To Let, by John Galsworthy

IX

Fat in the Fire

On reaching home Fleur found an atmosphere so peculiar that it penetrated even the perplexed aura of her own private life. Her mother was in blue stockingette and a brown study; her father in a white felt hat and the vinery. Neither of them had a word to throw to a dog. ‘Is it because of me?’ thought Fleur. ‘Or because of Profond?’ To her mother she said:

“What’s the matter with Father?”

Her mother answered with a shrug of her shoulders.

To her father:

“What’s the matter with Mother?”

Her father answered:

“Matter? What should be the matter?” and gave her a sharp look.

“By the way,” murmured Fleur, “Monsieur Profond is going a ‘small’ voyage on his yacht, to the South Seas.”

Soames examined a branch on which no grapes were growing.

“This vine’s a failure,” he said. “I’ve had young Mont here. He asked me something about you.”

“Oh! How do you like him, Father?”

“He — he’s a product — like all these young people.”

“What were you at his age, dear?”

Soames smiled grimly.

“We went to work, and didn’t play about — flying and motoring, and making love.”

“Didn’t you ever make love?”

She avoided looking at him while she said that, but she saw him well enough. His pale face had reddened, his eyebrows, where darkness was still mingled with the grey, had come close together.

“I had no time or inclination to philander.”

“Perhaps you had a grand passion.”

Soames looked at her intently.

“Yes — if you want to know — and much good it did me.” He moved away, along by the hot-water pipes. Fleur tiptoed silently after him.

“Tell me about it, Father!”

Soames became very still.

“What should you want to know about such things, at your age?”

“Is she alive?”

He nodded.

“And married?”

“Yes.”

“It’s Jon Forsyte’s mother, isn’t it? And she was your wife first.”

It was said in a flash of intuition. Surely his opposition came from his anxiety that she should not know of that old wound to his pride. But she was startled. To see some one so old and calm wince as if struck, to hear so sharp a note of pain in his voice!

“Who told you that? If your aunt —! I can’t bear the affair talked of.”

“But, darling,” said Fleur, softly, “it’s so long ago.”

“Long ago or not, I—”

Fleur stood stroking his arm.

“I’ve tried to forget,” he said suddenly; “I don’t wish to be reminded.” And then, as if venting some long and secret irritation, he added: “In these days people don’t understand. Grand passion, indeed! No one knows what it is.”

“I do,” said Fleur, almost in a whisper.

Soames, who had turned his back on her, spun round.

“What are you talking of — a child like you!”

“Perhaps I’ve inherited it, Father.”

“What?”

“For her son, you see.”

He was pale as a sheet, and she knew that she was as bad. They stood staring at each other in the steamy heat, redolent of the mushy scent of earth, of potted geranium, and of vines coming along fast.

“This is crazy,” said Soames at last, between dry lips.

Scarcely moving her own, she murmured:

“Don’t be angry, Father. I can’t help it.”

But she could see he wasn’t angry; only scared, deeply scared.

“I thought that foolishness,” he stammered, “was all forgotten.”

“Oh, no! It’s ten times what it was.”

Soames kicked at the hot-water pipe. The hapless movement touched her, who had no fear of her father — none.

“Dearest!” she said: “What must be, must, you know.”

“Must!” repeated Soames. “You don’t know what you’re talking of. Has that boy been told?”

The blood rushed into her cheeks.

“Not yet.”

He had turned from her again, and, with one shoulder a little raised, stood staring fixedly at a joint in the pipes.

“It’s most distasteful to me,” he said suddenly; “nothing could be more so. Son of that fellow — It’s — it’s — perverse!”

She had noted, almost unconsciously, that he did not say “son of that woman,” and again her intuition began working.

Did the ghost of that grand passion linger in some corner of his heart?

She slipped her hand under his arm.

“Jon’s father is quite ill and old; I saw him.”

“You —?”

“Yes, I went there with Jon; I saw them both.”

“Well, and what did they say to you?”

“Nothing. They were very polite.”

“They would be.” He resumed his contemplation of the pipe-joint, and then said suddenly: “I must think this over — I’ll speak to you again to-night.”

She knew this was final for the moment, and stole away, leaving him still looking at the pipe-joint. She wandered into the fruit-garden, among the raspberry and currant bushes, without impetus to pick and eat. Two months ago — she was light-hearted! Even two days ago — light-hearted, before Prosper Profond told her. Now she felt tangled in a web — of passions, vested rights, oppressions and revolts, the ties of love and hate. At this dark moment of discouragement there seemed, even to her hold-fast nature, no way out. How deal with it — how sway and bend things to her will, and get her heart’s desire? And, suddenly, round the corner of the high box hedge, she came plump on her mother, walking swiftly, with an open letter in her hand. Her bosom was heaving, her eyes dilated, her cheeks flushed. Instantly Fleur thought: “The yacht! Poor Mother!”

Annette gave her a wide startled look, and said:

“J’ai la migraine.”

“I’m awfully sorry, Mother.”

“Oh; yes! you and your father — sorry!”

“But, Mother — I am. I know what it feels like.”

Annette’s startled eyes grew wide, till the whites showed above them. “You innocent!” she said.

Her mother — so self-possessed, and commonsensical — to look and speak like this! It was all frightening! Her father, her mother, herself! And only two months back they had seemed to have everything they wanted in this world.

Annette crumpled the letter in her hand. Fleur knew that she must ignore the sight.

“Can’t I do anything for your head, Mother?”

Annette shook that head and walked on, swaying her hips.

‘It’s cruel,’ thought Fleur, ‘and I was glad! That man! What do men come prowling for, disturbing everything! I suppose he’s tired of her. What business has he to be tired of my mother? What business!’ And at that thought, so natural and so peculiar, she uttered a little choked laugh.

She ought, of course, to be delighted, but what was there to be delighted at? Her father didn’t really care! Her mother did, perhaps? She entered the orchard, and sat down under a cherry-tree. A breeze sighed in the higher boughs; the sky seen through their green was very blue and very white in cloud — those heavy white clouds almost always present in river landscape. Bees, sheltering out of the wind, hummed softly, and over the lush grass fell the thick shade from those fruit-trees planted by her father five-and-twenty years ago. Birds were almost silent, the cuckoos had ceased to sing, but wood-pigeons were cooing. The breath and drone and cooing of high summer were not for long a sedative to her excited nerves. Crouched over her knees she began to scheme. Her father must be made to back her up. Why should he mind so long as she was happy? She had not lived for nearly nineteen years without knowing that her future was all he really cared about. She had, then, only to convince him that her future could not be happy without Jon. He thought it a mad fancy. How foolish the old were, thinking they could tell what the young felt! Had not he confessed that he — when young — had loved with a grand passion! He ought to understand. ‘He piles up his money for me,’ she thought; ‘but what’s the use, if I’m not going to be happy?’ Money, and all it bought, did not bring happiness. Love only brought that. The ox-eyed daisies in this orchard, which gave it such a moony look sometimes, grew wild and happy, and had their hour. ‘They oughtn’t to have called me Fleur,’ she mused, ‘if they didn’t mean me to have my hour, and be happy while it lasts.’ Nothing real stood in the way, like poverty, or disease — sentiment only, a ghost from the unhappy past! Jon was right. They wouldn’t let you live, these old people! They made mistakes, committed crimes, and wanted their children to go on paying! The breeze died away; midges began to bite. She got up, plucked a piece of honeysuckle, and went in.

It was hot that night. Both she and her mother had put on thin, pale low frocks. The dinner flowers were pale. Fleur was struck with the pale look of everything: her father’s face, her mother’s shoulders; the pale panelled walls, the pale-grey velvety carpet, the lamp-shade, even the soup was pale. There was not one spot of colour in the room, not even wine in the pale glasses, for no one drank it. What was not pale was black — her father’s clothes, the butler’s clothes, her retriever stretched out exhausted in the window, the curtains black with a cream pattern. A moth came in, and that was pale. And silent was that half-mourning dinner in the heat.

Her father called her back as she was following her mother out.

She sat down beside him at the table, and, unpinning the pale honeysuckle, put it to her nose.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

“Yes, dear?”

“It’s extremely painful for me to talk, but there’s no help for it. I don’t know if you understand how much you are to me — I’ve never spoken of it, I didn’t think it necessary; but — but you’re everything. Your mother —“he paused, staring at his finger-bowl of Venetian glass.

“Yes?”

“I’ve only you to look to. I’ve never had — never wanted anything else, since you were born.”

“I know,” Fleur murmured.

Soames moistened his lips.

“You may think this a matter I can smooth over and arrange for you. You’re mistaken. I— I’m helpless.”

Fleur did not speak.

“Quite apart from my own feelings,” went on Soames with more resolution, “those two are not amenable to anything I can say. They — they hate me, as people always hate those whom they have injured.”

“But he — Jon —”

“He’s their flesh and blood, her only child. Probably he means to her what you mean to me. It’s a deadlock.”

“No,” cried Fleur, “no, Father!”

Soames leaned back, the image of pale patience, as if resolved on the betrayal of no emotion.

“Listen!” he said. “You’re putting the feelings of two months — two months — against the feelings of thirty-five years! What chance do you think you have? Two months — your very first love-affair, a matter of half a dozen meetings, a few walks and talks, a few kisses — against, against what you can’t imagine, what no one could who hasn’t been through it. Come, be reasonable, Fleur! It’s midsummer madness!”

Fleur tore the honeysuckle into little, slow bits. “The madness is in letting the past spoil it all. What do we care about the past? It’s our lives, not yours.”

Soames raised his hand to his forehead, where suddenly she saw moisture shining.

“Whose child are you?” he said. “Whose child is he? The present is linked with the past, the future with both. There’s no getting away from that.”

She had never heard philosophy pass those lips before. Impressed even in her agitation, she leaned her elbows on the table, her chin on her hands.

“But, Father, consider it practically. We want each other. There’s ever so much money, and nothing whatever in the way but sentiment. Let’s bury the past, Father.”

Soames shook his head. “Impossible!”

“Besides,” said Fleur gently, “you can’t prevent us.”

“I don’t suppose,” said Soames, “that if left to myself I should try to prevent you; I must put up with things, I know, to keep your affection. But it’s not I who control this matter. That’s what I want you to realise before it’s too late. If you go on thinking you can get your way, and encourage this feeling, the blow will be much heavier when you find you can’t.”

“Oh!” cried Fleur, “help me, Father; you CAN help me, you know.”

Soames made a startled movement of negation.

“I?” he said bitterly. “Help? I am the impediment — the just cause and impediment — isn’t that the jargon? You have my blood in your veins.”

He rose.

“Well, the fat’s in the fire. If you persist in your wilfulness you’ll have yourself to blame. Come! Don’t be foolish, my child — my only child!”

Fleur laid her forehead against his shoulder.

All was in such turmoil within her. But no good to show it! No good at all! She broke away from him, and went out into the twilight, distraught, but unconvinced. All was indeterminate and vague within her, like the shapes and shadows in the garden, except — her will to have. A poplar pierced up into the dark-blue sky and touched a white star there. The dew wetted her shoes, and chilled her bare shoulders. She went down to the river bank, and stood gazing at a moonstreak on the darkening water. Suddenly she smelled tobacco smoke, and a white figure emerged as if created by the moon. It was young Mont in flannels, standing in his boat. She heard the tiny hiss of his cigarette extinguished in the water.

“Fleur,” came his voice, “don’t be hard on a poor devil! I’ve been waiting hours.”

“For what?”

“Come in my boat!”

“Not I.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not a water-nymph.”

“Haven’t you ANY romance in you? Don’t be modern, Fleur!”

He appeared on the path within a yard of her.

“Go away!”

“Fleur, I love you. Fleur!”

Fleur uttered a short laugh.

“Come again,” she said, “when I haven’t got my wish.”

“What is your wish?”

“Ask another.”

“Fleur,” said Mont, and his voice sounded strange, “don’t mock me! Even vivisected dogs are worth decent treatment before they’re cut up for good.”

Fleur shook her head; but her lips were trembling.

“Well, you shouldn’t make me jump. Give me a cigarette.”

Mont gave her one, lighted it, and another for himself.

“I don’t want to talk rot,” he said, “but please imagine all the rot that all the lovers that ever were have talked, and all my special rot thrown in.”

“Thank you, I have imagined it. Good-night!”

They stood for a moment facing each other in the shadow of an acacia-tree with very moonlit blossoms, and the smoke from their cigarettes mingled in the air between them.

“Also ran: ‘Michael Mont’?” he said. Fleur turned abruptly towards the house. On the lawn she stopped to look back. Michael Mont was whirling his arms above him; she could see them dashing at his head, then waving at the moonlit blossoms of the acacia. His voice just reached her. “Jolly — jolly!” Fleur shook herself. She couldn’t help him, she had too much trouble of her own! On the verandah she stopped very suddenly again. Her mother was sitting in the drawing-room at her writing bureau, quite alone. There was nothing remarkable in the expression of her face except its utter immobility. But she looked desolate! Fleur went up-stairs. At the door of her room she paused. She could hear her father walking up and down, up and down the picture-gallery.

‘Yes,’ she thought, jolly! Oh, Jon!’

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