The White Monkey, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XI

With a Small ‘n’

On the night of the Monday following, after Fleur had gone to bed, Michael and Soames sat listening to the mutter of London coming through the windows of the Chinese room opened to the brooding heat.

“They say the war killed sentiment,” said Soames suddenly: “Is that true?”

“In a way, yes, sir. We had so much reality that we don’t want any more.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“I meant that only reality really makes you feel. So if you pretend there IS no reality, you don’t have to feel. It answers awfully well, up to a point.”

“Ah!” said Soames. “Her mother comes up tomorrow morning, to stay. This P. P. R. S. meeting of mine is at half-past two. Good-night!”

Michael, at the window, watched the heat gathered black over the Square. A few tepid drops fell on his outstretched hand. A cat stole by under a lamp-post, and vanished into shadow so thick that it seemed uncivilised.

Queer question of ‘Old Forsyte’s’ about sentiment; odd that he should ask it! ‘Up to a point! But don’t we all get past that point?’ he thought. Look at Wilfrid, and himself — after the war they had deemed it blasphemous to admit that anything mattered except eating and drinking, for tomorrow they died; even fellows like Nazing, and Master, who were never in the war, had felt like that ever since. Well, Wilfrid had got it in the neck; and he himself had got it in the wind; and he would bet that — barring one here and there whose blood was made of ink — they would all get it in the neck or wind soon or late. Why, he would cheerfully bear Fleur’s pain and risk, instead of her! But if nothing mattered, why should he feel like that?

Turning from the window, he leaned against the lacquered back of the jade-green settee, and stared at the wall space between the Chinese tea-chests. Jolly thoughtful of the ‘old man’ to have that white monkey down! The brute was potent — symbolic of the world’s mood: beliefs cancelled, faiths withdrawn! And, dash it! not only the young — but the old — were in that temper! ‘Old Forsyte,’ or he would never have been scared by that monkey’s eyes; yes, and his own governor, and Elderson, and all the rest. Young and old — no real belief in anything! And yet — revolt sprang up in Michael, with a whirr, like a covey of partridges. It DID matter that some person or some principle outside oneself should be more precious than oneself — it dashed well did! Sentiment, then, wasn’t dead — nor faith, nor belief, which were the same things. They were only shedding shell, working through chrysalis, into — butterflies, perhaps. Faith, sentiment, belief, had gone underground, possibly, but they were there, even in ‘Old Forsyte’ and himself. He had a good mind to put the monkey up again. No use exaggerating his importance! . . . By George! Some flare! A jagged streak of vivid light had stripped darkness off the night. Michael crossed, to close the windows. A shattering peal of thunder blundered overhead; and down came the rain, slashing and sluicing. He saw a man running, black, like a shadow across a dark blue screen; saw him by the light of another flash, suddenly made lurid and full of small meaning, with face of cheerful anxiety, as if he were saying: “Hang it, I’m getting wet!” Another frantic crash!

‘Fleur!’ thought Michael; and clanging the last window down, he ran upstairs.

She was sitting up in bed, with a face all round, and young, and startled.

‘Brutes!’ he thought — guns and the heavens confounded in his mind: ‘They’ve waked her up!’

“It’s all right, darling! Just another little summer kick-up! Were you asleep?”

“I was dreaming!” He felt her hand clutching within his own, saw a sudden pinched look on her face, with a sort of rage. What infernal luck!

“Where’s Ting?”

No dog was in the corner.

“Under the bed — you bet! Would you like him up?”

“No. Let him stay; he hates it.”

She put her head against his arm, and Michael curled his hand round her other ear.

“I never liked thunder much!” said Fleur,” and now it — it hurts!”

High above her hair Michael’s face underwent the contortions of an overwhelming tenderness. One of those crashes which seem just overhead sent her face burrowing against his chest, and, sitting on the bed, he gathered her in, close.

“I wish it were over,” came, smothered, from her lips.

“It will be directly, darling; it came on so suddenly!” But he knew she didn’t mean the storm.

“If I come through, I’m going to be quite different to you, Michael.”

Anxiety was the natural accompaniment of such events, but the words, “If I come through” turned Michael’s heart right over. Incredible that one so young and pretty should be in even the remotest danger of extinction; incredibly painful that she should be in fear of it! He hadn’t realised. She had been so calm, so matter-of-fact about it all.

“Don’t!” he mumbled; “of course you’ll come through.”

“I’m afraid.”

The sound was small and smothered, but the words hurt horribly. Nature, with the small ‘n,’ forcing fear into this girl he loved so awfully! Nature kicking up this godless din above her poor little head!

“Ducky, you’ll have twilight sleep and know nothing about it; and be as right as rain in no time.”

Fleur freed her hand.

“Not if it’s not good for him. Is it?”

“I expect so, sweetheart; I’ll find out. What makes you think —?”

“Only that it’s not natural. I want to do it properly. Hold my hand hard, Michael. I— I’m not going to be a fool. Oh! Some one’s knocking — go and see.”

Michael opened the door a crack. Soames was there — unnatural — in a blue dressing gown and scarlet slippers!

“Is she all right?” he whispered.

“Yes, yes.”

“In this bobbery she oughtn’t to be left.”

“No, sir, of course not. I shall sleep on the sofa.”

“Call me, if anything’s wanted.”

“I will.”

Soames’ eyes slid past, peering into the room. A string worked in his throat, as if he had things to say which did not emerge. He shook his head, and turned. His slim figure, longer than usual, in its gown, receded down the corridor, past the Japanese prints which he had given them. Closing the door again, Michael stood looking at the bed. Fleur had settled down; her eyes were closed, her lips moving. He stole back on tiptoe. The thunder, travelling away south, blundered and growled as if regretfully. Michael saw her eyelids quiver, her lips stop, then move again. ‘Coue!’ he thought.

He lay down on the sofa at the foot of the bed, whence, without sound, he could raise himself and see her. Many times he raised himself. She had dropped off, was breathing quietly. The thunder was faint now, the flashes imperceptible. Michael closed his eyes.

A faint last mutter roused him to look at her once more, high on her pillows by the carefully shaded light. Young — young! Colourless, like a flower in wax! No scheme in her brain, no dread — peaceful! If only she could stay like that and wake up with it all over! He looked away. And there she was at the far end, dim, reflected in a glass; and there to the right, again. She lay, as it were, all round him in the pretty room, the inhabiting spirit — of his heart.

It was quite still now. Through a chink in those powder-blue curtains he could see some stars. Big Ben chimed one.

He had slept, perhaps, dozed at least, dreamed a little. A small sound woke him. A very little dog, tail down, yellow, low and unimportant, was passing down the room, trailing across it to the far corner. ‘Ah!’ thought Michael, closing his eyes again: ‘You!’

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