On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Sands of Time, 1821-1863

In the Spring of 1860, on the afternoon of the last day before his son went to Eton, old Jolyon hung up his top hat on a wooden antler in the hall at Stanhope Gate and went into the dining-room. Young Jolyon, who had hung up his top hat on a lower wooden antler, followed, and so soon as his father was seated in his large leather chair, perched himself on the arm thereof. Whether from the Egyptian mummies they had just been seeing in the British Museum, or merely because the boy’s venture to a new school, and a Public school at that, loomed heavy before them, they were both feeling old, for between the ages of fifty-four and thirteen there is not, on occasions like this, a great gulf set. And that physical juxtaposition, which, until he first went to school at the age of ten, had been constant between young Jolyon and his sire, was resumed almost unconsciously under the boy’s foreboding that tomorrow he would be a man. He leaned back until his head was tucked down on his father’s shoulder. To old Jolyon moments like this, getting rarer with the years, were precious as any that life afforded him — an immense comfort that the boy was such an affectionate chap.

“Well, Jo,” he said, “what did you think of the mummies?”

“Horrible things, Dad.”

“Um — yes. Still, if we hadn’t got ’em, somebody else would. They say they’re worth a lot of money. Queer thing, Jo, to think there are descendants of those mummies still living, perhaps. Well, you’ll be able to say you’ve seen them; I don’t suppose many other boys have. You’ll like Eton, I expect.” This he said because he was afraid his boy would not. He didn’t know much about it, but it was a great big place to send a little chap to. The pressure of the boy’s cheek against the hollow between chest and arm was increased; and he heard the treble voice, somewhat muffled, murmur:

“Tell me about YOUR school, Dad.”

“My school, Jo? It was no great shakes. I went to school at Epsom — used to go by coach up to London all the way from Bosport, and then down by post-shay — no railways then, you know. Put in charge of the guard, great big red-faced chap with a horn. Travel all night — ten miles an hour — and change horses every hour — like clockwork.”

“Did you go outside, Dad?”

“Yes — there I was, a little shaver wedged up between the coachman and a passenger; cold work — shawls there were in those days, over your eyes. My mother used to give me a mutton pie and a flask of cherry brandy. Good sort, the old coachman, hoarse as a crow and round as a barrel; and see him drive — take a fly off the leader’s ear with his whip.”

“Were there many boys?”

“No; a small school, about thirty. But I left school at fifteen.”

“Why?”

“My mother died when your Aunt Susan was born, so we left Bosport and came up to London, and I was put to business.”

“What was your mother like, Dad?”

“My mother?” Old Jolyon was silent, tracing back in thought through crowded memories.

“I was fond of her, Jo. Eldest boy, you know; they say I took after her. Don’t know about that; she was a pretty woman, refined face. Nick Treffry would tell you she was the prettiest woman in the town — good woman, too — very good to me. I felt her death very much.”

A little more pressure of the head in the hollow of his arm. All that he felt for the boy and that, he hoped and believed, the boy felt for him, he had felt for his own mother all that time ago. Only forty-one when she had died bearing her tenth child. Tenth! In those days they made nothing of that sort of thing till the pitcher went once too often to the well. Ah! Losing her had been a bitter business.

Young Jolyon got off the arm of the chair, as if he were sensing his father’s abstraction.

“I think I’d better go and pack, Dad.”

“All right, my boy! I shall have a cigar.”

When the boy had gone — graceful little chap! — old Jolyon went to the Chinese tea chest where his cigars reposed, and took one out. He listened to it, clipped its end, lighted and placed it in his mouth. Drawing at the cigar, he took it out of his mouth again, held it away from him between two rather tapering-nailed fingers, and savoured with his nostrils the bluish smoke. Not a bad weed, but all the better for being smoked! Returning to his chair, he leaned back and crossed his legs. A long time since he’d thought of his mother. He could see her face still; yes, could just see it, the clear look up of her eyes from far back under the brows, the rather pointed chin; and he could hear her voice — pleasant, soft, refined. Which of them took after her? Ann, a bit; Hester, yes; Susan, a little; Nicholas, perhaps, except that the fellow was so sharp; he himself, they said — he didn’t know, but he’d like to think it; she had been a gentle creature. And, suddenly, it was as if her hand were passed over his forehead again, brushing his hair up as she had liked to see it. Ah! How well he could remember still, coming into his father’s house at Bosport after the long cold coach drive back from school — coming in and seeing his father standing stocky in the hallway, with his legs a little apart and his head bowed, as if somebody had just hit him over it — standing there and not even noticing him, till he said: “I’ve come, Father.”

“What! You, Jo?” His face was very red, his eyelids puffed so that his eyes were hardly visible. He had made a queer motion with both hands and jerked his head towards the stairs.

“Go up,” he had said. “Your mother’s very bad. Go up, my boy; and whatever you do, don’t cry.”

He had gone up with a sort of sinking fear in his heart. His sister Ann had met him at the door — a good-looking upstanding young woman, then; yes, and a mother to them all, afterwards — had sacrificed herself to bringing up the young ones. Ah! a good woman, Ann!

“Come in, Jo,” she had said; “Mother would like to see you. But, Jo — oh! Jo!” And he had seen two tears roll down her cheeks. The sight had impressed him terribly; Ann never cried. In the big four-poster his mother lay, white as the sheets, all but the brown ringlets of her hair — the light dim, and a strange woman — a nurse — sitting over by the window with a white bundle on her lap! He had gone up to the bed. He could see her face now — without a line in it, all smoothed out, like wax! He hadn’t made a sound, had just stood looking; but her eyes had opened, and had turned a little, without movement of the face, to gaze full at him. And then her lips had moved, and whispered: “There’s Jo, there’s my darling boy!” And never in his life before or since had he had so great a struggle to keep himself from crying out, from flinging himself down. But all he had said was: “Mother!” Her lips had moved again. “Kiss me, my boy.” And he had bent and kissed her forehead, so smooth, so cold. And then he had sunk on his knees; and stayed there gazing at her closed eyes till Ann had come and led him away. And up in the attic that he shared with James and Swithin, he had lain on his bed, face down, and sobbed and sobbed. She had died that morning, not speaking any more, so Ann had told him. After forty years he could feel again the cold and empty aching of those days, the awful silent choking when in the old churchyard they put her away from him for ever. The stone had been raised over her only the day before they left for London. He had gone and stood there reading:

IN MEMORY OF

ANN,

The Beloved Wife of

Jolyon Forsyte.

Born Feb. 1, 1780; Died April 16, 1821

A bright May day and no one in that crowded graveyard but himself.

Old Jolyon shifted in his chair; his cigar was out, his cheeks above those grizzling whiskers — indispensable to the sixties — had coloured suddenly, his eyes looked angrily from deep beneath his frowning brows, for he was suddenly in the grip of another memory — bitter, wrathful and ashamed — of only ten years back.

That was on a Spring day too, in 1851, the year after they had buried their father up at Highgate, thirty years after their mother’s death. That had put it into his mind, and he had gone down to Bosport for the first time since, travelling by train, in a Scotch cap. He had hardly known the place, so changed and spread. Having found the old parish church, he had made his way to the corner of the graveyard where she had been buried, and had stood aghast, rubbing his eyes. That corner was no longer there! The trees, the graves, all were gone. In place, a wall cut diagonally across, and beyond it ran the railway line. What in the name of God had they done with his mother’s grave? Frowning, he had searched, quartering the graveyard like a dog. At least, they had placed it somewhere else. But no — not a sign! And there had risen in him a revengeful anger shot through with a shame which heightened the passion in his blood. The Goths, the Vandals, the ruffians! His mother — her bones scattered — her name defaced — her rest annulled! A stinking railway track across her grave. What right —! Clasping the railing of a tomb his hands had trembled, and sweat had broken out on his flushed forehead. If there were any law that he could put in motion, he would put it! If there were anyone he could punish, by Heaven he would punish him! And then, that shame, so foreign to his nature, came sweeping in on him again. What had his father been about — what had they all been about that not one of them had come down in all those years to see that all was well with her! Too busy making money — like the age itself, laying that sacrilegious railway track, scattering with its progress the decency of death! And he had bowed his head down on his trembling hands. His mother! And he had not defended her, who had lain defenceless! But what had the parson been about not to give notice of what they were going to do? He raised his head again, and stared around him. Over on the far side was someone weeding paths. He moved forward and accosted him.

“How long is it since they put that railway here?”

The old chap had paused, leaning on his spud.

“Ten year and more.”

“What did they do with the graves in that corner?”

“Ah! I never did ‘old with that.”

“What did they do with them? I asked you.”

“Why — just dug ’em up.”

“And the coffins?”

“I dunno. Ax parson. They was old graves — an ‘undred years or more, mostly.”

“They were not — one was my mother’s. 1821.”

“Ah! I mind — there was a newish stone.”

“What did they do with it?”

The old chap had gazed up at him, then, as if suddenly aware of the abnormal on the path before him:

“I b’lieve they couldn’t trace the owner — ax parson, ‘e may know.”

“How long has he been here?”

“Four year come Michaelmas. Old parson’s dead, but present parson ‘e may ‘ave some informashun.”

Like some beast deprived of his kill old Jolyon stood. Dead! That ruffian dead!

“Don’t you know what they did with the coffins — with the bones?”

“Couldn’ say — buried somewhere again, I suppose — maybe the doctors got some — couldn’ say. As I tell you. Vicar ‘e may know.”

And spitting on his hands he turned again to weeding.

The Vicar? He had been no good, had known nothing, or so he had said — no one had known! Liars — yes, liars — he didn’t believe a word of what they said. They hadn’t wanted to trace the owner, for fear of having a stopper put on them! Gone, dispersed — all but the entry of the burial! Over the ground where she had lain that railway sprawled, trains roared. And he, by one of those trains, had been forced to go back to that London which had enmeshed his heart and soul so that, as it were, he had betrayed her who had borne him! But who would have thought of such a thing? Sacred ground! Was nothing proof against the tide of Progress — not even the dead committed to the earth?

He reached for a match, but his cigar tasted bitter and he pitched it away. He hadn’t told Jo, he shouldn’t tell Jo — not a thing for a boy to hear. A boy would never understand how life got hold of you when you once began to make your way. How one thing brought another till the past went out of your head, and interests multiplied in an ever-swelling tide lapping over sentiment and memory, and the green things of youth. A boy would never comprehend how Progress marched inexorably on, transforming the quiet places of the earth. And yet, perhaps the boy ought to know — might be a lesson to him. No! He shouldn’t tell him — it would hurt to let him know that one had let one’s own mother —! He took up The Times. Ah! What a difference! He could remember The Times when he first came up to London — tiny print, such as they couldn’t read nowadays. The Times — one double sheet with the Parliamentary debates, and a few advertisements of places wanted, and people wanting them. And look at it now, a great crackling flourishing affair with print twice the size!

The door creaked. What was that? Oh, yes — tea coming in! His wife was upstairs, unwell; and they had brought it to him here.

“Send some up to your mistress,” he said, “and tell Master Jo.”

Stirring his tea — his own firm’s best Soochong — he read about the health of Lord Palmerston and of how that precious mountebank of a chap — the French Emperor — was expected to visit the Queen. And then the boy came in. “Ah! Here you are, Jo! Tea’s getting strong.”

And, as the little chap drank, old Jolyon looked at him. To-morrow he was going to that great place where they turned out Prime Ministers and bishops and that, where they taught manners — at least he hoped so — and how to despise trade. H’m! Would the boy learn to despise his own father? And suddenly there welled up in old Jolyon all his primeval honesty, and that peculiar independence which made him respected among men, and a little feared.

“You asked just now about your grandmother, Jo. I didn’t tell you how, when I went down thirty years after her death, I found that her grave had been dug up to make room for a railway. There wasn’t a trace of it to be found, and nobody could or would tell me anything about it.”

The boy held his teaspoon above his cup, and gazed; how innocent and untouched he looked; then suddenly his face went pinker and he said:

“What a shame, Dad!”

“Yes; some ruffian of a parson allowed it, and never let us know. But it was my fault, Jo; I ought to have been seeing to her grave all along.”

And again the boy said nothing, eating his cake, and looking at his father. And old Jolyon thought: ‘Well, I’ve told him.’

Suddenly the boy piped up:

“That’s what they did with the mummies, Dad.”

The mummies! What mummies? Oh! Those things they had been seeing at the British Museum. And old Jolyon was silent, staring back over the sands of time. Odd! how it hadn’t occurred to him. Odd! Yet the boy had noticed it! Um! Now, what did that signify? And in old Jolyon there stirred some dim perception of mental movement between his generation and his son’s. Two and two made four. And he hadn’t seen it! Queer! But in Egypt they said it was all sand: Perhaps things came up of their own accord. And then — though there might be, as he had said, descendants living, they were not sons or grandsons. Still! The boy had seen the bearing of it and he hadn’t. He said abruptly:

“Finished your packing, Jo?”

“Yes, Dad, only do you think I could take my white mice?”

“Well, my boy, I don’t know — perhaps they’re a bit young for Eton. The place thinks a lot of itself, you know.”

“Yes, Dad.”

Old Jolyon’s heart turned over within him. Bless the little chap! What he was in for!

“Did you have white mice, Dad?”

Old Jolyon shook his head.

“No, Jo; we weren’t as civilised as all that in my young day.”

“I wonder if those mummies had them,” said young Jolyon.

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