The face Michael drew began by being Victorine’s, and ended by being Fleur’s. If physically Fleur stood up straight, was she morally as erect? This was the speculation for which he continually called himself a cad. He saw no change in her movements, and loyally refrained from enquiring into the movements he could not see. But his aroused attention made him more and more aware of a certain cynicism, as if she were continually registering the belief that all values were equal and none of much value.
Wilfrid, though still in London, was neither visible nor spoken of. “Out of sight and hearing, out of mind,” seemed to be the motto. It did not work with Michael — Wilfrid was constantly in his mind. If Wilfrid were not seeing Fleur, how could he bear to stay within such tantalising reach of her? If Fleur did not want Wilfrid to stay, why had she not sent him away? He was finding it difficult, too, to conceal from others the fact that Desert and he were no longer pals. Often the impetus to go and have it out with him surged up and was beaten back. Either there was nothing beyond what he already knew, or there was something — and Wilfrid would say there wasn’t. Michael accepted that without cavil; one did not give a woman away! But he wanted to hear no lies from a War comrade. Between Fleur and himself no word had passed; for words, he felt, would add no knowledge, merely imperil a hold weak enough already. Christmas at the ancestral manor of the Monts had been passed in covert-shooting. Fleur had come and stood with him at the last drive on the second day, holding Ting-a-ling on a lead. The Chinese dog had been extraordinarily excited, climbing the air every time a bird fell, and quite unaffected by the noise of guns. Michael, waiting to miss his birds — he was a poor shot — had watched her eager face emerging from grey fur, her form braced back against Ting-a-ling. Shooting was new to her; and under the stimulus of novelty she was always at her best. He had loved even her “Oh, Michaels!” when he missed. She had been the success of the gathering, which meant seeing almost nothing of her except a sleepy head on a pillow; but, at least, down there he had not suffered from lurking uneasiness.
Putting a last touch to the bobbed hair on the blotting paper, he got up. St. Paul’s, that girl had said. He might stroll up and have a squint at Bicket. Something might occur to him. Tightening the belt of his blue overcoat round his waist, he sallied forth, thin and sprightly, with a little ache in his heart.
Walking east, on that bright, cheerful day, nothing struck him so much as the fact that he was alive, well, and in work. So very many were dead, ill, or out of a job. He entered Covent Garden. Amazing place! A human nature which, decade after decade, could put up with Covent Garden was not in danger of extinction from its many ills. A comforting place — one needn’t take anything too seriously after walking through it. On this square island were the vegetables of the earth and the fruits of the world, bounded on the west by publishing, on the cast by opera, on the north and south by rivers of mankind. Among discharging carts and litter of paper, straw and men out of drawing, Michael walked and sniffed. Smell of its own, Covent Garden, earthy and just not rotten! He had never seen — even in the War — any place that so utterly lacked form. Extraordinarily English! Nobody looked as if they had anything to do with the soil — drivers, hangers-on, packers, and the salesmen inside the covered markets, seemed equally devoid of acquaintanceship with sun, wind, water, earth or air — town types all! And — Golly! — how their faces jutted, sloped, sagged and swelled, in every kind of featural disharmony. What was the English type amongst all this infinite variety of disproportion? There just wasn’t one! He came on the fruits, glowing piles, still and bright — foreigners from the land of the sun — globes all the same size and colour. They made Michael’s mouth water. ‘Something in the sun,’ he thought; ‘there really is.’ Look at Italy, at the Arabs, at Australia — the Australians came from England, and see the type now! Nevertheless — a Cockney for good temper! The more regular a person’s form and features, the more selfish they were! Those grape-fruit looked horribly self-satisfied, compared with the potatoes!
He emerged still thinking about the English. Well! They were now one of the plainest and most distorted races of the world; and yet was there any race to compare with them for good temper and for ‘guts’? And they needed those in their smoky towns, and their climate — remarkable instance of adaptation to environment, the modern English character! ‘I could pick out an Englishman anywhere,’ he thought, ‘and yet, physically, there’s no general type now!’ Astounding people! So ugly in the mass, yet growing such flowers of beauty, and such strange sprigs — like that little Mrs. Bicket; so unimaginative in bulk, yet with such a blooming lot of poets! How would old Danby like it, by the way, when Wilfrid took his next volume to some other firm; or rather what should he — Wilfrid’s particular friend! — say to old Danby? Aha! He knew what he should say:
“Yes, sir, but you should have let that poor blighter off who snooped the ‘Copper Coins.’ Desert hasn’t forgotten your refusal.” One for old Danby and his eternal inthe-rightness! ‘Copper Coin’ had done uncommonly well. Its successor would probably do uncommonly better. The book was a proof of what he — Michael — was always saying: The ‘cockyolly-bird period’ was passing. People wanted life again. Sibley, Walter Nazing, Linda — all those who had nothing to say except that they were superior to such as had — were already measured for their coffins. Not that they would know when they were in them; not blooming likely! They would continue to wave their noses and look down them!
‘I’M fed-up with them,’ thought Michael. ‘If only Fleur would see that looking down your nose is a sure sign of inferiority!’ And, suddenly, it came to him that she probably did. Wilfrid was the only one of the whole lot she had ever been thick with; the others were there because — well, because she was Fleur, and had the latest things about her. When, very soon, they were no longer the latest things, she would drop them. But Wilfrid she would not drop. No, he felt sure that she had not dropped, and would not drop Wilfrid.
He looked up. Ludgate Hill! “Near St. Paul’s — sells balloons?” And there — sure enough — the poor beggar was!
Bicket was deflating with a view to going off his stand for a cup of cocoa. Remembering that he had come on him by accident, Michael stood for a moment preparing the tones of surprise. Pity the poor chap couldn’t blow himself into one of those coloured shapes and float over St. Paul’s to Peter. Mournful little cuss he looked, squeezing out the air! Memory tapped sharply on his mind. Balloon — in the square — November the first — joyful night! Special! Fleur! Perhaps they brought luck. He moved and said in an astounded voice: “YOU, Bicket? Is this your stunt now?”
The large eyes of Bicket regarded him over a puce-coloured sixpennyworth.
“Mr. Mont! Often thought I’d like to see you again, sir.”
“Same here, Bicket. If you’re not doing anything, come and have some lunch.”
Bicket completed the globe’s collapse, and, closing his tray-lid, said: “Reelly, sir?”
“Rather! I was just going into a fish place.”
Bicket detached his tray.
“I’ll leave this with the crossing-sweeper.” He did so, and followed at Michael’s side.
“Any money in it, Bicket?”
“Bare livin’, sir.”
“How about this place? We’ll have oysters.”
A little saliva at the corner of Bicket’s mouth was removed by a pale tongue.
At a small table decorated with white oilcloth and a cruet stand, Michael sat down.
“Two dozen oysters, and all that; then two good soles, and a bottle of Chablis. Hurry up, please.”
When the white-aproned fellow had gone about it, Bicket said simply:
“Yes, it’s a funny world, Bicket.”
“It is, and that’s a fact. This lunch’ll cost you a pound, I shouldn’t wonder. If I take twenty-five bob a week, it’s all I do.”
“You touch it there, Bicket. I eat my conscience every day.”
Bicket shook his head.
“No, sir, if you’ve got money, spend it. I would. Be ‘appy if you can — there yn’t too many that are.”
The white-aproned fellow began blessing them with oysters. He brought them fresh-opened, three at a time. Michael bearded them; Bicket swallowed them whole. Presently above twelve empty shells, he said:
“That’s where the Socialists myke their mistyke, sir. Nothing keeps me going but the sight of other people spendin’ money. It’s what we might all come to with a bit of luck. Reduce the world to a level of a pound a dy — and it won’t even run to that, they sy! It’s not good enough, sir. I’d rather ‘ave less with the ‘ope of more. Take awy the gamble, and life’s a frost. Here’s luck!”
“Almost thou persuadest me to be a capitalist, Bicket.”
A glow had come up in the thin and large-eyed face behind the greenish Chablis glass.
“I wish to Gawd I had my wife here, sir. I told you about her and the pneumonia. She’s all right agyne now, only thin. She’s the prize I drew. I don’t want a world where you can’t draw prizes. If it were all bloomin’ conscientious an’ accordin’ to merit, I’d never have got her. See?”
‘Me, too,’ thought Michael, mentally drawing that face again.
“We’ve all got our dreams; mine’s blue butterflies — Central Austrylia. The Socialists won’t ‘elp me to get there. Their ideas of ‘eaven don’t run beyond Europe.”
“Cripes!” said Michael. “Melted butter, Bicket?”
“Thank you, sir.”
Silence was not broken for some time, but the soles were.
“What made you think of balloons, Bicket?”
“You don’t ‘ave to advertise, they do it for you.”
“Saw too much of advertising with us, eh?”
“Well, sir, I did use to read the wrappers. Astonished me, I will sy — the number of gryte books.”
Michael ran his hands through his hair.
“Wrappers! The same young woman being kissed by the same young man with the same clean-cut jaw. But what can you do, Bicket? They WILL HAVE IT. I tried to make a break only this morning — I shall see what comes of it. “‘And I hope YOU won’t!’ he thought: ‘Fancy coming on Fleur outside a novel!’
“I did notice a tendency just before I left,” said Bicket, “to ‘ave cliffs or landskips and two sort of dolls sittin’ on the sand or in the grass lookin’ as if they didn’t know what to do with each other.”
“Yes,” murmured Michael, “we tried that. It was supposed not to be vulgar. But we soon exhausted the public’s capacity. What’ll you have now — cheese?”
“Thank you, sir; I’ve had too much already, but I won’t say ‘No.’”
“Two Stiltons,” said Michael.
“How’s Mr. Desert, sir?”
“Oh! He’s all right.”
Bicket had reddened also.
“I wish — I wish you’d let him know that it was quite a — an accident my pitchin’ on his book. I’ve always regretted it.”
“It’s usually an accident, I think,” said Michael slowly, “when we snoop other people’s goods. We never WANT to.”
Bicket looked up.
“No, sir, I don’t agree. ‘Alf mankind’s predytory — only, I’m not that sort, meself.”
In Michael loyalty tried to stammer “Nor is he.” He handed his cigarette case to Bicket.
“Thank you, sir, I’m sure.”
His eyes were swimming, and Michael thought: ‘Dash it! This is sentimental. Kiss me good-bye and go!’ He beckoned up the white-aproned fellow.
“Give us your address, Bicket. If integuments are any good to you, I might have some spare slops.”
Bicket backed the bill with his address and said, hesitating: “I suppose, sir, Mrs. Mont wouldn’t ‘ave anything to spare. My wife’s about my height.”
“I expect she would. We’ll send them along.” He saw the ‘little snipe’s’ lips quivering, and reached for his overcoat. “If anything blows in, I’ll remember you. Goodbye, Bicket, and good luck.”
Going east, because Bicket was going west, he repeated to himself the maxim: “Pity is tripe — pity is tripe!” Then getting on a ‘bus, he was borne back past St. Paul’s. Cautiously ‘taking a lunar’— as old Forsyte put it — he SAW Bicket inflating a balloon; little was visible of his face or figure behind that rosy circumference. Nearing Blake Street, he developed an invincible repugnance to work, and was carried on to Trafalgar Square. Bicket had stirred him up. The world was sometimes almost unbearably jolly. Bicket, Wilfrid, and the Ruhr!” Feeling is tosh! Pity is tripe!” He descended from his ‘bus, and passed the lions towards Pall Mall. Should he go into ‘Snooks’ and ask for Bart? No use — he would not find Fleur there. That was what he really wanted — to see Fleur in the daytime. But — where? She was everywhere to be found, and that was nowhere.
She was restless. Was that his fault? If he had been Wilfrid — would she be restless? ‘Yes,’ he thought stoutly, ‘Wilfrid’s restless, too.’ They were all restless — all the people he knew. At least all the young ones — in life and in letters. Look at their novels! Hardly one in twenty had any repose, any of that quality which made one turn back to a book as a corner of refuge. They dashed and sputtered and skidded and rushed by like motor cycles — violent, oh! and clever. How tired he was of cleverness! Sometimes he would take a manuscript home to Fleur for her opinion. He remembered her saying once: “This is exactly like life, Michael, it just rushes — it doesn’t dwell on anything long enough to mean anything anywhere. Of course the author didn’t mean it for satire, but if you publish it, I advise you to put: ‘This awful satire on modern life’ outside the cover.” And they had. At least, they had put: “This wonderful satire on modern life.” Fleur WAS like that! She could see the hurry, but, like the author of the wonderful satire, she didn’t know that she herself veered and hurried, or — did she know? Was she conscious of kicking at life, like a flame at air?
He had reached Piccadilly, and suddenly he remembered that he had not called on her aunt for ages. That was a possible draw. He bent his steps towards Green Street.
“Mrs. Dartie at home?”
Michael moved his nostrils. Fleur used — but he could catch no scent, except incense. Winifred burnt joss-sticks when she remembered what a distinguished atmosphere they produced.
“Mr. Mont. My wife’s not here, I suppose?”
“No, sir. Only Mrs. Val Dartie.”
Mrs. Val Dartie! Yes, he remembered, nice woman — but not a substitute for Fleur! Committed, however, he followed the maid.
In the drawing-room Michael found three people, one of them his father-inlaw, who had a grey and brooding aspect, and, from an Empire chair, was staring at blue Australian butterflies’ wings under glass on a round scarlet table. Winifred had jazzed the Empire foundations of her room with a superstructure more suitable to the age. She greeted Michael with fashionable warmth. It was good of him to come when he was so busy with all these young poets. “I thought ‘Copper Coin,’” she said —“what a NICE title! — such an intriguing little book. I do think Mr. Desert is clever! What is he doing now?”
Michael said: “I don’t know,” and dropped on to a settee beside Mrs. Val. Ignorant of the Forsyte family feud, he was unable to appreciate the relief he had brought in with him. Soames said something about the French, got up, and went to the window; Winifred joined him — their voices sounded confidential.
“How is Fleur?” said Michael’s neighbour.
“Thanks, awfully well.”
“Do you like your house?”
“Oh, fearfully. Won’t you come and see it?”
“I don’t know whether Fleur would —?”
“She’s frightfully accessible.”
She seemed to be looking at him with more interest than he deserved, to be trying to make something out from his face, and he added:
“You’re a relation — by blood as well as marriage, aren’t you?”
“Then what’s the skeleton?”
“Oh! nothing. I’ll certainly come. Only — she has so many friends.”
Michael thought: ‘I like this woman!’ “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I came here this afternoon thinking I might find Fleur. I should like her to know you. With all the jazz there is about, she’d appreciate somebody restful.”
“You’ve never lived in London?”
“Not since I was six.”
“I wish she could get a rest — pity there isn’t a d-desert handy.” He had stuttered; the word was not pronounced the same — still! He glanced, disconcerted, at the butterflies. “I’ve just been talking to a little Cockney whose S. O. S. is ‘Central Austrylia.’ But what do you say — Have we got souls to save?”
“I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure — something’s struck me lately.”
“What was that?”
“Well, I notice that any one at all out of proportion, or whose nose is on one side, or whose eyes jut out, or even have a special shining look, always believes in the soul; people who are in proportion, and have no prominent physical features, don’t seem to be really interested.”
Michael’s ears moved.
“By Jove!” he said; “some thought! Fleur’s beautifully proportioned — SHE doesn’t seem to worry. I’m not — and I certainly do. The people in Covent Garden must have lots of soul. You think ‘the soul’s’ the result of loose-gearing in the organism — sort of special consciousness from not working in one piece.”
“Yes, rather like that — what’s called psychic power is, I’m almost sure.”
“I say, is your life safe? According to your theory, though, we’re in a mighty soulful era. I must think over my family. How about yours?”
“The Forsytes! Oh, they’re quite too well-proportioned.”
“I agree, they haven’t any special juts so far as I’ve seen. The French, too, are awfully close-knit. It really is an idea, only, of course, most people see it the other way. They’d say the soul produces the disproportion, makes the eyes shine, bends the nose, and all that; where the soul is small, it’s not trying to get out of the body, whence the barber’s block. I’ll think about it. Thanks for the tip. Well, do come and see us. Good-bye! I don’t think I’ll disturb them in the window. Would you mind saying I had to scoot?” Squeezing a slim, gloved hand, receiving and returning a smiling look, he slid out, thinking: ‘Dash the soul, where’s her body?’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54