In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 9

Out of the Web

On Forsyte ‘Change the announcement of Jolly’s death, among a batch of troopers, caused mixed sensation. Strange to read that Jolyon Forsyte (fifth of the name in direct descent) had died of disease in the service of his country, and not be able to feel it personally. It revived the old grudge against his father for having estranged himself. For such was still the prestige of old Jolyon that the other Forsytes could never quite feel, as might have been expected, that it was they who had cut off his descendants for irregularity. The news increased, of course, the interest and anxiety about Val; but then Val’s name was Dartie, and even if he were killed in battle or got the Victoria Cross, it would not be at all the same as if his name were Forsyte. Not even casualty or glory to the Haymans would be really satisfactory. Family pride felt defrauded.

How the rumour arose, then, that ‘something very dreadful, my dear,’ was pending, no one, least of all Soames, could tell, secret as he kept everything. Possibly some eye had seen ‘Forsyte v. Forsyte and Forsyte,’ in the cause list; and had added it to ‘Irene in Paris with a fair beard.’ Possibly some wall at Park Lane had ears. The fact remained that it was known — whispered among the old, discussed among the young — that family pride must soon receive a blow.

Soames, paying one, of his Sunday visits to Timothy’s — paying it with the feeling that after the suit came on he would be paying no more — felt knowledge in the air as he came in. Nobody, of course, dared speak of it before him, but each of the four other Forsytes present held their breath, aware that nothing could prevent Aunt Juley from making them all uncomfortable. She looked so piteously at Soames, she checked herself on the point of speech so often, that Aunt Hester excused herself and said she must go and bathe Timothy’s eye — he had a sty coming. Soames, impassive, slightly supercilious, did not stay long. He went out with a curse stifled behind his pale, just smiling lips.

Fortunately for the peace of his mind, cruelly tortured by the coming scandal, he was kept busy day and night with plans for his retirement — for he had come to that grim conclusion. To go on seeing all those people who had known him as a ‘long-headed chap,’ an astute adviser — after that — no! The fastidiousness and pride which was so strangely, so inextricably blended in him with possessive obtuseness, revolted against the thought. He would retire, live privately, go on buying pictures, make a great name as a collector — after all, his heart was more in that than it had ever been in Law. In pursuance of this now fixed resolve, he had to get ready to amalgamate his business with another firm without letting people know, for that would excite curiosity and make humiliation cast its shadow before. He had pitched on the firm of Cuthcott, Holliday and Kingson, two of whom were dead. The full name after the amalgamation would therefore be Cuthcott, Holliday, Kingson, Forsyte, Bustard and Forsyte. But after debate as to which of the dead still had any influence with the living, it was decided to reduce the title to Cuthcott, Kingson and Forsyte, of whom Kingson would be the active and Soames the sleeping partner. For leaving his name, prestige, and clients behind him, Soames would receive considerable value.

One night, as befitted a man who had arrived at so important a stage of his career, he made a calculation of what he was worth, and after writing off liberally for depreciation by the war, found his value to be some hundred and thirty thousand pounds. At his father’s death, which could not, alas, be delayed much longer, he must come into at least another fifty thousand, and his yearly expenditure at present just reached two. Standing among his pictures, he saw before him a future full of bargains earned by the trained faculty of knowing better than other people. Selling what was about to decline, keeping what was still going up, and exercising judicious insight into future taste, he would make a unique collection, which at his death would pass to the nation under the title ‘Forsyte Bequest.’

If the divorce went through, he had determined on his line with Madame Lamotte. She had, he knew, but one real ambition — to live on her ‘renter’ in Paris near her grandchildren. He would buy the goodwill of the Restaurant Bretagne at a fancy price. Madame would live like a Queen-Mother in Paris on the interest, invested as she would know how. (Incidentally Soames meant to put a capable manager in her place, and make the restaurant pay good interest on his money. There were great possibilities in Soho.) On Annette he would promise to settle fifteen thousand pounds (whether designedly or not), precisely the sum old Jolyon had settled on ‘that woman.’

A letter from Jolyon’s solicitor to his own had disclosed the fact that ‘those two’ were in Italy. And an opportunity had been duly given for noting that they had first stayed at an hotel in London. The matter was clear as daylight, and would be disposed of in half an hour or so; but during that half-hour he, Soames, would go down to hell; and after that half-hour all bearers of the Forsyte name would feel the bloom was off the rose. He had no illusions like Shakespeare that roses by any other name would smell as sweet. The name was a possession, a concrete, unstained piece of property, the value of which would be reduced some twenty per cent. at least. Unless it were Roger, who had once refused to stand for Parliament, and — oh, irony! — Jolyon, hung on the line, there had never been a distinguished Forsyte. But that very lack of distinction was the name’s greatest asset. It was a private name, intensely individual, and his own property; it had never been exploited for good or evil by intrusive report. He and each member of his family owned it wholly, sanely, secretly, without any more interference from the public than had been necessitated by their births, their marriages, their deaths. And during these weeks of waiting and preparing to drop the Law, he conceived for that Law a bitter distaste, so deeply did he resent its coming violation of his name, forced on him by the need he felt to perpetuate that name in a lawful manner. The monstrous injustice of the whole thing excited in him a perpetual suppressed fury. He had asked no better than to live in spotless domesticity, and now he must go into the witness box, after all these futile, barren years, and proclaim his failure to keep his wife — incur the pity, the amusement, the contempt of his kind. It was all upside down. She and that fellow ought to be the sufferers, and they — were in Italy! In these weeks the Law he had served so faithfully, looked on so reverently as the guardian of all property, seemed to him quite pitiful. What could be more insane than to tell a man that he owned his wife, and punish him when someone unlawfully took her away from him? Did the Law not know that a man’s name was to him the apple of his eye, that it was far harder to be regarded as cuckold than as seducer? He actually envied Jolyon the reputation of succeeding where he, Soames, had failed. The question of damages worried him, too. He wanted to make that fellow suffer, but he remembered his cousin’s words, “I shall be very happy,” with the uneasy feeling that to claim damages would make not Jolyon but himself suffer; he felt uncannily that Jolyon would rather like to pay them — the chap was so loose. Besides, to claim damages was not the thing to do. The claim, indeed, had been made almost mechanically; and as the hour drew near Soames saw in it just another dodge of this insensitive and topsy-turvy Law to make him ridiculous; so that people might sneer and say: “Oh, yes, he got quite a good price for her!” And he gave instructions that his Counsel should state that the money would be given to a Home for Fallen Women. He was a long time hitting off exactly the right charity; but, having pitched on it, he used to wake up in the night and think: ‘It won’t do, too lurid; it’ll draw attention. Something quieter — better taste.’ He did not care for dogs, or he would have named them; and it was in desperation at last — for his knowledge of charities was limited — that he decided on the blind. That could not be inappropriate, and it would make the Jury assess the damages high.

A good many suits were dropping out of the list, which happened to be exceptionally thin that summer, so that his case would be reached before August. As the day grew nearer, Winifred was his only comfort. She showed the fellow-feeling of one who had been through the mill, and was the ‘femme-sole’ in whom he confided, well knowing that she would not let Dartie into her confidence. That ruffian would be only too rejoiced! At the end of July, on the afternoon before the case, he went in to see her. They had not yet been able to leave town, because Dartie had already spent their summer holiday, and Winifred dared not go to her father for more money while he was waiting not to be told anything about this affair of Soames.

Soames found her with a letter in her hand.

“That from Val,” he asked gloomily. “What does he say?”

“He says he’s married,” said Winifred.

“Whom to, for Goodness’ sake?”

Winifred looked up at him.

“To Holly Forsyte, Jolyon’s daughter.”

“What?”

“He got leave and did it. I didn’t even know he knew her. Awkward, isn’t it?”

Soames uttered a short laugh at that characteristic minimisation.

“Awkward! Well, I don’t suppose they’ll hear about this till they come back. They’d better stay out there. That fellow will give her money.”

“But I want Val back,” said Winifred almost piteously; “I miss him, he helps me to get on.”

“I know,” murmured Soames. “How’s Dartie behaving now?”

“It might be worse; but it’s always money. Would you like me to come down to the Court to-morrow, Soames?”

Soames stretched out his hand for hers. The gesture so betrayed the loneliness in him that she pressed it between her two.

“Never mind, old boy. You’ll feel ever so much better when it’s all over.”

“I don’t know what I’ve done,” said Soames huskily; “I never have. It’s all upside down. I was fond of her; I’ve always been.”

Winifred saw a drop of blood ooze out of his lip, and the sight stirred her profoundly.

“Of course,” she said, “it’s been too bad of her all along! But what shall I do about this marriage of Val’s, Soames? I don’t know how to write to him, with this coming on. You’ve seen that child. Is she pretty?”

“Yes, she’s pretty,” said Soames. “Dark — lady-like enough.”

‘That doesn’t sound so bad,’ thought Winifred. ‘Jolyon had style.’

“It is a coil,” she said. “What will father say?

“Mustn’t be told,” said Soames. “The war’ll soon be over now, you’d better let Val take to farming out there.”

It was tantamount to saying that his nephew was lost.

“I haven’t told Monty,” Winifred murmured desolately.

The case was reached before noon next day, and was over in little more than half an hour. Soames — pale, spruce, sad-eyed in the witness-box — had suffered so much beforehand that he took it all like one dead. The moment the decree nisi was pronounced he left the Courts of Justice.

Four hours until he became public property! ‘Solicitor’s divorce suit!’ A surly, dogged anger replaced that dead feeling within him. ‘Damn them all!’ he thought; ‘I won’t run away. I’ll act as if nothing had happened.’ And in the sweltering heat of Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill he walked all the way to his City Club, lunched, and went back to his office. He worked there stolidly throughout the afternoon.

On his way out he saw that his clerks knew, and answered their involuntary glances with a look so sardonic that they were immediately withdrawn. In front of St. Paul’s, he stopped to buy the most gentlemanly of the evening papers. Yes! there he was! ‘Well-known solicitor’s divorce. Cousin co-respondent. Damages given to the blind’— so, they had got that in! At every other face, he thought: ‘I wonder if you know!’ And suddenly he felt queer, as if something were racing round in his head.

What was this? He was letting it get hold of him! He mustn’t! He would be ill. He mustn’t think! He would get down to the river and row about, and fish. ‘I’m not going to be laid up,’ he thought.

It flashed across him that he had something of importance to do before he went out of town. Madame Lamotte! He must explain the Law. Another six months before he was really free! Only he did not want to see Annette! And he passed his hand over the top of his head — it was very hot.

He branched off through Covent Garden. On this sultry day of late July the garbage-tainted air of the old market offended him, and Soho seemed more than ever the disenchanted home of rapscallionism. Alone, the Restaurant Bretagne, neat, daintily painted, with its blue tubs and the dwarf trees therein, retained an aloof and Frenchified self-respect. It was the slack hour, and pale trim waitresses were preparing the little tables for dinner. Soames went through into the private part. To his discomfiture Annette answered his knock. She, too, looked pale and dragged down by the heat.

“You are quite a stranger,” she said languidly.

Soames smiled.

“I haven’t wished to be; I’ve been busy.”

“Where’s your mother, Annette? I’ve got some news for her.”

“Mother is not in.”

It seemed to Soames that she looked at him in a queer way. What did she know? How much had her mother told her? The worry of trying to make that out gave him an alarming feeling in the head. He gripped the edge of the table, and dizzily saw Annette come forward, her eyes clear with surprise. He shut his own and said:

“It’s all right. I’ve had a touch of the sun, I think.” The sun! What he had was a touch of ‘darkness! Annette’s voice, French and composed, said:

“Sit down, it will pass, then.” Her hand pressed his shoulder, and Soames sank into a chair. When the dark feeling dispersed, and he opened his eyes, she was looking down at him. What an inscrutable and odd expression for a girl of twenty!

“Do you feel better?”

“It’s nothing,” said Soames. Instinct told him that to be feeble before her was not helping him — age was enough handicap without that. Will-power was his fortune with Annette, he had lost ground these latter months from indecision — he could not afford to lose any more. He got up, and said:

“I’ll write to your mother. I’m going down to my river house for a long holiday. I want you both to come there presently and stay. It’s just at its best. You will, won’t you?”

“It will be veree nice.” A pretty little roll of that ‘r’ but no enthusiasm. And rather sadly he added:

“You’re feeling the heat; too, aren’t you, Annette? It’ll do you good to be on the river. Good-night.” Annette swayed forward. There was a sort of compunction in the movement.

“Are you fit to go? Shall I give you some coffee?”

“No,” said Soames firmly. “Give me your hand.”

She held out her hand, and Soames raised it to his lips. When he looked up, her face wore again that strange expression. ‘I can’t tell,’ he thought, as he went out; ‘but I mustn’t think — I mustn’t worry:

But worry he did, walking toward Pall Mall. English, not of her religion, middle-aged, scarred as it were by domestic tragedy, what had he to give her? Only wealth, social position, leisure, admiration! It was much, but was it enough for a beautiful girl of twenty? He felt so ignorant about Annette. He had, too, a curious fear of the French nature of her mother and herself. They knew so well what they wanted. They were almost Forsytes. They would never grasp a shadow and miss a substance.

The tremendous effort it was to write a simple note to Madame Lamotte when he reached his Club warned him still further that he was at the end of his tether.

“MY DEAR MADAME (he said),

“You will see by the enclosed newspaper cutting that I obtained my decree of divorce to-day. By the English Law I shall not, however, be free to marry again till the decree is confirmed six months hence. In the meanwhile I have the honor to ask to be considered a formal suitor for the hand of your daughter. I shall write again in a few days and beg you both to come and stay at my river house. “I am, dear Madame, “Sincerely yours, “SOAMES FORSYTE.”

Having sealed and posted this letter, he went into the dining-room. Three mouthfuls of soup convinced him that he could not eat; and, causing a cab to be summoned, he drove to Paddington Station and took the first train to Reading. He reached his house just as the sun went down, and wandered out on to the lawn. The air was drenched with the scent of pinks and picotees in his flower-borders. A stealing coolness came off the river.

Rest-peace! Let a poor fellow rest! Let not worry and shame and anger chase like evil night-birds in his head! Like those doves perched half-sleeping on their dovecot, like the furry creatures in the woods on the far side, and the simple folk in their cottages, like the trees and the river itself, whitening fast in twilight, like the darkening cornflower-blue sky where stars were coming up — let him cease from himself, and rest!

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