When Soames entered his sister's little Louis Quinze drawing-room, with its small balcony, always flowered with hanging geraniums in the summer, and now with pots of Lilium Auratum, he was struck by the immutability of human affairs. It looked just the same as on his first visit to the newly married Darties twenty-one years ago. He had chosen the furniture himself, and so completely that no subsequent purchase had ever been able to change the room's atmosphere. Yes, he had founded his sister well, and she had wanted it. Indeed, it said a great deal for Winifred that after all this time with Dartie she remained well-founded. From the first Soames had nosed out Dartie's nature from underneath the plausibility, savoir faire, and good looks which had dazzled Winifred, her mother, and even James, to the extent of permitting the fellow to marry his daughter without bringing anything but shares of no value into settlement.
Winifred, whom he noticed next to the furniture, was sitting at her Buhl bureau with a letter in her hand. She rose and came towards him. Tall as himself, strong in the cheekbones, well tailored, something in her face disturbed Soames. She crumpled the letter in her hand, but seemed to change her mind and held it out to him. He was her lawyer as well as her brother.
Soames read, on Iseeum Club paper, these words:
'You will not get chance to insult in my own again. I am leaving country to-morrow. It's played out. I'm tired of being insulted by you. You've brought on yourself. No self-respecting man can stand it. I shall not ask you for anything again. Good-bye. I took the photograph of the two girls. Give them my love. I don't care what your family say. It's all their doing. I'm going to live new life.
This after-dinner note had a splotch on it not yet quite dry. He looked at Winifred--the splotch had clearly come from her; and he checked the words: 'Good riddance!' Then it occurred to him that with this letter she was entering that very state which he himself so earnestly desired to quit--the state of a Forsyte who was not divorced.
Winifred had turned away, and was taking a long sniff from a little gold-topped bottle. A dull commiseration, together with a vague sense of injury, crept about Soames' heart. He had come to her to talk of his own position, and get sympathy, and here was she in the same position, wanting of course to talk of it, and get sympathy from him. It was always like that! Nobody ever seemed to think that he had troubles and interests of his own. He folded up the letter with the splotch inside, and said:
"What's it all about, now?"
Winifred recited the story of the pearls calmly.
"Do you think he's really gone, Soames? You see the state he was in when he wrote that."
Soames who, when he desired a thing, placated Providence by pretending that he did not think it likely to happen, answered:
"I shouldn't think so. I might find out at his Club."
"If George is there," said Winifred, "he would know."
"George?" said Soames; "I saw him at his father's funeral."
"Then he's sure to be there."
Soames, whose good sense applauded his sister's acumen, said grudgingly: "Well, I'll go round. Have you said anything in Park Lane?"
"I've told Emily," returned Winifred, who retained that 'chic' way of describing her mother. "Father would have a fit."
Indeed, anything untoward was now sedulously kept from James. With another look round at the furniture, as if to gauge his sister's exact position, Soames went out towards Piccadilly. The evening was drawing in--a touch of chill in the October haze. He walked quickly, with his close and concentrated air. He must get through, for he wished to dine in Soho. On hearing from the hall porter at the Iseeum that Mr. Dartie had not been in to-day, he looked at the trusty fellow and decided only to ask if Mr. George Forsyte was in the Club. He was. Soames, who always looked askance at his cousin George, as one inclined to jest at his expense, followed the page- boy, slightly reassured by the thought that George had just lost his father. He must have come in for about thirty thousand, be- sides what he had under that settlement of Roger's, which had avoided death duty. He found George in a bow-window, staring out across a half-eaten plate of muffins. His tall, bulky, black- clothed figure loomed almost threatening, though preserving still the supernatural neatness of the racing man. With a faint grin on his fleshy face, he said:
"Hallo, Soames! Have a muffin?"
"No, thanks," murmured Soames; and, nursing his hat, with the desire to say something suitable and sympathetic, added:
"How's your mother?"
"Thanks," said George; "so-so. Haven't seen you for ages. You never go racing. How's the City?"
Soames, scenting the approach of a jest, closed up, and answered:
"I wanted to ask you about Dartie. I hear he's...."
"Flitted, made a bolt to Buenos Aires with the fair Lola. Good for Winifred and the little Darties. He's a treat."
Soames nodded. Naturally inimical as these cousins were, Dartie made them kin.
"Uncle James'll sleep in his bed now," resumed George; "I suppose he's had a lot off you, too."
"Ah! You saw him further," said George amicably. "He's a real rouser. Young Val will want a bit of looking after. I was always sorry for Winifred. She's a plucky woman."
Again Soames nodded. "I must be getting back to her," he said; "she just wanted to know for certain. We may have to take steps. I suppose there's no mistake?"
"It's quite O.K.," said George--it was he who invented so many of those quaint sayings which have been assigned to other sources. "He was drunk as a lord last night; but he went off all right this morning. His ship's the Tuscarora;" and, fishing out a card, he read mockingly:
"'Mr. Montague Dartie, Poste Restante, Buenos Aires.' I should hurry up with the steps, if I were you. He fairly fed me up last night."
"Yes," said Soames; "but it's not always easy." Then, conscious from George's eyes that he had roused reminiscence of his own affair, he got up, and held out his hand. George rose too.
"Remember me to Winifred.... You'll enter her for the Divorce Stakes straight off if you ask me."
Soames took a sidelong look back at him from the doorway. George had seated himself again and was staring before him; he looked big and lonely in those black clothes. Soames had never known him so subdued. 'I suppose he feels it in a way,' he thought. 'They must have about fifty thousand each, all told. They ought to keep the estate together. If there's a war, house property will go down. Uncle Roger was a good judge, though.' And the face of Annette rose before him in the darkening street; her brown hair and her blue eyes with their dark lashes, her fresh lips and cheeks, dewy and blooming in spite of London, her perfect French figure. 'Take steps!' he thought. Re-entering Winifred's house he encountered Val, and they went in together. An idea had occurred to Soames. His cousin Jolyon was Irene's trustee, the first step would be to go down and see him at Robin Hill. Robin Hill! The odd--the very odd feeling those words brought back! Robin Hill--the house Bosinney had built for him and Irene--the house they had never lived in--the fatal house! And Jolyon lived there now! H'm! And suddenly he thought: 'They say he's got a boy at Oxford! Why not take young Val down and introduce them! It's an excuse! Less bald--very much less bald!' So, as they went upstairs, he said to Val:
"You've got a cousin at Oxford; you've never met him. I should like to take you down with me to-morrow to where he lives and introduce you. You'll find it useful."
Val, receiving the idea with but moderate transports, Soames clinched it.
"I'll call for you after lunch. It's in the country--not far; you'll enjoy it."
On the threshold of the drawing-room he recalled with an effort that the steps he contemplated concerned Winifred at the moment, not himself.
Winifred was still sitting at her Buhl bureau.
"It's quite true," he said; "he's gone to Buenos Aires, started this morning--we'd better have him shadowed when he lands. I'll cable at once. Otherwise we may have a lot of expense. The sooner these things are done the better. I'm always regretting that I didn't..." he stopped, and looked sidelong at the silent Winifred. "By the way," he went on, "can you prove cruelty?"
Winifred said in a dull voice:
"I don't know. What is cruelty?"
"Well, has he struck you, or anything?"
Winifred shook herself, and her jaw grew square.
"He twisted my arm. Or would pointing a pistol count? Or being too drunk to undress himself, or--No--I can't bring in the children."
"No," said Soames; "no! I wonder! Of course, there's legal separation--we can get that. But separation! Um!"
"What does it mean?" asked Winifred desolately.
"That he can't touch you, or you him; you're both of you married and unmarried." And again he grunted. What was it, in fact, but his own accursed position, legalised! No, he would not put her into that!
"It must be divorce," he said decisively;" failing cruelty, there's desertion. There's a way of shortening the two years, now. We get the Court to give us restitution of conjugal rights. Then if he doesn't obey, we can bring a suit for divorce in six months' time. Of course you don't want him back. But they won't know that. Still, there's the risk that he might come. I'd rather try cruelty."
Winifred shook her head. "It's so beastly."
"Well," Soames murmured, "perhaps there isn't much risk so long as he's infatuated and got money. Don't say anything to anybody, and don't pay any of his debts."
Winifred sighed. In spite of all she had been through, the sense of loss was heavy on her. And this idea of not paying his debts any more brought it home to her as nothing else yet had. Some richness seemed to have gone out of life. Without her husband, without her pearls, without that intimate sense that she made a brave show above the domestic whirlpool, she would now have to face the world. She felt bereaved indeed.
And into the chilly kiss he placed on her forehead, Soames put more than his usual warmth.
"I have to go down to Robin Hill to-morrow," he said, "to see young Jolyon on business. He's got a boy at Oxford. I'd like to take Val with me and introduce him. Come down to 'The Shelter' for the week-end and bring the children. Oh! by the way, no, that won't do; I've got some other people coming." So saying, he left her and turned towards Soho.
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