The White Monkey, by John Galsworthy

Chapter X

Face

When Michael rose from the refectory table, Fleur had risen, too. Two days and more since she left Wilfrid’s rooms, and she had not recovered zest. The rifling of the oyster Life, the garlanding of London’s rarer flowers which kept colour in her cheeks, seemed stale, unprofitable. Those three hours, when from shock off Cork Street she came straight to shocks in her own drawing-room, had dislocated her so that she had settled to nothing since. The wound re-opened by Holly had nearly healed again. Dead lion beside live donkey cuts but dim figure. But she could not get hold again of — what? That was the trouble: What? For two whole days she had been trying. Michael was still strange, Wilfrid still lost, Jon still buried alive, and nothing seemed novel under the sun. The only object that gave her satisfaction during those two dreary, disillusioned days was the new white monkey. The more she looked at it, the more Chinese it seemed. It summed up the satirical truth of which she was perhaps subconscious, that all her little modern veerings and flutterings and rushings after the future showed that she believed in nothing but the past. The age had overdone it and must go back to ancestry for faith. Like a little bright fish out of a warm bay, making a splash in chill, strange waters, Fleur felt a subtle nostalgia.

In her Spanish room, alone with her own feelings, she stared at the porcelain fruits. They glowed, cold, uneatable! She took one up. Meant for a passion fruit? Alas! Poor passion! She dropped it with a dull clink on to the pyramid, and shuddered a little. Had she blinded Michael with her kisses? Blinded him to — what? To her incapacity for passion?

‘But I’m not incapable,’ she thought; ‘I’m not. Some day I’ll show him; I’ll show them all.’ She looked up at ‘the Goya’ hanging opposite. What gripping determination in the painting — what intensity of life in the black eyes of a rather raddled dame! SHE would know what she wanted, and get it, too! No compromise and uncertainty there — no capering round life, wondering what it meant, and whether it was worth while, nothing but hard living for the sake of living!

Fleur put her hands where her flesh ended, and her dress began. Wasn’t she as warm and firm — yes, and ten times as pretty, as that fine and evil-looking Spanish dame, with the black eyes and the wonderful lace? And, turning her back on the picture, she went into the hall. Michael’s voice and another’s! They were coming down! She slipped across into the drawing-room and took up the manuscript of a book of poems, on which she was to give Michael her opinion. She sat, not reading, wondering if he were coming in. She heard the front door close. No! He had gone out! A relief, yet chilling! Michael not warm and cheerful in the house — if it were to go on, it would be wearing. She curled herself up and tried to read. Dreary poems — free verse, blank, introspective, all about the author’s inside! No lift, no lilt! Duds! She seemed to have read them a dozen times before. She lay quite still — listening to the click and flutter of the burning logs! If the light were out she might go to sleep. She turned it off, and came back to the settee. She could see herself sitting there, a picture in the firelight; see how lonely she looked, pretty, pathetic, with everything she wished for, and — nothing! Her lip curled. She could even see her own spoiled-child ingratitude. And what was worse, she could see herself seeing it — a triple-distilled modern, so subtly arranged in life-tight compartments that she could not be submerged. If only something would blow in out of the unkempt cold, out of the waste and wilderness of a London whose flowers she plucked. The firelight — soft, uncertain — searched out spots and corners of her Chinese room, as on a stage in one of those scenes, seductive and mysterious, where one waited, to the sound of tambourines, for the next moment of the plot. She reached out and took a cigarette. She could see herself lighting it, blowing out the smoke — her own half-curled fingers, her parted lips, her white rounded arm. She was decorative! Well, and wasn’t that all that mattered? To be decorative, and make little decorations; to be pretty in a world that wasn’t pretty! In ‘Copper Coin’ there was a poem of a flicker-lit room, and a spoiled Columbine before the fire, and a Harlequin hovering without, like ‘the spectre of the rose.’ And suddenly, without warning, Fleur’s heart ached. It ached definitely, rather horribly, and, slipping down on to the floor before the fire, she snuggled her face against Ting-a-ling. The Chinese dog raised his head — his black eyes lurid in the glow.

He licked her cheek, and turned his nose away. Huf! Powder! But Fleur lay like the dead. And she saw herself lying — the curve of her hip, the chestnut glow in her short hair; she heard the steady beat of her heart. Get up! Go out! Do something! But what — what was worth doing? What had any meaning in it? She saw herself doing — extravagant things; nursing sick women; tending pale babies; making a speech in Parliament; riding a steeplechase; hoeing turnips in knickerbockers — decorative. And she lay perfectly still, bound by the filaments of her self-vision. So long as she saw herself she would do nothing — she knew it — for nothing would be worth doing! And it seemed to her, lying there so still, that not to see herself would be worse than anything. And she felt that to feel this was to acknowledge herself caged for ever.

Ting-a-ling growled, turning his nose towards the windows. “In here,” he seemed to say, “we are cosy; we think of the past. We have no use for anything outside. Kindly go away — whoever it is out there!” And again he growled — a low, continuous sound.

“What is it, Ting?”

Ting-a-ling rose on his fore-legs, with muzzle pointed at the window.

“Do you want your walk?”

“No,” said the growl.

Fleur picked him up. “Don’t be so silly!” And she went to the window. The curtains were closely drawn; rich, Chinese, lined, they excluded the night. Fleur made a chink with one hand, and started back. Against the pane was a face, the forehead pressed against the glass, the eyes closed, as if it had been there a long time. In the dark it seemed featureless, vaguely pale. She felt the dog’s body stiffen under her arm — she felt his silence. Her heart pumped. It was ghastly — face without body.

Suddenly the forehead was withdrawn, the eyes opened. She saw — the face of Wilfrid. Could he see in-see her peering out from the darkened room? Quivering all over, she let the curtains fall to. Beckon? Let him in? Go out to him? Wave him away? Her heart beat furiously. How long had he been out there — like a ghost? What did he want of her? She dropped Ting-a-ling with a flump, and pressed her hands to her forehead, trying to clear confusion from her brain. And suddenly she stepped forward and flung the curtains apart. No face! Nothing! He was gone! The dark, draughty square — not a soul in it! Had he ever been — or was the face her fancy? But Ting-a-ling! Dogs had no fancies. He had gone back to the fire and settled down again.

‘It’s not my fault,’ she thought passionately. ‘It’s not! I didn’t want him to love me. I only wanted his — his —!’ Again she sank down before the fire. “Oh! Ting, have a feeling heart!” But the Chinese dog, mindful of the flump, made no response . . . .

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