This reply despatched, Harvey congratulated
himself on being quits with Miss Frothingham.
Her letter, however amusing, was deliberate impertinence;
to have answered it in a serious tone would have been
to encourage ill-mannered conceit which merited nothing
but a snub.
But what had excited her anger?
Had Mrs. Frothingham been guilty of some indiscretion,
or was it merely the result of hotheaded surmises
and suspicions on the girl’s part? Plainly,
Alma had returned to England in no amiable mood; in
all probability she resented her step-mother’s
behaviour, now that it had been explained to her; there
had arisen ‘unpleasantness’ on the old,
the eternal subject money. Ignoble
enough; but was it a new thing for him to discern ignoble
possibilities in Alma’s nature?
Nevertheless, his thoughts were constantly
occupied with the girl. Her image haunted him;
all his manhood was subdued and mocked by her scornful
witchery. From the infinitudes of reverie,
her eyes drew near and gazed upon him eyes
gleaming with mischief, keen with curiosity; a look
now supercilious, now softly submissive; all the varieties
of expression caught in susceptible moments, and stored
by a too faithful memory. Her hair, her lips,
her neck, grew present to him, and lured his fancy
with a wanton seduction. In self-defence pathetic
stratagem of intellectual man at issue with the flesh he
fell back upon the idealism which ever strives to
endow a fair woman with a beautiful soul; he endeavoured
to forget her body in contemplation of the spiritual
excellencies that might lurk behind it. To depreciate
her was simpler, and had generally been his wont;
but subjugation had reached another stage in him.
He summoned all possible pleadings on the girl’s
behalf: her talents, her youth, her grievous trials.
Devotion to classical music cannot but argue a certain
loftiness of mind; it might, in truth, be somehow
akin to ‘religion’. Remembering his
own follies and vices at the age of four-and-twenty,
was it not reason, no less than charity, to see in
Alma the hope of future good? Nay, if it came
to that, did she not embody infinitely more virtue,
in every sense of the word, than he at the same age?
One must be just to women, and, however
paltry the causes, do honour to the cleanliness of
their life. Nothing had suggested to him that
Alma was unworthy of everyday respect. Even when
ill-mannered, she did not lose her sexual dignity.
And after all she had undergone, there would have
been excuse enough for decline of character, to say
nothing of a lapse from the articles of good breeding.
This letter of hers, what did it signify but the revolt
of a spirit of independence, irritated by all manner
of sufferings, great and small? Ought he not to
have replied in other terms? Was it worthy of
him man of the world, with passions, combats,
experience multiform, assimilated in his long, slow
growth to set his sarcasm against a girl’s
He was vexed with himself. He
had not behaved as a gentleman. And how many
a time, in how many situations, had he incurred this
form of self-reproach!
When a week went by without anything
more from Alma, Harvey ceased to trouble. As
the fates directed, so be it. He began to pack
the books which he would take with him into Wales.
One day he found himself at Kensington
High Street, waiting for a City train. In idleness,
he watched the people who alighted from carriages
on the opposite side of the platform, and among them
he saw Alma. On her way towards the stairs she
was obliged to pass him; he kept his position, and
only looked into her face when she came quite near.
She bent her head with a half-smile, stopped, and
spoke in a low voice, without sign of embarrassment.
’I was quite wrong. I found
it out soon after I had written, and I have wanted
to beg your pardon.’
‘It is my part to do that,’
Harvey replied. ’I ought not to have answered
as I did.’
’Perhaps not all
things considered. I’m rather in a hurry.
As a second thought, she offered her
hand. Harvey watched her trip up the stairs.
Next morning he had a letter from
her. ‘Dear Mr. Rolfe,’ she wrote,
’did you let Mamma know of my hasty and foolish
behaviour? If not and I very much
hope you didn’t please not to reply
to this, but let us see you on Wednesday afternoon,
just in the ordinary way. If Mamma has
been told, still don’t trouble to write, and
in that case I dare say you will not care to come.
If you are engaged this Wednesday, perhaps you could
come next.’ And she signed herself his sincerely.
He did not reply, and Wednesday saw
him climbing once more to the little flat; ashamed
of being here, yet unable to see how he could have
avoided it, except by leaving London. For that
escape he had no longer much mind. Quite consciously,
and with uneasiness which was now taking a new form,
he had yielded to Alma’s fascination. However
contemptible and unaccountable, this was the state
of things with him, and, as he waited for the door
to be opened, it made him feel more awkward, more
foolish, than for many a long year.
Mrs. Frothingham and her step-daughter
were sitting alone, the elder lady occupied with fancy-work,
at her feet a basket of many-coloured silks, and the
younger holding a book; nothing could have been quieter
or more home-like. No sooner had he entered than
he overcame all restraint, all misgiving; there was
nothing here today but peace and good feeling, gentle
voices and quiet amiability. Whatever shadow had
arisen between the two ladies must have passed utterly
away; they spoke to each other with natural kindness,
and each had a tranquil countenance.
Alma began at once to talk of their
common friends, the Carnabys, asking whether Rolfe
knew that they were in Australia.
‘I knew they had decided to
go,’ he answered. ’But I haven’t
heard for at least two months.’
’Oh, then I can give you all
the news; I had a letter yesterday. When Mrs.
Carnaby wrote, they had spent a fortnight at Melbourne,
and were going on to Brisbane. Mr. Carnaby is
going to do something in Queensland something
about mines. I’ll read you that part.’
The letter lay in the book she was
holding. Sibyl wrote indefinitely, but Harvey
was able to gather that the mining engineer, Dando,
had persuaded Carnaby to take an active interest in
his projects. Discussion on speculative enterprises
did not recommend itself to the present company, and
Rolfe could only express a hope that his friend had
at last found a pursuit in which he could interest
‘But fancy Sibyl at such places!’
exclaimed Alma, with amusement. ’How curious
I shall be to see her when she comes back! Before
she left England, I’m sure she hadn’t
the least idea in what part of Australia Brisbane
was, or Melbourne either. I didn’t know
myself; had to look at a map. You’ll think
that a shameful confession, Mr. Rolfe.’
‘My own ideas of Australian geography are vague
‘Oh, but haven’t you been there?’
’Not to any of the new countries;
I don’t care about them. A defect, I admit.
The future of England is beyond seas. I would
have children taught all about the Colonies before
bothering them with histories of Greece and Rome.
I wish I had gone out there myself as a boy, and grown
up a sheep-farmer.’
’That’s one of the things
you say just to puzzle people. It contradicts
all sorts of things I’ve heard you say at other
times. Do you think, Mamma, that
Mr. Rolfe missed his vocation when he didn’t
become a sheep-farmer?’
Mrs. Frothingham gently shook her
head. No trace of nervousness appeared in her
today; manipulating the coloured silks, she only now
and then put in a quiet word, but followed the talk
‘But I quite thought you had
been to Australia,’ Alma resumed. ’You
see, it’s very theoretical, your admiration of
the new countries. And I believe you would rather
die at once in England than go to live in any such
part of the world.’
‘Weakness of mind, that’s all.’
’Still, you admit it. That’s
something gained. You always smile at other people’s
confessions, and keep your own mind mysterious.’
‘Mysterious? I always thought
one of my faults was over-frankness.’
‘That only shows how little we know ourselves.’
Harvey was reflecting on the incompleteness
of his knowledge of Alma. Intentionally or not,
she appeared to him at this moment in a perfectly
new light; he could not have pictured her so simple
of manner, so direct, so placid. Trouble seemed
to have given her a holiday, and at the same time
to have released her from self-consciousness.
‘But you have never told us,’
she went on, ’about your wanderings in France
this summer. English people don’t go much
to that part, do they?’
’No. I happened to read
a book about it. It’s the old fighting-ground
of French and English interesting to any
one pedantic enough to care for such things.’
’But not to people born to be
sheep-farmers. And you had a serious illness. Did
Mr. Rolfe tell you, Mamma dear, that he nearly died
at some miserable roadside inn?’
Mrs. Frothingham looked startled,
and declared she knew nothing of it. Harvey,
obliged to narrate, did so in the fewest possible words,
and dismissed the matter.
‘I suppose you have had many
such experiences,’ said Alma. ’And
when do you start on your next travels?’
’I have nothing in view.
I half thought of going for the winter to a place
in North Wales Carnarvonshire, on the outer
The ladies begged for more information,
and he related how, on a ramble with a friend last
spring (it was Basil Morton), he had come upon this
still little town between the mountains and the shore,
amid a country shining with yellow gorse, hills clothed
with larch, heathery moorland, ferny lanes, and wild
heights where the wind roars on crag or cairn.
’No railway within seven miles.
Just the place for a pedant to escape to, and live
there through the winter with his musty books.’
‘But it must be equally delightful
for people who are not pedants!’ exclaimed Alma.
’In spring or summer, no doubt,
though even then the civilised person would probably
find it dull.’
’That’s your favourite
affectation again. I’m sure it’s nothing
but affectation when you speak scornfully of civilised
‘Scornfully I hope I never do.’
‘Really, Mamma,’ said
Alma, with a laugh, ’Mr. Rolfe is in his very
mildest humour today. We mustn’t expect
any reproofs for our good. He will tell us presently
that we are patterns of all the virtues.’
Mrs. Frothingham spoke in a graver strain.
’But I’m sure it is possible
to be too civilised to want too many comforts,
and become a slave to them. Since I have been
living here, Mr Rolfe, you can’t think how I
have got to enjoy the simplicity of this kind of life.
Everything is so easy; things go so smoothly.
Just one servant, who can’t make mistakes, because
there’s next to nothing to do. No wonder
people are taking to flats.’
‘And is that what you mean by
over-civilisation?’ Alma asked of Rolfe.
’I didn’t say anything
about it. But I should think many people in large
and troublesome houses would agree with Mrs. Frothingham.
It’s easy to imagine a time when such burdens
won’t be tolerated. Our misfortune is,
of course, that we are not civilised enough.’
’Not enough to give up fashionable
nonsense. I agree with that. We’re
wretched slaves, most of us.’
It was the first sentence Alma had
spoken in a tone that Rolfe recognised. For a
moment her face lost its placid smile, and Harvey
hoped that she would say more to the same purpose;
but she was silent.
‘I’m sure,’ remarked
Mrs. Frothingham, with feeling, ’that most happiness
is found in simple homes.’
‘Can we be simple by wishing
it?’ asked Alma. ’Don’t you
think we have to be born to simplicity?’
‘I’m not sure that I know
what you mean by the word,’ said Harvey.
’I’m not sure that I know
myself. Mamma meant poverty, I think. But
there may be a simple life without poverty, I should
say. I’m thinking of disregard for other
people’s foolish opinions; living just as you
feel most at ease not torturing yourself
because it’s the custom.’
‘That’s just what requires courage,’
’Yes; I suppose it does.
One knows people who live in misery just because they
daren’t be comfortable; keeping up houses and
things they can’t afford, when, if they only
considered themselves, their income would be quite
enough for everything they really want. If you
come to think of it, that’s too foolish for
Harvey felt that the topic was growing
dangerous. He said nothing, but wished to have
more of Alma’s views in this direction.
They seemed to strike her freshly; perhaps she had
never thought of the matter in this way before.
‘That’s what I meant,’
she continued, ’when I said you must be born
to simplicity. I should think no one ever gave
up fashionable extravagance just because they saw
it to be foolish. People haven’t the strength
of mind. I dare say,’ she added, with a
bright look, ’anyone who was strong enough
to do that kind of thing would be admired and envied.’
‘By whom?’ Rolfe asked.
‘Oh, by their acquaintances who were still slaves.’
’I don’t know. Admiration
and envy are not commonly excited by merely reasonable
’But this would be something
more than merely reasonable. It would be the
beginning of a revolution.’
‘My dear,’ remarked Mrs.
Frothingham, smiling sadly, ’people would never
believe that it didn’t mean loss of money.’
’They might be made to believe
it. It would depend entirely on the persons,
Alma seemed to weary of the speculation,
and to throw it aside. Harvey noticed a shadow
on her face again, which this time did not pass quickly.
He was so comfortable in his chair,
the ladies seemed so entirely at leisure, such a noiseless
calm brooded about them, unbroken by any new arrival,
that two hours went by insensibly, and with lingering
reluctance the visitor found it time to take his leave.
On reviewing the afternoon, Harvey concluded that
it was probably as void of meaning as of event.
Alma, on friendly terms once more with her step-mother,
felt for the moment amiably disposed towards everyone,
himself included; this idle good humour and insignificant
talk was meant, no doubt, for an apology, all he had
to expect. It implied, of course, thorough indifference
towards him as an individual. As a member of
their shrunken circle, he was worth retaining.
Having convinced herself of his innocence of undue
pretensions, Alma would, as the children say, be friends
again, and everything should go smoothly.
He lived through a week of the wretchedest
indecision, and at the end of it, when Wednesday afternoon
came round, was again climbing the many stairs to
the Frothinghams’ flat; even more nervous than
last time, much more ashamed of himself, and utterly
doubtful as to his reception. The maid admitted
him without remark, and showed him into an empty room.
When he had waited for five minutes, staring at objects
he did not see, Alma entered.
‘Mamma went out to lunch,’
she said, languidly shaking hands with him, ‘and
hasn’t come back yet.’
No greeting could have conveyed less
encouragement. She seated herself with a lifeless
movement, looked at him, and smiled as if discharging
’I thought’ he
blundered into speech ’that Wednesday
was probably your regular afternoon.’
’There is nothing regular yet.
We haven’t arranged our life. We are glad
to see our friends whenever they come. Pray
He did so, resolving to stay for a
few minutes only. In the silence that followed,
their eyes met, and, as though it were too much trouble
to avert her look, Alma continued to regard him.
She smiled again, and with more meaning.
‘So you have quite forgiven
me?’ fell from her lips, just when Harvey was
about to speak.
’As I told you at the station,
I feel that there is more fault on my side. You
wrote under such a strange misconception, and I ought
to have patiently explained myself.’
’Oh no! You were quite
right in treating me sharply. I don’t quite
remember what I said, but I know it must have been
outrageous. After that, I did what I ought to
have done before, just had a talk with Mamma.’
’Then you took it for granted,
without any evidence, that I came here as a meddler
His voice was perfectly good-humoured,
and Alma answered in the same tone.
’I thought there was
evidence. Mamma had been talking about her affairs,
and mentioned that she had consulted you about something Oh,
about Mrs. Abbott.’
‘Very logical, I must say,’ remarked Rolfe,
‘I don’t think logic is my strong point.’
She sat far back in the easy chair,
her head supported, her hands resting upon the chair
arms. The languor which she hardly made an effort
to overcome began to invade her companion, like an
influence from the air; he gazed at her, perceiving
a new beauty in the half-upturned face, a new seductiveness
in the slim, abandoned body. A dress of grey
silk, trimmed with black, refined the ivory whiteness
of her flesh; its faint rustling when she moved affected
Harvey with a delicious thrill.
‘There’s no reason, now,’
she continued, ’why we shouldn’t talk about
it I mean, the things you discussed with
Mamma. You imagine, I dare say, that I selfishly
objected to what she was doing. Nothing of the
kind. I didn’t quite see why she had kept
it from me, that was all. It was as if she felt
afraid of my greediness. But I’m not greedy;
I don’t think I’m more selfish than ordinary
people. And I think Mamma is doing exactly what
she ought; I’m very glad she felt about things
in that way.’
Harvey nodded, and spoke in a subdued voice.
‘I was only consulted about one person, whom
I happened to know.’
‘Yes Mrs. Abbott.’
Her eyes were again fixed upon him,
and he read their curiosity. Just as he was about
to speak, the servant appeared with tea. Alma
slowly raised herself, and, whilst she plied the office
of hostess, Harvey got rid of the foolish hat and
stick that encumbered him. He had now no intention
of hurrying away.
As if by natural necessity, they talked
of nothing in particular whilst tea was sipped.
Harvey still held his cup, when at the outer door
sounded a rat-tat-tat, causing him silently to execrate
the intruder, whoever it might be. Unheeding,
and as if she had not heard, Alma chatted of trifles.
Harvey’s ear detected movements without, but
no one entered; in a minute or two, he again breathed
‘Mrs. Abbott ’
Alma just dropped the name, as if
beginning a remark, but lapsed into silence.
‘Shall I tell you all about
her?’ said Rolfe. ’Her husband’s
death left her in great difficulties; she had hardly
anything. A friend of hers, a Mrs. Langland,
who lives at Gunnersbury, was very kind and helpful.
They talked things over, and Mrs. Abbott decided to
take a house at Gunnersbury, and teach children; she
was a teacher before her marriage.’
‘No children of her own?’
’No. One died. But
unfortunately she has the care of two, whose mother a
cousin of hers is dead, and whose father
has run away.’
’Literally. Left the children
behind in a lodging-house garret to starve, or go
to the workhouse, or anything else. A spirited
man; independent, you see; no foolish prejudices.’
‘And Mrs. Abbott has to support them?’
‘No one else could take them. They live
‘You didn’t mention that to Mamma.’
‘No. I thought it needless.’
The silence that followed was embarrassing
to Harvey. He broke it by abruptly changing the
‘Have you practised long today?’
‘No,’ was the absent reply.
’I thought you looked rather
tired, as if you had been working too hard.’
‘Oh, I don’t work too hard,’ said
‘Forgive me. I remember that it is a forbidden
’Not at all. You may ask
me anything you like about myself. I’m
not working particularly hard just now; thinking a
good deal, though. Suppose you let me have your
thoughts on the same subject. No harm. But
I dare say I know them, without your telling me.’
‘I hardly think you do,’
said Rolfe, regarding her steadily. ’At
all events’ his voice faltered a
little ’I’m afraid you don’t.’
’Afraid? Oh’ she
laughed ’don’t be afraid.
I have plenty of courage, and quite enough obstinacy.
It rather does me good when people show they have
no faith in me.’
‘You didn’t understand,’ murmured
‘Then make me understand,’
she exclaimed nervously, moving in the chair as if
about to stand up, but remaining seated and bent forward,
her eyes fixed upon him in a sort of good-humoured
challenge. ’I believe I know what you mean,
all the time. You didn’t discuss me with
Mamma, as I suspected, but you think about me just
as she does. No, let me go on, then you
shall confess I was right. You have no faith in
my powers, to begin with. It seems to you very
unlikely that an everyday sort of girl, whom you have
met in society and know all about, should develop
into a great artist. No faith that’s
the first thing. Then you are so kind as to have
fears for me yes, it was your own word.
You think that you know the world, whilst I am ignorant
of it, and that it’s a sort of duty to offer
Harvey’s all but angry expression,
as he listened and fidgeted, suddenly stopped her.
‘Well! Can you deny that these things are
in your mind?’
‘They are not in my mind at
this moment, that’s quite certain,’ said
‘Then, what is?’
’Something it isn’t easy
to say, when you insist on quarrelling with me.
Why do you use this tone? Do I strike you as a
pedagogue, a preacher something of that
His energy in part subdued her. She smiled uneasily.
‘No. I don’t see you in that light.’
’So much the better. I
wanted to appear to you simply a man, and one who
has perhaps the misfortune to
see in you only a very beautiful and a very
Alma sat motionless. Her smile
had passed, vanishing in a swift gleam of pleasure
which left her countenance bright, though grave.
In the same moment there sounded again a rat-tat at
the outer door. Through his whirling senses,
Harvey was aware of the threatened interruption, and
all but cursed aloud. That Alma had the same expectation
appeared in her moving so as to assume a more ordinary
attitude; but she uttered the word that had risen
to her lips.
‘The misfortune, you call it?’
Harvey followed her example in disposing
his limbs more conventionally; also in the tuning
of his voice to something between jest and earnest.
‘I said perhaps the misfortune.’
‘It makes a difference, certainly.’
She smiled, her eyes turned to the door. ’Perhaps
is a great word; one of the most useful in the language. Don’t
you think so, Mamma?’
Mrs. Frothingham had just entered.