Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XII

Delicious Night

Fleur sat under a groyne at Loring. There were few things with which she had less patience than the sea. It was not in her blood. The sea, with its reputation for never being in the same mood, blue, wet, unceasing, had for her a distressing sameness. And, though she sat with her face to it she turned to it the back of her mind. She had been there a week without seeing Jon again. They knew where she was, yet only Holly had been over; and her quick instinct apprehended the cause — Anne must have become aware of her. And now, as Holly had told her, there was no longer even Goodwood to look forward to. Everywhere she was baulked and with all her heart she resented it! She was indeed in a wretched state of indecision. If she had known precisely the end she wished to attain, she could have possessed her soul; but she knew it not. Even the care of Kit was no longer important. He was robust again, and employed, all day, with spade and bucket.

‘I can’t stand it,’ she thought; ‘I shall go up to town. Michael will be glad of me.’

She went up after an early lunch, reading in the train a book of reminiscences which took away the reputations of various dead persons. Quite in the mode, it distracted her thoughts more than she had hoped from its title; and her spirits rose as the scent of oysters died out of the air. She had letters from her father and Michael in her bag, and got them out to read again.

“DEAR HEART” (ran Michael’s — yes, she supposed she WAS still his dear heart)—

“I hope this finds you and Kit as it leaves me ‘at the present time of speaking.’ But I miss you horribly as usual, and intend to descend on you before long, unless you descend on me first. I don’t know if you saw our appeal in the papers on Monday. People are already beginning to take bonds. The committee weighed in well for a send-off. The walrus put down five thousand of the best, the Marquess sent your father’s Morland cheque for six hundred, and your Dad and Bart each gave two-fifty. The Squire gave five hundred; Bedwin and Sir Timothy a hundred apiece, and the Bishop gave us twenty and his blessing. So we opened with six thousand eight hundred and twenty from the committee alone — none so dusty. I believe the thing will go. The appeal has been re-printed, and is going out to everyone who ever gives to anything; and amongst other propaganda, we’ve got the Polytheum to promise to show a slum film if we can get one made. My Uncle Hilary is very bucked. It was funny to see your Dad — he was a long time making up his mind, and he actually went down to look at the Meads. He came back saying — he didn’t know, it was a tumble-down neighbourhood, he didn’t think it could be done for five hundred a house. I had my uncle to him that evening, and he knocked under to Hilary’s charm. But next morning he was very grumpy — said his name would be in the papers as signing the appeal, and seemed to think it would do him harm. ‘They’ll think I’ve taken leave of my senses,’ was his way of putting it. However, there he is, on the committee, and he’ll get used to it in time. They’re a rum team, and but for the bugs I don’t think they’d hold together. We had another meeting today. Old Blythe’s nose is properly out of joint; he says I’ve gone back on him and Foggartism. I haven’t, of course — but, dash it, one must have something real to do!

“All my love to you and Kit.

“MICHAEL.”

“I’ve got your drawing framed and hung above my bureau, and very jolly it looks. Your Dad was quite struck. M.”

Above his bureau —“The golden apple!” How ironical! Poor Michael — if he knew —!

Her father’s letter was short — she had never had a long one from him.

“MY DEAR CHILD,

“Your mother has gone back to ‘The Shelter,’ but I am staying on at Green Street about this thing of Michael’s. I don’t know, I’m sure, whether there’s anything in it; there’s a lot of gammon talked about the slums; still, for a parson, I find his Uncle Hilary an amiable fellow, and there are some goodish names on the committee. We shall see.

“I had no idea you had kept up your water-colours. The drawing has considerable merit, though the subject is not clear to me. The fruit looks too soft and rich for apples. Still, I suppose you know what you were driving at. I am glad the news of Kit is so good, and that you are feeling the better for the sea air.

“Ever your affectionate father,

“S. F.”

Knew what she was driving at! If only she did! And if only her father didn’t! That was the doubt in her mind when she tore up the letter and scattered it on Surrey through the window. He watched her like a lynx — like a lover; and she did not want to be watched just now.

She had no luggage, and at Victoria took a cab for Chiswick. June would at least know something about those two; whether they were still at Wansdon, or where they were.

How well she remembered the little house from the one visit she had paid to it — in the days when she and Jon —!

June was in the hall, on the point of going out.

“Oh! It’s you!” she said. “You didn’t come that Sunday!”

“No, I had too much to do before I went away.”

“Jon and Anne are staying here now. Harold is painting a beautiful thing of her. It’ll be quite unique. She’s a nice little thing, I think,” (she was several inches taller than June, according to Fleur’s recollection) “and pretty. I’m just going out to get him something he specially wants, but I shan’t be a quarter of an hour. If you’ll wait in the meal room till I come back, I’ll take you up, and then he’ll see you. He’s the only man who’s doing real work just now.”

“It’s so nice that there’s one,” said Fleur.

“Here’s an album of reproductions of his pictures”— and June opened a large book on a small dining-table. “Isn’t that lovely? But all his work has such quality. You look through it, and I’ll come back.” And, with a little squeeze of Fleur’s shoulder, she fled.

Fleur did not look through the album, she looked through the window and round the room. How she remembered it, and that round, dim mirror of very old glass wherein she had seen herself while she waited for Jon. And the stormy little scene they had been through together in this room too small for storms, seven years ago! Jon staying here! Her heart beat, and she stared at herself again in that dim mirror. Surely she was no worse to look at than she had been then! Nay! She was better! Her face had a stamp on it now, line on the roundness of youth! Couldn’t she let him know that she was here? Couldn’t she see him somehow just for a minute alone! That little one-eyed fanatic — for so in her thoughts Fleur looked on June — would be back directly. And quick mind took quick decision. If Jon were in, she would find him! Touching her hair at the sides, the pearls round her neck, and flicking an almost powderless puff over her nose, she went out into the hall and listened. No sound! And slowly she began mounting the stairs. In his bedroom he would be, or in the studio — there was no other covert. On the first landing, bedroom to right of her, bedroom to left of her, bathroom in front of her, the doors open. Blank! — and blank in her heart! The studio was all there was above. And there — as well as Jon, would be the painter and that girl, his wife. Was it worth it? She took two steps down, and then retraced them. Yes! It was. Slowly, very silently, she went. The studio door was open, for she could hear the quick, familiar shuffle of a painter to his canvas and away again. She closed her eyes a moment, and then again went up. On the landing, close to the open door, she stood still. No need to go further. For, in the room directly opposite to her, was a long, broad mirror, and in it — unseen herself — she could see. Jon was sitting on the end of a low divan with an unsmoked pipe in his hand, staring straight before him. On the dais that girl was standing, dressed in white; her hands held a long-stemmed lily whose flower reached to within an inch of her chin. Oh! she was pretty — pretty and brown, with those dark eyes and that dark hair framing her face. But Jon’s expression — deepset on the mask of his visage as the eyes in his head! She had seen lion cubs look like that, seeing nothing close to them, seeing — what? — in the distance. That girl’s eyes, what was it Holly had called them? —“best type of water-nymph’s”— slid round and looked at him, and at once his eyes left the distance and smiled back. Fleur turned then, hurried down the stairs, and out of the house. Wait for June — hear her rhapsodise — be introduced to the painter — have to control her face in front of that girl? No! Mounting to the top of her ‘bus, she saw June skimming round a corner, and thought with malicious pleasure of her disappointment — when one had been hurt, one wanted to hurt somebody. The ‘bus carried her away down the King’s Road, Hammersmith, sweating in the westering sunlight, away into the big town with its myriad lives and interests, untouchable, indifferent as Fate.

At Kensington Gardens she descended. If she could get her legs to ache, perhaps her heart would not. And she walked fast between the flowers and the nursemaids, the old ladies and the old gentlemen. But her legs were strong, and Hyde Park Corner came too soon for all but one old gentleman who had tried to keep pace with her because, at his age, it did him good to be attracted. She crossed to the Green Park and held on. And she despised herself while she walked. She despised herself. She — to whom the heart was such vieux jeu; who had learned, as she thought, to control or outspeed emotions!

She reached home, and it was empty — Michael not in. She went upstairs, ordered herself some Turkish coffee, got into a hot bath, and lay there smoking cigarettes. She experienced some alleviation. Among her friends the recipe had long been recognized. When she could steep herself no more, she put on a wrapper and went to Michael’s study. There was her “Golden Apple”— very nicely framed. The fruit looked to her extraordinarily uneatable at that moment. The smile in Jon’s eyes, answering that girl’s smile! Another woman’s leavings! The fruit was not worth eating. Sour apples — sour apples! Even the white monkey would refuse fruit like that. And for some minutes she stood staring instead, at the eyes of the ape in that Chinese painting — those almost human eyes that yet were not human because their owner had no sense of continuity. A modern painter could not have painted eyes like that. The Chinese artist of all those centuries ago had continuity and tradition in his blood; he had seen the creature’s restlessness at a sharper angle than people could see it now, and stamped it there for ever.

And Fleur — charming in her jade-green wrapper — tucked a corner of her lip behind a tooth, and went back to her room to finish dressing. She put on her prettiest frock. If she could not have the wish of her heart — the wish that she felt would give her calm and continuity — let her at least have pleasure, speed, distraction, grasp it with both hands, eat it with full lips. And she sat down before her glass to make herself as perfect as she could. She manicured her hands, titivated her hair, scented her eyebrows, smoothed her lips, put on no rouge, and the merest dusting of powder, save where the seaside sun had stained her neck.

Michael found her still seated there — a modern masterpiece — almost too perfect to touch.

“Fleur!” he said, and nothing more; but any more would have spoiled it.

“I thought I deserved a night out. Dress quickly, Michael, and let’s dine somewhere amusing, and do a theatre and a club afterwards. You needn’t go to the House this evening, need you?”

He had meant to go, but there was in her voice what would have stopped him from affairs even more serious.

Inhaling her, he said:

“Delicious! I’ve been in the slums. Shan’t be a jiffy, darling!” and he fled.

During the jiffy she thought of him and how good he was; and while she thought, she saw the eyes and the hair and the smile of Jon.

The “somewhere amusing” was a little restaurant full of theatrical folk. Fleur and Michael knew many of them, and they came up, as they passed out of their theatres, and said:

“How delightful to see you!” and looked as if they meant it — so strange! But then, theatre folk were like that! They looked things so easily. And they kept saying: “Have you seen our show? Oh! You must. It’s just too frightful!” or, “It’s a marvellous play!” And then, over the other shoulder they would see somebody else, and call out: “Ha! How delightful to see you!” There was no boring continuity about them. Fleur drank a cocktail and two glasses of champagne. She went out with her cheeks slightly flushed. “Dat Lubly Lady” had been in progress over half-an-hour before they reached her; but this did not seem to matter, for what they saw conveyed to them no more than what they had not seen. The house was very full, and people were saying that the thing would “run for years.” It had a tune which had taken the town by storm, a male dancer whose legs could form the most acute angles, and no continuity whatever. Michael and Fleur went out humming the tune, and took a taxi to the dancing club to which they belonged because it was the thing, rather than because they ever went there. It was a select club, and contained among its members a Cabinet Minister who had considered it his duty. They found a Charleston in progress, seven couples wobbling weak knees at each other in various corners of the room.

“Gawd!” said Michael. “I do think it’s the limit of vacuity. What’s its attraction?”

“Vacuity, my dear. This is a vacuous age — didn’t you know?”

“Is there no limit?”

“A limit,” said Fleur, “is what you can’t go beyond; one can always become more vacuous.”

The words were nothing, for, after all, cynicism was in fashion, but the tone made Michael shiver; he felt in it a personal ring. Did she, then, feel her life so vacuous; and, if so, why?

“They say,” said Fleur, “there’s another American dance coming, called ‘The White Beam,’ that’s got even less in it.”

“Not possible,” muttered Michael; “for congenital idiocy this’ll never be surpassed. Look at those two!”

The two in question were wobbling towards them with their knees flexed as if their souls had slipped down into them; their eyes regarded Fleur and Michael with no more expression than could have been found in four first-class marbles. A strange earnestness radiated from them below the waist, but above that line they seemed to have passed away. The music stopped, and each of the seven couples stopped also and began to clap their hands, holding them low, as though afraid of disturbing the vacuity attained above.

“I refuse to believe it,” said Michael, suddenly.

“What?”

“That this represents our Age — no beauty, no joy, no skill, not even devil — just look a fool and wobble your knees.”

“You can’t do it, you see.”

“D’you mean you can?”

“Of course,” said Fleur; “one must keep up with things.”

“Well, for the land’s sake, don’t let me see you.”

At this moment the seven couples stopped clapping their hands — the band had broken into a tune to which the knee could not be flexed. Michael and Fleur began to dance. They danced together, two fox-trots and a waltz, then left.

“After all,” said Fleur, in the taxi, “dancing makes you forget yourself. That was the beauty of the canteen. Find me another job, Michael; I can bring Kit back in about a week.”

“How about joint secretaryship with me of our Slum Conversion Fund? You’d be invaluable to get up balls, bazaars, and matinees.”

“I wouldn’t mind. I suppose they’re worth converting.”

“Well, I think so. You don’t know Hilary; I must get him and Aunt May to lunch; after that you can judge for yourself.”

He slipped his hand under her bare arm, and added: “Fleur, you’re not quite tired of me, are you?”

The tone of his voice, humble and a little anxious, touched her, and she pressed his hand with her arm.

“I should never be tired of you, Michael.”

“You mean you’d never have a feeling so definite towards me.”

It was exactly what she had meant, and she hastened to deny it.

“No, dear boy; I mean I know a good thing, and even a good person, when I’ve got it.”

Michael sighed, and, taking up her hand, put it to his lips.

“I wish,” cried Fleur, “one wasn’t so complex. You’re lucky to be single-hearted. It’s the greatest gift. Only, don’t ever become serious, Michael. That’d be a misfortune.”

“No, after all, comedy’s the real thing.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Fleur, as the taxi stopped. “Delicious night!”

And Michael, having paid the driver, looked at her lighted up in the open doorway. Delicious night! Yes — for him.

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