The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
Alma and her German friend silently agreed in foreseeing that they would not live together much longer. Miss Steinfeld, eager at first to talk English, was relapsing into her native tongue, and as Alma lazily avoided German, they conversed in different languages, each with a sprinkling of foreign phrase. The English girl might have allied herself with a far worse companion; for, in spite of defects which resembled Alma's own, vagueness of purpose, infirmity of will, Miss Steinfeld had a fund of moral principle which made her talk wholesome and her aspirations an influence for good. She imagined herself in love with an artist whom she had seen only two or three times, and no strain could have been more exalted than that in which she confided her romance to the sympathetic Alma. Sympathetic, that is, within her limits; for Miss Frothingham had never been in love, and rarely indulged a mood of sentiment. Her characteristic emotions she of course did not reveal, save unconsciously, and Miss Steinfeld knew nothing of the tragic circumstances which explained her friend's solitude.
In the first days at Bregenz they felt a renewal of pleasure in each other's society; Alma's spirits were much improved; she enjoyed the scenery, and lived in the open air. There was climbing of mountains, the Pfander with its reward of noble outlook, and the easier Gebhardsberg, with its hanging woods; there was boating on the lake, and rambling along its shores, with rest and refreshment at some Gartenwithschaft. Miss Steinfeld, whose reading and intelligence were superior to Alma's, liked to explore the Roman ruins and linger in the museum. Alma could not long keep up a pretence of interest in the relics of Brigantium; but she said one day, with a smile ----
'I know someone who would enjoy this kind of thing -- an Englishman -- very learned ----'
'Old?' inquired her friend significantly.
'Yes -- no. Neither old nor young. A strange man; rather interesting. I've a good mind,' she added mischievously, 'to send him a photograph.'
'Oh dear, no! He wouldn't care for that. A view of the Alt-Stadt.'
And in her mood of frolic she acted upon the thought. She purchased two or three views, had them done up for post, and addressed them to Harvey Rolfe, Esq, at the Metropolitan Club; for his private address she could not remember, but the club remained in her mind from Sibyl's talk of it. when the packet was gone, of course she regretted having sent it. More likely than not, Mr. Rolfe considered himself to have ended all acquaintance with the disgraced family, and, if he recognised her handwriting, would just throw the photographs aside. Let him; it mattered nothing, one way or the other.
When a week had passed, the novelty of things wore off; the friends began to wander apart; Miss Steinfeld made acquaintances in the pension, and Alma drifted into solitude. At the end of a fortnight she was tired of everything, wished to go away, thought longingly of England. It was plain that Mr. Redgrave would not come; he had never seriously meant it; his Auf Wiedersehen was a mere civility to get rid of her in the street. Why had he troubled to inquire about her at all? Of course it didn't matter -- nothing mattered -- but if ever she met him again! Alma tried her features in expression of cold scornfulness.
On the next day, as she was returning from an idle walk with her friend along the Lindau road, Mr. Redgrave met them. He was dressed as she had never seen him, in flannels, with a white necktie loosely knotted and a straw hat. Not till he had come near enough to salute did she recognise him; he looked ten years younger.
They talked as if the meeting were of daily occurrence. Redgrave addressed himself to Miss Steinfeld as often as to Alma, and showed a graceful command of decorous commonplace. He had arrived early this morning, had put up at the Oesterreichischer Hof, was already delighted with Brogenz. Did Miss Steinfeld devote herself to landscape? Had she done anything here? Had Miss Frothingham brought her violin? They strolled pleasantly to the Hafen promenade, and parted at length with assurances of meeting again, as if definite appointment were needless.
'That is my idea of the English gentleman,' said Miss Steinfeld afterwards. 'I think I should have taken him for a lord. No doubt he is very rich?'
'Oh, pretty well off,' Alma replied, with assumed indifference. 'Ten thousand pounds a year, I dare say.'
'Ten thousand! Lieber Himmel! And married?'
'In Parliament, I suppose?'
'Then, what does he do?'
'Oh, amuses himself.'
Each became occupied with her thoughts. Alma's were so agreeable, that Miss Steinfeld, observing her, naturally fell into romantic speculation.
Redgrave easily contrived that his next walk should be with Miss Frothingham alone. He overtook her next morning, soon after she had left the house, and they rambled in the Gebhardsberg direction.
'Now let us have the promised talk,' he began at a favourable moment. 'I've been thinking about you all the time.'
'Did you go to your place on Lake Garda?'
'Yes; just to look at it, and get it put in order. I hope to be there again before long. You didn't doubt I should come?'
'You left it uncertain.'
'To be sure. Life is uncertain. But I should have been desperately disappointed if I hadn't found you here. There are so many things to be said about going in for music as a profession. You have the talent, you have the physical strength, I think.' His eye flattered her from head to foot. 'But, to be a great artist, one must have more than technical qualifications. It's the soul that must be developed.'
'I know it. And what is your receipt for developing the soul?'
Redgrave paused in his walk. Smiling, he gave a twist to his moustache, and appeared to meditate profoundly.
'The soul -- well, it has a priggish sound. Let us say the character; and that is developed through experience of life.'
'I'm getting it.'
'Are you? In the company of Miss Steinfeld? I'm afraid that won't carry you very far. Experience means emotion; certainly, for a woman. Believe me, you haven't begun to live yet. You may practise on your violin day and night, and it won't profit you -- until you have lived.'
Alma was growing serious. These phrases harmonised well enough with her own insubstantial thoughts and idly-gathered notions. When preparing to escape from England, she had used much the same language. But, after all, what did it mean? What, in particular, did Cyrus Redgrave mean, with his expressive eyes, and languid, earnest tone?
'You will say that a girl has few opportunities. True, thanks to her enslavement by society.'
'I care nothing for society,' Alma interposed.
'Good! I like the sound of that defiance; it has the right ring. A man hasn't often the pleasure of hearing that from a woman he can respect. It's easy, of course, to defy the laws of a world one doesn't belong to; but you, who are a queen in your circle, and may throne, at any moment, in a wider sphere -- it means much when you refuse to bow down before the vulgar idols, to be fettered by superstitions.'
His aim was dark to her, but she tasted the compliment which ignored her social eclipse. Redgrave's conversation generally kept on the prosaic levels -- studiously polite, or suavely cynical. It was a new experience to see him borne on a wave of rhetoric; yet not borne away, for he spoke with an ease, a self-command, which to older ears would have suggested skill rather than feeling. He had nothing of the ardour of youth; his poise and deliberation were quite in keeping with the two score years that subtly graved his visage; the passions in him were sportive, half-fantastical, as though, together with his brain, they had grown to a ripe worldliness. He inspired no distrust; his good nature seemed all-pervading; he had the air of one who lavishes disinterested counsel, and ever so little exalts himself with his facile exuberance of speech.
'I have seen much of artists; known them intimately, and studied their lives. One and all, they date their success from some passionate experience. From a cold and conventional existence can come nothing but cold and conventional art. You left England, broke away from the common routine, from the artificial and the respectable. That was an indispensable first step, and I have told you how I applauded it. But you cannot stop at this. I begin to fear for you. There is a convention of unconventionality: poor quarters, hard life, stinted pleasures -- all that kind of thing. I fear its effect upon you.'
'What choice have I?' exclaimed Alma, moved to familiar frankness. 'If I am poor, I must live poorly.'
He smiled graciously upon her, and raised his hand almost as though he would touch her with reassuring kindness; but it was only to stroke his trimmed beard.
'Oh, you have a choice, believe me,' came his airy answer. 'There's no harm in poverty that doesn't last too long. You may have profited by it; it is an experience. But now -- Don't let us walk so far as to tire you. Yes, we will turn. Variety of life, travel, all sorts of joys and satisfactions -- these are the things you need.'
'And if they are not within my reach?' she asked, without looking at him.
'By-the-bye' -- he disregarded her question -- 'your friend, Mrs Carnaby, has taken a long flight.'
The monosyllable was dropped. Alma walked with her eyes on the ground, trailing her sunshade.
'I didn't think she had much taste for travel. But you know her so much better than I do.'
'She is enjoying herself,' said Alma.
'No need for you to go so far. Down yonder' -- he nodded southward -- 'I was thinking, the other day, of the different kinds of pleasure one gets from scenery in different parts of the world. I have seen the tropics; they left me very much where I was, intellectually. It's the human associations of natural beauty that count. You have no desire to go to the islands of the Pacific?'
'I can't say that I have.'
'Of course not. The springs of art are in the old world. Among the vines and the olives one hears a voice. I must really try to give you some idea of my little place at Riva.'
He began a playful description -- long, but never tedious; alluring, yet without enthusiasm -- a dreamy suggestion of refined delights and luxuries.
'I have another place in the Pyrenees, to suit another mood; and not long ago I was sorely tempted by the offer of a house not far from Antioch, in the valley of the Orontes -- a house built by an Englishman. Charming place, and so entirely off the beaten track. Isn't there a fascination in the thought of living near Antioch? Well away from bores and philistines. No Mrs. Grundy with her clinking tea-cups. I dare say the house is still to be had. -- Oh, do tell me something about your friend, Fraulein Steinfeld. Is she in earnest? Will she do anything?'
His eloquence was at an end. Thenceforward he talked of common things in unemotional language; and when Alma parted from him, it was with a sense of being tired and disappointed.
On the following day she did not see him at all. He could not have left Bregenz, for, of course, he would have let her know. She thought of him incessantly, reviewing all his talk, turning over this and that ambiguous phrase, asking herself whether he meant much or little. It was natural that she should compare and contrast his behaviour with that of Felix Dymes. If his motive were not the same, why did he seek her society? And if it were? If at length he spoke out, summing his hints in the plain offer of all those opportunities she lacked?
A brilliant temptation. To leave the world as Alma Frothingham, and to return to it as Mrs. Cyrus Redgrave!
But, in that event, what of her musical ambitions? He spoke of her art as the supreme concern, to which all else must be subordinate. And surely that was his meaning when he threw scorn upon 'bores and philistines'. Why should the fact of his wealth interfere with her progress as an artist? Possibly, on the other hand, he did not intend that she should follow a professional career. Cannot one be a great artist without standing on public platforms? Was it his lordly thought to foster her talents for his own delectation and that of the few privileged?
Her brain grew confused with interpreting and picturing. But once more she had made an advance in self-esteem. She could await the next meeting with a confidence and pride very unlike her sensations in the Stiglmeyerplatz at Munich.
It took place on the second day. This time Redgrave did not wait upon accident; he sent a note, begging that he might have the pleasure of another talk with her. He would call at a certain hour, and take his chance of finding her at home. When he presented himself, Alma was sitting in the common room of the pension with two German ladies; they in a few minutes withdrew, and familiar conversation became possible. As the windows stood open, and there were chairs upon the balcony, Redgrave shortly proposed a move in that direction. They sat together for half an hour.
When Redgrave took his leave, it was without shaking of hands -- with no Auf Wiedersehen. He smiled, he murmured civilities; Alma neither smiled nor spoke. She was pale, and profoundly agitated.
So this was his meaning? -- made plain enough at last, though with the most graceful phrasing. Childish vanity and ignorance had forbidden her to dream of such an issue. She had not for a moment grasped the significance to a man of the world of the ruin and disgrace fallen upon her family. In theory she might call herself an exile from the polite world; none the less did she imagine herself still illumined by the social halo, guarded by the divinity which doth hedge a member of the upper-middle class. Was she not a lady? And who had ever dared to offer a lady an insult such as this? Shop-girls, minor actresses, the inferior sort of governess, must naturally be on their guard; their insecurity was traditional; novel and drama represented their moral vicissitudes. But a lady, who had lived in a great house with many servants, who had founded an Amateur Quartet Society, the hem of whose garment had never been touched with irreverent finger -- could she stand in peril of such indignity?
Not till now had she called to mind the forewarnings of Sibyl Carnaby, which, at the time of hearing them, she did not at all understand. 'People,' said Sibyl, 'would approach her with strange ideas.' This she might have applied to the grotesque proposal (as it seemed to her) of Felix Dymes, or to the risk of being tempted into premature publicity by a business offer from some not very respectable impresario. What Sibyl meant was now only too clear; but how little could Mrs. Carnaby have imagined that her warning would be justified by one of her own friends -- by a man of wealth and consideration.
She durst not leave the house for fear of encountering Redgrave, who, if they crossed by chance, might fancy she invited another meeting. She dreaded the observation of women, especially of Miss Steinfeld. The only retreat was her bedroom, and here she secluded herself till dinner-time. At this meal she must needs face the company or incur remark. She tried to return her friend's smile with the ordinary unconcern. After dinner there was no avoiding Miss Steinfeld, whose air of extreme discretion showed that she had an inkling of events, and awaited confidences.
'Mr. Redgrave has gone -- he called to say goodbye.'
Irritated by self-consciousness, revolting against a misinterpretation which would injure her vanity, though it was not likely to aim at her honour, Alma had recourse to fiction.
'I daresay you guess? -- Yes, and I refused.'
Miss Steinfeld was puzzled. It did not astonish her that a girl should reject ten thousand pounds per annum, for that she was too high-minded; but she had thought it beyond doubt that Alma's heart was engaged. Here, it had seemed to her, was the explanation of a mystery attaching to this original young Englishwoman; unhoped, the brilliant lover, the secretly beloved, had sought her in her retirement. And after all, it was a mistake.
'I don't care for him a bit,' Alma went on. 'It had to be got over and done with, that was all.'
She felt ashamed of herself. In childhood she had told falsehoods freely, but with the necessity for that kind of thing the habit had fallen away. Solace, however, was at hand, for the German girl looked at her with a new interest, a new sympathy, which Alma readily construed as wonder and admiration, if not gentle envy. To have refused an offer of marriage from a handsome man of great wealth might be counted for glory. And Alma's momentary shame yielded to a gratification which put her outwardly at ease.
The restless night brought torment of the mind and harassed spirits. Redgrave's proposal echoed in the vacant chambers of her life, sounding no longer an affront, but an allurement. Why, indeed, had she repelled it so unthinkingly? It did not necessarily mean scandal. He had not invited her to open defiance of the world. 'You can absolutely trust me; I am discretion itself. All resources are at my command.' Why had she rejected with scorn and horror what was, perhaps, her great opportunity, the one hope of her struggling and sinking ambition? She had lost faith in herself; in her power to overcome circumstances, not yet in her talent, in her artistic birthright. Redgrave would have made her path smooth. 'I promise you a great reputation in two or three years' time.' And without disgrace, without shadow of suspicion, it would all be managed, he declared, so very easily. For what alternative had she rebuffed him?
Redgrave's sagacity had guided him well up to a certain point, but it had lost sight of one thing essential to the success of his scheme. Perhaps because he was forty years of age, perhaps because he had so often come and seen and conquered, perhaps because he made too low an estimate of Bennet Frothingham's daughter, -- he simply overlooked sentimental considerations. It was a great and a fatal oversight. He went far in his calculated appeal to Alma's vanity; had he but credited her with softer passions, and given himself the trouble to play upon them, he would not, at all events, have suffered so sudden a defeat. Men of Redgrave's stamp grow careless, and just at the time of life when, for various causes, the art which conceals art has become indispensable. He did not flatter himself that Alma was ready to fall in love with him; and here his calm maturity served him ill. To his own defect of ardour he was blinded by habit. After all, the affair had little consequence. It had only suggested itself after the meeting in Munich, and perhaps -- he said to himself -- all things considered, the event was just as well.
But Alma felt the double insult, to her worldly honour, to her womanhood. The man had not even made pretence of loving her; and this, whilst it embittered her disappointment, strengthened her to cast from her mind the baser temptation. Marriage she would have accepted, though doubtless with becoming hesitancy; the offer could not have been made without one word of tenderness (for Cyrus Redgrave was another than Felix Dymes), and she had not felt it impossible to wed this polished capitalist. Out of the tumult of her feelings, as another day went by, issued at length that one simple and avowable sense of disappointment. She had grasped the prize, and heated her imagination in regarding it; had overcome natural reluctances, objections personal and moral; was ready to sit down and write to Mrs. Frothingham the splendid, startling announcement. And here she idled in her bedroom, desolate, hopeless, wishing she had courage to steal down at night to the waters of the Bodensee, and end it all.
On the third day she returned to Munich, having said farewell to her friend, who was quite prepared for the parting. From Munich she proceeded to Leipzig, and there entered again the family circle of the Gassners. She had no intention of staying for very long; the pretence of musical study could not be kept up; but her next step was quite uncertain.
A fortnight later, Mrs. Frothingham wrote thus: ----
'I am sending you on a letter which, if I am not mistaken, comes from Mr Rolfe. Do tell me if I am right. Odd that he should write to you, if it is he. You have not told me yet whether you saw Mr. Redgrave again. But I see that you don't care much, and perhaps it is as well.'
The forwarded letter had been originally addressed to the care of Mrs Frothingham, and Alma, at a glance, recognised Harvey Rolfe's writing. He dated from London. Was he mistaken, he began, in thinking that certain photographs from Bregenz had come to him by Miss Frothingham's kindness? For his part, he had spent June in a ramble in South-west France, chiefly by the Dordogne, and through a strange, interesting bit of marsh-country, called La Double. 'I hardly know how I got there, and I shall not worry you by writing any account of the expedition. But at a miserable village called La Roche Chalais, where I had a most indigestible supper and a bed unworthy of the name, I managed to fall ill, and quite seriously thought, "Ah, here is the end!" It has to come somewhere, and why not on a grabat at La Roche Chalais? A mistake; I am here again, wasting life as strenuously as ever. Would you let me hear from you? I should think it a great addition to your kindness in sending the views. And so, with every good wish, he remained, &c.
Having nothing better to do, Alma got out a map of France, and searched for La Roche Chalais; but the place was too insignificant to be marked. On the morrow, being still without occupation, she answered Rolfe's letter, and in quite a playful vein. She had no time to correspond with people who 'wasted their lives'. To her, life was a serious matter enough. But he knew nothing of the laborious side of a musician's existence, and probably doubted its reality. As an afterthought, she thanked him gravely for his letter, and hoped that some day, when she had really 'done something', they might meet and renew their friendship.