But more than the death of a dog had caused the regarnishing of Fleur’s Chinese room. On the evening of her twenty-second birth-day Michael had come home saying:
“Well, my child, I’ve chucked publishing. With old Danby always in the right — it isn’t a career.”
“Oh! Michael, you’ll be bored to death.”
“I’ll go into Parliament. It’s quite usual, and about the same screw.”
He had spoken in jest. Six days later it became apparent that she had listened in earnest.
“You were absolutely right, Michael. It’s the very thing for you. You’ve got ideas.”
“And the gift of the gab. We’re frightfully handy for the House, here.”
“It costs money, Fleur.”
“Yes; I’ve spoken to father. It was rather funny — there’s never been a Forsyte, you know, anywhere near Parliament. But he thinks it’ll be good for me; and that it’s all baronets are fit for.”
“One has to have a Seat, unfortunately.”
“Well, I’ve sounded your father, too. He’ll speak to people. They want young men.”
“Ah! And what are my politics?”
“My dear boy, you must know — at thirty.”
“I’m not a Liberal. But am I Labour or Tory?”
“You can think it out before the next election!”
Next day, while he was shaving, and she was in her bath, he cut himself slightly and said:
“The land and this unemployment is what I really care about. I’m a Foggartist.”
“Old Sir James Foggart’s book, that he published after all. You read it.”
“Well, you said so.”
“So did others.”
“Never mind — his eyes are fixed on 1944, and his policy’s according. Safety in the Air, the Land, and Child Emigration; adjustment of Supply and Demand within the Empire; cut our losses in Europe; and endure a worse Present for the sake of a better Future. Everything, in fact, that’s unpopular, and said to be impossible.”
“Well, you could keep all that to yourself till you get in. You’ll have to stand as a Tory.”
“How lovely you look!”
“If you get in, you can disagree with everybody. That’ll give you a position from the start.”
“Some scheme!” murmured Michael.
“You can initiate this — this Foggartism. He isn’t mad, is he?”
“No, only too sane, which is much the same thing, of course. You see we’ve got a higher wage-scale than any other country except America and the Dominions; and it isn’t coming down again; we really group in with the new countries. He’s for growing as much of our food as we can, and pumping British town children, before they’re spoiled, into the Colonies, till Colonial demand for goods equals our supply. It’s no earthly, of course, without whole-hearted co-operation between the Governments within the Empire.”
“It sounds very sensible.”
“We published him, you know, but at his own expense. It’s a ‘faith and the mountain’ stunt. He’s got the faith all right, but the mountain shows no signs of moving up to now.”
Fleur stood up. “Well,” she said, “that’s settled. Your father says he can get you a nomination as a Tory, and you can keep your own views to yourself. You’ll get in on the human touch, Michael.”
“Thank you, ducky. Can I help dry you?” . . .
Before redecorating her Chinese room, however, Fleur had waited till after Michael was comfortably seated for a division which professed to be interested in agriculture. She chose a blend between Adam and Louis Quinze. Michael called it the ‘bimetallic parlour’; and carried off “The White Monkey” to his study. The creature’s pessimism was not, he felt, suited to political life.
Fleur had initiated her ‘salon’ with a gathering in February. The soul of society had passed away since the Liberal debacle and Lady Alison’s politico-legal coterie no longer counted. Plainer people were in the ascendant. Her Wednesday evenings were youthful, with age represented by her father-inlaw, two minor ambassadors, and Pevensey Blythe, editor of The Outpost. So unlike his literary style that he was usually mistaken for a Colonial Prime Minister, Blythe was a tall man with a beard, and grey bloodshot eyes, who expressed knowledge in paragraphs that few could really understand. “What Blythe thinks today, the Conservative Party will not think tomorrow,” was said of him. He spoke in a small voice, and constantly used the impersonal pronoun.
“One is walking in one’s sleep,” he would say of the political situation, “and will wake up without any clothes on.”
A warm supporter of Sir James Foggart’s book, characterising it as “the masterpiece of a blind archangel,” he had a passion for listening to the clavichord, and was invaluable in Fleur’s ‘salon.’
Freed from poetry and modern music, from Sibley Swan, Walter Nazing and Hugo Solstis, Fleur was finding time for her son — the eleventh baronet. He represented for her the reality of things. Michael might have posthumous theories, and Labour predatory hopes, but for her the year 1944 would see the eleventh baronet come of age. That Kit should inherit an England worth living in was of more intrinsic importance than anything they proposed in the Commons and were unable to perform. All those houses they were going to build, for instance — very proper, but a little unnecessary if Kit still had Lippinghall Manor and South Square, Westminster, to dwell in. Not that Fleur voiced such cynical convictions, or admitted them even to herself. She did orthodox lip-service to the great god Progress.
The Peace of the World, Hygiene, Trade, and the End of Unemployment, preoccupied all, irrespective of Party, and Fleur was in the fashion; but instinct, rather than Michael and Sir James Foggart, told her that the time-honoured motto: ‘Eat your cake and have it,’ which underlay the platforms of all Parties, was not ‘too frightfully’ sound. So long as Kit had cake, it was no good bothering too deeply about the rest; though, of course, one must seem to. Fluttering about her ‘salon’— this to that person, and that to the other, and to all so pretty, she charmed by her grace, her common-sense, her pliancy. Not infrequently she attended at the House, and sat, not listening too much to the speeches, yet picking up, as it were, by a sort of seventh sense (if women in Society all had six, surely Fleur had seven) what was necessary to the conduct of that ‘salon’— the rise and fall of the Governmental barometer, the catchwords and cliches of policy; and, more valuable, impressions of personality, of the residuary man within the Member. She watched Michael’s career, with the fostering eye of a godmother who has given her godchild a blue morocco prayer-book, in the hope that some day he may remember its existence. Although a sedulous attendant at the House all through the Spring and summer, Michael had not yet opened his mouth, and so far she had approved of his silence, while nurturing his desire to know his own mind by listening to his wanderings in Foggartism. If it were indeed the only permanent cure for Unemployment, as he said, she too was a Foggartist; common-sense assuring her that the only real danger to Kit’s future lay in that national malady. Eliminate Unemployment, and nobody would have time to make a fuss. But her criticisms were often pertinent:
“My dear boy, does a country ever sacrifice the present for the sake of the future?” or: “Do you really think country life is better than town life?” or: “Can you imagine sending Kit out of England at fourteen to some Godforsaken end of the world?” or: “Do you suppose the towns will have it?” And they roused Michael to such persistence and fluency that she felt he would really catch on in time — like old Sir Giles Snoreham, whom they would soon be making a peer, because he had always worn low-crowned hats and advocated a return to hansom cabs. Hats, buttonholes, an eyeglass — she turned over in her mind all such little realities as help a political career.
“Plain glass doesn’t harm the sight; and it really has a focussing value, Michael.”
“My child, it’s never done my Dad a bit of good; I doubt, if it’s sold three copies of any of his books. No! If I get on, it’ll be by talking.”
But still she encouraged him to keep his mouth shut.
“It’s no good starting wrong, Michael. These Labour people aren’t going to last out the year.”
“Their heads are swelling, and their tempers going. They’re only on sufferance; people on sufferance have got to be pleasant or they won’t be suffered. When they go out, the Tories will get in again and probably last. You’ll have several years to be eccentric in, and by the time they’re out again, you’ll have your licence. Just go on working the human touch in your constituency; I’m sure it’s a mistake to forget you’ve got constituents.”
Michael spent most week-ends that summer working the human touch in mid-Bucks; and Fleur spent most week-ends with the eleventh baronet at her father’s house near Mapledurham.
Since wiping the dust of the city off his feet, after that affair of Elderson and the P. P. R. S., Soames had become almost too countrified for a Forsyte. He had bought the meadows on the far side of the river and several Jersey cows. Not that he was going in for farming or nonsense of that sort, but it gave him an interest to punt himself over and see them milked. He had put up a good deal of glass, too, and was laying down melons. The English melon was superior to any other, and every year’s connection with a French wife made him more and more inclined to eat what he grew himself. After Michael was returned for Parliament, Fleur had sent him Sir James Foggart’s book, “The Parlous State of England.” When it came, he said to Annette:
“I don’t know what she thinks I want with this great thing!”
“To read it, Soames, I suppose.”
Soames sniffed, turning the pages.
“I can’t tell what it’s all about.”
“I will sell it at my bazaar, Soames. It will do for some good man who can read English.”
From that moment Soames began almost unconsciously to read the book. He found it a peculiar affair, which gave most people some good hard knocks. He began to enjoy them, especially the chapter deprecating the workman’s dislike of parting with his children at a reasonable age. Having never been outside Europe, he had a somewhat sketchy idea of places like South Africa, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; but this old fellow Foggart, it appeared, had been there, and knew what he was talking about. What he said about their development seemed quite sensible. Children who went out there put on weight at once, and became owners of property at an age when in England they were still delivering parcels, popping in and out of jobs, hanging about street corners, and qualifying for unemployment and Communism. Get them out of England! There was a startling attraction in the idea for one who was English to a degree. He was in favour, too, of what was said about growing food and making England safe in the air. And then, slowly, he turned against it. The fellow was too much of a Jeremiah altogether. He complained to Fleur that the book dealt with nothing but birds in the bush; it was unpractical. What did ‘Old Mont’ say?
“He won’t read it; he says he knows old Foggart.”
“H’m!” said Soames, “I shouldn’t be surprised if there were something in it, then.” That little-headed baronet was old-fashioned! “Anyway it shows that Michael’s given up those Labour fellows.”
“Michael says Foggartism will be Labour’s policy when they understand all it means.”
“He thinks it’s going to do them much more good than anybody else. He says one or two of their leaders are beginning to smell it out, and that the rest of the leaders are bound to follow in time.”
“In that case,” said Soames, “it’ll never go down with their rank and file.” And for two minutes he sat in a sort of trance. Had he said something profound, or had he not?
Fleur’s presence at week-ends with the eleventh baronet was extremely agreeable to him. Though at first he had felt a sort of disappointment that his grandchild was not a girl — an eleventh baronet belonged too definitely to the Monts — he began, as the months wore on, to find him ‘an engaging little chap,’ and in any case, to have him down at Mapledurham kept him away from Lippinghall. It tried him at times, of course, to see how the women hung about the baby — there was something very excessive about motherhood. He had noticed it with Annette; he noticed it now with Fleur. French — perhaps! He had not remembered his own mother making such a fuss; indeed, he could not remember anything that happened when he was one. A week-end, when Madame Lamotte, Annette and Fleur were all hanging over his grandson, three generations of maternity concentrated on that pudgy morsel, reduced him to a punt, fishing for what he felt sure nobody would eat.
By the time he had finished Sir James Foggart’s book, the disagreeable summer of 1924 was over, and a more disagreeable September had set in. The mellow golden days that glow up out of a haze which stars with dewdrops every cobweb on a gate, simply did not come. It rained, and the river was so unnaturally full, that the newspapers were at first unnaturally empty — there was literally no news of drought; they filled up again slowly with reports of the wettest summer ‘for thirty years.’ Calm, greenish with weed and tree shadow, the river flowed unendingly between Soames’ damp lawn and his damp meadows. There were no mushrooms. Blackberries tasted of rain. Soames made a point of eating one every year, and, by the flavour, could tell what sort of year it had been. There was a good deal of ‘old-man’s-beard.’ In spite of all this, however, he was more cheerful than he had been for ages. Labour had been ‘in,’ if not in real power, for months, and the heavens had only lowered. Forced by Labour-inoffice to take some notice of politics, he would utter prophecies at the breakfast-table. They varied somewhat, according to the news; and, since he always forgot those which did not come true, he was constantly able to tell Annette that he had told her so. She took no interest, however, occupied, like a woman, with her bazaars and jam-making, running about in the car, shopping in London, attending garden-parties; and, in spite of her tendency to put on flesh, still remarkably handsome. Jack Cardigan, his niece Imogen’s husband, had made him a sixty-ninth-birthday present of a set of golf-clubs. This was more puzzling to Soames than anything that had ever happened to him. What on earth was he to do with them? Annette, with that French quickness which so often annoyed him, suggested that he should use them. She was uncomfortable! At his age —! And then, one week-end in May the fellow himself had come down with Imogen, and, teeing a ball up on half a molehill, had driven it across the river.
“I’ll bet you a box of cigars, Uncle Soames, that you don’t do that before we leave on Monday.”
“I never bet,” said Soames, “and I don’t smoke.”
“Time you began both. Look here, we’ll spend tomorrow learning to knock the ball!’
“Absurd!” said Soames.
But in his room that night he had stood in his pyjamas swinging his arms in imitation of Jack Cardigan. The next day he sent the women out in the car with their lunch; he was not going to have them grinning at him. He had seldom spent more annoying hours than those which followed. They culminated in a moment when at last he hit the ball, and it fell into the river three yards from the near bank. He was so stiff next morning in arms and ribs, that Annette had to rub him till he said:
“Look out! you’re taking the skin off!”
He had, however, become infected. After destroying some further portions of his lawn, he joined the nearest Golf Club, and began to go round by himself during the luncheon-hour, accompanied by a little boy. He kept at it with characteristic tenacity, till by July he had attained a certain proficiency; and he began to say to Annette that it would do her all the good in the world to take it up, and keep her weight down.
“Merci, Soames,” she would reply; “I have no wish to be the figure of your English Misses, flat as a board before and behind.” She was reactionary, ‘like her nation’; and Soames, who at heart had a certain sympathy with curves, did not seriously press the point. He found that the exercise jogged both his liver and his temper. He began to have colour in his cheeks. The day after his first nine-hole round with Jack Cardigan, who had given him three strokes a hole and beaten him by nine holes, he received a package which, to his dismay, contained a box of cigars. What the fellow was about, he could not imagine! He only discovered when, one evening a few days later, sitting at the window of his picture gallery, he found that he had one in his mouth. Curiously enough, it did not make him sick. It produced rather something of the feeling he used to enjoy after ‘doing Coue’— now comparatively out of fashion, since an American, so his sister Winifred said, had found a shorter cut. A suspicion, however, that the family had set Jack Cardigan on, prevented him from indulging his new sensation anywhere but in his picture gallery; so that cigars gathered the halo of a secret vice. He renewed his store stealthily. Only when he found that Annette, Fleur, and others had known for weeks, did he relax his rule, and say openly that the vice of the present day was cigarettes.
“My dear boy,” said Winifred, when she next saw him, “everybody’s saying you’re a different man!”
Soames raised his eyebrows. He was not conscious of any change.
“That chap Cardigan,” he said, “is a funny fellow! . . . I’m going to dine and sleep at Fleur’s; they’re just back from Italy. The House sits on Monday.”
“Yes,” said Winifred; “very fussy of them — sitting in the Long Vacation.”
“Ireland!” said Soames, deeply. “A pretty pair of shoes again!” Always had been; always would be!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54