Chapter 13 James Goes to See for Himself
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James said nothing to his son of this visit to the house; but, having occasion to go to Timothy’s on morning on a matter connected with a drainage scheme which was being forced by the sanitary authorities on his brother, he mentioned it there.
It was not, he said, a bad house. He could see that a good deal could be made of it. The fellow was clever in his way, though what it was going to cost Soames before it was done with he didn’t know.
Euphemia Forsyte, who happened to be in the room — she had come round to borrow the Rev. Mr. Scoles’ last novel, ‘Passion and Paregoric’, which was having such a vogue — chimed in.
“I saw Irene yesterday at the Stores; she and Mr. Bosinney were having a nice little chat in the Groceries.”
It was thus, simply, that she recorded a scene which had really made a deep and complicated impression on her. She had been hurrying to the silk department of the Church and Commercial Stores — that Institution than which, with its admirable system, admitting only guaranteed persons on a basis of payment before delivery, no emporium can be more highly recommended to Forsytes — to match a piece of prunella silk for her mother, who was waiting in the carriage outside.
Passing through the Groceries her eye was unpleasantly attracted by the back view of a very beautiful figure. It was so charmingly proportioned, so balanced, and so well clothed, that Euphemia’s instinctive propriety was at once alarmed; such figures, she knew, by intuition rather than experience, were rarely connected with virtue — certainly never in her mind, for her own back was somewhat difficult to fit.
Her suspicions were fortunately confirmed. A young man coming from the Drugs had snatched off his hat, and was accosting the lady with the unknown back.
It was then that she saw with whom she had to deal; the lady was undoubtedly Mrs. Soames, the young man Mr. Bosinney. Concealing herself rapidly over the purchase of a box of Tunisian dates, for she was impatient of awkwardly meeting people with parcels in her hands, and at the busy time of the morning, she was quite unintentionally an interested observer of their little interview.
Mrs. Soames, usually somewhat pale, had a delightful colour in her cheeks; and Mr. Bosinney’s manner was strange, though attractive (she thought him rather a distinguished-looking man, and George’s name for him, ‘The Buccaneer’— about which there was something romantic — quite charming). He seemed to be pleading. Indeed, they talked so earnestly — or, rather, he talked so earnestly, for Mrs. Soames did not say much — that they caused, inconsiderately, an eddy in the traffic. One nice old General, going towards Cigars, was obliged to step quite out of the way, and chancing to look up and see Mrs. Soames’ face, he actually took off his hat, the old fool! So like a man!
But it was Mrs. Soames’ eyes that worried Euphemia. She never once looked at Mr. Bosinney until he moved on, and then she looked after him. And, oh, that look!
On that look Euphemia had spent much anxious thought. It is not too much to say that it had hurt her with its dark, lingering softness, for all the world as though the woman wanted to drag him back, and unsay something she had been saying.
Ah, well, she had had no time to go deeply into the matter just then, with that prunella silk on her hands; but she was ‘very intriguee’— very! She had just nodded to Mrs. Soames, to show her that she had seen; and, as she confided, in talking it over afterwards, to her chum Francie (Roger’s daughter), “Didn’t she look caught out just? . . . . ”
James, most averse at the first blush to accepting any news confirmatory of his own poignant suspicions, took her up at once.
“Oh” he said, “they’d be after wall-papers no doubt.”
Euphemia smiled. “In the Groceries?” she said softly; and, taking ‘Passion and Paregoric’ from the table, added: “And so you’ll lend me this, dear Auntie? Good-bye!” and went away.
James left almost immediately after; he was late as it was.
When he reached the office of Forsyte, Bustard and Forsyte, he found Soames, sitting in his revolving, chair, drawing up a defence. The latter greeted his father with a curt good-morning, and, taking an envelope from his pocket, said:
“It may interest you to look through this.”
James read as follows:
309D, SLOANE STREET, May 15. ‘DEAR FORSYTE,
‘The construction of your house being now completed, my duties as architect have come to an end. If I am to go on with the business of decoration, which at your request I undertook, I should like you to clearly understand that I must have a free hand.
‘You never come down without suggesting something that goes counter to my scheme. I have here three letters from you, each of which recommends an article I should never dream of putting in. I had your father here yesterday afternoon, who made further valuable suggestions.
‘Please make up your mind, therefore, whether you want me to decorate for you, or to retire which on the whole I should prefer to do.
‘But understand that, if I decorate, I decorate alone, without interference of any sort.
If I do the thing, I will do it thoroughly, but I must have a free hand.
‘Yours truly, ‘PHILIP BOSINNEY.’
The exact and immediate cause of this letter cannot, of course, be told, though it is not improbable that Bosinney may have been moved by some sudden revolt against his position towards Soames — that eternal position of Art towards Property — which is so admirably summed up, on the back of the most indispensable of modern appliances, in a sentence comparable to the very finest in Tacitus:
THOS. T. SORROW, Inventor. BERT M. PADLAND, Proprietor.
“What are you going to say to him?” James asked.
Soames did not even turn his head. “I haven’t made up my mind,” he said, and went on with his defence.
A client of his, having put some buildings on a piece of ground that did not belong to him, had been suddenly and most irritatingly warned to take them off again. After carefully going into the facts, however, Soames had seen his way to advise that his client had what was known as a title by possession, and that, though undoubtedly the ground did not belong to him, he was entitled to keep it, and had better do so; and he was now following up this advice by taking steps to — as the sailors say —‘make it so.’
He had a distinct reputation for sound advice; people saying of him: “Go to young Forsyte — a long-headed fellow!” and he prized this reputation highly.
His natural taciturnity was in his favour; nothing could be more calculated to give people, especially people with property (Soames had no other clients), the impression that he was a safe man. And he was safe. Tradition, habit, education, inherited aptitude, native caution, all joined to form a solid professional honesty, superior to temptation — from the very fact that it was built on an innate avoidance of risk. How could he fall, when his soul abhorred circumstances which render a fall possible — a man cannot fall off the floor!
And those countless Forsytes, who, in the course of innumerable transactions concerned with property of all sorts (from wives to water rights), had occasion for the services of a safe man, found it both reposeful and profitable to confide in Soames. That slight superciliousness of his, combined with an air of mousing amongst precedents, was in his favour too — a man would not be supercilious unless he knew!
He was really at the head of the business, for though James still came nearly every day to, see for himself, he did little now but sit in his chair, twist his legs, slightly confuse things already decided, and presently go away again, and the other partner, Bustard, was a poor thing, who did a great deal of work, but whose opinion was never taken.
So Soames went steadily on with his defence. Yet it would be idle to say that his mind was at ease. He was suffering from a sense of impending trouble, that had haunted him for some time past. He tried to think it physical — a condition of his liver — but knew that it was not.
He looked at his watch. In a quarter of an hour he was due at the General Meeting of the New Colliery Company — one of Uncle Jolyon’s concerns; he should see Uncle Jolyon there, and say something to him about Bosinney — he had not made up his mind what, but something — in any case he should not answer this letter until he had seen Uncle Jolyon. He got up and methodically put away the draft of his defence. Going into a dark little cupboard, he turned up the light, washed his hands with a piece of brown Windsor soap, and dried them on a roller towel. Then he brushed his hair, paying strict attention to the parting, turned down the light, took his hat, and saying he would be back at half-past two, stepped into the Poultry.
It was not far to the Offices of the New Colliery Company in Ironmonger Lane, where, and not at the Cannon Street Hotel, in accordance with the more ambitious practice of other companies, the General Meeting was always held. Old Jolyon had from the first set his face against the Press. What business — he said — had the Public with his concerns!
Soames arrived on the stroke of time, and took his seat alongside the Board, who, in a row, each Director behind his own ink-pot, faced their Shareholders.
In the centre of this row old Jolyon, conspicuous in his black, tightly-buttoned frock-coat and his white moustaches, was leaning back with finger tips crossed on a copy of the Directors’ report and accounts.
On his right hand, always a little larger than life, sat the Secretary, ‘Down-by-the-starn’ Hemmings; an all-too-sad sadness beaming in his fine eyes; his iron-grey beard, in mourning like the rest of him, giving the feeling of an all-too-black tie behind it.
The occasion indeed was a melancholy one, only six weeks having elapsed since that telegram had come from Scorrier, the mining expert, on a private mission to the Mines, informing them that Pippin, their Superintendent, had committed suicide in endeavouring, after his extraordinary two years’ silence, to write a letter to his Board. That letter was on the table now; it would be read to the Shareholders, who would of course be put into possession of all the facts.
Hemmings had often said to Soames, standing with his coat-tails divided before the fireplace:
“What our Shareholders don’t know about our affairs isn’t worth knowing. You may take that from me, Mr. Soames.”
On one occasion, old Jolyon being present, Soames recollected a little unpleasantness. His uncle had looked up sharply and said: “Don’t talk nonsense, Hemmings! You mean that what they do know isn’t worth knowing!” Old Jolyon detested humbug.
Hemmings, angry-eyed, and wearing a smile like that of a trained poodle, had replied in an outburst of artificial applause: “Come, now, that’s good, sir — that’s very good. Your uncle will have his joke!”
The next time he had seen Soames he had taken the opportunity of saying to him: “The chairman’s getting very old! — I can’t get him to understand things; and he’s so wilful — but what can you expect, with a chin like his?”
Soames had nodded.
Everyone knew that Uncle Jolyon’s chin was a caution. He was looking worried to-day, in spite of his General Meeting look; he (Soames) should certainly speak to him about Bosinney.
Beyond old Jolyon on the left was little Mr. Booker, and he, too, wore his General Meeting look, as though searching for some particularly tender shareholder. And next him was the deaf director, with a frown; and beyond the deaf director, again, was old Mr. Bleedham, very bland, and having an air of conscious virtue — as well he might, knowing that the brown-paper parcel he always brought to the Board-room was concealed behind his hat (one of that old-fashioned class, of flat-brimmed top-hats which go with very large bow ties, clean-shaven lips, fresh cheeks, and neat little, white whiskers).
Soames always attended the General Meeting; it was considered better that he should do so, in case ‘anything should arise!’ He glanced round with his close, supercilious air at the walls of the room, where hung plans of the mine and harbour, together with a large photograph of a shaft leading to a working which had proved quite remarkably unprofitable. This photograph — a witness to the eternal irony underlying commercial enterprise till retained its position on the — wall, an effigy of the directors’ pet, but dead, lamb.
And now old Jolyon rose, to present the report and accounts.
Veiling under a Jove-like serenity that perpetual antagonism deep-seated in the bosom of a director towards his shareholders, he faced them calmly. Soames faced them too. He knew most of them by sight. There was old Scrubsole, a tar man, who always came, as Hemmings would say, ‘to make himself nasty,’ a cantankerous-looking old fellow with a red face, a jowl, and an enormous low-crowned hat reposing on his knee. And the Rev. Mr. Boms, who always proposed a vote of thanks to the chairman, in which he invariably expressed the hope that the Board would not forget to elevate their employees, using the word with a double e, as being more vigorous and Anglo-Saxon (he had the strong Imperialistic tendencies of his cloth). It was his salutary custom to buttonhole a director afterwards, and ask him whether he thought the coming year would be good or bad; and, according to the trend of the answer, to buy or sell three shares within the ensuing fortnight.
And there was that military man, Major O’Bally, who could not help speaking, if only to second the re-election of the auditor, and who sometimes caused serious consternation by taking toasts — proposals rather — out of the hands of persons who had been flattered with little slips of paper, entrusting the said proposals to their care.
These made up the lot, together with four or five strong, silent shareholders, with whom Soames could sympathize — men of business, who liked to keep an eye on their affairs for themselves, without being fussy — good, solid men, who came to the City every day and went back in the evening to good, solid wives.
Good, solid wives! There was something in that thought which roused the nameless uneasiness in Soames again.
What should he say to his uncle? What answer should he make to this letter?
. . . . “If any shareholder has any question to put, I shall be glad to answer it.” A soft thump. Old Jolyon had let the report and accounts fall, and stood twisting his tortoise-shell glasses between thumb and forefinger.
The ghost of a smile appeared on Soames’ face. They had better hurry up with their questions! He well knew his uncle’s method (the ideal one) of at once saying: “I propose, then, that the report and accounts be adopted!” Never let them get their wind — shareholders were notoriously wasteful of time!
A tall, white-bearded man, with a gaunt, dissatisfied face, arose:
“I believe I am in order, Mr. Chairman, in raising a question on this figure of L5000 in the accounts. ‘To the widow and family”’ (he looked sourly round), “‘of our late superintendent,’ who so — er — ill-advisedly (I say — ill-advisedly) committed suicide, at a time when his services were of the utmost value to this Company. You have stated that the agreement which he has so unfortunately cut short with his own hand was for a period of five years, of which one only had expired — I—”
Old Jolyon made a gesture of impatience.
“I believe I am in order, Mr. Chairman — I ask whether this amount paid, or proposed to be paid, by the Board to the er — deceased — is for services which might have been rendered to the Company — had he not committed suicide?”
“It is in recognition of past services, which we all know — you as well as any of us — to have been of vital value.”
“Then, sir, all I have to say is that the services being past, the amount is too much.”
The shareholder sat down.
Old Jolyon waited a second and said: “I now propose that the report and —”
The shareholder rose again: “May I ask if the Board realizes that it is not their money which — I don’t hesitate to say that if it were their money. . . . ”
A second shareholder, with a round, dogged face, whom Soames recognised as the late superintendent’s brother-in-law, got up and said warmly: “In my opinion, sir, the sum is not enough!”
The Rev. Mr. Boms now rose to his feet. “If I may venture to express myself,” he said, “I should say that the fact of the — er — deceased having committed suicide should weigh very heavily — very heavily with our worthy chairman. I have no doubt it has weighed with him, for — I say this for myself and I think for everyone present (hear, hear)— he enjoys our confidence in a high degree. We all desire, I should hope, to be charitable. But I feel sure” (he-looked severely at the late superintendent’s brother-in-law) “that he will in some way, by some written expression, or better perhaps by reducing the amount, record our grave disapproval that so promising and valuable a life should have been thus impiously removed from a sphere where both its own interests and — if I may say so — our interests so imperatively demanded its continuance. We should not — nay, we may not — countenance so grave a dereliction of all duty, both human and divine.”
The reverend gentleman resumed his seat. The late superintendent’s brother-in-law again rose: “What I have said I stick to,” he said; “the amount is not enough!”
The first shareholder struck in: “I challenge the legality of the payment. In my opinion this payment is not legal. The Company’s solicitor is present; I believe I am in order in asking him the question.”
All eyes were now turned upon Soames. Something had arisen!
He stood up, close-lipped and cold; his nerves inwardly fluttered, his attention tweaked away at last from contemplation of that cloud looming on the horizon of his mind.
“The point,” he said in a low, thin voice, “is by no means clear. As there is no possibility of future consideration being received, it is doubtful whether the payment is strictly legal. If it is desired, the opinion of the court could be taken.”
The superintendent’s brother-in-law frowned, and said in a meaning tone: “We have no doubt the opinion of the court could be taken. May I ask the name of the gentleman who has given us that striking piece of information? Mr. Soames Forsyte? Indeed!” He looked from Soames to old Jolyon in a pointed manner.
A flush coloured Soames’ pale cheeks, but his superciliousness did not waver. Old Jolyon fixed his eyes on the speaker.
“If,” he said, “the late superintendents brother-in-law has nothing more to say, I propose that the report and accounts. . . . ”
At this moment, however, there rose one of those five silent, stolid shareholders, who had excited Soames’ sympathy. He said:
“I deprecate the proposal altogether. We are expected to give charity to this man’s wife and children, who, you tell us, were dependent on him. They may have been; I do not care whether they were or not. I object to the whole thing on principle. It is high time a stand was made against this sentimental humanitarianism. The country is eaten up with it. I object to my money being paid to these people of whom I know nothing, who have done nothing to earn it. I object in toto; it is not business. I now move that the report and accounts be put back, and amended by striking out the grant altogether.”
Old Jolyon had remained standing while the strong, silent man was speaking. The speech awoke an echo in all hearts, voicing, as it did, the worship of strong men, the movement against generosity, which had at that time already commenced among the saner members of the community.
The words ‘it is not business’ had moved even the Board; privately everyone felt that indeed it was not. But they knew also the chairman’s domineering temper and tenacity. He, too, at heart must feel that it was not business; but he was committed to his own proposition. Would he go back upon it? It was thought to be unlikely.
All waited with interest. Old Jolyon held up his hand; dark-rimmed glasses depending between his finger and thumb quivered slightly with a suggestion of menace.
He addressed the strong, silent shareholder.
“Knowing, as you do, the efforts of our late superintendent upon the occasion of the explosion at the mines, do you seriously wish me to put that amendment, sir?”
Old Jolyon put the amendment.
“Does anyone second this?” he asked, looking calmly round.
And it was then that Soames, looking at his uncle, felt the power of will that was in that old man. No one stirred. Looking straight into the eyes of the strong, silent shareholder, old Jolyon said:
“I now move, ‘That the report and accounts for the year 1886 be received and adopted.’ You second that? Those in favour signify the same in the usual way. Contrary — no. Carried. The next business, gentlemen. . . . ”
Soames smiled. Certainly Uncle Jolyon had a way with him!
But now his attention relapsed upon Bosinney.
Odd how that fellow haunted his thoughts, even in business hours.
Irene’s visit to the house — but there was nothing in that, except that she might have told him; but then, again, she never did tell him anything. She was more silent, more touchy, every day. He wished to God the house were finished, and they were in it, away from London. Town did not suit her; her nerves were not strong enough. That nonsense of the separate room had cropped up again!
The meeting was breaking up now. Underneath the photograph of the lost shaft Hemmings was buttonholed by the Rev. Mr. Boms. Little Mr. Booker, his bristling eyebrows wreathed in angry smiles, was having a parting turn-up with old Scrubsole. The two hated each other like poison. There was some matter of a tar-contract between them, little Mr. Booker having secured it from the Board for a nephew of his, over old Scrubsole’s head. Soames had heard that from Hemmings, who liked a gossip, more especially about his directors, except, indeed, old Jolyon, of whom he was afraid.
Soames awaited his opportunity. The last shareholder was vanishing through the door, when he approached his uncle, who was putting on his hat.
“Can I speak to you for a minute, Uncle Jolyon?”
It is uncertain what Soames expected to get out of this interview.
Apart from that somewhat mysterious awe in which Forsytes in general held old Jolyon, due to his philosophic twist, or perhaps — as Hemmings would doubtless have said — to his chin, there was, and always had been, a subtle antagonism between the younger man and the old. It had lurked under their dry manner of greeting, under their non-committal allusions to each other, and arose perhaps from old Jolyon’s perception of the quiet tenacity (‘obstinacy,’ he rather naturally called it) of the young man, of a secret doubt whether he could get his own way with him.
Both these Forsytes, wide asunder as the poles in many respects, possessed in their different ways — to a greater degree than the rest of the family — that essential quality of tenacious and prudent insight into ‘affairs,’ which is the highwater mark of their great class. Either of them, with a little luck and opportunity, was equal to a lofty career; either of them would have made a good financier, a great contractor, a statesman, though old Jolyon, in certain of his moods when under the influence of a cigar or of Nature — would have been capable of, not perhaps despising, but certainly of questioning, his own high position, while Soames, who never smoked cigars, would not.
Then, too, in old Jolyon’s mind there was always the secret ache, that the son of James — of James, whom he had always thought such a poor thing, should be pursuing the paths of success, while his own son . . .!
And last, not least — for he was no more outside the radiation of family gossip than any other Forsyte — he had now heard the sinister, indefinite, but none the less disturbing rumour about Bosinney, and his pride was wounded to the quick.
Characteristically, his irritation turned not against Irene but against Soames. The idea that his nephew’s wife (why couldn’t the fellow take better care of her — Oh! quaint injustice! as though Soames could possibly take more care!)— should be drawing to herself June’s lover, was intolerably humiliating. And seeing the danger, he did not, like James, hide it away in sheer nervousness, but owned with the dispassion of his broader outlook, that it was not unlikely; there was something very attractive about Irene!
He had a presentiment on the subject of Soames’ communication as they left the Board Room together, and went out into the noise and hurry of Cheapside. They walked together a good minute without speaking, Soames with his mousing, mincing step, and old Jolyon upright and using his umbrella languidly as a walking-stick.
They turned presently into comparative quiet, for old Jolyon’s way to a second Board led him in the direction of Moorage Street.
Then Soames, without lifting his eyes, began: “I’ve had this letter from Bosinney. You see what he says; I thought I’d let you know. I’ve spent a lot more than I intended on this house, and I want the position to be clear.”
Old Jolyon ran his eyes unwillingly over the letter: “What he says is clear enough,” he said.
“He talks about ‘a free hand,’” replied Soames.
Old Jolyon looked at him. The long-suppressed irritation and antagonism towards this young fellow, whose affairs were beginning to intrude upon his own, burst from him.
“Well, if you don’t trust him, why do you employ him?”
Soames stole a sideway look: “It’s much too late to go into that,” he said, “I only want it to be quite understood that if I give him a free hand, he doesn’t let me in. I thought if you were to speak to him, it would carry more weight!”
“No,” said old Jolyon abruptly; “I’ll have nothing to do with it!”
The words of both uncle and nephew gave the impression of unspoken meanings, far more important, behind. And the look they interchanged was like a revelation of this consciousness.
“Well,” said Soames; “I thought, for June’s sake, I’d tell you, that’s all; I thought you’d better know I shan’t stand any nonsense!”
“What is that to me?” old Jolyon took him up.
“Oh! I don’t know,” said Soames, and flurried by that sharp look he was unable to say more. “Don’t say I didn’t tell you,” he added sulkily, recovering his composure.
“Tell me!” said old Jolyon; “I don’t know what you mean. You come worrying me about a thing like this. I don’t want to hear about your affairs; you must manage them yourself!”
“Very well,” said Soames immovably, “I will!”
“Good-morning, then,” said old Jolyon, and they parted.
Soames retraced his steps, and going into a celebrated eating-house, asked for a plate of smoked salmon and a glass of Chablis; he seldom ate much in the middle of the day, and generally ate standing, finding the position beneficial to his liver, which was very sound, but to which he desired to put down all his troubles.
When he had finished he went slowly back to his office, with bent head, taking no notice of the swarming thousands on the pavements, who in their turn took no notice of him.
The evening post carried the following reply to Bosinney:
‘FORSYTE, BUSTARD AND FORSYTE, ‘Commissioners for Oaths, ‘92001, BRANCH LANE, POULTRY, E.C.,
‘May 17, 1887. ‘DEAR BOSINNEY,
‘I have, received your letter, the terms of which not a little surprise me. I was under the impression that you had, and have had all along, a “free hand”; for I do not recollect that any suggestions I have been so unfortunate as to make have met with your approval. In giving you, in accordance with your request, this “free hand,” I wish you to clearly understand that the total cost of the house as handed over to me completely decorated, inclusive of your fee (as arranged between us), must not exceed twelve thousand pounds — L12,000. This gives you an ample margin, and, as you know, is far more than I originally contemplated.
‘I am, ‘Yours truly,
On the following day he received a note from Bosinney:
‘PHILIP BAYNES BOSINNEY, ‘Architect, ‘309D, SLOANE STREET, S.W., ‘May 18. ‘DEAR FORSYTE,
‘If you think that in such a delicate matter as decoration I can bind myself to the exact pound, I am afraid you are mistaken. I can see that you are tired of the arrangement, and of me, and I had better, therefore, resign.
‘Yours faithfully, ‘PHILIP BAYNES BOSINNEY.’
Soames pondered long and painfully over his answer, and late at night in the dining-room, when Irene had gone to bed, he composed the following:
‘62, MONTPELLIER SQUARE, S.W., ‘May 19, 1887. ‘DEAR BOSINNEY,
‘I think that in both our interests it would be extremely undesirable that matters should be so left at this stage. I did not mean to say that if you should exceed the sum named in my letter to you by ten or twenty or even fifty pounds, there would be any difficulty between us. This being so, I should like you to reconsider your answer. You have a “free hand” in the terms of this correspondence, and I hope you will see your way to completing the decorations, in the matter of which I know it is difficult to be absolutely exact.
‘Yours truly, ‘SOAMES FORSYTE.’
Bosinney’s answer, which came in the course of the next day, was:
‘May 20. ‘DEAR FORSYTE,
‘Very well. ‘PH. BOSINNEY.’