On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Four-In-Hand Forsyte, 1890

Such historians as record the tides of social manners and morals, have neglected the bicycle. Yet would it be difficult to deny that this ‘invention of the devil,’ as Swithin Forsyte always called it because ‘a penny-farthing’ had startled his greys at Brighton in 1874 — has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second. At its bone-shaking inception innocent, because of its extraordinary discomfort, in its ‘penny-farthing’ stage harmless, because only dangerous to the lives and limbs of the male sex, it began to be a dissolvent of the most powerful type when accessible to the fair in its present form. Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperons, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have bloomed week-ends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation — in four words, the emancipation of woman. But to Swithin, and possibly for that reason, it remained what it had been in the beginning, an invention of the devil. For, apart from that upset to his greys, having lived his first sixteen years with ‘Prinny’ in the offing, and formed himself under Lord Melbourne, the Cider Cellars and the Pavilion at Brighton, he remained to the end in taste and deportment a Buck of the Regency, unable to divest himself of a love for waistcoats and jewellery, or the conviction that women were perquisites to whom elegance and — ah — charm were of the first necessity.

These are the considerations which must be borne in mind when we come to the recital of an episode current on Forsyte ‘Change in the year 1890.

Swithin had spent the early months at Brighton and was undoubtedly feeling his liver by April. The last three years had tried him severely and for some time past he had parted with his phaeton, confining his carriage exercise to a double brougham, in which, drawn by his greys, he passed every afternoon up and down the front from the end of Hove to the beginning of Kemptown. What he thought of during these excursions has never been disclosed. Possibly of nothing. And why not? For so entirely lonely an old man, provocation towards thought was conspicuous by its absence; and though there was always himself to think about, a man cannot for ever be bothered by that. The return to his hotel would be achieved by four o’clock. He would be assisted to alight by his valet, and would walk into the hotel unaided, Alphonse following with the specially strong air-cushion on which he always sat, and his knee rug of a Highland plaid. In the hall Swithin would stand for perhaps a minute, settling his chin more firmly, rounding his heavy eyelids more carefully over his gouty eyes. He would then hold out his gold-headed malacca cane to be taken from him, and slightly spread his hands, gloved in bright wash-leather, to indicate that his coat, blue, lined with squirrel and collared with astrakhan, should be removed. This having been done and his gloves and black felt hat with somewhat square top taken off, he would touch the tuft on his lower lip, as if to assure himself that its distinction was still with him.

At this hour he was used to take a certain seat in a certain draughtless corner and smoke half a cigar before ascending in the lift to the sitting-room of his suite. He sat there so motionless and was known to be so deaf, that no one spoke to him; but it seemed to him that in this way he saw more life and maintained the out-lived reputation of ‘Four-inHand’ Forsyte. Wedged forward by cushions, as though still in his brougham, with his thick legs slightly apart, he would apply the cigar to his ear; having heard it carefully in its defence, he would hold it a minute between puffy thumb and puffier forefinger of that yellowish-white which betokens the gouty subject, then place it in his mouth and wait for it to be lighted. With chest pouted, under a black satin stock and diamond pin, so that he appeared to be of one thickness from neck down, he would sit, contemplating that which was not yet called the Lounge from under drooped puffy lids, as might some Buddha from the corner of a temple. His square old face, perfectly pale, of one long withdrawn from privilege of open air, would be held so still that people would glance at it as they might have at a clock. The little white moustaches and tuft on the lower lip, the tufts above the eyes, and hair still stylish on the forehead, accentuated perhaps its resemblance to a dial. Once in a way, someone whose father or uncle had known him in old days would halt in passing, as though about to set his watch by him, and say: “How d’you do, Mr. Forsyte?” Then would an expression as of a cat purring spread on Swithin’s face, and he would murmur in a voice fat and distinguished: “Ah! How de do? Haven’t seen your father lately.” And as the father was almost always dead, this would end the conversation. But Swithin would sit the squarer because he had been spoken to.

When his cigar was about half smoked a change would come. The hand holding it would loll over the arm of the chair, trembling a little. The chin would slip slowly down between the wide apart points of the stiff white collar; the puffy rounding of the eyelids would become complete; a slight twitching would possess the lips, a faint steady puffing take its place — Swithin would be asleep. And those who passed would look at him with cold amusement, a kind of impatience, possibly a touch of compassion, for, on these occasions, as if mindful of past glories, Swithin did not snore. And then, of course, would come the moment of awakening. The chin would jerk up, the lips part, all breath would seem to be expelled from him in a long sigh; the eyes coming ungummed would emit a glassy stare; the tongue would move over the roof of the mouth and the lips; and an expression as of a cross baby would appear on the old face. Pettishly he would raise the half-smoked cigar, look at it as if it owed him something which it was not going to pay, and let it slip between finger and thumb into a spittoon. Then he would sit the same, yet not the same, waiting for some servant to come near enough for him to say: “Hi! Tell my valet to come, will you?” and when Alphonse appeared: “Oh! There you are! I nodded off. I’ll go up now.”

Assisted from the chair, he would stand fully a minute feeling giddy, then square but bearing heavily on the cane and one leg, would move towards the lift, followed by Alphonse and the special cushions. And someone perhaps would mutter as he passed: “There goes old Forsyte. Funny old boy, isn’t he?”

But such was not the order of events on that particular April afternoon reported on Forsyte ‘Change. For when, divested of hat and overcoat, he was about to walk to his accustomed corner, he was observed to raise his cane with the words: “Here! There’s a lady sitting in my chair!”

A figure, indeed, in rather a short skirt, occupied that sacred spot.

“I’ll go up!” said Swithin, pettishly. But as he moved, she rose and came towards him.

“God bless me!” said Swithin, for he had recognised his niece Euphemia.

Now the youngest child of his brother Nicholas was in some respects Swithin’s pet aversion. She was, in his view, too thin, and always saying the wrong thing; besides, she squeaked. He had not seen her since, to his discomfort, he had sat next her at the concert of Francie’s fourpenny foreigner.

“How are you, Uncle? I thought I MUST look you up while I was down.”

“I’ve got gout,” said Swithin. “How’s your father?”

“Oh! just as usual. He says he’s bad, but he isn’t.” And she squeaked slightly.

Swithin fixed her with his stare. Upset already by her occupation of his chair, he was on the point of saying: ‘Your father’s worth twenty of you,’ but, remembering in time the exigencies of deportment, he murmured more gallantly: “Where have you sprung from?”

“My bicycle.”

“What!” said Swithin. “You ride one of those things!”

Again Euphemia squeaked.

“Oh! Uncle! One of those things!”

“Well,” said Swithin, “what else are they — invention of the devil. Have some tea?”

“Thank you, Uncle, but you must be tired after your drive.”

“Tired! Why should I be tired? Waiter! Bring some tea over there — to my chair.”

Having thus conveyed to her the faux fas she had committed by sitting in his chair, he motioned her towards it and followed.

On reaching the chair there was an ominous moment.

“Sit down,” said Swithin.

For a moment Euphemia hovered on its edge, then with a slight squeak said: “But it’s your chair, Uncle.”

“Alphonse,” said Swithin, “bring another.”

When the other chair had been brought, the cushions placed for Swithin in his own, and they were seated, Euphemia said:

“Didn’t you know that women were beginning to ride bicycles, Uncle?”

The hairs on Swithin’s underlip stood out.

“Women,” he said. “You may well say women. Fancy a lady riding a thing like that!”

Euphemia squeaked more notably.

“But, Uncle, why LIKE THAT?”

“With a leg on each side, disturbing the traffic,” and glancing at Euphemia’s skirt, he added: “Showing their legs.”

Euphemia gave way to silent laughter.

“Oh! Uncle,” she said, at last, in a strangled voice, “you’ll kill me!”

But at this moment came tea.

“Help yourself,” said Swithin, shortly; “I don’t drink it.” And, taking from the waiter a light for his cigar, he sat staring with pale eyes at his niece. Not till after her second cup did she break that silence.

“Uncle Swithin, do tell me why they called you ‘Four-inHand Forsyte,’ I’ve always wanted to know.”

Swithin’s stare grew rounder.

“Why shouldn’t they?”

“‘Four-inhand’; but you never drove more than a pair, did you?”

Swithin preened his neck. “Certainly not! It was just a compliment to my — er — style.”

“Style!” repeated Euphemia. “Oh, Uncle!” and she grew so crimson that he thought she had swallowed a crumb.

Then slowly but surely it dawned on him that he was the cause of her emotion. Into his cheeks a faint pink crept; something moved in his throat, something that might choke him if he were not careful. He did not stir.

Euphemia rose.

“I MUST be going, Uncle. I HAVE enjoyed seeing you, you’re looking so well. Don’t get up, please, and thank you ever so for the tea.” She bent above him, pecked at his forehead, and showing her legs, walked towards the door. Her face was still very red and as she went, Swithin seemed to hear her squeak.

He stayed unmoving for a second, then struggled to get up. He had no stick to help him, no time to give to the process, and he struggled. He got on his feet, stood a moment to recover, and then, without his cane, walked, he knew not how, to the window of the hall that looked out on to the parade. There she was — that niece of his, that squeaker, mounting her bicycle, moving it, mounting it, riding it away. Into the traffic she went, pedalling, showing her ankles; not an ounce of grace, of elegance, of anything! There she went! And Swithin stood, drumming a puffy forefinger against the pane, as if denouncing what he saw. Style! Style! She — she had been laughing at him. Not a doubt of it! If he HAD only driven a pair, it had been the finest in the kingdom! He stood with that distressing pink still staining the pallor of his cheeks — ruffled to the bottom of his soul. Was he conscious of the full sting in his niece’s laughter? Conscious of how the soubriquet ‘Four-inhand Forsyte’ epitomised the feeling Society had ever held of him; the feeling that with his craving for distinction he had puffed himself out into the double of what he really was? Was he conscious of that grievous sneer? Only, perhaps, subconscious, but it was enough; a crabbed wrath possessed him to the soles of the patent leather boots still worn, in public, on his painful feet. So she rode one of ‘those things,’ and laughed at him, did she? He would show her. He left the window and went to the writing table. And there, his eyes round and yellow, his hand trembling, he took paper and began to write. In a shaky travesty of what had once been almost copperplate, he traced these lines:

“This is a codicil to the last Will of me Swithin Forsyte. To mark my disapproval of the manners and habits of my niece Euphemia, the daughter of my brother Nicholas Forsyte and Elizabeth his wife, I hereby revoke the bequest of the share of my property left to her in my said Will. I leave her nothing whatever.”

He paused and read it through. That would teach her! Faithful to the ladies, the half of his property he had left to his three sisters in equal shares; the other half to his eight nieces in equal shares. Well, there would only be seven now! And he sounded the bell.

“Boy, fetch my valet and tell the hall porter to come here.”

When they arrived he was adding the words: “Signed in the presence of —”

“Here!” he said. “This is a codicil to my Will. I want you to witness it. Write your names and occupations here.”

When they had done so, and he had blotted the whole, he addressed an envelope, wrote:

“DEAR JAMES

“This is a codicil. Put it with my Will, and let me know you’ve had it.

“Your affectionate brother,

“SWITHIN FORSYTE.”

and sealed the envelope with the ‘pheasant proper’ obtained from the College of Arms in 1850 at some expense.

“Take that,” he said to Alphonse, “and post it. Here, help me back to my chair.”

When he was settled in again, and Alphonse had gone, his eyes roved restlessly.

Style! His old cronies — all gone! No one came in here now who had known him in the palmy days of style! Days when there was elegance. Bicycles, forsooth! Well, that young lady had had an expensive ride, an expensive laugh. Cost her a matter of six or seven thousand pounds. They laughed best who laughed last! And with the feeling that he had struck a blow for elegance, for manners, for — for style, Swithin regained his pallor, his eyes grew less yellow, his eyelids rounder over them, and the expression in those eyes became almost wistful. This damned East wind — if he didn’t take care he’d have no appetite for dinner.

Four-inhand Forsyte! Why not — why not? He could have driven four-inhand if he’d liked, any day. Four-inha —! His chin dropped slightly. Four-in-! His eyes closed; his lips puffed; he slept, his hand still resting on his cane.

Into the hall strolled two young men on a week-end from town. Hatted, high-collared, with their canes swinging, they passed not far from Swithin’s chair.

“Look at that old buck,” said one in a low voice. And they halted, staring at him sideways.

“Hallo! It’s old Uncle Swithin, Giles.”

“By George! So it is. I say, Jesse, look at his rings, and his pin, and the shine on his hair and his boots. Fancy the old josser keeping it up like that!”

“By Jove! Hope I’LL never be old. Come on Giles!”

“Stout old boy!”

And ‘the Dromios,’ as they were called, swung on, their lean hungry faces bravely held above their collars.

But the old pale lips of Swithin, between the little white moustaches and the little white tuft, puffed and filled, puffed and filled. He had not heard.

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