Indian Summer of a Forsyte, by John Galsworthy

III

The little spirits of the past which throng an old man’s days had never pushed their faces up to his so seldom as in the seventy hours elapsing before Sunday came. The spirit of the future, with the charm of the unknown, put up her lips instead. Old Jolyon was not restless now, and paid no visits to the log, because she was coming to lunch. There is wonderful finality about a meal; it removes a world of doubts, for no one misses meals except for reasons beyond control. He played many games with Holly on the lawn, pitching them up to her who was batting so as to be ready to bowl to Jolly in the holidays. For she was not a Forsyte, but Jolly was — and Forsytes always bat, until they have resigned and reached the age of eighty-five. The dog Balthasar, in attendance, lay on the ball as often as he could, and the page-boy fielded, till his face was like the harvest moon. And because the time was getting shorter, each day was longer and more golden than the last. On Friday night he took a liver pill, his side hurt him rather, and though it was not the liver side, there is no remedy like that. Anyone telling him that he had found a new excitement in life and that excitement was not good for him, would have been met by one of those steady and rather defiant looks of his deep-set iron-grey eyes, which seemed to say: ‘I know my own business best.’ He always had and always would.

On Sunday morning, when Holly had gone with her governess to church, he visited the strawberry beds. There, accompanied by the dog Balthasar, he examined the plants narrowly and succeeded in finding at least two dozen berries which were really ripe. Stooping was not good for him, and he became very dizzy and red in the forehead. Having placed the strawberries in a dish on the dining-table, he washed his hands and bathed his forehead with eau de Cologne. There, before the mirror, it occurred to him that he was thinner. What a ‘threadpaper’ he had been when he was young! It was nice to be slim — he could not bear a fat chap; and yet perhaps his cheeks were too thin! She was to arrive by train at half-past twelve and walk up, entering from the road past Drage’s farm at the far end of the coppice. And, having looked into June’s room to see that there was hot water ready, he set forth to meet her, leisurely, for his heart was beating. The air smelled sweet, larks sang, and the Grand Stand at Epsom was visible. A perfect day! On just such a one, no doubt, six years ago, Soames had brought young Bosinney down with him to look at the site before they began to build. It was Bosinney who had pitched on the exact spot for the house — as June had often told him. In these days he was thinking much about that young fellow, as if his spirit were really haunting the field of his last work, on the chance of seeing — her. Bosinney — the one man who had possessed her heart, to whom she had given her whole self with rapture! At his age one could not, of course, imagine such things, but there stirred in him a queer vague aching — as it were the ghost of an impersonal jealousy; and a feeling, too, more generous, of pity for that love so early lost. All over in a few poor months! Well, well! He looked at his watch before entering the coppice — only a quarter past, twenty-five minutes to wait! And then, turning the corner of the path, he saw her exactly where he had seen her the first time, on the log; and realised that she must have come by the earlier train to sit there alone for a couple of hours at least. Two hours of her society missed! What memory could make that log so dear to her? His face showed what he was thinking, for she said at once:

“Forgive me, Uncle Jolyon; it was here that I first knew.”

“Yes, yes; there it is for you whenever you like. You’re looking a little Londony; you’re giving too many lessons.”

That she should have to give lessons worried him. Lessons to a parcel of young girls thumping out scales with their thick fingers.

“Where do you go to give them?” he asked.

“They’re mostly Jewish families, luckily.”

Old Jolyon stared; to all Forsytes Jews seem strange and doubtful.

“They love music, and they’re very kind.”

“They had better be, by George!” He took her arm — his side always hurt him a little going uphill — and said:

“Did you ever see anything like those buttercups? They came like that in a night.”

Her eyes seemed really to fly over the field, like bees after the flowers and the honey. “I wanted you to see them — wouldn’t let them turn the cows in yet.” Then, remembering that she had come to talk about Bosinney, he pointed to the clock-tower over the stables:

“I expect he wouldn’t have let me put that there — had no notion of time, if I remember.”

But, pressing his arm to her, she talked of flowers instead, and he knew it was done that he might not feel she came because of her dead lover.

“The best flower I can show you,” he said, with a sort of triumph, “is my little sweet. She’ll be back from Church directly. There’s something about her which reminds me a little of you,” and it did not seem to him peculiar that he had put it thus, instead of saying: “There’s something about you which reminds me a little of her.” Ah! And here she was!

Holly, followed closely by her elderly French governess, whose digestion had been ruined twenty-two years ago in the siege of Strasbourg, came rushing towards them from under the oak tree. She stopped about a dozen yards away, to pat Balthasar and pretend that this was all she had in her mind. Old Jolyon, who knew better, said:

“Well, my darling, here’s the lady in grey I promised you.”

Holly raised herself and looked up. He watched the two of them with a twinkle, Irene smiling, Holly beginning with grave inquiry, passing into a shy smile too, and then to something deeper. She had a sense of beauty, that child — knew what was what! He enjoyed the sight of the kiss between them.

“Mrs. Heron, Mam’zelle Beauce. Well, Mam’zelle — good sermon?”

For, now that he had not much more time before him, the only part of the service connected with this world absorbed what interest in church remained to him. Mam’zelle Beauce stretched out a spidery hand clad in a black kid glove — she had been in the best families — and the rather sad eyes of her lean yellowish face seemed to ask: “Are you well-brrred?” Whenever Holly or Jolly did anything unpleasing to her — a not uncommon occurrence — she would say to them: “The little Tayleurs never did that — they were such well-brrred little children.” Jolly hated the little Tayleurs; Holly wondered dreadfully how it was she fell so short of them. ‘A thin rum little soul,’ old Jolyon thought her — Mam’zelle Beauce.

Luncheon was a successful meal, the mushrooms which he himself had picked in the mushroom house, his chosen strawberries, and another bottle of the Steinberg cabinet filled him with a certain aromatic spirituality, and a conviction that he would have a touch of eczema to-morrow.

After lunch they sat under the oak tree drinking Turkish coffee. It was no matter of grief to him when Mademoiselle Beauce withdrew to write her Sunday letter to her sister, whose future had been endangered in the past by swallowing a pin — an event held up daily in warning to the children to eat slowly and digest what they had eaten. At the foot of the bank, on a carriage rug, Holly and the dog Balthasar teased and loved each other, and in the shade old Jolyon with his legs crossed and his cigar luxuriously savoured, gazed at Irene sitting in the swing. A light, vaguely swaying, grey figure with a fleck of sunlight here and there upon it, lips just opened, eyes dark and soft under lids a little drooped. She looked content; surely it did her good to come and see him! The selfishness of age had not set its proper grip on him, for he could still feel pleasure in the pleasure of others, realising that what he wanted, though much, was not quite all that mattered.

“It’s quiet here,” he said; “you mustn’t come down if you find it dull. But it’s a pleasure to see you. My little sweet is the only face which gives me any pleasure, except yours.”

From her smile he knew that she was not beyond liking to be appreciated, and this reassured him. “That’s not humbug,” he said. “I never told a woman I admired her when I didn’t. In fact I don’t know when I’ve told a woman I admired her, except my wife in the old days; and wives are funny.” He was silent, but resumed abruptly:

“She used to expect me to say it more often than I felt it, and there we were.” Her face looked mysteriously troubled, and, afraid that he had said something painful, he hurried on: “When my little sweet marries, I hope she’ll find someone who knows what women feel. I shan’t be here to see it, but there’s too much topsy-turvydom in marriage; I don’t want her to pitch up against that.” And, aware that he had made bad worse, he added: “That dog will scratch.”

A silence followed. Of what was she thinking, this pretty creature whose life was spoiled; who had done with love, and yet was made for love? Some day when he was gone, perhaps, she would find another mate — not so disorderly as that young fellow who had got himself run over. Ah! but her husband?

“Does Soames never trouble you?” he asked.

She shook her head. Her face had closed up suddenly. For all her softness there was something irreconcilable about her. And a glimpse of light on the inexorable nature of sex antipathies strayed into a brain which, belonging to early Victorian civilisation — so much older than this of his old age — had never thought about such primitive things.

“That’s a comfort,” he said. “You can see the Grand Stand to-day. Shall we take a turn round?”

Through the flower and fruit garden, against whose high outer walls peach trees and nectarines were trained to the sun, through the stables, the vinery, the mushroom house, the asparagus beds, the rosery, the summer-house, he conducted her — even into the kitchen garden to see the tiny green peas which Holly loved to scoop out of their pods with her finger, and lick up from the palm of her little brown hand. Many delightful things he showed her, while Holly and the dog Balthasar danced ahead, or came to them at intervals for attention. It was one of the happiest afternoons he had ever spent, but it tired him and he was glad to sit down in the music room and let her give him tea. A special little friend of Holly’s had come in — a fair child with short hair like a boy’s. And the two sported in the distance, under the stairs, on the stairs, and up in the gallery. Old Jolyon begged for Chopin. She played studies, mazurkas, waltzes, till the two children, creeping near, stood at the foot of the piano their dark and golden heads bent forward, listening. Old Jolyon watched.

“Let’s see you dance, you two!”

Shyly, with a false start, they began. Bobbing and circling, earnest, not very adroit, they went past and past his chair to the strains of that waltz. He watched them and the face of her who was playing turned smiling towards those little dancers thinking:

‘Sweetest picture I’ve seen for ages.’

A voice said:

“Hollee! Mais enfin — qu’est-ce que tu fais la — danser, le dimanche! Viens, donc!”

But the children came close to old Jolyon, knowing that he would save them, and gazed into a face which was decidedly ‘caught out.’

“Better the day, better the deed, Mam’zelle. It’s all my doing. Trot along, chicks, and have your tea.”

And, when they were gone, followed by the dog Balthasar, who took every meal, he looked at Irene with a twinkle and said:

“Well, there we are! Aren’t they sweet? Have you any little ones among your pupils?”

“Yes, three — two of them darlings.”

“Pretty?”

“Lovely!”

Old Jolyon sighed; he had an insatiable appetite for the very young. “My little sweet,” he said, “is devoted to music; she’ll be a musician some day. You wouldn’t give me your opinion of her playing, I suppose?”

“Of course I will.”

“You wouldn’t like —” but he stifled the words “to give her lessons.” The idea that she gave lessons was unpleasant to him; yet it would mean that he would see her regularly. She left the piano and came over to his chair.

“I would like, very much; but there is — June. When are they coming back?”

Old Jolyon frowned. “Not till the middle of next month. What does that matter?”

“You said June had forgiven me; but she could never forget, Uncle Jolyon.”

Forget! She must forget, if he wanted her to.

But as if answering, Irene shook her head. “You know she couldn’t; one doesn’t forget.”

Always that wretched past! And he said with a sort of vexed finality:

“Well, we shall see.”

He talked to her an hour or more, of the children, and a hundred little things, till the carriage came round to take her home. And when she had gone he went back to his chair, and sat there smoothing his face and chin, dreaming over the day.

That evening after dinner he went to his study and took a sheet of paper. He stayed for some minutes without writing, then rose and stood under the masterpiece ‘Dutch Fishing Boats at Sunset.’ He was not thinking of that picture, but of his life. He was going to leave her something in his Will; nothing could so have stirred the stilly deeps of thought and memory. He was going to leave her a portion of his wealth, of his aspirations, deeds, qualities, work — all that had made that wealth; going to leave her, too, a part of all he had missed in life, by his sane and steady pursuit of wealth. All! What had he missed? ‘Dutch Fishing Boats’ responded blankly; he crossed to the French window, and drawing the curtain aside, opened it. A wind had got up, and one of last year’s oak leaves which had somehow survived the gardener’s brooms, was dragging itself with a tiny clicking rustle along the stone terrace in the twilight. Except for that it was very quiet out there, and he could smell the heliotrope watered not long since. A bat went by. A bird uttered its last ‘cheep.’ And right above the oak tree the first star shone. Faust in the opera had bartered his soul for some fresh years of youth. Morbid notion! No such bargain was possible, that was real tragedy! No making oneself new again for love or life or anything. Nothing left to do but enjoy beauty from afar off while you could, and leave it something in your Will. But how much? And, as if he could not make that calculation looking out into the mild freedom of the country night, he turned back and went up to the chimney-piece. There were his pet bronzes — a Cleopatra with the asp at her breast; a Socrates; a greyhound playing with her puppy; a strong man reining in some horses. ‘They last!’ he thought, and a pang went through his heart. They had a thousand years of life before them!

‘How much?’ Well! enough at all events to save her getting old before her time, to keep the lines out of her face as long as possible, and grey from soiling that bright hair. He might live another five years. She would be well over thirty by then. ‘How much?’ She had none of his blood in her! In loyalty to the tenor of his life for forty years and more, ever since he married and founded that mysterious thing, a family, came this warning thought — None of his blood, no right to anything! It was a luxury then, this notion. An extravagance, a petting of an old man’s whim, one of those things done in dotage. His real future was vested in those who had his blood, in whom he would live on when he was gone. He turned away from the bronzes and stood looking at the old leather chair in which he had sat and smoked so many hundreds of cigars. And suddenly he seemed to see her sitting there in her grey dress, fragrant, soft, dark-eyed, graceful, looking up at him. Why! She cared nothing for him, really; all she cared for was that lost lover of hers. But she was there, whether she would or no, giving him pleasure with her beauty and grace. One had no right to inflict an old man’s company, no right to ask her down to play to him and let him look at her — for no reward! Pleasure must be paid for in this world. ‘How much?’ After all, there was plenty; his son and his three grandchildren would never miss that little lump. He had made it himself, nearly every penny; he could leave it where he liked, allow himself this little pleasure. He went back to the bureau. ‘Well, I’m going to,’ he thought, ‘let them think what they like. I’m going to!’ And he sat down.

‘How much?’ Ten thousand, twenty thousand — how much? If only with his money he could buy one year, one month of youth. And startled by that thought, he wrote quickly:

‘DEAR HERRING — Draw me a codicil to this effect: “I leave to my niece Irene Forsyte, born Irene Heron, by which name she now goes, fifteen thousand pounds free of legacy duty.” ‘Yours faithfully, ‘JOLYON FORSYTE.’

When he had sealed and stamped the envelope, he went back to the window and drew in a long breath. It was dark, but many stars shone now.

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