To Let, by John Galsworthy

III

At Robin Hill

Jolyon Forsyte had spent his boy’s nineteenth birthday at Robin Hill, quietly going into his affairs. He did everything quietly now, because his heart was in a poor way, and, like all his family, he disliked the idea of dying. He had never realised how much till one day, two years ago, he had gone to his doctor about certain symptoms, and been told:

“At any moment, on any overstrain.”

He had taken it with a smile — the natural Forsyte reaction against an unpleasant truth. But with an increase of symptoms in the train on the way home, he had realised to the full the sentence hanging over him. To leave Irene, his boy, his home, his work — though he did little enough work now! To leave them for unknown darkness, for the unimaginable state, for such nothingness that he would not even be conscious of wind stirring leaves above his grave, nor of the scent of earth and grass. Of such nothingness that, however hard he might try to conceive it, he never could, and must still hover on the hope that he might see again those he loved! To realise this was to endure very poignant spiritual anguish. Before he reached home that day, he had determined to keep it from Irene. He would have to be more careful than man had ever been, for the least thing would give it away and make her as wretched as himself, almost. His doctor had passed him sound in other respects, and seventy was nothing of an age — he would last a long time yet, IF HE COULD!

Such a conclusion, followed out for nearly two years, develops to the full the subtler side of character. Naturally not abrupt, except when nervously excited, Jolyon had become control incarnate. The sad patience of old people who cannot exert themselves was masked by a smile which his lips preserved even in private. He devised continually all manner of cover to conceal his enforced lack of exertion. Mocking himself for so doing, he counterfeited conversion to the Simple Life; gave up wine and cigars, drank a special kind of coffee with no coffee in it. In short, he made himself as safe as a Forsyte in his condition could, under the rose of his mild irony. Secure from discovery, since his wife and son had gone up to Town, he had spent the fine May day quietly arranging his papers, that he might die tomorrow without inconveniencing any one, giving in fact a final polish to his terrestrial state. Having docketed and enclosed it in his father’s old Chinese cabinet, he put the key into an envelope, wrote the words outside: “Key of the Chinese cabinet, wherein will be found the exact state of me. J.F.,” and put it in his breast-pocket, where it would be, always about him, in case of accident. Then, ringing for tea, he went out to have it under the old oak-tree.

All are under sentence of death; Jolyon, whose sentence was but a little more precise and pressing, had become so used to it, that he thought habitually, like other people, of other things. He thought of his son now.

Jon was nineteen that day, and Jon had come of late to a decision. Educated neither at Eton like his father, nor at Harrow, like his dead half-brother, but at one of those establishments which, designed to avoid the evil and contain the good of the Public School system, may or may not contain the evil and avoid the good, Jon had left in April perfectly ignorant of what he wanted to become. The War, which had promised to go on for ever, had ended just as he was about to join the army, six months before his time. It had taken him ever since to get used to the idea that he could now choose for himself. He had held with his father several discussions, from which, under a cheery show of being ready for anything — except, of course, the Church, Army, Law, Stage, Stock Exchange, Medicine, Business, and Engineering — Jolyon had gathered rather clearly that Jon wanted to go in for nothing. He himself had felt exactly like that at the same age. With him that pleasant vacuity had soon been ended by an early marriage, and its unhappy consequences. Forced to become an underwriter at Lloyd’s he had regained prosperity before his artistic talent had outcropped. But having — as the simple say —“learned” his boy to draw pigs and other animals, he knew that Jon would never be a painter, and inclined to the conclusion that his aversion from everything else meant that he was going to be a writer. Holding, however, the view that experience was necessary even for that profession, there seemed to Jolyon nothing in the meantime, for Jon, but University, travel, and perhaps the eating of dinners for the Bar. After that one would see, or more probably one would not. In face of these proffered allurements, however, Jon had remained undecided.

Such discussions with his son had confirmed in Jolyon a doubt whether the world had really changed. People said that it was a new age. With the profundity of one not too long for any age, Jolyon perceived that under slightly different surfaces, the era was precisely what it had been. Mankind was still divided into two species: The few who had “speculation” in their souls, and the many who had none, with a belt of hybrids like himself in the middle. Jon appeared to have speculation; it seemed to his father a bad lookout.

With something deeper, therefore, than his usual smile, he had heard the boy say, a fortnight ago: “I should like to try farming, Dad; if it won’t cost you too much. It seems to be about the only sort of life that doesn’t hurt anybody; except art, and of course that’s out of the question for me.”

Jolyon subdued his smile, and answered:

“All right; you shall skip back to where we were under the first Jolyon in 1760. It’ll prove the cycle theory, and incidentally, no doubt, you may grow a better turnip than he did.”

A little dashed, Jon had answered:

“But don’t you think it’s a good scheme, Dad?”

“Twill serve, my dear; and if you should really take to it, you’ll do more good than most men, which is little enough.”

To himself, however, he had said: “But he won’t take to it. I give him four years. Still, it’s healthy, and harmless.”

After turning the matter over and consulting with Irene, he wrote to his daughter Mrs. Val Dortie, asking if they knew of a farmer near them on the Downs who would take Jon as an apprentice. Holly’s answer had been enthusiastic. There was an excellent man quite close; she and Val would love Jon to live with them.

The boy was due to go tomorrow.

Sipping weak tea with lemon in it, Jolyon gazed through the leaves of the old oak-tree at that view which had appeared to him desirable for thirty-two years. The tree beneath which he sat seemed not a day older! So young, the little leaves of brownish gold; so old, the whitey-grey-green of its thick rough trunk, A tree of memories, which would live on hundreds of years yet, unless some barbarian cut it down — would see old England out at the pace things were going! He remembered a night three years before, when, looking from his window, with his arm close round Irene, he had watched a German aeroplane hovering, it seemed, right over the old tree. Next day they had found a bomb hole in a field on Gage’s farm. That was before he knew that he was under sentence of death. He could almost have wished the bomb had finished him. It would have saved a lot of hanging about, many hours of cold fear in the pit of his stomach. He had counted on living to the normal Forsyte age of eighty-five or more, when Irene would be seventy. As it was, she would miss him. Still there was Jon, more important in her life than himself; Jon, who adored his mother.

Under that tree, where old Jolyon — waiting for Irene to come to him across the lawn — had breathed his last, Jolyon wondered, whimsically, whether, having put everything in such perfect order, he had not better close his own eyes and drift away. There was something undignified in parasitically clinging on to the effortless close of a life wherein he regretted two things only — the long division between his father and himself when he was young, and the lateness of his union with Irene.

From where he sat he could see a cluster of apple-trees in blossom. Nothing in Nature moved him so much as fruit-trees in blossom; and his heart ached suddenly because he might never see them flower again. Spring! Decidedly no man ought to have to die while his heart was still young enough to love beauty! Blackbirds sang recklessly in the shrubbery, swallows were flying high, the leaves above him glistened; and over the fields was every imaginable tint of early foliage, burnished by the level sunlight, away to where the distant ‘smoke-bush’ blue was trailed along the horizon. Irene’s flowers in their narrow beds had startling individuality that evening, little deep assertions of gay life. Only Chinese and Japanese painters, and perhaps Leonardo, had known how to get that startling little ego into each painted flower, and bird, and beast — the ego, yet the sense of species, the universality of life as well. They were the fellows! ‘I’ve made nothing that will live!’ thought Jolyon; ‘I’ve been an amateur — a mere lover, not a creator. Still, I shall leave Jon behind me when I go.’ What luck that the boy had not been caught by that ghastly war! He might so easily have been killed, like poor Jolly twenty years ago out in the Transvaal. Jon would do something some day — if the Age didn’t spoil him — an imaginative chap! His whim to take up farming was but a bit of sentiment, and about as likely to last. And just then he saw them coming up the field: Irene and the boy, walking from the station, with their arms linked. And, getting up, he strolled down through the new rose garden to meet them. . . .

Irene came into his room that night and sat down by the window. She sat there without speaking till he said:

“What is it, my love?”

“We had an encounter today.”

“With whom?”

“Soames.”

Soames! He had kept that name out of his thoughts these last two years; conscious that it was bad for him. And, now, his heart moved in a disconcerting manner, as if it had side-slipped within his chest.

Irene went on quietly:

“He and his daughter were in the Gallery, and afterwards at the confectioner’s where we had tea.”

Jolyon went over and put his hand on her shoulder.

“How did he look?”

“Grey; but otherwise much the same.”

“And the daughter?”

“Pretty. At least, Jon thought so.”

Jolyon’s heart side-slipped again. His wife’s face had a strained and puzzled look.

“You didn’t —?” he began.

“No; but Jon knows their name. The girl dropped her handkerchief and he picked it up.”

Jolyon sat down on his bed. An evil chance!

“June was with you. Did she put her foot into it?”

“No; but it was all very queer and strained, and Jon could see it was.”

Jolyon drew a long breath, and said:

“I’ve often wondered whether we’ve been right to keep it from him. He’ll find out some day.”

“The later the better, Jolyon; the young have such cheap, hard judgment. When you were nineteen what would you have thought of YOUR mother if she had done what I have?” Yes! There it was! Jon worshipped his mother; and knew nothing of the tragedies, the inexorable necessities of life, nothing of the prisoned grief in an unhappy marriage, nothing of jealousy, or passion — knew nothing at all, as yet!

“What have you told him?” he said at last.

“That they were relations, but we didn’t know them; that you had never cared much for your family, or they for you. I expect he will be asking YOU.”

Jolyon smiled. “This promises to take the place of air-raids,” he said. “After all, one misses them.”

Irene looked up at him.

“We’ve known it would come some day.”

He answered her with sudden energy:

“I could never stand seeing Jon blame you. He shan’t do that, even in thought. He has imagination; and he’ll understand if it’s put to him properly. I think I had better tell him before he gets to know otherwise.”

“Not yet, Jolyon.”

That was like her — she had no foresight, and never went to meet trouble. Still — who knew? — she might be right. It was ill going against a mother’s instinct. It might be well to let the boy go on, if possible, till experience had given him some touchstone by which he could judge the values of that old tragedy; till love, jealousy, longing, had deepened his charity. All the same, one must take precautions — every precaution possible! And, long after Irene had left him, he lay awake turning over those precautions. He must write to Holly, telling her that Jon knew nothing as yet of family history. Holly was discreet, she would make sure of her husband, she would see to it! Jon could take the letter with him when he went tomorrow.

And so the day on which he had put the polish on his material estate died out with the chiming of the stable clock; and another began for Jolyon in the shadow of a spiritual disorder which could not be so rounded off and polished. . . .

But Jon, whose room had once been his day nursery, lay awake too, the prey of a sensation disputed by those who have never known it, “love at first sight!” He had felt it beginning in him with the glint of those dark eyes gazing into his athwart the Juno — a conviction that this was his ‘dream’; so that what followed had seemed to him at once natural and miraculous. Fleur! Her name alone was almost enough for one who was terribly susceptible to the charm of words. In a homoeopathic age, when boys and girls were coeducated, and mixed up in early life till sex was almost abolished, Jon was singularly old-fashioned. His modern school took boys only, and his holidays had been spent at Robin Hill with boy friends, or his parents alone. He had never, therefore, been inoculated against the germs of love by small doses of the poison. And now in the dark his temperature was mounting fast. He lay awake, featuring Fleur — as they called it — recalling her words, especially that “Au revoir!” so soft and sprightly.

He was still so wide-awake at dawn that he got up, slipped on tennis shoes, trousers, and a sweater, and in silence crept down-stairs and out through the study window. It was just light; there was a smell of grass. ‘Fleur!’ he thought; ‘Fleur!’ It was mysteriously white out-of-doors, with nothing awake except the birds just beginning to chirp. ‘I’ll go down into the coppice,’ he thought. He ran down through the fields, reached the pond just as the sun rose, and passed into the coppice. Bluebells carpeted the ground there; among the larch-trees there was mystery — the air, as it were, composed of that romantic quality. Jon sniffed its freshness, and stared at the bluebells in the sharpening light. Fleur! It rhymed with her! And she lived at Mapledurham — a jolly name, too, on the river somewhere. He could find it in the atlas presently. He would write to her. But would she answer? Oh! She must. She had said “Au revoir!” Not good-bye! What luck that she had dropped her handkerchief. He would never have known her but for that. And the more he thought of that handkerchief, the more amazing his luck seemed. Fleur! It certainly rhymed with her! Rhythm thronged his head; words jostled to be joined together; he was on the verge of a poem.

Jon remained in this condition for more than half an hour, then returned to the house, and getting a ladder, climbed in at his bedroom window out of sheer exhilaration. Then, remembering that the study window was open, he went down and shut it, first removing the ladder, so as to obliterate all traces of his feeling. The thing was too deep to be revealed to mortal soul — even to his mother.

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