The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
When he awoke next morning, the weather was so gloomy that he seriously resumed his thought of getting away from London. Why, indeed, did he make London his home, when it would be easy to live in places vastly more interesting, and under a pure sky? He was a citizen of no city at all, and had less desire than ever to bind himself to a permanent habitation. All very well so long as he kept among his male friends, at the club and elsewhere; but this 'society' played the deuce with him, and he had not the common-sense, the force of resolve, to keep out of it altogether.
Well, he must go to his bank this morning, to draw cash.
It was about twelve o'clock when he stood at the counter, waiting with his cheque. The man before him talked with the teller.
'Do you know that the "Britannia" has shut up?'
'The bank? No!'
'But it has. I passed just now, and there were a lot of people standing about. Closed at half-past eleven, they say.
Harvey had a singular sensation, a tremor at his heart, a flutter of the pulses, a turning cold and hot; then he was quite calm again, and said to himself, 'Of course.' For a minute or two the quiet routine of the bank was suspended; the news passed from mouth to mouth; newcomers swelled a gossiping group in front of the counter, and Harvey listened. The general tone was cynical; there sounded scarcely a note of indignation; no one present seemed to be personally affected by the disaster. The name of Bennet Frothingham was frequently pronounced, with unflattering comments.
'Somebody'll get it hot,' remarked one of the speakers; and the others laughed.
Rolfe, having transacted his business, walked away. It struck him that he would go and look at the closed bank, but he did not remember the address; a policeman directed him, and he walked on, the distance not being very great. At the end of the street in which the building stood, signs of the unusual became observable -- the outskirts of a crowd, hanging loose in animated talk, as after some exciting occurrence; and before the bank itself was gathered a throng of men, respectability's silk hats mingling with the felts and caps of lower strata. Here and there a voice could be heard raised in anger, but the prevailing emotion seemed to be mere curiosity. The people who would suffer most from the collapse of this high-sounding enterprise could not reach the scene of calamity at half an hour's notice; they were dwellers in many parts of the British Isles, strangers most of them to London city, with but a vague mental picture of the local habitation of the Britannia Loan, Assurance, Investment, and Banking Company, Limited.
His arm was seized, and a voice said hoarsely in his ear --
'By God! too late.'
Hugh Carnaby had tumbled out of a cab, and saw his friend in the same moment that he got near enough to perceive that the doors of the bank were shut.
'The thieves have lost no time,' he added, pale with fury.
'You had warning of it?'
Hugh pulled him a few yards away, and whispered ----
'Bennet Frothingham shot himself last night.'
Again Harvey experienced that disagreeable heart-shock, with the alternation of hot and cold.
'Where? At home?'
'At the office of Stock and Share. Come farther away. It'll be in the evening papers directly, but I don't want those blackguards to hear me. I got up late this morning, and as I was having breakfast, Sibyl rushed in. She brought the news; had it from some friend of her mother's, a man connected somehow with Stock and Share. I thought they would shut up shop, and came to try and save Sibyl's balance -- a couple of hundred, that's all -- but they've swallowed it with the rest.'
'With the rest?'
Hugh laughed mockingly.
'Of hers. Devilish bad luck Sibyl has. It was just a toss-up that a good deal of my own wasn't in, one way or another.'
'Do you know any more about Frothingham?'
'No. Only the fact. Don't know when it was, or when it got known. We shall have it from the papers presently. I think every penny Mrs Larkfield had was in.'
'But it may not mean absolute ruin,' urged Harvey.
'I know what to think when B. F. commits suicide. We shall hear that some of the others have bolted. It'll be as clean a sweep as our housekeeper's little job.'
'I've had queer presentiments,' Harvey murmured.
'Why, damn it, so have I! So had lots of people. But nobody ever does anything till it's too late. I must get home again with my agreeable news. You'll be going to the club, I dare say? They'll have plenty to talk about for the next month or two.'
'Try to come round tonight to my place.'
'Perhaps. It depends on fifty chances. There's only one thing I know for certain -- that I shall get out of this cursed country as soon as possible.'
They parted, and Harvey walked westward. He had no reason for hurry; as usual, the tumult of the world's business passed him by; he was merely a looker-on. It occurred to him that it might be a refreshing and a salutary change if for once he found himself involved in the anxieties to which other men were subject; this long exemption and security fostered a too exclusive regard of self, an inaptitude for sympathetic emotion, which he recognised as the defect of his character. This morning's events had startled him, and given a shock to his imagination; but already he viewed them and their consequences with a self-possession which differed little from unconcern. Bennet Frothingham, no doubt, had played a rascally game, foreseeing all along the issues of defeat. As to his wife and daughter, it would be strange if they were not provided for; suffer who might, they would probably live on in material comfort, and nowadays that was the first consideration. He was surprised that their calamity left him so unmoved; it showed conclusively how artificial were his relations with these persons; in no sense did he belong to their world; for all his foolish flutterings, Alma Frothingham remained a stranger to him, alien from every point of view, personal, intellectual, social. And how many of the people who crowded to her concert last night would hear the news this morning with genuine distress on her account? Gratified envy would be the prevailing mood, with rancorous hostility in the minds of those who were losers by Bennet Frothingham's knavery or ill-fortune. Hugh Carnaby's position called for no lament; he had a sufficient income of his own, and would now easily overcome his wife's pernicious influence; with or without her, he would break away from a life of corrupting indolence, and somewhere beyond seas 'beat the British drum' -- use his superabundant vitality as nature prompted.
After all, it promised to clear the air. These explosions were periodic, inevitable, wholesome. The Britannia Loan, &c, &c, &c, had run its pestilent course; exciting avarice, perturbing quiet industry with the passion of the gamester, inflating vulgar ambition, now at length scattering wreck and ruin. This is how mankind progresses. Harvey Rolfe felt glad that no theological or scientific dogma constrained him to a justification of the laws of life.
At lunchtime, newspaper boys began to yell. The earliest placards roared in immense typography. In the Metropolitan Club, sheets moist from the press suddenly descended like a fall of snow. Rolfe stood by a window and read quietly. This first report told him little that he had not already learnt, but there were a few details of the suicide. Frothingham, it appeared, always visited the office of Stock and Share on the day before publication. Yesterday, as usual, he had looked in for half an hour at three o'clock; but unexpectedly he came again at seven in the evening, and for a third time at about eleven, when the printing of the paper was in full swing. 'It was supposed by the persons whom he then saw that Mr. Frothingham finally quitted the office; whether he actually left the building or not seems to remain uncertain. If so, he re-entered without being observed, which does not seem likely. Between two and three o'clock this morning, when Stock and Share was practically ready for distribution, a man employed on the premises is said, for some unexplained reason, to have ascended to the top floor of the building, and to have entered a room ordinarily unused. A gas-jet was burning, and the man was horrified to discover the dead body of Mr Frothingham, at full length on the floor, in his hand a pistol. On the alarm being given, medical aid was at once summoned, and it became evident that death had taken place more than an hour previously. That no one heard the report of a pistol can be easily explained by the noise of the machinery below. The dead man's face was placid. Very little blood had issued from the wound, and the shot must have been fired with a remarkably steady hand.'
'A room on the top floor of the building, ordinarily unused ----' What story was it that Alma Frothingham told last night, of her visit to the office of Stock and Share? Rolfe had not paid much attention to it at the time; now he recalled the anecdote, and was more impressed by its significance. That room, his first place of business, the scene of poor beginnings, Bennet Frothingham had chosen for his place of death. Perhaps he had long foreseen this possibility, had mused upon the dramatic fitness of such an end; for there was a strain of melancholy in the man, legible on his countenance, perceptible in his private conversation. Just about the time when Alma laughingly told the story, her father must have been sitting in that upper room, thinking his last thoughts; or it might be that he lay already dead.
Later issues contained much fuller reports. The man who found the body had explained his behaviour in going up to the unused room, and it relieved the dark affair with a touch of comedy. Before coming to work, he had quarrelled with his wife, and, rather than go home in the early hours of the morning, he hit upon the idea of finding a sleeping-place here on the premises, to which he could slink unnoticed. 'It's little enough sleep I get in my own house,' was his remark to the reporter who won his confidence. Clubmen were hilarious over this incident, speculating as to the result of its publication on the indiscreet man's domestic troubles.
It was not unremarked that a long time elapsed between the discovery of the suicide and its being heard of by anyone who had an interest in making it generally known. With the exception of two persons, all who were engaged upon the production of the newspaper went home in complete ignorance of what had happened, so cautiously and successfully was the situation dealt with by the sub-editor and his informant. When, after an examination by the doctor, who had been summoned in all secrecy, it became necessary to communicate with the police, the employees had all gone away, and the printed sheets had been conveyed to the distributing agents. Naturally, the subeditor of Stock and Share' preserved a certain reticence in the matter; but one could hardly be mistaken in assuming that the directors of the Britannia Company -- two or three of them, at all events -- had an opportunity of surveying their position long before the hour when this momentous news got abroad.
With regard to the company's affairs, only conjecture could be as yet indulged in. In view of the immediate stoppage of business, it was pretty safe to surmise that alarming disclosures awaited the public. No one, of course, would be justified in prejudging the case against the unhappy man who, amid seemingly brilliant circumstances, had been driven to so desperate an act.
And so on, and so on, in one journal after another, in edition upon edition. Harvey Rolfe read them till he was weary, listened to the gossip of the club till he was nauseated. He went home at length with a headache, and, having carefully avoided contact with Buncombe or Mrs Handover, made an effort to absorb himself in a volume of Gregorovius, which was at present his study. The attempt was futile. Talk still seemed to buzz about him; his temples throbbed; his thoughts wandered far and wide. Driven to bed long before his accustomed hour, he heard raucous voices rending the night, bellowing in hideous antiphony from this side of the street and the other, as the vendors of a halfpenny paper made the most of what Providence had sent them.
The first thing after breakfast next morning, he posted a line to Hugh Carnaby. 'Is there any way in which I can be of use to you? If you think not, I shall be off tomorrow to Greystone for a few days. I feel as if we were all being swept into a ghastly whirlpool which roars over the bottomless pit. Of course, I will stay if I can do anything, no matter what. Otherwise, address for a week to Basil Morton's.'
This he dropped into the nearest pillar-box, and, as the sun was endeavouring to shine, he walked the length of the street, a pretence of exercise. On his way back he was preceded by a telegraph boy, who stopped at Buncombe's front door, and awoke the echoes with a twofold double knock. Before the servant could open, Harvey was on the steps.
'For me, then.'
He tore open the envelope.
'Could you come at once? Something has happened. -- Abbott.'
The boy wished to know if there would be a reply. Harvey shook his head, and stepped into the hall, where he stood reflecting. What could have happened that Edgar Abbott should summon him? Had his wife run away? -- Ah, to be sure, it must have something to do with Wager's children -- an accident, a death. But why send for him?
He made a little change in his dress, and drove forthwith to Kilburn. As his cab stopped, he saw that all the blinds in the front of the Abbotts' house were drawn down. Death, then, obviously. It was with a painful shaking of the nerves that he knocked for admission.
'Mr. Abbott ----?'
The servant girl, who had a long-drawn face, said nothing, but left him where he stood, returning in a moment with a mumbled 'Will you please to come in, sir?' He followed her to the room in which he had talked with Mrs. Abbott two days ago; and she it was who again received him. Her back to the light, she stood motionless.
'Your husband has telegraphed for me ----'
A voice that struggled with a sob made thick reply ----
'No -- I -- he is dead!'
The accent of that last monosyllable was heart-piercing. It seemed to Harvey as though the word were new-minted, so full it sounded of dreadful meaning.
Mrs. Abbott moved, and he could see her face better. She must have wept for hours.
'He has been taking morphia -- he couldn't sleep well -- and then his neuralgia. The girl found him this morning, at seven o'clock -- there.'
She pointed to the couch.
'You mean that he had taken an overdose -- by accident ----'
'It must have been so. He had to work late -- and then be must have lain down to sleep.'
'A flood of anguish whelmed her. She uttered a long moan, all the more terrible for its subdual to a sound that could not pass beyond the room. Her struggle for self-command made her suffering only the more impressive, the more grievous to behold.'
'Mr. Rolfe, I sent for you because you are his old friend. I meant to tell you all the truth, as I know it. I can't tell it before strangers -- in public! I can't let them know -- the shame -- the shame!'
Harvey's sympathy gave way to astonishment and strange surmise. Hurriedly he besought her not to reveal anything in her present distress; to wait till she could reflect calmly, see things in truer proportion. His embarrassment was heightened by an inability to identify this woman with the Mrs. Abbott he had known; the change in her self-presentment seemed as great and sudden as that in her circumstances. Face and voice, though scarce recognisable, had changed less than the soul of her -- as Harvey imaged it. This entreaty she replied to with a steadiness, a resolve, which left him no choice but to listen.
'I cannot, dare not, think that he did this knowingly. No! He was too brave for that. He would never have left me in that way -- to my despair. But it was my fault that made him angry -- no, not angry; he was never that with me, or never showed it. But I had behaved with such utter selfishness ----'
Her misery refused to word itself. She sank down upon a chair and sobbed and moaned.
'Your grief exaggerates every little fault,' said Harvey.
'No -- you must hear it all -- then perhaps I can hide my shame from strangers. What use would it be if they knew? It alters nothing -- it's only in my own heart. I have no right to pain you like this. I will tell you quietly. You know that he went to Waterbury, on business. Did he tell you? -- it was to buy a share in a local newspaper. I, in my blindness and selfishness, disliked that. I wanted to live here; the thought of going to live in the country seemed unbearable. That Edgar was overworked and ill, seemed to me a trifle. Don't you remember how I spoke of it when you came here the other morning? -- I can't understand myself. How could I think so, speak so!'
The listener said nothing.
'He did what he purposed -- made a bargain, and came back to conclude the purchase by correspondence. But his money -- the small capital he counted upon -- was in "Britannia" shares; and you know what happened yesterday -- yesterday, the very day when he went to sell the shares, thinking to do so without the least difficulty.'
Harvey gave a grim nod.
'He came home, and I showed that I was glad ----'
'No! You accuse yourself unreasonably.'
'I tell you the truth, as my miserable conscience knows it. I was crazy with selfishness and conceit. Rightly, he left me to my cowardly temper, and went out again, and was away for a long time. He came back to dinner, and then the suffering in his face all but taught me what I was doing. I wanted to ask him to forgive me -- to comfort him for his loss; but pride kept me from it. I couldn't speak -- I couldn't! After dinner he said he had a lot of work to do, and came into this room. At ten o'clock I sent him coffee. I wished to take it myself -- O God! if only I had done so! I wished to take it, and speak to him, but still I couldn't. And I knew he was in torture; I saw at dinner that pain was racking him. But I kept away, and went to my own bed, and slept -- whilst he was lying here.'
A rush of tears relieved her. Harvey felt his own eyes grow moist.
'It was only that he felt so worn out,' she pursued. 'I know how it was. The pain grew intolerable, and he went upstairs for his draught, and then -- not having finished his work -- he thought he would lie down on the sofa for a little; and so sleep overcame him. He never meant this. If I thought it, I couldn't live!'
'Undoubtedly you are right,' said Harvey, summoning an accent of conviction. 'I knew him very well, and he was not the man to do that.'
'No? You are sure of it? You feel it impossible, Mr. Rolfe?'
'Quite impossible. There are men -- oh, you may assure yourself that it was pure accident. Unfortunately, it happens so often.'
She hung on his words, leaning towards him, her eyes wide and lips parted.
'So often! I have seen so many cases, in the papers. And he was absent-minded. But what right have I to seek comfort for myself? Was I any less the cause of his death? But must I tell all this in public? Do you think I ought to?'
With comfortable sincerity Rolfe was able to maintain the needlessness of divulging anything beyond the state of Abbott's health and his pecuniary troubles.
'It isn't as if we had lived on ill terms with each other,' said the widow, with a sigh of gratitude. 'Anything but that. Until of late we never knew a difference, and the change that came was wholly my fault. I hadn't the honesty to speak out and say what was in my mind. I never openly opposed his wish to leave London. I pretended to agree to everything, pretended. He showed me all his reasons, put everything simply and plainly and kindly before me, and if I had said what I thought, I feel sure he would have given it up at once. It was in my own hands to decide one way or the other.'
'Why should you reproach yourself so with mere thoughts, of which he never became aware?'
'Oh, it was yesterday, when he came back from the City. He knew then that I was glad he couldn't carry out his purpose. He looked at me as he never had done before -- a look of surprise and estrangement. I shall always see that look on his face.'
Harvey talked in the strain of solace, feeling how extraordinary was his position, and that of all men he had least fitness for such an office. It relieved him when, without undue abruptness, he could pass to the practical urgencies of the case. Were Wager's children still in the house? Alas! they were, and Mrs. Abbott knew not what to do about them.
'You can't think of anyone who would take them -- for a day or two, even?'
Among her acquaintances there was not one of whom she could venture to ask such a service. 'People have such a dread of children.' Her sister was a governess in Ireland; other near relatives she had none. Edgar Abbott's mother, old and in feeble health, lived near Waterbury; how was the dreadful news to be conveyed to her?
Harvey bestirred himself. Here, at all events, was a call to active usefulness; he felt the privilege of money and leisure.
'Can you give me the name of any one at Waterbury who would be a fit person to break the news to Mrs. Abbott?'
Two names were mentioned, and he noted them.
'I will send telegrams at once to both.'
'You will say it was an accident ----'
'That shall be made clear. As for the children, I think I can have them taken away this morning. In the house where I live there is a decent woman who I dare say would be willing to look after them for the present. Will you leave this entirely in my hands?'
'I am ashamed -- I don't know how to thank you.'
'No time shall be lost.' He rose. 'If Mrs. Handover will help us, I will bring her here; then I shall see you again. In any case, of course, I will come back -- there will be other business. But you ought to have some friend -- some lady.'
'There's no one I can ask.'
'Oh, but of all the people you know in London -- surely!'
'They are not friends in that sense. I understand it now -- fifty acquaintances; no friend.'
'But let me think -- let me think. What was the name of that lady I met here, whose children you used to teach?'
'Mrs. Langland. She is very kind and friendly, but she lives at Gunnersbury -- so far -- and I couldn't trouble her.'
Upon one meeting and a short conversation, with subsequent remarks from Edgar Abbott, Rolfe had grounded a very favourable opinion of Mrs Langland. She dwelt clearly in his mind as 'a woman with no nonsense about her', likely to be of much helpfulness at a crisis such as the present. With difficulty he persuaded Mrs. Abbott to sit down and write a few lines, to be posted at once to Gunnersbury.
'I haven't dared to ask her to come. But I have said that I am alone.'
'Quite enough, I think, if she is at home.'
He took his leave, and drove back to Bayswater, posting the letter and despatching two telegrams on the way.
Of course, his visit to Greystone was given up.