Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VIII

Secret

It would not have been natural that Fleur should rejoice in the collapse of the General Strike. A national outlook over such a matter was hardly in her character. Her canteen was completing the re-establishment in her of the social confidence which the Marjorie Ferrar affair had so severely shaken; and to be thoroughly busy with practical matters suited her. Recruited by Norah Curfew, by herself, Michael, and his Aunt Lady Alison Charwell, she had a first-rate crew of helpers of all ages, most of them in Society. They worked in the manner popularly attributed to negroes; they craned at nothing — not even beetles. They got up at, or stayed up to, all hours. They were never cross and always cheery. In a word, they seemed inspired. The difference they had made in the appearance of the railway’s culinary premises was startling to the Company. Fleur herself was ‘on the bridge’ all the time. On her devolved the greasing of the official wheels, the snipping off of red tape in numberless telephonic duels, and the bearding of the managerial face. She had even opened her father’s pocket to supplement the shortcomings she encountered. The volunteers were fed to repletion, and — on Michael’s inspiration — she had undermined the pickets with surreptitious coffee dashed with rum, at odd hours of their wearisome vigils. Her provisioning car, entrusted to Holly, ran the blockade, by leaving and arriving, as though Harridge’s, whence she drew her supplies, were the last place in its thoughts.

“Let us give the strikers,” said Michael, “every possible excuse to wink the other eye.”

The canteen, in fact, was an unqualified success. She had not seen Jon again, but she lived in that peculiar mixture of fear and hope which signifies a real interest in life. On the Friday Holly announced to her that Jon’s wife had arrived — might she bring her down next morning?

“Oh! yes,” said Fleur: “What is she like?”

“Attractive — with eyes like a water-nymph’s or so Jon thinks; but it’s quite the best type of water-nymph.”

“M-m!” said Fleur.

She was checking a list on the telephone next day when Holly brought Anne. About Fleur’s own height, straight and slim, darker in the hair, browner in complexion, browner in the eye (Fleur could see what Holly had meant by “water-nymph”) her nose a little too sudden, her chin pointed and her teeth very white, her successor stood. Did she know that Jon and she —?

And stretching out her free hand, Fleur said:

“I think it’s awfully sporting of you as an American. How’s your brother Francis?”

The hand she squeezed was brown, dry, warm; the voice she heard only faintly American, as if Jon had been at it.

“You were just too good to Francis. He always talks of you. If it hadn’t been for you —”

“That’s nothing. Excuse me. . . . Ye-es? . . . No! If the Princess comes, ask her to be good enough to come when they’re feeding. Yes — yes — thank you! To-morrow? Certainly. . . . Did you have a good crossing?”

“Frightful! I was glad Jon wasn’t with me. I do so hate being green, don’t you?”

“I never am,” said Fleur.

That girl had Jon to bend above her when she was green! Pretty? Yes. The browned face was very alive — rather like Francis Wilmot’s, but with those enticing eyes, much more eager. What was it about those eyes that made them so unusual and attractive? — surely the suspicion of a squint! She had a way of standing, too — a trick of the neck, the head was beautifully poised. Lovely clothes, of course! Fleur’s glance swept swiftly down to calves and ankles. Not thick, not crooked! No luck!

“I think it’s just wonderful of you to let me come and help.”

“Not a bit. Holly will put you wise.”

“That sounds nice and homey.”

“Oh! We all use your expressions now. Will you take her provisioning, Holly?”

When the girl had gone, under Holly’s wing, Fleur bit her lip. By the uncomplicated glance of Jon’s wife she guessed that Jon had not told her. How awfully young! Fleur felt suddenly as if she herself had never had a youth. Ah! If Jon had not been caught away from her! Her bitten lip quivered, and she buried it in the mouthpiece of the telephone.

Whenever again — three or four times — before the canteen was closed, she saw the girl, she forced herself to be cordial. Instinctively she felt that she must shut no doors on life just now. What Jon’s reappearance meant to her she could not tell; but no one should put a finger this time in whatever pie she chose to make. She was mistress of her face and movements now, as she had never been when she and Jon were babes in the wood. With a warped pleasure she heard Holly’s: “Anne thinks you wonderful, Fleur!” No! Jon had not told his wife about her. It was like him, for the secret had not been his alone! But how long would that girl be left in ignorance? On the day the canteen closed she said to Holly:

“No one has told Jon’s wife that he and I were once in love, I suppose?”

Holly shook her head.

“I’d rather they didn’t, then.”

“Of course not, my dear. I’ll see to it. The child’s nice, I think.”

“Nice,” said Fleur, “but not important.”

“You’ve got to allow for the utter strangeness of everything. Americans are generally important, sooner or later.”

“To themselves,” said Fleur, and saw Holly smile. Feeling that she had revealed a corner of her feelings, she smiled too.

“Well, so long as they get on. They do, I suppose?”

“My dear, I’ve hardly seen Jon, but I should say it’s perfectly successful. Now the strike’s over they’re coming down to us at Wansdon.”

“Good! Well, this is the end of the old canteen. Let’s powder our noses and get out; Father’s waiting for me with the car. Can we drop you?”

“No, thanks; I’ll walk.”

“What? The old gene? Funny how hard things die!”

“Yes; when you’re a Forsyte,” murmured Holly: “You see, we don’t show our feelings. It’s airing them that kills feelings.”

“Ah!” said Fleur: “Well, God bless you, as they say, and give Jon my love. I’d ask them to lunch, but you’re off to Wansdon?”

“The day after tomorrow.”

In the little round mirror Fleur saw her face mask itself more thoroughly, and turned to the door.

“I MAY look in at Aunt Winifred’s, if I’ve time. So long!”

Going down the stairs she thought: ‘So it’s air that kills feelings!’

Soames, in the car, was gazing at Rigg’s back. The fellow was as lean as a rail.

“Finished with that?” he said to her.

“Yes, dear.”

“Good job, too. Wearing yourself to a shadow.”

“Why? Do I look thin, Dad?”

“No,” said Soames, “no. That’s your mother. But you can’t keep on at that rate. Would you like some air? Into the Park, Riggs.”

Passing into that haven, he murmured:

“I remember when your grandmother drove here every day, regular as clockwork. People had habits, then. Shall we stop and have a look at that Memorial affair they made such a fuss about?”

“I’ve seen it, Dad.”

“So have I,” said Soames. “Stunt sculpture! Now, that St. Gaudens statue at Washington WAS something.” And he looked at her sidelong. Thank goodness she didn’t know of the way he had fended her off from young Jon Forsyte over there. She must have heard by now that the fellow was in London, and staying at her Aunt’s too! And now the strike was off, and normal railway services beginning again, he would be at a loose end! But perhaps he would go back to Paris; his mother was there still, he understood. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask. Instinct, however, potent only in his dealings with Fleur, stopped him. If she had seen the young man, she wouldn’t tell him of it. She was looking somehow secret — or was that just imagination?

No! He couldn’t see her thoughts. Good thing, perhaps! Who could afford to have his thoughts seen? The recesses, ramifications, excesses of thought! Only when sieved and filtered was thought fit for exposure. And again Soames looked sidelong at his daughter.

She was thinking, indeed, to purposes that would have upset him. How was she going to see Jon alone before he left for Wansdon? She could call tomorrow, of course, openly at Green Street, and probably NOT see him. She could ask him to lunch in South Square, but hardly without his wife or her own husband. There was, in fact, no way of seeing him alone except by accident. And she began trying to plan one. On the point of perceiving that the essence of an accident was that it could not be planned, she planned it. She would go to Green Street at nine in the morning to consult Holly and Anne on the canteen accounts. After such strenuous days Holly and Anne might surely be breakfasting in bed. Val had gone back to Wansdon, Aunt Winifred never got up! Jon MIGHT be alone! And she turned to Soames:

“Awfully sweet of you, Dad, to be airing me; I AM enjoying it.”

“Like to get out and have a look at the ducks? The swans have got a brood at Mapledurham again this year.”

The swans! How well she remembered the six little grey destroyers following the old swans over the green-tinged water, that six-year-gone summer of her love! Crossing the grass down to the Serpentine, she felt a sort of creeping sweetness. But nobody — nobody should know of what went on inside her. Whatever happened — and, after all, most likely nothing would happen — she would save face this time — strongest motive in the world, as Michael said.

“Your grandfather used to bring me here when I was a shaver,” said her father’s voice beside her. It did not add: “And I used to bring that wife of mine when we were first married.” Irene! She had liked water and trees. She had liked all beauty, and she hadn’t liked him!

“Eton jackets. Sixty years ago and more. Who’d have thought it then?”

“Who’d have thought what, Dad? That Eton jackets would still be in?”

“That chap — Tennyson, wasn’t it? —‘The old order changeth, giving place to new.’ I can’t see you in high necks and skirts down to your feet, to saying nothing of bustles. Women then were defended up to the nines, but you knew just as much about them as you do now — and that’s precious little.”

“I wonder. Do you think people’s passions are what they used to be, Dad?”

Soames brooded into his hand. Now, why had she said that? He had once told her that a grand passion was a thing of the past, and she had replied that she had one. And suddenly he was back in steamy heat, redolent of earth and potted pelargonium, kicking a hot water pipe in a greenhouse at Mapledurham. Perhaps she’d been right; there was always a lot of human nature about.

“Passions!” he said: “Well, you still read of people putting their heads under the gas. In old days they used to drown themselves. Let’s go and have tea, at that kiosk place.”

When they were seated, and the pigeons were enjoying his cake, he took a long look at her. She had her legs crossed — and very nice they were! — and just that difference in her body from the waist up, from so many young women he saw about. She didn’t sit in a curve, but with a slight hollow in her back, giving the impression of backbone and a poise to her head and neck. She was shingled again — the custom had unexpected life — but, after all, her neck was remarkably white and round. Her face — short, with its firm rounded chin, very little powder and no rouge, with its dark-lashed white lids, clear-glancing hazel eyes, short, straight nose and broad low brow, with the chestnut hair over its ears, and its sensibly kissable mouth — really it was a credit!

“I should think,” he said, “you’d be glad to have more time for Kit again. He’s a rascal. What d’you think he asked me for yesterday — a hammer!”

“Yes; he’s always breaking things up. I smack him as little as possible, but it’s unavoidable at times — nobody else is allowed to. Mother got him used to it while we were away, so he looks on it as all in the day’s work.”

“Children,” said Soames, “are funny things. We weren’t made such a fuss of when I was young.”

“Forgive me, Dad, but I think YOU make more fuss of him than anybody.”

“What?” said Soames: “I?”

“You do exactly as he tells you. Did you give him the hammer?”

“Hadn’t one — what should I carry hammers about for?”

Fleur laughed. “No; but you take him so seriously. Michael takes him ironically.”

“The little chap’s got a twinkle,” said Soames.

“Mercifully. Didn’t you spoil ME, Dad?”

Soames gaped at a pigeon.

“Can’t tell,” he said. “Do you feel spoiled?”

“When I want things, I want things.”

He knew that; but so long as she wanted the right things!

“And when I don’t get them, I’m not safe.”

“Who says that?”

“No one ever says it, but I know it.”

H’m! What was she wanting now? Should he ask? And, as if attending to the crumbs on his lapel, he took ‘a lunar.’ That face of hers, whose eyes for a moment were off guard, was dark with some deep — he couldn’t tell! Secret! That’s what it was!

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