The announcement in The Times of his cousin Jolyon's death affected Soames quite simply. So that chap was gone! There had never been a time in their two lives when love had not been lost between them. That quick-blooded sentiment hatred had run its course long since in Soames' heart, and he had refused to allow any recrudescence, but he considered this early decease a piece of poetic justice. For twenty years the fellow had enjoyed the reversion of his wife and house, and--he was dead! The obituary notice, which appeared a little later, paid Jolyon--he thought--too much attention. It spoke of that "diligent and agreeable painter whose work we have come to look on as typical of the best late-Victorian water-colour art." Soames, who had almost mechanically preferred Mole, Morpin, and Caswell Baye, and had always sniffed quite audibly when he came to one of his cousin's on the line, turned The Times with a crackle.
He had to go up to Town that morning on Forsyte affairs, and was fully conscious of Gradman's glance sidelong over his spectacles. The old clerk had about him an aura of regretful congratulation. He smelled, as it were, of old days. One could almost hear him thinking: "Mr. Jolyon, ye-es--just my age, and gone--dear, dear! I dare say she feels it. She was a mice-lookin' woman. Flesh is flesh! They've given 'im a notice in the papers. Fancy!" His atmosphere in fact caused Soames to handle certain leases and conversions with exceptional swiftness.
"About that settlement on Miss Fleur, Mr. Soames?"
"I've thought better of that," answered Soames shortly.
"Ah! I'm glad of that. I thought you were a little hasty. The times do change."
How this death would affect Fleur had begun to trouble Soames. He was not certain that she knew of it--she seldom looked at the paper, never at the births, marriages, and deaths.
He pressed matters on, and made his way to Green Street for lunch. Winifred was almost doleful. Jack Cardigan had broken a splashboard, so far as one could make out, and would not be "fit" for some time. She could not get used to the idea.
"Did Profond ever get off?" he said suddenly.
"He got off," replied Winifred, "but where--I don't know."
Yes, there it was--impossible to tell anything! Not that he wanted to know. Letters from Annette were coming from Dieppe, where she and her mother were staying.
"You saw that fellow's death, I suppose?"
"Yes," said Winifred. "I'm sorry for--for his children. He was very amiable." Soames uttered a rather queer sound. A suspicion of the old deep truth--that men were judged in this world rather by what they were than by what they did--crept and knocked resentfully at the back doors of his mind.
"I know there was a superstition to that effect," he muttered.
"One must do him justice now he's dead."
"I should like to have done him justice before," said Soames; "but I never had the chance. Have you got a 'Baronetage' here?"
"Yes; in that bottom row."
Soames took out a fat red book, and ran over the leaves.
"Mont-Sir Lawrence, 9th Bt., cr. 1620, e. s. of Geoffrey, 8th Bt., and Lavinia, daur. of Sir Charles Muskham, Bt., of Muskham Hall, Shrops: marr. 1890 Emily, daur. of Conway Charwell, Esq., of Condaford Grange, co. Oxon; 1 son, heir Michael Conway, b. 1895, 2 daurs. Residence: Lippinghall Manor, Folwell, Bucks. Clubs: Snooks': Coffee House: Aeroplane. See BidIicott."
"H'm!" he said. "Did you ever know a publisher?"
"Alive, I mean."
"Monty knew one at his Club. He brought him here to dinner once. Monty was always thinking of writing a book, you know, about how to make money on the turf. He tried to interest that man."
"He put him on to a horse--for the Two Thousand. We didn't see him again. He was rather smart, if I remember."
"Did it win?"
"No; it ran last, I think. You know Monty really was quite clever in his way."
"Was he?" said Soames. "Can you see any connection between a sucking baronet and publishing?"
"People do all sorts of things nowadays," replied Winifred. "The great stunt seems not to be idle--so different from our time. To do nothing was the thing then. But I suppose it'll come again."
"This young Mont that I'm speaking of is very sweet on Fleur. If it would put an end to that other affair I might encourage it."
"Has he got style?" asked Winifred.
"He's no beauty; pleasant enough, with some scattered brains. There's a good deal of land, I believe. He seems genuinely attached. But I don't know."
"No," murmured Winifred; "it's--very difficult. I always found it best to do nothing. It is such a bore about Jack; now we shan't get away till after Bank Holiday. Well, the people are always amusing, I shall go into the Park and watch them."
"If I were you," said Soames, "I should have a country cottage, and be out of the way of holidays and strikes when you want."
"The country bores me," answered Winifred, "and I found the railway strike quite exciting."
Winifred had always been noted for sang-froid.
Soames took his leave. All the way down to Reading he debated whether he should tell Fleur of that boy's father's death. It did not alter the situation except that he would be independent now, and only have his mother's opposition to encounter. He would come into a lot of money, no doubt, and perhaps the house--the house built for Irene and himself--the house whose architect had wrought his domestic ruin. His daughter--mistress of that house! That would be poetic justice! Soames uttered a little mirthless laugh. He had designed that house to re-establish his failing union, meant it for the seat of his descendants, if he could have induced Irene to give him one! Her son and Fleur! Their children would be, in some sort, offspring of the union between himself and her!
The theatricality in that thought was repulsive to his sober sense. And yet--it would be the easiest and wealthiest way out of the impasse, now that Jolyon was gone. The juncture of two Forsyte fortunes had a kind of conservative charm. And she--Irene-would be linked to him once more. Nonsense! Absurd! He put the notion from his head.
On arriving home he heard the click of billiard-balls, and through the window saw young Mont sprawling over the table. Fleur, with her cue akimbo, was watching with a smile. How pretty she looked! No wonder that young fellow was out of his mind about her. A title-- land! There was little enough in land, these days; perhaps less in a title. The old Forsytes had always had a kind of contempt for titles, rather remote and artificial things--not worth the money they cost, and having to do with the Court. They had all had that feeling in differing measure--Soames remembered. Swithin, indeed, in his most expansive days had once attended a Levee. He had come away saying he shouldn't go again--"all that small fry." It was suspected that he had looked too big in knee-breeches. Soames remembered how his own mother had wished to be presented because of the fashionable nature of the performance, and how his father had put his foot down with unwonted decision. What did she want with that peacocking-- wasting time and money; there was nothing in it!
The instinct which had made and kept the English Commons the chief power in the State, a feeling that their own world was good enough and a little better than any other because it was their world, had kept the old Forsytes singularly free of "flummery," as Nicholas had been wont to call it when he had the gout. Soames' generation, more self-conscious and ironical, had been saved by a sense of Swithin in knee-breeches. While the third and the fourth generation, as it seemed to him, laughed at everything.
However, there was no harm in the young fellow's being heir to a title and estate--a thing one couldn't help. He entered quietly, as Mont missed his shot. He noted the young man's eyes, fixed on Fleur bending over in her turn; and the adoration in them almost touched him.
She paused with the cue poised on the bridge of her slim hand, and shook her crop of short dark chestnut hair.
"I shall never do it."
"All right." The cue struck, the ball rolled. "There!"
"Bad luck! Never mind!"
Then they saw him, and Soames said:
"I'll mark for you."
He sat down on the raised seat beneath the marker, trim and tired, furtively studying those two young faces. When the game was over Mont came up to him.
"I've started in, sir. Rum game, business, isn't it? I suppose you saw a lot of human nature as a solicitor."
"Shall I tell you what I've noticed: People are quite on the wrong tack in offering less than they can afford to give; they ought to offer more, and work backward."
Soames raised his eyebrows.
"Suppose the more is accepted?"
"That doesn't matter a little bit," said Mont; "it's much more paying to abate a price than to increase it. For instance, say we offer an author good terms--he naturally takes them. Then we go into it, find we can't publish at a decent profit and tell him so. He's got confidence in us because we've been generous to him, and he comes down like a lamb, and bears us no malice. But if we offer him poor terms at the start, he doesn't take them, so we have to advance them to get him, and he thinks us damned screws into the bargain.
"Try buying pictures on that system," said Soames; "an offer accepted is a contract--haven't you learned that?"
Young Mont turned his head to where Fleur was standing in the window.
"No," he said, "I wish I had. Then there's another thing. Always let a man off a bargain if he wants to be let off."
"As advertisement?" said Soames dryly.
"Of course it is; but I meant on principle."
"Does your firm work on those lines?"
"Not yet," said Mont, "but it'll come."
"And they will go."
"No, really, sir. I'm making any number of observations, and they all confirm my theory. Human nature is consistently underrated in business, people do themselves out of an awful lot of pleasure and profit by that. Of course, you must be perfectly genuine and open, but that's easy if you feel it. The more human and generous you are the better chance you've got in business."
"Are you a partner?"
"Not for six months, yet."
"The rest of the firm had better make haste and retire."
"You'll see," he said. "There's going to be a big change. The possessive principle has got its shutters up."
"What?" said Soames.
"The house is to let! Good-bye, sir; I'm off now."
Soames watched his daughter give her hand, saw her wince at the squeeze it received, and distinctly heard the young man's sigh as he passed out. Then she came from the window, trailing her finger along the mahogany edge of the billiard-table. Watching her, Soames knew that she was going to ask him something. Her finger felt round the last pocket, and she looked up.
"Have you done anything to stop Jon writing to me, Father?"
Soames shook his head.
"You haven't seen, then?" he said. "His father died just a week ago to-day."
In her startled, frowning face he saw the instant struggle to apprehend what this would mean.
"Poor Jon! Why didn't you tell me, Father?"
"I never know!" said Soames slowly; "you don't confide in me."
"I would, if you'd help me, dear."
"Perhaps I shall."
Fleur clasped her hands. "Oh! darling--when one wants a thing fearfully, one doesn't think of other people. Don't be angry with me."
Soames put out his hand, as if pushing away an aspersion.
"I'm cogitating," he said. What on earth had made him use a word like that! "Has young Mont been bothering you again?"
Fleur smiled. "Oh! Michael! He's always bothering; but he's such a good sort--I don't mind him."
"Well," said Soames, "I'm tired; I shall go and have a nap before dinner."
He went up to his picture-gallery, lay down on the couch there, and closed his eyes. A terrible responsibility this girl of his--whose mother was--ah! what was she? A terrible responsibility! Help her-- how could he help her? He could not alter the fact that he was her father. Or that Irene--! What was it young Mont had said--some nonsense about the possessive instinct--shutters up--To let? Silly!
The sultry air, charged with a scent of meadow-sweet, of river and roses, closed on his senses, drowsing them.
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