Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XIII

“Always”

The announcement by Michael on the following Monday that Fleur would be bringing Kit home the next morning, caused Soames to say:

“I’d like to have a look at that part of the world. I’ll take the car down this afternoon and drive them up tomorrow. Don’t say anything to Fleur. I’ll let her know when I get down to Nettlefold. There’s an hotel there, I’m told.”

“Quite a good one,” said Michael. “But it’ll be full for Goodwood.”

“I’ll telephone. They must find a room for me.”

He did, and they found for him a room which somebody else lost. He started about five — Riggs having informed him that it was a two-and-a-half hours’ drive. The day had been somewhat English in character, but by the time he reached Dorking had become fine enough to enjoy. He had seen little of the England that lay beyond the straight line between his river home and Westminster, for many years; and this late afternoon, less preoccupied than usual, he was able to give it a somewhat detached consideration. It was certainly a variegated and bumpy land, incorrigibly green and unlike India, Canada, and Japan. They said it had been jungle, heath and marsh not fifteen hundred years ago. What would it be fifteen hundred years hence? Jungle, heath and marsh again, or one large suburb — who could say? He had read somewhere that people would live underground, and come up to take the air in their flying machines on Sundays. He thought it was unlikely. The English would still want their windows down and a thorough draught, and so far as he could see, it would always be stuffy to play with a ball underground, and impossible to play with a ball up in the air. Those fellows who wrote prophetic articles and books, were always forgetting that people had passions. He would make a bet that the passions of the English in 3400 A.D. would still be: playing golf, cursing the weather, sitting in draughts, and revising the prayer-book.

And that reminded him that old Gradman was getting very old; he must look out for somebody who could take his place. There was nothing to do in the family trusts now — the only essential was perfect honesty. And where was he going to find it? Even if there was some about, it could only be tested by prolonged experiment. Must be a youngish man, too, because he himself couldn’t last very much longer. And, moving at forty miles an hour along the road to Billingshurst, he recalled being fetched by old Gradman at six miles an hour from Paddington Station to Park Lane in a growler with wet straw on the floor — over sixty years ago — when old Gradman himself was only a boy of twenty, trying to grow side-whiskers and writing round-hand all day. “Five Oaks” on a signpost; he couldn’t see the oaks! What a pace that chap Riggs was going! One of these days he would bring the whole thing to grief, and be sorry for it. But it was somehow infra dig. to pull him up for speed when there wasn’t a woman in the car; and Soames sat the stiller, with a slightly contemptuous expression as a kind of insurance against his own sensations. Through Pulborough, down a twisting hill, across a little bridge, a little river, into a different kind of country — something new to him — flat meadows all along, that would be marsh in the winter, he would wager, with large, dark red cattle, and black-and-white, and strawberry roan cattle; and over away to the south, high rising downs of a singularly cool green, as if they were white inside. Chalk — out-cropping here and there, and sheep up on those downs, no doubt — his father had always sworn by Southdown mutton. A very pretty light, a silvery look, a nice prospect altogether, that made you feel thinner at once and lighter in the head! So this was the sort of country his nephew had got hold of, and that young fellow Jon Forsyte. Well! It might have been worse — very individual; he didn’t remember anything just like it. And a sort of grudging fairness, latent in Soames’ nature, applauded slightly. How that chap Riggs was banging the car up this hill — the deuce of a hill, too, past chalk-pits and gravel-pits, and grassy down and dipping spurs of covert, past the lodge of a park, into a great beech-wood. Very pretty — very still — no life but trees, spreading trees, very cool, very green! Past a monstrous great church thing, now, and a lot of high walls and towers — Arundel Castle, he supposed; huge, great place; would look better, no doubt, the further you got from it; then over another river and up another hill, banging along into this Nettlefold and the hotel, and the sea in front of you!

Soames got out.

“What time’s dinner?”

“Dinner is on, sir.”

“Do they dress?”

“Yes, sir. There’s a fancy dress dance, sir, this evening, before Goodwood.”

“What a thing to have! Get me a table; I’ll be down directly.”

He had once read in a Victorian novel that the mark of a gentleman was being able to dress for dinner in ten minutes, tying his own tie. He had never forgotten it. He was down in twelve. Most people had nearly finished, but there was no one in fancy dress. Soames ate leisurely, contemplating a garden with the sea beyond. He had not, like Fleur, an objection to the sea — had he not once lived at Brighton for seven years, going up and down to his work in town? That was the epoch when he had been living down the disgrace of being deserted by his first wife. Curious how the injured party was always the one in disgrace! People admired immorality, however much they said they didn’t. The deserted husband, the deserted wife, were looked on as poor things. Was it due to some thing still wild in human nature, or merely to reaction against the salaried morality of judges and parsons, and so forth? Morality you might respect, but salaried morality — no! He had seen it in people’s eyes after his own trouble; he had seen it in the Marjorie Ferrar case. The fact was, people took the protection of the law and secretly disliked it because it was protective. The same thing with taxes — you couldn’t do without them, but you avoided paying them when you could.

Having finished dinner, he sat with his cigar in a somewhat deserted lounge, turning over weekly papers full of ladies with children or dogs, ladies with clothes in striking attitudes, ladies with no clothes in still more striking attitudes; men with titles, men in aeroplanes, statesmen in trouble, racehorses; large houses prefaced with rows of people with the names printed clearly for each, and other evidences of the millennium. He supposed his fellow-guests were “dolling up” (as young Michael would put it) for this ball — fancy dressing up at their age! But people WERE weak-minded — no question of that! — Fleur would be surprised when he dropped in on her tomorrow early. Soon she would be coming down to him on the river — its best time of year — and perhaps he could take her for a motor trip into the west somewhere; it might divert her thoughts from this part of the country and that young man. He had often promised himself a visit to where the old Forsytes came from; only he didn’t suppose she would care to look at anything so rustic as genuine farmland. The magazine dropped from his fingers, and he sat staring out of the large windows at the flowers about to sleep. He hadn’t so many more years before him now, he supposed. They said that people lived longer than they used to, but how he was going to outlive the old Forsytes, he didn’t know — the ten of them had averaged eighty-seven years — a monstrous age! And yet he didn’t feel it would be natural to die in another sixteen years, with the flowers growing like that out there, and his grandson coming along nicely. With age one suffered from the feeling that one might have enjoyed things more. Cows, for instance, and rooks, and good smells. Curious how the country grew on you as you got older! But he didn’t know that it would ever grow on Fleur — she wanted people about her; still she might lose that when she found out once for all that there was so little in them. The light faded on the garden and his reverie. There were lots of people out on the sea front, and a band had begun to play. A band was playing behind him, too, in the hotel somewhere. They must be dancing! He might have a look at that before he went up. On his trip round the world with Fleur he had often put his nose out and watched the dancing on deck — funny business nowadays, shimmying, bunnyhugging, didn’t they call it? — dreadful! He remembered the academy of dancing where he had been instructed as a small boy in the polka, the mazurka, deportment and calisthenics. And a pale grin spread over his chaps — that little old Miss Shears, who had taught him and Winifred, what wouldn’t she have died of if she had lived to see these modern dances! People despised the old dances, and when he came to think of it, he had despised them himself, but compared with this modern walking about and shaking at the knees, they had been dances, after all. Look at the Highland schottische, where you spun round and howled, and the old galop to the tune “D’ye ken John Peel”— some stingo in them; and you had to change your collar. No changing collars nowadays — they just dawdled. For an age that prided itself on enjoying life, they had a funny idea of it. He remembered once, before his first marriage, going — by accident — to one of those old dancing clubs, the Athenians, and seeing George Forsyte and his cronies waltzing and swinging the girls round and round clean off their feet. The girls at those clubs, then, were all professional lights-o’-love. Very different now, he was told; but there it was — people posed nowadays, they posed as viveurs, and all the rest of it, but they didn’t vive; they thought too much about how to.

The music — all jazz — died behind him and rose again, and he, too, rose. He would just have a squint and go to bed.

The ball-room was somewhat detached, and Soames went down a corridor. At its end he came on a twirl of sound and colour. They were hard at it, “dolled up” to the nines — Mephistopheleses, ladies of Spain, Italian peasants, Pierrots. His bewildered eyes with difficulty took in the strutting, wheeling mass; his bewildered ears decided that the tune was trying to be a waltz. He remembered that the waltz was in three-time, remembered the waltz of olden days — too well — that dance at Roger’s, and Irene, his own wife, waltzing in the arms of young Bosinney; to this day remembered the look on her face, the rise and fall of her breast, the scent of the gardenias she was wearing, and that fellow’s face when she raised to his her dark eyes — lost to all but themselves and their guilty enjoyment; remembered the balcony on which he had refuged from that sight, and the policeman down below him on the strip of red carpet from house to street.

“‘Always’— good tune!” said someone behind his ears.

Not bad, certainly — a sort of sweetness in it. His eyes, from behind the neck of a large lady who seemed trying to be a fairy, roved again among the dancers. What! Over there! Fleur! Fleur in her Goya dress, grape-coloured —“La Vendimia — the Vintage”— floating out from her knees, with her face close to the face of a sheik, and his face close to hers. Fleur! And that sheik, that Moor in a dress all white and flowing! In Soames a groan was converted to a cough. THOSE TWO! So close — so — so lost — it seemed to him! As Irene with Bosinney, so she with that young Jon! They passed, not seeing him behind the fairy’s competent bulk. Soames’ eyes tracked them through the shifting, yawing throng. Round again they came — her eyes so nearly closed that he hardly knew them; and young Jon’s over her fichued shoulder, deep-set and staring. Where was the fellow’s wife? And just then Soames caught sight of her, dancing, too, but looking back at them — a nymph all trailing green, the eyes surprised, and jealous. No wonder, since under her very gaze was Fleur’s swinging skirt, the rise and falling of her breast, the languor in her eyes! “Always!” Would they never stop that cursed tune, stop those two, who with every bar seemed to cling closer and closer! And, fearful lest he should be seen, Soames turned away and mounted slowly to his room. He had had his squint. It was enough!

The band had ceased to play on the sea front, people were deserting, lights going out; by the sound out there, the tide must be rising. Soames touched himself where he was sore, beneath his starched shirt, and stood still. “Always!” Incalculable consequences welled in on his consciousness, like the murmuring tide of that sea. Daughter exiled, grandson lost to him; memories deflowered; hopes in the dust! “Always!” Forsooth! Not if he knew it — not for Joe! And all that grim power of self-containment which but twice or three times in his life had failed him, and always with disastrous consequence, again for a moment failed him, so that to any living thing present in the dim and austere hotel bedroom, he would have seemed like one demented. The paroxysm passed. No use to rave! Worse than no use — far; would only make him ill, and he would want all his strength. For what? For sitting still; for doing nothing; for waiting to see! Venus! Touch not the goddess — the hot, the jealous one with the lost dark eyes! He had touched her in the past, and she had answered with a blow. Touch her not! Possess his sore and anxious heart! Nothing to do but wait and see!

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