In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 4

Where Forsytes Fear to Tread

Quivering from the defeat of his hopes, with the green morocco case still flat against his heart, Soames revolved thoughts bitter as death. A spider’s web! Walking fast, and noting nothing in the moonlight, he brooded over the scene he had been through, over the memory of her figure rigid in his grasp. And the more he brooded, the more certain he became that she had a lover — her words, ‘I would sooner die!’ were ridiculous if she had not. Even if she had never loved him, she had made no fuss until Bosinney came on the scene. No; she was in love again, or she would not have made that melodramatic answer to his proposal, which in all the circumstances was reasonable! Very well! That simplified matters.

‘I’ll take steps to know where I am,’ he thought; ‘I’ll go to Polteed’s the first thing tomorrow morning.’

But even in forming that resolution he knew he would have trouble with himself. He had employed Polteed’s agency several times in the routine of his profession, even quite lately over Dartie’s case, but he had never thought it possible to employ them to watch his own wife.

It was too insulting to himself!

He slept over that project and his wounded pride — or rather, kept vigil. Only while shaving did he suddenly remember that she called herself by her maiden name of Heron. Polteed would not know, at first at all events, whose wife she was, would not look at him obsequiously and leer behind his back. She would just be the wife of one of his clients. And that would be true — for was he not his own solicitor?

He was literally afraid not to put his design into execution at the first possible moment, lest, after all, he might fail himself. And making Warmson bring him an early cup of coffee; he stole out of the house before the hour of breakfast. He walked rapidly to one of those small West End streets where Polteed’s and other firms ministered to the virtues of the wealthier classes. Hitherto he had always had Polteed to see him in the Poultry; but he well knew their address, and reached it at the opening hour. In the outer office, a room furnished so cosily that it might have been a money-lender’s, he was attended by a lady who might have been a schoolmistress.

“I wish to see Mr. Claud Polteed. He knows me — never mind my name.”

To keep everybody from knowing that he, Soames Forsyte, was reduced to having his wife spied on, was the overpowering consideration.

Mr. Claud Polteed — so different from Mr. Lewis Polteed — was one of those men with dark hair, slightly curved noses, and quick brown eyes, who might be taken for Jews but are really Phoenicians; he received Soames in a room hushed by thickness of carpet and curtains. It was, in fact, confidentially furnished, without trace of document anywhere to be seen.

Greeting Soames deferentially, he turned the key in the only door with a certain ostentation.

“If a client sends for me,” he was in the habit of saying, “he takes what precaution he likes. If he comes here, we convince him that we have no leakages. I may safely say we lead in security, if in nothing else. . . . Now, sir, what can I do for you?”

Soames’ gorge had risen so that he could hardly speak. It was absolutely necessary to hide from this man that he had any but professional interest in the matter; and, mechanically, his face assumed its sideway smile.

“I’ve come to you early like this because there’s not an hour to lose”— if he lost an hour he might fail himself yet! “Have you a really trustworthy woman free?”

Mr. Polteed unlocked a drawer, produced a memorandum, ran his eyes over it, and locked the drawer up again.

“Yes,” he said; “the very woman.”

Soames had seated himself and crossed his legs — nothing but a faint flush, which might have been his normal complexion, betrayed him.

“Send her off at once, then, to watch a Mrs. Irene Heron of Flat C, Truro Mansions, Chelsea, till further notice.”

“Precisely,” said Mr. Polteed; “divorce, I presume?” and he blew into a speaking-tube. “Mrs. Blanch in? I shall want to speak to her in ten minutes.”

“Deal with any reports yourself,” resumed Soames, “and send them to me personally, marked confidential, sealed and registered. My client exacts the utmost secrecy.”

Mr. Polteed smiled, as though saying, ‘You are teaching your grandmother, my dear sir;’ and his eyes slid over Soames’ face for one unprofessional instant.

“Make his mind perfectly easy,” he said. “Do you smoke?”

“No,” said Soames. “Understand me: Nothing may come of this. If a name gets out, or the watching is suspected, it may have very serious consequences.”

Mr. Polteed nodded. “I can put it into the cipher category. Under that system a name is never mentioned; we work by numbers.”

He unlocked another drawer and took out two slips of paper, wrote on them, and handed one to Soames.

“Keep that, sir; it’s your key. I retain this duplicate. The case we’ll call 7x. The party watched will be 17; the watcher 19; the Mansions 25; yourself — I should say, your firm — 31; my firm 32, myself 2. In case you should have to mention your client in writing I have called him 43; any person we suspect will be 47; a second person 51. Any special hint or instruction while we’re about it?”

“No,” said Soames; “that is — every consideration compatible.”

Again Mr. Polteed nodded. “Expense?”

Soames shrugged. “In reason,” he answered curtly, and got up. “Keep it entirely in your own hands.”

“Entirely,” said Mr. Polteed, appearing suddenly between him and the door. “I shall be seeing you in that other case before long. Good morning, sir.” His eyes slid unprofessionally over Soames once more, and he unlocked the door.

“Good morning,” said Soames, looking neither to right nor left.

Out in the street he swore deeply, quietly, to himself. A spider’s web, and to cut it he must use this spidery, secret, unclean method, so utterly repugnant to one who regarded his private life as his most sacred piece of property. But the die was cast, he could not go back. And he went on into the Poultry, and locked away the green morocco case and the key to that cipher destined to make crystal-clear his domestic bankruptcy.

Odd that one whose life was spent in bringing to the public eye all the private coils of property, the domestic disagreements of others, should dread so utterly the public eye turned on his own; and yet not odd, for who should know so well as he the whole unfeeling process of legal regulation.

He worked hard all day. Winifred was due at four o’clock; he was to take her down to a conference in the Temple with Dreamer Q.C., and waiting for her he re-read the letter he had caused her to write the day of Dartie’s departure, requiring him to return.

“DEAR MONTAGUE,

“I have received your letter with the news that you have left me for ever and are on your way to Buenos Aires. It has naturally been a great shock. I am taking this earliest opportunity of writing to tell you that I am prepared to let bygones be bygones if you will return to me at once. I beg you to do so. I am very much upset, and will not say any more now. I am sending this letter registered to the address you left at your Club. Please cable to me.

“Your still affectionate wife, “WINIFRED DARTIE.”

Ugh! What bitter humbug! He remembered leaning over Winifred while she copied what he had pencilled, and how she had said, laying down her pen, “Suppose he comes, Soames!” in such a strange tone of voice, as if she did not know her own mind. “He won’t come,” he had answered, “till he’s spent his money. That’s why we must act at once.” Annexed to the copy of that letter was the original of Dartie’s drunken scrawl from the Iseeum Club. Soames could have wished it had not been so manifestly penned in liquor. Just the sort of thing the Court would pitch on. He seemed to hear the Judge’s voice say: “You took this seriously! Seriously enough to write him as you did? Do you think he meant it?” Never mind! The fact was clear that Dartie had sailed and had not returned. Annexed also was his cabled answer: “Impossible return. Dartie.” Soames shook his head. If the whole thing were not disposed of within the next few months the fellow would turn up again like a bad penny. It saved a thousand a year at least to get rid of him, besides all the worry to Winifred and his father. ‘I must stiffen Dreamer’s back,’ he thought; ‘we must push it on.’

Winifred, who had adopted a kind of half-mourning which became her fair hair and tall figure very well, arrived in James’ barouche drawn by James’ pair. Soames had not seen it in the City since his father retired from business five years ago, and its incongruity gave him a shock. ‘Times are changing,’ he thought; ‘one doesn’t know what’ll go next!’ Top hats even were scarcer. He enquired after Val. Val, said Winifred, wrote that he was going to play polo next term. She thought he was in a very good set. She added with fashionably disguised anxiety: “Will there be much publicity about my affair, Soames? Must it be in the papers? It’s so bad for him, and the girls.”

With his own calamity all raw within him, Soames answered:

“The papers are a pushing lot; it’s very difficult to keep things out. They pretend to be guarding the public’s morals, and they corrupt them with their beastly reports. But we haven’t got to that yet. We’re only seeing Dreamer to-day on the restitution question. Of course he understands that it’s to lead to a divorce; but you must seem genuinely anxious to get Dartie back — you might practice that attitude to-day.”

Winifred sighed.

“Oh! What a clown Monty’s been!” she said.

Soames gave her a sharp look. It was clear to him that she could not take her Dartie seriously, and would go back on the whole thing if given half a chance. His own instinct had been firm in this matter from the first. To save a little scandal now would only bring on his sister and her children real disgrace and perhaps ruin later on if Dartie were allowed to hang on to them, going down-hill and spending the money James would leave his daughter. Though it was all tied up, that fellow would milk the settlements somehow, and make his family pay through the nose to keep him out of bankruptcy or even perhaps gaol! They left the shining carriage, with the shining horses and the shining-hatted servants on the Embankment, and walked up to Dreamer Q.C.‘s Chambers in Crown Office Row.

“Mr. Bellby is here, sir,” said the clerk; “Mr. Dreamer will be ten minutes.”

Mr. Bellby, the junior — not as junior as he might have been, for Soames only employed barristers of established reputation; it was, indeed, something of a mystery to him how barristers ever managed to establish that which made him employ them — Mr. Bellby was seated, taking a final glance through his papers. He had come from Court, and was in wig and gown, which suited a nose jutting out like the handle of a tiny pump, his small shrewd blue eyes, and rather protruding lower lip — no better man to supplement and stiffen Dreamer.

The introduction to Winifred accomplished, they leaped the weather and spoke of the war. Soames interrupted suddenly:

“If he doesn’t comply we can’t bring proceedings for six months. I want to get on with the matter, Bellby.”

Mr. Bellby, who had the ghost of an Irish brogue, smiled at Winifred and murmured: “The Law’s delays, Mrs. Dartie.”

“Six months!” repeated Soames; “it’ll drive it up to June! We shan’t get the suit on till after the long vacation. We must put the screw on, Bellby”— he would have all his work cut out to keep Winifred up to the scratch.

“Mr. Dreamer will see you now, sir.”

They filed in, Mr. Bellby going first, and Soames escorting Winifred after an interval of one minute by his watch.

Dreamer Q.C., in a gown but divested of wig, was standing before the fire, as if this conference were in the nature of a treat; he had the leathery, rather oily complexion which goes with great learning, a considerable nose with glasses perched on it, and little greyish whiskers; he luxuriated in the perpetual cocking of one eye, and the concealment of his lower with his upper lip, which gave a smothered turn to his speech. He had a way, too, of coming suddenly round the corner on the person he was talking to; this, with a disconcerting tone of voice, and a habit of growling before he began to speak — had secured a reputation second in Probate and Divorce to very few. Having listened, eye cocked, to Mr. Bellby’s breezy recapitulation of the facts, he growled, and said:

“I know all that;” and coming round the corner at Winifred, smothered the words:

“We want to get him back, don’t we, Mrs. Dartie?”

Soames interposed sharply:

“My sister’s position, of course, is intolerable.”

Dreamer growled. “Exactly. Now, can we rely on the cabled refusal, or must we wait till after Christmas to give him a chance to have written — that’s the point, isn’t it?”

“The sooner. . . . ” Soames began.

“What do you say, Bellby?” said Dreamer, coming round his corner.

Mr. Bellby seemed to sniff the air like a hound.

“We won’t be on till the middle of December. We’ve no need to give um more rope than that.”

“No,” said Soames, “why should my sister be incommoded by his choosing to go . . . ”

“To Jericho!” said Dreamer, again coming round his corner; “quite so. People oughtn’t to go to Jericho, ought they, Mrs. Dartie?” And he raised his gown into a sort of fantail. “I agree. We can go forward. Is there anything more?”

“Nothing at present,” said Soames meaningly; “I wanted you to see my sister.”

Dreamer growled softly: “Delighted. Good evening!” And let fall the protection of his gown.

They filed out. Winifred went down the stairs. Soames lingered. In spite of himself he was impressed by Dreamer.

“The evidence is all right, I think,” he said to Bellby. “Between ourselves, if we don’t get the thing through quick, we never may. D’you think he understands that?”

“I’ll make um,” said Bellby. “Good man though — good man.”

Soames nodded and hastened after his sister. He found her in a draught, biting her lips behind her veil, and at once said:

“The evidence of the stewardess will be very complete.”

Winifred’s face hardened; she drew herself up, and they walked to the carriage. And, all through that silent drive back to Green Street, the souls of both of them revolved a single thought: ‘Why, oh! why should I have to expose my misfortune to the public like this? Why have to employ spies to peer into my private troubles? They were not of my making.’

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