Of all those radiant firms which emblazon with their windows the West End of London, Gaves and Cortegal were considered by Soames the most ‘attractive’ word just coming into fashion. He had never had his Uncle Swithin’s taste in precious stones, and the abandonment by Irene when she left his house in 1887 of all the glittering things he had given her had disgusted him with this form of investment. But he still knew a diamond when he saw one, and during the week before her birthday he had taken occasion, on his way into the Poultry or his way out therefrom, to dally a little before the greater jewellers where one got, if not one’s money’s worth, at least a certain cachet with the goods.
Constant cogitation since his drive with Jolyon had convinced him more and more of the supreme importance of this moment in his life, the supreme need for taking steps and those not wrong. And, alongside the dry and reasoned sense that it was now or never with his self-preservation, now or never if he were to range himself and found a family, went the secret urge of his senses roused by the sight of her who had once been a passionately desired wife, and the conviction that it was a sin against common sense and the decent secrecy of Forsytes to waste the wife he had.
In an opinion on Winifred’s case, Dreamer, Q.C. — he would much have preferred Waterbuck, but they had made him a judge (so late in the day as to rouse the usual suspicion of a political job)— had advised that they should go forward and obtain restitution of conjugal rights, a point which to Soames had never been in doubt. When they had obtained a decree to that effect they must wait to see if it was obeyed. If not, it would constitute legal desertion, and they should obtain evidence of misconduct and file their petition for divorce. All of which Soames knew perfectly well. They had marked him ten and one. This simplicity in his sister’s case only made him the more desperate about the difficulty in his own. Everything, in fact, was driving him towards the simple solution of Irene’s return. If it were still against the grain with her, had he not feelings to subdue, injury to forgive, pain to forget? He at least had never injured her, and this was a world of compromise! He could offer her so much more than she had now. He would be prepared to make a liberal settlement on her which could not be upset. He often scrutinised his image in these days. He had never been a peacock like that fellow Dartie, or fancied himself a woman’s man, but he had a certain belief in his own appearance — not unjustly, for it was well-coupled and preserved, neat, healthy, pale, unblemished by drink or excess of any kind. The Forsyte jaw and the concentration of his face were, in his eyes, virtues. So far as he could tell there was no feature of him which need inspire dislike.
Thoughts and yearnings, with which one lives daily, become natural, even if far-fetched in their inception. If he could only give tangible proof enough of his determination to let bygones be bygones, and to do all in his power to please her, why should she not come back to him?
He entered Gaves and Cortegal’s therefore, on the morning of November the 9th, to buy a certain diamond brooch. “Four twenty-five and dirt cheap, sir, at the money. It’s a lady’s brooch.” There was that in his mood which made him accept without demur. And he went on into the Poultry with the flat green morocco case in his breast pocket. Several times that day he opened it to look at the seven soft shining stones in their velvet oval nest.
“If the lady doesn’t like it, sir, happy to exchange it any time. But there’s no fear of that.” If only there were not! He got through a vast amount of work, only soother of the nerves he knew. A cablegram came while he was in the office with details from the agent in Buenos Aires, and the name and address of a stewardess who would be prepared to swear to what was necessary. It was a timely spur to Soames, with his rooted distaste for the washing of dirty linen in public. And when he set forth by Underground to Victoria Station he received a fresh impetus towards the renewal of his married life from the account in his evening paper of a fashionable divorce suit. The homing instinct of all true Forsytes in anxiety and trouble, the corporate tendency which kept them strong and solid, made him choose to dine at Park Lane. He neither could nor would breath a word to his people of his intention — too reticent and proud — but the thought that at least they would be glad if they knew, and wish him luck, was heartening.
James was in lugubrious mood, for the fire which the impudence of Kruger’s ultimatum had lit in him had been cold-watered by the poor success of the last month, and the exhortations to effort in The Times. He didn’t know where it would end. Soames sought to cheer him by the continual use of the word Buller. But James couldn’t tell! There was Colley — and he got stuck on that hill, and this Ladysmith was down in a hollow, and altogether it looked to him a ‘pretty kettle of fish’; he thought they ought to be sending the sailors — they were the chaps, they did a lot of good in the Crimea. Soames shifted the ground of consolation. Winifred had heard from Val that there had been a ‘rag’ and a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day at Oxford, and that he had escaped detection by blacking his face.
“Ah!” James muttered, “he’s a clever little chap.” But he shook his head shortly afterwards and remarked that he didn’t know what would become of him, and looking wistfully at his son, murmured on that Soames had never had a boy. He would have liked a grandson of his own name. And now — well, there it was!
Soames flinched. He had not expected such a challenge to disclose the secret in his heart. And Emily, who saw him wince, said:
“Nonsense, James; don’t talk like that!”
But James, not looking anyone in the face, muttered on. There were Roger and Nicholas and Jolyon; they all had grandsons. And Swithin and Timothy had never married. He had done his best; but he would soon be gone now. And, as though he had uttered words of profound consolation, he was silent, eating brains with a fork and a piece of bread, and swallowing the bread.
Soames excused himself directly after dinner. It was not really cold, but he put on his fur coat, which served to fortify him against the fits of nervous shivering to which he had been subject all day. Subconsciously, he knew that he looked better thus than in an ordinary black overcoat. Then, feeling the morocco case flat against his heart, he sallied forth. He was no smoker, but he lit a cigarette, and smoked it gingerly as he walked along. He moved slowly down the Row towards Knightsbridge, timing himself to get to Chelsea at nine-fifteen. What did she do with herself evening after evening in that little hole? How mysterious women were! One lived alongside and knew nothing of them. What could she have seen in that fellow Bosinney to send her mad? For there was madness after all in what she had done — crazy moonstruck madness, in which all sense of values had been lost, and her life and his life ruined! And for a moment he was filled with a sort of exaltation, as though he were a man read of in a story who, possessed by the Christian spirit, would restore to her all the prizes of existence, forgiving and forgetting, and becoming the godfather of her future. Under a tree opposite Knightsbridge Barracks, where the moon-light struck down clear and white, he took out once more the morocco case, and let the beams draw colour from those stones. Yes, they were of the first water! But, at the hard closing snap of the case, another cold shiver ran through his nerves; and he walked on faster, clenching his gloved hands in the pockets of his coat, almost hoping she would not be in. The thought of how mysterious she was again beset him. Dining alone there night after night — in an evening dress, too, as if she were making believe to be in society! Playing the piano — to herself! Not even a dog or cat, so far as he had seen. And that reminded him suddenly of the mare he kept for station work at Mapledurham. If ever he went to the stable, there she was quite alone, half asleep, and yet, on her home journeys going more freely than on her way out, as if longing to be back and lonely in her stable! ‘I would treat her well,’ he thought incoherently. ‘I would be very careful.’ And all that capacity for home life of which a mocking Fate seemed for ever to have deprived him swelled suddenly in Soames, so that he dreamed dreams opposite South Kensington Station. In the King’s Road a man came slithering out of a public house playing a concertina. Soames watched him for a moment dance crazily on the pavement to his own drawling jagged sounds, then crossed over to avoid contact with this piece of drunken foolery. A night in the lock-up! What asses people were! But the man had noticed his movement of avoidance, and streams of genial blasphemy followed him across the street. ‘I hope they’ll run him in,’ thought Soames viciously. ‘To have ruffians like that about, with women out alone!’ A woman’s figure in front had induced this thought. Her walk seemed oddly familiar, and when she turned the corner for which he was bound, his heart began to beat. He hastened on to the corner to make certain. Yes! It was Irene; he could not mistake her walk in that little drab street. She threaded two more turnings, and from the last corner he saw her enter her block of flats. To make sure of her now, he ran those few paces, hurried up the stairs, and caught her standing at her door. He heard the latchkey in the lock, and reached her side just as she turned round, startled, in the open doorway.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said, breathless. “I happened to see you. Let me come in a minute.”
She had put her hand up to her breast, her face was colourless, her eyes widened by alarm. Then seeming to master herself, she inclined her head, and said: “Very well.”
Soames closed the door. He, too, had need to recover, and when she had passed into the sitting-room, waited a full minute, taking deep breaths to still the beating of his heart. At this moment, so fraught with the future, to take out that morocco case seemed crude. Yet, not to take it out left him there before her with no preliminary excuse for coming. And in this dilemma he was seized with impatience at all this paraphernalia of excuse and justification. This was a scene — it could be nothing else, and he must face it. He heard her voice, uncomfortably, pathetically soft:
“Why have you come again? Didn’t you understand that I would rather you did not?”
He noticed her clothes — a dark brown velvet corduroy, a sable boa, a small round toque of the same. They suited her admirably. She had money to spare for dress, evidently! He said abruptly:
“It’s your birthday. I brought you this,” and he held out to her the green morocco case.
Soames pressed the clasp; the seven stones gleamed out on the pale grey velvet.
“Why not?” he said. “Just as a sign that you don’t bear me ill-feeling any longer.”
Soames took it out of the case.
“Let me just see how it looks.”
She shrank back.
He followed, thrusting his hand with the brooch in it against the front of her dress. She shrank again.
Soames dropped his hand.
“Irene,” he said, “let bygones be bygones. If I can, surely you might. Let’s begin again, as if nothing had been. Won’t you?” His voice was wistful, and his eyes, resting on her face, had in them a sort of supplication.
She, who was standing literally with her back against the wall, gave a little gulp, and that was all her answer. Soames went on:
“Can you really want to live all your days half-dead in this little hole? Come back to me, and I’ll give you all you want. You shall live your own life; I swear it.”
He saw her face quiver ironically.
“Yes,” he repeated, “but I mean it this time. I’ll only ask one thing. I just want — I just want a son. Don’t look like that! I want one. It’s hard.” His voice had grown hurried, so that he hardly knew it for his own, and twice he jerked his head back as if struggling for breath. It was the sight of her eyes fixed on him, dark with a sort of fascinated fright, which pulled him together and changed that painful incoherence to anger.
“Is it so very unnatural?” he said between his teeth, “Is it unnatural to want a child from one’s own wife? You wrecked our life and put this blight on everything. We go on only half alive, and without any future. Is it so very unflattering to you that in spite of everything I— I still want you for my wife? Speak, for Goodness’ sake! do speak.”
Irene seemed to try, but did not succeed.
“I don’t want to frighten you,” said Soames more gently. “Heaven knows. I only want you to see that I can’t go on like this. I want you back. I want you.”
Irene raised one hand and covered the lower part of her face, but her eyes never moved from his, as though she trusted in them to keep him at bay. And all those years, barren and bitter, since — ah! when? — almost since he had first known her, surged up in one great wave of recollection in Soames; and a spasm that for his life he could not control constricted his face.
“It’s not too late,” he said; “it’s not — if you’ll only believe it.”
Irene uncovered her lips, and both her hands made a writhing gesture in front of her breast. Soames seized them.
“Don’t!” she said under her breath. But he stood holding on to them, trying to stare into her eyes which did not waver. Then she said quietly:
“I am alone here. You won’t behave again as you once behaved.”
Dropping her hands as though they had been hot irons, he turned away. Was it possible that there could be such relentless unforgiveness! Could that one act of violent possession be still alive within her? Did it bar him thus utterly? And doggedly he said, without looking up:
“I am not going till you’ve answered me. I am offering what few men would bring themselves to offer, I want a — a reasonable answer.”
And almost with surprise he heard her say:
“You can’t have a reasonable answer. Reason has nothing to do with it. You can only have the brutal truth: I would rather die.”
Soames stared at her.
“Oh!” he said. And there intervened in him a sort of paralysis of speech and movement, the kind of quivering which comes when a man has received a deadly insult, and does not yet know how he is going to take it, or rather what it is going to do with him.
“Oh!” he said again, “as bad as that? Indeed! You would rather die. That’s pretty!”
“I am sorry. You wanted me to answer. I can’t help the truth, can I?”
At that queer spiritual appeal Soames turned for relief to actuality. He snapped the brooch back into its case and put it in his pocket.
“The truth!” he said; “there’s no such thing with women. It’s nerves-nerves.”
He heard the whisper:
“Yes; nerves don’t lie. Haven’t you discovered that?” He was silent, obsessed by the thought: ‘I will hate this woman. I will hate her.’ That was the trouble! If only he could! He shot a glance at her who stood unmoving against the wall with her head up and her hands clasped, for all the world as if she were going to be shot. And he said quickly:
“I don’t believe a word of it. You have a lover. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be such a — such a little idiot.” He was conscious, before the expression in her eyes, that he had uttered something of a non-sequitur, and dropped back too abruptly into the verbal freedom of his connubial days. He turned away to the door. But he could not go out. Something within him — that most deep and secret Forsyte quality, the impossibility of letting go, the impossibility of seeing the fantastic and forlorn nature of his own tenacity — prevented him. He turned about again, and there stood, with his back against the door, as hers was against the wall opposite, quite unconscious of anything ridiculous in this separation by the whole width of the room.
“Do you ever think of anybody but yourself?” he said.
Irene’s lips quivered; then she answered slowly:
“Do you ever think that I found out my mistake — my hopeless, terrible mistake — the very first week of our marriage; that I went on trying three years — you know I went on trying? Was it for myself?”
Soames gritted his teeth. “God knows what it was. I’ve never understood you; I shall never understand you. You had everything you wanted; and you can have it again, and more. What’s the matter with me? I ask you a plain question: What is it?” Unconscious of the pathos in that enquiry, he went on passionately: “I’m not lame, I’m not loathsome, I’m not a boor, I’m not a fool. What is it? What’s the mystery about me?”
Her answer was a long sigh.
He clasped his hands with a gesture that for him was strangely full of expression. “When I came here to-night I was — I hoped — I meant everything that I could to do away with the past, and start fair again. And you meet me with ‘nerves,’ and silence, and sighs. There’s nothing tangible. It’s like — it’s like a spider’s web.”
That whisper from across the room maddened Soames afresh.
“Well, I don’t choose to be in a spider’s web. I’ll cut it.” He walked straight up to her. “Now!” What he had gone up to her to do he really did not know. But when he was close, the old familiar scent of her clothes suddenly affected him. He put his hands on her shoulders and bent forward to kiss her. He kissed not her lips, but a little hard line where the lips had been drawn in; then his face was pressed away by her hands; he heard her say: “Oh! No!” Shame, compunction, sense of futility flooded his whole being, he turned on his heel and went straight out.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54