On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Francie’s Fourpenny Foreigner, 1888

In the latest ‘eighties there was that still in the appearance of Francie Forsyte which made people refer to her on Forsyte ‘Change as ‘Keltic’ looking. The expression had not long been discovered, and, though no one had any knowledge of what a Kelt looked like, it was felt to be good.

If she did not precisely suggest the Keltic twilight, she had dark hair and large grey eyes, composed music, wrote stories and poems, and played on the violin. For all these reasons she was allowed a certain license by the family, who did not take her too seriously, and the limit of the license granted is here recorded.

Thin, rather tall, intense and expressive, Francie had a certain charm, together with the power, engrained in a daughter of Roger, of marketing her wares, and at the age of thirty she had secured a measure of independence. She still slept at Prince’s Gate, but had a studio in the purlieus of Chelsea. For the period she was advanced, even to the point of inviting to tea there her editors, fellow writers, musicians, and even those young men with whom she danced in Kensington, generically christened ‘Francie’s lovers’ by her brother George.

At Timothy’s in the Bayswater Road, they would say to her at times:

“Do you think it’s quite nice, dear, to have young men to tea with you?”

And Francie would answer:

“Why not?” which always stopped further enquiry, for the aunts felt that it would be even less nice to put a finer point on it, and, after all, dear Francie was musical. It was believed in the family, rather than known, that she was always in love with someone, but that seemed natural in one of her appearance and was taken to be spiritual rather than bodily. And this diagnosis was perfectly correct, such was the essential shrewdness underlying the verbal niceties on Forsyte ‘Change.

It was shortly after she had at last succeeded in getting her violin sonata — so much the most serious item of her music — published, that she met the individual soon to be known as “Francie’s Fourpenny Foreigner.” The word ‘Dago’ not having then come to the surface, the antipathetic contempt felt by Anglo-Saxons for everything male, on two legs, deriving from below the latitude of Geneva, had no verbal outlet. From above the latitude of Geneva a foreigner was, if not respected, at least human, but a foreigner from below was undoubtedly ‘fourpenny,’ if not less.

This young man, whose surname, Racazy, had a catch in it which caught every Forsyte, but whose Christian name was Guido, had come, if Francie was to be believed, from a place called Ragusa to conquer London with his violin. He had been introduced to her by the publisher who had brought forth her sonata, as essentially the right interpreter of that considerable production; partly, no doubt, because at this stage of his career he would interpret anything for nothing, and partly because Francie, free at the moment from any spiritual entanglement, had noticed his hair, like that of Rafael’s best young men, and asked for the introduction.

Within a week he was playing the sonata in her studio for the first and last time. The fact that he never even offered to play it again ought to have warned Francie, but with a strange mixture of loyalty to what she admired at the moment and a Forsytean perception that the more famous he became the more famous would she become, she installed him the ‘lover’ of the year, and proceeded to make his name. No one can deny that her psychology was at fault from the first; she gauged wrongly Guido, her family, and herself; but such misconceptions are slow to make themselves felt, and the license she enjoyed had invested Francie with a kind of bravura. She had the habit of her own way, and no tactical sense of the dividing line between major and minor operations. After trying him out at the Studio on an editor, two girl friends, and a ‘lover’ so out of date that he could be relied on, she began serious work by inviting the young man to dinner at Prince’s Gate. He came in his hair, undressed, with a large bow tie ‘flopping about on his chest,’ as Eustace put it in his remonstrance after the event. It was a somewhat gruesome evening, complicated by the arrival of George, while the men were still at wine, to ‘touch his father for a monkey.’ His Ascot had been lamentable, and he sat, silently staring at the violinist as though he were the monkey.

Roger, in his capacity of host, alone attempted to put the young man at his ease.

“I hear you play the fiddle,” he said. “Can you make your living at that?”

“But yes, I maka ver’ good living.”

“What do you call good?” said Roger, ever practical.

“I maka quite a ‘undred pound a year.”

“H’m!” said Roger: “Do you like the climate here?”

The young man shook his hair.

“No! Rain he rain; no sun to shina.”

“Ha!” said Roger. “What’s your own part of the world?”

“Ragusa.”

“Eh! In the Balkans, um?”

“I am ze ‘alf Italiano.”

At this moment Eustace, obeying a wink from George’s brooding eyes, rose, and said:

“Shall we go up and have some — er — music?”

Roger and George were left; nor was either of them seen again that evening.

In the drawing-room Mrs. Roger, placid by now to the point of torpor, had said to Francie:

“Of course, my dear, he is striking in a way, but he doesn’t look very clean, does he?”

“That’s only his skin, Mother.”

“But how do you know, dear?”

“Oh! Well, he comes from Ragusa.”

“I wonder,” said Mrs. Roger, “if that is where ‘ragouts’ originally came from. I felt that he didn’t care very much for the dinner to-night.”

“He’s all spirit,” said Francie. “Everybody here thinks so much about food.”

“Yes,” sighed Mrs. Roger, “if it weren’t for your father, I shouldn’t think nearly as much about food as I have to. I sometimes wish I could go where sheep and oxen are unknown, and there are no seasons.”

“Food is a terrible bore,” said Francie.

Her mother looked at her intently.

“I’m sure you had nothing but a bun for lunch.”

“A bath bun, dear.”

“It’s not enough, Francie.”

“I never have more if I can help it.”

“Your independence will ruin you one of these days. I’m certain your father won’t like you seeing much of THAT young man.”

“Father’s hopeless,” said Francie. “He ought to be stuffed.”

A faint smile appeared on Mrs. Roger’s face, as if she were thinking: ‘Perhaps he is,’ but she said:

“Don’t be disrespectful, dear.”

At this moment they came, Eustace exceptionally dandified as though to counterbalance his associate. Francie seated her ‘foreigner’ on the sofa, dark and sulky, and herself beside him. Eustace and his mother played piquet. The sound of George leaving (without his monkey) and soon thereafter of Roger going up to bed, brought a somewhat painful evening to its end.

In their bedroom, after holding forth on a son like George, Roger said abruptly:

“And as to Francie, what does she want to pick up with a fourpenny foreigner for! That girl will get herself into a mess.”

Mrs. Roger having exhausted her powers of palliation over George, did not reply.

“A fiddler, too,” added Roger.

“She can’t help being musical, dear,” said Mrs. Roger.

“No good ever came of music,” said Roger. “Wake me if I snore; it gives me a sore throat . . . .”

Undeterred by the wintry nature of that evening, Francie continued to promote the fortunes of her ‘lover.’ She even took him to Timothy’s. It was at a period when the whole family was still slightly in mourning, over that “dreadful business of Soames, Irene and young Bosinney, my dear,” which had so nearly got into the papers. Extraordinary sensitiveness prevailed, and anything manifestly unForsytean was scrutinised as with the eyes of parrots.

What Francie was doing with a young man whose hair stood out round him like a tea-tray, whose complexion was olive and whose eyes were almost black, was an insoluble problem which all did their utmost to solve, shaking the head and wagging the tongue. Aunt Juley alone ventured the opinion that he was romantic-looking, and was stigmatised by Swithin as a ‘sentimental old fool.’

“The fellow ought to be jumping about on a barrel organ in a red cap,” he added: “Romantic!”

It was, indeed, the damning of faint praise among a family who felt that romance was the last thing they wanted to hear of for a very long time to come. The visit to Aunts Hester and Juley, at which only Swithin and Euphemia were present, lasted but twenty minutes and was ‘carried off’ by Francie’s bravura. She took her foreigner away in a bus and soothed him with broken Italian all the way home to her studio. Her protective feeling and something slightly rapturous had been roused in her by the sight of Swithin, block-like and portentous above his waistcoats, in a light blue chair. Guido was so delightfully unlike that! Her main energies were now concentrated on securing a concert for him. There was little she did not dare to this end. It took place just as the season closed in a small hall newly opened by a firm of piano-makers.

Among many others, the whole Forsyte family were sent cards of invitation written by Francie. Even Swithin received one at his Club. This was probably the first time he had ever been invited to a concert and he announced his intention of going and seeing what it was all about. In his opinion the girl was spending a pretty penny on this fourpenny foreigner (Roger’s phrase having become current). From uneasy curiosity, in fact, rather than from love of music, a considerable number of the clan attended. Swithin found himself situated between his niece Winifred Dartie, whom he always found personable, and his niece Euphemia, who was too thin and squeaked. He slept heavily during the second number and woke just in time, with a snore so loud that it elicited from Euphemia one of the most outstanding squeaks that even she had ever let escape. During the applause which followed, he turned to her, so far, indeed, as he was able, and enquired: ‘What on earth she had made that noise for?’ To which Euphemia replied:

“Oh! Uncle Swithin, you’ll kill me!” She had a great, if inconvenient, sense of humour.

During the third number Swithin remained awake, staring, pop-eyed, at the young man’s agility and wishing he had remembered to put cotton-wool in his ears. In the interval which followed he manoeuvred himself out of his seat, and not waiting for his carriage, took a four-wheeled cab to his Club, where he lit a cigar and instantly fell asleep. It was his opinion, afterwards recorded, that the fellow had made a lot of noise — a capering chap!

The concert, which produced the sum of thirteen pounds, three shillings and sixpence, cost Francie practically all her savings. Far more serious, however, was its spiritual effect. The notices were bad. Francie was furious. Guido, who had borne one bad notice beautifully with a curl of his lip, broke into imprecations at the second, tore at his hair after the third, and dissolved into tears with the fourth. Greatly moved, Francie took his head between her hands and kissed him above the tears. And with that kiss was born in her a serious feeling, not exactly bodily, but as if he belonged to her, and must be sustained through thick and thin. A fortnight later — a fortnight spent in storm and shine, during which she gave him a pair of silver-backed brushes, some special hair shampoo, some new ties, and an umbrella — she announced to her mother by note that she and Guido were engaged. She added that she was going to sleep at the Studio till father had got over the fit he would certainly have.

There again she went wrong in her psychology, incapable, like all the young Forsytes, of appreciating exactly the quality which had made the fortunes of all the old Forsytes. In a word, they had fits over small matters, but never over large. When stark reality stared them in the face they met it with the stare of a still starker reality.

Beyond the words: “The girl’s mad,” Roger, to the infinite relief of Mrs. Roger, said absolutely nothing. His face acquired a sudden dusky-red rigidity, and he left the dining-room. He went into his sanctum — the room where he had thought out the future of countless pieces of house property — took up a paper-knife and sat down in an armchair. He sat there for fully half an hour without a sound except the dull click of the paper-knife against his lower teeth still firm as rocks. Francie was his only daughter, and in his peculiar way (not for nothing was Roger considered eccentric in the family) he was fond of her; fonder than of his mere sons Roger, George, Eustace, and Thomas; and he sat, not fuming — the matter was too serious. Presently he arose and returned to the dining-room where Mrs. Roger was in distraction over the composition of a letter to her daughter.

“Do you know where that young fellow lives?” he said.

“Yes, Roger, at 5, Glendower Mews, Kensington.”

“Write a note asking him to lunch here with Francie today week. Do the same to Francie. Where’s The Times?”

Mrs. Roger produced The Times, and faltered out:

“What are you going to do, Roger?”

“Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies; don’t get into a fantod, leave it to me!”

He took The Times to his sanctum, scanned a page carefully, looked at his calendar, and wrote a note. Then he got up and stood with his square back to the fireplace and his head bent forward. His full, rather bumpy forehead was flushed. He alone of the old Forsytes had become entirely clean-shaven — another sign of eccentricity at that period — and his rather full lips were compressed into a straight line. The die he was going to cast was momentous even for one who had been bidding at auctions all his life. Ten minutes to ten! Taking up his cheque book, he signed a cheque form, tore it out, put his cheque book into his pocket and rang the bell.

The broad and cheerful butler stood within the doorway.

“Yes, Sir?”

“Come in, Smith, and shut the door. I want you to do a job for me. Take this note down in a cab at once, get what I’ve asked for, pay for it with this cheque — you can fill in the right amount; then bring it straight to me at 5, Glendower Mews. I’ll expect you soon after eleven. Look sharp, and take your toothbrush; you may be away for the night.”

“Yes, Sir.”

When the butler had removed his smile Roger stood at the window looking at the day. It was fine.

“I’ll take no chances,” he said, and went out into the hall. There he took down a grey top hat — the only one then in the family, extracted his umbrella from the stand, and went out. It was the Friday before August Bank Holiday, and he was only in town because a house that he intended to buy was coming up to auction on the Tuesday. He walked slowly, taking care not to get hot. The young fellow — a fiddler and a foreigner — would not be up before eleven, but he had no intention of missing him, and he arrived at Glendower Place about half-past ten. He knew it well enough, for he owned a house there. The Mews was round the corner. Noting that it had but one entrance, he went on patrol. Beyond cats and caretakers no one took any interest in him, and he spent thus a good half-hour. As a neighbouring clock struck eleven a hansom cab drew up and Smith alighted. He handed Roger a large envelope. Having perused its contents, Roger nodded. “Wait here,” he said to the cabman. “Now, Smith, follow me.” At Number 5 he raised his umbrella and knocked. The door was opened by the very pattern of a coachman’s wife.

“I want to see the young foreign gentleman who lodges here — Mr. Guido Ratcatski.” The strains of a bow being scraped up and down a violin were audible. “Up these stairs, I suppose?”

The coachman’s wife, with her eyes on Roger’s hat, replied:

“Yes, Sir, and mind the little step at the top.”

Roger ascended, followed by the smiling Smith.

“Stay here,” said Roger, at the little step; and, raising his umbrella, tapped. The door was opened.

“Good morning,” said Roger, removing his hat and walking in. “Good place for practising you have here. Sit down, I want to talk to you.”

The young man, who was in his hair and shirt-sleeves, put down his violin, and, frowning darkly, leaned against the window-sill, crossing his arms.

Roger surveyed the room. It was, in his view, exceptionally sordid, containing a yellow chest of drawers, an iron bedstead, a round washstand, some clothes littered about, and little else. It was hot, too, had a sloping roof, and smelled of stables. “Phew!” he said.

Behind the young foreigner’s glowering gaze, his shrewd grey eyes had not failed to remark a certain panic.

“Well, young man, I take it you’re ambitious.”

“Ambeetious? Vot is dat?”

“Want to get on in your profession.”

“Yees.”

“That’s right — quite right, and so you will! Now, about this affair with my daughter?”

“Vell!”

Roger looked straight into his eyes.

“It won’t do, you know. You can’t afford to marry a girl who’ll have nothing. I won’t beat about the bush. She’s got no money of her own, and if she marries you, she won’t get a penny from me.”

“Money!” said the young man, violently: “Money! It ees all money!”

“Yes,” said Roger, “all money. And I repeat, she won’t get a penny from me. How old are you?”

“Tventee-fife.”

“She was bottled in fifty-eight. She’s thirty if a day. You told me you made a hundred a year. With her stories she makes fifty if she’s lucky. A hundred and fifty a year between you? Are you going to support babies on that, at the beginning of your career?”

“Ve lof each oder,” said the young man, sullenly.

Roger shook his head.

“No such thing as love on a hundred and fifty a year. Now listen to me.”

“I vill not listen — I vill not listen.”

Roger slowly raised his umbrella, as if taking a lunar of the young man’s capacity.

“This is a passing fancy of my daughter’s,” he said; “she has one every year — you’re the last. Now you’re not getting on in London, your concert was a failure, the climate doesn’t suit you. I make you an offer.” He drew the envelope and his cheque book from his breast pocket. “Here’s a first-class passage to New York by the boat tomorrow morning from Liverpool.” He tapped his cheque book: “And three hundred pounds if you’ll go straight off now, without saying good-bye to her.”

He paused, steadily regarding the unfortunate young man, who broke into a violent perspiration, writhed on the window-sill, thrust his hands into his hair, and uttered a curious hissing. Roger made out the words:

“It ees dishonourable. She lof me.”

“Nonsense!” he said. “However, I’ll make it four hundred, and you can cash it on the way to the station. Now be sensible. My butler’s outside. He’ll see you comfortably off at Liverpool. With four hundred pounds you can make your name. With a wife and babies you’ll starve in a kennel. Give me a pen and ink.”

The young man’s face was ‘a study,’ his hair stood up, he stammered incomprehensible words, while his eyes made desperate efforts to avoid the cheque book. Roger waited, holding it open. It was like bidding at an auction.

“I’ll throw you in another fifty to start you fair. Don’t be a fool and condemn my daughter and yourself to wretchedness. I mean what I said — not one penny will she have from me. Now be a man and save her.”

The young man clapped his hand to the breast of his pink striped shirt.

“I feel it ’ere,” he said. “I cannot go like that.”

“Save her!” repeated Roger. “Come! Where’s the ink?”

The young man pointed. Roger saw on the mantelpiece a penny bottle of ink, and suddenly his nerves twittered. It was as if he had seen the brink on which his daughter was standing.

“Five hundred!” he said, sharply.

The young man threw up his hands. “I save her!” he cried.

Roger wrote the cheque.

“Smith! Take Mr. Ratcatski to Euston and catch the next train to Liverpool. Go to a good hotel, see he has everything he wants, and put him on board the boat for New York in the morning. He is called there on important business. On the way to the station go to my bank and get this cheque cashed, and give him the notes and his ticket, when he’s on board and NOT BEFORE. He’s a foreigner, and might get imposed on.” Then, turning to the young man, who was staring dreadfully, he added: “There’s a cab waiting. Smith will put your things together.”

Francie’s foreigner remained rooted to the window-sill, his hands embedded in his hair. Suddenly he came to life, and, seizing his violin, clasped it to his pink striped chest.

“Dees is my vife,” he said.

A feeling that the young man was at the moment perfectly sincere quarrelled violently in Roger with the desire to kick him.

“That’s right!” he said.

In the doorway he heard Smith murmur: “He’ll not get away from me, Sir, if I ‘ave to ‘old ’im by the slack of his breeches. I’ll get ’im off all right.”

Roger nodded. “Mum’s the word! And if he writes any letters, collar them.”

Out in the Mews, he wiped his forehead. Hot work! Passing the cab, he stopped at the corner to watch. He didn’t trust that young beggar a yard. In a few minutes, however, he saw him coming hugging his violin and followed by Smith carrying a large bag. They got into the cab and drove off. Roger uttered a sigh of such relief that a passer stopped to look at him; his knees had suddenly given way, and but for the man’s arm he would have fallen.

“‘Allo, Sir!” said the man. “Took ill?”

Roger shook off his arm.

“No,” he said, testily.

He moved away a few steps to assert his independence, but was obliged to stand still again. After all, he was seventy-five, the day was hot, and he had been bidding for the life of his only daughter. To think that a fourpenny foreigner had cost him five hundred odd pounds! Yes, and he’d only got him by pure bluff. HE knew — if that young beggar didn’t — that no Forsyte would be capable of watching his own daughter in actual want. If the fellow had held out and refused to budge, the fat would have been in the fire. Sooner or later he would have had to make them an allowance to keep the wolf from the door. A narrow shave! A regular squeak! And seeing a hansom in the distance, he hailed it.

At home, under the strict seal of secrecy, he retailed the matter to Mrs. Roger. She listened in a turmoil of admiration and dismay. “Poor Francie!” she said, tremulously.

“Poor fiddlestick! A fourpenny foreign adventurer! she ought to thank me on her knees. But there it is, I never get thanked for anything.”

“Oh! Roger, I’m sure we’re all very grateful; but — er — poor dear Francie!”

“If you ever tell her,” said Roger, “I’ll cut you off with a shilling.”

“Of course I shan’t tell her, Roger. But why did you make me ask them to lunch next week?”

“To put her off the scent, of course! What did you think? But women never think. Here! Give me one of those powders. I’ve got a headache.”

Smith returned the following afternoon. He had seen ‘Mr. Ragcatchy’ off. The young man had seemed low-spirited but had counted the notes twice. So far as he — Smith — knew, he had written no letter. As the ship moved out, Smith from the dock below had noticed that he was like a bear on hot bricks, and had caught hold of his hair.

“Hope he pulled some out,” said Roger. “I shall raise your wages for this.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said Smith, “but it was a reel pleasure to me, I do assure you. ‘E wouldn’ never ‘ave done for Miss Francie, if I may say so, Sir.”

And Francie! What she suffered, what she suspected, what she knew, no one ever heard. She wrote to her mother after four days saying that there had been a mistake and Guido had gone away. A week later she returned to Prince’s Gate, paler, thinner, more Keltic-looking than ever. She left town for Ilfracombe on the following day. In the autumn she took another ‘lover.’ No one ever heard her allude again to her “fourpenny foreigner.” In Roger’s mind alone did he remain enshrined as the most expensive fourpennyworth ever known.

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