The White Monkey, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VIII

Soames Takes the Matter up

Soames had concentrated, sitting before the fire in his bedroom till Big Ben struck twelve. His reflections sum-totalled in a decision to talk it over with ‘old Mont’ after all. Though light-brained, the fellow was a gentleman, and the matter delicate. He got into bed and slept, but awoke at half-past two. There it was! ‘I WON’T think of it,’ he thought; and instantly began to. In a long life of dealings with money, he had never had such an experience. Perfectly straightforward conformity with the law — itself so often far from perfectly straightforward — had been the sine qua non of his career. Honesty, they said, was the best policy. But was it anything else? A normally honest man couldn’t keep out of a perfect penitentiary for a week. But then a perfect penitentiary had no relation to prison, or the Bankruptcy Court. The business of working honesty was to keep out of those two institutions. And so far he had never had any difficulty. What, besides the drawing of fees and the drinking of tea, were the duties of a director? That was the point. And how far, if he failed in them, was he liable? It was a director’s duty to be perfectly straightforward. But if a director were perfectly straightforward, he couldn’t be a director. That was clear. In the first place, he would have to tell his shareholders that he didn’t anything like earn his fees. For what did he do on his Boards? Well, he sat and signed his name and talked a little, and passed that which the general trend of business decided must be passed. Did he initiate? Once in a blue moon. Did he calculate? No, he read calculations. Did he check payments out and in? No, the auditors did that. There was policy! A comforting word, but — to be perfectly straightforward — a director’s chief business was to let the existing policy alone. Take his own case! If he had done his duty, he would have stopped this foreign insurance business which he had instinctively distrusted the moment he heard of it — within a month of sitting on the Board, or, having failed in doing so, resigned his seat. But he had not. Things had been looking better! It was not the moment, and so forth! If he had done his duty as a perfectly straightforward director, indeed, he would never have become a director of the P. P. R. S., because he would have looked into the policy of the Society much more closely than he had before accepting a position on the Board. But what with the names, and the prestige, and not looking a gift horse too closely in the mouth — there it had been! To be perfectly straightforward, he ought now to be circularising the shareholders, saying: “My laissez-faire has cost you two hundred odd thousand pounds. I have lodged this amount in the hands of trustees for your benefit, and am suing the rest of the directors for their quotas of the amount.” But he was not proposing to do so, because — well — because it wasn’t done, and the other directors wouldn’t like it. In sum: You waited till the shareholders found out the mess, and you hoped they wouldn’t. In fact, just like a Government, you confused the issues, and made the best case you could for yourselves. With a sense of comfort Soames thought of Ireland: The late Government had let the country in for all that mess in Ireland, and at the end taken credit for putting an end to what need never have been! The Peace, too, and the Air Force, and Agriculture, and Egypt — the five most important issues they’d had to deal with — they had put the chestnuts into the fire in every case! But had they confessed to it? Not they. One didn’t confess. One said: “The question of policy made it imperative at the time.” Or, better still, one said nothing; and trusted to the British character. With his chin resting on the sheet, Soames felt a momentary relief. The late Government weren’t sweating into THEIR sheets — not they — he was convinced of it! Fixing his eyes on the dying embers in the grate, he reflected on the inequalities and injustices of existence. Look at the chaps in politics and business, whose whole lives were passed in skating on thin ice, and getting knighted for it. They never turned a hair. And look at himself, for the first time in forty years on thin ice, and suffering confoundedly. There was a perfect cult of hoodwinking the public, a perfect cult of avoiding the consequences of administrative acts; and here was he, a man of the world, a man of the law, ignorant of those cults, and — and glad of it. From engrained caution and a certain pride, which had in it a touch of the fine, Soames shrank from that coarse-grained standard of honesty which conducted the affairs of the British public. In anything that touched money he was, he always had been, stiff-necked, stiff-kneed. Money was money, a pound a pound, and there was no way of pretending it wasn’t and keeping your self-respect. He got up, drank some water, took a number of deep breaths, and stamped his feet. Who was it said the other day that nothing had ever lost him five minutes’ sleep. The fellow must have the circulation of an ox, or the gift of Baron Munchausen. He took up a book. But his mind would only turn over and over the realisable value of his resources. Apart from his pictures, he decided that he could not be worth less than two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and there was only Fleur — and she already provided for more or less. His wife had her settlement, and could live on it perfectly well in France. As for himself — what did he care? A room at his club near Fleur — he would be just as happy, perhaps happier! And suddenly he found that he had reached a way out of his disturbance and anxiety. By imagining the far-fetched, by facing the loss of his wealth, he had exorcised the demon. The book, ‘The Sobbing Turtle,’ of which he had not read one word, dropped from his hand; he slept . . . .

His meeting with ‘Old Mont’ took place at ‘Snooks’ directly after lunch. The tape in the hall, at which he glanced on going in, recorded a further heavy drop in the mark. Just as he thought: The thing was getting valueless!

Sitting there, sipping coffee, the baronet looked to Soames almost offensively spry. Two to one he had realised nothing! ‘Well!’ thought Soames,’ as old Uncle Jolyon used to say, I shall astonish his weak nerves!’

And without preamble he began.

“How are you, Mont? This mark’s valueless. You realise we’ve lost the P. P. R. S. about a quarter of a million by that precious foreign policy of Elderson’s. I’m not sure an action won’t lie against us for taking unjustifiable risk. But what I’ve come to see you about is this.” He retailed the interview with the clerk, Butterfield, watching the eyebrows of his listener, and finished with the words: “What do you say?”

Sir Lawrence, whose foot was jerking his whole body, fixed his monocle.

“Hallucination, my dear Forsyte! I’ve known Elderson all my life. We were at Winchester together.”

Again! Again! Oh! Lord! Soames said slowly:

“You can’t tell from that. A man who was at Marlborough with me ran away with his mess fund and his colonel’s wife, and made a fortune in Chili out of canned tomatoes. The point is this: If the young man’s story’s true, we’re in the hands of a bad hat. It won’t do, Mont. Will you tackle him, and see what he says to it? You wouldn’t like a story of that sort about yourself. Shall we both go?”

“Yes,” said Sir Lawrence, suddenly. “You’re right. We’ll both go, Forsyte. I don’t like it, but we’ll both go. He ought to hear it.”

“Now?”

“Now.”

With solemnity they assumed top hats, and issued.

“I think, Forsyte, we’ll take a taxi.”

“Yes,” said Soames.

The cab ground its way slowly past the lions, then dashed on down to the Embankment. Side by side its occupants held their noses steadily before them.

“He was shooting with me a month ago,” said Sir Lawrence. “Do you know the hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’? It’s very fine, Forsyte.”

Soames did not answer. The fellow was beginning to tittup!

“We had it that Sunday,” went on Sir Lawrence. “Elderson used to have a fine voice — sang solos. It’s a foghorn now, but a good delivery still.” He gave his little whinnying laugh.

‘Is it possible,’ thought Soames, ‘for this chap to be serious?’ and he said:

“If we find this is true of Elderson, and conceal it, we could all be put in the dock.”

Sir Lawrence refixed his monocle. “The deuce!” he said.

“Will you do the talking,” said Soames, “or shall I?”

“I think you had better, Forsyte; ought we to have the young man in?”

“Wait and see,” said Soames.

They ascended to the offices of the P. P. R. S. and entered the Board Room. There was no fire, the long table was ungarnished; an old clerk, creeping about like a fly on a pane, was filling inkstands out of a magnum.

Soames addressed him:

“Ask the manager to be so kind as to come and see Sir Lawrence Mont and Mr. Forsyte.”

The old clerk blinked, put down the magnum, and went out.

“Now,” said Soames in a low voice, “we must keep our heads. He’ll deny it, of course.”

“I should hope so, Forsyte; I should hope so. Elderson’s a gentleman.”

“No liar like a gentleman,” muttered Soames, below his breath.

After that they stood in their overcoats before the empty grate, staring at their top hats placed side by side on the table.

“One minute!” said Soames, suddenly, and crossing the room, he opened a door opposite. There, as the young clerk had said, was a sort of lobby between Board Room and Manager’s Room, with a door at the end into the main corridor. He stepped back, closed the door, and, rejoining Sir Lawrence, resumed his contemplation of the hats.

“Geography correct,” he said with gloom.

The entrance of the manager was marked by Sir Lawrence’s monocle dropping on to his coat-button with a tinkle. In cutaway black coat, clean-shaven, with grey eyes rather baggy underneath, a pink colour, every hair in place on a rather bald egg-shaped head, and lips alternately pouting, compressed, or smiling, the manager reminded Soames ridiculously of old Uncle Nicholas in his middle period. Uncle Nick was a clever fellow —“cleverest man in London,” some one had called him — but none had ever impugned his honesty. A pang of doubt and disinclination went through Soames. This seemed a monstrous thing to have to put to a man of his own age and breeding. But young Butterfield’s eyes — so honest and doglike! Invent a thing like that — was it possible? He said abruptly:

“Is that door shut?”

“Yes; do you feel a draught?” said the manager. “Would you like a fire?”

“No, thank you,” said Soames. “The fact is, Mr. Elderson, a young man in this office came to me yesterday with a very queer story. Mont and I think you should hear it.”

Accustomed to watching people’s eyes, Soames had the impression of a film (such as passes over the eyes of parrots) passing over the eyes of the manager. It was gone at once, if, indeed, it had ever been.

“By all means.”

Steadily, with that power he had over his nerves when it came to a point, and almost word for word, Soames repeated a story which he had committed to heart in the watches of the night. He concluded with:

“You’d like him in, no doubt. His name is Butterfield.”

During the recital Sir Lawrence had done nothing but scrutinise his finger nails; he now said:

“You had to be told, Elderson.”

“Naturally.”

The manager was crossing to the bell. The pink in his cheeks looked harder; his teeth showed, they had a pointed look.

“Ask Mr. Butterfield to come here.”

There followed a minute of elaborate inattention to each other. Then the young man came in, neat, commonplace, with his eyes on the manager’s face. Soames had a moment of compunction. This young fellow held his life in his hands, as it were — one of the great army who made their living out of self-suppression and respectability, with a hundred ready to step into his shoes at his first slip. What was that old tag of the provincial actor’s declamation — at which old Uncle Jolyon used to cackle so? “Like a pale martyr with his shirt on fire.”

“So, Mr. Butterfield, you have been good enough to exercise your imagination in my regard.”

“No, sir.”

“You stick to this fantastic story of eavesdropping?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We have no further use for your services then. Good morning!”

The young man’s eyes, doglike, sought the face of Soames; a string twitched in his throat, his lips moved without a sound. He turned and went out.

“So much for that,” said the manager’s voice; “HE’LL never get another job.”

The venom in those words affected Soames like the smell of Russian fat. At the same moment he had the feeling: This wants thinking out. Only if innocent, or guilty and utterly resolved, would Elderson have been so drastic. Which was he?

The manager went on:

“I thank you for drawing my attention to the matter, gentlemen. I have had my eye on that young man for some time. A bad hat all round.”

Soames said glumly:

“What do you make out he had to gain?”

“Foresaw dismissal, and thought he would get in first.”

“I see,” said Soames. But he did not. His mind was back in his own office with Gradman rubbing his nose, shaking his grey head, and Butterfield’s: “No, sir, I’ve nothing against Mr. Elderson, and he’s nothing against me.”

‘I shall require to know more about that young man,’ he thought.

The manager’s voice again cut through.

“I’ve been thinking over what you said yesterday, Mr. Forsyte, about an action lying against the Board for negligence. There’s nothing in that; our policy has been fully disclosed to the shareholders at two general meetings, and has passed without comment. The shareholders are just as responsible as the Board.”

“H’m!” said Soames, and took up his hat. “Are you coming, Mont?”

As if summoned from a long distance, Sir Lawrence galvanitically refixed his monocle.

“It’s been very distasteful,” he said; “you must forgive us, Elderson. You had to be told. I don’t think that young man can be quite all there — he had a peculiar look; but we can’t have this sort of thing, of course. Good-bye, Elderson.”

Placing their hats on their heads simultaneously the two walked out. They walked some way without speaking. Then Sir Lawrence said:

“Butterfield? My brother-inlaw has a head gardener called Butterfield — quite a good fellow. Ought we to look into that young man, Forsyte?”

“Yes,” said Soames, “leave him to me.”

“I shall be very glad to. The fact is, when one has been at school with a man, one has a feeling, don’t you know.”

Soames gave vent to a sudden outburst.

“You can’t trust anyone nowadays, it seems to me,” he said. “It comes of — well, I don’t know what it comes of. But I’ve not done with this matter yet.”

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