To Let, by John Galsworthy

Part III

I

Old Jolyon Walks

Twofold impulse had made Jolyon say to his wife at breakfast: “Let’s go up to Lord’s!”

“Wanted”— something to abate the anxiety in which those two had lived during the sixty hours since Jon had brought Fleur down. “Wanted”— too, that which might assuage the pangs of memory in one who knew he might lose them any day!

Fifty-eight years ago Jolyon had become an Eton boy, for old Jolyon’s whim had been that he should be canonised at the greatest possible expense. Year after year he had gone to Lord’s from Stanhope Gate with a father whose youth in the eighteen-twenties had been passed without polish in the game of cricket. Old Jolyon would speak quite openly of swipes, full tosses, half and three-quarter balls; and young Jolyon with the guileless snobbery of youth had trembled lest his sire should be overheard. Only in this supreme matter of cricket he had been nervous, for his father — in Crimean whiskers then — had ever impressed him as the beau ideal. Though never canonised himself, old Jolyon’s natural fastidiousness and balance had saved him from the errors of the vulgar. How delicious, after howling in a top hat and a sweltering heat, to go home with his father in a hansom cab, bathe, dress, and forth to the “Disunion” Club, to dine off whitebait, cutlets, and a tart, and go — two “swells,” old and young, in lavender kid gloves — to the opera or play. And on Sunday, when the match was over, and his top hat duly broken, down with his father in a special hansom to the “Crown and Sceptre,” and the terrace above the river — the golden sixties when the world was simple, dandies glamorous, Democracy not born, and the books of Whyte Melville coming thick and fast.

A generation later, with his own boy, Jolly, Harrow — buttonholed with cornflowers — by old Jolyon’s whim his grandson had been canonised at a trifle less expense — again Jolyon had experienced the heat and counter-passions of the day, and come back to the cool and the strawberry beds of Robin Hill, and billiards after dinner, his boy making the most heart-breaking flukes and trying to seem languid and grown-up. Those two days each year he and his son had been alone together in the world, one on each side — and Democracy just born!

And so, he had unearthed a grey top hat, borrowed a tiny bit of light-blue ribbon from Irene, and gingerly, keeping cool, by car and train and taxi, had reached Lord’s Ground. There, beside her in a lawn-coloured frock with narrow black edges, he had watched the game, and felt the old thrill stir within him.

When Soames passed, the day was spoiled, and Irene’s face distorted by compression of the lips. No good to go on sitting here with Soames or perhaps his daughter recurring in front of them, like decimals. And he said:

“Well, dear, if you’ve had enough — let’s go!”

That evening Jolyon felt exhausted. Not wanting her to see him thus, he waited till she had begun to play, and stole off to the little study. He opened the long window for air, and the door, that he might still hear her music drifting in; and, settled in his father’s old armchair, closed his eyes, with his head against the worn brown leather. Like that passage of the Cesar Franck Sonata — so had been his life with her, a divine third movement. And now this business of Jon’s — this bad business! Drifted to the edge of consciousness, he hardly knew if it were in sleep that he smelled the scent of a cigar, and seemed to see a shape in the blackness before his closed eyes. That shape formed, went, and formed again; as if in the very chair where he himself was sitting, he saw his father, black-coated, with knees crossed, glasses balanced between thumb and finger; saw the big white moustaches, and the deep eyes looking up below a dome of forehead, seeming to search his own; seeming to speak. “Are you facing it, Jo? It’s for you to decide. She’s only a woman!” How well he knew his father in that phrase; how all the Victorian Age came up with it! — And his answer “No, I’ve funked it — funked hurting her and Jon and myself. I’ve got a heart; I’ve funked it.” But the old eyes, so much older, so much younger than his own, kept at it: “It’s your wife, your son, your past. Tackle it, my boy!” Was it a message from walking spirit; or but the instinct of his sire living on within him? And again came that scent of cigar smoke — from the old saturated leather. Well! he would tackle it, write to Jon, and put the whole thing down in black and white! And suddenly he breathed with difficulty, with a sense of suffocation, as if his heart were swollen. He got up and went out into the air. Orion’s Belt was very bright. He passed along the terrace round the corner of the house, till, through the window of the music-room, he could see Irene at the piano, with lamplight falling on her powdery hair; withdrawn into herself she seemed, her dark eyes staring straight before her, her hands idle. Jolyon saw her raise those hands and clasp them over her breast. ‘It’s Jon, with her,’ he thought; ‘all Jon! I’m dying out of her — it’s natural!’

And, careful not to be seen, he stole back.

Next day, after a bad night, he sat down to his task. He wrote with difficulty and many erasures.

“MY DEAREST BOY,

“You are old enough to understand how very difficult it is for elders to give themselves away to their young. Especially when — like your mother and myself, though I shall never think of her as anything but young — their hearts are altogether set on him to whom they must confess. I cannot say we are conscious of having sinned exactly — people in real life very seldom are, I believe, but most persons would say we had, and at all events our conduct, righteous or not, has found us out. The truth is, my dear, we both have pasts, which it is now my task to make known to you, because they so grievously and deeply affect your future. Many, very many years ago, as far back indeed as 1883, when she was only twenty, your mother had the great and lasting misfortune to make an unhappy marriage — no, not with me, Jon. Without money of her own, and with only a stepmother — closely related to Jezebel — she was very unhappy in her home life. IT WAS FLEUR’S FATHER THAT SHE MARRIED, my cousin Soames Forsyte. He had pursued her very tenaciously and to do him justice was deeply in love with her. Within a week she knew the fearful mistake she had made. It was not his fault; it was her error of judgment — her misfortune.”

So far Jolyon had kept some semblance of irony, but now his subject carried him away.

“Jon, I want to explain to you if I can — and it’s very hard — how it is that an unhappy marriage such as this can so easily come about. You will of course say: ‘If she didn’t really love him how could she ever have married him?’ You would be quite right if it were not for one or two rather terrible considerations. From this initial mistake of hers all the subsequent trouble, sorrow, and tragedy have come, and so I must make it clear to you if I can. You see, Jon, in those days and even to this day — indeed, I don’t see, for all the talk of enlightenment, how it can well be otherwise — most girls are married ignorant of the sexual side of life. Even if they know what it means they have not EXPERIENCED it. That’s the crux. It is this actual lack of experience, whatever verbal knowledge they have, which makes all the difference and all the trouble. In a vast number of marriages — and your mother’s was one — girls are not and CANNOT be certain whether they love the man they marry or not; they do not know until after that act of union which makes the reality of marriage. Now, in many, perhaps in most doubtful cases, this act cements and strengthens the attachment, but in other cases, and your mother’s was one, it is a revelation of mistake, a destruction of such attraction as there was. There is nothing more tragic in a woman’s life than such a revelation, growing daily, nightly clearer. Coarse-grained and unthinking people are apt to laugh at such a mistake, and say ‘what a fuss about nothing!’ Narrow and self-righteous people, only capable of judging the lives of others by their own, are apt to condemn those who make this tragic error, to condemn them for life to the dungeons they have made for themselves. You know the expression: ‘She has made her bed, she must lie on it!’ It is a hard-mouthed saying, quite unworthy of a gentleman or lady in the best sense of those words; and I can use no stronger condemnation. I have not been what is called a moral man, but I wish to use no words to you, my dear, which will make you think lightly of ties or contracts into which you enter. Heaven forbid! But with the experience of a life behind me I do say that those who condemn the victims of these tragic mistakes, condemn them and hold out no hands to help them, are inhuman or rather they would be if they had the understanding to know what they are doing. But they haven’t! Let them go! They are as much anathema to me as I, no doubt, am to them. I have had to say all this, because I am going to put you into a position to judge your mother, and you are very young, without experience of what life is. To go on with the story. After three years of effort to subdue her shrinking — I was going to say her loathing and it’s not too strong a word, for shrinking soon becomes loathing under such circumstances — three years of what to a sensitive, beauty-loving nature like your mother’s, Jon, was torment, she met a young man who fell in love with her. He was the architect of this very house that we live in now, he was building it for her and Fleur’s father to live in, a new prison to hold her, in place of the one she inhabited with him in London. Perhaps that fact played some part in what came of it. But in any case she, too, fell in love with him. I know it’s not necessary to explain to you that one does not precisely choose with whom one will fall in love. It comes. Very well! It came. I can imagine — though she never said much to me about it — the struggle that then took place in her, because, Jon, she was brought up strictly and was not light in her ideas — not at all. However, this was an overwhelming feeling, and it came to pass that they loved in deed as well as in thought. Then came a fearful tragedy. I must tell you of it because if I don’t you will never understand the real situation that you have now to face. The man whom she had married — Soames Forsyte, the father of Fleur — one night, at the height of her passion for this young man, forcibly reasserted his rights over her. The next day she met her lover and told him of it. Whether he committed suicide or whether he was accidentally run over in his distraction, we never knew; but so it was. Think of your mother as she was that evening when she heard of his death. I happened to see her. Your grand-father sent me to help her if I could. I only just saw her, before the door was shut against me by her husband. But I have never forgotten her face, I can see it now. I was not in love with her then, nor for twelve years after, but I have never forgotten. My dear boy — it is not easy to write like this. But you see, I must. Your mother is wrapped up in you, utterly, devotedly. I don’t wish to write harshly of Soames Forsyte. I don’t think harshly of him. I have long been sorry for him; perhaps I was sorry even then. As the world judges she was in error, he was within his rights. He loved her — in his way. SHE WAS HIS PROPERTY. That is the view he holds of life — of human feelings and hearts — property. It’s not his fault — so was he born! To me it is a view that has always been abhorrent — so was I born! Knowing you as I do, I feel it cannot be otherwise than abhorrent to you. Let me go on with the story. Your mother fled from his house that night; for twelve years she lived quietly alone without companionship of any sort, until, in 1899 her husband — you see, he was still her husband, for he did not attempt to divorce her, and she of course had no right to divorce him, became conscious, it seems, of the want of children, and commenced a long attempt to induce her to go back to him and give him a child. I was her trustee then, under your grandfather’s Will, and I watched this going on. While watching, I became devotedly attached to her. His pressure increased, till one day she came to me here and practically put herself under my protection. Her husband, who was kept informed of all her movements, attempted to force us apart by bringing a divorce suit, or at all events by threatening one; anyway our names were publicly joined. That decided us, and we became united in fact. She was divorced, married me, and you were born. We have lived in perfect happiness, at least I have, and I believe your mother also. Soames, soon after the divorce, married Fleur’s mother, and she was born. That is the story, Jon. I have told it you, because by the affection which we see you have formed for this man’s daughter you are blindly moving towards what must utterly destroy your mother’s happiness, if not your own. I don’t wish to speak of myself, because at my age there’s no use supposing I shall cumber the ground much longer, besides, what I should suffer would be mainly on her account, and on yours. But what I want you to realise is that feelings of horror and aversion such as those can never be buried or forgotten. They are alive in her today. Only yesterday at Lord’s we happened to see Soames Forsyte. Her face, if you had seen it, would have convinced you. The idea that you should marry his daughter is a nightmare to her, Jon. I have nothing to say against Fleur save that she IS his daughter. But your children, if you married her, would be the grandchildren of Soames, as much as of your mother, of a man who once owned your mother as a man might own a slave. Think what that would mean. By such a marriage you enter the camp which held your mother prisoner and wherein she ate her heart out. You are just on the threshold of life, you have only known this girl two months, and however deeply you think you love her, I appeal to you to break it off at once. Don’t give your mother this rankling pain and humiliation during the rest of her life. Young though she will always seem to me, she is fifty-seven. Except for us two she has no one in the world. She will soon have only you. Pluck up your spirit, Jon, and break away. Don’t put this cloud and barrier between you. Don’t break her heart! Bless you, my dear boy, and again forgive me for all the pain this letter must bring you — we tried to spare it you, but Spain — it seems — was no good.

Ever your devoted father

JOLYON FORSYTE.”

Having finished his confession, Jolyon sat with a thin cheek on his hand, re-reading. There were things in it which hurt him so much, when he thought of Jon reading them — that he nearly tore the letter up. To speak of such things at all to a boy — his own boy — to speak of them in relation to his own wife and the boy’s own mother, seemed dreadful to the reticence of his Forsyte soul. And yet without speaking of them how make Jon understand the reality, the deep cleavage, the ineffaceable scar? Without them, how justify this stifling of the boy’s love? He might just as well not write at all!

He folded the confession, and put it in his pocket. It was — thank heaven! — Saturday; he had till Sunday evening to think it over; for even if posted now it could not reach Jon till Monday. He felt a curious relief at this delay, and at the fact that, whether sent or not, it was written.

In the rose garden, which had taken the place of the old fernery, he could see Irene snipping and pruning, with a little basket on her arm. She was never idle, it seemed to him, and he envied her now that he himself was idle nearly all his time. He went down to her. She held up a stained glove and smiled. A piece of lace tied under her chin concealed her hair, and her oval face with its still dark brows looked very young.

“The green fly are awful this year, and yet it’s cold. You look tired, Jolyon.”

Jolyon took the confession from his pocket. “I’ve been writing this. I think you ought to see it.”

“To Jon?” Her whole face had changed, in that instant, becoming almost haggard.

“Yes; the murder’s out.”

He gave it her, and walked away among the roses. Presently, seeing that she had finished reading and was standing quite still with the sheets of the letter against her skirt, he came back to her.

“Well?”

“It’s wonderfully put. I don’t see how it could be put better. Thank you, dear.”

“Is there anything you would like left out?”

She shook her head.

“No; he must know all, if he’s to understand.”

“That’s what I thought, but I hate it like the devil!”

He had the feeling that he hated it more than she — to him sex was so much easier to mention between man and woman than between man and man; and she had always been more natural and frank, not deeply secretive like his Forsyte self.

“I wonder if he will understand, even now, Jolyon? He’s so young; and he shrinks from the physical.”

“He gets that shrinking from my father, he was as fastidious as a girl in all such matters. Would it be better to rewrite the whole thing, and just say you hated Soames?”

Irene shook her head.

“Hate’s only a word. It conveys nothing. No, better as it is.”

“Very well. It shall go tomorrow.”

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