Michael still sat, correcting the proofs of ‘Counterfeits.’ Save ‘Jericho,’ there had been no address to send them to. The East was wide, and Wilfrid had made no sign. Did Fleur ever think of Wilfrid now? He had the impression that she did not. And Wilfrid — well, probably he was forgetting her already. Even passion required a little sustenance.
“A Mr. Forsyte to see you, sir.”
Apparition in bookland!
“Ah Show him in.”
Soames entered with an air of suspicion.
“This your place?” he said. “I’ve looked in to tell you that I’ve bought that picture of young Greene’s. Have you anywhere to hang it?”
“I should think we had,” said Michael. “Jolly good, sir, isn’t it?”
“Well,” muttered Soames, “for these days, yes. He’ll make a name.”
“He’s an intense admirer of that White Monkey you gave us.”
“Ah! I’ve been looking into the Chinese. If I go on buying —” Soames paused.
“They ARE a bit of an antidote, aren’t they, sir? That ‘Earthly Paradise!’ And those geese — they don’t seem to mind your counting their feathers, do they?”
Soames made no reply; he was evidently thinking: ‘How on earth I missed those things when they first came on the market!’ Then, raising his umbrella, and pointing it as if at the book trade, he asked:
“Young Butterfield — how’s he doing?”
“Ah! I was going to let you know, sir. He came in yesterday and told me that he saw Elderson two days ago. He went to sell him a copy of my father’s ‘Limited’; Elderson said nothing and bought two.”
“The deuce he did!”
“Butterfield got the impression that his visit put the wind up him. Elderson knows, of course, that I’m in this firm, and your son-inlaw.”
Soames frowned. “I’m not sure,” he said, “that sleeping dogs —! Well, I’m on my way there now.”
“Mention the book, sir, and see how Elderson takes it. Would you like one yourself? You’re on the list. E, F— Butterfield should be reaching you today. It’ll save you a refusal. Here it is — nice get-up. One guinea.”
“‘A Duet,’” read Soames. “What’s it about? Musical?”
“Not precisely. A sort of cat-calling between the ghosts of the G. O. M. and Dizzy!”
“I’m not a reader,” said Soames. He pulled out a note. “Why didn’t you make it a pound? Here’s the shilling.”
“Thanks awfully, sir; I’m sure my father’ll be frightfully bucked to think you’ve got one.”
“Will he?” said Soames, with a faint smile. “D’you ever do any WORK here?”
“Well, we try to turn a doubtful penny.”
“What d’you make at it?”
“Personally, about five hundred a year.”
“Yes, but I doubt if I’m worth more than three.”
“H’m! I thought you’d got over your Socialism.”
“I fancy I have, sir. It didn’t seem to go with my position.”
“No,” said Soames. “Fleur seems well.”
“Yes, she’s splendid. She does the Coue stunt, you know.”
Soames stared. “That’s her mother,” he said; “I can’t tell. Good-bye! Oh! I want to know; what’s the meaning of that expression ‘got his goat?’”
“‘Got his goat?’ Oh, raised his dander, if you know what that means, it was before my time.”
“I see,” said Soames; “I had it right, then. Well!” He turned. His back was very neat and real. It vanished through the doorway, and with it seemed to go the sense of definition.
Michael took up the proofs, and read two poems. Bitter as quinine! The unrest in them — the yearning behind the words! Nothing Chinese there! After all, the ancients — like Old Forsyte, and his father in a very different way — had an anchor down. ‘What is it?’ thought Michael. ‘What’s wrong with us? We’re quick, and clever, cocksure, and dissatisfied. If only something would enthuse us, or get OUR goats! We’ve chucked religion, tradition, property, pity; and in their place we put — what? Beauty? Gosh! See Walter Nazing, and the Cafe C’rillon! And yet — we must be after something! Better world? Doesn’t look like it. Future life? Suppose I ought to “look into” spiritualism, as Old Forsyte would say. But — half in this world, half in that — deuced odd if spirits are less restive than we are!’
To what — to what, then, was it all moving? ‘Dash it!’ thought Michael, getting up, ‘I’ll try dictating an advertisement!’
“Will you come in, please, Miss Perren? For the new Desert volume — Trade Journals: ‘Danby and Winter will shortly issue ‘Counterfeits,’ by the author of ‘Copper Coin,’ the outstanding success of the last publishing season. I wonder how many publishers have claimed that, Miss Perren, for how many books this year? ‘These poems show all the brilliancy of mood, and more than the technical accomplishment of the young author’s first volume.’ How’s that?”
“Brilliancy of mood, Mr. Mont? Do you think?”
“No. But what am I to say? ‘All the pangs and pessimism?’”
“Oh, no! But possibly: ‘All the brilliancy of diction, the strangeness and variety of mood.’”
“Good. But it’ll cost more. Say: ‘All the brilliant strangeness’; that’ll ring their bells in once. We’re nuts on ‘the strange,’ but we’re not getting it — the outre, yes, but not the strange.”
“Surely Mr. Desert gets —”
“Yes, sometimes; but hardly any one else. To be strange, you’ve got to have guts, if you’ll excuse the phrase, Miss Perren.”
“Certainly, Mr. Mont. That young man Bicket is waiting to see you.”
“He is, is he?” said Michael, taking out a cigarette. “Give me time to tighten my belt, Miss Perren, and ask him up.”
‘The lie benevolent,’ he thought; ‘now for it!’
The entrance of Bicket into a room where his last appearance had been so painful, was accomplished with a certain stolidity. Michael stood, back to the hearth, smoking; Bicket, back to a pile of modern novels, with the words “This great new novel” on it. Michael nodded.
“Hope you’re keeping well, sir?”
“Frightfully well, thank you.” And there was silence.
“Well,” said Michael, at last, “I suppose you’ve come about that little advance to your wife. It’s quite all right; no hurry whatever.”
While saying this he had become conscious that the ‘little snipe’ was dreadfully disturbed. His eyes had a most peculiar look, those large, shrimp-like eyes which seemed, as it were, in advance of the rest of him. He hastened on:
“I believe in Australia myself. I think you’re perfectly right, Bicket, and the sooner you go, the better. She doesn’t look too strong.”
“Sir,” he said, “you’ve been a gent to me, and it’s hard to say things.”
Bicket’s cheeks became suffused with blood: queer effect in that pale, haggard face.
“It isn’t what you think,” he said: “I’ve come to ask you to tell me the truth.” Suddenly he whipped from his pocket what Michael perceived to be a crumpled novel-wrapper.
“I took this from a book on the counter as I came by, downstairs. There! Is that my wife?” He stretched it out.
Michael beheld with consternation the wrapper of Storbert’s novel. One thing to tell the lie benevolent already determined on — quite another to deny this!
Bicket gave him little time.
“I see it is, from your fyce,” he said. “What’s it all mean? I want the truth — I must ‘ave it! I’m gettin’ wild over all this. If that’s ‘er fyce there, then that’s ‘er body in the Gallery — Aubrey Greene; it’s the syme nyme. What’s it all mean?” His face had become almost formidable; his cockney accent very broad. “What gyme ‘as she been plyin’? You gotta tell me before I go aht of ’ere.”
Michael’s heels came together. He said quietly.
“Steady! You’d be steady if YOUR wife-! All that money! YOU never advanced it — you never give it ‘er — never! Don’t tell me you did!”
Michael had taken his line. No lies!
“I lent her ten pounds to make a round sum of it — that’s all; the rest she earned — honourably; and you ought to be proud of her.”
Bicket’s mouth fell open.
“Proud? And how’s she earned it? Proud! My Gawd!”
Michael said coldly:
“As a model. I myself gave her the introduction to my friend, Mr. Greene, the day you had lunch with me. You’ve heard of models, I suppose?”
Bicket’s hands tore the wrapper, and the pieces fell to the floor. “Models!” he said: “Pynters — yes, I’ve ‘eard of ’em — Swines!”
“No more swine than you are, Bicket. Be kind enough not to insult my friend. Pull yourself together, man, and take a cigarette.”
Bicket dashed the proffered case aside.
“I— I— was stuck on her,” he said passionately, “and she’s put this up on me!” A sort of sob came out of his lungs.
“You were stuck on her,” said Michael; his voice had sting in it. “And when she does her best for you, you turn her down — is that it? Do you suppose she liked it?”
Bicket covered his face suddenly.
“What should I know?” he muttered from behind his hands.
A wave of pity flooded up in Michael. Pity! Blurb!
He said drily: “When you’ve quite done, Bicket. D’you happen to remember what YOU did for HER?”
Bicket uncovered his face and stared wildly.
“You’ve never told her that?”
“No; but I jolly well will if you don’t pull yourself together.”
“What do I care if you do, now — lyin’ like that, for all the men in the world! Sixty pound! Honourably! D’you think I believe that?” His voice had desolation in it.
“Ah!” said Michael. “You don’t believe simply because you’re ignorant, as ignorant as the swine you talk of. A girl can do what she did and be perfectly honest, as I haven’t the faintest doubt she is. You’ve only to look at her, and hear the way she speaks of it. She did it because she couldn’t bear to see you selling those balloons. She did it to get you out of the gutter, and give you both a chance. And now you’ve got the chance, you kick up like this. Dash it all, Bicket, be a sport! Suppose I tell her what you did for her — d’you think she’s going to squirm and squeal? Not she! It was damned human of you, and it was damned human of her; and don’t you forget it!”
Bicket swallowed violently again.
“It’s all very well,” he said, sullenly; “it ‘asn’t ‘appened to you.”
Michael was afflicted at once. No! It hadn’t happened to him! And all his doubts of Fleur in the days of Wilfrid came hitting him.
“Look here, Bicket,” he said, “do you doubt your wife’s affection? The whole thing is there. I’ve only seen her twice, but I don’t see how you can. If she weren’t fond of you, why should she want to go to Australia, when she knows she can make good money here, and enjoy herself if she wants? I can vouch for my friend Greene. He’s dashed decent, and I KNOW he’s played cricket.”
But, searching Bicket’s face, he wondered: Were all the others she had sat to as dashed decent?
“Look here, Bicket! We all get up against it sometimes; and that’s the test of us. You’ve just GOT to believe in her; there’s nothing else to it.”
“To myke a show of herself for all the world to see!” The words seemed to struggle from the skinny throat. “I saw that picture bought yesterday by a ruddy alderman.”
Michael could not conceal a grin at this description of ‘Old Forsyte.’
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “it was bought by my own father-inlaw as a present to us, to hang in our house. And, mind you, Bicket, it’s a fine thing.”
“Ah!” cried Bicket, “it IS a fine thing! Money! It’s money bought her. Money’ll buy anything. It’ll buy the ’eart out of your chest.”
And Michael thought: ‘I can’t get away with it a bit! What price emancipation? He’s never heard of the Greeks! And if he had, they’d seem to him a lot of loose-living foreigners. I must quit.’ And, suddenly, he saw tears come out of those shrimp’s eyes, and trickle down the hollowed cheeks.
Very disturbed, he said hastily:
“When you get out there, you’ll never think of it again. Hang it all, Bicket, be a man! She did it for the best. If I were you, I’d never let on to her that I knew. That’s what she’d do if I told her how you snooped those ‘Copper Coins.’”
Bicket clenched his fists — the action went curiously with the tears; then, without a word, he turned and shuffled out.
‘Well,’ thought Michael, ‘giving advice is clearly not my stunt! Poor little snipe!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54