The White Monkey, by John Galsworthy

Chapter X

Passing of a Sportsman

Soames, disappointed of his daughter, said: “I’ll wait,” and took his seat in the centre of the jade green settee, oblivious of Ting-a-ling before the fire, sleeping off the attentions of Amabel Nazing, who had found him ‘just too cunning.’ Grey and composed, with one knee over the other, and a line between his eyes, he thought of Elderson and the condition of the world, and of how there was always something. And the more he thought, the more he wondered why he had ever been such a flat as to go on to a Board which had anything to do with foreign contracts. All the old wisdom that in the nineteenth century had consolidated British wealth, all the Forsyte philosophy of attending to one’s own business, and taking no risks, the close-fibred national individualism which refused to commit the country to chasing this wild goose or that, held within him silent demonstration. Britain was on the wrong tack politically to try and influence the Continent, and the P.P.R.S. on the wrong tack monetarily to insure business outside Britain. The special instinct of his breed yearned for resumption of the straight and private path. Never meddle with what you couldn’t control! ‘Old Mont’ had said: “Keep the ring!” Nothing of the sort: Mind one’s own business! That was the real ‘formula.’ He became conscious of his calf — Ting-a-ling was sniffing at his trousers.

“Oh!” said Soames. “It’s you!”

Placing his forepaws against the settee, Ting-a-ling licked the air.

“Pick you up?” said Soames. “You’re too long.” And again he felt that faint warmth of being liked.

‘There’s something about me that appeals to him,’ he thought, taking him by the scruff and lifting him on to a cushion. “You and I,” the little dog seemed saying with his stare — Chinese little object! The Chinese knew what they were about, they had minded their own business for five thousand years!

‘I shall resign,’ thought Soames. But what about Winifred, and Imogen, and some of the Rogers and Nicholases who had been putting money into this thing because he was a director? He wished they wouldn’t follow him like a lot of sheep! He rose from the settee. It was no good waiting, he would walk on to Green Street and talk to Winifred at once. She would have to sell again, though the shares had dropped a bit. And without taking leave of Ting-a-ling, he went out.

All this last year he had almost enjoyed life. Having somewhere to come and sit and receive a certain sympathy once at least a week, as in old days at Timothy’s, was of incalculable advantage to his spirit. In going from home Fleur had taken most of his heart with her; but Soames had found it almost an advantage to visit his heart once a week rather than to have it always about. There were other reasons conducing to light-heartedness. That diabolical foreign chap, Prosper Profond, had long been gone he didn’t know where, and his wife had been decidedly less restive and sarcastic ever since. She had taken up a thing they called Coue, and grown stouter. She used the car a great deal. Altogether she was more domestic. Then, too, he had become reconciled to Gauguin — a little slump in that painter had convinced him that he was still worth attention, and he had bought three more. Gauguin would rise again! Soames almost regretted his intuition of that second coming, for he had quite taken to the chap. His colour, once you got used to it, was very attractive. One picture, especially, which meant nothing so far as he could see, had a way of making you keep your eyes on it. He even felt uneasy when he thought of having to part with the thing at an enhanced price. But, most of all, he had been feeling so well, enjoying a recrudescence of youth in regard to Annette, taking more pleasure in what he ate, while his mind dwelt almost complacently on the state of money. The pound going up in value; Labour quiet! And now they had got rid of that Jack-o’-lantern, they might look for some years of solid Conservative administration. And to think, as he did, stepping across St. James’ Park towards Green Street, that he had gone and put his foot into a concern which he could not control, made him feel — well, as if the devil had been in it!

In Piccadilly he moused along on the Park side, taking his customary look up at the ‘Iseeum’ Club. The curtains were drawn, and chinks of light glowed, long and cosy. And that reminded him — some one had said George Forsyte was ill. Certainly he had not seen him in the bay window for months past. Well, George had always eaten and drunk too much. He crossed over and passed beneath the Club; and a sudden feeling — he didn’t know what — a longing for his own past, a sort of nostalgia — made him stop and mount the steps.

“Mr. George Forsyte in the Club?”

The janitor stared, a grey-haired, long-faced chap, whom he had known from away back in the ‘eighties.

“Mr. Forsyte, sir,” he said, “is very ill indeed. They say he won’t recover, sir.”

“What?” said Soames. “Nobody told me that.”

“He’s very bad — VERY bad indeed. It’s the heart.”

“The heart! Where is he?”

“At his rooms, sir; just round the corner. They say the doctors have given him up. He WILL be missed here. Forty years I’ve known him. One of the old school, and a wonderful judge of wine and horses. We none of us last for ever, they say, but I never thought to see HIM out. Bit too full-blooded, sir, and that’s a fact.”

With a slight shock Soames realised that he had never known where George lived, so utterly anchored had he seemed to that bay window above.

“Just give me the number of his rooms,” he said.

“Belville Row — No. 11, sir; I’m sure I hope you’ll find him better. I shall miss his jokes — I shall, indeed.”

Turning the corner into Belville Row, Soames made a rapid calculation. George was sixty-six, only one year younger than himself! If George was really in extremis it would be quite unnatural! ‘Comes of not leading a careful life,’ he thought; ‘always rackety — George! When was it I made his will?’ So far as he remembered, George had left his money to his brothers and sisters — no one else to leave it to. The feeling of kinship stirred in Soames, the instinct of family adjustment. George and he had never got on — opposite poles of temperament — still he would have to be buried, and who would see to it if not Soames, who had seen to so many Forsyte burials in his time? He recalled the nickname George had once given him, ‘the undertaker!’ H’m! Here was poetical justice! Belville Row! Ah! No. 11 — regular bachelor-looking place! And putting his hand up to the bell, he thought: ‘Women!’ What had George done about women all his life?

His ring was answered by a man in a black cut-away coat with a certain speechless reticence.

“My cousin, Mr. George Forsyte? How is he?”

The man compressed his lips.

“Not expected to last the night, sir.”

Soames felt a little clutch beneath his Jaeger vest.

“Conscious?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Could you show him my card? He might possibly like to see me.”

“Will you wait in here, sir?” Soames passed into a low room panelled up to the level of a man’s chest, and above that line decorated with prints. George — a collector! Soames had never supposed he had it in him! On those walls, wherever the eye roved, were prints coloured and uncoloured, old and new, depicting the sports of racing and prize-fighting! Hardly an inch of the red wall space visible! About to examine them for marks of value, Soames saw that he was not alone. A woman — age uncertain in the shaded light — was sitting in a very high-backed chair before the fire with her elbow on the arm of it, and a handkerchief held to her face. Soames looked at her, and his nostrils moved in a stealthy sniff. ‘Not a lady,’ he thought. ‘Ten to one but there’ll be complications.’ The muffled voice of the cut-away man said:

“I’m to take you in, sir.” Soames passed his hand over his face and followed.

The bedroom he now entered was in curious contrast. The whole of one wall was occupied by an immense piece of furniture, all cupboards and drawers. Otherwise there was nothing in the room but a dressing-table with silver accoutrements, an electric radiator alight in the fireplace, and a bed opposite. Over the fireplace was a single picture, at which Soames glanced mechanically. What! Chinese! A large whitish sidelong monkey, holding the rind of a squeezed fruit in its outstretched paw. Its whiskered face looked back at him with brown, almost human eyes. What on earth had made his inartistic cousin buy a thing like that and put it up to face his bed? He turned and looked at the bed’s occupant. “The only sportsman of the lot,” as Montague Dartie in his prime had called him, lay with his swollen form outlined beneath a thin quilt. It gave Soames quite a turn to see that familiar beef-coloured face pale and puffy as a moon, with dark corrugated circles round eyes which still had their japing stare. A voice, hoarse and subdued, but with the old Forsyte timbre, said:

“Hallo, Soames! Come to measure me for my coffin?”

Soames put the suggestion away with a movement of his hand; he felt queer looking at that travesty of George. They had never got on, but —!

And in his flat, unemotional voice he said:

“Well, George! You’ll pick up yet. You’re no age. Is there anything I can do for you?”

A grin twitched George’s pallid lips.

“Make me a codicil. You’ll find paper in the dressing table drawer.”

Soames took out a sheet of ‘Iseeum’ Club notepaper. Standing at the table, he inscribed the opening words of a codicil with his stylographic pen, and looked round at George. The words came with a hoarse relish.

“My three screws to young Val Dartie, because he’s the only Forsyte that knows a horse from a donkey.” A throaty chuckle sounded ghastly in the ears of Soames. “What have you said?”

Soames read: “I hereby leave my three racehorses to my kinsman, Valerius Dartie, of Wansdon, Sussex, because he has special knowledge of horses.”

Again the throaty chuckle. “You’re a dry file, Soames. Go on. To Milly Moyle, of 12, Claremont Grove, twelve thousand pounds, free of legacy duty.”

Soames paused on the verge of a whistle.

The woman in the next room!

The japing in George’s eyes had turned to brooding gloom.

“It’s a lot of money,” Soames could not help saying.

George made a faint choleric sound.

“Write it down, or I’ll leave her the lot.”

Soames wrote. “Is that all?”

“Yes. Read it!”

Soames read. Again he heard that throaty chuckle. “That’s a pill. You won’t let THAT into the papers. Get that chap in, and you and he can witness.”

Before Soames reached the door, it was opened and the man himself came in.

“The — er — vicar, sir,” he said in a deprecating voice, “has called. He wants to know if you would like to see him.”

George turned his face, his fleshy grey eyes rolled.

“Give him my compliments,” he said, “and say I’ll see him at the funeral.”

With a bow the man went out, and there was silence.

“Now,” said George, “get him in again. I don’t know when the flag’ll fall.”

Soames beckoned the man in. When the codicil was signed and the man gone, George spoke:

“Take it, and see she gets it. I can trust you, that’s one thing about you, Soames.”

Soames pocketed the codicil with a very queer sensation.

“Would you like to see her again?” he said.

George stared up at him a long time before he answered.

“No. What’s the good? Give me a cigar from that drawer.”

Soames opened the drawer.

“Ought you?” he said.

George grinned. “Never in my life done what I ought; not going to begin now. Cut it for me.”

Soames nipped the end of the cigar. ‘Shan’t give him a match,’ he thought. ‘Can’t take the responsibility.’ But George did not ask for a match. He lay quite still, the unlighted cigar between his pale lips, the curved lids down over his eyes.

“Good-bye,” he said, “I’m going to have a snooze.”

“Good-bye,” said Soames. “I— I hope — you — you’ll soon —”

George reopened his eyes — fixed, sad, jesting, they seemed to quench the shams of hope and consolation. Soames turned hastily and went out. He felt bad, and almost unconsciously turned again into the sitting-room. The woman was still in the same attitude; the same florid scent was in the air. Soames took up the umbrella he had left there, and went out.

“This is my telephone number,” he said to the servant waiting in the corridor; “let me know.”

The man bowed.

Soames turned out of Belville Row. Never had he left George’s presence without the sense of being laughed at. Had he been laughed at now? Was that codicil George’s last joke? If he had not gone in this afternoon, would George ever have made it, leaving a third of his property away from his family to that florid woman in the high-backed chair? Soames was beset by a sense of mystery. How could a man joke at death’s door? It was, in a way, heroic. Where would he be buried? Somebody would know — Francie or Eustace. And what would they think when they came to know about that woman in the chair — twelve thousand pounds! ‘If I can get hold of that white monkey, I will,’ he thought suddenly. ‘It’s a good thing.’ The monkey’s eyes, the squeezed-out fruit — was life all a bitter jest and George deeper than himself? He rang the Green Street bell.

Mrs. Dartie was very sorry, but Mrs. Cardigan had called for her to dine and make a fourth at the play.

Soames went in to dinner alone. At the polished board below which Montague Dartie had now and again slipped, if not quite slept, he dined and brooded. “I can trust you, that’s one thing about you, Soames.” The words flattered and yet stung him. The depths of that sardonic joke! To give him a family shock and trust him to carry the shock out! George had never cared twelve thousand pounds for a woman who smelled of patchouli. No! It was a final gibe at his family, the Forsytes, at Soames himself! Well! one by one those who had injured or gibed at him — Irene, Bosinney, old and young Jolyon, and now George, had met their fates. Dead, dying, or in British Columbia! He saw again his cousin’s eyes above that unlighted cigar, fixed, sad, jesting — poor devil! He got up from the table, and nervously drew aside the curtains. The night was fine and cold. What happened to one — after? George used to say that he had been Charles the Second’s cook in a former existence! But reincarnation was all nonsense, weak-minded theorising! Still, one would be glad to hold on if one could, after one was gone. Hold on, and be near Fleur! What noise was that? Gramophone going in the kitchen! When the cat was away, the mice —! People were all alike — take what they could get, and give as little as they could for it. Well! he would smoke a cigarette. Lighting it at a candle — Winifred dined by candle-light, it was the ‘mode’ again — he thought: ‘Has he still got that cigar between his teeth?’ A funny fellow, George — all his days a funny fellow! He watched a ring of smoke he had made without intending to — very blue, he never inhaled! Yes! George had lived too fast, or he would not have been dying twenty years before his lime — too fast! Well, there it was, and he wished he had a cat to talk to! He took a little monster off the mantelboard. Picked up by his nephew Benedict in an Eastern bazaar the year after the War, it had green eyes —‘Not emeralds,’ thought Soames, ‘some cheap stone!’

“The telephone for you, sir.”

He went into the hall and took up the receiver.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Forsyte has passed away, sir — in his sleep, the doctor says.”

“Oh!” said Soames: “Had he a cig —? Many thanks.” He hung up the receiver.

Passed away! And, with a nervous movement, he felt for the codicil in his breast pocket.

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