To Let, by John Galsworthy

III

Meetings

Youth only recognises Age by fits and starts. Jon, for one, had never really seen his father’s age till he came back from Spain. The face of the fourth Jolyon, worn by waiting, gave him quite a shock — it looked so wan and old. His father’s mask had been forced awry by the emotion of the meeting, so that the boy suddenly realised how much he must have felt their absence. He summoned to his aid the thought: ‘Well, I didn’t want to go!’ It was out of date for Youth to defer to Age. But Jon was by no means typically modern. His father had always been “so jolly” to him, and to feel that one meant to begin again at once the conduct which his father had suffered six weeks’ loneliness to cure, was not agreeable.

At the question, “Well, old man, how did the great Goya strike you?” his conscience pricked him badly. The great Goya only existed because he had created a face which resembled Fleur’s.

On the night of their return he went to bed full of compunction; but awoke full of anticipation. It was only the fifth of July, and no meeting was fixed with Fleur until the ninth. He was to have three days at home before going back to farm. Somehow he must contrive to see her!

In the lives of men an inexorable rhythm, caused by the need for trousers, not even the fondest parents can deny. On the second day, therefore, Jon went to Town, and having satisfied his conscience by ordering what was indispensable in Conduit Street, turned his face towards Piccadilly. Stratton Street, where her Club was, adjoined Devonshire House. It would be the merest chance that she should be at her Club. But he dawdled down Bond Street with a beating heart, noticing the superiority of all other young men to himself. They wore their clothes with such an air; they had assurance; they were OLD. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the conviction that Fleur must have forgotten him. Absorbed in his own feeling for her all these weeks, he had mislaid that possibility. The corners of his mouth drooped, his hands felt clammy. Fleur with the pick of youth at the beck of her smile — Fleur incomparable! It was an evil moment. Jon, however, had a great idea that one must be able to face anything. And he braced himself with that dour reflection in front of a bric-a-brac shop. At this high-water mark of what was once the London season, there was nothing to mark it out from any other except a grey top hat or two, and the sun. Jon moved on, and turning the corner into Piccadilly, ran into Val Dartie moving towards the Iseeum Club, to which he had just been elected.

“Hallo! young man! Where are you off to?”

Jon flushed. “I’ve just been to my tailor’s.”

Val looked him up and down. “That’s good! I’m going in here to order some cigarettes, then come and have some lunch.”

Jon thanked him. He might get news of HER from Val. The condition of England, that nightmare of its Press and Public men, was seen in different perspective within the tobacconist’s which they now entered.

“Yes, sir; precisely the cigarette I used to supply your father with. Bless me! Mr. Montague Dartie was a customer here from — let me see — the year Melton won the Derby. One of my very best customers he was.” And a faint smile illumined the tobacconist’s face. “Many’s the tip he’s given me, to be sure! I suppose he took a couple of hundred of these every week, year in, year out, and never changed his cigarette. Very affable gentleman, brought me a lot of custom. I was sorry he met with that accident. One misses an old customer like him.”

Val smiled. His father’s decease had closed an account which had been running longer, probably, than any other; and in a ring of smoke puffed out from that time-honoured cigarette he seemed to see again his father’s face, dark, good-looking, moustachioed, a little puffy, in the only halo it had earned. His father had his fame here, anyway — a man who smoked two hundred cigarettes a week, who could give tips, and run accounts for ever! To his tobacconist a hero! Even that was some distinction to inherit!

“I pay cash,” he said; “how much?”

“To HIS son, sir, and cash — ten and six. I shall never forget Mr. Montague Dartie. I’ve known him stand talkin’ to me half an hour. We don’t get many like him now, with everybody in such a hurry. The war was bad for manners, sir — it was bad for manners. You were in it, I see.”

“No,” said Val, tapping his knee, “I got this in the war before. Saved my life, I expect. Do you want any cigarettes, Jon?”

Rather ashamed, Jon murmured: “I don’t smoke, you know,” and saw the tobacconist’s lips twisted, as if uncertain whether to say “Good God!” or “Now’s your chance, sir!”

“That’s right,” said Val; “keep off it while you can. You’ll want it when you take a knock. This is really the same tobacco, then?”

“Identical, sir; a little dearer, that’s all. Wonderful staying power — the British Empire, I always say.”

“Send me down a hundred a week to this address, and invoice it monthly. Come on, Jon.”

Jon entered the Iseeum with curiosity. Except to lunch now and then at the Hotch-potch with his father, he had never been in a London Club. The Iseeum, comfortable and unpretentious, did not move, could not, so long as George Forsyte sat on its Committee, where his culinary acumen was almost the controlling force. The Club had made a stand against the newly rich, and it had taken all George Forsyte’s prestige, and praise of him as a “good sportsman,” to bring in Prosper Profond.

The two were lunching together when the half-brothers-inlaw entered the dining-room, and attracted by George’s forefinger, sat down at their table, Val with his shrewd eyes and charming smile, Jon with solemn lips and an attractive shyness in his glance. There was an air of privilege around that corner table, as though past masters were eating there. Jon was fascinated by the hypnotic atmosphere. The waiter, lean in the chaps, pervaded with such freemasonical deference. He seemed to hang on George Forsyte’s lips, to watch the gloat in his eye with a kind of sympathy, to follow the movements of the heavy club-marked silver fondly. His liveried arm and confidential voice alarmed Jon, they came so secretly over one’s shoulder.

Except for George’s: “Your grandfather tipped me once; he was a deuced good judge of a cigar!” neither he nor the other past master took any notice of him, and he was grateful for this. The talk was all about the breeding, points, and prices of horses, and he listened to it vaguely at first, wondering how it was possible to retain so much knowledge in a head. He could not take his eyes off the dark past master — what he said was so deliberate and discouraging — such heavy, queer, smiled-out words. Jon was thinking of butterflies, when he heard him say:

“I want to see Mr. Soames Forsyde take an interest in ‘orses.”

“Old Soames! He’s too dry a file!”

With all his might Jon tried not to grow red, while the dark past master went on.

“His daughter’s an attractive small girl. Mr. Soames Forsyde is a bit old-fashioned. I want to see him have a pleasure some day.”

George Forsyte grinned. “Don’t you worry; he’s not so miserable as he looks. He’ll never show he’s enjoying anything — they might try and take it from him. Old Soames! Once bit, twice shy!”

“Well, Jon,” said Val hastily, “if you’ve finished, we’ll go and have coffee.”

“Who were those?” Jon asked on the stairs: “I didn’t quite —”

“Old George Forsyte is a first cousin of your father’s, and of my uncle Soames. He’s always been here. The other chap, Profond, is a queer fish. I think he’s hanging round Soames’ wife, if you ask me!”

Jon looked at him, startled. “But that’s awful,” he said: “I mean — for Fleur.”

“Don’t suppose Fleur cares very much; she’s very up-to-date.”

“Her mother!”

“You’re very green, Jon.”

Jon grew red. “Mothers,” he stammered angrily, “are different.”

“You’re right,” said Val suddenly; “but things aren’t what they were when I was your age. There’s a ‘Tomorrow we die’ feeling. That’s what old George meant about my uncle Soames. HE doesn’t mean to die tomorrow.”

Jon said quickly: “What’s the matter between him and my father?”

“Stable secret, Jon. Take my advice, and bottle up. You’ll do no good by knowing. Have a liqueur?”

Jon shook his head.

“I hate the way people keep things from one,” he muttered, “and then sneer at one for being green.”

“Well, you can ask Holly. If SHE won’t tell you, you’ll believe it’s for your own good, I suppose.”

Jon got up. “I must go now; thanks awfully for the lunch.”

Val smiled up at him, half-sorry and yet amused. The boy looked so upset.

“All right! See you on Friday.”

“I don’t know,” murmured Jon.

And he did not. This conspiracy of silence made him desperate. It was humiliating to be treated like a child. He retraced his moody steps to Stratton Street. But he would go to her Club now, and find out the worst. To his inquiry the reply was that Miss Forsyte was not in the Club. She might be in perhaps later. She was often in on Monday — they could not say. Jon said he would call again, and, crossing into the Green Park, flung himself down under a tree. The sun was bright, and a breeze fluttered the leaves of the young lime-tree beneath which he lay; but his heart ached. Such darkness seemed gathered round his happiness. He heard Big Ben chime “Three” above the traffic. The sound moved something in him, and taking out a piece of paper, he began to scribble on it with a pencil. He had jotted a stanza, and was searching the grass for another verse, when something hard touched his shoulder — a green parasol. There above him stood Fleur!

“They told me you’d been, and were coming back. So I thought you might be out here; and you are — it’s rather wonderful!”

“Oh, Fleur! I thought you’d have forgotten me.”

“When I told you that I shouldn’t!”

Jon seized her arm.

“It’s too much luck! Let’s get away from this side.”

He almost dragged her on through that too thoughtfully regulated Park, to find some cover where they could sit and hold each other’s hands.

“Hasn’t anybody cut in?” he said, gazing round at her lashes, in suspense above her cheeks.

“There IS a young idiot, but he doesn’t count.”

Jon felt a twitch of compassion for the — young idiot.

“You know I’ve had sunstroke, I didn’t tell you.”

“Really! Was it interesting?”

“No. Mother was an angel. Has anything happened to YOU?”

“Nothing. Except that I think I’ve found out what’s wrong between our families, Jon.”

His heart began beating very fast.

“I believe my father wanted to marry your mother, and your father got her instead.”

“Oh!”

“I came on a photo of her; it was in a frame behind a photo of me. Of course, if he was very fond of her, that would have made him pretty mad, wouldn’t it?”

Jon thought for a minute. “Not if she loved my father best.”

“But suppose they were engaged?”

“If we were engaged, and you found you loved somebody better, I might go cracked, but I shouldn’t grudge it you.”

“I should. You mustn’t ever do that with me, Jon.”

“My God! Not much!”

“I don’t believe that he’s ever really cared for my mother.”

Jon was silent. Val’s words, the two past masters in the Club!

“You see, we don’t know,” went on Fleur; “it may have been a great shock. She may have behaved badly to him. People do.”

“My mother wouldn’t.”

Fleur shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think we know much about our fathers and mothers. We just see them in the light of the way they treat US; but they’ve treated other people, you know, before we were born — plenty, I expect. You see, they’re both old. Look at your father, with three separate families!”

“Isn’t there any place,” cried Jon, “in all this beastly London where we can be alone?”

“Only a taxi.”

“Let’s get one, then.”

When they were installed, Fleur asked suddenly: “Are you going back to Robin Hill? I should like to see where you live, Jon. I’m staying with my aunt for the night, but I could get back in time for dinner. I wouldn’t come to the house, of course.”

Jon gazed at her enraptured.

“Splendid! I can show it you from the copse, we shan’t meet anybody. There’s a train at four.”

The god of property and his Forsytes great and small, leisured, official, commercial, or professional, unlike the working classes, still worked their seven hours a day, so that those two of the fourth generation travelled down to Robin Hill in an empty first-class carriage, dusty and sun-warmed, of that too early train. They travelled in blissful silence, holding each other’s hands.

At the station they saw no one except porters, and a villager or two unknown to Jon, and walked out up the lane, which smelled of dust and honeysuckle.

For Jon — sure of her now, and without separation before him — it was a miraculous dawdle, more wonderful than those on the Downs, or along the river Thames. It was love-ina-mist — one of those illumined pages of Life, where every word and smile, and every light touch they gave each other were as little gold and red and blue butterflies and flowers and birds scrolled in among the text — a happy communing, without afterthought, which lasted twenty-seven minutes. They reached the coppice at the milking-hour. Jon would not take her as far as the farmyard; only to where she could see the field leading up to the gardens, and the house beyond. They turned in among the larches, and suddenly, at the winding of the path, came on Irene, sitting on an old log seat.

There are various kinds of shocks: to the vertebrae; to the nerves; to moral sensibility; and, more potent and permanent, to personal dignity. This last was the shock Jon received, coming thus on his mother. He became suddenly conscious that he was doing an indelicate thing. To have brought Fleur down openly — yes! But to sneak her in like this! Consumed with shame, he put on a front as brazen as his nature would permit.

Fleur was smiling a little defiantly; his mother’s startled face was changing quickly to the impersonal and gracious. It was she who uttered the first words:

“I’m very glad to see you. It was nice of Jon to think of bringing you down to us.”

“We weren’t coming to the house,” Jon blurted out. “I just wanted Fleur to see where I lived.”

His mother said quietly: “Won’t you come up and have tea?”

Feeling that he had but aggravated his breach of breeding, he heard Fleur answer: “Thanks very much; I have to get back to dinner. I met Jon by accident, and we thought it would be rather jolly just to see his home.”

How self-possessed she was!

“Of course; but you MUST have tea. We’ll send you down to the station. My husband will enjoy seeing you.”

The expression of his mother’s eyes, resting on him for a moment, cast Jon down level with the ground — a true worm. Then she led on, and Fleur followed her. He felt like a child, trailing after those two, who were talking so easily about Spain and Wansdon, and the house up there beyond the trees and the grassy slope. He watched the fencing of their eyes, taking each other in-the two beings he loved most in the world.

He could see his father sitting under the oak-tree; and suffered in advance all the loss of caste he must go through in the eyes of that tranquil figure, with his knees crossed, thin, old, and elegant; already he could feel the faint irony which would come into his voice and smile.

“This is Fleur Forsyte, Jolyon; Jon brought her down to see the house. Let’s have tea at once — she has to catch a train. Jon, tell them, dear, and telephone to the Dragon for a car.”

To leave her alone with them was strange, and yet, as no doubt his mother had foreseen, the least of evils at the moment; so he ran up into the house. Now he would not see Fleur alone again — not for a minute, and they had arranged no further meeting! When he returned under cover of the maids and teapots, there was not a trace of awkwardness beneath the tree; it was all within himself, but not the less for that. They were talking of the Gallery off Cork Street.

“We back-numbers,” his father was saying, “are awfully anxious to find out why we can’t appreciate the new stuff; you and Jon must tell us.”

“It’s supposed to be satiric, isn’t it?” said Fleur.

He saw his father’s smile.

“Satiric? Oh! I think it’s more than that. What do you say, Jon?”

“I don’t know at all,” stammered Jon. His father’s face had a sudden grimness.

“The young are tired of us, our gods and our ideals. Off with their heads, they say — smash their idols! And let’s get back to — nothing! And, by Jove, they’ve done it! Jon’s a poet. He’ll be going in, too, and stamping on what’s left of us. Property, beauty, sentiment — all smoke. We mustn’t own anything nowadays, not even our feelings. They stand in the way of — Nothing.”

Jon listened, bewildered, almost outraged by his father’s words, behind which he felt a meaning that he could not reach. He didn’t want to stamp on anything!

“Nothing’s the god of today,” continued Jolyon; “we’re back where the Russians were sixty years ago, when they started Nihilism.”

“No, Dad,” cried Jon suddenly; “we only want to LIVE, and we don’t know how, because of the Past — that’s all!”

“By George!” said Jolyon, “that’s profound, Jon. Is it your own? The Past! Old ownerships, old passions, and their aftermath. Let’s have cigarettes.”

Conscious that his mother had lifted her hand to her lips, quickly, as if to hush something, Jon handed the cigarettes. He lighted his father’s and Fleur’s, then one for himself. Had he taken the knock that Val had spoken of? The smoke was blue when he had not puffed, grey when he had; he liked the sensation in his nose, and the sense of equality it gave him. He was glad no one said: “So you’ve begun!” He felt less young.

Fleur looked at her watch, and rose. His mother went with her into the house. Jon stayed with his father, puffing at the cigarette.

“See her into the car, old man,” said Jolyon; “and when she’s gone, ask your mother to come back to me.”

Jon went. He waited in the hall. He saw her into the car. There was no chance for any word; hardly for a pressure of the hand. He waited all that evening for something to be said to him. Nothing was said. Nothing might have happened. He went up to bed; and in the mirror on his dressing-table met himself. He did not speak, nor did the image; but both looked as if they thought the more.

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