To Let, by John Galsworthy

IX

Goya

Lunch was over and Soames mounted to the picture-gallery in his house near Mapledurham. He had what Annette called “a grief.” Fleur was not yet home. She had been expected on Wednesday; had wired that it would be Friday; and again on Friday that it would be Sunday afternoon; and here were her aunt, and her cousins the Cardigans, and this fellow Profond, and everything flat as a pancake for the want of her. He stood before his Gauguin — sorest point of his collection. He had bought the ugly great thing with two early Matisses before the war, because there was such a fuss about those Post-Impressionist chaps. He was wondering whether Profond would take them off his hands — the fellow seemed not to know what to do with his money — when he heard his sister’s voice say: “I think that’s a horrid thing, Soames.” and saw that Winifred had followed him up.

“Oh! you DO?” he said dryly; “I gave five hundred for it.”

“Fancy! Women aren’t made like that even if they are black.”

Soames uttered a glum laugh. “You didn’t come up to tell me that.”

“No. Do you know that Jolyon’s boy is staying with Val and his wife?”

Soames spun round.

“What?”

“Yes,” drawled Winifred; “he’s gone to live with them there while he learns farming.”

Soames had turned away, but her voice pursued him as he walked up and down. “I warned Val that neither of them was to be spoken to about old matters.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Winifred shrugged her substantial shoulders.

“Fleur does what she likes. You’ve always spoiled her. Besides, my dear boy, what’s the harm?”

“The harm!” muttered Soames. “Why, she —” he checked himself. The Juno, the handkerchief, Fleur’s eyes, her questions, and now this delay in her return — the symptoms seemed to him so sinister that, faithful to his nature, he could not part with them.

“I think you take too much care,” said Winifred; “if I were you, I should tell her of that old matter. It’s no good thinking that girls in these days are as they used to be. Where they pick up their knowledge I can’t tell, but they seem to know everything.”

Over Soames’s face, closely composed, passed a sort of spasm, and Winifred added hastily:

“If you don’t like to speak of it, I could for you.” Soames shook his head. Unless there was absolute necessity the thought that his adored daughter should learn of that old scandal hurt his pride too much.

“No,” he said, “not yet. Never if I can help it.”

“Nonsense, my dear. Think what people are!”

“Twenty years is a long time,” muttered Soames, “outside our family, who’s likely to remember?”

Winifred was silenced. She inclined more and more to that peace and quietness of which Montague Dartie had deprived her in her youth. And, since pictures always depressed her, she soon went down again.

Soames passed into the corner where, side by side, hung his real Goya, and the copy of the fresco “La Vendimia.” His acquisition of the real Goya rather beautifully illustrated the cobweb of vested interests and passions, which mesh the bright-winged fly of human life. The real Goya’s noble owner’s ancestor had come into possession of it during some Spanish war — it was in a word loot. The noble owner had remained in ignorance of its value until in the nineties an enterprising critic discovered that a Spanish painter named Goya was a genius. It was only a fair Goya, but almost unique in England, and the noble owner became a marked man. Having many possessions and that aristocratic culture which, independent of mere sensuous enjoyment, is founded on the sounder principle that one must know everything and be fearfully interested in life, he had fully intended to keep an article which contributed to his reputation while he was alive, and to leave it to the nation after he was dead. Fortunately for Soames, the House of Lords was violently attacked in 1909, and the noble owner became alarmed and angry. “If,” he said to himself, “they think they can have it both ways they are very much mistaken. So long as they leave me in quiet enjoyment the nation can have some of my pictures at my death. But if the nation is going to bait me, and rob me like this, I’m damned if I won’t sell the — lot. They can’t have my private property and my public spirit — both.” He brooded in this fashion for several months till one morning, after reading the speech of a certain statesman, he telegraphed to his agent to come down and bring Bodkin. On going over the collection Bodkin, than whose opinion on market values none was more sought, pronounced that with a free hand to sell to America, Germany, and other places where there was an interest in art, a lot more money could be made than by selling in England. The noble owner’s public spirit — he said — was well known but the pictures were unique. The noble owner put this opinion in his pipe and smoked it for a year. At the end of that time he read another speech by the same statesman, and telegraphed to his agents: “Give Bodkin a free hand.” It was at this juncture that Bodkin conceived the idea which salved the Goya and two other unique pictures for the native country of the noble owner. With one hand Bodkin proffered the pictures to the foreign market, with the other he formed a list of private British collectors. Having obtained what he considered the highest possible bids from across the seas, he submitted pictures and bids to the private British collectors, and invited them, of their public spirit, to outbid. In three instances (including the Goya) out of twenty-one he was successful. And why? One of the private collectors made buttons — he had made so many that he desired that his wife should be called Lady “Buttons.” He therefore bought an unique picture at great cost, and gave it to the nation. It was “part,” his friends said, “of his general game.” The second of the private collectors was an Americo-phobe, and bought a unique picture to “spite the damned Yanks.” The third of the private collectors was Soames, who — more sober than either of the others — bought after a visit to Madrid, because he was certain that Goya was still on the up grade. Goya was not booming at the moment, but he would come again; and, looking at that portrait, Hogarthian, Manetesque in its directness, but with its own queer sharp beauty of paint, he was perfectly satisfied still that he had made no error, heavy though the price had been — heaviest he had ever paid. And next to it was hanging the copy of “La Vendimia.” There she was — the little wretch — looking back at him in her dreamy mood, the mood he loved best because he felt so much safer when she looked like that.

He was still gazing when the scent of a cigar impinged on his nostrils, and a voice said: “Well, Mr. Forsyde, what you goin’ to do with this small lot?”

That Belgian chap, whose mother — as if Flemish blood were not enough — had been Armenian! Subduing a natural irritation, he said: “Are you a judge of pictures?”

“Well, I’ve got a few myself.”

“Any Post-Impressionists?”

“Ye-es, I rather like them.”

“What do you think of this?” said Soames, pointing to the Gauguin.

Monsieur Profond protruded his lower lip and short pointed beard. “Rather fine, I think,” he said; “do you want to sell it?”

Soames checked his instinctive “Not particularly”— he would not chaffer with this alien.

“Yes,” he said.

“What do you want for it?”

“What I gave.”

“All right,” said Monsieur Profond. “I’ll be glad to take that small picture. Post-Impressionists — they’re awful dead, but they’re amusin’. I don’ care for pictures much, but I’ve got some, just a small lot.”

“What DO you care for?”

Monsieur Profond shrugged his shoulders. “Life’s awful like a lot of monkeys scramblin’ for empty nuts.”

“You’re young,” said Soames. If the fellow must make a generalisation, he needn’t suggest that the forms of property lacked solidity!

“I don’ worry,” replied Monsieur Profond smiling; “we’re born, and we die. Half the world’s starvin’. I feed a small lot of babies out in my mother’s country; but what’s the use? Might as well throw my money in the river.”

Soames looked at him, and turned back towards his Goya. He didn’t know what the fellow wanted.

“What shall I make my cheque for?” pursued Monsieur Profond.

“Five hundred,” said Soames shortly; “but I don’t want you to take it if you don’t care for it more than that.”

“That’s all right,” said Monsieur Profond; “I’ll be ‘appy to ‘ave that picture.”

He wrote a cheque with a fountain-pen heavily chased with gold. Soames watched the process uneasily. How on earth had the fellow known that he wanted to sell that picture? Monsieur Profond held out the cheque.

“The English are awful funny about pictures,” he said. “So are the French, so are my people. They’re all awful funny.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Soames stiffly.

“It’s like hats,” said Monsieur Profond enigmatically, “small or large, turnin’ up or down — just the fashion. Awful funny.” And, smiling, he drifted out of the gallery again, blue and solid like the smoke of his excellent cigar.

Soames had taken the cheque, feeling as if the intrinsic value of ownership had been called in question. ‘He’s a cosmopolitan,’ he thought, watching Profond emerge from under the verandah with Annette, and saunter down the lawn towards the river. What his wife saw in the fellow he didn’t know, unless it was that he could speak her language; and there passed in Soames what Monsieur Profond would have called a “small doubt” whether Annette was not too handsome to be walking with any one so “cosmopolitan.” Even at that distance he could see the blue fumes from Profond’s cigar wreathe out in the quiet sunlight; and his grey buckskin shoes, and his grey hat — the fellow was a dandy! And he could see the quick turn of his wife’s head, so very straight on her desirable neck and shoulders. That turn of her neck always seemed to him a little too showy, and in the “Queen of all I survey” manner — not quite distinguished. He watched them walk along the path at the bottom of the garden. A young man in flannels joined them down there — a Sunday caller no doubt, from up the river. Soames went back to his Goya. He was still staring at that replica of Fleur, and worrying over Winifred’s news, when his wife’s voice said:

“Mr. Michael Mont, Soames. You invited him to see your pictures.”

There was the cheerful young man of the Gallery off Cork Street!

“Turned up, you see, sir; I live only four miles from Pangbourne. Jolly day, isn’t it?”

Confronted with the results of his expansiveness, Soames scrutinised his visitor. The young man’s mouth was excessively large and curly — he seemed always grinning. Why didn’t he grow the rest of those idiotic little moustaches, which made him look like a music-hall buffoon? What on earth were young men about, deliberately lowering their class with these tooth-brushes, or little slug whiskers? Ugh! Affected young idiots! In other respects he was presentable, and his flannels very clean.

“Happy to see you!” he said.

The young man, who had been turning his head from side to side, became transfixed. “I say!” he said, “‘some’ picture!”

Soames saw, with mixed sensations, that he had addressed the remark to the Goya copy.

“Yes,” he said dryly, “that’s not a Goya. It’s a copy. I had it painted because it reminded me of my daughter.”

“By Jove! I thought I knew the face, sir. Is she here?”

The frankness of his interest almost disarmed Soames.

“She’ll be in after tea,” he said. “Shall we go round the gallery?”

And Soames began that round which never tired him. He had not anticipated much intelligence from one who had mistaken a copy for an original, but as they passed from section to section, period to period, he was startled by the young man’s frank and relevant remarks. Natively shrewd himself, and even sensuous beneath his mask, Soames had not spent thirty-eight years over his one hobby without knowing something more about pictures than their market values. He was, as it were, the missing link between the artist and the commercial public. Art for art’s sake and all that, of course, was cant. But aesthetics and good taste were necessary. The appreciation of enough persons of good taste was what gave a work of art its permanent market value, or in other words made it “a work of art.” There was no real cleavage. And he was sufficiently accustomed to sheep-like and unseeing visitors, to be intrigued by one who did not hesitate to say of Mauve: “Good old haystacks!” or of James Maris: “Didn’t he just paint and paper ’em! Mathew was the real swell, sir; you could dig into his surfaces!” It was after the young man had whistled before a Whistler, with the words: “D’you think he ever really saw a naked woman, sir?” that Soames remarked:

“What ARE you, Mr. Mont, if I may ask?”

“I, sir? I WAS going to be a painter, but the War knocked that. Then in the trenches, you know, I used to dream of the Stock Exchange, snug and warm and just noisy enough. But the Peace knocked that; shares seem off, don’t they? I’ve only been demobbed about a year. What do you recommend, sir?”

“Have you got money?”

“Well,” answered the young man; “I’ve got a father, I kept him alive during the War, so he’s bound to keep me alive now. Though, of course, there’s the question whether he ought to be allowed to hang on to his property. What do you think about that, sir?”

Soames, pale and defensive, smiled.

“The old man has fits when I tell him he may have to work yet. He’s got land, you know; it’s a fatal disease.”

“This is my real Goya,” said Soames dryly.

“By George! He WAS a swell. I saw a Goya in Munich once that bowled me middle stump. A most evil-looking old woman in the most gorgeous lace. HE made no compromise with the public taste. That old boy was ‘some’ explosive; he must have smashed up a lot of convention in his day. Couldn’t he just paint! He makes Velasquez stiff, don’t you think?”

“I have no Velasquez,” said Soames.

The young man stared. “No,” he said; “only nations or profiteers can afford him, I suppose. I say, why shouldn’t all the bankrupt nations sell their Velasquezes and Titians and other swells to the profiteers by force, and then pass a law that any one who holds a picture by an Old Master — see schedule — must hang it in a public gallery? There seems something in that.”

“Shall we go down to tea?” said Soames.

The young man’s ears seemed to droop on his skull. ‘He’s not dense,’ thought Soames, following him off the premises.

Goya, with his satiric and surpassing precision, his original “line,” and the daring of his light and shade, could have reproduced to admiration the group assembled round Annette’s tea-tray in the ingle-nook below. He alone, perhaps, of painters would have done justice to the sunlight filtering through a screen of creeper, to the lovely pallor of brass, the old cut glasses, the thin slices of lemon in pale amber tea; justice to Annette in her black lacey dress; there was something of the fair Spaniard in her beauty, though it lacked the spirituality of that rare type; to Winifred’s grey-haired, corseted solidity; to Soames, of a certain grey and flat-cheeked distinction; to the vivacious Michael Mont, pointed in ear and eye; to Imogen, dark, luscious of glance, growing a little stout; to Prosper Profond, with his expression as who should say: “Well, Mr. Goya, what’s the use of paintin’ this small party?” finally, to Jack Cardigan, with his shining stare and tanned sanguinity betraying the moving principle: “I’m English, and I live to be fit.”

Curious, by the way, that Imogen, who as a girl had declared solemnly one day at Timothy’s that she would never marry a good man — they were so dull — should have married Jack Cardigan, in whom health had so destroyed all traces of original sin, that she might have retired to rest with ten thousand other Englishmen without knowing the difference from the one she had chosen to repose beside. “Oh!” she would say of him, in her “amusing” way; “Jack keeps himself so fearfully fit; he’s never had a day’s illness in his life. He went right through the war without a finger-ache. You really can’t imagine how fit he is!” Indeed, he was so “fit” that he couldn’t see when she was flirting, which was such a comfort in a way. All the same she was quite fond of him, so far as one could be of a sports-machine, and of the two little Cardigans made after his pattern. Her eyes just then were comparing him maliciously with Prosper Profond. There was no “small” sport or game which Monsieur Profond had not played at too, it seemed, from skittles to harpon-fishing, and worn out every one. Imogen would sometimes wish that they had worn out Jack, who continued to play at them and talk of them with the simple zeal of a schoolgirl learning hockey; at the age of Great-uncle Timothy she well knew that Jack would be playing carpet golf in her bedroom, and “wiping somebody’s eye.”

He was telling them now how he had “pipped the pro — a charmin’ fellow, playin’ a very good game,” at the last hole this morning; and how he had pulled down to Caversham since lunch, and trying to incite Prosper Profond to play him a set of tennis after tea — do him good —“keep him fit.”

“But what’s the use of keepin’ fit?” said Monsieur Profond.

“Yes, sir,” murmured Michael Mont, “what do you keep fit for?”

“Jack,” cried Imogen, enchanted, “what do you keep fit for?”

Jack Cardigan stared with all his health. The questions were like the buzz of a mosquito, and he put up his hand to wipe them away. During the War, of course, he had kept fit to kill Germans; now that it was over he either did not know, or shrank in delicacy from explanation of his moving principle.

“But he’s right,” said Monsieur Profond unexpectedly, “there’s nothin’ left but keepin’ fit.”

The saying, too deep for Sunday afternoon, would have passed unanswered, but for the mercurial nature of young Mont.

“Good!” he cried. “That’s the great discovery of the war. We all thought we were progressing — now we know we’re only changing.”

“For the worse,” said Monsieur Profond genially.

“How you are cheerful, Prosper!” murmured Annette.

“You come and play tennis!” said Jack Cardigan; “you’ve got the hump. We’ll soon take that down. D’you play, Mr. Mont?”

“I hit the ball about, sir.”

At this juncture Soames rose, ruffled in that deep instinct of preparation for the future which guided his existence.

“When Fleur comes —” he heard Jack Cardigan say.

Ah! and why didn’t she come? He passed through drawing-room, hall, and porch out onto the drive, and stood there listening for the car. All was still and Sunday-fied; the lilacs in full flower scented the air. There were white clouds, like the feathers of ducks gilded by the sunlight. Memory of the day when Fleur was born, and he had waited in such agony with her life and her mother’s balanced in his hands, came to him sharply. He had saved her then, to be the flower of his life. And now! Was she going to give him trouble — pain — give him trouble? He did not like the look of things! A blackbird broke in on his reverie with an evening song — a great big fellow up in that acacia-tree. Soames had taken quite an interest in his birds of late years; he and Fleur would walk round and watch them; her eyes were sharp as needles, and she knew every nest. He saw her dog, a retriever, lying on the drive in a patch of sunlight, and called to him, “Hallo, old fellow — waiting for her too!” The dog came slowly with a grudging tail, and Soames mechanically laid a pat on his head. The dog, the bird, the lilac all were part of Fleur for him; no more, no less. ‘Too fond of her!’ he thought, ‘too fond!’ He was like a man uninsured, with his ships at sea. Uninsured again — as in that other time, so long ago, when he would wander dumb and jealous in the wilderness of London, longing for that woman — his first wife — he mother of this infernal boy. Ah! There was the car at last! It drew up, it had luggage, but no Fleur.

“Miss Fleur is walking up, sir, by the towing-path”

Walking all those miles? Soames stared. The man’s face had the beginning of a smile on it. What was he grinning at? And very quickly he turned, saying: “All right, Sims!” and went into the house. He mounted to the picture-gallery once more. He had from there a view of the river bank, and stood with his eyes fixed on it, oblivious of the fact that it would be an hour at least before her figure showed there. Walking up! And that fellow’s grin! The boy —! He turned abruptly from the window. He couldn’t spy on her. If she wanted to keep things from him — she must; he could not spy on her. His heart felt empty; and bitterness mounted from it into his very mouth. The staccato shouts of Jack Cardigan pursuing the ball, the laugh of young Mont rose in the stillness and came in. He hoped they were making that chap Profond run. And the girl in “La Vendimia” stood with her arm akimbo and her dreamy eyes looking past him. ‘I’ve done all I could for you,’ he thought, ‘since you were no higher than my knee. You aren’t going to — to — hurt me, are you?’

But the Goya copy answered not, brilliant in colour just beginning to tone down. ‘There’s no real life in it,’ thought Soames. ‘Why doesn’t she come?’

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