Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XIII

Soames in Waiting

To say that Soames preferred his house by the river when his wife was not there, would be a crude way of expressing a far from simple equation. He was glad to be still married to a handsome woman and very good housekeeper, who really could not help being French and twenty-five years younger than himself. But the fact was, that when she was away from him, he could see her good points so much better than when she was not. Though fond of mocking him in her French way, she had, he knew, lived into a certain regard for his comfort, and her own position as his wife. Affection? No, he did not suppose she had affection for him, but she liked her home, her bridge, her importance in the neighbourhood, and doing things about the house and garden. She was like a cat. And with money she was admirable — making it go further and buy more than most people. She was getting older, too, all the time, so that he had lost serious fear that she would overdo some friendship or other, and let him know it. That Prosper Profund business of six years ago, which had been such a squeak, had taught her discretion.

It had been quite unnecessary really for him to go down a day before Fleur’s arrival; his household ran on wheels too well geared and greased. On his fifteen acres, with the new dairy and cows across the river, he grew everything now except flour, fish, and meat of which he was but a sparing eater. Fifteen acres, if hardly “land,” represented a deal of produce. The establishment was, in fact, typical of countless residences of the unlanded well-to-do.

Soames had taste, and Annette, if anything, had more, especially in food, so that a better fed household could scarcely have been found.

In this bright weather, the leaves just full, the mayflower in bloom, bulbs not yet quite over, and the river relearning its summer smile, the beauty of the prospect was not to be sneezed at. And Soames on his green lawn walked a little and thought of why gardeners seemed always on the move from one place to another. He couldn’t seem to remember ever having seen an English gardener otherwise than about to work. That was, he supposed, why people so often had Scotch gardeners. Fleur’s dog came out and joined him. The fellow was getting old, and did little but attack imaginary fleas. Soames was very particular about real fleas, and the animal was washed so often that his skin had become very thin — a golden brown retriever, so rare that he was always taken for a mongrel. The head gardener came by with a spud in his hand.

“Good afternoon, sir.”

“Good afternoon,” replied Soames. “So the strike’s over!”

“Yes, sir. If they’d attend to their business, it’d be better.”

“It would. How’s your asparagus?”

“Well, I’m trying to make a third bed, but I can’t get the extra labour.”

Soames gazed at his gardener, who had a narrow face, rather on one side, owing to the growth of flowers. “What?” he said. “When there are about a million and a half people out of employment?”

“And where they get to, I can’t think,” said the gardener.

“Most of them,” said Soames, “are playing instruments in the streets.”

“That’s right, sir — my sister lives in London. I could get a boy, but I can’t trust him.”

“Why don’t you do it yourself?”

“Well, sir, I expect it’ll come to that; but I don’t want to let the garden down, you know.” And he moved the spud uneasily.

“What have you got that thing for? There isn’t a weed about the place.”

The gardener smiled. “It’s something cruel,” he said, “the way they spring up when you’re not about.”

“Mrs. Mont will be down tomorrow,” muttered Soames; “I shall want some good flowers in the house.”

“Very little at this time of year, sir.”

“I never knew a time of year when there was much. You must stir your stumps and find something.”

“Very good, sir,” said the gardener, and walked away.

‘Where’s he going now?’ thought Soames. ‘I never knew such a chap. But they’re all the same.’ He supposed they did work some time or other; in the small hours, perhaps — precious small hours! Anyway, he had to pay ’em a pretty penny for it! And, noticing the dog’s head on one side, he said: “Want a walk?”

They went out of the gate together, away from the river. The birds were in varied song, and the cuckoos obstreperous.

They walked up to a bit of common land where there had been a conflagration in the exceptionally fine Easter weather. From there one could look down at the river winding among poplars and willows. The prospect was something like that in a long river landscape by Daubigny which he had seen in an American’s private collection — a very fine landscape, he never remembered seeing a finer. He could mark the smoke from his own kitchen chimney, and was more pleased than he would have been marking the smoke from any other. He had missed it a lot last year — all those months, mostly hot — touring the world with Fleur from one unhomelike place to another. Young Michael’s craze for emigration! Soames was Imperialist enough to see the point of it in theory; but in practice every place out of England seemed to him so raw, or so extravagant. An Englishman was entitled to the smoke of his own kitchen chimney. Look at the Ganges — monstrous great thing, compared with that winding silvery thread down there! The St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the PO-tomac — as he still called it in thought — had all pleased him, but, comparatively, they were sprawling pieces of water. And the people out there were a sprawling lot. They had to be, in those big places. He moved down from the common through a narrow bit of wood where rooks were in a state of some excitement. He knew little about the habits of birds, not detached enough from self for the study of creatures quite unconnected with him; but he supposed they would be holding a palaver about food — worm-currency would be depressed, or there had been some inflation or other — fussy as the French over their wretched franc. Emerging, he came down opposite the lock-keeper’s cottage. There, with the scent of the wood-smoke threading from its low and humble chimney, the weir murmuring, the blackbirds and the cuckoos calling, Soames experienced something like asphyxiation of the proprietary instincts. Opening the handle of his shooting-stick, he sat down on it, to contemplate the oozy green on the sides of the emptied lock and dabble one hand in the air. Ingenious things — locks! Why not locks in the insides of men and women, so that their passions could be damned to the proper moment, then used, under control, for the main traffic of life, instead of pouring to waste over weirs and down rapids? The tongue of Fleur’s dog licking his dabbled hand interrupted this somewhat philosophic reflection. Animals were too human nowadays, always wanting to have notice taken of them; only that afternoon he had seen Annette’s black cat look up into the plaster face of his Naples Psyche, and mew faintly — wanting to be taken up into its lap, he supposed — only the thing hadn’t one.

The lock-keeper’s daughter came out to take some garments off a line. Women in the country seemed to do nothing but hang clothes on lines and take them off again! Soames watched her, neat-handed, neat-ankled, in neat light-blue print, with a face like a Botticelli — lots of faces like that in England! She would have a young man, or perhaps two — and they would walk in that wood, and sit in damp places and all the rest of it, and imagine themselves happy, he shouldn’t wonder; or she would get up behind him on one of those cycle things and go tearing about the country with her dress up to her knees. And her name would be Gladys or Doris, or what not! She saw him, and smiled. She had a full mouth that looked pretty when it smiled. Soames raised his hat slightly.

“Nice evening!” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

Very respectful!

“River’s still high.”

“Yes, sir.”

Rather a pretty girl! Suppose he had been a lock-keeper, and Fleur had been a lock-keeper’s daughter — hanging clothes on a line, and saying “Yes, sir!” Well, he would as soon be a lock-keeper as anything else in a humble walk of life — watching water go up and down, and living in that pretty cottage, with nothing to worry about, except — except his daughter! And he checked an impulse to say to the girl: “Are you a good daughter?” Was there such a thing nowadays — a daughter that thought of you first, and herself after?

“These cuckoos!” he said, heavily.

“Yes, sir.”

She was taking a somewhat suggestive garment off the line now, and Soames lowered his eyes, he did not want to embarrass the girl — not that he saw any signs. Probably you couldn’t embarrass a girl nowadays! And, rising, he closed the handle of his shooting-stick.

“Well, it’ll keep fine, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good evening.”

“Good evening, sir.”

Followed by the dog, he moved along towards home. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth; but how would she talk to her young man? Humiliating to be old! On an evening like this, one should be young again, and walk in a wood with a girl like that; and all that had been faun-like in his nature pricked ears for a moment, licked lips, and with a shrug and a slight sense of shame, died down.

It had always been characteristic of Soames, who had his full share of the faun, to keep the fact carefully hidden. Like all his family, except, perhaps, his cousin George and his uncle Swithin, he was secretive in matters of sex; no Forsyte talked sex, or liked to hear others talk it; and when they felt its call, they gave no outward sign. Not the Puritan spirit, but a certain refinement in them forbade the subject, and where they got it from they did not know!

After his lonely dinner he lit his cigar and strolled out again. It was really warm for May, and still light enough for him to see his cows in the meadow beyond the river. They would soon be sheltering for the night, under that hawthorn hedge. And here came the swans, with their grey brood in tow; handsome birds, going to bed on the island!

The river was whitening; the dusk seemed held in the trees, waiting to spread and fly up into a sky just drained of sunset. Very peaceful, and a little eerie — the hour between! Those starlings made a racket — disagreeable beggars; there could be no real self-respect with such short tails! The swallows went by, taking ‘night-caps’ of gnats and early moths; and the poplars stood so still — just as if listening — that Soames put up his hand to feel for breeze. Not a breath! And then, all at once — no swallows flying, no starlings; a chalky hue over river, over sky! The lights sprang up in the house. A night-flying beetle passed him, booming. The dew was falling — he felt it; must go in. And, as he turned, quickly, dusk softened the trees, the sky, the river. And Soames thought: ‘Hope to goodness there’ll be no mysteries when she comes down tomorrow. I don’t want to be worried!’ Just she and the little chap; it might be so pleasant, if that old love trouble with its gnarled roots in the past and its bitter fruits in the future were not present, to cast a gloom . . . .

He slept well, and next morning could settle to nothing but the arrangement of things already arranged. Several times he stopped dead in the middle of this task to listen for the car and remind himself that he must not fuss, or go asking things. No doubt she had seen young Jon again yesterday, but he must not ask.

He went up to his picture gallery and unhooked from the wall a little Watteau, which he had once heard her admire. He took it downstairs and stood it on an easel in her bedroom — a young man in full plum-coloured skirts and lace ruffles, playing a tambourine to a young lady in blue, with a bare bosom, behind a pet lamb. Charming thing! She could take it away when she went, and hang it with the Fragonards and Chardin in her drawing-room. Standing by the double-poster, he bent down and sniffed at the bed linen. Not quite as fragrant as it ought to be. That woman, Mrs. Edger — his housekeeper — had forgotten the potpourri bags; he knew there would be something! And, going to a store closet, he took four little bags with tiny mauve ribbons from a shelf, and put them into the bed. He wandered thence into the bathroom. He didn’t know whether she would like those salts — they were Annette’s new speciality, and smelt too strong for HIS taste. Otherwise it seemed all right; the soap was “Roger and Gallet,” and the waste worked. All these new gadgets — half of them didn’t; there was nothing like the old-fashioned thing that pulled up with a chain! Great change in washing during his lifetime. He couldn’t quite remember pre-bathroom days; but he could well recall how his father used to say regularly: “They never gave me a bath when I was a boy. First house of my own, I had one put in-people used to come and stare at it — in 1840. They tell me the doctors are against washing now; but I don’t know.” James had been dead a quarter of a century, and the doctors had turned their coats several times since. Fact was, people enjoyed baths; so it didn’t really matter what view the doctors took! Kit enjoyed them — some children didn’t. And, leaving the bathroom, Soames stood in front of the flowers the gardener had brought in-among them, three special early roses. Roses were the fellow’s forte, or rather his weak point — he cared for nothing else; that was the worst of people nowadays, they specialized so that there was no relativity between things, in spite of its being the fashionable philosophy, or so they told him. He took up a rose and sniffed at it deeply. So many different kinds now — he had lost track! In his young days one could tell them — La France, Marechal Niel, and Gloire de Dijon — nothing else to speak of; you never heard of THEM now. And at this reminder of the mutability of flowers and the ingenuity of human beings, Soames felt slightly exhausted. There was no end to things!

She was late, too! That fellow Riggs — for he had left the car to bring her down, and had come by train himself — would have got punctured, of course; he was always getting punctured if there was any reason why he shouldn’t. And for the next half-hour Soames fidgeted about so that he was deep in nothing in his picture gallery at the very top of the house and did not hear the car arrive. Fleur’s voice roused him from thoughts of her.

“Hallo!” he said, peering down the stairs, “where have YOU sprung from? I expected you an hour ago.”

“Yes, dear, we had to get some things on the way. How lovely it all looks! Kit’s in the garden.”

“Ah!” said Soames, descending. “Did you get a rest yester —” and he pulled up in front of her.

She bent her face forward for a kiss, and her eyes looked beyond him. Soames put his lips on the edge of her cheekbone. She was away, somewhere! And, as his lips mumbled her soft skin slightly, he thought: ‘She’s not thinking of me — why should she? She’s young.’

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