Repairing, next day, to the Aeroplane Club, where, notably spruce, Sir Lawrence was waiting in the lounge, Michael thought: ‘Good old Bart! he’s got himself up for the guillotine all right!’
“That white piping will show the blood!” he said. “Old Forsyte’s neat this morning, but not so gaudy.”
“Ah! How is ‘Old Forsyte’? In good heart?”
“One doesn’t ask him, sir. How do you feel yourself?”
“Exactly as I used to before the Eton and Winchester match. I think I shall have shandy-gaff at lunch.”
When they had taken their seats, Sir Lawrence went on:
“I remember seeing a man tried for murder in Colombo; the poor fellow was positively blue. I think my favourite moment in the past, Michael, is Walter Raleigh asking for a second shirt. By the way, it’s never been properly settled yet whether the courtiers of that day were lousy. What are you going to have, my dear fellow?”
“Cold beef, pickled walnuts, and gooseberry tart.”
“Excellent for the character. I shall have curry; they give you a very good Bombay duck here. I rather fancy we shall be fired, Michael. ‘Nous sommes trahis!’ used to be the prerogative of the French, but I’m afraid we’re getting the attitude, too. The Yellow Press has made a difference.”
Michael shook his head.
“We say it, but we don’t act on it; the climate’s too uncertain.”
“That sounds deep. This looks very good curry — will you change your mind? Old Fontenoy sometimes comes in here; he has no inside. It’ll be serious for him if we’re shown the door.”
“Deuced rum,” said Michael suddenly, “how titles still go down. There can’t be any belief in their business capacity.”
“Character, my dear fellow — the good old English gentleman. After all, there’s something in it.”
“I fancy, sir, it’s more a case of complex in the shareholders. Their parents show them a lord when they’re young.”
“Shareholders,” said Sir Lawrence; “the word is comprehensive. Who are they, what are they, when are they?”
“This afternoon,” said Michael, “and I shall have a good look at them.”
“They won’t let you in, my dear.”
“What paper,” he said, “is sure not to be represented?”
Sir Lawrence gave his whinnying laugh.
“The Field,” he said; “The Horse and Hound; The Gardener’s Weekly.”
“I’ll slide in on them.”
“You’ll see us die game, I hope,” said Sir Lawrence, with sudden gravity.
They took a cab together to the meeting, but separated before reaching the door of the hotel.
Michael had thought better of the Press, and took up a position in the passage, whence he could watch for a chance. Stout men, in dark suits, with a palpable look of having lunched off turbot, joints, and cheese, kept passing him. He noticed that each handed the janitor a paper. ‘I’ll hand him a paper, too,’ he thought, ‘and scoot in.’ Watching for some even stouter men, he took cover between two of them, and approached the door, with an announcement of ‘Counterfeits’ in his left hand. Handing it across a neighbouring importance, he was quickly into a seat. He saw the janitor’s face poked round the door. ‘No, my friend,’ thought Michael, ‘if you could tell duds from shareholders, you wouldn’t be in that job!’
He found a report before him, and holding it up, looked at other things. The room seemed to him to have been got by a concert-hall out of a station waiting-room. It had a platform with a long table, behind which were seven empty chairs, and seven inkpots, with seven quill pens upright in them. ‘Quills!’ thought Michael; ‘symbolic, I suppose — they’ll all use fountain-pens!’
Back-centre of the platform was a door, and in front, below it, a table, where four men were sitting, fiddling with notebooks. ‘Orchestra,’ thought Michael. He turned his attention to the eight or ten rows of shareholders. They looked what they were, but he could not tell why. Their faces were cast in an infinity of moulds, but all had the air of waiting for something they knew they would not get. What sort of lives did they lead, or did their lives lead them? Nearly all wore moustaches. His neighbours to right and left were the same stout shareholders between whom he had slipped in; they both had thick lobes to their ears, and necks even broader than the straight broad backs of their heads. He was a good deal impressed. Dotted here and there he noticed a woman, or a parson. There was practically no conversation, from which he surmised that no one knew his neighbour. He had a feeling that a dog somewhere would have humanised the occasion. He was musing on the colour scheme of green picked out with chocolate and chased with gold, when the door behind the platform was thrown open, and seven men in black coats filed in, and with little bows took their seats behind the quills. They reminded him of people getting up on horses, or about to play the piano — full of small adjustments. That — on the Chairman’s right — would be old Fontenoy, with a face entirely composed of features. Michael had an odd conceit: a little thing in a white top-hat sat inside the brain, driving the features eight-inhand. Then came a face straight from a picture of Her Majesty’s Government in 1850, round and pink, with a high nose, a small mouth, and little white whiskers; while at the end on the right was a countenance whose jaw and eyes seemed boring into a conundrum beyond the wall at Michael’s back. ‘Legal!’ he thought. His scrutiny passed back to the Chairman. Chosen? Was he — or was he not? A bearded man, a little behind on the Chairman’s left, was already reading from a book, in a rapid monotonous voice. That must be the secretary letting off his minute guns. And in front of him was clearly the new manager, on whose left Michael observed his own father. The dark pothooks over Sir Lawrence’s right eye were slightly raised, and his mouth was puckered under the cut line of his small moustache. He looked almost Oriental, quick but still. His left hand held his tortoiseshell-rimmed monocle between thumb and finger. ‘Not quite in the scene!’ thought Michael; ‘poor old Bart!’ He had come now to the last of the row. ‘Old Forsyte’ was sitting precisely as if alone in the world; with one corner of his mouth just drawn down, and one nostril just drawn up, he seemed to Michael quite fascinatingly detached; and yet not out of the picture. Within that still neat figure, whereof only one patent-leather boot seemed with a slight movement to be living, was intense concentration, entire respect for the proceedings, and yet, a queer contempt for them; he was like a statue of reality, by one who had seen that there was precious little reality in it. ‘He chills my soup,’ thought Michael, ‘but — dash it! — I can’t help half admiring him!’
The Chairman had now risen. ‘He IS’— thought Michael; ‘no, he isn’t — yes — no — I can’t tell!’ He could hardly attend to what the Chairman said, for wondering whether he was chosen or not, though well aware that it did not matter at all. The Chairman kept steadily on. Distracted, Michael caught words and words: “European situation — misguided policy — French — totally unexpected — position disclosed — manager — unfortunate circumstances shortly to be explained to you — future of this great concern — no reason to doubt —”
‘Oil,’ thought Michael, ‘he is — and yet —!’
“I will now ask one of your directors, Mr. Forsyte, to give you at first hand an account of this painful matter.”
Michael saw Soames, pale and deliberate, take a piece of paper from his breast-pocket, and rise. Was it to the occasion?
“I will give you the facts shortly,” he said in a voice which reminded Michael of a dry, made-up wine. “On the eleventh of January last I was visited by a clerk in the employ of the Society —”
Familiar with these details, Michael paid them little attention, watching the shareholders for signs of reaction. He saw none, and it was suddenly borne in on him why they wore moustaches: They could not trust their mouths! Character was in the mouth. Moustaches had come in when people no longer went about, like the old Duke, saying: “Think what you damned well like of my character!” Mouths had tried to come in again, of course, before the war; but what with majors, shareholders, and the working classes, they now had little or no chance! He heard Soames say: “In these circumstances we came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to wait and see.” Michael saw a sudden quiver pass over the moustaches, as might wind over grass.
‘Wrong phrase,’ he thought; ‘we all do it, but we can’t bear being reminded of it.’
“Six weeks ago, however,” he heard Soames intone, “an accidental incident seems to have warned your late manager that Sir Lawrence and I still entertained suspicions, for I received a letter from him practically admitting that he had taken this secret commission on the German business, and asking me to inform the Board that he had gone abroad and left no property behind him. This statement we have been at pains to verify. In these circumstances we had no alternative but to call you together, and lay the facts before you.”
The voice, which had not varied an iota, ceased its recital; and Michael saw his father-inlaw return to his detachment — stork on one leg, about to apply beak to parasite, could have inspired no greater sense of loneliness. ‘Too like the first account of the battle of Jutland!’ he thought: ‘He mentioned all the losses, and never once struck the human note.’
A pause ensued, such as occurs before an awkward fence, till somebody has found a gate. Michael rapidly reviewed the faces of the Board. Only one showed any animation. It was concealed in a handkerchief. The sound of the blown nose broke the spell. Two shareholders rose to their feet at once — one of them Michael’s neighbour on the right.
“Mr. Sawdry,” said the Chairman, and the other shareholder sat down.
With a sonorous clearing of the throat, Michael’s neighbour turned his blunt red face towards Soames.
“I wish to ask you, sir, why you didn’t inform the Board when you first ‘eard of this?”
Soames rose slightly.
“You are aware, I presume, that such an accusation, unless it can be fully substantiated, is a matter for criminal proceedings?”
“No; it would ha’ been privileged.”
“As between members of the Board, perhaps; but any leakage would have rendered us liable. It was a mere case of word against word.”
“Perhaps Sir Lawrence Mont will give us ‘is view of that?”
Michael’s heart began to beat. There was an air of sprightliness about his father’s standing figure.
“You must remember, sir,” he said, “that Mr. Elderson had enjoyed our complete confidence for many years; he was a gentleman, and, speaking for myself, an old schoolfellow of his, I preferred, in common loyalty, to give his word preference, while — er — keeping the matter in mind.”
“Oh!” said Michael’s neighbour: “What’s the Chairman got to say about bein’ kept in the dark?”
“We are all perfectly satisfied, sir, with the attitude of our co-directors, in a very delicate situation. You will kindly note that the mischief was already done over this unfortunate assurance, so that there was no need for undue haste.”
Michael saw his neighbour’s neck grow redder.
“I don’t agree,” he said. “‘Wait and see’— We might have ‘ad that commission out of him, if he’d been tackled promptly.” And he sat down.
He had not reached mahogany before the thwarted shareholder had started up.
“Mr. Botterill,” said the Chairman.
Michael saw a lean and narrow head, with two hollows in a hairy neck, above a back slightly bent forward, as of a doctor listening to a chest.
“I take it from you, then, sir,” he said, “that these two directors represent the general attitude of the Board, and that the Board were content to allow a suspected person to remain manager. The gentleman on your extreme left — Mr. Forsyte, I think — spoke of an accidental incident. But for that, apparently, we should still be in the hands of an unscrupulous individual. The symptoms in this case are very disquieting. There appears to have been gross over-confidence; a recent instance of the sort must be in all our minds. The policy of assuring foreign business was evidently initiated by the manager for his own ends. We have made a severe loss by it. And the question for us shareholders would seem to be whether a Board who placed confidence in such a person, and continued it after their suspicions were aroused, are the right people to direct this important concern.”
Throughout this speech Michael had grown very hot. ‘“Old Forsyte” was right,’ he thought; ‘they’re on their uppers after all.’
There was a sudden creak from his neighbour on the left.
“Mr. Tolby,” said the Chairman.
“It’s a seerious matter, this, gentlemen. I propose that the Board withdraw, an’ leave us to discuss it.”
“I second that,” said Michael’s neighbour on the right.
Searching the vista of the Board, Michael saw recognition gleam for a second in the lonely face at the end, and grinned a greeting.
The Chairman was speaking.
“If that is your wish, gentlemen, we shall be happy to comply with it. Will those who favour the motion hold up their hands?”
All hands were held up, with the exception of Michael’s, of two women whose eager colloquy had not permitted them to hear the request, and of one shareholder, just in front of Michael, so motionless that he seemed to be dead.
“Carried,” said the Chairman, and rose from his seat.
Michael saw his father smiling, and speaking to ‘Old Forsyte’ as they both stood up. They all filed out, and the door was closed.
‘Whatever happens,’ Michael thought, ‘I’ve got to keep my head shut, or I shall be dropping a brick.’
“Perhaps the Press will kindly withdraw, too,” he heard some one say.
With a general chinny movement, as if enquiring their rights of no one in particular, the four Pressmen could be seen to clasp their notebooks. When their pale reluctance had vanished, there was a stir among the shareholders, like that of ducks when a dog comes up behind. Michael saw why, at once. They had their backs to each other. A shareholder said:
“Perhaps Mr. Tolby, who proposed the withdrawal, will act as Chairman.”
Michael’s left-hand neighbour began breathing heavily.
“Right-o!” he said. “Any one who wants to speak, kindly ketch my eye.”
Everyone now began talking to his neighbour, as though to get at once a quiet sense of proportion, before speaking. Mr. Tolby was breathing so heavily that Michael felt a positive draught.
“‘Ere, gentlemen,” he said suddenly, “this won’t do! We don’t want to be too formal, but we must preserve some order. I’ll open the discussion myself. Now, I didn’t want to ‘urt the feelin’s of the Board by plain speakin’ in their presence. But, as Mr. What’s-‘is-name there, said: The public ‘as got to protect itself against sharpers, and against slackness. We all know what ‘appened the other day, and what’ll ‘appen again in other concerns, unless we shareholders look after ourselves. In the first place, then, what I say is: They ought never to ‘ave touched anything to do with the ‘Uns. In the second place, I say they showed bad judgment. And in the third place I say they were too thick together. In my opinion, we should propose a vote of no confidence.”
Cries of: “Hear, hear!” mixed with indeterminate sounds, were broken sharply by a loud: “No!” from the shareholder who had seemed dead. Michael’s heart went out to him, the more so as he still seemed dead. The negative was followed by the rising of a thin, polished-looking shareholder, with a small grey moustache.
“If you’ll forgive my saying so, sir,” he began, “your proposal seems to me very rough-and-ready justice. I should be interested to know how you would have handled such a situation if you had been on the Board. It is extremely easy to condemn other people!”
“Hear, hear!” said Michael, astonished at his own voice.
“It is all very well,” the polished shareholder went on, “when any thing of this sort happens, to blame a directorate, but, speaking as a director myself, I should be glad to know whom one is to trust, if not one’s manager. As to the policy of foreign insurance, it has been before us at two general meetings; and we have pocketed the profit from it for nearly two years. Have we raised a voice against it?”
The dead shareholder uttered a “No!” so loud that Michael almost patted his head.
The shareholder, whose neck and back were like a doctor’s, rose to answer.
“I differ from the last speaker in his diagnosis of the case. Let us admit all he says, and look at the thing more widely. The proof of pudding is in the eating. When a Government makes a bad mistake of judgment, the electorate turns against it as soon as it feels the effects. This is a very sound check on administration; it may be rough and ready, but it is the less of two evils. A Board backs its judgment; when it loses, it should pay. I think, perhaps, Mr. Tolby, being our informal Chairman, was out of order in proposing a vote of no confidence; if that be so, I should be happy to do so, myself.”
The dead shareholder’s “No!” was so resounding this time that there was a pause for him to speak; he remained, however, without motion. Both of Michael’s neighbours were on their feet. They bobbed at each other over Michael’s head, and Mr. Tolby sat down.
“Mr. Sawdry,” he said.
“Look ’ere, gentlemen,” said Mr. Sawdry, “and ladies, this seems to me a case for compromise. The Directors that knew about the manager ought to go; but we might stop at that. The gentleman in front of me keeps on saying ‘No.’ Let ’im give us ‘is views.”
“No,” said the dead shareholder, but less loudly.
“If a man can’t give ‘is views,” went on Mr. Sawdry, nearly sitting down on Michael, “‘c shouldn’t interrupt, in my opinion.”
A shareholder in the front row now turned completely round so that he faced the meeting.
“I think,” he said, “that to prolong this discussion is to waste time; we are evidently in two, if not three, minds. The whole of the business of this country is now conducted on a system of delegated trust; it may be good, it may be bad — but there it is. You’ve got to trust somebody. Now, as to this particular case, we’ve had no reason to distrust the Board, so far; and, as I take it, the Board had no previous reason to distrust the late manager. I think it’s going too far, at present, to propose anything definite like a vote of no confidence; it seems to me that we should call the Board in and hear what assurances they have to give us against a repetition of anything of the sort in the future.”
The sounds which greeted this moderate speech were so inextricable that Michael could not get the sense of them. Not so with the speech which followed. It came from a shareholder on the right, with reddish hair, light eyelashes, a clipped moustache, and a scraped colour.
“I have no objection whatever to having the Board in,” he said in a rather jeering voice, “and passing a vote of no confidence in their presence. There is a question, which no one has touched on, of how far, if we turn them out, we could make them liable for this loss. The matter is not clear, but there is a good sporting chance, if we like to take it. Whereas, if we don’t turn them out, it’s obvious we can’t take it, even if we wish.”
The impression made by this speech was of quite a different order from any of the others. It was followed by a hush, as though something important had been said at last. Michael stared at Mr. Tolby. The stout man’s round, light, rather prominent eye was extraordinarily reflective. ‘Trout must look like that,’ thought Michael, ‘when they see a mayfly.’ Mr. Tolby suddenly stood up.
“All right,” he said, “‘ave ’em in!”
“Yes,” said the dead shareholder. There was no dissent. Michael saw some one rise and ascend the platform.
“Let the Press know!” said Mr. Tolby.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54