To Let, by John Galsworthy

III

Irene!

When Jon rushed away with the letter in his hand, he ran along the terrace and round the corner of the house, in fear and confusion. Leaning against the creepered wall he tore open the letter. It was long — very long! This added to his fear, and he began reading. When he came to the underlined words: “It was Fleur’s father that she married,” everything swam before him. He was close to a window, and entering by it, he passed, through music-room and hall, up to his bedroom. Dipping his face in cold water, he sat on his bed, and went on reading, dropping each finished page on the bed beside him. His father’s writing was easy to read — he knew it so well, though he had never had a letter from him one quarter so long. He read with a dull feeling — imagination only half at work. He best grasped, on that first reading, the pain his father must have had in writing such a letter. He let the last sheet fall, and in a sort of mental, moral helplessness he began to read the first again. It all seemed to him disgusting — dead and disgusting. Then, suddenly, a hot wave of horrified emotion tingled through him. He buried his face in his hands. His mother! Fleur’s father! He took up the letter again, and read on mechanically. And again came the feeling that it was all dead and disgusting; his own love so different! This letter said his mother — and her father! An awful letter!

Property! Could there be men who looked on women as their property? Faces seen in street and countryside came thronging up before him — red, stock-fish faces; hard, dull faces; prim, dry faces; violent faces; hundreds, thousands of them! How could he know what men who had such faces thought and did? He held his head in his hands and groaned. His mother! He caught up the letter and read on again: “horror and aversion — alive in her today . . . your children . . . grandchildren . . . of a man who once owned your mother as a man might own a slave. . . . ” He got up from his bed. This cruel shadowy past, lurking there to murder his love and Fleur’s, was true, or his father could never have written it. ‘Why didn’t they tell me the first thing,’ he thought, ‘the day I first saw Fleur? They knew I’d seen her. They were afraid, and — now — I’ve — got it!’ Overcome by misery too acute for thought or reason, he crept into a dusky corner of the room and sat down on the floor. He sat there, like some unhappy little animal. There was comfort in dusk, and in the floor — as if he were back in those days when he played his battles sprawling all over it. He sat there huddled, his hair ruffled, his hands clasped round his knees, for how long he did not know. He was wrenched from his blank wretchedness by the sound of the door opening from his mother’s room. The blinds were down over the windows of his room, shut up in his absence, and from where he sat he could only hear a rustle, her footsteps crossing, till beyond the bed he saw her standing before his dressing-table. She had something in her hand. He hardly breathed, hoping she would not see him, and go away. He saw her touch things on the table as if they had some virtue in them, then face the window — grey from head to foot like a ghost. The least turn of her head, and she must see him! Her lips moved: “Oh! Jon!” She was speaking to herself; the tone of her voice troubled Jon’s heart. He saw in her hand a little photograph. She held it towards the light, looking at it — very small. He knew it — one of himself as a tiny boy, which she always kept in her bag. His heart beat fast. And, suddenly, as if she had heard it, she turned her eyes and saw him. At the gasp she gave, and the movement of her hands pressing the photograph against her breast, he said:

“Yes, it’s me.”

She moved over to the bed, and sat down on it, quite close to him, her hands still clasping her breast, her feet among the sheets of the letter which had slipped to the floor. She saw them, and her hands grasped the edge of the bed. She sat very upright, her dark eyes fixed on him. At last she spoke.

“Well, Jon, you know, I see.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve seen Father?”

“Yes.”

There was a long silence, till she said:

“Oh! my darling!”

“It’s all right.” The emotions in him were so violent and so mixed that he dared not move — resentment, despair, and yet a strange yearning for the comfort of her hand on his forehead.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

There was another long silence, then she got up. She stood a moment, very still, made a little movement with her hand, and said: “My darling boy, my most darling boy, don’t think of me — think of yourself.” And, passing round the foot of the bed, went back into her room.

Jon turned — curled into a sort of ball, as might a hedgehog — into the corner made by the two walls.

He must have been twenty minutes there before a cry roused him. It came from the terrace below. He got up, scared. Again came the cry: “Jon!” His mother was calling! He ran out and down the stairs, through the empty dining-room into the study. She was kneeling before the old armchair, and his father was lying back quite white, his head on his breast, one of his hands resting on an open book, with a pencil clutched in it — more strangely still than anything he had ever seen. She looked round wildly, and said:

“Oh! Jon — he’s dead — he’s dead!”

Jon flung himself down, and reaching over the arm of the chair, where he had lately been sitting, put his lips to the forehead. Icy cold! How could — how could Dad be dead, when only an hour ago — His mother’s arms were round the knees; pressing her breast against them. “Why — why wasn’t I with him?” he heard her whisper. Then he saw the tottering word “Irene” pencilled on the open page, and broke down himself. It was his first sight of human death, and its unutterable stillness blotted from him all other emotion; all else, then, was but preliminary to this! All love and life, and joy, anxiety, and sorrow, all movement, light and beauty, but a beginning to this terrible white stillness. It made a dreadful mark on him; all seemed suddenly little, futile, short. He mastered himself at last, got up, and raised her.

“Mother! don’t cry — Mother!”

Some hours later, when all was done that had to be, and his mother was lying down, he saw his father alone, on the bed, covered with a white sheet. He stood for a long time gazing at that face which had never looked angry — always whimsical, and kind. “To be kind and keep your end up — there’s nothing else in it,” he had once heard his father say. How wonderfully Dad had acted up to that philosophy! He understood now that his father had known for a long time past that this would come suddenly — known, and not said a word. He gazed with an awed and passionate reverence. The loneliness of it — just to spare his mother and himself! His own trouble seemed small while he was looking at that face. The word scribbled on the page! The farewell word! Now his mother had no one but himself! He went up close to the dead face — not changed at all, and yet completely changed. He had heard his father say once that he did not believe in consciousness surviving death, or that if it did it might be just survival till the natural age-limit of the body had been reached — the natural term of its inherent vitality; so that if the body were broken by accident, excess, violent disease, consciousness might still persist till, in the course of Nature uninterfered with, it would naturally have faded out. The whimsical conceit had struck him. When the heart failed like this — surely it was not quite natural! Perhaps his father’s consciousness was in the room with him. Above the bed hung a picture of his father’s father. Perhaps HIS consciousness, too, was still alive; and his brother’s — his half-brother, who had died in the Transvaal. Were they all gathered round this bed? Jon kissed the forehead, and stole back to his own room. The door between it and his mother’s was ajar; she had evidently been in — everything was ready for him, even some biscuits and hot milk, and the letter no longer on the floor. He ate and drank, watching the last light fade. He did not try to see into the future — just stared at the dark branches of the oak-tree, level with his window, and felt as if life had stopped. Once in the night, turning in his heavy sleep, he was conscious of something white and still, beside his bed, and started up. His mother’s voice said:

“It’s only I, Jon dear!” Her hand pressed his forehead gently back; her white figure disappeared.

Alone! He fell heavily asleep again, and dreamed he saw his mother’s name crawling on his bed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/tolet/chapter26.html

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