The keeping of engagements had not as yet been a conspicuous feature in the life of young Val Dartie, so that when he broke two and kept one, it was the latter event which caused him, if anything, the greater surprise, while jogging back to town from Robin Hill after his ride with Holly. She had been even prettier than he had thought her yesterday, on her silver-roan, long-tailed ‘palfrey’; and it seemed to him, self-critical in the brumous October gloaming and the outskirts of London, that only his boots had shone throughout their two-hour companionship. He took out his new gold ‘hunter’— present from James — and looked not at the time, but at sections of his face in the glittering back of its opened case. He had a temporary spot over one eyebrow, and it displeased him, for it must have displeased her. Crum never had any spots. Together with Crum rose the scene in the promenade of the Pandemonium. To-day he had not had the faintest desire to unbosom himself to Holly about his father. His father lacked poetry, the stirrings of which he was feeling for the first time in his nineteen years. The Liberty, with Cynthia Dark, that almost mythical embodiment of rapture; the Pandemonium, with the woman of uncertain age — both seemed to Val completely ‘off,’ fresh from communion with this new, shy, dark-haired young cousin of his. She rode ‘Jolly well,’ too, so that it had been all the more flattering that she had let him lead her where he would in the long gallops of Richmond Park, though she knew them so much better than he did. Looking back on it all, he was mystified by the barrenness of his speech; he felt that he could say ‘an awful lot of fetching things’ if he had but the chance again, and the thought that he must go back to Littlehampton on the morrow, and to Oxford on the twelfth —‘to that beastly exam,’ too — without the faintest chance of first seeing her again, caused darkness to settle on his spirit even more quickly than on the evening. He should write to her, however, and she had promised to answer. Perhaps, too, she would come up to Oxford to see her brother. That thought was like the first star, which came out as he rode into Padwick’s livery stables in the purlieus of Sloane Square. He got off and stretched himself luxuriously, for he had ridden some twenty-five good miles. The Dartie within him made him chaffer for five minutes with young Padwick concerning the favourite for the Cambridgeshire; then with the words, “Put the gee down to my account,” he walked away, a little wide at the knees, and flipping his boots with his knotty little cane. ‘I don’t feel a bit inclined to go out,’ he thought. ‘I wonder if mother will stand fizz for my last night!’ With ‘fizz’ and recollection, he could well pass a domestic evening.
When he came down, speckless after his bath, he found his mother scrupulous in a low evening dress, and, to his annoyance, his Uncle Soames. They stopped talking when he came in; then his uncle said:
“He’d better be told.”
At those words, which meant something about his father, of course, Val’s first thought was of Holly. Was it anything beastly? His mother began speaking.
“Your father,” she said in her fashionably appointed voice, while her fingers plucked rather pitifully at sea-green brocade, “your father, my dear boy, has — is not at Newmarket; he’s on his way to South America. He — he’s left us.”
Val looked from her to Soames. Left them! Was he sorry? Was he fond of his father? It seemed to him that he did not know. Then, suddenly — as at a whiff of gardenias and cigars — his heart twitched within him, and he was sorry. One’s father belonged to one, could not go off in this fashion — it was not done! Nor had he always been the ‘bounder’ of the Pandemonium promenade. There were precious memories of tailors’ shops and horses, tips at school, and general lavish kindness, when in luck.
“But why?” he said. Then, as a sportsman himself, was sorry he had asked. The mask of his mother’s face was all disturbed; and he burst out:
“All right, Mother, don’t tell me! Only, what does it mean?”
“A divorce, Val, I’m afraid.”
Val uttered a queer little grunt, and looked quickly at his uncle — that uncle whom he had been taught to look on as a guarantee against the consequences of having a father, even against the Dartie blood in his own veins. The flat-checked visage seemed to wince, and this upset him.
“It won’t be public, will it?”
So vividly before him had come recollection of his own eyes glued to the unsavoury details of many a divorce suit in the Public Press.
“Can’t it be done quietly somehow? It’s so disgusting for — for mother, and — and everybody.”
“Everything will be done as quietly as it can, you may be sure.”
“Yes — but, why is it necessary at all? Mother doesn’t want to marry again.”
Himself, the girls, their name tarnished in the sight of his schoolfellows and of Crum, of the men at Oxford, of — Holly! Unbearable! What was to be gained by it?
“Do you, Mother?” he said sharply.
Thus brought face to face with so much of her own feeling by the one she loved best in the world, Winifred rose from the Empire chair in which she had been sitting. She saw that her son would be against her unless he was told everything; and, yet, how could she tell him? Thus, still plucking at the green brocade, she stared at Soames. Val, too, stared at Soames. Surely this embodiment of respectability and the sense of property could not wish to bring such a slur on his own sister!
Soames slowly passed a little inlaid paperknife over the smooth surface of a marqueterie table; then, without looking at his nephew, he began:
“You don’t understand what your mother has had to put up with these twenty years. This is only the last straw, Val.” And glancing up sideways at Winifred, he added:
“Shall I tell him?”
Winifred was silent. If he were not told, he would be against her! Yet, how dreadful to be told such things of his own father! Clenching her lips, she nodded.
Soames spoke in a rapid, even voice:
“He has always been a burden round your mother’s neck. She has paid his debts over and over again; he has often been drunk, abused and threatened her; and now he is gone to Buenos Aires with a dancer.” And, as if distrusting the efficacy of those words on the boy, he went on quickly:
“He took your mother’s pearls to give to her.”
Val jerked up his hand, then. At that signal of distress Winifred cried out:
“That’ll do, Soames — stop!”
In the boy, the Dartie and the Forsyte were struggling. For debts, drink, dancers, he had a certain sympathy; but the pearls — no! That was too much! And suddenly he found his mother’s hand squeezing his.
“You see,” he heard Soames say, “we can’t have it all begin over again. There’s a limit; we must strike while the iron’s hot.”
Val freed his hand.
“But — you’re — never going to bring out that about the pearls! I couldn’t stand that — I simply couldn’t!”
Winifred cried out:
“No, no, Val — oh no! That’s only to show you how impossible your father is!” And his uncle nodded. Somewhat assuaged, Val took out a cigarette. His father had bought him that thin curved case. Oh! it was unbearable — just as he was going up to Oxford!
“Can’t mother be protected without?” he said. “I could look after her. It could always be done later if it was really necessary.”
A smile played for a moment round Soames’ lips, and became bitter.
“You don’t know what you’re talking of; nothing’s so fatal as delay in such matters.”
“I tell you, boy, nothing’s so fatal. I know from experience.”
His voice had the ring of exasperation. Val regarded him round-eyed, never having known his uncle express any sort of feeling. Oh! Yes — he remembered now — there had been an Aunt Irene, and something had happened — something which people kept dark; he had heard his father once use an unmentionable word of her.
“I don’t want to speak ill of your father,” Soames went on doggedly, “but I know him well enough to be sure that he’ll be back on your mother’s hands before a year’s over. You can imagine what that will mean to her and to all of you after this. The only thing is to cut the knot for good.”
In spite of himself, Val was impressed; and, happening to look at his mother’s face, he got what was perhaps his first real insight into the fact that his own feelings were not always what mattered most.
“All right, mother,” he said; “we’ll back you up. Only I’d like to know when it’ll be. It’s my first term, you know. I don’t want to be up there when it comes off.”
“Oh! my dear boy,” murmured Winifred, “it is a bore for you.” So, by habit, she phrased what, from the expression of her face, was the most poignant regret. “When will it be, Soames?”
“Can’t tell — not for months. We must get restitution first.”
‘What the deuce is that?’ thought Val. ‘What silly brutes lawyers are! Not for months! I know one thing: I’m not going to dine in!’ And he said:
“Awfully sorry, mother, I’ve got to go out to dinner now.”
Though it was his last night, Winifred nodded almost gratefully; they both felt that they had gone quite far enough in the expression of feeling.
Val sought the misty freedom of Green Street, reckless and depressed. And not till he reached Piccadilly did he discover that he had only eighteen-pence. One couldn’t dine off eighteen-pence, and he was very hungry. He looked longingly at the windows of the Iseeum Club, where he had often eaten of the best with his father! Those pearls! There was no getting over them! But the more he brooded and the further he walked the hungrier he naturally became. Short of trailing home, there were only two places where he could go — his grandfather’s in Park Lane, and Timothy’s in the Bayswater Road. Which was the less deplorable? At his grandfather’s he would probably get a better dinner on the spur of the moment. At Timothy’s they gave you a jolly good feed when they expected you, not otherwise. He decided on Park Lane, not unmoved by the thought that to go up to Oxford without affording his grandfather a chance to tip him was hardly fair to either of them. His mother would hear he had been there, of course, and might think it funny; but he couldn’t help that. He rang the bell.
“Hullo, Warmson, any dinner for me, d’you think?”
“They’re just going in, Master Val. Mr. Forsyte will be very glad to see you. He was saying at lunch that he never saw you nowadays.”
“Well, here I am. Kill the fatted calf, Warmson, let’s have fizz.”
Warmson smiled faintly — in his opinion Val was a young limb.
“I will ask Mrs. Forsyte, Master Val.”
“I say,” Val grumbled, taking off his overcoat, “I’m not at school any more, you know.”
Warmson, not without a sense of humour, opened the door beyond the stag’s-horn coat stand, with the words:
“Mr. Valerus, ma’am.”
“Confound him!” thought Val, entering.
A warm embrace, a “Well, Val!” from Emily, and a rather quavery “So there you are at last!” from James, restored his sense of dignity.
“Why didn’t you let us know? There’s only saddle of mutton. Champagne, Warmson,” said Emily. And they went in.
At the great dining-table, shortened to its utmost, under which so many fashionable legs had rested, James sat at one end, Emily at the other, Val half-way between them; and something of the loneliness of his grandparents, now that all their four children were flown, reached the boy’s spirit. ‘I hope I shall kick the bucket long before I’m as old as grandfather,’ he thought. ‘Poor old chap, he’s as thin as a rail!’ And lowering his voice while his grandfather and Warmson were in discussion about sugar in the soup, he said to Emily:
“It’s pretty brutal at home, Granny. I suppose you know.”
“Yes, dear boy.”
“Uncle Soames was there when I left. I say, isn’t there anything to be done to prevent a divorce? Why is he so beastly keen on it?”
“Hush, my dear!” murmured Emily; “we’re keeping it from your grandfather.”
James’ voice sounded from the other end.
“What’s that? What are you talking about?”
“About Val’s college,” returned Emily. “Young Pariser was there, James; you remember — he nearly broke the Bank at Monte Carlo afterwards.”
James muttered that he did not know — Val must look after himself up there, or he’d get into bad ways. And he looked at his grandson with gloom, out of which affection distrustfully glimmered.
“What I’m afraid of,” said Val to his plate, “is of being hard up, you know.”
By instinct he knew that the weak spot in that old man was fear of insecurity for his grandchildren.
“Well,” said James, and the soup in his spoon dribbled over, “you’ll have a good allowance; but you must keep within it.”
“Of course,” murmured Val; “if it is good. How much will it be, Grandfather?”
“Three hundred and fifty; it’s too much. I had next to nothing at your age.”
Val sighed. He had hoped for four, and been afraid of three. “I don’t know what your young cousin has,” said James; “he’s up there. His father’s a rich man.”
“Aren’t you?” asked Val hardily.
“I?” replied James, flustered. “I’ve got so many expenses. Your father. . . . ” and he was silent.
“Cousin Jolyon’s got an awfully jolly place. I went down there with Uncle Soames — ripping stables.”
“Ah!” murmured James profoundly. “That house — I knew how it would be!” And he lapsed into gloomy meditation over his fish-bones. His son’s tragedy, and the deep cleavage it had caused in the Forsyte family, had still the power to draw him down into a whirlpool of doubts and misgivings. Val, who hankered to talk of Robin Hill, because Robin Hill meant Holly, turned to Emily and said:
“Was that the house built for Uncle Soames?” And, receiving her nod, went on: “I wish you’d tell me about him, Granny. What became of Aunt Irene? Is she still going? He seems awfully worked-up about something to-night.”
Emily laid her finger on her lips, but the word Irene had caught James’ ear.
“What’s that?” he said, staying a piece of mutton close to his lips. “Who’s been seeing her? I knew we hadn’t heard the last of that.”
“Now, James,” said Emily, “eat your dinner. Nobody’s been seeing anybody.”
James put down his fork.
“There you go,” he said. “I might die before you’d tell me of it. Is Soames getting a divorce?”
“Nonsense,” said Emily with incomparable aplomb; “Soames is much too sensible.”
James had sought his own throat, gathering the long white whiskers together on the skin and bone of it.
“She — she was always. . . . ” he said, and with that enigmatic remark the conversation lapsed, for Warmson had returned. But later, when the saddle of mutton had been succeeded by sweet, savoury, and dessert, and Val had received a cheque for twenty pounds and his grandfather’s kiss — like no other kiss in the world, from lips pushed out with a sort of fearful suddenness, as if yielding to weakness — he returned to the charge in the hall.
“Tell us about Uncle Soames, Granny. Why is he so keen on mother’s getting a divorce?”
“Your Uncle Soames,” said Emily, and her voice had in it an exaggerated assurance, “is a lawyer, my dear boy. He’s sure to know best.”
“Is he?” muttered Val. “But what did become of Aunt Irene? I remember she was jolly good-looking.”
“She — er. . . . ” said Emily, “behaved very badly. We don’t talk about it.”
“Well, I don’t want everybody at Oxford to know about our affairs,” ejaculated Val; “it’s a brutal idea. Why couldn’t father be prevented without its being made public?”
Emily sighed. She had always lived rather in an atmosphere of divorce, owing to her fashionable proclivities — so many of those whose legs had been under her table having gained a certain notoriety. When, however, it touched her own family, she liked it no better than other people. But she was eminently practical, and a woman of courage, who never pursued a shadow in preference to its substance.
“Your mother,” she said, “will be happier if she’s quite free, Val. Good-night, my dear boy; and don’t wear loud waistcoats up at Oxford, they’re not the thing just now. Here’s a little present.”
With another five pounds in his hand, and a little warmth in his heart, for he was fond of his grandmother, he went out into Park Lane. A wind had cleared the mist, the autumn leaves were rustling, and the stars were shining. With all that money in his pocket an impulse to ‘see life’ beset him; but he had not gone forty yards in the direction of Piccadilly when Holly’s shy face, and her eyes with an imp dancing in their gravity, came up before him, and his hand seemed to be tingling again from the pressure of her warm gloved hand. ‘No, dash it!’ he thought, ‘I’m going home!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08