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Uncertain whether the impression that Prosper Profond was dangerous should be traced to his attempt to give Val the Mayfly filly; to a remark of Fleur's: "He's like the hosts of Midian--he prowls and prowls around"; to his preposterous inquiry of Jack Cardigan: "What's the use of keepin' fit?" or, more simply, to the fact that he was a foreigner, or alien as it was now called. Certain, that Annette was looking particularly handsome, and that Soames--had sold him a Gauguin and then torn up the cheque, so that Monsieur Profond himself had said: "I didn't get that small picture I bought from Mr. Forsyde."
However suspiciously regarded, he still frequented Winifred's evergreen little house in Green Street, with a good-natured obtuseness which no one mistook for naiv ete, a word hardly applicable to Monsieur Prosper Profond. Winifred still found him "amusing," and would write him little notes saying: "Come and have a 'jolly' with us"--it was breath of life to her to keep up with the phrases of the day.
The mystery, with which all felt him to be surrounded, was due to his having done, seen, heard, and known everything, and found nothing in it--which was unnatural. The English type of disillusionment was familiar enough to Winifred, who had always moved in fashionable circles. It gave a certain cachet or distinction, so that one got something out of it. But to see nothing in anything, not as a pose, but because there was nothing in anything, was not English; and that which was not English one could not help secretly feeling dangerous, if not precisely bad form. It was like having the mood which the War had left, seated--dark, heavy, smiling, indifferent--in your Empire chair; it was like listening to that mood talking through thick pink lips above a little diabolic beard. It was, as Jack Cardigan expressed it--for the English character at large--"a bit too thick"-- for if nothing was really worth getting excited about, there were always games, and one could make it so! Even Winifred, ever a Forsyte at heart, felt that there was nothing to be had out of such a mood of disillusionment, so that it really ought not to be there. Monsieur Profond, in fact, made the mood too plain in a country which decently veiled such realities.
When Fleur, after her hurried return from Robin Hill, came down to dinner that evening, the mood was standing at the window of Winifred's little drawing-room, looking out into Green Street, with an air of seeing nothing in it. And Fleur gazed promptly into the fireplace with an air of seeing a fire which was not there.
Monsieur Profond came from the window. He was in full fig, with a white waistcoat and a white flower in his buttonhole.
"Well, Miss Forsyde," he said, "I'm awful pleased to see you. Mr. Forsyde well? I was sayin' to-day I want to see him have some pleasure. He worries."
"You think so?" said Fleur shortly.
"Worries," repeated Monsieur Profond, burring the r's.
Fleur spun round. "Shall I tell you," she said, "what would give him pleasure?" But the words, "To hear that you had cleared out," died at the expression on his face. All his fine white teeth were showing.
"I was hearin' at the Club to-day about his old trouble." Fleur opened her eyes. "What do you mean?"
Monsieur Profond moved his sleek head as if to minimize his statement.
"Before you were born," he said; "that small business."
Though conscious that he had cleverly diverted her from his own share in her father's worry, Fleur was unable to withstand a rush of nervous curiosity. "Tell me what you heard."
"Why!" murmured Monsieur Profond, "you know all that."
"I expect I do. But I should like to know that you haven't heard it all wrong."
"His first wife," murmured Monsieur Profond.
Choking back the words, "He was never married before," she said: "Well, what about her?"
"Mr. George Forsyde was tellin' me about your father's first wife marryin' his cousin Jolyon afterward. It was a small bit unpleasant, I should think. I saw their boy--nice boy!"
Fleur looked up. Monsieur Profond was swimming, heavily diabolical, before her. That--the reason! With the most heroic effort of her life so far, she managed to arrest that swimming figure. She could not tell whether he had noticed. And just then Winifred came in.
"Oh! here you both are already; Imogen and I have had the most amusing afternoon at the Babies' bazaar."
"What babies?" said Fleur mechanically.
"The 'Save the Babies.' I got such a bargain, my dear. A piece of old Armenian work--from before the Flood. I want your opinion on it, Prosper."
"Auntie," whispered Fleur suddenly.
At the tone in the girl's voice Winifred closed in on her.'
"What's the matter? Aren't you well?"
Monsieur Profond had withdrawn into the window, where he was practically out of hearing.
"Auntie, he-he told me that father has been married before. Is it true that he divorced her, and she married Jon Forsyte's father?"
Never in all the life of the mother of four little Darties had Winifred felt more seriously embarrassed. Her niece's face was so pale, her eyes so dark, her voice so whispery and strained.
"Your father didn't wish you to hear," she said, with all the aplomb she could muster. "These things will happen. I've often told him he ought to let you know."
"Oh!" said Fleur, and that was all, but it made Winifred pat her shoulder--a firm little shoulder, nice and white! She never could help an appraising eye and touch in the matter of her niece, who would have to be married, of course--though not to that boy Jon.
"We've forgotten all about it years and years ago," she said comfortably. "Come and have dinner!"
"No, Auntie. I don't feel very well. May I go upstairs?"
"My dear!" murmured Winifred, concerned, "you're not taking this to heart? Why, you haven't properly come out yet! That boy's a child!"
"What boy? I've only got a headache. But I can't stand that man to- night."
"Well, well," said Winifred, "go and lie down. I'll send you some bromide, and I shall talk to Prosper Profond. What business had he to gossip? Though I must say I think it's much better you should know."
Fleur smiled. "Yes," she said, and slipped from the room.
She went up with her head whirling, a dry sensation in her throat, a guttered frightened feeling in her breast. Never in her life as yet had she suffered from even momentary fear that she would not get what she had set her heart on. The sensations of the afternoon had been full and poignant, and this gruesome discovery coming on the top of them had really made her head ache. No wonder her father had hidden that photograph, so secretly behind her own-ashamed of having kept it! But could he hate Jon's mother and yet keep her photograph? She pressed her hands over her forehead, trying to see things clearly. Had they told Jon--had her visit to Robin Hill forced them to tell him? Everything now turned on that! She knew, they all knew, except--perhaps--Jon!
She walked up and down, biting her lip and thinking desperately hard. Jon loved his mother. If they had told him, what would he do? She could not tell. But if they had not told him, should she not--could she not get him for herself--get married to him, before he knew? She searched her memories of Robin Hill. His mother's face so passive-- with its dark eyes and as if powdered hair, its reserve, its smile-- baffled her; and his father's--kindly, sunken, ironic. Instinctively she felt they would shrink from telling Jon, even now, shrink from hurting him--for of course it would hurt him awfully to know!
Her aunt must be made not to tell her father that she knew. So long as neither she herself nor Jon were supposed to know, there was still a chance--freedom to cover one's tracks, and get what her heart was set on. But she was almost overwhelmed by her isolation. Every one's hand was against her--every one's! It was as Jon had said--he and she just wanted to live and the past was in their way, a past they hadn't shared in, and didn't understand! Oh! What a shame! And suddenly she thought of June. Would she help them? For somehow June had left on her the impression that she would be sympathetic with their love, impatient of obstacle. Then, instinctively, she thought: 'I won't give anything away, though, even to her. I daren't. I mean to have Jon; against them all.'
Soup was brought up to her, and one of Winifred's pet headache cachets. She swallowed both. Then Winifred herself appeared. Fleur opened her campaign with the words:
"You know, Auntie, I do wish people wouldn't think I'm in love with that boy. Why, I've hardly seen him!"
Winifred, though experienced, was not "fine." She accepted the remark with considerable relief. Of course, it was not pleasant for the girl to hear of the family scandal, and she set herself to minimise the matter, a task for which she was eminently qualified, "raised" fashionably under a comfortable mother and a father whose nerves might not be shaken, and for many years the wife of Montague Dartie. Her description was a masterpiece of understatement. Fleur's father's first wife had been very foolish. There had been a young man who had got run over, and she had left Fleur's father. Then, years after, when it might all have come--right again, she had taken up with their cousin Jolyon; and, of course, her father had been obliged to have a divorce. Nobody remembered anything of it now, except just the family. And, perhaps, it had all turned out for the best; her father had Fleur; and Jolyon and Irene had been quite happy, they said, and their boy was a nice boy. "Val having Holly, too, is a sort of plaster, don't you know?" With these soothing words, Winifred patted her niece's shoulder; thought: 'She's a nice, plump little thing!' and went back to Prosper Profond, who, in spite of his indiscretion, was very "amusing" this evening.
For some minutes after her aunt had gone Fleur remained under influence of bromide material and spiritual. But then reality came back. Her aunt had left out all that mattered--all the feeling, the hate, the love, the unforgivingness of passionate hearts. She, who knew so little of life, and had touched only the fringe of love, was yet aware by instinct that words have as little relation to fact and feeling as coin to the bread it buys. 'Poor Father!' she thought. 'Poor me! Poor Jon! But I don't care, I mean to have him!' From the window of her darkened room she saw "that man" issue from the door below and "prowl" away. If he and her mother--how would that affect her chance? Surely it must make her father cling to her more closely, so that he would consent in the end to anything she wanted, or become reconciled the sooner to what she did without his knowledge.
She took some earth from the flower-box in the window, and with all her might flung it after that disappearing figure. It fell short, but the action did her good.
And a little puff of air came up from Green Street, smelling of petrol, not sweet.
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