To Let, by John Galsworthy

VI

Desperate

The weeks which followed the death of his father were sad and empty to the only Jolyon Forsyte left. The necessary forms and ceremonies — the reading of the Will, valuation of the estate, distribution of the legacies — were enacted over the head, as it were, of one not yet of age. Jolyon was cremated. By his special wish no one attended that ceremony, or wore black for him. The succession of his property, controlled to some extent by old Jolyon’s Will, left his widow in possession of Robin Hill, with two thousand five hundred pounds a year for life. Apart from this the two Wills worked together in some complicated way to insure that each of Jolyon’s three children should have an equal share in their grandfather’s and father’s property in the future as in the present, save only that Jon, by virtue of his sex, would have control of his capital when he was twenty-one, while June and Holly would only have the spirit of theirs, in order that their children might have the body after them. If they had no children, it would all come to Jon if he outlived them; and since June was fifty, and Holly nearly forty, it was considered in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that but for the cruelty of income tax, young Jon would be as warm a man as his grandfather when he died. All this was nothing to Jon, and little enough to his mother. It was June who did everything needful for one who had left his affairs in perfect order. When she had gone, and those two were alone again in the great house, alone with death drawing them together, and love driving them apart, Jon passed very painful days secretly disgusted and disappointed with himself. His mother would look at him with a patient sadness which yet had in it an instinctive pride, as if she were reserving her defence. If she smiled he was angry that his answering smile should be so grudging and unnatural. He did not judge or condemn her; that was all too remote — indeed, the idea of doing so had never come to him. No! he was grudging and unnatural because he couldn’t have what he wanted because of her. There was one alleviation — much to do in connection with his father’s career, which could not be safely intrusted to June, though she had offered to undertake it. Both Jon and his mother had felt that if she took his portfolios, unexhibited drawings and unfinished matter, away with her, the work would encounter such icy blasts from Paul Post and other frequenters of her studio, that it would soon be frozen out even of her warm heart. On its old-fashioned plane and of its kind the work was good, and they could not bear the thought of its subjection to ridicule. A one-man exhibition of his work was the least testimony they could pay to one they had loved; and on preparation for this they spent many hours together. Jon came to have a curiously increased respect for his father. The quiet tenacity with which he had converted a mediocre talent into something really individual was disclosed by these researches. There was a great mass of work with a rare continuity of growth in depth and reach of vision. Nothing certainly went very deep, or reached very high — but such as the work was, it was thorough, conscientious, and complete. And, remembering his father’s utter absence of “side” or self-assertion, the chaffing humility with which he had always spoken of his own efforts, ever calling himself “an amateur,” Jon could not help feeling that he had never really known his father. To take himself seriously, yet never bore others by letting them know that he did so, seemed to have been his ruling principle. There was something in this which appealed to the boy, and made him heartily indorse his mother’s comment: “He had true refinement; he couldn’t help thinking of others, whatever he did. And when he took a resolution which went counter, he did it with the minimum of defiance — not like the Age, is it? Twice in his life he had to go against everything; and yet it never made him bitter.” Jon saw tears running down her face, which she at once turned away from him. She was so quiet about her loss that sometimes he had thought she didn’t feel it much. Now, as he looked at her, he felt how far he fell short of the reserve power and dignity in both his father and his mother. And, stealing up to her, he put his arm round her waist. She kissed him swiftly, but with a sort of passion, and went out of the room.

The studio, where they had been sorting and labelling, had once been Holly’s schoolroom, devoted to her silk-worms, dried lavender, music, and other forms of instruction. Now, at the end of July, despite its northern and eastern aspects, a warm and slumberous air came in between the long-faded lilac linen curtains. To redeem a little the departed glory, as of a field that is golden and gone, clinging to a room which its master has left, Irene had placed on the paint-stained table a bowl of red roses. This, and Jolyon’s favourite cat, who still clung to the deserted habitat, were the pleasant spots in that dishevelled, sad workroom. Jon, at the north window, sniffing air mysteriously scented with warm strawberries, heard a car drive up. The lawyers again about some nonsense! Why did that scent so make one ache? And where did it come from — there were no strawberry beds on this side of the house. Instinctively he took a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket, and wrote down some broken words. A warmth began spreading in his chest; he rubbed the palms of his hands together. Presently he had jotted this:

“If I could make a little song —
A little song to soothe my heart!
I’d make it all of little things —
The plash of water, rub of wings,
The puffing-off of dandie’s crown,
The hiss of raindrop spilling down,
The purr of cat, the trill of bird,
And ev’ry whispering I’ve heard
From willy wind in leaves and grass,
And all the distant drones that pass.
A song, as tender and as light
As flower, or butterfly in flight;
And when I saw it opening
I’d let it fly, and sing!”

He was still muttering it over to himself at the window, when he heard his name called, and, turning round, saw Fleur. At that amazing apparition, he made at first no movement and no sound, while her clear vivid glance ravished his heart. Then he went forward to the table, saying: “How nice of you to come!” and saw her flinch as if he had thrown something at her.

“I asked for you,” she said, “and they showed me up here. But I can go away again.”

Jon clutched the paint-stained table. Her face and figure in its frilly frock, photographed itself with such startling vividness upon his eyes, that if she had sunk through the floor he must still have seen her.

“I know I told you a lie, Jon. But I told it out of love.”

“Oh! yes! That’s nothing!”

“I didn’t answer your letter. What was the use — there wasn’t anything to answer. I wanted to see you instead.” She held out both her hands, and Jon grasped them across the table. He tried to say something, but all his attention was given to trying not to hurt her hands. His own felt so hard and hers so soft. She said almost defiantly:

“That old story — was it so very dreadful?”

“Yes.” In his voice, too, there was a note of defiance.

She dragged her hands away. “I didn’t think in these days boys were tied to their mothers’ apron-strings.”

Jon’s chin went up as if he had been struck.

“Oh! I didn’t mean it, Jon. What a horrible thing to say!” Swiftly she came close to him. “Jon, dear; I didn’t mean it.”

“All right.”

She had put her two hands on his shoulder, and her forehead down on them; the brim of her hat touched his neck, and he felt it quivering. But, in a sort of paralysis, he made no response. She let go of his shoulder and drew away.

“Well, I’ll go, if you don’t want me. But I never thought you’d have given me up.”

“I HAVEN’T,” cried Jon, coming suddenly to life. “I can’t. I’ll try again.”

She swayed towards him. “Jon — I love you! Don’t give me up! If you do, I don’t know what I shall do — I feel so desperate. What does it matter — all that past — compared with THIS?”

She clung to him. He kissed her eyes, her cheeks, her lips. But while he kissed her he saw the sheets of that letter fallen down on the floor of his bedroom — his father’s white dead face — his mother kneeling before it. Fleur’s whisper: “Make her! Promise! Oh! Jon, try!” seemed childish in his ear. He felt curiously old.

“I promise!” he muttered. “Only, you don’t understand.”

“She wants to spoil our lives, just because —”

“Yes, of what?”

Again that challenge in his voice, and she did not answer. Her arms tightened round him, and he returned her kisses; but even while he yielded, the poison worked in him, the poison of the letter. Fleur did not know, she did not understand — she misjudged his mother; she came from the enemy’s camp! So lovely, and he loved her so — yet, even in her embrace, he could not help the memory of Holly’s words: “I think she has a ‘having’ nature,” and his mother’s: “My darling boy; don’t think of me — think of yourself.”

When she was gone like a passionate dream, leaving her image on his eyes, her kisses on his lips, such an ache in his heart, Jon leaned in the window, listening to the car bearing her away. Still the scent as of warm strawberries, still the little summer sounds that should make his song; still all the promise of youth and happiness in sighing, floating, fluttering July — and his heart torn; yearning strong in him; hope high in him, yet with its eyes cast down, as if ashamed. The miserable task before him! If Fleur was desperate, so was he — watching the poplars swaying, the white clouds passing, the sunlight on the grass.

He waited till evening, till after their almost silent dinner, till his mother had played to him — and still he waited, feeling that she knew what he was waiting to say. She kissed him and went up-stairs, and still he lingered, watching the moonlight and the moths, and that unreality of colouring which steals along and stains a summer night. And he would have given anything to be back in the past — barely three months back; or away forward, years, in the future. The present with this stark cruelty of a decision, one way or the other, seemed impossible. He realised now so much more keenly what his mother felt than he had at first; as if the story in that letter had been a poisonous germ producing a kind of fever of partisanship, so that he really felt there were two camps, his mother’s and his — Fleur’s and her father’s. It might be a dead thing, that old tragic ownership and enmity, but dead things were poisonous till Time had cleaned them away. Even his love felt tainted, less illusioned, more of the earth, and with a treacherous lurking doubt lest Fleur, like her father, might want to OWN; not articulate, just a stealing haunt, horribly unworthy, which crept in and about the ardour of his memories, touched with its tarnishing breath the vividness and grace of that charmed face and figure — a doubt, not real enough to convince him of its presence, just real enough to deflower a perfect faith. And perfect faith, to Jon, not yet twenty, was essential. He still had Youth’s eagerness to give with both hands, to take with neither — to give lovingly to one who had his own impulsive generosity. Surely she had! He got up from the window-seat and roamed in the big grey ghostly room, whose walls were hung with silvered canvas. This house — his father said in that death-bed letter — had been built for his mother to live in-with Fleur’s father! He put out his hand in the half-dark, as if to grasp the shadowy hand of the dead. He clenched, trying to feel the thin vanished fingers of his father; to squeeze them, and reassure him that he — he was on his father’s side. Tears, prisoned within him, made his eyes feel dry and hot. He went back to the window. It was warmer, not so eerie, more comforting outside, where the moon hung golden, three days off full; the freedom of the night was comforting. If only Fleur and he had met on some desert island without a past — and Nature for their house! Jon had still his high regard for desert islands, where breadfruit grew, and the water was blue above the coral. The night was deep, was free — there was enticement in it; a lure, a promise, a refuge from entanglement, and love! Milksop tied to his mother’s —! His cheeks burned. He shut the window, drew curtains over it, switched off the lighted sconce, and went up-stairs.

The door of his room was open, the light turned up; his mother, still in her evening gown, was standing at the window. She turned, and said:

“Sit down, Jon; let’s talk.” She sat down on the window-seat, Jon on his bed. She had her profile turned to him, and the beauty and grace of her figure, the delicate line of the brow, the nose, the neck, the strange and as it were remote refinement of her, moved him. His mother never belonged to her surroundings. She came into them from somewhere — as it were! What was she going to say to him, who had in his heart such things to say to her?

“I know Fleur came today. I’m not surprised.” It was as though she had added: “She is her father’s daughter!” And Jon’s heart hardened. Irene went on quietly:

“I have Father’s letter. I picked it up that night and kept it. Would you like it back, dear?”

Jon shook his head.

“I had read it, of course, before he gave it to you. It didn’t quite do justice to my criminality.”

“Mother!” burst from Jon’s lips.

“He put it very sweetly, but I know that in marrying Fleur’s father without love I did a dreadful thing. An unhappy marriage, Jon, can play such havoc with other lives besides one’s own. You are fearfully young, my darling, and fearfully loving. Do you think you can possibly be happy with this girl?”

Staring at her dark eyes, darker now from pain, Jon answered:

“Yes; oh! yes — if YOU could be.”

Irene smiled.

“Admiration of beauty, and longing for possession are not love. If yours were another case like mine, Jon — where the deepest things are stifled; the flesh joined, and the spirit at war!”

“Why should it, Mother? You think she must be like her father, but she’s not. I’ve seen him.”

Again the smile came on Irene’s lips, and in Jon something wavered; there was such irony and experience in that smile.

“You are a giver, Jon; she is a taker.”

That unworthy doubt, that haunting uncertainty again! He said with vehemence:

“She isn’t — she isn’t. It’s only because I can’t bear to make you unhappy, Mother, now that Father —” He thrust his fists against his forehead.

Irene got up.

“I told you that night, dear, not to mind me. I meant it. Think of yourself and your own happiness! I can stand what’s left — I’ve brought it on myself.”

Again the word: “Mother!” burst from Jon’s lips.

She came over to him and put her hands over his.

“Do you feel your head, darling?”

Jon shook it. What he felt was in his chest — a sort of tearing asunder of the tissue there, by the two loves.

“I shall always love you the same, Jon, whatever you do. You won’t lose anything.” She smoothed his hair gently, and walked away.

He heard the door shut; and, rolling over on the bed, lay, stifling his breath, with an awful held-up feeling within him.

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