On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

The Hondekoeter, 1880

Encountering his old friend Traquair opposite the Horse Guards, in the summer of 1880, James Forsyte, who had taken an afternoon off from the City, proceeded alongside with the words:

“I’m not well.”

His friend answered: “You look bobbish enough. Going to the Club?”

“No,” said James. “I’m going to Jobson’s. They’re selling Smelter’s pictures. Don’t suppose there’s anything, but I thought I’d look in.”

“Smelter? Selling his ‘Cupid and Pish,’ as he used to call it? He never could speak the Queen’s English.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what made him die,” said James; “he wasn’t seventy. His ‘47 was good.”

“Ah! And his brown sherry.”

James shook his head.

“Liverish stuff. I’ve been walking from the Temple; got a touch of liver now.”

“You ought to go to Carlsbad; that’s the new place, they say.”

“Homburg,” said James, mechanically. “Emily likes it — too fashionable for me. I don’t know — I’m sixty-nine.” He pointed his umbrella at a lion.

“That chap Landseer must ha’ made a pretty penny,” he muttered: “They say Dizzy’s very shaky. HE won’t last long.”

“M’m! That old fool Gladstone’ll set us all by the ears yet. Going to bid at Jobson’s?”

“Bid? Haven’t got the money to throw away. My family’s growing up.”

“Ah! How’s your married daughter — Winifred?”

The furrow between James’ brows increased in depth.

“She never tells me. But I know that chap Dartie she married makes the money fly.”

“What is he?”

“An outside broker,” said James, gloomily: “But so far as I can see, he does nothing but gallivant about to races and that. He’ll do no good with himself.”

He halted at the pavement edge, where a crossing had been swept, for it had rained; and extracting a penny from his trouser pocket, gave it to the crossing-sweeper, who looked up at his long figure with a round and knowing eye.

“Well, good-bye, James. I’m going to the Club. Remember me to Emily.”

James Forsyte nodded, and moved, stork-like, on to the narrow crossing. Andy Traquair! He still looked very spry! Gingery chap! But that wife of his — fancy marrying again at his age! Well, no fool like an old one. And, incommoded by a passing four-wheeler, he instinctively raised his umbrella — they never looked where they were going.

Traversing St. James’ Square, he reflected gloomily that these new Clubs were thundering great places; and this asphalt pavement that was coming in-he didn’t know! London wasn’t what it used to be, with horses slipping about all over the place. He turned into Jobson’s. Three o’clock! They’d be just starting. Smelter must have cut up quite well.

Ascending the steps, he passed through the lobbies into the sale-room. Auction was in progress, but they had not yet reached the ‘property of William Smelter Esq.’

Putting on his tortoiseshell pince-nez, James studied the catalogue. Since his purchase of a Turner — some said ‘not a Turner’— all cordage and drowning men, he had not bought a picture, and he had a blank space on the stairs. It was a large space in a poor light; he often thought it looked very bare. If there were anything going at a bargain, he might think of it. H’m! There was the Bronzino: ‘Cupid and Pish’ that Smelter had been so proud of — a nude; he didn’t want nudes in Park Lane. His eye ran down the catalogue: “Claud Lorraine,” “Bosboem,” “Cornelis van Vos,” “Snyders”—“Snyders”— m’m! still life — all ducks and geese, hares, artichokes, onions, platters, oysters, grapes, turkeys, pears, and starved-looking greyhounds asleep under them. No. 17, “M. Hondekoeter.” Fowls, 11 foot by 6. What a whopping great thing! He took three mental steps into the middle of the picture and three steps out again. “Hondekoeter.” His brother Jolyon had one in the billiard room at Stanhope Gate — lot of fowls; not so big as that. “Snyders!” “Ary Scheffer”— bloodless-looking affair, he’d be bound! “Rosa Bonheur.” “Snyders.”

He took a seat at the side of the room, and fell into a reverie — with James a serious matter, indissolubly connected with investments. Soames — in partnership now — was shaping well; bringing in a lot of business. That house in Bryanston Square — the tenancy would be up in September — he ought to get another hundred on a re-let, with the improvements the tenant had put in. He’d have a couple of thousand to invest next Quarter Day. There was Cape Copper, but he didn’t know; Nicholas was always telling him to buy ‘Midland.’ That fellow Dartie, too, kept worrying him about Argentines — he wouldn’t touch them with a pair of tongs. And, leaning forward with his hands crossed on the handle of his umbrella, he gazed fixedly up at the skylight, as if seeing some annunciation or other, while his shaven lips, between his grey Dundrearys, filled sensually as though savouring a dividend.

“The collection of William Smelter, Esquire, of Russell Square.”

Now for the usual poppycock! “This well-known collector,” “masterpieces of the Dutch and French Schools”; “rare opportunity”; “Connoisseur”; all me eye and Betty Martin! Smelter used to buy ’em by the yard.

“No. 1. Cupid and Psyche: Bronzino. Ladies and Gentlemen: what shall I start it at — this beautiful picture, an undoubted masterpiece of the Italian School?”

James sniggered. Connoisseur — with his ‘Cupid and Pish’!

To his astonishment there was some brisk bidding; and James’ upper lip began to lengthen, as ever at any dispute about values. The picture was knocked down and a ‘Snyders’ put up. James sat watching picture after picture disposed of. It was hot in the room and he felt sleepy — he didn’t know why he had come; he might have been having a nap at the Club, or driving with Emily.

“What — no bid for the Hondekoeter? This large masterpiece.”

James gazed at the enormous picture on the easel, supported at either end by an attendant. The huge affair was full of poultry and feathers floating in a bit of water and a large white rooster looking as if it were about to take a bath. It was a dark painting, save for the rooster, with a yellowish tone.

“Come, gentlemen? By a celebrated painter of domestic poultry. May I say fifty? Forty? Who’ll give me forty pounds? It’s giving it away. Well, thirty to start it? Look at the rooster! Masterly painting! Come now! I’ll take any bid.”

“Five pounds!” said James, covering the words so that no one but the auctioneer should see where they came from.

“Five pounds for this genuine work by a master of domestic poultry! Ten pounds did you say, Sir? Ten pounds bid.”

“Fifteen,” muttered James.

“Twenty.”

“Twenty-five,” said James; he was not going above thirty.

“Twenty-five — why, the frame’s worth it. Who says thirty?”

No one said thirty; and the picture was knocked down to James, whose mouth had opened slightly. He hadn’t meant to buy it; but the thing was a bargain — the size had frightened them; Jolyon had paid one hundred and forty for his Hondekoeter. Well, it would cover that blank on the stairs. He waited till two more pictures had been sold; then, leaving his card with directions for the despatch of the Hondekoeter, made his way up St. James’ Street and on towards home.

He found Emily just starting out with Rachel and Cicely in the barouche, but refused to accompany them — a little afraid of being asked what he had been doing. Entering his deserted house, he told Warmson that he felt liverish; he would have a cup of tea and a muffin, nothing more; then passing on to the stairs, he stood looking at the blank space. When the picture was hung, it wouldn’t be there. What would Soames say to it, though — the boy had begun to interest himself in pictures since his run abroad? Still, the price he had paid was not the market value; and, passing on up to the drawing-room, he drank his China tea, strong, with cream, and ate two muffins. If he didn’t feel better tomorrow, he should have Dash look at him.

The following morning, starting for the office, he said to Warmson:

“There’ll be a picture come today. You’d better get Hunt and Thomas to help you hang it. It’s to go in the middle of that space on the stairs. You’d better have it done when your mistress is out. Let ’em bring it in the back way — it’s eleven foot by six; and mind the paint.”

When he returned, rather late, the Hondekoeter was hung. It covered the space admirably, but the light being poor and the picture dark, it was not possible to see what it was about. It looked quite well. Emily was in the drawing-room when he went in.

“What on earth is that great picture on the stairs, James?”

“That?” said James. “A Hondekoeter; picked it up, a bargain, at Smelter’s sale. Jolyon’s got one at Stanhope Gate.”

“I never saw such a lumbering great thing.”

“What?” said James. “It covers up that space well. It’s not as if you could see anything on the stairs. There’s some good poultry in it.”

“It makes the stairs darker than they were before. I don’t know what Soames will say. Really, James, you oughtn’t to go about alone, buying things like that.”

“I can do what I like with my money, I suppose,” said James. “It’s a well-known name.”

“Well,” said Emily, “for a man of your age — Never mind! Don’t fuss! Sit down and drink your tea.”

James sat down, muttering. Women — always unjust, and no more sense of values than an old tom-cat!

Emily said no more, ever mistress of her suave and fashionable self.

Winifred, with Montague Dartie, came in later, so that all the family were assembled for dinner; Cicely having her hair down, Rachel her hair up — she had ‘come out’ this season; Soames, who had just parted with the little whiskers of the late ‘seventies, looking pale and flatter-cheeked than usual. Winifred, beginning to be ‘interesting,’ owing to the approach of a little Dartie, kept her eyes somewhat watchfully on ‘Monty,’ square and oiled, with a ‘handsome’ look on his sallow face, and a big diamond stud in his shining shirt-front.

It was she who broached the Hondekoeter.

“Pater dear, what made you buy that enormous picture?”

James looked up, and mumbled through his mutton:

“Enormous! It’s the right size for that space on the stairs.” It seemed to him at the moment that his family had very peculiar faces.

“It’s very fine and large!” Dartie was speaking! ‘Um!’ thought James: ‘What does HE want — money?’

“It’s so yellow,” said Rachel, plaintively.

“What do YOU know about a picture?”

“I know what I like, Pater.”

James stole a glance at his son, but Soames was looking down his nose.

“It’s very good value,” said James, suddenly. “There’s some first-rate feather painting in it.”

Nothing more was said at the moment, nobody wanting to hurt the Pater’s feelings, but, upstairs, in the drawing-room after Emily and her three daughters had again traversed the length of the Hondekoeter, a lively conversation broke out.

Really — the Pater! Rococo was not the word for pictures that size! And chickens — who wanted to look at chickens, even if you could see them? But, of course, Pater thought a bargain excused everything.

Emily said:

“Don’t be disrespectful, Cicely.”

“Well, Mater, he does, you know. All the old Forsytes do.”

Emily, who secretly agreed, said: “H’ssh!”

She was always loyal to James, in his absence. They all were, indeed, except among themselves.

“Soames thinks it dreadful,” said Rachel. “I hope he’ll tell the Pater so.”

“Soames will do nothing of the sort,” said Emily. “Really your father can do what he likes in his own house — you children are getting very uppish.”

“Well, Mater, you know jolly well it’s awfully out of date.”

“I wish you would not say ‘awfully’ and ‘jolly,’ Cicely.”

“Why not? Everybody does, at school.”

Winifred cut in:

“They really are the latest words, Mother.”

Emily was silent; nothing took the wind out of her sails like the word ‘latest,’ for, though a woman of much character, she could not bear to be behindhand.

“Listen!” said Rachel, who had opened the door.

A certain noise could be heard; it was James, extolling the Hondekoeter, on the stairs.

“That rooster,” he was saying, “is a fine bird; and look at those feathers floating. Think they could paint those nowadays? Your Uncle Jolyon gave a hundred an’ forty for his Hondekoeter, and I picked this up for twenty-five.”

“What did I say?” whispered Cicely. “A bargain. I hate bargains; they lumber up everything. That Turner was another!”

“Shh!” said Winifred, who was not so young, and wished that Monty had more sense of a bargain than he had as yet displayed. “I like a bargain myself; you know you’ve got something for your money.”

“I’d rather have my money,” said Cicely.

“Don’t be silly, Cicely,” said Emily; “go and play your piece. Your father likes it.”

James and Dartie now entered, Soames having passed on up to his room where he worked at night.

Cicely began her piece. She was at home owing to an outbreak of mumps at her school on Ham Common; and her piece, which contained a number of runs up and down the piano, was one which she was perfecting for the school concert at the end of term. James, who made a point of asking for it, partly because it was good for Cicely, and partly because it was good for his digestion, took his seat by the hearth between his whiskers, averting his eyes from animated objects. Unfortunately, he never could sleep after dinner, and thoughts buzzed in his head. Soames had said there was no demand now for large pictures, and very little for the Dutch school — he had admitted, however, that the Hondekoeter was a bargain as values went; the name alone was worth the money. Cicely commenced her ‘piece’; James brooded on. He really didn’t know whether he was glad he had bought the thing or not. Everyone of them had disapproved, except Dartie; the only one whose disapproval he would have welcomed. To say that James was conscious of a change in the mental outlook of his day would be to credit him with a philosophic sensibility unsuited to his breeding and his age; but he WAS uncomfortably conscious that a bargain was not what it had been. And while Cicely’s fingers ran up and down — he didn’t know, he couldn’t say.

“D’you mean to tell me,” he said, when Cicely shut the piano, “that you don’t like those Dresden vases?”

Nobody knew whom he was addressing or why, so no one replied.

“I bought ’em at Jobson’s in ‘67, and they’re worth three times what I gave for them.”

It was Rachel who responded.

“Well, Pater, do you like them yourself?”

“Like them? What’s that got to do with it? They’re genuine, and worth a lot of money.”

“I wish you’d sell them, then, James,” said Emily. “They’re not the fashion now.”

“Fashion! They’ll be worth a lot more before I die.”

“A bargain,” muttered Cicely, below her breath.

“What’s that?” said James, whose hearing was sometimes unexpectedly sharp.

“I said: ‘A bargain,’ Pater; weren’t they?”

“Of course they were”; and it could be heard from his tone that if they hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have bought them. “You young people know nothing about money, except how to spend it”; and he looked at his son-inlaw, who was sedulously concerned with his finger-nails.

Emily, partly to smooth James, whom she could see was ruffled, and partly because she had a passion for the game, told Cicely to get out the card table, and said with cheery composure:

“Come along, James, we’ll play Nap.”

They sat around the green board for a considerable time playing for farthings, with every now and then a little burst of laughter, when James said: “I’ll go Nap!” At this particular game, indeed, James was always visited by a sort of recklessness. At farthing points he could be a devil of a fellow for very little money. He had soon lost thirteen shillings, and was as dashing as ever.

He rose at last, in excellent humour, pretending to be bankrupt.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said, “I always lose MY money.”

The Hondekoeter, and the misgivings it had given rise to, had faded from his mind.

Winifred and Dartie departing, without the latter having touched on finance, he went up to bed with Emily in an almost cheerful condition; and, having turned his back on her, was soon snoring lightly.

He was awakened by a crash and bumping rumble, as it might be thunder, on the right.

“What on earth’s that, James?” said Emily’s startled voice.

“What?” said James: “Where? Here, where are my slippers?”

“It must be a thunderbolt. Be careful, James.”

For James, in his nightgown, was already standing by the bedside — in the radiance of a night-light, long as a stork. He sniffed loudly.

“D’you smell burning?”

“No,” said Emily.

“Here, give me the candle.”

“Put on this shawl, James. It can’t be burglars; they wouldn’t make such a noise.”

“I don’t know,” muttered James, “I was asleep.” He took the candle from Emily, and shuffled to the door.

“What’s all this?” he said on the landing. By confused candle and night-light he could see a number of white-clothed figures — Rachel, Cicely, and the maid Fifine, in their nightgowns. Soames in his nightshirt, at the head of the stairs, and down below, that fellow Warmson.

The voice of Soames, flat and calm, said:

“It’s the Hondekoeter.”

There, in fact, enormous, at the bottom of the stairs, was the Hondekoeter, fallen on its face. James, holding up his candle, stalked down and stood gazing at it. No one spoke, except Fifine, who said: “La, la!”

Cicely, seized with a fit of giggles, vanished.

Then Soames spoke into the dark well below him, illumined faintly by James’ candle.

“It’s all right, Pater; it won’t be hurt; there was no glass.”

James did not answer, but holding his candle low, returned up the stairs, and without a word went back into his bedroom.

“What was it, James?” said Emily, who had not risen.

“That picture came down with a run — comes of not looking after things yourself. That fellow Warmson! Where’s the eau-de-Cologne?”

He anointed himself, got back into bed, and lay on his back, waiting for Emily to improve the occasion. But all she said was:

“I hope it hasn’t made your head ache, James.”

“No,” said James; and, for some time after she was asleep, he lay with his eyes on the night-light, as if waiting for the Hondekoeter to play him another trick — after he had bought the thing and given it a good home, too!

Next morning, going down to breakfast he passed the picture, which had been lifted, so that it stood slanting, with its back to the stair wall. The white rooster seemed just as much on the point of taking a bath as ever. The feathers floated on their backs, curved like shallops. He passed on into the dining-room.

They were all there, eating eggs and bacon, suspiciously silent.

James helped himself and sat down.

“What are you going to do with it now, James?” said Emily.

“Do with it? Hang it again, of course!”

“Not really, Pater!” said Rachel. “It gave me fits last night.”

“That wall won’t stand it,” said Soames.

“What! It’s a good wall!”

“It really is too big,” said Emily.

“And we none of us like it, Pater,” put in Cicely, “it’s such a monster, and so yellow!”

“Monster, indeed!” said James, and was silent, till suddenly he spluttered:

“What would you have me do with it, then?”

“Send it back; sell it again.”

“I shouldn’t get anything for it.”

“But you said it was a bargain, Pater,” said Cicely.

“So it was!”

There was another silence. James looked sidelong at his son; there was a certain pathos in that glance, as if it were seeking help, but Soames was concentrated above his plate.

“Have it put up in the lumber-room, James,” said Emily, quietly.

James reddened between his whiskers, and his mouth opened; he looked again at his son, but Soames ate on. James turned to his teacup. And there went on within him that which he could not express. It was as if they had asked him: “When is a bargain not a bargain?” and he didn’t know the answer, but they did. A change of epoch, something new-fangled in the air. A man could no longer buy a thing because it was worth more! It was — it was the end of everything. And, suddenly, he mumbled: “Well, have it your own way, then. Throwing money away, I call it!”

After he had gone to the office, the Hondekoeter was conducted to the lumber-room by Warmson, Hunt, and Thomas. There, covered by a dust-sheet to preserve the varnish, it rested twenty-one years, till the death of James in 1901, when it went forth and again came under the hammer. It fetched five pounds, and was bought by a designer of posters, working for a poultry-breeding firm.

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