Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VII

Two Visits

On the very day that Fleur was freed from her nursing she received a visit from the last person in her thoughts. If she had not altogether forgotten the existence of one indelibly associated with her wedding-day, she had never expected to see her again. To hear the words: “Miss June Forsyte, ma’am,” and find her in front of the Fragonard, was like experiencing a very slight earthquake.

The silvery little figure had turned at her entrance, extending a hand clad in a fabric glove.

“It’s a flimsy school, that,” she said, pointing her chin at the Fragonard; “but I like your room. Harold Blade’s pictures would look splendid here. Do you know his work?”

Fleur shook her head.

“Oh! I should have thought any —” The little lady stopped, as if she had seen a brink.

“Won’t you sit down?” said Fleur. “Have you still got your gallery off Cork Street?”

“That? Oh, no! It was a hopeless place. I sold it for half what my father gave for it.”

“And what became of that Polo-American — Boris Strumo something — you were so interested in?”

“He! Oh! Gone to pieces utterly. Married, and does purely commercial work. He gets big prices for his things — no good at all. So Jon and his wife —” Again she stopped, and Fleur tried to see the edge from which she had saved her foot.

“Yes,” she said, looking steadily into June’s eyes, which were moving from side to side, “Jon seems to have abandoned America for good. I can’t see his wife being happy over here.”

“Ah!” said June. “Holly told me you went to America, yourself. Did you see Jon over there?”

“Not quite.”

“Did you like America?”

“It’s very stimulating.”

June sniffed.

“Do they buy pictures? I mean, do you think there’d be a chance for Harold Blade’s work there?”

“Without knowing the work —”

“Of course, I forgot; it seems so impossible that you don’t know it.”

She leaned towards Fleur and her eyes shone.

“I do so want you to sit to him, you know; he’d make such a wonderful picture of you. Your father simply must arrange that. With your position in Society, Fleur, especially after that case last year,”— Fleur winced, if imperceptibly —“it would be the making of poor Harold. He’s such a genius,” she added, frowning; “you MUST come and see his work.”

“I should like to,” said Fleur. “Have you seen Jon yet?”

“No. They’re coming on Friday. I hope I shall like her. As a rule, I like all foreigners, except the Americans and the French. I mean — with exceptions, of course.”

“Naturally, said Fleur. “What time are you generally in?”

“Every afternoon between five and seven are Harold’s hours for going out — he has my studio, you know. I can show you his work better without him; he’s so touchy — all real geniuses are. I want him to paint Jon’s wife, too. He’s extraordinary with women.”

“In that case, I think you should let Jon see him and his work first.”

June’s eyes stared up at her for a moment, and flew off to the Fragonard.

“When will your father come?” she asked.

“Perhaps it would be best for me to come first.”

“Soames naturally likes the wrong thing,” said June, thoughtfully; “but if you tell him you want to be painted — he’s sure to — he always spoils you —”

Fleur smiled.

“Well, I’ll come. Perhaps not this week.” And, in thought, she added: ‘And perhaps, yes — Friday.’

June rose. “I like your house, and your husband. Where is he?”

“Michael? Slumming, probably; he’s in the thick of a scheme for their conversion.”

“How splendid! Can I see your boy?”

“I’m afraid he’s only just over measles.”

June sighed. “It does seem long since I had measles. I remember Jon’s measles so well; I got him his first adventure books.” Suddenly she looked up at Fleur: “Do you like his wife? I think it’s ridiculous his being married so young. I tell Harold he must never marry; it’s the end of adventure.” Her eyes moved from side to side, as if she were adding: “Or the beginning, and I’ve never had it.” And suddenly she held out both hands.

“I shall expect you. I don’t know whether he’ll like your hair!”

Fleur smiled.

“I’m afraid I can’t grow it for him. Oh! Here’s my father coming in!” She had seen Soames pass the window.

“I don’t know that I want to see him unless it’s necessary,” said June.

“I expect he’ll feel exactly the same. If you just go out, he won’t pay any attention.”

“Oh!” said June, and out she went.

Through the window Fleur watched her moving as if she had not time to touch the ground.

A moment later Soames came in.

“What’s that woman want here?” he said. “She’s a stormy petrel.”

“Nothing much, dear; she has a new painter, whom she’s trying to boost.”

“Another of her lame ducks! She’s been famous for them all her life — ever since —” He stopped short of Bosinney’s name. “She’d never go anywhere without wanting something,” he added. “Did she get it?”

“Not more than I did, dear!”

Soames was silent, feeling vaguely that he had been near the proverb, “The kettle and the pot.” What was the use, indeed, of going anywhere unless you wanted something? It was one of the cardinal principles of life.

“I went to see that Morland,” he said; “it’s genuine enough. In fact, I bought it.” And he sank into a reverie . . . .

Acquainted by Michael with the fact that the Marquess of Shropshire had a Morland he wanted to sell, he had said at once: “I don’t know that I want to buy one.”

“I thought you did, sir, from what you were saying the other day. It’s a white pony.”

“That, of course,” said Soames. “What does he want for it?”

“The market price, I believe.”

“There isn’t such a thing. Is it genuine?”

“It’s never changed hands, he says.” Soames brooded aloud. “The Marquess of Shropshire — that’s that red haired baggage’s grandfather, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but perfectly docile. He’d like you to see it, he said.”

“I daresay,” said Soames, and no more at the moment . . . .

“Where’s this Morland?” he asked a few days later.

“At Shropshire House — in Curzon Street, sir.”

“Oh! Ah! Well, I’ll have a look at it.”

Having lunched at Green Street, where he was still staying, he walked round the necessary corners, and sent in his card, on which he had pencilled the words: “My son-inlaw, Michael Mont, says you would like me to see your Morland.”

The butler came back, and, opening a door, said:

“In here, sir. The Morland is over the sideboard.”

In that big dining-room, where even large furniture looked small, the Morland looked smaller, between two still-lifes of a Dutch size and nature. It had a simple scheme — white pony in stable, pigeon picking up some grains, small boy on upturned basket eating apple. A glance told Soames that it was genuine, and had not even been restored — the chiaroscuro was considerable. He stood, back to the light, looking at it attentively. Morland was not so sought after as he used to be; on the other hand, his pictures were distinctive and of a handy size. If one had not much space left, and wanted that period represented, he was perhaps the most repaying after Constable — good Old Cromes being so infernally rare. A Morland was a Morland, as a Millet was a Millet; and would never be anything else. Like all collectors in an experimental epoch, Soames was continually being faced with the advisability of buying not only what was what, but what would remain what. Such modern painters as were painting modern stuff, would, in his opinion, be dead as door-nails before he himself was; besides, however much he tried, he did not like the stuff. Such modern painters, like most of the academicians, as were painting ancient stuff, were careful fellows, no doubt, but who could say whether any of them would live? No! The only safe thing was to buy the dead, and only the dead who were going to live, at that. In this way — for Soames was not alone in his conclusions — the early decease of most living painters was ensured. They were already, indeed, saying that hardly one of them could sell a picture for love or money.

He was looking at the pony through his curved thumb and forefinger when he heard a slight sound; and, turning, saw a short old man in a tweed suit, apparently looking at him in precisely the same way.

Dropping his hand, and deciding not to say “His Grace,” or whatever it was, Soames muttered:

“I was looking at the tail — some good painting in that.”

The Marquess had also dropped his hand, and was consulting the card between his other thumb and forefinger.

“Mr. Forsyte? Yes. My grandfather bought it from the painter. There’s a note on the back. I don’t want to part with it, but these are lean days. Would you like to see the back?”

“Yes,” said Soames; “I always look at their backs.”

“Sometimes,” said the Marquess, detaching the Morland with difficulty, “the best part of the picture.”

Soames smiled down the further side of his mouth; he did not wish the old fellow to receive a false impression that he was ‘kowtowing,’ or anything of that sort.

“Something in the hereditary principle, Mr. Forsyte,” the Marquess went on, with his head on one side, “when it comes to the sale of heirlooms.”

“Oh! I can see it’s genuine,” said Soames, “without looking at the back.”

“Then, if you do want to buy, we can have a simple transaction between gentlemen. You know all about values, I hear.”

Soames put his head to the other side, and looked at the back of the picture. The old fellow’s words were so disarming, that for the life of him he could not tell whether or not to be disarmed.

“‘George Morland to Lord George Ferrar,’” he read, “‘for value received — L80. 1797.’”

“He came into the title later,” said the Marquess. “I’m glad Morland got his money — great rips, our grandfathers, Mr. Forsyte; days of great rips, those.”

Subtly flattered by the thought that “Superior Dosset” was a great rip, Soames expanded slightly.

“Great rip, Morland,” he said. “But there were real painters then, people could buy with confidence — they can’t now.”

“I’m not sure,” said the Marquess, “I’m not sure. The electrification of art may be a necessary process. We’re all in a movement, Mr. Forsyte.”

“Yes,” said Soames, glumly; “but we can’t go on at this rate — it’s not natural. We shall be standing-pat again before long.”

“I wonder. We must keep our minds open, mustn’t we?”

“The pace doesn’t matter so much,” said Soames, astonished at himself, “so long as it leads somewhere.”

The Marquess resigned the picture to the sideboard, and putting his foot up on a chair, leaned his elbow on his knee.

“Did your son-inlaw tell you for what I wanted the money? He has a scheme for electrifying slum kitchens. After all, we ARE cleaner and more humane than our grandfathers, Mr. Forsyte. Now, what do you think would be a fair price?”

“Why not get Dumetrius’ opinion?”

“The Haymarket man? Is his opinion better than yours?”

“That I can’t say,” said Soames, honestly. “But if you mentioned my name, he’d value the picture for five guineas, and might make you an offer himself.”

“I don’t think I should care for it to be known that I was selling pictures.”

“Well,” said Soames, “I don’t want you to get less than perhaps you could. But if I told Dumetrius to buy me a Morland, five hundred would be my limit. Suppose I give you six.”

The Marquess tilted up his beard. “That would be too generous, perhaps. Shall we say five-fifty?”

Soames shook his head.

“We won’t haggle,” he said. “Six. You can have the cheque now, and I’ll take it away. It will hang in my gallery at Mapledurham.”

The Marquess took his foot down, and sighed.

“Really, I’m very much obliged to you. I’m delighted to think it will go to a good home.”

“If you care to come and see it at any time —” Soames checked himself. An old fellow with one foot in the House of Lords and one in the grave, and no difference between them, to speak of — as if he’d want to come!

“That would be delightful,” said the Marquess, with his eyes wandering, as Soames had suspected they would. “Have you your own electric plant there?”

“Yes,” and Soames took out his cheque-book. “May I have a taxi called? If you hang the still-lifes a little closer together, this won’t be missed.”

With that doubtful phrase in their ears, they exchanged goods, and Soames, with the Morland, returned to Green Street in a cab. He wondered a little on the way whether or not the Marquess had ‘done’ him, by talking about a transaction between gentlemen. Agreeable old chap in his way, but quick as a bird, looking through his thumb and finger like that! . . .

And now, in his daughter’s ‘parlour’ he said: “What’s this about Michael electrifying slum kitchens?”

Fleur smiled, and Soames did not approve of its irony.

“Michael’s over head and ears.”

“In debt?”

“Oh, no! Committed himself to a slum scheme, just as he did to Foggartism. I hardly see him.”

Soames made a sound within himself. Young Jon Forsyte lurked now behind all his thoughts of her. Did she really resent Michael’s absorption in public life, or was it pretence — an excuse for having a private life of her own?

“The slums want attending to, no doubt,” he said. “He must have something to do.”

Fleur shrugged.

“Michael’s too good to live.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Soames; “but he’s — er — rather trustful.”

“That’s not your failing, is it, Dad? You don’t trust ME a bit.”

“Not trust you!” floundered Soames. “Why not?”

“Exactly!”

Soames sought refuge in the Fragonard. Sharp! She had seen into him!

“I suppose June wants me to buy a picture,” he said.

“She wants you to have me painted.”

“Does she? What’s the name of her lame duck?”

“Blade, I think.”

“Never heard of him!”

“Well, I expect you will.”

“Yes,” muttered Soames; “she’s like a limpet. It’s in the blood.”

“The Forsyte blood? You and I, then, too, dear.”

Soames turned from the Fragonard and looked her straight in the eyes.

“Yes; you and I, too.”

“Isn’t that nice?” said Fleur.

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