Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XII

Driving on

Soames spent the night at Winchester, a place he had often heard of but never seen. The Monts had been at school there, and Kit’s name had been put down automatically. He himself would prefer his own Marlborough, or Harrow, perhaps — some school that played at Lords — but not Eton, where young Jolyon had been. But then one wouldn’t be alive to see Kit play; so perhaps it didn’t matter.

The town seemed an old place. There was something in a cathedral, too; and after breakfast he went to it. The chancel was in activity — some choir practice or other. He entered noiselessly, for his boots were rubbered against damp, and sat down at the point of balance. With chin uplifted, he contemplated the arches and the glass. The place was rather dark, but very rich — like a Christmas pudding! These old buildings certainly gave one a feeling. He had always had it with St. Paul’s. One must admit at least a continuity of purpose somewhere. Up to a point — after that he wasn’t sure. You had a great thing, like this, almost perfect; and then an earthquake or an air-raid, and down it went! Nothing permanent about anything, so far as he could see, not even about the best examples of ingenuity and beauty. The same with landscape! You had a perfect garden of a country, and then an ice-age came along. There was continuity, but it was always changing. That was why it seemed to him extremely unlikely that he would live after he was dead. He had read somewhere — though not in The Times — that life was just animated shape, and that when shape was broken it was no longer animated. Death broke your shape and there you were, he supposed. The fact was, people couldn’t bear their own ends; they tried to dodge them with soft sawder. They were weak-minded. And Soames lowered his chin. They had lighted some candles up there in the chancel, insignificant in the daylight. Presently they would blow them out. There you were again, everything was blown out sooner or later. And it was no good pretending it wasn’t. He had read the other day, again not in The Times, that the world was coming to an end in 1928, when the earth got between the moon and the sun — it had been predicted in the Pyramids — some such scientific humbug! Well, if it did, he, for one, wouldn’t much mind. The thing had never been a great success, and if it were wiped out at one stroke there would be nothing left behind anyway; what was objectionable about death was leaving things that you were fond of behind. The moment, too, that the world came to an end, it would begin again in some other shape, anyway — that, no doubt, was why they called it “world without end, Amen.” Ah! They were singing now. Sometimes he wished he had an ear. In spite of the lack, he could tell that this was good singing. Boys’ voices! Psalms, too, and he knew the words. Funny! Fifty years since his church-going days, yet he remembered them as if it were yesterday! “He sendeth the springs into the rivers; which run among the hills.” “All beasts of the fields drink thereof; and the wild asses quench their thirst.” “Beside them shall the fowls of the air have their habitation; and sing among the branches.” They were flinging the verses at each other across the aisle, like a ball. It was lively, and good, vigorous English, too. “So is the great and wide sea also, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.” “There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan, whom Thou hast made to take his pastime therein.” Leviathan! That word used to please him. “Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour, until the evening.” He certainly went forth, but whether he did any work, any labour, was the question, nowadays. “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being.” Would he? He wondered. “Praise thou the Lord, O my soul, praise the Lord.” The singing ceased, and Soames again lifted up his chin. He sat very still — not thinking now; lost, as it were, among the arches, and the twilight of the roof. He was experiencing a peculiar sensation, not unpleasant. To be in here was like being within a jewelled and somewhat scented box. The world might roar and stink and buzz outside, strident and vulgar, childish and sensational, cheap and nasty — all jazz and cockney accent, but here — not a trace of it heard or felt or seen. This great box — God-box the Americans would call it — had been made centuries before the world became industrialised; it didn’t belong to the modern world at all. In here everyone spoke and sang the King’s English; it smelt faintly of age and incense; and nothing was unbeautiful. He sat with a sense of escape.

A verger passed, glancing at him curiously, as if unaccustomed to a raised chin; halting just behind, he made a little noise with his keys. Soames sneezed; and, reaching for his hat, got up. He had no intention of being taken round by that chap, and shown everything he didn’t want to see, for half-a-crown. And with a “No, thank you; not today,” he passed the verger, and went out to the car.

“You ought to have gone in,” he said to Riggs; “they used to crown the kings of England there. To London now.”

The opened car travelled fast under a bright sun, and not until he was in the new cut, leading to Chiswick, did Soames have the idea which caused him to say: “Stop at that house, ‘The Poplars,’ where you took us the other day.”

It was not yet lunch time, and in all probability Fleur would still be “sitting”; so why not pick her up and take her straight away with him for the week-end? She had clothes down at “The Shelter.” It would save some hours of fresh air for her. The foreign woman, however, who opened the door, informed him that the lady had not been to “sit” today or yesterday.

“Oh!” said Soames. “How’s that?”

“Nobody did know, sir. She ‘ave not sent any message. Mr. Blade is very decomposed.”

Soames chewed his thoughts a moment.

“Is your mistress in?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then ask her if she’ll see me, please. Mr. Soames Forsyte.”

“Will you in the meal room wait, sir.”

Soames waited uneasily in that very little room. Fleur had said she could not come with him because of her “sittings”; and she had not “sat.” Was she ill, then?

He was roused from disquiet contemplation of the poplar trees outside by the words:

“Oh! It’s you. I’m not sorry you came.”

The cordiality of this greeting increased his uneasiness, and stretching out his hand, he said:

“How are you, June? I called for Fleur. When did she come last?”

“Tuesday morning. I saw her late on Tuesday afternoon, too, in her car, outside —” Soames could see her eyes moving from side to side, and knew that she was about to say something unpleasant. It came. “She picked up Jon.”

Feeling as if he had received a punch in his wind, Soames exclaimed:

“What! Your young brother? What was he doing here?”

“‘Sitting,’ of course.”

“‘Sitting’? What business —!” and, checking the words, “had he to ‘sit,’” he stared at his cousin, who, flushing a deep pink, said:

“I told her she was not to see him here. I told Jon the same.”

“Then she’d done it before?”

“Yes, twice. She’s so spoiled, you see.”

“Ah!” The reality of the danger had disarmed him. Antagonism seemed to him, thus faced with a sort of ruin, too luxurious.

“Where is she?”

“On Tuesday morning she said she was going down to Dorking.”

“And she picked him up?” repeated Soames.

June nodded. “Yes, after his ‘sitting.’ His picture’s finished. If you think that I want them to — any more than you —”

“No one in their senses could want them to —” said Soames, coldly. “But why did you make him ‘sit,’ while she was coming here?”

June flushed a deeper pink.

“YOU don’t know how hard it is for real artists. I HAD to think of Harold. If I hadn’t got Jon before he began his farming —”

“Farming!” said Soames. “For all we know they may —” but again he checked his words. “I’ve been expecting something of this sort ever since I heard he was back. Well! I’d better get on to Dorking. D’you know where his mother is?”

“In Paris.”

Ah! But not this time would he have to beg that woman to let her son belong to his daughter? No! It would be to beg her to stop his belonging — if at all.

“Good-bye!” he said.

“Soames,” said June, suddenly, “don’t let Fleur — it’s she who —”

“I’ll hear nothing against her,” said Soames.

June pressed her clenched hands to her flat breast.

“I like you for that,” she said; “and I’m sorry if —”

“That’s all right,” muttered Soames.

“Good-bye!” said June. “Shake hands!”

Soames put his hand in one which gave it a convulsive squeeze, then dropped it like a cold potato.

“Down to Dorking,” he said to Riggs, on regaining his car. The memory of Fleur’s face that night at Nettlefold, so close to the young man’s, so full of what he had never seen on her face before, haunted him the length of Hammersmith Bridge. Ah! What a wilful creature! Suppose — suppose she had flung her cap over the windmill! Suppose the worst! Good God! What should — what COULD he do, then? The calculating tenacity of her passion for this young man — the way she had kept it from him, from everyone, or tried to! Something deadly about it, and something that almost touched him, rousing the memory of his own pursuit of that boy’s mother — memory of a passion that would not, could not let go; that had won its ends, and destroyed in winning. He had often thought she had no continuity, that, like all these “fizz-gig” young moderns, she was just fluttering without basic purpose or direction. And it was the irony of this moment that he perceived how she — when she knew what she wanted — had as much tenacity of will as himself and his generation.

It didn’t do, it seemed, to judge by appearances! Beneath the surface passions remained what they had been, and in the draughty corridors and spaces there was the old hot stillness when they woke and breathed . . . .

That fellow was taking the Kingston road! Soon they would be passing Robin Hill. How all this part had changed since the day he went down with Bosinney to choose the site. Forty years — not more — but what a change! “Plus ca change —” Annette would say —“plus c’est la meme chose!” Love and hate — no end to that, anyway! The beat of life went on beneath the wheels and whirr of traffic and the jazzy music of the band. Fate on its drum, or just the human heart? God knew! God? Convenient word. What did one mean by it? He didn’t know, and never would! In the cathedral that morning he had thought — and then — that verger! There were the poplars, and the stable clock-tower, just visible, of the house he had built and never inhabited. If he could have foreseen a stream of cars like this passing day after day, not a quarter of a mile off, he would not have built it, and that tragedy might never — And yet — did it matter what you did? — some way, somehow life took you up and put you where it would. He leaned forward and touched his chauffeur’s back.

“Which way are you going?”

“Through Esher, sir, and off to the left.”

“Well,” said Soames, “it’s all the same to me.”

It was past lunch time, but he wasn’t hungry. He wouldn’t be hungry till he knew the worst. But that chap would be, he supposed.

“Better stop somewhere,” he said, “and have a snack, and a cigarette.”

“Yes, sir.”

He wasn’t long in stopping. Soames sat on in the car, gazing idly at the sign —“Red Lions, Angels and White Horses”— nothing killed them off. One of these days they’d try and bring in Prohibition, he shouldn’t wonder; but that cock wouldn’t fight in England — too extravagant! Treating people like children wasn’t the way to make them grow up; as if they weren’t childish enough as it was. Look at this coal strike, that went on and on — perfectly childish, hurting everybody and doing good to none! Weak-minded! To reflect on the weak-mindedness of his fellow-citizens was restful to Soames, faced with a future that might prove disastrous. For, in view of her infatuation, what could taking that young man about in her car mean — except disaster? What a time Riggs was! He got out, and walked up and down. Not that there was anything he could do — he supposed — when he did get there. No matter how much you loved a person, how anxious you were about her, you had no power — perhaps less power in proportion to your love. But he must speak his mind at last, if he had the chance. Couldn’t let her go over the edge without putting out a hand! The sun struck on his face, and he lifted it a little blindly, as if grateful for the warmth. All humbug about the world coming to an end, of course, but he’d be glad enough for it to come before he was brought down in sorrow to the grave. He saw with hideous clearness how complete disaster must be. If Fleur ran off, there’d be nothing left to him that he really cared about, for the Monts would take Kit. He’d be stranded among his pictures and his cows, without heart for either, till he died. ‘I won’t have it,’ he thought. ‘If it hasn’t happened, I won’t have it.’ Yes! But how prevent it? And with the futility of his own resolution staring him in the face, he went back to the car. There was the fellow, at last, smoking his cigarette.

“Let’s start!” he said. “Push along!”

He arrived at three o’clock to hear that Fleur had gone out with the car at ten. It was an immense relief to learn that at least she had been there overnight. And at once he began to make trunk calls. They renewed his anxiety. She was not at home; nor at June’s. Where, then, if not with that young man? But at least she had taken no things with her — this he ascertained, and it gave him strength to drink some tea, and wait. He had gone out into the road for the fourth time to peer up and down when at last he saw her coming towards him.

The expression on her face — hungry and hard and feverish — had the most peculiar effect on Soames; his heart ached, and leaped with relief at the same time. That was not the face of victorious passion! It was tragically unhappy, arid, wrenched. Every feature seemed to have sharpened since he saw her last. And, instinctively, he remained silent, poking his face forward for a kiss. She gave it — hard and parched.

“So you’re back,” she said.

“Yes; and when you’ve had your tea, I want you to come straight on with me to ‘The Shelter’— Riggs’ll put your car away.”

She shrugged her shoulders and passed him into the house. It seemed to him that she did not care what he saw in her, or what he thought of her. And this was so strange in Fleur that he was confounded. Had she tried and failed? Could it mean anything so good? He searched his memory to recall how she had looked when he brought her back the news of failure six years ago. Yes! Only then she was so young, her face so round — not like this hardened, sharpened, burnt-up face, that frightened him. Get her away to Kit! Get her away, and quickly! And with that saving instinct of his where Fleur only was concerned, he summoned Riggs, told him to close the car and bring it round.

She had gone up to her room. He sent up a message presently that the car was ready. Soon she came down. She had coated her face with powder and put salve on her lips; and again Soames was shocked by that white mask with compressed red line of mouth, and the live and tortured eyes. And again he said nothing, and got out a map.

“That fellow will go wrong unless I sit beside him. It’s cross country;” and he mounted the front of the car. He knew she couldn’t talk, and that he couldn’t bear to see her face. So they started. An immense time they travelled thus, it seemed to him. Once or twice only he looked round to see her sitting like something dead, so white and motionless. And, within him, the two feelings — relief and pity, continued to struggle. Surely it was the end — she had played her hand and lost! How, where, when — he felt would always be unknown to him; but she had lost! Poor little thing! Not her fault that she had loved this boy, that she couldn’t get him out of her head — no more her fault than it had been his own for loving that boy’s mother! Only everyone’s misfortune! It was as if that passion, born of an ill-starred meeting in a Bournemouth drawing-room forty-six years before, and transmitted with his blood into her being, were singing its swan song of death, through the silent crimsoned lips of that white-faced girl behind him in the cushioned car. “Praise thou the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord!” Um! How could one! They were crossing the river at Staines — from now on that fellow knew his road. When they got home, how should he bring some life into her face again! Thank goodness her mother was away! Surely Kit would be some use! And her old dog, perhaps. And yet, tired though he was after his three long days, Soames dreaded the moment when the car should stop. To drive on and on, perhaps, was the thing for her. Perhaps, for all the world, now. To get away from something that couldn’t be got away from — ever since the war — driving on! When you couldn’t have what you wanted, and yet couldn’t let go; and drove, on and on, to dull the aching. Resignation — like painting — was a lost art; or so it seemed to Soames, as they passed the graveyard where he expected to be buried someday.

Close home now, and what was he going to say to her when they got out? Words were so futile. He put his head out of the window and took some deep breaths. It smelled better down here by the river than elsewhere, he always thought — more sap in the trees, more savour in the grass. Not the equal of the air on “Great Forsyte,” but more of the earth, more cosy. The gables and the poplars, the scent of a wood fire, the last flight of the doves — here they were! And with a long sigh, he got out.

He went round to the stables and released her old dog. It might want a run before being let into the house; and he took it down towards the river. A thin daylight lingered though the sun had set some time, and while the dog freshened himself among the bushes, Soames stood looking at the water. The swans passed over to their islet while he gazed. The young ones were growing up — were almost white. Rather ghostly in the dusk, the flotilla passed — graceful things and silent. He had often thought of going in for a peacock or two, they put a finish on a garden, but they were noisy; he had never forgotten an early morning in Montpellier Square, hearing their cry, as of lost passion, from Hyde Park. No! The swan was better; just as graceful, and didn’t sing. That dog was ruining his dwarf arbutus.

“Come along to your mistress!” he said, and turned back towards the lighted house. He went up into the picture gallery. On the bureau were laid a number of letters and things to be attended to. For half an hour he laboured at them. He had never torn up things with greater satisfaction. Then the bell rang, and he went down to be lonely, as he supposed.

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