However untypically American according to Soames, Francis Wilmot seemed to have the national passion for short cuts.
In two days from Fleur’s first visit he had reached the crisis, hurrying towards it like a man to his bride. Yet, compared with the instinct to live, the human will is limited, so that he failed to die. Fleur, summoned by telephone, went home cheered by the doctor’s words: “He’ll do now, if we can coax a little strength into him.” That, however, was the trouble. For three afternoons she watched his exhausted indifference seeming to increase. And she was haunted by cruel anxiety. On the fourth day she had been sitting for more than an hour when his eyes opened.
“I’m going to quit all right, after all.”
“Don’t talk like that—it’s not American. Of course you’re not going to quit.”
He smiled, and shut his eyes. She made up her mind then.
Next day he was about the same, more dead than alive. But her mind was at rest; her messenger had brought back word that Miss Ferrar would be in at four o’clock. She would have had the note by now; but would she come? How little one knew of other people, even when they were enemies!
He was drowsing, white and strengthless, when she heard the ‘bell-boy’s’ knock. Passing into the lobby, she closed the door softly behind her, and opened the outer door. So she HAD come!
If this meeting of two declared enemies had in it something dramatic, neither perceived it at the moment. It was just intensely unpleasant to them both. They stood for a moment looking at each other’s chins. Then Fleur said:
“He’s extremely weak. Will you sit down while I tell him you’re here?”
Having seen her settled where Francis Wilmot put his clothes out to be valeted in days when he had worn them, Fleur passed back into the bedroom, and again closed the door.
“Francis,” she said, “some one is waiting to see you.”
Francis Wilmot did not stir, but his eyes opened and cleared strangely. To Fleur they seemed suddenly the eyes she had known; as if all these days they had been ‘out,’ and some one had again put a match to them.
“You understand what I mean?”
The words came clear and feeble: “Yes; but if I wasn’t good enough for her before, I surely am not now. Tell her I’m through with that fool business.”
A lump rose in Fleur’s throat.
“Thank her for coming!” said Francis Wilmot, and closed his eyes again.
Fleur went back into the lobby. Marjorie Ferrar was standing against the wall with an unlighted cigarette between her lips.
“He thanks you for coming; but he doesn’t want to see you. I’m sorry I brought you down.”
Marjorie Ferrar took out the cigarette. Fleur could see her lips quivering. “Will he get well?”
“I don’t know. I think so—now. He says he’s ‘through with that fool business.’”
Marjorie Ferrar’s lips tightened. She opened the outer door, turned suddenly, and said:
“Will you make it up?”
“No,” said Fleur.
There was a moment of complete stillness; then Marjorie Ferrar gave a little laugh, and slipped out.
Fleur went back. He was asleep. Next day he was stronger. Three days later Fleur ceased her visits; he was on the road to recovery. She had become conscious, moreover, that she had a little lamb which, wherever Mary went, was sure to go. She was being shadowed! How amusing! And what a bore that she couldn’t tell Michael; because she had not yet begun again to tell him anything.
On the day that she ceased her visits he came in while she was dressing for dinner, with ‘a weekly’ in his hand.
“Listen to this,” he said:
‘When to God’s fondouk the donkeys are taken—
Donkeys of Africa, Sicily, Spain—
If peradventure the Deity waken,
He shall not easily slumber again.
Where in the sweet of God’s straw they have laid them,
Broken and dead of their burdens and sores,
He, for a change, shall remember He made them—
One of the best of His numerous chores—
Order from some one a sigh of repentance—
Donkeys of Araby, Syria, Greece—
Over the fondouk distemper the sentence:
“God’s own forsaken—the stable of Peace.’”
“Who’s that by?”
“It sounds like Wilfrid.”
“It is by Wilfrid,” said Michael, and did not look at her. “I met him at the ‘Hotch–Potch.’”
“And how is he?”
“Have you asked him here?”
“No. He’s going East again soon.”
Was he fishing? Did he know that she had seen him? And she said:
“I’m going down to father’s, Michael. He’s written twice.”
Michael put her hand to his lips.
“All right, darling.”
Fleur reddened; her strangled confidences seemed knotted in her throat. She went next day with Kit and Dandie. The ‘little lamb’ would hardly follow to ‘The Shelter.’
Annette had gone with her mother to Cannes for a month; and Soames was alone with the English winter. He was paying little attention to it, for the ‘case’ was in the list, and might be reached in a few weeks’ time. Deprived of French influence, he was again wavering towards compromise. The announcement of Marjorie Ferrar’s engagement to McGown had materially changed the complexion of affairs. In the eyes of a British Jury, the character of a fast young lady, and the character of the same young lady publicly engaged to a Member of Parliament, with wealth and a handle to his name, would not be at all the same thing. They were now virtually dealing with Lady MacGown, and nothing, Soames knew, was so fierce as a man about to be married. To libel his betrothed was like approaching a mad dog.
He looked very grave when Fleur told him of her ‘little lamb.’ It was precisely the retaliation he had feared; nor could he tell her that he had ‘told her so,’ because he hadn’t. He had certainly urged her to come down to him, but delicacy had forbidden him to give her the reason. So far as he could tell through catechism, there had been nothing ‘suspect’ in her movements since Lippinghall, except those visits to the Cosmopolis Hotel. But they were bad enough. Who was going to believe that she went to this sick man out of pure kindness? Such a motive was not current in a Court of Law. He was staggered when she told him that Michael didn’t know of them. Why not?
“I didn’t feel like telling him.”
“Feel? Don’t you see what a position you’ve put yourself in? Here you are, running to a young man’s bedside, without your husband’s knowledge.”
“Yes, darling; but he was terribly ill.”
“I dare say,” said Soames; “so are lots of people.”
“Besides, he was over head and ears in love with HER.”
“D’you think he’s going to admit that, even if we could call him?”
Fleur was silent, thinking of Francis Wilmot’s face.
“Oh! I don’t know,” she said at last. “How horrid it all is!”
“Of course it’s horrid,” said Soames. “Have you had a quarrel with Michael?”
“No; not a quarrel. Only he doesn’t tell ME things.”
“How should I know, dear?”
Soames grunted. “Would he have minded your going?”
“Of course not. He’d have minded if I hadn’t. He likes that boy.”
“Well, then,” said Soames, “either you or he, or both, will have to tell a lie, and say that he did know. I shall go up and talk to him. Thank goodness we can prove the illness. If I catch anybody coming down here after you—!”
He went up the following afternoon. Parliament being in recess, he sought the ‘Hotch–Potch’ Club. He did not like a place always connected in his mind with his dead cousin, that fellow young Jolyon, and said to Michael at once: “Can we go somewhere else?”
“Yes, sir; where would you like?”
“To your place, if you can put me up for the night. I want to have a talk with you.”
Michael looked at him askance.
“Now,” said Soames, after dinner, “what’s this about Fleur—she says you don’t tell her things?”
Michael gazed into his glass of port.
“Well, sir,” he said slowly, “I’d be only too glad to, of course, but I don’t think they really interest her. She doesn’t feel that public things matter.”
“Public! I meant private.”
“There aren’t any private things. Do you mean that she thinks there are?”
Soames dropped his scrutiny.
“I don’t know—she said ‘things.’”
“Well, you can put that out of your head, and hers.”
“H’m! Anyway, the result’s been that she’s been visiting that young American with pneumonia at the Cosmopolis Hotel, without letting you know. It’s a mercy she hasn’t picked it up.”
“Yes. He’s out of the wood, now. That’s not the point. She’s been shadowed.”
“Good God!” said Michael.
“Exactly! This is what comes of not talking to your wife. Wives are funny—they don’t like it.”
“Put yourself in my place, sir. It’s my profession, now, to fuss about the state of the Country, and all that; and you know how it is—one gets keen. But to Fleur, it’s all a stunt. I quite understand that; but, you see, the keener I get, the more I’m afraid of boring her, and the less I feel I can talk to her about it. In a sort of way she’s jealous.”
Soames rubbed his chin. The state of the Country was a curious kind of co-respondent. He himself was often worried by the state of the Country, but as a source of division between husband and wife it seemed to him cold-blooded; he had known other sources in his time!
“Well, you mustn’t let it go on,” he said. “It’s trivial.”
Michael got up.
“Trivial! Well, sir, I don’t know, but it seems to me very much the sort of thing that happened when the war came. Men had to leave their wives then.”
“Wives put up with that,” said Soames, “the Country was in danger.”
“Isn’t it in danger now?”
With his inveterate distrust of words, it seemed to Soames almost indecent for a young man to talk like that. Michael was a politician, of course; but politicians were there to keep the Country quiet, not to go raising scares and talking through their hats.
“When you’ve lived a little longer,” he said, “you’ll know that there’s always something to fuss about if you like to fuss. There’s nothing in it really; the pound’s going up. Besides, it doesn’t matter what you tell Fleur, so long as you tell her something.”
“She’s intelligent, sir,” said Michael.
Soames was taken aback. He could not deny the fact, and answered:
“Well, national affairs are too remote; you can’t expect a woman to be interested in them.”
“Quite a lot of women are.”
“No, sir; they nearly all wear ‘nude.’”
“H’m! Those! As to interest in national affairs—put a tax on stockings, and see what happens!”
“I’ll suggest it, sir.”
“If you expect,” said Soames, “that people—women or not—are going to put themselves out of the way for any scheme like this—this Foggartism of yours, you’ll be very much disappointed.”
“So everybody tells me. It’s just because I don’t like cold water at home as well as abroad, that I’ve given up worrying Fleur.”
“Well, if you take my advice, you’ll take up something practical—the state of the traffic, or penny postage. Drop pessimism; people who talk at large like that, never get trusted in this country. In any case you’ll have to say you knew about her visits to that young man.”
“Certainly, sir, wife and husband are one. But you don’t really mean to let them make a circus of it in Court?”
Soames was silent. He did not MEAN them to; but what if they did?
“I can’t tell,” he said, at last. “The fellow’s a Scotchman. What did you go hitting him on the nose for?”
“He gave me a thick ear first. I know it was an excellent opportunity for turning the other cheek, but I didn’t think of it in time.”
“You must have called him something.”
“Only a dirty dog. As you know, he suggested a low motive for my speech.”
Soames stared. In his opinion this young man was taking himself much too seriously.
“Your speech! You’ve got to get it out of your mind,” he said, “that anything you can say or do will make any difference.”
“Then what’s the good of my being in Parliament?”
“Well, you’re in the same boat with everybody else. The Country’s like a tree; you can keep it in order, but you can’t go taking it up by the roots to look at them.”
Michael looked at him, impressed.
“In public matters,” said Soames, “the thing is to keep a level head, and do no more than you’re obliged.”
“And what’s to govern one’s view of necessity?”
“Common-sense. One can’t have everything.”
And rising, he began scrutinising the Goya.
“Are you going to buy another Goya, sir?”
“No; if I buy any more pictures, I shall go back to the English School.”
Soames gave him a sharp look.
“There’s no patriotism,” he said, “in fussing. And another thing you’ve got to remember is that foreigners like to hear that we’ve got troubles. It doesn’t do to discuss our affairs out loud.”
Michael took these sayings to bed with him. He remembered, when he came out of the war, thinking: ‘If there’s another war, nothing will induce me to go.’ But now, if one were to come, he knew he WOULD be going again. So Old Forsyte thought he was just ‘fussing’! Was he? Was Foggartism a phlizz? Ought he to come to heel, and take up the state of the traffic? Was everything unreal? Surely not his love for Fleur? Anyway he felt hungry for her lying there. And Wilfrid back, too! To risk his happiness with her for the sake of—what? Punch had taken a snap at him this week, grinning and groping at a surrounding fog. Old England, like Old Forsyte, had no use for theories. Self-conscious national efforts were just pomposity. Pompous! He? The thought was terribly disturbing. He got out of bed and went to the window. Foggy! In fog all were shadows; and he the merest shadow of them all, an unpractical politician, taking things to heart! One! Two! Big Ben! How many hearts had he turned to water! How many dreams spoiled, with his measured resonance! Line up with the top-dressers, and leave the Country to suck its silver spoon!