On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Cry of Peacock, 1883

The Ball was over. Soames decided to walk. In the cloak-room, whence he retrieved coat and opera hat, a mirror showed him a white-waistcoated figure still trim, but a half-melted collar, and a brown edging to the gardenia in his button-hole. Hot with a vengeance it had been! And taking a silk handkerchief from his cuff he passed it over his face before putting on his hat.

Down the broad red-carpeted steps where Chinese lanterns had burned out, he passed into the Inner Temple and the dawn. A faint air from the river freshened his face. Half-past three!

Perhaps he had never danced so often as that night — so often and so long. Six times with Irene! Six times with girls of whom he now remembered nothing. Had he danced well — dancing with HER he had been conscious only of her closeness and her scent; and, dancing with those others, only of her circling apart, out of his reach.

Only fourteen days and fourteen nights — until her closeness and her scent should be for ever his! She should be nearly home by now, with that stepmother of hers, in the hansom cab wherein he had placed them. How Irene detested that woman, and no wonder! For Soames knew well enough that to ‘that woman’s’ wish to get her stepdaughter married, so that she might marry again herself, he had owed his own chances these past eighteen months.

From the hall, bright with colour and dark gleaming wood, he moved slowly into half-lit stillness haunted by the drawl of a waltz fading as he went. And, inhaling long breaths of air grass-scented by the Temple Gardens, Soames stripped off his gloves, thin, black-stitched, of lavender hue.

Irene loved dancing! It would not be good form to dance with one’s wife! Would that prevent him? No, by Jove!

By a rambler rose-bush in a tub and a Chinese lantern still alight — last splash of colour in the grey of dawn — he turned, past one dim lamp at the corner of Middle Temple Lane, down to the Embankment, and Cleopatra’s Needle. Cleopatra! A bad lot! If she’d been alive now, they’d have cut her in Rotten Row, and run her in for suicide; and there was her needle and herself a great figure of romance — like those other bad lots, Helen of Troy, Semiramis, Mary Queen of Scots — because — because she had felt in her veins what he felt now! Grand passion, no grander than his own! Well, they would never make HIM a figure of romance! And Soames grinned.

He walked half-conscious, a sensation about his ribs, as though his soul were bathing in a scent of sweet briar. All was empty of sound — no footsteps, and no wheels — empty, foliaged, broad, the grey river coming to colour as the sun trembled to the horizon. All waiting for the one idea of the whole world — heat. And Soames, with his one idea, walked fast. Her window! Surely the light in that window would not yet be out! If, for a moment of fresh air, she drew aside the blind, he might still see her, unseen himself, behind some lamp-post, in some doorway — see her as he had never seen her yet, as soon he would see her every night and every morning. And with that thought racing through him he almost ran past each paling lamp, past Big Ben and the Abbey, slowly creeping to colossal life from its roof down, into Victoria Street, past his own rooms to the corner of the street where she was staying. There he stopped, his heart beating. He must take care! She mustn’t see him. She was strange, she was fitful — she mightn’t like it — she wouldn’t like it. He edged along the far side of the empty street. Dared he go further? Surely she could not mind if he walked swiftly past. Fourth house now — first window on the second floor! And by a lamp-post he halted peering up. Open — yes — and the curtains half drawn back to cool the room before she slept! Dared he? Suppose she saw him stealing by, stealing on her when she thought herself alone, unseen? Yet, if she saw him, would it not prove to her once more how that she was his one thought, one prize, and one desire? Could she mind that? In truth — he did not know, and he stood there, waiting. She must come to close the curtains against the brightening daylight. If only she had for him the feeling he had for her, then, indeed, she could not mind — she would be glad, and their gaze would cling together across this empty London street, eerie in its silence with not a cat to mark the meeting of their eyes. Blotted against the lamp-post he stayed unmoving, aching for a sight of her. With his coat he blotted the whiteness of his shirt-front, took off his hat and crushed it to him. Now he was any stray early idler with cheek against lamp-post and no face visible, any returning reveller. But his eye close to the lamp-post’s iron moved not from that blank oblong where the curtain stirred feebly in the dawn breeze. And, then he trembled. A white arm from the elbow up had slid into his view, and on the hand of it he saw her face resting, looking straight up over the roof opposite at the brightening sky. With a sort of passion he screwed his eyes to slits that he might see the expression on her face. But he could not — too far, far as she always was, as she must not, should not always be. Of what was she thinking? Of him? Of those little fleecy clouds passing from the west? Of the cooling air? Of herself? Of what? Joined with the lamp-post he stood, still as the dead, for if she caught sight of its thickened base she would vanish. Her neck, her hair looped back were mixed into the folds of curtain — just the arm round and white he saw, just the oval of her lifted face, so still that he held his breath there, a hundred feet away. And then — the sparrows cheeped, all the sky brightened. He saw her rise; for a second saw her nightgowned figure, her hands reach up, the long white arms, and the screening curtains close. A sensation as of madness stirred in his limbs, he sprang away, and, muffling his footsteps, fled back to Victoria Street. There he turned not towards his rooms, but away from them: Paradise deferred! He could not sleep. He walked at a great rate. A policeman stared at him, an early dust-cart passed, the thick horse clop-clopping out the only sound in all the town. Soames turned up towards Hyde Park. This early world of silent streets was to him unaccustomed, as he himself, under this obsession, would be to all who knew and saw him daily, self-contained, diligent, a flat citizen. In Knightsbridge a belated hansom, with a dim couple, fled jingling by, another and another. Soames walked west to where the house, which he with her would inhabit, stood bright with its fresh paint, and a board with a builder’s name. In the garnishing thereof he and she had been more conjoined than ever yet, and he gazed at the little house with gratitude, and a sort of awe. Twelve hours ago he had paid the decorator’s bill. And in that house he would live with HER— incredible! It looked like a dream in this early light — that whole small long square of houses like a dream of his future, her future, strange and unlived.

And superstitious dread came to the unsuperstitious Soames; he turned his eyes away lest he should stare the little house into real unreality. He walked on, past the barracks to the Park rails, still moving west, afraid of turning homewards till he was tired out. Past four o’clock, and still an empty town, empty of all that made it a living hive, and yet this very emptiness gave it intense meaning. He felt that he would always remember a town so different from that he saw every day; and himself he would remember — walking thus, unseen and solitary with his desire.

He went past Prince’s Gate and turned. After all he had his work — ten-thirty at the office! Road and Park and houses stared at him now in the full light of earliest morning. He turned from them into the Park and crossed to the Row side. Funny to see the Row with no horses tearing up and down, or trapesing past like cats on hot bricks, no stream of carriages, no rows of sitting people, nothing but trees and the tan track. The trees and grass, though no dew had fallen, breathed on him; and he stretched himself at full length along a bench, his hands behind his head, his hat crushed on his chest, his eyes fixed on the leaves patterned against the still brightening sky. The air stole faint and fresh about his cheeks and lips, and the backs of his hands. The first sunlight came stealing flat from trunk to trunk, birds did not sing but talked, a wood pigeon back among the trees was cooing. Soames closed his eyes, and instantly imagination began to paint, for the eyes deep down within him, pictures of her. Picture of her — standing passive in her frock flounced to the gleaming floor, while he wrote his initials on her card. Picture of her adjusting with long gloved fingers a camellia come loose in her corsage; turning for him to put her cloak on — pictures, countless pictures, and ever strange, of her face sparkling for moments, or brooding, or averse; of her cheek inclined for his kiss, of her lips turned from his lips, of her eyes looking at him with a question that seemed to have no answer; of her eyes, dark and soft over a grey cat purring in her arms; picture of her auburn hair flowing as he had not seen it yet. Ah! but soon — but soon! And as if answering the call of his imagination a cry — long, not shrill, not harsh exactly, but so poignant — jerked the blood to his heart. From back over there it came trailing, again and again, passionate — the lost soul’s cry of peacock in early morning; and with it there uprose from the spaces of his inner being the vision that was for ever haunting there, of her with hair unbound, of her all white and lost, yielding to his arms. It seared him with delight, swooned in him, and was gone. He opened his eyes; an early water-cart was nearing down the Row. Soames rose and walking fast beneath the trees sought sanity.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54