The White Monkey, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XIII

Tenterhooks

Michael had gone to the Labour candidate’s meeting partly because he wanted to, and partly out of fellow feeling for ‘old Forsyte,’ whom he was always conscious of having robbed. His father-inlaw had been very decent about Fleur, and he liked the ‘old man’ to have her to himself when he could.

In a constituency which had much casual and no trades-union labour to speak of, the meeting would be one of those which enabled the intellectuals of the Party to get it ‘off their chests.’ Sentiment being ‘slop,’ and championship mere condescension, one might look for sound economic speeches which left out discredited factors, such as human nature. Michael was accustomed to hearing people disparaged for deprecating change because human nature was constant; he was accustomed to hearing people despised for feeling compassion; he knew that one ought to be purely economic. And anyway that kind of speech was preferable to the tub-thumpings of the North or of the Park, which provoked a nasty underlying class spirit in himself.

The meeting was in full swing when he arrived, the candidate pitilessly exposing the fallacies of a capitalism which, in his view, had brought on the war. For fear that it should bring on another, it must be changed for a system which would ensure that nations should not want anything too much. The individual — said the candidate — was in every respect superior to the nation of which he formed a part; and the problem before them was to secure an economic condition which would enable the individual to function freely in his native superiority. In that way alone, he said, would they lose those mass movements and emotions which imperilled the sanity of the world. He spoke well. Michael listened, purring almost audibly, till he found that he was thinking of himself, Wilfrid and Fleur. Would he ever function so freely in a native superiority that he did not want Fleur too much? And did he wish to? He did not. That seemed to introduce human nature into the speaker’s argument. Didn’t everybody want something too much? Wasn’t it natural? And if so, wouldn’t there always be a collective wanting too much — poolings of primary desire, such as the desire of keeping your own head above water? The candidate’s argument seemed to him suddenly to leave out heat, to omit friction, to be that of a man in an armchair after a poor lunch. He looked attentively at the speaker’s shrewd, dry, doubting face. ‘No juice!’ he thought. And when ‘the chap’ sat down, he got up and left the hall.

This Wilfrid business had upset him horribly. Try as he had to put it out of his mind, try as he would to laugh it off, it continued to eat into his sense of security and happiness. Wife and best friend! A hundred times a day he assured himself that he trusted Fleur. Only, Wilfrid was so much more attractive than himself, and Fleur deserved the best of everything. Besides, Wilfrid was going through torture, and it was not a pleasant thought! How end the thing, restore peace of mind to himself, to him, to her? She had told him nothing; and it simply was impossible to ask. No way even of showing his anxiety! The whole thing was just ‘dark,’ and, so far as he could see, would have to stay so; nothing to be done but screw the lid on tighter, be as nice as he could to her, try not to feel bitter about him. Hades!

He turned down Chelsea Embankment. Here the sky was dark and wide and streaming with stars. The river wide, dark and gleaming with oily rays from the Embankment lamps. The width of it all gave him relief. Dash the dumps! A jolly, queer, muddled, sweet and bitter world; an immensely intriguing game of chance, no matter how the cards were falling at the moment! In the trenches he had thought: ‘Get out of this, and I’ll never mind anything again!’ How seldom now he remembered thinking that! The human body renewed itself — they said — in seven years. In three years’ time his body would not be the body of the trenches, but a whole-time peace body with a fading complex. If only Fleur would tell him quite openly what she felt, what she was doing about Wilfrid, for she must be doing something! And Wilfrid’s verse? Would his confounded passion — as Bart suggested — flow in poetry? And if so, who would publish it? A miserable business! Well the night was beautiful, and the great thing not to be a pig. Beauty and not being a pig! Nothing much else to it — except laughter — the comic side! Keep one’s sense of humour, anyway! And Michael searched, while he strode beneath plane trees half-stripped of leaves and plume-like in the dark, for the fun in his position. He failed to find it. There seemed absolutely nothing funny about love. Possibly he might fall out of love again some day, but not so long as she kept him on her tenterhooks. Did she do it on purpose? Never! Fleur simply could not be like those women who kept their husbands hungry and fed them when they wanted dresses, furs, jewels. Revolting!

He came in sight of Westminster. Only half-past ten! Suppose he took a cab to Wilfrid’s rooms, and tried to have it out with him. It would be like trying to make the hands of a clock move backwards to its ticking. What use in saying: “You love Fleur — well, don’t!” or in Wilfrid saying it to him. ‘After all, I was first with Fleur,’ he thought. Pure chance, perhaps, but fact! Ah! And wasn’t that just the danger? He was no longer a novelty to her — nothing unexpected about him now! And he and she had agreed times without number that novelty was the salt of life, the essence of interest and drama. Novelty now lay with Wilfrid! Lord! Lord! Possession appeared far from being nine points of the law! He rounded-in from the Embankment towards home — jolly part of London, jolly Square; everything jolly except just this infernal complication. Something, soft as a large leaf, tapped twice against his ear. He turned, astonished; he was in empty space, no tree near. Floating in the darkness, a round thing — he grabbed, it bobbed. What? A child’s balloon! He secured it between his hands, took it beneath a lamp-post — green, he judged. Queer! He looked up. Two windows lighted, one of them Fleur’s! Was this the bubble of his own happiness expelled? Morbid! Silly ass! Some gust of wind — a child’s plaything lodged and loosened! He held the balloon gingerly. He would take it in and show it to her. He put his latch-key in the door. Dark in the hall — gone up! He mounted, swinging the balloon on his finger. Fleur was standing before a mirror.

“What on earth’s that?” she said.

The blood returned to Michael’s heart. Curious how he had dreaded its having anything to do with her!

“Don’t know, darling; fell on my hat — must belong to heaven.” And he batted it.

The balloon floated, dropped, bounded twice, wobbled and came to rest.

“You ARE a baby, Michael. I believe you bought it.”

Michael came closer, and stood quite still.

“My hat! What a misfortune to be in love!”

“You think so!”

“Il y a toujours un qui baise, et l’autre qui ne tend pas la joue.”

“But I do.”

“Fleur!”

Fleur smiled.

“Baise away.”

Embracing her, Michael thought: ‘She holds me — does with me what she likes; I know nothing of her!’

And there arose a small sound — from Ting-a-ling smelling the balloon.

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