Two hours behind Bicket, Michael wavered towards home. Old Danby was right as usual — if you couldn’t trust your packers, you might shut up shop! Away from Bicket’s eyes, he doubted. Perhaps the chap hadn’t a wife at all! Then Wilfrid’s manner usurped the place of Bicket’s morals. Old Wilfrid had been abrupt and queer the last three times of meeting. Was he boiling-up for verse?
He found Ting-a-ling at the foot of the stairs in a conservative attitude. “I am not going up,” he seemed saying, “until some one carries me — at the same time it is later than usual!”
“Where’s your mistress, you heraldic little beast?”
Ting-a-ling snuffled. “I could put up with it,” he implied, “if YOU carried me — these stairs are laborious!”
Michael took him up. “Let’s go and find her.”
Squeezed under an arm harder than his mistress’, Ting-a-ling stared as if with black-glass eyes; and the plume of his emergent tail quivered.
In the bedroom Michael dropped him so absent-mindedly that he went to his corner plume pendent, and couched there in dudgeon.
Nearly dinner time and Fleur not in! Michael went over his sketchy recollection of her plans. To-day she had been having Hubert Marsland and that Vertiginist — what was his name? — to lunch. There would have been fumes to clear off. Vertiginists — like milk — made carbonic acid gas in the lungs! Still! Half-past seven! What was happening to-night? Weren’t they going to that play of L.S.D.‘s? No — that was tomorrow! Was there conceivably nothing? If so, of course she would shorten her unoccupied time as much as possible. He made that reflection humbly. Michael had no illusions, he knew himself to be commonplace, with only a certain redeeming liveliness, and, of course, his affection for her. He even recognised that his affection was a weakness, tempting him to fussy anxieties, which on principle he restrained. To enquire, for instance, of Coaker or Philps — their man and their maid — when she had gone out, would be thoroughly against that principle. The condition of the world was such that Michael constantly wondered if his own affairs were worth paying attention to; but then the condition of the world was also such that sometimes one’s own affairs seemed all that were worth paying attention to. And yet his affairs were, practically speaking, Fleur; and if he paid too much attention to them, he was afraid of annoying her.
He went into his dressing-room and undid his waistcoat.
‘But no!’ he thought; ‘if she finds me “dressed” already, it’ll put too much point on it.’ So he did up his waistcoat and went downstairs again. Coaker was in the hall.
“Mr. Forsyte and Sir Lawrence looked in about six, sir. Mrs. Mont was out. What time shall I serve dinner?”
“Oh! about a quarter past eight. I don’t think we’re going out.”
He went into the drawing-room and passing down its Chinese emptiness, drew aside the curtain. The square looked cold and dark and draughty; and he thought: ‘Bicket — pneumonia — I hope she’s got her fur coat.’ He took out a cigarette and put it back. If she saw him at the window she would think him fussy; and he went up again to see if she had put on her fur!
Ting-a-ling, still couchant, greeted him plume dansetti arrested as at disappointment. Michael opened a wardrobe. She had! Good! He was taking a sniff round, when Ting-a-ling passed him trottant, and her voice said: “Well, my darling!” Wishing that he was, Michael emerged from behind the wardrobe door. Heaven! She looked pretty, coloured by the wind! He stood rather wistfully silent.
“Hallo, Michael! I’m rather late. Been to the Club and walked home.”
Michael had a quite unaccountable feeling that there was suppression in that statement. He also suppressed, and said: “I was just looking to see that you’d got your fur, it’s beastly cold. Your dad and Bart have been and went away fasting.”
Fleur shed her coat and dropped into a chair. “I’m tired. Your ears are sticking up so nicely to-night, Michael.”
Michael went on his knees and joined his hands behind her waist. Her eyes had a strange look, a scrutiny which held him in suspense, a little startled.
“If YOU got pneumonia,” he said, “I should go clean out of curl.”
“Why on earth should I?”
“You don’t know the connection — never mind, it wouldn’t interest you. We’re not going out, are we?”
“Of course we are. It’s Alison’s monthly.”
“Oh! Lord! If you’re tired we could cut that.”
“My dear! Impos.! She’s got all sorts of people coming.”
Stifling a disparagement, he sighed out: “Right-o! War-paint?”
“Yes, white waistcoat. I like you in white waistcoats.”
Cunning little wretch? He squeezed her waist and rose. Fleur laid a light stroke on his hand, and he went into his dressing-room comforted . . . .
But Fleur sat still for at least five minutes — not precisely ‘a prey to conflicting emotions,’ but the victim of very considerable confusion. TWO men within the last hour had done this thing — knelt at her knees and joined their fingers behind her waist. Undoubtedly she had been rash to go to Wilfrid’s rooms. The moment she got there she had perceived how entirely unprepared she really was to commit herself to what was physical. True he had done no more than Michael. But — Goodness! — she had seen the fire she was playing with, realised what torment he was in. She had strictly forbidden him to say a word to Michael, but intuitively she knew that in his struggle between loyalties she could rely on nothing. Confused, startled, touched, she could not help a pleasant warmth in being so much loved by two men at once, nor an itch of curiosity about the upshot. And she sighed. She had added to her collection of experiences — but how to add further without breaking up the collection, and even perhaps the collector, she could not see.
After her words to Wilfrid before the Eve: “You will be a fool to go — wait!” she had known he would expect something before long. Often he had asked her to come and pass judgment on his ‘junk.’ A month, even a week, ago she would have gone without thinking more than twice about it, and discussed his ‘junk’ with Michael afterwards! But now she thought it over many times, and but for the fumes of lunch, and the feeling, engendered by the society of the ‘Vertiginist,’ of Amabel Nazing, of Linda Frewe, that scruples of any kind were ‘stuffy,’ sensations of all sorts ‘the thing,’ she would probably still have been thinking it over now. When they departed, she had taken a deep breath and her telephone receiver from the Chinese tea chest.
If Wilfrid were going to be in at half-past five, she would come and see his ‘junk.’
His answer: “My God! Will you?” almost gave her pause. But dismissing hesitation with the thought: ‘I WILL be Parisian — Proust!’ she had started for her Club. Three-quarters of an hour, with no more stimulant than three cups of China tea, three back numbers of the ‘Glass of Fashion,’ three back views of country members ‘dead in chairs,’ had sent her forth a careful quarter of an hour behind her time.
On the top floor Wilfrid was standing in his open doorway, pale as a soul in purgatory. He took her hand gently, and drew her in. Fleur thought with a little thrill: ‘Is this what it’s like? Du cote de chez Swann!’ Freeing her hand, she began at once to flutter round the ‘junk,’ clinging to it piece by piece.
Old English ‘junk’ rather manorial, with here and there an eastern or First Empire bit, collected by some bygone Desert, nomadic, or attached to the French court. She was afraid to sit down, for fear that he might begin to follow the authorities; nor did she want to resume the intense talk of the Tate Gallery. ‘Junk’ was safe, and she only looked at him in those brief intervals when he was not looking at her. She knew she was not playing the game according to ‘La Garconne’ and Amabel Nazing; that, indeed, she was in danger of going away without having added to her sensations. And she couldn’t help being sorry for Wilfrid; his eyes yearned after her, his lips were bitter to look at. When at last from sheer exhaustion of ‘junk’ she sat down, he had flung himself at her feet. Half hypnotised, with her knees against his chest, as safe as she could hope for, she really felt the tragedy of it — his horror of himself, his passion for herself. It was painful, deep; it did not fit in with what she had been led to expect; it was not in the period, and how — how was she to get away without more pain to him and to herself? When she HAD got away, with one kiss received but not answered, she realised that she had passed through a quarter of an hour of real life, and was not at all sure that she liked it. . . . But now, safe in her own room, undressing for Alison’s monthly, she felt curious as to what she would have been feeling if things had gone as far as was proper according to the authorities. Surely she had not experienced one-tenth of the thoughts or sensations that would have been assigned to her in any advanced piece of literature! It had been disillusioning, or else she was deficient, and Fleur, could not bear to feel deficient. And, lightly powdering her shoulders, she bent her thoughts towards Alison’s monthly.
* * * * * *
Though Lady Alison enjoyed an occasional encounter with the younger generation, the Aubrey Greenes and Linda Frewes of this life were not conspicuous by their presence at her gatherings. Nesta Gorse, indeed, had once attended, but one legal and two literary politicos who had been in contact with her, had complained of it afterwards. She had, it seemed, rent little spiked holes in the garments of their self-esteem. Sibley Swan would have been welcome, for his championship of the past, but he seemed, so far, to have turned up his nose and looked down it. So it was not the intelligentsia, but just intellectual society, which was gathered there when Fleur and Michael entered, and the conversation had all the sparkle and all the ‘savoir faire’ incidental to talk about art and letters by those who — as Michael put it —“fortunately had not to faire”
“All the same, these are the guys,” he muttered in Fleur’s ear, “who make the names of artists and writers. What’s the stunt, to-night?”
It appeared to be the London debut of a lady who sang Balkan folk songs. But in a refuge to the right were four tables set out for bridge. They were already filled. Among those who still stood listening, were, here and there, a Gurdon Minho, a society painter and his wife, a sculptor looking for a job. Fleur, wedged between Lady Feynte, the painter’s wife, and Gurdon Minho himself, began planning an evasion. There — yes, there was Mr. Chalfont! At Lady Alison’s, Fleur, an excellent judge of ‘milieu’ never wasted her time on artists and writers — she could meet THEM anywhere. Here she intuitively picked out the biggest ‘bug,’ politico-literary, and waited to pin him. Absorbed in the idea of pinning Mr. Chalfont, she overlooked a piece of drama passing without.
Michael had clung to the top of the stairway, in no mood for talk and skirmish; and, leaning against the balustrade, wasp-thin in his long white waistcoat, with hands deep thrust into his trousers’ pockets, he watched the turns and twists of Fleur’s white neck, and listened to the Balkan songs, with a sort of blankness in his brain. The word: “Mont!” startled him. Wilfrid was standing just below. Mont? He had not been that to Wilfrid for two years!
“Come down here.”
On that half-landing was a bust of Lionel Charwell, K.C., by Boris Strumolowski, in the genre he had cynically adopted when June Forsyte gave up supporting his authentic but unrewarded genius. It had been almost indistinguishable from any of the other busts in that year’s Academy, and was used by the young Charwells to chalk moustaches on.
Beside this object Desert leaned against the wall with his eyes closed. His face was a study to Michael.
“What’s wrong, Wilfrid?”
Desert did not move. “You’ve got to know — I’m in love with Fleur.”
“I’m not going to play the snake. You’re up against me. Sorry, but there it is! You can let fly!” His face was death-pale, and its muscles twitched. In Michael, it was the mind, the heart that twitched. What a very horrible, strange, “too beastly” moment! His best friend — his best man! Instinctively he dived for his cigarette case — instinctively handed it to Desert. Instinctively they both took cigarettes, and lighted each other’s. Then Michael said:
“Fleur — knows?”
Desert nodded: “She doesn’t know I’m telling you — wouldn’t have let me. You’ve nothing against her — yet.” And, still with closed eyes, he added: “I couldn’t help it.”
It was Michael’s own subconscious thought! Natural! Natural! Fool not to see how natural! Then something shut-to within him, and he said: “Decent of you to tell me; but — aren’t you going to clear out?”
Desert’s shoulders writhed against the wall.
“I thought so; but it seems not.”
“Seems? I don’t understand.”
“If I knew for certain I’d no chance — but I don’t,” and he suddenly looked at Michael: “Look here, it’s no good keeping gloves on. I’m desperate, and I’ll take her from you if I can.”
“Good God!” said Michael. “It’s the limit!”
“Yes! Rub it in! But, I tell you, when I think of you going home with her, and of myself,” he gave a dreadful little laugh, “I advise you NOT to rub it in.”
“Well,” said Michael, “as this isn’t a Dostoievsky novel, I suppose there’s no more to be said.”
Desert moved from the wall and laid his hand on the bust of Lionel Charwell.
“You realise, at least, that I’ve gone out of my way — perhaps dished myself — by telling you. I’ve not bombed without declaring war.”
“No,” said Michael dully.
“You can chuck my books over to some other publisher.” Michael shrugged.
“Good-night, then,” said Desert. “Sorry for being so primitive.”
Michael looked straight into his ‘best man’s’ face. There was no mistaking its expression of bitter despair. He made a half-movement with his hand, uttered half the word “Wilfrid,” and, as Desert went down, he went upstairs.
Back in his place against the balustrade, he tried to realise that life was a laughing matter, and couldn’t. His position required a serpent’s cunning, a lion’s courage, a dove’s gentleness: he was not conscious of possessing such proverbial qualities. If Fleur had loved him as he loved her, he would have had for Wilfrid a real compassion. It was so natural to fall in love with Fleur! But she didn’t — oh! no, she didn’t! Michael had one virtue — if virtue it be — a moderate opinion of himself, a disposition to think highly of his friends. He had thought highly of Desert; and — odd! — he still did not think lowly of him. Here was his friend trying to do him mortal injury, to alienate the affection — more honestly, the toleration — of his wife; and yet he did not think him a cad. Such leniency, he knew, was hopeless; but the doctrines of free-will, and free contract, were not to him mere literary conceptions, they were part of his nature. To apply duress, however desirable, would not be on his cards. And something like despair ravaged the heart of him, watching Fleur’s ingratiating little tricks with the great Gerald Chalfont. If she left him for Wilfrid! But surely — no — her father, her house, her dog, her friends, her — her collection of — of — she would not — could not give THEM up? But suppose she kept everything, Wilfrid included! No, no! She wouldn’t! Only for a second did that possibility blur the natural loyalty of his mind.
Well, what to do? Tell her — talk the thing out? Or wait and watch? For what? Without deliberate spying, he could not watch. Desert would come to their house no more. No! Either complete frankness; or complete ignoring — and that meant living with the sword of Damocles above his head! No! Complete frankness! And not do anything that seemed like laying a trap! He passed his hand across a forehead that was wet. If only they were at home, away from that squalling and these cultivated jackanapes! Could he go in and hook her out? Impossible without some reason! Only his brain-storm for a reason! He must just bite on it. The singing ceased. Fleur was looking round. Now she would beckon! On the contrary, she came towards him. He could not help the cynical thought: ‘She’s hooked old Chalfont!’ He loved her, but he knew her little weaknesses. She came up and took hold of his sleeve.
“I’ve had enough, Michael, let’s slip off; d’you mind?”
“Quick!” he said, “before they spot us!”
In the cold air outside he thought: ‘Now? Or in her room?’
“I think,” said Fleur, “that Mr. Chalfont is overrated — he’s nothing but a mental yawn. He’s coming to lunch tomorrow week.”
Not now — in her room!
“Whom do you think to meet him, besides Alison?”
“Of course not; but it must be somebody intriguing, Michael. Bother! sometimes I think it isn’t worth it.”
Michael’s heart stood still. Was that a portent — sign of ‘the primitive’ rising within his adored practitioner of social arts? An hour ago he would have said:
“You’re right, my child; it jolly well isn’t!” But now — any sign of change was ominous! He slipped his arm in hers.
“Don’t worry, we’ll snare the just-right cuckoos, somehow.”
“A Chinese Minister would be perfect,” mused Fleur, “with Minho and Bart — four men — two women — cosy. I’ll talk to Bart.”
Michael had opened their front door. She passed him; he lingered to see the stars, the plane trees, a man’s figure motionless, collared to the eyes, hatted down to them. ‘Wilfrid!’ he thought: ‘Spain! Why Spain? And all poor devils who are in distress — the heart — oh! darn the heart!’ He closed the door.
But soon he had another to open, and never with less enthusiasm. Fleur was sitting on the arm of a chair, in the dim lavender pyjamas she sometimes wore just to keep in with things, staring at the fire. Michael stood, looking at her and at his own reflection beyond in one of the five mirrors — white and black, the pierrot pyjamas she had bought him. ‘Figures in a play,’ he thought, ‘figures in a play! Is it real?’ He moved forward and sat on the chair’s other arm.
“Hang it!” he muttered. “Wish I were Antinous!” And he slipped from the arm into the chair, to be behind her face, if she wanted to hide it from him.
“Wilfrid’s been telling me,” he said, quietly.
Off his chest! What now? He saw the blood come flushing into her neck and cheek.
“Oh! What business — how do you mean ‘telling you’?”
“Just that he’s in love with you — nothing more — there’s nothing more to tell, is there?” And drawing his feet up on to the chair, he clasped his hands hard round his knees. Already — already he had asked a question! Bite on it! Bite on it! And he shut his eyes.
“Of course,” said Fleur, very slowly, “there’s nothing more. If Wilfrid chooses to be so silly.”
Chooses! The word seemed unjust to one whose own ‘silliness’ was so recent — so enduring! And — curious! his heart wouldn’t bound. Surely it ought to have bounded at her words!
“Is that the end of Wilfrid, then?”
“The end? I don’t know.”
Ah! Who knew anything — when passion was about?
“Well,” he said, holding himself hard together, “don’t forget I love you awfully!”
He saw her eyelids flicker, her shoulders shrugging.
“Am I likely to?”
Bitter, cordial, simple — which? Suddenly her hands came round and took him by the ears. Holding them fast she looked down at him, and laughed. And again his heart WOULD not bound. If she did not lead him by the nose, she —! But he clutched her to him in the chair. Lavender and white and black confused — she returned his kiss. But from the heart? Who knew? Not Michael.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54