Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VI

Soames has Brain Waves

The first question Soames put to his nephew in Green Street, was: “How did he get hold of the cheque form? Do you keep your cheque books lying about?”

“I’m afraid I do, rather, in the country, Uncle Soames.”

“Um,” said Soames, “then you deserve all you get. What about your signature?”

“He wrote from Brighton asking if he could see me.”

“You should have made your wife sign your answer.”

Val groaned. “I didn’t think he’d run to forgery.”

“They run to anything when they’re as far gone as that. I suppose when you said ‘No,’ he came over from Brighton all the same?”

“Yes, he did; but I wasn’t in.”

“Exactly; and he sneaked a form. Well, if you want to stop him, you’d better prosecute. He’ll get three years.”

“That’d kill him,” said Val, “to judge by his looks.”

Soames shook his head. “Improve his health — very likely. Has he ever been in prison?”

“Not that I know of.”

“H’m!”

Silence followed this profound remark.

“I can’t prosecute,” said Val suddenly. “College pal. There, but for the grace of God and all that, don’t you know; one might have gone to the dogs oneself.”

Soames stared at him.

“Well,” he said, “I suppose you might. Your father was always in some scrape or other.”

Val frowned. He had suddenly remembered an evening at the Pandemonium, when, in company with another College friend, he had seen his own father, drunk.

“But somehow,” he said, “I’ve got to see that he doesn’t do it again. If he didn’t look such a ‘heart’ subject, one could give him a hiding.”

Soames shook his head. “Personal violence — besides, he’s probably out of England by now.”

“No; I called at his club on the way here — he’s in town all right.”

“You didn’t see him?”

“No. I wanted to see you first.”

Flattered in spite of himself, Soames said sardonically:

“Perhaps he’s got what they call a better nature?”

“By Jove, Uncle Soames, I believe that’s a brain wave!”

Soames shook his head. “Not to judge by his face.”

“I don’t know,” said Val. “After all, he was born a gentleman.”

“That means nothing nowadays. And, apropos, before I forget it: Do you remember a young fellow called Butterfield, in the Elderson affair — no, you wouldn’t. Well, I’m going to take him out of his publishing firm, and put him under old Gradman, to learn about your mother’s and the other family Trusts. Old Gradman’s on his last legs, and this young man can step into his shoes — it’s a permanent job, and better pay than he’s getting now. I can rely on him, and that’s something in these days. I thought I’d tell you.”

“Another brain wave, Uncle Soames. But about your first. Could you see Stainford, and follow that up?”

“Why should I see him?”

“You carry so much more weight than I do.”

“H’m! Seems to me I always have to do the unpleasant thing. However, I expect it’s better than your seeing him.”

Val grinned. “I shall feel much happier if you do it.”

I shan’t,” said Soames. “That Bank cashier hasn’t made a mistake, I suppose?”

“Who could mistake Stainford?”

“Nobody,” said Soames. “Well, if you won’t prosecute, you’d better leave it to me.”

When Val was gone he remained in thought. Here he was, still keeping the family affairs straight; he wondered what they would do without him some day. That young Butterfield might be a brain wave, but who could tell — the fellow was attached to him, though, in a curious sort of way, with his eyes of a dog! He should put that in hand at once, before old Gradman dropped off. Must give old Gradman a bit of plate, too, with his name engraved, while he could still appreciate it. Most people only got them when they were dead or dotty. Young Butterfield knew Michael, too, and that would make him interested in Fleur’s affairs. But as to this infernal Stainford? How was he going to set about it? He had better get the fellow here if possible, rather than go to his club. If he’d had the brass to stay in England after committing such a bare-faced forgery, he would have the brass to come here again and see what more he could get. And, smiling sourly, Soames went to the telephone.

“Mr. Stainford in the club? Ask him if he’d be good enough to step over and see Mr. Forsyte at Green Street.”

After a look round to see that there were no ornaments within reach, he seated himself in the dining-room and had Smither in.

“I’m expecting that Mr. Stainford, Smither. If I ring, while he’s here, pop out and get a policeman.”

At the expression on Smither’s face he added:

“I don’t anticipate it, but one never knows.”

“There’s no danger, I hope, Mr. Soames?”

“Nothing of the sort, Smither; I may want him arrested — that’s all.”

“Do you expect him to take something again, sir?”

Soames smiled, and waved his hand at the lack of ornaments. “Very likely he won’t come, but if he does, show him in here.”

When she had gone, he settled down with the clock — a Dutch piece too heavy to take away; it had been ‘picked up’ by James, chimed every thing, and had a moon and a lot of stars on its face. He did not feel so ‘bobbish’ before this third encounter with that fellow; the chap had scored twice, and so far as he could see, owing to Val’s reluctance to prosecute, was going to score a third time. And yet there was a sort of fascination in dealing with what they called ‘the limit,’ and a certain quality about the fellow which raised him almost to the level of romance. It was as if the idolised maxim of his own youth ‘Show no emotion,’ and all the fashionableness that, under the aegis of his mother Emily, had clung about Park Lane, were revisiting him in the shape of this languid beggar. And probably the chap wouldn’t come!

“Mr. Stainford, sir.”

When Smither — very red — had withdrawn, Soames did not know how to begin, the fellow’s face, like old parchment, was as if it had come from some grave or other. At last he said:

“I wanted to see you about a cheque. My nephew’s name’s been forged.”

The eyebrows rose, the eyelids drooped still further.

“Yes. Dartie won’t prosecute.”

Soames’ gorge rose.

“You seem very cocksure,” he said; “my nephew has by no means made up his mind.”

“We were at college together, Mr. Forsyte.”

“You trade on that, do you? There’s a limit, Mr. Stainford. That was a very clever forgery, for a first.”

There was just a flicker of the face; and Soames drew the forged cheque from his pocket. Inadequately protected, of course, not even automatically crossed! Val’s cheques would have to have the words “Not negotiable; Credit payee” stamped on them in future. But how could he give this fellow a thorough scare?

“I have a detective at hand,” he said, “only waiting for me to ring. This sort of thing must stop. As you don’t seem to understand that —” and he took a step towards the bell.

A faint and bitter smile had come on those pale lips.

“You’ve never been down and out, I imagine, Mr. Forsyte?”

“No,” answered Soames, with a certain disgust.

“I always am. It’s very wearing.”

“In that case,” said Soames, “you’ll find prison a rest.” But even as he spoke them, the words seemed futile and a little brutal. The fellow wasn’t a man at all — he was a shade, a languid bitter shade. It was as if one were bullying a ghost.

“Look here!” he said. “As a gentleman by birth, give me your word not to try it on again with my nephew, or any of my family, and I won’t ring.”

“Very well, you have my word — such as it is!”

“We’ll leave it at that, then,” said Soames. “But this is the last time. I shall keep the evidence of this.”

“One must live, Mr. Forsyte.”

“I don’t agree,” said Soames.

The “Shade” uttered a peculiar sound — presumably a laugh, and Soames was alone again. He went hastily to the door, and watched the fellow into the street. Live? Must one? Wouldn’t a fellow like that be better dead? Wouldn’t most people be better dead? And, astonished at so extravagant a thought, he went up to the drawing room. Forty-five years since he had laid its foundations, and there it was, as full of marqueterie as ever. On the mantlepiece was a little old daguerreotype, slightly pinked in the cheeks, of his grandfather —‘Superior Dosset’ set in a deep, enamelled frame. Soames contemplated it. The chin of the founder of the Forsyte clan was settled comfortably between the widely separated points of an old-fashioned collar. The eyes — with thick under-lids, were light and shrewd and rather japing; the side-whiskers grey; the mouth looked as if it could swallow a lot; the old-time tail-coat was of broadcloth; the hands those of a man of affairs. A stocky old boy, with a certain force, and a deal of character! Well-nigh a hundred years since that was taken of him. Refreshing to look at character, after that languid seedy specimen! He would like to see where that old chap had been born and bred before he emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and built the house of Forsyte. He would take Riggs, and go down, and if Fleur wouldn’t come — perhaps all the better! Be dull for her! Roots were nothing to young people. Yes, he would go and look at his roots while the weather was still fine. But first to put old Gradman in order. It would do him good to see the old fellow after this experience — he never left the office till half-past five. And, replacing the daguerreotype, Soames took a taxi to the Poultry, reflecting as he went. How difficult it was to keep things secure, with chaps like Elderson and this fellow Stainford always on the look-out. There was the country too — no sooner was it out of one than it was into another mess; the coal strike would end when people began to feel the winter pinch, but something else would crop up, some war or disturbance or other. And then there was Fleur — she had fifty thousand of her own. Had he been wrong to make her so independent? And yet — the idea of controlling her through money had always been repulsive to him. Whatever she did — she was his only child, one might say his only love. If she couldn’t keep straight for love of her infant and himself, to say nothing of her husband — he couldn’t do it for her by threat of cutting her off or anything like that! Anyway, things were looking better with her, and perhaps he had been wrong.

The City had just begun to disgorge its daily life. Its denizens were scurrying out like rabbits; they didn’t scurry in like that, he would bet — work-shy, nowadays! Ten where it used to be nine; five where it used to be six. Still, with the telephone and one thing and another, they got through as much perhaps; and didn’t drink all the beer and sherry and eat all the chops they used to — a skimpier breed altogether, compared with that old boy whose effigy he had just been gazing at, a shadowy, narrow-headed lot, with a nervy, anxious look, as if they’d invested in life and found it a dropping stock. And not a tailcoat or a silk hat to be seen. Settling his own more firmly on his head, he got out at the familiar backwater off the Poultry, and entered the offices of Cuthcott, Kingson and Forsyte.

Old Gradman was still there, his broad, bent back just divested of its workaday coat.

“Ah! Mr. Soames, I was just going. Excuse me while I put on my coat.”

A frock-coat made in the year one, to judge by the cut of it!

“I go at half-past five now. There isn’t much to do as a rule. I like to get a nap before supper. It’s a pleasure to see you; you’re quite a stranger.”

“Yes,” said Soames. “I don’t come in much, but I’ve been thinking. If anything should happen to either or both of us, things would soon be in Queer Street, Gradman.”

“Aow! We won’t think about tha-at!”

“But we must; we’re neither of us young men.”

“Well, I’m not a chicken, but you’re NO age, Mr. Soames.”

“Seventy-one.”

“Dear, dear! It seems only the other day since I took you down to school at Slough. I remember what happened then better than I do what happened yesterday.”

“So do I, Gradman; and that’s a sign of age. Do you recollect that young chap who came here and told me about Elderson?”

“Aow, yes! Nice young feller. Buttermilk or some such name.”

“Butterfield. Well, I’m going to put him under you here, and I want you to get him au fait with everything.”

The old fellow seemed standing very still; his face, in its surround of grey beard and hair, was quite expressionless. Soames hurried on:

“It’s just precautionary. Some day you’ll be wanting to retire.”

Gradman lifted his hand with a heavy gesture.

“I’ll die in ‘arness, I ‘ope,” he said.

“That’s as you like, Gradman. You’ll remain as you always have been — in full charge; but you’ll have someone to rely on if you don’t feel well or want a holiday or what not.”

“I’d rather not, Mr. Soames. To have a young man about the place — “

“A good young fellow, Gradman. And, for some reason, grateful to me and to my son-inlaw. He won’t give you any trouble. We none of us live for ever, you know.”

The old chap’s face had puckered queerly, his voice grated more than usual.

“It seems going to meet trouble. I’m quite up to the work, Mr. Soames.”

“Oh! I know how you feel,” said Soames. “I feel much the same myself, but Time stands still for no man, and we must look to the future.”

A sigh escaped from its grizzled prison.

“Well, Mr. Soames, if you’ve made up your mind, we’ll say no more; but I don’t like it.”

“Let me give you a lift to your station.”

“I’d rather walk, thank you; I like the air. I’ll just lock up.”

Soames perceived that not only drawers but feeling required locking-up, and went out.

Faithful old chap! One might go round to Polkingford’s and see if one could pick up that bit of plate.

In that emporium, so lined with silver and gold, that a man wondered whether anything had ever been sold there, Soames stood considering. Must be something that a man could swear by — nothing arty or elegant. He supposed the old chap didn’t drink punch — a chapel-goer! How about those camels in silvergilt with two humps each and candles coming out of them? “Joseph Gradman, in gratitude from the Forsyte family” engraved between the humps? Gradman lived somewhere near the Zoo. M’m! Camels? No! A bowl was better. If he didn’t drink punch he could put rose-leaves or flowers into it.

“I want a bowl,” he said, “a really good one.”

“Yes, sir, I think we have the very article.”

They always had the very article!

“How about this, sir — massive silver — a very chaste design.”

“Chaste!” said Soames. “I wouldn’t have it at a gift.”

“No, sir; it isn’t perhaps EXACTLY what you require. Now, this is a nice little bowl.”

“No, no; something plain and solid that would hold about a gallon.”

“Mr. Bankwait — come here a minute. This gentleman wants an old-fashioned bowl.”

“Yes, sir; I think we have the very thing.”

Soames uttered an indistinguishable sound.

“There isn’t much demand for the old-fashioned bowl; but we have a very fine second-hand, that used to be in the Rexborough family.”

“With arms on?” said Soames. “That won’t do. It must be new, or free from arms, anyway.”

“Ah! Then this will be what you want, sir.”

“My Lord!” said Soames; and raising his umbrella he pointed in the opposite direction. “What’s that thing?”

With a slightly chagrined air the shopman brought the article from its case.

Upon a swelling base, with a waist above, a silver bowl sprang generously forth. Soames flipped it with his finger.

“Pure silver, sir; and, as you see, very delicate edging; not too bacchanalian in design; the best gilt within. I should say the very thing you want.”

“It might do. What’s the price?”

The shopman examined a cabalistic sign.

“Thirty-five pounds, sir.”

“Quite enough,” said Soames. Whether it would please old Gradman, he didn’t know, but the thing was in good taste, and would not do the family discredit. “I’ll have that, then,” he said. “Engrave these words on it,” and he wrote them down. “Send it to that address, and the account to me; and don’t be long about it.”

“Very good, sir. You wouldn’t like those goblets? — they’re perfect in their way.”

“Nothing more!” said Soames. “Good evening!” And, handing the shopman his card, with a cold circular glance, he went out. That was off his mind!

September sun sprinkled him, threading his way West along Piccadilly into the Green Park. These gentle autumn days were very pleasant. He didn’t get hot, and he didn’t feel cold. And the plane-trees looked their best, just making up their minds to turn; nice trees, shapely. And, crossing the grassy spaces, Soames felt almost mellow. A rather more rapid step behind impinged on his consciousness. A voice said:

“Ah! Forsyte! Bound for the meeting at Michael’s? Might we go along together?”

Old Mont, perky and talkative as ever! There he went — off at once!

“What’s your view of all these London changes, Forsyte? You remember the peg-top trouser, and the crinoline — Leech in his prime — Old Pam on his horse — September makes one reminiscent.”

“It’s all on the surface,” said Soames.

“On the surface? I sometimes have that feeling. But there is a real change. It’s the difference between the Austen and Trollope novels and these modern fellows. There are no parishes left. Classes? Yes, but divided by man, not by God, as in Trollope’s day.”

Soames sniffed. The chap was always putting things in that sort of way!

“At the rate we’re going, they’ll soon not be divided at all,” he said.

“I think you’re wrong there, Forsyte. I should never be surprised to see the horse come back.”

“The horse,” muttered Soames; “what he got to do with it?”

“What we must look for,” said Sir Lawrence, swinging his cane, “is the millennium. Then we shall soon be developing individuality again. And the millennium’s nearly here.”

“I don’t in the least follow you,” said Soames.

“Education’s free; women have the vote; even the workman has or soon will have his car; the slums are doomed — thanks to you, Forsyte; amusement and news are in every home; the liberal Party’s up the spout; Free Trade’s a moveable feast; sport’s cheap and plentiful; dogma’s got the knock; so has the General Strike; Boy Scouts are increasing rapidly; dress is comfortable; and hair is short — it’s all millennial.”

“What’s all that got to do with the horse?”

“A symbol, my dear Forsyte. It’s impossible to standardize or socialize the horse. We’re beginning to react against uniformity. A little more millennium and we shall soon be cultivating our souls and driving tandem again.”

“What’s that noise?” said Soames. “Sounds like a person in distress.”

Sir Lawrence cocked his eyebrow.

“It’s a vacuum cleaner, in Buckingham Palace. Very human things those.”

Soames grunted — the fellow couldn’t be serious! Well! He might HAVE to be before long. If Fleur —! But he would not contemplate that “if.”

“What I admire about the Englishman,” said Sir Lawrence, suddenly, “is his evolutionary character. He flows and ebbs, and flows again. Foreigners may think him a stick-inthe-mud, but he’s got continuity — a great quality, Forsyte. What are you going to do with your pictures when you take the ferry? Leave them to the nation?”

“Depends on how they treat me. If they’re going to clap on any more Death duties, I shall revoke the bequest.”

“The principle of our ancestors, eh? Voluntary service, or none. Great fellows, our ancestors.”

“I don’t know about yours,” said Soames; “mine were just yeomen. I’m going down to have a look at them tomorrow,” he added defiantly.

“Splendid! I hope you’ll find them at home.”

“We’re late,” said Soames, glancing in at the dining-room window, where the committee were glancing out: “Half-past six! What a funny lot they look!”

“We always look a funny lot,” said Sir Lawrence, following him into the house, “except to ourselves. That’s the first principle of existence, Forsyte.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/galsworthy/john/swan/chapter32.html

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