In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 6

A Summer Day

His boy was seldom absent from Jolyon’s mind in the days which followed the first walk with Irene in Richmond Park. No further news had come; enquiries at the War Office elicited nothing; nor could he expect to hear from June and Holly for three weeks at least. In these days he felt how insufficient were his memories of Jolly, and what an amateur of a father he had been. There was not a single memory in which anger played a part; not one reconciliation, because there had never been a rupture; nor one heart-to-heart confidence, not even when Jolly’s mother died. Nothing but half-ironical affection. He had been too afraid of committing himself in any direction, for fear of losing his liberty, or interfering with that of his boy.

Only in Irene’s presence had he relief, highly complicated by the ever-growing perception of how divided he was between her and his son. With Jolly was bound up all that sense of continuity and social creed of which he had drunk deeply in his youth and again during his boy’s public school and varsity life — all that sense of not going back on what father and son expected of each other. With Irene was bound up all his delight in beauty and in Nature. And he seemed to know less and less which was the stronger within him. From such sentimental paralysis he was rudely awakened, however, one afternoon, just as he was starting off to Richmond, by a young man with a bicycle and a face oddly familiar, who came forward faintly smiling.

“Mr. Jolyon Forsyte? Thank you!” Placing an envelope in Jolyon’s hand he wheeled off the path and rode away. Bewildered, Jolyon opened it.

“Admiralty Probate and Divorce, Forsyte v. Forsyte and Forsyte!”

A sensation of shame and disgust was followed by the instant reaction ‘Why, here’s the very thing you want, and you don’t like it!’ But she must have had one too; and he must go to her at once. He turned things over as he went along. It was an ironical business. For, whatever the Scriptures said about the heart, it took more than mere longings to satisfy the law. They could perfectly well defend this suit, or at least in good faith try to. But the idea of doing so revolted Jolyon. If not her lover in deed he was in desire, and he knew that she was ready to come to him. Her face had told him so. Not that he exaggerated her feeling for him. She had had her grand passion, and he could not expect another from her at his age. But she had trust in him, affection for him, and must feel that he would be a refuge. Surely she would not ask him to defend the suit, knowing that he adored her! Thank Heaven she had not that maddening British conscientiousness which refused happiness for the sake of refusing! She must rejoice at this chance of being free after seventeen years of death in life! As to publicity, the fat was in the fire! To defend the suit would not take away the slur. Jolyon had all the proper feeling of a Forsyte whose privacy is threatened: If he was to be hung by the Law, by all means let it be for a sheep! Moreover the notion of standing in a witness box and swearing to the truth that no gesture, not even a word of love had passed between them seemed to him more degrading than to take the tacit stigma of being an adulterer — more truly degrading, considering the feeling in his heart, and just as bad and painful for his children. The thought of explaining away, if he could, before a judge and twelve average Englishmen, their meetings in Paris, and the walks in Richmond Park, horrified him. The brutality and hypocritical censoriousness of the whole process; the probability that they would not be believed — the mere vision of her, whom he looked on as the embodiment of Nature and of Beauty, standing there before all those suspicious, gloating eyes was hideous to him. No, no! To defend a suit only made a London holiday, and sold the newspapers. A thousand times better accept what Soames and the gods had sent!

‘Besides,’ he thought honestly, ‘who knows whether, even for my boy’s sake, I could have stood this state of things much longer? Anyway, her neck will be out of chancery at last!’ Thus absorbed, he was hardly conscious of the heavy heat. The sky had become overcast, purplish with little streaks of white. A heavy heat-drop plashed a little star pattern in the dust of the road as he entered the Park. ‘Phew!’ he thought, ‘thunder! I hope she’s not come to meet me; there’s a ducking up there!’ But at that very minute he saw Irene coming towards the Gate. ‘We must scuttle back to Robin Hill,’ he thought.

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The storm had passed over the Poultry at four o’clock, bringing welcome distraction to the clerks in every office. Soames was drinking a cup of tea when a note was brought in to him:

“DEAR SIR,

“Forsyte v. Forsyte and Forsyte

“In accordance with your instructions, we beg to inform you that we personally served the respondent and co-respondent in this suit to-day, at Richmond, and Robin Hill, respectively. “Faithfully yours, “LINKMAN AND LAVER.”

For some minutes Soames stared at that note. Ever since he had given those instructions he had been tempted to annul them. It was so scandalous, such a general disgrace! The evidence, too, what he had heard of it, had never seemed to him conclusive; somehow, he believed less and less that those two had gone all lengths. But this, of course, would drive them to it; and he suffered from the thought. That fellow to have her love, where he had failed! Was it too late? Now that they had been brought up sharp by service of this petition, had he not a lever with which he could force them apart? ‘But if I don’t act at once,’ he thought, ‘it will be too late, now they’ve had this thing. I’ll go and see him; I’ll go down!’

And, sick with nervous anxiety, he sent out for one of the ‘new-fangled’ motor-cabs. It might take a long time to run that fellow to ground, and Goodness knew what decision they might come to after such a shock! ‘If I were a theatrical ass,’ he thought, ‘I suppose I should be taking a horse-whip or a pistol or something!’ He took instead a bundle of papers in the case of ‘Magentie versus Wake,’ intending to read them on the way down. He did not even open them, but sat quite still, jolted and jarred, unconscious of the draught down the back of his neck, or the smell of petrol. He must be guided by the fellow’s attitude; the great thing was to keep his head!

London had already begun to disgorge its workers as he neared Putney Bridge; the ant-heap was on the move outwards. What a lot of ants, all with a living to get, holding on by their eyelids in the great scramble! Perhaps for the first time in his life Soames thought: ‘I could let go if I liked! Nothing could touch me; I could snap my fingers, live as I wished — enjoy myself!’ No! One could not live as he had and just drop it all — settle down in Capua, to spend the money and reputation he had made. A man’s life was what he possessed and sought to possess. Only fools thought otherwise — fools, and socialists, and libertines!

The cab was passing villas now, going a great pace. ‘Fifteen miles an hour, I should think!’ he mused; ‘this’ll take people out of town to live!’ and he thought of its bearing on the portions of London owned by his father — he himself had never taken to that form of investment, the gambler in him having all the outlet needed in his pictures. And the cab sped on, down the hill past Wimbledon Common. This interview! Surely a man of fifty-two with grown-up children, and hung on the line, would not be reckless. ‘He won’t want to disgrace the family,’ he thought; ‘he was as fond of his father as I am of mine, and they were brothers. That woman brings destruction — what is it in her? I’ve never known.’ The cab branched off, along the side of a wood, and he heard a late cuckoo calling, almost the first he had heard that year. He was now almost opposite the site he had originally chosen for his house, and which had been so unceremoniously rejected by Bosinney in favour of his own choice. He began passing his handkerchief over his face and hands, taking deep breaths to give him steadiness. ‘Keep one’s head,’ he thought, ‘keep one’s head!’

The cab turned in at the drive which might have been his own, and the sound of music met him. He had forgotten the fellow’s daughters.

“I may be out again directly,” he said to the driver, “or I may be kept some time”; and he rang the bell.

Following the maid through the curtains into the inner hall, he felt relieved that the impact of this meeting would be broken by June or Holly, whichever was playing in there, so that with complete surprise he saw Irene at the piano, and Jolyon sitting in an armchair listening. They both stood up. Blood surged into Soames’ brain, and all his resolution to be guided by this or that left him utterly. The look of his farmer forbears — dogged Forsytes down by the sea, from ‘Superior Dosset’ back — grinned out of his face.

“Very pretty!” he said.

He heard the fellow murmur:

“This is hardly the place — we’ll go to the study, if you don’t mind.” And they both passed him through the curtain opening. In the little room to which he followed them, Irene stood by the open window, and the ‘fellow’ close to her by a big chair. Soames pulled the door to behind him with a slam; the sound carried him back all those years to the day when he had shut out Jolyon — shut him out for meddling with his affairs.

“Well,” he said, “what have you to say for yourselves?”

The fellow had the effrontery to smile.

“What we have received to-day has taken away your right to ask. I should imagine you will be glad to have your neck out of chancery.”

“Oh!” said Soames; “you think so! I came to tell you that I’ll divorce her with every circumstance of disgrace to you both, unless you swear to keep clear of each other from now on.”

He was astonished at his fluency, because his mind was stammering and his hands twitching. Neither of them answered; but their faces seemed to him as if contemptuous.

“Well,” he said; “you — Irene?”

Her lips moved, but Jolyon laid his hand on her arm.

“Let her alone!” said Soames furiously. “Irene, will you swear it?”

“No.”

“Oh! and you?”

“Still less.”

“So then you’re guilty, are you?”

“Yes, guilty.” It was Irene speaking in that serene voice, with that unreached air which had maddened him so often; and, carried beyond himself, he cried:

“You are a devil”

“Go out! Leave this house, or I’ll do you an injury.”

That fellow to talk of injuries! Did he know how near his throat was to being scragged?

“A trustee,” he said, “embezzling trust property! A thief, stealing his cousin’s wife.”

“Call me what you like. You have chosen your part, we have chosen ours. Go out!”

If he had brought a weapon Soames might have used it at that moment.

“I’ll make you pay!” he said.

“I shall be very happy.”

At that deadly turning of the meaning of his speech by the son of him who had nicknamed him ‘the man of property,’ Soames stood glaring. It was ridiculous!

There they were, kept from violence by some secret force. No blow possible, no words to meet the case. But he could not, did not know how to turn and go away. His eyes fastened on Irene’s face — the last time he would ever see that fatal face — the last time, no doubt!

“You,” he said suddenly, “I hope you’ll treat him as you treated me — that’s all.”

He saw her wince, and with a sensation not quite triumph, not quite relief, he wrenched open the door, passed out through the hall, and got into his cab. He lolled against the cushion with his eyes shut. Never in his life had he been so near to murderous violence, never so thrown away the restraint which was his second nature. He had a stripped and naked feeling, as if all virtue had gone out of him — life meaningless, mind-striking work. Sunlight streamed in on him, but he felt cold. The scene he had passed through had gone from him already, what was before him would not materialise, he could catch on to nothing; and he felt frightened, as if he had been hanging over the edge of a precipice, as if with another turn of the screw sanity would have failed him. ‘I’m not fit for it,’ he thought; ‘I mustn’t — I’m not fit for it.’ The cab sped on, and in mechanical procession trees, houses, people passed, but had no significance. ‘I feel very queer,’ he thought; ‘I’ll take a Turkish bath. — I’ve been very near to something. It won’t do.’ The cab whirred its way back over the bridge, up the Fulham Road, along the Park.

“To the Hammam,” said Soames.

Curious that on so warm a summer day, heat should be so comforting! Crossing into the hot room he met George Forsyte coming out, red and glistening.

“Hallo!” said George; “what are you training for? You’ve not got much superfluous.”

Buffoon! Soames passed him with his sideway smile. Lying back, rubbing his skin uneasily for the first signs of perspiration, he thought: ‘Let them laugh! I won’t feel anything! I can’t stand violence! It’s not good for me!’

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