Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XIII

Fires

But Fleur came down again. And there began for Soames the most confused evening he had ever spent. For in his heart were great gladness and great pity, and he must not show a sign of either. He wished now that he had stopped to look at Fleur’s portrait; it would have given him something to talk of. He fell back feebly on her Dorking house. “It seems a useful place,” he said; “the girls —”

“I always feel they hate me. And why not? They have nothing, and I have everything.”

Her laugh cut Soames to the quick.

She was only pretending to eat, too. But he was afraid to ask if she had taken her temperature. She would only laugh again. He began, instead, an account of how he had found a field by the sea where the Forsytes came from, and how he had visited Winchester Cathedral; and, while he went on and on, he thought: ‘She hasn’t heard a word.’

The idea that she would go up to bed consumed by this smouldering fire at which he could not get, distressed and alarmed him greatly. She looked as if — as if she might do something to herself! She had no veronal, or anything of that sort, he hoped. And all the time he was wondering what had happened. If the issue were still doubtful — if she were still waiting, she might be restless, feverish, but surely she would not look like this! No! It was defeat. But how? And was it final, and he freed for ever from the carking anxiety of these last months? His eyes kept questioning her face, where her fevered mood had crept through the coating of powder, so that she looked theatrical and unlike herself. Its expression, hard and hopeless, went to his heart. If only she would cry, and blurt everything out! But he recognised that in coming down at all, and facing him, she was practically saying, “NOTHING has happened!” And he compressed his lips. A dumb thing, affection — one couldn’t put it into words! The more deeply he felt the more dumb he had always been. Those glib people who poured themselves out and got rid of the feelings they had in their chests, he didn’t know how they could do it!

Dinner dragged to its end, with little bursts of talk from Fleur, and more of that laughter which hurt him, and afterwards they went to the drawing-room.

“It’s hot to-night,” she said, and opened the French window. The moon was just rising, low and far behind the river bushes; and a waft of light was already floating down the water.

“Yes, it’s warm,” said Soames, “but you oughtn’t to be in the air if you’ve got a chill.”

And, taking her arm, he led her within. He had a dread of her wandering outside to-night, so near the water.

She went over to the piano.

“Do you mind if I strum, Dad?”

“Not at all. Your mother’s got some French songs there.” He didn’t mind what she did, if only she could get that look off her face. But music was emotional stuff, and French songs always about love! It was to be hoped she wouldn’t light on the one Annette was for ever singing:

“Aupres de ma blonde, il fait bon — fait bon — fait bon,
Aupres de ma blonde, il fait bon dormir.”

That young man’s hair! In the old days, beside his mother! What hair SHE’D had! What bright hair and what dark eyes! And for a moment it was as if, not Fleur, but Irene sat there at the piano. Music! Mysterious how it could mean to anyone what it had meant to her. Yes! More than men and more than money — music! A thing that had never moved him, that he didn’t understand! What a mischance! There she was, above the piano, as he used to see her in the little drawing-room in Montpellier Square; there, as he had seen her last in that Washington hotel. There she would sit until she died, he supposed, beautiful, he shouldn’t wonder, even then. Music!

He came to himself.

Fleur’s thin, staccato voice tickled his ears, where he sat in the fume of his cigar. Painful! She was making a brave fight. He wanted her to break down, and he didn’t want her to. For if she broke down he didn’t know what he would do!

She stopped in the middle of a song and closed the piano. She looked almost old — so she would look, perhaps, when she was forty. Then she came and sat down on the other side of the hearth. She was in red, and he wished she wasn’t — the colour increased his feeling that she was on fire beneath that mask of powder on her face and neck. She sat there very still, pretending to read. And he who had The Times in his hand, tried not to notice her. Was there nothing he could do to divert her attention? What about his pictures? Which — he asked — was her favourite? The Constable, the Stevens, the Corot, or the Daumier?

“I’m leaving the lot to the Nation,” he said. “But I shall want you to take your pick of four or so; and, of course, that copy of Goya’s ‘Vendimia’ belongs to you.” Then, remembering she had worn the ‘Vendimia’ dress at the dance in the Nettlefold hotel, he hurried on:

“With all this modern taste the Nation mayn’t want them; in that case I don’t know. Dumetrius might take them off your hands! he’s had a good deal out of most of them already. If you chose the right moment, clear of strikes and things, they ought to fetch money in a good sale. They stand me in at well over seventy thousand pounds — they ought to make a hundred thousand at least.”

She seemed to be listening, but he couldn’t tell.

“In my belief,” he went on, desperately, “there’ll be none of this modern painting in ten years’ time — they can’t go on for ever juggling in the air. They’ll be sick of experiments by then, unless we have another war.”

“It wasn’t the war.”

“How d’you mean — not the war? The war brought in ugliness, and put everyone into a hurry. You don’t remember before the war.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“I won’t say,” continued Soames, “that it hadn’t begun before. I remember the first shows in London of those post-impressionists and early Cubist chaps. But they ran riot with the war, catching at things they couldn’t get.”

He stopped. It was exactly what she —!

“I think I’ll go to bed, Dad.”

“Ah!” said Soames. “And take some aspirin. Don’t you play about with a chill.”

A chill! If only it were! He himself went again to the open window, and stood watching the moonlight. From the staff’s quarters came the strains of a gramophone. How they loved to turn on that caterwauling, or the loud speaker! He didn’t know which he disliked most.

Moving to the edge of the verandah, he held out his palm. No dew! Dry as ever — remarkable weather! A dog began howling from over the river. Some people would take that for a banshee, he shouldn’t wonder! The more he saw of people the more weak-minded they seemed; for ever looking for the sensational, or covering up their eyes and ears. The garden was looking pretty in the moonlight — pretty and unreal. That border of sunflowers and Michaelmas daisies and the late roses in the little round beds, and the low wall of very old brick — he’d had a lot of trouble to get that brick! — even the grass — the moon-light gave them all a stage-like quality. Only the poplars queered the dream-like values, dark and sharply outlined by the moon behind them. Soames moved out on to the lawn. The face of the house, white and creepered, with a light in her bedroom, looked unreal, too, and as if powdered. Thirty-two years he’d been here. One had got attached to the place, especially since he’d bought the land over the river, so that no one could ever build and overlook him. To be overlooked, body or soul — on the whole he’d avoided that in life — at least, he hoped so.

He finished his cigar out there and threw the butt away. He would have liked to see her light go out before he went to bed — to feel that she was sleeping as when, a little thing, she went to bed with toothache. But he was very tired. Motoring was hard on the liver. Well! He’d go in and shut up. After all, he couldn’t do any good by staying down, couldn’t do any good in any way. The old couldn’t help the young — nobody could help anyone, if it came to that, at least where the heart was concerned. Queer arrangement — the heart! And to think that everybody had one. There ought to be some comfort in that, and yet there wasn’t. No comfort to him, when he’d suffered, night in, day out, over that boy’s mother, that she had suffered, too! No satisfaction to Fleur now, that the young man and his wife, too, very likely, were suffering as well! And, closing the window, Soames went up. He listened at her door, but could hear nothing; and, having undressed, took up Vasari’s “Lives of the Painters,” and, propped against his pillows, began to read. Two pages of that book always sent him to sleep, and generally the same two, for he knew them so well that he never remembered where he had left off.

He was awakened presently by he couldn’t tell what, and lay listening. It seemed that there was movement in the house. But if he got up to see he would certainly begin to worry again, and he didn’t want to. Besides, in seeing to whether Fleur was asleep he might wake her up. Turning over, he dozed off, but again he woke, and lay drowsily thinking: ‘I’m not sleeping well — I want exercise.’ Moonlight was coming through the curtains not quite drawn. And, suddenly, his nostrils twitched. Surely a smell of burning! He sat up, sniffing. It WAS! Had there been a short circuit, or was the thatch of the pigeon-house on fire? Getting out of bed, he put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and went to the window.

A reddish, fitful light was coming from a window above. Great God! His picture gallery! He ran to the foot of the stairs that led up to it. A stealthy sound, a scent of burning much more emphatic, staggered him. He hurried up the stairs and pulled open the door. Heavens! The far end of the gallery, at the extreme left corner of the house, was on fire. Little red flames were licking round the wood-work; the curtains of the far window were already a blackened mass, and the waste paper basket, between them and his writing bureau, was a charred wreck! On the parquet floor he saw some cigarette ash. Someone had been up here smoking! The flames crackled as he stood there aghast. He rushed downstairs, and threw open the door of Fleur’s room. She was lying on her bed asleep, but fully dressed! Fully dressed! Was it —? Had she —? She opened her eyes, staring up at him.

“Get up!” he said, “there’s a fire in the picture gallery. Get Kit and the servants out at once — at once! Send for Riggs! Telephone to Reading for the engines — quick! Get everyone out of the house!” Only waiting to see her on her feet, he ran back to the foot of the gallery stairs and seized a fire extinguisher. He carried it up, a heavy, great thing. He knew vaguely that you dashed the knob on the floor and sprayed the flames. Through the open doorway he could see that they had spread considerably. Good God! They were licking at his Fred Walker, and the two David Coxes. They had caught the beam, too, that ran round the gallery, dividing the upper from the lower tier of pictures; yes, and the upper beam was on fire, also. The Constable! For a moment he hesitated. Should he rush at that, and save it, anyway? The extinguisher mightn’t work! He dropped it, and, running the length of the gallery, seized the Constable just as the flames reached the woodwork above it. The hot breath of them scorched his face as he wrenched the picture from the wall, and, running back, flung open the window opposite the door, and placed it on the sill. Then, seizing the extinguisher again, he dashed it, knob down, against the floor. A stream of stuff came out, and, picking the thing up, he directed that stream against the flames. The room was full of smoke now, and he felt rather giddy. The stuff was good, and he saw with relief that the flames didn’t like it. He was making a distinct impression on them. But the Walker was ruined — ah! and the Coxes! He had beaten the fire back to the window-wall, when the stream ceased, and he saw that the beams had broken into flame beyond where he had started spraying. The writing bureau, too, was on fire now — its papers had caught! Should he run down and get another of these things, all the way to the hall! Where was that fellow Riggs? The “Alfred Stevens”! By heaven! He was not going to lose his Stevens nor his Gauguins, nor his Corots!

And a sort of demon entered into Soames. His taste, his trouble, his money, and his pride — all consumed? By the Lord, no! And through the smoke he dashed again up to the far wall. Flame licked at his sleeve as he tore away the “Stevens”; he could smell the singed stuff when he propped the picture in the window beside the Constable.

A lick of flame crossed the Daubigny, and down came its glass with a clatter — there was the picture exposed and fire creeping and flaring over it! He rushed back and grasped at a “Gauguin”— a South Sea girl with nothing on. She wouldn’t come away from the wall; he caught hold of the wire, but dropped it — red hot; seizing the frame he gave a great wrench. Away it came, and over he went, backwards. But he’d got it, his favourite Gauguin! He stacked that against the others, and ran back to the Corot nearest the flames. The silvery, cool picture was hot to his touch, but he got that, too! Now for the Monet! The engines would be twenty minutes at least. If that fellow Riggs didn’t come soon —! They must spread a blanket down there, and he would throw the pictures out. And then he uttered a groan. The flames had got the other Corot! The poor thing! Wrenching off the Monet, he ran to the head of the stairs. Two frightened maids in coats over their nightgowns, and their necks showing, were half way up.

“Here!” he cried. “Take this picture, and keep your heads. Miss Fleur and the boy out?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have you telephoned?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get me an extinguisher; and all of you hold a blanket spread beneath the window down there, to catch the pictures as I throw them out. Don’t be foolish — there’s no danger! Where’s Riggs?”

He went back into the gallery. Oh — h! There went his precious little Degas! And with rage in his heart Soames ran again at the wall, and snatched at his other Gauguin. If ever he had beaten Dumetrius, it was over that highly-coloured affair. As if grateful to him, the picture came away neatly in his scorched and trembling hands. He stacked it, and stood for a moment choked and breathless. So long as he could breathe up here in the draught between the opened door and window, he must go on getting them off the wall.

It wouldn’t take long to throw them out. The Bonnington and the Turner — that fellow Turner wouldn’t have been so fond of sunsets if he’d known what fire was like. Each time now that he went to the wall his lungs felt as if they couldn’t stand another journey. But they must!

“Dad!”

Fleur with an extinguisher!

“Go down! Go out!” he cried. “D’you hear! Go out of the house! Get that blanket spread, and make them hold it tight.”

“Dad! Let me! I must!”

“Go down!” cried Soames again, and pushed her to the stairs. He watched her to the bottom, then dashed the knob of the extinguisher on the floor and again sprayed the fire. He put out the bureau, and attacked the flames on the far wall. He could hardly hold the heavy thing, and when it dropped empty, he could barely see. But again he had gained on the fire. If only he could hold on!

And then he saw that his Harpignies was gone — such a beauty! That wanton loss gave him strength. And rushing up to the wall — the long wall now — he detached picture after picture. But the flames were creeping back again, persistent as hell itself. He couldn’t reach the Sisley and the Picasso, high in the corner there, couldn’t face the flames so close, for if he slipped against the wall he would be done. They must go! But he’d have the Daumier! His favourite — perhaps his very favourite. Safe! Gasping, and avidly drinking the fresher air, he could see from the window that they had the blanket down there now stretched between four maids, holding each a corner.

“Hold tight!” he cried; and tipped the Daumier out. He watched it falling. What a thing to do to a picture! The blanket dipped with the weight, but held.

“Hold it tighter!” he shouted. “Look out!” And over went the Gauguin South Sea Girl. Picture after picture, they took them from the blanket, and laid them on the grass. When he had tipped them all, he turned to take the situation in. The flames had caught the floor now, in the corner, and were spreading fast along the beams.

The engines would be in time to save the right hand wall. The left hand wall was hopeless, but most of the pictures there he’d saved. It was the long wall where the flames were beginning to get hold; he must go for that now. He ran as near to the corner as he dared, and seized the Morland. It was hot to his touch, but he got it — six hundred pounds’ worth of white pony. He had promised it a good home! He tipped it from the window and saw it pitch headlong into the blanket.

“My word!”

Behind him, in the doorway, that fellow Riggs at last, in shirt and trousers, with two extinguishers, and an open mouth!

“Shut your mouth!” he gasped, “and spray that wall!”

He watched the stream and the flames recoiling from it. How he hated those inexorable red tongues. Ah! That was giving them pause!

“Now the other! Save the Courbet! Sharp!”

Again the stream spurted and the flames recoiled. Soames dashed for the Courbet. The glass had gone, but the picture was not harmed yet; he wrenched it away.

“That’s the last of the bloomin’ extinguishers, sir,” he heard Riggs mutter.

“Here, then!” he called. “Pull the pictures off that wall and tip them out of the window one by one. Mind you hit the blanket. Stir your stumps!”

He, too, stirred his stumps, watching the discouraged flames regaining their lost ground. The two of them ran breathless to the wall, wrenched, ran back to the window, and back again — and the flames gained all the time.

“That top one,” said Soames; “I must have that! Get on that chair. Quick! No, I’ll do it. Lift me! — I can’t reach!”

Uplifted in the grip of that fellow, Soames detached his James Maris, bought the very day the whole world broke into flames. “Murder of the Archduke!” he could hear them at it now. A fine day; the sunlight coming in at the window of his cab, and he lighthearted, with that bargain on his knee. And there it went, pitching down! Ah! What a way to treat pictures!

“Come on!” he gasped.

“Better go down, sir! It’s gettin’ too thick now.”

“No!” said Soames. “Come on!”

Three more pictures saived.

“If you don’t go down, sir, I’ll have to carry you — you been up ’ere too long.”

“Nonsense!” gasped Soames. “Come on!”

“‘Ooray! The engines!”

Soames stood still; besides the pumping of his heart and lungs he could hear another sound. Riggs seized his arm.

“Come along, sir; when they begin to play there’ll be a proper smother.”

Soames pointed through the smoke.

“I must have that one,” he gasped. “Help me. It’s heavy.”

The “Vendimia” copy stood on an easel.

Soames staggered up to it. Half carrying and half dragging, he bore that Spanish effigy of Fleur towards the window.

“Now lift!” They lifted till it balanced on the sill.

“Come away there!” called a voice from the doorway.

“Tip!” gasped Soames, but arms seized him, he was carried to the door, down the stairs, into the air half-conscious. He came to himself in a chair on the verandah. He could see the helmets of firemen and hear a hissing sound. His lungs hurt him, his eyes smarted terribly, and his hands were scorched, but he felt drugged and drowsy and triumphant in spite of his aches and smarting.

The grass, the trees, the cool river under the moon! What a nightmare it had been up there among his pictures — his poor pictures! But he had saved them! The cigarette ash! The waste paper basket! Fleur! No doubt about the cause! What on earth had induced him to put his pictures into her head that evening of all others, when she didn’t know what she was doing? What awful luck! Mustn’t let her know — unless — unless she did know? The shock — however! The shock might do her good! His Degas! The Harpignies! He closed his eyes to listen to the hissing of the water. Good! A good noise! They’d save the rest! It might have been worse! Something cold was thrust against his drooped hand. A dog’s nose. They shouldn’t have let him out. And, suddenly, it seemed to Soames that he must see to things again. They’d go the wrong way to work with all that water! He staggered to his feet. He could see better now. Fleur! Ah! There she was, standing by herself — too near the house! And what a mess on the lawn — firemen — engines — maids, that fellow Riggs — the hose laid to the river — plenty of water, anyway! They mustn’t hurt the pictures with that water! Fools! He knew it! Why! They were squirting the untouched wall. Squirting through both windows. There was no need of that? The right hand window only — only! He stumbled up to the fireman.

“Not that wall! Not that! That wall’s all right. You’ll spoil my pictures! Shoot at the centre!” The fireman shifted the angle of his arm, and Soames saw the jet strike the right-hand corner of the sill. The Vendimia! There went its precious —! Dislodged by the stream of water, it was tilting forward! And Fleur! Good God! Standing right under, looking up. She must see it, and she wasn’t moving! It flashed through Soames that she wanted to be killed.

“It’s falling!” he cried. “Look out! Look out!” And, just as if he had seen her about to throw herself under a car, he darted forward, pushed her with his outstretched arms, and fell.

The thing had struck him to the earth.

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