To Let, by John Galsworthy

VIII

The Bit Between the Teeth

To know that your hand is against every one’s is — for some natures — to experience a sense of moral release. Fleur felt no remorse when she left June’s house. Reading condemnatory resentment in her little kinswoman’s blue eyes — she was glad that she had fooled her, despising June because that elderly idealist had not seen what she was after.

End it, forsooth! She would soon show them all that she was only just beginning. And she smiled to herself on the top of the ‘bus which carried her back to Mayfair. But the smile died, squeezed out by spasms of anticipation and anxiety. Would she be able to manage Jon? She had taken the bit between her teeth, but could she make him take it too? She knew the truth and the real danger of delay — he knew neither; therein lay all the difference in the world.

‘Suppose I tell him,’ she thought; ‘wouldn’t it really be safer?’ This hideous luck had no right to spoil their love; he must see that! They could not let it! People always accepted an accomplished fact, in time! From that piece of philosophy — profound enough at her age — she passed to another consideration less philosophic. If she persuaded Jon to a quick and secret marriage, and he found out afterwards that she had known the truth! What then? Jon hated subterfuge. Again, then, would it not be better to tell him? But the memory of his mother’s face kept intruding on that impulse. Fleur was afraid. His mother had power over him; more power perhaps than she herself. Who could tell? It was too great a risk. Deep-sunk in these instinctive calculations she was carried on past Green Street as far as the Ritz Hotel. She got down there, and walked back on the Green Park side. The storm had washed every tree; they still dripped. Heavy drops fell on to her frills, and to avoid them she crossed over under the eyes of the Iseeum Club. Chancing to look up she saw Monsieur Profond with a tall stout man in the bay window. Turning into Green Street she heard her name called, and saw “that prowler” coming up. He took off his hat — a glossy “bowler” such as she particularly detested:

“Good-evenin’! Miss Forsyde. Isn’t there a small thing I can do for you?”

“Yes, pass by on the other side.”

“I say! Why do you dislike me?”

“It looks like it.”

“Well, then, because you make me feel life isn’t worth living.”

Monsieur Profond smiled.

“Look here, Miss Forsyde, don’t worry. It’ll be all right. Nothing lasts.”

“Things do last,” cried Fleur; “with me anyhow — especially likes and dislikes.”

“Well, that makes me a bit un’appy.”

“I should have thought nothing could ever make you happy or unhappy.”

“I don’t like to annoy other people. I’m goin’ on my yacht.”

Fleur looked at him, startled.

“Where?”

“Small voyage to the South Seas or somewhere,” said Monsieur Profond.

Fleur suffered relief and a sense of insult. Clearly he meant to convey that he was breaking with her mother. How dared he have anything to break, and yet how dared he break it?

“Good-night, Miss Forsyde! Remember me to Mrs. Dartie. I’m not so bad, really. Good-night!” Fleur left him standing there with his hat raised. Stealing a look round, she saw him stroll — immaculate and heavy — back towards his Club.

‘He can’t even love with conviction,’ she thought. ‘What will Mother do?’

Her dreams that night were endless and uneasy; she rose heavy and unrested, and went at once to the study of Whitaker’s Almanac. A Forsyte is instinctively aware that facts are the real crux of any situation. She might conquer Jon’s prejudice, but without exact machinery to complete their desperate resolve, nothing would happen. From the invaluable tome she learned that they must each be twenty-one; or some one’s consent would be necessary, which of course was unobtainable; then she became lost in directions concerning licenses, certificates, notices, districts, coming finally to the word “perjury.” But that was nonsense! Who would really mind their giving wrong ages in order to be married for love! She ate hardly any breakfast, and went back to Whitaker. The more she studied the less sure she became; till, idly turning the pages, she came to Scotland. People could be married there without any of this nonsense. She had only to go and stay there twenty-one days, then Jon could come, and in front of two people they could declare themselves married. And what was more — they would be! It was far the best way; and at once she ran over her school-fellows. There was Mary Lambe who lived in Edinburgh and was “quite a sport!” She had a brother too. She could stay with Mary Lambe, who with her brother would serve for witnesses. She well knew that some girls would think all this unnecessary, and that all she and Jon need do was to go away together for a week-end and then say to their people: “We are married by Nature, we must now be married by Law.” But Fleur was Forsyte enough to feel such a proceeding dubious, and to dread her father’s face when he heard of it. Besides, she did not believe that Jon would do it; he had an opinion of her such as she could not bear to diminish. No! Mary Lambe was preferable, and it was just the time of year to go to Scotland. More at ease now, she packed, avoided her aunt, and took a ‘bus to Chiswick. She was too early and went on to Kew Gardens. She found no peace among its flower-beds, labelled trees, and broad green spaces, and having lunched off anchovy-paste sandwiches and coffee, returned to Chiswick and rang June’s bell. The Austrian admitted her to the “little meal-room.” Now that she knew what she and Jon were up against, her longing for him had increased tenfold, as if he were a toy with sharp edges or dangerous paint such as they had tried to take from her as a child. If she could not have her way, and get Jon for good and all, she felt like dying of privation. By hook or crook she must and would get him! A round dim mirror of very old glass hung over the pink brick hearth. She stood looking at herself reflected in it, pale, and rather dark under the eyes; little shudders kept passing through her nerves. Then she heard the bell ring, and, stealing to the window, saw him standing on, the doorstep smoothing his hair and lips, as if he too were trying to subdue the fluttering of his nerves.

She was sitting on one of the two rush-seated chairs, with her back to the door, when he came in, and she said at once:

“Sit down, Jon, I want to talk seriously.”

Jon sat on the table by her side, and without looking at him she went on:

“If you don’t want to lose me, we must get married.”

Jon gasped.

“Why? Is there anything new?”

“No, but I felt it at Robin Hill, and among my people.”

“But —” stammered Jon, “at Robin Hill — it was all smooth — and they’ve said nothing to me.”

“But they mean to stop us. Your mother’s face was enough. And my father’s.”

“Have you seen him since?”

Fleur nodded. What mattered a few supplementary lies?

“But,” said Jon eagerly, “I can’t see how they can feel like that after all these years.”

Fleur looked up at him.

“Perhaps you don’t love me enough.”

“Not love you enough! Why-I—”

“Then make sure of me”

“Without telling them?”

“Not till after.”

Jon was silent. How much older he looked than on that day, barely two months ago, when she first saw him — quite two years older!

“It would hurt Mother awfully,” he said.

Fleur drew her hand away.

“You’ve got to choose.”

Jon slid off the table onto his knees.

“But why not tell them? They can’t really stop us, Fleur!”

“They can! I tell you, they can.”

“How?”

“We’re utterly dependent — by putting money pressure, and all sorts of other pressure. I’m not patient, Jon.”

“But it’s deceiving them.”

Fleur got up.

“You can’t really love me, or you wouldn’t hesitate. ‘He either fears his fate too much —!’”

Lifting his hands to her waist, Jon forced her to sit down again. She hurried on:

“I’ve planned it all out. We’ve only to go to Scotland. When we’re married they’ll soon come round. People always come round to facts. Don’t you SEE, Jon?”

“But to hurt them so awfully!”

So he would rather hurt her than those people of his!

“All right, then; let me go!”

Jon got up and put his back against the door. “I expect you’re right,” he said slowly; “but I want to think it over.”

She could see that he was seething with feelings he wanted to express; but she did not mean to help him. She hated herself at this moment, and almost hated him.

Why had she to do all the work to secure their love? It wasn’t fair. And then she saw his eyes, adoring and distressed.

“Don’t look like that! I only don’t want to lose you, Jon.”

“You can’t lose me so long as you want me.”

“Oh, yes, I can.”

Jon put his hands on her shoulders.

“Fleur, do you know anything you haven’t told me?”

It was the point-blank question she had dreaded. She looked straight at him, and answered: “No.” She had burnt her boats; but what did it matter, if she got him? He would forgive her. And throwing her arms round his neck, she kissed him on the lips. She was winning! She felt it in the beating of his heart against her, in the closing of his eyes. “I want to make sure! I want to make sure!” she whispered. “Promise!”

Jon did not answer. His face had the stillness of extreme trouble. At last he said:

“It’s like hitting them. I must think a little, Fleur. I really must.”

Fleur slipped out of his arms.

“Oh! Very well!” And suddenly she burst into tears of disappointment, shame, and overstrain. Followed five minutes of acute misery. Jon’s remorse and tenderness knew no bounds; but he did not promise. Despite her will to cry: “Very well, then, if you don’t love me enough — good-bye!” she dared not. From birth accustomed to her own way, this check from one so young, so tender, so devoted, baffled and surprised her. She wanted to push him away from her, to try what anger and coldness would do, and again she dared not. The knowledge that she was scheming to rush him blindfold into the irrevocable weakened everything — weakened the sincerity of pique, and the sincerity of passion; even her kisses had not the lure she wished for them. That stormy little meeting ended inconclusively.

“Will you some tea, gnadiges Fraulein?”

Pushing Jon from her, she cried out:

“No — no, thank you! I’m just going.”

And before he could prevent her she was gone.

She went stealthily, mopping her flushed, stained cheeks, frightened, angry, very miserable. She had stirred Jon up so fearfully, yet nothing definite was promised or arranged! But the more uncertain and hazardous the future, the more “the will to have” worked its tentacles into the flesh of her heart — like some burrowing tick!

No one was at Green Street. Winifred had gone with Imogen to see a play which some said was allegorical, and others “very exciting, don’t you know?” It was because of what others said that Winifred and Imogen had gone. Fleur went on to Paddington. Through the carriage the air from the brick-kilns of West Drayton and the late hay-fields fanned her still-flushed cheeks. Flowers had seemed to be had for the picking; now they were all thorned and prickled. But the golden flower within the crown of spikes seemed to her tenacious spirit all the fairer and more desirable.

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