SOAMES VISITS THE PRESS
Soames had gone off to his sister’s in Green Street thoroughly upset. That Fleur should have a declared enemy, powerful in Society, filled him with uneasiness; that she should hold him accountable for it, seemed the more unjust, because in fact he was.
An evening spent under the calming influence of Winifred Dartie’s common-sense, and Turkish coffee, which, though ‘liverish stuff,’ he always drank with relish, restored in him something of the feeling that it was a storm in a teacup.
“But that paper paragraph,” he said, “sticks in my gizzard.”
“Very tiresome, Soames, the whole thing; but I shouldn’t bother. People skim those ‘chiff-chaff’ little notes and forget them the next moment. They’re just put in for fun.”
“Pretty sort of fun! That paper says it has a million readers.”
“There’s no name mentioned.”
“These political people and whipper-snappers in Society all know each other,” said Soames.
“Yes, my dear boy,” said Winifred in her comfortable voice, so cosey, and above disturbance, “but nobody takes anything seriously nowadays.”
She was sensible. He went up to bed in more cheerful mood.
But retirement from affairs had effected in Soames a deeper change than he was at all aware of. Lacking professional issues to anchor the faculty for worrying he had inherited from James Forsyte, he was inclined to pet any trouble that came along. The more he thought of that paragraph, the more he felt inclined for a friendly talk with the editor. If he could go to Fleur and say: “I’ve made it all right with those fellows, anyway. There’ll be no more of that sort of thing,” he would wipe out her vexation. If you couldn’t make people in private think well of your daughter, you could surely check public expression of the opposite opinion.
Except that he did not like to get into them, Soames took on the whole a favourable view of ‘the papers.’ He read The Times; his father had read it before him, and he had been brought up on its crackle. It had news—more news for his money than he could get through. He respected its leading articles; and if its great supplements had at times appeared to him too much of a good thing, still it was a gentleman’s paper. Annette and Winifred took The Morning Post. That also was a gentleman’s paper, but it had bees in its bonnet. Bees in bonnets were respectable things, but personally Soames did not care for them. He knew little of the other papers except that those he saw about had bigger headlines and seemed cut up into little bits. Of the Press as a whole he took the English view: It was an institution. It had its virtues and its vices—anyway you had to put up with it.
About eleven o’clock he was walking towards Fleet Street.
At the office of The Evening Sun he handed in his card and asked to see the Editor. After a moment’s inspection of his top-hat, he was taken down a corridor and deposited in a small room. It seemed a ‘wandering great place.’ Some one would see him!
“Some one?” said Soames: “I want the Editor.”
The Editor was very busy; could he come again when the rush was over?
“No,” said Soames.
Would he state his business? Soames wouldn’t.
The attendant again looked at his top-hat and went away.
Soames waited a quarter of an hour, and was then taken to an even smaller room, where a cheery-looking man in eye-glasses was turning over a book of filed cuttings. He glanced up as Soames entered, took his card from the table, and read from it:
“Mr. Soames Forsyte? Yes?”
“Are you the Editor?” asked Soames.
“One of them. Take a seat. What can I do for you?”
Impressed by a certain speed in the air, and desirous of making a good impression, Soames did not sit down, but took from his pocket-book the paragraph.
“I’ve come about this in your issue of last Thursday.”
The cheery man put it up to his eyes, seemed to chew the sense of it a little with his mouth, and said: “Yes?”
“Would you kindly tell me who wrote it?”
“We never disclose the names of correspondents, sir.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I know.”
The cheery man’s mouth opened, as if to emit the words: “Then why did you ask?” but closed in a smile instead.
“You’ll forgive me,” said Soames; “it quite clearly refers to my daughter, Mrs. Michael Mont, and her husband.”
“Indeed! You have the advantage of me; but what’s the matter with it? Seems rather a harmless piece of gossip.”
Soames looked at him. He was too cheery;
“You think so?” he said, drily. “May I ask if you would like to have your daughter alluded to as an enterprising little lady?”
“Why not? It’s quite a pleasant word. Besides, there’s no name mentioned.”
“Do you put things in,” asked Soames, shrewdly, “in order that they may be Greek to all your readers?”
The cheery man laughed: “Well,” he said, “hardly. But really, sir, aren’t you rather thin-skinned?”
This was an aspect of the affair that Soames had not foreseen. Before he could ask this Editor chap not to repeat his offence, he had apparently to convince him that it WAS an offence; but to do that he must expose the real meaning of the paragraph.
“Well,” he said, “if you can’t see that the tone of the thing’s unpleasant, I can’t make you. But I beg you won’t let any more such paragraphs appear. I happen to know that your correspondent is actuated by malevolence.”
The cheery man again ran his eye over the cutting.
“I shouldn’t have judged that. People in politics are taking and giving knocks all the time—they’re not mealy-mouthed. This seems perfectly innocuous as gossip goes.”
Thus backhanded by the words ‘thin-skinned’ and ‘mealy-mouthed,’ Soames said testily:
“The whole thing’s extremely petty.”
“Well, sir, you know, I rather agree. Good morning!” and the cheery man blandly returned to his file.
The fellow was like an india-rubber ball! Soames clenched his top-hat. Now or never he must make him bound.
“If your correspondent thinks she can vent her spleen in print with impunity, she will find herself very much mistaken.” He waited for the effect. There was absolutely none. “Good morning!” he said, and turned on his heel.
Somehow it had not been so friendly as he had expected. Michael’s words “The Press is a sensitive plant” came into his mind. He shouldn’t mention his visit.
Two days later, picking up The Evening Sun at The Connoisseurs, he saw the word “Foggartism.” H’m! A leader!
“Of the panaceas rife among the young hopefuls in politics, perhaps the most absurd is one which goes by the name of Foggartism. We are in a position to explain the nature of this patent remedy for what is supposed to be the national ill-health before it has been put on the market. Based on Sir James Foggart’s book, “The Parlous State of England,” the main article of faith in this crazy creed would appear to be the depletion of British man-power. According to its prophets, we are to despatch to the ends of the Empire hundreds of thousands of our boys and girls as soon as they leave school. Quite apart from the rank impossibility of absorbing them into the life of the slowly developing Dominions, we are to lose this vital stream of labour and defensive material, in order that twenty years hence the demand from our Dominions may equal the supplying power of Great Britain. A crazier proposition was never conceived in woolly brains. Well does the word Foggartism characterise such a proposition. Alongside this emigration ‘stunt’—for there is no other term which suits its sensational character—rises a feeble back-to-the-land propaganda. The keystone of the whole professes to be the doctrine that the standard of British wages and living now preclude us from any attempt to rival German production, or to recover our trade with Europe. Such a turning of the tail on our industrial supremacy has probably never before been mooted in this country. The sooner these cheap-jack gerrymanders of British policy realise that the British voter will have nothing to do with so crack-brained a scheme, the sooner it will come to the still birth which is its inevitable fate.”
Whatever attention Soames had given to “The Parlous State of England,” he could not be accused of anything so rash as a faith in Foggartism. If Foggartism were killed tomorrow, he, with his inherent distrust of theories and ideas, his truly English pragmatism, could not help feeling that Michael would be well rid of a white elephant. What disquieted him, however, was the suspicion that he himself had inspired this article. Was this that too-cheery fellow’s retort?
Decidedly, he should not mention his visit when he dined in South Square that evening.
The presence of a strange hat on the sarcophagus warned him of a fourth party. Mr. Blythe, in fact, with a cocktail in his hand, and an olive in his mouth, was talking to Fleur, who was curled up on a cushion by the fire.
“You know Mr. Blythe, Dad?”
Another Editor! Soames extended his hand with caution.
Mr. Blythe swallowed the olive. “It’s of no importance,” he said.
“Well,” said Fleur, “I think you ought to put it all off, and let them feel they’ve made fools of themselves.”
“Does Michael think that, Mrs. Mont?”
“No; Michael’s got his shirt out!” And they all looked round at Michael, who was coming in.
He certainly had a somewhat headstrong air.
According to Michael, they must take it by the short hairs and give as good as they got, or they might as well put up the shutters. They were sent to Parliament to hold their own opinions, not those stuck into them by Fleet Street. If they genuinely believed the Foggart policy to be the only way to cure unemployment, and stem the steady drain into the towns, they must say so, and not be stampeded by every little newspaper attack that came along. Common-sense was on their side, and common-sense, if you aired it enough, won through in the end. The opposition to Foggartism was really based on an intention to force lower wages and longer hours on Labour, only they daren’t say so in so many words. Let the papers jump through their hoops as much as they liked. He would bet that when Foggartism had been six months before the public, they would be eating half their words with an air of eating some one else’s! And suddenly he turned to Soames:
“I suppose, sir, you didn’t go down about that paragraph?”
Soames, privately, and as a business man, had always so conducted himself that, if cornered, he need never tell a direct untruth. Lies were not English, not even good form. Looking down his nose, he said slowly:
“Well, I let them know that I knew that woman’s name.”
Fleur frowned; Mr. Blythe reached out and took some salted almonds.
“What did I tell you, sir?” said Michael. “They always get back on you. The Press has a tremendous sense of dignity; and corns on both feet; eh, Mr. Blythe?”
Mr. Blythe said weightily: “It’s a very human institution, young man. It prefers to criticise rather than to be criticised.”
“I thought,” said Fleur, icily, “that I was to be left to my own cudgels.”
The discussion broke back to Foggartism, but Soames sat brooding. He would never again interfere in what didn’t concern himself. Then, like all who love, he perceived the bitterness of his fate. He had only meddled with what DID concern himself—her name, her happiness; and she resented it. Basket in which were all his eggs, to the end of his days he must go on walking gingerly, balancing her so that she was not upset, spilling his only treasure.
She left them over the wine that only Mr. Blythe was drinking. Soames heard an odd word now and then, gathered that this great frog-chap was going to burst next week in The Outpost, gathered that Michael was to get on to his hind legs in the House at the first opportunity. It was all a muzz of words to him. When they rose, he said to Michael:
“I’ll take myself off.”
“We’re going down to the House, sir: won’t you stay with Fleur?”
“No,” said Soames: “I must be getting back.”
Michael looked at him closely.
“I’ll just tell her you’re going.”
Soames had wrapped himself into his coat, and was opening the door when he smelled violet soap. A bare arm had come round his neck. He felt soft pressure against his back. “Sorry, Dad, for being such a pig.”
Soames shook his head.
“No,” said her voice; “you’re not going like that.”
She slipped between him and the door. Her clear eyes looked into his; her teeth gleamed, very white. “Say you forgive me!”
“There’s no end to it,” said Soames.
She thrust her lips against his nose. “There! Good night, ducky! I know I’m spoiled!”
Soames gave her body a convulsive little squeeze, opened the door and went out without a word.
Under Big Ben boys were calling—political news, he supposed. Those Labour chaps were going to fall—some Editor had got them into trouble. He would! Well—one down, t’other come on! It was all remote to him. She alone—she alone mattered.