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Michael Takes ‘A Lunar’
Soames Keeps His Eyes Open
Sounds in the Night
Round and About
Poultry and Cats
Francis Wilmot Reverses
Soames Visits the Press
Inception of the Case
Michael Makes His Speech
Marjorie Ferrar at Home
Fons Et Origo
Progress of the Case
Michael Visits Bethnal Green
“Not Going to have it”
Soames Drives Home
In the Box
Rout at Mrs. Magussie’s
The New Leaf
Over the Windmill
The young man, who, at the end of September, 1924, dismounted from a taxicab in South Square, Westminster, was so unobtrusively American that his driver had some hesitation in asking for double his fare. The young man had no hesitation in refusing it.
“Are you unable to read?” he said, softly. “Here’s four shillings.”
With that he turned his back and looked at the house before which he had descended. This, the first private English house he had ever proposed to enter, inspired him with a certain uneasiness, as of a man who expects to part with a family ghost. Comparing a letter with the number chased in pale brass on the door, he murmured: “It surely is,” and rang the bell.
While waiting for the door to be opened, he was conscious of extreme quietude, broken by a clock chiming four as if with the voice of Time itself. When the last boom died, the door yawned inward, and a man, almost hairless, said:
The young man removed a soft hat from a dark head.
“This is Mrs. Michael Mont’s house?”
“Will you give her my card, and this letter?”
“‘Mr. Francis Wilmot, Naseby, S. C.’ Will you wait in here, sir?”
Ushered through the doorway of a room on the right, Francis Wilmot was conscious of a commotion close to the ground, and some teeth grazing the calf of his leg.
“Dandie!” said the voice of the hairless man, “you little devil! That dog is a proper little brute with strangers, sir. Stand still! I’ve known him bite clean through a lady’s stockings.”
Francis Wilmot saw with interest a silver-grey dog nine inches high and nearly as broad, looking up at him with lustrous eyes above teeth of extreme beauty.
“It’s the baby, sir,” said the hairless man, pointing to a sort of nest on the floor before the fireless hearth; “he WILL go for people when he’s with the baby. But once he gets to smelling your trousers, he’s all right. Better not touch the baby, though. Mrs. Mont was here a minute ago; I’ll take your card up to her.”
Francis Wilmot sat down on a settee in the middle of the room; and the dog lay between him and the baby.
And while the young man sat he gazed around him. The room was painted in panels of a sub-golden hue, with a silver-coloured ceiling. A clavichord, little golden ghost of a piano, stood at one end. Glass lustres, pictures of flowers and of a silvery-necked lady swinging a skirt and her golden slippers, adorned the walls. The curtains were of gold and silver. The silver-coloured carpet felt wonderfully soft beneath his feet, the furniture was of a golden wood.
The young man felt suddenly quite homesick. He was back in the living-room of an old “Colonial” house, in the bend of a lonely South Carolina river, reddish in hue. He was staring at the effigy of his high-collared, red-coated great-grandfather, Francis Wilmot, Royalist major in the War of Independence. They always said it was like the effigy he saw when shaving every morning; the smooth dark hair drooping across his right temple, the narrow nose and lips, the narrow dark hand on the sword-hilt or the razor, the slits of dark eyes gazing steadily out. Young Francis was seeing the darkies working in the cotton-fields under a sun that he did not seem to have seen since he came over here; he was walking with his setter along the swamp edge, where Florida moss festooned the tall dolorous trees; he was thinking of the Wilmot inheritance, ruined in the Civil War, still decayed yet precious, and whether to struggle on with it, or to sell it to the Yank who wanted a week-end run-to from his Charleston dock job, and would improve it out of recognition. It would be lonely there, now that Anne had married that young Britisher, Jon Forsyte, and gone away north, to Southern Pines. And he thought of his sister, thus lost to him, dark, pale, vivid, ‘full of sand.’ Yes! this room made him homesick, with its perfection, such as he had never beheld, where the only object out of keeping was that dog, lying on its side now, and so thick through that all its little legs were in the air. Softly he said:
“It’s the prettiest room I ever was in.”
“What a perfectly charming thing to overhear!”
A young woman, with crinkly chestnut hair above a creamy face, with smiling lips, a short straight nose, and very white dark-lashed eyelids active over dark hazel eyes, stood near the door. She came towards him, and held out her hand.
Francis Wilmot bowed over it, and said, gravely:
“Mrs. Michael Mont?”
“So Jon’s married your sister. Is she pretty?”
“I hope baby has been entertaining you.”
“He’s just great.”
“He is, rather. I hear Dandie bit you?”
“I reckon he didn’t break the cuticle.”
“Haven’t you looked? But he’s quite healthy. Sit down, and tell me all about your sister and Jon. Is it a marriage of true minds?”
Francis Wilmot sat down.
“It certainly is. Young Jon is a pretty white man, and Anne —”
He heard a sigh.
“I’m very glad. He says in his letter that he’s awfully happy. You must come and stay here. You can be as free as you like. Look on us as an hotel.”
The young man’s dark eyes smiled.
“That’s too good of you! I’ve never been on this side before. They got through the war too soon.”
Fleur took the baby out of its nest.
“THIS creature doesn’t bite. Look — two teeth, but they don’t antagonise — isn’t that how you put it?”
“What is its name?”
“Kit — for Christopher. We agreed about its name, luckily. Michael — my husband — will be in directly. He’s in Parliament, you know. They’re not sitting till Monday — Ireland, of course. We only came back for it from Italy yesterday. Italy’s so wonderful — you must see it.”
“Pardon me, but is that the Parliament clock that chimes so loud?”
“Big Ben — yes. He marks time for them. Michael says Parliament is the best drag on Progress ever invented. With our first Labour Government, it’s been specially interesting this year. Don’t you think it’s rather touching the way this dog watches my baby? He’s got the most terrific jaw!”
“What kind of dog is he?”
“A Dandie Dinmont. We did have a Peke. It was a terrible tragedy. He WOULD go after cats; and one day he struck a fighting Tom, and got clawed over both eyes — quite blinded — and so —”
The young man saw her eyes suddenly too bright. He made a soft noise, and said gently: “That was too bad.”
“I had to change this room completely. It used to be Chinese. It reminded me too much.”
“This little fellow would chaw any cat.”
“Luckily he was brought up with kittens. We got him for his legs — they’re so bowed in front that he can hardly run, so he just suits the pram. Dan, show your legs!”
The Dandie looked up with a negative sound.
“He’s a terrible little ‘character.’ Do tell me, what’s Jon like now? Is he still English?”
The young man was conscious that she had uttered at last something really in her mind.
“He is; but he’s a dandy fellow.”
“And his mother? She used to be beautiful.”
“And is to this day.”
“She would be. Grey, I suppose, by now?”
“Yes. You don’t like her?”
“Well, I hope she won’t be jealous of your sister!”
“I think, perhaps, you’re unjust.”
“I think, perhaps, I am.”
She sat very still, her face hard above the baby’s. And the young man, aware of thoughts beyond his reach, got up.
“When you write to Jon,” she said, suddenly, “tell him that I’m awfully glad, and that I wish him luck. I shan’t write to him myself. May I call you Francis?”
Francis Wilmot bowed. “I shall be proud, ma’am.”
“Yes; but you must call me Fleur. We’re sort of related, you know.”
The young man smiled, and touched the name with his lips.
“Fleur! It’s a beautiful name!”
“Your room will be ready when you come back. You’ll have a bathroom to yourself, of course.”
He put his lips to the hand held out.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “I was feeling kind of homesick; I miss the sun over here.”
In going out, he looked back. Fleur had put her baby back in its nest, and was staring straight before her.
But more than the death of a dog had caused the regarnishing of Fleur’s Chinese room. On the evening of her twenty-second birth-day Michael had come home saying:
“Well, my child, I’ve chucked publishing. With old Danby always in the right — it isn’t a career.”
“Oh! Michael, you’ll be bored to death.”
“I’ll go into Parliament. It’s quite usual, and about the same screw.”
He had spoken in jest. Six days later it became apparent that she had listened in earnest.
“You were absolutely right, Michael. It’s the very thing for you. You’ve got ideas.”
“And the gift of the gab. We’re frightfully handy for the House, here.”
“It costs money, Fleur.”
“Yes; I’ve spoken to father. It was rather funny — there’s never been a Forsyte, you know, anywhere near Parliament. But he thinks it’ll be good for me; and that it’s all baronets are fit for.”
“One has to have a Seat, unfortunately.”
“Well, I’ve sounded your father, too. He’ll speak to people. They want young men.”
“Ah! And what are my politics?”
“My dear boy, you must know — at thirty.”
“I’m not a Liberal. But am I Labour or Tory?”
“You can think it out before the next election!”
Next day, while he was shaving, and she was in her bath, he cut himself slightly and said:
“The land and this unemployment is what I really care about. I’m a Foggartist.”
“Old Sir James Foggart’s book, that he published after all. You read it.”
“Well, you said so.”
“So did others.”
“Never mind — his eyes are fixed on 1944, and his policy’s according. Safety in the Air, the Land, and Child Emigration; adjustment of Supply and Demand within the Empire; cut our losses in Europe; and endure a worse Present for the sake of a better Future. Everything, in fact, that’s unpopular, and said to be impossible.”
“Well, you could keep all that to yourself till you get in. You’ll have to stand as a Tory.”
“How lovely you look!”
“If you get in, you can disagree with everybody. That’ll give you a position from the start.”
“Some scheme!” murmured Michael.
“You can initiate this — this Foggartism. He isn’t mad, is he?”
“No, only too sane, which is much the same thing, of course. You see we’ve got a higher wage-scale than any other country except America and the Dominions; and it isn’t coming down again; we really group in with the new countries. He’s for growing as much of our food as we can, and pumping British town children, before they’re spoiled, into the Colonies, till Colonial demand for goods equals our supply. It’s no earthly, of course, without whole-hearted co-operation between the Governments within the Empire.”
“It sounds very sensible.”
“We published him, you know, but at his own expense. It’s a ‘faith and the mountain’ stunt. He’s got the faith all right, but the mountain shows no signs of moving up to now.”
Fleur stood up. “Well,” she said, “that’s settled. Your father says he can get you a nomination as a Tory, and you can keep your own views to yourself. You’ll get in on the human touch, Michael.”
“Thank you, ducky. Can I help dry you?” . . .
Before redecorating her Chinese room, however, Fleur had waited till after Michael was comfortably seated for a division which professed to be interested in agriculture. She chose a blend between Adam and Louis Quinze. Michael called it the ‘bimetallic parlour’; and carried off “The White Monkey” to his study. The creature’s pessimism was not, he felt, suited to political life.
Fleur had initiated her ‘salon’ with a gathering in February. The soul of society had passed away since the Liberal debacle and Lady Alison’s politico-legal coterie no longer counted. Plainer people were in the ascendant. Her Wednesday evenings were youthful, with age represented by her father-inlaw, two minor ambassadors, and Pevensey Blythe, editor of The Outpost. So unlike his literary style that he was usually mistaken for a Colonial Prime Minister, Blythe was a tall man with a beard, and grey bloodshot eyes, who expressed knowledge in paragraphs that few could really understand. “What Blythe thinks today, the Conservative Party will not think tomorrow,” was said of him. He spoke in a small voice, and constantly used the impersonal pronoun.
“One is walking in one’s sleep,” he would say of the political situation, “and will wake up without any clothes on.”
A warm supporter of Sir James Foggart’s book, characterising it as “the masterpiece of a blind archangel,” he had a passion for listening to the clavichord, and was invaluable in Fleur’s ‘salon.’
Freed from poetry and modern music, from Sibley Swan, Walter Nazing and Hugo Solstis, Fleur was finding time for her son — the eleventh baronet. He represented for her the reality of things. Michael might have posthumous theories, and Labour predatory hopes, but for her the year 1944 would see the eleventh baronet come of age. That Kit should inherit an England worth living in was of more intrinsic importance than anything they proposed in the Commons and were unable to perform. All those houses they were going to build, for instance — very proper, but a little unnecessary if Kit still had Lippinghall Manor and South Square, Westminster, to dwell in. Not that Fleur voiced such cynical convictions, or admitted them even to herself. She did orthodox lip-service to the great god Progress.
The Peace of the World, Hygiene, Trade, and the End of Unemployment, preoccupied all, irrespective of Party, and Fleur was in the fashion; but instinct, rather than Michael and Sir James Foggart, told her that the time-honoured motto: ‘Eat your cake and have it,’ which underlay the platforms of all Parties, was not ‘too frightfully’ sound. So long as Kit had cake, it was no good bothering too deeply about the rest; though, of course, one must seem to. Fluttering about her ‘salon’— this to that person, and that to the other, and to all so pretty, she charmed by her grace, her common-sense, her pliancy. Not infrequently she attended at the House, and sat, not listening too much to the speeches, yet picking up, as it were, by a sort of seventh sense (if women in Society all had six, surely Fleur had seven) what was necessary to the conduct of that ‘salon’— the rise and fall of the Governmental barometer, the catchwords and cliches of policy; and, more valuable, impressions of personality, of the residuary man within the Member. She watched Michael’s career, with the fostering eye of a godmother who has given her godchild a blue morocco prayer-book, in the hope that some day he may remember its existence. Although a sedulous attendant at the House all through the Spring and summer, Michael had not yet opened his mouth, and so far she had approved of his silence, while nurturing his desire to know his own mind by listening to his wanderings in Foggartism. If it were indeed the only permanent cure for Unemployment, as he said, she too was a Foggartist; common-sense assuring her that the only real danger to Kit’s future lay in that national malady. Eliminate Unemployment, and nobody would have time to make a fuss. But her criticisms were often pertinent:
“My dear boy, does a country ever sacrifice the present for the sake of the future?” or: “Do you really think country life is better than town life?” or: “Can you imagine sending Kit out of England at fourteen to some Godforsaken end of the world?” or: “Do you suppose the towns will have it?” And they roused Michael to such persistence and fluency that she felt he would really catch on in time — like old Sir Giles Snoreham, whom they would soon be making a peer, because he had always worn low-crowned hats and advocated a return to hansom cabs. Hats, buttonholes, an eyeglass — she turned over in her mind all such little realities as help a political career.
“Plain glass doesn’t harm the sight; and it really has a focussing value, Michael.”
“My child, it’s never done my Dad a bit of good; I doubt, if it’s sold three copies of any of his books. No! If I get on, it’ll be by talking.”
But still she encouraged him to keep his mouth shut.
“It’s no good starting wrong, Michael. These Labour people aren’t going to last out the year.”
“Their heads are swelling, and their tempers going. They’re only on sufferance; people on sufferance have got to be pleasant or they won’t be suffered. When they go out, the Tories will get in again and probably last. You’ll have several years to be eccentric in, and by the time they’re out again, you’ll have your licence. Just go on working the human touch in your constituency; I’m sure it’s a mistake to forget you’ve got constituents.”
Michael spent most week-ends that summer working the human touch in mid-Bucks; and Fleur spent most week-ends with the eleventh baronet at her father’s house near Mapledurham.
Since wiping the dust of the city off his feet, after that affair of Elderson and the P. P. R. S., Soames had become almost too countrified for a Forsyte. He had bought the meadows on the far side of the river and several Jersey cows. Not that he was going in for farming or nonsense of that sort, but it gave him an interest to punt himself over and see them milked. He had put up a good deal of glass, too, and was laying down melons. The English melon was superior to any other, and every year’s connection with a French wife made him more and more inclined to eat what he grew himself. After Michael was returned for Parliament, Fleur had sent him Sir James Foggart’s book, “The Parlous State of England.” When it came, he said to Annette:
“I don’t know what she thinks I want with this great thing!”
“To read it, Soames, I suppose.”
Soames sniffed, turning the pages.
“I can’t tell what it’s all about.”
“I will sell it at my bazaar, Soames. It will do for some good man who can read English.”
From that moment Soames began almost unconsciously to read the book. He found it a peculiar affair, which gave most people some good hard knocks. He began to enjoy them, especially the chapter deprecating the workman’s dislike of parting with his children at a reasonable age. Having never been outside Europe, he had a somewhat sketchy idea of places like South Africa, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; but this old fellow Foggart, it appeared, had been there, and knew what he was talking about. What he said about their development seemed quite sensible. Children who went out there put on weight at once, and became owners of property at an age when in England they were still delivering parcels, popping in and out of jobs, hanging about street corners, and qualifying for unemployment and Communism. Get them out of England! There was a startling attraction in the idea for one who was English to a degree. He was in favour, too, of what was said about growing food and making England safe in the air. And then, slowly, he turned against it. The fellow was too much of a Jeremiah altogether. He complained to Fleur that the book dealt with nothing but birds in the bush; it was unpractical. What did ‘Old Mont’ say?
“He won’t read it; he says he knows old Foggart.”
“H’m!” said Soames, “I shouldn’t be surprised if there were something in it, then.” That little-headed baronet was old-fashioned! “Anyway it shows that Michael’s given up those Labour fellows.”
“Michael says Foggartism will be Labour’s policy when they understand all it means.”
“He thinks it’s going to do them much more good than anybody else. He says one or two of their leaders are beginning to smell it out, and that the rest of the leaders are bound to follow in time.”
“In that case,” said Soames, “it’ll never go down with their rank and file.” And for two minutes he sat in a sort of trance. Had he said something profound, or had he not?
Fleur’s presence at week-ends with the eleventh baronet was extremely agreeable to him. Though at first he had felt a sort of disappointment that his grandchild was not a girl — an eleventh baronet belonged too definitely to the Monts — he began, as the months wore on, to find him ‘an engaging little chap,’ and in any case, to have him down at Mapledurham kept him away from Lippinghall. It tried him at times, of course, to see how the women hung about the baby — there was something very excessive about motherhood. He had noticed it with Annette; he noticed it now with Fleur. French — perhaps! He had not remembered his own mother making such a fuss; indeed, he could not remember anything that happened when he was one. A week-end, when Madame Lamotte, Annette and Fleur were all hanging over his grandson, three generations of maternity concentrated on that pudgy morsel, reduced him to a punt, fishing for what he felt sure nobody would eat.
By the time he had finished Sir James Foggart’s book, the disagreeable summer of 1924 was over, and a more disagreeable September had set in. The mellow golden days that glow up out of a haze which stars with dewdrops every cobweb on a gate, simply did not come. It rained, and the river was so unnaturally full, that the newspapers were at first unnaturally empty — there was literally no news of drought; they filled up again slowly with reports of the wettest summer ‘for thirty years.’ Calm, greenish with weed and tree shadow, the river flowed unendingly between Soames’ damp lawn and his damp meadows. There were no mushrooms. Blackberries tasted of rain. Soames made a point of eating one every year, and, by the flavour, could tell what sort of year it had been. There was a good deal of ‘old-man’s-beard.’ In spite of all this, however, he was more cheerful than he had been for ages. Labour had been ‘in,’ if not in real power, for months, and the heavens had only lowered. Forced by Labour-inoffice to take some notice of politics, he would utter prophecies at the breakfast-table. They varied somewhat, according to the news; and, since he always forgot those which did not come true, he was constantly able to tell Annette that he had told her so. She took no interest, however, occupied, like a woman, with her bazaars and jam-making, running about in the car, shopping in London, attending garden-parties; and, in spite of her tendency to put on flesh, still remarkably handsome. Jack Cardigan, his niece Imogen’s husband, had made him a sixty-ninth-birthday present of a set of golf-clubs. This was more puzzling to Soames than anything that had ever happened to him. What on earth was he to do with them? Annette, with that French quickness which so often annoyed him, suggested that he should use them. She was uncomfortable! At his age —! And then, one week-end in May the fellow himself had come down with Imogen, and, teeing a ball up on half a molehill, had driven it across the river.
“I’ll bet you a box of cigars, Uncle Soames, that you don’t do that before we leave on Monday.”
“I never bet,” said Soames, “and I don’t smoke.”
“Time you began both. Look here, we’ll spend tomorrow learning to knock the ball!’
“Absurd!” said Soames.
But in his room that night he had stood in his pyjamas swinging his arms in imitation of Jack Cardigan. The next day he sent the women out in the car with their lunch; he was not going to have them grinning at him. He had seldom spent more annoying hours than those which followed. They culminated in a moment when at last he hit the ball, and it fell into the river three yards from the near bank. He was so stiff next morning in arms and ribs, that Annette had to rub him till he said:
“Look out! you’re taking the skin off!”
He had, however, become infected. After destroying some further portions of his lawn, he joined the nearest Golf Club, and began to go round by himself during the luncheon-hour, accompanied by a little boy. He kept at it with characteristic tenacity, till by July he had attained a certain proficiency; and he began to say to Annette that it would do her all the good in the world to take it up, and keep her weight down.
“Merci, Soames,” she would reply; “I have no wish to be the figure of your English Misses, flat as a board before and behind.” She was reactionary, ‘like her nation’; and Soames, who at heart had a certain sympathy with curves, did not seriously press the point. He found that the exercise jogged both his liver and his temper. He began to have colour in his cheeks. The day after his first nine-hole round with Jack Cardigan, who had given him three strokes a hole and beaten him by nine holes, he received a package which, to his dismay, contained a box of cigars. What the fellow was about, he could not imagine! He only discovered when, one evening a few days later, sitting at the window of his picture gallery, he found that he had one in his mouth. Curiously enough, it did not make him sick. It produced rather something of the feeling he used to enjoy after ‘doing Coue’— now comparatively out of fashion, since an American, so his sister Winifred said, had found a shorter cut. A suspicion, however, that the family had set Jack Cardigan on, prevented him from indulging his new sensation anywhere but in his picture gallery; so that cigars gathered the halo of a secret vice. He renewed his store stealthily. Only when he found that Annette, Fleur, and others had known for weeks, did he relax his rule, and say openly that the vice of the present day was cigarettes.
“My dear boy,” said Winifred, when she next saw him, “everybody’s saying you’re a different man!”
Soames raised his eyebrows. He was not conscious of any change.
“That chap Cardigan,” he said, “is a funny fellow! . . . I’m going to dine and sleep at Fleur’s; they’re just back from Italy. The House sits on Monday.”
“Yes,” said Winifred; “very fussy of them — sitting in the Long Vacation.”
“Ireland!” said Soames, deeply. “A pretty pair of shoes again!” Always had been; always would be!
Michael had returned from Italy with the longing to ‘get on with it,’ which results from Southern holidays. Countryman by upbringing, still deeply absorbed by the unemployment problem, and committed to Foggartism, as its remedy, he had taken up no other hobby in the House, and was eating the country’s bread, if somewhat unbuttered, and doing nothing for it. He desired, therefore, to know where he stood, and how long he was going to stand there.
Bent on ‘taking this lunar’— as ‘Old Forsyte’ would call it — at his own position, he walked away from the House that same day, after dealing with an accumulated correspondence. He walked towards Pevensey Blythe, in the office of that self-sufficing weekly: The Outpost. Sunburnt from his Italian holiday and thinned by Italian cookery, he moved briskly, and thought of many things. Passing down on to the Embankment, where a number of unemployed birds on a number of trees were also wondering, it seemed, where they stood and how long they were going to stand there, he took a letter from his pocket to read a second time.
“12 SAPPER’S ROW, “CAMDEN TOWN.
“Being young in ‘Who’s Who,’ you will not be hard, I think, to those in suffering. I am an Austrian woman who married a German eleven years ago. He was an actor on the English stage, for his father and mother, who are no more living, brought him to England quite young. Interned he was, and his health broken up. He has the neurasthenie very bad so he cannot be trusted for any work. Before the war he was always in a part, and we had some good money; but this went partly when I was left with my child alone, and the rest was taken by the P. T., and we got very little back, neither of us being English. What we did get has all been to the doctor, and for our debts, and for burying our little child, which died happily, for though I loved it much this life which we have is not fit for a child to live. We live on my needle, and that is not earning much, a pound a week and sometimes nothing. The managers will not look at my husband all these years, because he shakes suddenly, so they think he drinks, but, Sir, he has not the money to buy it. We do not know where to turn, or what to do. So I thought, dear Sir, whether you could do anything for us with the P. T.; they have been quite sympatical; but they say they administrate an order and cannot do more. Or if you could get my husband some work where he will be in open air — the doctor say that is what he want. We have nowhere to go in Germany or in Austria, our well-loved families being no more alive. I think we are like many, but I cannot help asking you, Sir, because we want to keep living if we can, and now we are hardly having any food. Please to forgive me my writing, and to believe your very anxious and humble
‘God help them!’ thought Michael, under a plane-tree close to Cleopatra’s Needle, but without conviction. For in his view God was not so much interested in the fate of individual aliens as the Governor of the Bank of England in the fate of a pound of sugar bought with the fraction of a Bradbury; He would not arbitrarily interfere with a ripple of the tides set loose by His arrangement of the Spheres. God, to Michael, was a monarch strictly limited by His own Constitution. He restored the letter to his pocket. Poor creatures! But really, with 1,200,000 and more English unemployed, mostly due to that confounded Kaiser and his Navy stunt —! If that fellow and his gang had not started their Naval rivalry in 1899, England would have been out of the whole mess, or, perhaps, there never would have been a mess!
He turned up from the Temple station towards the offices of The Outpost. He had ‘taken’ that Weekly for some years now. It knew everything, and managed to convey a slight impression that nobody else knew anything; so that it seemed more weighty than any other Weekly. Having no particular Party to patronise, it could patronise the lot. Without Imperial bias, it professed a special knowledge of the Empire. Not literary, it made a point of reducing the heads of literary men — Michael, in his publishing days, had enjoyed every opportunity of noticing that. Professing respect for Church and the Law, it was an adept at giving them ‘what-for.’ It fancied itself on Drama, striking a somewhat Irish attitude towards it. But, perhaps above all, it excelled in neat detraction from political reputations, keeping them in their place, and that place a little lower than The Outpost’s. Moreover, from its editorials emanated that ‘holy ghost’ of inspired knowledge in periods just a little beyond average comprehension, without which no such periodical had real importance.
Michael went up the stairs two at a time, and entered a large square room, where Mr. Blythe, back to the door, was pointing with a ruler to a circle drawn on a map.
“This is a bee map,” said Mr. Blythe to himself. “Quite the bee-est map I ever saw.”
Michael could not contain a gurgle, and the eyes of Mr. Blythe came round, prominent, epileptic, richly encircled by pouches.
“Hallo!” he said defiantly: “You? The Colonial Office prepared this map specially to show the best spots for Settlement schemes. And they’ve left out Baggersfontein — the very hub.”
Michael seated himself on the table.
“I’ve come in to ask what you think of the situation? My wife says Labour will be out in no time.”
“Our charming little lady!” said Mr. Blythe; “Labour will survive Ireland; they will survive Russia; they will linger on in their precarious way. One hesitates to predict their decease. Fear of their Budget may bring them down in February. After the smell of Russian fat has died away — say in November, Mont — one may make a start.”
“This first speech,” said Michael, “is a nightmare to me. How, exactly, am I to start Foggartism?”
“One will have achieved the impression of a body of opinion before then.”
“But will there be one?”
“No,” said Mr. Blythe.
“Oh!” said Michael. “And, by the way, what about Free Trade?”
“One will profess Free Trade, and put on duties.”
“God and Mammon.”
“Necessary in England, before any new departure, Mont. Witness Liberal-Unionism, Tory-Socialism, and —”
“Other ramps,” said Michael, gently.
“One will glide, deprecate Protection till there is more Protection than Free Trade, then deprecate Free Trade. Foggartism is an end, not a means; Free Trade and Protection are means, not the ends politicians have made them.”
Roused by the word politician, Michael got off the table; he was coming to have a certain sympathy with those poor devils. They were supposed to have no feeling for the country, and to be wise only after the event. But, really, who could tell what was good for the country, among the mists of talk? Not even old Foggart, Michael sometimes thought.
“You know, Blythe,” he said, “that we politicians don’t think ahead, simply because we know it’s no earthly. Every elector thinks his own immediate good is the good of the country. Only their own shoes pinching will change electors’ views. If Foggartism means adding to the price of living now, and taking wage-earning children away from workmen’s families for the sake of benefit — ten or twenty years hence — who’s going to stand for it?”
“My dear young man,” said Mr. Blythe, “conversion is our job. At present our trade-unionists despise the outside world. They’ve never seen it. Their philosophy is bounded by their smoky little streets. But five million pounds spent on the organised travel of a hundred thousand working men would do the trick in five years. It would infect the working class with a feverish desire for a place in the sun. The world is their children’s for the taking. But who can blame them, when they know nothing of it?”
“Some thought!” said Michael: “Only — what Government will think it? Can I take those maps? . . . By the way,” he said at the door, “there are Societies, you know, for sending out children.”
Mr. Blythe grunted. “Yes. Excellent little affairs! A few hundred children doing well — concrete example of what might be. Multiply it a hundredfold, and you’ve got a beginning. You can’t fill pails with a teaspoon. Good-bye!”
Out on the Embankment Michael wondered if one could love one’s country with a passion for getting people to leave it. But this over-bloated town condition, with its blight and smoky ugliness; the children without a chance from birth; these swarms of poor devils without work, who dragged about and hadn’t an earthly, and never would, on present lines; this unbalanced, hand-to-mouth, dependent state of things — surely that wasn’t to be forever the state of the country one loved! He stared at the towers of Westminster, with the setting sun behind them. And there started up before him the thousand familiars of his past — trees, fields and streams, towers, churches, bridges; the English breeds of beasts, the singing birds, the owls, the jays and rooks at Lippinghall, the little differences from foreign sorts in shrub, flower, lichen, and winged life; the English scents, the English haze, the English grass; the eggs and bacon; the slow good humour, the moderation and the pluck; the smell of rain; the apple-blossom, the heather, and the sea. His country, and his breed — unspoilable at heart! He passed the Clock Tower. The House looked lacy and imposing, more beautiful than fashion granted. Did they spin the web of England’s future in that House? Or were they painting camouflage — a screen, over old England?
A familiar voice said: “This is a monstrous great thing!”
And Michael saw his father-inlaw staring up at the Lincoln statue. “What did they want to put it here for?” said Soames. “It’s not English.” He walked along at Michael’s side. “Fleur well?”
“Splendid. Italy suited her like everything.”
Soames sniffed. “They’re a theatrical lot,” he said. “Did you see Milan cathedral!”
“Yes, sir. It’s about the only thing we didn’t take to.”
“H’m! Their cooking gave me the collywobbles in ‘79. I dare say it’s better now. How’s the boy?”
Soames made a sound of gratification, and they turned the corner into South Square.
“What’s this?” said Soames.
Outside the front door were two battered-looking trunks, a young man, grasping a bag, and ringing the bell, and a taxicab turning away.
“I can’t tell you, sir,” murmured Michael. “Unless it’s the angel Gabriel.”
“He’s got the wrong house,” said Soames, moving forward.
But just then the young man disappeared within.
Soames walked up to the trunks. “Francis Wilmot,” he read out. “‘S. S. Amphibian.’ There’s some mistake!
When they came in, Fleur was returning down-stairs from showing the young man to his room. Already fully dressed for the evening, she had but little on, and her hair was shingled . . . .
“My dear girl,” Michael had said, when shingling came in, “to please me, don’t! Your nuque will be too bristly for kisses.”
“My dear boy,” she had answered, “as if one could help it! You’re always the same with any new fashion!”
She had been one of the first twelve to shingle, and was just feeling that without care she would miss being one of the first twelve to grow some hair again. Marjorie Ferrar, ‘the Pet of the Panjoys,’ as Michael called her, already had more than an inch. Somehow, one hated being distanced by Marjorie Ferrar . . . .
Advancing to her father, she said:
“I’ve asked a young American to stay, Dad; Jon Forsyte has married his sister, out there. You’re quite brown, darling. How’s mother?”
Soames only gazed at her.
And Fleur passed through one of those shamed moments, when the dumb quality of his love for her seemed accusing the glib quality of her love for him. It was not fair — she felt — that he should look at her like that; as if she had not suffered in that old business with Jon more than he; if she could take it lightly now, surely he could! As for Michael — not a word! — not even a joke! She bit her lips, shook her shingled head, and passed into the ‘bimetallic parlour.’
Dinner began with soup and Soames deprecating his own cows for not being Herefords. He supposed that in America they had plenty of Herefords?
Francis Wilmot believed that they were going in for Holsteins now.
“Holsteins!” repeated Soames. “They’re new since my young days. What’s their colour?”
“Parti-coloured,” said Francis Wilmot. “The English grass is just wonderful.”
“Too damp, with us,” said Soames. “We’re on the river.”
“The river Thames? What size will that be, where it hasn’t a tide?”
“Just there — not more than a hundred yards.”
“Will it have fish?”
“And it’ll run clear — not red; our Southern rivers have a red colour. And your trees will be willows, and poplars, and elms.”
Soames was a good deal puzzled. He had never been in America. The inhabitants were human, of course, but peculiar and all alike, with more face than feature, heads fastened upright on their backs, and shoulders too square to be real. Their voices clanged in their mouths; they pronounced the words ‘very’ and ‘America’ in a way that he had tried to imitate without success; their dollar was too high, and they all had motor-cars; they despised Europe, came over in great quantities, and took back all they could; they talked all the time, and were not allowed to drink. This young man cut across all these preconceptions. He drank sherry and only spoke when he was spoken to. His shoulders looked natural; he had more feature than face; and his voice was soft. Perhaps, at least, he despised Europe.
“I suppose,” he said, “you find England very small.”
“No, sir. I find London very large; and you certainly have the loveliest kind of a countryside.”
Soames looked down one side of his nose. “Pretty enough!” he said.
Then came turbot and a silence, broken, low down, behind his chair.
“That dog!” said Soames, impaling a morsel of fish he had set aside as uneatable.
“No, no, Dad! He just wants to know you’ve seen him!”
Soames stretched down a finger, and the Dandie fell on his side.
“He never eats,” said Fleur; “but he has to be noticed.”
A small covey of partridges came in, cooked.
“Is there any particular thing you want to see over here, Mr. Wilmot?” said Michael. “There’s nothing very unAmerican left. You’re just too late for Regent Street.”
“I want to see the Beefeaters; and Cruft’s Dog Show; and your blood horses; and the Derby.”
“Darby!” Soames corrected. “You can’t stay for that — it’s not till next June.”
“My cousin Val will show you race-horses,” said Fleur. “He married Jon’s sister, you know.”
A ‘bombe’ appeared. “You have more of this in America, I believe,” said Soames.
“We don’t have much ice-cream in the South, sir; but we have special cooking — very tasty.”
“I’ve heard of terrapin.”
“Well, I don’t get frills like that. I live away back, and have to work pretty hard. My place is kind of homey; but I’ve got some mighty nice darkies that can cook fine — old folk that knew my grannies. The old-time darky is getting scarce, but he’s the real thing.”
Soames had been told that the Southerner was a gentleman. He remembered the ‘Alabama,’ too; and his father, James, saying: “I told you so” when the Government ate humble pie over that business.
In the savoury silence that accompanied soft roes on toast, the patter of the Dandie’s feet on the parquet floor could be plainly heard.
“This is the only thing he likes,” said Fleur, “Dan! go to your master. Give him a little bit, Michael.” And she stole a look at Michael, but he did not answer it.
On their Italian holiday, with Fleur in the throes of novelty, sun and wine warmed, disposed to junketing, amenable to his caresses, he had been having his real honeymoon, enjoying, for the first time since his marriage, a sense of being the chosen companion of his adored. And now had come this stranger, bringing reminder that one played but second fiddle to that young second cousin and first lover; and he couldn’t help feeling the cup withdrawn again from his lips. She had invited this young man because he came from that past of hers whose tune one could not play. And, without looking up, he fed the Dandie with tid-bits of his favourite edible.
Soames broke the silence.
“Take some nutmeg, Mr. Wilmot. Melon without nutmeg — beats ginger hollow.”
When Fleur rose, Soames followed her to the drawing-room; while Michael led the young American to his study.
“You knew Jon?” said Francis Wilmot.
“No; I never met him.”
“He’s a great little fellow; and some poet. He’s growing dandy peaches.”
“Is he going on with that, now he’s married?”
“Not coming to England?”
“Not this year. They have a nice home — horses and dogs. They have some hunting there, too. Perhaps he’ll bring my sister over for a trip, next fall.”
“Oh!” said Michael. “And are you staying long, yourself?”
“Why! I’ll go back for Christmas. I’d like to see Rome and Seville; and I want to visit the old home of my people, down in Worcestershire.”
“When did they go over?”
“William and Mary. Catholics — they were. Is it a nice part, Worcestershire?”
“Very; especially in the Spring. It grows a lot of fruit.”
“Oh! You still grow things in this country?”
“I thought that was so, coming on the cars, from Liverpool. I saw a lot of grass and one or two sheep, but I didn’t see anybody working. The people all live in the towns, then?”
“Except a few unconsidered trifles. You must come down to my father’s; they still grow a turnip or two thereabouts.”
“It’s sad,” said Francis Wilmot.
“It is. We began to grow wheat again in the war; but they’ve let it all slip back — and worse.”
“Why was that?”
Michael shrugged his shoulders: “No accounting for statesmanship. It lets the Land go to blazes when in office; and beats the drum of it when in opposition. At the end of the war we had the best air force in the world, and agriculture was well on its way to recovery. And what did they do? Dropped them both like hot potatoes. It was tragic. What do you grow in Carolina?”
“Just cotton, on my place. But it’s mighty hard to make cotton pay nowadays. Labour’s high.”
“High with you, too?”
“Yes, sir. Do they let strangers into your Parliament?”
“Rather. Would you like to hear the Irish debate? I can get you a seat in the Distinguished Strangers’ gallery.”
“I thought the English were stiff; but it’s wonderful the way you make me feel at home. Is that your father-inlaw — the old gentleman?”
“He seems kind of rarefied. Is he a banker?”
“No. But now you mention it — he ought to be.”
Francis Wilmot’s eyes roved round the room and came to rest on “The White Monkey.”
“Well, now,” he said, softly, “that, surely, is a wonderful picture. Could I get a picture painted by that man, for Jon and my sister?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Michael. “You see, he was a Chink — not quite of the best period; but he must have gone West five hundred years ago at least.”
“Ah! Well, he had a great sense of animals.”
“We think he had a great sense of human beings.”
Francis Wilmot stared.
There was something, Michael decided, in this young man unresponsive to satire.
“So you want to see Cruft’s Dog Show?” he said. “You’re keen on dogs, then?”
“I’ll be taking a bloodhound back for Jon, and two for myself. I want to raise bloodhounds.”
Michael leaned back, and blew out smoke. To Francis Wilmot, he felt, the world was young, and life running on good tires to some desirable destination. In England —!
“What is it you Americans want out of life?” he said abruptly.
“Well, I suppose you might say we want success — in the North at all events.”
“WE wanted that in 1824,” said Michael.
“Oh! And nowadays?”
“We’ve had success, and now we’re wondering whether it hasn’t cooked our goose.”
“Well,” said Francis Wilmot, “we’re sort of thinly populated, compared with you.”
“That’s it,” said Michael. “Every seat here is booked in advance; and a good many sit on their own knees. Will you have another cigar, or shall we join the lady?”
If Providence was completely satisfied with Sapper’s Row, Camden Town, Michael was not. What could justify those twin dismal rows of three-storied houses, so begrimed that they might have been collars washed in Italy? What possible attention to business could make these little ground-floor shops do anything but lose money? From the thronged and tram-lined thoroughfare so pregnantly scented with fried fish, petrol and old clothes, who would turn into this small back water for sweetness or for profit? Even the children, made with heroic constancy on its second and third floors, sought the sweets of life outside its precincts; for in Sapper’s Row they could neither be run over nor stare at the outside of Cinemas. Hand-carts, bicycles, light vans which had lost their nerve and taxicabs which had lost their way, provided all the traffic; potted geraniums and spotted cats supplied all the beauty. Sapper’s Row drooped and dithered.
Michael entered from its west end, and against his principles. Here was overcrowded England, at its most dismal, and here was he, who advocated a reduction of its population, about to visit some broken-down aliens with the view of keeping them alive. He looked into three of the little shops. Not a soul! Which was worst? Such little shops frequented, or — deserted? He came to No. 12, and, looking up, saw a face looking down. It was wax white, movingly listless, above a pair of hands sewing at a garment. ‘That,’ he thought, ‘is my “obedient humble” and her needle.’ He entered the shop below, a hair-dresser’s, containing a dirty basin below a dusty mirror, suspicious towels, bottles, and two dingy chairs. In his shirt-sleeves, astride one of them, reading The Daily Mail, sat a shadowy fellow with pale hollow cheeks, twisted moustache, lank hair, and the eyes, at once knowing and tragic, of a philosopher.
“Hair cut, sir?”
Michael shook his head.
“Do Mr. and Mrs. Bergfeld live here?”
“Up-stairs, top floor.”
“How do I get up?”
Passing through a curtained aperture, Michael found a stairway, and at its top, stood, hesitating. His conscience was echoing Fleur’s comment on Anna Bergfeld’s letter: “Yes, I dare say; but what’s the good?” when the door was opened, and it seemed to him almost as if a corpse were standing there, with a face as though someone had come knocking on its grave, so eager and so white.
“Mrs. Bergfeld? My name’s Mont. You wrote to me.”
The woman trembled so, that Michael thought she was going to faint.
“Will you excuse me, sir, that I sit down?” And she dropped on to the end of the bed. The room was spotless, but, besides the bed, held only a small deal wash-stand, a pot of geranium, a tin trunk with a pair of trousers folded on it, a woman’s hat on a peg, and a chair in the window covered with her sewing.
The woman stood up again. She seemed not more than thirty, thin but prettily formed; and her oval face, without colour except in her dark eyes, suggested Rafael rather than Sapper’s Row.
“It is like seeing an angel,” she said. “Excuse me, sir.”
“Queer angel, Mrs. Bergfeld. Your husband not in?”
“No, sir. Fritz has gone to walk.”
“Tell me, Mrs. Bergfeld. If I pay your passages to Germany, will you go?”