When his father-inlaw bowed to the Chairman and withdrew, Michael had restrained a strong desire to shout: “Bravo!” Who’d have thought the ‘old man’ could let fly like that? He had ‘got their goats’ with a vengeance. Quite an interval of fine mixed vociferation followed, before his neighbour, Mr. Sawdry, made himself heard at last.
“Now that the director implicated has resigned, I shall ‘ave pleasure in proposing a vote of confidence in the rest of the Board.”
Michael saw his father rise, a little finicky and smiling, and bow to the Chairman. “I take my resignation as accepted also; if you permit me, I will join Mr. Forsyte in retirement.”
Some one was saying:
“I shall be glad to second that vote of confidence.”
And brushing past the knees of Mr. Sawdry, Michael sought the door. From there he could see that nearly every hand was raised in favour of the vote of confidence; and with the thought: ‘Thrown to the shareholders!’ he made his way out of the hotel. Delicacy prevented him from seeking out those two. They had saved their dignity; but the dogs had had the rest.
Hurrying west, he reflected on the rough ways of justice. The shareholders had a grievance, of course; and some one had to get it in the neck to satisfy their sense of equity. They had pitched on Old Forsyte, who, of all, was least to blame; for if Bart had only held his tongue, they would certainly have lumped him into the vote of confidence. All very natural and illogical; and four o’clock already!
‘Counterfeits!’ The old feeling for Wilfrid was strong in him this day of publication. One must do everything one could for his book—poor old son! There simply must not be a frost.
After calling in at two big booksellers, he made for his club, and closeted himself in the telephone booth. In old days they ‘took cabs and went about.’ Ringing-up was quicker—was it? With endless vexations, he tracked down Sibley, Nazing, Upshire, Master, and half-a-dozen others of the elect. He struck a considered note likely to move them. The book—he said—was bound to ‘get the goat of the old guard and the duds generally’; it would want a bit of drum-beating from the cognoscenti. To each of them he appealed as the only one whose praise really mattered. “If you haven’t reviewed the book, old chap, will you? It’s you who count, of course.” And to each he added: “I don’t care two straws whether it sells, but I do want old Wilfrid to get his due.” And he meant it. The publisher in Michael was dead during that hour in the telephone booth, the friend alive and kicking hard. He came out with sweat running down his forehead, quite exhausted; and it was half-past five.
‘Cup of tea—and home!’ he thought. He reached his door at six. Ting-a-ling, absolutely unimportant, was cowering in the far corner of the hall.
“What’s the matter, old man?”
A sound from above, which made his blood run cold, answered—a long, low moaning.
“Oh, God!” he gasped, and ran upstairs.
Annette met him at the door. He was conscious of her speaking in French, of being called “mon cher,” of the words “vers trois heures… The doctor says one must not worry—all goes for the best.” Again that moan, and the door shut in his face; she was gone. Michael remained standing on the rug with perfectly cold sweat oozing from him, and his nails dug deep into his palms.
‘This is how one becomes a father!’ he thought: ‘This is how I became a son!’ That moaning! He could not bear to stay there, and he could not bear to go away. It might be hours, yet! He kept repeating to himself: “One must not worry—must not worry!” How easily said! How meaningless! His brain, his heart, ranging for relief, lighted on the strangest relief which could possibly have come to him. Suppose this child being born, had not been his—had been—been Wilfrid’s; how would he have been feeling, here, outside this door? It might—it might so easily have been—since nothing was sacred, now! Nothing except—yes, just that which was dearer than oneself—just that which was in there, moaning. He could not bear it on the rug, and went downstairs. Across and across the copper floor, a cigar in his mouth, he strode in vague, rebellious agony. Why should birth be like this? And the answer was: It isn’t—not in China! To have the creed that nothing mattered—and then run into it like this! Something born at such a cost, must matter, should matter. One must see to that! Speculation ceased in Michael’s brain; he stood, listening terribly. Nothing! He could not bear it down there, and went up again. No sound at first, and then another moan! This time he fled into his study, and ranged round the room, looking at the cartoons of Aubrey Greene. He did not see a single one, and suddenly bethought him of ‘Old Forsyte.’ He ought to be told!
He rang up the ‘Connoisseurs,’ the ‘Remove,’ and his own father’s clubs, in case they might have gone there together after the meeting. He drew blank everywhere. It was half-past seven. How much longer was this going on? He went back to the bedroom door; could hear nothing. Then down again to the hall. Ting-a-ling was lying by the front door, now. ‘Fed-up!’ thought Michael, stroking his back, and mechanically clearing the letter-box. Just one letter—Wilfrid’s writing! He took it to the foot of the stairs and read it with half his brain, the other half wondering—wandering up there.
“DEAR MONT,—I start tomorrow to try and cross Arabia. I thought you might like a line in case Arabia crosses me. I have recovered my senses. The air here is too clear for sentiment of any kind; and passion in exile soon becomes sickly. I am sorry I made you so much disturbance. It was a mistake for me to go back to England after the war, and hang about writing drivel for smart young women and inky folk to read. Poor old England—she’s in for a bad time. Give her my love; the same to yourselves.
“P. S.—If you’ve published the things I left behind, send any royalties to me care of my governor.—W. D.”
Half Michael’s brain thought: ‘Well, that’s that! And the book coming out today!’ Queer! Was Wilfrid right—was it all a blooming gaff—the inky stream? Was one just helping on England’s sickness? Ought they all to get on camels and ride the sun down? And yet, in books were comfort and diversion; and they were wanted! England had to go on—go on! ‘No retreat, no retreat, they must conquer or die who have no retreat!’… God! There it was again! Back he flew upstairs, with his ears covered and his eyes wild. The sounds ceased; Annette came out to him.
“Her father, mon cher; try to find her father!”
“I have—I can’t!” gasped Michael.
“Try Green Street—Mrs. Dartie. Courage! All is normal—it will be quite sewn, now.”
When he had rung up Green Street and been answered at last, he sat with the door of his study open, waiting for ‘Old Forsyte’ to come. Half his sight remarked a round hole burnt in his trouser leg—he hadn’t even noticed the smell; hadn’t even realised that he had been smoking. He must pull himself together for the ‘old man.’ He heard the bell ring, and ran down to open.
“Well?” said Soames.
“Not yet, sir. Come up to my study. It’s nearer.”
They went up side by side. That trim grey head, with the deep furrow between the eyes, and those eyes staring as if at pain behind them, steadied Michael. Poor old chap! He was ‘for it,’ too! They were both on ‘their uppers!’
“Have a peg, sir? I’ve got brandy here.”
“Yes,” said Soames. “Anything.”
With the brandies in their hands, half-raised, they listened—jerked their hands up, drank. They were automatic, like two doll figures worked by the same string.
“Cigarette, sir?” said Michael.
With the lighted cigarettes just not in their mouths, they listened, put them in, took them out, puffed smoke. Michael had his right arm tight across his chest. Soames his left. They formed a pattern, thus, side by side.
“Bad to stick, sir. Sorry!”
Soames nodded. His teeth were clenched. Suddenly his hand relaxed.
“Listen!” he said. Sounds—different—confused!
Michael’s hand seized something, gripped it hard; it was cold, thin—the hand of Soames. They sat thus, hand in hand, staring at the doorway, for how long neither knew.
Suddenly that doorway darkened; a figure in grey stood there—Annette!