With the exception of old Fontenoy — in absence as in presence ornamental — the Board was again full; Soames, conscious of special ingratiation in the manner of ‘that chap’ Elderson, prepared himself for the worst. The figures were before them; a somewhat colourless show, appearing to disclose a state of things which would pass muster, if within the next six months there were no further violent disturbances of currency exchange. The proportion of foreign business to home business was duly expressed in terms of two to seven; German business, which constituted the bulk of the foreign, had been lumped — Soames noted — in the middle section, of countries only half bankrupt, and taken at what might be called a conservative estimate.
During the silence which reigned while each member of the Board digested the figures, Soames perceived more clearly than ever the quandary he was in. Certainly, these figures would hardly justify the foregoing of the dividend earned on the past year’s business. But suppose there were another Continental crash and they became liable on the great bulk of their foreign business, it might swamp all profits on home business next year, and more besides. And then his uneasiness about Elderson himself — founded he could not tell on what, intuitive, perhaps silly.
“Well, Mr. Forsyte,” the chairman was speaking; “there are the figures. Are you satisfied?”
Soames looked up; he had taken a resolution.
“I will agree to this year’s dividend on condition that we drop this foreign business in future, lock, stock and barrel.” The manager’s eyes hard and bright, met his, then turned towards the chairman.
“That appears to savour of the panicky,” he said; “the foreign business is responsible for a good third of our profit this year.”
The chairman seemed to garner the expressions of his fellow-directors, before he said:
“There is nothing in the foreign situation at the moment, Mr. Forsyte, which gives particular cause for alarm. I admit that we should watch it closely —”
“You can’t,” interjected Soames. “Here we are four years from the Armistice, and we know no more where we stand than we did then. If I’d realised our commitment to this policy, I should never have come on the Board. We must drop it.”
“Rather an extreme view. And hardly a matter we can decide in a moment.”
The murmur of assent, the expression, faintly ironical, of ‘that chap’s’ lips, jolted the tenacity in Soames.
“Very well! Unless you’re prepared to tell the shareholders in the report that we are dropping foreign business, you drop me. I must be free to raise the question myself at the general meeting.” He did not miss the shift and blink in the manager’s eyes. That shot had gone home!
The Chairman said:
“You put a pistol to our heads.”
“I am responsible to the shareholders,” said Soames, “and I shall do my duty by them.”
“So we all are, Mr. Forsyte; and I hope we shall all do our duty.”
“Why not confine the foreign business to the small countries — their currency is safe enough?”
‘Old Mont,’ and his precious ‘ring!’
“No,” said Soames, “we must go back to safety.”
“Splendid isolation, Forsyte?”
“Meddling was all very well in the war, but in peace — politics or business — this half-and-half interference is no good. We can’t control the foreign situation.”
He looked around him, and was instantly conscious that with those words he had struck a chord. ‘I’m going through with this!’ he thought.
“I should be glad, Mr. Chairman”— the manager was speaking —“if I might say a word. The policy was of my initiation, and I think I may claim that it has been of substantial benefit to the Society so far. When, however, a member of the Board takes so strong a view against its continuance, I certainly don’t press the Board to continue it. The times ARE uncertain, and a risk, of course, is involved, however conservative our estimates.”
‘Now why?’ thought Soames: ‘What’s he ratting for?’
“That’s very handsome of you, Elderson; Mr. Chairman, I think we may say that is very handsome of our manager.”
Old Dosey Cosey! Handsome! The old woman!
The Chairman’s rather harsh voice broke a silence.
“This is a very serious point of policy. I should have been glad to have Lord Fontenoy present.”
“If I am to endorse the report,” said Soames shortly, “it must be decided today. I have made up my mind. But please yourselves.”
He threw in those last three words from a sort of fellow feeling — it was unpleasant to be dragooned! A moment’s silence, and then discussion assumed that random volubility which softens a decision already forced on one. A quarter of an hour thus passed before the Chairman said:
“We are agreed then, gentlemen, that the report shall contain the announcement that, in view of Continental uncertainty, we are abandoning foreign risks for the present.”
Soames had won. Relieved and puzzled, he walked away alone.
He had shown character; their respect for him had gone up, he could see; their liking for him down, if they’d ever had any — he didn’t know! But why had Elderson veered round? He recalled the shift and blink of the fellow’s steely eyes at the idea of the question being raised at the general meeting.
That had done it! But why? Were the figures faked? Surely not! That would be too difficult, in the face of the accountants. If Soames had faith, it was in chartered accountants. Sandis and Jevon were tip-top people. It couldn’t be that! He glanced up from the pavement. The dome of St. Paul’s was dim already in evening sky — nothing to be had out of it! He felt badly in need of some one to talk to; but there was nobody; and he quickened his pace among the hurrying crowd. His hand, driven deep into his overcoat pocket, came into sudden contact with some foreign sticky substance. ‘Gracious!’ he thought: ‘those things!’ Should he drop them in the gutter? If only there were a child he could take them home to! He must get Annette to speak to Fleur. He knew what came of bad habits from his own experience of long ago. Why shouldn’t he speak to her himself? He was staying the night there! But there came on him a helpless sense of ignorance. These young people! What did they really think and feel? Was old Mont right? Had they given up interest in everything except the moment, abandoned all belief in continuity, and progress? True enough that Europe was in Queer Street. But look at the state of things after the Napoleonic Wars. He couldn’t remember his grandfather ‘Superior Dosset,’ the old chap had died five years before he was born, but he perfectly remembered how Aunt Ann, born in 1799, used to talk about “that dreadful Bonaparte — we used to call him Boney, my dear;” of how her father could get eight or ten per cent. for his money; and of what an impression ‘those Chartists’ had made on Aunts Juley and Hester, and that was long afterwards. Yet, in spite of all that, look at the Victorian era — a golden age, things worth collecting, children worth having! Why not again! Consols had risen almost continuously since Timothy died. Even if Heaven and Hell had gone, they couldn’t be the reason; none of his uncles had believed in either, and yet had all made fortunes, and all had families, except Timothy and Swithin. No! It couldn’t be the want of Heaven and Hell! What, then, was the reason of the change — if change there really were? And suddenly it was revealed to Soames. They talked too much — too much and too fast! They got to the end of interest in this and that and the other. They ate life and threw away the rind, and — and —. By the way, he must buy that picture of George’s! . . . Had these young folk more mind than his own generation? And if so — why? Was it diet? That lobster cocktail Fleur had given him the Sunday before last. He had eaten the thing — very nasty! But it hadn’t made him want to talk. No! He didn’t think it could be diet. Besides — Mind! Where were the minds now that equalled the Victorians — Darwin, Huxley, Dickens, Disraeli, even old Gladstone? Why, he remembered judges and advocates who seemed giants compared with those of the present day, just as he remembered that the judges of James his father’s youth had seemed giants to James compared with those of Soames’ prime. According to that, mind was steadily declining. It must be something else. There was a thing they called psycho-analysis, which so far as he could understand attributed people’s action not to what they ate at breakfast, or the leg they got out of bed with, as in the good old days, but to some shock they had received in the remote past and entirely forgotten. The subconscious mind! Fads! Fads and microbes! The fact was this generation had no digestion. His father and his uncles had all complained of liver, but they had never had anything the matter with them — no need of any of these vitamins, false teeth, mental healing, newspapers, psycho-analysis, spiritualism, birth control, osteopathy, broadcasting, and what not. ‘Machines!’ thought Soames. ‘That’s it — I shouldn’t wonder!’ How could you believe in anything when everything was going round so fast? When you couldn’t count your chickens — they ran about so? But Fleur had got a good little head on her! ‘Yes,’ he mused, ‘and French teeth, she can digest anything. Two years! I’ll speak to her before she gets the habit confirmed. Her mother was quick enough about it!’ And perceiving the Connoisseurs’ Club in front of him, he went in.
The hall porter came out of his box. A gentleman was waiting.
“What gentleman?” said Soames, sidelong.
“I think he’s your nephew, sir, Mr. Dartie.”
“Val Dartie! H’m! Where?”
“In the little room, sir.”
The little room — all the accommodation considered worthy of such as were not Connoisseurs — was at the end of a passage, and in no taste at all, as if the Club were saying: “See what it is not to be one of us!” Soames entered it, and saw Val Dartie smoking a cigarette and gazing with absorption at the only object of interest, his own reflection in the glass above the fire.
He never saw his nephew without wondering when he would say: “Look here, Uncle Soames, I’m up a stump.” Breeding race horses! There could only be one end to that!
“Well?” he said, “how are YOU?”
The face in the glass turned round, and became the back of a clipped sandyish head.
“Oh! bobbish, thanks! YOU look all right, Uncle Soames. I just wanted to ask you: Must I take these screws of old George Forsyte’s? They’re dashed bad.”
“Gift horse in the mouth?” said Soames.
“Well,” said Val, “but they’re SO dashed bad; by the time I’ve paid legacy duty, boxed them to a sale, and sold them, there won’t be a sixpence. One of them falls down when you look at it. And the other two are broken-winded. The poor old boy kept them, because he couldn’t get rid of them. They’re about five hundred years old.”
“Thought you were fond of horses,” said Soames. “Can’t you turn them out?”
“Yes,” said Val, drily; “but I’ve got my living to make. I haven’t told my wife, for fear she should suggest that. I’m afraid I might see them in my dreams if I sold them. They’re only fit for the kennels. Can I write to the executors and say I’m not rich enough to take them?”
“You can,” said Soames, and the words: “How’s your wife?” died unspoken on his lips. She was the daughter of his enemy, young Jolyon. That fellow was dead, but the fact remained.
“I will, then,” said Val. “How did his funeral go off?”
“Very simple affair — I had nothing to do with it.” The days of funerals were over. No flowers, no horses, no plumes — a motor hearse, a couple of cars or so, was all the attention paid nowadays to the dead. Another sign of the times!
“I’m staying the night at Green Street,” said Val. “I suppose you’re not there, are you?”
“No,” said Soames, and did not miss the relief in his nephew’s countenance.
“Oh! by the way, Uncle Soames — do you advise me to buy P.P.R.S. shares?”
“On the contrary. I’m going to advise your mother to sell. Tell her I’m coming in tomorrow.”
“Why? I thought —”
“Never mind my reasons!” said Soames shortly.
“So long, then!”
Exchanging a chilly hand-shake, he watched his nephew withdraw.
So long! An expression, old as the Boer war, that he had never got used to — meant nothing so far as he could see! He entered the reading-room. A number of Connoisseurs were sitting and standing about, and Soames, least clubbable of men, sought the solitude of an embrasured window. He sat there polishing the nail of one forefinger against the back of the other, and chewing the cud of life. After all, what was the point of anything. There was George! He had had an easy life — never done any work! And here was himself, who had done a lot of work! And sooner or later they would bury him too, with a motor hearse probably! And there was his son-inlaw, young Mont, full of talk about goodness knew what — and that thin-cheeked chap who had sold him the balloons this afternoon. And old Fontenoy, and that waiter over there; and the out-of-works and the inworks; and those chaps in Parliament, and the parsons in their pulpits — what were they all for? There was the old gardener down at Mapledurham pushing his roller over and over the lawn, week after week, and if he didn’t, what would the lawn be like? That was life — gardener rolling lawn! Put it that there was another life — he didn’t believe it, but for the sake of argument — that life must be just the same. Rolling lawn — to keep it lawn! What point in lawn? Conscious of pessimism, he rose. He had better be getting back to Fleur’s — they dressed for dinner! He supposed there was something in dressing for dinner, but it was like lawn — you came unrolled — undressed again, and so it went on! Over and over and over to keep up to a pitch, that was — ah! what WAS the pitch for?
Turning into South Square, he cannoned into a young man, whose head was craned back as if looking after some one he had parted from. Uncertain whether to apologise or to wait for an apology, Soames stood still.
The young man said abruptly: “Sorry, sir,” and moved on; dark, neat-looking chap with a hungry look obviously unconnected with his stomach. Murmuring: “Not at all!” Soames moved forward and rang his daughter’s bell. She opened to him herself. She was in hat and furs — just in. The young man recurred to Soames. Had he left her there? What a pretty face it was! He should certainly speak to her. If she once took to gadding about!
He put it off, however, till he was about to say “Goodnight”— Michael having gone to the political meeting of a Labour candidate, as if he couldn’t find something better to do!
“Now you’ve been married two years, my child, I suppose you’ll be looking towards the future. There’s a great deal of nonsense talked about children. The whole thing’s much simpler. I hope you feel that.”
Flour was leaning back among the cushions of the settee, swinging her foot. Her eyes became a little restless, but her colour did not change.
“Of course!” she said; “only there’s no hurry, Dad.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Soames murmured. “The French and the royal family have a very sound habit of getting it over early. There’s many a slip and it keeps them out of mischief. You’re very attractive, my child — I don’t want to see you take too much to gad-about ways. You’ve got all sorts of friends.”
“Yes,” said Fleur.
“You get on well with Michael, don’t you?”
“Well, then, why not? You must remember that your son will be a what-you-call-it.”
In those words he compromised with his instinctive dislike of titles and flummery of that nature.
“It mightn’t be a son,” said Fleur.
“At your age that’s easily remedied.”
“Oh, I don’t want a lot, Dad. One, perhaps, or two.”
“Well,” said Soames, “I should almost prefer a daughter, something like — well, something like you.”
Her softened eyes flew, restive, from his face to her foot, to the dog, all over the room.
“I don’t know, it’s a tie — like digging your own grave in a way.”
“I shouldn’t put it as high as that,” murmured Soames, persuasively.
“No man would, Dad.”
“Your mother wouldn’t have got on at all without you,” and recollection of how near her mother had been to not getting on at all with her — of how, but for him, she would have made a mess of it, reduced him to silent contemplation of the restive foot.
“Well,” he said, at last, “I thought I’d mention it. I— I’ve got your happiness at heart.”
Fleur rose and kissed his forehead.
“I know, Dad,” she said: “I’m a selfish pig. I’ll think about it. In fact, I— I have thought about it.”
“That’s right,” said Soames; “that’s right! You’ve a good head on you — it’s a great consolation to me. Goodnight, my dear!”
And he went up to his bed. If there was point in anything, it was in perpetuation of oneself, though, of course, that begged the question. ‘Wonder,’ he thought, ‘if I ought to have asked her whether that young man —!’ But young people were best left alone. The fact was, he didn’t understand them. His eye lighted on the paper bag containing those — those things he had bought. He had brought them up from his overcoat to get rid of them — but how? Put into the fire, they would make a smell. He stood at his dressing-table, took one up and looked at it. Good Lord! And, suddenly, rubbing the mouthpiece with his handkerchief, he began to blow the thing up. He blew until his cheeks were tired, and then, nipping the aperture, took a bit of the dental cotton he used on his teeth every night and tied it up. There the thing was! With a pettish gesture he batted the balloon. Off it flew — purple and extravagant, alighting on his bed. H’m! He took up the other, and did the same to it. Purple and green! The deuce! If any one came in and saw! He threw up the window, batted them, balloon after balloon, into the night, and shut the window down. There they’d be in the dark, floating about. His lips contracted in a nervous grin. People would see them in the morning. Well! What else could you do with things like that?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54