To Let, by John Galsworthy

II

Fine Fleur Forsyte

Emerging from the “pastry-cook’s,” Soames’ first impulse was to vent his nerves by saying to his daughter: “Dropping your handkerchief!” to which her reply might well be: “I picked that up from you!” His second impulse therefore was to let sleeping dogs lie. But she would surely question him. He gave her a sidelong look, and found she was giving him the same. She said softly:

“Why don’t you like those cousins, Father?”

Soames lifted the corner of his lip.

“What made you think that?”

“Cela se voit.”

‘That sees itself!’ What a way of putting it!

After twenty years of a French wife Soames had still little sympathy with her language; a theatrical affair and connected in his mind with all the refinements of domestic irony.

“How?” he asked.

“You MUST know them; and you didn’t make a sign. I saw them looking at you.”

“I’ve never seen the boy in my life,” replied Soames with perfect truth.

“No; but you’ve seen the others, dear.”

Soames gave her another look. What had she picked up? Had her Aunt Winifred, or Imogen, or Val Dartie and his wife, been talking? Every breath of the old scandal had been carefully kept from her at home, and Winifred warned many times that he wouldn’t have a whisper of it reach her for the world. So far as she ought to know, he had never been married before. But her dark eyes, whose southern glint and clearness often almost frightened him, met his with perfect innocence.

“Well,” he said, “your grandfather and his brother had a quarrel. The two families don’t know each other.”

“How romantic!”

‘Now, what does she mean by that?’ he thought. The word was to him extravagant and dangerous — it was as if she had said: “How jolly!”

“And they’ll continue not to know each other,” he added, but instantly regretted the challenge in those words. Fleur was smiling. In this age, when young people prided themselves on going their own ways and paying no attention to any sort of decent prejudice, he had said the very thing to excite her wilfulness. Then, recollecting the expression on Irene’s face, he breathed again.

“What sort of a quarrel?” he heard Fleur say.

“About a house. It’s ancient history for you. Your grandfather died the day you were born. He was ninety.”

“Ninety? Are there many Forsytes besides those in the Red Book?”

“I don’t know,” said Soames. “They’re all dispersed now. The old ones are dead, except Timothy.”

Fleur clasped her hands.

“Timothy? Isn’t that delicious?”

“Not at all,” said Soames. It offended him that she should think “Timothy” delicious — a kind of insult to his breed. This new generation mocked at anything solid and tenacious. “You go and see the old boy. He might want to prophesy.” Ah! If Timothy could see the disquiet England of his greatnephews and greatnieces, he would certainly give tongue. And involuntarily he glanced up at the Iseeum; yes — George was still in the window, with the same pink paper in his hand.

“Where is Robin Hill, Father?”

Robin Hill! Robin Hill, round which all that tragedy had centred! What did she want to know for?

“In Surrey,” he muttered; “not far from Richmond, Why?”

“Is the house there?”

“What house?”

“That they quarrelled about.”

“Yes. But what’s all that to do with you? We’re going home tomorrow — you’d better be thinking about your frocks.”

“Bless you! They’re all thought about. A family feud? It’s like the Bible, or Mark Twain — awfully exciting. What did YOU do in the feud, Father?”

“Never you mind.”

“Oh! But if I’m to keep it up?”

“Who said you were to keep it up?”

“You, darling.”

“I? I said it had nothing to do with you.”

“Just what _I_ think, you know; so that’s all right.”

She was too sharp for him; FINE, as Annette sometimes called her. Nothing for it but to distract her attention.

“There’s a bit of rosaline point in here,” he said, stopping before a shop, “that I thought you might like.”

When he had paid for it and they had resumed their progress, Fleur said:

“Don’t you think that boy’s mother is the most beautiful woman of her age you’ve ever seen?”

Soames shivered. Uncanny, the way she stuck to it!

“I don’t know that I noticed her.”

“Dear, I saw the corner of your eye.”

“You see everything — and a great deal more, it seems to me!”

“What’s her husband like? He must be your first cousin, if your fathers were brothers.”

“Dead, for all I know,” said Soames, with sudden vehemence. “I haven’t seen him for twenty years.”

“What was he?”

“A painter.”

“That’s quite jolly.”

The words: “If you want to please me you’ll put those people out of your head,” sprang to Soames’s lips, but he choked them back — he must NOT let her see his feelings.

“He once insulted me,” he said.

Her quick eyes rested on his face.

“I see! You didn’t avenge it, and it rankles. Poor Father! You let me have a go!”

It was really like lying in the dark with a mosquito hovering above his face. Such pertinacity in Fleur was new to him, and, as they reached the hotel, he said grimly:

“I did my best. And that’s enough about these people. I’m going up till dinner.”

“I shall sit here.”

With a parting look at her extended in a chair — a look half-resentful, half-adoring — Soames moved into the lift and was transported to their suite on the fourth floor. He stood by the window of the sitting-room which gave view over Hyde Park, and drummed a finger on its pane. His feelings were confused, tetchy, troubled. The throb of that old wound, scarred over by Time and new interests, was mingled with displeasure and anxiety, and a slight pain in his chest where that nougat stuff had disagreed. Had Annette come in? Not that she was any good to him in such a difficulty. Whenever she had questioned him about his first marriage, he had always shut her up; she knew nothing of it, save that it had been the great passion of his life, and his marriage with herself but domestic makeshift. She had always kept the grudge of that up her sleeve, as it were, and used it commercially. He listened. A sound — the vague murmur of a woman’s movements — was coming through the door. She was in. He tapped.

“Who?”

“I,” said Soames.

She had been changing her frock, and was still imperfectly clothed; a striking figure before her glass. There was a certain magnificence about her arms, shoulders, hair, which had darkened since he first knew her, about the turn of her neck, the silkiness of her garments, her dark-lashed, grey-blue eyes — she was certainly as handsome at forty as she had ever been. A fine possession, an excellent housekeeper, a sensible and affectionate enough mother. If only she weren’t always so frankly cynical about the relations between them! Soames, who had no more real affection for her than she had for him, suffered from a kind of English grievance, in that she had never dropped even the thinnest veil of sentiment over their partnership. Like most of his countrymen and women, he held the view that marriage should be based on mutual love, but that when from a marriage love had disappeared, or been found never to have really existed — so that it was manifestly not based on love — you must not admit it. There it was, and the love was not — but there you were, and must continue to be! Thus you had it both ways, and were not tarred with cynicism, realism, and immorality, like the French. Moreover, it was necessary in the interests of propriety. He knew that she knew that they both knew there was no love between them, but he still expected her not to admit in words or conduct such a thing, and he could never understand what she meant when she talked of the hypocrisy of the English. He said:

“Whom have you got at ‘The Shelter’ next week?”

Annette went on touching her lips delicately with salve — he always wished she wouldn’t do that.

“Your sister Winifred, and the Car-r-digans”— she took up a tiny stick of black —“and Prosper Profond.”

“That Belgian chap? Why him?”

Annette turned her neck lazily, touched one eyelash, and said:

“He amuses Winifred.”

“I want some one to amuse Fleur; she’s restive.”

“R-restive?” repeated Annette. “Is it the first time you see that, my friend? She was born r-restive, as you call it.”

Would she never get that affected roll out of her r’s?

He touched the dress she had taken off, and asked:

“What have you been doing?”

Annette looked at him, reflected in her glass. Her just-brightened lips smiled, rather full, rather ironical.

“Enjoying myself,” she said.

“Oh!” answered Soames glumly. “Ribbandry, I suppose.”

It was his word for all that incomprehensible running in and out of shops that women went in for. “Has Fleur got her summer dresses?”

“You don’t ask if I have mine.”

“You don’t care whether I do or not.”

“Quite right. Well, she has; and I have mine — terribly expensive.”

“H’m!” said Soames. “What does that chap Profond do in England?”

Annette raised the eyebrows she had just finished.

“He yachts.”

“Ah!” said Soames; “he’s a sleepy chap.”

“Sometimes,” answered Annette, and her face had a sort of quiet enjoyment. “But sometimes very amusing.”

“He’s got a touch of the tar-brush about him.”

Annette stretched herself.

“Tar-brush?” she said; “what is that? His mother was Armenienne.”

“That’s it, then,” muttered Soames. “Does he know anything about pictures?”

“He knows about everything — a man of the world.”

“Well, get some one for Fleur. I want to distract her. She’s going off on Saturday to Val Dartie and his wife; I don’t like it.”

“Why not?”

Since the reason could not be explained without going into family history, Soames merely answered:

“Racketing about. There’s too much of it.”

“I like that little Mrs. Val; she is very quiet and clever.”

“I know nothing of her except — This thing’s new.” And Soames took up a creation from the bed.

Annette received it from him.

“Would you hook me?” she said.

Soames hooked. Glancing once over her shoulder into the glass, he saw the expression on her face, faintly amused, faintly contemptuous, as much as to say: ‘Thanks! You will never learn!’ No, thank God, he wasn’t a Frenchman! He finished with a jerk, and the words:

“It’s too low here.” And he went to the door, with the wish to get away from her and go down to Fleur again.

Annette stayed a powder-puff, and said with startling suddenness:

“Que tu es grossier!”

He knew the expression — he had reason to. The first time she had used it he had thought it meant “What a grocer you are!” and had not known whether to be relieved or not when better informed. He resented the word — he was NOT coarse! If he was coarse, what was that chap in the room beyond his, who made those horrible noises in the morning when he cleared his throat, or those people in the Lounge who thought it well-bred to say nothing but what the whole world could hear at the top of their voices — quacking inanity! Coarse, because he had said her dress was low! Well, so it was! He went out without reply.

Coming into the Lounge from the far end, he at once saw Fleur where he had left her. She sat with crossed knees, slowly balancing a foot in silk stocking and grey shoe, sure sign that she was dreaming. Her eyes showed it too — they went off like that sometimes. And then, in a moment, she would come to life, and be as quick and restless as a monkey. And she knew so much, so self-assured, and not yet nineteen. What was that odious word? Flapper! Dreadful young creatures — squealing and squawking and showing their legs! The worst of them bad dreams, the best of them powdered angels! Fleur was NOT a flapper, NOT one of those slangy, ill-bred young females. And yet she was frighteningly self-willed, and full of life, and determined to enjoy it. Enjoy! The word brought no puritan terror to Soames; but it brought the terror suited to his temperament. He had always been afraid to enjoy today for fear he might not enjoy tomorrow so much. And it was terrifying to feel that his daughter was divested of that safeguard. The very way she sat in that chair showed it — lost in her dream. He had never been lost in a dream himself — there was nothing to be had out of it; and where she got it from he did not know! Certainly not from Annette! And yet Annette, as a young girl, when he was hanging about her, had once had a flowery look. Well, she had lost it now!

Fleur rose from her chair — swiftly, restlessly, and flung herself down at a writing-table. Seizing ink and writing-paper, she began to write as if she had not time to breathe before she got her letter written. And suddenly she saw him. The air of desperate absorption vanished, she smiled, waved a kiss, made a pretty face as if she were a little puzzled and a little bored.

Ah! She was “fine”—“fine!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/tolet/chapter2.html

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