The Man of Property, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 29

Soames Breaks the News

In leaving the Court Soames did not go straight home. He felt disinclined for the City, and drawn by need for sympathy in his triumph, he, too, made his way, but slowly and on foot, to Timothy’s in the Bayswater Road.

His father had just left; Mrs. Small and Aunt Hester, in possession of the whole story, greeted him warmly. They were sure he was hungry after all that evidence. Smither should toast him some more muffins, his dear father had eaten them all. He must put his legs up on the sofa; and he must have a glass of prune brandy too. It was so strengthening.

Swithin was still present, having lingered later than his wont, for he felt in want of exercise. On hearing this suggestion, he ‘pished.’ A pretty pass young men were coming to! His own liver was out of order, and he could not bear the thought of anyone else drinking prune brandy.

He went away almost immediately, saying to Soames: “And how’s your wife? You tell her from me that if she’s dull, and likes to come and dine with me quietly, I’ll give her such a bottle of champagne as she doesn’t get every day.” Staring down from his height on Soames he contracted his thick, puffy, yellow hand as though squeezing within it all this small fry, and throwing out his chest he waddled slowly away.

Mrs. Small and Aunt Hester were left horrified. Swithin was so droll!

They themselves were longing to ask Soames how Irene would take the result, yet knew that they must not; he would perhaps say something of his own accord, to throw some light on this, the present burning question in their lives, the question that from necessity of silence tortured them almost beyond bearing; for even Timothy had now been told, and the effect on his health was little short of alarming. And what, too, would June do? This, also, was a most exciting, if dangerous speculation!

They had never forgotten old Jolyon’s visit, since when he had not once been to see them; they had never forgotten the feeling it gave all who were present, that the family was no longer what it had been — that the family was breaking up.

But Soames gave them no help, sitting with his knees crossed, talking of the Barbizon school of painters, whom he had just discovered. These were the coming men, he said; he should not wonder if a lot of money were made over them; he had his eye on two pictures by a man called Corot, charming things; if he could get them at a reasonable price he was going to buy them — they would, he thought, fetch a big price some day.

Interested as they could not but be, neither Mrs. Septimus Small nor Aunt Hester could entirely acquiesce in being thus put off.

It was interesting — most interesting — and then Soames was so clever that they were sure he would do something with those pictures if anybody could; but what was his plan now that he had won his case; was he going to leave London at once, and live in the country, or what was he going to do?

Soames answered that he did not know, he thought they should be moving soon. He rose and kissed his aunts.

No sooner had Aunt Juley received this emblem of departure than a change came over her, as though she were being visited by dreadful courage; every little roll of flesh on her face seemed trying to escape from an invisible, confining mask.

She rose to the full extent of her more than medium height, and said: “It has been on my mind a long time, dear, and if nobody else will tell you, I have made up my mind that. . . . ”

Aunt Hester interrupted her: “Mind, Julia, you do it. . . . ” she gasped —“on your own responsibility!”

Mrs. Small went on as though she had not heard: “I think you ought to know, dear, that Mrs. MacAnder saw Irene walking in Richmond Park with Mr. Bosinney.”

Aunt Hester, who had also risen, sank back in her chair, and turned her face away. Really Juley was too — she should not do such things when she — Aunt Hester, was in the room; and, breathless with anticipation, she waited for what Soames would answer.

He had flushed the peculiar flush which always centred between his eyes; lifting his hand, and, as it were, selecting a finger, he bit a nail delicately; then, drawling it out between set lips, he said: “Mrs. MacAnder is a cat!”

Without waiting for any reply, he left the room.

When he went into Timothy’s he had made up his mind what course to pursue on getting home. He would go up to Irene and say:

“Well, I’ve won my case, and there’s an end of it! I don’t want to be hard on Bosinney; I’ll see if we can’t come to some arrangement; he shan’t be pressed. And now let’s turn over a new leaf! We’ll let the house, and get out of these fogs. We’ll go down to Robin Hill at once. I— I never meant to be rough with you! Let’s shake hands — and —” Perhaps she would let him kiss her, and forget!

When he came out of Timothy’s his intentions were no longer so simple. The smouldering jealousy and suspicion of months blazed up within him. He would put an end to that sort of thing once and for all; he would not have her drag his name in the dirt! If she could not or would not love him, as was her duty and his right — she should not play him tricks with anyone else! He would tax her with it; threaten to divorce her! That would make her behave; she would never face that. But — but — what if she did? He was staggered; this had not occurred to him.

What if she did? What if she made him a confession? How would he stand then? He would have to bring a divorce!

A divorce! Thus close, the word was paralyzing, so utterly at variance with all the principles that had hitherto guided his life. Its lack of compromise appalled him; he felt — like the captain of a ship, going to the side of his vessel, and, with his own hands throwing over the most precious of his bales. This jettisoning of his property with his own hand seemed uncanny to Soames. It would injure him in his profession: He would have to get rid of the house at Robin Hill, on which he had spent so much money, so much anticipation — and at a sacrifice. And she! She would no longer belong to him, not even in name! She would pass out of his life, and he — he should never see her again!

He traversed in the cab the length of a street without getting beyond the thought that he should never see her again!

But perhaps there was nothing to confess, even now very likely there was nothing to confess. Was it wise to push things so far? Was it wise to put himself into a position where he might have to eat his words? The result of this case would ruin Bosinney; a ruined man was desperate, but — what could he do? He might go abroad, ruined men always went abroad. What could they do — if indeed it was ‘they’— without money? It would be better to wait and see how things turned out. If necessary, he could have her watched. The agony of his jealousy (for all the world like the crisis of an aching tooth) came on again; and he almost cried out. But he must decide, fix on some course of action before he got home. When the cab drew up at the door, he had decided nothing.

He entered, pale, his hands moist with perspiration, dreading to meet her, burning to meet her, ignorant of what he was to say or do.

The maid Bilson was in the hall, and in answer to his question: “Where is your mistress?” told him that Mrs. Forsyte had left the house about noon, taking with her a trunk and bag.

Snatching the sleeve of his fur coat away from her grasp, he confronted her:

“What?” he exclaimed; “what’s that you said?” Suddenly recollecting that he must not betray emotion, he added: “What message did she leave?” and noticed with secret terror the startled look of the maid’s eyes.

“Mrs. Forsyte left no message, sir.”

“No message; very well, thank you, that will do. I shall be dining out.”

The maid went downstairs, leaving him still in his fur coat, idly turning over the visiting cards in the porcelain bowl that stood on the carved oak rug chest in the hall.

Mr. and Mrs. Bareham Culcher. Mrs. Septimus Small. Mrs. Baynes. Mr. Solomon Thornworthy. Lady Bellis. Miss Hermione Bellis. Miss Winifred Bellis. Miss Ella Bellis.

Who the devil were all these people? He seemed to have forgotten all familiar things. The words ‘no message — a trunk, and a bag,’ played a hide-and-seek in his brain. It was incredible that she had left no message, and, still in his fur coat, he ran upstairs two steps at a time, as a young married man when he comes home will run up to his wife’s room.

Everything was dainty, fresh, sweet-smelling; everything in perfect order. On the great bed with its lilac silk quilt, was the bag she had made and embroidered with her own hands to hold her sleeping things; her slippers ready at the foot; the sheets even turned over at the head as though expecting her.

On the table stood the silver-mounted brushes and bottles from her dressing bag, his own present. There must, then, be some mistake. What bag had she taken? He went to the bell to summon Bilson, but remembered in time that he must assume knowledge of where Irene had gone, take it all as a matter of course, and grope out the meaning for himself.

He locked the doors, and tried to think, but felt his brain going round; and suddenly tears forced themselves into his eyes.

Hurriedly pulling off his coat, he looked at himself in the mirror.

He was too pale, a greyish tinge all over his face; he poured out water, and began feverishly washing.

Her silver-mounted brushes smelt faintly of the perfumed lotion she used for her hair; and at this scent the burning sickness of his jealousy seized him again.

Struggling into his fur, he ran downstairs and out into the street.

He had not lost all command of himself, however, and as he went down Sloane Street he framed a story for use, in case he should not find her at Bosinney’s. But if he should? His power of decision again failed; he reached the house without knowing what he should do if he did find her there.

It was after office hours, and the street door was closed; the woman who opened it could not say whether Mr. Bosinney were in or no; she had not seen him that day, not for two or three days; she did not attend to him now, nobody attended to him, he. . . .

Soames interrupted her, he would go up and see for himself. He went up with a dogged, white face.

The top floor was unlighted, the door closed, no one answered his ringing, he could hear no sound. He was obliged to descend, shivering under his fur, a chill at his heart. Hailing a cab, he told the man to drive to Park Lane.

On the way he tried to recollect when he had last given her a cheque; she could not have more than three or four pounds, but there were her jewels; and with exquisite torture he remembered how much money she could raise on these; enough to take them abroad; enough for them to live on for months! He tried to calculate; the cab stopped, and he got out with the calculation unmade.

The butler asked whether Mrs. Soames was in the cab, the master had told him they were both expected to dinner.

Soames answered: “No. Mrs. Forsyte has a cold.”

The butler was sorry.

Soames thought he was looking at him inquisitively, and remembering that he was not in dress clothes, asked: “Anybody here to dinner, Warmson?”

“Nobody but Mr. and Mrs. Dartie, sir.”

Again it seemed to Soames that the butler was looking curiously at him. His composure gave way.

“What are you looking at?” he said. “What’s the matter with me, eh?”

The butler blushed, hung up the fur coat, murmured something that sounded like: “Nothing, sir, I’m sure, sir,” and stealthily withdrew.

Soames walked upstairs. Passing the drawing-room without a look, he went straight up to his mother’s and father’s bedroom.

James, standing sideways, the concave lines of his tall, lean figure displayed to advantage in shirt-sleeves and evening waistcoat, his head bent, the end of his white tie peeping askew from underneath one white Dundreary whisker, his eyes peering with intense concentration, his lips pouting, was hooking the top hooks of his wife’s bodice. Soames stopped; he felt half-choked, whether because he had come upstairs too fast, or for some other reason. He — he himself had never — never been asked to. . . .

He heard his father’s voice, as though there were a pin in his mouth, saying: “Who’s that? Who’s there? What d’you want?” His mother’s: “Here, Felice, come and hook this; your master’ll never get done.”

He put his hand up to his throat, and said hoarsely:

“It’s I— Soames!”

He noticed gratefully the affectionate surprise in Emily’s: “Well, my dear boy?” and James’, as he dropped the hook: “What, Soames! What’s brought you up? Aren’t you well?”

He answered mechanically: “I’m all right,” and looked at them, and it seemed impossible to bring out his news.

James, quick to take alarm, began: “You don’t look well. I expect you’ve taken a chill — it’s liver, I shouldn’t wonder. Your mother’ll give you. . . . ”

But Emily broke in quietly: “Have you brought Irene?”

Soames shook his head.

“No,” he stammered, “she — she’s left me!”

Emily deserted the mirror before which she was standing. Her tall, full figure lost its majesty and became very human as she came running over to Soames.

“My dear boy! My dear boy!”

She put her lips to his forehead, and stroked his hand.

James, too, had turned full towards his son; his face looked older.

“Left you?” he said. “What d’you mean — left you? You never told me she was going to leave you.”

Soames answered surlily: “How could I tell? What’s to be done?”

James began walking up and down; he looked strange and stork-like without a coat. “What’s to be done!” he muttered. “How should I know what’s to be done? What’s the good of asking me? Nobody tells me anything, and then they come and ask me what’s to be done; and I should like to know how I’m to tell them! Here’s your mother, there she stands; she doesn’t say anything. What I should say you’ve got to do is to follow her..”

Soames smiled; his peculiar, supercilious smile had never before looked pitiable.

“I don’t know where she’s gone,” he said.

“Don’t know where she’s gone!” said James. “How d’you mean, don’t know where she’s gone? Where d’you suppose she’s gone? She’s gone after that young Bosinney, that’s where she’s gone. I knew how it would be.”

Soames, in the long silence that followed, felt his mother pressing his hand. And all that passed seemed to pass as though his own power of thinking or doing had gone to sleep.

His father’s face, dusky red, twitching as if he were going to cry, and words breaking out that seemed rent from him by some spasm in his soul.

“There’ll be a scandal; I always said so.” Then, no one saying anything: “And there you stand, you and your mother!”

And Emily’s voice, calm, rather contemptuous: “Come, now, James! Soames will do all that he can.”

And James, staring at the floor, a little brokenly: “Well, I can’t help you; I’m getting old. Don’t you be in too great a hurry, my boy.”

And his mother’s voice again: “Soames will do all he can to get her back. We won’t talk of it. It’ll all come right, I dare say.”

And James: “Well, I can’t see how it can come right. And if she hasn’t gone off with that young Bosinney, my advice to you is not to listen to her, but to follow her and get her back.”

Once more Soames felt his mother stroking his hand, in token of her approval, and as though repeating some form of sacred oath, he muttered between his teeth: “I will!”

All three went down to the drawing-room together. There, were gathered the three girls and Dartie; had Irene been present, the family circle would have been complete.

James sank into his armchair, and except for a word of cold greeting to Dartie, whom he both despised and dreaded, as a man likely to be always in want of money, he said nothing till dinner was announced. Soames, too, was silent; Emily alone, a woman of cool courage, maintained a conversation with Winifred on trivial subjects. She was never more composed in her manner and conversation than that evening.

A decision having been come to not to speak of Irene’s flight, no view was expressed by any other member of the family as to the right course to be pursued; there can be little doubt, from the general tone adopted in relation to events as they afterwards turned out, that James’s advice: “Don’t you listen to her, follow-her and get her back!” would, with here and there an exception, have been regarded as sound, not only in Park Lane, but amongst the Nicholases, the Rogers, and at Timothy’s. Just as it would surely have been endorsed by that wider body of Forsytes all over London, who were merely excluded from judgment by ignorance of the story.

In spite then of Emily’s efforts, the dinner was served by Warmson and the footman almost in silence. Dartie was sulky, and drank all he could get; the girls seldom talked to each other at any time. James asked once where June was, and what she was doing with herself in these days. No one could tell him. He sank back into gloom. Only when Winifred recounted how little Publius had given his bad penny to a beggar, did he brighten up.

“Ah!” he said, “that’s a clever little chap. I don’t know what’ll become of him, if he goes on like this. An intelligent little chap, I call him!” But it was only a flash.

The courses succeeded one another solemnly, under the electric light, which glared down onto the table, but barely reached the principal ornament of the walls, a so-called ‘Sea Piece by Turner,’ almost entirely composed of cordage and drowning men.

Champagne was handed, and then a bottle of James’ prehistoric port, but as by the chill hand of some skeleton.

At ten o’clock Soames left; twice in reply to questions, he had said that Irene was not well; he felt he could no longer trust himself. His mother kissed him with her large soft kiss, and he pressed her hand, a flush of warmth in his cheeks. He walked away in the cold wind, which whistled desolately round the corners of the streets, under a sky of clear steel-blue, alive with stars; he noticed neither their frosty greeting, nor the crackle of the curled-up plane-leaves, nor the night-women hurrying in their shabby furs, nor the pinched faces of vagabonds at street corners. Winter was come! But Soames hastened home, oblivious; his hands trembled as he took the late letters from the gilt wire cage into which they had been thrust through the slit in the door.’

None from Irene!

He went into the dining-room; the fire was bright there, his chair drawn up to it, slippers ready, spirit case, and carven cigarette box on the table; but after staring at it all for a minute or two, he turned out the light and went upstairs. There was a fire too in his dressing-room, but her room was dark and cold. It was into this room that Soames went.

He made a great illumination with candles, and for a long time continued pacing up and down between the bed and the door. He could not get used to the thought that she had really left him, and as though still searching for some message, some reason, some reading of all the mystery of his married life, he began opening every recess and drawer.

There were her dresses; he had always liked, indeed insisted, that she should be well-dressed — she had taken very few; two or three at most, and drawer after drawer; full of linen and silk things, was untouched.

Perhaps after all it was only a freak, and she had gone to the seaside for a few days’ change. If only that were so, and she were really coming back, he would never again do as he had done that fatal night before last, never again run that risk — though it was her duty, her duty as a wife; though she did belong to him — he would never again run that risk; she was evidently not quite right in her head!

He stooped over the drawer where she kept her jewels; it was not locked, and came open as he pulled; the jewel box had the key in it. This surprised him until he remembered that it was sure to be empty. He opened it.

It was far from empty. Divided, in little green velvet compartments, were all the things he had given her, even her watch, and stuck into the recess that contained — the watch was a three-cornered note addressed ‘Soames Forsyte,’ in Irene’s handwriting:

‘I think I have taken nothing that you or your people have given me.’ And that was all.

He looked at the clasps and bracelets of diamonds and pearls, at the little flat gold watch with a great diamond set in sapphires, at the chains and rings, each in its nest, and the tears rushed up in his eyes and dropped upon them.

Nothing that she could have done, nothing that she had done, brought home to him like this the inner significance of her act. For the moment, perhaps, he understood nearly all there was to understand — understood that she loathed him, that she had loathed him for years, that for all intents and purposes they were like people living in different worlds, that there was no hope for him, never had been; even, that she had suffered — that she was to be pitied.

In that moment of emotion he betrayed the Forsyte in him — forgot himself, his interests, his property — was capable of almost anything; was lifted into the pure ether of the selfless and unpractical.

Such moments pass quickly.

And as though with the tears he had purged himself of weakness, he got up, locked the box, and slowly, almost trembling, carried it with him into the other room.

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