When those two were gone Jolyon did not return to his painting, for daylight was failing, but went to the study, craving unconsciously a revival of that momentary vision of his father sitting in the old leather chair with his knees crossed and his straight eyes gazing up from under the dome of his massive brow. Often in this little room, cosiest in the house, Jolyon would catch a moment of communion with his father. Not, indeed, that he had definitely any faith in the persistence of the human spirit — the feeling was not so logical — it was, rather, an atmospheric impact, like a scent, or one of those strong animistic impressions from forms, or effects of light, to which those with the artist’s eye are especially prone. Here only — in this little unchanged room where his father had spent the most of his waking hours — could be retrieved the feeling that he was not quite gone, that the steady counsel of that old spirit and the warmth of his masterful lovability endured.
What would his father be advising now, in this sudden recrudescence of an old tragedy — what would he say to this menace against her to whom he had taken such a fancy in the last weeks of his life? ‘I must do my best for her,’ thought Jolyon; ‘he left her to me in his will. But what is the best?’
And as if seeking to regain the sapience, the balance and shrewd common sense of that old Forsyte, he sat down in the ancient chair and crossed his knees. But he felt a mere shadow sitting there; nor did any inspiration come, while the fingers of the wind tapped on the darkening panes of the french-window.
‘Go and see her?’ he thought, ‘or ask her to come down here? What’s her life been? What is it now, I wonder? Beastly to rake up things at this time of day.’ Again the figure of his cousin standing with a hand on a front door of a fine olive-green leaped out, vivid, like one of those figures from old-fashioned clocks when the hour strikes; and his words sounded in Jolyon’s ears clearer than any chime: “I manage my own affairs. I’ve told you once, I tell you again: We are not at home.” The repugnance he had then felt for Soames — for his flat-cheeked, shaven face full of spiritual bull-doggedness; for his spare, square, sleek figure slightly crouched as it were over the bone he could not digest — came now again, fresh as ever, nay, with an odd increase. ‘I dislike him,’ he thought, ‘I dislike him to the very roots of me. And that’s lucky; it’ll make it easier for me to back his wife.’ Half-artist, and half-Forsyte, Jolyon was constitutionally averse from what he termed ‘ructions’; unless angered, he conformed deeply to that classic description of the she-dog, ‘Er’d ruther run than fight.’ A little smile became settled in his beard. Ironical that Soames should come down here — to this house, built for himself! How he had gazed and gaped at this ruin of his past intention; furtively nosing at the walls and stairway, appraising everything! And intuitively Jolyon thought: ‘I believe the fellow even now would like to be living here. He could never leave off longing for what he once owned! Well, I must act, somehow or other; but it’s a bore — a great bore.’
Late that evening he wrote to the Chelsea flat, asking if Irene would see him.
The old century which had seen the plant of individualism flower so wonderfully was setting in a sky orange with coming storms. Rumours of war added to the briskness of a London turbulent at the close of the summer holidays. And the streets to Jolyon, who was not often up in town, had a feverish look, due to these new motorcars and cabs, of which he disapproved aesthetically. He counted these vehicles from his hansom, and made the proportion of them one in twenty. ‘They were one in thirty about a year ago,’ he thought; ‘they’ve come to stay. Just so much more rattling round of wheels and general stink’— for he was one of those rather rare Liberals who object to anything new when it takes a material form; and he instructed his driver to get down to the river quickly, out of the traffic, desiring to look at the water through the mellowing screen of plane-trees. At the little block of flats which stood back some fifty yards from the Embankment, he told the cabman to wait, and went up to the first floor.
Yes, Mrs. Heron was at home!
The effect of a settled if very modest income was at once apparent to him remembering the threadbare refinement in that tiny flat eight years ago when he announced her good fortune. Everything was now fresh, dainty, and smelled of flowers. The general effect was silvery with touches of black, hydrangea colour, and gold. ‘A woman of great taste,’ he thought. Time had dealt gently with Jolyon, for he was a Forsyte. But with Irene Time hardly seemed to deal at all, or such was his impression. She appeared to him not a day older, standing there in mole-coloured velvet corduroy, with soft dark eyes and dark gold hair, with outstretched hand and a little smile.
“Won’t you sit down?”
He had probably never occupied a chair with a fuller sense of embarrassment.
“You look absolutely unchanged,” he said.
“And you look younger, Cousin Jolyon.”
Jolyon ran his hands through his hair, whose thickness was still a comfort to him.
“I’m ancient, but I don’t feel it. That’s one thing about painting, it keeps you young. Titian lived to ninety-nine, and had to have plague to kill him off. Do you know, the first time I ever saw you I thought of a picture by him?”
“When did you see me for the first time?”
“In the Botanical Gardens.”
“How did you know me, if you’d never seen me before?”
“By someone who came up to you.” He was looking at her hardily, but her face did not change; and she said quietly:
“Yes; many lives ago.”
“What is your recipe for youth, Irene?”
“People who don’t live are wonderfully preserved.”
H’m! a bitter little saying! People who don’t live! But an opening, and he took it. “You remember my Cousin Soames?”
He saw her smile faintly at that whimsicality, and at once went on:
“He came to see me the day before yesterday! He wants a divorce. Do you?”
“I?” The word seemed startled out of her. “After twelve years? It’s rather late. Won’t it be difficult?”
Jolyon looked hard into her face. “Unless. . . . ” he said.
“Unless I have a lover now. But I have never had one since.”
What did he feel at the simplicity and candour of those words? Relief, surprise, pity! Venus for twelve years without a lover!
“And yet,” he said, “I suppose you would give a good deal to be free, too?”
“I don’t know. What does it matter, now?”
“But if you were to love again?”
“I should love.” In that simple answer she seemed to sum up the whole philosophy of one on whom the world had turned its back.
“Well! Is there anything you would like me to say to him?”
“Only that I’m sorry he’s not free. He had his chance once. I don’t know why he didn’t take it.”
“Because he was a Forsyte; we never part with things, you know, unless we want something in their place; and not always then.”
Irene smiled. “Don’t you, Cousin Jolyon? — I think you do.”
“Of course, I’m a bit of a mongrel — not quite a pure Forsyte. I never take the halfpennies off my cheques, I put them on,” said Jolyon uneasily.
“Well, what does Soames want in place of me now?”
“I don’t know; perhaps children.”
She was silent for a little, looking down.
“Yes,” she murmured; “it’s hard. I would help him to be free if I could.”
Jolyon gazed into his hat, his embarrassment was increasing fast; so was his admiration, his wonder, and his pity. She was so lovely, and so lonely; and altogether it was such a coil!
“Well,” he said, “I shall have to see Soames. If there’s anything I can do for you I’m always at your service. You must think of me as a wretched substitute for my father. At all events I’ll let you know what happens when I speak to Soames. He may supply the material himself.”
She shook her head.
“You see, he has a lot to lose; and I have nothing. I should like him to be free; but I don’t see what I can do.”
“Nor I at the moment,” said Jolyon, and soon after took his leave. He went down to his hansom. Half-past three! Soames would be at his office still.
“To the Poultry,” he called through the trap. In front of the Houses of Parliament and in Whitehall, newsvendors were calling, “Grave situation in the Transvaal!” but the cries hardly roused him, absorbed in recollection of that very beautiful figure, of her soft dark glance, and the words: “I have never had one since.” What on earth did such a woman do with her life, back-watered like this? Solitary, unprotected, with every man’s hand against her or rather — reaching out to grasp her at the least sign. And year after year she went on like that!
The word ‘Poultry’ above the passing citizens brought him back to reality.
‘Forsyte, Bustard and Forsyte,’ in black letters on a ground the colour of peasoup, spurred him to a sort of vigour, and he went up the stone stairs muttering: “Fusty musty ownerships! Well, we couldn’t do without them!”
“I want Mr. Soames Forsyte,” he said to the boy who opened the door.
“Mr. Jolyon Forsyte.”
The youth looked at him curiously, never having seen a Forsyte with a beard, and vanished.
The offices of ‘Forsyte, Bustard and Forsyte’ had slowly absorbed the offices of ‘Tooting and Bowles,’ and occupied the whole of the first floor.
The firm consisted now of nothing but Soames and a number of managing and articled clerks. The complete retirement of James some six years ago had accelerated business, to which the final touch of speed had been imparted when Bustard dropped off, worn out, as many believed, by the suit of ‘Fryer versus Forsyte,’ more in Chancery than ever and less likely to benefit its beneficiaries. Soames, with his saner grasp of actualities, had never permitted it to worry him; on the contrary, he had long perceived that Providence had presented him therein with L200 a year net in perpetuity, and — why not?
When Jolyon entered, his cousin was drawing out a list of holdings in Consols, which in view of the rumours of war he was going to advise his companies to put on the market at once, before other companies did the same. He looked round, sidelong, and said:
“How are you? Just one minute. Sit down, won’t you?” And having entered three amounts, and set a ruler to keep his place, he turned towards Jolyon, biting the side of his flat forefinger. . . .
“Yes?” he said.
“I have seen her.”
“She has remained faithful to memory.”
Having said that, Jolyon was ashamed. His cousin had flushed a dusky yellowish red. What had made him tease the poor brute!
“I was to tell you she is sorry you are not free. Twelve years is a long time. You know your law, and what chance it gives you.” Soames uttered a curious little grunt, and the two remained a full minute without speaking. ‘Like wax!’ thought Jolyon, watching that close face, where the flush was fast subsiding. ‘He’ll never give me a sign of what he’s thinking, or going to do. Like wax!’ And he transferred his gaze to a plan of that flourishing town, ‘By-Street on Sea,’ the future existence of which lay exposed on the wall to the possessive instincts of the firm’s clients. The whimsical thought flashed through him: ‘I wonder if I shall get a bill of costs for this —“To attending Mr. Jolyon Forsyte in the matter of my divorce, to receiving his account of his visit to my wife, and to advising him to go and see her again, sixteen and eightpence.”’
Suddenly Soames said: “I can’t go on like this. I tell you, I can’t go on like this.” His eyes were shifting from side to side, like an animal’s when it looks for way of escape. ‘He really suffers,’ thought Jolyon; ‘I’ve no business to forget that, just because I don’t like him.’
“Surely,” he said gently, “it lies with yourself. A man can always put these things through if he’ll take it on himself.”
Soames turned square to him, with a sound which seemed to come from somewhere very deep.
“Why should I suffer more than I’ve suffered already? Why should I?”
Jolyon could only shrug his shoulders. His reason agreed, his instinct rebelled; he could not have said why.
“Your father,” went on Soames, “took an interest in her — why, goodness knows! And I suppose you do too?” he gave Jolyon a sharp look. “It seems to me that one only has to do another person a wrong to get all the sympathy. I don’t know in what way I was to blame — I’ve never known. I always treated her well. I gave her everything she could wish for. I wanted her.”
Again Jolyon’s reason nodded; again his instinct shook its head. ‘What is it?’ he thought; ‘there must be something wrong in me. Yet if there is, I’d rather be wrong than right.’
“After all,” said Soames with a sort of glum fierceness, “she was my wife.”
In a flash the thought went through his listener: ‘There it is! Ownerships! Well, we all own things. But — human beings! Pah!’
“You have to look at facts,” he said drily, “or rather the want of them.”
Soames gave him another quick suspicious look.
“The want of them?” he said. “Yes, but I am not so sure.”
“I beg your pardon,” replied Jolyon; “I’ve told you what she said. It was explicit.”
“My experience has not been one to promote blind confidence in her word. We shall see.”
Jolyon got up.
“Good-bye,” he said curtly.
“Good-bye,” returned Soames; and Jolyon went out trying to understand the look, half-startled, half-menacing, on his cousin’s face. He sought Waterloo Station in a disturbed frame of mind, as though the skin of his moral being had been scraped; and all the way down in the train he thought of Irene in her lonely flat, and of Soames in his lonely office, and of the strange paralysis of life that lay on them both. ‘In chancery!’ he thought. ‘Both their necks in chancery — and her’s so pretty!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54