In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 10

Passing of an Age

The marriage of Soames with Annette took place in Paris on the last day of January, 1901, with such privacy that not even Emily was told until it was accomplished.

The day after the wedding he brought her to one of those quiet hotels in London where greater expense can be incurred for less result than anywhere else under heaven. Her beauty in the best Parisian frocks was giving him more satisfaction than if he had collected a perfect bit of china, or a jewel of a picture; he looked forward to the moment when he would exhibit her in Park Lane, in Green Street, and at Timothy’s.

If some one had asked him in those days, “In confidence — are you in love with this girl?” he would have replied: “In love? What is love? If you mean do I feel to her as I did towards Irene in those old days when I first met her and she would not have me; when I sighed and starved after her and couldn’t rest a minute until she yielded — no! If you mean do I admire her youth and prettiness, do my senses ache a little when I see her moving about — yes! Do I think she will keep me straight, make me a creditable wife and a good mother for my children? — again, yes!”

“What more do I need? and what more do three-quarters of the women who are married get from the men who marry them?” And if the enquirer had pursued his query, “And do you think it was fair to have tempted this girl to give herself to you for life unless you have really touched her heart?” he would have answered: “The French see these things differently from us. They look at marriage from the point of view of establishments and children; and, from my own experience, I am not at all sure that theirs is not the sensible view. I shall not expect this time more than I can get, or she can give. Years hence I shouldn’t be surprised if I have trouble with her; but I shall be getting old, I shall have children by then. I shall shut my eyes. I have had my great passion; hers is perhaps to come — I don’t suppose it will be for me. I offer her a great deal, and I don’t expect much in return, except children, or at least a son. But one thing I am sure of — she has very good sense!”

And if, insatiate, the enquirer had gone on, “You do not look, then, for spiritual union in this marriage?” Soames would have lifted his sideway smile, and rejoined: “That’s as it may be. If I get satisfaction for my senses, perpetuation of myself; good taste and good humour in the house; it is all I can expect at my age. I am not likely to be going out of my way towards any far-fetched sentimentalism.” Whereon, the enquirer must in good taste have ceased enquiry.

The Queen was dead, and the air of the greatest city upon earth grey with unshed tears. Fur-coated and top-hatted, with Annette beside him in dark furs, Soames crossed Park Lane on the morning of the funeral procession, to the rails in Hyde Park. Little moved though he ever was by public matters, this event, supremely symbolical, this summing-up of a long rich period, impressed his fancy. In ‘37, when she came to the throne, ‘Superior Dosset’ was still building houses to make London hideous; and James, a stripling of twenty-six, just laying the foundations of his practice in the Law. Coaches still ran; men wore stocks, shaved their upper lips, ate oysters out of barrels; ‘tigers’ swung behind cabriolets; women said, ‘La!’ and owned no property; there were manners in the land, and pigsties for the poor; unhappy devils were hanged for little crimes, and Dickens had but just begun to write. Well-nigh two generations had slipped by — of steamboats, railways, telegraphs, bicycles, electric light, telephones, and now these motorcars — of such accumulated wealth, that eight per cent. had become three, and Forsytes were numbered by the thousand! Morals had changed, manners had changed, men had become monkeys twice-removed, God had become Mammon — Mammon so respectable as to deceive himself: Sixty-four years that favoured property, and had made the upper middle class; buttressed, chiselled, polished it, till it was almost indistinguishable in manners, morals, speech, appearance, habit, and soul from the nobility. An epoch which had gilded individual liberty so that if a man had money, he was free in law and fact, and if he had not money he was free in law and not in fact. An era which had canonised hypocrisy, so that to seem to be respectable was to be. A great Age, whose transmuting influence nothing had escaped save the nature of man and the nature of the Universe.

And to witness the passing of this Age, London — its pet and fancy — was pouring forth her citizens through every gate into Hyde Park, hub of Victorianism, happy hunting-ground of Forsytes. Under the grey heavens, whose drizzle just kept off, the dark concourse gathered to see the show. The ‘good old’ Queen, full of years and virtue, had emerged from her seclusion for the last time to make a London holiday. From Houndsditch, Acton, Ealing, Hampstead, Islington, and Bethnal Green; from Hackney, Hornsey, Leytonstone, Battersea, and Fulham; and from those green pastures where Forsytes flourish — Mayfair and Kensington, St. James’ and Belgravia, Bayswater and Chelsea and the Regent’s Park, the people swarmed down on to the roads where death would presently pass with dusky pomp and pageantry. Never again would a Queen reign so long, or people have a chance to see so much history buried for their money. A pity the war dragged on, and that the Wreath of Victory could not be laid upon her coffin! All else would be there to follow and commemorate — soldiers, sailors, foreign princes, half-masted bunting, tolling bells, and above all the surging, great, dark-coated crowd, with perhaps a simple sadness here and there deep in hearts beneath black clothes put on by regulation. After all, more than a Queen was going to her rest, a woman who had braved sorrow, lived well and wisely according to her lights.

Out in the crowd against the railings, with his arm hooked in Annette’s, Soames waited. Yes! the Age was passing! What with this Trade Unionism, and Labour fellows in the House of Commons, with continental fiction, and something in the general feel of everything, not to be expressed in words, things were very different; he recalled the crowd on Mafeking night, and George Forsyte saying: “They’re all socialists, they want our goods.” Like James, Soames didn’t know, he couldn’t tell — with Edward on the throne! Things would never be as safe again as under good old Viccy! Convulsively he pressed his young wife’s arm. There, at any rate, was something substantially his own, domestically certain again at last; something which made property worth while — a real thing once more. Pressed close against her and trying to ward others off, Soames was content. The crowd swayed round them, ate sandwiches and dropped crumbs; boys who had climbed the plane-trees chattered above like monkeys, threw twigs and orange-peel. It was past time; they should be coming soon! And, suddenly, a little behind them to the left, he saw a tallish man with a soft hat and short grizzling beard, and a tallish woman in a little round fur cap and veil. Jolyon and Irene talking, smiling at each other, close together like Annette and himself! They had not seen him; and stealthily, with a very queer feeling in his heart, Soames watched those two. They looked happy! What had they come here for — inherently illicit creatures, rebels from the Victorian ideal? What business had they in this crowd? Each of them twice exiled by morality — making a boast, as it were, of love and laxity! He watched them fascinated; admitting grudgingly even with his arm thrust through Annette’s that — that she — Irene — No! he would not admit it; and he turned his eyes away. He would not see them, and let the old bitterness, the old longing rise up within him! And then Annette turned to him and said: “Those two people, Soames; they know you, I am sure. Who are they?”

Soames nosed sideways.

“What people?”

“There, you see them; just turning away. They know you.”

“No,” Soames answered; “a mistake, my dear.”

“A lovely face! And how she walk! Elle est tres distinguee!”

Soames looked then. Into his life, out of his life she had walked like that swaying and erect, remote, unseizable; ever eluding the contact of his soul! He turned abruptly from that receding vision of the past.

“You’d better attend,” he said, “they’re coming now!”

But while he stood, grasping her arm, seemingly intent on the head of the procession, he was quivering with the sense of always missing something, with instinctive regret that he had not got them both.

Slow came the music and the march, till, in silence, the long line wound in through the Park gate. He heard Annette whisper, “How sad it is and beautiful!” felt the clutch of her hand as she stood up on tiptoe; and the crowd’s emotion gripped him. There it was — the bier of the Queen, coffin of the Age slow passing! And as it went by there came a murmuring groan from all the long line of those who watched, a sound such as Soames had never heard, so unconscious, primitive, deep and wild, that neither he nor any knew whether they had joined in uttering it. Strange sound, indeed! Tribute of an Age to its own death. . . . Ah! Ah!. . . . The hold on life had slipped. That which had seemed eternal was gone! The Queen — God bless her!

It moved on with the bier, that travelling groan, as a fire moves on over grass in a thin line; it kept step, and marched alongside down the dense crowds mile after mile. It was a human sound, and yet inhuman, pushed out by animal subconsciousness, by intimate knowledge of universal death and change. None of us — none of us can hold on for ever!

It left silence for a little — a very little time, till tongues began, eager to retrieve interest in the show. Soames lingered just long enough to gratify Annette, then took her out of the Park to lunch at his father’s in Park Lane. . . .

James had spent the morning gazing out of his bedroom window. The last show he would see, last of so many! So she was gone! Well, she was getting an old woman. Swithin and he had seen her crowned — slim slip of a girl, not so old as Imogen! She had got very stout of late. Jolyon and he had seen her married to that German chap, her husband — he had turned out all right before he died, and left her with that son of his. And he remembered the many evenings he and his brothers and their cronies had wagged their heads over their wine and walnuts and that fellow in his salad days. And now he had come to the throne. They said he had steadied down — he didn’t know — couldn’t tell! He’d make the money fly still, he shouldn’t wonder. What a lot of people out there! It didn’t seem so very long since he and Swithin stood in the crowd outside Westminster Abbey when she was crowned, and Swithin had taken him to Cremorne afterwards — racketty chap, Swithin; no, it didn’t seem much longer ago than Jubilee Year, when he had joined with Roger in renting a balcony in Piccadilly.

Jolyon, Swithin, Roger all gone, and he would be ninety in August! And there was Soames married again to a French girl. The French were a queer lot, but they made good mothers, he had heard. Things changed! They said this German Emperor was here for the funeral, his telegram to old Kruger had been in shocking taste. He should not be surprised if that chap made trouble some day. Change! H’m! Well, they must look after themselves when he was gone: he didn’t know where he’d be! And now Emily had asked Dartie to lunch, with Winifred and Imogen, to meet Soames’ wife — she was always doing something. And there was Irene living with that fellow Jolyon, they said. He’d marry her now, he supposed.

‘My brother Jolyon,’ he thought, ‘what would he have said to it all?’ And somehow the utter impossibility of knowing what his elder brother, once so looked up to, would have said, so worried James that he got up from his chair by the window, and began slowly, feebly to pace the room.

‘She was a pretty thing, too,’ he thought; ‘I was fond of her. Perhaps Soames didn’t suit her — I don’t know — I can’t tell. We never had any trouble with our wives.’ Women had changed everything had changed! And now the Queen was dead — well, there it was! A movement in the crowd brought him to a standstill at the window, his nose touching the pane and whitening from the chill of it. They had got her as far as Hyde Park Corner — they were passing now! Why didn’t Emily come up here where she could see, instead of fussing about lunch. He missed her at that moment — missed her! Through the bare branches of the plane-trees he could just see the procession, could see the hats coming off the people’s heads — a lot of them would catch colds, he shouldn’t wonder! A voice behind him said:

“You’ve got a capital view here, James!”

“There you are!” muttered James; “why didn’t you come before? You might have missed it!”

And he was silent, staring with all his might.

“What’s the noise?” he asked suddenly.

“There’s no noise,” returned Emily; “what are you thinking of? — they wouldn’t cheer.”

“I can hear it.”

“Nonsense, James!”

No sound came through those double panes; what James heard was the groaning in his own heart at sight of his Age passing.

“Don’t you ever tell me where I’m buried,” he said suddenly. “I shan’t want to know.” And he turned from the window. There she went, the old Queen; she’d had a lot of anxiety — she’d be glad to be out of it, he should think!

Emily took up the hair-brushes.

“There’ll be just time to brush your head,” she said, “before they come. You must look your best, James.”

“Ah!” muttered James; “they say she’s pretty.”

The meeting with his new daughter-in-law took place in the dining-room. James was seated by the fire when she was brought in. He placed, his hands on the arms of the chair and slowly raised himself. Stooping and immaculate in his frock-coat, thin as a line in Euclid, he received Annette’s hand in his; and the anxious eyes of his furrowed face, which had lost its colour now, doubted above her. A little warmth came into them and into his cheeks, refracted from her bloom.

“How are you?” he said. “You’ve been to see the Queen, I suppose? Did you have a good crossing?”

In this way he greeted her from whom he hoped for a grandson of his name.

Gazing at him, so old, thin, white, and spotless, Annette murmured something in French which James did not understand.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “you want your lunch, I expect. Soames, ring the bell; we won’t wait for that chap Dartie.” But just then they arrived. Dartie had refused to go out of his way to see ‘the old girl.’ With an early cocktail beside him, he had taken a ‘squint’ from the smoking-room of the Iseeum, so that Winifred and Imogen had been obliged to come back from the Park to fetch him thence. His brown eyes rested on Annette with a stare of almost startled satisfaction. The second beauty that fellow Soames had picked up! What women could see in him! Well, she would play him the same trick as the other, no doubt; but in the meantime he was a lucky devil! And he brushed up his moustache, having in nine months of Green Street domesticity regained almost all his flesh and his assurance. Despite the comfortable efforts of Emily, Winifred’s composure, Imogen’s enquiring friendliness, Dartie’s showing-off, and James’ solicitude about her food, it was not, Soames felt, a successful lunch for his bride. He took her away very soon.

“That Monsieur Dartie,” said Annette in the cab, “je n’aime pas ce type-la!”

“No, by George!” said Soames.

“Your sister is veree amiable, and the girl is pretty. Your father is veree old. I think your mother has trouble with him; I should not like to be her.”

Soames nodded at the shrewdness, the clear hard judgment in his young wife; but it disquieted him a little. The thought may have just flashed through him, too: ‘When I’m eighty she’ll be fifty-five, having trouble with me!’

“There’s just one other house of my relations I must take you to,” he said; “you’ll find it funny, but we must get it over; and then we’ll dine and go to the theatre.”

In this way he prepared her for Timothy’s. But Timothy’s was different. They were delighted to see dear Soames after this long long time; and so this was Annette!

“You are so pretty, my dear; almost too young and pretty for dear Soames, aren’t you? But he’s very attentive and careful — such a good hush. . . . ” Aunt Juley checked herself, and placed her lips just under each of Annette’s eyes — she afterwards described them to Francie, who dropped in, as: “Cornflower-blue, so pretty, I quite wanted to kiss them. I must say dear Soames is a perfect connoisseur. In her French way, and not so very French either, I think she’s as pretty — though not so distinguished, not so alluring — as Irene. Because she was alluring, wasn’t she? with that white skin and those dark eyes, and that hair, couleur de — what was it? I always forget.”

“Feuille morte,” Francie prompted.

“Of course, dead leaves — so strange. I remember when I was a girl, before we came to London, we had a foxhound puppy — to ‘walk’ it was called then; it had a tan top to its head and a white chest, and beautiful dark brown eyes, and it was a lady.”

“Yes, auntie,” said Francie, “but I don’t see the connection.”

“Oh!” replied Aunt Juley, rather flustered, “it was so alluring, and her eyes and hair, you know. . . . ” She was silent, as if surprised in some indelicacy. “Feuille morte,” she added suddenly; “Hester — do remember that!”. . . .

Considerable debate took place between the two sisters whether Timothy should or should not be summoned to see Annette.

“Oh, don’t bother!” said Soames.

“But it’s no trouble, only of course Annette’s being French might upset him a little. He was so scared about Fashoda. I think perhaps we had better not run the risk, Hester. It’s nice to have her all to ourselves, isn’t it? And how are you, Soames? Have you quite got over your. . . . ”

Hester interposed hurriedly:

“What do you think of London, Annette?”

Soames, disquieted, awaited the reply. It came, sensible, composed: “Oh! I know London. I have visited before.”

He had never ventured to speak to her on the subject of the restaurant. The French had different notions about gentility, and to shrink from connection with it might seem to her ridiculous; he had waited to be married before mentioning it; and now he wished he hadn’t.

“And what part do you know best?” said Aunt Juley.

“Soho,” said Annette simply.

Soames snapped his jaw.

“Soho?” repeated Aunt Juley; “Soho?”

‘That’ll go round the family,’ thought Soames.

“It’s very French, and interesting,” he said.

“Yes,” murmured Aunt Juley, “your Uncle Roger had some houses there once; he was always having to turn the tenants out, I remember.”

Soames changed the subject to Mapledurham.

“Of course,” said Aunt Juley, “you will be going down there soon to settle in. We are all so looking forward to the time when Annette has a dear little. . . . ”

“Juley!” cried Aunt Hester desperately, “ring tea!”

Soames dared not wait for tea, and took Annette away.

“I shouldn’t mention Soho if I were you,” he said in the cab. “It’s rather a shady part of London; and you’re altogether above that restaurant business now; I mean,” he added, “I want you to know nice people, and the English are fearful snobs.”

Annette’s clear eyes opened; a little smile came on her lips.

“Yes?” she said.

‘H’m!’ thought Soames, ‘that’s meant for me!’ and he looked at her hard. ‘She’s got good business instincts,’ he thought. ‘I must make her grasp it once for all!’

“Look here, Annette! it’s very simple, only it wants understanding. Our professional and leisured classes still think themselves a cut above our business classes, except of course the very rich. It may be stupid, but there it is, you see. It isn’t advisable in England to let people know that you ran a restaurant or kept a shop or were in any kind of trade. It may have been extremely creditable, but it puts a sort of label on you; you don’t have such a good time, or meet such nice people — that’s all.”

“I see,” said Annette; “it is the same in France.”

“Oh!” murmured Soames, at once relieved and taken aback. “Of course, class is everything, really.”

“Yes,” said Annette; “comme vous etes sage.”

‘That’s all right,’ thought Soames, watching her lips, ‘only she’s pretty cynical.’ His knowledge of French was not yet such as to make him grieve that she had not said ‘tu.’ He slipped his arm round her, and murmured with an effort:

“Et vous etes ma belle femme.”

Annette went off into a little fit of laughter.

“Oh, non!” she said. “Oh, non! ne parlez pas Francais, Soames. What is that old lady, your aunt, looking forward to?”

Soames bit his lip. “God knows!” he said; “she’s always saying something;” but he knew better than God.

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