Soames, having prolonged his week-end visit, had been spending the afternoon at the Zoological Gardens, removing his great-nephews, the little Cardigans, from the too close proximity of monkeys and cats. After standing them once more in Imogen’s hall, he had roosted at his Club till, idly turning his evening paper, he had come on this paragraph, in the “Chiff-chaff” column:
“A surprise for the coming Session is being confectioned at the Wednesday gatherings of a young hostess not a hundred miles from Westminster. Her husband, a prospective baronet lately connected with literature, is to be entrusted with the launching in Parliament of a policy which enjoys the peculiar label of Foggartism, derived from Sir James Foggart’s book called “The Parlous State of England.” This amusing alarum is attributed to the somewhat fantastic brain which guides a well-known weekly. We shall see what comes of it. In the meantime the enterprising little lady in question is losing no chance of building up her ‘salon’ on the curiosity which ever surrounds any buccaneering in politics.”
Soames rubbed his eyes; then read it again with rising anger. ‘Enterprising little lady is losing no chance of building up her “salon.”’ Who had written that? He put the paper in his pocket — almost the first theft he had ever committed — and all the way across St. James’s Park in the gathering twilight he brooded on that anonymous paragraph. The allusion seemed to him unmistakable, and malicious into the bargain. ‘Lion-hunter’ would not have been plainer. Unfortunately, in a primary sense ‘lion-hunter’ was a compliment, and Soames doubted whether its secondary sense had ever been ‘laid down’ as libellous. He was still brooding deeply, when the young men ranged alongside.
“Ah!” said Soames. “I want to speak to you. You’ve got a traitor in the camp.” And, without meaning to at all, he looked angrily at Francis Wilmot.
“Now, sir?” said Michael, when they were in his study.
Soames held out the folded paper.
Michael read the paragraph and made a face.
“Whoever wrote that comes to your evenings,” said Soames; “that’s clear. Who is he?”
“Very likely a she.”
“D’you mean to say they print such things by women?”
Michael did not answer. Old Forsyte was behind the times.
“Will they tell me who it is, if I go down to them?” asked Soames.
“How d’you mean ‘fortunately’?”
“Well, sir, the Press is a sensitive plant. I’m afraid you might make it curl up. Besides, it’s always saying nice things that aren’t deserved.”
“But this —” began Soames; he stopped in time, and substituted: “Do you mean that we’ve got to sit down under it?”
“To lie down, I’m afraid.”
“Fleur has an evening tomorrow.”
“I shall stay up for it, and keep my eyes open.”
Michael had a vision of his father-inlaw, like a plainclothes man in the neighbourhood of wedding-presents.
But in spite of assumed levity, Michael had been hit. The knowledge that his adored one had the collector’s habit, and flitted, alluring, among the profitable, had, so far, caused him only indulgent wonder. But now it seemed more than an amusing foible. The swiftness with which she turned her smile off and on as though controlled by a switch under her shingled hair; the quick turns of her neck, so charming and exposed; the clever roving, disguised so well but not quite well enough, of the pretty eyes; the droop and flutter of their white lids; the expressive hands grasping, if one could so call such slim and dainty apprehensions, her career — all this suddenly caused Michael pain. Still she was doing it for him and Kit! French women, they said, co-operated with their husbands in the family career. It was the French blood in her. Or perhaps just idealism, the desire to have and be the best of whatever bunch there was about! Thus Michael, loyally. But his uneasy eyes roved from face to face of the Wednesday gathering, trying to detect signs of quizzicality.
Soames followed another method. His mind, indeed, was uncomplicated by the currents awash in that of one who goes to bed with the object of his criticism. For him there was no reason why Fleur should not know as many aristocrats, Labour members, painters, ambassadors, young fools, and even writing fellows, as might flutter her fancy. The higher up they were, the less likely, he thought with a certain naivete would they be to borrow money or get her into a mess. His daughter was as good or better than any of them, and his deep pride was stung to the quick by the notion that people should think she had to claw and scrape to get them round her. It was not she who was after them, but they who were after her! Standing under the Fragonard which he had given her, grizzled, neatly moustached, close-faced, chinny, with a gaze concentrated on nothing in particular, as of one who has looked over much and found little in it, he might have been one of her ambassadors.
A young woman, with red-gold hair, about an inch long on her de-shingled neck, came and stood with her back to him, beside a soft man, who kept washing his hands. Soames could hear every word of their talk.
“Isn’t the little Mont amusing? Look at her now, with ‘Don Fernando’— you’d think he was her only joy. Ah! There’s young Rashly! Off she goes. She’s a born little snob. But that doesn’t make this a ‘salon,’ as she thinks. To found a ‘salon’ you want personality, and wit, and the ‘don’t care a damn’ spirit. She hasn’t got a scrap. Besides, who is she?”
“Money?” said the soft man.
“Not so very much. Michael’s such dead nuts on her that he’s getting dull; though it’s partly Parliament, of course. Have you heard them talk this Foggartism? All food, children, and the future — the very dregs of dulness.”
“Novelty,” purred the soft man, “is the vice of our age.”
“One resents a nobody like her climbing in on piffle like this Foggartism. Did you read the book?”
“Hardly. Did you?”
“No jolly fear! I’m sorry for Michael. He’s being exploited by that little snob.”
Penned without an outlet, Soames had begun breathing hard. Feeling a draught, perhaps, the young woman turned to encounter a pair of eyes so grey, so cold, in a face so concentrated, that she moved away. “Who was that old buffer?” she asked of the soft man; “he gave me ‘the jim-jams.’”
The soft man thought it might be a poor relation — he didn’t seem to know anybody.
But Soames had already gone across to Michael.
“Who’s that young woman with the red hair?”
“She’s the traitress — turn her out!”
“But we know her quite well — she’s a daughter of Lord Charles Ferrar, and —”
“Turn her out!” said Soames again.
“How do you know that she’s the traitress, sir?”
“I’ve just heard her use the very words of that paragraph, and worse.”
“But she’s our guest.”
“Pretty guest!” growled Soames through his teeth.
“One can’t turn a guest out. Besides, she’s the grand-daughter of a marquess and the pet of the Panjoys — it would make the deuce of a scandal.”
“Make it, then!”
“We won’t ask her again; but really, that’s all one can do.”
“Is it?” said Soames; and walking past his son-inlaw, he went towards the object of his denunciation. Michael followed, much perturbed. He had never yet seen his father-inlaw with his teeth bared. He arrived in time to hear him say in a low but quite audible voice:
“You were good enough, madam, to call my daughter a snob in her own house.”
Michael saw the de-shingled neck turn and rear, the hard blue eyes stare with a sort of outraged impudence; he heard her laugh, then Soames saying:
“You are a traitress; be so kind as to withdraw.”
Of the half-dozen people round, not a soul was missing it! Oh, hell! And he the master of the house! Stepping forward, he put his arm through that of Soames:
“That’ll do, sir,” he said, quietly; “this is not a Peace Conference.”
There was a horrid hush; and in all the group only the soft man’s white hands, washing each other, moved.
Marjorie Ferrar took a step towards the door.
“I don’t know who this person is,” she said; “but he’s a liar.”
“I reckon not.”
At the edge of the little group was a dark young man. His eyes were fixed on Marjorie Ferrar’s, whose eyes in turn were fixed on his.
And, suddenly, Michael saw Fleur, very pale, standing just behind him. She must have heard it all! She smiled, waved her hand, and said:
“Madame Carelli’s going to play.”
Marjorie Ferrar walked on towards the door, and the soft man followed her, still washing those hands, as if trying to rid them of the incident. Soames, like a slow dog making sure, walked after them; Michael walked after him. The words “How amusing!” floated back, and a soft echoing snigger. Slam! Both outer door and incident were closed.
Michael wiped his forehead. One half of the brain behind admired his father-inlaw; the other thought: ‘Well, the old man HAS gone and done it!’ He went back into the drawing-room. Fleur was standing near the clavichord, as if nothing had happened. But Michael could see her fingers crisping at her dress; and his heart felt sore. He waited, quivering, for the last chord.
Soames had gone up-stairs. Before “The White Monkey” in Michael’s study, he reviewed his own conduct. He regretted nothing. Red-headed cat! ‘Born snob!’ ‘Money? Not very much.’ Ha! ‘A nobody like her!’ Grand-daughter of a marquess, was she? Well, he had shown the insolent baggage the door. All that was sturdy in his fibre, all that was acrid in his blood, all that resented patronage and privilege, the inherited spirit of his forefathers, moved within him. Who were the aristocracy, to give themselves airs? Jackanapes! Half of ’em descendants of those who had got what they had by robbery or jobbery! That one of them should call his daughter, HIS daughter, a snob! He wouldn’t lift a finger, wouldn’t cross a road, to meet the Duke of Seven Dials himself! If Fleur liked to amuse herself by having people round her, why shouldn’t she? His blood ran suddenly a little cold. Would she say that he had spoiled her ‘salon’? Well! He couldn’t help it if she did; better to have had the thing out, and got rid of that cat, and know where they all were. ‘I shan’t wait up for her,’ he thought. ‘Storm in a teacup!’
The thin strumming of the clavichord came up to him out on the landing, waiting to climb to his room. He wondered if these evenings woke the baby. A gruff sound at his feet made him jump. That dog lying outside the baby’s door! He wished the little beggar had been down-stairs just now — he would have known how to put his teeth through that red-haired cat’s nude stockings. He passed on up, looking at Francis Wilmot’s door, which was opposite his own.
That young American chap must have overheard something too; but he shouldn’t allude to the matter with him; not dignified. And, shutting his door on the strumming of the clavichord, Soames closed his eyes again as best he could.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08