To Let, by John Galsworthy

XII

Caprice

Fleur sped on. She had need of rapid motion; she was late, and wanted all her wits about her when she got in. She passed the islands, the station, and hotel, and was about to take the ferry, when she saw a skiff with a young man standing up in it, and holding to the bushes.

“Miss Forsyte,” he said; “let me put you across. I’ve come on purpose.”

She looked at him in blank amazement.

“It’s all right, I’ve been having tea with your people. I thought I’d save you the last bit. It’s on my way, I’m just off back to Pangbourne. My name’s Mont. I saw you at the picture-gallery — you remember — when your father invited me to see his pictures.”

“Oh!” said Fleur; “yes — the handkerchief.”

To this young man she owed Jon; and, taking his hand, she stepped down into the skiff. Still emotional, and a little out of breath, she sat silent; not so the young man. She had never heard any one say so much in so short a time. He told her his age, twenty-four, his weight, ten stone eleven; his place of residence, not far away; described his sensations under fire, and what it felt like to be gassed; criticised the Juno, mentioned his own conception of that goddess; commented on the Goya copy, said Fleur was not too awfully like it; sketched in rapidly the condition of England; spoke of Monsieur Profond — or whatever his name was — as “an awful sport”; thought her father had some ripping pictures and some rather “dug-up”; hoped he might row down again and take her on the river because he was quite trustworthy; inquired her opinion of Tchekov, gave her his own; wished they could go to the Russian ballet together some time — considered the name Fleur Forsyte simply topping; cursed his people for giving him the name of Michael on the top of Mont; outlined his father, and said that if she wanted a good book she should read “Job”; his father was rather like Job while Job still had land.

“But Job didn’t have land,” Fleur murmured; “he only had flocks and herds and moved on.”

“Ah!” answered Michael Mont, “I wish my gov’nor would move on. Not that I want his land. Land’s an awful bore in these days, don’t you think?”

“We never have it in my family,” said Fleur. “We have everything else. I believe one of my great-uncles once had a sentimental farm in Dorset, because we came from there originally, but it cost him more than it made him happy.”

“Did he sell it?”

“No; he kept it.”

“Why?”

“Because nobody would buy it.”

“Good for the old boy!”

“No, it wasn’t good for him. Father says it soured him. His name was Swithin.”

“What a corking name!”

“Do you know,” said Fleur, “that we’re getting farther off, not nearer? This river flows.”

“Splendid!” cried Mont, dipping his sculls vaguely; “it’s good to meet a girl who’s got wit.”

“But better to meet a young man who’s got it in the plural.”

Young Mont raised a hand to tear his hair.

“Look out!” cried Fleur. “Your scull!”

“All right! It’s thick enough to bear a scratch.”

“Do you mind sculling?” said Fleur severely, “I want to get in.”

“Ah! but when you get in, you see, I shan’t see you any more today. Fini, as the French girl said when she jumped on her bed after saying her prayers. Don’t you bless the day that gave you a French mother, and a name like yours?”

“I like my name, but Father gave it me. Mother wanted me called Marguerite.”

“Which is absurd. Do you mind calling me M. M. and letting me call you F. F.? It’s in the spirit of the age.”

“I don’t mind anything, so long as I get in.” Mont caught a little crab, and answered: “That was a nasty one!”

“Please row.”

“I am.” And he did for several strokes, looking at her with rueful eagerness. “Of course, you know,” he ejaculated, pausing, “that I came to see you, not your father’s pictures.”

Fleur rose.

“If you don’t row, I shall get out and swim.”

“Really and truly? Then I could come in after you.”

“Mr. Mont, I’m late and tired; please put me on shore at once.”

When she stepped out on to the garden landing-stage he rose, and grasping his hair with both hands, looked at her.

Fleur smiled.

“Don’t!” cried the irrepressible Mont. “I know you’re going to say: ‘Out, damned hair!’”

Fleur whisked round, threw him a wave of her hand. “Good-bye, Mr. M. M.!” she called, and was gone among the rose-trees. She looked at her wrist-watch and the windows of the house. It struck her as curiously uninhabited. Past six! The pigeons were just gathering to roost, and sunlight slanted on the dove-cot, on their snowy feathers, and beyond in a shower on the top boughs of the woods. The click of billiard-balls came from the ingle-nook — Jack Cardigan, no doubt; a faint rustling, too, from an eucalyptus-tree, startling Southerner in this old English garden. She reached the verandah, and was passing in, but stopped at the sound of voices from the drawing-room to her left. Mother! Profond! From behind the verandah screen which fenced the ingle-nook she heard these words!

“I don’t, Annette.”

Did Father know that he called her mother “Annette”? Always on the side of her father — as children are ever on one side or the other in houses where relations are a little strained — she stood, uncertain. Her mother was speaking in her low, pleasing, slightly metallic voice — one word she caught: “Demain.” And Profond’s answer: “All right.” Fleur frowned. A little sound came out into the stillness. Then Profond’s voice: “I’m takin’ a small stroll.”

Fleur darted through the window into the morning room. There he came — from the drawing-room, crossing the verandah, down the lawn; and the click of billiard-balls which, in listening for other sounds, she had ceased to hear, began again. She shook herself, passed into the hall, and opened the drawing-room door. Her mother was sitting on the sofa between the windows, her knees crossed, her head resting on a cushion, her lips half parted, her eyes half closed. She looked extraordinarily handsome.

“Ah! Here you are, Fleur! Your father is beginning to fuss.”

“Where is he?”

“In the picture-gallery. Go up!”

“What are you going to do tomorrow, Mother?”

“To-morrow? I go up to London with your aunt. Why?”

“I thought you might be. Will you get me a quite plain parasol?”

“What color?”

“Green. They’re all going back, I suppose.”

“Yes, all; you will console your father. Kiss me, then.”

Fleur crossed the room, stooped, received a kiss on her forehead, and went out past the impress of a form on the sofa-cushions in the other corner. She ran up-stairs.

Fleur was by no means the old-fashioned daughter who demands the regulation of her parents’ lives in accordance with the standard imposed on herself. She claimed to regulate her own life, not those of others; besides, an unerring instinct for what was likely to advantage her own case was already at work. In a disturbed domestic atmosphere the heart she had set on Jon would have a better chance. None the less was she offended, as a flower by a crisping wind. If that man had really been kissing her mother it was — serious, and her father ought to know.

“Demain!” “All right!” And her mother going up to Town! She turned in to her bedroom and hung out of the window to cool her face, which had suddenly grown very hot. Jon must be at the station by now! What did her father know about Jon! Probably everything — pretty nearly!

She changed her dress, so as to look as if she had been in some time, and ran up to the gallery.

Soames was standing stubbornly still before his Alfred Stevens — the picture he loved best. He did not turn at the sound of the door, but she knew he had heard, and she knew he was hurt. She came up softly behind him, put her arms round his neck, and poked her face over his shoulder, till her cheek lay against his. It was an advance which had never yet failed, but it failed her now, and she augured the worst.

“Well,” he said stonily, “so you’ve come!”

“Is that all,” murmured Fleur, “from a bad parent?” and rubbed her cheek against his.

Soames shook his head so far as that was possible.

“Why do you keep me on tenterhooks like this, putting me off and off?”

“Darling, it was very harmless.”

“Harmless! Much you know what’s harmless and what isn’t.”

Fleur dropped her arms.

“Well, then, dear, suppose you tell me; and be quite frank about it.”

And she went over to the window-seat.

Her father had turned from his picture, and was staring at his feet. He looked very grey. ‘He has nice small feet,’ she thought, catching his eye, at once averted from her.

“You’re my only comfort,” said Soames suddenly, “and you go on like this.”

Fleur’s heart began to beat.

“Like what, dear?”

Again Soames gave her a look which, but for the affection in it, might have been called furtive.

“You know what I told you,” he said. “I don’t choose to have anything to do with that branch of our family.”

“Yes, ducky, but I don’t know why _I_ shouldn’t.”

Soames turned on his heel.

“I’m not going into the reasons,” he said; “you ought to trust me, Fleur!”

The way he spoke those words affected Fleur, but she thought of Jon, and was silent, tapping her foot against the wainscot. Unconsciously she had assumed a modern attitude, with one leg twisted in and out of the other, with her chin on one bent wrist, her other arm across her chest, and its hand hugging her elbow; there was not a line of her that was not involuted, and yet — in spite of all — she retained a certain grace.

“You knew my wishes,” Soames went on, “and yet you stayed on there four days. And I suppose that boy came with you today.”

Fleur kept her eyes on him.

“I don’t ask you anything,” said Soames; “I make no inquisition where you’re concerned.”

Fleur suddenly stood up, leaning out at the window with her chin on her hands. The sun had sunk behind trees, the pigeons were perched, quite still, on the edge of the dove-cot; the click of the billiard-balls mounted, and a faint radiance shone out below where Jack Cardigan had turned the light up.

“Will it make you any happier,” she said suddenly, “if I promise you not to see him for say — the next six weeks?” She was not prepared for a sort of tremble in the blankness of his voice.

“Six weeks? Six years — sixty years more like. Don’t delude yourself, Fleur; don’t delude yourself!”

Fleur turned in alarm.

“Father, what is it?”

Soames came close enough to see her face.

“Don’t tell me,” he said, “that you’re foolish enough to have any feeling beyond caprice. That would be too much!” And he laughed.

Fleur, who had never heard him laugh like that, thought: ‘Then it IS deep! Oh! what is it?’ And putting her hand through his arm she said lightly:

“No, of course; caprice. Only, I like my caprices and I don’t like yours, dear.”

“Mine!” said Soames bitterly, and turned away.

The light outside had chilled, and threw a chalky whiteness on the river. The trees had lost all gaiety of colour. She felt a sudden hunger for Jon’s face, for his hands, and the feel of his lips again on hers. And pressing her arms tight across her breast she forced out a little light laugh.

“O la! la! What a small fuss! as Profond would say. Father, I don’t like that man.”

She saw him stop, and take something out of his breast pocket.

“You don’t?” he said. “Why?”

“Nothing,” murmured Fleur; “just caprice!”

“No,” said Soames; “not caprice!” And he tore what was in his hands across. “You’re right. _I_ don’t like him either!”

“Look!” said Fleur softly. “There he goes! I hate his shoes; they don’t make any noise.”

Down in the failing light Prosper Profond moved, his hands in his side pockets, whistling softly in his beard; he stopped, and glanced up at the sky, as if saying: “I don’t think much of that small moon.”

Fleur drew back. “Isn’t he a great cat?” she whispered; and the sharp click of the billiard-balls rose, as if Jack Cardigan had capped the cat, the moon, caprice, and tragedy with: “In off the red!”

Monsieur Profond had resumed his strolling, to a teasing little tune in his beard. What was it? Oh! yes, from “Rigoletto”: “Donna e mobile.” Just what he would think! She squeezed her father’s arm.

“Prowling!” she muttered, as he turned the corner of the house. It was past that disillusioned moment which divides the day and night — still and lingering and warm, with hawthorn scent and lilac scent clinging on the riverside air. A blackbird suddenly burst out. Jon would be in London by now; in the Park perhaps, crossing the Serpentine, thinking of her! A little sound beside her made her turn her eyes; her father was again tearing the paper in his hands. Fleur saw it was a cheque.

“I shan’t sell him my Gauguin,” he said. “I don’t know what your aunt and Imogen see in him.”

“Or Mother.”

“Your mother!” said Soames.

‘Poor Father!’ she thought. ‘He never looks happy — not really happy. I don’t want to make him worse, but of course I shall have to, when Jon comes back. Oh! well, sufficient unto the night!’

“I’m going to dress,” she said.

In her room she had a fancy to put on her “freak” dress. It was of gold tissue with little trousers of the same, tightly drawn in at the ankles, a page’s cape slung from the shoulders, little gold shoes, and a gold-winged Mercury helmet; and all over her were tiny gold bells, especially on the helmet; so that if she shook her head she pealed. When she was dressed she felt quite sick because Jon could not see her; it even seemed a pity that the sprightly young man Michael Mont would not have a view. But the gong had sounded, and she went down.

She made a sensation in the drawing-room. Winifred thought it “Most amusing.” Imogen was enraptured. Jack Cardigan called it “stunning,” “ripping,” “topping,” and “corking.” Monsieur Profond, smiling with his eyes, said: “That’s a nice small dress!” Her mother, very handsome in black, sat looking at her, and said nothing. It remained for her father to apply the test of common sense. “What did you put on that thing for? You’re not going to dance.”

Fleur spun round, and the bells pealed.

“Caprice!”

Soames stared at her, and, turning away, gave his arm to Winifred. Jack Cardigan took her mother. Prosper Profond took Imogen. Fleur went in by herself, with her bells jingling. . . .

The “small” moon had soon dropped down, and May night had fallen soft and warm, enwrapping with its grape-bloom colour and its scents the billion caprices, intrigues, passions, longings, and regrets of men and women. Happy was Jack Cardigan who snored into Imogen’s white shoulder, fit as a flea; or Timothy in his “mausoleum,” too old for anything but baby’s slumber. For so many lay awake, or dreamed, teased by the crisscross of the world.

The dew fell and the flowers closed; cattle grazed on in the river meadows, feeling with their tongues for the grass they could not see; and the sheep on the Downs lay quiet as stones. Pheasants in the tall trees of the Pangbourne woods, larks on their grassy nests above the gravel-pit at Wansdon, swallows in the eaves at Robin Hill, and the sparrows of Mayfair, all made a dreamless night of it, soothed by the lack of wind. The Mayfly filly, hardly accustomed to her new quarters, scraped at her straw a little; and the few night-flitting things — bats, moths, owls — were vigorous in the warm darkness; but the peace of night lay in the brain of all day-time Nature, colourless and still. Men and women, alone, riding the hobbyhorses of anxiety or love, burned their wavering tapers of dream and thought into the lonely hours.

Fleur, leaning out of her window, heard the hall clock’s muffled chime of twelve, the tiny splash of a fish, the sudden shaking of an aspen’s leaves in the puffs of breeze that rose along the river, the distant rumble of a night train, and time and again the sounds which none can put a name to in the darkness, soft obscure expressions of uncatalogued emotions from man and beast, bird and machine, or, maybe, from departed Forsytes, Darties, Cardigans, taking night strolls back into a world which had once suited their embodied spirits. But Fleur heeded not these sounds, her spirit, far from disembodied, fled with swift wing from railway-carriage to flowery hedge, straining after Jon, tenacious of his forbidden image, and the sound of his voice which was taboo. And she crinkled her nose, retrieving from the perfume of the riverside night that moment when his hand slipped between the mayflowers and her cheek. Long she leaned out in her freak dress, keen to burn her wings at life’s candle; while the moths brushed her cheeks on their pilgrimage to the lamp on her dressing-table, ignorant that in a Forsyte’s house there is no open flame. But at last even she felt sleepy, and, forgetting her bells, drew quickly in.

Through the open window of his room, alongside Annette’s, Soames, wakeful too, heard their thin faint tinkle, as it might be shaken from stars, or the dewdrops falling from a flower, if one could hear such sounds.

‘Caprice!’ he thought. ‘I can’t tell. She’s wilful. What shall I do? Fleur!’

And long into the “small” night he brooded.

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