Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XII

Private Feelings

On the day of the lunch party and the drive to Robin Hill, Michael really had a Committee, but he also had his private feelings and wanted to get on terms with them. There are natures in which discovery of what threatens happiness perverts to prejudice all judgment of the disturbing object. Michael’s was not such. He had taken a fancy to the young Englishman met at the home of that old American George Washington, partly, indeed, because he WAS English; and, seeing him now seated next to Fleur — second cousin and first love — he was unable to revise the verdict. The boy had a nice face, and was better-looking than himself; he had attractive hair, a strong chin, straight eyes, and a modest bearing; there was no sense in blinking facts like those. The Free Trade in love, which obtained amongst pleasant people, forbade Michael to apply the cruder principles of Protection even in thoughts. Fortunately, the boy was married to this slim and attractive girl, who looked at one — as Mrs. Val had put it to him — like a guaranteed-pure water-nymph! Michael’s private feelings were therefore more concerned with Fleur than with the young man himself. But hers was a difficult face to read, a twisting brain to follow, a heart hard to get at; and — was Jon Forsyte the reason why? He remembered how in Cork Street this boy’s elderly half-sister — that fly-away little lady, June Forsyte — had blurted out to him that Fleur ought to have married her younger brother — first he had ever heard of it. How painfully it had affected him with its intimation that he played but second fiddle in the life of his beloved! He remembered, too, some cautious and cautionary allusions by “old Forsyte.” Coming from that model of secrecy and suppressed feelings, they, too, had made on Michael a deep and lasting impression, reinforced by his own failure to get at the bottom of Fleur’s heart. He went to his Committee with but half his mind on public matters. What had nipped that early love affair in the bud and given him his chance? Not sudden dislike, lack of health, or lack of money — not relationship, for Mrs. Val Dartie had married her second cousin apparently with everyone’s consent. Michael, it will be seen, had remained quite ignorant of the skeleton in Soames’ cupboard. Such Forsytes as he had met, reticent about family affairs, had never mentioned it; and Fleur had never even spoken of her first love, much less of the reason why it had come to naught. Yet, there must have been some reason; and it was idle to try and understand her present feelings without knowing what it was!

His Committee was on birth control in connection with the Ministry of Health; and, while listening to arguments why he should not support for other people what he practised himself, he was visited by an idea. Why not go and ask Jane Forsyte? He could find her in the telephone book — there could be but one with such a name.

“What do YOU say, Mont?”

“Well, sir, if we won’t export children to the Colonies or speed up emigration somehow, there’s nothing for it but birth control. In the upper and middle classes we’re doing it all the time, and blinking the moral side, if there is one; and I really don’t see how we can insist on a moral side for those who haven’t a quarter of our excuse for having lots of children.”

“My dear Mont,” said the chairman, with a grin, “aren’t you cutting there at the basis of all privilege?”

“Very probably,” said Michael, with an answering grin. “I think, of course, that child emigration is much better, but nobody else does, apparently.”

Everybody knew that ‘young Mont’ had a ‘bee in his bonnet’ about child emigration, and there was little disposition to encourage it to buzz. And, since no one was more aware than Michael of being that crank in politics, one who thought you could not eat your cake and have it, he said no more. Presently, feeling that they would go round and round the mulberry bush for some time yet, and sit on the fence after, he excused himself and went away.

He found the address he wanted: “Miss June Forsyte, Poplar House, Chiswick,” and mounted a Hammersmith ‘bus.

How fast things seemed coming back to the normal! Extraordinarily difficult to upset anything so vast, intricate, and elastic as a nation’s life. The ‘bus swung along among countless vehicles and pedestrian myriads, and Michael realised how firm were those two elements of stability in the modern state, the common need for eating, drinking, and getting about; and the fact that so many people could drive cars. ‘Revolution?’ he thought: ‘There never was a time when it had less chance. Machinery’s dead agin it.’ Machinery belonged to the settled state of things, and every day saw its reinforcement. The unskilled multitude and the Communistic visionaries, their leaders, only had a chance now where machinery and means of communication were still undeveloped, as in Russia. Brains, ability, and technical skill were by nature on the side of capital and individual enterprise, and were gaining ever more power.

“Poplar House” took some finding, and, when found, was a little house supporting a large studio with a north light. It stood, behind two poplar trees, tall, thin, white, like a ghost. A foreign woman opened to him. Yes. Miss Forsyte was in the studio with Mr. Blade! Michael sent up his card, and waited in a draught, extremely ill at ease; for now that he was here he could not imagine why he had come. How to get the information he wanted without seeming to have come for it, passed his comprehension; for it was the sort of knowledge that could only be arrived at by crude questioning.

Finding that he was to go up, he went, perfecting his first lie. On entering the studio, a large room with green-canvassed walls, pictures hung or stacked, the usual dais, a top light half curtained, and some cats, he was conscious of a fluttering movement. A little light lady in flowing green, with short silver hair, had risen from a footstool, and was coming towards him.

“How do you do? You know Harold Blade, of course?”

The young man, at whose feet she had been sitting, rose and stood before Michael, square, somewhat lowering, with a dun-coloured complexion and heavily charged eyes.

“You must know his wonderful Rafaelite work.”

“Oh, yes!” said Michael, whose conscience was saying: “Oh, no!”

The young man said, grimly: “He doesn’t know me from Adam.”

“No, really,” muttered Michael. “But do tell me, why Rafaelite? I’ve always wanted to know.”

“Why?” exclaimed June. “Because he’s the only man who’s giving us the old values; he’s rediscovered them.”

“Forgive me, I’m such a dud in art matters — I thought the academicians were still in perspective!”

“THEY!” cried June, and Michael winced at the passion in the word. “Oh, well — if you still believe in them —”

“But I don’t,” said Michael.

“Harold is the only Rafaelite; people are grouping round him, of course, but he’ll be the last, too. It’s always like that. A great painter makes a school, but the schools never amount to anything.”

Michael looked with added interest at the first and last Rafaelite. He did not like the face, but it had a certain epileptic quality.

“Might I look round? Does my father-inlaw know your work, I wonder? He’s a great collector, and always on the look-out.”

“Soames!” said June, and again Michael winced. “He’ll be collecting Harold when we’re all dead. Look at that!”

Michael turned from the Rafaelite, who was shrugging his thick shoulders. He saw what was clearly a portrait of June. It was entirely recognisable, very smooth, all green and silver, with a suggestion of halo round the head.

“Pure primary line and colour — d’you think they’d hang THAT in the Academy?”

‘Seems to me exactly what they would hang,’ thought Michael, careful to keep the conclusion out of his face.

“I like the suggestion of a halo,” he murmured.

The Rafaelite uttered a short, sharp laugh.

“I’m going for a walk,” he said; “I’ll be in to supper. Good-bye!”

“Good-bye!” said Michael, with a certain relief.

“Of course,” said June when they were alone, “he’s the ONLY person who could paint Fleur. He’d get her modern look so perfectly. Would she sit to him? With everybody against him, you know, he has SUCH a struggle.”

“I’ll ask her. But do tell me — why is everybody against him?”

“Because he’s been through all these empty modern crazes, and come back to pure form and colour. They think he’s a traitor, and call him academic. It’s always the way when a man has the grit to fly against fashion and follow his own genius. I can see exactly what he’d do with Fleur. It would be a great chance for him, because he’s very proud, and this would be a proper commission from Soames. Splendid for her, too, of course. She ought to jump at it — in ten years’ time he’ll be THE man.”

Michael, who doubted if Fleur would “jump at it,” or Soames give the commission, replied cautiously: “I’ll sound her. . . . By the way, your sister Holly and your young brother and his wife were lunching with us today.”

“Oh!” said June, “I haven’t seen Jon yet.” And, looking at Michael with her straight blue eyes, she added:

“Why did you come to see me?”

Under that challenging stare Michael’s diplomacy wilted.

“Well,” he said, “frankly, I want you to tell me why Fleur and your young brother came to an end with each other.”

“Sit down,” said June, and resting her pointed chin on her hand, she looked at him with eyes moving a little from side to side, as might a cat’s.

“I’m glad you asked me straight out; I hate people who beat about the bush. Don’t you know about Jon’s mother? She was Soames’ first wife, of course.”

“Oh!” said Michael.

“Irene,” and, as she spoke the name, Michael was aware of something deep and primitive stirring in that little figure. “Very beautiful — they didn’t get on; she left him — and years later she married my father, and Soames divorced her. I mean Soames divorced her and she married my father. They had Jon. And then, when Jon and Fleur fell in love, Irene and my father were terribly upset, and so was Soames — at least, he ought to have been.”

“And then?” asked Michael, for she was silent.

“The children were told; and my father died in the middle of it all; and Jon sacrificed himself and took his mother away, and Fleur married you.”

So that was it! In spite of the short, sharp method of the telling, he could feel tragic human emotion heavy in the tale. Poor little devils!

“I always thought it was too bad,” said June, suddenly. “Irene ought to have put up with it. Only — only —” and she stared at Michael, “they wouldn’t have been happy. Fleur’s too selfish. I expect she saw that.”

Michael raised an indignant voice.

“Yes,” said June; “you’re a good sort, I know — too good for her.”

“I’m not,” said Michael, sharply.

“Oh, yes, you are. She isn’t bad, but she’s a selfish little creature.”

“I wish you’d remember —”

“Sit down! Don’t mind what I say. I only speak the truth, you know. Of course, it was all horrible; Soames and my father were first cousins. And those children were awfully in love.”

Again Michael was conscious of the deep and private feeling within the little figure; conscious, too, of something deep and private stirring within himself.

“Painful!” he said.

“I don’t know,” June went on, abruptly, “I don’t know; perhaps it was all for the best. You’re happy, aren’t you?”

With that pistol to his head, he stood and delivered.

“I am. But is she?”

The little green-and-silver figure straightened up. She caught his hand and gave it a squeeze. There was something almost terribly warmhearted about the action, and Michael was touched. He had only seen her twice before!

“After all, Jon’s married. What’s his wife like?”

“Looks charming — nice, I think.”

“An American!” said June, deeply. “Well, Fleur’s half French. I’m glad you’ve got a boy.”

Never had Michael known anyone whose words conveyed so much unintended potency of discomfort! Why was she glad he had a boy? Because it was an insurance — against what?

“Well,” he mumbled, “I’m very glad to know at last what it was all about.”

“You ought to have been told before; but you don’t know still. Nobody can know what family feuds and feelings are like, who hasn’t had them. Though I was angry about those children, I admit that. You see, I was the first to back Irene against Soames in the old days. I wanted her to leave him at the beginning of everything. She had a beastly time; he was such a — such a slug about his precious rights, and no proper pride either. Fancy forcing yourself on a woman who didn’t want you!”

“Ah!” Michael muttered. “Fancy!”

“People in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties didn’t understand how disgusting it was. Thank goodness, they do now!”

“Do they?” murmured Michael. “I wonder!”

“Of course they do.”

Michael sat corrected.

“Things are much better in that way than they were — not nearly so stuffy and farmyardy. I wonder Fleur hasn’t told you all about it.”

“She’s never said a word.”

“Oh!”

That sound was as discomforting as any of her more elaborate remarks. Clearly she was thinking what he himself was thinking: that it had gone too deep with Fleur to be spoken of. He was not even sure that Fleur knew whether he had ever heard of her affair with Jon.

And, with a sudden shrinking from any more discomforting sounds, he rose.

“Thanks awfully for telling me. I must buzz off now, I’m afraid.”

“I shall come and see Fleur about sitting to Harold. It’s too good a chance for him to miss. He simply must get commissions.”

“Of course!” said Michael; he could trust Fleur’s powers of refusal better than his own.

“Good-bye, then!”

But when he got to the door and looked back at her standing alone in that large room, he felt a pang — she seemed so light, so small, so flyaway, with her silver hair and her little intent face — still young from misjudged enthusiasm. He had got something out of her, too, left nothing with her; and he had stirred up some private feeling of her past, some feeling as strong, perhaps stronger, than his own.

She looked dashed lonely! He waved his hand to her.

Fleur had returned when he got home, and Michael realised suddenly, that in calling on June Forsyte he had done a thing inexplicable, save in relation to her and Jon!

‘I must write and ask that little lady not to mention it,’ he thought. To let Fleur know that he had been fussing about her past would never do.

“Had a good time?” he said.

“Very. Young Anne reminds me of Francis, except for her eyes.”

“Yes; I liked the looks of those two when I saw them at Mount Vernon. That was a queer meeting, wasn’t it?”

“The day father was unwell?”

He felt that she knew the meeting had been kept from her. If only he could talk to her freely; if only she would blurt out everything!

But all she said was: “I feel at a bad loose end, Michael, without the canteen.”

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