To Let, by John Galsworthy

Part II

I

Mother and Son

To say that Jon Forsyte accompanied his mother to Spain unwillingly would scarcely have been adequate. He went as a well-natured dog goes for a walk with its mistress, leaving a choice mutton-bone on the lawn. He went looking back at it. Forsytes deprived of their mutton-bones are wont to sulk. But Jon had little sulkiness in his composition. He adored his mother, and it was his first travel. Spain had become Italy by his simply saying: “I’d rather go to Spain, Mum; you’ve been to Italy so many times; I’d like it new to both of us.”

The fellow was subtle besides being naif. He never forgot that he was going to shorten the proposed two months into six weeks, and must therefore show no sign of wishing to do so. For one with so enticing a mutton-bone and so fixed an idea, he made a good enough travelling companion, indifferent to where or when he arrived, superior to food, and thoroughly appreciative of a country strange to the most travelled Englishman. Fleur’s wisdom in refusing to write to him was profound, for he reached each new place entirely without hope or fever, and could concentrate immediate attention on the donkeys and tumbling bells, the priests, patios, beggars, children, crowing cocks, sombreros, cactus hedges, old high white villages, goats, olive-trees, greening plains, singing birds in tiny cages, water-sellers, sunsets, melons, mules, great churches, pictures, and swimming grey-brown mountains of a fascinating land.

It was already hot, and they enjoyed an absence of their compatriots. Jon, who, so far as he knew, had blood in him which was not English, was often innately unhappy in the presence of his own countrymen. He felt they had no nonsense about them, and took a more practical view of things than himself. He confided to his mother that he must be an unsociable beast — it was jolly to be away from everybody who could talk about the things people did talk about. To which Irene had replied simply: “Yes, Jon, I know.”

In this isolation he had unparalleled opportunities of appreciating what few sons can apprehend, the whole-heartedness of a mother’s love. Knowledge of something kept from her made him, no doubt, unduly sensitive; and a Southern people stimulated his admiration for her type of beauty, which he had been accustomed to hear called Spanish, but which he now perceived to be no such thing. Her beauty was neither English, French, Spanish, nor Italian — it was special! He appreciated, too, as never before, his mother’s subtlety of instinct. He could not tell, for instance, whether she had noticed his absorption in that Goya picture, “La Vendimia,” or whether she knew that he had slipped back there after lunch and again next morning, to stand before it full half an hour, a second and third time. It was not Fleur, of course, but like enough to give him heartache — so dear to lovers — remembering her standing at the foot of his bed with her hand held above her head. To keep a postcard reproduction of this picture in his pocket and slip it out to look at became for Jon one of those bad habits which soon or late disclose themselves to eyes sharpened by love, fear, or jealousy. And his mother’s were sharpened by all three. In Granada he was fairly caught, sitting on a sun-warmed stone bench in a little battlemented garden on the Alhambra hill, whence he ought to have been looking at the view. His mother, he had thought, was examining the potted stocks between the polled acacias, when her voice said:

“Is that your favourite Goya, Jon?”

He checked, too late, a movement such as he might have made at school to conceal some surreptitious document, and answered: “Yes.”

“It certainly is most charming; but I think I prefer the ‘Quitasol.’ Your father would go crazy about Goya; I don’t believe he saw them when he was in Spain in ’92.”

In ’92 — nine years before he had been born! What had been the previous existences of his father and his mother? If they had a right to share in his future, surely he had a right to share in their pasts. He looked up at her. But something in her face — a look of life hard-lived, the mysterious impress of emotions, experience, and suffering — seemed with its incalculable depth, its purchased sanctity, to make curiosity impertinent. His mother must have had a wonderfully interesting life; she was so beautiful, and so — so — but he could not frame what he felt about her. He got up, and stood gazing down at the town, at the plain all green with crops, and the ring of mountains glamorous in sinking sunlight. Her life was like the past of this old Moorish city, full, deep, remote — his own life as yet such a baby of a thing, hopelessly ignorant and innocent! They said that in those mountains to the west, which rose sheer from the blue-green plain, as if out of a sea, Phoenicians had dwelt — a dark, strange, secret race, above the land! His mother’s life was as unknown to him, as secret, as that Phoenician past was to the town down there, whose cocks crowed and whose children played and clamoured so gaily, day in, day out. He felt aggrieved that she should know all about him and he nothing about her except that she loved him and his father, and was beautiful. His callow ignorance — he had not even had the advantage of the war, like nearly everybody else! — made him small in his own eyes.

That night, from the balcony of his bedroom, he gazed down on the roof of the town — as if inlaid with honey-comb of jet, ivory, and gold; and, long after, he lay awake, listening to the cry of the sentry as the hours struck, and forming in his head these lines:

“Voice in the night crying, down in the old sleeping
Spanish city darkened under her white stars!
What says the voice — its clear — lingering anguish?

Just the watchman, telling his dateless tale of safety?
Just a roadman, flinging to the moon his song?
No! ’Tis one deprived, whose lover’s heart is weeping.
Just his cry: ‘How long?’”

The word “deprived” seemed to him cold and unsatisfactory, but bereaved was too final, and no other word of two syllables short-long came to him, which would enable him to keep “whose lover’s heart is weeping.” It was past two by the time he had finished it, and past three before he went to sleep, having said it over to himself at least twenty-four times. Next day he wrote it out and enclosed it in one of those letters to Fleur, which he always finished before he went down, so as to have his mind free and companionable.

About noon that same day, on the tiled terrace of their hotel, he felt a sudden dull pain in the back of his head, a queer sensation in the eyes, and sickness. The sun had touched him too affectionately. The next three days were passed in semi-darkness, and a dulled, aching indifference to all except the feel of ice on his forehead and his mother’s smile. She never moved from his room, never relaxed her noiseless vigilance, which seemed to Jon angelic. But there were moments when he was extremely sorry for himself, and wished terribly that Fleur could see him. Several times he took a poignant imaginary leave of her and of the earth, tears oozing out of his eyes. He even prepared the message he would send to her by his mother — who would regret to her dying day that she had ever sought to separate them — his poor mother! He was not slow, however, in perceiving that he had now his excuse for going home.

Towards half past six each evening came a “gasgacha” of bells — a cascade of tumbling chimes, mounting from the city below and falling back chime on chime. After listening to them on the fourth day he said suddenly:

“I’d like to be back in England, Mum, the sun’s too hot.”

“Very well, darling. As soon as you’re fit to travel.” And at once he felt better, and — meaner.

They had been out five weeks when they turned towards home. Jon’s head was restored to its pristine clarity, but he was confined to a hat lined by his mother with many layers of orange and green silk, and he still walked from choice in the shade. As the long struggle of discretion between them drew to its close, he wondered more and more whether she could see his eagerness to get back to that which she had brought him away from. Condemned by Spanish Providence to spend a day in Madrid between their trains, it was but natural to go again to the Prado. Jon was elaborately casual this time before his Goya girl. Now that he was going back to her, he could afford a lesser scrutiny. It was his mother who lingered before the picture, saying:

“The face and figure of the girl are exquisite.”

Jon heard her uneasily. Did she understand? But he felt once more that he was no match for her in self-control and subtlety. She could, in some supersensitive way, of which he had not the secret, feel the pulse of his thoughts; she knew by instinct what he hoped and feared and wished. It made him terribly uncomfortable and guilty, having, beyond most boys, a conscience. He wished she would be frank with him; he almost hoped for an open struggle. But none came, and steadily, silently, they travelled north. Thus did he first learn how much better than men women play a waiting game. In Paris they had again to pause for a day. Jon was grieved because it lasted two, owing to certain matters in connection with a dressmaker; as if his mother, who looked beautiful in anything, had any need of dresses! The happiest moment of his travel was that when he stepped on to the Folkestone boat.

Standing by the bulwark rail, with her arm in his, she said:

“I’m afraid you haven’t enjoyed it much, Jon. But you’ve been very sweet to me.”

Jon squeezed her arm.

“Oh! yes, I’ve enjoyed it awfully — except for my head lately.”

And now that the end had come, he really had, feeling a sort of glamour over the past weeks — a kind of painful pleasure, such as he had tried to screw into those lines about the voice in the night crying; a feeling such as he had known as a small boy listening avidly to Chopin, yet wanting to cry. And he wondered why it was that he couldn’t say to her quite simply what she had said to him:

“You were very sweet to me.” Odd — one never could be nice and natural like that! He substituted the words: “I expect we shall be sick.”

They were, and reached London somewhat attenuated, having been away six weeks and two days, without a single allusion to the subject which had hardly ever ceased to occupy their minds.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/tolet/chapter13.html

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