On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

The Dromios, 1900

When the Boer war had been in progress for some time and things were going badly, Giles and Jesse Hayman — commonly known in the Forsyte family as ‘the Dromios’— decided to enlist in the Imperial Yeomanry. Their decision, a corporate one — for they never acted apart — was made without unnecessary verbal expenditure. Giles, the elder by one year and of the stronger build, withdrew his pipe from between his teeth, turned a fox-terrier off his lap, and, pointing to the words ‘Black week’ in the Daily Mail said:

“Those beggarly Boers!”

Jesse, in an armchair on the other side of the hearth, took the fox-terrier on his lap, tapped out his pipe, and answered: “Brutes!”

There was again silence. Then Giles said:

“What price the Yeomanry? Are you on?”

Jesse put his empty pipe between his teeth and nodded. The matter had been concluded. They then remained a considerable time with their high-booted legs outstretched towards the fire, their grey thrusting eyes fixed on the flames, and no expression whatever on their lean red-brown faces.

Being almost majestically without occupations except riding, shooting and games of various kinds, they dwelt in a small timbered manor-house close to some racing stables on the Hampshire Downs. Each had five hundred a year and no parents; their mother — Susan, the married Forsyte sister — having followed Hayman to his rest at Woking in 1895. Neither of them had married or even dreamed of it, neither of them had a mistress; but periodically they went up to London.

Having thus decided to enlist, the first step was naturally to have a night out; and they took train to the Metropolis. They put up at their usual quarters — a hostelry called ‘Malcolm’s’, of a somewhat sporting character in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden; and, after dressing themselves, went to dine at the ‘Cri.’ There they ate in silence, despatching the preliminaries of a ‘night out’— oysters, devilled kidneys, a partridge, a welsh rabbit, ‘a bottle of the boy,’ and a glass of old port, with only two lapses into conversation, the first when Jesse said:

“Those Johnny birds, the Boers, are getting above themselves!”

To which Giles replied:

“You bet.”

And the second when Giles said:

“Buller’ll stay the course.”

To which Jesse replied:

“Good old Buller.”

Having finished, placed cigars in their mouths, secured their coats, and put on their Opera hats, they went out into a mild night, to walk to the ‘Pandemonium.’

In old days when they were living in the Hayman house on Campden Hill and reading for examinations which, by some curious fatality not unconnected with brains, they never passed, so that they had been compelled to remain without professions, there had been few evenings when they could not be observed leaning over the balustrade of the Promenade at that establishment. Thence had they watched the acrobats, ventriloquists, conjurers, ballad singers, comedians, and ballet dancers of the period, never manifesting approbation, but not infrequently with a sort of smile bitten in on their faces. Generally they left as much with each other as they arrived, occasionally they left without each other, but with somebody else. It was not known even to each other whether they ever spoke to those others with whom they left.

Having been out of London since the Boer war broke out they had not yet heard ‘Tommy Atkins’ sung; and when this inevitable item was reached the effect on Giles was observed by Jesse to be as noticeable as the effect on Jesse observed by Giles. After a certain resistance to words and tune due to the need for maintaining ‘form’ their heads began almost imperceptibly to move in time to the refrain, and, a line or so behind the rest of the audience, their mouths began in a muffled manner to take up the chorus. The effect on them, in fact, was distinctly emotional, which to some extent explains what happened afterwards. The song was scarcely over and a ventriloquist had taken his seat on the stage with a midshipman on his knee when Jesse’s attention was diverted by smothered voices behind him. His hearing, trained by listening in coverts for the music of hounds or the flushing of birds, was sharp, and he distinctly heard the following conversation:

“If you don’t get me ten pounds to-night it’ll be the worse for you.”

“Ten pounds? How can I?”

“Well, don’t you come home without it.”

“Oh! You are a brute!”

“All right, my girl!”

Jesse turned round. He saw, moving away, a hulking fellow of an unpleasant type, and a young woman, rouged but rather pretty, under a big hat, looking after him.

“Hear that, Giles?”

Giles nodded. “Swine!”

Having thus registered their disapproval, they re-concentrated their attention on the stage. It was during the song of a gentleman in a kilt that Jesse felt his arm pressed, and heard a voice in his ear say:

“Oh! Beg pardon! He IS funny, isn’t he?”

The same rouged young woman in the big hat was leaning over the balustrade beside him.

She was really young; her mouth was pretty if somewhat artificial, and her eyes, which were dark, looked scared.

“Are you having a night out?” she whispered.

Jesse shrugged his shoulders. Then the strains of ‘Tommy Atkins’ moving within him, he said:

“I heard what that swine said to you just now.”

The professional smile died off the young woman’s lips. She crossed her arms on her breast, and air escaped her in a long: “Oh!” Jesse edged his arm away from hers. A minute passed; then her arm pressed his again, and out of the corner of his eye, accustomed to the observation of woodcock, he could see her glancing furtively round. The ‘swine’ in question was just behind again with two male friends; he was bending on the girl such a look that Jesse said with surprising suddenness:

“Send the swine to hell!”

“What?” said Giles.

“That swine behind us. Swine who live on girls!”

“Steady, old man!” said Giles.

The man and his companions moved on, muttering.

“Oh!” said the girl under her breath: “whatever made you? I’ll never dare to go ‘ome to-night. What shall I do?”

Jesse did not answer, having no idea. An objection to scenes, rooted in his type, caused him to resume his stare at the stage, now occupied by a male dancer with brisk and glancing legs; but he was conscious of a tear slowly trickling down the girl’s cheek, making a narrow track in her rouge and powder.

“You wouldn’t take me on, I suppose?” he heard her say.

Jesse shook his head.

“Only up for the night. Going to the war.”

“Oh!” said the girl, blankly. “HE WILL wallop me.”

Jesse stared.

“D’you mean to say —”

The girl nodded violently.

“Hear that, Giles?”

Giles grunted.

The girl stealthily removed the traces of emotion.

Jesse turned, and, leaning back against the balustrade, surveyed the promenaders. Giles, with mechanical conformity, had done the same. The girl continued to stare at the stage. If she had been ‘kidding’ him — Jesse thought — she would have turned too; besides, her face had gone a queer colour.

“I believe she’s going to cat,” he murmured to Giles.

They both looked at her, but she seemed to have recovered from the impulse, and was sniffing at a bottle of salts. Deciding to move away from her, Jesse had raised his hand to his hat, when he caught sight of the ‘swine’ among a group of men, all of whom were gazing in his direction.

“See those swine?” he said.

Giles nodded.

The group, seeing the brothers staring at them, moved on. Jesse turned to the girl.

“Look here,” he said, “you go to an hotel for the night. We’ll see you there. Better come now.”

The girl, who still looked very queer, turned from the balustrade.

“Thank you very much,” she said, “but I ‘aven’t any money.”

“That’s all right,” said Jesse. “Come on!”

They crossed the promenade and went down the steps with the girl between them.

“D’you know an hotel?” said Jesse, in the Square. “They won’t take you at ours — men only.”

“There’s Robin’s Hotel, off Covent Garden.”

“All right; that’s on our way. Here’s a fiver for you. You’re looking queer.”

“I feel queer,” said the girl, simply. They walked a little in silence, and then she said:

“I couldn’t have stood being walloped to-night — I just couldn’t.”

“Swine!” said Jesse. Giles growled.

Turning into Bedford Street, the girl touched Jesse’s arm.

“Oh!” she said in a scared voice; “they’re after us!”

About fifty yards behind, five men were strolling, keeping their distance, but quite clearly following. Instinctively the Dromios increased their pace, turning into Henrietta Street.

“If they turn down here too, we’ll know,” said Giles.

“I think I’m going to faint,” said the girl.

“Bosh!” said Jesse. “If they follow, we’ll stop them at the bottom here. You can slip on to the hotel sharp. They won’t know where you are. Take her other arm, Giles.”

At the Covent Garden end, he looked back; the men were just turning into Henrietta Street. He gave the girl a shove.

“Now run for it! Don’t be a little fool! They shan’t see where you go; we’ll stop ’em here. Cut on!”

The girl caught her breath, and stammered out:

“Oh! Thank you!” Then, helped by a push from Giles, she vanished round the corner. The Dromios began walking with extreme slowness back towards the men. Giles hummed out of tune, the air of ‘Tommy Atkins.’ The five pursuers, who had been hurrying, slowed up, and came to a halt. Indeed, without going off the pavement, the two parties could not pass each other. ‘That swine’ who was the biggest of the lot, took a step forward, and raising his fist, thus addressed the Dromios.

“We want you two ——. What the —— did you mean by what you said just now? Swine indeed? Swine yourselves!”

The Dromios did not answer.

“You —— have got to learn manners, and you’re —— well going to.”

Giles turned to Jesse, “These sportsmen,” he said, “are rather a bore.”

“Give ’em socks, boys!” said the ‘swine.’

The proceedings which followed had elements so unsporting as to offend every instinct of the Dromios. From the point of view of ‘form’ the whole thing was deplorable; the only feature in good taste being the first blow, a lefthander from Giles which tapped the ‘swine’s claret.’ He was instantly thereafter involved with three of the ‘sportsmen’ and Jesse with the other two. The Dromios were expert boxers, but their opponents butted, kicked, and collared below the belt, so that the brothers were unable to assume any attitude other than those in which circumstances placed them. They were, however, lean and in hard condition, their winds were good, and they fought like tiger cats. The sight of Giles, overborne by weight, being dragged horizontally, so stimulated Jesse that, contrary to all the canons of sportsmanship, he brought his knee up against the chin of one of his opponents; springing at the other, he seized him by the throat in a manner totally unorthodox, and rammed his head against the lintel of a door, then, dashing to Giles’s rescue he so socked one of the ‘sportsmen’ behind the ear that he fell prone. The other two let go of Giles, and the two Dromios were able to place themselves in proper postures of defence. Thereon the combat ceased as instantly as it had begun, the ‘sportsmen’ vanished and the Dromios were left in an empty Covent Garden. Giles had a cut on his cheekbone, a broken knee, a rent in the tail of his overcoat; Jesse a bruised jaw. Both their ties had come untied, both their Opera hats were in the gutter. In silence they retied their ties, pinned up the rent, brushed each other, recovered their hats, and walked on towards their hotel.

Going up to their bedrooms, they washed, plastered Giles’s cheek, bound a handkerchief round his knee, put on smoking jackets, and went down to the billiard-room. There in a corner they sat down, ordered themselves whiskies and sodas, and lit their pipes.

“Those sportsmen!” said Giles. “They got what for, all right!” said Jesse. Both grinned, and for a long time, in silence, gazed before them with the same hungry expression in their thrusting grey eyes.

“Hang that Judy!” said Jesse suddenly. Giles nodded. Soon after, they retired to bed, and completed their night out.

The next day they enlisted, and a month later ‘went out’ on horses.

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