The house in South Square, Westminster, to which the young Monts had come after their Spanish honeymoon two years before, might have been called ‘emancipated.’ It was the work of an architect whose dream was a new house perfectly old, and an old house perfectly new. It followed, therefore, no recognised style or tradition, and was devoid of structural prejudice; but it soaked up the smuts of the metropolis with such special rapidity that its stone already respectably resembled that of Wren. Its windows and doors had gently rounded tops. The high-sloping roof, of a fine sooty pink, was almost Danish, and two ‘ducky little windows’ looked out of it, giving an impression that very tall servants lived up there. There were rooms on each side of the front door, which was wide and set off by bay trees in black and gold bindings. The house was thick through, and the staircase, of a broad chastity, began at the far end of a hall which had room for quite a number of hats and coats and cards. There were four bathrooms; and not even a cellar underneath. The Forsyte instinct for a house had co-operated in its acquisition. Soames had picked it up for his daughter, undecorated, at that psychological moment when the bubble of inflation was pricked, and the air escaping from the balloon of the world’s trade. Fleur, however, had established immediate contact with the architect — an element which Soames himself had never quite got over — and decided not to have more than three styles in her house: Chinese, Spanish, and her own. The room to the left of the front door, running the breadth of the house, was Chinese, with ivory panels, a copper floor, central heating, and cut glass lustres. It contained four pictures — all Chinese — the only school in which her father had not yet dabbled. The fireplace, wide and open, had Chinese dogs with Chinese tiles for them to stand on. The silk was chiefly of jade green. There were two wonderful old black-tea chests, picked up with Soames’ money at Jobson’s — not a bargain. There was no piano, partly because pianos were too uncompromisingly occidental, and partly because it would have taken up much room. Fleur aimed at space-collecting people rather than furniture or bibelots. The light, admitted by windows at both ends, was unfortunately not Chinese. She would stand sometimes in the centre of this room, thinking — how to ‘bunch’ her guests, how to make her room more Chinese without making it uncomfortable; how to seem to know all about literature and politics; how to accept everything her father gave her, without making him aware that his taste had no sense of the future; how to keep hold of Sibley Swan, the new literary star, and to get hold of Gurdon Minho, the old; of how Wilfrid Desert was getting too fond of her; of what was really her style in dress; of why Michael had such funny ears; and sometimes she stood not thinking at all — just aching a little.
When those three came in she was sitting before a red lacquer tea-table, finishing a very good tea. She always had tea brought in rather early, so that she could have a good quiet preliminary ‘tuck-in’ all by herself, because she was not quite twenty-one, and this was her hour for remembering her youth. By her side Ting-a-ling was standing on his hind feet, his tawny forepaws on a Chinese footstool, his snubbed black and tawny muzzle turned up towards the fruits of his philosophy.
“That’ll do, Ting. No more, ducky! NO MORE!”
The expression of Ting-a-ling answered:
‘Well, then, stop, too! Don’t subject me to torture!’
A year and three months old, he had been bought by Michael out of a Bond Street shop window on Fleur’s twentieth birthday, eleven months ago.
Two years of married life had not lengthened her short dark chestnut hair; had added a little more decision to her quick lips, a little more allurement to her white-lidded, dark-lashed hazel eyes, a little more poise and swing to her carriage, a little more chest and hip measurement; had taken a little from waist and calf measurement, a little colour from cheeks a little less round, and a little sweetness from a voice a little more caressing.
She stood up behind the tray, holding out her white round arm without a word. She avoided unnecessary greetings or farewells. She would have had to say them so often, and their purpose was better served by look, pressure, and slight inclination of head to one side.
With circular movement of her squeezed hand, she said:
“Draw up. Cream, sir? Sugar, Wilfrid? Ting has had too much — don’t feed him! Hand things, Michael. I’ve heard all about the meeting at ‘Snooks.’ You’re not going to canvass for Labour, Michael — canvassing’s so silly. If any one canvassed me, I should vote the other way at once.”
“Yes, darling; but you’re not the average elector.”
Fleur looked at him. Very sweetly put! Conscious of Wilfrid biting his lips, of Sir Lawrence taking that in, of the amount of silk leg she was showing, of her black and cream teacups, she adjusted these matters. A flutter of her white lids — Desert ceased to bite his lips; a movement of her silk legs — Sir Lawrence ceased to look at him. Holding out her cups, she said:
“I suppose I’m not modern enough?”
Desert, moving a bright little spoon round in his magpie cup, said without looking up:
“As much more modern than the moderns, as you are more ancient.”
“‘Ware poetry!” said Michael.
But when he had taken his father to see the new cartoons by Aubrey Greene, she said:
“Kindly tell me what you meant, Wilfrid.”
Desert’s voice seemed to leap from restraint.
“What does it matter? I don’t want to waste time with that.”
“But I want to know. It sounded like a sneer.”
“A sneer? From me? Fleur!”
“Then tell me.”
“I meant that you have all their restlessness and practical get-thereness; but you have what they haven’t, Fleur — power to turn one’s head. And mine is turned. You know it.”
“How would Michael like that — from YOU, his best man?”
Desert moved quickly to the windows.
Fleur took Ting-a-ling on her lap. Such things had been said to her before; but from Wilfrid it was serious. Nice to think she had his heart, of course! Only, where on earth could she put it, where it wouldn’t be seen except by her? He was incalculable — did strange things! She was a little afraid — not of him, but of that quality in him. He came back to the hearth, and said:
“Ugly, isn’t it? Put that dam’ dog down, Fleur; I can’t see your face. If you were really fond of Michael — I swear I wouldn’t; but you’re not, you know.”
Fleur said coldly:
“You know very little; I AM fond of Michael.”
Desert gave his little jerky laugh.
“Oh yes; not the sort that counts.”
Fleur looked up.
“It counts quite enough to make one safe.”
“A flower that I can’t pick.”
“Quite sure, Fleur? Quite, quite sure?”
Fleur stared; her eyes softened a little, her eyelids, so excessively white, drooped over them; she nodded. Desert said slowly:
“The moment I believe that, I shall go East.”
“Not so stale as going West, but much the same — you don’t come back.”
Fleur thought: ‘The East? I should love to know the East! Pity one can’t manage that, too. Pity!’
“You won’t keep me in your Zoo, my dear. I shan’t hang around and feed on crumbs. You know what I feel — it means a smash of some sort.”
“It hasn’t been my fault, has it?”
“Yes; you’ve collected me, as you collect everybody that comes near you.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Desert bent down, and dragged her hand to his lips.
“Don’t be riled with me; I’m too unhappy.”
Fleur let her hand stay against his hot lips.
“All right, dear. I’ll go.”
“But you’re coming to dinner tomorrow?”
Desert said violently:
“TO-MORROW? Good God — no! What d’you think I’m made of?”
He flung her hand away.
“I don’t like violence, Wilfrid.”
“Well, good-bye; I’d better go.”
The words “And you’d better not come again” trembled up to her lips, but were not spoken. Part from Wilfrid — life would lose a little warmth! She waved her hand. He was gone. She heard the door closing. Poor Wilfrid! — nice to think of a flame at which to warm her hands! Nice but rather dreadful! And suddenly, dropping Ting-a-ling, she got up and began to walk about the room. To-morrow! Second anniversary of her wedding-day! Still an ache when she thought of what it had not been. But there was little time to think — and she made less. What good in thinking? Only one life, full of people, of things to do and have, of things wanted — a life only void of — one thing, and that — well, if people had it, they never had it long! On her lids two tears, which had gathered, dried without falling. Sentimentalism! No! The last thing in the world — the unforgivable offence! Whom should she put next whom tomorrow? And whom should she get in place of Wilfrid, if Wilfrid wouldn’t come — silly boy! One day — one night — what difference? Who should sit on her right, and who on her left? Was Aubrey Greene more distinguished, or Sibley Swan? Were they either as distinguished as Walter Nazing or Charles Upshire? Dinner of twelve, exclusively literary and artistic, except for Michael and Alison Charwell. Ah! Could Alison get her Gurdon Minho — just one writer of the old school, one glass of old wine to mellow effervescence? He didn’t publish with Danby and Winter; but he fed out of Alison’s hand. She went quickly to one of the old tea chests, and opened it. Inside was a telephone.
“Can I speak to Lady Alison — Mrs. Michael Mont . . . Yes . . . That you, Alison? . . . Fleur speaking. Wilfrid has fallen through tomorrow night . . . Is there any chance of your bringing Gurdon Minho? I don’t know him, of course; but he might be interested. You’ll try? . . . That’ll be ever so delightful. Isn’t the ‘Snooks’ Club meeting rather exciting? Bart says they’ll eat each other now they’ve split . . . About Mr. Minho. Could you let me know to-night? Thanks — thanks awfully! . . . Goodbye!”
Failing Minho, whom? Her mind hovered over the names in her address book. At so late a minute it must be some one who didn’t stand on ceremony; but except Alison, none of Michael’s relations would be safe from Sibley Swan or Nesta Gorse, and their subversive shafts; as to the Forsytes — out of the question; they had their own sub-acid humour (some of them), but they were not modern, not really modern. Besides, she saw as little of them as she could — they dated, belonged to the dramatic period, had no sense of life without beginning or end. No! If Gurdon Minho was a frost, it would have to be a musician, whose works were hieroglyphical with a dash of surgery; or, better, perhaps, a psycho-analyst. Her fingers turned the pages till she came to those two categories. Hugo Solstis? A possibility; but suppose he wanted to play them something recent? There was only Michael’s upright Grand, and that would mean going to his study. Better Gerald Hanks — he and Nesta Gorse would get off together on dreams; still, if they did, there would be no actual loss of life. Yes, failing Gurdon Minho, Gerald Hanks; he would be free — and put him between Alison and Nesta. She closed the book, and, going back to her jade-green settee, sat gazing at Ting-a-ling. The little dog’s prominent round eyes gazed back; bright, black, very old. Fleur thought: ‘I DON’T want Wilfrid to drop off.’ Among all the crowd who came and went, here, there and everywhere, she cared for nobody. Keep up with them, keep up with everything, of course! It was all frightfully amusing, frightfully necessary! Only — only — what?
Voices! Michael and Bart coming back. Bart had noticed Wilfrid. He WAS a noticing old Bart. She was never very comfortable when he was about — lively and twisting, but with something settled and ancestral in him; a little like Ting-a-ling — something judgmatic, ever telling her that she was fluttering and new. He was anchored, could only move to the length of his old-fashioned cord, but he could drop on to things disconcertingly. Still, he admired her, she felt — oh! yes.
Well! What had he thought of the cartoons? Ought Michael to publish them, and with letterpress or without? Didn’t he think that the cubic called ‘Still Life’— of the Government, too frightfully funny — especially the ‘old bean’ representing the Prime? For answer she was conscious of a twisting, rapid noise; Sir Lawrence was telling her of his father’s collection of electioneering cartoons. She did wish Bart would not tell her about his father; he had been so distinguished, and he must have been so dull, paying all his calls on horseback, with trousers strapped under his boots. He and Lord Charles Cariboo and the Marquis of Forfar had been the last three ‘callers’ of that sort. If only they hadn’t, they’d have been clean forgot. She had that dress to try, and fourteen things to see to, and Hugo’s concert began at eight-fifteen! Why did people of the last generation always have so much time? And, suddenly, she looked down. Ting-a-ling was licking the copper floor. She took him up: “Not that, darling; nasty!” Ah! the spell was broken! Bart was going, reminiscent to the last. She waited at the foot of the stairs till Michael shut the door on him, then flew. Reaching her room, she turned on all the lights. Here was her own style — a bed which did not look like one, and many mirrors. The couch of Ting-a-ling occupied a corner, whence he could see himself in three. She put him down, and said: “Keep quiet, now!” His attitude to the other dogs in the room had long become indifferent; though of his own breed and precisely his colouring, they had no smell and no licking power in their tongues — nothing to be done with them, imitative creatures, incredibly unresponsive.
Stripping off her dress, Fleur held the new frock under her chin.
“May I kiss you?” said a voice, and there was Michael’s image behind her own reflection in the glass.
“My dear boy, there isn’t time! Help me with this.” She slipped the frock over her head. “Do those three top hooks. How do you like it? Oh! and — Michael! Gurdon Minho may be coming to dinner tomorrow — Wilfrid can’t. Have you read his things? Sit down and tell me something about them. All novels, aren’t they? What sort?”
“Well, he’s always had something to say. And his cats are good. He’s a bit romantic, of course.”
“Oh! Have I made a gaff?”
“Not a bit; jolly good shot. The vice of our lot is, they say it pretty well, but they’ve nothing to say. They won’t last.”
“But that’s just why they will last. They won’t date.”
“Won’t they? My gum!”
“Wilfrid will last.”
“Ah! Wilfrid has emotions, hates, pities, wants; at least, sometimes; when he has, his stuff is jolly good. Otherwise, he just makes a song about nothing — like the rest.”
Fleur tucked in the top of her undergarment.
“But, Michael, if that’s so, we — I’ve got the wrong lot.”
“My dear child! The lot of the hour is always right; only you’ve got to watch it, and change it quick enough.”
“But d’you mean to say that Sibley isn’t going to live?”
“Sib? Lord, no!”
“But he’s so perfectly sure that almost everybody else is dead or dying. Surely he has critical genius!”
“If I hadn’t more judgment than Sib, I’d go out of publishing tomorrow.”
“You — more than Sibley Swan?”
“Of course, I’ve more judgment than Sib. Why! Sib’s judgment is just his opinion of Sib — common or garden impatience of any one else. He doesn’t even read them. He’ll read one specimen of every author and say: ‘Oh! that fellow! He’s dull, or he’s moral, or he’s sentimental, or he dates, or he drivels’— I’ve heard him dozens of times. That’s if they’re alive. Of course, if they’re dead, it’s different. He’s always digging up and canonising the dead; that’s how he’s got his name. There’s always a Sib in literature. He’s a standing example of how people can get taken at their own valuation. But as to lasting — of course he won’t; he’s never creative, even by mistake.”
Fleur had lost the thread. Yes! It suited her — quite a nice line! Off with it! Must write those three notes before she dressed.
Michael had begun again.
“Take my tip, Fleur. The really big people don’t talk — and don’t bunch — they paddle their own canoes in what seem backwaters. But it’s the backwaters that make the main stream. By Jove, that’s a mot, or is it a bull; and are bulls mots or mots bulls?”
“Michael, if you were me, would you tell Frederic Wilmer that he’ll be meeting Hubert Marsland at lunch next week? Would it bring him or would it put him off?”
“Marsland’s rather an old duck, Wilmer’s rather an old goose — I don’t know.”
“Oh! do be serious, Michael — you never give me any help in arranging — No! Don’t maul my shoulders please.”
“Well, darling, I DON’T know. I’ve no genius for such things, like you. Marsland paints windmills, cliffs and things — I doubt if he’s heard of the future. He’s almost a Mathew Mans for keeping out of the swim. If you think he’d like to meet a Vertiginist —”
“I didn’t ask you if he’d like to meet Wilmer; I asked you if Wilmer would like to meet him.”
“Wilmer will just say: ‘I like little Mrs. Mont, she gives deuced good grub’— and so you do, ducky. A Vertiginist wants nourishing, you know, or it wouldn’t go to his head.”
Fleur’s pen resumed its swift strokes, already becoming slightly illegible. She murmured:
“I think Wilfrid would help — you won’t be there; one — two — three. What women?”
“For painters — pretty and plump; no intellect.”
Fleur said crossly:
“I can’t get them plump; they don’t go about now.” And her pen flowed on:
“DEAR WILFRID — Wednesday — lunch; Wilmer, Hubert Marsland, two other women. Do help me live it down.
“Michael, your chin is like a bootbrush.”
“Sorry, old thing; your shoulders shouldn’t be so smooth. Bart gave Wilfrid a tip as we were coming along.”
Fleur stopped writing. “Oh!”
“Reminded him that the state of love was a good stunt for poets.”
“A propos of what?”
“Wilfrid was complaining that he couldn’t turn it out now.”
“Nonsense! His last things are his best.”
“Well, that’s what I think. Perhaps he’s forestalled the tip. Has he, d’you know?”
Fleur turned her eyes towards the face behind her shoulder. No, it had its native look — frank, irresponsible, slightly faun-like, with its pointed ears, quick lips, and nostrils.
She said slowly:
“If YOU don’t know, nobody does.”
A snuffle interrupted Michael’s answer. Ting-a-ling, long, low, slightly higher at both ends, was standing between them, with black muzzle upturned. ‘My pedigree is long,’ he seemed to say; ‘but my legs are short — what about it?’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54