Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter III

The Two-Year-Olds

The toilet of the two-year-olds was proceeding in the more unfrequented portions of the paddock. “Come and see Rondavel saddled, Jon,” said Fleur.

And, when he looked back, she laughed.

“No, you’ve got Anne all day and all night. Come with me for a change.”

On the far side of the paddock the son of Sleeping Dove was holding high his intelligent head, and his bit was being gently jiggled, while Greenwater with his own hands adjusted the saddle.

“A race-horse has about the best time of anything on earth,” she heard Jon say. “Look at his eyes — wise, bright, not bored. Draft horses have a cynical, long-suffering look — racehorses never. He likes his job; that keeps him spirity.”

“Don’t talk like a pamphlet, Jon. Did you expect to see me here?”

“Yes.”

“And it didn’t keep you away? How brave!”

“Must you say that sort of thing?”

“What then? You notice, Jon, that a racehorse never stands over at the knee; the reason is, of course, that he isn’t old enough. By the way, there’s one thing that spoils your raptures about them. They’re not free agents.”

“Is anyone?”

How set and obstinate his face!

“Let’s see him walk round.”

They joined Val, who said gloomily:

“D’you want to have anything on?”

“Do YOU, Jon?” said Fleur.

“Yes; a tenner.”

“So will I then. Twenty pounds between us, Val.”

Val signed.

“Look at him! Ever see a two-year-old more self-contained? I tell you that youngster’s going far. And I’m confined to a miserable ‘pony’! Damn!”

He left them and spoke to Greenwater.

“More self-contained,” said Fleur. “Not a modern quality, is it, Jon?”

“Perhaps, underneath.”

“Oh! You’ve been in the backwoods too long. Francis, too, was wonderfully primitive; so, I suppose, is Anne. You should have tried New York, judging by their literature.”

“I don’t judge by literature; I don’t believe there’s any relation between it and life.”

“Let’s hope not, anyway. Where shall we see the race from?”

“The enclosure rails. It’s the finish I care about. I don’t see Anne.”

Fleur closed her lips suddenly on the words: “Damn Anne.”

“We can’t wait for them,” she said. “The rails soon fill up.”

On the rails they were almost opposite the winning post, and they stood there silent, in a queer sort of enmity — it seemed to Fleur.

“Here they come!”

Too quickly and too close to be properly taken in, the two-year-olds came cantering past.

“Rondavel goes well,” said Jon. “And I like that brown.”

Fleur noted them languidly, too conscious of being alone with him — really alone, blocked off by strangers from any knowing eye. To savour that loneliness of so few minutes was tasking all her faculties. She slipped her hand through his arm, and forced her voice.

“I’m awfully worked up, Jon. He simply must win.”

Did he know that in focussing his glasses he left her hand uncaged?

“I can’t make them out from here.” Then his arm recaged her hand against his side. Did he know? What did he know?

“They’re off!”

Fleur pressed closer.

Silence — din — shouting of this name — that name! But pressure against him was all it meant to Fleur. Past they came, a flourishing flash of colour; but she saw nothing of it, for her eyes were closed.

“By Gosh!” she heard him say: “He’s won.”

“Oh, Jon!”

“I wonder what price we got?”

Fleur looked at him, a spot of red in each pale cheek, and her eyes very clear.

“Price? Did you really mean that, Jon?”

And, though he was behind her, following to the paddock she knew from the way his eyes were fixed on her, that he had not meant it.

They found their party reunited all but Soames. Jack Cardigan was explaining that the price obtained was unaccountably short, since there was no stable money on to speak of; somebody must have known something; he seemed to think that this was extremely reprehensible.

“I suppose Uncle Soames hasn’t been going for the gloves,” he said. “Nobody’s seen him since the Gold Cup. Wouldn’t it be ripping if we found he’s kicked over and had a ‘monkey’ on?”

Fleur said uneasily:

“I expect Father got tired and went to the car. We’d better go too, Auntie, and get away before the crowd.”

She turned to Anne. “When shall we see you again?” She saw the girl look at Jon, and heard him say glumly:

“Oh! sometime.”

“Yes, we’ll fix something up. Good-bye, my dear! Good-bye, Jon! Tell Val I’m very glad.” And, with a farewell nod, she led the way. Of a sort of rage in her heart she gave no sign, preparing normality for her father’s eyes.

Soames, indeed, was in the car. Excitement over the Gold Cup — so contrary to his principles — had caused him to sit down in the Stand. And there he had remained during the next two races, idly watching the throng below, and the horses going down fast and coming back faster. There, quietly, in the isolation suited to his spirit, he could, if not enjoy, at least browse on a scene strikingly unfamiliar to him. The national pastime — he knew that everybody had ‘a bit on’ something now-a-days. For one person who ever went racing there were twenty — it seemed — who didn’t, and yet knew at least enough to lose their money. You couldn’t buy a paper, or have your hair cut, without being conscious of that. All over London, and the South, the Midlands and the North, in all classes, they were at it, supporting horses with their bobs and dollars and sovereigns. Most of them — he believed — had never seen a race horse in their lives — hardly a horse of any sort; racing was a sort of religion, he supposed, and now that they were going to tax it, an orthodox religion. Some primeval nonconformity in the blood of Soames shuddered a little. He had no sympathy, of course, with those leather-lunged chaps down there under their queer hats and their umbrellas, but the feeling that they were now made free of heaven — or at least of that synonym of heaven the modern State — ruffled him. It was almost as if England were facing realities at last — Very dangerous! They would be licensing prostitution next! To tax what were called vices was to admit that they were part of human nature. And though, like a Forsyte, he had long known them to be so, to admit it was, he felt, too French. To acknowledge the limitations of human nature was a sort of defeatism; when you once began that, you didn’t know where you’d stop. Still, from all he could see, the tax would bring in a pretty penny — and pennies were badly needed; so, he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t have done it himself, but he wasn’t prepared to turn out the Government for having done it. They had recognised, too, no doubt, as he did, that gambling was the greatest make-weight there was against revolution; so long as a man could bet he had always a chance of getting something for nothing, and that desire was the real driving force behind any attempt to turn things upside down. Besides you had to move with the times uphill or downhill, and it was difficult to tell one from the other. The great thing was to avoid extremes.

From this measured reflection he was abruptly transferred to feelings unmeasured. Fleur and that young fellow were walking across the lawn of the Enclosure! From under the brim of his grey hat he watched them painfully, reluctantly admitting that they made as pretty a couple as any there. They came to a stand on the rails — not talking; and to Soames, who, when moved, was exceptionally taciturn, this seemed a bad sign. Were things really going wrong, then — was passion forming within its still cocoon to fly on butterfly wings for its brief hour? What was going on within the silence of those two? The horses were passing now; and the grey, they said, was his own nephew’s? Why did the fellow have horses? He had known how it would be when Fleur said she was going to Ascot. He regretted now having come. No, he didn’t! Better to know what there was to be known. In the press of people to the rails he could no longer see more than the young man’s grey hat, and the black-and-white covering of his daughter’s head. For a minute the race diverted him: might as well see Val’s horse well beaten. They said he thought a lot of it; and Soames thought the less of its chance for that. Here they came, all in a bunch — thundering great troop, and that grey — a handy colour, you couldn’t miss it. — Why, he was winning! Hang it — he had won!

“H’m!” he said, aloud: “that’s my nephew’s horse!”

Since nobody replied, he hoped they hadn’t heard; and back went his eyes to the Enclosure rails. Those two were coming away silently — Fleur a little in front. Perhaps — perhaps, after all, they didn’t get on, now! Must hope for the best. By George, but he felt tired! He would go to the car, and wait.

And there in the dusk of it he was sitting when they came, full of bubble and squeak — something very little-headed about people when they’d won money. For they had all won money, it seemed!

“And you didn’t back him, Uncle Soames?”

“I was thinking of other things,” said Soames, gazing at his daughter.

“We thought you were responsible for the shockin’ bad price.”

“Why!” said Soames, gloomily. “Did you expect me to bet against him?”

Jack Cardigan threw back his head and laughed.

“I don’t see anything funny,” muttered Soames.

“Nor do I, Jack,” said Fleur. “Why should Father know anything about racing?”

“I beg your pardon, sir, I’ll tell you all about it.”

“God forbid!” said Soames. “No, but it’s rather queer. D’you remember that chap Stainford, who sneaked the Mater’s snuff-box?”

“I do.”

“Well it seems he paid Val a visit at Wansdon, and Val thinks he picked up the idea that Rondavel was a real good one. There was a chap watching the gallop last Monday. That’s what decided them to run the colt today. They were going to wait for Goodwood. Too late, though; somebody’s made a pot over him. We only got fours.”

It was all Greek to Soames, except that the languid ruffian Stainford had somehow been responsible a SECOND time for bringing about a meeting between Fleur and Jon; for he knew from Winifred that Val and his menage had gone to stay at Green Street during the Strike on purpose to see Stainford. He wished to goodness he had called a policeman that day, and had the fellow shut up.

They were a long time getting out of the traffic — owing to the perversity of “that chap Riggs,” and did not reach South Square till seven o’clock. They were greeted by the news that Kit had a temperature. Mr. Mont was with him. Fleur flew up. Having washed off his day, Soames settled himself in the ‘parlour’ to wait uneasily for their report. Fleur used to have temperatures, and not infrequently they led to something. If Kit’s didn’t lead to anything serious, it might be good for her — keeping her thoughts at home. He lay back in his chair opposite the Fragonard — a delicate thing, but with no soul in it, like all the works of that period — wondering why Fleur had changed the style of this room from Chinese to Louis Quinze. Just for the sake of change, he supposed. These young people had no continuity; some microbe in the blood — of the ‘idle rich,’ and the ‘idle poor,’ and everybody else, so far as he could see. Nobody could be got to stay anywhere — not even in their graves, judging by all those seances. If only people would attend quietly to their business, even to that of being dead! They had such an appetite for living, that they had no life. A beam of sunlight, smoky with dust-motes, came slanting in on to the wall before him — pretty thing, a beam of sunlight, but a terrible lot of dust, even in a room spick-and-spandy as this. And to think that a thing smaller than one of those dust-motes could give a child a temperature. He hoped to goodness Kit had nothing catching. And his mind went over the illnesses of childhood — mumps, measles, chicken-pox, whooping-cough. Fleur had caught them all, but never scarlet fever. And Soames began to fidget. Surely Kit was too young to have got scarlet fever. But nurses were so careless — you never knew! And suddenly he began to wish for Annette. What was she doing out in France all this time? She was useful in illness; had some very good prescriptions. He WOULD say that for the French — their doctors were clever when you could get them to take an interest. The stuff they had given him for his lumbago at Deauville had been first-rate. And after his visit the little doctor chap had said: “I come for the money tomorrow!” or so it had sounded. It seemed he had meant: “I come in the morning tomorrow.” They never could speak anything but their own confounded language, and looked aggrieved when you couldn’t speak it yourself.

They had kept him a long time there without news before Michael came in.

“Well?”

“Well, sir, it looks uncommonly like measles.”

“H’m! Now, how on earth did he get that?”

“Nurse has no idea; but Kit’s awfully sociable. If there’s another child in sight, he goes for him.”

“That’s bad,” said Soames. “You’ve got slums at the back here.”

“Ah!” said Michael: “Slums to the right of us, slums to the left of us, slums to the front of us — how can you wonder?”

Soames stared. “They’re not notifiable,” he said, “thank goodness!”

“Slums?”

“No. Measles.” If he had a dread, it was a notifiable disease, with the authorities poking their noses in, and having up the drains as likely as not. “How’s the little chap feeling?”

“Very sorry for himself.”

“In my opinion,” said Soames, “there’s a great deal more in fleas than they think. That dog of his may have picked up a measley flea. I wonder the doctor’s don’t turn their attention to fleas.”

“I wonder they don’t turn their attention to slums,” said Michael; “that’s where the fleas come from.”

Again Soames stared. Had his son-inlaw got slums in his bonnet now? His manifestations of public spirit were very disturbing. Perhaps he’d been going round those places, and brought the flea in himself, or some infection or other.

“Have you sent for the doctor?”

“Yes; he’ll be here any minute.”

“Is he any good, or just the ordinary cock-and-bull type?”

“The same man we had for Fleur.”

“Oh! Ah! I remember — too much manner, but shrewd. Doctors!”

There was silence in the polished room, while they waited for the bell to ring; and Soames brooded. Should he tell Michael about the afternoon? His mouth opened once, but nothing came out. Over and over again his son-inlaw had surprised him by the view he took of things. And he only stared at Michael, who was gazing out of the window — queer face the young fellow had; plain, and yet attractive, with those pointed ears and eyebrows running up on the outside — wasn’t always thinking of himself like good-looking young men seemed to be. Good-looking men were always selfish; got spoiled, he supposed. He would give a penny for the young fellow’s thoughts.

“Here he is!” said Michael, jumping up.

Soames was alone again. How long alone, he didn’t know, for he was tired, and, in spite of his concern, he dozed. The opening of the door roused him in time to assume anxiety before Fleur spoke.

“It’s almost certainly measles, Dad.”

“Oh!” said Soames, blankly. “What about nursing?”

“Nurse and I, of course.”

“That’ll mean you can’t get about.”

“And aren’t you glad?” her face seemed to say. How she read his thoughts!

God knew he wasn’t glad of anything that troubled her — and yet!

“Poor little chap!” he said, evasively: “Your mother must come back. I must try and find him something that’ll take his attention off.”

“Don’t trouble, Dad; he’s too feverish, poor darling. Dinner’s ready. I’m having mine upstairs.”

Soames rose and went up to her.

“Don’t you be worrying,” he said. “All children —”

Fleur put her arm out.

“Not too near, Dad. No, I won’t worry.”

“Give him my love,” said Soames. “He won’t care for it.”

Fleur looked at him. Her lips smiled a very little. Her eyelids winked twice. Then she turned and went out, and Soames thought:

‘She — poor little thing! I’m no use!’ It was of her, not of his grandson, that he thought.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/swan/chapter16.html

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