The state of the world had been getting more and more on Soames’ nerves ever since the general meeting of the P. P. R. S. It had gone off with that fatuity long associated by him with such gatherings — a watertight rigmarole from the chairman; butter from two reliable shareholders; vinegar from shareholders not so reliable; and the usual ‘gup’ over the dividend. He had gone there glum, come away glummer. From a notion once taken into his head Soames parted more slowly than a cheese parts from its mites. Two-sevenths of foreign business, nearly all German! And the mark falling! It had begun to fall from the moment that he decided to support the dividend. And why? What was in the wind? Contrary to his custom, he had taken to sniffing closely the political columns of his paper. The French — he had always mistrusted them, especially since his second marriage — the French were going to play old Harry, if he was not greatly mistaken! Their papers, he noticed, never lost a chance of having a dab at English policy; seemed to think they could always call the tune for England to pipe to! And the mark and the franc, and every other sort of money, falling. And, though in Soames was that which rejoiced in the thought that one of his country’s bits of paper could buy a great quantity of other countries’ bits of paper, there was also that which felt the whole thing silly and unreal, with an ever-growing consciousness that the P. P. R. S. would pay no dividend next year. The P. P. R. S. was a big concern; no dividend would be a sign, no small one, of bad management. Assurance was one of the few things on God’s earth which could and should be conducted without real risk. But for that he would never have gone on the Board. And to find assurance had not been so conducted and that by himself, was — well! He had caused Winifred to sell, anyway, though the shares had already fallen slightly. “I thought it was such a good thing, Soames,” she had said plaintively: “it’s rather a bore, losin’ money on the shares.” He had answered without mercy: “If you don’t sell, you’ll lose more.” And she had done it. If the Rogers and Nicholases who had followed him into it hadn’t sold too — well, it was their look out! He had made Winifred warn them. As for himself, he had nothing but his qualifying shares, and the missing of a dividend or two would not hurt one whose director’s fees more than compensated. It was not, therefore, private uneasiness so much as resentment at a state of things connected with foreigners and the slur on his infallibility.
Christmas had gone off quietly at Mapledurham. He abominated Christmas, and only observed it because his wife was French, and her national festival New Year’s Day. One could not go so far as to observe that, encouraging a foreign notion. But Christmas with no child about — he still remembered the holly and snapdragons of Park Lane in his own childhood — the family parties; and how disgusted he had been if he got anything symbolic — the thimble, or the ring — instead of the shilling. They had never gone in for Santa Claus at Park Lane, partly because they could see through the old gentleman, and partly because he was not at all a late thing. Emily, his mother, had seen to that. Yes; and, by the way, that William Gouldyng, Ingerer, had so stumped those fellows at the Heralds’ College, that Soames had dropped the enquiry — it was just encouraging them to spend his money for a sentimental satisfaction which did not materialise. That narrow-headed chap, ‘Old Mont,’ peacocked about his ancestry; all the more reason for having no ancestry to peacock about. The Forsytes and the Goldings were good English country stock — that was what mattered. And if Fleur and her child, if one came, had French blood in them — well, he couldn’t help it now.
In regard to the coming of a grandchild, Soames knew no more than in October. Fleur had spent Christmas with the Monts; she was promised to him, however, before long, and her mother must ask her a question or two!
The weather was extremely mild; Soames had even been out in a punt fishing. In a heavy coat he trailed a line for perch and dace, and caught now and then a roach — precious little good, the servants wouldn’t eat them, nowadays! His grey eyes would brood over the grey water under the grey sky; and in his mind the mark would fall. It fell with a bump on that eleventh of January when the French went and occupied the Ruhr. He said to Annette at breakfast: “Your country’s cracked! Look at the mark now!”
“What do I care about the mark?” she had answered over her coffee. “I care that they shall not come again into my country. I hope they will suffer a little what we have suffered.”
“You,” said Soames; “you never suffered anything.”
Annette put her hand where Soames sometimes doubted the existence of a heart.
“I suffered here,” she said.
“I didn’t notice it. You never went without butter. What do you suppose Europe’s going to be like now for the next thirty years! How about British trade?”
“We French see before our noses,” said Annette with warmth. “We see that the beaten must be kept the beaten, or he will take revenge. You English are so sloppy.”
“Sloppy, are we?” said Soames. “You’re talking like a child. Could a sloppy people ever have reached our position in the world?”
“That is your selfishness. You are cold and selfish.”
“Cold, selfish and sloppy — they don’t go together. Try again.”
“Your slop is in your thought and your talk; it is your instinct that gives you your success, and your English instinct is cold and selfish, Soames. You are a mixture, all of you, of hypocrisy, stupidity and egoism.”
Soames took some marmalade.
“Well,” he said, “and what are the French? — cynical, avaricious and revengeful. And the Germans are sentimental, heady and brutal. We can all abuse each other. There’s nothing for it but to keep clear. And that’s what you French won’t do.”
Annette’s handsome person stiffened.
“When you are tied to a person, as I am tied to you, Soames, or as we French are tied to the Germans, it is necessary to be top dog, or to be bottom dog.”
Soames stayed his toast.
“Do you suppose yourself top dog in this house?”
“Oh! Then you can go back to France tomorrow.”
Annette’s eyebrows rose quizzically.
“I would wait a little longer, my friend; you are still too young.”
But Soames had already regretted his remark; he did not wish any such disturbance at his time of life, and he said more calmly:
“Compromise is the essence of any reasonable existence between individuals or nations. We can’t have the fat thrown into the fire every few years.”
“That is so English,” murmured Annette. “We others never know what you English will do. You always wait to see which way the cat jumps.”
However deeply sympathetic with such a reasonable characteristic, Soames would have denied it at any ordinary moment — to confess to temporising was not, as it were, done. But, with the mark falling like a cartload of bricks, he was heated to the point of standing by his nature.
“And why shouldn’t we? Rushing into things that you’ll have to rush out of! I don’t want to argue. French and English never did get on, and never will.”
Annette rose. “You speak the truth, my friend. Entente, mais pas cordiale. What are you doing today?”
“Going up to town,” said Soames glumly. “Your precious Government has put business into Queer Street with a vengeance.”
“Do you stay the night?”
“I don’t know.”
“Adieu, then, jusqu’ au revoir!” And she got up.
Soames remained brooding above his marmalade — with the mark falling in his mind — glad to see the last of her handsome figure, having no patience at the moment for French tantrums. An irritable longing to say to somebody “I told you so” possessed him. He would have to wait, however, till he found somebody to say it to.
A beautiful day, quite warm; and, taking his umbrella as an assurance against change, he set out for the station.
In the carriage going up they were talking about the Ruhr. Averse from discussion in public, Soames listened from behind his paper. The general sentiment was surprisingly like his own. In so far as it was unpleasant for the Huns — all right; in so far as it was unpleasant for British trade — all wrong; in so far as love of British trade was active and hate of Huns now passive — more wrong than right. A Francophil remark that the French were justified in making themselves safe at all costs, was coldly received. At Maidenhead a man got in whom Soames connected automatically with disturbance. He had much grey hair, a sanguine face, lively eyes, twisting eyebrows, and within five minutes had asked in a breezy voice whether anyone had heard of the League of Nations. Confirmed in his estimate, Soames looked round the corner of his paper. Yes, that chap would get off on some hobby-horse or other! And there he went! The question — said the newcomer — was not whether the Germans should get one in the eye, the British one in the pocket, or the French one in the heart, but whether the world should get peace and goodwill. Soames lowered his paper. If — this fellow said — they wanted peace, they must sink their individual interests, and think in terms of collective interest. The good of all was the good of one! Soames saw the flaw at once. That might be, but the good of one was not the good of all. He felt that if he did not take care he would be pointing this out. The man was a perfect stranger to him, and no good ever came of argument. Unfortunately his silence amid the general opinion that the League of Nations was ‘no earthly,’ seemed to cause the newcomer to regard him as a sympathiser; the fellow kept on throwing his eyebrows at him! To put up his paper again seemed too pointed, and his position was getting more and more false when the train ran in at Paddington. He hastened to a cab. A voice behind him said:
“Hopeless lot, sir, eh! Glad to see YOU saw my point.”
“Quite!” said Soames. “Taxi!”
“Unless the League of Nations functions, we’re all for Gehenna.”
Soames turned the handle of the cab door.
“Quite!” he said again. “Poultry!” and got in. He was not going to be drawn. The fellow was clearly a firebrand!
In the cab the measure of his disturbance was revealed. He had said ‘Poultry,’ an address that ‘Forsyte, Bustard and Forsyte’ had abandoned two-and-twenty years ago when, merged with ‘Cuthcott, Holliday and Kingson,’ they became ‘Cuthcott, Kingson and Forsyte.’ Rectifying the error, he sat forward, brooding. Fall of the mark! The country was sound about it, yes — but when they failed to pay the next dividend, could they rely on resentment against the French instead of against the directors? Doubtful! The directors ought to have seen it coming! That might be said of the other directors, but not of himself — here was a policy that he personally never would have touched. If only he could discuss the whole thing with some one — but old Gradman would be out of his depth in a matter of this sort. And, on arrival at his office, he gazed with a certain impatience at that changeless old fellow, sitting in his swivel chair.
“Ah! Mr. Soames, I was hopin’ you might come in this morning. There’s a young man been round to see you from the P. P. R. S. Wouldn’t give his business, said he wanted to see you privately. Left his number on the ‘phone.”
“Oh!” said Soames.
“Quite a young feller — in the office.”
“What did he look like?”
“Nice, clean young man. I was quite favourably impressed — name of Butterfield.”
“Well, ring him up, and let him know I’m here.” And going over to the window, he stood looking out on to a perfectly blank wall.
Suited to a sleeping partner, his room was at the back, free from disturbance. Young man! The call was somewhat singular! And he said over his shoulder: “Don’t go when he comes, Gradman, I know nothing of him.”
The world changed, people died off, the mark fell, but Gradman was there — embodiment, faithful and grey, of service and integrity — an anchor.
Gradman’s voice, grating, ingratiating, rose.
“This French news — it’s not nice, Mr. Soames. They’re a hasty lot. I remember your father, Mr. James, coming into the office the morning the Franco-Prussian war was declared — quite in his prime then, hardly more than sixty, I should say. Why, I recall his very words: ‘There,’ he said, ‘I told them so.’ And here they are — at it still. The fact is, they’re cat and dog.”
Soames, who had half turned, resumed his contemplation of a void. Poor old Gradman dated! What would he say when he heard that they had been insuring foreign business? Stimulated by the old-time quality of Gradman’s presence, his mind ranged with sudden freedom. He himself had another twenty years, perhaps. What would he see in that time? Where would old England be at the end of it? ‘In spite of the papers, we’re not such fools as we look,’ he thought. ‘If only we can steer clear of flibberty-gibberting, and pay our way!’
“Mr. Butterfield, sir.” H’m! The young man had been very spry. Covered by Gradman’s bluff and greasy greeting, he “took a lunar,” as his Uncle Roger used to call it. The young fellow, in a neat suit, a turndown collar, with his hat in his hand, was a medium modest-looking chap. Soames nodded.
“You want to see me?”
“Alone, if I might, sir.”
“Mr. Gradman here is my right-hand man.”
Gradman’s voice purred gratingly: “You can state your business. Nothing goes outside these walls, young man.”
“I’m in the office of the P.P.R.S., sir. The fact is, accident has just put some information in my hands, and I’m not easy in my mind. Knowing you to be a solicitor, sir, I preferred to come to you, rather than go to the chairman. As a lawyer, would you tell me: Is my first duty to the Society, being in their employ?”
“Certainly,” said Soames.
“I don’t like this job, sir, and I hope you’ll understand that I’m not here for any personal motive — it’s just because I feel I ought to.”
Soames regarded him steadily. Though large and rather swimming, the young man’s eyes impressed him by their resemblance to a dog’s. “What’s it all about?” he said.
The young man moistened his lips.
“The insurance of our German business, sir.”
Soames pricked his ears, already slightly pointed by Nature.
“It’s a very serious matter,” the young man went on, “and I don’t know how it’ll affect me, but the fact is, this morning I overheard a private conversation.”
“Oh!” said Soames.
“Yes, sir. I quite understand your tone, but the very first words did it. I simply couldn’t make myself known after hearing them. I think you’ll agree, sir.”
“Who were the speakers?”
“The manager, and a man called Smith — I fancy by his accent his name’s a bit more foreign — who’s done most of the agenting for the German business.”
“What were the words?” said Soames.
“Well, sir, the manager was speaking, and then this Smith said: ‘Quite so, Mr. Elderson, but we haven’t paid you a commission on all this business for nothing; if the mark goes absolutely phut, you will have to see that your Society makes it good for us!’”
The intense longing, which at that moment came on Soames to emit a whistle, was checked by sight of Gradman’s face. The old fellow’s mouth had opened in the nest of his grizzly short beard; his eyes stared puglike, he uttered a prolonged: “A-ow!”
“Yes,” said the young man, “it was a knock-out!”
“Where were you?” asked Soames, sharply.
“In the lobby between the manager’s room and the board room. I’d just come from sorting some papers in the boardroom, and the manager’s door was open an inch or so. Of course I know the voices well.”
“I heard Mr. Elderson say, ‘H’ssh! Don’t talk like that!’ and I slipped back into the board room. I’d had more than enough, sir, I assure you.”
Suspicion and surmise clogged Soames’ thinking apparatus. Was this young fellow speaking the truth? A man like Elderson — the risk was monstrous! And, if true, what was the directors’ responsibility? But proof — proof? He stared at the young man, who looked upset and pale enough, but whose eyes did not waver. Shake him if he could! And he said sharply:
“Now mind what you’re saying! This is most serious!”
“I know that, sir. If I’d consulted my own interest, I’d never have come here. I’m not a sneak.”
The words rang true, but Soames did not drop his caution.
“Ever had any trouble in the office?”
“No, sir, you can make enquiry. I’ve nothing against Mr. Elderson, and he’s nothing against me.”
Soames thought suddenly: ‘Good heavens! He’s shifted it on to me, and in the presence of a witness! And I supplied the witness!’
“Have you any reason to suppose,” he said, “that they became aware of your being there?”
“They couldn’t have, I think.”
The implications of this news seemed every second more alarming. It was as if Fate, kept at bay all his life by clever wrist-work, had suddenly slipped a thrust under his guard. No good to get rattled, however — must think it out at leisure!
“Are you prepared, if necessary, to repeat this to the Board?”
The young man pressed his hands together.
“Well, sir, I’d much rather have held my tongue; but if you decide it’s got to be taken up, I suppose I must go through with it now. I’m sure I hope you’ll decide to leave it alone; perhaps it isn’t true — only why didn’t Mr. Elderson say: ‘You ruddy liar!’?”
Exactly! Why didn’t he? Soames gave a grunt of intense discomfort.
“Anything more?” he said.
“Very well. You’ve not told anyone?”
“Then don’t, and leave it to me.”
“I’ll be only too happy to, sir. Good-morning!”
No — very bad morning! No satisfaction whatever in this sudden fulfilment of his prophetic feeling about Elderson. None!
“What d’you think of that young fellow, Gradman? Is he lying?”
Thus summoned, as it were, from stupor, Gradman thoughtfully rubbed a nose both thick and shining.
“It’s one word against another, Mr. Soames, unless you get more evidence. But I can’t see what the young man has to gain by it.”
“Nor I; but you never know. The trouble will be to get more evidence. Can I act without it?”
“It’s delicate,” said Gradman. And Soames knew that he was thrown back on himself. When Gradman said a thing was delicate, it meant that it was the sort of matter on which he was accustomed to wait for orders — presumptuous even to hold opinion! But had he got one? Well, one would never know! The old chap would sit and rub his nose over it till Kingdom Come.
“I shan’t act in a hurry,” he said, almost angrily: “I can’t see to the end of this.”
Every hour confirmed that statement. At lunch the tape of his city club showed the mark still falling — to unheard-of depths! How they could talk of golf, with this business on his mind, he could not imagine!
“I must go and see that fellow,” he said to himself. “I shall be guarded. He may throw some light.” He waited until three o’clock and repaired to the P. P. R. S.
Reaching the office, he sought the Board room. The chairman was there in conference with the manager. Soames sat down quietly to listen; and while he listened he watched that fellow’s face. It told him nothing. What nonsense people talked when they said you could tell character from faces! Only a perfect idiot’s face could be read like that. And here was a man of experience and culture, one who knew every rope of business life and polite society. The hairless, neat features exhibited no more concern than the natural mortification of one whose policy had met with such a nasty knock. The drop of the mark had already wiped out any possible profit on the next half-year. Unless the wretched thing recovered, they would be carrying a practically dead load of German insurance. Really it was criminal that no limit of liability had been fixed! How on earth could he ever have overlooked that when he came on the Board? But he had only known of it afterwards. And who could have foreseen anything so mad as this Ruhr business, or realised the slack confidence of his colleagues in this confounded fellow? The words “gross negligence” appeared ‘close up’ before his eyes. What if an action lay against the Board! Gross negligence! At his age and with his reputation! Why! The thing was plain as a pikestaff; for omitting a limit of liability this chap had got his commission! Ten per cent, probably, on all that business — he must have netted thousands! A man must be in Queer Street indeed to take a risk like that! But conscious that his fancy was running on, Soames rose, and turned his back. The action suggested another. Simulate anger, draw some sign from that fellow’s self-control! He turned again, and said pettishly: “What on earth were you about, Mr. Manager, when you allowed these contracts to go through without limit of liability? A man of your experience! What was your motive?”
A slight narrowing of the eyes, a slight compression of the lips. He had relied on the word ‘motive,’ but the fellow passed it by.
“For such high premiums as we have been getting, Mr. Forsyte, a limited liability was not possible. This is a most outrageous development, and I’m afraid it must be considered just bad luck.”
“Unfortunately,” said Soames, “there’s no such thing as luck in properly regulated assurance, as we shall find, or I’m much mistaken. I shouldn’t be surprised if an action lay against the Board for gross negligence!”
That had got the chairman’s goat! — Got his goat? What expressions they used nowadays! Or did it mean the opposite? One never knew! But as for Elderson — he seemed to Soames to be merely counterfeiting a certain flusteration. Futile to attempt to spring anything out of a chap like that. If the thing were true, the fellow must be entirely desperate, prepared for anything and everything. And since from Soames the desperate side of life — the real holes, the impossible positions which demand a gambler’s throw — had always been carefully barred by the habits of a prudent nature, he found it now impossible to imagine Elderson’s state of mind, or his line of conduct if he were guilty. For all he could tell, the chap might be carrying poison about with him; might be sitting on a revolver like a fellow on the film. The whole thing was too unpleasant, too worrying for words. And without saying any more he went away, taking nothing with him but the knowledge that their total liability on this German business, with the mark valueless, was over two hundred thousand pounds. He hastily reviewed the fortunes of his co-directors. Old Fontenoy was always in low water; the chairman a dark horse; Mont was in land, land right down in value, and mortgaged at that; old Cosey Mothergill had nothing but his name and his director’s fees; Meyricke must have a large income, but light come, light go, like most of those big counsel with irons in many fires and the certainty of a judgeship. Not a really substantial man among the lot, except himself! He ploughed his way along, head down. Public companies! Preposterous system! You had to trust somebody, and there you were! It was appalling!
“Balloons, sir — beautiful colours, five feet circumference. Take one, gentleman!”
“Good gad!” said Soames. As if the pricked bubble of German business were not enough!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54