Soames had travelled little. Aged nineteen he had made the ‘petty tour’ with his father, mother, and Winifred — Brussels, the Rhine, Switzerland, and home by way of Paris. Aged twenty-seven, just when he began to take interest in pictures, he had spent five hot weeks in Italy, looking into the Renaissance — not so much in it as he had been led to expect — and a fortnight in Paris on his way back, looking into himself, as became a Forsyte surrounded by people so strongly self-centred and ‘foreign’ as the French. His knowledge of their language being derived from his public school, he did not understand them when they spoke. Silence he had found better for all parties; one did not make a fool of oneself. He had disliked the look of the men’s clothes, the closed-in cabs, the theatres which looked like bee-hives, the Galleries which smelled of beeswax. He was too cautious and too shy to explore that side of Paris supposed by Forsytes to constitute its attraction under the rose; and as for a collector’s bargain — not one to be had! As Nicholas might have put it — they were a grasping lot. He had come back uneasy, saying Paris was overrated.
When, therefore, in June of 1900 he went to Paris, it was but his third attempt on the centre of civilisation. This time, however, the mountain was going to Mahomet; for he felt by now more deeply civilised than Paris, and perhaps he really was. Moreover, he had a definite objective. This was no mere genuflexion to a shrine of taste and immorality, but the prosecution of his own legitimate affairs. He went, indeed, because things were getting past a joke. The watch went on and on, and — nothing — nothing! Jolyon had never returned to Paris, and no one else was ‘suspect!’ Busy with new and very confidential matters, Soames was realising more than ever how essential reputation is to a solicitor. But at night and in his leisure moments he was ravaged by the thought that time was always flying and money flowing in, and his own future as much ‘in irons’ as ever. Since Mafeking night he had become aware that a ‘young fool of a doctor’ was hanging round Annette. Twice he had come across him — a cheerful young fool, not more than thirty.
Nothing annoyed Soames so much as cheerfulness — an indecent, extravagant sort of quality, which had no relation to facts. The mixture of his desires and hopes was, in a word, becoming torture; and lately the thought had come to him that perhaps Irene knew she was being shadowed: It was this which finally decided him to go and see for himself; to go and once more try to break down her repugnance, her refusal to make her own and his path comparatively smooth once more. If he failed again — well, he would see what she did with herself, anyway!
He went to an hotel in the Rue Caumartin, highly recommended to Forsytes, where practically nobody spoke French. He had formed no plan. He did not want to startle her; yet must contrive that she had no chance to evade him by flight. And next morning he set out in bright weather.
Paris had an air of gaiety, a sparkle over its star-shape which almost annoyed Soames. He stepped gravely, his nose lifted a little sideways in real curiosity. He desired now to understand things French. Was not Annette French? There was much to be got out of his visit, if he could only get it. In this laudable mood and the Place de la Concorde he was nearly run down three times. He came on the ‘Cours la Reine,’ where Irene’s hotel was situated, almost too suddenly, for he had not yet fixed on his procedure. Crossing over to the river side, he noted the building, white and cheerful-looking, with green sunblinds, seen through a screen of plane-tree leaves. And, conscious that it would be far better to meet her casually in some open place than to risk a call, he sat down on a bench whence he could watch the entrance. It was not quite eleven o’clock, and improbable that she had yet gone out. Some pigeons were strutting and preening their feathers in the pools of sunlight between the shadows of the plane-trees. A workman in a blue blouse passed, and threw them crumbs from the paper which contained his dinner. A ‘bonne’ coiffed with ribbon shepherded two little girls with pig-tails and frilled drawers. A cab meandered by, whose cocher wore a blue coat and a black-glazed hat. To Soames a kind of affectation seemed to cling about it all, a sort of picturesqueness which was out of date. A theatrical people, the French! He lit one of his rare cigarettes, with a sense of injury that Fate should be casting his life into outlandish waters. He shouldn’t wonder if Irene quite enjoyed this foreign life; she had never been properly English — even to look at! And he began considering which of those windows could be hers under the green sunblinds. How could he word what he had come to say so that it might pierce the defence of her proud obstinacy? He threw the fag-end of his cigarette at a pigeon, with the thought: ‘I can’t stay here for ever twiddling my thumbs. Better give it up and call on her in the late afternoon.’ But he still sat on, heard twelve strike, and then half-past. ‘I’ll wait till one,’ he thought, ‘while I’m about it.’ But just then he started up, and shrinkingly sat down again. A woman had come out in a cream-coloured frock, and was moving away under a fawn-coloured parasol. Irene herself! He waited till she was too far away to recognise him, then set out after her. She was strolling as though she had no particular objective; moving, if he remembered rightly, toward the Bois de Boulogne. For half an hour at least he kept his distance on the far side of the way till she had passed into the Bois itself. Was she going to meet someone after all? Some confounded Frenchman — one of those ‘Bel Ami’ chaps, perhaps, who had nothing to do but hang about women — for he had read that book with difficulty and a sort of disgusted fascination. He followed doggedly along a shady alley, losing sight of her now and then when the path curved. And it came back to him how, long ago, one night in Hyde Park he had slid and sneaked from tree to tree, from seat to seat, hunting blindly, ridiculously, in burning jealousy for her and young Bosinney. The path bent sharply, and, hurrying, he came on her sitting in front of a small fountain — a little green-bronze Niobe veiled in hair to her slender hips, gazing at the pool she had wept: He came on her so suddenly that he was past before he could turn and take off his hat. She did not start up. She had always had great self-command — it was one of the things he most admired in her, one of his greatest grievances against her, because he had never been able to tell what she was thinking. Had she realised that he was following? Her self-possession made him angry; and, disdaining to explain his presence, he pointed to the mournful little Niobe, and said:
“That’s rather a good thing.”
He could see, then, that she was struggling to preserve her composure.
“I didn’t want to startle you; is this one of your haunts?”
“A little lonely.” As he spoke, a lady, strolling by, paused to look at the fountain and passed on.
Irene’s eyes followed her.
“No,” she said, prodding the ground with her parasol, “never lonely. One has always one’s shadow.”
Soames understood; and, looking at her hard, he exclaimed:
“Well, it’s your own fault. You can be free of it at any moment. Irene, come back to me, and be free.”
“Don’t!” cried Soames, stamping his foot; “it’s inhuman. Listen! Is there any condition I can make which will bring you back to me? If I promise you a separate house — and just a visit now and then?”
Irene rose, something wild suddenly in her face and figure.
“None! None! None! You may hunt me to the grave. I will not come.”
Outraged and on edge, Soames recoiled.
“Don’t make a scene!” he said sharply. And they both stood motionless, staring at the little Niobe, whose greenish flesh the sunlight was burnishing.
“That’s your last word, then,” muttered Soames, clenching his hands; “you condemn us both.”
Irene bent her head. “I can’t come back. Good-bye!”
A feeling of monstrous injustice flared up in Soames.
“Stop!” he said, “and listen to me a moment. You gave me a sacred vow — you came to me without a penny. You had all I could give you. You broke that vow without cause, you made me a by-word; you refused me a child; you’ve left me in prison; you — you still move me so that I want you — I want you. Well, what do you think of yourself?”
Irene turned, her face was deadly pale, her eyes burning dark.
“God made me as I am,” she said; “wicked if you like — but not so wicked that I’ll give myself again to a man I hate.”
The sunlight gleamed on her hair as she moved away, and seemed to lay a caress all down her clinging cream-coloured frock.
Soames could neither speak nor move. That word ‘hate’— so extreme, so primitive — made all the Forsyte in him tremble. With a deep imprecation he strode away from where she had vanished, and ran almost into the arms of the lady sauntering back — the fool, the shadowing fool!
He was soon dripping with perspiration, in the depths of the Bois.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I need have no consideration for her now; she has not a grain of it for me. I’ll show her this very day that she’s my wife still.’
But on the way home to his hotel, he was forced to the conclusion that he did not know what he meant. One could not make scenes in public, and short of scenes in public what was there he could do? He almost cursed his own thin-skinnedness. She might deserve no consideration; but he — alas! deserved some at his own hands. And sitting lunchless in the hall of his hotel, with tourists passing every moment, Baedeker in hand, he was visited by black dejection. In irons! His whole life, with every natural instinct and every decent yearning gagged and fettered, and all because Fate had driven him seventeen years ago to set his heart upon this woman — so utterly, that even now he had no real heart to set on any other! Cursed was the day he had met her, and his eyes for seeing in her anything but the cruel Venus she was! And yet, still seeing her with the sunlight on the clinging China crepe of her gown, he uttered a little groan, so that a tourist who was passing, thought: ‘Man in pain! Let’s see! what did I have for lunch?’
Later, in front of a cafe near the Opera, over a glass of cold tea with lemon and a straw in it, he took the malicious resolution to go and dine at her hotel. If she were there, he would speak to her; if she were not, he would leave a note. He dressed carefully, and wrote as follows:
“Your idyll with that fellow Jolyon Forsyte is known to me at all events. If you pursue it, understand that I will leave no stone unturned to make things unbearable for him. ‘S. F.’”
He sealed this note but did not address it, refusing to write the maiden name which she had impudently resumed, or to put the word Forsyte on the envelope lest she should tear it up unread. Then he went out, and made his way through the glowing streets, abandoned to evening pleasure-seekers. Entering her hotel, he took his seat in a far corner of the dining-room whence he could see all entrances and exits. She was not there. He ate little, quickly, watchfully. She did not come. He lingered in the lounge over his coffee, drank two liqueurs of brandy. But still she did not come. He went over to the keyboard and examined the names. Number twelve, on the first floor! And he determined to take the note up himself. He mounted red-carpeted stairs, past a little salon; eight-ten-twelve! Should he knock, push the note under, or. . . .? He looked furtively round and turned the handle. The door opened, but into a little space leading to another door; he knocked on that — no answer. The door was locked. It fitted very closely to the floor; the note would not go under. He thrust it back into his pocket, and stood a moment listening. He felt somehow certain that she was not there. And suddenly he came away, passing the little salon down the stairs. He stopped at the bureau and said:
“Will you kindly see that Mrs. Heron has this note?”
“Madame Heron left to-day, Monsieur — suddenly, about three o’clock. There was illness in her family.”
Soames compressed his lips. “Oh!” he said; “do you know her address?”
“Non, Monsieur. England, I think.”
Soames put the note back into his pocket and went out. He hailed an open horse-cab which was passing.
“Drive me anywhere!”
The man, who, obviously, did not understand, smiled, and waved his whip. And Soames was borne along in that little yellow-wheeled Victoria all over star-shaped Paris, with here and there a pause, and the question, “C’est par ici, Monsieur?” “No, go on,” till the man gave it up in despair, and the yellow-wheeled chariot continued to roll between the tall, flat-fronted shuttered houses and plane-tree avenues — a little Flying Dutchman of a cab.
‘Like my life,’ thought Soames, ‘without object, on and on!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54