The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
About the middle of December, Alma Frothingham left England, burning with a fever of impatience, resenting all inquiry and counsel, making pretence of settled plans, really indifferent to everything but the prospect of emancipation. The disaster that had befallen her life, the dishonour darkening upon her name, seemed for the moment merely a price paid for liberty. The shock of sorrow and dismay had broken innumerable bonds, overthrown all manner of obstacles to growth of character, of power. She gloried in a new, intoxicating sense of irresponsibility. She saw the ideal life in a release from all duty and obligation -- save to herself.
Travellers on that winter day from Antwerp into Germany noticed the English girl, well dressed, and of attractive features, whose excited countenance and restless manner told of a journey in haste, with something most important, and assuredly not disagreeable, at the end of it. She was alone, and evidently quite able to take care of herself. Unlike the representative English Fraulein, she did not reject friendly overtures from strangers; her German was lame, but she spoke it with enjoyment, laughing at her stumbles and mistakes. With her in the railway carriage she kept a violin-case. A professional musician? 'Noch nicht' was her answer, with a laugh. She knew Leipzig? Oh dear, yes, and many other parts of Germany; had travelled a good deal; was an entirely free and independent person, quite without national prejudice, indeed without prejudice of any kind. And in the same breath she spoke slightingly, if not contemptuously, of England and everything English.
At Leipzig she stayed until the end of April, living with a family named Gassner, people whom she had known for some years. Only on condition that she would take up her abode with this household had Mrs. Frothingham consented to make her an allowance and let her go abroad. Alma fretted at the restriction; she wished to have a room of her own in a lodging-house; but the family life improved her command of German -- something gained. To music, meanwhile, she gave very little attention, putting off with one excuse after another the beginning of her serious studies. She seemed to have quite forgotten that music was her 'religion', and, for the matter of that, appeared to have no religion at all. 'Life' was her interest, her study. She made acquaintances, attended concerts and the theatre, read multitudes of French and German novels. But her habits were economical. All the pleasures she desired could be enjoyed at very small expense, and she found her stepmother's remittances more than sufficient.
In April she gained Mrs. Frothingham's consent to her removal from Leipzig to Munich. A German girl with whom she had made friends was going to Munich to study art. For reasons, vague even to herself (so ran her letters to Mrs. Frothingham), she could not 'settle' at Leipzig. The climate did not seem to suit her. She had suffered from bad colds, and, in short, was doing no good. At Munich lived an admirable violinist, a friend of Herr Wilenski's, who would be of great use to her. 'In short, dear Mamma, doesn't it seem to you rather humiliating that at the age of four-and-twenty I should be begging for permission to go here and there, do this or that? I know all your anxieties about me, and I am very grateful, and I feel ashamed to be living at your expense, but really I must go about making a career for myself in my own way.' Mrs. Frothingham yielded, and Alma took lodgings in Munich together with her German friend.
English newspapers were now reporting the trial of the directors of the Britannia Company, for to this pass had things come. The revelations of the law-court satisfied public curiosity, and excited indignant clamour. Alma read, and tried to view the proceedings as one for whom they had no personal concern; but her sky darkened, her heart grew heavy. The name of Bennet Frothingham stood for criminal recklessness, for huge rascality; it would be so for years to come. She had no courage to take up her violin; the sound of music grew hateful to her, as if mocking at her ruined ambition.
Three months had passed since she received her one and only letter from Honolulu; two months since she had written to Sibyl. On a blue day of spring, when despondency lowered upon her, and all occupation, all amusements seemed a burden, she was driven to address her friend on the other side of the world, to send a cry of pain and hopelessness to the dream-island of the Pacific.
'What is the use of working at music? The simple truth is, that since I left England I have given it up. I am living here on false pretences; I shall never care to play the violin again. What sort of a reception could I expect from an English audience? If I took another name, of course it would get known who I was, and people would just come to stare at me -- pleasant thought! And I have utterly lost confidence in myself. The difficulties are great, even where there is great talent, and I feel I have nothing of the kind. I might toil for years, and should do no good. I feel I am not an artist -- I am beaten and disgraced. There's nothing left but to cry and be miserable, like any other girl who has lost her money, her hopes, everything. Why don't you write to me? If you wait till you get this, it will be six or seven weeks before I could possibly hear. And a letter from you would do me so much good.'
Some one knocked at her door. She called 'Herein!' and there appeared a little boy, the child of her landlady, who sometimes ran errands for her. He said that a gentleman was asking to see her.
'Nein. Ein Englander, glaub'ich, und ein schnurriges Deutsch ist's, das er verbricht!'
Alma started up, shut her unfinished letter in the blotting-case, and looked anxiously about the room.
'What is his name? Ask him to give you his name.'
The youngster came back with a card, and Alma was astonished to read the name of 'Mr. Felix Dymes'. Why, she had all but forgotten the man's existence. How came he here? What right had he to call? And yet she was glad -- nay, delighted. Happily, she had the sitting-room (shared with her art-studying friend) to herself this morning.
'Bring him up here,' she said to the boy hurriedly, 'and ask him to wait a minute for me.'
And she escaped to make a rapid change of dress. For Alma was not like Sibyl Carnaby in perpetual regard for personal finish; she dressed carelessly, save when the occasion demanded pains; she liked the ease of gowns and slippers, of loose hair and free throat; and this taste had grown upon her during the past months. But she did not keep Mr. Dymes waiting very long, and on her entrance he gazed at her with very frank admiration. Frank, too, was his greeting -- that of a very old and intimate friend, rather than of a drawing-room acquaintance. He came straight from England, he said; a spring holiday, warranted by the success of his song 'Margot', which the tenor, Topham, had sung at St James's Hall. A few days ago he had happened to see Miss Leach, who gave him Miss Frothingham's address, and he could not deny himself the pleasure of calling. Chatting thus, he made himself comfortable in a chair, and Alma sat over against him. The man was loud, conceited, vulgar; but, after all, he composed very sweet music, which promised to take the public ear; and he brought with him a waft from the happiness of old days; and how could one expect small proprieties of a bohemian, an artist? Alma began to talk eagerly, joyously.
'And what are you doing, Miss Frothingham?'
'Oh, fiddling a little. But I haven't been very well.'
'I can see that. Yet in another sense you look a better than ever.'
He began to hum an air, glancing round the room.
'You haven't a piano. Just listen to this; how do you think it will do?' He hummed through a complete melody. 'Came into my head last night. Wants rather sentimental words -- the kind of thing that goes down with the British public. Rather a good air, don't you think?'
Felix Dymes had two manners of conversation. In a company at all ceremonious, and when it behoved him to make an impression, he talked as the artist and the expert in music, with many German phrases, which he pronounced badly, to fill up the gaps in his knowledge. His familiar stream of talk was very different: it discarded affectation, and had a directness, a vigour, which never left one in doubt as to his actual views of life. How melody of any kind could issue from a nature so manifestly ignoble might puzzle the idealist. Alma, who had known a good many musical people, was not troubled by this difficulty; in her present mood, she submitted to the arrogance of success, and felt a pleasure, an encouragement, in Dymes's bluff camaraderie.
'Let me try to catch it on the violin,' she said when, with nodding head and waving arm, he had hummed again through his composition.
She succeeded in doing so, and Dymes raised his humming to a sentimental roar, and was vastly pleased with himself.
'I like to see you in a place like this,' he said. 'Looks more business-like -- as if you really meant to do something. Do you live here alone?'
'With a friend.'
Something peculiar in Dymes's glance caused her to add, 'A German girl, an art student.' Whereat the musician nodded and smiled.
'And what's your idea? Come now, let's talk about it. I wonder whether I could be of any use to you -- awfully glad if I could.'
Alma was abashed, stammered her vague projects, and reddened under the man's observant eye.
'Look here,' he cried, with his charming informality, 'didn't you use to sing? Somebody told me you had a pretty good voice.'
'Oh, that was long ago.'
'I wish you'd let me hear you.'
'No, no! I don't sing at all.'
'Pity, if it's true. I want to write a serio-comic opera, a new sort of thing, and it struck me you were just cut out for that kind of singing. You have the face and the -- you know -- the refinement; sort of thing not easy to find. It's a poor chance, I'm afraid, coming out as a violinist.'
Half inclined to resent his impertinence, yet subdued by the practical tone and air of superior knowledge, Alma kept a grave face. Dymes, crossing his legs, went on with talk of projects he had in view, all intended to be lucrative. He had capital; nothing great, just a comfortable sum which he was bent on using to the best advantage. His songs would presently be bringing him in a few hundreds a year -- so he declared -- and his idea of life was to get as much enjoyment as possible without working over-hard for it. The conversation lasted for a couple of hours, Dymes growing even more genial and confidential, his eyes seldom moving from Alma's face.
'Well,' he said at length, rising, 'it's very jolly to see you again, after all this time. I shall be staying here for a few days. You'll let me call tomorrow?'
At once glad and sorry to see him go, Alma laughingly gave the desired permission. When, that evening, she looked at her unfinished letter, it seemed such a miserable whine that she tore it up in annoyance. Dymes's visit had done her good; she felt, if not a renewal of hope, at all events the courage which comes of revived spirits.
The next day she awaited his arrival with a pleasant expectation. He entered humming an air -- another new composition -- which again she caught from him and played on the violin.
'Good, don't you think? I'm in great vein just now -- always am in the spring, and when the weather's fine. I say, you're looking much better today -- decidedly more fit. What do you do here for exercise? Do you go to the Englische Garten? Come now, will you? Let's have a drive.'
With sudden coldness Alma excused herself. The musician scrutinised her rapidly, bit his lip, and looked round to the window; but in a moment he had recovered his loud good humour.
'You'll hardly believe it, but it's the plain truth, that I came all this way just to see you. I hadn't thought of coming to Germany till I met Miss Leach and heard about you. Now I'm so far, I might as well go on into Italy, and make a round of it. I wish you were coming too.'
Alma made no reply. He scrutinised her as before, and his features worked as if with some emotion. Then, abruptly, he put a blunt question.
'Do you think people who go in for music, art, and that kind of thing, ought to marry?'
'I never thought about it at all,' Alma replied, with a careless laugh, striking a finger across the strings of the violin which she held on her lap.
'We're generally told they shouldn't,' pursued Dymes, in a voice which had lost its noisy confidence, and was a little uncertain. 'But it all depends, you know. If people mean by marriage the ordinary kind of thing -- of course, that's the deuce. But it needn't be. Lots of people marry nowadays and live in a rational way -- no house, or bother of that kind; just going about as they like, and having a pleasant, reasonable life. It's easy enough with a little money. Sometimes they're a good deal of help to each other; I know people who manage to be.'
'Oh, I dare say,' said Alma when he paused. 'It all depends, as you say. You're going on to Italy at once?'
Her half-veiled eyes seemed to conceal amusement, and there was good-humoured disdain in the setting of her lips. With audacity so incredible that it all but made her laugh, Dymes, not heeding her inquiry, jerked out the personal application of his abstract remarks. Yes, it was a proposal of marriage -- marriage on the new plan, without cares or encumbrance; a suggestion rather than a petition; off-hand, unsentimental, yet perfectly serious, as look and tone proclaimed.
'There's much to be said for your views,' Alma replied, with humorous gravity, 'but I haven't the least intention of marrying.'
'Well, I've mentioned it.' He waved his hand as if to overcome an unwonted embarrassment. 'You don't mind?'
'Not a bit.'
'I hope we shall meet again before long, and -- some day, you know -- you may see the thing in another light. You mustn't think I'm joking.'
'But it is rather a joke.'
'No; I never was more in earnest about anything, believe me. And I'm convinced it's a good idea. However, you know one thing -- if I can be of use to you, I shall. I'll think it over -- your chances and so on; something may suggest itself. You're not cut out for everyday things.'
'I try to hope not.'
'Ah, but you can take my word for it.'
With this comforting assurance, Felix Dymes departed. No melodrama; a hand-grip, a significant nod, a loud humming as he went downstairs.
Alma presently began a new letter to Sibyl Carnaby. It was written in a cheery humour, though touched by the shadow of distressful circumstance. She told the story of Mr. Dymes's visit, and made merry over it. 'I am sure this is the very newest thing in "proposals". Though I live in such a dull, lonely way, it has made me feel that I am still in touch with civilisation. And really, if the worst come to the worst -- but it's dangerous to joke about such things.' She touched lightly on the facts of her position. 'I'm afraid I have not been doing very much. Perhaps this is a fallow time with me; I may be gaining strength for great achievements. Unfortunately, I have a lazy companion. Miss Steinfeld (you know her from my last letter, if you got it) only pretends to work. I like her for her thorough goodness and her intelligence; but she is just a little melancholisch, and so not exactly the companion I need. Her idea just now is that we both need "change" and she wants me to go with her to Bregenz, on the Bodensee. Perhaps I shall when the weather gets hot.'
It had surprised her to be told by Felix Dymes that he obtained her address at Munich from Miss Leach, for the only person in England to whom she had yet made known her departure from Leipzig was her step-mother. Speak of her how they might, her acquaintances in London still took trouble to inform themselves of her movements. Perhaps the very completeness of the catastrophe in which she was involved told in her favour; possibly she excited much more interest than could ever have attached to her whilst her name was respected. There was new life in the thought. She wrote briefly to Dora Leach, giving an account of herself, which, though essentially misleading, was not composed in a spirit of conscious falsehood. For all her vanity, Alma had never aimed at effect by practice of deliberate insincerities. Miss Leach was informed that her friend could not find much time for correspondence. 'I am living in the atmosphere of art, and striving patiently. Some day you shall hear of me.' And when the letter was posted, Alma mused long on the effect it would produce.
With the distinguished violinist; the friend of Herr Wilenski, spoken of to Mrs. Frothingham, she had as yet held no communication, and through the days of early summer she continued to neglect her music. Indolence grew upon her; sometimes she spent the whole day in a dressing-gown, seated or reclining, with a book in her hand, or totally unoccupied. Sometimes the military bands in the public gardens tempted her to walk a little, or she strolled with Miss Steinfeld through the picture galleries; occasionally they made short excursions into the country. The art student had acquaintances in Munich, but did not see much of them, and they were not the kind of people with whom Alma cared to associate.
In July it was decided that they should go for a few weeks to Bregenz; their health called for the change, which, as Miss Steinfeld knew of a homely pension, could he had at small expense. Before their departure the art student was away for a few days, and, to relieve the dreariness of an existence which was becoming burdensome, Alma went out alone one afternoon, purposing a trip by steam-tram to the gardens at Nymphenburg. She walked to the Stiglmeyerplatz, where the tram starts, and there stood waiting. A carriage drove past, with a sound of English voices, which drew her attention. She saw three children, a lady, and a gentleman. The last-mentioned looked at her, and she recognised Cyrus Redgrave. Whether he knew her face seemed uncertain. Hoping to escape unobserved, she turned quickly, and walked a few yards. Before she faced round again, a quick footstep approached her, and the next moment Mr Redgrave stood, hat in hand, courteously claiming her acquaintance.
'I thought I could not possibly be mistaken!'
The carriage, having stopped for him to alight, was driving away.
'That is my sister and her children,' said Redgrave, when he had warmly shaken hands and expressed his pleasure at the meeting. 'You never met her. Her husband is in India, and you see me in full domesticity. This morning I posted a note to you; of course, you haven't received it yet.'
Alma did her best to behave with dignity. In any case it would have been trying to encounter such a man as Redgrave -- wealthy, elegant, a figure in society, who must necessarily regard her as banished from polite circles; and in her careless costume she felt more than abashed. For the first time a sense of degradation, of social inferiority, threatened to overwhelm her self-respect.
'How did you know my address?' she asked, with an involuntary imitation of hauteur, made pathetic by the flush on her face and the lingering half-smile.
'Mrs. Frothingham kindly gave it me. -- You were walking this way, I think? -- My sister is living at Stuttgart, and I happened to come over just in time to act as her courier on a journey to Salzburg. We got here yesterday, and go on tomorrow, or the day after. I dropped you a note, asking if I might call.'
'Where have you seen Mamma lately?' asked Alma, barely attentive to the explanations he was giving her.
'In London, quite by chance. In fact, it was at Waterloo Station. Mrs Frothingham was starting for the country, and I happened to be going to Wimbledon. I told her I might possibly see you on my way through Munich.'
Alma began to recover herself. That Cyrus Redgrave should still take an interest in her was decidedly more gratifying than the eccentric compliment of Felix Dymes. She strove to forget the humiliation of having been found standing in a public place, waiting for a tram-car. In Redgrave's manner no change was perceptible, unless, indeed, he spoke with more cordiality, which must be prompted by kind feeling. Their acquaintance covered only a year or two, and had scarcely amounted to what passes for friendship, but Redgrave seemed oblivious of late unpleasant events.
'I'm glad you didn't call unexpectedly,' she said, trying to strike a light note. 'I'm a student now -- no longer an amateur -- and live as a student must.'
'So much the better. I'm a natural bohemian myself, and like nothing so well as to disregard ceremony. And, by-the-bye, that's the very reason why I ran away from my sister to speak to you; I knew you would dislike formalities. I'm afraid I was rather glad than otherwise to escape. We have been taking the children for a drive -- charming little rascals, but for the moment my domestic instincts are satisfied. Mrs. Frothingham mentioned that you were living with a friend -- an art student.'
'We go away for a holiday in a day or two,' said Alma, more at her ease. 'To Bregenz -- do you know it?'
'By name only. You go in a day or two? I wish you would let me know your address there,' he added, with frank friendliness. 'I go on with my sister to Salzburg, and then turn off on my own account; I might be able to pass your way, and I should so much like to have a talk with you -- a real talk, about music and all sorts of things. Did I ever tell you of my little place at Riva, head of Lake Garda? Cosy little nook, but I'm not there very often; I half thought of going for a week or two's quietness. Quite cool there by the lake. But I really must try to see you at Bregenz -- do let me.'
He begged it as a favour, a privilege, and Alma without hesitation told him where she would be living.
'For a few weeks? Oh, then, I shall make a point of coming that way. You're not working too hard, I hope? I know you don't do things by halves. When I first heard you were going in seriously for music, I said to myself, "Tant mieux, another great violinist!"'
The listener reddened with delight; her step became elastic; she carried her head gallantly, and feared not the glances Redgrave cast at her.
'I have learnt not to talk about myself,' she said, bestowing a smile upon him. 'That's the first bad habit to be overcome by the amateur converted.'
'Capital! An axiom worth putting into print, for the benefit of all and sundry. Now I must say goodbye; that fellow yonder will take me back to the domesticities.' He hailed an empty carriage. 'We shall meet again among the mountains. Auf Wiedersehen!'
Alma continued to walk along the Nymphenburg road, unconscious of external things. The tram for which she had been waiting passed by; she no longer cared to go out into the country. It was enough to keep moving in the bright sunshine, and to think her thoughts.
No; people had by no means forgotten her. Whilst she was allowing herself to fall into gloom and indolence, her acquaintances, it was evident, made her a constant subject of talk, of speculation; just what she had desired, but had lost courage to believe. They expected great things of her; her personal popularity and her talents had prevailed against the most prejudicial circumstance; people did not think of her as the daughter of Bennet Frothingham, -- unless to contrast the hopefulness of her future with the black calamity that lay behind.
She waxed philosophical. How everything in this world tends to good! At her father's death she had mourned bitterly; it had struck her to the heart; his imprudence (she could never use, even in thought, a harsher word) pained more than it shamed her, and not a day passed but she sorrowed over the dishonour that darkened his memory. Yet were not these woes and disasters the beginning of a new life for her! In prosperity, what would she ever have become? Nothing less than being thrown out into the world could have given her the impulse needed to realise a high ambition. 'Tant mieux, another great violinist!' How sincerely, how inspiringly, it was said!
And Alma's feet had brought her home again before she paused to reflect that, for all purposes of ambition, the past half-year had been utterly wasted. Never mind; after her return from Bregenz!
On her table lay Redgrave's note; a very civil line or two, requesting permission to call. There was another letter, black-bordered, which came from her step-mother. Mrs. Frothingham said that she had been about to write for several days, but all sorts of disagreeable business had hindered her; even now, she could only write hurriedly. In the last fortnight she had had to go twice to London. 'And really I think I shall be obliged to go and live there again, for a time; so many things have to be seen to. It might be best, perhaps, if I took a small flat. I was going to say, however, that the last time I went up, I met Mr. Redgrave, and we had quite a long talk -- about you. He was most sincerely interested in your future; indeed it quite surprised me, for I will confess that I had never had a very high opinion of him. I fancy he suffered no loss. His behaviour to me was that of a gentleman, very different from that of some people I could name. But it was you he spoke of most. He said he was shortly going to Germany, and begged me to let him have your address, and really I saw no harm in it. He may call upon you. If so, let me hear all about it, for it will interest me very much.'
Alma had half a mind to reply at once, but on reflection decided to wait. After all, Mr. Redgrave might not keep his promise of coming to see her at Bregenz, and in that event a very brief report of what had happened would suffice. But she felt sure that he meant to come.
And decidedly she hoped it; why, she was content to leave a rosy vagueness.