The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
Hugh Carnaby was gratified by the verdict of felo de se. He applauded the jury for their most unexpected honesty. One had taken for granted the foolish tag about temporary madness, which would have been an insult to everybody's common-sense.
'It's a pity they no longer bury at four cross-roads, with a stake in his inside. (Where's that from? I remember it somehow.) The example wouldn't be bad.'
'You're rather early-Victorian,' replied Sibyl, who by this term was wont to signify barbarism or crudity in art, letters, morality, or social feeling. 'Besides, there's no merit in the verdict. It only means that the City jury is in a rage. Yet every one of them would be dishonest on as great a scale if they dared, or had the chance.'
'Something in that, I dare say,' conceded Hugh.
He admired his wife more than ever. Calm when she lost her trinkets, Sibyl exhibited no less self-command now that she was suddenly deprived of her whole fortune, about eight hundred a year. She had once remarked on the pleasantness and fitness of a wife's possessing in her own name an income equal to that of her husband; yet she resigned it without fuss. Indeed, Sibyl never made a fuss about anything. She intimated her wishes, and, as they were always possible of gratification, obtained them as a matter of course. Naturally, since their marriage, she and Hugh had lived to the full extent of their means. Carnaby had reduced his capital by a couple of thousand pounds in preliminary expenses, and debt to the amount of two or three hundred was outstanding at the end of the first twelvemonth; but Sibyl manifested no alarm.
'We have been great fools,' she said, alluding to their faith in Bennet Frothingham.
'It's certain that I have,' replied her husband. 'I oughtn't to have let your mother have her way about that money. If there had been a proper settlement, you would have run no risk. Trustees couldn't have allowed such an investment.'
The same day Sibyl bought a fur for her neck which cost fifteen guineas. The weather was turning cold, and she had an account at the shop.
That afternoon, too, she went to see her mother, and on returning at six o'clock looked into the library, where Hugh sat by the fire, a book in his hand. Carnaby found the days very long just now. He shunned his clubs, the Metropolitan and the Ramblers', because of a fear that his connection with the 'Britannia' was generally known; to hear talk on the subject would make him savage. He was grievously perturbed in mind by his position and prospects; and want of exercise had begun to affect his health. As always, he greeted his wife's entrance with a smile, and rose to place a chair for her.
'Thanks, I won't sit down,' said Sibyl. 'You look comfortable.'
She looked at him reflectively, and said in balanced tones ----
'I really think I can boast of having the most selfish mother in England.'
Hugh had his own opinion concerning Mrs. Ascott Larkfield, but would not have ventured to phrase it.
'I never knew anyone who succeeded so well in thinking steadily and exclusively of herself. It irritates me to see her since this affair; I shan't go again. I really didn't know what a detestable temper she has. Her talk is outrageous. She doesn't behave like a lady. Could you believe that she has written a violent letter to Mrs. Frothingham -- "speaking her mind", as she says? It's disgraceful!'
'I'm sorry she has done that. But it isn't every one that can bear injury as you do, Sibyl.'
'I supposed she could behave herself. She raises her voice, and uses outrageous words, and shows temper with the servants. I wouldn't spend a day in that house now on any account. And, after all, I find she hasn't lost much more than I have. She will be able to count on six hundred a year at least.'
Carnaby received the news with a brightened visage.
'Oh come! That's something.'
'She took very good care, you see, not to risk everything herself.'
'It's possible,' said Hugh, 'that she hadn't control of all her money.'
'Oh yes, she had. She let that fact escape in her fury -- congratulated herself on being so far prudent. Really, I never knew a more hateful woman.'
It was said without vehemence, with none of that raising of the voice which so offended her: a deliberate judgment, in carefully chosen words. Hugh tried to smile, but could not quite command his features; they expressed an uneasy thoughtfulness.
'Do you go out this evening?' he asked, after a pause.
'No; I'm rather tired and out of sorts. Dinner is at seven. I shall go to bed early.'
The police had as yet failed to get upon the track of the felonious housekeeper, known as Mrs. Maskell. Mrs. Carnaby's other servants still kept their places, protesting innocence, and doubtless afraid to leave lest they should incur suspicion. Domestic management was now In the hands of the cook. Sibyl always declared that she could not eat a dinner she had had the trouble of ordering, and she seemed unaffectedly to shrink from persons of the menial class, as though with physical repulsion. Perforce she submitted to having her hair done by her maid, but she found the necessity disagreeable.
The dinner was simple, but well cooked. Sibyl never ate with hearty appetite, and declined everything not of excellent quality; unlike women in general, she was fastidious about wine, yet took of it sparingly; liqueurs, too, she enjoyed, and very strong coffee. To a cigarette in the mouth of a woman she utterly objected; it offended her sense of the becoming, her delicate perception of propriety. When dining alone or with Hugh, she dressed as carefully as for a ceremonious occasion. Any approach to personal disorder or neglect was inconceivable in Sibyl. Her husband had, by accident, heard her called 'the best-groomed woman in London'; he thought the praise well merited, and it flattered him.
At table they talked of things as remote as possible from their immediate concerns, and with the usual good humour. When he rose to open the door, Hugh said ----
'Drawing-room or library?'
'Library. You would like to smoke.'
For ten minutes he sat with his arms on the table, his great well-shapen hands loosely clenched before him. He drank nothing. His gaze was fixed on a dish of fruit, and widened as if in a growing perplexity. Then he recovered himself, gave a snort, and went to join his wife.
Sibyl was reading a newspaper. Hugh lit his pipe in silence, and sat down opposite to her. Presently the newspaper dropped, and Sibyl's eyes were turned upon her husband with a smile.
They smiled at each other amiably.
'What do you suggest, Birdie?'
The fondling name was not very appropriate, and had not been used of late; Carnaby hit upon it in the honeymoon days, when he said that his wife was like some little lovely bird, which he, great coarse fellow, had captured and almost feared to touch lest he should hurt it. Hugh had not much originality of thought, and less of expression.
'There are places, you know, where one lives very comfortably on very little,' said Sibyl.
'Yes; but it leads to nothing.'
'What would lead to anything?'
'Well, you see, I have capital, and some use ought to be made of it. Everybody nowadays goes in for some kind of business.'
She listened with interest, smiling, meditative.
'And a great many people come out of it -- wishing they had done so before.'
'True,' said Carnaby; 'there's the difficulty. I had a letter from Dando this morning. He has got somebody to believe in his new smelting process -- somebody in the City; talks of going out to Queensland shortly. Really -- if I could be on the spot ----'
He hesitated, timidly indicating his thoughts. Sibyl mused, and slowly shook her head.
'No; wait for reports.'
'Yes; but it's those who are in it first, you see.'
Sibyl seemed to forget the immediate subject, and to let her thoughts wander in pleasant directions. She spoke as if on a happy impulse.
'There's one place I think I should like -- though I dread the voyage.'
'What has put that into your head?'
'Oh, I have read about it. The climate is absolute perfection, and the life exquisite. How do you get there?'
'Across America, and then from San Francisco. It's anything but a cheap place, I believe.'
'Still, for a time. The thing is to get away, don't you think?'
'No doubt of that. -- Honolulu -- by Jove! it's an idea. I should like to see those islands myself'
'And it isn't commonplace,' remarked Sibyl. 'One would go off with a certain eclat. Very different from starting for the Continent in the humdrum way.'
The more Carnaby thought of it, the better he liked this suggestion. That Sibyl should voluntarily propose so long a journey surprised and delighted him. The tropics were not his favourite region, and those islands of the Pacific offered no scope for profitable energy; he did not want to climb volcanoes, still less to lounge beneath bananas and breadfruit-trees, however pleasant such an escape from civilisation might seem at the first glance. A year of marriage, of idleness amid amusements, luxuries, extravagances, for which he had no taste, was bearing its natural result in masculine restiveness. His robust physique and temper, essentially combative, demanded liberty under conditions of rude or violent life. He was not likely to find a satisfying range in any mode of existence that would be shared by Sibyl. But he clutched at any chance of extensive travel. It might be necessary -- it certainly would be -- to make further incision into his capital, and so diminish the annual return upon which he could count for the future; but when his income had already become ludicrously inadequate, what did that matter? The years of independence were past; somehow or other, he must make money. Everybody did it nowadays, and an 'opening' would of course present itself, something would of course 'turn up'.
He stretched his limbs in a sudden vast relief.
'Bravo! The idea is excellent. Shall we sell all this stuff?' waving a hand to indicate the furniture.
'Oh, I think not. Warehouse it.'
Hugh would have rejoiced to turn every chair and table into hard cash, not only for the money's sake, but for the sense of freedom that would follow; but he agreed, as always, to whatever his wife preferred. They talked with unwonted animation. A great atlas was opened, routes were fingered; half the earth's circumference vanished in a twinkling. Sibyl, hitherto mewed within the circle of European gaieties and relaxations, all at once let her fancy fly -- tasted a new luxury in experiences from which she had shrunk.
'I'll order my outfit tomorrow. Very light things, I suppose? Who could advise me about that?'
Among a number of notes and letters which she wrote next day was one to Miss Frothingham. 'Dear Alma,' it began, and it ended with 'Yours affectionately' -- just as usual.
'Could you possibly come here some day this week? I haven't written before, and haven't tried to see you, because I felt sure you would rather be left alone. At the same time I feel sure that what has happened, though for a time it will sadden us both, cannot affect our friendship. I want to see you, as we are going away very soon, first of all to Honolulu. Appoint your own time; I will be here.'
By return of post came the black-edged answer, which began with 'Dearest Sibyl,' and closed with 'Ever affectionately'.
'I cannot tell you how relieved I am to get your kind letter. These dreadful days have made me ill, and one thing that increased my misery was the fear that I should never hear from you again. I should not have dared to write. How noble you are! -- but then I always knew that. I cannot come tomorrow -- you know why -- but the next day I will be with you at three o'clock, if you don't tell me that the hour is inconvenient.'
They met at the appointed time. Mrs. Carnaby's fine sense of the becoming declared itself in dark array; her voice was tenderly subdued; the pressure of her hand, the softly lingering touch of her lips, conveyed a sympathy which perfect taste would not allow to become demonstrative. Alma could at first say nothing. The faint rose upon her cheek had vanished; her eyes were heavy, and lacked their vital gleam; her mouth, no longer mobile and provocative, trembled on the verge of sobs, pathetic, childlike. She hung her head, moved with a languid, diffident step, looked smaller and slighter, a fashionable garb of woe aiding the unhappy transformation.
'I oughtn't to have given you this trouble,' said Sibyl. 'But perhaps you would rather see me here ----'
'Yes -- oh yes -- it was much better ----'
'Sit down, dear. We won't talk of wretched things, will we? If I could have been of any use to you ----'
'I was so afraid you would never ----'
'Oh, you know me better than that,' broke in Mrs. Carnaby, almost with cheerfulness, her countenance already throwing off the decorous shadow, like a cloak that had served its turn. 'I hope I am neither foolish nor worldly-minded.'
'Indeed, indeed not! You are goodness itself.'
'How is Mrs. Frothingham?'
The question was asked with infinite delicacy, head and body bent forward, eyes floatingly averted.
'Really ill, I'm afraid. She has fainted several times -- yesterday was unconscious for nearly half an hour.'
Sibyl flinched. Mention of physical suffering affected her most disagreeably; she always shunned the proximity of people in ill health, and a possibility of infection struck her with panic.
'Oh, I'm so sorry. But it will pass over.'
'I hope so. I have done what I could.'
'I'm sure you have.'
'But it's so hard -- when every word of comfort sounds heartless -- when it's kindest to say nothing ----'
'We won't talk about it, dear. You yourself -- I can see what you have gone through. You must get away as soon as possible; this gloomy weather makes everything worse.'
She paused, and with an air of discreet interest awaited Alma's reply.
'Yes, I hope to get away. I shall see if it's possible.'
The girl's look strayed with a tired uncertainty; her hands never ceased to move and fidget; only the habits of good breeding kept her body still.
'Of course, it is too soon for you to have made plans.'
'It's so difficult,' replied Alma, her features more naturally expressive, her eyes a little brighter. 'You see, I am utterly dependent upon Mamma. I had better tell you at once -- Mamma will have enough to live upon, however things turn out. She has money of her own; but of course I have nothing -- nothing whatever. I think, most likely, Mamma will go to live with her sister, in the country, for a time. She couldn't bear to go on living in London, and she doesn't like life abroad. If only I could do as I wish!'
'I guess what that would be,' said the other, smiling gently.
'To take up music as a profession -- yes. But I'm not ready for it.'
'Oh, half a year of serious study; with your decided talent, I should think you couldn't hesitate. You are a born musician.'
The words acted as a cordial. Alma roused herself, lifted her drooping head and smiled.
'That's the praise of a friend.'
'And the serious opinion of one not quite unfit to judge,' rejoined Sibyl, with her air of tranquil self-assertion. 'Besides, we have agreed -- haven't we? -- that the impulse is everything. What you wish for, try for. Just now you have lost courage; you are not yourself. Wait till you recover your balance.'
'It isn't that I want to make a name, or anything of that sort,' said Alma, in a voice that was recovering its ordinary pitch and melody. 'I dare say I never should; I might just support myself, and that would be all. But I want to be free -- I want to break away.'
'I have been thinking that I shall beg Mamma to let me have just a small allowance, and go off by myself. I know people at Leipzig -- the Gassners, you remember. I could live there on little enough, and work, and feel free. Of course, there's really no reason why I shouldn't. I have been feeling so bound and helpless; and now that nobody has any right to hinder me, you think it would be the wise thing?'
Alma had occasionally complained to her friend, as she did the other evening to Harvey Rolfe, that easy circumstances were not favourable to artistic ambition, but no very serious disquiet had ever declared itself in her ordinary talk. The phrases she now used, and the look that accompanied them, caused Sibyl some amusement. Only two years older than Alma, Mrs. Carnaby enjoyed a more than proportionate superiority in knowledge of the world; her education had been more steadily directed to that end, and her natural aptitude for the study was more pronounced. That she really liked Alma seemed as certain as that she felt neither affection nor esteem for any other person of her own sex. Herself not much inclined to feminine friendship, Alma had from the first paid voluntary homage to Sibyl's intellectual claims, and thought it a privilege to be admitted to her intimacy; being persuaded, moreover, that in Sibyl, and in Sibyl alone, she found genuine appreciation of her musical talent. Sibyl's choice of a husband had secretly surprised and disappointed her, for Hugh Carnaby was not the type of man in whom she felt an interest, and he seemed to her totally unworthy of his good fortune; but this perplexity passed and was forgotten. She saw that Sibyl underwent no subjugation; nay, that the married woman did but perfect herself in those qualities of mind and mood whereby she had shone as a maiden. It was a combination of powers and virtues which appeared to Alma little short of the ideal in womanhood. The example influenced her developing character in ways she recognised, and in others of which she remained quite unconscious.
'I think you couldn't do better,' Mrs. Carnaby replied to the last question; 'provided that ----'
She paused intentionally, with an air of soft solicitude, of bland wisdom.
'That's just what I wanted,' said Alma eagerly. 'Advise me -- tell me just what you think.'
'You want to live alone, and to have done with all the silly conventionalities and proprieties -- our old friend Mrs. Grundy, in fact.'
'That's it! You understand me perfectly, as you always do.'
'If it had been possible, we would have lived together.'
'Ah! how delightful! Don't speak of what can't be.'
'I was going to say,' pursued Sibyl thoughtfully, 'that you will meet with all sorts of little troubles and worries, which you have never had any experience of. For one thing, you know' -- she leaned back, smiling, at ease -- 'people won't behave to you quite as you have been accustomed to expect. Money is very important even to a man; but to a woman it means more than you can imagine.'
'Oh, but I shan't be living among the kind of people ----'
'No, no. Perhaps you don't quite understand me yet. It isn't the people you seek who matter, but the people that will seek you; and some of them will have very strange ideas -- very strange indeed.'
Alma looked self-conscious, kept her eyes down, and at length nodded.
'Yes. I think I understand.'
'That's why I said "provided". You are not the ordinary girl, and you won't imagine that I feared for you; I know you too well. It's a question of being informed and on one's guard. I don't think there's anyone else who would talk to you like this. It doesn't offend you?'
'Well, then, that's all right. Go into the world by all means, but go prepared -- armed; the word isn't a bit too strong, as I know perfectly. Some day, perhaps -- but there's no need to talk about such things now.'
Alma kept a short silence, breaking it at length with note of exultation.
'I'm quite decided now. I wanted just to hear what you would say. I shan't wait a day longer than I can help. The old life is over for me. If only it had come about in some other way, I should be singing with rapture. I'm going to begin to live!'
She quivered with intensity of feeling, or with that excitement of the nerves which simulates intense feeling in certain natures. A flush stole to her cheek; her eyes were once more full of light. Sibyl regarded her observantly and with admiration.
'You never thought of the stage, Alma?'
'The stage? Acting?'
'No; I see you never did. And it wouldn't do -- of course it wouldn't do. Something in your look -- it just crossed my mind -- but of course you have much greater things before you. It means hard work, and I'm only afraid you'll work yourself all but to death.'
'I shouldn't wonder,' replied the girl, with a little laugh of pride in this possibility.
'Well, I too am going away, you know.'
Alma's countenance fell, shame again crept over it, and she murmured, 'O Sibyl ----!'
'Don't distress yourself the least on my account. That's an understood thing; no mention, no allusion, ever between us. And the truth is that my position is just a little like yours: on the whole, I'm rather glad. Hugh wants desperately to get to the other end of the world, and I dare say it's the best thing I could do to go with him. No roughing it, of course; that isn't in my way.'
'I should think not, indeed!'
'Oh, I may rise to those heights, who knows! If the new sensation ever seemed worth the trouble. -- In a year or two, we shall meet and compare notes. Don't expect long descriptive letters; I don't care to do indifferently what other people have done well and put into print -- it's a waste of energy. But you are sure to have far more interesting and original things to tell about; it will read so piquantly, I'm sure, at Honolulu.'
They drank tea together, and talked, in all, for a couple of hours. When she rose to leave, Alma, but for her sombre drapings, was totally changed from the limp, woebegone, shrinking girl who had at first presented herself.
'There's no one else,' she said, 'who would have behaved to me so kindly and so nobly.'
'Nonsense! But that's nonsense, too. Let us admire each other; it does us good, and is so very pleasant.'
'I shall say goodbye to no one but you. Let people think and say of me what they like; I don't care a snap of the fingers. In deed, I hate people.'
'Both sexes impartially?'
It was a peculiarity of their intimate converse that they never talked of men, and a jest of this kind had novelty sufficient to affect Alma with a slight confusion.
'Impartially -- quite,' she answered.
'Do make an exception in favour of Hugh's friend, Mr. Rolfe. I abandon all the rest.'
Alma betrayed surprise.
'Strange! I really thought you didn't much like Mr. Rolfe,' she said, without any show of embarrassment.
'I didn't when I first knew him; but he grows upon one. I think him interesting; he isn't quite easy to understand.'
'Indeed he isn't.'
They smiled with the confidence of women fancy-free, and said no more on the subject.
Carnaby came home to dinner brisk and cheerful; he felt better than for many a day. Brightly responsive, Sibyl welcomed his appearance in the drawing-room.
'Saw old Rolfe for a minute at the club. In a vile temper. I wonder whether he really has lost money, and won't confess? Yet I don't think so. Queer old stick.'
'By-the-bye, what is his age?' asked Alma unconcernedly.
'Thirty-seven or eight. But I always think of him as fifty.'
'I suppose he'll never marry?'
'Rolfe? Good heavens, no! Too much sense -- hang it, you know what I mean! It would never suit him. Can't imagine such a thing. He gets more and more booky. Has his open-air moods, too, and amuses me with his Jingoism. So different from his old ways of talking; but I didn't care much about him in those days. Well, now, look here, I've had a talk with a man I know, about Honolulu, and I've got all sorts of things to tell you. -- Dinner? Very glad; I'm precious hungry.'