In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 14

Outlandish Night

Soames doggedly let the spring come — no easy task for one conscious that time was flying, his birds in the bush no nearer the hand, no issue from the web anywhere visible. Mr. Polteed reported nothing, except that his watch went on — costing a lot of money. Val and his cousin were gone to the war, whence came news more favourable; Dartie was behaving himself so far; James had retained his health; business prospered almost terribly — there was nothing to worry Soames except that he was ‘held up,’ could make no step in any direction.

He did not exactly avoid Soho, for he could not afford to let them think that he had ‘piped off,’ as James would have put it — he might want to ‘pipe on’ again at any minute. But he had to be so restrained and cautious that he would often pass the door of the Restaurant Bretagne without going in, and wander out of the purlieus of that region which always gave him the feeling of having been possessively irregular.

He wandered thus one May night into Regent Street and the most amazing crowd he had ever seen; a shrieking, whistling, dancing, jostling, grotesque and formidably jovial crowd, with false noses and mouth-organs, penny whistles and long feathers, every appanage of idiocy, as it seemed to him. Mafeking! Of course, it had been relieved! Good! But was that an excuse? Who were these people, what were they, where had they come from into the West End? His face was tickled, his ears whistled into. Girls cried: ‘Keep your hair on, stucco!’ A youth so knocked off his top-hat that he recovered it with difficulty. Crackers were exploding beneath his nose, between his feet. He was bewildered, exasperated, offended. This stream of people came from every quarter, as if impulse had unlocked flood-gates, let flow waters of whose existence he had heard, perhaps, but believed in never. This, then, was the populace, the innumerable living negation of gentility and Forsyteism. This was — egad! — Democracy! It stank, yelled, was hideous! In the East End, or even Soho, perhaps — but here in Regent Street, in Piccadilly! What were the police about! In 1900, Soames, with his Forsyte thousands, had never seen the cauldron with the lid off; and now looking into it, could hardly believe his scorching eyes. The whole thing was unspeakable! These people had no restraint, they seemed to think him funny; such swarms of them, rude, coarse, laughing — and what laughter!

Nothing sacred to them! He shouldn’t be surprised if they began to break windows. In Pall Mall, past those august dwellings, to enter which people paid sixty pounds, this shrieking, whistling, dancing dervish of a crowd was swarming. From the Club windows his own kind were looking out on them with regulated amusement. They didn’t realise! Why, this was serious — might come to anything! The crowd was cheerful, but some day they would come in different mood! He remembered there had been a mob in the late eighties, when he was at Brighton; they had smashed things and made speeches. But more than dread, he felt a deep surprise. They were hysterical — it wasn’t English! And all about the relief of a little town as big as — Watford, six thousand miles away. Restraint, reserve! Those qualities to him more dear almost than life, those indispensable attributes of property and culture, where were they? It wasn’t English! No, it wasn’t English! So Soames brooded, threading his way on. It was as if he had suddenly caught sight of someone cutting the covenant ‘for quiet possession’ out of his legal documents; or of a monster lurking and stalking out in the future, casting its shadow before. Their want of stolidity, their want of reverence! It was like discovering that nine-tenths of the people of England were foreigners. And if that were so — then, anything might happen!

At Hyde Park Corner he ran into George Forsyte, very sunburnt from racing, holding a false nose in his hand.

“Hallo, Soames!” he said, “have a nose!”

Soames responded with a pale smile.

“Got this from one of these sportsmen,” went on George, who had evidently been dining; “had to lay him out — for trying to bash my hat. I say, one of these days we shall have to fight these chaps, they’re getting so damned cheeky — all radicals and socialists. They want our goods. You tell Uncle James that, it’ll make him sleep.”

‘In vino veritas,’ thought Soames, but he only nodded, and passed on up Hamilton Place. There was but a trickle of roysterers in Park Lane, not very noisy. And looking up at the houses he thought: ‘After all, we’re the backbone of the country. They won’t upset us easily. Possession’s nine points of the law.’

But, as he closed the door of his father’s house behind him, all that queer outlandish nightmare in the streets passed out of his mind almost as completely as if, having dreamed it, he had awakened in the warm clean morning comfort of his spring-mattressed bed.

Walking into the centre of the great empty drawing-room, he stood still.

A wife! Somebody to talk things over with. One had a right! Damn it! One had a right!

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