“No, dear heart, Nature’s ‘off’!”
“How d’you mean, Michael?”
“Well, look at the Nature novels we get. Sedulous stuff pitched on Cornish cliffs or Yorkshire moors — ever been on a Yorkshire moor? — it comes off on you; and the Dartmoor brand. Gosh! Dartmoor, where the passions come from — ever been on Dartmoor? Well, they don’t, you know. And the South Sea bunch! Oh, la, la! And the poets, the splash-and-splutter school don’t get within miles of Nature. The village idiot school is a bit better, certainly. After all, old Wordsworth made Nature, and she’s a bromide. Of course, there’s raw nature with the small ‘n’; but if you come up against that, it takes you all your time to keep alive — the Nature we gas about is licensed, nicely blended and bottled. She’s not modern enough for contemporary style.”
“Oh! well, let’s go on the river, anyway, Michael. We can have tea at ‘The Shelter.’”
They were just reaching what Michael always called ‘this desirable residence,’ when Fleur leaned forward, and, touching his knee, said:
“I’m not half as nice to you as you deserve, Michael.”
“Good Lord, darling! I thought you were.”
“I know I’m selfish; especially just now.”
“It’s only the eleventh baronet.”
“Yes; it’s a great responsibility. I only hope he’ll be like you.”
Michael slid in to the landing-stage, shipped his sculls, and sat down beside her.
“If he’s like me, I shall disown him. But sons take after their mothers.”
“I meant in character. I want him frightfully to be cheerful and not restless, and have the feeling that life’s worth while.”
Michael stared at her lips — they were quivering; at her cheek, slightly browned by the afternoon’s sunning; and, bending sideways, he put his own against it.
“He’ll be a sunny little cuss, I’m certain.”
Fleur shook her head.
“I don’t want him greedy and self-centred; it’s in my blood, you know. I can see it’s ugly, but I can’t help it. How do you manage not to be?”
Michael ruffled his hair with his free hand.
“The sun isn’t too hot for you, is it, ducky?”
“No. Seriously, Michael — how?”
“But I AM. Look at the way I want you. Nothing will cure me of that.”
A slight pressure of her cheek on his own was heartening, and he said:
“Do you remember coming down the garden one night, and finding me in a boat just here? When you’d gone, I stood on my head, to cool it. I was on my uppers; I didn’t think I’d got an earthly —” He stopped. No! He would not remind her, but that was the night when she said: “Come again when I know I can’t get my wish!” The unknown cousin!
Fleur said quietly:
“I was a pig to you, Michael, but I was awfully unhappy. That’s gone. It’s gone at last; there’s nothing wrong now, except my own nature.”
Conscious that his feelings betrayed the period, Michael said:
“Oh! if that’s all! What price tea?”
They went up the lawn arm-inarm. Nobody was at home — Soames in London, Annette at a garden party. “We’ll have tea on the verandah, please,” said Fleur. Sitting there, happier than he ever remembered being, Michael conceded a certain value to Nature, to the sunshine stealing down, the scent of pinks and roses, the sighing in the aspens. Annette’s pet doves were cooing; and, beyond the quietly-flowing river, the spires of poplar trees rose along the further bank. But, after all, he was only enjoying them because of the girl beside him, whom he loved to touch and look at, and because, for the first time, he felt as if she did not want to get up and flutter off to some one or something else. Curious that there could be, outside oneself, a being who completely robbed the world of its importance, ‘snooped,’ as it were, the whole ‘bag of tricks’— and she one’s own wife! Very curious, considering what one was! He heard her say:
“Of course, mother’s a Catholic; only, living with father down here, she left off practising. She didn’t even bother me much. I’ve been thinking, Michael — what shall we do about HIM?”
“Let him rip.”
“I don’t know. He must be taught something, because of going to school. The Catholics, you know, really do get things out of their religion.”
“Yes; they go it blind; it’s the only logical way now.”
“I think having no religion makes one feel that nothing matters.”
Michael suppressed the words: ‘We could bring him up as a sun-worshipper,’ and said, instead:
“It seems to me that whatever he’s taught will only last till he can think for himself; then he’ll settle down to what suits him.”
“But what do YOU think about things, Michael? You’re as good as any one I know.”
“Gosh!” murmured Michael, strangely flattered: “Is that so?”
“What DO you think? Be serious!”
“Well, darling, doctrinally nothing — which means, of course, that I haven’t got religion. I believe one has to play the game — but that’s ethics.”
“But surely it’s a handicap not to be able to rely on anything but oneself? If there’s something to be had out of any form of belief, one might as well have it.”
Michael smiled, but not on the surface.
“You’re going to do just as you like about the eleventh baronet, and I’m going to abet you. But considering his breeding — I fancy he’ll be a bit of a sceptic.”
“But I don’t WANT him to be. I’d rather he were snug, and convinced and all that. Scepticism only makes one restless.”
“No white monkey in him? Ah! I wonder! It’s in the air, I guess. The only thing will be to teach him a sense of other people, as young as possible, with a slipper, if necessary.”
Fleur gave him a clear look, and laughed.
“Yes,” she said: “Mother used to try, but father wouldn’t let her.”
They did not reach home till past eight o’clock.
“Either your father’s here, or mine,” said Michael, in the hall; “there’s a prehistoric hat.”
“It’s Dad’s. His is grey inside. Bart’s is buff.”
In the Chinese room Soames indeed was discovered, with an opened letter, and Ting-a-ling at his feet. He held the letter out to Michael, without a word.
There was no date, and no address; Michael read:
“DEAR MR. FORSYTE. — Perhaps you will be good enough to tell the Board at the meeting on Tuesday that I am on my way to immunity from the consequences of any peccadillo I may have been guilty of. By the time you receive this, I shall be there. I have always held that the secret of life, no less than that of business, is to know when not to stop. It will be no use to proceed against me, for my person will not be attachable, as I believe you call it in the law, and I have left no property behind. If your object was to corner me, I cannot congratulate you on your tactics. If, on the other hand, you inspired that young man’s visit as a warning that you were still pursuing the matter, I should like to add new thanks to those which I expressed when I saw you a few days ago.
“Believe me, dear Mr. Forsyte,
Michael said cheerfully:
“Happy release! Now you’ll feel safer, sir.”
Soames passed his hand over his face, evidently wiping off its expression. “We’ll discuss it later,” he said. “This dog’s been keeping me company.”
Michael admired him at that moment. He was obviously swallowing his ‘grief,’ to save Fleur.
“Fleur’s a bit tired,” he said. “We’ve been on the river, and had tea at ‘The Shelter’; Madame wasn’t in. Let’s have dinner at once, Fleur.”
Fleur had picked up Ting-a-ling, and was holding her face out of reach of his avid tongue.
“Sorry you’ve had to wait, Dad,” she murmured, behind the yellow fur; “I’m just going to wash; shan’t change.”
When she had gone, Soames reached for the letter.
“A pretty kettle of fish!” he muttered. “Where it’ll end, I can’t tell!”
“But isn’t this the end, sir?”
Soames stared. These young people! Here he was, faced with a public scandal, which might lead to he didn’t know what — the loss of his name in the city, the loss of his fortune, perhaps; and they took it as if —! They had no sense of responsibility — none! All his father’s power of seeing the worst, all James’ nervous pessimism, had come to the fore in him during the hour since, at the Connoisseur’s Club, he had been handed that letter. Only the extra ‘form’ of the generation that succeeded James saved him, now that Fleur was out of the room, from making an exhibition of his fears.
“Your father in town?”
“I believe so, sir.”
“Good!” Not that he felt relief. That baronet chap was just as irresponsible — getting him to go on that Board! It all came of mixing with people brought up in a sort of incurable levity, with no real feeling for money.
“Now that Elderson’s levanted,” he said, “the whole thing must come out. Here’s his confession in my hand —”
“Why not tear it up, sir, and say Elderson has developed consumption?”
The impossibility of getting anything serious from this young man afflicted Soames like the eating of heavy pudding.
“You think that would be honourable?” he said grimly.
“Sorry, sir!” said Michael, sobered. “Can I help at all?”
“Yes; by dropping your levity, and taking care to keep wind of this matter away from Fleur.”
“I will,” said Michael, earnestly: “I promise you. I’ll Dutch-oyster the whole thing. What’s your line going to be?”
“We shall have to call the shareholders together and explain this dicky-dealing. They’ll very likely take it in bad part.”
“I can’t see why they should. How could you have helped it?”
“There’s no connection in life between reward and your deserts. If the war hasn’t taught you that, nothing will.”
“Well,” said Michael, “Fleur will be down directly. If you’ll excuse me a minute; we’ll continue it in our next.”
Their next did not occur till Fleur had gone to bed.
“Now, sir,” said Michael, “I expect my governor’s at the Aeroplane. He goes there and meditates on the end of the world. Would you like me to ring him up, if your Board meeting’s tomorrow?”
Soames nodded. He himself would not sleep a wink — why should ‘Old Mont’?
Michael went to the Chinese tea chest.
“Bart? This is Michael. Old For — my father-inlaw is here; he’s had a pill. . . . No; Elderson. Could you blow in by any chance and hear? . . . He’s coming, sir. Shall we stay down, or go up to my study?”
“Down,” muttered Soames, whose eyes were fixed on the white monkey. “I don’t know what we’re all coming to,” he added, suddenly.
“If we did, sir, we should die of boredom.”
“Speak for yourself. All this unreliability! I can’t tell where it’s leading.”
“Perhaps there’s somewhere, sir, that’s neither heaven nor hell.”
“A man of HIS age!”
“Same age as my dad; it was a bad vintage, I expect. If you’d been in the war, sir, it would have cheered you up no end.”
“Indeed!” said Soames.
“It took the linch-pins out of the cart — admitted; but, my Lord! it did give you an idea of the grit there is about, when it comes to being up against it.”
Soames stared. Was this young fellow reading him a lesson against pessimism?
“Look at young Butterfield, the other day,” Michael went on, “going over the top, to Elderson! Look at the girl who sat for ‘the altogether’ in that picture you bought us! She’s the wife of a packer we had, who got hoofed for snooping books. She made quite a lot of money by standing for the nude, and never lost her wicket. They’re going to Australia on it. Yes, and look at that little snooper himself; he snooped to keep her alive after pneumonia, and came down to selling balloons.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Soames.
“Only grit, sir. You said you didn’t know what we were coming to. Well, look at the unemployed! Is there a country in the world where they stick it as they do here? I get awfully bucked at being English every now and then. Don’t you?”
The words stirred something deep in Soames; but, far from giving it away, he continued to gaze at the white monkey. The restless, inhuman, and yet so human, angry sadness of the creature’s eyes! ‘No whites to them!’ thought Soames: ‘that’s what does it, I expect!’ And George had liked that picture to hang opposite his bed! Well, George had grit — joked with his last breath: very English, George! Very English, all the Forsytes! Old Uncle Jolyon, and his way with shareholders; Swithin, upright, puffy, huge in a too little arm-chair at Timothy’s: ‘All these small fry!’ he seemed to hear the words again; and Uncle Nicholas, whom that chap Elderson reproduced as it were unworthily, spry and all-there, and pretty sensual, but quite above suspicion of dishonesty. And old Roger, with his crankiness, and German mutton! And his own father, James — how he had hung on, long and frail as a reed, hung on and on! And Timothy, preserved in Consols, dying at a hundred! Grit and body in those old English boys, in spite of their funny ways. And there stirred in Soames a sort of atavistic will-power. He would see, and they would see — and that was all about it!
The grinding of a taxi’s wheels brought him back from reverie. Here came ‘Old Mont,’ tittuppy, and light in the head as ever, no doubt. And, instead of his hand, Soames held out Elderson’s letter.
“Your precious schoolfellow’s levanted,” he said.
Sir Lawrence read it through, and whistled.
“What do you think, Forsyte — Constantinople?”
“More likely Monte Carlo,” said Soames gloomily. “Secret commission — it’s not an extraditable offence.”
The odd contortions of that baronet’s face were giving him some pleasure — the fellow seemed to be feeling it, after all.
“I should think he’s really gone to escape his women, Forsyte.”
The chap was incorrigible! Soames shrugged his shoulders almost violently.
“You’d better realise,” he said, “that the fat is in the fire.”
“But surely, my dear Forsyte, it’s been there ever since the French occupied the Ruhr. Elderson has cut his lucky; we appoint some one else. What more is there to it?”
Soames had the peculiar feeling of having overdone his own honesty. If an honourable man, a ninth baronet, couldn’t see the implications of Elderson’s confession, were they really there? Was any fuss and scandal necessary? Goodness knew, HE didn’t want it! He said heavily:
“We now have conclusive evidence of a fraud; we KNOW Elderson was illegally paid for putting through business by which the shareholders have suffered a dead loss. How can we keep this knowledge from them?”
“But the mischief’s done, Forsyte. How will the knowledge help them?”
“We’re in a fiduciary position. I’m not prepared to run the risks of concealment. If we conceal, we’re accessory after the fact. The thing might come out at any time.” If that was caution, not honesty, he couldn’t help it.
“I should be glad to spare Elderson’s name. We were at —”
“I’m aware of that,” said Soames, drily.
“But what risk is there of its coming out, Forsyte? Elderson won’t mention it; nor young Butterfield, if you tell him not to. Those who paid the commission certainly won’t. And beyond us three here, no one else knows. It’s not as if we profited in any way.”
Soames was silent. The argument was specious. Entirely unjust, of course, that he should be penalised for what Elderson had done!
“No,” he said, suddenly, “it won’t do. Depart from the law, and you can’t tell where it’ll end. The shareholders have suffered this loss, and they have the right to all the facts within the directors’ knowledge. There might be some means of restitution they could avail themselves of. We can’t judge. It may be they’ve a remedy against ourselves.”
“If that’s so, Forsyte, I’m with you.”
Soames felt disgust. Mont had no business to put it with a sort of gallantry that didn’t count the cost; when the cost, if cost there were, would fall, not on Mont, whose land was heavily mortgaged, but on himself, whose property was singularly realisable.
“Well,” he said, coldly, “remember that tomorrow. I’m going to bed.”
At his open window upstairs he felt no sense of virtue, but he enjoyed a sort of peace. He had taken his line, and there it was!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54