enough about his 'religion'. What did Alma think as she listened? Was she overcome by the despair of the artist-soul struggling in its immaturity? Or did she smile, as ever, and congratulate herself on the five hours a day, and tell herself how soon she would reach perfection if there were real necessity for it? Hopeless to comprehend a woman. The senses warred upon the wit; seized by calenture, one saw through radiant mists.
He did not like the name 'Alma'. It had a theatrical sound, a suggestion of unreality.
The maestro knew his audience; he played but for a quarter of an hour, and the babble of tongues began again. Rolfe, sauntering before the admirable pictures which hung here as a mere symbol of wealth, heard a voice at his shoulder.
'I'm very thirsty. Will you take me down?'
His heart leapt with pleasure; Alma must have seen it in his eyes as he turned.
'What did Wilenski play?' he asked confusedly, as they moved towards the staircase.
'Something of Grieg's Mr. Wilbraham is going to sing "Wie bist du, meine Koniginn" -- Brahms, you know. But you don't really care for music.'
'What an astounding accusation!'
'You don't really care for it. I've known that since we were at Leipzig.'
'I have never pretended to appreciate music as you do. That needs education, and something more. Some music wearies me, there's no denying it.'
'You like the Melody in F?'
'Yes, I do.'
Alma laughed, with superiority, but not ill-naturedly.
'And I think it detestable -- but of course that doesn't matter. When I talk about books you think me a nincompoop. -- That word used to amuse me so when I was a child. I remember laughing wildly whenever I saw or heard it. It is a funny word, isn't it?'
'The last I should apply to you,' said Rolfe in an absent undertone, as he caught a glimpse of the white teeth between her laughing lips.
They entered the supper-room, where as yet only a few people were refreshing themselves. Provisions for a regiment spread before the gaze; delicacies innumerable invited the palate: this house was famed for its hospitable abundance. Alma, having asked her companion to get her some lemonade, talked awhile with two ladies who had begun to eat and drink in a serious spirit; waiting for her, Rolfe swallowed two glasses of wine to counteract a certain dullness and literalness which were wont to possess him in such company.
'I won't sit down,' she said. 'No, thanks, nothing to eat. I wonder where Papa is? Now, he enjoys music, though he is no musician. I think Papa a wonderful man. For years he has never had more than six hours sleep; and the work he does! He can't take a holiday; idleness makes him ill. We were down in Hampshire in July with some relatives of Mamma's -- the quietest, sleepiest village -- and Papa tried to spend a few days with us, but he had to take to flight; he would have perished of ennui.'
'Life at high pressure,' remarked Rolfe, as the least offensive comment he could make.
'Yes; and isn't it better than life at low?' exclaimed the girl, with animation. 'Most people go through existence without once exerting all the powers that are in them. I should hate to die with the thought that I hadn't really lived myself out. A year ago Papa took me into the City to see the offices of Stock and Share, just after the paper started. It didn't interest me very much; but I pretended it did, because Papa always takes an interest in my affairs. But I found there was something else. After we had seen the printing machinery, and so on, he took me up to the top of the building into a small room, where there was just a table and a chair and a bookshelf; and he told me it was his first office, the room in which he had begun business thirty years ago. He has always kept it for his own, and just as it was -- a fancy of his. There's no harm in my telling you; he's very proud of it, and so am I. That's energy!'
'Very interesting indeed.'
'I must go up again,' she added quickly. 'Oh, there's miss Beaufoy; do let me introduce you to Miss Beaufoy.'
She did so, unaware of Rolfe's groaning reluctance, and at once disappeared.
The supper-room began to fill. As soon as he could escape from Miss Beaufoy, who had a cavalier of her own, Harvey ascended the stairs again, and found a quiet corner, where he sat for a quarter of an hour undisturbed. Couples and groups paused to talk near him, and whenever he caught a sentence it was the merest chatter, meaningless repetition of commonplaces which, but for habit, must have been an unutterable weariness to the least intelligent of mortals. He was resolved never to come here again; never again to upset his peace of mind and sully his self-respect by grimacing amid such a crowd. He enjoyed human fellowship, timely merry-making; but to throng one's house with people for whom, with one or two exceptions, one cared not a snap of the fingers, what was this but sheer vulgarism? As for Alma Frothingham, long ago he had made up his mind about her. Naturally, inevitably, she absorbed the vulgarity of her atmosphere. All she did was for effect: it was her cue to pose as the artist; she would keep it up through life, and breathe her last, amid perfumes, declaring that she had 'lived herself out'.
In his peevishness he noticed that women came up from supper with flushed cheeks and eyes unnaturally lustrous. What a grossly sensual life was masked by their airs and graces! He had half a mind to start tomorrow for the Syrian deserts.
'Do let us see you again soon,' said his hostess, as he took leave of her. 'Come in at five o'clock on Wednesday, that's our quiet day; only a few of our real friends. We shall be in town till Christmas, for certain.'
On the stairs he passed Mr. Felix Dymes, the composer of 'Margot'.
'Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world,' Mr. Dymes was saying, 'to compose a song that will be popular. I'll give you the recipe, and charge nothing You must have a sudden change to the minor, and a waltz refrain -- that's all. Oh yes, there's money in it. I know a man who ----'
Rolfe had never left the house in such a bad temper.