Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter IX

Aftermath

Jon, when he rushed back into the coppice, turned to the left, and, emerging past the pond, ran up through the field towards the house, as if it were still his own. It stood above its terrace and lawns unlighted, ghostly in the spreading moonlight. Behind a clump of rhododendrons, where as a little boy he had played hide and seek, or pursued the stag horn beetle with his bow and arrow, he sank down as if his legs had turned to water, pressing his fists against his cheeks, both burning hot. He had known and he had not known, had dreamed and never dreamed of this! Overwhelming, sudden, relentless! “It was written!” she had said. For her, every excuse, perhaps; but what excuse for him? Among those moonlit rhododendrons he could not find it. Yet the deed was done! Whose was he now? He stood up and looked at the house where he had been born, grown up, and played, as if asking for an answer. Whitened and lightless, it looked the ghost of a house, keeping secrets. “And I don’t let you tell! . . . When shall I see you again?” That meant she claimed a secret lover. Impossible! The one thing utterly impossible. He would belong to one or to the other — not to both. Torn in every fibre of his being, he clung to the fixity of that. Behind the rhododendrons stretching along the far end of the lawn he walked, crouching, till he came to the wall of the grounds, the wall he had often scrambled over as a boy; and, pulling himself up, dropped into the top roadway. No one saw him, and he hurried on. He had a dumb and muddled craving to get back to Wansdon, though what he would do when he got there he could not tell. He turned towards Kingston.

All through that two hours’ drive in a hired car Jon thought and thought. Whatever he did now, he must be disloyal to one or to the other. And with those passionate moments still rioting within him, he could get no grip on his position; and yet — he must!

He reached Wansdon at eleven, and, dismissing the car in the road, walked up to the house. Everyone had gone to bed, evidently assuming that he was staying the night at June’s for a further sitting. There was a light in his and Anne’s bedroom; and, at sight of it, the full shame of what he had done smote him. He could not bring himself to attract her attention, and he stole round the house, seeking for some way of breaking in. At last he spied a spare-room window open at the top, and fetching a garden ladder, climbed it and got in. The burglarious act restored some self-possession. He went down into the hall, and out of the house, replaced the ladder, came in again and stole upstairs. But outside their door he halted. No light, now, came from under. She must be in bed. And, suddenly, he could not face going in. He would feel like Judas, kissing her. Taking off his boots and carrying them, he stole downstairs again to the dining-room. Having had nothing but a cup of tea since lunch, he got himself some biscuits and a drink. They altered his mood — no man could have resisted Fleur’s kisses in that moonlit coppice — no man! Must he, then, hurt one or the other so terribly? Why not follow Fleur’s wish? Why not secrecy? By continuing her lover in secret, he would not hurt Fleur; by not telling Anne, he would not hurt Anne! Like a leopard in a cage, he paced the room. And all that was honest in him refused, and all that was sage. As if one could remain the husband of two women, when one of them knew! As if Fleur would stand that long! And lies, subterfuge! And — Michael Mont! — a decent chap! He had done him enough harm as it was! No! A clean cut one way or the other! He stopped by the hearth, and leaned his arms on the stone mantlepiece. How still! Only that old clock which had belonged to his grandfather, ticking away time — time that cured everything, that made so little of commotions, ticking men and things to their appointed ends. Just in front of him on the mantlepiece was a photograph of his grandfather, old Jolyon, taken in his eighties — the last record of that old face, its broad brow, and white moustache, its sunken cheeks, deep, steady eyes, and strong jaw. Jon looked at it long! “Take a course and stick to it!” the face, gazing back at him so deeply, seemed to say. He went to the bureau and sat down to write.

“I am sorry I rushed away to-night, but it was better, really. I had to think. I have thought. I’m only certain of one thing yet. To go on IN SECRET is impossible. I shan’t say a word about tonight, of course, until you let me. But, Fleur, unless I can tell everything, it must end. You wouldn’t wish it otherwise, would you? Please answer to the Post Office, Nettlefold.

“Jon.”

He sealed this up, addressed it to her at Dorking, and, pulling on his boots, again stole out and posted it. When he got back he felt so tired, that, wrapped in an old coat, he fell asleep in an armchair. The moonlight played tricks through the half-drawn curtains, the old clock ticked, but Jon slept, dreamless.

He woke at daybreak, stole up to the bathroom, bathed and shaved noiselessly, and went out through a window, so as not to leave the front door unfastened. He walked up through the gap past the old chalk pit, on to the Downs, by the path he had taken with Fleur seven years ago. Till he had heard from her he did not know what to do; and he dreaded Anne’s eyes, while his mind was still distraught. He went towards Chanctonbury Ring. There was a heavy dew, and the short turf was all spun over with it. All was infinitely beautiful, remote and stilly in the level sunlight. The beauty tore at his heart. He had come to love the Downs — they had a special loveliness, like no other part of the world that he had seen. Did this mean that he must now leave them, leave England again — leave everything, and cleave to Fleur? If she claimed him, if she decided on declaring their act of union, he supposed it did. And Jon walked in confusion of heart, such as he had not thought possible to man. From the Ring he branched away, taking care to avoid the horses at their early exercise. And this first subterfuge brought him face to face with immediate decision. What should he do till he had heard from Fleur? Her answer could not reach Nettlefold till the evening, or even next morning. He decided, painfully, to go back to breakfast, and tell them he had missed his train, and entered in the night burglariously so as not to disturb them.

That day, with its anxiety and its watchfulness of self, was one of the most wretched he had ever spent; and he could not free himself from the feeling that Anne was reading his thoughts. It was as if each passed the day looking at the other unobserved — almost unbearable! In the afternoon he asked for a horse to ride over to Green Hill Farm, and said he would be back late. He rode on into Nettlefold and went to the post-office. There was a telegram: “Must see you. Will be at Green Hill Farm tomorrow at noon. Don’t fail me. — F.”

Jon destroyed it, and rode homewards. Wretchedness and strain for another eighteen hours! Was there anything in the world worse than indecision? He rode slowly so as to have the less time at home, dreading the night. He stopped at a wayside inn to eat, and again went by way of Green Hill Farm to save at least the letter of his tale. It was nearly ten and full moonlight before he got back.

“It’s a wonderful night,” he said, when he came into the drawing-room. “The moonlight’s simply marvellous.” It was Holly who answered; Anne, sitting by the fire, did not even look up. ‘She knows,’ thought Jon, ‘she knows something.’ Very soon after, she said she was sleepy, and went up. Jon stayed, talking to Holly. Val had gone on from town to Newmarket, and would not be back till Friday. They sat one on each side of the wood fire. And, looking at his sister’s face, charming and pensive, Jon was tempted. She was so wise, and sympathetic. It would be a relief to tell her everything. But Fleur’s command held him back — it was not his secret.

“Well, Jon, is it all right about the farm?”

“I’ve got some new figures; I’m going into them to-night.”

“I do wish it were settled, and we knew you were going to be near for certain. I shall be awfully disappointed if you’re not.”

“Yes; but I must make sure this time.”

“Anne’s very set on it. She doesn’t say much, but she really is. It’s such a charming old place.”

“I don’t want a better, but it must pay its way.”

“Is that your real reason, Jon?”

“Why not?”

“I thought perhaps you were secretly afraid of settling again. But you’re the head of the family, Jon — you ought to settle.”

“Head of the family!”

“Yes, the only son of the only son of the eldest son right back to the primeval Jolyon.”

“Nice head!” said Jon, bitterly.

“Yes — a nice head.” And, suddenly rising, Holly bent over and kissed the top of it.

“Bless you! Don’t sit up too late. Anne’s rather in the dumps.”

Jon turned out the lamp and stayed, huddled in his chair before the fire. Head of the family!

He had done them proud! And if —! Ha! That would, indeed, be illustrious! What would the old fellow whose photograph he had been looking at last night, think, if he knew? Ah, what a coil! For in his inmost heart he knew that Anne was more his mate, more her with whom he could live and work and have his being, than ever Fleur could be. Madness, momentary madness, coming on him from the past — the past, and the potency of her will to have and hold him! He got up, and drew aside the curtains. There, between two elm trees, the moon, mysterious and powerful, shone, and all was moving with its light up to the crest of the Downs. What beauty, what stillness! He threw the window up, and stepped out; like some dark fluid spilled on the whitened grass, the ragged shadow of one elm tree reached almost to his feet. From their window above a light shone. He must go up and face it. He had not been alone with her since —! If only he knew for certain what he was going to do! And he realised now that in obeying that impulse to rush away from Fleur he had been wrong; he ought to have stayed and threshed it out there and then. And yet, who could have behaved reasonably, sanely, feeling as he had felt? He stepped back to the window, and stopped with his heart in his mouth. There between firelight and moonlight stood Anne! Slender, in a light wrapper drawn close, she was gazing towards him. Jon closed the window and drew the curtain.

“Sorry, darling, you’ll catch cold — the moonlight got me.” She moved to the far side of the hearth, and stood looking at him.

“Jon, I’m going to have a child.”

“You —!”

“Yes. I didn’t tell you last month because I wanted to be sure.”

“Anne!”

She was holding up her hand.

“Wait a minute!”

Jon gripped the back of a chair, he knew what was coming.

“Something’s happened between you and Fleur.”

Jon held his breath, staring at her eyes; dark, unflinching, startled, they stared back at him.

“Everything’s happened, hasn’t it?”

Jon bent his head.

“Yesterday? Don’t explain, don’t excuse yourself or her. Only — what does it mean?”

Without raising his head, Jon answered:

“That depends on you.”

“On me?”

“After what you’ve just told me. Oh! Anne, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“Yes; I kept it too long!”

He understood what she meant — she had kept it as a weapon of defence. And, seeming to himself unforgiveable, he said:

“Forgive me, Anne — forgive me!”

“Oh! Jon, I don’t just know.”

“I swear that I will never see her again.”

He raised his eyes now, and saw that she had sunk on her knees by the fire, holding a hand out to it, as if cold. He dropped on his knees beside her.

“I think,” he said, “love is the cruellest thing in the world.”

“Yes.”

She had covered her eyes with her hand; and it seemed hours that he knelt there, waiting for a movement, a sign, a word. At last she dropped her hand.

“All right. It’s over. But don’t kiss me — yet.”

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