To Let, by John Galsworthy

VII

Fleur

To avoid the awkwardness of questions which could not be answered, all that had been told Jon was: “There’s a girl coming down with Val for the week-end.”

For the same reason, all that had been told Fleur was: “We’ve got a youngster staying with us.”

The two yearlings, as Val called them in his thoughts, met therefore in a manner which for unpreparedness left nothing to be desired. They were thus introduced by Holly:

“This is Jon, my little brother; Fleur’s a cousin of ours, Jon.”

Jon, who was coming in through a French window out of strong sunlight, was so confounded by the providential nature of this miracle, that he had time to hear Fleur say calmly: “Oh, how do you do?” as if he had never seen her, and to understand dimly from the quickest imaginable little movement of her head that he never HAD seen her. He bowed therefore over her hand in an intoxicated manner, and became more silent than the grave. He knew better than to speak. Once in his early life, surprised reading by a night-light, he had said fatuously “I was just turning over the leaves, Mum,” and his mother had replied: “Jon, never tell stories, because of your face — nobody will ever believe them.”

The saying had permanently undermined the confidence necessary to the success of spoken untruth. He listened therefore to Fleur’s swift and rapt allusions to the jolliness of everything, plied her with scones and jam, and got away as soon as might be. They say that in delirium tremens you see a fixed object, preferably dark, which suddenly changes shape and position. Jon saw the fixed object; it had dark eyes and passably dark hair, and changed its position, but never its shape. The knowledge that between him and that object there was already a secret understanding (however impossible to understand) thrilled him so that he waited feverishly, and began to copy out his poem — which of course he would never dare to show her — till the sound of horses’ hoofs roused him, and, leaning from his window, he saw her riding forth with Val. It was clear that she wasted no time; but the sight filled him with grief. He wasted his. If he had not bolted, in his fearful ecstasy, he might have been asked to go too. From his window he watched them disappear, appear again in the chine of the road, vanish, and emerge once more for a minute clear on the outline of the Down. ‘Silly brute!’ he thought; ‘I always miss my chances.’

Why couldn’t he be self-confident and ready? And, leaning his chin on his hands, he imagined the ride he might have had with her. A week-end was but a week-end, and he had missed three hours of it. Did he know any one except himself who would have been such a flat? He did not.

He dressed for dinner early, and was first down. He would miss no more. But he missed Fleur, who came down last. He sat opposite her at dinner, and it was terrible — impossible to say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing, impossible to keep his eyes fixed on her in the only natural way; in sum, impossible to treat normally one with whom in fancy he had already been over the hills and far away; conscious, too, all the time, that he must seem to her, to all of them, a dumb gawk. Yes, it was terrible! And she was talking so well — swooping with swift wing this way and that. Wonderful how she had learned an art which he found so disgustingly difficult. She must think him hopeless indeed!

His sister’s eyes fixed on him with a certain astonishment, obliged him at last to look at Fleur; but instantly her eyes, very wide and eager, seeming to say: “Oh! for goodness’ sake!” obliged him to look at Val; where a grin obliged him to look at his cutlet — that, at least, had no eyes, and no grin, and he ate it hastily.

“Jon is going to be a farmer,” he heard Holly say; “a farmer and a poet.”

He glanced up reproachfully, caught the comic lift of her eyebrow just like their father’s, laughed, and felt better.

Val recounted the incident of Monsieur Prosper Profond; nothing could have been more favourable, for, in relating it, he regarded Holly, who in turn regarded him, while Fleur seemed to be regarding with a slight frown some thought of her own, and Jon was really free to look at her at last. She had on a white frock, very simple and well made; her arms were bare, and her hair had a white rose in it. In just that swift moment of free vision, after such intense discomfort, Jon saw her sublimated, as one sees in the dark a slender white fruit-tree; caught her like a verse of poetry flashed before the eyes of the mind, or a tune which floats out in the distance and dies.

He wondered giddily how old she was — she seemed so much more self-possessed and experienced than himself. Why mustn’t he say they had met? He remembered suddenly his mother’s face; puzzled, hurt-looking, when she answered: “Yes, they’re relations, but we don’t know them.” Impossible that his mother, who loved beauty, should not admire Fleur if she did know her!

Alone with Val after dinner, he sipped port deferentially and answered the advances of this new-found brother-inlaw. As to riding (always the first consideration with Val) he could have the young chestnut, saddle and unsaddle it himself, and generally look after it when he brought it in. Jon said he was accustomed to all that at home, and saw that he had gone up one in his host’s estimation.

“Fleur,” said Val, “can’t ride much yet, but she’s keen. Of course, her father doesn’t know a horse from a cartwheel. Does your dad ride?”

“He used to; but now he’s — you know, he’s —” He stopped, so hating the word old. His father was old, and yet not old; no — never!

“Quite!” muttered Val. “I used to know your brother up at Oxford, ages ago, the one who died in the Boer War. We had a fight in New College Gardens. That was a queer business,” he added, musing; “a good deal came out of it.”

Jon’s eyes opened wide; all was pushing him towards historical research, when his sister’s voice said gently from the doorway:

“Come along, you two,” and he rose, his heart pushing him towards something far more modern.

Fleur having declared that it was “simply too wonderful to stay indoors,” they all went out. Moonlight was frosting the dew, and an old sun-dial threw a long shadow. Two box hedges at right angles, dark and square, barred off the orchard. Fleur turned through that angled opening.

“Come on!” she called. Jon glanced at the others, and followed. She was running among the trees like a ghost. All was lovely and foamlike above her, and there was a scent of old trunks, and of nettles. She vanished. He thought he had lost her, then almost ran into her standing quite still.

“Isn’t it jolly?” she cried, and Jon answered:

“Rather!”

She reached up, twisted off a blossom, and, twirling it in her fingers, said:

“I suppose I can call you Jon?”

“I should think so just.”

“All right! But you know there’s a feud between our families?”

Jon stammered: “Feud? Why?”

“It’s ever so romantic and silly? That’s why I pretended we hadn’t met. Shall we get up early tomorrow morning and go for a walk before breakfast and have it out? I hate being slow about things, don’t you?”

Jon murmured a rapturous assent.

“Six o’clock, then. I think your mother’s beautiful.”

Jon said fervently: “Yes, she is.”

“I love all kinds of beauty,” went on Fleur, “when it’s exciting. I don’t like Greek things a bit.”

“What! Not Euripides?”

“Euripides? Oh! no, I can’t bear Greek plays; they’re so long. I think beauty’s always swift. I like to look at ONE picture, for instance, and then run off. I can’t bear a lot of things together. Look!” She held up her blossom in the moonlight. “That’s better than all the orchard, I think.”

And, suddenly, with her other hand she caught Jon’s. “Of all things in the world, don’t you think caution’s the most awful? Smell the moonlight!”

She thrust the blossom against his face; Jon agreed giddily that of all things in the world caution was the worst, and bending over, kissed the hand which held his.

“That’s nice and old-fashioned,” said Fleur calmly. “You’re frightfully silent, Jon. Still I like silence when it’s swift.” She let go his hand. “Did you think I dropped my handkerchief on purpose?”

“No!” cried Jon, intensely shocked.

“Well, I did, of course. Let’s get back, or they’ll think we’re doing this on purpose too.” And again she ran like a ghost among the trees. Jon followed, with love in his heart, Spring in his heart, and over all the moonlit white unearthly blossom. They came out where they had gone in, Fleur walking demurely.

“It’s quite wonderful in there,” she said dreamily to Holly.

Jon preserved silence, hoping against hope that she might be thinking it swift.

She bade him a casual and demure good-night, which made him think he had been dreaming. . . .

In her bedroom Fleur had flung off her gown, and, wrapped in a shapeless garment, with the white flower still in her hair, she looked like a mousme, sitting cross-legged on her bed, writing by candlelight.

“DEAREST CHERRY: “I believe I’m in love. I’ve got it in the neck, only the feeling is really lower down. He’s a second cousin — such a child, about six months older and ten years younger than I am. Boys always fall in love with their seniors, and girls with their juniors or with old men of forty. Don’t laugh, but his eyes are the truest things I ever saw; and he’s quite divinely silent! We had a most romantic first meeting in London under the Vospovitch ‘Juno.’ And now he’s sleeping in the next room and the moonlight’s on the blossom; and tomorrow morning, before anybody’s awake, we’re going to walk off into Down fairyland. There’s a feud between our families, which makes it really exciting. Yes! and I may have to use subterfuge and come on you for invitations — if so, you’ll know why! My father doesn’t want us to know each other, but I can’t help that. Life’s too short. He’s got the most beautiful mother, with lovely silvery hair and a young face with dark eyes. I’m staying with his sister — who married my cousin; it’s all mixed up, but I mean to pump her tomorrow. We’ve often talked about love being a spoil-sport; well, that’s all tosh, it’s the beginning of sport, and the sooner you feel it, my dear, the better for you.

“Jon (not simplified spelling, but short for Jolyon, which is a name in my family, they say) is the sort that lights up and goes out; about five feet ten, still growing, and I believe he’s going to be a poet. If you laugh at me I’ve done with you for ever. I perceive all sorts of difficulties, but you know when I really want a thing I get it. One of the chief effects of love is that you see the air sort of inhabited, like seeing a face in the moon; and you feel — you feel dancey and soft at the same time, with a funny sensation — like a continual first sniff of orange blossom — just above your stays. This is my first, and I feel as if it were going to be my last, which is absurd, of course, by all the laws of Nature and morality. If you mock me I will smite you, and if you tell anybody I will never forgive you. So much so, that I almost don’t think I’ll send this letter. Anyway, I’ll sleep over it. So good-night, my Cherry — oh!

Your FLEUR.”

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