To Let, by John Galsworthy

VI

Jon

Mrs. Val Dartie, after twenty years of South Africa, had fallen deeply in love, fortunately with something of her own, for the object of her passion was the prospect in front of her windows, the cool clear light on the green Downs. It was England again, at last! England more beautiful than she had dreamed. Chance had, in fact, guided the Val Darties to a spot where the South Downs had real charm when the sun shone. Holly had enough of her father’s eye to apprehend the rare quality of their outlines and chalky radiance; to go up there by the ravine-like lane and wander along towards Chanctonbury or Amberley, was still a delight which she hardly attempted to share with Val, whose admiration of Nature was confused by a Forsyte’s instinct for getting something out of it, such as the condition of the turf for his horses’ exercise.

Driving the Ford home with a certain humouring smoothness, she promised herself that the first use she would make of Jon would be to take him up there, and show him “the view” under this May-day sky.

She was looking forward to her young half-brother with a motherliness not exhausted by Val. A three-day visit to Robin Hill, soon after their arrival home, had yielded no sight of him — he was still at school; so that her recollection, like Val’s, was of a little sunny-haired boy striped blue and yellow, down by the pond.

Those three days at Robin Hill had been exciting, sad, embarrassing. Memories of her dead brother, memories of Val’s courtship; the aging of her father, not seen for twenty years, something funereal in his ironic gentleness which did not escape one who had much subtle instinct; above all, the presence of her stepmother, whom she could still vaguely remember as the “lady in grey” of days when she was little and grandfather alive and Mademoiselle Beauce so cross because that intruder gave her music lessons — all these confused and tantalised a spirit which had longed to find Robin Hill untroubled. But Holly was adept at keeping things to herself, and all had seemed to go quite well.

Her father had kissed her when she left him, with lips which she was sure had trembled.

“Well, my dear,” he said, “the war hasn’t changed Robin Hill, has it? If only you could have brought Jolly back with you! I say, can you stand this spiritualistic racket? When the oak-tree dies, it dies, I’m afraid.”

From the warmth of her embrace he probably divined that he had let the cat out of his bag, for he rode off at once on irony.

“Spiritualism — queer word, when the more they manifest the more they prove that they’ve got hold of matter.”

“How?” said Holly.

“Why! Look at their photographs of auric presences. You must have something material for light and shade to fall on before you can take a photograph. No, it’ll end in our calling all matter spirit, or all spirit matter — I don’t know which.”

“But don’t you believe in survival, Dad?”

Jolyon had looked at her, and the sad whimsicality of his face impressed her deeply.

“Well, my dear, I should like to get something out of death. I’ve been looking into it a bit. But for the life of me I can’t find anything that telepathy, subconsciousness, and emanation from the storehouse of this world can’t account for just as well. Wish I could! Wishes father thoughts but they don’t breed evidence.”

Holly had pressed her lips again to his forehead with a feeling that it confirmed his theory that all matter was becoming spirit — his brow felt somehow so insubstantial.

But the most poignant memory of that little visit had been watching, unobserved, her stepmother reading to herself a letter from Jon. It was — she decided — the prettiest sight she had ever seen. Irene, lost as it were in the letter of her boy, stood at a window where the light fell on her face and her fine grey hair; her lips were moving, smiling, her dark eyes laughing, dancing, and the hand which did not hold the letter was pressed against her breast. Holly withdrew as from a vision of perfect love, convinced that Jon must be nice.

When she saw him coming out of the station with a kit-bag in either hand, she was confirmed in her predisposition. He was a little like Jolly, that long-lost idol of her childhood, but eager-looking and less formal, with deeper eyes and brighter-coloured hair, for he wore no hat; altogether a very interesting “little” brother!

His tentative politeness charmed one who was accustomed to assurance in the youthful manner; he was disturbed because she was to drive him home, instead of his driving her. Shouldn’t he have a shot? They hadn’t a car at Robin Hill since the war, of course, and he had only driven once, and landed up a bank, so she oughtn’t to mind his trying. His laugh, soft and infectious, was very attractive, though that word, she had heard, was now quite old-fashioned. When they reached the house he pulled out a crumpled letter which she read while he was washing — a quite short letter, which must have cost her father many a pang to write.

“MY DEAR,

“You and Val will not forget, I trust, that Jon knows nothing of family history. His mother and I think he is too young at present. The boy is very dear, and the apple of her eye. Verbum sapientibus.

Your loving father, J. F.”

That was all; but it renewed in Holly an uneasy regret that Fleur was coming.

After tea she fulfilled that promise to herself and took Jon up the hill. They had a long talk, sitting above an old chalk-pit grown over with brambles and goosepenny. Milkwort and liverwort starred the green slope, the larks sang, and thrushes in the brake, and now and then a gull flighting inland would wheel very white against the paling sky, where the vague moon was coming up. Delicious fragrance came to them, as if little invisible creatures were running and treading scent out of the blades of grass.

Jon, who had fallen silent, said rather suddenly: “I say, this is wonderful! There’s no fat on it at all. Gull’s flight and sheep-bells —”

“Gull’s flight and sheep-bells! You’re a poet, my dear!”

Jon sighed.

“Oh, Golly! No go!”

“Try! I used to at your age.”

“Did you? Mother says ‘try’ too; but I’m so rotten. Have you any of yours for me to see?”

“My dear,” Holly murmured, “I’ve been married nineteen years. I only wrote verses when I wanted to be.”

“Oh!” said Jon, and turned over on to his face: the one cheek she could see was a charming colour. Was Jon “touched in the wind,” then, as Val would have called it? Already? But, if so, all the better, he would take no notice of young Fleur. Besides, on Monday he would begin his farming. And she smiled. Was it Burns who followed the plough, or only Piers Plowman? Nearly every young man and most young women seemed to be poets nowadays, from the number of their books she had read out in South Africa, importing them from Hatchus and Bumphards; and quite good — oh! quite; much better than she had been herself! But then poetry had only really come in since her day — with motor-cars. Another long talk after dinner over a wood fire in the low hall, and there seemed little left to know about Jon except anything of real importance. Holly parted from him at his bedroom door, having seen twice over that he had everything, with the conviction that she would love him, and Val would like him. He was eager, but did not gush; he was a splendid listener, sympathetic, reticent about himself. He evidently loved their father, and adored his mother. He liked riding, rowing, and fencing, better than games. He saved moths from candles, and couldn’t bear spiders, but put them out of doors in screws of paper sooner than kill them. In a word, he was amiable. She went to sleep, thinking that he would suffer horribly if anybody hurt him; but who would hurt him?

Jon, on the other hand, sat awake at his window with a bit of paper and a pencil, writing his first “real poem” by the light of a candle because there was not enough moon to see by, only enough to make the night seem fluttery and as if engraved on silver. Just the night for Fleur to walk, and turn her eyes, and lead on — over the hills and far away. And Jon, deeply furrowed in his ingenuous brow, made marks on the paper and rubbed them out and wrote them in again, and did all that was necessary for the completion of a work of art; and he had a feeling such as the winds of Spring must have, trying their first songs among the coming blossom. Jon was one of those boys (not many) in whom a home-trained love of beauty had survived school life. He had had to keep it to himself, of course, so that not even the drawing-master knew of it; but it was there, fastidious and clear within him. And his poem seemed to him as lame and stilted as the night was winged. But he kept it all the same. It was a “beast,” but better than nothing as an expression of the inexpressible. And he thought with a sort of discomfiture: ‘I shan’t be able to show it to Mother.’ He slept terribly well, when he did sleep, overwhelmed by novelty.

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