After his Green Street quest Michael had wavered back down Piccadilly, and, obeying one of those impulses which make people hang around the centres of disturbance, on to Cork Street. He stood for a minute at the mouth of Wilfrid’s backwater.
‘No,’ he thought, at last, ‘ten to one he isn’t in; and if he is, twenty to one that I get any change except bad change!’
He was moving slowly on to Bond Street, when a little light lady, coming from the backwater, and reading as she went, ran into him from behind.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going! Oh! You? Aren’t you the young man who married Fleur Forsyte? I’m her cousin, June. I thought I saw her just now.” She waved a hand which held a catalogue with a gesture like the flirt of a bird’s wing. “Opposite my gallery. She went into a house, or I should have spoken to her — I’d like to have seen her again.”
Into a house! Michael dived for his cigarette-case. Hard-grasping it, he looked up. The little lady’s blue eyes were sweeping from side to side of his face with a searching candour.
“Are you happy together?” she said.
A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. A sense of general derangement afflicted him — hers, and his own.
“I beg your pardon?” he gasped.
“I hope you are. She ought to have married my little brother — but I hope you are. She’s a pretty child.”
In the midst of a dull sense of stunning blows, it staggered him that she seemed quite unconscious of inflicting them. He heard his teeth gritting, and said dully: “Your little brother, who was he?”
“What! Jon — didn’t you know Jon? He was too young, of course, and so was she. But they were head over — the family feud stopped that. Well! it’s all past. I was at your wedding. I hope you’re happy. Have you seen the Claud Brains show at my gallery? He’s a genius. I was going to have a bun in here; will you join me? You ought to know his work.”
She had paused at the door of a confectioner’s. Michael put his hand on his chest.
“Thank you,” he said, “I have just had a bun — two, in fact. Excuse me!”
The little lady grasped his other hand.
“Well, good-bye, young man! Glad to have met you. You’re not a beauty, but I like your face. Remember me to that child. You should go and see Claud Brains. He’s a real genius.”
Stock-still before the door, he watched her turn and enter, with a scattered motion, as of flying, and a disturbance among those seated in the pastry-cook’s. Then he moved on, the cigarette unlighted in his mouth, dazed, as a boxer from a blow which knocks him sideways, and another which knocks him straight again.
Fleur visiting Wilfrid — at this moment in his rooms up there — in his arms, perhaps! He groaned. A well-fed young man in a new hat skipped at the sound. Never! He could never stick that! He would have to clear out! He had believed Fleur honest! A double life! The night before last she had smiled on him. Oh! God! He dashed across into Green Park. Why hadn’t he stood still and let something go over him? And that lunatic’s little brother — John — family feud? Himself — a pis aller, then — taken without love at all — a makeshift! He remembered now her saying one night at Mapledurham: “Come again when I know I can’t get my wish.” So that was the wish she couldn’t get! A makeshift! ‘Jolly,’ he thought: ‘Oh! jolly!’ No wonder, then! What could she care? One man or another! Poor little devil! She had never let him know — never breathed a word! Was that decent of her — or was it treachery? ‘No,’ he thought, ‘if she HAD told me, it wouldn’t have made any difference — I’d have taken her at any price. It was decent of her not to tell me.’ But how was it he hadn’t heard from some one? Family feud? The Forsytes! Except ‘Old Forsyte,’ he never saw them; and ‘Old Forsyte’ was closer than a fish. Well! he had got what-for! And again he groaned, in the twilight spaces of the Park. Buckingham Palace loomed up unlighted, huge and dreary. Conscious of his cigarette at last, he stopped to strike a match, and drew the smoke deep into his lungs with the first faint sense of comfort.
“You couldn’t spare us a cigarette, Mister?”
A shadowy figure with a decent sad face stood beside the statue of Australia, so depressingly abundant!
“Of course!” said Michael; “take the lot.” He emptied the case into the man’s hand. “Take the case too —‘present from Westminster’— you’ll get thirty bob for it. Good luck!” He hurried on. A faint: “Hi, Mister!” pursued him unavailingly. Pity was pulp! Sentiment was bilge! Was he going home to wait till Fleur had — finished and come back? Not he! He turned towards Chelsea, batting along as hard as he could stride. Lighted shops, gloomy great Eaton Square, Chester Square, Sloane Square, the King’s Road — along, along! Worse than the trenches — far worse — this whipped and scorpioned sexual jealousy! Yes, and he would have felt even worse, but for that second blow. It made it less painful to know that Fleur had been in love with that cousin, and Wilfrid, too, perhaps, nothing to her. Poor little wretch! ‘Well, what’s the game now?’ he thought. The game of life — in bad weather, in stress? What was it? In the war — what had a fellow done? Somehow managed to feel himself not so dashed important; reached a condition of acquiescence, fatalism, “Who dies if England live” sort of sob-stuff state. The game of life? Was it different? “Bloody but unbowed” might be tripe; still — get up when you were knocked down! The whole was big, oneself was little! Passion, jealousy, ought they properly to destroy one’s sportsmanship, as Nazing and Sibley and Linda Frewe would have it? Was the word ‘gentleman’ a dud? Was it? Did one keep one’s form, or get down to squealing and kicking in the stomach?
‘I don’t know,’ he thought, ‘I don’t know what I shall do when I see her — I simply don’t know.’ Steel-blue of the fallen evening, bare plane-trees, wide river, frosty air! He turned towards home. He opened his front door, trembling, and trembling, went into the drawing-room . . . .
When Fleur had gone upstairs and left him with Ting-a-ling he didn’t know whether he believed her or not. If she had kept that other thing from him all this time, she could keep anything! Had she understood his words: “You must do as you like, that’s only fair?” He had said them almost mechanically, but they were reasonable. If she had never loved him, even a little, he had never had any right to expect anything; he had been all the time in the position of one to whom she was giving alms. Nothing compelled a person to go on giving alms. And nothing compelled one to go on taking them — except — the ache of want, the ache, the ache!
“You little Djinn! You lucky little toad! Give me some of your complacency — you Chinese atom!” Ting-a-ling turned up his boot-buttons. “When you have been civilised as long as I,” they seemed to say: “In the meantime, scratch my chest.”
And scrattling in that yellow fur Michael thought: ‘Pull yourself together! Man at the South Pole with the first blizzard doesn’t sing: “Want to go home! Want to go home!”— he sticks it. Come, get going!’ He placed Ting-a-ling on the floor, and made for his study. Here were manuscripts, of which the readers to Danby and Winter had already said: “No money in this, but a genuine piece of work meriting consideration.” It was Michael’s business to give the consideration; Danby’s to turn the affair down with the words: “Write him (or her) a civil letter, say we were greatly interested, regret we do not see our way — hope to have the privilege of considering next effort, and so forth. What!”
He turned up his reading-lamp and pulled out a manuscript he had already begun.
“No retreat, no retreat; they must conquer or die who have no
No retreat, no retreat; they must conquer or die who have no
The black footmen’s refrain from ‘Polly’ was all that happened in his mind. Dash it! He must read the thing! Somehow he finished the chapter. He remembered now. The manuscript was all about a man who, when he was a boy, had been so greatly impressed by the sight of a maidservant changing her clothes in a room over the way, that his married life was a continual struggle not to be unfaithful with his wife’s maids. They had just discovered his complex, and he was going to have it out. The rest of the manuscript no doubt would show how that was done. It went most conscientiously into all those precise bodily details which it was now so timorous and Victorian to leave out. Genuine piece of work, and waste of time to go on with it! Old Danby — Freud bored him stiff; and for once Michael did not mind old Danby being in the right. He put the thing back into the drawer. Seven o’clock! Tell Fleur what he had been told about that cousin? Why? Nothing could mend THAT! If only she were speaking the truth about Wilfrid! He went to the window — stars above, and stripes below, stripes of courtyard and back garden. “No retreat, no retreat; they must conquer or die who have no retreat!”
A voice said:
“When will your father be up?”
Old Forsyte! Lord! Lord!
“To-morrow, I believe, sir. Come in! You don’t know my den, I think.”
“No,” said Soames. “Snug! Caricatures. You go in for them — poor stuff!”
“But not modern, sir — a revived art.”
“Queering your neighbours — I never cared for them. They only flourish when the world’s in a mess and people have given up looking straight before them.”
“By Jove!” said Michael; “that’s good. Won’t you sit down, sir?”
Soames sat down, crossing his knees in his accustomed manner. Slim, grey, close — a sealed book, neatly bound! What was HIS complex? Whatever it was, he had never had it out. One could not even imagine the operation.
“I shan’t take away my Goya,” he said very unexpectedly; “consider it Fleur’s. In fact, if I only knew you were interested in the future, I should make more provision. In my opinion death duties will be prohibitive in a few years’ time.”
Michael frowned. “I’d like you to know sir, once for all, that what you do for Fleur, you do for Fleur. I can be Epicurus whenever I like — bread, and on feast days a little bit of cheese.”
Soames looked up with shrewdness in his glance. “I know that,” he said, “I always knew it.”
“With this land depression your father’s hard hit, I should think.”
“Well, he talks of being on the look out for soap or cars; but I shouldn’t be surprised if he mortgages again and lingers on.”
“A title without a place,” said Soames, “is not natural. He’d better wait for me to go, if I leave anything, that is. But listen to me: I’ve been thinking. Aren’t you happy together, you two, that you don’t have children?”
“I don’t think,” he said slowly, “that we have ever had a scrap, or anything like it. I have been — I am — terribly fond of her, but you have known better than I that I only picked up the pieces.”
“Who told you that?”
“To-day — Miss June Forsyte.”
“THAT woman!” said Soames. “She can’t keep her foot out of anything. A boy and girl affair — over months before you married.”
“But deep, sir,” said Michael gently.
“Deep — who knows at that age? Deep?” Soames paused: “You’re a good fellow — I always knew. Be patient — take a long view.”
“Yes, sir,” said Michael, very still in his chair, “If I can.”
“She’s everything to me,” muttered Soames abruptly.
“And to me — which doesn’t make it easier.”
The line between Soames’ brows deepened.
“Perhaps not. But hold on! As gently as you like, but hold on! She’s young. She’ll flutter about; there’s nothing in it.”
‘Does he know about the other thing?’ thought Michael.
“I have my own worries,” went on Soames, “but they’re nothing to what I should feel if anything went wrong with her.”
Michael felt a twinge of sympathy, unusual towards that self-contained grey figure.
“I shall try my best,” he said quietly; “but I’m not naturally Solomon at six stone seven.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Soames, “I’m not so sure. Anyway, a child — well, a child would be — a — sort of insur —” He baulked, the word was not precisely —!
“As to that, I can’t say anything.”
Soames got up.
“No,” he said wistfully, “I suppose not. It’s time to dress.”
To dress — to dine, and if to dine, to sleep — to sleep, to dream! And then what dreams might come!
On the way to his dressing-room Michael encountered Coaker; the man’s face was long.
“What’s up, Coaker?”
“The little dog, sir, has been sick in the drawing-room.”
“The deuce he has!”
“Yes, sir; it appears that some one left him there alone. He makes himself felt, sir. I always say: He’s an important little dog . . . .”
During dinner, as if visited by remorse for having given them advice and two pictures worth some thousands of pounds, Soames pitched a tale like those of James in his palmy days. He spoke of the French — the fall of the mark — the rise in Consols — the obstinacy of Dumetrius, the picture-dealer, over a Constable skyscape which Soames wanted and Dumetrius did not, but to which the fellow held on just for the sake of a price which Soames did not mean to pay. He spoke of the trouble which he foresaw with the United States over their precious Prohibition. They were a headstrong lot. They took up a thing and ran their heads against a stone wall. He himself had never drunk anything to speak of, but he liked to feel that he could. The Americans liked to feel that he couldn’t, that was tyranny. They were overbearing. He shouldn’t be surprised if everybody took to drinking over there. As to the League of Nations, a man that morning had palavered it up. That cock wouldn’t fight — spend money, and arrange things which would have arranged themselves, but as for anything important, such as abolishing Bolshevism, or poison gas, they never would, and to pretend it was all-me-eye-and-Betty-Martin. It was almost a record for one habitually taciturn, and deeply useful to two young people only anxious that he should continue to talk, so that they might think of other things. The conduct of Ting-a-ling was the sole other subject of consideration. Fleur thought it due to the copper floor. Soames that he must have picked up something in the Square — dogs were always picking things up. Michael suggested that it was just Chinese — a protest against there being nobody to watch his self-sufficiency. In China there were four hundred million people to watch each other being self-sufficient. What would one expect of a Chinaman suddenly placed in the Gobi Desert? He would certainly be sick.
“No retreat, no retreat; they must conquer or die who have no retreat!”
When Fleur left them, both felt that they could not so soon again bear each other’s company, and Soames said: “I’ve got some figures to attend to — I’ll go to my room.”
Michael stood up. “Wouldn’t you like my den, sir?”
“No,” said Soames, “I must concentrate. Say goodnight to Fleur for me.”
Michael remained smoking above the porcelain effigies of Spanish fruits. That white monkey couldn’t eat those and throw away the rinds! Would the fruits of his life be porcelain in future? Live in the same house with Fleur, estranged? Live with Fleur as now, feeling a stranger, even an unwelcome stranger? Clear out, and join the Air Force, or the ‘Save the Children’ corps? Which of the three courses was least to be deplored? The ash of his cigar grew long, dropped incontinent, and grew again; the porcelain fruits mocked him with their sheen and glow; Coaker put his head in and took it away again. (The Governor had got the hump — good sort, the Governor!) Decision waited for him, somewhere, somewhen — Fleur’s, not his own. His mind was too miserable and disconcerted to be known; but she would know hers. She had the information which alone made decision possible about Wilfrid, that cousin, her own actions and feelings. Yes, decision would come, and would it matter in a world where pity was punk and only a Chinese philosophy of any use?
But not be sick in the drawing-room, try and keep one’s end up, even if there were no one to see one being important! . . .
He had been asleep and it was dark, or all but, in his bed-dressing-room. Something white by his bed. A fragrant faint warmth close to him; a voice saying low: “It’s only me. Let me come in your bed, Michael. “Like a child — like a child! Michael reached out his arms. The whiteness and the warmth came into them. Curls smothered his mouth, the voice said in his ear: “I wouldn’t have come, would I, if there’d — if there’d been anything?” Michael’s heart, wild, confused, beat against hers.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54