On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

The Buckles of Superior Dosset, 1821-1863

In the year 1821 ‘Superior Dosset’ Forsyte came to Town — if not precisely on a milk-white pony. According to the testimony of Aunt Ann, noted for precision, to young Jolyon on holiday from Eton, the migration from Bosport was in fact tribal and effected in two post-shays and the Highflyer coach.

“It was after our dear Mother’s death, and our father — that is your grandfather, Jo dear — was very taciturn on the journey; he was never a man who showed his feelings. I had your Aunt Susan in arms, and your Uncle Timothy — two years old, such an interesting child, in the first post-shay with your grandfather. And your dear father, he was so dependable and very like you — he must have been fifteen then, just your age — he had your Aunts Juley and Hester with him and your Uncle Nicholas, who was four, in the second post-shay; and your Uncles James and Swithin and Roger were on the coach. I am afraid Swithin was very naughty with his pea-shooter on the journey. We started early in the morning, and we all went for the night to your Great-Uncle Edgar’s at Primrose Hill. I remember he still wore knee-breeches and a very large bunch of seals. Of course, WE were all in black. Your grandfather wore black for two years after our dear mother’s death; he felt it very much, though he never said anything.”

“What was he like, Auntie?”

“Strongly-built, my dear, with a high colour. In those days they drank a great deal of wine, especially Madeira.”

“But what was he?”

“He began as a mason, dear.”

“A Freemason?”

“Not at first. A stonemason. You see, HIS father was a farmer, and he apprenticed your grandfather to a stonemason, so that he should learn all about building. I think it was a very wise decision, because in those days there were such opportunities for builders, so your grandfather soon made his way. He was becoming quite a warm man when we came to London.” And Aunt Ann’s shrewd eyes appraised her nephew.

He had risen, and was standing, slender in his first tailcoat, against the mantelpiece, looking downward at his boots. Elegant the dear boy looked, but a little embarrassed, as if his nerves had received a shock. Of course, he was at Eton among the nobility. And she said with decision:

“We should never be ashamed of our origin, dear Jo. The Forsytes are very good country stock, and have always been men of their word, and that is the great thing. And our dear mother was a lady in every respect. Her name was Pierce — a Devonshire family — and she was the daughter of a solicitor at Bosport who was very respected. He died bankrupt because his partner ran away with some funds, and all his fortune went to make up the loss. She had a sweet face and was most particular how we spoke and behaved. This is her miniature.”

Young Jolyon moved over and saw an oval face with fair hair parted in the middle and drawn in curves across the forehead, dark grey eyes looking up at him from rather deep beneath the brows, a chin with a delicate point, and shoulders shrouded in lace.

“Your grandfather was devoted to her in his way. For years after we first came to London he worked all day long, and at night I used to see him sitting up in his little study with his plans and his estimates — he couldn’t bear to go to bed. And then he took to horse exercise. It was such a mercy.”

Young Jolyon looked up. His brow had cleared, as if his grandfather had at last done something creditable.

“Of course, on the farm, when he was a boy, he used to ride. And when he took to it again, he went riding every day until his gout got too bad.”

“Oh! had he gout, too, Aunt Ann?”

“Yes, dear, gout was much more prevalent then than it is now. In some ways your grandfather was rather like your Uncle Swithin, only much shorter. He was fond of a horse, and quite a judge of wine.”

Young Jolyon caressed his waistcoat, as if smothering emotion at these marks of gentility, subtle enough to see that his Aunt was watching him for signs of snobbery.

“Where did you live, Auntie?”

“Well, at first, dear, we took a house on Primrose Hill close to your Great-Uncle Edgar. We lived there many years till we moved into a house of our own that your grandfather built, in St. John’s Wood; and there we lived till his death in 1850, when we came here, of course, with your Uncle Timothy.”

“What sort of houses did my grandfather build, Auntie?”

“I don’t know that I ever saw any, dear, except the one we lived in. But I believe they were always very good value. At first I think they were mostly out Fulham way, and some were at Brighton, but later they were in St. John’s Wood. That was then the coming part of London. He was not at all what is called a Jerry-builder. He had a funny nickname among his cronies —‘Superior Dosset’.”

“Why?”

“Well, for one thing he never liked being called a Dorsetshire man, he always said he was born just over the border in Devonshire, though the parish was in Dorset and the Church, but he always looked down on Dorsetshire people — he used to say they were a cocky lot — he had funny expressions; and that made them tease him. He was quite a character. Some people, of course, might have called him perverse.”

“And how did he dress, Auntie?”

Aunt Ann replaced the miniature with her long thin fingers, and from the little drawer took forth another.

“That is your grandfather, my dear — painted in 1820 just before our dear mother’s death.”

Young Jolyon saw a florid face, clean-shaven, with eyebrows running a little up and bumps above them, a wide rather fleshy mouth, a straight broad nose, a broad cleft chin; light eyes that seemed to hold a jape under their thick lids; brown hair brushed back from a well-formed forehead, a neck swathed in a white stock, a blue coat short-waisted and with tails, a double waistcoat light-coloured, a bunch of seals on a black ribbon — no lower half to him at all.

“Did he wear trousers?”

“Yes, dear, generally buff, I think, till after our mother death. But in the evening he wore knee-breeches, and his shoes had buckles. I still have them. Some day I shall give them to you, because after your dear father you will be the head of the family, just as my father was in his day.”

“Oh! was my grandfather the eldest too?”

“Yes, like his father before him; the name Jolyon goes with that. You must never forget that, dear Jo. It is a great responsibility.”

“I’d rather have the buckles without the responsibility, Auntie.”

His Aunt lowered her spectacles till they were below the aquilinity of her nose. So, she could see her nephew better, and her thin fingers with three rings and pointed nails interlaced slowly, as if tatting some slow conclusion. Dear Jo! Was he being taught to take things lightly? Eton — it was nice, of course, and very distinguished, but perhaps a little dangerous! And her eyes chased him down from the wave of fair hair on his forehead to the straps confining his trousers to his boots. Was he not becoming a little foppish?

“Your grandfather, dear, always took his position seriously. I could tell you a story —”

“Hooray!”

Aunt Ann frowned. Yes! It WOULD do him good to hear.

“It was in the year when your dear father and his friend Nick Treffry had just set up for themselves in tea. That would be about six years after we came to London. Your grandfather had done very well with his building, so that he had been able to give all the boys a good education; your Uncle Nicholas especially was such a promising little chap, and your Uncle James was just in his articles — he was admitted a solicitor afterwards on his twenty-first birthday, and that is the earliest possible. But in spite of all the expense we were to him, your grandfather had put by quite a lot of money; though we were still living on Primrose Hill and so we saw a great deal of your Uncle Edgar; and, indeed, your grandfather had invested some of his money in your Uncle’s business —”

“What was that, Auntie?”

“Jute, dear. Your grandfather was not a partner with him, but he was interested. Uncle Edgar was not at all like your grandfather; he was a very amiable man, but rather weak, and I am afraid he paid too much attention to other people’s advice. Anyway he was tempted to gamble for what I think is called ‘the rise.’ And very foolishly he did not consult your grandfather. So, of course, when your grandfather heard of it, he was in a regular stew. You see I took a little of our dear mother’s place, and I can remember him saying: ‘What on earth is the chap about — weak-kneed beggar — gambling for a rise! Mark my words, Ann, he’ll be in Queer Street in no time!’”

Aunt Ann paused, recalling that far scene. The stocky figure of her father bent forward over the mahogany of the old dining table now in the room below, his broad, short-fingered hand suddenly clenching, the flush of blood below his eyes, screwed up in the visioning of Queer Street.

“And was he, Auntie?”

“Yes, dear. It was that dreadful year when everything went down suddenly, especially jute. Poor Uncle Edgar was so amiable that he never seemed to realise that other people could be hard and greedy.”

“Was he ruined, Auntie?”

“I was going to tell you. As I said, your grandfather was not in partnership with Uncle Edgar, and as soon as he heard what Uncle had done, he sold his investment and saved his bacon, as he would have called it. And then jute went down instead of up, and Uncle Edgar was threatened with bankruptcy. Your grandfather went through a dreadful time making up his mind whether to help him or not. You see, he knew it would mean years of set-back for him in his building business, and for all of us great economy and going without things that we were accustomed to. And he felt your uncle’s conduct in not consulting him very much — he used to say bitter things about him. It all came to a head one evening when your Uncle Edgar cried — he was not a strong character. I can see him now: he had large red bandana handkerchiefs, and he sat there with his face all buried in one. Your grandfather was walking up and down talking about his expecting him to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for him, and he wasn’t going to, not he. I thought he would have had a fit. And then, suddenly, he stopped and looked a long time at Uncle Edgar. ‘Edgar,’ he said, ‘you’re a poor fish. But I’m the head of the family, and I’m not going to see the name dishonoured. Here, get out, and tomorrow I’ll see you through.’”

“And did he, Auntie?”

“Yes, Jo. It was a terrible sacrifice. But I think we were all glad; we were fond of Uncle Edgar, and it would have made such a scandal to have him go bankrupt, especially as he had not been quite straight. We never saw very much of him after, but he died better off than ever, entirely owing to your grandfather. So you see, dear, it doesn’t do to take responsibility lightly.” Her nephew had ceased to look at her, as if he had suddenly perceived why he had been told the story.

“I should have thought it did, Auntie, if he died better off than ever.”

Aunt Ann smiled. Really, the dear boy was very naughty!

“Jo,” she said, grave again, “I can tell you another story of your grandfather.”

“Oh! do, Auntie!”

“This was in the thirties, very hard years for everybody; and your grandfather was building some houses in Brighton. He was always a man who cut his coat to fit his cloth; but he used to tell me that if he made five per cent. on his money with those houses, it would be all he could hope for. I remember it all very clearly because just then I was SO hoping he would do well, I had a special reason.” Aunt Ann paused, seeing again her special reason in pegtop trousers looking down at her all braided and crinolined on the sofa; hearing again his voice, so manly, saying: ‘Dear Ann, may I speak to your father?’ hearing again her own answer: ‘Please wait, dear Edward, Papa is so preoccupied just now. But if, as I hope, things go well — next year I shall, I trust, be able to leave him and the dear children.’

“What special reason, Auntie?”

“Oh! never mind that, dear. As I was saying, your grandfather was extremely anxious because those houses meant turning the corner of all his difficulties. It was a dreadful year, and I am sorry to say there was a great deal of chicanery.”

“What is chicanery?”

“Chicanery, dear, means trying to get the better of your neighbour at all costs.”

“Did grandfather get the better of anyone?”

Aunt Ann looked at her nephew sharply.

“No,” she said, “they got the better of him, Jo.”

“Oh! Go on, Auntie. How interesting! I do want to hear.”

“Well, one day your grandfather came home from Brighton in a dreadful taking. It was a long time before I could quieten him down to tell me what had happened. It seems that three of those houses wouldn’t dry. The first houses were all right, so of course your grandfather never suspected anything. But the man who supplied the building material had taken advantage to mix some of it with sea water instead of fresh. I could never make out what he gained by it, or whether he had done it out of ignorance, but your grandfather was convinced that he was a rascal. ‘They won’t dry, they won’t dry,’ he kept on saying. I think if he had died that moment those words would have been printed on his heart. You see, it meant ruination to his reputation as a builder. And then it seems somebody showed him a way by which he could make the houses seem dry although in wet weather they never really would be. That night I heard him, long after I went to bed, walking about in his room next door; but in the morning I heard him mutter: ‘No, I’m jiggered if I will!’ He had made up his mind, after a dreadful struggle, not to be party to any trick.”

“And what happened then, Auntie?”

“Well, he just took those three houses down and built them afresh — it cost him thousands.”

“Didn’t he make the man who used the sea water pay?”

“He tried to, Jo; but the man went bankrupt. It aged your grandfather very much. We ALL felt it dreadfully.”

Aunt Ann was silent, lost in memory of how she had felt it. Edward! . . . Her nephew’s voice recalled her.

“Grandfather didn’t go bankrupt himself, did he, Auntie?”

“No, Jo; but very nearly. Perhaps it was all for the best. It made him very respected, and in after years he was always glad that he had been so above-board.”

She looked up startled; young Jolyon was examining her face in a peculiar manner.

“I expect YOU had a sad time, Auntie.”

Aunt Ann’s lips firmed themselves against the suspicion of being pitied.

“So you see, dear,” she said, “your grandfather had good principles, and that is the great thing.”

“Did he go to Church, and that?”

“Not very much. He was brought up to be a Wesleyan, so he never quite approved of Church. He used to say the service was full of fallals. Of course, WE all liked Church much better than Chapel, and he never interfered with our going.”

“I expect he was glad not to go at all, really.”

Aunt Ann covered her mouth with a little paper fan.

“You mustn’t be flippant, dear.”

“Oh! no, Auntie; I meant it.”

“Well, Jo, I don’t think I should call your grandfather a very religious man after our dear mother’s death. He always grudged that so much.”

“Did my father get on well with him?”

“Not very. Your father was so much our mother’s boy.”

“I see.”

“Yes, dear, your grandfather was always so occupied that he hadn’t much time for us children. I think he was perhaps fonder of me than of any of us.”

“I expect that was because you were so good, Auntie.”

“Hssh! Jo. You mustn’t make fun of me. I was the only one old enough to talk to when our mother died.”

“I thought you said my father was my age.”

“Yes but in those days people did not talk to children as they do now.”

Young Jolyon did not reply, but he tilted his chin slightly. Children!

“How much money did he leave, Auntie, after all that?”

“Thirty thousand pounds, dear, divided equally amongst the ten of us — he was very just.”

Young Jolyon took out his watch; it was an old one of his father’s, and he liked to take it out.

“I must go now, Auntie; I’m meeting a man at Madame Tussaud’s. Oh! might I have those buckles?”

Aunt Ann’s eyes lingered on him; he was her favourite, though to admit it was not in her character.

“Are you to be trusted with them, dear?”

“Of course I am.”

“They’re an heirloom, Jo. Don’t you think we’d better wait till you’re older?”

“Oh! Auntie, as if I wasn’t —!”

Aunt Ann’s fingers rummaged in the little drawer.

“Well, on condition that you take the greatest care of them. And you mustn’t ever wear them, until you go to Court.”

“Do they wear buckles at Court?”

“I believe so, dear. I have never been. Here they are.”

From folds of tissue paper she took them out — of old blackish paste set in silver. Very discreetly, on the bit of black velvet to which they were attached, the two buckles gleamed.

Young Jolyon took them in his hand. Into which of his pockets would they go without spoiling a man’s figure?

“I like them, Auntie.”

“Yes, dear, they are genuine old paste. Have you somewhere safe to keep them?”

“Oh! yes, I’ve got lots of drawers.” He placed the buckles in his tail coat pocket, and bent over to kiss his Aunt.

“You won’t sit on them, Jo?”

“We never sit on our tails, Auntie.”

His Aunt’s eyes followed him wistfully to the door, where he turned to wave his hand. Dear Jo! He WAS growing up! Such a pleasure to see him always. He would be quite a distinguished-looking man some day, like his dear father, only with more advantages. But had she done right to give him the buckles? Was he not too young to realise the responsibility? She closed the little drawer whence she had taken them, and before her eyes there passed the pageant of old days — days of her childhood and her womanhood with no youth in between. Days of her own responsibility — mother to all the family from the age of twenty on! Just that one abortive courtship —‘a lick and a promise,’ Swithin would call it — snuffed out by sea water and her father’s reputation. Did she regret it? No! How could she? If her father had not been honest about those houses — a man of his word — then, why then she could not have given his buckles to dear Jo, as symbols of headship and integrity. Edward! Well, he had married very happily after all. She had not grudged him the pleasure; his wife had soon had twins. Perhaps it was all for the best: they were always very good to her, her brothers and sisters that she had been a mother to, and it was such a pleasure to see their dear little children growing up. Why, Soamey would be coming in directly on his way back from the Zoo; it was his eighth birthday and she had his present ready; a box of bricks, so that he could build himself a house — like his grandfather, only not — not with sea water . . . Ah! . . . Um! . . . Just a little nap, perhaps, before the dear little chap came — perhaps a little — um — ah! —

The thin lips, so generally compressed, puffed slightly in their breathing above that square chin resting on her cameo. The delicious surge of slumber swayed over the brain under the corkscrewed curls; the lips opened once and a word came forth: “Bub — Buckles.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37