On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Timothy’s Narrow Squeak, 1851

In 1920 Soames Forsyte on the death of his uncle Timothy, proved that will which but for the law against accumulations would in course of time have produced such astounding results. He had been at pains to explain to Timothy how, owing to that law, what Timothy intended would not come about; but Timothy had merely stared at him very hard and said: “Rubbage! Make it so!” And Soames had made it. In any case the legal limit of accumulation would be reached, and that was as near to what the old chap wanted as could be. When, as executor, he came to the examination of the papers left behind by Timothy, he had fresh confirmation of his uncle’s lifelong passion for safety. Practically nothing had been destroyed. Seventy years and more of receipted bills, and cheque books with the paid-out cheque forms carefully returned to them in order of date, were found, and — since Timothy had been spoon-fed and incapable of paying a bill since before the War — burned out of hand. There was a mass of papers referring to the publishing business, which he had abandoned for Consols in 1879, and which had died, very fortunately for Soames, a natural death not long after. All these were committed to the fire. But then — a far more serious matter — there were whole drawers full of private letters and odds and ends not only Timothy’s, but of the three sisters who had made house with him since their father’s death in 1850. And with that conscientiousness, which ever distinguished him in an unconscientious world, Soames had decided to go through them first and destroy them afterwards. It was no mean task. He sneezed his way through it doggedly, reading the spidery calligraphy of the Victorian era, in bundle after dirty bundle of yellowed letters; cheered slightly now and then, among the mass of sententious gossip, by little streaks of side light on this member of his family or on that. The fifteenth evening of his perusal, for he had had the lot conveyed by motor lorry down to Mapledurham, he came on the letter which forms the starting point of this narration. It was enclosed in a yellowed envelope bearing the address, “Miss Hatty Beecher;” was in Timothy’s handwriting; bore the date, “May the twenty-seventh 1851,” and had obviously never been posted. Hatty Beecher! Why that had been the maiden name of Hatty Chessman, the lively, elderly, somewhat raddled widow and friend of the family in his youth. He remembered her death in the Spring of 1899. She had left his Aunts Juley and Hester five hundred pounds apiece. Soames began to read the letter with an ashamed curiosity, though it was nearly seventy years old and everybody dead; he continued to read it with a sort of emotion, as of one coming on blood in the tissue of a mummy.

“MY DEAR HATTY,” (it began),

“I hope it will not surprise you to receive from me,” (‘obviously she never did,’ thought Soames), “this missive which has caused me much anxiety, for I am not one of those lighthearted gentry who take the gravest steps in life without due consideration. Only the conviction that my best interests, indeed my happiness, and, I trust, your happiness, are involved, have caused me to write this letter. I have not, I hope, obtruded my attentions upon you, but you will not I equally hope have failed to notice that the charms of your person and your character have made a great impression upon me and that I seek your company with an ever growing ardour. I cannot, then, think that it will be in the nature of a shock to you when, with all the gravity born of long consideration and many heart searchings, I ask for the honour of your hand. If I am so fortunate as to meet with your approval as a suitor, it will be my earnest endeavour to provide for you a happy and prosperous home, to surround you with every attention, and to make you a good husband. As you know, I think, I am thirty-one years old, and my business is increasing, I am indeed slowly, I am happy to say, becoming a warm man; so that in material matters you will have all the comfort and indeed luxury with which I feel you should be surrounded. In the words of, I think, the Marquis of Montrose:

‘He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win or lose it all.’

“As I say, I have not taken this step lightly, and if, my dear Hatty, it pleases you to crown my aspirations with success, I think you may rely on me to make you happy. I shall be on tenterhooks until I have your reply which I hope will not be delayed beyond the morrow. I express to you my devoted admiration and am, my dear Hatty,

“Your faithful and attached Suitor,

“TIMOTHY FORSYTE.”

With a faint grin Soames dropped the yellowed letter — six years older than himself — on his knee, and sat brooding. Poor old Timothy! And he had never sent it. Why not? Never ‘put it to the touch’ after all. If he remembered Hatty Chessman the old boy had been well out of it. Bit of a dasher Hatty Chessman in her time, from all that he had heard!

Still! There was the letter! Irrefutable evidence that Timothy had been human once upon a time. 1851? — the year of the Great Exhibition! Yes, they had been in the Bayswater Road by then, Timothy and the girls, Ann, Juley, Hester! Fancy a thing like that letter coming out of the blue at this time of day! What had Hatty done that he didn’t send the letter? Or what had Timothy done? Eaten something that disagreed with him — he shouldn’t wonder, had a scare of some sort. The envelope had just Hatty’s name but no address; was she then staying with them at the time or what — she had been a great friend, he knew, of Juley and of Hester! He put the letter back into its yellowed envelope with Timothy’s cypher in an oval medallion on the flap, dropped it into a tray, and went on with his task of conning over his Uncle’s remains.

Hallo! What were these?

Three thin red notebooks held together by a bit of dingy rainbow-coloured ribbon tied in a bow. Whose writing? Aunt Ann’s undoubtedly, more upright, more distinct than any other in the family. A diary, by George, and pretty old! Yes, begun when they went to ‘the Nook,’ “November 1850,” and going on to “1855,” the year that old Aunt Juley married Septimus Small. It would be old-fashioned twaddle! But suddenly Soames’ eye lighted again on the yellowed letter in the tray and taking up the second volume of the diary he turned its pages till he came to April 1851.

“April 3. We are all agog about the Great Exhibition that is to be opened in Hyde Park. James says he doesn’t know, but he thinks it will be a failure. They are making a great to-do and the Park does not look itself at all. It has quite upset dear Timothy. He is afraid that it will attract many rogues and foreigners and that our house will be burgled. He has become very distrait and never talks to us about his business, but we think from what James said on Sunday that he must be in doubt whether or not to publish a new edition of the rhymes of Dr. Watts. They are very improving, but James says that Timothy does not know whether anyone will want to read them at this time of day.” ‘H’m!’ thought Soames: ‘“How doth the little busy bee!”’ If Timothy had really baulked at republishing that dreadful stuff, he must have regretted it all his life!’ His eyes scanned on over the thin precise pages till he came to this:

“May 3. Hatty Beecher (‘Ah! here it was!’) came on April 30th to spend a month with us. She is a fine figure of a girl and has become quite buxom. We all went to the opening of the Exhibition. It was such a crowd, and the dear little Queen was so becomingly dressed. It was an occasion I shall never forget. How the people cheered! Timothy attended us, he seems quite taken with Hatty, he can hardly look at her. I hope she is really nice. Hester and Juley are already full of her praises. They all went to walk in the Park today, and look at the crowd going into the Exhibition, though there was a windy drizzle; but as our dear father used to say it was only ‘pride of the morning,’ for it soon cleared, and the sun shone . . .

“May 7. We all went to the opera. Dear Jolyon sent us his box — he put it so drolly. ‘Take care Timothy doesn’t lose his heart to Taglioni, she wouldn’t make him a good wife.’ I must say it is really wonderful how she supports herself on one toe, but Timothy seemed quite preoccupied. He was staring at Hatty’s back all through the ballet. Mario was ravishing. I have never heard singing so like an angel’s. We had great difficulty coming away. It rained and our crinolines got wet, the stupid coachman took someone else for Timothy and we missed our turn and had to walk outside the portico. But Hatty was in such spirits that it did not seem to matter. She is such a rattle. I wonder whether it is quite wise for dear Timothy to see so much of her. I am sure she is very well intentioned, but I feel her evening dresses are lower than is quite nice. I have given her my Brussels fichu.

“May 13. To-day we went to the Zoo. Hatty had never seen it. In some ways she is quite provincial, but she picks things up very fast. Dear Timothy came all the way from his office to meet us. I fear it was Hatty’s beaux yeux rather than the animals which brought him. I confess that the Zoo does not give me much pleasure, it is very common; and the monkeys are so human, and not at all nice in their habits. Hatty insisted on mounting the elephant, and of course Timothy was obliged to be her squire of dames, but I am sure he did not really enjoy it, and, indeed, he looked so grave bobbing behind her in the howdah that I could not help smiling, and Hester laughed so that I thought she would burst her bonnet strings. I was obliged to check her, for fear dear Timothy should see. I am glad we arrived too late to see the lions fed. The seal was very droll . . .

“May 17. James came to tea. He told us that Swithin has bought a new pair of greys, very spirited, and that he doesn’t know what will happen. He advised Hatty not to venture if Swithin asks her to go driving. But Hatty said: ‘I should adore it.’ She certainly has a great deal of courage, indeed she is inclined to be rash. I was not sorry that Timothy should have the opportunity of seeing that she is so venturesome, for I feel more and more that he is attracted by her. I do not remember when he has behaved quite as he has this last fortnight. And though in some ways she is attractive, I do not really think she would make him a good wife. I cannot disguise from myself, too, that it would cause a great disturbance in all our lives; but I tell myself constantly that I ought not to be selfish, and if it were for dear Timothy’s good, I hope I should not ‘care a brass farden’ as Nicholas would put it in his droll way. The girls are very fond of her and they do not see the little things that I see, and which make me uneasy. I must hope for the best. I spoke to my dear Jolyon about it yesterday, he is the head of the family now that our dear father is gone, and he has good judgment. He said I was not to worry, Timothy would never ‘come up to the scratch.’ I thought it such a peculiar expression.

“May 20. A Mr. Chessman has been to call. He came with Swithin. Juley thought he was elegantly dressed, but for my part, I do not care for these large shepherd’s plaid checks which seem to be all the rage now for gentlemen. Hester and Hatty came in while we were still at tea, and Mr. Chessman was very attentive to Hatty. I hope I am not being unjust to her when I say that she made eyes at him in a way that I thought very forward. I was quite glad dear Timothy was not there. At least, to be honest, I am not sure that it would not have been for the best if he could have seen her. Swithin says that Mr. Chessman has to do with stocks and shares and is very clever in his profession. I must say that he seems to me much better suited to Hatty than Timothy could ever be. So perhaps it is providential that he came. Swithin has asked her and Hester to make four at the Royal Toxophilite Society’s Meeting on Saturday. He pooh-poohed James about the new horses and said that he was an old woman. I shall not tell James, it would only put him about. In the evening after dinner I read Cowper aloud to the girls and Timothy. I chose his celebrated poem, ‘The Task,’ which begins with that daring line ‘I sing the sofa.’ I did not read very long because Timothy seemed so sleepy: he works too hard all day in his stuffy office. I must say Hatty did not behave at all nicely. She made faces behind my back, which I could see perfectly well in the mirror; but of course, I took no notice, because she is our guest. For myself I find Cowper very sonorous and improving, though to be quite honest I prefer ‘John Gilpin’ to any of his more serious poems . . .

“May 23. We have had quite a to-do, and I am not at all sure where my duty lies. This morning after Timothy had gone to the office I went to his study to dust the books which he bought with dear James when we came to live here. They each bought a complete little library, containing Humboldt’s Cosmos, Hudibras and all the best works of the past; and who should I find there but Hatty, sitting in Timothy’s own arm chair, reading a book which I at once recognised as one of the little calf-bound volumes of Lord Byron. She was so absorbed that she did not see me till I was close to her. I received quite a shock when I apprehended that the book was that dreadful ‘Don Juan’ that one has heard so much about. She did not even try to hide it but said in a flippant way: ‘Who’d have thought Timothy would have this book!’ I am afraid I forgot myself, and spoke sharply.

“‘I think, my dear Hatty,’ I said, ‘it is hardly genteel to come into a gentleman’s room and sit in his own armchair and read a book like that. I am surprised at you.’ She took me up quite rudely.

“‘Why? Have you read it?’

“‘Of course I have not read it,’ I replied.

“‘Then,’ she said, pertly, ‘what do you know about it?’

“‘It is common knowledge,’ I answered, ‘that it is not a book for ladies.’

“She tossed her head with a very high colour; but I continued to stand there looking at her, and she got up and put the book back whence she had taken it. It was in my mind to improve the occasion, but I remembered in time that she has no mother, and is our guest, so I only said: ‘You know, dear Hatty, Timothy does not like his books touched.’ She laughed and said flippantly: ‘No, they don’t look as if they were meant to be read.’ I could have shaken her, but I controlled myself. After all she is young and high-spirited, and I daresay it is rather quiet for her in our little house. She flung out of the room, and I have not seen her since. I cannot make up my mind whether to tell Timothy or not. I feel sure that he is seriously épris. He looks at her so much when he thinks nobody sees him, and he has been biting his fingers, and has not answered any question for some days; indeed, he does not seem to hear us when we speak to him. I should tell him at once if I only knew how he would take it; but men are so funny and I am not quite sure that it might not inflame his feelings rather than allay them. I feel more and more, however, that Hatty would not prove the ideal mate for him. He needs a more womanly woman, and especially one who would not laugh at him. I think I must just wait and see, as our dear father used to say so often . . .

“May 25. Swithin sent his brougham this evening for Hester and Hatty and they dined with him to meet Mr. Chessman and Mr. and Mrs. Traquair. Timothy looked very blue; all the evening he sat as glum as glum; and I noticed that when the girls came back in the highest spirits he was in such a fluster that he gave Hatty his own negus by mistake. When she was going to bed she left her shawl on the back of her chair, and when Timothy took it up to restore it to her, I saw him put it to his nose. I very much fear that it is not the highest side of him that she appeals to. This makes it very difficult for me to say anything. I have a feeling that Mr. Chessman is providential. I questioned Hester closely about him and from what she says he and Hatty get on together like a house on fire. I do not suppose from what Swithin told us that he is so warm a man as dear Timothy, who has always been of a saving disposition and is doing so very well now with his primers, and I am sure he cannot be so safe a man, but to do Hatty justice I do not think she is of a mercenary turn of mind. It is very agitating, and I can only pray that all will turn out for the best . . .

“May 28. Timothy sent a message to me this morning that he was going to Brighton for some sea air and would not be back for a fortnight. YOU CANNOT IMAGINE WHAT A RELIEF IT WAS TO ME for, after what happened last night, I was dreading having to do my duty. I cannot but think he knows what I had to tell him and that it is all over for the best. He took a cab and caught the early train without saying good-bye or indeed seeing any of us. I must put it all down as clearly as I can.

“Yesterday evening Mr. and Mrs. Traquair called for Hatty to take her to dine and to their box at the opera afterwards. We four had a cosy little dinner at home just to ourselves, the first time since Hatty came. Cook had made some mincepies specially, and the pulled-bread was more delicious than I ever remember it. Timothy got up a bottle of the special brown sherry, and he filled our glasses himself; then he held his up and screwed up his eyes and said: ‘Well, here’s to home and beauty!’ He looked quite waggish. But he was very distrait afterwards and went off to his study. I confess that I felt quite nervous, for I have never known him propose a toast or screw up his eyes like that; and knowing what I did I could not help fearing that he was making up his mind to a proposal. Juley and I played bézique for some time, and I got more and more anxious, and when the negus came I took Timothy’s glass down to the study. He was sitting at his desk with a pen in his mouth and his eyes fixed on the ceiling; and I noticed that he had been tearing up paper. It was all strewn about, and when I ventured to pick up some pieces and put them into the wastepaper basket I saw the word ‘Hatty’ on one of them. He was quite cross at being interrupted. ‘What’s the matter with you, Ann?’ he said: ‘I’m busy.’ And then he went off again into a brown study. I did not know what to do for the best. So I went away and sat in the drawing-room waiting for him to come up. The girls had gone to bed, and I took my tatting into the window, it was such a warm night. I confess that I prayed to God while I was sitting there. Timothy has always been my baby since our dear mother died when Susan was born, and it was dreadful to me to think that he might be taking a step that would lead to his unhappiness. I could not see what he could be writing and tearing up to Hatty except a proposal of marriage. His forehead had been flushed, and his eyes looked quite glassy. It seemed a very long time that I sat there. The Bayswater Road was quite quiet, and the lights of the Exhibition in the Park were so pretty, and there were stars in the sky, I always think they are wonderful, so bright and so far off. I could not tatt properly for thinking of dear Timothy. And still he did not come up, though it grew very late. I knew that he must be sitting up to let Hetty in; and that probably he would then give her the letter he had been writing. I was in despair till I thought: When she comes I will go down myself and open the door to her, and perhaps Timothy will let me talk to him before he puts the ‘fat in the fire’ as James would say. My nerves became all fiddlestrings, so at last I took up the works of Mr. Cowper, and tried to calm myself. The carriages and cabs were coming now bringing back people from the theatres and the Exhibition, and I knew I had not long to wait. I was just reading those clever little verses on ‘The high price of fish’ when I saw a hansom cab stopping at our door. I must say it gave me quite a shock, and I rubbed my eyes, because I had made sure that the Traquairs would bring Hatty back in their carriage. A man got out first in an opera cloak and hat, and then I saw him quite plainly assisting Hatty to alight. He placed her on the ground and lifted her hand to his lips, and I could see her look at him so archly. He got back into the cab and drove away. It was Mr. Chessman. At first I was so paralysed at the thought that she had driven all the way with him from the opera, ALONE IN THE CAB, that I could not move. Then I wondered whether Timothy also had seen what I had seen. In my disturbance I ran down stairs into the hall. The door of his room was shut and there was the bell ringing. He did not come out, so then I knew that he must have seen. I am afraid I did a very unladylike thing, for I stood outside his door and listened. From my own feelings I could tell what a shock it must have been to him to know that the lady to whom he was about to offer his hand had driven alone at night with a comparative stranger in one of those new cabs which are so private. I could hear a noise, indeed, as if someone were breathing very hard — it was a dreadful moment; then, afraid that he might do something violent, I ran to the front door and opened it. There was Hatty, as cool as a cucumber. I am thankful now that I said nothing to her, but she must have seen from my face that I knew everything. ‘Well,’ she said, pertly, ‘here we are again! Such a treat, dear Papa! Good-night, Miss Forsyte!’ and ran upstairs. My heart bled for Timothy. I listened again at his door, and could hear him walking up and down just like an animal in the Zoo. He went on for quite a long time, for though he does not show them, he has always had very deep feelings. You cannot imagine what a relief it was when suddenly I heard him begin to whistle ‘Pop goes the weasel!’ I knew, then, that the worst was over; and, though he was still walking up and down, I stole upstairs as quietly as a mouse. I am sure I was right in thinking that discretion was the better part of valour. Timothy cannot bear anyone to see him affected in any way, it puts him into a perfect fantod. When I got to my room I fell on my knees, and thanked God for this providential escape: though, when I think of Hatty in that cab, I feel that the ways of Providence are indeed inscrutable. It is a great relief to me to think that by now Timothy must be on the Pier at Brighton with the good sea air, and all the distractions . . .

“June 1. Hatty left us today. I should be sorry to say that I think her ‘fast,’ I am sure she really has a good heart, but I confess that I feel her influence on Juley and Hester has been unsettling — she is of course much younger than they, and the young people of today seem to have no deportment, and very little sense of duty or indeed of manners. I really find it difficult to forgive her for the flippant thing she said at the last minute: ‘Tell Timothy that I’m sorry if I astonished his weak nerves.’ And she whisked off before I could even answer . . .

“June 6. Timothy is still at Brighton. Hester had a letter from him yesterday in which he said that he had walked up to the Devil’s Punchbowl and that it had done his liver good. He has seen the performing fleas too, and the aquarium. Swithin has been down, he says, driving his new greys — he — Timothy — does not think much of them; but, of course, he is not the judge of a horse that Swithin is. He made no allusion to Hatty in his letter, so I hope the wound is beginning to heal. Jolyon came in this afternoon when the girls were out, and told me of a picture he had bought ‘Dutch fishing boats at Sunset’— he has such good judgment. He was so genial that I opened my heart to him about Timothy and Hatty. He twinkled and said:

“‘H’m! Timothy had a narrow squeak.’ It was so well put, I think . . .

“June 11. Everybody says the Exhibition is a great success, in spite of all the foreigners that it has attracted. Prince Albert has become quite popular. Hester had a letter from Hatty this morning. Fancy! She has received an offer of marriage from Mr. Chessman. It is such a relief, because quite apart from dear Timothy, it has always been on my conscience that it was from our house that she behaved as she did. And now that Timothy comes home tomorrow everything is for the best, if only this news does not reopen his wound . . .”

Soames let the little red volume drop and took up the yellowed letter. He balanced it in his hand, feeling its thin and slightly greasy texture. So that was that! He cackled faintly. The quaint old things! But suddenly his veins tingled with a flush of loyalty. Nobody should laugh at them except himself! No, by Jove! And, taking the little volumes and the letter, he pitched them one by one into the wood fire.

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