Dinner parties were not now given at James’ in Park Lane — to every house the moment comes when Master or Mistress is no longer ‘up to it’; no more can nine courses be served to twenty mouths above twenty fine white expanses; nor does the household cat any longer wonder why she is suddenly shut up.
So with something like excitement Emily — who at seventy would still have liked a little feast and fashion now and then — ordered dinner for six instead of two, herself wrote a number of foreign words on cards, and arranged the flowers — mimosa from the Riviera, and white Roman hyacinths not from Rome. There would only be, of course, James and herself, Soames, Winifred, Val, and Imogen — but she liked to pretend a little and dally in imagination with the glory of the past. She so dressed herself that James remarked:
“What are you putting on that thing for? You’ll catch cold.”
But Emily knew that the necks of women are protected by love of shining, unto fourscore years, and she only answered:
“Let me put you on one of those dickies I got you, James; then you’ll only have to change your trousers, and put on your velvet coat, and there you’ll be. Val likes you to look nice.”
“Dicky!” said James. “You’re always wasting your money on something.”
But he suffered the change to be made till his neck also shone, murmuring vaguely:
“He’s an extravagant chap, I’m afraid.”
A little brighter in the eye, with rather more colour than usual in his cheeks, he took his seat in the drawing-room to wait for the sound of the front-door bell.
“I’ve made it a proper dinner party,” Emily said comfortably; “I thought it would be good practice for Imogen — she must get used to it now she’s coming out.”
James uttered an indeterminate sound, thinking of Imogen as she used to climb about his knee or pull Christmas crackers with him.
“She’ll be pretty,” he muttered, “I shouldn’t wonder.”
“She is pretty,” said Emily; “she ought to make a good match.”
“There you go,” murmured James; “she’d much better stay at home and look after her mother.” A second Dartie carrying off his pretty granddaughter would finish him! He had never quite forgiven Emily for having been as much taken in by Montague Dartie as he himself had been.
“Where’s Warmson?” he said suddenly. “I should like a glass of Madeira to-night.”
“There’s champagne, James.”
James shook his head. “No body,” he said; “I can’t get any good out of it.”
Emily reached forward on her side of the fire and rang the bell.
“Your master would like a bottle of Madeira opened, Warmson.”
“No, no!” said James, the tips of his ears quivering with vehemence, and his eyes fixed on an object seen by him alone. “Look here, Warmson, you go to the inner cellar, and on the middle shelf of the end bin on the left you’ll see seven bottles; take the one in the centre, and don’t shake it. It’s the last of the Madeira I had from Mr. Jolyon when we came in here — never been moved; it ought to be in prime condition still; but I don’t know, I can’t tell.”
“Very good, sir,” responded the withdrawing Warmson.
“I was keeping it for our golden wedding,” said James suddenly, “but I shan’t live three years at my age.”
“Nonsense, James,” said Emily, “don’t talk like that.”
“I ought to have got it up myself,” murmured James, “he’ll shake it as likely as not.” And he sank into silent recollection of long moments among the open gas-jets, the cobwebs and the good smell of wine-soaked corks, which had been appetiser to so many feasts. In the wine from that cellar was written the history of the forty odd years since he had come to the Park Lane house with his young bride, and of the many generations of friends and acquaintances who had passed into the unknown; its depleted bins preserved the record of family festivity — all the marriages, births, deaths of his kith and kin. And when he was gone there it would be, and he didn’t know what would become of it. It’d be drunk or spoiled, he shouldn’t wonder!
From that deep reverie the entrance of his son dragged him, followed very soon by that of Winifred and her two eldest.
They went down arm-in-arm — James with Imogen, the debutante, because his pretty grandchild cheered him; Soames with Winifred; Emily with Val, whose eyes lighting on the oysters brightened. This was to be a proper full ‘blowout’ with ‘fizz’ and port! And he felt in need of it, after what he had done that day, as yet undivulged. After the first glass or two it became pleasant to have this bombshell up his sleeve, this piece of sensational patriotism, or example, rather, of personal daring, to display — for his pleasure in what he had done for his Queen and Country was so far entirely personal. He was now a ‘blood,’ indissolubly connected with guns and horses; he had a right to swagger — not, of course, that he was going to. He should just announce it quietly, when there was a pause. And, glancing down the menu, he determined on ‘Bombe aux fraises’ as the proper moment; there would be a certain solemnity while they were eating that. Once or twice before they reached that rosy summit of the dinner he was attacked by remembrance that his grandfather was never told anything! Still, the old boy was drinking Madeira, and looking jolly fit! Besides, he ought to be pleased at this set-off to the disgrace of the divorce. The sight of his uncle opposite, too, was a sharp incentive. He was so far from being a sportsman that it would be worth a lot to see his face. Besides, better to tell his mother in this way than privately, which might upset them both! He was sorry for her, but after all one couldn’t be expected to feel much for others when one had to part from Holly.
His grandfather’s voice travelled to him thinly. “Val, try a little of the Madeira with your ice. You won’t get that up at college.”
Val watched the slow liquid filling his glass, the essential oil of the old wine glazing the surface; inhaled its aroma, and thought: ‘Now for it!’ It was a rich moment. He sipped, and a gentle glow spread in his veins, already heated. With a rapid look round, he said, “I joined the Imperial Yeomanry to-day, Granny,” and emptied his glass as though drinking the health of his own act.
“What!” It was his mother’s desolate little word.
“Young Jolly Forsyte and I went down there together.”
“You didn’t sign?” from Uncle Soames.
“Rather! We go into camp on Monday.”
“I say!” cried Imogen.
All looked at James. He was leaning forward with his hand behind his ear.
“What’s that?” he said. “What’s he saying? I can’t hear.”
Emily reached forward to pat Val’s hand.
“It’s only that Val has joined the Yeomanry, James; it’s very nice for him. He’ll look his best in uniform.”
“Joined the — rubbish!” came from James, tremulously loud. “You can’t see two yards before your nose. He — he’ll have to go out there. Why! he’ll be fighting before he knows where he is.”
Val saw Imogen’s eyes admiring him, and his mother still and fashionable with her handkerchief before her lips.
Suddenly his uncle spoke.
“You’re under age.”
“I thought of that,” smiled Val; “I gave my age as twenty-one.”
He heard his grandmother’s admiring, “Well, Val, that was plucky of you;” was conscious of Warmson deferentially filling his champagne glass; and of his grandfather’s voice moaning: “I don’t know what’ll become of you if you go on like this.”
Imogen was patting his shoulder, his uncle looking at him sidelong; only his mother sat unmoving, till, affected by her stillness, Val said:
“It’s all right, you know; we shall soon have them on the run. I only hope I shall come in for something.”
He felt elated, sorry, tremendously important all at once. This would show Uncle Soames, and all the Forsytes, how to be sportsmen. He had certainly done something heroic and exceptional in giving his age as twenty-one.
Emily’s voice brought him back to earth.
“You mustn’t have a second glass, James. Warmson!”
“Won’t they be astonished at Timothy’s!” burst out Imogen. “I’d give anything to see their faces. Do you have a sword, Val, or only a popgun?”
“What made you?”
His uncle’s voice produced a slight chill in the pit of Val’s stomach. Made him? How answer that? He was grateful for his grandmother’s comfortable:
“Well, I think it’s very plucky of Val. I’m sure he’ll make a splendid soldier; he’s just the figure for it. We shall all be proud of him.”
“What had young Jolly Forsyte to do with it? Why did you go together?” pursued Soames, uncannily relentless. “I thought you weren’t friendly with him?”
“I’m not,” mumbled Val, “but I wasn’t going to be beaten by him.” He saw his uncle look at him quite differently, as if approving. His grandfather was nodding too, his grandmother tossing her head. They all approved of his not being beaten by that cousin of his. There must be a reason! Val was dimly conscious of some disturbing point outside his range of vision; as it might be, the unlocated centre of a cyclone. And, staring at his uncle’s face, he had a quite unaccountable vision of a woman with dark eyes, gold hair, and a white neck, who smelt nice, and had pretty silken clothes which he had liked feeling when he was quite small. By Jove, yes! Aunt Irene! She used to kiss him, and he had bitten her arm once, playfully, because he liked it — so soft. His grandfather was speaking:
“What’s his father doing?”
“He’s away in Paris,” Val said, staring at the very queer expression on his uncle’s face, like — like that of a snarling dog.
“Artists!” said James. The word coming from the very bottom of his soul, broke up the dinner.
Opposite his mother in the cab going home, Val tasted the after-fruits of heroism, like medlars over-ripe.
She only said, indeed, that he must go to his tailor’s at once and have his uniform properly made, and not just put up with what they gave him. But he could feel that she was very much upset. It was on his lips to console her with the spoken thought that he would be out of the way of that beastly divorce, but the presence of Imogen, and the knowledge that his mother would not be out of the way, restrained him. He felt aggrieved that she did not seem more proud of him. When Imogen had gone to bed, he risked the emotional.
“I’m awfully sorry to have to leave you, Mother.”
“Well, I must make the best of it. We must try and get you a commission as soon as we can; then you won’t have to rough it so. Do you know any drill, Val?”
“Not a scrap.”
“I hope they won’t worry you much. I must take you about to get the things to-morrow. Good-night; kiss me.”
With that kiss, soft and hot, between his eyes, and those words, ‘I hope they won’t worry you much,’ in his ears, he sat down to a cigarette, before a dying fire. The heat was out of him — the glow of cutting a dash. It was all a damned heart-aching bore. ‘I’ll be even with that chap Jolly,’ he thought, trailing up the stairs, past the room where his mother was biting her pillow to smother a sense of desolation which was trying to make her sob.
And soon only one of the diners at James’ was awake — Soames, in his bedroom above his father’s.
So that fellow Jolyon was in Paris — what was he doing there? Hanging round Irene! The last report from Polteed had hinted that there might be something soon. Could it be this? That fellow, with his beard and his cursed amused way of speaking — son of the old man who had given him the nickname ‘Man of Property,’ and bought the fatal house from him. Soames had ever resented having had to sell the house at Robin Hill; never forgiven his uncle for having bought it, or his cousin for living in it.
Reckless of the cold, he threw his window up and gazed out across the Park. Bleak and dark the January night; little sound of traffic; a frost coming; bare trees; a star or two. ‘I’ll see Polteed to-morrow,’ he thought. ‘By God! I’m mad, I think, to want her still. That fellow! If . . .? Um! No!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54