Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter II

Occupying the Mind

Comedy the real thing? Was it? Michael wondered. In saying to Soames that he could not wait and see, he had expressed a very natural abhorrence. Watch, spy, calculate — impossible! To go to Fleur and ask for a frank exposure of her feelings was what he would have liked to do; but he could not help knowing the depth of his father-inlaw’s affection and concern, and the length of his head; and he had sufficient feeling to hesitate before imperilling what was as much ‘old Forsyte’s’ happiness as his own. The ‘old boy’ had behaved so decently in pulling up his roots and going round the world with Fleur, that every consideration was due to him. It remained, then, to wait without attempting to see — hardest of all courses because least active. “Keep her mind well occupied!” So easy! Recollecting his own prenuptial feelings, he did not see how it was to be done. And Fleur’s was a particularly difficult mind to occupy with anything except that on which she had set her heart. The slums? No! She possessed one of those eminently sane natures which rejected social problems, as fruitless and incalculable. An immediate job, like the canteen, in which she could shine a little — she would perform beautifully; but she would never work for a remote object, without shining! He could see her clear eyes looking at the slums as they had looked at Foggartism, and his experiment with the out-of-works. He might take her to see Hilary and Aunt May, but it would be futile in the end.

Night brought the first acute trouble. What were to be his relations with her, if her feelings were really engaged elsewhere? To wait and not see meant continuation of the married state. He suspected Soames of having wished to counsel that. Whipped by longing, stung and half numbed by a jealousy he must not show, and unwishful to wound her, he waited for a sign, feeling as if she must know why he was waiting. He received it, and was glad, but it did not convince him. Still!

He woke much lighter in spirit.

At breakfast he asked her what she would like to do, now that she was back and the season over. Did this slum scheme amuse her at all, because, if so, there was a lot to do in it; she would find Hilary and May great sports.

“Rather! Anything really useful, Michael!”

He took her round to the Meads. The result was better than he had hoped.

For his uncle and aunt were human buildings the like of which Fleur had not yet encountered — positively fashioned, concreted in tradition, but freely exposed to sun and air, tiled with taste, and windowed with humour. Michael, with something of their ‘make-up,’ had neither their poise, nor active certainty. Fleur recognized at once that those two dwelt in unity unlike any that she knew, as if, in their twenty odd years together, they had welded a single instrument to carry out a new discovery — the unselfconscious day. They were not fools, yet cleverness in their presence seemed jejune, and as if unrelated to reality. They knew — especially Hilary — a vast deal about flowers, printing, architecture, mountains, drains, electricity, the price of living, Italian cities; they knew how to treat the ailments of dogs, play musical instruments, administer first and even second aid, amuse children, and cause the aged to laugh. They could discuss anything from religion to morality with fluency, and the tolerance that came from experience of the trials of others and forgetfulness of their own. With her natural intelligence Fleur admired them. They were good, but they were not dull — very odd! Admiring them, she could not help making up to them. Their attitude in life — she recognised — was superior to her own, and she was prepared to pay at least lip-service. But lip-service ‘cut no ice’ in the Meads. Hand, foot, intellect and heart were the matter-of-course requirements. To occupy her mind, however, she took the jobs given her. Then trouble began. The jobs were not her own, and there was no career in them. Try as she would, she could not identify herself with Mrs. Corrigan or the little Topmarshes. The girls, who served at Petter and Poplins and kept their clothes in paper bags, bored her when they talked and when they didn’t. Each new type amused her for a day, and then just seemed unlovely. She tried hard, however, for her own sake, and in order to deceive Michael. She had been at it more than a week before she had an idea.

“You know, Michael, I feel I should be ever so much more interested if I ran a place of my own in the country — a sort of rest-house that I could make attractive for girls who wanted air and that.”

To Michael, remembering the canteen, it seemed “an idea” indeed. To Fleur it seemed more — a “lease and release,” as her father might have put it. Her scheming mind had seen the possibilities. She would be able to go there without let or cavil, and none would know what she did with her time. A base of operations with a fool-proof title was essential for a relationship, however innocent, with Jon. She began at once to learn to drive the car; for the “rest-house” must not be so near him as to excite suspicion. She approached her father on the finance of the matter. At first doubtfully, and then almost cordially, Soames approved. If he would pay the rent and rates of the house, she would manage the rest out of her own pocket. She could not have bettered such a policy by way of convincing him that her interest was genuine; for he emphatically distrusted the interest of people in anything that did not cost them money. A careful study of the map suggested to her the neighbourhood of Dorking. Box Hill had a reputation for air and beauty, and was within an hour’s fast drive of Wansdon. In the next three weeks she found and furnished a derelict house, rambling and cheap, close to the road on the London side of Box Hill, with a good garden and stables that could be converted easily. She completed her education with the car, and engaged a couple who could be left in charge with impunity. She consulted Michael and the Hilarys freely. In fact, like a mother cat, who carefully misleads the household as to where she is going to ‘lay’ her kittens, so Fleur, by the nature of her preparations, disguised her roundabout design. The Meads “Rest House,” as it was called, was opened at the end of August.

All this time she possessed her soul with only the scantiest news of Jon. A letter from Holly told her that negotiations for Green Hill Farm were ‘hanging fire’ over the price, though Jon was more and more taken with it; and Anne daily becoming more rural and more English. Rondavel was in great form again, and expected to win at Doncaster. Val had already taken a long shot about him for the Derby next year.

Fleur replied in a letter so worded as to give the impression that she had no other interest in the world just then but her new scheme. They must all drive over and see whether her “Rest House” didn’t beat the canteen. The people were “such dears”— it was all “terribly amusing.” She wished to convey the feeling that she had no fears of herself, no alarm in the thought of Jon; and that her work in life was serious. Michael, never wholly deserted by the naivete of a good disposition, was more and more deceived. To him her mind seemed really occupied; and certainly her body, for she ran up from Dorking almost daily and spent the week-ends with him either at “The Shelter,” where Kit was installed with his grandparents, or at Lippinghall, where they always made a fuss of Fleur. Rowing her on the river in bland weather, Michael recaptured a feeling of security. “Old Forsyte” must have let his imagination run away with him; the old boy WAS rather like a hen where Fleur was concerned, clucking and turning an inflamed eye on everything that came near!

Parliament had risen, and slum conversion work was now all that he was doing. These days on that river, which he ever associated with his wooing, were the happiest he had spent since the strike began — the strike that in narrowed form dragged wearyingly on, so that people ceased to mention it, the weather being warm.

And Soames? By his daughter’s tranquil amiability, he, too, was tranquilised. He would look at Michael and say nothing, in accordance with the best English traditions, and his own dignity. It was he who revived the idea of Fleur’s being painted by June’s “lame duck.” He felt it would occupy her mind still further. He would like, however, to see the fellow’s work first, though he supposed it would mean a visit to June’s.

“If she were to be out,” he said to Fleur, “I shouldn’t mind having a look round her studio.”

“Shall I arrange that, then, Dad?”

“Not too pointedly,” said Soames; “or she’ll get into a fantod.”

Accordingly at the following week-end Fleur said to him:

“If you’ll come up with me on Monday, dear, we’ll go round. The Rafaelite will be in, but June won’t. She doesn’t want to see you any more than you want to see her.”

“H’m!” said Soames. “She always spoke her mind.”

They went up, in his car. After forming his opinion Soames was to return, and Fleur to go on home. The Rafaelite met them at the head of the stairs. To Soames he suggested a bullfighter (not that he had ever seen one in the flesh), with his short whiskers, and his broad, pale face which wore the expression: “If you suppose yourself capable of appreciating my work, you make a mistake.” Soames’ face, on the other hand, wore the expression: “If you suppose that I want to see your work, you make a greater.” And, leaving him to Fleur, he began to look round. In truth he was not unfavourably impressed. The work had turned its back on modernity. The surfaces were smooth, the drawing in perspective, and the colouring full. He perceived a new note, or rather the definite revival of an old one. The chap had undoubted talent; whether it would go down in these days he did not know, but its texture was more agreeable to live with than any he had seen for some time. When he came to the portrait of June he stood for a minute, with his head on one side, and then said, with a pale smile:

“You’ve got her to the life.” It pleased him to think that June had evidently not seen in it what he saw. But when his eyes fell on the picture of Anne, his face fell, too, and he looked quickly at Fleur, who said:

“Yes, Dad? What do you think of that?”

The thought had flashed through Soames’ mind: ‘Is it to get in touch with HIM that she’s ready to be painted?’

“Finished?” he asked.

The Rafaelite answered:

“Yes. Going down to them tomorrow.”

Soames’ face rose again. That risk was over then!

“Quite clever!” he murmured. “The lily’s excellent.” And he passed on to a sketch of the woman who had opened the door to them.

“That’s recognisable! Not at all bad.”

In these quiet ways he made it clear that, while he approved on the whole, he was not going to pay any extravagant price. He took an opportunity when Fleur was out of hearing, and said:

“So you want to paint my daughter. What’s your figure?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Rather tall for these days — you’re a young man. However — so long as you make a good thing of it!”

The Rafaelite bowed ironically.

“Yes,” said Soames, “I daresay; you think all your geese are swans — never met a painter who didn’t. You won’t keep her sitting long, I suppose — she’s busy. That’s agreed, then. Goodbye! Don’t come down!”

As they went out he said to Fleur:

“I’ve fixed that. You can begin sitting when you like. His work’s better than you’d think from the look of him. Forbidding chap, I call him.”

“A painter has to be forbidding, Dad; otherwise people would think he was cadging.”

“Something in that,” said Soames. “I’ll get back now, as you won’t let me take you home. Good-bye! Take care of yourself, and don’t overdo it.” And, receiving her kiss, he got into the car.

Fleur began to walk towards her eastward-bound ‘bus as his car moved west, nor did he see her stop, give him some law, then retrace her steps to June’s.

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