On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Revolt at Roger’s, 1870

When the house of Roger Forsyte in Prince’s Gate was burgled in the autumn of 1870, Smith was undoubtedly drunk and made no serious attempt to rebut the accusation. A broad man of extremely genial disposition, he had in the few months of his butlerdom in Roger’s new house endeared himself to the young Rogers, and even Roger was wont to speak of him as ‘an amiable chap.’ To be drunk without anyone’s knowing, is a tort; to be discovered drunk, a misdemeanour; to be drunk when burglary is committed under one’s nose, a crime, if not a felony. This, at least, was Roger’s view, and he acted on it by immediate dismissal. His spoons had gone and Smith must go, too.

“If you hadn’t been drunk,” he said, “you’d have heard the ruffians. Call yourself a butler — you’re a disgrace.”

“Yes, Sir,” said Smith, humbly, “a glass has always been my weakness, but I never thought it’d come to this.”

“Well, it has,” said Roger, “and so have you. Off you go this very day, and don’t come to me for a character.”

In mitigation of Roger’s harshness it will be remembered that in those days there was no such practice as insurance against burglary. Indeed, it was Roger (always original) who started the habit, and he had to go to Lloyd’s to get it done.

“It’s the most barefaced thing I ever knew,” he added. The plate-basket, indeed, with all the spoons, forks, salt-cellars and pepper-pots of Roger’s ménage, had been rived practically from under the nose of the intoxicated Smith snoring on the turn-up bedstead in his own pantry. He had still been asleep, indeed, with a glass and empty whisky bottle by his bedside, when the page-boy entered in the morning.

Smith having withdrawn to his pantry, with his tail between his legs, Roger repaired to his bedroom, where in the four-poster his wife still lay thinking about less than usual, and put the matter in a few forcible words.

“Oh! Roger, what a pity! Such an amiable man. The children will be very upset.”

“Fiddlesticks!” said Roger. “I must go out and see the police. But they’re no good. Precious little chance of getting anything back.”

Mrs. Roger remained lying, flat as ever. She had been married to him seventeen years, and if she now had a life of her own, no one knew where she kept it.

Smith, on the other hand, upright in his shirt-sleeves, had an expression on his broad and amiable face as though he had mislaid his trousers. To him thus standing the pantry door was flung open, and in the doorway stood Miss Francie. Francie Forsyte was then aged twelve, a dark-haired child with thin legs always outgrowing their integuments. Her Celtic-grey eyes shone ominously.

“You’re not to go, Smith. I won’t have it. You couldn’t help being drunk when the burglars came.”

“‘Ush! Miss Francie,” said Smith, “the Master says I’ve got to.”

Francie put a hand into his.

“Dear Smith!”

Smith’s round face grew almost long.

“It’s my fault, Miss; I WAS tipsy, there’s no denyin’.”

“But how could you tell the burglars were coming?”

“I couldn’t, Miss Francie, and that’s a fact.”

“Well, then!”

“If I ‘adn’t been tipsy,” said Smith with sudden violence, “I’D ‘ave given ’em what for!” And he worked his arm up to the angle which best displayed his formidable biceps.

“Oh! Smith,” said Francie, “you ARE strong! Feel; I haven’t got ANY!” And she angled her arm, thin, like a stick. Then the thought coming to her that soon there would be no Smith to show her lack of muscle to, the water started into her eyes.

“You’re NOT to go,” she cried again. “Here’s Eustace, he’ll say so too.”

The youngest but one of the five young Rogers was now eleven, dark-haired and thin-faced like his sister, and, like her, grey-eyed, but of a calm which contrasted forcibly with Francie’s fervour. He was recovering from the mumps, which had conveniently delayed his return to school.

“Have you really got to go, Smiff?” he said. “I wouldn’t, if I were you. I should just stay.”

Smith smiled. His smile was that of the sun at noonday.

“Faver’ll forget,” added Eustace.

Smith closed an eye, a practice which beyond all things endeared him to children.

“Will’e, Master Eustace? I don’t fink.”

“I do fink,” said Eustace. “The best way wiv Faver is to take no notice. He can’t birch YOU; look at your muscle.”

Again Smith crooked his arm to the proper position. He never spent ten minutes with the children without having to do this at least once.

“Smith,” said Francie, “we’ll come with you and speak to Father.”

Smith shook his head.

“I expect he hasn’t seen your muscle,” said Eustace.

Smith smiled. Like all powerful, good-tempered, easy-going men, he was unable to say “No.”

“That’s settled then,” said Francie; “when Father comes in, Eustace and I will come for you. Come along, Eustace.”

She turned at the door: “You shan’t go — DEAR Smith!”

Smith in the centre of his pantry, slowly shook his rounded head.

He was still in undetermined mood when visited by the constable whom Roger had set in motion. Now the temperament of Smith was pre-eminently suited to the police. Sunk in humility, without edge, and highly human, it appealed to authority as cream to a cat. The constable, who had come to carp and question, remained to chat and quaff. He quaffed Roger’s beer, and said:

“S’far as I can see, ’twas accidental like; a man may sleep so sound, no burglar’d wake ’im. That was your trouble, mate. You’d ‘ad a nightcap no doubt. I’ll do me best with your governor.”

Upstairs in the dining-room Mrs. Roger was staring at the bronze clock and rehearsing a sentence which began:

“Roger, I wish you would reconsider your decision about Smith; there are many reasons why —” and then nothing would come but: “it will be out of the frying-pan into the fire,” which she could not feel to be quite dignified. Unaware of these forces being marshalled against him, Roger, alert, and with an eye on a new board announcing the sale of a house by auction, returned from the police station where he had been rendering a just and faithful account of his silver, and entered his hall with the latchkey which he had been one of the first householders to have made. As he divested himself of his overcoat a light, thin, ghostly shape flitted from the darkness under the stairs into the smell of mutton rising from the basement; another shape at the top of the stairs bestrode the banisters, waited till Roger had entered the dining-room, slid down with a run, and vanished also.

Startled by her husband’s entry, Mrs. Roger took the stopper out of the cut glass bottle of pickled walnuts on the sideboard, and said:

“Oh! Roger, I wish — I wish —”

“What do you wish?” said Roger. “Some nonsense. Don’t let that smell out; I can’t bear a vinegary smell.”

“It’s Smith,” murmured Mrs. Roger. “I wish you —”

“That’ll do,” said Roger; “he’s got to go.”

Mrs. Roger stoppered the bottle.

“Oh! very well, dear; only where we shall get —”

“Plenty of good fish in the sea,” said Roger. “Where’s that policeman they sent round?”

“He’s still in the basement, I fancy.”

“He would be. They’re no good! What’s this?”

Through the doorway was coming a procession led by Francie. It took up a position on the far side of the mahogany — from left to right, Francie, Smith, Eustace, and the policeman.

“How’s this, Smith?” said Roger, caressing his left whisker. “I told you to be off. Have you got something to say?”

“Yes,” said Francie, her voice shrill: “Smith’s not going.”

“What!” cried Roger.

“All wight, Faver!” said Eustace quietly.

“All right? What d’you mean by that, you impudent young shaver?”

“Seems as ‘ow your butler was asleep, Sir,” said the constable impressively.

“Of course he was asleep. He was drunk.”

“Well, Sir, I’d ‘ardly call it that,” said the constable. “Not up to snuff at the moment, as you might say.”

“If you’ve any excuse to make, Smith,” said Roger, “make it before you pack off.”

Smith shook his head. “None, Sir, I’m sure.”

On one side and the other Francie and Eustace tugged at his sleeves, as if inciting him to show his muscle.

“Very well then,” said Roger, “you can go. I’ll talk to you in a moment, constable. You children run off, and don’t let me catch you —”

“If Smith goes,” said Francie, loudly, “we’re going too.”

Roger stared. It was his first experience of revolt.

“Go to my study, you two,” he said, “and wait till I come. Mary, take them out.”

But over Mrs. Roger a spell seemed to have been cast; she did not move. Crimson shame had covered Smith’s face; the constable stood stolid. Roger’s spare figure stiffened. He made but half of either Smith or the constable, but the expression on his face, sharp, firm and sour, redressed the balance.

“Go along,” he said to Smith.

Smith moved towards the door, but the two children had placed their backs against it. Roger’s very whiskers seemed to go red.

“This is too much of a good thing,” burst from his tightened lips.

At this moment of exquisite deadlock the sense of duty which dominated a sober Smith came to the rescue. With a deep sigh he took a child by the belt with each hand, lifted them bodily from the door, set them down, and went out.

“Go to my study, you two,” said Roger again.

The two children went out into the hall.

“Are you going to the study, Fwancie?”

“He’ll birch us.”

“He shan’t,” said Eustace. “Let’s arm ourselves with knives.”

“No,” said Francie; “let’s go away with Smith.”

“Smiff will only bwing us back,” said Eustace; “let’s go by ourselves.”

“All right,” said Francie.

“We’ll take Faver’s umbwella and our money-box.”

“We shan’t be able to open it.”

“No, but we can sell it to someone; it wattles.”

“All right, quick!”

With their father’s umbrella and the locked money-box, the two children opened the front door and, running across Kensington Road, were soon in Hyde Park, the money-box rattling all the way.

“How much is there in it?” said Eustace.

“Four shillings and elevenpence.”

“Let’s sell it for five shillings, then. The box cost a shilling.”

“Who to?”

“We’ll find an old gentleman.”

They walked along the Row under the umbrella, for it was raining. Francie had neither hat nor coat, Eustace his school cap, black with a red stripe.

“Look!” said Francie. “There’s one!”

They approached a bench whereon sat a tall, bulky figure, who had placed his hands on the handle of his stick with a view to rising. He had a grey goatee beard, a grey beaver hat, and a long watch-chain looped on his brown velvet waistcoat.

Francie, who carried the money-box, held it out.

“Hullo!” said the old gentleman: “what have you got there?”

“It’s our money-box,” said Francie; “we want to sell it. It’s got four and elevenpence in coppers.”

“But it’s worf more,” said Eustace.

“The deuce it is!” said the old gentleman. His voice rumbled, and his eyes, grey and rather bloodshot, twinkled. “Why do you want to sell it?”

“Because we haven’t got the key,” said Francie.

“So we can’t get the money out,” added Eustace. “It belongs to us and we shall want it out, you see.”

“What d’you want it out for?” said the old gentleman.

“To buy our dinner.”

“You’re a rum couple,” said the old gentleman. “What’s your name?”

“Will you buy the box?” said Eustace: “then we’ll tell you.”

“What should I do with the box, heh?”

“You could carry it in one of your big pockets?”

“Well,” said the old gentleman, “here’s five bob. Hand it over. Now, what’s your name?”

“Forsyte,” said Francie. “I’m Francie, and this is Eustace.”

“Forsyte?” grunted the old gentleman. “The deuce it is! Where d’you live?”

“Are you to be twusted?” asked Eustace, tilting the umbrella backwards.

The old gentleman uttered a guffaw.

“What do you want to trust me for?”

“Well, you see,” said Eustace cautiously, “we’re wunning away for the pwesent.”

“Oh!” said the old gentleman, and rumbled.

“We had to,” said Francie, “because of Smith. It’s a long story.”

“Well,” said the old gentleman, rising, “come and have your dinner with me, and tell me all about it. What’s your father’s Christian name?”

“Roger.”

“Oh! Ah!” said the old gentleman. “Well, I know your uncles Jolyon and Swithin, and your cousin Jo. My name’s Nicholas Treffry. Ever heard it?”

“No,” said Eustace.

“I have,” cried Francie. “Father says you’re notorious. What does that mean?”

The ‘notorious’ Mr. Treffry chuckled.

“My carriage is out there at the Gate. Come along and I’ll show you why he calls me notorious.”

The two children looked at each other, then Eustace whispered:

“All wight, he’s wespectable.”

“The deuce, he is!” said Mr. Treffry unexpectedly. “Come along, young shavers.”

The two children accompanied him silently to the Gate. Outside stood a pair of fine horses harnessed to a phaeton with the hood up. A tiger stood at their heads.

“Up you get!” said Mr. Treffry.

Francie mounted with alacrity. Eustace hung back.

“Where are you going to take us?”

“The Albany — know it?”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “George went there once.”

“Respectable enough for you, heh?”

“Yes,” said Eustace, and furling the umbrella, mounted beside his sister.

Mr. Treffry clambered heavily to his driver’s seat alongside.

“Let go, Tim.”

The horses sprang forward, the tiger let go, and, running, caught on behind.

The carriage swung from side to side; Francie’s eyes danced.

“I— I like it,” she said.

“Your father’d have a fit, if he saw us,” chuckled Mr. Treffry. “He lives in Prince’s Gate, doesn’t he?”

Eustace looked round at him, and in imitation of Smith, closed his left eye.

“You’re a cool young man,” said Mr. Treffry.

The pavements of those days not being precisely smooth, they made but a rough passage to the Albany, where, after they had been made clean and comfortable under the auspices of the valet, the children repaired to a low panelled room with pictures of dogs and horses on the walls, a case of guns in one corner, and some black Chinese tea chests, embossed with figures and flowers in coloured lacquer.

“Now,” said Mr. Treffry, “let’s have some prog.”

The prog consisted of grouse and pancakes and spiky artichokes, and each child was given a glass of wine.

“Well,” said Mr. Treffry, “what was it all about, heh?”

Francie related the story of Smith.

“H’m!” Mr. Treffry rumbled. “So your father lost his spoons?”

“And we’ve got his umbwella,” said Eustace.

“Well, I’ll see you’re not birched, though I daresay you deserve it. Your mother must be in a pretty stew. Green, have the phaeton round again.”

They made an even rougher passage back to Prince’s Gate.

“Here’s your money-box,” said Mr. Treffry.

“But you bought it!”

“Tut! Here! My dear! Take my card to your master.”

Francie caught the maid by the sleeve.

“Has Smith gone, Annie?”

“Not yet, Miss. We’ve all been in a state about you.”

“Hooray! D’you hear, Eustace? Smith hasn’t gone.”

“All wight, don’t make a wow!”

Roger, Mrs. Roger, three maids and Smith all seemed to have gathered from nowhere in particular.

“How are you?” said Mr. Treffry, advancing in front of the children. “I thought you’d be in a stew. I’m your brother Jolyon’s partner — Nicholas Treffry. These young shavers ran out to cool their heads. I’ve given ’em their dinner and brought ’em back none the worse.”

“H’m!” said Roger profoundly.

“They ought to be birched, no doubt,” continued Mr. Treffry, looking bigger and bigger; “but I promised they shouldn’t be. You,” he added, pointing to Smith, “the chap who got drunk?”

“Yes, sir.”

“H’m! Let him off this time. Here’s your umbrella.”

Roger took the umbrella.

“Well,” he said,” I don’t know what’s coming to things.” He held out his hand to Mr. Treffry. “My brother’s always talking about you. He says you’ll break your neck one of these days.”

“H’m! He’s a careful chap, Jo. Glad you’ve got ’em back. Good-bye to you, Ma’am. Good-bye, young shavers.”

And, rumbling, Mr. Treffry passed out.

There was a silence.

“Well,” said Roger at last, while a little smile twitched between his whiskers and vanished into them, “don’t let me hear a word more about anything from any of you.” And he withdrew into the dining-room.

Francie rushed at Smith, and mechanically felt his muscle.

“Dear Smith!”

“Muvver,” said Eustace, “we had gwouse, pancakes, and spiky artichokes, and we dwove like Jehu.”

So ended the revolt at Roger’s, which, together perhaps with the Franco-German war, in that same year laid the foundations of a looser philosophy.

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