Imogen’s frocks for her first season exercised the judgment of her mother and the purse of her grandfather all through the month of March. With Forsyte tenacity Winifred quested for perfection. It took her mind off the slowly approaching rite which would give her a freedom but doubtfully desired; took her mind, too, off her boy and his fast approaching departure for a war from which the news remained disquieting. Like bees busy on summer flowers, or bright gadflies hovering and darting over spiky autumn blossoms, she and her ‘little daughter,’ tall nearly as herself and with a bust measurement not far inferior, hovered in the shops of Regent Street, the establishments of Hanover Square and of Bond Street, lost in consideration and the feel of fabrics. Dozens of young women of striking deportment and peculiar gait paraded before Winifred and Imogen, draped in ‘creations.’ The models —‘Very new, modom; quite the latest thing —’ which those two reluctantly turned down, would have filled a museum; the models which they were obliged to have nearly emptied James’ bank. It was no good doing things by halves, Winifred felt, in view of the need for making this first and sole untarnished season a conspicuous success. Their patience in trying the patience of those impersonal creatures who swam about before them could alone have been displayed by such as were moved by faith. It was for Winifred a long prostration before her dear goddess Fashion, fervent as a Catholic might make before the Virgin; for Imogen an experience by no means too unpleasant — she often looked so nice, and flattery was implicit everywhere: in a word it was ‘amusing.’
On the afternoon of the 20th of March, having, as it were, gutted Skywards, they had sought refreshment over the way at Caramel and Baker’s, and, stored with chocolate frothed at the top with cream, turned homewards through Berkeley Square of an evening touched with spring. Opening the door — freshly painted a light olive-green; nothing neglected that year to give Imogen a good send-off — Winifred passed towards the silver basket to see if anyone had called, and suddenly her nostrils twitched. What was that scent?
Imogen had taken up a novel sent from the library, and stood absorbed. Rather sharply, because of the queer feeling in her breast, Winifred said:
“Take that up, dear, and have a rest before dinner.”
Imogen, still reading, passed up the stairs. Winifred heard the door of her room slammed to, and drew a long savouring breath. Was it spring tickling her senses — whipping up nostalgia for her ‘clown,’ against all wisdom and outraged virtue? A male scent! A faint reek of cigars and lavender-water not smelt since that early autumn night six months ago, when she had called him ‘the limit.’ Whence came it, or was it ghost of scent — sheer emanation from memory? She looked round her. Nothing — not a thing, no tiniest disturbance of her hall, nor of the diningroom. A little day-dream of a scent — illusory, saddening, silly! In the silver basket were new cards, two with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Polegate Thom,’ and one with ‘Mr. Polegate Thom’ thereon; she sniffed them, but they smelled severe. ‘I must be tired,’ she thought, ‘I’ll go and lie down.’ Upstairs the drawing-room was darkened, waiting for some hand to give it evening light; and she passed on up to her bedroom. This, too, was half-curtained and dim, for it was six o’clock. Winifred threw off her coat — that scent again! — then stood, as if shot, transfixed against the bed-rail. Something dark had risen from the sofa in the far corner. A word of horror — in her family — escaped her: “God!”
“It’s I— Monty,” said a voice.
Clutching the bed-rail, Winifred reached up and turned the switch of the light hanging above her dressing-table. He appeared just on the rim of the light’s circumference, emblazoned from the absence of his watch-chain down to boots neat and sooty brown, but — yes! — split at the toecap. His chest and face were shadowy. Surely he was thin — or was it a trick of the light? He advanced, lighted now from toe-cap to the top of his dark head — surely a little grizzled! His complexion had darkened, sallowed; his black moustache had lost boldness, become sardonic; there were lines which she did not know about his face. There was no pin in his tie. His suit — ah! — she knew that — but how unpressed, unglossy! She stared again at the toe-cap of his boot. Something big and relentless had been ‘at him,’ had turned and twisted, raked and scraped him. And she stayed, not speaking, motionless, staring at that crack across the toe.
“Well!” he said, “I got the order. I’m back.”
Winifred’s bosom began to heave. The nostalgia for her husband which had rushed up with that scent was struggling with a deeper jealousy than any she had felt yet. There he was — a dark, and as if harried, shadow of his sleek and brazen self! What force had done this to him — squeezed him like an orange to its dry rind! That woman!
“I’m back,” he said again. “I’ve had a beastly time. By God! I came steerage. I’ve got nothing but what I stand up in, and that bag.”
“And who has the rest?” cried Winifred, suddenly alive. “How dared you come? You knew it was just for divorce that you got that order to come back. Don’t touch me!”
They held each to the rail of the big bed where they had spent so many years of nights together. Many times, yes — many times she had wanted him back. But now that he had come she was filled with this cold and deadly resentment. He put his hand up to his moustache; but did not frizz and twist it in the old familiar way, he just pulled it downwards.
“Gad!” he said: “If you knew the time I’ve had!”
“I’m glad I don’t!”
“Are the kids all right?”
Winifred nodded. “How did you get in?”
“With my key.”
“Then the maids don’t know. You can’t stay here, Monty.”
He uttered a little sardonic laugh.
“Well, look at me! That — that damned. . . . ”
“If you mention her,” cried Winifred, “I go straight out to Park Lane and I don’t come back.”
Suddenly he did a simple thing, but so uncharacteristic that it moved her. He shut his eyes. It was as if he had said: ‘All right! I’m dead to the world!’
“You can have a room for the night,” she said; “your things are still here. Only Imogen is at home.”
He leaned back against the bed-rail. “Well, it’s in your hands,” and his own made a writhing movement. “I’ve been through it. You needn’t hit too hard — it isn’t worth while. I’ve been frightened; I’ve been frightened, Freddie.”
That old pet name, disused for years and years, sent a shiver through Winifred.
‘What am I to do with him?’ she thought. ‘What in God’s name am I to do with him?’
“Got a cigarette?”
She gave him one from a little box she kept up there for when she couldn’t sleep at night, and lighted it. With that action the matter-of-fact side of her nature came to life again.
“Go and have a hot bath. I’ll put some clothes out for you in the dressing-room. We can talk later.”
He nodded, and fixed his eyes on her — they looked half-dead, or was it that the folds in the lids had become heavier?
‘He’s not the same,’ she thought. He would never be quite the same again! But what would he be?
“All right!” he said, and went towards the door. He even moved differently, like a man who has lost illusion and doubts whether it is worth while to move at all.
When he was gone, and she heard the water in the bath running, she put out a complete set of garments on the bed in his dressing-room, then went downstairs and fetched up the biscuit box and whisky. Putting on her coat again, and listening a moment at the bathroom door, she went down and out. In the street she hesitated. Past seven o’clock! Would Soames be at his Club or at Park Lane? She turned towards the latter. Back!
Soames had always feared it — she had sometimes hoped it. . . . Back! So like him — clown that he was — with this: ‘Here we are again!’ to make fools of them all — of the Law, of Soames, of herself!
Yet to have done with the Law, not to have that murky cloud hanging over her and the children! What a relief! Ah! but how to accept his return? That ‘woman’ had ravaged him, taken from him passion such as he had never bestowed on herself, such as she had not thought him capable of. There was the sting! That selfish, blatant ‘clown’ of hers, whom she herself had never really stirred, had been swept and ungarnished by another woman! Insulting! Too insulting! Not right, not decent to take him back! And yet she had asked for him; the Law perhaps would make her now! He was as much her husband as ever — she had put herself out of court! And all he wanted, no doubt, was money — to keep him in cigars and lavender-water! That scent! ‘After all, I’m not old,’ she thought, ‘not old yet!’ But that woman who had reduced him to those words: ‘I’ve been through it. I’ve been frightened — frightened, Freddie!’ She neared her father’s house, driven this way and that, while all the time the Forsyte undertow was drawing her to deep conclusion that after all he was her property, to be held against a robbing world. And so she came to James’.
“Mr. Soames? In his room? I’ll go up; don’t say I’m here.”
Her brother was dressing. She found him before a mirror, tying a black bow with an air of despising its ends.
“Hullo!” he said, contemplating her in the glass; “what’s wrong?”
“Monty!” said Winifred stonily.
Soames spun round. “What!”
“Hoist,” muttered Soames, “with our own petard. Why the deuce didn’t you let me try cruelty? I always knew it was too much risk this way.”
“Oh! Don’t talk about that! What shall I do?”
Soames answered, with a deep, deep sound.
“Well?” said Winifred impatiently.
“What has he to say for himself?”
“Nothing. One of his boots is split across the toe.”
Soames stared at her.
“Ah!” he said, “of course! On his beam ends. So — it begins again! This’ll about finish father.”
“Can’t we keep it from him?”
“Impossible. He has an uncanny flair for anything that’s worrying.”
And he brooded, with fingers hooked into his blue silk braces. “There ought to be some way in law,” he muttered, “to make him safe.”
“No,” cried Winifred, “I won’t be made a fool of again; I’d sooner put up with him.”
The two stared at each other. Their hearts were full of feeling, but they could give it no expression — Forsytes that they were.
“Where did you leave him?”
“In the bath,” and Winifred gave a little bitter laugh. “The only thing he’s brought back is lavender-water.”
“Steady!” said Soames, “you’re thoroughly upset. I’ll go back with you.”
“What’s the use?”
“We ought to make terms with him.”
“Terms! It’ll always be the same. When he recovers — cards and betting, drink and . . . .!” She was silent, remembering the look on her husband’s face. The burnt child — the burnt child. Perhaps . . .!
“Recovers?” replied Soames: “Is he ill?”
“No; burnt out; that’s all.”
Soames took his waistcoat from a chair and put it on, he took his coat and got into it, he scented his handkerchief with eau-de-Cologne, threaded his watch-chain, and said: “We haven’t any luck.”
And in the midst of her own trouble Winifred was sorry for him, as if in that little saying he had revealed deep trouble of his own.
“I’d like to see mother,” she said.
“She’ll be with father in their room. Come down quietly to the study. I’ll get her.”
Winifred stole down to the little dark study, chiefly remarkable for a Canaletto too doubtful to be placed elsewhere, and a fine collection of Law Reports unopened for many years. Here she stood, with her back to maroon-coloured curtains close-drawn, staring at the empty grate, till her mother came in followed by Soames.
“Oh! my poor dear!” said Emily: “How miserable you look in here! This is too bad of him, really!”
As a family they had so guarded themselves from the expression of all unfashionable emotion that it was impossible to go up and give her daughter a good hug. But there was comfort in her cushioned voice, and her still dimpled shoulders under some rare black lace. Summoning pride and the desire not to distress her mother, Winifred said in her most off-hand voice:
“It’s all right, Mother; no good fussing.”
“I don’t see,” said Emily, looking at Soames, “why Winifred shouldn’t tell him that she’ll prosecute him if he doesn’t keep off the premises. He took her pearls; and if he’s not brought them back, that’s quite enough.”
Winifred smiled. They would all plunge about with suggestions of this and that, but she knew already what she would be doing, and that was — nothing. The feeling that, after all, she had won a sort of victory, retained her property, was every moment gaining ground in her. No! if she wanted to punish him, she could do it at home without the world knowing.
“Well,” said Emily, “come into the dining-room comfortably — you must stay and have dinner with us. Leave it to me to tell your father.” And, as Winifred moved towards the door, she turned out the light. Not till then did they see the disaster in the corridor.
There, attracted by light from a room never lighted, James was standing with his duncoloured camel-hair shawl folded about him, so that his arms were not free and his silvered head looked cut off from his fashionably trousered legs as if by an expanse of desert. He stood, inimitably stork-like, with an expression as if he saw before him a frog too large to swallow.
“What’s all this?” he said. “Tell your father? You never tell me anything.”
The moment found Emily without reply. It was Winifred who went up to him, and, laying one hand on each of his swathed, helpless arms, said:
“Monty’s not gone bankrupt, Father. He’s only come back.”
They all three expected something serious to happen, and were glad she had kept that grip of his arms, but they did not know the depth of root in that shadowy old Forsyte. Something wry occurred about his shaven mouth and chin, something scratchy between those long silvery whiskers. Then he said with a sort of dignity: “He’ll be the death of me. I knew how it would be.”
“You mustn’t worry, Father,” said Winifred calmly. “I mean to make him behave.”
“Ah!” said James. “Here, take this thing off, I’m hot.” They unwound the shawl. He turned, and walked firmly to the dining-room.
“I don’t want any soup,” he said to Warmson, and sat down in his chair. They all sat down too, Winifred still in her hat, while Warmson laid the fourth place. When he left the room, James said: “What’s he brought back?”
James concentrated his eyes on his own image in a tablespoon. “Divorce!” he muttered; “rubbish! What was I about? I ought to have paid him an allowance to stay out of England. Soames you go and propose it to him.”
It seemed so right and simple a suggestion that even Winifred was surprised when she said: “No, I’ll keep him now he’s back; he must just behave — that’s all.”
They all looked at her. It had always been known that Winifred had pluck.
“Out there!” said James elliptically, “who knows what cut-throats! You look for his revolver! Don’t go to bed without. You ought to have Warmson to sleep in the house. I’ll see him myself tomorrow.”
They were touched by this declaration, and Emily said comfortably: “That’s right, James, we won’t have any nonsense.”
“Ah!” muttered James darkly, “I can’t tell.”
The advent of Warmson with fish diverted conversation.
When, directly after dinner, Winifred went over to kiss her father good-night, he looked up with eyes so full of question and distress that she put all the comfort she could into her voice.
“It’s all right, Daddy, dear; don’t worry. I shan’t need anyone — he’s quite bland. I shall only be upset if you worry. Good-night, bless you!”
James repeated the words, “Bless you!” as if he did not quite know what they meant, and his eyes followed her to the door.
She reached home before nine, and went straight upstairs.
Dartie was lying on the bed in his dressing-room, fully redressed in a blue serge suit and pumps; his arms were crossed behind his head, and an extinct cigarette drooped from his mouth.
Winifred remembered ridiculously the flowers in her window-boxes after a blazing summer day; the way they lay, or rather stood — parched, yet rested by the sun’s retreat. It was as if a little dew had come already on her burnt-up husband.
He said apathetically: “I suppose you’ve been to Park Lane. How’s the old man?”
Winifred could not help the bitter answer: “Not dead.”
He winced, actually he winced.
“Understand, Monty,” she said, “I will not have him worried. If you aren’t going to behave yourself, you may go back, you may go anywhere. Have you had dinner?”
“Would you like some?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Imogen offered me some. I didn’t want any.”
Imogen! In the plenitude of emotion Winifred had forgotten her.
“So you’ve seen her? What did she say?”
“She gave me a kiss.”
With mortification Winifred saw his dark sardonic face relaxed. ‘Yes!’ she thought, ‘he cares for her, not for me a bit.’
Dartie’s eyes were moving from side to side.
“Does she know about me?” he said.
It flashed through Winifred that here was the weapon she needed. He minded their knowing!
“No. Val knows. The others don’t; they only know you went away.”
She heard him sigh with relief.
“But they shall know,” she said firmly, “if you give me cause.”
“All right!” he muttered, “hit me! I’m down!”
Winifred went up to the bed. “Look here, Monty! I don’t want to hit you. I don’t want to hurt you. I shan’t allude to anything. I’m not going to worry. What’s the use?” She was silent a moment. “I can’t stand any more, though, and I won’t! You’d better know. You’ve made me suffer. But I used to be fond of you. For the sake of that. . . . ” She met the heavy-lidded gaze of his brown eyes with the downward stare of her green-grey eyes; touched his hand suddenly, turned her back, and went into her room.
She sat there a long time before her glass, fingering her rings, thinking of this subdued dark man, almost a stranger to her, on the bed in the other room; resolutely not ‘worrying,’ but gnawed by jealousy of what he had been through, and now and again just visited by pity.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54