In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 11

And Visits the Past

On a Tuesday evening after dining at his club Soames set out to do what required more courage and perhaps less delicacy than anything he had yet undertaken in his life — save perhaps his birth, and one other action. He chose the evening, indeed, partly because Irene was more likely to be in, but mainly because he had failed to find sufficient resolution by daylight, had needed wine to give him extra daring.

He left his hansom on the Embankment, and walked up to the Old Church, uncertain of the block of flats where he knew she lived. He found it hiding behind a much larger mansion; and having read the name, ‘Mrs. Irene Heron’— Heron, forsooth! Her maiden name: so she used that again, did she? — he stepped back into the road to look up at the windows of the first floor. Light was coming through in the corner fiat, and he could hear a piano being played. He had never had a love of music, had secretly borne it a grudge in the old days when so often she had turned to her piano, making of it a refuge place into which she knew he could not enter. Repulse! The long repulse, at first restrained and secret, at last open! Bitter memory came with that sound. It must be she playing, and thus almost assured of seeing her, he stood more undecided than ever. Shivers of anticipation ran through him; his tongue felt dry, his heart beat fast. ‘I have no cause to be afraid,’ he thought. And then the lawyer stirred within him. Was he doing a foolish thing? Ought he not to have arranged a formal meeting in the presence of her trustee? No! Not before that fellow Jolyon, who sympathised with her! Never! He crossed back into the doorway, and, slowly, to keep down the beating of his heart, mounted the single flight of stairs and rang the bell. When the door was opened to him his sensations were regulated by the scent which came — that perfume — from away back in the past, bringing muffled remembrance: fragrance of a drawing-room he used to enter, of a house he used to own — perfume of dried rose-leaves and honey!

“Say, Mr. Forsyte,” he said, “your mistress will see me, I know.” He had thought this out; she would think it was Jolyon!

When the maid was gone and he was alone in the tiny hall, where the light was dim from one pearly-shaded sconce, and walls, carpet, everything was silvery, making the walled-in space all ghostly, he could only think ridiculously: ‘Shall I go in with my overcoat on, or take it off?’ The music ceased; the maid said from the doorway:

“Will you walk in, sir?”

Soames walked in. He noted mechanically that all was still silvery, and that the upright piano was of satinwood. She had risen and stood recoiled against it; her hand, placed on the keys as if groping for support, had struck a sudden discord, held for a moment, and released. The light from the shaded piano-candle fell on her neck, leaving her face rather in shadow. She was in a black evening dress, with a sort of mantilla over her shoulders — he did not remember ever having seen her in black, and the thought passed through him: ‘She dresses even when she’s alone.’

“You!” he heard her whisper.

Many times Soames had rehearsed this scene in fancy. Rehearsal served him not at all. He simply could not speak. He had never thought that the sight of this woman whom he had once so passionately desired, so completely owned, and whom he had not seen for twelve years, could affect him in this way. He had imagined himself speaking and acting, half as man of business, half as judge. And now it was as if he were in the presence not of a mere woman and erring wife, but of some force, subtle and elusive as atmosphere itself within him and outside. A kind of defensive irony welled up in him.

“Yes, it’s a queer visit! I hope you’re well.”

“Thank you. Will you sit down?”

She had moved away from the piano, and gone over to a window-seat, sinking on to it, with her hands clasped in her lap. Light fell on her there, so that Soames could see her face, eyes, hair, strangely as he remembered them, strangely beautiful.

He sat down on the edge of a satinwood chair, upholstered with silver-coloured stuff, close to where he was standing.

“You have not changed,” he said.

“No? What have you come for?”

“To discuss things.”

“I have heard what you want from your cousin.”

“Well?”

“I am willing. I have always been.”

The sound of her voice, reserved and close, the sight of her figure watchfully poised, defensive, was helping him now. A thousand memories of her, ever on the watch against him, stirred, and. . . .

“Perhaps you will be good enough, then, to give me information on which I can act. The law must be complied with.”

“I have none to give you that you don’t know of.”

“Twelve years! Do you suppose I can believe that?”

“I don’t suppose you will believe anything I say; but it’s the truth.”

Soames looked at her hard. He had said that she had not changed; now he perceived that she had. Not in face, except that it was more beautiful; not in form, except that it was a little fuller — no! She had changed spiritually. There was more of her, as it were, something of activity and daring, where there had been sheer passive resistance. ‘Ah!’ he thought, ‘that’s her independent income! Confound Uncle Jolyon!’

“I suppose you’re comfortably off now?” he said.

“Thank you, yes.”

“Why didn’t you let me provide for you? I would have, in spite of everything.”

A faint smile came on her lips; but she did not answer.

“You are still my wife,” said Soames. Why he said that, what he meant by it, he knew neither when he spoke nor after. It was a truism almost preposterous, but its effect was startling. She rose from the window-seat, and stood for a moment perfectly still, looking at him. He could see her bosom heaving. Then she turned to the window and threw it open.

“Why do that?” he said sharply. “You’ll catch cold in that dress. I’m not dangerous.” And he uttered a little sad laugh.

She echoed it — faintly, bitterly.

“It was — habit.”

“Rather odd habit,” said Soames as bitterly. “Shut the window!”

She shut it and sat down again. She had developed power, this woman — this — wife of his! He felt it issuing from her as she sat there, in a sort of armour. And almost unconsciously he rose and moved nearer; he wanted to see the expression on her face. Her eyes met his unflinching. Heavens! how clear they were, and what a dark brown against that white skin, and that burnt-amber hair! And how white her shoulders.

Funny sensation this! He ought to hate her.

“You had better tell me,” he said; “it’s to your advantage to be free as well as to mine. That old matter is too old.”

“I have told you.”

“Do you mean to tell me there has been nothing — nobody?”

“Nobody. You must go to your own life.”

Stung by that retort, Soames moved towards the piano and back to the hearth, to and fro, as he had been wont in the old days in their drawing-room when his feelings were too much for him.

“That won’t do,” he said. “You deserted me. In common justice it’s for you. . . . ”

He saw her shrug those white shoulders, heard her murmur:

“Yes. Why didn’t you divorce me then? Should I have cared?”

He stopped, and looked at her intently with a sort of curiosity. What on earth did she do with herself, if she really lived quite alone? And why had he not divorced her? The old feeling that she had never understood him, never done him justice, bit him while he stared at her.

“Why couldn’t you have made me a good wife?” he said.

“Yes; it was a crime to marry you. I have paid for it. You will find some way perhaps. You needn’t mind my name, I have none to lose. Now I think you had better go.”

A sense of defeat — of being defrauded of his self-justification, and of something else beyond power of explanation to himself, beset Soames like the breath of a cold fog. Mechanically he reached up, took from the mantel-shelf a little china bowl, reversed it, and said:

“Lowestoft. Where did you get this? I bought its fellow at Jobson’s.” And, visited by the sudden memory of how, those many years ago, he and she had bought china together, he remained staring at the little bowl, as if it contained all the past. Her voice roused him.

“Take it. I don’t want it.”

Soames put it back on the shelf.

“Will you shake hands?” he said.

A faint smile curved her lips. She held out her hand. It was cold to his rather feverish touch. ‘She’s made of ice,’ he thought —‘she was always made of ice!’ But even as that thought darted through him, his senses were assailed by the perfume of her dress and body, as though the warmth within her, which had never been for him, were struggling to show its presence. And he turned on his heel. He walked out and away, as if someone with a whip were after him, not even looking for a cab, glad of the empty Embankment and the cold river, and the thick-strewn shadows of the plane-tree leaves — confused, flurried, sore at heart, and vaguely disturbed, as though he had made some deep mistake whose consequences he could not foresee. And the fantastic thought suddenly assailed him if instead of, ‘I think you had better go,’ she had said, ‘I think you had better stay!’ What should he have felt, what would he have done? That cursed attraction of her was there for him even now, after all these years of estrangement and bitter thoughts. It was there, ready to mount to his head at a sign, a touch. ‘I was a fool to go!’ he muttered. ‘I’ve advanced nothing. Who could imagine? I never thought!’ Memory, flown back to the first years of his marriage, played him torturing tricks. She had not deserved to keep her beauty — the beauty he had owned and known so well. And a kind of bitterness at the tenacity of his own admiration welled up in him. Most men would have hated the sight of her, as she had deserved. She had spoiled his life, wounded his pride to death, defrauded him of a son. And yet the mere sight of her, cold and resisting as ever, had this power to upset him utterly! It was some damned magnetism she had! And no wonder if, as she asserted; she had lived untouched these last twelve years. So Bosinney — cursed be his memory! — had lived on all this time with her! Soames could not tell whether he was glad of that knowledge or no.

Nearing his Club at last he stopped to buy a paper. A headline ran: ‘Boers reported to repudiate suzerainty!’ Suzerainty! ‘Just like her!’ he thought: ‘she always did. Suzerainty! I still have it by rights. She must be awfully lonely in that wretched little flat!’

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37