Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VI

Forming a Committee

In the meantime Michael was not so unconscious as she thought, for when two people live together, and one of them is still in love, he senses change as a springbok will scent drought. Memories of that lunch, and of his visit to June, were still unpleasantly green. In his public life — that excellent anodyne for its private counterpart — he sought distraction, and made up his mind to go ‘all out’ for his Uncle Hilary’s slum-conversion scheme. Having amassed the needed literature, he began considering to whom he should go first, well aware that public bodies are centrifugal. Round what fine figure of a public man should he form his committee? Sir Timothy Fanfield and the Marquess of Shropshire would come in usefully enough later, but, though well known for their hobbies, they ‘cut no ice’ with the general public. A certain magnetism was needed. There was none in any banker he could think of, less in any lawyer or cleric, and no reforming soldier could be otherwise than discredited, until he had carried his reforms, by which time he would be dead. He would have liked an admiral, but they were all out of reach. Retired Prime Ministers were in too lively request, besides being tarred with the brush of Party; and literary idols would be too old, too busy with themselves, too lazy, or too erratic. There remained doctors, business men, governor generals, dukes, and newspaper proprietors. It was at this point that he consulted his father.

Sir Lawrence, who had also been coming to South Square almost daily during Kit’s illness, focussed the problem with his eyeglass, and said nothing for quite two minutes.

“What do you mean by magnetism, Michael? The rays of a setting or of a rising sun?”

“Both, if possible, Dad.”

“Difficult,” said his progenitor, “difficult. One thing’s certain — you can’t afford cleverness.”

“How?”

“The public have suffered from it too much. Besides, we don’t really like it in this country, Michael. Character, my dear, character!”

Michael groaned.

“Yes, I know,” said Sir Lawrence, “awfully out of date with you young folk.” Then, raising his loose eyebrow abruptly so that his eyeglass fell on to the problem, he added: “Eureka! Wilfred Bentworth! The very man — last of the squires — reforming the slums. It’s what you’d call a stunt.”

“Old Bentworth?” repeated Michael, dubiously.

“He’s only my age — sixty-eight, and got nothing to do with politics.”

“But isn’t he stupid?”

“There speaks your modern! Rather broad in the beam, and looking a little like a butler with a moustache, but — stupid? No. Refused a peerage three times. Think of the effect of that on the public!”

“Wilfred Bentworth? I should never have thought of him — always looked on him as the professional honest man,” murmured Michael.

“But he IS honest!”

“Yes, but when he speaks, he always alludes to it.”

“That’s true,” said Sir Lawerence, “but one must have a defect. He’s got twenty thousand acres, and knows all about fatting stock. He’s on a railway board; he’s the figurehead of his county’s cricket, and chairman of a big hospital. Everybody knows him. He has Royalty to shoot; goes back to Saxon times; and is the nearest thing to John Bull left. In any other country he’d frighten the life out of any scheme, but in England — well, if you can get him, Michael, your job’s half done.”

Michael looked quizzically at his parent. Did Bart quite understand the England of today? His mind roved hurriedly over the fields of public life. By George! He did!

“How shall I approach him, Dad? Will you come on the committee yourself? You know him; and we could go together.”

“If you’d really like to have me,” said Sir Lawrence, almost wistfully, “I will. It’s time I did some work again.”

“Splendid! I think I see your point about Bentworth. Beyond suspicion — has too much already to have anything to gain, and isn’t clever enough to take in anyone if he wanted to.”

Sir Lawrence nodded. “Add his appearance; that counts tremendously in a people that have given up the land as a bad job. We still love to think of beef. It accounts for a good many of our modern leaderships. A people that’s got away from its base, and is drifting after it knows not what, wants beam, beef, beer — or at least port — in its leaders. There’s something pathetic about that, Michael. What’s today — Thursday? This’ll be Bentworth’s board day. Shall we strike while the iron’s hot? We’ll very likely catch him at Burton’s.”

“Good!” said Michael, and they set forth.

“This club,” murmured Sir Lawrence, as they were going up the steps of Burton’s Club, “is confined to travellers, and I don’t suppose Bentworth’s ever travelled a yard. That shows how respected he is. No, I’m wronging him. I remember he commanded his yeomanry in the Boer War. ‘The Squire’ in the Club, Smileman?”

“Yes, Sir Lawrence; just come in.”

The “last of the squires” was, indeed, in front of the tape. His rosy face, with clipped white moustache, and hard, little, white whiskers, was held as if the news had come to him, not he to the news. Banks might inflate and Governments fall, wars break out and strikes collapse, but there would be no bending of that considerable waist, no flickering in the steady blue stare from under eyebrows a little raised at their outer ends. Rather bald, and clipped in what hair was left, never did man look more perfectly shaved; and the moustache ending exactly where the lips ended, gave an extreme firmness to the general good humour of an open-air face.

Looking from him to his own father — thin, quick, twisting, dark, as full of whims as a bog is of snipe — Michael was impressed. A whim, to Wilfred Bentworth, would be strange fowl indeed! ‘However he’s managed to keep out of politics,’ thought Michael, ‘I can’t conceive.’

“‘Squire’— my son — a sucking statesman. We’ve come to ask you to lead a forlorn hope. Don’t smile! You’re ‘for it,’ as they say in this Bonzoid age. We propose to shelter ourselves behind you in the breach.”

“Eh! What? Sit down! What’s all this?”

“It’s a matter of the slums, ‘if you know what I mean,’ as the lady said. But go ahead, Michael!”

Michael went ahead. Having developed his uncle’s thesis and cited certain figures, he embroidered them with as much picturesque detail as he could remember, feeling rather like a fly attacking the flanks of an ox and watching his tail.

“When you drive a nail into the walls, sir,” he ended, “things come out.”

“Good God!” said the squire suddenly. “Good God!”

“One doubts the good, there,” put in Sir Lawrence.

The squire stared.

“Irreverent beggar,” he said. “I don’t know Charwell; they say he’s cracked.”

“Hardly that,” murmured Sir Lawrence; “merely unusual, like most members of really old families.”

The early English specimen in the chair before him twinkled.

“The Charwells, you know,” went on Sir Lawrence, “were hoary when that rascally lawyer, the first Mont, founded us under James the First.”

“Oh!” said the squire. “Are you one of HIS precious creations? I didn’t know.”

“You’re not familiar with the slums, sir?” said Michael, feeling that they must not wander in the mazes of descent.

“What! No. Ought to be, I suppose. Poor devils!”

“It’s not so much,” said Michael, cunningly, “the humanitarian side, as the deterioration of stock, which is so serious.”

“M’m?” said the squire. “Do you know anything about stock-breeding?”

Michael shook his head.

“Well, you can take it from me that it’s nearly all heredity. You could fat a slum population, but you can’t change their character!”

“I don’t think there’s anything very wrong with their character,” said Michael. “The children are predominantly fair, which means, I suppose, that they’ve still got the Anglo-Saxon qualities.”

He saw his father cock an eye. “Quite the diplomat!” he seemed saying.

“Whom have you got in mind for this committee?” asked the squire, abruptly.

“My father,” said Michael; “and we’d thought of the Marquess of Shropshire —”

“Very long in the tooth.”

“But very spry,” said Sir Lawrence. “Still game to electrify the world.”

“Who else?”

“Sir Timothy Fanfield —”

“That fire-eating old buffer! Yes?”

“Sir Thomas Morsell —”

“M’m!”

Michael hurried on: “Or any other medical man you thought better of, sir.”

“There are none. Are you sure about the bugs?”

“Absolutely!”

“Well, I should have to see Charwell. I’m told he can gammon the hind-leg off a donkey.”

“Hilary’s a good fellow,” put in Sir Lawrence; “a really good fellow, ‘squire.’”

“Well, Mont, if I take to him, I’ll come in. I don’t like vermin.”

“A great national movement, sir,” began Michael, “and nobody —”

The squire shook his head.

“Don’t make any mistake,” he said. “May get a few pounds, perhaps — get rid of a few bugs; but national movements — no such things in this country.” . . .

“Stout fellow,” said Sir Lawrence when they were going down the steps again; “never been enthusiastic in his life. He’ll make a splendid chairman. I think we’ve got him, Michael. You played your bugs well. We’d better try the Marquess next. Even a duke will serve under Bentworth, they know he’s of older family than themselves, and there’s something about him.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Well, he isn’t thinking about himself; he never gets into the air; and he doesn’t give a damn for anyone or anything.”

“There must be something more than that,” said Michael.

“Well, there is. The fact is, he thinks as England really thinks, and not as it thinks it thinks.”

“By Jove!” said Michael. “‘Some’ diagnosis! Shall we dine, sir?”

“Yes, let’s go to the Parthenaeum! When they made me a member there, I used to think I should never go in, but d’you know, I use it quite a lot. It’s more like the East than anything else in London. A Yogi could ask for nothing better. I go in and I sit in a trance until it’s time for me to come out again. There isn’t a sound; nobody comes near me. There’s no vulgar material comfort. The prevailing colour is that of the Ganges. And there’s more inaccessible wisdom in the place than you could find anywhere else in the West. We’ll have the club dinner. It’s calculated to moderate all transports. Lunch, of course, you can’t get if you’ve a friend with you. One must draw the line somewhere at hospitality.”

“Now,” he resumed, when they had finished moderating their transports, “let’s go and see the Marquess! I haven’t set eyes on the old boy since that Marjorie Ferrar affair. We’ll hope he hasn’t got gout.” . . .

In Curzon Street, they found that the Marquess had finished dinner and gone back to his study.

“Don’t wake him if he’s asleep,” said Sir Lawrence.

“The Marquess is never asleep, Sir Lawrence.”

He was writing when they were ushered in, and stopped to peer at them round the corner of his bureau.

“Ah, young Mont!” he said. “How pleasant!” Then paused rather abruptly. “Nothing to do with my grand-daughter, I trust?”

“Far from it, Marquess. We just want your help in a public work on behalf of the humble. It’s a slum proposition, as the Yanks say.”

The Marquess shook his head.

“I don’t like interfering with the humble; the humbler people are, the more one ought to consider their feelings.”

“We’re absolutely with you there, sir; but let my son explain.”

“Sit down, then.” And the Marquess rose, placed his foot on his chair, and leaning his elbow on his knee, inclined his head to one side. For the second time that evening Michael plunged into explanation.

“Bentworth?” said the Marquess. “His shorthorns are good; a solid fellow, but behind the times.”

“That’s why we want you, Marquess.”

“My dear young Mont, I’m too old.”

“It’s precisely because you’re so young that we came to you.”

“Frankly, sir,” said Michael, “we thought you’d like to be on the committee of appeal, because in my uncle’s policy there’s electrification of the kitchens; we must have someone who’s an authority on that and can keep it to the fore.”

“Ah!” said the Marquess. “Hilary Charwell — I once heard him preach in St. Paul’s — most amusing! What do the slum-dwellers say to electrification?”

“Nothing till it’s done, of course, but once it’s done, it’s everything to them, sir.”

“H’m!” said the Marquess. “H’m! It would appear that there are no flies on your uncle.”

“We hope,” pursued Michael, “that, with electrification, there will soon be no flies on anything else.”

The Marquess nodded. “It’s the right end of the stick. I’ll think of it. My trouble is that I’ve no money; and I don’t like appealing to others without putting down something substantial myself.”

The two Monts looked at each other; the excuse was patent, and they had not foreseen it.

“I suppose,” went on the Marquess, “you don’t know anyone who would buy some lace — point de Venise, the real stuff? Or,” he added, “I’ve a Morland —”

“Have you, sir?” cried Michael. “My father-inlaw was saying only the other day that he wanted a Morland.”

“Has he a good home for it?” said the Marquess, rather wistfully. “It’s a white pony.”

“Oh, yes, sir; he’s a real collector.”

“Any chance of its going to the nation, in time?”

“Quite a good chance, I think.”

“Well, perhaps he’d come and look at it. It’s never changed hands so far. If he would give me the market price, whatever that may be, it might solve the problem.”

“That’s frightfully good of you, sir.”

“Not at all,” said the Marquess. “I believe in electricity, and I detest smoke; this seems a movement in the right direction. It’s a Mr. Forsyte, I think. There was a case — my granddaughter; but that’s a past matter. I trust you’re friends again?”

“Yes, sir; I saw her about a fortnight ago, and it was quite O.K.”

“Nothing lasts with you modern young people,” said the Marquess; “the younger generation seems to have forgotten the war already. Is that good, I wonder? What do YOU say, Mont?”

“‘Tout casse, tout passe,’ Marquess.”

“Oh! I don’t complain,” said the Marquess; “rather the contrary. By the way — on this committee you’ll want a new man with plenty of money.”

“Can you suggest one, sir?”

“My next-door neighbour — a man called Montross — I think his real name is shorter — might possibly serve. He’s made millions, I believe, out of the elastic band — had some patent for making them last only just long enough. I see him sometimes gazing longingly at me — I don’t use them, you know. Perhaps if you mention my name. He has a wife, and no title at present. I should imagine he might be looking for a public work.”

“He sounds,” said Sir Lawrence, “the very man. Do you think we might venture now?”

“Try!” said the Marquess, “try. A domestic character, I’m told. It’s no use doing things by halves; an immense amount of money will be wanted if we are to electrify any considerable number of kitchens. A man who would help substantially towards that would earn his knighthood much better than most people.”

“I agree,” said Sir Lawrence; “a real public service. I suppose we mustn’t dangle the knighthood?”

The Marquess shook the head that was resting on his hand.

“In these days — no,” he said. “Just the names of his colleagues. We can hardly hope that he’ll take an interest in the thing for itself.”

“Well, thank you ever so much, sir. We’ll let you know whether Wilfred Bentworth will take the chair, and how we progress generally.”

The Marquess took his foot down and inclined his head at Michael.

“I like to see young politicians interesting themselves in the future of England, because, in fact, no amount of politics will prevent her having one. By the way, have you had your own kitchen electrified?”

“My wife and I are thinking of it, sir.”

“Don’t think!” said the Marquess. “Have it done!”

“We certainly shall, now.”

“We must strike while the strike is on,” said the Marquess. “If there is anything shorter than the public’s memory, I am not aware of it.”

“Phew!” said Sir Lawrence, on the next doorstep; “the old boy’s spryer than ever. I take it we may assume that the name here was originally Moss. If so, the question is: ‘Have we the wits for this job?’”

And, in some doubt, they scrutinised the mansion before them.

“We had better be perfectly straightforward,” said Michael. “Dwell on the slums, mention the names we hope to get, and leave the rest to him.”

“I think,” said his father, “we had better say ‘got,’ not ‘hope to get.’”

“The moment we mention the names, Dad, he’ll know we’re after his dibs.”

“He’ll know that in any case, my boy.”

“I suppose there’s no doubt about the dibs?”

“Montross, Ltd.! They’re not confined to elastic bands.”

“I should like to make a perfectly plain appeal to his generosity, Dad. There’s a lot of generosity in that blood, you know.”

“We can’t stand just here, Michael, discussing the make-up of the chosen. Ring the bell!”

Michael rang.

“Mr. Montross at home? Thank you. Will you give him these cards, and ask if we might see him for a moment?”

The room into which they were ushered was evidently accustomed to this sort of thing, for, while there was nothing that anyone could take away, there were chairs in which it was possible to be quite comfortable, and some valuable but large pictures and busts.

Sir Lawrence was examining a bust, and Michael a picture, when the door was opened, and a voice said: “Yes, gentlemen?”

Mr. Montross was of short stature, and somewhat like a thin walrus who had once been dark but had gone grey; his features were slightly aquiline, he had melancholy brown eyes, and big drooping grizzly moustaches and eyebrows.

“We were advised to come to you, sir,” began Michael at once, “by your neighbour, the Marquess of Shropshire. We’re trying to form a committee to issue an appeal for a national fund to convert the slums.” And for the third time he plunged into detail.

“And why do you come to ME, gentlemen?” said Mr. Montross, when he had finished.

Michael subdued a stammer.

“Because of your wealth, sir,” he said, simply.

“Good!” said Mr. Montross. “You see, I began in the slums, Mr. Mont — is it? — yes, Mr. Mont — I began there — I know a lot about those people, you know. I thought perhaps you came to me because of that.”

“Splendid, sir,” said Michael, “but of course we hadn’t an idea.”

“Well, those people are born without a future.”

“That’s just what we’re out to rectify, sir.”

“Take them away from their streets and put them in a new country, then — perhaps; but leave them to their streets —” Mr. Montross shook his head. “I know them, you see, Mr. Mont; if these people thought about the future, they could not go on living. And if you do not think about the future, you cannot have one.”

“How about yourself?” said Sir Lawrence. Mr. Montross turned his gaze from Michael to the cards in his hand, then raised his melancholy eyes.

“Sir Lawrence Mont, isn’t it? — I am a Jew — that is different. A Jew will rise from any beginnings, if he is a real Jew. The reason the Polish and the Russian Jews do not rise so easily you can see from their faces — they have too much Slav or Mongol blood. The pure Jew like me rises.”

Sir Lawrence and Michael exchanged a glance. “We like this fellow,” it seemed to say.

“I was a poor boy in a bad slum,” went on Mr. Montross, intercepting the glance, “and I am now — well, a millionaire; but I have not become that, you know, by throwing away my money. I like to help people that will help themselves.”

“Then,” said Michael, with a sigh, “there’s nothing in this scheme that appeals to you, sir?”

“I will ask my wife,” answered Mr. Montross, also with a sigh. “Good-night, gentlemen. Let me write to you.”

The two Monts moved slowly towards Mount Street in the last of the twilight.

“Well?” said Michael.

Sir Lawrence cocked his eyebrow.

“An honest man,” he said; “it’s fortunate for us he has a wife.”

“You mean —?”

“The potential Lady Montross will bring him in. There was no other reason why he should ask her. That makes four, and Sir Timothy’s a ‘sitter’; slum landlords are his betes noires. We only want three more. A bishop one can always get, but I’ve forgotten which it is for the moment; we MUST have a big doctor, and we ought to have a banker, but perhaps your uncle, Lionel Charwell, will do; he knows all about the shady side of finance in the courts, and we could make Alison work for us. And now, my dear, good-night! I don’t know when I’ve felt more tired.”

They parted at the corner, and Michael walked towards Westminster. He passed under the spikes of Buckingham Palace Gardens, and along the stables leading to Victoria Street. All this part had some very nice slums, though of late he knew the authorities had been ‘going for them.’ He passed an area where they had ‘gone’ for them to the extent of pulling down a congery of old houses. Michael stared up at the remnants of walls mosaicked by the unstripped wall papers. What had happened to the tribe outdriven from these ruins; whereto had they taken the tragic lives of which they made such cheerful comedy? He came to the broad river of Victoria Street and crossed it, and, taking a route that he knew was to be avoided, he was soon where women encrusted with age sat on doorsteps for a breath of air, and little alleys led off to unplumbed depths. Michael plumbed them in fancy, not in fact. He stood quite a while at the end of one, trying to imagine what it must be like to live there. Not succeeding, he walked briskly on, and turned into his own square, and to his own habitat with its bay-treed tubs, its Danish roof, and almost hopeless cleanliness. And he suffered from the feeling which besets those who are sensitive about their luck.

‘Fleur would say,’ he thought, perching on the coat-sarcophagus, for he, too, was tired, ‘that those people having no aesthetic sense and no tradition to wash up to, are at least as happy as we are. She’d say that they get as much pleasure out of living from hand to mouth (and not too much mouth), as we do from baths, jazz, poetry and cocktails; and she’s generally right.’ Only, what a confession of defeat! If that were really so, to what end were they all dancing? If life with bugs and flies were as good as life without bugs and flies, why Keating’s powder and all the other aspirations of the poets? Blake’s New Jerusalem was, surely, based on Keating, and Keating was based on a sensitive skin. To say, then, that civilisation was skin-deep, wasn’t cynical at all. People possibly had souls, but they certainly had skins, and progress was real only if thought of in terms of skin!

So ran the thoughts of Michael, perched on the coat-sarcophagus; and meditating on Fleur’s skin, so clear and smooth, he went upstairs.

She had just had her final bath, and was standing at her bedroom window. Thinking of — what? The moon over the square?

“Poor prisoner!” he said, and put his arm round her.

“What a queer sound the town makes at night, Michael. And, if you think, it’s made up of the seven million separate sounds of people going their own separate ways.”

“And yet — the whole lot are going one way.”

“We’re not going any way,” said Fleur, “there’s only pace.”

“There must be direction, my child, underneath.”

“Oh! Of course, change.”

“For better or worse; but that’s direction in itself.”

“Perhaps only to the edge, and over we go.”

“Gadarene swine!”

“Well, why not?”

“I admit,” said Michael unhappily, “it’s all hair-triggerish; but there’s always common-sense.”

“Common-sense — in face of passions!”

Michael slackened his embrace. “I thought you were always on the side of common-sense. Passion? The passion to have? Or the passion to know?”

“Both,” said Fleur. “That’s the present age, and I’m a child of it. You’re not, you know, Michael.”

“Query!” said Michael, letting go of her waist. “But if you want to have or know anything in particular, Fleur, I’d like to be told.”

There was a moment of stillness, before he felt her arm slipping through his, and her lips against his ear.

“Only the moon, my dear. Let’s go to bed.”

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