Soames belonged to two clubs, ‘The Connoisseurs,’ which he put on his cards and seldom visited, and ‘The Remove,’ which he did not put on his cards and frequented. He had joined this Liberal institution five years ago, having made sure that its members were now nearly all sound Conservatives in heart and pocket, if not in principle. Uncle Nicholas had put him up. The fine reading-room was decorated in the Adam style.
On entering that evening he glanced at the tape for any news about the Transvaal, and noted that Consols were down seven-sixteenths since the morning. He was turning away to seek the reading-room when a voice behind him said:
“Well, Soames, that went off all right.”
It was Uncle Nicholas, in a frock-coat and his special cut-away collar, with a black tie passed through a ring. Heavens! How young and dapper he looked at eighty-two!
“I think Roger’d have been pleased,” his uncle went on. “The thing was very well done. Blackley’s? I’ll make a note of them. Buxton’s done me no good. These Boers are upsetting me — that fellow Chamberlain’s driving the country into war. What do you think?”
“Bound to come,” murmured Soames.
Nicholas passed his hand over his thin, clean-shaven cheeks, very rosy after his summer cure; a slight pout had gathered on his lips. This business had revived all his Liberal principles.
“I mistrust that chap; he’s a stormy petrel. House-property will go down if there’s war. You’ll have trouble with Roger’s estate. I often told him he ought to get out of some of his houses. He was an opinionated beggar.”
‘There was a pair of you!’ thought Soames. But he never argued with an uncle, in that way preserving their opinion of him as ‘a long-headed chap,’ and the legal care of their property.
“They tell me at Timothy’s,” said Nicholas, lowering his voice, “that Dartie has gone off at last. That’ll be a relief to your father. He was a rotten egg.”
Again Soames nodded. If there was a subject on which the Forsytes really agreed, it was the character of Montague Dartie.
“You take care,” said Nicholas, “or he’ll turn up again. Winifred had better have the tooth out, I should say. No use preserving what’s gone bad.”
Soames looked at him sideways. His nerves, exacerbated by the interview he had just come through, disposed him to see a personal allusion in those words.
“I’m advising her,” he said shortly.
“Well,” said Nicholas, “the brougham’s waiting; I must get home. I’m very poorly. Remember me to your father.”
And having thus reconsecrated the ties of blood, he passed down the steps at his youthful gait and was wrapped into his fur coat by the junior porter.
‘I’ve never known Uncle Nicholas other than “very poorly,”’ mused Soames, ‘or seen him look other than everlasting. What a family! Judging by him, I’ve got thirty-eight years of health before me. Well, I’m not going to waste them.’ And going over to a mirror he stood looking at his face. Except for a line or two, and three or four grey hairs in his little dark moustache, had he aged any more than Irene? The prime of life — he and she in the very prime of life! And a fantastic thought shot into his mind. Absurd! Idiotic! But again it came. And genuinely alarmed by the recurrence, as one is by the second fit of shivering which presages a feverish cold, he sat down on the weighing machine. Eleven stone! He had not varied two pounds in twenty years. What age was she? Nearly thirty-seven — not too old to have a child — not at all! Thirty-seven on the ninth of next month. He remembered her birthday well — he had always observed it religiously, even that last birthday so soon before she left him, when he was almost certain she was faithless. Four birthdays in his house. He had looked forward to them, because his gifts had meant a semblance of gratitude, a certain attempt at warmth. Except, indeed, that last birthday — which had tempted him to be too religious! And he shied away in thought. Memory heaps dead leaves on corpse-like deeds, from under which they do but vaguely offend the sense. And then he thought suddenly: ‘I could send her a present for her birthday. After all, we’re Christians! Couldn’t! — couldn’t we join up again!’ And he uttered a deep sigh sitting there. Annette! Ah! but between him and Annette was the need for that wretched divorce suit! And how?
“A man can always work these things, if he’ll take it on himself,” Jolyon had said.
But why should he take the scandal on himself with his whole career as a pillar of the law at stake? It was not fair! It was quixotic! Twelve years’ separation in which he had taken no steps to free himself put out of court the possibility of using her conduct with Bosinney as a ground for divorcing her. By doing nothing to secure relief he had acquiesced, even if the evidence could now be gathered, which was more than doubtful. Besides, his own pride would never let him use that old incident, he had suffered from it too much. No! Nothing but fresh misconduct on her part — but she had denied it; and — almost — he had believed her. Hung up! Utterly hung up!
He rose from the scooped-out red velvet seat with a feeling of constriction about his vitals. He would never sleep with this going on in him! And, taking coat and hat again, he went out, moving eastward. In Trafalgar Square he became aware of some special commotion travelling towards him out of the mouth of the Strand. It materialised in newspaper men calling out so loudly that no words whatever could be heard. He stopped to listen, and one came by.
“Payper! Special! Ultimatium by Krooger! Declaration of war!” Soames bought the paper. There it was in the stop press. . . .! His first thought was: ‘The Boers are committing suicide.’ His second: ‘Is there anything still I ought to sell?’ If so he had missed the chance — there would certainly be a slump in the city to-morrow. He swallowed this thought with a nod of defiance. That ultimatum was insolent — sooner than let it pass he was prepared to lose money. They wanted a lesson, and they would get it; but it would take three months at least to bring them to heel. There weren’t the troops out there; always behind time, the Government! Confound those newspaper rats! What was the use of waking everybody up? Breakfast to-morrow was quite soon enough. And he thought with alarm of his father. They would cry it down Park Lane. Hailing a hansom, he got in and told the man to drive there.
James and Emily had just gone up to bed, and after communicating the news to Warmson, Soames prepared to follow. He paused by after-thought to say:
“What do you think of it, Warmson?”
The butler ceased passing a hat brush over the silk hat Soames had taken off, and, inclining his face a little forward, said in a low voice: “Well, sir, they ‘aven’t a chance, of course; but I’m told they’re very good shots. I’ve got a son in the Inniskillings.”
“You, Warmson? Why, I didn’t know you were married.”
“No, sir. I don’t talk of it. I expect he’ll be going out.”
The slighter shock Soames had felt on discovering that he knew so little of one whom he thought he knew so well was lost in the slight shock of discovering that the war might touch one personally. Born in the year of the Crimean War, he had only come to consciousness by the time the Indian Mutiny was over; since then the many little wars of the British Empire had been entirely professional, quite unconnected with the Forsytes and all they stood for in the body politic. This war would surely be no exception. But his mind ran hastily over his family. Two of the Haymans, he had heard, were in some Yeomanry or other — it had always been a pleasant thought, there was a certain distinction about the Yeomanry; they wore, or used to wear, a blue uniform with silver about it, and rode horses. And Archibald, he remembered, had once on a time joined the Militia, but had given it up because his father, Nicholas, had made such a fuss about his ‘wasting his time peacocking about in a uniform.’ Recently he had heard somewhere that young Nicholas’ eldest, very young Nicholas, had become a Volunteer. ‘No,’ thought Soames, mounting the stairs slowly, ‘there’s nothing in that!’
He stood on the landing outside his parents’ bed and dressing rooms, debating whether or not to put his nose in and say a reassuring word. Opening the landing window, he listened. The rumble from Piccadilly was all the sound he heard, and with the thought, ‘If these motor-cars increase, it’ll affect house property,’ he was about to pass on up to the room always kept ready for him when he heard, distant as yet, the hoarse rushing call of a newsvendor. There it was, and coming past the house! He knocked on his mother’s door and went in.
His father was sitting up in bed, with his ears pricked under the white hair which Emily kept so beautifully cut. He looked pink, and extraordinarily clean, in his setting of white sheet and pillow, out of which the points of his high, thin, nightgowned shoulders emerged in small peaks. His eyes alone, grey and distrustful under their withered lids, were moving from the window to Emily, who in a wrapper was walking up and down, squeezing a rubber ball attached to a scent bottle. The room reeked faintly of the eau-de-Cologne she was spraying.
“All right!” said Soames, “it’s not a fire. The Boers have declared war — that’s all.”
Emily stopped her spraying.
“Oh!” was all she said, and looked at James.
Soames, too, looked at his father. He was taking it differently from their expectation, as if some thought, strange to them, were working in him.
“H’m!” he muttered suddenly, “I shan’t live to see the end of this.”
“Nonsense, James! It’ll be over by Christmas.”
“What do you know about it?” James answered her with asperity. “It’s a pretty mess at this time of night, too!” He lapsed into silence, and his wife and son, as if hypnotised, waited for him to say: ‘I can’t tell — I don’t know; I knew how it would be!’ But he did not. The grey eyes shifted, evidently seeing nothing in the room; then movement occurred under the bedclothes, and the knees were drawn up suddenly to a great height.
“They ought to send out Roberts. It all comes from that fellow Gladstone and his Majuba.”
The two listeners noted something beyond the usual in his voice, something of real anxiety. It was as if he had said: ‘I shall never see the old country peaceful and safe again. I shall have to die before I know she’s won.’ And in spite of the feeling that James must not be encouraged to be fussy, they were touched. Soames went up to the bedside and stroked his father’s hand which had emerged from under the bedclothes, long and wrinkled with veins.
“Mark my words!” said James, “consols will go to par. For all I know, Val may go and enlist.”
“Oh, come, James!” cried Emily, “you talk as if there were danger.”
Her comfortable voice seemed to soothe James for once.
“Well,” he muttered, “I told you how it would be. I don’t know, I’m sure — nobody tells me anything. Are you sleeping here, my boy?”
The crisis was past, he would now compose himself to his normal degree of anxiety; and, assuring his father that he was sleeping in the house, Soames pressed his hand, and went up to his room.
The following afternoon witnessed the greatest crowd Timothy’s had known for many a year. On national occasions, such as this, it was, indeed, almost impossible to avoid going there. Not that there was any danger or rather only just enough to make it necessary to assure each other that there was none.
Nicholas was there early. He had seen Soames the night before — Soames had said it was bound to come. This old Kruger was in his dotage — why, he must be seventy-five if he was a day!
(Nicholas was eighty-two.) What had Timothy said? He had had a fit after Majuba. These Boers were a grasping lot! The dark-haired Francie, who had arrived on his heels, with the contradictious touch which became the free spirit of a daughter of Roger, chimed in:
“Kettle and pot, Uncle Nicholas. What price the Uitlanders?” What price, indeed! A new expression, and believed to be due to her brother George.
Aunt Juley thought Francie ought not to say such a thing. Dear Mrs. MacAnder’s boy, Charlie MacAnder, was one, and no one could call him grasping. At this Francie uttered one of her mots, scandalising, and so frequently repeated:
“Well, his father’s a Scotchman, and his mother’s a cat.”
Aunt Juley covered her ears, too late, but Aunt Hester smiled; as for Nicholas, he pouted — witticism of which he was not the author was hardly to his taste. Just then Marian Tweetyman arrived, followed almost immediately by young Nicholas. On seeing his son, Nicholas rose.
“Well, I must be going,” he said, “Nick here will tell you what’ll win the race.” And with this hit at his eldest, who, as a pillar of accountancy, and director of an insurance company, was no more addicted to sport than his father had ever been, he departed. Dear Nicholas! What race was that? Or was it only one of his jokes? He was a wonderful man for his age! How many lumps would dear Marian take? And how were Giles and Jesse? Aunt Juley supposed their Yeomanry would be very busy now, guarding the coast, though of course the Boers had no ships. But one never knew what the French might do if they had the chance, especially since that dreadful Fashoda scare, which had upset Timothy so terribly that he had made no investments for months afterwards. It was the ingratitude of the Boers that was so dreadful, after everything had been done for them — Dr. Jameson imprisoned, and he was so nice, Mrs. MacAnder had always said. And Sir Alfred Milner sent out to talk to them — such a clever man! She didn’t know what they wanted.
But at this moment occurred one of those sensations — so precious at Timothy’s — which great occasions sometimes bring forth:
“Miss June Forsyte.”
Aunts Juley and Hester were on their feet at once, trembling from smothered resentment, and old affection bubbling up, and pride at the return of a prodigal June! Well, this was a surprise! Dear June — after all these years! And how well she was looking! Not changed at all! It was almost on their lips to add, ‘And how is your dear grandfather?’ forgetting in that giddy moment that poor dear Jolyon had been in his grave for seven years now.
Ever the most courageous and downright of all the Forsytes, June, with her decided chin and her spirited eyes and her hair like flame, sat down, slight and short, on a gilt chair with a bead-worked seat, for all the world as if ten years had not elapsed since she had been to see them — ten years of travel and independence and devotion to lame ducks. Those ducks of late had been all definitely painters, etchers, or sculptors, so that her impatience with the Forsytes and their hopelessly inartistic outlook had become intense. Indeed, she had almost ceased to believe that her family existed, and looked round her now with a sort of challenging directness which brought exquisite discomfort to the roomful. She had not expected to meet any of them but ‘the poor old things’; and why she had come to see them she hardly knew, except that, while on her way from Oxford Street to a studio in Latimer Road, she had suddenly remembered them with compunction as two long-neglected old lame ducks.
Aunt Juley broke the hush again. “We’ve just been saying, dear, how dreadful it is about these Boers! And what an impudent thing of that old Kruger!”
“Impudent!” said June. “I think he’s quite right. What business have we to meddle with them? If he turned out all those wretched Uitlanders it would serve them right. They’re only after money.”
The silence of sensation was broken by Francie saying:
“What? Are you a pro-Boer?” (undoubtedly the first use of that expression).
“Well! Why can’t we leave them alone?” said June, just as, in the open doorway, the maid said “Mr. Soames Forsyte.” Sensation on sensation! Greeting was almost held up by curiosity to see how June and he would take this encounter, for it was shrewdly suspected, if not quite known, that they had not met since that old and lamentable affair of her fiance Bosinney with Soames’ wife. They were seen to just touch each other’s hands, and look each at the other’s left eye only. Aunt Juley came at once to the rescue:
“Dear June is so original. Fancy, Soames, she thinks the Boers are not to blame.”
“They only want their independence,” said June; “and why shouldn’t they have it?”
“Because,” answered Soames, with his smile a little on one side, “they happen to have agreed to our suzerainty.”
“Suzerainty!” repeated June scornfully; “we shouldn’t like anyone’s suzerainty over us.”
“They got advantages in payment,” replied Soames; “a contract is a contract.”
“Contracts are not always just,” fumed out June, “and when they’re not, they ought to be broken. The Boers are much the weaker. We could afford to be generous.”
Soames sniffed. “That’s mere sentiment,” he said.
Aunt Hester, to whom nothing was more awful than any kind of disagreement, here leaned forward and remarked decisively:
“What lovely weather it has been for the time of year?”
But June was not to be diverted.
“I don’t know why sentiment should be sneered at. It’s the best thing in the world.” She looked defiantly round, and Aunt Juley had to intervene again:
“Have you bought any pictures lately, Soames?”
Her incomparable instinct for the wrong subject had not failed her. Soames flushed. To disclose the name of his latest purchases would be like walking into the jaws of disdain. For somehow they all knew of June’s predilection for ‘genius’ not yet on its legs, and her contempt for ‘success’ unless she had had a finger in securing it.
“One or two,” he muttered.
But June’s face had changed; the Forsyte within her was seeing its chance. Why should not Soames buy some of the pictures of Eric Cobbley — her last lame duck? And she promptly opened her attack: Did Soames know his work? It was so wonderful. He was the coming man.
Oh, yes, Soames knew his work. It was in his view ‘splashy,’ and would never get hold of the public.
June blazed up.
“Of course it won’t; that’s the last thing one would wish for. I thought you were a connoisseur, not a picture-dealer.”
“Of course Soames is a connoisseur,” Aunt Juley said hastily; “he has wonderful taste — he can always tell beforehand what’s going to be successful.”
“Oh!” gasped June, and sprang up from the bead-covered chair, “I hate that standard of success. Why can’t people buy things because they like them?”
“You mean,” said Francie, “because you like them.”
And in the slight pause young Nicholas was heard saying gently that Violet (his fourth) was taking lessons in pastel, he didn’t know if they were any use.
“Well, good-bye, Auntie,” said June; “I must get on,” and kissing her aunts, she looked defiantly round the room, said “Good-bye” again, and went. A breeze seemed to pass out with her, as if everyone had sighed.
The third sensation came before anyone had time to speak:
“Mr. James Forsyte.”
James came in using a stick slightly and wrapped in a fur coat which gave him a fictitious bulk.
Everyone stood up. James was so old; and he had not been at Timothy’s for nearly two years.
“It’s hot in here,” he said.
Soames divested him of his coat, and as he did so could not help admiring the glossy way his father was turned out. James sat down, all knees, elbows, frock-coat, and long white whiskers.
“What’s the meaning of that?” he said.
Though there was no apparent sense in his words, they all knew that he was referring to June. His eyes searched his son’s face.
“I thought I’d come and see for myself. What have they answered Kruger?”
Soames took out an evening paper, and read the headline.
“‘Instant action by our Government — state of war existing!’”
“Ah!” said James, and sighed. “I was afraid they’d cut and run like old Gladstone. We shall finish with them this time.”
All stared at him. James! Always fussy, nervous, anxious! James with his continual, ‘I told you how it would be!’ and his pessimism, and his cautious investments. There was something uncanny about such resolution in this the oldest living Forsyte.
“Where’s Timothy?” said James. “He ought to pay attention to this.”
Aunt Juley said she didn’t know; Timothy had not said much at lunch to-day. Aunt Hester rose and threaded her way out of the room, and Francie said rather maliciously:
“The Boers are a hard nut to crack, Uncle James.”
“H’m!” muttered James. “Where do you get your information? Nobody tells me.”
Young Nicholas remarked in his mild voice that Nick (his eldest) was now going to drill regularly.
“Ah!” muttered James, and stared before him — his thoughts were on Val. “He’s got to look after his mother,” he said, “he’s got no time for drilling and that, with that father of his.” This cryptic saying produced silence, until he spoke again.
“What did June want here?” And his eyes rested with suspicion on all of them in turn. “Her father’s a rich man now.” The conversation turned on Jolyon, and when he had been seen last. It was supposed that he went abroad and saw all sorts of people now that his wife was dead; his water-colours were on the line, and he was a successful man. Francie went so far as to say:
“I should like to see him again; he was rather a dear.”
Aunt Juley recalled how he had gone to sleep on the sofa one day, where James was sitting. He had always been very amiable; what did Soames think?
Knowing that Jolyon was Irene’s trustee, all felt the delicacy of this question, and looked at Soames with interest. A faint pink had come up in his cheeks.
“He’s going grey,” he said.
Indeed! Had Soames seen him? Soames nodded, and the pink vanished.
James said suddenly: “Well — I don’t know, I can’t tell.”
It so exactly expressed the sentiment of everybody present that there was something behind everything, that nobody responded. But at this moment Aunt Hester returned.
“Timothy,” she said in a low voice, “Timothy has bought a map, and he’s put in — he’s put in three flags.”
Timothy had . . . .! A sigh went round the company.
If Timothy had indeed put in three flags already, well! — it showed what the nation could do when it was roused. The war was as good as over.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08