On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Midsummer Madness, 1880

George, second son to Roger Forsyte of Prince’s gate, was in the year 1880 twenty-four years of age, and supposed to be a farmer. That is to say he had failed for the Army, and had definitely refused to enter any indoor profession. This was why he spent the inside of his weeks in any country pursuit which was not farming, and the outside of his weeks in or about the Club in Piccadilly which he had nicknamed ‘The Iseeum.’ Nominally resident at Plumtree Park in Bedfordshire, where a gentleman farmer eked out his losses with the premiums paid by the fathers of his pupils, George Forsyte’s wit, of which he had a good deal, enabled him to spend most of his time with neighbouring landowners, who let him ride their horses or shoot their pheasants and rabbits. In the summer, when horses were turned out, pheasants turned in, and even rabbits were breeding, George would sometimes look at other people shearing sheep, and cheer them with his jests; but as a general thing he would be found studying the conformation of the horse on Newmarket Heath, or the conformation of chorus girls on the stage of the Liberty Theatre. But in this particular summer of 1880, as will sometimes happen with men of the world, he had fallen in love. The object of his affection was a very pretty woman with dark dove-like eyes, who was somewhat naturally the wife of a man he knew called Basset, a neighbouring landowner and Major in the Militia. It may come as a shock to those who fifty years later have claimed for themselves the abolition of morals to learn that George already had none. It was with a mere glow that he discovered himself to be in love with a married woman. Flora Basset, like most people with dove-like eyes, was what was then known as a ‘flirt’; and since she lived in the country to please her husband, when she would rather have lived in London, she considered herself entitled to such amusement as came her way. George was very amusing.

He began at Easter time by normal admiration of Flora’s eyes and conformation, and a normal hankering to make her his own; but as summer came, he found these feelings gradually complicated by a sensation which he had never before known, but which other people had called jealousy. In other words it became distasteful to think of Flora as Mrs. Basset. George was not of those who examine and label their feelings, or he would perhaps have understood that desire was becoming passion.

June arriving, and the weather turning hot, Major Basset, “that poopstick” as George now called him in thought, went into camp with his Militia. George experienced a feeling, not merely of increased hope, but of relief, for, when not in the presence of his Flora, he had begun to ache. But he was soon to discover that his Flora had an excellent head, and knew how to keep it. She had no intention of being compromised. George, of course, was well aware that if he did compromise her, or rather himself, his position, dependent on his father, a man of maturer years and the morals of an old Forsyte, would become impossible; as likely as not, cut off with a shilling, he would be obliged to live on racing debts. But this was not enough to make him thankful that his Flora would not let him compromise her. On the contrary her discretion drove him nearly mad.

And the weather grew hotter; the trees, the flowers, the grasses exuded more scent; the cuckoo’s note became a little querulous; the wood-pigeons emitted the ritornelles of love. With the increasing temperature more and more of his Flora became visible, and George played croquet with her, and sat listening to her singing the songs of opera bouffe, and now and again was permitted to stay to dinner, and dismissed at nine o’clock; and his wit shrivelled within him in the heat of his feelings; and half the month of June was gone.

Now in George was something dogged and tenacious; nor did he lack hardihood. He ceased not in his resolve; with heroism he fought against the shrivelling of his wit, and like the unhappy clowns of Kings in the old days, who must be merry whatever the conditions of their hearts, continued to jest in the presence of his beloved, and to subdue the smoulder in his bull-like eyes. ‘Plain but pleasant’— as he called himself — to cease being pleasant must lose him the game. But dry were the lips with which he jested; and small was his knowledge of his Flora’s heart. What her feelings were for the ‘poopstick’ who in a week’s time would be returning he never dared to ask. And he suffered, he suffered as much as moralists could wish; but he continued to jest, because it was — jest or lose; and his Flora continued to smile on him with her dark and dove-like eyes, to laugh little half-shocked laughs, to press his hand faintly; to smell sweet and look enticing. And the last week passed.

Hotter and hotter, the sun flamed all day, and it was good to sit in the shade. Now, alongside the croquet lawn in front of the Bassets’ house, was a shrubbery of rhododendrons, and beyond this a clump of lilacs and within it a summer-house and beyond this again an orchard of plum and pear trees.

And George took from his Flora’s hand the croquet mallet, and, holding it out, said with a grin:

“Who’s for a cooler? Let’s go and sit in the shade with this between us.”

His Flora laughed:

“George, how naughty you are!”

“Naughty but nice!” said George, and took her hand with the tips of his fingers, walking delicately, for all his heaviness, as if leading her to a minuet. And, while he walked, he thought: ‘The last day — this is hell!’

They came to the summer-house.

“What?” said George; “no earwigs! Forward, the Buffs!”

They entered, sat down; George placed the mallet between them. And silence fell — for the life of him he could no longer jest.

From across the mallet, Flora was gazing, cool and sweet against the wooden wall, a little smile on her lips. It was too much! George took the mallet in both hands; his fleshy face had gone a dusky red, his full thick-lidded eyes gazed lowering in front of him, veins stood out on his forehead beneath his neatly parted hair; the muscles in his arms below the rolled-up sleeves swelled in ridges. He laid the mallet down on his other side noiselessly as if it had been a feather.

“Flora!” he said, and seized the sweet and unresisting creature.

So was accomplished his desire, with no words spoken.

He stood, presently, and watched her go, a finger to her lips and her eyes still smiling; then through the orchard himself went away, dumb and grateful for pleasure as the beasts that perish, and drunk with triumph like a god. The day had changed and darkened with the heat. The sky had an airless brooding aspect; flies buzzed viciously and clung about him. He sat down on the bank of a stream and lighted a cigar. He held it between lips that never ceased to smile, and watched the smoke annoying the flies and midges. He listened, without hearing, to their hum, and to the cooing of the wood-pigeons; he watched, without seeing, the extreme stillness of the heat-darkened day. Thus, he spent two hours lost in a few past minutes. He got up with a sigh, the scent of nettles, burdock and the carted hay deep in his nostrils. He would not go home, but walked to the Inn. He ate bread and cheese and drank porter. And then began again the longing to see and touch her that had for so short time been appeased; and smoking a village clay he ached, watching all light out of the sky; so heavy and hot the air, that he sweated, sitting there. And he thought: ‘The last night! She might let me in-she might!’

He rose and went out into the breathless dark, retracing his steps to the stream, and through the blinded orchard to the summer-house. He groped and found the mallet and took it with him, stealing along past the lilacs, to the edge of the rhododendron clump bordering the lawn. Dark! It was more than dark, but he could just see the house. And, squatting on the grass, dry as tinder, he gazed up. Two first floor windows alone were lighted, open but curtained — hers — so well he knew the windows he had longed to enter! And he thought: ‘By Gad! I’ll have a shot!’ and going on his knees he searched for tiny pebbles in the shrubbery. Then drawing deep breaths to still the pounding of his heart he moved towards the house along the rhododendrons. But then he stopped as if he had been shot, and dropped to his knees on the grass. A curtain had been pulled aside; in the lighted window-space stood the figure of a half-dressed man. He was leaning there, inhaling the heavy night; he turned and spoke into the room. George saw his profile — Basset! Their voices carried to him in the stillness — his voice and hers. He saw a shimmer of white — flesh, drapery — pass across behind; saw the man’s arm go round it. And George pressed his face to the dry grass, stifling a groan. He heard a woman’s low laugh, the window shut down, and furious pain jerked him to his knees. To take the mallet — to climb up — to brain him — her — to — to —! He fell forward again, with arms outstretched. The smell of parched grass mixed itself with his agony, for how long — how long — till the night was rent with a blinding flash and thunder rolled round and round him. He staggered to his feet, ran into the dark; and stumbled among the orchard trees. Lightning flashed all round, he wanted it to strike. He wanted it to strike him, but he knew it wouldn’t. Then the rain fell — fell in a sheet, drenched him in a minute; fell and fell, and cooled him even to the heart. Like a drowned rat he came to where he lived, and let himself in. He went up to his bedroom, and tearing off his clothes, flung himself into bed. And behind and through the crashing of the thunder he heard that low soft laugh, and the window being shut down. He fell asleep at last.

When he woke the sun was shining in at his window; it shone across the room on to his boots — fourteen pairs of boots and shoes, treed, in triple rows, on the top of his chest-of-drawers. Boots and shoes of every kind — riding boots, shooting boots, town boots, tennis boots, pumps. George looked at them, with fish-like eyes. In those well-worn and polished boots, treed against decay, was life — his life — and in his heart, dragged from its drowned sleep, was death. That laugh! No! To hell with women! Boots! And, lying there, he ground his teeth and grinned.

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