Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter III

Possessing the Soul

Just as in a very old world to find things or people of pure descent is impossible, so with actions; and the psychologist who traces them to single motives is like Soames, who believed that his daughter wanted to be painted in order that she might see herself hanging on a wall. Everybody, he knew, had themselves hung sooner or later, and generally sooner. Yet Fleur, though certainly not averse to being hung, had motives that were hardly so single as all that. In the service of this complexity, she went back to June’s. That little lady, who had been lurking in her bedroom so as not to meet her kinsman, was in high feather.

“Of course the price is nominal,” she said. “Harold ought really to be getting every bit as much for his portraits as Thom or Lippen. Still, it’s so important for him to be making something while he’s waiting to take his real place. What have you come back for?

“Partly for the pleasure of seeing you,” said Fleur, “and partly because we forgot to arrange for the first sitting. I think my best time would be three o’clock.”

“Yes,” murmured June, doubtfully, not so much from doubt as from not having suggested it herself. “I think Harold could manage that. Isn’t his work exquisite?”

“I particularly like the thing he’s done of Anne. It’s going down to them tomorrow, I hear.”

“Yes; Jon’s coming to fetch it.”

Fleur looked hastily into the little dim mirror to see that she was keeping expression off her face.

“What do you think I ought to wear?”

June’s gaze swept her from side to side.

“Oh! I expect he’ll want an artificial scheme with you.”

“Exactly! But what colour? One must come in something.”

“We’ll go up and ask him.”

The Rafaelite was standing before his picture of Anne. He turned and looked at them, without precisely saying: “Good Lord! These women!” and nodded, gloomily, at the suggestion of three o’clock.

“What do you want her in?” asked June.

The Rafaelite stared at Fleur as if determining where her ribs left off and her hip bones began.

“Gold and silver,” he said, at last.

June clasped her hands.

“Now, isn’t that extraordinary? He’s seen through you at once. Your gold and silver room. Harold, how DID you?”

“I happen to have an old ‘Folly’ dress,” said Fleur, “silver and gold, with bells, that I haven’t worn since I was married.”

“A ‘Folly’!” cried June. “The very thing. If it’s pretty. Some are hideous, of course.”

“Oh! it’s pretty, and makes a charming sound.”

“He can’t paint that,” said June. Then added dreamily: “But you could suggest it, Harold — like Leonardo.”

“Leonardo!”

“Oh! Of course! I know, he wasn’t —”

The Rafaelite interrupted.

“Don’t make your face up,” he said to Fleur.

“No,” murmured Fleur. “June, I do so like that of Anne. Has it struck you that she’s sure to want Jon painted now?”

“Of course, I’ll make him promise when he comes tomorrow.”

“He’s going to begin farming, you know; he’ll make that an excuse. Men hate being painted.”

“Oh, that’s all nonsense,” said June. “In old days they loved it. Anyway, Jon must sit before he begins. They’ll make a splendid pair.”

Behind the Rafaelite’s back Fleur bit her lip.

“He must wear a turn-down shirt. Blue, don’t you think, Harold — to go with his hair?”

“Pink, with green spots,” muttered the Rafaelite.

“Then three o’clock tomorrow?” said Fleur, hastily.

June nodded. “Jon’s coming to lunch, so he’ll be gone before you come.”

“All right, then. Au revoir!”

She held her hand out to the Rafaelite, who seemed surprised at the gesture.

“Good-bye, June!”

June came suddenly close and kissed her on the chin. At that moment the little lady’s face looked soft and pink, and her eyes soft; her lips were warm, too, as if she were warm all through.

Fleur went away thinking: ‘Ought I to have asked her not to tell Jon I was going to be painted?’ But surely June, the warm, the single-eyed, would never tell Jon anything that might stop him being useful to her Rafaelite. She stood, noting the geography around “the Poplars.” The only approach to this backwater was by a road that dipped into it and came out again. Just here, she would not be seen from the house, and could see Jon leaving after lunch whichever way he went. But then he would have to take a taxi, for the picture. It struck her bitterly that she, who had been his first-adored, should have to scheme to see him. But if she didn’t, she would never see him! Ah! what a ninny she had been at Wansdon in those old days when her room was next to his. One little act, and nothing could have kept him from her for all time, not his mother nor the old feud; not her father; nothing; and then there had been no vows of hers or his, no Michael, no Kit, no nymph-eyed girl in barrier between them; nothing but youth and innocence. And it seemed to her that youth and innocence were over-rated.

She lit on no plan by which she could see him without giving away the fact that she had schemed. She would have to possess her soul a little longer. Let him once get his head into the painter’s noose, and there would be not one but many chances.

She arrived at three o’clock with her Folly’s dress, and was taken into June’s bedroom to put it on.

“It’s just right,” said June; “delightfully artificial. Harold will love it.”

“I wonder,” said Fleur. The Rafaelite’s temperament had not yet struck her as very loving. They went up to the studio without having mentioned Jon.

The portrait of Anne was gone. And when June went to fetch “the exact thing” to cover a bit of background, Fleur said at once:

“Well? Are you going to paint my cousin Jon?”

The Rafaelite nodded.

“He didn’t want to be, but SHE made him.”

“When do you begin?”

“To-morrow,” said the Rafaelite. “He’s coming every morning for a week. What’s the good of a week?”

“If he’s only got a week I should have thought he’d better stay here.”

“He won’t without his wife, and his wife’s got a cold.”

“Oh!” said Fleur, and she thought rapidly. “Wouldn’t it be more convenient, then, for him to sit early in the afternoons? I could come in the mornings; in fact, I’d rather — one feels fresher. June could give him a trunk call.”

The Rafaelite uttered what she judged to be an approving sound. When she left, she said to June: “I want to come at ten every morning, then I get my afternoons free for my ‘Rest House’ down at Dorking. Couldn’t you get Jon to come in the afternoons instead? It would suit him better. Only don’t let him know I’m being painted — my picture won’t be recognisable for a week, anyway.”

“Oh!” said June, “you’re quite wrong, there. Harold always gets an unmistakable likeness at once; but of course he’ll put it face to the wall, he always does while he’s at work on a picture.”

“Good! He’s made quite a nice start. Then if you’ll telephone to Jon, I’ll come tomorrow at ten.” And for yet another day she possessed her soul. On the day after, she nodded at a canvas whose face was to the wall, and asked:

“Do you find my cousin a good sitter?”

“No,” said the Rafaelite; “he takes no interest. Got something on his mind, I should think.”

“He’s a poet, you know,” said Fleur.

The Rafaelite gave her an epileptic stare. “Poet! His head’s the wrong shape — too much jaw, and the eyes too deep in.”

“But his hair! Don’t you find him an attractive subject?”

“Attractive!” replied the Rafaelite —“I paint anything, whether it’s pretty or ugly as sin. Look at Rafael’s Pope — did you ever see a better portrait, or an uglier man? Ugliness is not attractive, but it’s there.”

“That’s obvious,” said Fleur.

“I state the obvious. The only real novelties now are platitudes. That’s why my work is important and seems new. People have got so far away from the obvious that the obvious startles them, and nothing else does. I advise you to think that over.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot in it,” said Fleur.

“Of course,” said the Rafaelite, “a platitude has to be stated with force and clarity. If you can’t do that, you’d better go on slopping around and playing parlour tricks like the Ga-gaists. They’re a bathetic lot, trying to prove that cocktails are a better drink than old brandy. I met a man last night who told me he’d spent four years writing twenty-two lines of poetry that nobody can understand. How’s that for bathos? But it’ll make him quite a reputation, till somebody writes twenty-three lines in five years still more unintelligible. Hold your head up. . . . Your cousin’s a silent beggar.”

“Silence is quite a quality,” said Fleur.

The Rafaelite grinned. “I suppose you think I haven’t got it. But you’re wrong, madam. Not long ago I went a fortnight without opening my lips except to eat and say yes or no. SHE got quite worried.”

“I don’t think you’re very nice to her,” said Fleur.

“No, I’m not. She’s after my soul. That’s the worst of women — saving your presence — they’re not content with their own.”

“Perhaps they haven’t any,” said Fleur.

“The Mohammedan view — well, there’s certainly something in it. A woman’s always after the soul of a man, a child, or a dog. Men are content with wanting bodies.”

“I’m more interested in your platitudinal theory, Mr. Blade.”

“Can’t afford to be interested in the other? Eh! Strikes home? Turn your shoulder a bit, will you? No, to the left . . . . Well, it’s a platitude that a woman always wants some other soul — only people have forgotten it. Look at the Sistine Madonna! The baby has a soul of its own, and the Madonna’s floating on the soul of the baby. That’s what makes it a great picture, apart from the line and colour. It states a great platitude; but nobody sees it, now. None of the cognoscenti, anyway — they’re too far gone.”

“What platitude are you going to state in your picture of me?”

“Don’t you worry,” said the Rafaelite. “There’ll be one all right when it’s finished, though I shan’t know what it is while I’m at it. Character will out, you know. Like a rest?”

“Enormously. What platitude did you express in the portrait of my cousin’s wife?”

“Coo Lummy!” said the Rafaelite. “Some catechism!”

“You surely didn’t fail with that picture? Wasn’t it platitudinous?”

“It got her all right. She’s not a proper American.”

“How?”

“Throws back to something — Irish, perhaps, or Breton. There’s nymph in her.”

“She was brought up in the backwoods, I believe,” said Fleur, acidly.

The Rafaelite eyed her.

“You don’t like the lady?”

“Certainly I do, but haven’t you noticed that picturesque people are generally tame? And my cousin — what’s his platitude to be?”

“Conscience,” said the Rafaelite; “that young man will go far on the straight and narrow. He worries.”

A sharp movement shook all Fleur’s silver bells.

“What a dreadful prophecy! Shall I stand again?”

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