To Let, by John Galsworthy

VII

Embassy

Enquiring for her at tea time Soames learned that Fleur had been out in the car since two. Three hours! Where had she gone? Up to London without a word to him? He had never become quite reconciled with cars. He had embraced them in principle — like the born empiricist, or Forsyte, that he was — adopting each symptom of progress as it came along with: “Well, we couldn’t do without them now.” But in fact he found them tearing, great, smelly things. Obliged by Annette to have one — a Rollhard with pearl-grey cushions, electric light, little mirrors, trays for the ashes of cigarettes, flower vases — all smelling of petrol and stephanotis — he regarded it much as he used to regard his brother-inlaw, Montague Dartie. The thing typified all that was fast, insecure, and subcutaneously oily in modern life. As modern life became faster, looser, younger, Soames was becoming older, slower, tighter, more and more in thought and language like his father James before him. He was almost aware of it himself. Pace and progress pleased him less and less; there was an ostentation, too, about a car which he considered provocative in the prevailing mood of Labour. On one occasion that fellow Sims had driven over the only vested interest of a working man. Soames had not forgotten the behaviour of its master, when not many people would have stopped to put up with it. He had been sorry for the dog, and quite prepared to take its part against the car, if that ruffian hadn’t been so outrageous. With four hours fast becoming five, and still no Fleur, all the old car-wise feelings he had experienced in person and by proxy balled within him, and sinking sensations troubled the pit of his stomach. At seven he telephoned to Winifred by trunk call. No! Fleur had not been to Green Street. Then where was she? Visions of his beloved daughter rolled up in her pretty frills, all blood-and-dust-stained, in some hideous catastrophe, began to haunt him. He went to her room and spied among her things. She had taken nothing — no dressing-case, no jewellery. And this, a relief in one sense, increased his fears of an accident. Terrible to be helpless when his loved one was missing, especially when he couldn’t bear fuss or publicity of any kind! What should he do, if she were not back by nightfall?

At a quarter to eight he heard the car. A great weight lifted from off his heart; he hurried down. She was getting out — pale and tired-looking, but nothing wrong. He met her in the hall.

“You’ve frightened me. Where have you been?”

“To Robin Hill. I’m sorry, dear. I had to go; I’ll tell you afterwards.” And, with a flying kiss, she ran up-stairs.

Soames waited in the drawing-room. To Robin Hill! What did that portend?

It was not a subject they could discuss at dinner — consecrated to the susceptibilities of the butler. The agony of nerves Soames had been through, the relief he felt at her safety, softened his power to condemn what she had done, or resist what she was going to do; he waited in a relaxed stupor for her revelation. Life was a queer business. There he was at sixty-five and no more in command of things than if he had not spent forty years in building up security — always something one couldn’t get on terms with! In the pocket of his dinner-jacket was a letter from Annette. She was coming back in a fortnight. He knew nothing of what she had been doing out there. And he was glad that he did not. Her absence had been a relief. Out of sight was out of mind! And now she was coming back. Another worry! And the Bolderby Old Crome was gone — Dumetrius had got it — all because that anonymous letter had put it out of his thoughts. He furtively remarked the strained look on his daughter’s face, as if she too were gazing at a picture that she couldn’t buy. He almost wished the war back. Worries didn’t seem, then, quite so worrying. From the caress in her voice, the look on her face, he became certain that she wanted something from him, uncertain whether it would be wise of him to give it her. He pushed his savoury away uneaten, and even joined her in a cigarette.

After dinner she set the electric piano-player going. And he augured the worst when she sat down on a cushion footstool at his knee, and put her hand on his.

“Darling, be nice to me. I had to see Jon — he wrote to me. He’s going to try what he can do with his mother. But I’ve been thinking. But it’s really in YOUR hands, Father. If you’d persuade her that it doesn’t mean renewing the past in any way! That I shall stay yours, and Jon will stay hers; that you need never see him or her, and she need never see you or me! Only you could persuade her, dear, because only you could promise. One can’t promise for other people. Surely it wouldn’t be too awkward for you to see her just this once — now that Jon’s father is dead?”

“Too awkward?” Soames repeated. “The whole thing’s preposterous.”

“You know,” said Fleur, without looking up, “you wouldn’t mind seeing her, really.”

Soames was silent. Her words had expressed a truth too deep for him to admit. She slipped her fingers between his own — hot, slim, eager, they clung there. This child of his would corkscrew her way into a brick wall!

“What am I to do, if you won’t, Father?” she said very softly.

“I’ll do anything for your happiness,” said Soames; “but this isn’t for your happiness.”

“Oh! it is; it is!”

“It’ll only stir things up,” he said grimly.

“But they are stirred up. The thing is to quiet them. To make her feel that this is just OUR lives, and has nothing to do with yours or hers. You can do it, Father, I know you can.”

“You know a great deal, then,” was Soames’ glum answer.

“If you will, Jon and I will wait a year — two years if you like.”

“It seems to me,” murmured Soames, “that you care nothing about what I feel.”

Fleur pressed his hand against her cheek.

“I do, darling. But you wouldn’t like me to be awfully miserable.” How she wheedled to get her ends! And trying with all his might to think she really cared for him — he was not sure — not sure. All she cared for was this boy! Why should he help her to get this boy, who was killing her affection for himself? Why should he? By the laws of the Forsytes it was foolish! There was nothing to be had out of it — nothing! To give her to that boy! To pass her into the enemy’s camp, under the influence of the woman who had injured him so deeply! Slowly — inevitably — he would lose this flower of his life! And suddenly he was conscious that his hand was wet. His heart gave a little painful jump. He couldn’t bear her to cry. He put his other hand quickly over hers, and a tear dropped on that, too. He couldn’t go on like this! “Well, well,” he said, “I’ll think it over, and do what I can. Come, come!” If she must have it for her happiness — she must; he couldn’t refuse to help her. And lest she should begin to thank him he got out of his chair and went up to the piano-player — making that noise! It ran down, as he reached it, with a faint buzz. That musical box of his nursery days: “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” “Glorious Port”— the thing had always made him miserable when his mother set it going on Sunday afternoons. Here it was again — the same thing, only larger, more expensive, and now it played: “The Wild Wild Women” and “The Policeman’s Holiday,” and he was no longer in black velvet with a sky-blue collar. ‘Profond’s right,’ he thought, ‘there’s nothing in it! We’re all progressing to the grave!’ And with that surprising mental comment he walked out.

He did not see Fleur again that night. But, at breakfast, her eyes followed him about with an appeal he could not escape — not that he intended to try. No! He had made up his mind to the nerve-racking business. He would go to Robin Hill — to that house of memories. A pleasant memory — the last! Of going down to keep that boy’s father and Irene apart by threatening divorce. He had often thought, since, that it had clenched their union. And, now, he was going to clench the union of that boy with his girl. ‘I don’t know what I’ve done,’ he thought, ‘to have such things thrust on me!’ He went up by train and down by train, and from the station walked by the long rising lane, still very much as he remembered it over thirty years ago. Funny — so near London! Some one evidently was holding on to the land there. This speculation soothed him, moving between the high hedges slowly, so as not to get overheated, though the day was chill enough. After all was said and done there was something real about land, it didn’t shift. Land, and good pictures! The values might fluctuate a bit, but on the whole they were always going up — worth holding on to, in a world where there was such a lot of unreality, cheap building, changing fashions, such a “Here today and gone tomorrow” spirit. The French were right, perhaps, with their peasant proprietorship, though he had no opinion of the French. One’s bit of land! Something solid in it! He had heard peasant-proprietors described as a pig-headed lot; had heard young Mont call his father a pig-headed Morning Poster — disrespectful young devil. Well, there were worse things than being pig-headed or reading The Morning Post. There was Profond and his tribe, and all these Labour chaps, and loud-mouthed politicians, and “wild, wild women”! A lot of worse things! And, suddenly, Soames became conscious of feeling weak, and hot, and shaky. Sheer nerves at the meeting before him! As Aunt Juley might have said — quoting “Superior Dosset”— his nerves were “in a proper fantigue.” He could see the house now among its trees, the house he had watched being built, intending it for himself and this woman, who, by such strange fate, had lived in it with another after all! He began to think of Dumetrius, Local Loans, and other forms of investment. He could not afford to meet her with his nerves all shaking; he who represented the Day of Judgment for her on earth as it was in heaven; he, legal ownership, personified, meeting lawless beauty, incarnate. His dignity demanded impassivity during this embassy designed to link their offspring, who, if she had behaved herself, would have been brother and sister. That wretched tune: “The Wild Wild Women” kept running in his head, perversely, for tunes did not run there as a rule. Passing the poplars in front of the house, he thought: ‘How they’ve grown; I had them planted!’

A maid answered his ring.

“Will you say — Mr. Forsyte, on a very special matter.”

If she realised who he was, quite probably she would not see him. ‘By George!’ he thought, hardening as the tug came: ‘It’s a topsyturvy affair!’

The maid came back. Would the gentleman state his business, please?

“Say it concerns Mr. Jon,” said Soames.

And once more he was alone in that hall with the pool of grey-white marble designed by her first lover. Ah! she had been a bad lot — had loved two men, and not himself! He must remember that when he came face to face with her once more. And suddenly he saw her in the opening chink between the long heavy purple curtains, swaying, as if in hesitation; the old perfect poise and line, the old startled dark-eyed gravity; the old calm defensive voice: “Will you come in, please?”

He passed through that opening. As in the picture-gallery and the confectioner’s shop, she seemed to him still beautiful. And this was the first time — the very first — since he married her five and thirty years ago, that he was speaking to her without the legal right to call her his. She was not wearing black — one of that fellow’s radical notions, he supposed.

“I apologise for coming,” he said glumly; “but this business must be settled one way or the other.”

“Won’t you sit down?”

“No, thank you.”

Anger at his false position, impatience of ceremony between them, mastered him, and words came tumbling out:

“It’s an infernal mischance; I’ve done my best to discourage it. I consider my daughter crazy, but I’ve got into the habit of indulging her; that’s why I’m here. I suppose you’re fond of your son.”

“Devotedly.”

“Well?”

“It rests with him.”

He had a sense of being met and baffled. Always — always she had baffled him, even in those old first married days.

“It’s a mad notion,” he said.

“It is.”

“If you had only —! Well — they might have been —” he did not finish that sentence “brother and sister and all this saved,” but he saw her shudder as if he had, and stung by the sight, he crossed over to the window. Out THERE the trees had not grown — they couldn’t, they were old!

“So far as I’m concerned,” he said, “you may make your mind easy. I desire to see neither you nor your son if this marriage comes about. Young people in these days are — are unaccountable. But I can’t bear to see my daughter unhappy. What am I to say to her when I go back?”

“Please say to her, as I said to you, that it rests with Jon.”

“You don’t oppose it?”

“With all my heart; not with my lips.”

Soames stood, biting his finger.

“I remember an evening —” he said suddenly; and was silent. What was there — what was there in this woman that would not fit into the four comers of his hate or condemnation? “Where is he — your son?”

“Up in his father’s studio, I think.”

“Perhaps you’d have him down.”

He watched her ring the bell, he watched the maid come in.

“Please tell Mr. Jon that I want him.”

“If it rests with him,” said Soames hurriedly, when the maid was gone, “I suppose I may take it for granted that this unnatural marriage will take place: in that case there’ll be formalities. Whom do I deal with — Herring’s?” Irene nodded.

“You don’t propose to live with them?”

Irene shook her head.

“What happens to this house?”

“It will be as Jon wishes.”

“This house,” said Soames suddenly: “I had hopes when I began it. If THEY live in it — their children! They say there’s such a thing as Nemesis. Do you believe in it?”

“Yes.”

“Oh! You do!” He had come back from the window, and was standing close to her, who, in the curve of her grand piano, was, as it were, embayed.

“I’m not likely to see you again,” he said slowly: “Will you shake hands,” his lip quivered, the words came out jerkily, “and let the past die?” He held out his hand. Her pale face grew paler, her eyes so dark, rested immovably on his, but her hands remained clasped in front of her. He heard a sound and turned. That boy was standing in the opening of the curtains. Very queer he looked, hardly recognisable as the young fellow he had seen in the Gallery off Cork Street — very queer; much older, no youth in the face at all — haggard, rigid, his hair ruffled, his eyes deep in his head. Soames made an effort, and said with a lift of his lip, not quite a smile nor quite a sneer:

“Well, young man! I’m here for my daughter; it rests with you, it seems — this matter. Your mother leaves it in your hands.”

The boy continued staring at his mother’s face, and made no answer.

“For my daughter’s sake I’ve brought myself to come,” said Soames. “What am I to say to her when I go back?”

Still looking at his mother, the boy said, quietly:

“Tell Fleur that it’s no good, please; I must do as my father wished before he died.”

“Jon!”

“It’s all right, Mother.”

In a kind of stupefaction Soames looked from one to the other; then, taking up hat and umbrella, which he had put down on a chair, he walked towards the curtains. The boy stood aside for him to go by. He passed through and heard the grate of the rings as the curtains were drawn behind him. The sound liberated something in his chest.

‘So that’s that!’ he thought, and passed out of the front door.

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