To Let, by John Galsworthy

XI

Duet

That “small” emotion, love, grows amazingly when threatened with extinction. Jon reached Paddington station half an hour before his time and a full week after, as it seemed to him. He stood at the appointed book-stall amid a crowd of Sunday travellers, in a Harris tweed suit exhaling, as it were, the emotion of his thumping heart. He read the names of the novels on the bookstall, and bought one at last, to avoid being regarded with suspicion by the book-stall clerk. It was called “The Heart of the Trail” which must mean something, though it did not seem to. He also bought “The Lady’s Mirror” and “The Landsman.” Every minute was an hour long, and full of horrid imaginings. After nineteen had passed, he saw her with a bag and a porter wheeling her luggage. She came swiftly; she came cool. She greeted him as if he were a brother.

“First class,” she said to the porter, “corner seats; opposite.”

Jon admired her frightful self-possession.

“Can’t we get a carriage to ourselves?” he whispered.

“No good; it’s a stopping train. After Maidenhead perhaps. Look natural, Jon.”

Jon screwed his features into a scowl. They got in-with two other beasts! — oh! heaven! He tipped the porter unnaturally, in his confusion. The brute deserved nothing for putting them in there, and looking as if he knew all about it into the bargain.

Fleur hid herself behind “The Lady’s Mirror.” Jon imitated her behind “The Landsman.” The train started. Fleur let “The Lady’s Mirror” fall and leaned forward. “Well?” she said.

“It’s seemed about fifteen days.”

She nodded, and Jon’s face lighted up at once.

“Look natural,” murmured Fleur, and went off into a bubble of laughter. It hurt him. How could he look natural with Italy hanging over him? He had meant to break it to her gently, but now he blurted it out.

“They want me to go to Italy with Mother for two months.”

Fleur drooped her eyelids; turned a little pale, and bit her lips.

“Oh!” she said. It was all, but it was much.

That “Oh!” was like the quick drawback of the wrist in fencing ready for riposte. It came.

“You must go!”

“Go?” said Jon in a strangled voice.

“Of course.”

“But — two months — it’s ghastly.”

“No,” said Fleur, “six weeks. You’ll have forgotten me by then. We’ll meet in the National Gallery the day after you get back.”

Jon laughed.

“But suppose you’ve forgotten ME,” he muttered into the noise of the train.

Fleur shook her head.

“Some other beast —” murmured Jon.

Her foot touched his.

“No other beast,” she said, lifting the “Lady’s Mirror.”

The train stopped; two passengers got out, and one got in.

‘I shall die,’ thought Jon, ‘if we’re not alone at all.’

The train went on; and again Fleur leaned forward.

“I never let go,” she said; “do you?”

Jon shook his head vehemently.

“Never!” he said. “Will you write to me?”

“No; but YOU can — to my club.”

She had a Club; she was wonderful!

“Did you pump Holly?” he muttered.

“Yes, but got nothing. I didn’t dare pump hard.”

“What can it be?” cried Jon.

“I shall find out all right.”

A long silence followed till Fleur said: “This is Maidenhead, stand by, Jon!”

The train stopped. The remaining passenger got out. Fleur drew down her blind.

“Quick!” she cried. “Hang out! Look as much of a beast as you can.”

Jon blew his nose, and scowled; never in all his life had he scowled like that! An old lady recoiled, a young one tried the handle. It turned, but the lock would not open. The train moved, the young lady darted to another carriage.

“What luck!” cried Jon. “It jammed.”

“Yes,” said Fleur; “I was holding it.”

The train moved out, and Jon fell on his knees.

“Look out for the corridor,” she whispered; “and — quick!”

Her lips met his. And though their kiss only lasted perhaps ten seconds Jon’s soul left his body and went so far beyond that, when he was again sitting opposite that demure figure, he was pale as death. He heard her sigh, and the sound seemed to him the most precious he had ever heard — an exquisite declaration that he meant something to her.

“Six weeks isn’t really long,” she said; “and you can easily make it six if you keep your head out there, and never seem to think of me.”

Jon gasped.

“This is just what’s really wanted, Jon, to convince them, don’t you see? If we’re just as bad when you come back they’ll stop being ridiculous about it. Only, I’m sorry it’s not Spain; there’s a girl in a Goya picture at Madrid who’s like me, Father says. Only she isn’t — we’ve got a copy of her.”

It was to Jon like a ray of sunshine piercing through a fog. “I’ll make it Spain,” he said, “Mother won’t mind; she’s never been there. And my father thinks a lot of Goya.”

“Oh! yes, he’s a painter — isn’t he?”

“Only water-colour,” said Jon, with honesty.

“When we come to Reading, Jon, get out first and go down to Caversham lock and wait for me. I’ll send the car home and we’ll walk by the towing-path.”

Jon seized her hand in gratitude, and they sat silent, with the world well lost, and one eye on the corridor. But the train seemed to run twice as fast now, and its sound was almost lost in that of Jon’s sighing.

“We’re getting near,” said Fleur; “the towing-path’s awfully exposed. One more! Oh! Jon, don’t forget me.”

Jon answered with his kiss. And very soon, a flushed, distracted-looking youth could have been seen — as they say — leaping from the train and hurrying along the platform, searching his pockets for his ticket.

When at last she rejoined him on the towing-path a little beyond Caversham lock he had made an effort, and regained some measure of equanimity. If they had to part, he would not make a scene! A breeze by the bright river threw the white side of the willow leaves up into the sunlight, and followed those two with its faint rustle.

“I told our chauffeur that I was train-giddy,” said Fleur. “Did you look pretty natural as you went out?” “I don’t know. What is natural?”

“It’s natural to you to look seriously happy. When I first saw you I thought you weren’t a bit like other people.”

“Exactly what I thought when I saw you. I knew at once I should never love anybody else.”

Fleur laughed.

“We’re absurdly young. And love’s young dream is out of date, Jon. Besides, it’s awfully wasteful. Think of all the fun you might have. You haven’t begun, even; it’s a shame, really. And there’s me. I wonder!”

Confusion came on Jon’s spirit. How could she say such things just as they were going to part?

“If you feel like that,” he said, “I can’t go. I shall tell Mother that I ought to try and work. There’s always the condition of the world!”

“The condition of the world!”

Jon thrust his hands deep into his pockets.

“But there is,” he said; “think of the people starving!”

Fleur shook her head. “No, no, I never, never will make myself miserable for nothing.”

“Nothing! But there’s an awful state of things, and of course one ought to help.”

“Oh! yes, I know all that. But you can’t help people, Jon; they’re hopeless. When you pull them out of a hole they only get into another. Look at them, still fighting and plotting and struggling, though they’re dying in heaps all the time. Idiots!”

“Aren’t you sorry for them?”

“Oh! sorry — yes, but I’m not going to make myself unhappy about it; that’s no good.”

And they were silent, disturbed by this first glimpse of each other’s natures.

“I think people are brutes and idiots,” said Fleur stubbornly.

“I think they’re poor wretches,” said Jon. It was as if they had quarrelled — and at this supreme and awful moment, with parting visible out there in that last gap of the willows!

“Well, go and help your poor wretches, and don’t think of me.”

Jon stood still. Sweat broke out on his forehead, and his limbs trembled. Fleur too had stopped, and was frowning at the river.

“I MUST believe in things,” said Jon with a sort of agony;” we’re all meant to enjoy life.”

Fleur laughed: “Yes; and that’s what you won’t do, if you don’t take care. But perhaps your idea of enjoyment is to make yourself wretched. There are lots of people like that, of course.”

She was pale, her eyes had darkened, her lips had thinned. Was it Fleur thus staring at the water? Jon had an unreal feeling as if he were passing through the scene in a book where the lover has to choose between love and duty. But just then she looked round at him. Never was anything so intoxicating as that vivacious look. It acted on him exactly as the tug of a chain acts on a dog — brought him up to her with his tail wagging and his tongue out.

“Don’t let’s be silly,” she said, “time’s too short. Look, Jon, you can just see where I’ve got to cross the river. There, round the bend, where the woods begin.”

Jon saw a gable, a chimney or two, a patch of wall through the trees — and felt his heart sink.

“I mustn’t dawdle any more. It’s no good going beyond the next hedge, it gets all open. Let’s get on to it and say good-bye.”

They went side by side, hand in hand, silently towards the hedge, where the mayflower, both pink and white, was in full bloom.

“My Club’s the ‘Talisman,’ Stratton Street, Piccadilly. Letters there will be quite safe, and I’m almost always up once a week.”

Jon nodded. His face had become extremely set, his eyes stared straight before him.

“To-day’s the twenty-third of May,” said Fleur; “on the ninth of July I shall be in front of the ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ at three o’clock; will you?”

“I will.”

“If you feel as bad as I it’s all right. Let those people pass!”

A man and woman airing their children went by strung out in Sunday fashion.

The last of them passed the wicket gate.

“Domesticity!” said Fleur, and blotted herself against the hawthorn hedge. The blossom sprayed out above her head, and one pink cluster brushed her cheek. Jon put up his hand jealously to keep it off.

“Good-bye, Jon!” For a second they stood with hands hard clasped. Then their lips met for the third time, and when they parted Fleur broke away and fled through the wicket gate. Jon stood where she had left him, with his forehead against that pink cluster. Gone! For an eternity — for seven weeks all but two days! And here he was, wasting the last sight of her! He rushed to the gate. She was walking swiftly on the heels of the straggling children. She turned her head, he saw her hand make a little flitting gesture; then she sped on, and the trailing family blotted her out from his view.

The words of a comic song —

“Paddington groan — worst ever known —
He gave a sepulchral Paddington groan —”

came into his head, and he sped incontinently back to Reading station. All the way up to London and down to Wansdon he sat with “The Heart of the Trail” open on his knee, knitting in his head a poem so full of feeling that it would not rhyme.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/tolet/chapter11.html

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