Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VII

Michael has Qualms

During the eight days of the General Strike Michael’s somewhat hectic existence was relieved only by the hours spent in a House of Commons so occupied in meditating on what it could do, that it could do nothing. He had formed his own opinion of how to settle the matter, but as no one else had formed it, the result was inconspicuous. He watched, however, with a very deep satisfaction the stock of British character daily quoted higher at home and abroad; and with a certain uneasiness the stock of British intelligence becoming almost unsaleable. Mr. Blythe’s continual remark: “What the bee aitch are they all about?” met with no small response in his soul. What WERE they about? He had one conversation with his father-inlaw on the subject.

Over his egg Soames had said:

“Well, the Budget’s dished.”

Over his marmalade Michael answered:

“Used you to have this sort of thing in your young days, sir?”

“No,” said Soames; “no Trade Unionism then, to speak of.”

“People are saying this’ll be the end of it. What’s your opinion of the strike as a weapon, sir?”

“For the purposes of suicide, perfect. It’s a wonder they haven’t found that out long ago.”

“I rather agree, but what’s the alternative?”

“Well,” said Soames, “they’ve got the vote.”

“Yes, that’s always said. But somehow Parliament seems to matter less and less; there’s a directive sense in the country now, which really settles things before we get down to them in Parliament. Look at this strike, for instance; we can do nothing about it.”

“There must be government,” said Soames.

“Administration — of course. But all we seem able to do in Parliament is to discuss administration afterwards without much effect. The fact is, things swoop around too quick for us nowadays.”

“Well,” said Soames, “you know your own business best. Parliament always was a talking shop.” And with that unconscious quotation from Carlyle — an extravagant writer whom he curiously connected with revolution — he looked up at the Goya, and added: “I shouldn’t like to see Parliament done away with, though. Ever heard any more of that red-haired young woman?”

“Marjorie Ferrar? Oddly enough, I saw her yesterday in Whitehall. She told me she was driving for Downing Street.”

“She spoke to you?”

“Oh, yes. No ill-feeling.”

“H’m!” said Soames. “I don’t understand this generation. Is she married?”

“No.”

“That chap MacGown had a lucky escape — not that he deserved it. Fleur doesn’t miss her evenings?”

Michael did not answer. He did not know. Fleur and he were on such perfect terms that they had no real knowledge of each other’s thoughts. Then, feeling his father-inlaw’s grey eye gimletting into him, he said hastily:

“Fleur’s all right, sir.”

Soames nodded. “Don’t let her overdo this canteen.”

“She’s thoroughly enjoying it — gives her head a chance.”

“Yes,” said Soames, “she’s got a good little head, when she doesn’t lose it.” He seemed again to consult the Goya, and added:

“By the way, that young Jon Forsyte is over here — they tell me — staying at Green Street, and stoking an engine or something. A boy-and-girl affair; but I thought you ought to know.”

“Oh!” said Michael, “thanks. I hadn’t heard he was back.”

“I don’t suppose she’s heard, either,” said Soames guardedly; “I told them not to tell her. D’you remember, in America, up at Mount Vernon, when I was taken ill?”

“Yes, sir; very well.”

“Well, I wasn’t. Fact is, I saw that young man and his wife talking to you on the stairs. Thought it better that Fleur shouldn’t run up against them. These things are very silly, but you never can tell.”

“No,” said Michael, drily; “you never can tell. I remember liking the look of him a good deal.”

“H’m!” muttered Soames: “He’s the son of his father, I expect.”

And, from the expression on his face, Michael formed the notion that this was a doubtful advantage.

No more was said, because of Soames’ lifelong conviction that one did not say any more than one need say; and of Michael’s prejudice against discussing Fleur seriously, even with her father. She had seemed to him quite happy lately. After five-and-a-half years of marriage, he was sure that mentally Fleur liked him, that physically she had no objection to him, and that a man was not sensible if he expected much more. She consistently declined, of course, to duplicate Kit, but only because she did not want to be put out of action again for months at a time. The more active, the happier she was — over this canteen for instance, she was in her glory. If, indeed, he had realised that Jon Forsyte was being fed there, Michael would have been troubled; as it was, the news of the young man’s reappearance in England made no great impression. The Country held the field of one’s attention those strenuous days. The multiple evidence of patriotism exhilarated him — undergraduates at the docks, young women driving cars, shopfolk walking cheerfully to their work, the swarm of ‘specials,’ the general ‘carrying-on.’ Even the strikers were good-humoured. A secret conviction of his own concerning England was being reinforced day by day, in refutation of the pessimists. And there was no place so unEnglish at the moment, he felt, as the House of Commons, where people had nothing to do but pull long faces and talk over ‘the situation.’

The news of the General Strike’s collapse caught him as he was going home after driving Fleur to the canteen. A fizz and bustle in the streets, and the words: “Strike Over” scrawled extempore at street corners, preceded the “End of the Strike — Official” of the hurrying news-vendors. Michael stopped his car against the curb and bought a news-sheet. There it was! For a minute he sat motionless with a choky feeling, such as he had felt when the news of the Armistice came through. A sword lifted from over the head of England! A source of pleasure to her enemies dried up! People passed and passed him, each with a news-sheet, or a look in the eye. They were taking it almost as soberly as they had taken the strike itself. ‘Good old England! We’re a great people when we’re up against it!’ he thought, driving his car slowly on into Trafalgar Square. A group of men, who had obviously been strikers, stood leaning against the parapet. He tried to read their faces. Glad, sorry, ashamed, resentful, relieved? For the life of him he could not tell. Some defensive joke seemed going the round of them.

‘No wonder we’re a puzzle to foreigners!’ thought Michael: ‘The least understood people in the world!’

He moved on slowly round the square, into Whitehall. Here were some slight evidences of feeling. The block was thick around the Cenotaph and the entrance to Downing Street; and little cheers kept breaking out. A ‘special’ was escorting a lame man across the street. As he came back, Michael saw his face. Why, it was Uncle Hilary! His mother’s youngest brother, Hilary Charwell, Vicar of St. Augustine’s-inthe-Meads.

“Hallo, Michael!”

“You a ‘special,’ Uncle Hilary? Where’s your cloth?”

“My dear! Are you one of those who think the Church debarred from mundane pleasure? You’re not getting old-fashioned, Michael?”

Michael grinned. He had a real affection for Uncle Hilary, based on admiration for his thin, long face, so creased and humorous, on boyish recollection of a jolly uncle, on a suspicion that in Hilary Charwell had been lost a Polar explorer, or other sort of first-rate adventurer.

“That reminds me, Michael; when are you coming round to see us? I’ve got a topping scheme for airing ‘The Meads’.”

“Ah!” said Michael; “overcrowding’s at the bottom of everything, even this strike.”

“Right you are, my son. Come along, then, as soon as you can. You fellows in Parliament ought always to see things at first hand. You suffer from auto-intoxication in that House. And now pass on, young man, you’re impeding the traffic.”

Michael passed on, grinning. Good old Uncle Hilary! Humanising religion, and living dangerously — had climbed all the worst peaks in Europe; no sense of his own importance and a real sense of humour. Quite the best type of Englishman! They had tried to make him a dignitary, but he had jibbed at the gaiters and hat-ropes. He was what they called a ‘live wire’ and often committed the most dreadful indiscretions; but everybody liked him, even his own wife. Michael dwelt for a moment on his Aunt May. Forty — he supposed — with three children and fourteen hundred things to attend to every day; shingled, and cheerful as a sandboy. Nice-looking woman, Aunt May!

Having garaged his car, he remembered that he had not lunched. It was three o’clock. Munching a biscuit, he drank a glass of sherry, and walked over to the House of Commons. He found it humming in anticipation of a statement. Sitting back, with his legs stretched out, he had qualms. What things had been done in here! The abolitions of Slavery and of Child Labour, the Married Woman’s Property Act, Repeal of the Corn Laws; but could they be done nowadays? And if not — was it a life? He had said to Fleur that you couldn’t change your vocation twice and survive. But did he want to survive? Failing Foggartism — and Foggartism hadn’t failed only because it hadn’t started — what did he really care about?

Leaving the world better than he found it? Sitting there, he couldn’t help perceiving a certain vagueness about such an aspiration, even when confined to England. It was the aspiration of the House of Commons; but in the ebb and flow of Party, it didn’t seem to make much progress. Better to fix on some definite bit of administrative work, stick to it, and get something done. Fleur wanted him to concentrate on Kenya for the Indians. Again rather remote, and having little to do with England. What definite work was most needed in connection with England? Education? Bunkered again! How tell what was the best direction into which to turn education? When they brought in State Education, for instance, they had thought the question settled. Now people were saying that State education had ruined the State. Emigration? Attractive, but negative. Revival of agriculture? Well, the two combined were Foggartism, and he knew by now that nothing but bitter hardship would teach those lessons; you might talk till you were blue in the face without convincing anyone but yourself.

What then?

“I’ve got a topping scheme for airing ‘The Meads’.” The Meads was one of the worst slum parishes in London. ‘Clear the slums!’ thought Michael; ‘that’s practical anyway!’ You could smell the slums, and feel them. They stank and bit and bred corruption. And yet the dwellers therein loved them; or at least preferred them to slums they knew not of! And slum-dwellers were such good sorts! Too bad to play at shuttlecock with them! He must have a talk with Uncle Hilary. Lots of vitality in England still — numbers of red-haired children! But the vitality got sooted as it grew up — like plants in a back garden. Slum clearance, smoke abolition, industrial peace, emigration, agriculture, and safety in the air! ‘Them’s my sentiments!’ thought Michael. ‘And if that isn’t a large enough policy for any man, I’m —!’

He turned his face towards the Statement, and thought of his uncle’s words about this ‘House.’ Were they all really in a state of auto-intoxication here — continual slow poisoning of the tissues? All these chaps around him thought they were doing things. And he looked at the chaps. He knew most of them, and had great respect for many, but collectively he could not deny that they looked a bit dazed. His neighbour to the right was showing his front teeth in an asphyxiated smile. ‘Really,’ he thought; ‘it’s heroic how we all keep awake day after day!’

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