In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 13

James is Told

A simple cold, caught in the room with double windows, where the air and the people who saw him were filtered, as it were, the room he had not left since the middle of September — and James was in deep waters. A little cold, passing his little strength and flying quickly to his lungs. “He mustn’t catch cold,” the doctor had declared, and he had gone and caught it. When he first felt it in his throat he had said to his nurse — for he had one now —“There, I knew how it would be, airing the room like that!” For a whole day he was highly nervous about himself and went in advance of all precautions and remedies; drawing every breath with extreme care and having his temperature taken every hour. Emily was not alarmed.

But next morning when she went in the nurse whispered: “He won’t have his temperature taken.”

Emily crossed to the side of the bed where he was lying, and said softly, “How do you feel, James?” holding the thermometer to his lips. James looked up at her.

“What’s the good of that?” he murmured huskily; “I don’t want to know.”

Then she was alarmed. He breathed with difficulty, he looked terribly frail, white, with faint red discolorations. She had ‘had trouble’ with him, Goodness knew; but he was James, had been James for nearly fifty years; she couldn’t remember or imagine life without James — James, behind all his fussiness, his pessimism, his crusty shell, deeply affectionate, really kind and generous to them all!

All that day and the next he hardly uttered a word, but there was in his eyes a noticing of everything done for him, a look on his face which told her he was fighting; and she did not lose hope. His very stillness, the way he conserved every little scrap of energy, showed the tenacity with which he was fighting. It touched her deeply; and though her face was composed and comfortable in the sick-room, tears ran down her cheeks when she was out of it.

About tea-time on the third day — she had just changed her dress, keeping her appearance so as not to alarm him, because he noticed everything — she saw a difference. ‘It’s no use; I’m tired,’ was written plainly across that white face, and when she went up to him, he muttered: “Send for Soames.”

“Yes, James,” she said comfortably; “all right — at once.” And she kissed his forehead. A tear dropped there, and as she wiped it off she saw that his eyes looked grateful. Much upset, and without hope now, she sent Soames the telegram.

When he entered out of the black windy night, the big house was still as a grave. Warmson’s broad face looked almost narrow; he took the fur coat with a sort of added care, saying:

“Will you have a glass of wine, sir?”

Soames shook his head, and his eyebrows made enquiry.

Warmson’s lips twitched. “He’s asking for you, sir;” and suddenly he blew his nose. “It’s a long time, sir,” he said, “that I’ve been with Mr. Forsyte — a long time.”

Soames left him folding the coat, and began to mount the stairs. This house, where he had been born and sheltered, had never seemed to him so warm, and rich, and cosy, as during this last pilgrimage to his father’s room. It was not his taste; but in its own substantial, lincrusta way it was the acme of comfort and security. And the night was so dark and windy; the grave so cold and lonely!

He paused outside the door. No sound came from within. He turned the handle softly and was in the room before he was perceived. The light was shaded. His mother and Winifred were sitting on the far side of the bed; the nurse was moving away from the near side where was an empty chair. ‘For me!’ thought Soames. As he moved from the door his mother and sister rose, but he signed with his hand and they sat down again. He went up to the chair and stood looking at his father. James’ breathing was as if strangled; his eyes were closed. And in Soames, looking on his father so worn and white and wasted, listening to his strangled breathing, there rose a passionate vehemence of anger against Nature, cruel, inexorable Nature, kneeling on the chest of that wisp of a body, slowly pressing out the breath, pressing out the life of the being who was dearest to him in the world. His father, of all men, had lived a careful life, moderate, abstemious, and this was his reward — to have life slowly, painfully squeezed out of him! And, without knowing that he spoke, he said: “It’s cruel!”

He saw his mother cover her eyes and Winifred bow her face towards the bed. Women! They put up with things so much better than men. He took a step nearer to his father. For three days James had not been shaved, and his lips and chin were covered with hair, hardly more snowy than his forehead. It softened his face, gave it a queer look already not of this world. His eyes opened. Soames went quite close and bent over. The lips moved.

“Here I am, Father:”

“Um — what — what news? They never tell. . . . ” the voice died, and a flood of emotion made Soames’ face work so that he could not speak. Tell him? — yes. But what? He made a great effort, got his lips together, and said:

“Good news, dear, good — Annette, a son.”

“Ah!” It was the queerest sound, ugly, relieved, pitiful, triumphant — like the noise a baby makes getting what it wants. The eyes closed, and that strangled sound of breathing began again. Soames recoiled to the chair and stonily sat down. The lie he had told, based, as it were, on some deep, temperamental instinct that after death James would not know the truth, had taken away all power of feeling for the moment. His arm brushed against something. It was his father’s naked foot. In the struggle to breathe he had pushed it out from under the clothes. Soames took it in his hand, a cold foot, light and thin, white, very cold. What use to put it back, to wrap up that which must be colder soon! He warmed it mechanically with his hand, listening to his father’s laboured breathing; while the power of feeling rose again within him. A little sob, quickly smothered, came from Winifred, but his mother sat unmoving with her eyes fixed on James. Soames signed to the nurse.

“Where’s the doctor?” he whispered.

“He’s been sent for.”

“Can’t you do anything to ease his breathing?”

“Only an injection; and he can’t stand it. The doctor said, while he was fighting. . . . ”

“He’s not fighting,” whispered Soames, “he’s being slowly smothered. It’s awful.”

James stirred uneasily, as if he knew what they were saying. Soames rose and bent over him. James feebly moved his two hands, and Soames took them.

“He wants to be pulled up,” whispered the nurse.

Soames pulled. He thought he pulled gently, but a look almost of anger passed over James’ face. The nurse plumped the pillows. Soames laid the hands down, and bending over kissed his father’s forehead. As he was raising himself again, James’ eyes bent on him a look which seemed to come from the very depths of what was left within. ‘I’m done, my boy,’ it seemed to say, ‘take care of them, take care of yourself; take care — I leave it all to you.’

“Yes, Yes,” Soames whispered, “yes, yes.”

Behind him the nurse did he knew, not what, for his father made a tiny movement of repulsion as if resenting that interference; and almost at once his breathing eased away, became quiet; he lay very still. The strained expression on his face passed, a curious white tranquillity took its place. His eyelids quivered, rested; the whole face rested; at ease. Only by the faint puffing of his lips could they tell that he was breathing. Soames sank back on his chair, and fell to cherishing the foot again. He heard the nurse quietly crying over there by the fire; curious that she, a stranger, should be the only one of them who cried! He heard the quiet lick and flutter of the fire flames. One more old Forsyte going to his long rest — wonderful, they were! — wonderful how he had held on! His mother and Winifred were leaning forward, hanging on the sight of James’ lips. But Soames bent sideways over the feet, warming them both; they gave him comfort, colder and colder though they grew. Suddenly he started up; a sound, a dreadful sound such as he had never heard, was coming from his father’s lips, as if an outraged heart had broken with a long moan. What a strong heart, to have uttered that farewell! It ceased. Soames looked into the face. No motion; no breath! Dead! He kissed the brow, turned round and went out of the room. He ran upstairs to the bedroom, his old bedroom, still kept for him; flung himself face down on the bed, and broke into sobs which he stilled with the pillow. . . .

A little later he went downstairs and passed into the room. James lay alone, wonderfully calm, free from shadow and anxiety, with the gravity on his ravaged face which underlies great age, the worn fine gravity of old coins.

Soames looked steadily at that face, at the fire, at all the room with windows thrown open to the London night.

“Good-bye!” he whispered, and went out.

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