On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

A Forsyte Encounters the People, 1917

In October 1917, when the air raids on London were acutely monotonous, there was a marked tendency on the part of Eustace Forsyte to take Turkish baths. The most fastidious of his family, who had carried imperturbability of demeanour to the pitch of defiance, he had perceived in the Turkish bath a gesture, as of a finger to a nose, in the face of a boring peril. As soon then as the maroons of alarm went off, he would issue from his rooms or Club and head straight for Northumberland Avenue. With his springy and slightly arched walk, as of a man spurning a pavement, he would move deliberately among the hurrying throng; and, undressing without haste, would lay his form, remarkably trim and slim for a man well over fifty, on a couch in the hottest room at about the moment when less self-contained citizens were merely sweating in their shoes. Confirmed in the tastes of a widower of somewhat self-centred character, he gave but few damns to what happened to anything — he it was who used to set his study on fire at school in order to practise being cool in moments of danger, and at college, on being dared, had jumped through a first-floor window and been picked up sensible. On his back, with his pale clean-shaven face composed to a slight superciliousness and his dark grey eyes, below the banding towel, fixed on those golden stars that tick the domed ceilings of any room with aspirations to be oriental, he would think of Maidenhead, or of Chelsea china, and now and then glance at his skin to see if it was glistening. Not a good mixer, as the saying was, he seldom spoke to his bathing fellows, and they mostly fat. Thus would he pass the hours of menace, and when the ‘all clear’ had sounded, return to his club or to his rooms with the slight smile of one who has perspired well. There he would partake of a repast feeling that he had cheated the Boche.

On a certain occasion, however, towards the end of that invasive period, events did not run true to type. The alarm had sounded, and Eustace had pursued his usual course, but the raid had not matured. Cool and hungry, he emerged from the Baths about eight o’clock and set his face towards the Strand. He had arrived opposite Charing Cross when a number of explosions attracted his attention; people began to run past him and a special constable cried loudly: “Take cover, take cover!” Eustace frowned. A second Turkish bath was out of the question, and he stood still wondering what he should do, the only person in the street not in somewhat violent motion. Before he could make up his mind whether to walk back to his club or on to the restaurant where he had meant to dine, a large and burly ‘special’ had seized him by the shoulders and pushed him into the entrance of the Tube Station.

“Take cover, can’t you!” he said, rudely.

Eustace freed his sleeve. “I don’t wish to.”

“Then you — well will,” replied the ‘special.’

Perceiving that he could only proceed over the considerable body of this intrusive being, Eustace shrugged his shoulders and endeavoured to stand still again, but an inflowing tide of his fellow-beings forced him down the slope into the hallway and on towards the stairs. Here he made a resolute effort to squeeze his way back towards the air. It was totally unavailing, and he was swept on till he was standing about halfway down the stairs among a solid mass of men, women and children of types that seemed to him in no way attractive. He had frequently noticed that mankind in the bulk is unpleasing to the eye, the ear, and the nose; but this deduction had, as it were, been formed by his brain. It was now reinforced by his senses in a manner, to one purified by a Turkish bath, intensely vivid and unpleasing. The air in this rat-run, normally distasteful to Eustace, who never took the Tube, was rapidly becoming fetid, and he at once decided that he would rather brave all the shrapnel of all the anti-aircraft guns defending him than stay where he was. Unfortunately the decision was rendered nugatory by the close pressure of a stout woman with splotches on her face, who kept saying: “We’re all right in ’ere, ‘Enry”; by ‘Enry, a white-faced mechanician with a rat-gnawed moustache; by their spindle-legged child, who muttered at intervals: “I’ll kill that Kaiser”; and by two Jewish-looking youths, on whom Eustace had at once passed the verdict ‘better dead’! His back, moreover, was wedged partly against the front of a young woman smelling of stale powder who panted in one of his ears, and partly against the bow window of her partner, who, judging from the breeze that came from him, was a whisky-taster. On the slopes to right and left, and further to the front were dozens and dozens of other beings, none of whom had for Eustace any fascination. It was as if Fate had designed at one stroke to remove every vestige of the hedge which had hitherto divided him from ‘the general.’

Placing his handkerchief, well tinctured by eau-de-Cologne, to his nose, he tried to calculate: It would probably be a couple of hours before the ‘all clear’ sounded. Could he not squeeze his way very gradually to the entrance? His neighbours seemed to think that by being where they were they had ‘struck it lucky’ and scored off the by-our-lady Huns. Since they evidently had no intention of departing, it seemed to Eustace that they would prefer his room to his company. He was startled, therefore, when his attempt to escape was greeted by growling admonitions not to ‘go shovin’,’ ‘to keep still, couldn’t he,’ and other displeased comments. It was his first lesson in mob psychology: what was good enough for them was good enough for him. If he persisted, he would be considered a traitor to the body politic, and would meet with strenuous resistance! So he abandoned his design and endeavoured to make himself slimmer, that the bodies round him might be in contact with his shell rather than with his essence. Behind his fast evaporating eau-de-Cologne he developed a kind of preservative disdain of people who clearly preferred this stinking ant-heap to the shrapnel and bombs of the open. Had they no sense of smell; were they totally indifferent to heat, had they no pride that they let the Huns inflict on them this exquisite discomfort? Did none of them feel, with him, that the only becoming way to treat danger was to look down your nose at it?

On the contrary, all these people seemed to think that by taking refuge in the bowels of the earth they had triumphed over the enemy. Their mental pictures of being blown into little bits, or stunned by the shrapnel, must be more vivid than anything he could conjure up. And Eustace had a stab of vision. Good form discouraged the imagination till it had lost the power of painting. Like the French aristocrats who went unruffled to the guillotine, he felt that he would rather be blown up, or shot down, than share this ‘rat-run’ triumph of his neighbours. The more he looked at them, the more his nose twitched. Even the cheeriness with which they were accepting their rancid situation annoyed him. The sentiment of the spindly child: “I’ll kill that Kaiser,” awakened in him, for the first time since the war began, a fellow-feeling for the German Emperor; the simplification of responsibility adopted by his countrymen stood out so grotesquely in the saying of this cockney infant.

“He ought to be ‘ung,” said a voice to his right.

“My! Ain’t it hot here!” said a voice to his left. “I shall faint if it goes on much longer.”

‘It’ll stop her panting,’ thought Eustace, rubbing his ear.

“Am I standing on your foot, Sir?” asked the stout and splotchy woman.

“Thanks, not particularly.”

“Shift a bit, ‘Enry.”

“Shift a bit?” repeated the white-faced mechanician cheerfully: “That’s good, ain’t it? There’s not too much room, is there, Sir?”

The word ‘Sir’ thus repeated, or perhaps the first stirrings of a common humanity, moved Eustace to reply:

“The black hole of Calcutta’s not in it.”

“I’ll kill that Kaiser.”

“She don’t like these air-raids, and that’s a fact,” said the stout woman: “Do yer, Milly? But don’t you worry, dearie, we’re all right down ’ere.”

“Oh! You think so?” said Eustace.

“Ow! Yes! Everyone says the Tubes are safe.”

“What a comfort!”

As if with each opening of his lips some gas of rancour had escaped, Eustace felt almost well disposed to the little family which oppressed his front.

“Wish I ‘ad my girl ’ere,” said one of the Jewish youths, suddenly; “this is your cuddlin’ done for you, this is.”

“Strike me!” said the other.

‘Better dead!’ thought Eustace, even more emphatically.

“‘Ow long d’you give it, Sir?” said the mechanician, turning his white face a little.

“Another hour and a half, I suppose.”

“I’ll kill that Kaiser.”

“Stow it, Milly, you’ve said that before. One can ‘ave too much of a good thing, can’t one, Sir?”

“I was beginning to think so,” murmured Eustace.

“Well, she’s young to be knocked about like this. It gets on their nerves, ye know. I’ll be glad to get ‘er and the missis ‘ome, and that’s a fact.”

Something in the paper whiteness of his face, something in the tone of his hollow-chested voice, and the simple altruism of his remark, affected Eustace. He smelled of sweat and sawdust, but he was jolly decent!

And time went by, the heat and odour thickening; there was almost silence now. A voice said: “They’re a —— long time abaht it!” and was greeted with a sighing clamour of acquiescence. All that crowded mass of beings had become preoccupied with the shifting of their limbs, the straining of their lungs towards any faint draught of air. Eustace had given up all speculation, his mind was concentrated blankly on the words: ‘Stand straight — stand straight!’ The spindly child, discouraged by the fleeting nature of success, had fallen into a sort of coma against his knee; he wondered whether she had ringworm; he wondered why everybody didn’t faint. The white-faced mechanician had encircled his wife’s waist. His face, ghostly patient, was the one thing Eustace noticed from time to time; it emerged as if supported by no body. Suddenly with a whispering sigh the young woman, behind, fell against his shoulder, and by a sort of miracle found space to crumple down. The mechanician’s white face came round:

“Poor lidy, she’s gone off!”

“Ah!” boomed the whisky-taster, “and no wonder, with this ‘eat.” He waggled his bowler hat above her head.

“Shove ‘er ‘ead between her knees,” said the mechanician.

Eustace pushed the head downwards, the whisky-taster applied a bunch of keys to her back. She came to with a loud sigh.

“Better for her dahn there,” said the mechanician, “the ‘ot air rises.”

And again time went on, with a ground bass of oaths and cheerios. Then the lights went out to a sound as if souls in an underworld had expressed their feelings. Eustace felt a shuddering upheaval pass through the huddled mass. A Cockney voice cried: “Are we dahn-‘earted?” And the movement subsided in a sort of dreadful calm.

Down below a woman shrieked; another and another took it up.

“‘Igh-strikes,” muttered the mechanician; “cover ‘er ears, Polly.” The child against Eustace’s knee had begun to whimper. “Milly, where was Moses when the light went out?”

Eustace greeted the sublime fatuity with a wry and wasted smile. He could feel the Jewish youths trying to elbow themselves out. “Stand still,” he said, sharply.

“That’s right, Sir,” said the mechanician; “no good makin’ ‘eavy weather of it.”

“Sing, you blighters — sing!” cried a voice: “‘When the fields were white wiv disies.’” And all around they howled a song which Eustace did not know; and then, abruptly as it had gone out, the light went up again. The song died in a prolonged “Aoh!” Eustace gazed around him. Tears were running down the splotchy woman’s cheeks. A smile of relief was twitching at the mechanician’s mouth. “The all clear’s gone! The all clear’s gone! . . . ‘Ip, ‘ip, ‘ooraay!” The cheering swelled past Eustace, and a swinging movement half lifted him from his feet.

“Catch hold of the child,” he said to the mechanician, “I’ve got her other hand.” Step by step they lifted her, under incredible pressure, with maddening slowness, into the hall. Eustace took a great breath, expanding his lungs while the crowd debouched into the street like an exploding shell. The white-faced mechanician had begun to cough, in a strangled manner alarming to hear. He stopped at last and said:

“That’s cleared the pipes. I’m greatly obliged to you, Sir; I dunno’ ow we’d ‘a got Milly up. She looks queer, that child.”

The child’s face, indeed, was whiter than her father’s, and her eyes were vacant.

“Do you live far?”

“Nao, just rahnd the corner, Sir.”

“Come on, then.”

They swung the child, whose legs continued to move mechanically, into the open. The street was buzzing with people emerging from shelter and making their way home. Eustace saw a clock’s face. Ten o’clock!

‘Damn these people,’ he thought. ‘The restaurants will be closed.’

The splotchy woman spoke as if answering his thought.

“We oughtn’t to keep the gentleman, ‘Enry, ‘e must be properly tired. I can ketch ‘old of Milly. Don’t you bother with us, Sir, and thank you kindly.”

“Not a bit,” said Eustace: “it’s nothing.”

“‘Ere we are, Sir,” said the mechanician, stopping at the side door of some business premises; “we live in the basement. If it’s not presuming, would you take a cup o’ tea with us?” And at this moment the child’s legs ceased to function altogether.

“‘Ere, Milly, ‘old up, dearie, we’re just ‘ome.”

But the child’s head sagged.

“She’s gone off — paw little thing!”

“Lift her!” said Eustace.

“Open the door, Mother, the key’s in my pocket; you go on and light the gas.”

They supported the spindly child, who now seemed to weigh a ton, down stone stairs into a basement, and laid her on a small bed in a room where all three evidently slept. The mechanician pressed her head down towards her feet.

“She’s comin’ to. Why, Milly, you’re in your bed, see! And now you’ll ‘ave a nice ‘ot cup o’ tea! There!”

“I’ll kill that Kaiser,” murmured the spindly child, her china-blue eyes fixed wonderingly on Eustace, her face waxy in the gaslight.

“Stir yer stumps, Mother, and get this gentleman a cup. A cup’ll do you good, Sir, you must be famished. Will you come in the kitchen and have a smoke, while she’s gettin’ it?”

A strange fellow-feeling pattered within Eustace looking at that white-faced altruist. He stretched out his cigarette case, shining, curved, and filled with gold-tipped cigarettes. The mechanician took one, held it for a second politely as who should imply: ‘Hardly my smoke, but since you are so kind.’

“Thank’ee, Sir. A smoke’ll do us both a bit o’ good, after that Tube. It was close in there.”

Eustace greeted the miracle of understatement with a smile.

“Not exactly fresh.”

“I’d ‘a come and ‘ad the raid comfortable at ‘ome, but the child was scared and the Tube just opposite. Well, it’s all in the day’s work, I suppose; but it comes ‘ard on children and elderly people, to say nothing of the women. ‘Ope you’re feelin’ better, Sir. You looked very white when you come out.”

“Thanks,” said Eustace, thinking: ‘Not so white as you, my friend!’

“The tea won’t be a minute. We got the gas ’ere, it boils a kettle a treat. You sit down, old girl, I’ll get it for yer.”

Eustace went to the window. The kitchen was hermetically sealed.

“Do you mind if I open the window,” he said, “I’m still half suffocated from that Tube.”

On the window-sill, in company with potted geraniums, he breathed the dark damp air of a London basement, and his eyes roved listlessly over walls decorated with coloured cuts from Christmas supplements, and china ornaments perched wherever was a spare flat inch. These presents from seaside municipalities aroused in him a sort of fearful sympathy.

“I see you collect china,” he said, at last.

“Ah! The missis likes a bit of china,” said the mechanician, turning his white face illumined by the gas ring; “reminds ‘er of ‘olidays. It’s a cheerful thing, I think meself, though it takes a bit o’ dustin’.”

“You’re right there,” said Eustace, his soul fluttering suddenly with a feather brush above his own precious Ming. Ming and the present from Margate! The mechanician was stirring the teapot.

“Weak for me, if you don’t mind,” said Eustace, hastily.

The mechanician poured into three cups, one of which he brought to Eustace with a jug of milk and a basin of damp white sugar. The tea looked thick and dark and Indian, and Eustace, who partook habitually of thin pale China tea flavoured with lemon, received the cup solemnly. It was better than he hoped, however, and he drank it gratefully.

“She’s drunk her tea a treat,” said the splotchy woman, returning from the bedroom.

“‘Ere’s yours, Mother.”

“‘Aven’t you ‘ad a cup yerself, ‘Enry?”

“Just goin’ to,” said the white-faced mechanician, pouring into a fourth cup and pausing to add: “Will you ‘ave another, Sir? There’s plenty in the pot.”

Eustace shook his head: “No, thanks very much. I must be getting on directly.” But he continued to sit on the window-sill, as a man on a mountain lingers in the whiffling wind before beginning his descent to earth. The mechanician was drinking his tea at last. “Sure you won’t ‘ave another cup, Sir?” and he poured again into his wife’s cup and his own. The two seemed to expand visibly as the dark liquid passed into them.

“I always say there’s nothin’ like tea,” said the woman.

“That’s right; we could ‘a done with a cup dahn there, couldn’t we, Sir?”

Eustace stood up.

“I hope your little girl will be all right,” he said: “and thank you very much for the tea. Here’s my card. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”

The mechanician took the card, looking up at Eustace rather like a dog.

“I’m sure it’s been a pleasure to us, and it’s you we got to thank, Sir. I shall remember what you did for the child.”

Eustace shook his head: “No, really. Good-night, Mrs. — er —”

“Thompson, the nyme is, Sir.”

He shook her hand, subduing the slight shudder which her face still imposed on him.

“Good-night, Mr. Thompson.”

The hand of the white-faced mechanician, polished on his trousers, grasped Eustace’s hand with astonishing force.

“Good-night, Sir.”

“I hope we shall meet again,” said Eustace.

Out in the open it was a starry night, and he paused for a minute in the hooded street with his eyes fixed on those specks of far-off silver, so remarkably unlike the golden asterisks which decorated the firmament of his Turkish bath. And there came to him, so standing, a singular sensation almost as if he had enjoyed his evening, as a man will enjoy that which he has never seen before and wonders if he will ever see again.

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