The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the Third
Sicut umbra praeterit dies.
The dial on the front of the old house was just shadowing four o'clock. Harvey Rolfe and his friend Morton sat on the lawn, Harvey reading aloud from a small volume which he had slipped into his pocket before walking over this afternoon. From another part of the garden sounded young voices, musical in their merriment.
It was a little book called 'Barrack-Room Ballads'. Harvey read in it here and there, with no stinted expression of delight, occasionally shouting his appreciation. Morton, pipe in mouth, listened with a smile, and joined more moderately in the reader's bursts of enthusiasm.
'Here's the strong man made articulate,' cried Rolfe at length. 'It's no use; he stamps down one's prejudice -- what? It's the voice of the reaction. Millions of men, natural men, revolting against the softness and sweetness of civilisation; men all over the world; hardly knowing what they want and what they don't want; and here comes one who speaks for them -- speaks with a vengeance.'
'I was waiting for the but,' said Morton, with a smile and a nod.
'The brute savagery of it! The very lingo -- how appropriate it is! The tongue of Whitechapel blaring lust of life in the track of English guns! -- He knows it; the man is a great artist; he smiles at the voice of his genius. -- It's a long time since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Since then Europe has seen only sputterings of temper. Mankind won't stand it much longer, this encroachment of the humane spirit. See the spread of athletics. We must look to our physique, and make ourselves ready. Those Lancashire operatives, laming and killing each other at football, turning a game into a battle. For the milder of us there's golf -- an epidemic. Women turn to cricket -- tennis is too soft -- and tomorrow they'll be bicycling by the thousand; -- they must breed a stouter race. We may reasonably hope, old man, to see our boys blown into small bits by the explosive that hasn't got its name yet.'
'Perhaps,' replied Morton meditatively. 'And yet there are considerable forces on the other side.'
'Pooh! The philosopher sitting on the safety-valve. He has breadth of beam, good sedentary man, but when the moment comes -- The Empire; that's beginning to mean something. The average Englander has never grasped the fact that there was such a thing as a British Empire. He's beginning to learn it, and itches to kick somebody, to prove his Imperialism. The bully of the music-hall shouting "Jingo" had his special audience. Now comes a man of genius, and decent folk don't feel ashamed to listen this time. We begin to feel our position. We can't make money quite so easily as we used to; scoundrels in Germany and elsewhere have dared to learn the trick of commerce. We feel sore, and it's a great relief to have our advantages pointed out to us. By God! we are the British Empire, and we'll just show 'em what that means!'
'I'm reading the campaigns of Belisarius,' said Morton, after a pause.
'What has that to do with it?'
'Thank Heaven, nothing whatever.'
'I bore you,' said Harvey, laughing. 'Well, I read little or nothing, except what I can use for Hughie. We're doing the geography of Asia, and I try to give him a few clear notions. Do you remember the idiotic way in which they used to teach us geography? I loathed the lesson. -- That reminds me; Henrietta Winter is dead.'
'Is she? How did it remind you?'
'Why, because Morphew is going to New Zealand. I had a letter from him this morning. Here it is. "I heard yesterday that H. W. is dead. She died a fortnight ago, and a letter from her mother has only just reached me in a roundabout way. She had been ailing for some time. They suspected drains, and had workmen in, with assurance that all had been put right. Since H.'s death the drains have again been examined, and it was found that the men who came before so bungled and scamped their work that an abominable state of things was made much worse." -- Those fellows will shout nobly for the Empire one of these days! -- "I never saw her, but she spoke of me just before the end; spoke very kindly, says her mother. Damnation! I can write no more about it. I know you don't care to hear from me, but I'll just say that I'm going out to New Zealand. I don't know what I shall do there, but a fellow has asked me to go with him, and it's better than rotting here. It may help me to escape the devil yet; if so, you shall hear. Goodbye!"'
He thrust the letter back into his pocket.
'I rather thought the end would be pyrogallic acid.'
'He has the good sense to prefer ozone,' said Morton.
'For a time, at all events. -- Look behind you. The young rascal is creeping this way. He'd rather sit and listen to our talk than be with the other youngsters. That's wrong, you know.'
Morton look round, and saw Hugh Rolfe. Seven years old now; slight, and with little or no colour in his cheeks; a wistful, timid smile on the too intelligent face. He was gazing towards his father, and evidently wished to draw near, yet feared that his presence might not be welcome. Morton beckoned him, and at once he ran and threw himself upon the grass by his father's side.
'Tired of playing?' asked Harvey, with voice and look which betrayed a tenderness he was always trying to conceal.
'A little tired. We are going to have tea soon. -- May I look at this book, Father?'
'I don't mind. -- Yes, there's a picture; a soldier!'
Interest quickened in the boy's eyes, and he turned eagerly from title-page to text. But just then there came a loud calling of his name from the other end of the garden.
'They want you,' said Harvey. 'Off you go. You can have the book another time.'
Hughie obeyed without hesitation, but his face had a weary look as he walked away to join the other children.
'I must send him to the Grammar-School next year,' said Rolfe. 'It won't do; he must be among boys, and learn to be noisy. Perhaps I have been altogether wrong in teaching him myself. What right has a man to teach, who can't make up his mind on any subject of thought? Of course I don't talk to him about my waverings and doubtings, but probably they affect him.'
'Don't bother your head so much about it,' replied Morton. 'He'll be all right as he grows stronger.'
A servant had brought out two little tables; tea was going to be served in the garden. When it was ready, Mrs. Morton appeared; the men rose as she came towards them, a newspaper in her hand.
'Have you noticed this?' she asked of Rolfe, with a smile, pointing out a paragraph to him.
He read it; first to himself, then aloud.
'Yesterday, at Lady Isobel Barker's house in Pont Street, a meeting was held of ladies interested in a project for the benefit of working-class women in the West End. It is proposed to arrange for a series of lectures, specially adapted to such an audience, on subjects of literary and artistic interest. Unfortunately, Lady Isobel herself was unable to take part in the proceedings, owing to sudden indisposition; but her views were most suggestively set forth by Mrs. Hugh Carnaby, who dwelt on the monotony of the lives of decent working-class women, and showed how much they would be benefited by being brought into touch with the intellectual movements of the day. Practical details of the scheme will shortly be made public.'
Morton chuckled quietly.
'Splendid idea,' said Rolfe. 'Anyone who knows anything of the West End working-class woman will be sure to give it warm support.'
The tea-bell rang; the children came running. Morton's eldest boy, who had been busy in his workshop, exhibited a fine model schooner, just finished. Presently, the hostess asked Rolfe whether he had heard of late from Mr. Carnaby.
'A week ago; the first time for a year. The demand for shares in their company was tremendous, and they are turning out the new bicycle at the rate of hundreds a week.'
'Has he quite got over that illness?'
'Says he suffers much from dyspepsia; otherwise, fairly well. The prospect of money-making on a great scale seems pleasant to him.'
'To Mrs. Carnaby, also, I dare say.'
'No doubt,' replied Rolfe absently.
After tea, a trio of little singers, one of whom was Hughie, gave the songs they had newly learnt with Mrs. Morton, she accompanying them on the piano. Rolfe sat in a corner of the room and listened, as always, with keen pleasure.
'One more,' he asked, when they were about to cease.
They sang that which he liked best ----
Fear no more the heat o' the sun
After it there came a minute's silence; then Harvey rose.
'Say goodbye, Hughie; we must be going home.'
Hand in hand, each thinking his own thoughts, they walked homeward through the evening sunshine.