Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter V

Measles

The diagnosis of Kit’s malady was soon verified, and Fleur went into purdah.

Soames’ efforts to distract his grandson arrived almost every day. One had the ears of a rabbit, with the expression of a dog, another the tail of a mule detachable from the body of a lion, the third made a noise like many bees; the fourth, though designed for a waistcoat, could be pulled out tall. The procuring of these rarities, together with the choicest mandarine oranges, muscatel grapes, and honey that was not merely “warranted” pure, occupied his mornings in town. He was staying at Green Street, whereto the news, judiciously wired, had brought Annette. Soames, who was not yet entirely resigned to a spiritual life, was genuinely glad to see her. But after one night, he felt he could spare her to Fleur. It would be a relief to feel that she had her mother with her. Perhaps by the end of her seclusion that young fellow would be out of her reach again. A domestic crisis like this might even put him out of her head. Soames was not philosopher enough to gauge inround the significance of his daughter’s yearnings. To one born in 1855 love was a purely individual passion, or if it wasn’t, ought to be. It did not occur to him that Fleur’s longing for Jon might also symbolise the craving in her blood for life, the whole of life, and nothing but life; that Jon had represented her first serious defeat in the struggle for the fulness of perfection; a defeat that might yet be wiped out. The modern soul, in the intricate turmoil of its sophistication, was to Soames a book which, if not sealed, had its pages still uncut. ‘Crying for the moon’ had become a principle when he was already much too old for principles. Recognition of the limits of human life and happiness was in his blood, and had certainly been fostered by his experience. Without, exactly, defining existence as “making the best of a bad job,” he would have contended that though, when you had almost everything, you had better ask for more, you must not fash yourself if you did not get it. The virus of a time-worn religion which had made the really irreligious old Forsytes say their prayers to the death, in a muddled belief that they would get something for them after death, still worked inhibitively in the blood of their prayerless offspring, Soames; so that, although fairly certain that he would get nothing after death, he still believed that he would not get everything before death. He lagged, in fact, behind the beliefs of a new century in whose “make-up” resignation played no part — a century which either believed, with spiritualism, that there were plenty of chances to get things after death, or that, since one died for good and all, one must see to it that one had everything before death. Resignation! Soames would have denied, of course, that he believed in any such thing; and certainly he thought nothing too good for his daughter! And yet, somehow, he felt in his bones that there WAS a limit, and Fleur did not — this little distinction, established by the difference in their epochs, accounted for his inability to follow so much of her restive search.

Even in the nursery, grieved and discomforted by the feverish miseries of her little son, Fleur continued that search. Sitting beside his cot, while he tossed and murmured and said he was “so ‘ot,” her spirit tossed and murmured and said so, too. Except that, by the doctor’s orders, bathed and in changed garments, she went for an hour’s walk each day, keeping to herself, she was entirely out of the world, so that the heart from which she suffered had no anodyne but that of watching and ministering to Kit. Michael was “ever so sweet” to her; and the fact that she wanted another in his place could never have been guessed from her manner. Her resolution to give nothing away was as firm as ever, but it was a real relief not to encounter the gimletting affection of her father’s eye. She wrote to no one; but she received from Jon a little letter of condolence.

“Wansdon. “June 22.

“DEAR FLEUR,

“We are so awfully sorry to hear of Kit’s illness. It must be wretched for you. We do hope the poor little chap is over the painful part by now. I remember my measles as two beastly days, and then lots of things that felt nice and soothing all the way down. But I expect he’s too young to be conscious of anything much except being thoroughly uncomfy.

“Rondavel, they say, is all the better for his race. It was jolly seeing it together.

“Good-bye, dear Fleur; with all sympathy,

Your affectionate friend,

“JON.”

She kept it — as she had kept his old letters — but not, like them, about her; there had come to be a dim, round mark on the “affectionate friend” which looked as if it might have dropped from an eye; besides, Michael was liable to see her in any stage of costume. So she kept it in her jewel box, whereof she alone had the key.

She read a good deal to Kit in those days, but still more to herself, conscious that of late she had fallen behind the forward march of literature, and seeking for distraction in an attempt to be up-to-date, rather than in the lives of characters too lively to be alive. They had so much soul, and that so contortionate, that she could not even keep her attention on them long enough to discover why they were not alive. Michael brought her book after book, with the words, “This is supposed to be clever,” or “Here’s the last Nazing,” or “Our old friend Calvin again — not quite so near the ham-bone this time, but as near as makes no matter.” And she would sit with them on her lap and feel gradually that she knew enough to be able to say: “Oh! yes, I’ve read ‘The Gorgons’— it’s marvellously Proustian.” Or “‘Love — the Chameleon’? — well, it’s better than her ‘Green Cave,’ but not up to ‘Souls in the Nude.’” Or, “You MUST read ‘The Whirligig,’ my dear — it gets quite marvellously nowhere.”

She held some converse with Annette, but of the guarded character, suitable between mothers and daughters after a certain age; directed, in fact, towards elucidating problems not unconnected with garb. The future — according to Annette — was dark. Were skirts to be longer or shorter by the autumn? If shorter, she herself would pay no attention; it might be all very well for Fleur, but she had reached the limit herself — at her age she would NOT go above the knee. As to the size of hats — again there was no definite indication. The most distinguished cocotte in Paris was said to be in favour of larger hats, but forces were working in the dark against her — motoring and Madame de Michel-Ange “qui est toute pour la vieille cloche.” Fleur wanted to know whether she had heard anything fresh about shingling. Annette, who was not yet shingled, but whose neck for a long time had trembled on the block, confessed herself “desesperee.” Everything now depended on the Basque cap. If women took to them, shingling would stay; if not, hair might come in again. In any case the new tint would be pure gold; “Et ca sera impossible. Ton pere aurait une apoplexie. En tout cas, cherie, je crains que je suis condamnee aux cheveux longs, jusqu’au jugement dernier. Eh bien, peutetre, on me donnera une bonne petite marque a cause de cela.”

“If you want to shingle, Mother, I should. It’s just father’s conservatism — he doesn’t really know what he likes. It would be a new sensation for him.”

Annette grimaced. “Ma chere; je n’en sais rien, ton pere est capable de tout.”

The man “capable of anything” came every afternoon for half an hour, and would remain seated before the Fragonard, catechising Michael or Annette, and then say, rather suddenly:

“Well, give my love to Fleur; I’m glad the little chap’s better!” Or, “That pain he’s got will be wind, I expect. But I should have what’s-his-name see to it. Give my love to Fleur.” And in the hall he would stand a moment by the coat-sarcophagus, listening. Then, adjusting his hat, he would murmur what sounded like: “Well, there it is!” or: “She doesn’t get enough air,” and go out.

And from the nursery window Fleur would see him, departing at his glum and measured gait, with a compunctious relief. Poor old Dad! Not his fault that he symbolised for her just now the glum and measured paces of domestic virtue. Soames’ hope, indeed, that enforced domesticity might cure her, was not being borne out. After the first two or three anxious days, while Kit’s temperature was still high, it worked to opposite ends. Her feeling for Jon, in which now was an element of sexual passion, lacking before her marriage, grew, as all such feelings grow, without air and exercise for the body and interest for the mind. It flourished like a plant transferred into a hot-house. The sense of having been defrauded fermented in her soul. Were they never to eat of the golden apple — she and Jon? Was it to hang there, always out of reach — amid dark, lustrous leaves, quite unlike an apple-tree’s? She took out her old water-colour box — long now since it had seen the light — and coloured a fantastic tree with large golden fruits.

Michael caught her at it.

“That’s jolly good,” he said. “You ought to keep up your water-colours, old thing.”

Rigid, as if listening for something behind the words, Fleur answered: “Sheer idleness!”

“What’s the fruit?”

Fleur laughed.

“Exactly! But this is the soul of a fruit-tree, Michael — not its body!”

“I might have known,” said Michael, ruefully. “Anyway, may I have it for my study when it’s done? It’s got real feeling.”

Fleur felt a queer gratitude. “Shall I label it ‘The Uneatable Fruit’?”

“Certainly not — it looks highly luscious; you’d have to eat it over a basin, like a mango.”

Fleur laughed again.

“Steward!” she said. And, to Michael bending down to kiss her, she inclined her cheek. At least he should guess nothing of her feelings. And, indeed, the French blood in her never ran cold at one of whom she was fond but did not love; the bitter spice which tinctured the blood of most of the Forsytes preserved the jest of her position. She was still the not unhappy wife of a good comrade and best of fellows, who, whatever she did herself, would never do anything ungenerous or mean. Fastidious recoilings from unloved husbands of which she read in old-fashioned novels, and of which she knew her father’s first wife had been so guilty, seemed to her rather ludicrous. Promiscuity was in the air; a fidelity of the spirit so logical that it extended to the motions of the body, was paleolithic, or at least Victorian and ‘middle-class.’ Fulness of life could never be reached on those lines. And yet the frank paganism, advocated by certain masters of French and English literature, was also debarred from Fleur, by its austerely logical habit of going the whole hog. There wasn’t enough necessary virus in her blood, no sex mania about Fleur; indeed, hereunto, that obsession had hardly come her way at all. But now — new was the feeling, as well as old, that she had for Jon; and the days went by in scheming how, when she was free again, she could see him and hear his voice and touch him as she had touched him by the enclosure rails while the horses went flashing by.

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