In Chancery, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 12

Birth of a Forsyte

Soames walked out of the garden door, crossed the lawn, stood on the path above the river, turned round and walked back to the garden door, without having realised that he had moved. The sound of wheels crunching the drive convinced him that time had passed, and the doctor gone. What, exactly, had he said?

“This is the position, Mr. Forsyte. I can make pretty certain of her life if I operate, but the baby will be born dead. If I don’t operate, the baby will most probably be born alive, but it’s a great risk for the mother — a great risk. In either case I don’t think she can ever have another child. In her state she obviously can’t decide for herself, and we can’t wait for her mother. It’s for you to make the decision, while I’m getting what’s necessary. I shall be back within the hour.”

The decision! What a decision! No time to get a specialist down! No time for anything!

The sound of wheels died away, but Soames still stood intent; then, suddenly covering his ears, he walked back to the river. To come before its time like this, with no chance to foresee anything, not even to get her mother here! It was for her mother to make that decision, and she couldn’t arrive from Paris till to-night! If only he could have understood the doctor’s jargon, the medical niceties, so as to be sure he was weighing the chances properly; but they were Greek to him — like a legal problem to a layman. And yet he must decide! He brought his hand away from his brow wet, though the air was chilly. These sounds which came from her room! To go back there would only make it more difficult. He must be calm, clear. On the one hand life, nearly certain, of his young wife, death quite certain, of his child; and — no more children afterwards! On the other, death perhaps of his wife, nearly certain life for the child; and — no more children afterwards! Which to choose?. . . . It had rained this last fortnight — the river was very full, and in the water, collected round the little house-boat moored by his landing-stage, were many leaves from the woods above, brought off by a frost. Leaves fell, lives drifted down — Death! To decide about death! And no one to give him a hand. Life lost was lost for good. Let nothing go that you could keep; for, if it went, you couldn’t get it back. It left you bare, like those trees when they lost their leaves; barer and barer until you, too, withered and came down. And, by a queer somersault of thought, he seemed to see not Annette lying up there behind that window-pane on which the sun was shining, but Irene lying in their bedroom in Montpellier Square, as it might conceivably have been her fate to lie, sixteen years ago. Would he have hesitated then? Not a moment! Operate, operate! Make certain of her life! No decision — a mere instinctive cry for help, in spite of his knowledge, even then, that she did not love him! But this! Ah! there was nothing overmastering in his feeling for Annette! Many times these last months, especially since she had been growing frightened, he had wondered. She had a will of her own, was selfish in her French way. And yet — so pretty! What would she wish — to take the risk. ‘I know she wants the child,’ he thought. ‘If it’s born dead, and no more chance afterwards — it’ll upset her terribly. No more chance! All for nothing! Married life with her for years and years without a child. Nothing to steady her! She’s too young. Nothing to look forward to, for her — for me! For me!’ He struck his hands against his chest! Why couldn’t he think without bringing himself in — get out of himself and see what he ought to do? The thought hurt him, then lost edge, as if it had come in contact with a breastplate. Out of oneself! Impossible! Out into soundless, scentless, touchless, sightless space! The very idea was ghastly, futile! And touching there the bedrock of reality, the bottom of his Forsyte spirit, Soames rested for a moment. When one ceased, all ceased; it might go on, but there’d be nothing in it!

He looked at his watch. In half an hour the doctor would be back. He must decide! If against the operation and she died, how face her mother and the doctor afterwards? How face his own conscience? It was his child that she was having. If for the operation — then he condemned them both to childlessness. And for what else had he married her but to have a lawful heir? And his father — at death’s door, waiting for the news! ‘It’s cruel!’ he thought; ‘I ought never to have such a thing to settle! It’s cruel!’ He turned towards the house. Some deep, simple way of deciding! He took out a coin, and put it back. If he spun it, he knew he would not abide by what came up! He went into the dining-room, furthest away from that room whence the sounds issued. The doctor had said there was a chance. In here that chance seemed greater; the river did not flow, nor the leaves fall. A fire was burning. Soames unlocked the tantalus. He hardly ever touched spirits, but now — he poured himself out some whisky and drank it neat, craving a faster flow of blood. ‘That fellow Jolyon,’ he thought; ‘he had children already. He has the woman I really loved; and now a son by her! And I— I’m asked to destroy my only child! Annette can’t die; it’s not possible. She’s strong!’

He was still standing sullenly at the sideboard when he heard the doctor’s carriage, and went out to him. He had to wait for him to come downstairs.

“Well, doctor?”

“The situation’s the same. Have you decided?”

“Yes,” said Soames; “don’t operate!”

“Not? You understand — the risk’s great?”

In Soames’ set face nothing moved but the lips.

“You said there was a chance?”

“A chance, yes; not much of one.”

“You say the baby must be born dead if you do?”


“Do you still think that in any case she can’t have another?”

“One can’t be absolutely sure, but it’s most unlikely.”

“She’s strong,” said Soames; “we’ll take the risk.”

The doctor looked at him very gravely. “It’s on your shoulders,” he said; “with my own wife, I couldn’t.”

Soames’ chin jerked up as if someone had hit him.

“Am I of any use up there?” he asked.

“No; keep away.”

“I shall be in my picture-gallery, then; you know where.”

The doctor nodded, and went upstairs.

Soames continued to stand, listening. ‘By this time to-morrow,’ he thought, ‘I may have her death on my hands.’ No! it was unfair — monstrous, to put it that way! Sullenness dropped on him again, and he went up to the gallery. He stood at the window. The wind was in the north; it was cold, clear; very blue sky, heavy ragged white clouds chasing across; the river blue, too, through the screen of goldening trees; the woods all rich with colour, glowing, burnished-an early autumn. If it were his own life, would he be taking that risk? ‘But she’d take the risk of losing me,’ he thought, ‘sooner than lose her child! She doesn’t really love me!’ What could one expect — a girl and French? The one thing really vital to them both, vital to their marriage and their futures, was a child! ‘I’ve been through a lot for this,’ he thought, ‘I’ll hold on — hold on. There’s a chance of keeping both — a chance!’ One kept till things were taken — one naturally kept! He began walking round the gallery. He had made one purchase lately which he knew was a fortune in itself, and he halted before it — a girl with dull gold hair which looked like filaments of metal gazing at a little golden monster she was holding in her hand. Even at this tortured moment he could just feel the extraordinary nature of the bargain he had made — admire the quality of the table, the floor, the chair, the girl’s figure, the absorbed expression on her face, the dull gold filaments of her hair, the bright gold of the little monster. Collecting pictures; growing richer, richer! What use, if. . . .! He turned his back abruptly on the picture, and went to the window. Some of his doves had flown up from their perches round the dovecot, and were stretching their wings in the wind. In the clear sharp sunlight their whiteness almost flashed. They flew far, making a flung-up hieroglyphic against the sky. Annette fed the doves; it was pretty to see her. They took it out of her hand; they knew she was matter-of-fact. A choking sensation came into his throat. She would not — could nod die! She was too — too sensible; and she was strong, really strong, like her mother, in spite of her fair prettiness.

It was already growing dark when at last he opened the door, and stood listening. Not a sound! A milky twilight crept about the stairway and the landings below. He had turned back when a sound caught his ear. Peering down, he saw a black shape moving, and his heart stood still. What was it? Death? The shape of Death coming from her door? No! only a maid without cap or apron. She came to the foot of his flight of stairs and said breathlessly:

“The doctor wants to see you, sir.”

He ran down. She stood flat against the wall to let him pass, and said:

“Oh, Sir! it’s over.”

“Over?” said Soames, with a sort of menace; “what d’you mean?”

“It’s born, sir.”

He dashed up the four steps in front of him, and came suddenly on the doctor in the dim passage. The man was wiping his brow.

“Well?” he said; “quick!”

“Both living; it’s all right, I think.”

Soames stood quite still, covering his eyes.

“I congratulate you,” he heard the doctor say; “it was touch and go.”

Soames let fall the hand which was covering his face.

“Thanks,” he said; “thanks very much. What is it?”

“Daughter — luckily; a son would have killed her — the head.”

A daughter!

“The utmost care of both,” he hearts the doctor say, “and we shall do. When does the mother come?”

“To-night, between nine and ten, I hope.”

“I’ll stay till then. Do you want to see them?”

“Not now,” said Soames; “before you go. I’ll have dinner sent up to you.” And he went downstairs.

Relief unspeakable, and yet — a daughter! It seemed to him unfair. To have taken that risk — to have been through this agony — and what agony! — for a daughter! He stood before the blazing fire of wood logs in the hall, touching it with his toe and trying to readjust himself. ‘My father!’ he thought. A bitter disappointment, no disguising it! One never got all one wanted in this life! And there was no other — at least, if there was, it was no use!

While he was standing there, a telegram was brought him.

“Come up at once, your father sinking fast. — MOTHER.”

He read it with a choking sensation. One would have thought he couldn’t feel anything after these last hours, but he felt this. Half-past seven, a train from Reading at nine, and madame’s train, if she had caught it, came in at eight-forty — he would meet that, and go on. He ordered the carriage, ate some dinner mechanically, and went upstairs. The doctor came out to him.

“They’re sleeping.”

“I won’t go in,” said Soames with relief. “My father’s dying; I have to — go up. Is it all right?”

The doctor’s face expressed a kind of doubting admiration. ‘If they were all as unemotional’ he might have been saying.

“Yes, I think you may go with an easy mind. You’ll be down soon?”

“To-morrow,” said Soames. “Here’s the address.”

The doctor seemed to hover on the verge of sympathy.

“Good-night!” said Soames abruptly, and turned away. He put on his fur coat. Death! It was a chilly business. He smoked a cigarette in the carriage — one of his rare cigarettes. The night was windy and flew on black wings; the carriage lights had to search out the way. His father! That old, old man! A comfortless night — to die!

The London train came in just as he reached the station, and Madame Lamotte, substantial, dark-clothed, very yellow in the lamplight, came towards the exit with a dressing-bag.

“This all you have?” asked Soames.

“But yes; I had not the time. How is my little one?”

“Doing well — both. A girl!”

“A girl! What joy! I had a frightful crossing!”

Her black bulk, solid, unreduced by the frightful crossing, climbed into the brougham.

“And you, mon cher?”

“My father’s dying,” said Soames between his teeth. “I’m going up. Give my love to Annette.”

“Tiens!” murmured Madame Lamotte; “quel malheur!”

Soames took his hat off, and moved towards his train. ‘The French!’ he thought.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54