Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter IV

Soames Goes up to Town

Having seen his wife off from Dover on the Wednesday, Soames Forsyte motored towards town. On the way he decided to make a considerable detour and enter London over Hammersmith, the furthest westerly bridge in reason. There was for him a fixed connection between unpleasantness and the East End, in times of industrial disturbance. And feeling that, if he encountered a threatening proletariat, he would insist on going through with it, he acted in accordance with the other side of a Forsyte’s temperament, and looked ahead. Thus it was that he found his car held up in Hammersmith Broadway by the only threatening conduct of the afternoon. A number of persons had collected to interfere with a traffic of which they did not seem to approve. After sitting forward, to say to his chauffeur, “You’d better go round, Riggs,” Soames did nothing but sit back. The afternoon was fine, and the car — a landaulette — open, so that he had a good view of the total impossibility of “going round.” Just like that fellow Riggs to have run bang into this! A terrific pack of cars crammed with people trying to run out of town; a few cars like his own, half empty, trying to creep past them into town; a motor-omnibus, not overturned precisely, but with every window broken, standing half across the road; and a number of blank-looking people eddying and shifting before a handful of constables! Such were the phenomena which Soames felt the authorities ought to be handling better.

The words, “Look at the blighted plutocrat!” assailed his ears; and in attempting to see the plutocrat in question, he became aware that it was himself. The epithets were unjust! He was modestly attired in a brown overcoat and soft felt hat; that fellow Riggs was plain enough in all conscience, and the car was an ordinary blue. True, he was alone in it, and all the other cars seemed full of people; but he did not see how he was to get over that, short of carrying into London persons desirous of going in the opposite direction. To shut the car, at all events, would look too pointed — so there was nothing for it but to sit still and take no notice! For this occupation no one could have been better framed by Nature than Soames, with his air of slightly despising creation. He sat, taking in little but his own nose, with the sun shining on his neck behind, and the crowd eddying round the police. Such violence as had been necessary to break the windows of the ‘bus had ceased, and the block was rather what might have been caused by the Prince of Wales. With every appearance of not encouraging it by seeming to take notice, Soames was observing the crowd. And a vacant-looking lot they were, in his opinion; neither their eyes nor their hands had any of that close attention to business which alone made revolutionary conduct formidable. Youths, for the most part, with cigarettes drooping from their lips — they might have been looking at a fallen horse.

People were born gaping nowadays. And a good thing, too! Cinemas, fags, and football matches — there would be no real revolution while they were on hand; and as there seemed to be more and more on hand every year, he was just feeling that the prospect was not too bleak, when a young woman put her head over the window of his car.

“Could you take me in to town?”

Soames automatically consulted his watch. The hands pointing to seven o’clock gave him extraordinarily little help. Rather a smartly-dressed young woman, with a slight cockney accent and powder on her nose! That fellow Riggs would never have done grinning. And yet he had read in the British Gazette that everybody was doing it. Rather gruffly he said:

“I suppose so. Where do you want to go?”

“Oh, Leicester Square would do me all right.”

Great Scott!

The young woman seemed to sense his emotion. “You see,” she said, “I got to get something to eat before my show.”

Moreover, she was getting in! Soames nearly got out. Restraining himself, he gave her a sidelong look; actress or something — young — round face, made up, naturally — nose a little snub — eyes grey, rather goggly —‘mouth — h’m, pretty mouth, slightly common! Shingled — of course.

“It’s awfly kind of you!”

“Not at all!” said Soames; and the car moved.

“Think it’s going to last, the strike?”

Soames leaned forward.

“Go on, Riggs,” he said; “and put this young lady down in-er — Coventry Street.”

“It’s frightf’ly awk for us, all this,” said the young lady. “I should never’ve got there in time. You seen our show, ‘Dat Lubly Lady’?”

“No.”

“It’s rather good.”

“Oh!”

“We shall have to close, though, if this lasts.”

“Ah!”

The young lady was silent, seeming to recognise that she was not in the presence of a conversationalist.

Soames re-crossed his legs. It was so long since he had spoken to a strange young woman, that he had almost forgotten how it was done. He did not want to encourage her, and yet was conscious that it was his car.

“Comfortable?” he said, suddenly.

The young lady smiled.

“What d’you think?” she said. “It’s a lovely car.”

“I don’t like it,” said Soames.

The young lady’s mouth opened.

“Why?”

Soames shrugged his shoulders; he had only been carrying on the conversation.

“I think it’s rather fun, don’t you?” said the young lady. “Carrying on — you know, like we’re all doing.”

The car was now going at speed, and Soames began to calculate the minutes necessary to put an end to this juxtaposition.

The Albert Memorial, already; he felt almost an affection for it — so guiltless of the times!

“You MUST come and see our show,” said the young lady.

Soames made an effort and looked into her face.

“What do you do in it?” he said.

“Sing and dance.”

“I see.”

“I’ve rather a good bit in the third act, where we’re all in our nighties.”

Soames smiled faintly.

“You’ve got no one like Kate Vaughan now,” he said.

“Kate Vaughan? Who was she?”

“Who was Kate Vaughan?” repeated Soames; “greatest dancer that was ever in burlesque. Dancing was graceful in those days; now it’s all throwing your legs about. The faster you can move your legs, the more you think you’re dancing.” And, disconcerted by an outburst that was bound to lead to something, he averted his eyes.

“You don’t like jazz?” queried the young lady.

“I do not,” said Soames.

“Well, I don’t either — not reely; it’s getting old-fashioned, too.”

Hyde Park Corner already! And the car going a good twenty!

“My word! Look at the lorries; it’s marvellous, isn’t it?”

Soames emitted a confirmatory grunt. The young lady was powdering her nose now, and touching up her lips, with an almost staggering frankness. ‘Suppose anyone sees me?’ thought Soames. And he would never know whether anyone had or not. Turning up the high collar of his overcoat, he said:

“Draughty things, these cars! Shall I put you down at Scott’s?”

“Oh, no. Lyons, please; I’ve only time f’r a snack; got to be on the stage at eight. It’s been awf’ly kind of you. I only hope somebody’ll take me home!” Her eyes rolled suddenly, and she added: “If you know what I mean.”

“Quite!” said Soames, with a certain delicacy of perception. “Here you are. Stop — Riggs!”

The car stopped, and the young lady extended her hand to Soames.

“Good-bye, and thank you!”

“Good-bye!” said Soames. Nodding and smiling, she got out.

“Go on, Riggs, sharp! South Square.”

The car moved on. Soames did not look back; in his mind the thought formed like a bubble on the surface of water: ‘In the old days anyone who looked and talked like that would have left me her address.’ And she hadn’t! He could not decide whether or no this marked an advance.

At South Square, on discovering that Michael and Fleur were out, he did not dress for dinner, but went to the nursery. His grandson, now nearly three years old, was still awake, and said: “Hallo!”

“Hallo!” replied Soames, producing a toy watchman’s rattle. There followed five minutes of silent and complete absorption, broken fitfully by guttural sounds from the rattle. Then his grandson lay back in his cot, fixed his blue eyes on Soames, and said, “Hallo!”

“Hallo!” replied Soames.

“Ta, ta!” said his grandson.

“Ta, ta!” said Soames, backing to the door, and nearly falling over the silver dog. The interview then terminated, and Soames went downstairs. Fleur had telephoned to say he was not to wait dinner.

Opposite the Goya he sat down. No good saying he remembered the Chartist riots of ‘48, because he had been born in ‘55; but he knew his uncle Swithin had been a ‘special’ at the time. This general strike was probably the most serious internal disturbance that had happened since; and, sitting over his soup, he bored further and further into its possibilities. Bolshevism round the corner — that was the trouble! That and the fixed nature of ideas in England. Because a thing like coal had once been profitable, they thought it must always be profitable. Political leaders, Trades Unionists, newspaper chaps — they never looked an inch before their noses! They’d had since last August to do something about it, and what had they done? Drawn up a report that nobody would look at!

“White wine, sir, or claret?”

“Anything that’s open.” To have said that in the ‘eighties, or even the ‘nineties, would have given his father a fit! The idea of drinking claret already opened was then almost equivalent to atheism. Another sign of the slump in ideals.

“What do YOU think about this strike, Coaker?”

The almost hairless man lowered the Sauterne.

“Got no body in it, sir, if you ask me.”

“What makes you say that?”

“If it had any body in it, sir, they’d have had the railings of Hyde Park up by now.”

Soames poised a bit of his sole. “Shouldn’t be surprised if you were right,” he said, with a certain approval.

“They make a lot of fuss, but no — there’s nothing to it. The dole — that was a clever dodge, sir. Pannus et circesses, as Mr. Mont says, sir.”

“Ha! Have you seen this canteen they’re running?”

“No, sir; I believe they’ve got the beetle man in this evening. I’m told there’s a proper lot of beetles.”

“Ugh!”

“Yes, sir; it’s a nahsty insect.”

Having finished dinner, Soames lighted the second of his two daily cigars, and took up the earpieces of the wireless. He had resisted this invention as long as he could — but in times like these! “London calling!” Yes, and the British Isles listening! Trouble in Glasgow? There would be — lot of Irish there! More ‘specials’ wanted? There’d soon be plenty of those. He must tell that fellow Riggs to enlist. This butler chap, too, could well be spared. Trains! They seemed to be running a lot of trains already. After listening with some attention to the Home Secretary, Soames put the earpieces down and took up The British Gazette. It was his first sustained look at this tenuous production, and he hoped it would be his last. The paper and printing were deplorable. Still, he supposed it was something to have got it out at all. Tampering with the freedom of the Press! Those fellows were not finding it so easy as they thought. They had tampered, and the result was a Press much more definitely against them than the Press they had suppressed. Burned their fingers there! And quite unnecessary — old-fashioned notion now — influence of the Press. The war had killed it. Without confidence in truth there was no influence. Politicians or the Press — if you couldn’t believe them, they didn’t count! Perhaps they would re-discover that some day. In the meantime the papers were like cocktails — tittilators mostly of the appetite and the nerves. How sleepy he was! He hoped Fleur wouldn’t be very late coming in. Mad thing, this strike, making everybody do things they weren’t accustomed to, just as Industry, too, was beginning — or at least pretending — to recover. But that was it! With every year, in these times, it was more difficult to do what you said you would. Always something or other turning up! The world seemed to live from hand to mouth, and at such a pace, too! Sitting back in the Spanish chair, Soames covered his eyes from the light, and the surge of sleep mounted to his brain; strike or no strike, the soft, inexorable tide washed over him.

A tickling, and over his hand, thin and rather brown, the fringe of a shawl came dangling. Why! With an effort he climbed out of an abyss of dreams. Fleur was standing beside him. Pretty, bright, her eyes shining, speaking quickly, excitedly, it seemed to him.

“Here you are, then, Dad!” Her lips felt hot and soft on his forehead, and her eyes — What was the matter with her? She looked so young — she looked so — how express it?

“So you’re in!” he said. “Kit’s getting talkative. Had anything to eat?”

“Heaps!”

“This canteen —”

She flung off her shawl.

“I’m enjoying it frightfully.”

Soames noted with surprise the rise and fall of her breast, as if she had been running. Her cheeks, too, were very pink.

“You haven’t caught anything, have you — in that place?”

Fleur laughed. A sound — delicious and unwarranted.

“How funny you are, Dad! I hope the strike lasts!”

“Don’t be foolish!” said Soames. “Where’s Michael?”

“Gone up. He called for me, after the House. Nothing doing there, he says.”

“What’s the time?”

“Past twelve, dear. You must have had a real good sleep.”

“Just nodding.”

“We saw a tank pass, on the Embankment — going East. It looked awfully queer. Didn’t you hear it?”

“No,” said Soames.

“Well, don’t be alarmed if you hear another. They’re on their way to the docks, Michael says.”

“Glad to hear it — shows the Government means business. But you must go up. You’re overtired.”

She gazed at him over the Spanish shawl on her arm — whistling some tune.

“Good-night!” he said. “I shall be coming up in a minute.”

She blew him a kiss, twirled round, and went.

“I don’t like it,” murmured Soames to himself; “I don’t know why, but I don’t like it.”

She had looked too young. Had the strike gone to her head? He rose to squirt some soda-water into a glass — that nap had left a taste in his mouth.

Um — dum — bom — um — dum — bom — um — dum — bom! A grunching noise! Another of those tanks? He would like to see one of those great things! For the idea that they were going down to the docks gave him a feeling almost of exhilaration. With them on the spot the country was safe enough. Putting on his motoring coat and hat, he went out, crossed the empty Square, and stood in the street, whence he could see the Embankment. There it came! Like a great primeval monster in the lamplit darkness, growling and gruntling along, a huge, fantastic tortoise — like an embodiment of inexorable power. ‘That’ll astonish their weak nerves!’ thought Soames, as the tank crawled, grunching, out of sight. He could hear another coming; but with a sudden feeling that it would be too much of a good thing, he turned on his heel. A sort of extravagance about them, when he remembered the blank-looking crowd around his car that afternoon, not a weapon among the lot, nor even a revolutionary look in their eyes!

“No BODY in the strike!” These great crawling monsters! Were the Government trying to pretend that there was? Playing the strong man! Something in Soames revolted slightly. Hang it! This was England, not Russia, or Italy! They might be right, but he didn’t like it! Too — too military! He put his latchkey into the keyhole. Um — dum — bom — um — dum — bom! Well, not many people would see or hear them — this time of night! He supposed they had got here from the country somewhere — he wouldn’t care to meet them wandering about in the old lanes and places. Father and mother and baby tanks — like — like a family of mastodons, m — m? No sense of proportion in things like that! And no sense of humour! He stood on the stairs listening. It was to be hoped they wouldn’t wake the baby!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/swan/chapter4.html

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