Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XVI

Full Close

In accordance with all that was implicit in Soames there was no fuss over his funeral. For a long time now, indeed, he had been the only one of the family at all interested in obsequies.

It was then, a very quiet affair, only men attending.

Sir Lawrence had come down, graver than Michael had ever known him.

“I respected old Forsyte,” he said to his son, while they returned on foot from the churchyard, where, in the corner selected by himself, Soames now lay, under a crab-apple tree: “He dated, and he couldn’t express himself; but there was no humbug about him — an honest man. How is Fleur bearing up?”

Michael shook his head. “It’s terrible for her to think that he —”

“My dear boy, there’s no better death than dying to save the one you’re fondest of. As soon as you can, let us have Fleur at Lippinghall — where her father and her family never were. I’ll get Hilary and his wife down for a holiday — she likes THEM.”

“I’m very worried about her, Dad — something’s broken.”

“That happens to most of us, before we’re thirty. Some spring or other goes; but presently we get our second winds. It’s what happened to the Age — something broke and it hasn’t yet got its second wind. But it’s getting it, and so will she. What sort of a stone are you going to put up?”

“A cross, I suppose.”

“I think he’d prefer a flat stone with that crab-apple at the head and yew trees round, so that he’s not overlooked. No ‘Beloved’ or ‘Regretted.’ Has he got the freehold of that corner? He’d like to belong to his descendants in perpetuity. We’re all more Chinese than you’d think, only with them it’s the ancestors who do the owning. Who was the old chap who cried into his hat?”

“Old Mr. Gradman — sort of business nurse to the family.”

“Faithful old dog! Well! I certainly never thought Forsyte would take the ferry before me. He looked permanent, but it’s an ironical world. Can I do anything for you and Fleur? Talk to the Nation about the pictures? The Marquess and I could fix that for you. He had quite a weakness for old Forsyte, and his Morland’s saved. By the way, that must have been a considerable contest between him and the fire up there all alone. It’s the sort of thing one would never have suspected him of.”

“Yes,” said Michael: “I’ve been talking to Riggs. He’s full of it.”

“He saw it, then?”

Michael nodded. “Here he comes!”

They slackened their pace, and the chauffeur, touching his hat, came alongside.

“Ah! Riggs,” said Sir Lawrence, “you were up there at the fire, I’m told.”

“Yes, Sir Lawrence. Mr. Forsyte was a proper wonder — went at it like a two-year old, we fair had to carry him away. So particular as a rule about not getting his coat wet or sitting in a draught, but the way he stuck it — at his age . . . . ‘Come on!’ he kept saying to me all through that smoke — a proper champion! Never so surprised in all my life, Sir Lawrence — nervous gentleman like him. And what a bit o’ luck! If he hadn’t insisted on saving that last picture, it’d never have fallen and got ’im.”

“How did the fire begin?”

“Nobody knows, Sir Lawrence, unless Mr. Forsyte did, and he never said nothing. Wish I’d got there sooner, but I was puttin’ the petrol out of action. What that old gentleman did by ‘imself up there; and after the day we’d had! Why! We came from Winchester that morning to London, on to Dorking, picked up Mrs. Mont, and on here. And now he’ll never tell me I’ve gone wrong again.”

A grimace passed over his thin face, seamed and shadowed by traffic and the insides of his car; and, touching his hat, he left them at the gate.

“‘A proper champion,’” Sir Lawrence repeated, softly: “You might almost put that on the stone. Yes, it’s an ironical world!”

In the hall they parted, for Sir Lawrence was going back to Town by car. He took Gradman with him, the provisions of the will having been quietly disclosed. Michael found Smither crying and drawing up the blinds, and in the library Winifred and Val, who had come, with Holly, for the funeral, dealing with condolences, such as they were. Annette was with Kit in the nursery. Michael went up to Fleur in the room she used to have as a little girl — a single room, so that he had been sleeping elsewhere.

She was lying on her bed, graceful, and as if without life.

The eyes she turned on Michael seemed to make of him no less, but no more, than they were making of the ceiling. It was not so much that the spirit behind them was away somewhere, as that there was nowhere for it to go. He went up to the bed, and put his hand on hers.

“Dear Heart!”

Fleur turned her eyes on him again, but of the look in them he could make nothing.

“The moment you wish, darling, we’ll take Kit home.”

“Any time, Michael.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” said Michael, knowing well that he did not: “Riggs has been telling us how splendid your father was, up there with the fire.”

“Don’t!”

There was that in her face which baffled him completely — something not natural, however much she might be mourning for her father. Suddenly she said:

“Give me time, Michael. Nothing matters, I suppose, in the long run. And don’t worry about me — I’m not worth it.”

More conscious than he had ever been in his life that words were of no use, Michael put his lips to her forehead and left her lying there.

He went out and down to the river and stood watching it flow, tranquil and bright in this golden autumn weather, which had lasted so long. Soames’s cows were feeding opposite. They would come under the hammer, now; all that had belonged to him would come under the hammer, he supposed. Annette was going to her mother in France, and Fleur did not wish to keep it on. He looked back at the house, still marked and dishevelled by fire and water. And melancholy brooded in his heart, as if the dry grey spirit of its late owner were standing beside him looking at the passing away of his possessions, of all that on which he had lavished so much time and trouble. ‘Change,’ thought Michael, ‘there’s nothing but change. It’s the one constant. Well! Who wouldn’t have a river rather than a pond!’ He went towards the flower border under the kitchen garden wall. The hollyhocks and sunflowers were in bloom there, and he turned to them as if for warmth. In the little summer-house at the corner he saw some one sitting. Mrs. Val Dartie! Holly — a nice woman! And, suddenly, in Michael, out of the bafflement he had felt in Fleur’s presence, the need to ask a question shaped itself timidly, ashamedly at first, then boldly, insistently. He went up to her. She had a book, but was not reading.

“How is Fleur?” she said.

Michael shook his head and sat down.

“I want to ask you a question. Don’t answer if you don’t want; but I feel I’ve got to ask. Can you — will you tell me: How are things between your young brother and her? I know what there was in the past. Is there anything in the present? I’m asking for her sake — not my own. Whatever you say shan’t hurt her.”

She looked straight at him, and Michael searched her face. There was that in it from which he knew that whatever she did say, if indeed she said anything, would be the truth.

“Whatever there has been between them,” she said, at last, “and there HAS been something since he came back, is over for good. I know that for certain. It ended the day before the fire.”

“I see,” said Michael, very still: “Why do you say it is over FOR GOOD?”

“Because I know my young brother. He has given his wife his word never to see Fleur again. He must have blundered into something, I know there has been a crisis; but once Jon gives his word — nothing — NOTHING will make him go back on it. Whatever it was is over for good, and Fleur knows it.”

And again Michael said: “I see.” And then, as if to himself: “Whatever it was.”

She put out her hand and laid it on his.

“All right,” he said: “I shall get my second wind in a minute. You needn’t be afraid that I shall go back on my word, either. I know I’ve always played second fiddle. It shan’t hurt her.”

The pressure on his hand increased; and, looking up, he saw tears in her eyes.

“Thank you very much,” he said; “I understand now. It’s when you don’t understand that you feel such a dud. Thank you very much.”

He withdrew his hand gently and got up. Looking down at her still sitting there with tears in her eyes, he smiled.

“It’s pretty hard sometimes to remember that it’s all comedy; but one gets there, you know.”

“Good luck!” said Holly. And Michael answered: “Good luck to all of us!” . . .

That evening when the house was shuttered, he lit his pipe and stole out again. He had got his second wind. Whether he would have, but for Soames’s death, he did not know. It was as if, by lying in that shadowy corner under a crab-apple tree, ‘old Forsyte’ were still protecting his beloved. For her, Michael felt nothing but compassion. The bird had been shot with both barrels, and still lived; no one with any sporting instinct could hurt it further. Nothing for it but to pick her up and mend the wings as best he could. Something strong in Michael, so strong that he hadn’t known of its existence, had rallied to his aid. Sportsmanship — chivalry? No! It was nameless; it was an instinct, a feeling that there was something beyond self to be considered, even when self was bruised and cast down. All his life he had detested the ebullient egoism of the ‘crime passionel’, the wronged spouse, honour, vengeance, “all that tommy-rot and naked savagery.” To be excused from being a decent man! One was never excused from that. Otherwise life was just where it was in the reindeer age, the pure tragedy of the primeval hunters, before civilisation and comedy began.

Whatever had been between those two — and he felt it had been all — it was over, and she, ‘down and out.’ He must stand by her and keep his mouth shut. If he couldn’t do that now, he ought never to have married her, lukewarm as he had known her to be. And, drawing deeply at his pipe, he went down the dark garden to the river.

The sky was starry, and with the first touch of cold, a slight mist was rising, filming the black water so that it scarcely seemed to move. Now and then in the stillness he could hear the drone of a distant car, and somewhere a little beast squeaking. Starlight, and the odour of bushes and the earth, the hoot of an owl, bats flitting, and those tall poplar shapes, darker than the darkness — what better setting for his mood just then!

An ironical world, his father had said! Yes, queerly ironical, with shape melting into shape, mood into mood, sound into sound, and nothing fixed anywhere, unless it were that starlight, and the instinct within all living things which said: “Go on!”

A drift of music came down the river. There would be a party at some house. They were dancing probably, as he had seen the gnats dancing that afternoon! And then something out of the night seemed to catch him by the throat. God! It was beautiful, amazing! Breathing, in this darkness, as many billion shapes as there were stars above, all living, and all different! What a world! The Eternal Mood at work! And if you died, like that old boy, and lay forever beneath a crab-apple tree — well, it was the Mood resting a moment in your still shape — no! not even resting, moving on in the mysterious rhythm that one called Life. Who could arrest the moving Mood — who wanted to? And if some pale possessor like that poor old chap, tried and succeeded for a moment, the stars twinkled just a little more when he was gone. To have and to hold! As though you could!

And Michael drew in his breath. A sound of singing came down the water to him, trailing, distant, high, and sweet. It was as if a swan had sung!

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