On his way to Green Street it occurred to Soames that he ought to go into Dumetrius' in Suffolk Street about the possibility of the Bolderby Old Crome. Almost worth while to have fought the war to have the Bolderby Old Crome, as it were, in flux! Old Bolderby had died, his son and grandson had been killed--a cousin was coming into the estate, who meant to sell it, some said because of the condition of England, others said because he had asthma.
If Dumetrius once got hold of it the price would become prohibitive; it was necessary for Soames to find out whether Dumetrius had got it, before he tried to get it himself. He therefore confined himself to discussing with Dumetrius whether Monticellis would come again now that it was the fashion for a picture to be anything except a picture; and the future of Johns, with a side-slip into Buxton Knights. It was only when leaving that he added: "So they're not selling the Bolderby Old Crome, after all? "In sheer pride of racial superiority, as he had calculated would be the case, Dumetrius replied:
"Oh! I shall get it, Mr. Forsyte, sir!"
The flutter of his eyelid fortified Soames in a resolution to write direct to the new Bolderby, suggesting that the only dignified way of dealing with an Old Crome was to avoid dealers. He therefore said, "Well, good-day!" and went, leaving Dumetrius the wiser.
At Green Street he found that Fleur was out and would be all the evening; she was staying one more night in London. He cabbed on dejectedly, and caught his train.
He reached his house about six o'clock. The air was heavy, midges biting, thunder about. Taking his letters he went up to his dressing-room to cleanse himself of London.
An uninteresting post. A receipt, a bill for purchases on behalf of Fleur. A circular about an exhibition of etchings. A letter beginning:
"I feel it my duty..."
That would be an appeal or something unpleasant. He looked at once for the signature. There was none! Incredulously he turned the page over and examined each corner. Not being a public man, Soames had never yet had an anonymous letter, and his first impulse was to tear it up, as a dangerous thing; his second to read it, as a thing still more dangerous.
"I feel it my duty to inform you that having no interest in the matter your lady is carrying on with a foreigner--"
Reaching that word Soames stopped mechanically and examined the postmark. So far as he could pierce the impenetrable disguise in which the Post Office had wrapped it, there was something with a "sea" at the end and a "t" in it. Chelsea? No! Battersea? Perhaps! He read on.
"These foreigners are all the same. Sack the lot. This one meets your lady twice a week. I know it of my own knowledge--and to see an Englishman put on goes against the grain. You watch it and see if what I say isn't true. I shouldn't meddle if it wasn't a dirty foreigner that's in it. Yours obedient."
The sensation with which Soames dropped the letter was similar to that he would have had entering his bedroom and finding it full of black-beetles. The meanness of anonymity gave a shuddering obscenity to the moment. And the worst of it was that this shadow had been at the back of his mind ever since the Sunday evening when Fleur had pointed down at Prosper Profond strolling on the lawn, and said: "Prowling cat!" Had he not in connection therewith, this very day, perused his Will and Marriage Settlement? And now this anonymous ruffian, with nothing to gain, apparently, save the venting of his spite against foreigners, had wrenched it out of the obscurity in which he had hoped and wished it would remain. To have such knowledge forced on him, at his time of life, about Fleur's mother I He picked the letter up from the carpet, tore it across, and then, when it hung together by just the fold at the back, stopped tearing, and reread it. He was taking at that moment one of the decisive resolutions of his life. He would not be forced into another scandal. No! However he decided to deal with this matter--and it required the most far-sighted and careful consideration he would do nothing that might injure Fleur. That resolution taken, his mind answered the helm again, and he made his ablutions. His hands trembled as he dried them. Scandal he would not have, but something must be done to stop this sort of thing! He went into his wife's room and stood looking around him. The idea of searching for anything which would incriminate, and entitle him to hold a menace over her, did not even come to him. There would be nothing--she was much too practical. The idea of having her watched had been dismissed before it came--too well he remembered his previous experience of that. No! He had nothing but this torn-up letter from some anonymous ruffian, whose impudent intrusion into his private life he so violently resented. It was repugnant to him to make use of it, but he might have to. What a mercy Fleur was not at home to- night! A tap on the door broke up his painful cogitations.
"Mr. Michael Mont, sir, is in the drawing-room. Will you see him?"
"No," said Soames; "yes. I'll come down."
Anything that would take his mind off for a few minutes!
Michael Mont in flannels stood on the verandah smoking a cigarette. He threw it away as Soames came up, and ran his hand through his hair.
Soames' feeling toward this young man was singular. He was no doubt a rackety, irresponsible young fellow according to old standards, yet somehow likeable, with his extraordinarily cheerful way of blurting out his opinions.
"Come in," he said; "have you had tea?"
Mont came in.
"I thought Fleur would have been back, sir; but I'm glad she isn't. The fact is, I--I'm fearfully gone on her; so fearfully gone that I thought you'd better know. It's old-fashioned, of course, coming to fathers first, but I thought you'd forgive that. I went to my own Dad, and he says if I settle down he'll see me through. He rather cottons to the idea, in fact. I told him about your Goya."
"Oh!" said Soames, inexpressibly dry. "He rather cottons?"
"Yes, sir; do you?"
Soames smiled faintly.
"You see," resumed Mont, twiddling his straw hat, while his hair, ears, eyebrows, all seemed to stand up from excitement, "when you've been through the War you can't help being in a hurry."
"To get married; and unmarried afterward," said Soames slowly.
"Not from Fleur, sir. Imagine, if you were me!"
Soames cleared his throat. That way of putting it was forcible enough.
"Fleur's too young," he said.
"Oh! no, sir. We're awfully old nowadays. My Dad seems to me a perfect babe; his thinking apparatus hasn't turned a hair. But he's a Baronight, of course; that keeps him back."
"Baronight," repeated Soames; "what may that be?"
"Bart, sir. I shall be a Bart some day. But I shall live it down, you know."
"Go away and live this down," said Soames.
Young Mont said imploringly: "Oh! no, sir. I simply must hang around, or I shouldn't have a dog's chance. You'll let Fleur do what she likes, I suppose, anyway. Madame passes me."
"Indeed!" said Soames frigidly.
"You don't really bar me, do you?" and the young man looked so doleful that Soames smiled.
"You may think you're very old," he said; "but you strike me as extremely young. To rattle ahead of everything is not a proof of maturity."
"All right, sir; I give you our age. But to show you I mean business--I've got a job."
"Glad to hear it."
"Joined a publisher; my governor is putting up the stakes."
Soames put his hand over his mouth--he had so very nearly said: "God help the publisher!" His grey eyes scrutinised the agitated young man.
"I don't dislike you, Mr. Mont, but Fleur is everything to me: Everything--do you understand?"
"Yes, sir, I know; but so she is to me."
"That's as may be. I'm glad you've told me, however. And now I think there's nothing more to be said."
"I know it rests with her, sir."
"It will rest with her a long time, I hope."
"You aren't cheering," said Mont suddenly.
"No," said Soames, "my experience of life has not made me anxious to couple people in a hurry. Good-night, Mr. Mont. I shan't tell Fleur what you've said."
"Oh!" murmured Mont blankly; "I really could knock my brains out for want of her. She knows that perfectly well."
"I dare say." And Soames held out his hand. A distracted squeeze, a heavy sigh, and soon after sounds from the young man's motor-cycle called up visions of flying dust and broken bones.
'The younger generation!' he thought heavily, and went out on to the lawn. The gardeners had been mowing, and there was still the smell of fresh-cut grass--the thundery air kept all scents close to earth. The sky was of a purplish hue--the poplars black. Two or three boats passed on the river, scuttling, as it were, for shelter before the storm. 'Three days' fine weather,' thought Soames, 'and then a storm!' Where was Annette? With that chap, for all he knew--she was a young woman! Impressed with the queer charity of that thought, he entered the summerhouse and sat down. The fact was--and he admitted it--Fleur was so much to him that his wife was very little--very little; French--had never been much more than a mistress, and he was getting indifferent to that side of things! It was odd how, with all this ingrained care for moderation and secure investment, Soames ever put his emotional eggs into one basket. First Irene--now Fleur. He was dimly conscious of it, sitting there, conscious of its odd dangerousness. It had brought him to wreck and scandal once, but now--now it should save him! He cared so much for Fleur that he would have no further scandal. If only he could get at that anonymous letter-writer, he would teach him not to meddle and stir up mud at the bottom of water which he wished should remain stagnant!... A distant flash, a low rumble, and large drops of rain spattered on the thatch above him. He remained indifferent, tracing a pattern with his finger on the dusty surface of a little rustic table. Fleur's future! 'I want fair sailing for her,' he thought. 'Nothing else matters at my time of life.' A lonely business--life! What you had you never could keep to yourself! As you warned one off, you let another in. One could make sure of nothing! He reached up and pulled a red rambler rose from a cluster which blocked the window. Flowers grew and dropped--Nature was a queer thing! The thunder rumbled and crashed, travelling east along a river, the paling flashes flicked his eyes; the poplar tops showed sharp and dense against the sky, a heavy shower rustled and rattled and veiled in the little house wherein he sat, indifferent, thinking.
When the storm was over, he left his retreat and went down the wet path to the river bank.
Two swans had come, sheltering in among the reeds. He knew the birds well, and stood watching the dignity in the curve of those white necks and formidable snake-like heads. 'Not dignified--what I have to do!' he thought. And yet it must be tackled, lest worse befell. Annette must be back by now from wherever she had gone, for it was nearly dinner-time, and as the moment for seeing her approached, the difficulty of knowing what to say and how to say it had increased. A new and scaring thought occurred to him. Suppose she wanted her liberty to marry this fellow! Well, if she did, she couldn't have it. He had not married her for that. The image of Prosper Profond dawdled before him reassuringly. Not a marrying man! No, no! Anger replaced that momentary scare. 'He had better not come my way,' he thought. The mongrel represented---! But what did Prosper Profond represent? Nothing that mattered surely. And yet something real enough in the world--unmorality let off its chain, disillusionment on the prowl! That expression Annette had caught from him: "Je m'en fiche! "A fatalistic chap! A continental--a cosmopolitan--a product of the age! If there were condemnation more complete, Soames felt that he did not know it.
The swans had turned their heads, and were looking past him into some distance of their own. One of them uttered a little hiss, wagged its tail, turned as if answering to a rudder, and swam away. The other followed. Their white bodies, their stately necks, passed out of his sight, and he went toward the house.
Annette was in the drawing-room, dressed for dinner, and he thought as he went up-stairs 'Handsome is as handsome does.' Handsome! Except for remarks about the curtains in the drawing-room, and the storm, there was practically no conversation during a meal distinguished by exactitude of quantity and perfection of quality. Soames drank nothing. He followed her into the drawing-room afterward, and found her smoking a cigarette on the sofa between the two French windows. She was leaning back, almost upright, in a low black frock, with her knees crossed and her blue eyes half-closed; grey-blue smoke issued from her red, rather full lips, a fillet bound her chestnut hair, she wore the thinnest silk stockings, and shoes with very high heels showing off her instep. A fine piece in any room! Soames, who held that torn letter in a hand thrust deep into the side-pocket of his dinner-jacket, said:
"I'm going to shut the window; the damp's lifting in."
He did so, and stood looking at a David Cox adorning the cream- panelled wall close by.
What was she thinking of? He had never understood a woman in his life--except Fleur--and Fleur not always! His heart beat fast. But if he meant to do it, now was the moment. Turning from the David Cox, he took out the torn letter.
"I've had this."
Her eyes widened, stared at him, and hardened.
Soames handed her the letter.
"It's torn, but you can read it." And he turned back to the David Cox--a sea-piece, of good tone--but without movement enough. 'I wonder what that chap's doing at this moment?' he thought. 'I'll astonish him yet.' Out of the corner of his eye he saw Annette holding the letter rigidly; her eyes moved from side to side under her darkened lashes and frowning darkened eyes. She dropped the letter, gave a little shiver, smiled, and said:
"I quite agree," said Soames; "degrading. Is it true?"
A tooth fastened on her red lower lip. "And what if it were?"
She was brazen!
"Is that all you have to say?"
"Well, speak out!"
"What is the good of talking?"
Soames said icily: "So you admit it?"
"I admit nothing. You are a fool to ask. A man like you should not ask. It is dangerous."
Soames made a tour of the room, to subdue his rising anger.
"Do you remember," he said, halting in front of her, "what you were when I married you? Working at accounts in a restaurant."
"Do you remember that I was not half your age?"
Soames broke off the hard encounter of their eyes, and went back to the David Cox.
"I am not going to bandy words. I require you to give up this-- friendship. I think of the matter entirely as it affects Fleur."
"Yes," said Soames stubbornly; "Fleur. She is your child as well as mine."
"It is kind to admit that!"
"Are you going to do what I say?"
"I refuse to tell you."
"Then I must make you."
"No, Soames," she said. "You are helpless. Do not say things that you will regret."
Anger swelled the veins on his forehead. He opened his mouth to vent that emotion, and could not. Annette went on:
"There shall be no more such letters, I promise you. That is enough."
Soames writhed. He had a sense of being treated like a child by this woman who had deserved he did not know what.
"When two people have married, and lived like us, Soames, they had better be quiet about each other. There are things one does not drag up into the light for people to laugh at. You will be quiet, then; not for my sake for your own. You are getting old; I am not, yet. You have made me ver-ry practical"
Soames, who had passed through all the sensations of being choked, repeated dully:
"I require you to give up this friendship."
"And if I do not?"
"Then--then I will cut you out of my Will."
Somehow it did not seem to meet the case. Annette laughed.
"You will live a long time, Soames."
"You--you are a bad woman," said Soames suddenly.
Annette shrugged her shoulders.
"I do not think so. Living with you has killed things in me, it is true; but I am not a bad woman. I am sensible--that is all. And so will you be when you have thought it over."
"I shall see this man," said Soames sullenly, "and warn him off."
"Mon cher, you are funny. You do not want me, you have as much of me as you want; and you wish the rest of me to be dead. I admit nothing, but I am not going to be dead, Soames, at my age; so you had better be quiet, I tell you. I myself will make no scandal; none. Now, I am not saying any more, whatever you do."
She reached out, took a French novel off a little table, and opened it. Soames watched her, silenced by the tumult of his feelings. The thought of that man was almost making him want her, and this was a revelation of their relationship, startling to one little given to introspective philosophy. Without saying another word he went out and up to the picture-gallery. This came of marrying a Frenchwoman! And yet, without her there would have been no Fleur! She had served her purpose.
'She's right,' he thought; 'I can do nothing. I don't even know that there's anything in it.' The instinct of self-preservation warned him to batten down his hatches, to smother the fire with want of air. Unless one believed there was something in a thing, there wasn't.
That night he went into her room. She received him in the most matter-of-fact way, as if there had been no scene between them. And he returned to his own room with a curious sense of peace. If one didn't choose to see, one needn't. And he did not choose--in future he did not choose. There was nothing to be gained by it--nothing! Opening the drawer he took from the sachet a handkerchief, and the framed photograph of Fleur. When he had looked at it a little he slipped it down, and there was that other one--that old one of Irene. An owl hooted while he stood in his window gazing at it. The owl hooted, the red climbing roses seemed to deepen in colour, there came a scent of lime-blossom. God! That had been a different thing! Passion--Memory! Dust!
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