To Let, by John Galsworthy

II

Confession

Late that same afternoon, Jolyon had a nap in the old armchair. Face down on his knee was La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedaugue, and just before he fell asleep he had been thinking: ‘As a people shall we ever really like the French? Will they ever really like us?’ He himself had always liked the French, feeling at home with their wit, their taste, their cooking. Irene and he had paid many visits to France before the war, when Jon had been at his private school. His romance with her had begun in Paris — his last and most enduring romance. But the French — no Englishman could like them who could not see them in some sort with the detached aesthetic eye! And with that melancholy conclusion he had nodded off.

When he woke he saw Jon standing between him and the window. The boy had evidently come in from the garden and was waiting for him to wake. Jolyon smiled, still half asleep. How nice the chap looked-sensitive, affectionate, straight! Then his heart gave a nasty jump; and a quaking sensation overcame him. That confession! He controlled himself with an effort. “Why, Jon, where did you spring from?”

Jon bent over and kissed his forehead.

Only then he noticed the look on the boy’s face.

“I came home to tell you something, Dad.”

With all his might Jolyon tried to get the better of the jumping, gurgling sensations within his chest.

“Well, sit down, old man. Have you seen your mother?”

“No.” The boy’s flushed look gave place to pallor; he sat down on the arm of the old chair, as, in old days, Jolyon himself used to sit beside his own father, installed in its recesses. Right up to the time of the rupture in their relations he had been wont to perch there — had he now reached such a moment with his own son? All his life he had hated scenes like poison, avoided rows, gone on his own way quietly and let others go on theirs. But now — it seemed — at the very end of things, he had a scene before him more painful than any he had avoided. He drew a visor down over his emotion, and waited for his son to speak.

“Father,” said Jon slowly, “Fleur and I are engaged.”

‘Exactly!’ thought Jolyon, breathing with difficulty.

“I know that you and Mother don’t like the idea. Fleur says that Mother was engaged to her father before you married her. Of course I don’t know what happened, but it must be ages ago. I’m devoted to her, Dad, and she says she is to me.”

Jolyon uttered a queer sound, half laugh, half groan.

“You are nineteen, Jon, and I am seventy-two. How are we to understand each other in a matter like this, eh?”

“You love Mother, Dad; you must know what we feel. It isn’t fair to us to let old things spoil our happiness, is it?”

Brought face to face with his confession, Jolyon resolved to do without it if by any means he could. He laid his hand on the boy’s arm.

“Look, Jon! I might put you off with talk about your both being too young and not knowing your own minds, and all that, but you wouldn’t listen; besides, it doesn’t meet the case — Youth, unfortunately, cures itself. You talk lightly about ‘old things like that,’ knowing nothing — as you say truly — of what happened. Now, have I ever given you reason to doubt my love for you, or my word?”

At a less anxious moment he might have been amused by the conflict his words aroused — the boy’s eager clasp, to reassure him on these points, the dread on his face of what that reassurance would bring forth; but he could only feel grateful for the squeeze.

“Very well, you can believe what I tell you. If you don’t give up this love affair, you will make Mother wretched to the end of her days. Believe me, my dear, the past, whatever it was, can’t be buried — it can’t indeed.”

Jon got off the arm of the chair.

‘The girl —’ thought Jolyon —‘there she goes — starting up before him — life itself — eager, pretty, loving!’

“I can’t, Father; how can I— just because you say that? Of course I can’t!”

“Jon, if you knew the story you would give this up without hesitation; you would have to! Can’t you believe me?”

“How can you tell what I should think? Why, I love her better than anything in the world.”

Jolyon’s face twitched, and he said with painful slowness:

“Better than your mother, Jon?”

From the boy’s face, and his clenched fists Jolyon realised the stress and struggle he was going through.

“I don’t know,” he burst out, “I don’t know! But to give Fleur up for nothing — for something I don’t understand, for something that I don’t believe can really matter half so much, will make me — make me —”

“Make you feel us unjust, put a barrier — yes. But that’s better than going on with this.”

“I can’t. Fleur loves me, and I love her. You want me to trust you; why don’t you trust me, Father? We wouldn’t want to know anything — we wouldn’t let it make any difference. It’ll only make us both love you and Mother all the more.”

Jolyon put his hand into his breast pocket, but brought it out again empty, and sat, clucking his tongue against his teeth.

“Think what your mother’s been to you, Jon! She has nothing but you; I shan’t last much longer.”

“Why not? It isn’t fair to — Why not?”

“Well,” said Jolyon, rather coldly, “because the doctors tell me I shan’t; that’s all.”

“Oh! Dad!” cried Jon, and burst into tears.

This downbreak of his son, whom he had not seen cry since he was ten, moved Jolyon terribly. He recognised to the full how fearfully soft the boy’s heart was, how much he would suffer in this business, and in life generally. And he reached out his hand helplessly — not wishing, indeed not daring to get up.

“Dear man,” he said, “don’t — or you’ll make me!”

Jon smothered down his paroxysm, and stood with face averted, very still.

‘What now?’ thought Jolyon; ‘what can I say to move him?’

“By the way, don’t speak of that to Mother,” he said; “she has enough to scare her with this affair of yours. I know how you feel. But, Jon, you know her and me well enough to be sure we wouldn’t wish to spoil your happiness lightly. Why, my dear boy, we don’t care for anything but your happiness — at least, with me it’s just yours and Mother’s and with her just yours. It’s all the future for you both that’s at stake.”

Jon turned. His face was deadly pale; his eyes, deep in his head, seemed to burn.

“What is it? What is it? Don’t keep me like this!”

Jolyon, who knew that he was beaten, thrust his hand again into his breast pocket, and sat for a full minute, breathing with difficulty, his eyes closed. The thought passed through his mind: ‘I’ve had a good long innings — some pretty bitter moments — this is the worst!’ Then he brought his hand out with the letter, and said with a sort of fatigue: “Well, Jon, if you hadn’t come today, I was going to send you this. I wanted to spare you — I wanted to spare your mother and myself, but I see it’s no good. Read it, and I think I’ll go into the garden.” He reached forward to get up.

Jon, who had taken the letter, said quickly: “No, I’ll go”; and was gone.

Jolyon sank back in his chair. A blue-bottle chose that moment to come buzzing round him with a sort of fury; the sound was homely, better than nothing. . . . Where had the boy gone to read his letter? The wretched letter — the wretched story! A cruel business — cruel to her — to Soames — to those two children — to himself! . . . His heart thumped and pained him. Life — its loves — its work — its beauty — its aching, and — its end! A good time; a fine time in spite of all; until — you regretted that you had ever been born. Life — it wore you down, yet did not make you want to die — that was the cunning evil! Mistake to have a heart! Again the blue-bottle came buzzing — bringing in all the heat and hum and scent of summer — yes, even the scent — as of ripe fruits, dried grasses, sappy shrubs, and the vanilla breath of cows. And out there somewhere in the fragrance Jon would be reading that letter, turning and twisting its pages in his trouble, his bewilderment and trouble-breaking his heart about it! The thought made Jolyon acutely miserable. Jon was such a tender-hearted chap, affectionate to his bones, and conscientious, too — it was so damned unfair! He remembered Irene saying to him once: “Never was any one born more loving and lovable than Jon. “Poor little Jon! His world gone up the spout, all of a summer afternoon! Youth took things so hard! And stirred, tormented by that vision of Youth taking things hard, Jolyon got out of his chair, and went to the window. The boy was nowhere visible. And he passed out. If one could take any help to him now — one must!

He traversed the shrubbery, glanced into the walled garden — no Jon! Nor where the peaches and the apricots were beginning to swell and colour. He passed the Cupressus-trees, dark and spiral, into the meadow. Where had the boy got to? Had he rushed down to the coppice — his old hunting-ground? Jolyon crossed the rows of hay. They would cock it on Monday and be carrying the day after, if rain held off. Often they had crossed this field together — hand in hand, when Jon was a little chap. Dash it! The golden age was over by the time one was ten! He came to the pond, where flies and gnats were dancing over a bright reedy surface; and on into the coppice. It was cool there, fragrant of larches. Still no Jon! He called. No answer! On the log seat he sat down, nervous, anxious, forgetting his own physical sensations. He had been wrong to let the boy get away with that letter; he ought to have kept him under his eye from the start! Greatly troubled, he got up to retrace his steps. At the farm-buildings he called again, and looked into the dark cow-house. There in the cool, and the scent of vanilla and ammonia, away from flies, the three Alderneys were chewing the quiet cud; just milked, waiting for evening, to be turned out again into the lower field. One turned a lazy head, a lustrous eye; Jolyon could see the slobber on its grey lower lip. He saw everything with passionate clearness, in the agitation of his nerves — all that in his time he had adored and tried to paint — wonder of light and shade and colour. No wonder the legend put Christ into a manger — what more devotional than the eyes and moon-white horns of a chewing cow in the warm dusk! He called again. No answer! And he hurried away out of the coppice, past the pond, up the hill. Oddly ironical — now he came to think of it — if Jon had taken the gruel of his discovery down in the coppice where his mother and Bosinney in those old days had made the plunge of acknowledging their love. Where he himself, on the log seat the Sunday morning he came back from Paris, had realised to the full that Irene had become the world to him. That would have been the place for Irony to tear the veil from before the eyes of Irene’s boy! But he was not here! Where had he got to? One must find the poor chap!

A gleam of sun had come, sharpening to his hurrying senses all the beauty of the afternoon, of the tall trees and lengthening shadows, of the blue, and the white clouds, the scent of the hay, and the cooing of the pigeons; and the flower shapes standing tall. He came to the rosary, and the beauty of the roses in that sudden sunlight seemed to him unearthly. “Rose, you Spaniard!” Wonderful three words! There she had stood by that bush of dark red roses; had stood to read and decide that Jon must know it all! He knew all now! Had she chosen wrong? He bent and sniffed a rose, its petals brushed his nose and trembling lips; nothing so soft as a rose-leaf’s velvet, except her neck — Irene! On across the lawn he went, up the slope, to the oak-tree. Its top alone was glistening, for the sudden sun was away over the house; the lower shade was thick, blessedly cool — he was greatly overheated. He paused a minute with his hand on the rope of the swing — Jolly, Holly — Jon! The old swing! And, suddenly, he felt horribly — deadly ill. ‘I’ve overdone it!’ he thought: ‘by Jove. I’ve overdone it — after all!’ He staggered up towards the terrace, dragged himself up the steps, and fell against the wall of the house. He leaned there gasping, his face buried in the honeysuckle that he and she had taken such trouble with that it might sweeten the air which drifted in. Its fragrance mingled with awful pain. ‘My Love!’ he thought; ‘the boy!’ And with a great effort he tottered in through the long window, and sank into old Jolyon’s chair. The book was there, a pencil in it; he caught it up, scribbled a word on the open page. . . . His hand dropped. . . . So it was like this — was it? . . .

There was a great wrench; and darkness. . . .

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