Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XI

Perambulation

The instinct in regard to his daughter, which by now formed part of his protective covering against the machinations of Fate, had warned Soames, the day before, that Fleur was up to something when she went out while he was having breakfast. Seen through the window waving papers at him, she had an air of unreality, or at least an appearance of not telling him anything. As something not quite genuine in the voice warns a dog that he is about to be left, so was Soames warned by the ostentation of those papers. He finished his breakfast, therefore, too abruptly for one constitutionally given to marmalade, and set forth to Green Street. Since that young fellow Jon was staying there, this fashionable locality was the seat of any reasonable uneasiness. If, moreover, there was a place in the world where Soames could still unbutton his soul, it was his sister Winifred’s drawing-room, on which in 1879 he himself had impressed so deeply the personality of Louis Quinze that, in spite of jazz and Winifred’s desire to be in the heavier modern fashion, that monarch’s incurable levity was still to be observed.

Taking a somewhat circuitous course and looking in at the Connoisseurs’ Club on the way, Soames did not arrive until after Fleur’s departure. The first remark from Smither confirmed the uneasiness which had taken him forth.

“Mr. Soames! Oh! What a pity — Miss Fleur’s just gone! And nobody down yet but Mr. Jon.”

“Oh!” said Soames. “Did she see him?”

“Yes, sir. He’s in the dining-room, if you’d like to go in.”

Soames shook his head.

“How long are they staying, Smither?”

“Well, I did hear Mrs. Val say they were all going back to Wansdon the day after tomorrow. We shall be all alone again in case you were thinking of coming to us, Mr. Soames.”

Again Soames shook his head. “Too busy,” he said.

“What a beautiful young lady Miss Fleur ‘as grown, to be sure; such a colour she ‘ad this morning!”

Soames gave vent to an indeterminate sound. The news was not to his liking, but he could hardly say so in front of an institution. One could never tell how much Smither knew. She had creaked her way through pretty well every family secret in her time, from the days which his own matrimonial relations supplied Timothy’s with more than all the gossip it required. Yes, and were not his matrimonial relations, twice-laid, still supplying the raw material? Curiously sinister it seemed to him just then, that the son of his supplanter Jolyon should be here in this house, the nearest counterfeit of that old homing centre of the Forsytes, Timothy’s in the Bayswater Road. What a perversity there was in things! And, repeating the indeterminate sound, he said:

“By the way, I suppose that Mr. Stainford never came here again?”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Soames; he called yesterday to see Mr. Val; but Mr. Val was gone.”

“He did — did he?” said Soames, round-eyed. “What did he take this time?”

“Oh! Of course I knew better than to let him in.”

“You didn’t give him Mr. Val’s address in the country?”

“Oh, no, sir; he knew it.”

“Deuce he did!”

“Shall I tell the mistress you’re here, Mr. Soames? She must be nearly down by now.”

“No; don’t disturb her.”

“I am that sorry, sir; it’s always such a pleasure to her to see you.”

Old Smither bridling! A good soul! No such domestics nowadays! And, putting on his hat, Soames touched its brim, murmuring:

“Well, good-bye, Smither. Give her my love!” and went out.

‘So!’ he thought, ‘Fleur’s seen that boy!’ The whole thing would begin over again! He had known it! And, very slowly, with his hat rather over his eyes, he made for Hyde Park Corner. This was for him a moment in deep waters, when the heart must be hardened to this dangerous decision or to that. With the tendency for riding past the hounds inherited from his father James in all matters which threatened the main securities of life, Soames rushed on in thought to the ruin of his daughter’s future, wherein so sacredly was embalmed his own.

“Such a colour she ‘ad this morning!” When she waved those papers at him, she was pale enough — too pale! A confounded chance! Breakfast time, too — worst time in the day — most intimate! His naturally realistic nature apprehended all the suggestions that lay in breakfast. Those who breakfasted alone together, slept together as often as not. Putting things into her head! Yes; and they were not boy and girl now! Well, it all depended on what their feelings were, if they still had any. And who was to know? Who, in heaven’s name, was to know? Automatically he had begun to encompass the Artillery Memorial. A great white thing which he had never yet taken in properly, and didn’t know that he wanted to. Yet somehow it was very real, and suited to his mood — faced things; nothing high-flown about that gun — short, barking brute of a thing; or those dark men — drawn and devoted under their steel hats! Nothing pretty-pretty about that memorial — no angels’ wings there! No Georges and no dragons, nor horses on the prance; no panoply, and no panache! There it ‘sot’— as they used to say — squatted like a great white toad on the nation’s life. Concreted thunder. Not an illusion about it! Good thing to look at once a day, and see what you’d got to avoid. ‘I’d like to rub the noses of those Crown Princes and military cocks-o’-the-walk on it,’ thought Soames, ‘with their — what was it? —“fresh and merry wars!”’ And, crossing the road in the sunshine, he passed into the Park, moving towards Knightsbridge.

But about Fleur? Was he going to take the bull by the horns, or to lie low? Must be one thing or the other. He walked rapidly now, concentrated in face and movement, stalking as it were his own thoughts with a view to finality. He passed out at Knightsbridge, and after unseeing scrutiny of two or three small shops where in his time he had picked up many a bargain, for himself or shopman, he edged past Tattersall’s. That hung on — they still sold horses there, he believed! Horses had never been in his line, but he had not lived in Montpellier Square without knowing the habitues of Tattersall’s by sight. Like everything else that was crusted, they’d be pulling it down before long, he shouldn’t wonder, and putting up some motor place or cinema!

Suppose he talked to Michael? No! Worse than useless. Besides, he couldn’t talk about Fleur and that boy to anyone — thereby hung too long a tale; and the tale was his own. Montpellier Square! He had turned into the very place, whether by design he hardly knew. It hadn’t changed — but was all slicked up since he was last there, soon after the war. Builders and decorators must have done well lately — about the only people who had. He walked along the right side of the narrow square, where he had known turbulence and tragedy. There the house was, looking much as it used to, not quite so neat, and a little more florid. Why had he ever married that woman? What had made him so set on it? Well! She had done her best to deter him. But — God! — how he had wanted her! To this day he could recognise that. And at first — at first, he had thought, and perhaps she had thought — but who could tell? — HE never could! And then slowly — or was it quickly? — the end; a ghastly business! He stood still by the square railings, and stared at the doorway that had been his own, as if from its green paint and its brass number he might receive inspiration how to choke love in his own daughter for the son of his own wife — yes, how to choke it before it spread and choked her?

And as, on those days and nights of his first married life, returning home, he had sought in vain for inspiration how to awaken love, so now no inspiration came to tell him how to strangle love. And, doggedly, he turned out of the little square.

In a way it was ridiculous to be fussing about the matter; for, after all, Michael was a good young fellow, and her marriage far from unhappy, so far as he could see. As for young Jon, presumably he had married for love; there hadn’t been anything else to marry for, he believed — unless he had been misinformed, the girl and her brother had been museum pieces, two Americans without money to speak of. And yet — there was the moon, and he could not forget how Fleur had always wanted it. A desire to have what she hadn’t yet got was her leading characteristic. Impossible, too, to blink his memory of her, six years ago — to forget her body crumpled and crushed into the sofa in the dark that night when he came back from Robin Hill and broke the news to her. Perusing with his mind the record since, Soames had an acute and comfortless feeling that she had, as it were, been marking time, that all her fluttering activities, even the production of Kit, had been in the nature of a makeshift. Like the age to which she belonged, she had been lifting her feet up and down without getting anywhere, because she didn’t know where she wanted to get. And yet, of late, since she had been round the world, he had seemed to notice something quieter and more solid in her conduct, as if settled purposes were pushing up, and she were coming to terms at last with her daily life. Look, for instance, at the way she had tackled this canteen! And, turning his face homeward, Soames had a vision of a common not far from Mapledurham, where some fool had started a fire which had burned the gorse, and of the grass pushing up, almost impudently green and young, through the charred embers of that conflagration. Rather like things generally, when you thought of it! The war had burned them all out, but things, yes, and people, too — one noticed — were beginning to sprout a bit, as if they felt again it might be worth while. Why, even he himself had regained some of his old connoisseur’s desire to have nice things! It all depended on what you saw ahead, on whether you could eat and drink because tomorrow you didn’t die. With this Dawes Settlement and Locarno business, and the General Strike broken, there might even be another long calm, like the Victorian, which would make things possible. He was seventy-one, but one could always dwell on Timothy, who had lived to be a hundred, fixed star in shifting skies. And Fleur — only twenty-four — might almost outlive the century if she, or, rather the century, took care and bottled up its unruly passions, its disordered longings, and all that silly rushing along to nowhere in particular. If they steadied down, the age might yet become a golden, or a platinum, age at any rate. Even he might live to see the income tax at half-a-crown. ‘No,’ he thought, confused between his daughter and the age; ‘she mustn’t go throwing her cap over the windmill. It’s short-sighted!’ And, his blood warmed by perambulation, he became convinced that he would not speak to her, but lie low, and trust to that common-sense, of which she surely had her share — oh, yes! ‘Just keep my eyes open, and speak to no one,’ he thought; ‘least said, soonest mended.’

He had come again to the Artillery Memorial; and for the second time he moved around it. No! A bit of a blot — it seemed to him, now — so literal and heavy! Would that great white thing help Consols to rise? Some thing with wings might, after all, have been preferable. Some encouragement to people to take shares or go into domestic service; help, in fact, to make life liveable, instead of reminding them all the time that they had already once been blown to perdition and might again be. Those Artillery fellows — he had read somewhere — loved their guns, and wanted to be reminded of them. But did anybody else love their guns, or want reminder? Not those Artillery fellows would look at this every day outside St. George’s Hospital, but Tom, Dick, Harry, Peter, Gladys, Joan and Marjorie. ‘Mistake!’ thought Soames; ‘and a pretty heavy one. Something sedative, statue of Vulcan, or somebody on a horse; that’s what’s wanted!’ And remembering George III on a horse, he smiled grimly. Anyway, there the thing was, and would have to stay! But it was high time artists went back to nymphs and dolphins, and other evidences of a settled life.

When at lunch Fleur suggested that he would want a day’s law at Mapledurham before she and Kit came down, he again felt there was something behind; but, relieved enough at getting her, he let ‘the sleeping dog’ lie; nor did he mention his visit to Green Street.

“The weather looks settled,” he said. “You want some sun after that canteen. They talk about these ultra-violet rays. Plain sunshine used to be good enough. The doctors’ll be finding something extra-pink before long. If they’d only let things alone!”

“Darling, it amuses them.”

“Re-discovering what our grandmothers knew so well that we’ve forgotten ’em, and calling ’em by fresh names! A thing isn’t any more wholesome to eat, for instance, because they’ve invented the word ‘vitamin.’ Why, your grandfather ate an orange every day of his life, because his old doctor told him to, at the beginning of the last century. Vitamins! Don’t you let Kit get faddy about his food. It’s a long time before he’ll go to school — that’s one comfort. School feeding!”

“Did they feed you so badly, Dad?”

“Badly! How we grow up, I don’t know. We ate out principal meal in twenty minutes, and were playing football ten minutes after. But nobody thought about digestion, then.”

“Isn’t that an argument for thinking of it now?”

“A good digestion,” said Soames, “is the whole secret of life.” And he looked at his daughter. Thank God! SHE wasn’t peaky. So far as he knew, her digestion was excellent. She might fancy herself in love, or out of it; but so long as she was unconscious of her digestion, she would come through. “The thing is to walk as much as you can, in these days of cars,” he added.

“Yes,” said Fleur, “I had a nice walk this morning.”

Was she challenging him over her apple charlotte? If so, he wasn’t going to rise.

“So did I,” he said. “I went all about. We’ll have some golf down there.”

She looked at him for a second, then said a surprising thing:

“Yes, I believe I’m getting middle-aged enough for golf.”

Now what did she mean by that?

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37