Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XIV

Hush

Old Gradman, off the Poultry, eating his daily chop, took up the early edition of the evening paper, brought to him with that collation:

“FIRE IN A PICTURE GALLERY.”

“WELL-KNOWN CONNOISSEUR SEVERELY INJURED.”

“A fire, the cause of which is unknown, broke out last night in the picture gallery of Mr. Soames Forsyte’s house at Mapledurham. It was extinguished by fire engines from Reading, and most of the valuable pictures were saved. Mr. Forsyte, who was in residence, fought the fire before the firemen were on the spot, and, single-handed, rescued many of the pictures, throwing them out of the window of the gallery into a blanket which was held stretched out on the lawn below. Unfortunately, after the engines had arrived, he was struck on the head by the frame of a picture falling from the window of the gallery, which is on the second floor, and rendered unconscious. In view of his age and his exertions during the fire, very little hope is entertained of his recovery. Nobody else was injured, and no other part of the mansion was reached by the flames.”

Laying down his fork, old Gradman took his napkin, and passed it over a brow which had grown damp. Replacing it on the table, he pushed away his chop, and took up the paper again. You never knew what to believe, nowadays, but the paragraph was uncommonly sober; and he dropped it with a gesture singularly like the wringing of hands.

‘Mr. Soames,’ he thought. ‘Mr. Soames!’ His two wives, his daughter, his grandson, the Forsyte family, himself! He stood up, grasping the table. An accidental thing like that! Mr. Soames! Why — he was a young man, comparatively! But perhaps they’d got hold of the wrong stick! Mechanically he went to the telephone. He found the number with difficulty, his eyes being misty.

“Is that Mrs. Dartie’s — Gradman speaking. Is it true, ma’am. . . . Not ‘opeless, I do trust? Aow! Saving Miss Fleur’s life? You don’t say! You’re goin’ down? I think I’d better, too. Everything’s in order, but he might want something, if he comes to. . . . Dear, dear! . . . Ah! I’m sure. . . . Dreadful shock — dreadful!” He hung up the receiver, and stood quite still. Who would look after things now? There wasn’t one of the family with any sense of business, compared with Mr. Soames, not one who remembered the old days, and could handle house property as they used to, then. No, he couldn’t relish any more chop — that was flat! Miss Fleur! Saving her life? Well, what a thing! She’d always been first with him. What must she be feelin’! He remembered her as a little girl; yes, and at her wedding. To think of it. She’d be a rich woman now. He took his hat. Must go home first and get some things — might have to wait there days! But for a full three minutes he still stood, as if stunned — a thick-set figure with a puggy face, in a round grey beard — confirming his uneasy grief. If the Bank of England had gone he couldn’t have felt it more. That he couldn’t.

When he reached “The Shelter” in a station fly, with a bag full of night things and papers, it was getting on for six o’clock. He was met in the hall by that young man, Mr. Michael Mont, whom he remembered as making jokes about serious things — it was to be hoped he wouldn’t do it now!

“Ah! Mr. Gradman; so good of you to come! No! They hardly expect him to recover consciousness; it was a terrible knock. But if he does, he’s sure to want to see you, even if he can’t speak. We’ve got your room ready. Will you have some tea?”

Yes, he could relish a cup of tea — he could indeed! “Miss Fleur?”

The young man shook his head, his eyes looked distressed.

“He saved her life.”

Gradman nodded. “So they say. Tt, tt! To think that he —! His father lived to be ninety, and Mr. Soames was always careful. Dear, dear!”

He had drunk a nice hot cup of tea when he saw a figure in the doorway — Miss Fleur herself. Why! What a face! She came forward and took his hand. And, almost unconsciously, old Gradman lifted his other hand and imprisoned hers between his two.

“My dear,” he said, “I feel for you. I remember you as a little girl.”

She only answered: “Yes, Mr. Gradman,” and it seemed to him funny. She took him to his room, and left him there. He had never been in such a pleasant bedroom, with flowers and a nice smell, and a bathroom all to himself — really quite unnecessary. And to think that two doors off Mr. Soames was lying as good as gone!

“Just breathing,” she had said, passing the door. “They daren’t operate. My mother’s there.”

What a face she had on her — so white, so hurt-looking — poor young thing! He stood at the open window, gazing out. It was warm — very warm for the end of September. A pleasant air — a smell of grass. It must be the river down there. Peaceful — and to think —! Moisture blurred the river out; he winked it away. Only the other day they’d been talking about something happening; and now it hadn’t happened to him, but to Mr. Soames himself. The ways of Providence! For Jesus Christ’s sake — Our Lord! Dear, dear! To think of it! He would cut up a very warm man. Richer than his father. There were some birds out there on the water — geese or swans or something — ye-es! Swans! What a lot! In a row, floating along. He hadn’t seen a swan since he took Mrs. G. to Golder’s Hill Park the year after the war. And they said — hopeless! A dreadful thing — sudden like that, with no time to say your prayers. Lucky the Will was quite straightforward. Annuity to Mrs. F., and the rest to his daughter for life, remainder to her children in equal shares. Only one child at present, but there’d be others, no doubt, with all that money. Dear! What a sight of money there was in the family altogether, and yet, of the present generation, Mr. Soames was the only warm man. It was all divided up now, and none of the young ones seemed to make any. He would have to keep a tight hand on the estates, or they’d be wanting their capital out, and Mr. Soames wouldn’t approve of that! To think of outliving Mr. Soames! And something incorruptibly faithful within that puggy face and thick figure, something that for two generations had served and never expected more than it had got, so moved old Graham that he subsided on the window seat with the words: “I’m quite upset!”

He was still sitting there with his head on his hand, and darkness thickening outside, when, with a knock on the door, that young man said:

“Mr. Gradman, will you come down for dinner, or would you like it up here?”

“Up here, if it’s all the same to you. Cold beef and pickles or anything there is, and a glass of stout, if it’s quite convenient.”

The young man drew nearer.

“You must feel it awfully, Mr. Gradman, having known him so long. Not an easy man to know, but one felt —”

Something gave way in Gradman and he spoke:

“Ah! I knew him from a little boy — took him to his first school — taught him how to draw a lease — never knew him to do a shady thing; very reserved man, Mr. Soames, but no better judge of an investment, except his uncle Nicholas. He had his troubles, but he never said anything of them; good son to his father — good brother to his sisters — good father to his child, as you know, young man.”

“Yes, indeed! And very good to me.”

“Not much of a church-goer, I’m afraid, but straight as a die. Never one to wear his ’eart on his sleeve; a little uncomfortable sometimes, maybe, but you could depend on him. I’m sorry for your young wife, young man — I am that! ‘Ow did it ‘appen?”

“She was standing below the window when the picture fell, and didn’t seem to realise. He pushed her out of the way, and it hit him instead.”

“Why! What a thing!”

“Yes. She can’t get over it.”

Gradman looked up at the young man’s face in the twilight.

“You mustn’t be down-‘earted,” he said. “She’ll come round. Misfortunes will happen. The family’s been told, I suppose. There’s just one thing, Mr. Michael — his first wife, Mrs. Irene, that married Mr. Jolyon after; she’s still living, they say; she might like to send a message that byegones were byegones, in case he came round.”

“I don’t know, Mr. Gradman, I don’t know.”

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass —‘e was greatly attached to ‘er at one time.”

“So I believe, but there are things that —. Still, Mrs. Dartie knows her address, if you like to ask her. She’s here, you know.”

“I’ll turn it over. I remember Mrs. Irene’s wedding — very pale she was; a beautiful young woman, too.”

“I believe so.”

“The present one — being French, I suppose, she shows her feelings. However — if he’s unconscious —” It seemed to him that the young man’s face looked funny, and he added: “I’ve never heard much of her. Not very happy with his wives, I’m afraid, he hasn’t been.”

“Some men aren’t, you know, Mr. Gradman. It’s being too near, I suppose.”

“Ah!” said Gradman: “It’s one thing or the other, and that’s a fact. Mrs. G. and I have never had a difference — not to speak of, in fifty-two years, and that’s going back, as the saying is. Well, I mustn’t keep you from Miss Fleur. She’ll need cossetting. Just cold beef and a pickle. You’ll let me know if I’m wanted — any time, day or night. And if Mrs. Dartie’d like to see me I’m at her service.”

The talk had done him good. That young man was a nicer young fellow than he’d thought. He felt that he could almost relish a pickle. After he had done so a message came: Would he go to Mrs. Dartie in the drawing room?

“Wait for me, my dear,” he said to the maid; “I’m strange here.”

Having washed his hands and passed a towel over his face, he followed her down the stairs of the hushed house. What a room to be sure! Rather empty, but in apple-pie order, with its cream-coloured panels, and its china, and its grand piano. Winifred Dartie was sitting on a sofa before a wood fire. She rose and took his hand.

“Such a comfort to see you, Gradman,” she said. “You’re the oldest friend we have.”

Her face looked strange, as if she wanted to cry and had forgotten how. He had known her as a child, as a fashionable young woman, had helped to draw her marriage settlement, and shaken his head over her husband many a time — the trouble he’d had in finding out exactly what that gentleman owed, after he fell down the staircase in Paris and broke his neck! And every year still he prepared her income tax return.

“A good cry,” he said, “would do you good, and I shouldn’t blame you. But we mustn’t say ‘die’; Mr. Soames has a good constitution, and it’s not as if he drank; perhaps he’ll pull round after all.”

She shook her head. Her face had a square grim look that reminded him of her old Aunt Ann. Underneath all her fashionableness she’d borne a lot — she had, when you came to think of it.

“It struck him here,” she said; “a slanting blow on the right of the head. I shall miss him terribly; he’s the only —” Gradman patted her hand.

“Ye-es, ye-es! But we must look on the bright side. If he comes round, I shall be there.” What exact comfort he thought this was, he could not have made clear. “I did wonder whether he would like Mrs. Irene told. I don’t like the idea of his going with a grudge on his mind. It’s an old story, of course, but at the Judgment Day —”

A faint smile was lost in the square lines round Winifred’s mouth.

“We needn’t bother him with that, Gradman; it’s out of fashion.”

Gradman emitted a sound, as though, within him, faith and respect for the family he had served for sixty years had bumped against each other.

“Well, you know best,” he said, “I shouldn’t like him to go with anything on his conscience.”

“On HER conscience, Gradman.”

Gradman stared at a Dresden shepherdess.

“In a case of forgivin’, you never know. I wanted to speak to him too, about his steel shares; they’re not all they might be. But we must just take our chance, I suppose. I’m glad your father was spared, Mr. James WOULD have taken on. It won’t be like the same world again, if Mr. Soames —”

She had put her hand up to her mouth and turned away. Fashion had dropped from her thickened figure. Much affected, Gradman turned to the door.

“Shan’t leave my clothes off, in case I’m wanted. I’ve got everything here. Good-night!”

He went upstairs again, tiptoeing past the door, and, entering his room, switched on the light. They had taken away the pickles; turned his bed down, laid his flannel nightgown out. They took a lot of trouble! And, sinking on his knees, he prayed in a muffled murmur, varying the usual words, and ending: “And for Mr. Soames, O Lord, I specially commend him body and soul. Forgive him his trespasses, and deliver him from all ‘ardness of ’eart and impurities, before he goes ‘ence, and make him as a little lamb again, that he may find favour in Thy sight. They faithful servant. Amen.” And, for some time after he had finished, he remained kneeling on the very soft carpet, breathing-in the familiar reek of flannel and old times. He rose easier in his mind. Removing his boots, laced and square-toed, and his old frock coat, he put on his Jaeger gown, and shut the window, to keep out the night air. Then taking the eiderdown, he placed a large handkerchief over his bald head, and, switching off the light, sat down in the armchair, with the eiderdown over his knees.

What an ‘ush after London, to be sure, so quiet you could hear yourself think! For some reason he thought of Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee, when he was a youngster of forty, and Mr. James had given him and Mrs. G. two seats. They had seen the whole thing — first chop! — the Guards and the procession, the carriages, the horses, the Queen and the Royal family. A beautiful summer day — a real summer that; not like the summers lately. And everything going on, as if it’d go on for ever, with three per cents at nearly par if he remembered, and all going to church regular. And only that same year, a bit later, Mr. Soames had had his first upset. And another memory came. Queer he should remember that to-night, with Mr. Soames lying there — must have been quite soon after the Jubilee, too! Going with a lease that wouldn’t bear to wait to Mr. Soames’s private house, Montpellier Square, and being shown into the dining-room, and hearing some one singing and playing on the “pianner.” He had opened the door to listen. Why — he could remember the words now! About “laying on the grass,” “I die, I faint, I fail,” “the champaign odours,” something “on your cheek” and something “pale.” Fancy that! And, suddenly, the door had opened and out she’d come — Mrs. Irene — in a frock — ah!

“Are you waiting for Mr. Forsyte? Won’t you come in and have some tea?” And he’d gone in and had tea, sitting on the edge of a chair that didn’t look too firm, all gilt and spindley. And she on the sofa in that frock, pouring it out, and saying:

“Are you fond of music, then, Mr. Gradman?” Soft, a soft look, with her dark eyes and her hair — not red and not what you’d call gold — but like a turned leaf — um? — a beautiful young woman, sad and sort of sympathetic in the face. He’d often thought of her — he could see her now! And then Mr. Soames coming in, and her face all closing up like — like a book. Queer to remember that to-night! . . . Dear me! . . . How dark and quiet it was! That poor young daughter, that it was all about! It was to be ‘oped she’d sleep! Ye-es! And what would Mrs. G. say if she could see HIM sitting in a chair like this, with his teeth in, too. Ah! Well — she’d never seen Mr. Soames, never seen the family — Maria hadn’t! But what an ‘ush! And slowly but surely old Gradman’s mouth fell open, and he broke the hush.

Beyond the closed window the moon rode up, a full and brilliant moon, so that the stilly darkened country dissolved into shape and shadow, and the owls hooted, and, far off, a dog bayed; and flowers in the garden became each a little presence in a night-time carnival graven into stillness; and on the gleaming river every fallen leaf that drifted down carried a moonbeam; while, above, the trees stayed, quiet, measured and illumined, quiet as the very sky, for the wind stirred not.

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