Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter II

Soames Goes Racing

To Winifred Dartie the debut of her son’s Sleeping Dove colt on Ascot Cup Day seemed an occasion for the gathering of such members of her family as were permitted to go racing by the primary caution in their blood; but it was almost a shock to her when Fleur telephoned: “Father’s coming; he’s never been to Ascot, and doesn’t know that he wants to go.”

“Oh!” she said, “then you’ll have to have two of my Enclosure tickets. Jack can fend for himself. But what about Michael?”

“Michael can’t come; he’s deep in slums — got a new slogan: ‘Broader gutters!’”

“He’s so good,” said Winifred. “Let’s go down early enough to lunch before racing, dear. I think we’d better drive.”

“Father’s car is up — we’ll call for you.”

“Delightful!” said Winifred. “Has your father got a grey top hat? No? Oh! But he simply must wear one; they’re all the go this year. Don’t say anything, just get him one. He wears seven-and-three-quarters; and dear, tell them to heat the hat and squash it in at the sides — otherwise they’re always too round for him. And he needn’t bring any money to speak of; Jack will do all our betting for us.”

Fleur thought that it was not likely father would have a bet; he had said he just wanted to see what the thing was like.

“He’s so funny about betting,” said Winifred, “like your grandfather.”

Not that it had been altogether funny in the case of James, who had been called on to pay the racing debts of Montague Dartie three times over.

With Soames and Winifred on the back seats, Fleur and Imogen on the front seats, and Jack Cardigan alongside Riggs, they took a circuitous road by way of Harrow to avoid the traffic, and emerged into it just at the point where for the first time it became thick. Soames, who had placed his grey top hat on his knee, put it on, and said:

“Just like Riggs!”

“Oh, no, Uncle!” said Imogen. “It’s Jack’s doing. When he’s got to go through Eton, he always like to go through Harrow first.”

“Oh! Ah!” said Soames. “He was there. I should like Kit’s name put down.”

“How nice!” said Imogen: “Our boys would still be there when he goes. You look so well in that hat, Uncle.”

Soames took it off again.

“White elephant,” he said. “Can’t think what made Fleur get me the thing!”

“My dear,” said Winifred, “it’ll last you for years. Jack’s had his ever since the war. The great thing is to prevent the moth getting into it, between seasons. What a lot of cars! I do think it’s wonderful that so many people should have the money in these days.”

The sight of so much money flowing down from town would have been more exhilarating to Soames if he had not been wondering where on earth they all got it. With the coal trade at a standstill, and factories closing down all over the place, this display of wealth and fashion, however reassuring, seemed to him almost indecent.

Jack Cardigan, from his front seat, had begun explaining a thing he called the ‘tote.’ It seemed to be a machine that did your betting for you. Jack Cardigan was a funny fellow; he made a life’s business of sport; there wasn’t another country that could have produced him! And, leaning forward, Soames said to Fleur: “You’ve not got a draught there?” She had been very silent all the way, and he knew why. Ten to one if young Jon Forsyte wouldn’t be at Ascot! Twice over at Mapledurham he had noticed letters addressed by her to:

“Mrs. Val Dartie, Wansdon, Sussex.”

She had seemed to him very fidgety or very listless all that fortnight. Once, when he had been talking to her about Kit’s future, she had said: “I don’t think it matters, Dad, whatever one proposes — he’ll dispose; parents don’t count now: look at me!”

And he had looked at her, and left it at that.

He was still contemplating the back of her head when they drew into an enclosure and he was forced to expose his hat to the public gaze. What a crowd! Here, on the far side of the course, were rows of people all jammed together, who, so far as he could tell, would see nothing, and be damp one way or another throughout the afternoon. If that was pleasure! He followed the others across the course, in front of the Grand Stand. So those were ‘the bookies’! Funny lot, with ‘their names painted clearly on each,’ so that people could tell them apart; just as well, for they all seemed to him the same, with large necks and red faces, or scraggy necks and lean faces, one of each kind in every firm, like a couple of music-hall comedians. And, every now and then, in the pre-racing hush, one of them gave a sort of circular howl and looked hungrily at space. Funny fellows! Soames was glad to pass into the Royal Enclosure where bookmakers did not seem to be admitted. Numbers of grey top hats here! This was the place — he had heard — to see pretty women. He was looking for them when Winifred pressed his arm.

“Look, Soames — the Royal Procession!”

Thus required to gape at those horse-drawn carriages at which everybody else would be gaping, Soames averted his eyes, and became conscious that Winifred and he were alone!

“What’s become of the others?” he said.

“Gone to the paddock, I expect.”

“What for?”

“To look at the horses, dear.”

Soames had forgotten the horses.

“Fancy driving up like that, at this time of day!” he muttered.

“I think it’s so amusing!” said Winifred. “Shall we go to the paddock, too?”

Soames, who had not intended to lose sight of his daughter, followed her towards whatever the paddock might be.

It was one of those days when nobody could tell whether it was going to rain, so that he was disappointed by the dresses, and the women’s looks. He saw nothing to equal his daughter, and was about to make a disparaging remark, when a voice behind him said:

“Look, Jon! There’s Fleur Mont!”

Placing his foot on Winifred’s, Soames stood still. There, and wearing a grey top hat, too, was that young chap between his wife and his sister. A memory of tea at Robin Hill, with his cousin Jolyon, that boy’s father, twenty-seven years ago, assailed Soames — and of how Holly and Val had come in and sat looking at him as if he were a new kind of bird. There they went, those three, into a ring of people who were staring at nothing so far as he could see. And there, close to them, were those other three, Jack Cardigan, Fleur, and Imogen.

“My dear,” said Winifred, “you DID tread on my toe.”

“I didn’t mean to,” muttered Soames. “Come over to the other side — there’s more room.”

It seemed horses were being led round; but it was at his daughter that Soames wanted to gaze from behind Winifred’s shoulder. She had not yet seen the young man, but was evidently looking for him — her eyes were hardly ever on the horses — no great wonder in that, perhaps, for they all seemed alike to Soames, shining and snakey, quiet as sheep, with boys holding on to their heads. Ah! A stab went through his chest, for she had suddenly come to life; and, as suddenly, seemed to hide her resurrection even from herself! How still she stood — ever so still, gazing at that young fellow talking to his wife.

“That’s the favourite, Soames. At least, Jack said he would be. What do you think of him?”

“Much like the others — got four legs.”

Winifred laughed. Soames was so amusing!

“Jack’s moving; if we’re going to have a bet, I think we’d better go back, dear. I know what I fancy.”

“I don’t fancy anything,” said Soames. “Weak-minded, I call it; as if they could tell one horse from another!”

“Oh! but you’d be surprised,” said Winifred; “you must get Jack to —”

“No, thank you.”

He had seen Fleur move and join those three. But faithful to his resolve to show no sign, he walked glumly back into the Enclosure. What a monstrous noise they were making now in the ring next door! And what a pack of people in that great Stand! Up there, on the top of it, he could see what looked like half-a-dozen lunatics frantically gesticulating — some kind of signalling, he supposed. Suddenly, beyond the railings at the bottom of the lawn, a flash of colour passed. Horses — one, two, three; a dozen or more — all labelled with numbers, and with little bright men sitting on their necks like monkeys. Down they went — and soon they’d come back, he supposed; and a lot of money would change hands. And then they’d do it again, and the money would change back. And what satisfaction they all got out of it, he didn’t know! There were men who went on like that all their lives he believed — thousands of them: must be lots of time and money to waste in the country! What was it Timothy had said: “Consols are going up!” They hadn’t; on the contrary, they were down a point, at least, and would go lower before the Coal Strike was over. Jack Cardigan’s voice said in his ear:

“What are you going to back, Uncle Soames?”

“How should I know?”

“You must back something, to give you an interest.”

“Put something on for Fleur, and leave me alone,” said Soames; “I’m too old to begin.”

And, opening the handle of his racing stick, he sat down on it. “Going to rain,” he added, gloomily. He sat there alone; Winifred and Imogen had joined Fleur down by the rails with Holly and her party — Fleur and that young man side by side. And he remembered how, when Bosinney had been hanging round Irene, he, as now, had made no sign, hoping against hope that by ignoring the depths beneath him he could walk upon the waters. Treacherously they had given way then and engulfed him; would they again — would they again? His lip twitched; and he put out his hand. A little drizzle fell on the back of it.

“They’re off!”

Thank goodness — the racket had ceased! Funny change from din to hush. The whole thing funny — a lot of grown-up children! Somebody called out shrilly at the top of his voice — there was a laugh — then noise began swelling from the stand; heads were craning round him. “The favourite wins!” “Not he!” More noise; a thudding — a flashing past of colour! And Soames thought: ‘Well, that’s over!’ Perhaps everything was like that really. A hush — a din — a flashing past — a hush! All like a race, a spectacle — only you couldn’t see it! A venture and a paying-up! And beneath his new hat he passed his hand down over one flat cheek, and then the other. A paying-up! He didn’t care who paid up, so long as it wasn’t Fleur! But there it was — some debts could not be paid by proxy! What on earth was Nature about when she made the human heart!

The afternoon wore on, and he saw nothing of his daughter. It was as if she suspected his design of watching over her. There was the “horse of the century” running in the Gold Cup, and he positively mustn’t miss that — they said. So again Soames was led to the ring where the horses were moving round.

“That the animal?” he said, pointing to a tall mare, whom, by reason of two white ankles, he was able to distinguish from the others. Nobody answered him, and he perceived that he was separated from Winifred and the Cardigans by three persons, all looking at him with a certain curiosity.

“Here he comes!” said one of them. Soames turned his head. Oh! So THIS was the horse of the century, was it? — this bay fellow — same colour as the pair they used to drive in the Park Lane barouche. His father always had bays, because old Jolyon had browns, and Nicholas blacks, and Swithin greys, and Roger — he didn’t remember what Roger used to have — something a bit eccentric — piebalds, he shouldn’t wonder. Sometimes they would talk about horses, or, rather, about what they had given for them; Swithin had been a judge, or so he said — Soames had never believed it, he had never believed in Swithin at all. But he could perfectly well remember George being run away with by his pony in the Row, and pitched into a flowerbed — no one had ever been able to explain how; just like George, with his taste for the grotesque! He himself had never taken any interest in horses! Irene, of course, had loved riding — she would! She had never had any after she married him. . . . A voice said:

“Well, what do you think of him, Uncle Soames?”

Val, with his confounded grin; Jack Cardigan, too, and a thin, brown-faced man with a nose and chin. Soames said guardedly:

“Nice enough nag.”

If they thought they were going to get a rise out of him!

“Think he’ll stay, Val? It’s the deuce of a journey.”

“He’ll stay all right.”

“Got nothing to beat,” said the thin brown man.

“The Frenchman, Greenwater.”

“No class, Captain Cardigan. He’s not all the horse they think him, but he can’t lose today.”

“Well, I hope to God he beats the Frenchman; we want a Cup or two left in the country.”

Something responded within Soames’ breast. If it was against a Frenchman, he would do his best to help.

“Put me five pounds on him,” he said, suddenly, to Jack Cardigan.

“Good for you, Uncle Soames. He’ll start about evens. See his head and his forehand and the way he’s let down — lots of heart room. Not quite so good behind the saddle, but a great horse, I think.”

“Which is the Frenchman?” asked Soames. “That! Oh! Ah! I don’t like HIM. I want to see this race.”

Jack Cardigan gripped his arm — the fellow’s fingers were like iron.

“You come along with me!” he said. Soames went, was put up higher than he had been yet, given Imogen’s glasses — a present from himself — and left there. He was surprised to find how well and far he could see. What a lot of cars, and what a lot of people! ‘The national pastime’— didn’t they call it! Here came the horses walking past, each led by a man. Well! they were pretty creatures, no doubt! An English horse against a French horse — that gave the thing some meaning. He was glad Annette was still with her mother in France, otherwise she’d have been here with him. Now they were cantering past. Soames made a real effort to tell one from the other, but except for their numbers, they were so confoundedly alike. “No,” he said to himself, “I’ll just watch those two, and that tall horse”— its name had appealed to him, Pons Asinorum. Rather painfully he got the colours of the three by heart and fixed his glasses on the wheeling group out there at the starting point. As soon as they were off, however, all he could see was that one horse was in front of the others. Why had he gone to the trouble of learning the colours? On and on and on he watched them, worried because he could make nothing of it, and everybody else seemed making a good deal. Now they were rounding into the straight. “The favourite’s coming up!” “Look at the Frenchman!” Soames could see the colours now. Those two! His hand shook a little and he dropped his glasses. Here they came — a regular ding-dong! Dash it — he wasn’t — England wasn’t! Yes, by George! No! Yes! Entirely without approval his heart was beating painfully. ‘Absurd!’ he thought. ‘The Frenchman!’ “No! the favourite wins! He wins!” Almost opposite, the horse was shooting out. Good horse! Hooray! England for ever! Soames covered his mouth just in time to prevent the words escaping. Somebody said something to him. He paid no attention; and, carefully putting Imogen’s glasses into their case, took off his grey hat and looked into it. There was nothing there except a faint discoloration of the buff leather where he had perspired.

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