Moving away, in the confusion of her mood, Fleur almost trod on the toes of a too-familiar figure standing before an Alma Tadema with a sort of grey anxiety, as if lost in the mutability of market values.
“Father! YOU up in town? Come along to lunch, I have to get home quick.”
Hooking his arm and keeping between him and Eve, she guided him away, thinking: ‘Did he see us? Could he have seen us?’
“Have you got enough on?” muttered Soames.
“That’s what you women always say. East wind, and your neck like that! Well, I don’t know.”
“No, dear, but I do.”
The grey eyes appraised her from head to foot.
“What are you doing here?” he said. And Flour thought: ‘Thank God he didn’t see. He’d never have asked if he had.’ And she answered:
“I take an interest in art, darling, as well as you.”
“Well, I’m staying with your aunt in Green Street. This east wind has touched my liver. How’s your — how’s Michael?”
“Oh, he’s all right — a little cheap. We had a dinner last night.”
Anniversary! The realism of a Forsyte stirred in him, and he looked under her eyes. Thrusting his hand into his overcoat pocket, he said:
“I was bringing you this.”
Fleur saw a flat substance wrapped in pink tissue paper.
“Darling, what is it?”
Soames put it back into his pocket.
“We’ll see later. Anybody to lunch?”
“Old Mont! Oh, Lord!”
“Don’t you like Bart, dear?”
“Like him? He and I have nothing in common.”
“I thought you fraternised rather over the state of things.”
“He’s a reactionary,” said Soames.
“And what are you, ducky?”
“I? What should I be?” With these words he affirmed that policy of non-commitment which, the older he grew, the more he perceived to be the only attitude for a sensible man.
“How is Mother?”
“Looks well. I see nothing of her — she’s got her own mother down — they go gadding about.”
He never alluded to Madame Lamotte as Fleur’s grandmother — the less his daughter had to do with her French side, the better.
“Oh!” said Fleur. “There’s Ting and a cat!” Ting-a-ling, out for a breath of air, and tethered by a lead in the hands of a maid, was snuffling horribly and trying to climb a railing whereon was perched a black cat, all hunch and eyes.
“Give him to me, Ellen. Come with Mother, darling!”
Ting-a-ling came, indeed, but only because he couldn’t go, bristling and snuffling and turning his head back.
“I like to see him natural,” said Fleur.
“Waste of money, a dog like that,” Soames commented. “You should have had a bull-dog and let him sleep in the hall. No end of burglaries. Your aunt had her knocker stolen.”
“I wouldn’t part with Ting for a hundred knockers.”
“One of these days you’ll be having HIM stolen — fashionable breed.”
Fleur opened her front door. “Oh!” she said, “Bart’s here, already!”
A shiny hat was reposing on a marble coffer, present from Soames, intended to hold coats and discourage moth. Placing his hat alongside the other, Soames looked at them. They were too similar for words, tall, high, shiny, and with the same name inside. He had resumed the ‘tall hat’ habit after the failure of the general and coal strikes in 1921, his instinct having told him that revolution would be at a discount for some considerable period.
“About this thing,” he said, taking out the pink parcel, “I don’t know what you’ll do with it, but here it is.”
It was a curiously carved and coloured bit of opal in a ring of tiny brilliants.
“Oh!” Fleur cried: “What a delicious thing!”
“Venus floating on the waves, or something,” murmured Soames. “Uncommon. You want a strong light on it.”
“But it’s lovely. I shall put it on at once.”
Venus! If Dad had known! She put her arms round his neck to disguise her sense of a propos. Soames received the rub of her cheek against his own well-shaved face with his usual stillness. Why demonstrate when they were both aware that his affection was double hers?
“Put it on then,” he said, “and let’s see.”
Fleur pinned it at her neck before an old lacquered mirror.
“It’s a jewel. Thank you, darling! Yes, your tie is straight. I like that white piping. You ought always to wear it with black. Now, come along!” And she drew him into her Chinese room. It was empty.
“Bart must be up with Michael, talking about his new book.”
“Writing at his age?” said Soames.
“Well, ducky, he’s a year younger than you.”
“I don’t write. Not such a fool. Got any more newfangled friends?”
“Just one — Gurdon Minho, the novelist.”
“Another of the new school?”
“Oh, no, dear! Surely you’ve heard of Gurdon Minho; he’s older than the hills.”
“They’re all alike to me,” muttered Soames. “Is he well thought of?”
“I should think his income is larger than yours. He’s almost a classic — only waiting to die.”
“I’ll get one of his books and read it. What name did you say?”
“Get ‘Big and Little Fishes,’ by Gurdon Minho. You can remember that, can’t you? Oh! here they are! Michael, look at what Father’s given me.”
Taking his hand, she put it up to the opal at her neck. ‘Let them both see,’ she thought, ‘what good terms we’re on.’ Though her father had not seen her with Wilfrid in the gallery, her conscience still said: “Strengthen your respectability, you don’t quite know how much support you’ll need for it in future.”
And out of the corner of her eye she watched those two. The meetings between ‘Old Mont’ and ‘Old Forsyte’— as she knew Bart called her father when speaking of him to Michael — always made her want to laugh, but she never quite knew why. Bart knew everything, but his knowledge was beautifully bound, strictly edited by a mind tethered to the ‘eighteenth century.’ Her father only knew what was of advantage to him, but the knowledge was unbound, and subject to no editorship. If he WAS late Victorian, he was not above profiting if necessary by even later periods. ‘Old Mont’ had faith in tradition; ‘Old Forsyte’ none. Fleur’s acuteness had long perceived a difference which favoured her father. Yet ‘Old Mont’s’ talk was so much more up-to-date, rapid, glancing, garrulous, redolent of precise information; and ‘Old Forsyte’s’ was constricted, matter-of-fact. Really impossible to tell which of the two was the better museum specimen; and both so well-preserved!
They did not precisely shake hands; but Soames mentioned the weather. And almost at once they all four sought that Sunday food which by a sustained effort of will Fleur had at last deprived of reference to the British character. They partook, in fact, of lobster cocktails, and a mere risotto of chickens’ livers, an omelette au rhum, and dessert trying to look as Spanish as it could.
“I’ve been in the Tate,” Fleur said; “I do think it’s touching.”
“Touching?” queried Soames with a sniff.
“Fleur means, sir, that to see so much old English art together is like looking at a baby show.”
“I don’t follow,” said Soames stiffly. “There’s some very good work there.”
“But not grown-up, sir.”
“Ah! You young people mistake all this crazy cleverness for maturity.”
“That’s not what Michael means, Father. It’s quite true that English painting has no wisdom teeth. You can see the difference in a moment, between it and any Continental painting.”
“And thank God for it!” broke in Sir Lawrence. “The beauty of this country’s art is its innocence. We’re the oldest country in the world politically, and the youngest aesthetically. What do you say, Forsyte?”
“Turner is old and wise enough for me,” said Soames curtly. “Are you coming to the P.P.R.S. Board on Tuesday?”
“Tuesday? We were going to shoot the spinneys, weren’t we, Michael?”
Soames grunted. “I should let them wait,” he said. “We settle the report.”
It was through ‘Old Mont’s’ influence that he had received a seat on the Board of that flourishing concern, the Providential Premium Reassurance Society, and, truth to tell, he was not sitting very easily in it. Though the law of averages was, perhaps, the most reliable thing in the world, there were circumstances which had begun to cause him disquietude. He looked round his nose. Light weight, this narrow-headed, twisting-eyebrowed baronet of a chap — like his son before him! And he added suddenly: “I’m not easy. If I’d realised how that chap Elderson ruled the roost, I doubt if I should have come on to that Board.”
One side of ‘Old Mont’s’ face seemed to try to leave the other.
“Elderson!” he said. “His grandfather was my grandfather’s parliamentary agent at the time of the Reform Bill; he put him through the most corrupt election ever fought — bought every vote — used to kiss all the farmer’s wives. Great days, Forsyte, great days!”
“And over,” said Soames. “I don’t believe in trusting a man’s judgment as far as we trust Elderson’s; I don’t like this foreign insurance.”
“My dear Forsyte — first-rate head, Elderson; I’ve known him all my life, we were at Winchester together.”
Soames uttered a deep sound. In that answer of ‘Old Mont’s’ lay much of the reason for his disquietude. On the Board they had all, as it were, been at Winchester together! It was the very deuce! They were all so honourable that they dared not scrutinise each other, or even their own collective policy. Worse than their dread of mistake or fraud was their dread of seeming to distrust each other. And this was natural, for to distrust each other was an immediate evil. And, as Soames knew, immediate evils are those which one avoids. Indeed, only that tendency, inherited from his father, James, to lie awake between the hours of two and four, when the chrysalis of faint misgiving becomes so readily the butterfly of panic, had developed his uneasiness. The P.P.R.S. was so imposing a concern, and he had been connected with it so short a time, that it seemed presumptuous to smell a rat; especially as he would have to leave the Board and the thousand a year he earned on it if he raised smell of rat without rat or reason. But what if there were a rat? That was the trouble! And here sat ‘Old Mont’ talking of his spinneys and his grandfather. The fellow’s head was too small! And visited by the cheerless thought: ‘There’s nobody here, not even my own daughter, capable of taking a thing seriously,’ he kept silence. A sound at his elbow roused him. That marmoset of a dog, on a chair between him and his daughter, was sitting up! Did it expect him to give it something? Its eyes would drop out one of these days. And he said: “Well, what do YOU want?” The way the little beast stared with those boot-buttons! “Here,” he said, offering it a salted almond. “You don’t eat these.”
“He has a passion for them, Dad. Haven’t you, darling?”
Ting-a-ling turned his eyes up at Soames, through whom a queer sensation passed. ‘Believe the little brute likes me,’ he thought, ‘he’s always looking at me.’ He touched the dog’s nose with the tip of his finger. Ting-a-ling gave it a slight lick with his curly blackish tongue.
“Poor fellow!” muttered Soames involuntarily, and turned to ‘Old Mont.’
“Don’t mention what I said.”
“My dear Forsyte, what was that?”
Good Heavens! And he was on a Board with a man like this! What had made him come on, when he didn’t want the money, or any more worries — goodness knew. As soon as he had become a director, Winifred and others of his family had begun to acquire shares to neutralise their income tax — seven per cent, preference — nine per cent, ordinary — instead of the steady five they ought to be content with. There it was, he couldn’t move without people following him. He had always been so safe, so perfect a guide in the money maze! To be worried at his time of life! His eyes sought comfort from the opal at his daughter’s neck — pretty thing, pretty neck! Well! She seemed happy enough — had forgotten her infatuation of two years ago! That was something to be thankful for. What she wanted now was a child to steady her in all this modern scrimmage of twopenny-ha’penny writers and painters and musicians. A loose lot, but she had a good little head on her. If she had a child, he would put another twenty thousand into her settlement. That was one thing about her mother — steady in money matters, good French method. And Fleur — so far as he knew — cut her coat according to her cloth. What was that? The word ‘Goya’ had caught his ear. New life of him coming out? H’m! That confirmed his slowly growing conviction that Goya had reached top point again.
“Think I shall part with that,” he said, pointing to the picture. “There’s an Argentine over here.”
“Sell your Goya, sir?” It was Michael speaking. “Think of the envy with which you’re now regarded!”
“One can’t have everything,” said Soames.
“That reproduction we’ve got for ‘The New Life’ has turned out first-rate. ‘Property of Soames Forsyte, Esquire.’ Let’s get the book out first, sir, anyway.”
“Shadow or substance, eh, Forsyte?”
Narrow-headed baronet chap — was he mocking?
“I’VE no family place,” he said.
“No, but we have, sir,” murmured Michael; “you could leave it to Fleur, you know.”
“Well,” said Soames, “we shall see if that’s worth while.” And he looked at his daughter.
Fleur seldom blushed, but she picked up Ting-a-ling and rose from the Spanish table. Michael followed suit. “Coffee in the other room,” he said. ‘Old Forsyte’ and ‘Old Mont’ stood up, wiping their moustaches.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54