Michael, screwed towards Sir James Foskisson’s averted face, heard the words: “Well, I shan’t answer,” he spun round. It was just as if she had said: “Yes, I have.” The judge was looking at her, every one looking at her. Wasn’t Bullfry going to help her? No! He was beckoning her out of the Box. Michael half rose, as she passed him. By George! He was sorry for MacGown! There he sat, poor devil!—with every one getting up all round him, still, and red as a turkey-cock.
Fleur! Michael looked at her face, slightly flushed, her gloved hands clasped in her lap, her eyes fixed on the ground. Had his whisper: ‘Stop this!’ his little abortive bow, offended her? How could one have helped sympathising with the ‘Pet of the Panjoys’ in so tight a place! Fleur must see that! The Court was emptying—fine birds, many—he could see her mother and her aunt and cousin, and Old Forsyte, talking with Foskisson. Ah! he had finished; was speaking: “We can go now.”
They followed him along the corridor, down the stairs, into the air.
“We’ve time for a snack,” Soames was saying. “Come in here!”
In one of several kennels without roofs in a celebrated room with a boarded floor, they sat down.
“Three chump chops, sharp,” said Soames, and staring at the cruet-stand, added: “She’s cooked her goose. They’ll drop it like a hot potato. I’ve told Foskisson he can settle, with both sides paying their own costs. It’s more than they deserve.”
“He ought never to have asked that question, sir.”
Fleur looked up sharply.
“Well, darling, we agreed he shouldn’t. Why didn’t Bullfry help her out, sir?”
“Only too glad to get her out of the Box; the judge would have asked her himself in another minute. It’s a complete fiasco, thank God!”
“Then we’ve won?” said Fleur.
“Unless I’m a Dutchman,” answered Soames.
“I’m not so sure,” muttered Michael.
“I tell you it’s all over; Bullfry’ll never go on with it.”
“I didn’t mean that, sir.”
Fleur said acidly: “Then what DO you mean, Michael?”
“I don’t think we shall be forgiven, that’s all.”
“Well, I dare say I’m all wrong. Sauce, sir?”
“Worcester—yes. This is the only place in London where you can rely on a floury potato. Waiter—three glasses of port, quick!”
After fifteen minutes of concentrated mastication, they returned to the Court.
“Wait here,” said Soames, in the hall; “I’ll go up and find out.”
In that echoing space, where a man’s height was so inconsiderable, Fleur and Michael stood, not speaking, for some time.
“She couldn’t know that Foskisson had been told not to follow it up, of course,” he said, at last. “Still, she must have expected the question. She should have told a good one and have done with it. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.”
“You’d feel sorry for a flea that bit you, Michael. What do you mean by our not being forgiven?”
“Well! The drama was all on her side, and it’s drama that counts. Besides, there’s her engagement!”
“That’ll be broken off.”
“Exactly! And if it is, she’ll have sympathy; while if it isn’t, he’ll have it. Anyway, we shan’t. Besides, you know, she stood up for what we all really believe nowadays.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Well, don’t we talk of every one being free?”
“Yes, but is there any connection between what we say and what we do?”
“No,” said Michael.
And just then Soames returned.
“As I told you, Bullfry caught at it. They’ve settled. It’s a moral victory.”
“Oh! not moral, I hope, sir.”
“It’s cost a pretty penny, anyway,” said Soames, looking at Fleur. “Your mother’s quite annoyed—she’s no sense of proportion. Very clever the way Foskisson made that woman lose her temper.”
“He lost his, at the end. That’s his excuse, I suppose.”
“Well,” said Soames, “it’s all over! Your mother’s got the car; we’ll take a taxi.”
On the drive back to South Square, taking precisely the same route, there was precisely the same silence.
When a little later Michael went over to the House, he was edified by posters.
“Society Libel Action.”
“Marquess’s Granddaughter and K. C.”
All over—was it? With publicity—in Michael’s opinion—it had but just begun! Morality! What was it—who had it, and what did they do with it? How would he have answered those questions himself? Who could answer them, nowadays, by rote or rule? Not he, or Fleur! They had been identified with the Inquisition, and what was their position, now? False, if not odious! He passed into the House. But, try as he would, he could not fix his attention on the Purity of Food, and passed out again. With a curious longing for his father, he walked rapidly down Whitehall. Drawing blank at ‘Snooks’’ and The Aeroplane, he tried the Parthenaeum as a last resort. Sir Lawrence was in a corner of a forbidden room, reading a life of Lord Palmerston. He looked up at his son.
“Ah! Michael! They don’t do justice to old Pam. A man without frills, who worked like a nigger. But we mustn’t talk here!” And he pointed to a member who seemed awake. “Shall we take a turn before the old gentleman over there has a fit? The books here are camouflage; it’s really a dormitory.”
He led the way, with Michael retailing the events of the morning.
“Foskisson?” said Sir Lawrence, entering the Green Park. “He was a nice little chap when I left Winchester. To be professionally in the right is bad for a man’s character—counsel, parsons, policemen, they all suffer from it. Judges, High Priests, Arch–Inspectors, aren’t so bad—they’ve suffered from it so long that they’ve lost consciousness.”
“It was a full house,” said Michael, glumly, “and the papers have got hold of it.”
“They would.” And Sir Lawrence pointed to the ornamental water. “These birds,” he said, “remind me of China. By the way, I met your friend Desert yesterday at The Aeroplane—he’s more interesting now that he’s dropped Poetry for the East. Everybody ought to drop something. I’m too old now, but if I’d dropped baronetcy in time, I could have made quite a good contortionist.”
“What would you recommend for us in the House?” asked Michael, with a grin.
“Postmanship, my dear—carrying on, you know; a certain importance, large bags, dogs to bark at you, no initiative, and conversation on every door-step. By the way, do you see Desert?”
“I have seen him.”
Sir Lawrence screwed up his eyes.
“The providential,” he said, “doesn’t happen twice.”
Michael coloured; he had not suspected his father of such shrewd observation. Sir Lawrence swung his cane.
“Your man Boddick,” he said, “has persuaded some of his hens to lay; he’s giving us quite good eggs.”
Michael admired his reticence. But somehow that unexpected slanting allusion to a past domestic crisis roused the feeling that for so long now had been curled like a sleepy snake in his chest, that another crisis was brewing and must soon be faced.
“Coming along for tea, sir? Kit had tummy-ache this morning. How’s your last book doing? Does old Danby advertise it properly?”
“No,” said Sir Lawrence, “no; he’s keeping his head wonderfully; the book is almost dead.”
“I’m glad I dropped HIM, anyway,” said Michael, with emphasis. “I suppose, sir, you haven’t a tip to give us, now this case is over?”
Sir Lawrence gazed at a bird with a long red bill.
“When victorious,” he said, at last, “lie doggo. The triumphs of morality are apt to recoil on those who achieve them.”
“That’s what I feel, sir. Heaven knows I didn’t want to achieve one. My father-inlaw says my hitting MacGown on the boko really brought it into Court.”
Sir Lawrence whinnied.
“The tax on luxuries. It gets you everywhere. I don’t think I will come along, Michael—Old Forsyte’s probably there. Your mother has an excellent recipe for child’s tummyache; you almost lived on it at one time. I’ll telephone it from Mount Street. Good-bye!”
Michael looked after that thin and sprightly figure moving North. Had he troubles of his own? If so, he disguised them wonderfully. Good old Bart! And he turned towards South Square.
Soames was just leaving.
“She’s excited,” he said, on the door-step. “It’s the reaction. Give her a Seidlitz powder tonight. Be careful, too; I shouldn’t talk about politics.”
Michael went in. Fleur was at the open window of the drawing-room.
“Oh! here you are!” she said. “Kit’s all right again. Take me to the Cafe Royal to-night, Michael, and if there’s anything funny anywhere, for goodness’ sake, let’s see it. I’m sick of feeling solemn. Oh! And, by the way, Francis Wilmot’s coming in to say good-bye. I’ve had a note. He says he’s all right again.”
At the window by her side, Michael sniffed the unaccountable scent of grass. There was a South–West wind, and slanting from over the housetops, sunlight was sprinkling the soil, the buds, the branches. A blackbird sang; a piano-organ round a corner was playing ‘Rigoletto.’ Against his own, her shoulder was soft, and to his lips her cheek was warm and creamy…
When Francis Wilmot left them that evening after dinner at the Cafe Royal, Fleur said to Michael:
“Poor Francis! Did you ever see any one so changed? He might be thirty. I’m glad he’s going home to his river and his darkies. What are live oaks? Well! Are we going anywhere?”
Michael cloaked her shoulders.
“‘Great Itch,’ I think; there’s no other scream so certain.”
After their scream they came out into a mild night. High up in red and green the bright signs fled along the air: ‘Tomber’s Tires for Speed and Safety,’ ‘Milkoh Makes Mothers Merry.’ Through Trafalgar Square they went and down Whitehall, all moonlight and Portland stone.
“The night’s unreal,” said Fleur. “‘Fantoches’!”
Michael caught her waist.
“Don’t. Suppose some Member saw you!”
“He’d only sympathise. How nice and solid you feel!”
“No! Fantoches have no substance.”
“Then give me shadow.”
“The substance is in Bethnal Green.”
Michael dropped his arm.
“That’s a strange thought.”
“I have intuitions, Michael.”
“Because I can admire a good woman, can I not love you?”
“I shall never be ‘good’; it isn’t in me.”
“Whatever you are’s enough for me.”
“Prettily said. The Square looks jolly, tonight! Open the doll’s house.”
The hall was dark, with just a glimmer coming through the fanlight. Michael took off her cloak and knelt down. He felt her fingers stir his hair; real fingers, and real all this within his arms; only the soul elusive. Soul?
“Fantoches!” came her voice, soft and mocking. “And so to bed!”