Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter V

More Talk in a Car

Jon had too little sense of his own importance to be simultaneously loved with comfort to himself by two pretty and attractive young women. He drove home from Pulborough, where now daily he parked Val’s car, with a sore heart and a mind distraught. He had seen Fleur six times since his return to England, in a sort of painful crescendo. That dance with her had disclosed to him her state of heart, but still he did not suspect her of consciously pursuing him; and no amount of heart-searching seemed to make his own feelings clearer. Ought he to tell Anne about today’s meeting? In many small and silent ways she had shown that she was afraid of Fleur. Why add to her fears without real cause? The portrait was not his own doing, and only for the next few days was he likely to be seeing Fleur. After that they would meet, perhaps, two or three times a year. “Don’t tell Anne — I beseech you!” Could he tell her after that? Surely he owed Fleur that much consideration. She had never consented to give him up; she had not fallen in love with Michael, as he with Anne. Still undecided, he reached Wansdon. His mother had once said to him: “You must never tell a lie, Jon, your face will always give you away.” And so, though he did not tell Anne, her eyes following him about noted that he was keeping something from her. Her cold was in the bronchial stage, so that she was still upstairs, and tense from lack of occupation. Jon came up early again after dinner, and began to read to her. He read from ‘The Worst Journey in the World,’ and on her side she lay with her face pillowed on her arm and watched him over it. The smoke of a wood fire, the scent of balsamic remedies, the drone of his own voice, retailing that epic of a penguin’s egg, drowsed him till the book dropped from his hand.

“Have a snooze Jon, you’re tired.” Jon lay back, but he did not snooze. He thought instead. In this girl, his wife, he knew well that there was what her brother, Francis Wilmot, called ‘sand.’ She knew how to be silent when shoes pinched. He had watched her making up her mind that she was in danger; and now it seemed to him that she was biding her time. Anne always knew what she wanted. She had a singleness of purpose not confused like Fleur’s by the currents of modernity, and she was resolute. Youth in her South Carolinian home had been simple and self-reliant; and unlike most American girls, she had not had too good a time. It had been a shock to her, he knew, that she was not his first love and that his first love was still in love with him. She had shown her uneasiness at once, but now, he felt, she had closed her guard. And Jon could not help knowing, too, that she was still deeply in love with him for all that they had been married two years. He had often heard that American girls seldom really knew the men they married; but it seemed to him sometimes that Anne knew him better than he knew himself. If so, what did she know? What was he? He wanted to do something useful with his life; he wanted to be loyal and kind. But was it all just wanting? Was he a fraud? Not what she thought him? It was all confused and heavy in his mind, like the air in the room. No use thinking! Better to snooze, as Anne said — better to snooze! He woke and said:

“Hallo! Was I snoring?”

“No. But you were twitching like a dog, Jon.”

Jon got up and went to the window.

“I was dreaming. It’s a beautiful night. A fine September’s the pick of the year.”

“Yes; I love the ‘fall.’ Is your mother coming over soon?”

“Not until we’re settled in. I believe she thinks we’re better without her.”

“Your mother would always feel she was de trop before she was.”

“That’s on the right side, anyway.”

“Yes, I wonder if I should.”

Jon turned. She was sitting up, staring in front of her, frowning. He went over and kissed her.

“Careful of your chest, darling!” and he pulled up the clothes.

She lay back, gazing up at him; and again he wondered what she saw . . . .

He was met next day by June’s: “So Fleur was here yesterday and gave you a lift! I told her what I thought this morning.”

“What DID you think?” said Jon.

“That it mustn’t begin again. She’s a spoiled child not to be trusted.”

His eyes moved angrily.

“You’d better leave Fleur alone.”

“I always leave people alone,” said June; “but this is my house, and I had to speak my mind.”

“I’d better stop sitting then.”

“Now, don’t be silly, Jon. Of course you can’t stop sitting — neither of you. Harold would be frightfully upset.”

“Damn Harold!”

June took hold of his lapel.

“That’s not what I mean at all. The pictures are going to be splendid. I only meant that you mustn’t meet here.”

“Did you tell Fleur that?”

“Yes.”

Jon laughed, and the sound of the laugh was hard.

“We’re not children, June.”

“Have you told Anne?”

“No.”

“There, you see!”

“What?”

His face had become stubborn and angry.

“You’re very like your father and grandfather, Jon — they couldn’t bear to be told anything.”

“Can YOU?”

“Of course, when it’s necessary.”

“Then please don’t interfere.”

Pink rushed into June’s cheeks, tears into her eyes; she winked them away, shook herself, and said coldly:

“I never interfere.”

“No?”

She went more pink, and suddenly stroked his sleeve. That touched Jon, and he smiled.

He “sat” disturbed all that afternoon, while the Rafaelite painted, and June hovered, sometimes with a frown, and sometimes with yearning in her face. He wondered what he should do if Fleur called for him again. But Fleur did not call, and he went home alone. The next day was Sunday, and he did not go up; but on Monday when he came out of “The Poplars,” after “sitting,” he saw Fleur’s car standing by the curb.

“I do want to show you my house today. I suppose June spoke to you, but I’m a reformed character, Jon. Get in!” And Jon got in.

The day was dull, neither lighted nor staged for emotion, and the “reformed character” played her part to perfection. Not a word suggested that they were other than best friends. She talked of America, its language and books. Jon maintained that America was violent in its repressions and in its revolt against repressions.

“In a word,” said Fleur, “young.”

“Yes; but so far as I can make out, it’s getting younger every year.”

“I liked America.”

“Oh! I liked it all right. I made quite a profit, too, on my orchard when I sold.”

“I wonder you came back, Jon. The fact is — you’re old-fashioned.”

“How?”

“Take sex — I couldn’t discuss sex with you.”

“Can you with other people?”

“Oh! with nearly anyone. Don’t frown like that! You’d be awfully out of it, my dear, in London, or New York, for that matter.”

“I hate fluffy talk about sex,” said Jon gruffly. “The French are the only people who understand sex. It isn’t to be talked about as they do here and in America; it’s much too real.”

Fleur stole another look.

“Then let us drop that hot potato. I’m not sure whether I could even discuss art with you.”

“Did you see that St. Gaudens statue at Washington?”

“Yes; but that’s vieux jeu nowadays.”

“Is it?” growled Jon. “What do they want, then?”

“You know as well as I.”

“You mean it must be unintelligible?”

“Put it that way if you like. The point is that art now is just a subject for conversation; and anything that anybody can understand at first sight is not worth talking about and therefore not art.”

“I call that silly,” said Jon.

“Perhaps. But more amusing.”

“If you see through it, how can you be amused?”

“Another hot potato. Let’s try again! I bet you don’t approve of women’s dress, these days?”

“Why not? It’s jolly sensible.”

“La, la! Are we coming together on that?”

“Naturally, you’d all look better without hats. You can wash your heads easily now, you know.”

“Oh! don’t cut us off hats, Jon. All our stoicism would go. If we hadn’t to find hats that suited us, life would be much too easy.”

“But they don’t suit you.”

“I agree, my dear; but I know the feminine character better than you. One must always give babies something to cut their teeth on.”

“Fleur, you’re too intelligent to live in London.”

“My dear boy, the modern young woman doesn’t live anywhere. She floats in an ether of her own.”

“She touches earth sometimes, I suppose.”

Fleur did not answer for a minute; then, looking at him:

“Yes; she touches earth sometimes, Jon.” And in that look she seemed to say again: “Oh! what a pity we have to talk like this!”

She showed him the house in such a way that he might get the impression that she considered to some purpose the comfort of others. Even her momentary encounters with the denizens had that quality. Jon went away with a tingling in his palm, and the thought: ‘She likes to make herself out a butterfly, but at heart —!’ The memory of her clear eyes smiling at him, the half-comic quiver of her lips when she said: “Good-bye, bless you!” blurred his vision of Sussex all the way home. And who shall say that she had not so intended?

Holly had come to meet him with a hired car.

“I’m sorry, Jon, Val’s got the car. He won’t be able to drive you up and down tomorrow as he said he would. He’s had to go up today. And if he can get through his business in town, he’ll go on to Newmarket on Wednesday. Something rather beastly’s happened. His name’s been forged on a cheque for a hundred pounds by an old college friend to whom he’d been particularly decent.”

“Very adequate reasons,” said Jon. “What’s Val going to do?”

“He doesn’t know yet; but this is the third time he’s played a dirty trick on Val.”

“Is it quite certain?”

“The Bank described him unmistakably. He seems to think Val will stand anything; but it can’t be allowed to go on.”

“I should say not.”

“Yes, dear boy; but what would you do? Prosecute an old College friend? Val has a queer feeling that it’s only a sort of accident that he himself has kept straight.”

Jon stared. WAS it an accident that one kept straight?

“Was this fellow in the war?” he asked.

“I doubt it. He seems to be an absolute rotter. I saw his face once — bone slack and bone selfish.”

“Beastly for Val!” said Jon.

“He’s going to consult his uncle, Fleur’s father. By the way, have you seen Fleur lately?”

“Yes. I saw her today. She brought me as far as Dorking, and showed me her house there.”

The look on Holly’s face, the reflective shadow between her eyes, were not lost on him.

“Is there any objection to my seeing her?” he said, abruptly.

“Only you can know that, dear boy.”

Jon did not answer, but the moment he saw Anne he told her. She showed him nothing by face or voice, just asked how Fleur was and how he liked the house. That night, after she seemed asleep, he lay awake, gnawed by uncertainty. WAS it an accident that one kept straight — was it?

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