The Whirlpool by George Gissing
Part the First
On an afternoon in September, Harvey Rolfe spent half an hour at a certain London bookseller's, turning over books that dealt with the theory and practice of elementary education. Two or three of them he selected, and ordered to be sent to a lady at Gunnersbury. On his way out he came upon an acquaintance making a purchase in another department of the shop. It was some months since he had seen Cecil Morphew, who looked in indifferent health, and in his dress came near to shabbiness. They passed out together, Morphew carrying an enwrapped volume, which he gave Rolfe to understand was a birthday present -- for her. The elder man resisted his inclination to joke, and asked how things were going on.
'Much the same as usual, except that her father is in very bad health. It's brutal, but I wish he would die.'
'That's what one's driven to, you see. And anyone but you, who know me, would set me down as a selfish, calculating beast. Can't help it. I had rather have her penniless. -- Will you come in here with me? I want to buy some pyrogallic acid.'
In the street again, Morphew mentioned that he had taken up photography.
'It gives me something to do, and it takes me out into the open air. This beastly town is the ruin of me, in every way. -- Come to my rooms for an hour, will you? I'll show you some attempts; I've only just tried my hand at developing. And it's a long time since we had a talk.'
They made for a Chelsea omnibus and mounted.
'I thought you were never in town at this time,' Morphew resumed. 'I want to get away, but can't afford it; devilish low-water with me. I must have a bicycle. With that and the camera I may just manage to live; often there seems little enough to live for. -- Tripcony? Oh, Tripcony's a damned swindler; I've given him up. Speculation isn't quite so simple as I imagined. I made a couple of hundred, though -- yes, and lost nearly three.'
The young man's laugh was less pleasant to hear than formerly. Altogether, Rolfe observed in him a decline, a loss of refinement as well as of vitality.
'Why don't you go into the country?' he said. 'Take a cottage and grow cabbages; dig for three hours a day. It would do you no end of good.'
'Of course it would. I wish I had the courage.'
'I'm going to spend the winter in Wales,' said Harvey. 'An out-of-the-world place in Carnarvonshire -- mountains and sea. Come along with me, and get the mephitis blown out of you. You've got town disease, street-malaria, lodging-house fever.'
'By Jove, I'll think of it,' replied the other, with a strange look of eagerness. 'But I don't know whether I can. No, I can't be sure. But I'll try.'
'What holds you?'
'Well, I like to be near, you know, to her. And then -- all sorts of difficulties ----'
Morphew had his lodgings at present in a street near Chelsea Hospital, a poor-looking place, much inferior to those in which Rolfe had formerly seen him. His two rooms were at the top, and he had converted a garret into a dark chamber for his photographic amusement. Dirt and disorder made the sitting-room very uninviting; Rolfe looked about him, and wondered what principle of corruption was at work in the young man's life.
Morphew showed a new portrait of his betrothed, Henrietta Winter; a comely face, shadowed with pensiveness. 'Taken at Torquay; she sent it a day or two ago. -- I've been thinking of giving her up. If I do, I shall do it brutally and savagely, to make it easy for her. I've spoilt her life, and I'm pretty sure I've ruined my own.'
He brought out a bottle of whisky and half filled two tumblers. His own measure he very slightly diluted, and drank it off at once.
'You're at a bad pass, my boy,' remarked Rolfe. 'What's wrong? Something more than usual, I know. Make a clean breast of it.'
Morphew continued to declare that he was only low-spirited from the longstanding causes, and, though Rolfe did not believe him, nothing more could at present be elicited. The talk turned to photography, but still had no life in it.
'I think you had better dine with me this evening,' said Harvey.
'Impossible. I wish I could. An engagement.'
The young man shuffled about, and after a struggle with embarrassment, aided by another tumbler of whisky, threw out something he wished to say.
'It's deuced hard to ask you, but -- could you lend me some money?'
'Of course. How much? Why do you make such a sputter about it?'
'I've been making a fool of myself -- got into difficulties. Will you let me have fifty pounds?'
'Yes, if you'll promise to clear at once out of this dust-bin, and in a month or so come into Wales.'
'You're an awfully good fellow, Rolfe, -- and I'm a damned fool. I promise! I will! I'll get out of it, and then I'll think about breaking with that girl. Better for both of us -- but you shall advise me. -- I'll tell you everything some day. I can't now. I'm too ashamed of myself.'
When he got home, Harvey wrote a cheque for fifty pounds, and posted it at once.
Not many days after, there came to him a letter from Mrs. Frothingham. With this lady he had held no communication since the catastrophe of last November; knowing not how to address her without giving more pain than his sympathy could counterbalance, he remained silent. She wrote from the neighbourhood of Swiss Cottage, where she had taken a flat; it was her wish, if possible, to see him 'on a matter of business', and she requested that he would make an appointment. Much wondering in what business of Mrs. Frothingham's he could be concerned, Harvey named his time, and went to pay the call. He ascended many stairs, and was conducted by a neat servant-maid into a pleasant little drawing-room, where Mrs. Frothingham rose to receive him. She searched his face, as if to discern the feeling with which he regarded her, and her timid smile of reassurance did not lack its pathos.
'Mr. Rolfe, it seems years since I saw you.'
She was aged a little, and her voice fell in broken notes, an unhappy contrast to the gay, confident chirping of less than twelve months ago.
'I have only been settled here for a week. I thought of leaving London altogether, but, after all, I had to come backwards and forwards so often, -- it was better to have a home here, and this little flat will just suit me, I think.'
She seemed desirous of drawing attention to its modest proportions.
'I really don't need a house, and lodgings are so wretched. These flats are a great blessing -- don't you think? I shall manage here with one servant, only one.'
Rolfe struggled with the difficulty of not knowing what to say. There was nothing for it but to discourse as innocently as might be on the advantages of flats, their increasing popularity, and the special charms of this particular situation. Mrs. Frothingham eagerly agreed with everything, and did her best to allow no moment of silence.
'You have heard from Miss Frothingham, I think?' she presently let fall, with a return of anxiety.
'Not very long ago. From Leipzig.'
'Yes. Yes. -- I don't know whether she will stay there. You know she is thinking of taking up music professionally? -- Yes. Yes. -- I do so hope she will find it possible, but of course that kind of career is so very uncertain. I'm not sure that I shouldn't be glad if she turned to something else.'
The widow was growing nervous and self-contradictory. With a quick movement of her hands, she suddenly resumed in another tone.
'Mr. Rolfe, I do so wish you would let me speak to you in confidence. I want to ask your help in a most delicate matter. Not, of course, about my step-daughter, though I shall have to mention her. It is something quite personal to myself. If I could hope that you wouldn't think it tiresome -- I have a special reason for appealing to you.'
He would gladly, said Harvey, be of any use he could.
'I want to speak to you about painful things,' pursued his hostess, with an animation and emphasis which made her more like the lady of Fitzjohn Avenue. 'You know everything -- except my own position, and that is what I wish to explain to you. I won't go into details. I will only say that a few years ago my husband made over to me a large sum of money -- I had none of my own -- and that it still belongs to me. I say belongs to me; but there is my trouble. I fear I have no right whatever to call it mine. And there are people who have suffered such dreadful losses. Some of them you know. There was a family named Abbott. I wanted to ask you about them. Poor Mr. Abbott -- I remember reading ----'
She closed her eyes for an instant, and the look upon her face told that this was no affectation of an anguished memory.
'It was accident,' Rolfe hastened to say. 'The jury found it accidental death.'
'But there was the loss -- I read it all. He had lost everything. Do tell me what became of his family. Someone told me they were friends of yours.'
'Happily they had no children. There was a small life-insurance. Mrs Abbott used to be a teacher, and she is going to take that up again.'
'Poor thing! Is she quite young?'
'Oh, about thirty, I should say.'
'Will she go into a school?'
'No. Private pupils at her own house. She has plenty of courage, and will do fairly well, I think.'
'Still, it is shocking that she should have lost all -- her husband, too, just at that dreadful time. This is what I wanted to say, Mr. Rolfe. Do you think it would be possible to ask her to accept something ----? I do so feel,' she hurried on, 'that I ought to make some sort of restitution -- what I can -- to those who lost everything. I am told that things are not quite hopeless; something may be recovered out of the wreck some day. But it will be such a long time, and meanwhile people are suffering so. And here am I left in comfort -- more than comfort. It isn't right; I couldn't rest till I did something. I am glad to say that I have been able to help a little here and there, but only the kind of people whom it's easy to help. A case like Mrs. Abbott's is far worse, yet there's such a difficulty in doing anything; one might only give offence. I'm sure my name must be hateful to her -- as it is to so many.'
Rolfe listened with a secret surprise. He had never thought ill of Mrs Frothingham; but, on the other hand, had never attributed to her any save superficial qualities, a lightsome temper, pleasure in hospitality, an easy good nature towards all the people of her acquaintance. He would not have supposed her capable of substantial sacrifices; least of all, on behalf of strangers and inspired by a principle. She spoke with the simplest sincerity; it was impossible to suspect her motives. The careless liking with which he had always regarded her was now infused with respect; he became gravely attentive, and answered in a softer voice.
'She was embittered at first, but is overcoming it. To tell you the truth, I think she will benefit by this trial. I don't like the words that are so often used in cant; I don't believe that misery does any good to most people -- indeed, I know very well that it generally does harm. But Mrs. Abbott seems to be an exception; she has a good deal of character; and there were circumstances -- well, I will only say that she faces the change in her life very bravely.'
'I do wish I knew her. But I daren't ask that. It's too much to expect that she could bear to see me and listen to what I have to say.'
'The less she's reminded of the past the better, I think.'
'But would it not be possible to do something? I am told that the sum was about fifteen hundred pounds. The whole of that I couldn't restore; but half of it -- I could afford so much. Could I offer to do so -- not directly, in my own name, but through you?'
Harvey reflected, his head and body bent forward, his hands folded together. In the flat beneath, someone was jingling operetta on a piano not quite in tune; the pertinacious vivacity of the airs interfered with Harvey's desire to view things seriously. He had begun to wonder how large a capital Mrs. Frothingham had at her command. Was it not probable that she could as easily bestow fifteen hundred pounds as the half of that sum? But the question was unworthy. If in truth she had set herself to undo as much as possible of the wrong perpetrated by her husband, Mrs Frothingham might well limit her benefactions, be her fortune what it might.
'I will do whatever you desire,' he said, with deliberation. 'I cannot answer for Mrs. Abbott, but, if you wish it, she shall know what you have in mind.'
'I do wish it,' replied the lady earnestly. 'I beg you to put this before her, and with all the persuasion you can use. I should be very, very glad if she would allow me to free my conscience from a little of this burden. Only that I dare not speak of it, I would try to convince you that I am doing what my dear husband himself would have wished. You can't believe it; no one will ever believe it; even Alma, I am afraid -- and that is so cruel, so dreadful; but he did not mean to wrong people in this way. It wasn't in his nature. Who knew him better than I, or so well? I know -- if he could come back to us ----'
Her voice broke. The piano below jingled more vivaciously than ever, and a sound of shrill laughter pierced through the notes. Afraid to sit silent, lest he should seem unsympathetic and sceptical, Rolfe murmured a few harmless phrases, tending to nervous incoherence.
'I am thinking so much about Alma,' pursued the widow, recovering self-command. 'I am so uncertain about my duty to her. Of her own, she has nothing; but I know, of course, that her father wished her to share in what he gave me. It is strange, Mr. Rolfe, that I should be talking to you as if you were a relative -- as if I had a right to trouble you with these things. But if you knew how few people I dare speak to. Wasn't it so much better for her to lead a very quiet life? And so I gave her only a little money, only enough to live upon in the simplest way. I hoped she would get tired of being among strangers, and come back. And now I fear she thinks I have behaved meanly and selfishly. And we were always so kindly disposed to each other, such thorough friends; never a word that mightn't have passed between a mother and her own child.'
'I gathered from her letter,' interposed Harvey, 'that she was well contented and working hard at her music.'
'Do you think so? I began to doubt -- she wrote in low spirits. Of course, one can't say whether she would succeed as a violinist. Oh, I don't like to think of it! I must tell you that I haven't said a word to her yet of what I am doing; I mean, about the money. I know I ought to consider her as much as other people. Poor girl, who has suffered more, and in so many ways? But I think of what I keep for myself as hers. I was not brought up in luxury, Mr. Rolfe. It wouldn't seem to me hard to live on a very little. But in this, too, I must consider Alma. I daren't lose all my acquaintances. I must keep a home for Alma, and a home she wouldn't feel ashamed of. Here, you see, she could have her friends. I have thought of going to Leipzig; but I had so much rather she came to London -- if only for us just to talk and understand each other.'
Harvey preserved the gravest demeanour. Of Alma he would not permit himself to speak, save in answer to a direct question; and that was not long in coming.
'I am sure you think I should be quite open with her?'
'That would seem to me the best.'
'Yes; she shall know all my thoughts. But with regard to Mrs. Abbott, I know so well what she would say. I beg you to do me that kindness, Mr Rolfe.'
'I will write to Mrs. Abbott at once.'
The interview was at an end; neither had anything more to say. They parted with looks of much mutual kindliness, Harvey having promised to make another call when Mrs. Abbott's reply had reached him.
After exchanging letters with Mrs. Abbott, Harvey went over to see her; for the sake of both persons concerned, he resolved to leave no possibility of misunderstanding. A few days passed in discussions and reflections, then, at the customary hour for paying calls, he again ascended the many stairs to Mrs. Frothingham's flat. It had rained all day, and in this weather there seemed a certainty that the lady would be at home. But, as he approached the door, Harvey heard a sound from within which discomposed him. Who, save one person, was likely to be playing on the violin in these rooms? He paused, cast about him a glance of indecision, and finally pressed the electric bell.
Mrs. Frothingham was not at home. She might return very shortly.
'Is -- Miss Frothingham at home?'
The servant did not straightway admit him, but took his name. On his entering the drawing-room, three figures appeared before him. He saw Alma; he recognised Miss Leach; the third lady was named to him as Miss Leach's sister.
'You knew I was in London?' Alma remarked rather than inquired.
'I had no idea of it -- until I heard your violin.'
'My violin, but not my playing. It was Miss Leach.'
From the first word -- her 'Ah, how d'you do' as he entered -- Alma's tone and manner appeared to him forced, odd, unlike anything he remembered of her. In correcting him, she gave a hard, short laugh, glancing at Dora Leach in a way verging upon the ill-bred. Her look had nothing amiable, though she continuously smiled, and when she invited the visitor to be seated, it was with off-hand familiarity very unflattering to his ear.
'You came to see Mamma, of course. I dare say she won't be long. She had to go through the rain on business with someone or other -- perhaps you know. Have you been in London all the summer? Oh no, I remember you told me you had been somewhere in France; on the Loire, wasn't it?'
Rolfe dropped a careless affirmative. His temper prompted him to ask whether Miss Frothingham knew the difference between the Loire and the Garonne; but on the whole he was more puzzled than offended. What had come over this young woman? Outwardly she was not much altered -- a little thinner in the face, perhaps; her eyes seeming a trifle darker and deeper set; but in the point of demeanour she had appreciably suffered. Her bearing and mode of speech were of that kind which, in a man, would be called devil-may-care. Was it a result of student-life? If her stinted allowance had already produced effects such as this, Mrs Frothingham was justified in uneasiness.
He turned to Miss Leach, and with her talked exclusively for some minutes. As soon as civility permitted, he would rise and make his escape. Alma, the while, chatted with the younger sister, whom she addressed as 'Gerda'. Then the door opened, and Mrs. Frothingham came in, wearing her out-of-doors and gave him cordial welcome, though in few and nervous costume; she fixed her eyes on Rolfe with a peculiar intensity, words.
'I am no longer alone, you see.' She threw a swift side-glance at Alma. 'It is a great pleasure.'
'Does it rain still, Mamma?' asked Alma in a high voice.
'Not just now, my dear; but it's very disagreeable.'
'Then I'll walk with you to the station.' She addressed the sisters. 'Dora and Gerda can't stay; they have an appointment at five o'clock. They'll come again in a day or two.'
After the leave-takings, and when Alma, with a remark that she would not be long, had closed the door behind her, Mrs. Frothingham seated herself and began to draw off her gloves. The bonnet and cloak she was wearing, though handsome and in the mode, made her look older than at Rolfe's last visit. She was now a middle-aged woman, with emphasis on the qualifying term; in home dress she still asserted her sex, grace of figure and freshness of complexion prevailing over years and sorrows. At this moment, moreover, weariness, and perhaps worry, appeared in her countenance.
'Thank you so much for coming,' she said quietly. 'You must have been surprised when you saw ----'
'I was, indeed.'
'And my surprise was still greater, when, without any warning, Alma walked into the room two days ago. But I was so glad, so very glad.'
She breathed a little sigh, looking round.
'Hasn't Alma given her friends any tea? I must ring -- Thank you. -- Oh, the wretched, wretched day! I seem to notice the weather so much more than I used to. Does it affect you at all?'
Not till the tea-tray was brought in, and she had sipped from her cup, did Mrs. Frothingham lay aside these commonplaces. With abrupt gravity, and in a subdued voice, she at length inquired the result of Rolfe's delicate mission.
'I think,' he replied, 'that I made known your wish as clearly and urgently as possible. I have seen Mrs. Abbott, and written to her twice. It will be best, perhaps, if I ask you to read her final letter. I have her permission to show it to you.'
He drew the letter from its envelope, and with a nervous hand Mrs Frothingham took it for perusal. Whilst she was thus occupied, Rolfe averted his eyes; when he knew that she had read to the end, he looked at her. She had again sighed, and Harvey could not help imagining it an involuntary signal of relief.
'I am very glad to have read this, Mr. Rolfe. If you had merely told me that Mrs. Abbott refused, I should have felt nothing but pain. As it is, I understand that she could only refuse, and I am most grateful for all she says about me. I regret more than ever that I don't know her.'
As she handed the letter back, it shook like a blown leaf. She was pale, and spoke with effort. But in a few moments, when conversation was resumed, her tone took a lightness and freedom which confirmed Rolfe's impression that she had escaped from a great embarrassment; and this surmise he inevitably connected with Alma's display of strange ill-humour.
Not another word passed on the subject. With frequent glances towards the door, Mrs. Frothingham again talked commonplace. Harvey, eager to get away, soon rose.
'Oh, you are not going? Alma will be back in a moment.'
And as her step-mother spoke, the young lady reappeared.
'Why didn't you give your friends tea, dear?'
'I forgot all about it. That comes of living alone. Dora has composed a gavotte, Mamma. She was playing it when Mr. Rolfe came. It's capital! Is Mr. Rolfe going?'
Harvey murmured his peremptory resolve. Mrs. Frothingham, rising, said that she was almost always at home in the afternoon; that it would always give her so much pleasure ----
'You remain in England?' asked Harvey, barely touching the hand which Alma cavalierly offered.
'I really don't know. Perhaps I ought to, just to look after Mamma.'
Mrs. Frothingham uttered a little exclamation, and tried to laugh. On the instant, Harvey withdrew.
By the evening's post on the following day he was surprised to receive a letter addressed in Alma's unmistakable hand. The contents did not allay his wonder.
DEAR MR ROLFE,
I am sure you will not mind if I use the privilege of a fairly long acquaintance and speak plainly about something that I regard as important. I wish to say that I am quite old enough, and feel quite competent, to direct the course of my own life. It is very kind of you, indeed, to take an interest in what I do and what I hope to do, and I am sure Mamma will be fittingly grateful for any advice you may have offered with regard to me. But I feel obliged to say quite distinctly that I must manage my own affairs. Pray excuse this freedom, and believe me, yours truly,
He gasped, and with wide eyes read the missive again and again. As soon as his nerves were quieted, he sat down and replied thus: ----
DEAR MISS FROTHINGHAM,
Your frankness can only be deemed a compliment. It is perhaps a triviality on my part, but I feel prompted to say that I have at no time discussed your position or prospects with Mrs. Frothingham, and that I have neither offered advice on the subject nor have been requested to do so. If this statement should appear to you at all germane to the matter, I beg you will take it into consideration. -- And I am, yours truly,
HARVEY RADCLIFFE ROLFE