Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter V

Jeopardy

When, looking down the row of faces at her canteen table, Fleur saw Jon Forsyte’s, it was within her heart as if, in winter, she had met with honeysuckle. Recovering from that faint intoxication, she noted his appearance from further off. He was sitting seemingly indifferent to food; and on his face, which was smudged with coal-dust and sweat, was such a smile as men wear after going up a mountain or at the end of a long run — tired, charming, and as if they have been through something worth while. His lashes — long and dark as in her memory — concealed his eyes, and quarrelled with his brighter hair, touzled to the limit of its shortness.

Continuing to issue her instructions to Ruth La Fontaine, Fleur thought rapidly. Jon! Dropped from the skies into her canteen, stronger-looking, better knit; with more jaw, and deeper set eyes, but frightfully like Jon! What was to be done about it? If only she could turn out the lights, steal up behind, lean over and kiss him on that smudge above his left eye! Yes! And then — what? Silly! And now, suppose he came out of his far-away smile and saw her! As likely as not he would never come into her canteen again. She remembered his conscience! And she took a swift decision. Not to-night! Holly would know where he was staying. At her chosen time, on her chosen ground, if — on second thoughts, she wanted to play with fire. And, giving a mandate to Ruth La Fontaine concerning buns, she looked back over her shoulder at Jon’s absorbed and smiling face, and passed out into her little office.

And second thoughts began. Michael, Kit, her father; the solid security of virtue and possessions; the peace of mind into which she had passed of late! All jeopardised for the sake of a smile, and a scent of honeysuckle! No! That account was closed. To reopen it was to tempt Providence. And if to tempt Providence was the practice of Modernity, she wasn’t sure whether she was modern. Besides, who knew whether she COULD reopen that account? And she was seized by a gust of curiosity to see that wife of his — that substitute for herself. Was she in England? Was she dark, like her brother Francis? Fleur took up her list of purchases for the morrow. With so much to do, it was idiotic even to think about such things! The telephone! All day its bell had been ringing; since nine o’clock that morning she had been dancing to its pipe.

“Yes . . .? Mrs. Mont speaking. What? But I’ve ordered them. . . . Oh! But really I MUST give them bacon and eggs in the morning. They can’t start on cocoa only. . . . How? The Company can’t afford? . . . Well! Do you want an effective service or not? . . . Come round to see you about it? I really haven’t time. . . . Yes, yes . . . now please do be nice to me and tell the manager that they simply must be properly fed. They look so tired. He’ll understand. . . . Yes. . . . Thank you ever so!” She hung up the receiver. “Damn!”

Someone laughed. “Oh! It’s you, Holly! Cheese-paring and red tape as usual! This is the fourth time today. Well, I don’t care — I’m going ahead. Look! Here’s Harridge’s list for tomorrow. It’s terrific, but it’s got to be. Buy it all; I’ll take the risk, if I have to go round and slobber on him.” And beyond the ironic sympathy on Holly’s face she seemed to see Jon’s smile. He should be properly fed — all of them should! And, without looking at her cousin, she said:

“I saw Jon in there. Where has he dropped from?”

“Paris. He’s putting up with us in Green Street.”

Fleur stuck her chin forward, and gave a little laugh.

“Quaint to see him again, all smudgy like that! His wife with him?”

“Not yet,” said Holly; “she’s in Paris still, with his mother.”

“Oh! It’d be fun to see him some time!”

“He’s stoking an engine on the local service — goes out at six, and doesn’t get in till about midnight.”

“Of course; I meant after, if the strike ever ends.”

Holly nodded. “His wife wants to come over and help; would you like her in the canteen?”

“If she’s the right sort.”

“Jon says: Very much so.”

“I don’t see why an American should worry herself. Are they going to live in England?”

“Yes.”

“Oh! Well, we’re both over the measles.”

“If you get them again grown-up, Fleur, they’re pretty bad.”

Fleur laughed. “No fear!” And her eyes, hazel, clear, glancing, met her cousin’s eyes, deep, steady, grey.

“Michael’s waiting for you with the car,” said Holly.

“All right! Can you carry on till they’ve finished? Norah Curfew’s on duty at five tomorrow morning. I shall be round at nine, before you start for Harridge’s. If you think of anything else, stick it on the list — I’ll make them stump up somehow. Good-night, Holly.”

“Good-night, my dear.”

Was there a gleam of pity in those grey eyes? Pity, indeed!

“Give Jon my love. I do wonder how he likes stoking! We must get some more washbasins in.”

Sitting beside Michael, who was driving their car, she saw again, as it were, Jon’s smile in the glass of the wind-screen, and in the dark her lips pouted as if reaching for it. Measles — they spotted you, and raised your temperature! How empty the streets were, now that the taxis were on strike! Michael looked round at her.

“Well, how’s it going?”

“The beetle man was a caution, Michael. He had a face like a ravaged wedge, a wave of black hair, and the eyes of a lost soul; but he was frightfully efficient.”

“Look! There’s a tank; I was told of them. They’re going down to the docks. Rather provocative! Just as well there are no papers for them to get into.”

Fleur laughed.

“Father’ll be at home. He’s come up to protect me. If there really was shooting, I wonder what he’d do — take his umbrella?”

“Instinct. How about you and Kit? It’s the same thing.”

Fleur did not answer. And when, after seeing her father, she went up-stairs, she stood at the nursery door. The tune that had excited Soames’ surprise made a whiffling sound in the empty passage. “L’amour est enfant de Boheme; il n’a jamais jamais connu de loi; si tu ne m’aimes pas, je t’aime, et si je t’aime, prends garde a toil!” Spain, and the heartache of her honeymoon! “Voice in the night crying!” Close the shutters, muffle the ears — keep it out! She entered her bedroom and turned up the lights. It had never seemed to her so pretty, with its many mirrors, its lilac and green, its shining silver. She stood looking at her face, into which had come two patches of red, one in each cheek. Why wasn’t she Norah Curfew — dutiful, uncomplicated, selfless, who would give Jon eggs and bacon at half-past five tomorrow morning — Jon with a clean face! Quickly she undressed. Was that wife of his her equal undressed? To which would he award the golden apple if she stood side by side with Anne? And the red spots deepened in her cheeks. Overtired — she knew that feeling! She would not sleep! But the sheets were cool. Yes, she preferred the old smooth Irish linen to that new rough French grass-bleached stuff. Ah! Here was Michael coming in, coming up to her! Well! No use to be unkind to him — poor old Michael! And in his arms, she saw — Jon’s smile.

* * * * *



That first day spent in stoking an engine had been enough to make anyone smile. An engine-driver almost as youthful, but in private life partner in his own engineering works, had put Jon ‘wise’ to the mystery of getting level combustion. “A tricky job, and very tiring!” Their passengers had behaved well. One had even come up and thanked them. The engine-driver had winked at Jon. There had been some hectic moments. Supping pea soup, Jon thought of them with pleasure. It had been great sport, but his hands and arms felt wrenched. “Oil them tonight,” the engine-driver had said.

A young woman was handing him ‘jacket’ potatoes. She had marvellously clear, brown eyes, something like Anne’s — only Anne’s were like a water nymph’s. He took a potato, thanked her, and returned to a stoker’s dreams. Extraordinary pleasure in being up against it — being in England again, doing something for England! One had to leave one’s country to become conscious of it. Anne had telegraphed that she wanted to come over and join him. If he wired back “No,” she would come all the same. He knew that much after nearly two years of marriage. Well, she would see England at its best. Americans didn’t really know what England was. Her brother had seen nothing but London; he had spoken bitterly — a girl, Jon supposed, though nothing had been said of her. In Francis Wilmot’s history of England the gap accounted for the rest. But everybody ran down England, because she didn’t slop over, or blow her own trumpet.

“Butter?”

“Thanks, awfully. These potatoes are frightfully good.”

“So glad.”

“Who runs this canteen?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Michael Mont mostly; he’s a member of Parliament.”

Jon dropped his potato.

“Mrs. Mont? Gracious! She’s a cousin of mine. Is she here?”

“Was. Just gone, I think.”

Jon’s far-sighted eyes travelled round the large and dingy room. Fleur! How amazing!

“Treacle pudding?”

“No, thanks. Nothing more.”

“There’ll be coffee, tea, or cocoa, and eggs and bacon, tomorrow at 5.45.”

“Splendid! I think it’s wonderful.”

“It is, rather, in the time.”

“Thank you awfully. Good-night!”

Jon sought his coat. Outside were Val and Holly in their car.

“Hallo, young Jon! You’re a nice object.”

“What job have you caught, Val?”

“Motor lorry — begin tomorrow.”

“Fine!”

“This’ll knock out racing for a bit.”

“But not England.”

“England? Lord — no! What did you think?”

“Abroad they were saying so.”

“Abroad!” growled Val. “They would!”

And there was silence at thirty miles an hour.

From his bedroom door Jon said to his sister:

“They say Fleur runs that canteen. Is she really so old now?”

“Fleur has a very clear head, my dear. She saw you there. No second go of measles, Jon.”

Jon laughed.

“Aunt Winifred,” said Holly, “will be delighted to have Anne here on Friday, she told me to tell you.”

“Splendid! That’s awfully good of her.”

“Well, good-night; bless you. There’s still hot water in the bathroom.”

In his bath Jon lay luxuriously still. Sixty hours away from his young wife, he was already looking forward with impatience to her appearance on Friday. And so Fleur ran that canteen! A fashionable young woman with a clear and, no doubt, shingled head — he felt a great curiosity to see her again, but nothing more. Second go of measles! Not much! He had suffered too severely from the first. Besides, he was too glad to be back — result of long, half-acknowledged homesickness. His mother had been home-sick for Europe; but HE had felt no assuagement in Italy and France. It was England he had wanted. Something in the way people walked and talked; in the smell and the look of everything; some good-humoured, slow, ironic essence in the air, after the tension of America, the shrillness of Italy, the clarity of Paris. For the first time in five years his nerves felt coated. Even those features of his native land which offended the aesthetic soul, were comforting. The approaches to London, the countless awful little houses of brick and slate which his own great-grandfather, ‘Superior Dosset’ Forsyte, had helped, so his father had once told him, to build; the many little new houses, rather better, but still bent on compromise; the total absence of symmetry or plan; the ugly railway stations; the cockney voices, the lack of colour, taste, or pride in people’s dress — all seemed comfortable, a guarantee that England would always be England.

And so Fleur was running that canteen! He would be seeing her! He would like to see her! Oh, yes!

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