In doubting Fleur’s show of resentment at Michael’s new “stunt,” Soames was near the mark. She did not resent it at all. It kept his attention off herself, it kept him from taking up birth control, for which she felt the country was not yet quite prepared, and it had a popular appeal denied to Foggartism. The slums were under one’s nose, and what was under the nose could be brought to the attention even of party politics. Being a town proposition, slums would concern six-sevenths of the vote. Foggartism, based on the country life necessary to national stamina and the growth of food within and overseas, concerned the whole population, but only appealed to one-seventh of the vote. And Fleur, nothing if not a realist, had long grasped the fact that the main business of politicians was to be, and to remain, elected. The vote was a magnet of the first order, and unconsciously swayed every political judgment and aspiration; or, if not, it ought to, for was it not the touchstone of democracy? In the committee, too, which Michael was forming, she saw, incidentally, the best social step within her reach.
“If they want a meeting-place,” she had said, “why not here?”
“Splendid!” answered Michael. “Handy for the House and clubs. Thank you, old thing!”
Fleur had added honestly:
“Oh, I shall be quite glad. As soon as I take Kit to the sea, you can start. Norah Curfew’s letting me her cottage at Loring for three weeks.” She did not add: “And it’s only five miles from Wansdon.”
On the Friday, after lunch, she telephoned to June:
“I’m going to the sea on Monday — I COULD come this afternoon, but I think you said Jon was coming. Is he? Because if so —”
“He’s coming at 4.30, but he’s got to catch a train back at six-twenty.”
“His wife, too?”
“No. He’s just coming to see Harold’s work.”
“Oh! — well — I think I’d better come on Sunday, then.”
“Yes, Sunday will be all right; then Harold will see you. He never goes out on Sunday. He hates the look of it so.”
Putting down the receiver, Fleur took up the time-table. Yes, there was the train! What a coincidence if she happened to take it to make a preliminary inspection of Norah Curfew’s cottage! Not even June, surely, would mention their talk on the ‘phone.
At lunch she did not tell Michael she was going — he might want to come, too, or at least to see her off. She knew he would be at ‘the House’ in the afternoon, she would just leave a note to say that she had gone to make sure the cottage would be in order for Monday. And after lunch she bent over and kissed him between the eyes, without any sense of betrayal. A sight of Jon was due to her after these dreary weeks! Any sight of Jon was always due to her who had been defrauded of him. And, as the afternoon drew on, and she put her night things into her dressing-case, a red spot became fixed in each cheek, and she wandered swiftly, her hands restive, her spirit homeless. Having had tea, and left the note giving her address — an hotel at Nettlefold — she went early to Victoria Station. There, having tipped the guard to secure emptiness, she left her bag in a corner seat and took up her stand by the book-stall, where Jon must pass with his ticket. And, while she stood there, examining the fiction of the day, all her faculties were busy with reality. Among the shows and shadows of existence, an hour and a half of real life lay before her. Who could blame her for filching it back from a filching Providence? And if anybody could, she didn’t care! The hands of the station clock moved on, and Fleur gazed at this novel after that, all of them full of young women in awkward situations, and vaguely wondered whether they were more awkward than her own. Three minutes to the time! Wasn’t he coming after all? Had that wretched June kept him for the night? At last in despair she caught up a tome called “Violin Obbligato,” which at least would be modern, and paid for it. And then, as she was receiving her change, she saw him hastening. Turning, she passed through the wicket, walking quickly, knowing that he was walking more quickly. She let him see her first.
“Jon! Where are you going?”
“Oh! And I’m going to Nettlefold, to see a cottage at Loring for my baby. Here’s my bag, in here — quick! We’re off!”
The door was banged to, and she held out both her hands.
“Isn’t this queer, and jolly?”
Jon held the hands, and dropped them rather suddenly.
“I’ve just been to see June. She’s just the same — bless her!”
“Yes, she came round to me the other day; wants me to be painted by her present pet.”
“You might do worse. I said he should paint Anne.”
“Really? Is he good enough for HER?”
And she was sorry; she hadn’t meant to begin like that! Still — must begin somehow — must employ lips which might otherwise go lighting on his eyes, his hair, HIS lips! And she rushed into words: Kit’s measles, Michael’s committee, “Violin Obbligato,” and the Proustian School; Val’s horses, Jon’s poetry, the smell of England — so important to a poet — anything, everything, in a sort of madcap medley.
“You see, Jon, I must talk; I’ve been in prison for a month.” And all the time she felt that she was wasting minutes that might have been spent with lips silent and heart against his, if the heart, as they said, really extended to the centre of the body. And all the time, too, the proboscis of her spirit was scenting, searching for the honey and the saffron of his spirit. Was there any for her, or was it all kept for that wretched American girl he had left behind him, and to whom — alas! — he was returning? But Jon gave her no sign. Unlike the old impulsive Jon, he had learned secrecy. By a whim of memory, whose ways are so inscrutable, she remembered being taken, as a very little girl, to Timothy’s on the Bayswater Road to her great-aunt Hester — an old still figure in black Victorian lace and jet, and a Victorian chair, with a stilly languid voice, saying to her father: “Oh, yes, my dear; your Uncle Jolyon, before he married, was very much in love with our great friend Alice Read; but she was consumptive, you know, and of course he felt he couldn’t marry her — it wouldn’t have been prudent, he felt, because of children. And then she died, and he married Edith Moor.” Funny how that had stuck in her ten-year-old mind! And she stared at Jon. Old Jolyon — as they called him in the family — had been his grandfather. She had seen his photograph in Holly’s album — a domed head, a white moustache, eyes deep-set under the brows, like Jon’s. “It wouldn’t have been prudent!” How Victorian! Was Jon, too, Victorian? She felt as if she would never know what Jon was. And she became suddenly cautious. A single step too far, or too soon, and he might be gone from her again for good! He was not — no, he was not modern! For all she knew, there might be something absolute, not relative, in his “make-up,” and to Fleur the absolute was strange, almost terrifying. But she had not spent six years in social servitude without learning to adjust herself swiftly to the playing of a new part. She spoke in a calmer tone, almost a drawl; her eyes became cool and quizzical. What did Jon think about the education of boys — before he knew where he was, of course, he would be having one himself? It hurt her to say that, and, while saying it, she searched his face; but it told her nothing.
“We’ve put Kit down for Winchester. Do you believe in the Public Schools, Jon? Or do you think they’re out of date?”
“Yes; and a good thing, too.”
“I mean I should send him there.”
“I see,” said Fleur. “Do you know, Jon, you really have changed. You wouldn’t have said that, I believe, six years ago.”
“Perhaps not. Being out of England makes you believe in dams. Ideas can’t be left to swop around in the blue. In England they’re not, and that’s the beauty of it.”
“I don’t care what happens to ideas,” said Fleur, “but I don’t like stupidity. The Public Schools —”
“Oh, no; not really. Certain things get cut and dried there, of course; but then, they ought to.”
Fleur leaned forward, and with faint malice said: “Have you become a moralist, my dear?”
Jon answered glumly:
“Why, no — no more than reason!”
“Do you remember our walk by the river?”
“I told you before — I remember everything.”
Fleur restrained her hand from a heart which had given a jump.
“We nearly quarrelled because I said I hated people for their stupid cruelties, and wanted them to stew in their own juice.”
“Yes; and I said I pitied them. Well?”
“Repression is stupid, you know, Jon.” And, by instinct, added: “That’s why I doubt the Public Schools. They teach it.”
“They’re useful socially, Fleur,” and his eyes twinkled.
Fleur pursed her lips. She did not mind. But she would make him sorry for that; because his compunction would be a trump card in her hand.
“I know perfectly well,” she said, “that I’m a snob — I was called so publicly.”
“Oh, yes; there was a case about it.”
“Oh! my dear, that’s ancient history. But of course you knew — Francis Wilmot must have —”
Jon made a horrified gesture.
“Fleur, you never thought I—”
“Oh, but, of course! Why not?” A trump, indeed!
Jon seized her hand.
“Fleur, say you knew I didn’t —”
Fleur shrugged her shoulders. “My dear, you have lived too long among the primitives. Over here we stab each other daily, and no harm done.”
He dropped her hand, and she looked at him from beneath her lids.
“I was only teasing, Jon. It’s good for primitives to have their legs pulled. Parlons d’autre chose. Have you found your place, to grow things, yet?”
“About four miles from Wansdon, on the south side of the Downs — Green Hill Farm. Fruit — a lot of glass; and some arable.”
“Why, it must be close to where I’m going with Kit. That’s on the sea and only five miles from Wansdon. No, Jon; don’t be alarmed. We shall only be there three weeks at most.”
“Alarmed! It’s very jolly. We shall see you there. Perhaps we shall meet at Goodwood anyway.”
“I’ve been thinking —” Fleur paused, and again she stole a look. “We CAN be steady friends, Jon, can’t we?”
Jon answered, without looking up. “I hope so.”
If his face had cleared, and his voice had been hearty, how different — how much slower — would have been the beating of her heart!
“Then that’s all right,” she murmured. “I’ve been wanting to say that to you ever since Ascot. Here we are, and here we shall be — and anything else would be silly, wouldn’t it? This is not the romantic age.”
“What do you mean by that unpleasant noise?”
“I always think it’s rot to talk about ages being this or that. Human feelings remain the same.”
“Do you really think they do? The sort of life we live affects them. Nothing’s worth more than a year or two, Jon. I found that out. But I forgot — you hate cynicism. Tell me about Anne. Is she still liking England?”
“Loving it. You see, she’s pure Southern, and the South’s old still, too, in a way — or some of it is. What she likes here is the grass, the birds, and the villages. She doesn’t feel homesick. And, of course, she loves the riding.”
“I suppose she’s picking up English fast?”
And to his stare she made her face quite candid.
“I should like you to like her,” he said, wistfully.
“Oh! of course I shall, when I know her.”
But a fierce little wave of contempt passed up from her heart. What did he think she was made of? Like her! A girl who lay in his arms, who would be the mother of his children. Like her! And she began to talk about the preservation of Box Hill. And all the rest of the way till Jon got out at Pulborough, she was more wary than a cat — casual and friendly, with clear candid eyes, and a little tremble up at him when she said:
“Au revoir, then, at Goodwood, if not before! This HAS been a jolly accident!”
But on the way to her hotel, driving in a station fly through air that smelled of oysters, she folded her lips between her teeth, and her eyes were damp beneath her frowning brows.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08