When the door had closed behind the departing directors, Soames sought a window as far as possible from the lunch eaten before the meeting.
“Funeral baked meats, eh, Forsyte?” said a voice in his ear. “Our number’s up, I think. Poor old Mothergill’s looking very blue. I think he ought to ask for a second shirt!”
Soames’ tenacity began wriggling within him.
“The thing wants tackling,” he grumbled; “the Chairman’s not the man for the job!” Shades of old Uncle Jolyon! He would have made short work of this! It wanted a masterful hand.
“Warning to us all, Forsyte, against loyalty! It’s not in the period. Ah! Fontenoy!”
Soames became conscious of features rather above the level of his own.
“Well, Mr. Forsyte, hope you’re satisfied? A pretty damned mess! If I’d been the Chairman, I’d never have withdrawn. Always keep hounds under your eye, Mont. Take it off, and they’ll go for you! Wish I could get among ’em with a whip; I’d give it those two heavy pug-faced chaps — they mean business! Unless you’ve got something up your sleeve, Mr. Forsyte, we’re dished.”
“What should I have up my sleeve?” said Soames coldly.
“Damn it, sir, you put the chestnuts in the fire; it’s up to you to pull ’em out. I can’t afford to lose these fees!”
Soames heard Sir Lawrence murmur: “Crude, my dear Fontenoy!” and said with malice:
“You may lose more than your fees!”
“Can’t! They may have Eaglescourt tomorrow, and take a loss off my hands.” A gleam of feeling burned up suddenly in the old eyes: “The country drives you to the wall, skins you to the bone, and expects you to give ’em public service gratis. Can’t be done, Mont — can’t be done!”
Soames turned away; he had an utter disinclination for talk, like one standing before an open grave, watching a coffin slowly lowered. Here was his infallibility going — going! He had no illusions. It would all be in the papers, and his reputation for sound judgment gone for ever! Bitter! No more would the Forsytes say: “Soames says —” No more would old Gradman follow him with eyes like an old dog’s, grudging sometimes, but ever submitting to infallibility. It would be a nasty jar for the old fellow. His business acquaintances — after all, they were not many, now! — would no longer stare with envious respect. He wondered if the reverberations would reach Dumetrius, and the picture market! The sole comfort was: Fleur needn’t know. Fleur! Ah! If only her business were safely over! For a moment his mind became empty of all else. Then with a rush the present filled it up again. Why were they all talking as if there were a corpse in the room? Well! There was — the corpse of his infallibility! As for monetary loss — that seemed secondary, remote, incredible — like a future life. Mont had said something about loyalty. He didn’t know what loyalty had to do with it! But if they thought he was going to show any white feather, they were extremely mistaken. Acid courage welled up into his brain. Shareholders, directors — they might howl and shake their fists; he was not going to be dictated to. He heard a voice say:
“Will you come in, please, gentlemen?”
Taking his seat again before his unused quill, he noticed the silence — shareholders waiting for directors, directors for shareholders. “Wish I could get among ’em with a whip!” Extravagant words of that ‘old guinea-pig’s,’ but expressive, somehow!
At last the Chairman, whose voice always reminded Soames of a raw salad with oil poured over it, said ironically:
“Well, gentlemen, we await your pleasure.”
That stout, red-faced fellow, next to Michael, stood up, opening his pug’s mouth.
“To put it shortly, Mr. Chairman, we’re not at all satisfied; but before we take any resolution, we want to ‘ear what you’ve got to say.”
Just below Soames, some one jumped up and added: “We’d like to know, sir, what assurances you can offer us against anything of this sort in the future.”
Soames saw the Chairman smile — no real backbone in that fellow!
“In the nature of things, sir,” he said, “none whatever! You can hardly suppose that if we had known our manager was not worthy of our confidence, we should have continued him in the post for a moment!”
Soames thought: ‘That won’t do — he’s gone back on himself!’ Yes, and that other pug-faced chap had seen it!
“That’s just the point, sir,” he was saying: “Two of you DID know, and yet, there the fellow was for months afterwards, playin’ ‘is own ‘and, cheatin’ the Society for all he was worth, I shouldn’t wonder.”
One after another, they were yelping now:
“What about your own words?”
“You admitted collective responsibility.”
“You said you were perfectly satisfied with the attitude of your co-directors in the matter.” Regular pack!
Soames saw the Chairman incline his head as if he wanted to shake it; old Fontenoy muttering, old Mothergill blowing his nose, Meyricke shrugging his sharp shoulders. Suddenly he was cut off from view of them — Sir Lawrence was standing up between.
“Allow me a word! Speaking for myself, I find it impossible to accept the generous attempt of the Chairman to shoulder a responsibility which clearly rests on me. If I made a mistake of judgment in not disclosing our suspicions, I must pay the penalty; and I think it will clear the — er — situation if I tender my resignation to the meeting.”
Soames saw him give a little bow, place his monocle in his eye, and sit down.
A murmur greeted the words — approval, surprise, deprecation, admiration? It had been gallantly done. Soames distrusted gallantry — there was always a dash of the peacock about it. He felt curiously savage.
“I, apparently,” he said, rising, “am the other incriminated director. Very good! I am not conscious of having done anything but my duty from beginning to end of this affair. I am confident that I made no mistake of judgment. And I consider it entirely unjust that I should be penalised. I have had worry and anxiety enough, without being made a scapegoat by shareholders who accepted this policy without a murmur, before ever I came on the Board, and are now angry because they have lost by it. You owe it to me that the policy has been dropped: You owe it to me that you have no longer a fraudulent person for a manager. And you owe it to me that you were called together today to pass judgment on the matter. I have no intention whatever of singing small. But there is another aspect to this affair. I am not prepared to go on giving my services to people who don’t value them. I have no patience with the attitude displayed this afternoon. If any one here thinks he has a grievance against me, let him bring an action. I shall be happy to carry it to the House of Lords, if necessary. I have been familiar with the City all my life, and I have not been in the habit of meeting with suspicions and ingratitude. If this is an instance of present manners, I have been familiar with the City long enough. I do not tender my resignation to the meeting; I resign.”
Bowing to the Chairman, and pushing back his chair, he walked doggedly to the door, opened it and passed through.
He sought his hat. He had not the slightest doubt but that he had astonished their weak nerves! Those pug-faced fellows had their mouths open! He would have liked to see what he had left behind, but it was hardly consistent with dignity to open the door again. He took a sandwich instead, and began to eat it with his back to the door and his hat on. He felt better than he had for months. A voice said:
“‘And the subsequent proceedings interested him no more!’ I’d no idea, Forsyte, you were such an orator! You gave it ’em between the eyes! Never saw a meeting so knocked out! Well, you’ve saved the Board by focussing their resentment entirely on yourself. It was very gallant, Forsyte!”
Soames growled through his sandwich:
“Nothing of the sort! Are you out, too?”
“Yes. I pressed my resignation. That red-faced fellow was proposing a vote of confidence in the Board when I left — and they’ll pass it, Forsyte — they’ll pass it! Something was said about financial liability, by the way!”
“Was there?” said Soames, with a grim smile: “That cock won’t fight. Their only chance was to claim against the Board for initiating foreign assurance ultra vires; if they’re re-affirming the Board, after the question’s been raised in open meeting, they’re dished. Nothing’ll lie against you and me, for not disclosing our suspicions — that’s certain.”
“A relief, I confess,” said Sir Lawrence, with a sigh. “It was the speech of your life, Forsyte!”
Perfectly well aware of that, Soames shook his head. Apart from the horror of seeing himself in print, he was beginning to feel that he had been extravagant. It was always a mistake to lose your temper! A bitter little smile came on his lips. Nobody, not even Mont, would see how unjustly he had been treated.
“Well,” he said, “I shall go.”
“I think I shall wait, Forsyte, and hear the upshot.”
“Upshot? They’ll appoint two other fools, and slaver over each other. Shareholders! Good-bye!” He moved to the door.
Passing the Bank of England, he had a feeling of walking away from his own life. His acumen, his judgment, his manner of dealing with affairs — aspersed! They didn’t like it; well — he would leave it! Catch him meddling, in future! It was all of a piece with the modern state of things. Hand to mouth, and the steady men pushed to the wall! The men to whom a pound was a pound, and not a mess of chance and paper. The men who knew that the good of the country was the strict, straight conduct of their own affairs. They were not wanted. One by one, they would get the go-by — as he had got it — in favour of Jack-o’-lanterns, revolutionaries, restless chaps, or clever, unscrupulous fellows, like Elderson. It was in the air. No amount of eating your cake and wanting to have it could take the place of common honesty.
He turned into the Poultry before he knew why he had come there. Well, he might as well tell Gradman at once that he must exercise his own judgment in the future. At the mouth of the backwater he paused for a second, as if to print its buffness on his brain. He would resign his trusts, private and all! He had no notion of being sneered at in the family. But a sudden wave of remembrance almost washed his heart into his boots. What a tale of trust deeds executed, leases renewed, houses sold, investments decided on — in that back room up there; what a mint of quiet satisfaction in estates well managed! Ah! well! He would continue to manage his own. As for the others, they must look out for themselves, now. And a precious time they’d have of it, in face of the spirit there was about!
He mounted the stone steps slowly.
In the repository of Forsyte affairs, he was faced by the unusual — not Gradman, but, on the large ripe table, a large ripe melon alongside a straw bag. Soames sniffed. The thing smelled delicious. He held it to the light. Its greeny yellow tinge, its network of threads — quite Chinese! Was old Gradman going to throw its rind about, like that white monkey?
He was still holding it when a voice said:
“Aoh! I wasn’t expecting you today, Mr. Soames. I was going early; my wife’s got a little party.”
“So I see!” said Soames, restoring the melon to the table. “There’s nothing for you to do at the moment, but I came in to tell you to draw my resignations from the Forsyte trusts.”
The old chap’s face was such a study that he could not help a smile.
“You can keep me in Timothy’s; but the rest must go. Young Roger can attend to them. He’s got nothing to do.”
A gruff and deprecating: “Dear me! They won’t like it!” irritated Soames.
“Then they must lump it! I want a rest.”
He did not mean to enter into the reason — Gradman could read it for himself in the Financial News, or whatever he took in.
“Then I shan’t be seeing you so often, Mr. Soames; there’s never anything in Mr. Timothy’s. Dear me! I’m quite upset. Won’t you keep your sister’s?”
Soames looked at the old fellow, and compunction stirred within him — as ever, at any sign that he was appreciated.
“Well,” he said, “keep me in hers; I shall be in about my own affairs, of course. Good afternoon, Gradman. That’s a fine melon.”
He waited for no more words. The old chap! HE couldn’t last much longer, anyway, sturdy as he looked! Well, they would find it hard to match him!
On reaching the Poultry, he decided to go to Green Street and see Winifred — queerly and suddenly homesick for the proximity of Park Lane, for the old secure days, the efflorescent privacy of his youth under the wings of James and Emily. Winifred alone represented for him now, the past; her solid nature never varied, however much she kept up with the fashions.
He found her, a little youthful in costume, drinking China tea, which she did not like — but what could one do, other teas were ‘common!’ She had taken to a parrot. Parrots were coming in again. The bird made a dreadful noise. Whether under its influence or that of the China tea — which, made in the English way, of a brand the Chinese grew for foreign stomachs, always upset him — he was soon telling her the whole story.
When he had finished, Winifred said comfortably:
“Well, Soames, I think you did splendidly; it serves them right!”
Conscious that his narrative must have presented the truth as it would not appear to the public, Soames muttered:
“That’s all very well; you’ll find a very different version in the financial papers.”
“Oh! but nobody reads them. I shouldn’t worry. Do you do Coue? Such a comfortable little man, Soames; I went to hear him. It’s rather a bore sometimes, but it’s quite the latest thing.”
Soames became inaudible — he never confessed a weakness.
“And how,” asked Winifred, “is Fleur’s little affair?”
“‘Little affair!’” echoed a voice above his head. That bird! It was clinging to the brocade curtains, moving its neck up and down.
“Polly!” said Winifred: “don’t be naughty!”
“Soames!” said the bird.
“I’ve taught him that. Isn’t he rather sweet?”
“No,” said Soames. “I should shut him up; he’ll spoil your curtains.”
The vexation of the afternoon had revived within him suddenly. What was life, but parrotry? What did people see of the real truth? They just repeated each other, like a lot of shareholders, or got their precious sentiments out of The Daily Liar. For one person who took a line, a hundred followed on, like sheep!
“You’ll stay and dine, dear boy!” said Winifred.
Yes! he would dine. Had she a melon, by any chance? He’d no inclination to go and sit opposite his wife at South Square. Ten to one Fleur would not be down. And as to young Michael — the fellow had been there that afternoon and witnessed the whole thing; he’d no wish to go over it again.
He was washing his hands for dinner, when a maid, outside, said:
“You’re wanted on the ‘phone, sir.”
Michael’s voice came over the wire, strained and husky:
“That you, sir?”
“Yes. What is it?”
“Fleur. It began this afternoon at three. I’ve been trying to reach you.”
“What?” cried Soames. “How? Quick!”
“They say it’s all normal. But it’s so awful. They say quite soon, now.” The voice broke off.
“My God!” said Soames. “My hat!”
By the front door the maid was asking: “Shall you be back to dinner, sir?”
“Dinner!” muttered Soames, and was gone.
He hurried along, almost running, his eyes searching for a cab. None to be had, of course! None to be had! Opposite the ‘Iseeum’ Club he got one, open in the fine weather after last night’s storm. That storm! He might have known. Ten days before her time. Why on earth hadn’t he gone straight back, or at least telephoned where he would be? All that he had been through that afternoon was gone like smoke. Poor child! Poor little thing! And what about twilight sleep? Why hadn’t he been there? He might have — nature! Damn it! Nature — as if it couldn’t leave even her alone!
“Get on!” he said, leaning out: “Double fare!”
Past the Connoisseurs, and the Palace, and Whitehall; past all preserves whence nature was excluded, deep in the waters of primitive emotion Soames sat, grey, breathless. Past Big Ben — eight o’clock! Five hours! Five hours of it!
“Let it be over!” he muttered aloud: “Let it be over, God!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54