The Man of Property, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 22

Perfection of the House

‘One mockturtle, clear; one oxtail; two glasses of port.’

In the upper room at French’s, where a Forsyte could still get heavy English food, James and his son were sitting down to lunch.

Of all eating-places James liked best to come here; there was something unpretentious, well-flavoured, and filling about it, and though he had been to a certain extent corrupted by the necessity for being fashionable, and the trend of habits keeping pace with an income that would increase, he still hankered in quiet City moments after the tasty fleshpots of his earlier days. Here you were served by hairy English waiters in aprons; there was sawdust on the floor, and three round gilt looking-glasses hung just above the line of sight. They had only recently done away with the cubicles, too, in which you could have your chop, prime chump, with a floury-potato, without seeing your neighbours, like a gentleman.

He tucked the top corner of his napkin behind the third button of his waistcoat, a practice he had been obliged to abandon years ago in the West End. He felt that he should relish his soup — the entire morning had been given to winding up the estate of an old friend.

After filling his mouth with household bread, stale, he at once began: “How are you going down to Robin Hill? You going to take Irene? You’d better take her. I should think there’ll be a lot that’ll want seeing to.”

Without looking up, Soames answered: “She won’t go.”

“Won’t go? What’s the meaning of that? She’s going to live in the house, isn’t she?”

Soames made no reply.

“I don’t know what’s coming to women nowadays,” mumbled James; “I never used to have any trouble with them. She’s had too much liberty. She’s spoiled. . . . ”

Soames lifted his eyes: “I won’t have anything said against her,” he said unexpectedly.

The silence was only broken now by the supping of James’s soup.

The waiter brought the two glasses of port, but Soames stopped him.

“That’s not the way to serve port,” he said; “take them away, and bring the bottle.”

Rousing himself from his reverie over the soup, James took one of his rapid shifting surveys of surrounding facts.

“Your mother’s in bed,” he said; “you can have the carriage to take you down. I should think Irene’d like the drive. This young Bosinney’ll be there, I suppose, to show you over”

Soames nodded.

“I should like to go and see for myself what sort of a job he’s made finishing off,” pursued James. “I’ll just drive round and pick you both up.”

“I am going down by train,” replied Soames. “If you like to drive round and see, Irene might go with you, I can’t tell.”

He signed to the waiter to bring the bill, which James paid.

They parted at St. Paul’s, Soames branching off to the station, James taking his omnibus westwards.

He had secured the corner seat next the conductor, where his long legs made it difficult for anyone to get in, and at all who passed him he looked resentfully, as if they had no business to be using up his air.

He intended to take an opportunity this afternoon of speaking to Irene. A word in time saved nine; and now that she was going to live in the country there was a chance for her to turn over a new leaf! He could see that Soames wouldn’t stand very much more of her goings on!

It did not occur to him to define what he meant by her ‘goings on’; the expression was wide, vague, and suited to a Forsyte. And James had more than his common share of courage after lunch.

On reaching home, he ordered out the barouche, with special instructions that the groom was to go too. He wished to be kind to her, and to give her every chance.

When the door of No.62 was opened he could distinctly hear her singing, and said so at once, to prevent any chance of being denied entrance.

Yes, Mrs. Soames was in, but the maid did not know if she was seeing people.

James, moving with the rapidity that ever astonished the observers of his long figure and absorbed expression, went forthwith into the drawing-room without permitting this to be ascertained. He found Irene seated at the piano with her hands arrested on the keys, evidently listening to the voices in the hall. She greeted him without smiling.

“Your mother-in-law’s in bed,” he began, hoping at once to enlist her sympathy. “I’ve got the carriage here. Now, be a good girl, and put on your hat and come with me for a drive. It’ll do you good!”

Irene looked at him as though about to refuse, but, seeming to change her mind, went upstairs, and came down again with her hat on.

“Where are you going to take me?” she asked.

“We’ll just go down to Robin Hill,” said James, spluttering out his words very quick; “the horses want exercise, and I should like to see what they’ve been doing down there.”

Irene hung back, but again changed her mind, and went out to the carriage, James brooding over her closely, to make quite sure.

It was not before he had got her more than half way that he began: “Soames is very fond of you — he won’t have anything said against you; why don’t you show him more affection?”

Irene flushed, and said in a low voice: “I can’t show what I haven’t got.”

James looked at her sharply; he felt that now he had her in his own carriage, with his own horses and servants, he was really in command of the situation. She could not put him off; nor would she make a scene in public.

“I can’t think what you’re about,” he said. “He’s a very good husband!”

Irene’s answer was so low as to be almost inaudible among the sounds of traffic. He caught the words: “You are not married to him!”

“What’s that got to do with it? He’s given you everything you want. He’s always ready to take you anywhere, and now he’s built you this house in the country. It’s not as if you had anything of your own.”

“No.”

Again James looked at her; he could not make out the expression on her face. She looked almost as if she were going to cry, and yet. . . .

“I’m sure,” he muttered hastily, “we’ve all tried to be kind to you.”

Irene’s lips quivered; to his dismay James saw a tear steal down her cheek. He felt a choke rise in his own throat.

“We’re all fond of you,” he said, “if you’d only”— he was going to say, “behave yourself,” but changed it to —“if you’d only be more of a wife to him.”

Irene did not answer, and James, too, ceased speaking. There was something in her silence which disconcerted him; it was not the silence of obstinacy, rather that of acquiescence in all that he could find to say. And yet he felt as if he had not had the last word. He could not understand this.

He was unable, however, to long keep silence.

“I suppose that young Bosinney,” he said, “will be getting married to June now?”

Irene’s face changed. “I don’t know,” she said; “you should ask her.”

“Does she write to you?” No.

“How’s that?” said James. “I thought you and she were such great friends.”

Irene turned on him. “Again,” she said, “you should ask her!”

“Well,” flustered James, frightened by her look, “it’s very odd that I can’t get a plain answer to a plain question, but there it is.”

He sat ruminating over his rebuff, and burst out at last:

“Well, I’ve warned you. You won’t look ahead. Soames he doesn’t say much, but I can see he won’t stand a great deal more of this sort of thing. You’ll have nobody but yourself to blame, and, what’s more, you’ll get no sympathy from anybody.”

Irene bent her head with a little smiling bow. “I am very much obliged to you.”

James did not know what on earth to answer.

The bright hot morning had changed slowly to a grey, oppressive afternoon; a heavy bank of clouds, with the yellow tinge of coming thunder, had risen in the south, and was creeping up.

The branches of the trees dropped motionless across the road without the smallest stir of foliage. A faint odour of glue from the heated horses clung in the thick air; the coachman and groom, rigid and unbending, exchanged stealthy murmurs on the box, without ever turning their heads.

To James’ great relief they reached the house at last; the silence and impenetrability of this woman by his side, whom he had always thought so soft and mild, alarmed him.

The carriage put them down at the door, and they entered.

The hall was cool, and so still that it was like passing into a tomb; a shudder ran down James’s spine. He quickly lifted the heavy leather curtains between the columns into the inner court.

He could not restrain an exclamation of approval.

The decoration was really in excellent taste. The dull ruby tiles that extended from the foot of the walls to the verge of a circular clump of tall iris plants, surrounding in turn a sunken basin of white marble filled with water, were obviously of the best quality. He admired extremely the purple leather curtains drawn along one entire side, framing a huge white-tiled stove. The central partitions of the skylight had been slid back, and the warm air from outside penetrated into the very heart of the house.

He stood, his hands behind him, his head bent back on his high, narrow shoulders, spying the tracery on the columns and the pattern of the frieze which ran round the ivory-coloured walls under the gallery. Evidently, no pains had been spared. It was quite the house of a gentleman. He went up to the curtains, and, having discovered how they were worked, drew them asunder and disclosed the picture-gallery, ending in a great window taking up the whole end of the room. It had a black oak floor, and its walls, again, were of ivory white. He went on throwing open doors, and peeping in. Everything was in apple-pie order, ready for immediate occupation.

He turned round at last to speak to Irene, and saw her standing over in the garden entrance, with her husband and Bosinney.

Though not remarkable for sensibility, James felt at once that something was wrong. He went up to them, and, vaguely alarmed, ignorant of the nature of the trouble, made an attempt to smooth things over.

“How are you, Mr. Bosinney?” he said, holding out his hand. “You’ve been spending money pretty freely down here, I should say!”

Soames turned his back, and walked away.

James looked from Bosinney’s frowning face to Irene, and, in his agitation, spoke his thoughts aloud: “Well, I can’t tell what’s the matter. Nobody tells me anything!” And, making off after his son, he heard Bosinney’s short laugh, and his “Well, thank God! You look so. . . . ” Most unfortunately he lost the rest.

What had happened? He glanced back. Irene was very close to the architect, and her face not like the face he knew of her. He hastened up to his son.

Soames was pacing the picture-gallery.

“What’s the matter?” said James. “What’s all this?”

Soames looked at him with his supercilious calm unbroken, but James knew well enough that he was violently angry.

“Our friend,” he said, “has exceeded his instructions again, that’s all. So much the worse for him this time.”

He turned round and walked back towards the door. James followed hurriedly, edging himself in front. He saw Irene take her finger from before her lips, heard her say something in her ordinary voice, and began to speak before he reached them.

“There’s a storm coming on. We’d better get home. We can’t take you, I suppose, Mr. Bosinney? No, I suppose not. Then, good-bye!” He held out his hand. Bosinney did not take it, but, turning with a laugh, said:

“Good-bye, Mr. Forsyte. Don’t get caught in the storm!” and walked away.

“Well,” began James, “I don’t know. . . . ”

But the ‘sight of Irene’s face stopped him. Taking hold of his daughter-in-law by the elbow, he escorted her towards the carriage. He felt certain, quite certain, they had been making some appointment or other. . . .

Nothing in this world is more sure to upset a Forsyte than the discovery that something on which he has stipulated to spend a certain sum has cost more. And this is reasonable, for upon the accuracy of his estimates the whole policy of his life is ordered. If he cannot rely on definite values of property, his compass is amiss; he is adrift upon bitter waters without a helm.

After writing to Bosinney in the terms that have already been chronicled, Soames had dismissed the cost of the house from his mind. He believed that he had made the matter of the final cost so very plain that the possibility of its being again exceeded had really never entered his head. On hearing from Bosinney that his limit of twelve thousand pounds would be exceeded by something like four hundred, he had grown white with anger. His original estimate of the cost of the house completed had been ten thousand pounds, and he had often blamed himself severely for allowing himself to be led into repeated excesses. Over this last expenditure, however, Bosinney had put himself completely in the wrong. How on earth a fellow could make such an ass of himself Soames could not conceive; but he had done so, and all the rancour and hidden jealousy that had been burning against him for so long was now focussed in rage at this crowning piece of extravagance. The attitude of the confident and friendly husband was gone. To preserve property — his wife — he had assumed it, to preserve property of another kind he lost it now.

“Ah!” he had said to Bosinney when he could speak, “and I suppose you’re perfectly contented with yourself. But I may as well tell you that you’ve altogether mistaken your man!”

What he meant by those words he did not quite know at the time, but after dinner he looked up the correspondence between himself and Bosinney to make quite sure. There could be no two opinions about it — the fellow had made himself liable for that extra four hundred, or, at all events, for three hundred and fifty of it, and he would have to make it good.

He was looking at his wife’s face when he came to this conclusion. Seated in her usual seat on the sofa, she was altering the lace on a collar. She had not once spoken to him all the evening.

He went up to the mantelpiece, and contemplating his face in the mirror said: “Your friend the Buccaneer has made a fool of himself; he will have to pay for it!”

She looked at him scornfully, and answered: “I don’t know what you are talking about!”

“You soon will. A mere trifle, quite beneath your contempt — four hundred pounds.”

“Do you mean that you are going to make him pay that towards this hateful, house?”

“I do.”

“And you know he’s got nothing?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are meaner than I thought you.”

Soames turned from the mirror, and unconsciously taking a china cup from the mantelpiece, clasped his hands around it as though praying. He saw her bosom rise and fall, her eyes darkening with anger, and taking no notice of the taunt, he asked quietly:

“Are you carrying on a flirtation with Bosinney?”

“No, I am not!”

Her eyes met his, and he looked away. He neither believed nor disbelieved her, but he knew that he had made a mistake in asking; he never had known, never would know, what she was thinking. The sight of her inscrutable face, the thought of all the hundreds of evenings he had seen her sitting there like that soft and passive, but unreadable, unknown, enraged him beyond measure.

“I believe you are made of stone,” he said, clenching his fingers so hard that he broke the fragile cup. The pieces fell into the grate. And Irene smiled.

“You seem to forget,” she said, “that cup is not!”

Soames gripped her arm. “A good beating,” he said, “is the only thing that would bring you to your senses,” but turning on his heel, he left the room.

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