Soames had left Danby and Winter divided in thought between Elderson and the White Monkey. As Fleur surmised, he had never forgotten Aubrey Greene’s words concerning that bit of salvage from the wreck of George Forsyte. “Eat the fruits of life, scatter the rinds, and get copped doing it.” His application of them tended towards the field of business.
The country was still living on its capital. With the collapse of the carrying trade and European markets, they were importing food they couldn’t afford to pay for. In his opinion they would get copped doing it, and that before long. British credit was all very well, the wonder of the world and that, but you couldn’t live indefinitely on wonder. With shipping idle, concerns making a loss all over the place, and the unemployed in swarms, it was a pretty pair of shoes! Even insurance must suffer before long. Perhaps that chap Elderson had foreseen this already, and was simply feathering his nest in time. If one was to be copped in any case, why bother to be honest? This was cynicism so patent, that all the Forsyte in Soames rejected it; and yet it would keep coming back. In a general bankruptcy, why trouble with thrift, far-sightedness, integrity? Even the Conservatives were refusing to call themselves Conservatives again, as if there were something ridiculous about the word, and they knew there was really nothing left to conserve. “Eat the fruit, scatter the rinds, and get copped doing it.” That young painter had said a clever thing — yes, and his picture was clever, though Dumetrius had done one over the price — as usual! Where would Fleur hang it? In the hall, he shouldn’t be surprised — good light there; and the sort of people they knew wouldn’t jib at the nude. Curious — where all the nudes went to! You never saw a nude — no more than you saw the proverbial dead donkey! Soames had a momentary vision of dying donkeys laden with pictures of the nude, stepping off the edge of the world. Refusing its extravagance, he raised his eyes, just in time to see St. Paul’s, as large as life. That little beggar with his balloons wasn’t there today! Well — he’d nothing for him! At a tangent his thoughts turned towards the object of his pilgrimage — the P. P. R. S. and its half-year’s accounts. At his suggestion, they were writing off that German business wholesale — a dead loss of two hundred and thirty thousand pounds. There would be no interim dividend, and even then they would be carrying forward a debit towards the next half-year. Well! better have a rotten tooth out at once and done with; the shareholders would have six months to get used to the gap before the general meeting. He himself had got used to it already, and so would they in time. Shareholders were seldom nasty unless startled — a long-suffering lot!
In the board room the old clerk was still filling his inkpots from the magnum.
“Say I’m here, will you?”
The old clerk withdrew. Soames looked at the clock. Twelve! A little shaft of sunlight slanted down the wainscotting and floor. There was nothing else alive in the room save a bluebottle and the tick of the clock; not even a daily paper. Soames watched the bluebottle. He remembered how, as a boy, he had preferred bluebottles and green-bottles to the ordinary fly, because of their bright colour. It was a lesson. The showy things, the brilliant people, were the dangerous. Witness the Kaiser, and that precious Italian poet — what was his name! And this Jack-o’-lantern of their own! He shouldn’t be surprised if Elderson were brilliant in private life. Why didn’t the chap come? Was that encounter with young Butterfield giving him pause? The bluebottle crawled up the pane, buzzed down, crawled up again; the sunlight stole inward along the floor. All was vacuous in the board room, as though embodying the principle of insurance: “Keep things as they are.”
‘Can’t kick my heels here for ever,’ thought Soames, and moved to the window. In that wide street leading to the river, sunshine illumined a few pedestrians and a brewer’s dray, but along the main artery at the end the traffic streamed and rattled. London! A monstrous place! And all insured! ‘What’ll it be like thirty years hence?’ he thought. To think that there would be London, without himself to see it! He felt sorry for the place, sorry for himself. Even old Gradman would be gone. He supposed the insurance societies would look after it, but he didn’t know. And suddenly he became aware of Elderson. The fellow looked quite jaunty, in a suit of dittoes and a carnation.
“Contemplating the future, Mr. Forsyte?”
“No,” said Soames. How had the fellow guessed his thoughts?
“I’m glad you’ve come in. It gives me a chance to say how grateful I am for the interest you take in the concern. It’s rare. A manager has a lonely job.”
Was he mocking? He seemed altogether very spry and uppish. Light-heartedness always made Soames suspicious — there was generally some reason for it.
“If every director were as conscientious as you, one would sleep in one’s bed. I don’t mind telling you that the amount of help I got from the Board before you came on it was — well — negligible.”
Flattery! The fellow must be leading up to something!
Elderson went on:
“I can say to you what I couldn’t say to any of the others: I’m not at all happy about business, Mr. Forsyte. England is just about to discover the state she’s really in.”
Faced with this startling confirmation of his own thoughts, Soames reacted.
“No good crying out before we’re hurt,” he said; “the pound’s still high. We’re good stayers.”
“In the soup, I’m afraid. If something drastic isn’t done — we SHALL stay there. And anything drastic, as you know, means disorganisation and lean years before you reap reward.”
How could the fellow talk like this, and look as bright and pink as a new penny? It confirmed the theory that he didn’t care what happened. And, suddenly, Soames resolved to try a shot.
“Talking of lean years — I came in to say that I think we must call a meeting of the shareholders over this dead loss of the German business.” He said it to the floor, and looked quickly up. The result was disappointing. The manager’s light-grey eyes met his without a blink.
“I’ve been expecting that from you,” he said.
‘The deuce you have!’ thought Soames, for it had but that moment come into his mind.
“By all means call one,” went on the manager; “but I’m afraid the Board won’t like it.”
Soames refrained from saying: ‘Nor do I.’
“Nor the shareholders, Mr. Forsyte. In a long experience I’ve found that the less you rub their noses in anything unpleasant, the better for every one.”
“That may be,” said Soames, stiffening in contrariety; “but it’s all a part of the vice of not facing things.”
“I don’t think, Mr. Forsyte, that you will accuse ME of not facing things, in the time to come.”
Time to come! Now, what on earth did the fellow mean by that?
“Well, I shall moot it at the next Board,” he said.
“Quite!” said the manager. “Nothing like bringing things to a head, is there?”
Again that indefinable mockery, as if he had something up his sleeve. Soames looked mechanically at the fellow’s cuffs — beautifully laundered, with a blue stripe; at his holland waistcoat, and his bird’s-eye tie — a regular dandy. He would give him a second barrel!
“By the way,” he said, “Mont’s written a book. I’ve taken a copy.”
Not a blink! A little more show of teeth, perhaps — false, no doubt!
“I’ve taken two — poor, dear Mont!”
Soames had a sense of defeat. This chap was armoured like a crab, varnished like a Spanish table.
“Well,” he said, “I must go.”
The manager held out his hand.
“Good-bye, Mr. Forsyte. I’m so grateful to you.”
The fellow was actually squeezing his hand. Soames went out confused. To have his hand squeezed was so rare! It undermined him. And yet, it might be the crown of a consummate bit of acting. He couldn’t tell. He had, however, less intention even than before of moving for a meeting of the shareholders. No, no! That had just been a shot to get a rise; and it had failed. But the Butterfield shot had gone home, surely! If innocent, Elderson must certainly have alluded to the impudence of the young man’s call. And yet such a cool card was capable of failing to rise, just to tease you! No! Nothing doing — as they said nowadays. He was as far as ever from a proof of guilt; and to speak truth, glad of it. Such a scandal could serve no purpose save that of blackening the whole concern, directors and all. People were so careless, they never stopped to think, or apportion blame where it was due. Keep a sharp eye open, and go on as they were! No good stirring hornets’ nests! He had got so far in thought and progress, when a voice said:
“Well met, Forsyte! Are you going my way?”
“Old Mont,” coming down the steps of ‘Snooks’!
“I don’t know,” said Soames.
“I’m off to the Aeroplane for lunch.”
“That new-fangled place?”
“Rising, you know, Forsyte — rising.”
“I’ve just been seeing Elderson. He’s bought two copies of your book.”
“Dear me! Poor fellow!”
Soames smiled faintly. “That’s what he said of you! And who d’you think sold them to him? Young Butterfield.”
“Is he still alive?”
“He was, this morning.”
Sir Lawrence’s face took on a twist:
“I’ve been thinking, Forsyte. They tell me Elderson keeps two women.”
Soames stared. The idea was attractive; would account for everything.
“My wife says it’s one too many, Forsyte. What do you say?”
“I?” said Soames. “I only know the chap’s as cool as a cucumber. I’m going in here. Good-bye!”
One could get no help from that baronet fellow; he couldn’t take anything seriously. Two women! At Elderson’s age! What a life! There were always men like that, not content with one thing at a time — living dangerously. It was mysterious to him. You might look and look into chaps like that, and see nothing. And yet, there they were! He crossed the hall, and went into the room where connoisseurs were lunching. Taking down the menu at the service table, he ordered himself a dozen oysters; but, suddenly remembering that the month contained no “r,” changed them to a fried sole.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54