During the month following the receipt of Elderson’s letter, Soames aged more than thirty days. He had forced his policy of disclosure on a doubting Board, the special meeting had been called, and, just as, twenty-three years ago, pursuing divorce from Irene, he had to face the public eye, so now he suffered day and night in dread of that undiscriminating optic. The French had a proverb: “Les absents ont toujours tort!” but Soames had grave doubts about it. Elderson would be absent from that meeting of the shareholders, but — unless he was much mistaken — he himself, who would be present, would come in for the blame. The French were not to be relied on. What with his anxiety about Fleur, and his misgiving about the public eye, he was sleeping badly, eating little, and feeling below par. Annette had recommended him to see a doctor. That was probably why he did not. Soames had faith in doctors for other people; but they had never — he would say — done anything for HIM, possibly because, so far, there had not been anything to do.
Failing in her suggestion, and finding him every day less sociable, Annette had given him a book on Coue. After running it through, he had meant to leave it in the train, but the theory, however extravagant, had somehow clung to him. After all, Fleur was doing it; and the thing cost you nothing: there might be something in it! There was. After telling himself that night twenty-five times that he was getting better and better, he slept so soundly that Annette, in the next room, hardly slept at all.
“Do you know, my friend,” she said at breakfast, “you were snoring last night so that I could not hear the cock crow.”
“Why should you want to?” said Soames.
“Well, never mind — if you had a good night. Was it my little Coue who gave you that nice dream?”
Partly from fear of encouraging Coue, and partly from fear of encouraging her, Soames avoided a reply; but he had a curious sense of power, as if he did not care what people said of him.
‘I’ll do it again to-night,’ he thought.
“You know,” Annette went on, “you are just the temperament for Coue, Soames. When you cure yourself of worrying, you will get quite fat.”
“Fat!” said Soames, looking at her curves. “I’d as soon grow a beard.”
Fatness and beards were associated with the French. He would have to keep an eye on himself if he went on with this — er — what was one to call it? Tomfoolery was hardly the word to conciliate the process, even if it did require you to tie twenty-five knots in a bit of string: very French, that, like telling your beads! He himself had merely counted on his fingers. The sense of power lasted all the way up to London; he had the conviction that he could sit in a draught if he wanted to, that Fleur would have her boy all right; and as to the P. P. R. S. — ten to one he wouldn’t be mentioned by name in any report of the proceedings.
After an early lunch and twenty-five more assurances over his coffee, he set out for the city.
This Board, held just a week before the special meeting of the shareholders, was in the nature of a dress rehearsal. The details of confrontation had to be arranged, and Soames was chiefly concerned with seeing that a certain impersonality should be preserved. He was entirely against disclosure of the fact that young Butterfield’s story and Elderson’s letter had been confided to himself. The phrase to be used should be a “member of the Board.” He saw no need for anything further. As for explanations, they would fall, of course, to the chairman and the senior director, Lord Fontenoy. He found, however, that the Board thought he himself was the right person to bring the matter forward. No one else — they said — could supply the personal touch, the necessary conviction; the chairman should introduce the matter briefly, then call on Soames to give the evidence within his knowledge. Lord Fontenoy was emphatic.
“It’s up to you, Mr. Forsyte. If it hadn’t been for you, Elderson would be sitting there today. From beginning to end you put the wind up him; and I wish the deuce you hadn’t. The whole thing’s a confounded nuisance. He was a very clever fellow, and we shall miss him. Our new man isn’t a patch on him. If he did take a few thou. under the rose, he took ’em off the Huns.”
Old guinea-pig! Soames replied, acidly:
“And the quarter of a million he’s lost the shareholders, for the sake of those few thou.? Bagatelle, I suppose?”
“Well, it might have turned out a winner; for the first year it did. We all back losers sometimes.”
Soames looked from face to face. They did not support this blatant attitude, but in them all, except perhaps ‘Old Mont’s,’ he felt a grudge against himself. Their expressions seemed to say: ‘Nothing of this sort ever happened till you came on the Board.’ He had disturbed their comfort, and they disliked him for it. They were an unjust lot! He said doggedly:
“You leave it to me, do you? Very well!”
What he meant to convey — or whether he meant to convey anything, he did not know; but even that ‘old guinea-pig’ was more civil afterwards. He came away from the Board, however, without any sense of power at all. There he would be on Tuesday next, bang in the public eye.
After calling to enquire after Fleur, who was lying down rather poorly, he returned home with a feeling of having been betrayed. It seemed that he could not rely, after all, on this fellow with his twenty-five knots. However much better he might become, his daughter, his reputation, and possibly his fortune, were not apparently at the disposition of his subconscious self. He was silent at dinner, and went up afterwards to his picture gallery, to think things over. For half an hour he stood at the open window, alone with the summer evening; and the longer he stood there, the more clearly he perceived that the three were really one. Except for his daughter’s sake, what did he care for his reputation or his fortune? His reputation! Lot of fools — if they couldn’t see that he was careful and honest so far as had lain within his reach — so much the worse for them! His fortune — well, he had better make another settlement on Fleur and her child at once, in case of accidents; another fifty thousand. Ah! if she were only through her trouble! It was time Annette went up to her for good; and there was a thing they called twilight sleep. To have her suffering was not to be thought of!
The evening lingered out; the sun went down behind familiar trees; Soames’ hands, grasping the window-ledge, felt damp with dew; sweetness of grass and river stole up into his nostrils. The sky had paled, and now began to darken; a scatter of stars came out. He had lived here a long time, through all Fleur’s childhood — best years of his life; still, it wouldn’t break his heart to sell. His heart was up in London. Sell? That was to run before the hounds with a vengeance. No — no! — it wouldn’t come to THAT! He left the window and, turning up the lights, began the thousand and first tour of his pictures. He had made some good purchases since Fleur’s marriage, and without wasting his money on fashionable favourites. He had made some good sales, too. The pictures in this gallery, if he didn’t mistake, were worth from seventy to a hundred thousand pounds; and, with the profits on his sales from time to time, they stood him in at no more than five-and-twenty thousand — not a bad result from a life’s hobby, to say nothing of the pleasure! Of course, he might have taken up something else — butterflies, photography, archaeology, or first editions; some other sport in which you backed your judgment against the field, and collected the results; but he had never regretted choosing pictures. Not he! More to show for your money, more kudos, more profit, and more risk! The thought startled him a little; had he really taken to pictures because of the risk? A risk had never appealed to him; at least, he hadn’t realised it, so far. Had his ‘subconscious’ some part in the matter? He suddenly sat down and closed his eyes. Try the thing once more; very pleasant feeling, that morning, of not “giving a damn”; he never remembered having it before! He had always felt it necessary to worry — kind of insurance against the worst; but worry was wearing, no doubt about it, wearing. Turn out the light! They said in that book, you had to relax. In the now dim and shadowy room, with the starlight, through many windows, dusted over its reality, Soames, in his easy chair, sat very still. A faint drone rose on the words: “fatter and fatter” through his moving lips. ‘No, no,’ he thought: ‘that’s wrong!’ And he began the drone again. The tips of his fingers ticked it off; on and on — he would give it a good chance. If only one needn’t worry! On and on —“better and better!” If only —! His lips stopped moving; his grey head fell forward into the subconscious. And the stealing starlight dusted over him, too, a little unreality.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54