The offices of the P.P.R.S. were not far from the College of Arms. Soames, who knew that ‘three dexter buckles on a sable ground gules’ and a ‘pheasant proper’ had been obtained there at some expense by his Uncle Swithin in the ‘sixties of the last century, had always pooh-poohed the building, until, about a year ago, he had been struck by the name Golding in a book which he had absently taken up at the Connoisseurs’ Club. The affair purported to prove that William Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The mother of the earl was a Golding — so was the mother of Soames! The coincidence struck him; and he went on reading. The tome left him with judgment suspended over the main issue, but a distinct curiosity as to whether he was not of the same blood as Shakespeare. Even if the earl were not the bard, he felt that the connection could only be creditable, though, so far as he could make out, Oxford was a shady fellow. Recently appointed on the Board of the P.P.R.S., so that he passed the college every other Tuesday, he had thought: ‘Shan’t go spending a lot of money on it, but might look in one day.’ Having looked in, it was astonishing how taken he had been by the whole thing. Tracing his mother had been quite like a criminal investigation, nearly as ramified and fully as expensive. Having begun, the tenacity of a Forsyte could hardly bear to leave him short of the mother of Shakespeare de Vere, even though she would be collateral; unfortunately, he could not get past a certain William Gouldyng, Ingerer — whatever that might be, and he was almost afraid to enquire — of the time of Oliver Cromwell. There were still four generations to be unravelled, and he was losing money and the hope of getting anything for it. This it was which caused him to gaze askance at the retired building while passing it on his way to the Board on the Tuesday after the lunch at Fleur’s. Two more wakeful early mornings had screwed him to the pitch of bringing his doubts to a head and knowing where he stood in the matter of the P.P.R.S.; and this sudden reminder that he was spending money here, there and everywhere, when there was a possibility, however remote, of financial liability somewhere else, sharpened the edge of a nerve already stropped by misgivings. Neglecting the lift and walking slowly up the two flights of stairs, he ‘went over’ his fellow-directors for the fifteenth time. Old Lord Fontenoy was there for his name, of course; seldom attended, and was what they called ‘a dud’— h’m! — nowadays; the chairman, Sir Luke Sharman, seemed always to be occupied in not being taken for a Jew. His nose was straight, but his eyelids gave cause for doubt. His surname was impeccable, but his Christian dubious; his voice was reassuringly roughened, but his clothes had a suspicious tendency towards gloss. Altogether a man who, though shrewd, could not be trusted — Soames felt — to be giving his whole mind to other business. As for ‘Old Mont’— what was the good of a ninth baronet on a Board? Guy Meyricke, King’s Counsel, last of the three who had been ‘together,’ was a good man in court, no doubt, but with no time for business and no real sense of it! Remained that converted Quaker, old Cuthbert Mothergill — whose family name had been a by-word for successful integrity throughout the last century, so that people still put Mothergills on to boards almost mechanically — rather deaf, nice clean old chap, and quite bland, but nothing more. A perfectly honest lot, no doubt, but perfunctory. None of them really giving their minds to the thing! In Elderson’s pocket, too, except perhaps Sharman, and he on the wobble. And Elderson himself — clever chap, bit of an artist, perhaps; managing director from the start, with everything at his finger-tips! Yes! That was the mischief! Prestige of superior knowledge, and years of success — they all kowtowed to him, and no wonder! Trouble with a man like that was that if he once admitted to having made a mistake he destroyed the legend of his infallibility. Soames had enough infallibility of his own to realise how powerful was its impetus towards admitting nothing. Ten months ago, when he had come on to the Board, everything had seemed in full sail; exchanges had reached bottom, so they all thought — the ‘reassurance of foreign contracts’ policy, which Elderson had initiated about a year before, had seemed, with rising exchanges, perhaps the brightest feather in the cap of possibility. And now, a twelvemonth later, Soames suspected darkly that they did not know where they were — and the general meeting only six weeks off! Probably not even Elderson knew; or, if he did, he was keeping knowledge which ought to belong to the whole directorate severely to himself.
He entered the board room without a smile. All there — even Lord Fontenoy and ‘Old Mont’— given up his spinneys, had he! Soames took his seat at the end on the fireside. Staring at Elderson, he saw, with sudden clearness, the strength of the fellow’s position; and, with equal clearness, the weakness of the P.P.R.S. With this rising and falling currency, they could never know exactly their liability — they were just gambling. Listening to the minutes and other routine business, with his chin clasped in his hand, he let his eyes move from face to face — old Mothergill, Elderson, Mont opposite; Sharman at the head; Fontenoy, Meyricke, back to himself — decisive board of the year. He could not, must not, be placed in any dubious position! At his first general meeting on this concern, he must not face the shareholders without knowing exactly where he stood. He looked again at Elderson — sweetish face, bald head rather like Julius Caesar’s, nothing to suggest irregularity or excessive optimism — in fact, somewhat resembling that of old Uncle Nicholas Forsyte, whose affairs had been such an example to the last generation but one. The managing director having completed his exposition, Soames directed his gaze at the pink face of dosey old Mothergill, and said:
“I’m not satisfied that these accounts disclose our true position. I want the Board adjourned to this day week, Mr. Chairman, and during the week I want every member of the Board furnished with exact details of the foreign contract commitments which do NOT mature during the present financial year. I notice that those are lumped under a general estimate of liability. I am not satisfied with that. They ought to be separately treated.” Shifting his gaze past Elderson to the face of ‘Old Mont,’ he went on: “Unless there’s a material change for the better on the Continent, which I don’t anticipate (quite the contrary), I fully expect those commitments will put us in Queer Street next year.”
The scraping of feet, shifting of legs, clearing of throats which accompany a slight sense of outrage greeted the words ‘Queer Street’; and a sort of satisfaction swelled in Soames; he had rattled their complacency, made them feel a touch of the misgiving from which he himself was suffering.
“We have always treated our commitments under one general estimate, Mr. Forsyte.”
“And to my mind wrongly. This foreign contract business is a new policy. For all I can tell, instead of paying a dividend, we ought to be setting this year’s profits against a certain loss next year.”
Again that scrape and rustle.
“My dear sir, absurd!”
The bulldog in Soames snuffled.
“So you say!” he said. “Am I to have those details?”
“The Board can have what details it likes, of course. But permit me to remark on the general question that it CAN only be a matter of estimate. A conservative basis has always been adopted.”
“That is a matter of opinion,” said Soames; “and in my view it should be the Board’s opinion after very careful discussion of the actual figures.”
‘Old Mont’ was speaking.
“My dear Forsyte, to go into every contract would take us a week, and then get us no further; we can but average it out.”
“What we have not got in these accounts,” said Soames, “is the relative proportion of foreign risk to home risk — in the present state of things a vital matter.”
The Chairman spoke.
“There will be no difficulty about that, I imagine, Elderson! But in any case, Mr. Forsyte, we should hardly be justified in penalising the present year for the sake of eventualities which we hope will not arise.”
“I don’t know,” said Soames. “We are here to decide policy according to our common sense, and we must have the fullest opportunity of exercising it. That is my point. We have not enough information.”
That ‘plausible chap’ was speaking again:
“Mr. Forsyte seems to be indicating a lack of confidence in the management.” Taking the bull by the horns — was he?
“Am I to have that information?”
The voice of old Mothergill rose cosy in the silence.
“The Board could be adjourned, perhaps, Mr. Chairman; I could come up myself at a pinch. Possibly we could all attend. The times are very peculiar — we mustn’t take any unnecessary risks. The policy of foreign contracts is undoubtedly somewhat new to us. We have no reason so far to complain of the results. And I am sure we have the utmost confidence in the judgment of our managing director. Still, as Mr. Forsyte has asked for this information, I think perhaps we ought to have it. What do you say, my lord?”
“I can’t come up next week. I agree with the chairman that on these accounts we couldn’t burke this year’s dividend. No good getting the wind up before we must. When do the accounts go out, Elderson?”
“Normally at the end of this week.”
“These are not normal times,” said Soames. “To be quite plain, unless I have that information I must tender my resignation.” He saw very well what was passing in their minds. A newcomer making himself a nuisance — they would take his resignation readily — only it would look awkward just before a general meeting unless they could announce “wife’s ill-health” or something satisfactory, which he would take very good care they didn’t.
The chairman said coldly:
“Well, we will adjourn the Board to this day week; you will be able to get us those figures, Elderson?”
Into Soames’ mind flashed the thought: ‘Ought to ask for an independent scrutiny.’ But he looked round. Going too far — perhaps — if he intended to remain on the Board — and he had no wish to resign — after all, it was a big thing, and a thousand a year! No! Mustn’t overdo it!
Walking away, he savoured his triumph doubtfully, by no means sure that he had done any good. His attitude had only closed the ‘all together’ attitude round Elderson. The weakness of his position was that he had nothing to go on, save an uneasiness, which when examined was found to be simply a feeling that he hadn’t enough control himself. And yet, there couldn’t be two managers — you must trust your manager!
A voice behind him tittupped: “Well, Forsyte, you gave us quite a shock with your alternative. First time I remember anything of the sort on that Board.”
“Sleepy hollow,” said Soames.
“Yes, I generally have a nap. It gets very hot in there. Wish I’d stuck to my spinneys. They come high, even as early as this.”
Incurably frivolous, this tittupping baronet!
“By the way, Forsyte, I wanted to say: With all this modern birth control and the rest of it, one gets uneasy. We’re not the royal family; but don’t you feel with me it’s time there was a movement in heirs?”
Soames did, but he was not going to confess to anything so indelicate about his own daughter.
“Plenty of time,” he muttered.
“I don’t like that dog, Forsyte.”
“Dog!” he said. “What’s that to do with it?”
“I like a baby to come before a dog. Dogs and poets distract young women. My grandmother had five babies before she was twenty-seven. She was a Montjoy; wonderful breeders, you remember them — the seven Montjoy sisters — all pretty. Old Montjoy had forty-seven grandchildren. You don’t get it nowadays, Forsyte.”
“Country’s over-populated,” said Soames grimly.
“By the wrong sort — less of them, more of ourselves. It’s almost a matter for legislation.”
“Talk to your son,” said Soames.
“Ah! but they think us fogeys, you know. If we could only point to a reason for existence. But it’s difficult, Forsyte, it’s difficult.”
“They’ve got everything they want,” said Soames.
“Not enough, my dear Forsyte, not enough; the condition of the world is on the nerves of the young. England’s dished, they say, Europe’s dished. Heaven’s dished, and so is Hell! No future in anything but the air. You can’t breed in the air; at least, I doubt it — the difficulties are considerable.”
“If only the journalists would hold their confounded pens,” he said; for, more and more of late, with the decrescendo of scare in the daily Press, he was regaining the old sound Forsyte feeling of security. “We’ve only to keep clear of Europe,” he added.
“Keep clear and keep the ring! Forsyte, I believe you’ve hit it. Good friendly terms with Scandinavia, Holland, Spain, Italy, Turkey — all the outlying countries that we can get at by sea. And let the others dree their weirds. It’s an idea!” How the chap rattled on!
“I’m no politician,” said Soames.
“Keep the ring! The new formula. It’s what we’ve been coming to unconsciously! And as to trade — to say we can’t do without trading with this country or with that — bunkum, my dear Forsyte. The world’s large — we can.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Soames. “I only know we must drop this foreign contract assurance.”
“Why not confine it to the ring countries? Instead of ‘balance of power,’ ‘keep the ring’! Really, it’s an inspiration!”
Thus charged with inspiration, Soames said hastily:
“I leave you here, I’m going to my daughter’s.”
“Ah! I’m going to my son’s. Look at these poor devils!”
Down by the Embankment at Blackfriars a band of unemployed were trailing dismally with money-boxes.
“Revolution in the bud! There’s one thing that’s always forgotten, Forsyte, it’s a great pity.”
“What’s that?” said Soames, with gloom. The fellow would tittup all the way to Fleur’s!
“Wash the working-class, put them in clean, pleasant-coloured jeans, teach ’em to speak like you and me, and there’d be an end of class feeling. It’s all a matter of the senses. Wouldn’t you rather share a bedroom with a clean, neat-clothed plumber’s assistant who spoke and smelled like you than with a profiteer who dropped his aitches and reeked of opoponax? Of course you would.”
“Never tried,” said Soames, “so don’t know.”
“Pragmatist! But believe me, Forsyte — if the working class would concentrate on baths and accent instead of on their political and economic tosh, equality would be here in no time.”
“I don’t want equality,” said Soames, taking his ticket to Westminster.
The ‘tittupping’ voice pursued him entering the tube lift.
“Aesthetic equality, Forsyte, if we had it, would remove the wish for any other. Did you ever catch an impecunious professor wishing he was the King?”
“No,” said Soames, opening his paper.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54