On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

June’s First Lame Duck, 1876

The life of little June Forsyte until the age of nearly eight had been spent in superintending the existence of her dolls. Not until the autumn of 1876 did she find a human being whose destiny she could control.

It happened thus: The stables of her grandfather old Jolyon Forsyte’s house in Stanhope Gate where June and, incidentally, her mother resided with her grandparents, were round the corner. They consisted of two stalls and a loose box occupied by the carriage horses Brownie and Betty and by her pony Bruce. Above were the three rooms of the coachman Betters, his wife, and little daughter, the groom living God knew more precisely where.

One October noon, in her long blue habit, with her spirit and her eyes looking up out of her flaming hair, June was lifted from her pony at the stable door.

“That pony’s artful, Miss June; don’t you give him more than two carrots, or ‘e’ll think he can do what ‘e likes with you.”

“Darling!” said June in a voice strangely deep for a small child. Having given the pony four carrots she remained standing beside it in the stall, fervently stroking its nose. In the next stall the groom was hissing while he wisped down Betty, preferred by Betters as a mount to Brownie —“an ‘oss that did that not throw you up.”

“George, which do you think is the most beautiful, Brownie or Betty?”

The groom jerked his head at the loose box.

“That ‘oss is the best-lookin’, Miss June.”

“Then I shall give Brownie one carrot and Betty two — it isn’t her fault, is it, poor darling?”

Having given the carrots and had her capped head nuzzled, she went out and stood in the yard. Betters had disappeared up the stairway to his rooms, whence a smell of onions indicated that Mrs. Betters, a small pale puckered woman, was cooking steak.

The yard was deserted but for a pigeon, towards which June ran so that the pigeon at once left for the roof. Hurt in her feelings June had gathered up her tail, and was moving towards the house when round the corner came a little girl blubbering into her sleeve.

“Susie Betters, what are you crying for?”

The little girl, who was plain and thin, blubbered the louder.

“They pinched me; they said I was a thief ‘cos I only took the top what belonged to me.” She displayed some pinch marks on her arms and some mud stains on her frock.

“Who pinched you?”

“The boys and girls I go to school with.”

“Did you pinch them back?”

“Nao.”

“Then I will. Horrid little children. Don’t cry, Susie. I’ll protect you.”

Susie looked down half a head and her mouth opened.

“We’ll go and look for them. I’ve got my whip. They won’t dare touch you again. You aren’t brave, are you?”

“Nao,” said Susie.

June swished the whip, which had the thickness of the top joint of a fishing rod. “Come on!”

They went round the corner, followed by June’s tail.

There was no sign of any children.

“We’ll go and tell the teacher.”

“Nao.”

“Why not?”

“They’ll larrup me proper, if we do.”

“Why don’t they like you, Susie? Is it because you’re ugly?” Susie wailed again. “Don’t cry! It’s not your fault that you’re ugly.”

Susie wailed the louder.

Two small boys and a girl had suddenly appeared and stood pointing in a somewhat vulgar manner. June raised her whip.

The children nudged each other.

“Ill-bred little children!” said June, quoting from her governess.

One of the boys emitted a piercing whistle.

“Did you pinch little Susie Betters?”

The children laughed in a still more vulgar manner.

“You’re dirty little morkins,” cried June; “and I’m going to larrup you.”

The children gave before the onslaught, skipping sideways with uncouth noises; one of the boys shoved June so that she tripped over her tail, and sprawled, a small blue figure, on the ground. The children, then, pinching Susie warmly, yelled in unison, and vanished.

June rose, her habit dirty, her whip gone, her cheeks crimson. Susie was wailing as she had not yet wailed.

“Don’t! It’s babyish to cry.”

“They pinched me again.”

“Where?”

“On my ba-ase.”

“Come with me, and show my Gran,” said June. “He’ll soon astonish their weak nerves. You shall have my pudding, too. Come on!” And she dragged the reluctant Susie to the mansion of old Jolyon.

“François,” said June to the Swiss servant, “this is Susie Betters; she’s been pinched, and she’s to have my pudding. She isn’t brave, so she’s not to be frightened. I want my Gran to see her pinches. Come on, Susie!”

Still tugging Susie, she passed into the dining-room.

Old Jolyon, who never went to the City on Saturdays, was in his armchair by the fire, reading The Times and waiting for lunch to be announced. Across the dining table laid for five he looked at the two small figures, and his eyes twinkled.

“Well, my ducky, what have you got there?”

“Susie Betters, Gran; she’s been pinched behind. I wanted you to see.”

She pulled Susie round to the chair, whence old Jolyon looked shrewdly at his coachman’s daughter.

“H’m!” he said: “you’re a thin little toad.”

“Yes; she’s going to have my pudding. She’s too thin altogether, and she’s too pale. Her face is dirty, too, but it isn’t her fault.”

“What’s come to your habit?” said old Jolyon. “Did you fall off?”

“Oh! no; I just sat down in the street while I was larruping those morkins and they took my whip and ran away.”

“H’m! Pretty pair of shoes altogether!”

He stretched out and rang the bell.

“Take this little girl downstairs, François, and have her face washed, and give her a good dinner; and tell that page chap to run over and let Betters know she’s here. You go and get brushed,” he added to June, “before your mother sees you, and don’t say anything about it.”

The two children went out. In the hall June said:

“I want to see her face washed, François.”

“Veree well, Mees June.”

During lunch June fidgeted, with difficulty prevented by old Jolyon’s eyes from telling her story.

When her mother and governess had withdrawn, she approached her grandfather, who had lighted his after-lunch cigar, and stood between his knees.

“I’m going to be Susie Betters’ friend, Gran.”

“Oh!” said old Jolyon. “Mite like you — picking up lame ducks.”

“Is Susie a lame duck?”

Old Jolyon nodded. “Shouldn’t be surprised if they pinched her more than ever now. She looks to me a poor thing.”

“Well, I’m going to protect her.”

“How?” said old Jolyon, twinkling.

“I shall dare them to pinch her.”

“First catch your hare —”

“I know,” said June, suddenly. “She can do lessons with ME, Gran, instead of going to school.”

Old Jolyon shook his head.

“That cock won’t fight. Coming to the Zoo?”

June clapped her hands, then said at once:

“No. I must look after Susie.”

Old Jolyon stared. It was his first introduction to the real nature of his little grand-daughter.

“She’s a poor timid little stick,” he said; “and you’ll never make anything of her.”

When June had gone, he sat contemplating the ash of his cigar. Children! What things they thought of! She would learn some day that you couldn’t go ‘protecting’ everything you came across. Sooner the better, perhaps! Generous little thing — though; giving up the Zoo. Lessons! “What would her mother say to that? She was such a good woman — that you never knew.” And old Jolyon sighed. If his son hadn’t married such a good woman, it might all have turned out very different; and Jo — Well, well! A nap! Just forty winks. And, crushing out his cigar, he leaned back with eyes fixed on ‘Dutch Fishing Boats at Sunset’; and his thin hand with pointed nails depending over the arm of his old chair. A warmhearted little thing! Lame ducks! . . .

In spite of the misgivings of the good woman afraid of the effect on her accent, and the opposition of her governess, too deep for words, June had her way. Susie Betters, almost unnecessarily clean, sat every morning at the schoolroom table shedding tears over her vowels and aitches. Delivered from pinches, and advanced in all material things, soap, pudding, and frocks, she seemed at first to exude as much water per day as ever, for June frequently protected her from the governess.

“You oughtn’t to make Susie cry, Miss Pearson, just because she speaks commonly. She doesn’t know any better. You can’t help being common, can you, Susie?”

This protection, indeed, produced as much water as any educational exhortations. Out of school hours she taught Susie every game she knew and some she didn’t; instructed her in dressing and undressing dolls; delivered her from the Italian greyhound; helped her to burn her cheeks cooking cocoanut ice and toffee; and prick her fingers sewing at dolls’ nightgowns. When Susie was put in the corner, June had invariably to be put in the opposite corner — so loyal was she to her ‘lame duck.’ The ‘good woman’ watched the experiment with equanimity — it would help June not to be selfish. Old Jolyon, with innate sagacity, waited for its inevitable end; he had no belief in ‘lame ducks.’

The end came stealthily with every ounce of weight that Susie Betters put on from the dinners and teas she ate, and every deepening of the contempt which familiarity slowly bred in her. She had ceased to exude water, her cheeks were becoming pink, and she wore a sky blue ribbon in hair no longer unwashed. In fact she had come to be ‘twice the child’; and she no longer excited June’s compassion. The habit of protection, however, lasted till the middle of November. It vanished in one day.

Susie had a doll, given her by June, which, following the law of compensation — advocated by the then fashionable philosopher Mr. Emerson — she treated in the manner in which she herself was treated, possessing its soul, placing its body in corners, and harassing it over her knee for its own good. With the increase of adipose, her treatment of the doll became more and more protective, if not arbitrary. It was not long before this treatment excited June’s concern, and the doll began to seem to her a ‘lame duck.’

One Saturday morning when the doll had been whipped and put first in one corner and then in another, her feelings became too much for her.

“You oughtn’t to treat poor Amy like that, Susie, it’s a shame!”

Susie answered:

“Why not? She’s my doll!”

“Well, you shan’t!” said June. “So there!”

“I will,” said Susie, and promptly turned up the doll’s petticoats.

June’s eyes grew very blue, her hair seemed to shine.

“If you whip her,” she said, “I’ll whip you.”

“Will you?” said Susie. “I’m bigger than you.”

She laid the doll over her knee.

“Stop!” said June.

“I won’t!” said Susie.

June rushed at her. The doll fell to the floor, and the two children struggled. Susie had so far profited by six weeks of good feeding that she was the stronger; but she had not June’s spirit. The combat, short and sharp, ended with June sitting on her chest. Susie sobbed, wriggled and scratched. June sat tighter.

“Promise not to whip her any more.”

“Shan’t!”

“Then I shall sit here till you do.”

Susie began to scream. June covered her mouth with a hand. Susie bit it.

The screams had attracted old Jolyon, who was in his dressing-room. The sight when he entered the room was precisely that which he had been expecting for some time.

“That’ll do,” he said. “Get up, June! Now, what’s it all about?”

June, who had picked up the doll, stood crimson and defiant, Susie stood whimpering and overawed.

“What’s that mark on your hand?” said old Jolyon to his grand-daughter.

“She shan’t whip Amy,” said June; “I won’t have it!”

“Did you bite her?” said old Jolyon to Susie.

Susie sobbed.

The instinct to protect Susie caused June to say automatically:

“I began it, because she’s not to whip Amy.”

Susie blurted:

“I wasn’t going to until she told me not.”

“That’ll do,” said old Jolyon. “Give me the doll. Go and get your hand bathed, June. And you,” he added to Susie, “go home for dinner.”

The children went; Susie, sniffing, June, very red.

Old Jolyon was left with the doll, a furbelowed affair in wax — which is indeed more inviting to chastisement than china — whose round blue eyes expressed nothing but indifference. Rum little toads, children! Fancy getting into a fantod over a bit of wax! Well, well —! Another lame duck, he supposed. He rearranged the doll’s petticoats, and his eyes twinkled. There was the end of Susie Betters! And just as well!

Placing the doll on the table he descended slowly to the dining-room, pondering on the rumness of little toads.

June came to lunch with her hand bound up. She would not eat her pudding, and could be heard whispering to François that it was to be saved for Susie.

When told later that Susie was not to come any more, but to go to school again, she was silent; and nobody could tell what she was feeling. It was the impression of old Jolyon, however, that she was not unhappy. He had always known how it would be.

The last state of Susie Betters was worse than the first. Wild animals that are captured and regain their liberty receive but a poor welcome from their fellows. So with June’s past lame duck. She was soon as thin, pinched and tearful as ever; but, as June never saw her, she remained in memory pink and plump, with a sky blue ribbon, no longer worthy of compassion. Besides, June had found a new lame duck, on organ-grinder’s wife with a baby in her arms.

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