The Man of Property, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 3

In Swithin’s orange and light-blue dining-room, facing the Park, the round table was laid for twelve.

A cut-glass chandelier filled with lighted candles hung like a giant stalactite above its centre, radiating over large gilt-framed mirrors, slabs of marble on the tops of side-tables, and heavy gold chairs with crewel worked seats. Everything betokened that love of beauty so deeply implanted in each family which has had its own way to make into Society, out of the more vulgar heart of Nature. Swithin had indeed an impatience of simplicity, a love of ormolu, which had always stamped him amongst his associates as a man of great, if somewhat luxurious taste; and out of the knowledge that no one could possibly enter his rooms without perceiving him to be a man of wealth, he had derived a solid and prolonged happiness such as perhaps no other circumstance in life had afforded him.

Since his retirement from land agency, a profession deplorable in his estimation, especially as to its auctioneering department, he had abandoned himself to naturally aristocratic tastes.

The perfect luxury of his latter days had embedded him like a fly in sugar; and his mind, where very little took place from morning till night, was the junction of two curiously opposite emotions, a lingering and sturdy satisfaction that he had made his own way and his own fortune, and a sense that a man of his distinction should never have been allowed to soil his mind with work.

He stood at the sideboard in a white waistcoat with large gold and onyx buttons, watching his valet screw the necks of three champagne bottles deeper into ice-pails. Between the points of his stand-up collar, which — though it hurt him to move — he would on no account have had altered, the pale flesh of his under chin remained immovable. His eyes roved from bottle to bottle. He was debating, and he argued like this: Jolyon drinks a glass, perhaps two, he’s so careful of himself. James, he can’t take his wine nowadays. Nicholas — Fanny and he would swill water he shouldn’t wonder! Soames didn’t count; these young nephews — Soames was thirty-one — couldn’t drink! But Bosinney?

Encountering in the name of this stranger something outside the range of his philosophy, Swithin paused. A misgiving arose within him! It was impossible to tell! June was only a girl, in love too! Emily (Mrs. James) liked a good glass of champagne. It was too dry for Juley, poor old soul, she had no palate. As to Hatty Chessman! The thought of this old friend caused a cloud of thought to obscure the perfect glassiness of his eyes: He shouldn’t wonder if she drank half a bottle!

But in thinking of his remaining guest, an expression like that of a cat who is just going to purr stole over his old face: Mrs. Soames! She mightn’t take much, but she would appreciate what she drank; it was a pleasure to give her good wine! A pretty woman — and sympathetic to him!

The thought of her was like champagne itself! A pleasure to give a good wine to a young woman who looked so well, who knew how to dress, with charming manners, quite distinguished — a pleasure to entertain her. Between the points of his collar he gave his head the first small, painful oscillation of the evening.

“Adolf!” he said. “Put in another bottle.”

He himself might drink a good deal, for, thanks to that prescription of Blight’s, he found himself extremely well, and he had been careful to take no lunch. He had not felt so well for weeks. Puffing out his lower lip, he gave his last instructions:

“Adolf, the least touch of the West India when you come to the ham.”

Passing into the anteroom, he sat down on the edge of a chair, with his knees apart; and his tall, bulky form was wrapped at once in an expectant, strange, primeval immobility. He was ready to rise at a moment’s notice. He had not given a dinner-party for months. This dinner in honour of June’s engagement had seemed a bore at first (among Forsytes the custom of solemnizing engagements by feasts was religiously observed), but the labours of sending invitations and ordering the repast over, he felt pleasantly stimulated.

And thus sitting, a watch in his hand, fat, and smooth, and golden, like a flattened globe of butter, he thought of nothing.

A long man, with side whiskers, who had once been in Swithin’s service, but was now a greengrocer, entered and proclaimed:

“Mrs. Chessman, Mrs. Septimus Small!”

Two ladies advanced. The one in front, habited entirely in red, had large, settled patches of the same colour in her cheeks, and a hard, dashing eye. She walked at Swithin, holding out a hand cased in a long, primrose-coloured glove:

“Well! Swithin,” she said, “I haven’t seen you for ages. How are you? Why, my dear boy, how stout you’re getting!”

The fixity of Swithin’s eye alone betrayed emotion. A dumb and grumbling anger swelled his bosom. It was vulgar to be stout, to talk of being stout; he had a chest, nothing more. Turning to his sister, he grasped her hand, and said in a tone of command:

“Well, Juley.”

Mrs. Septimus Small was the tallest of the four sisters; her good, round old face had gone a little sour; an innumerable pout clung all over it, as if it had been encased in an iron wire mask up to that evening, which, being suddenly removed, left little rolls of mutinous flesh all over her countenance. Even her eyes were pouting. It was thus that she recorded her permanent resentment at the loss of Septimus Small.

She had quite a reputation for saying the wrong thing, and, tenacious like all her breed, she would hold to it when she had said it, and add to it another wrong thing, and so on. With the decease of her husband the family tenacity, the family matter-of-factness, had gone sterile within her. A great talker, when allowed, she would converse without the faintest animation for hours together, relating, with epic monotony, the innumerable occasions on which Fortune had misused her; nor did she ever perceive that her hearers sympathized with Fortune, for her heart was kind.

Having sat, poor soul, long by the bedside of Small (a man of poor constitution), she had acquired, the habit, and there were countless subsequent occasions when she had sat immense periods of time to amuse sick people, children, and other helpless persons, and she could never divest herself of the feeling that the world was the most ungrateful place anybody could live in. Sunday after Sunday she sat at the feet of that extremely witty preacher, the Rev. Thomas Scoles, who exercised a great influence over her; but she succeeded in convincing everybody that even this was a misfortune. She had passed into a proverb in the family, and when anybody was observed to be peculiarly distressing, he was known as a regular ‘Juley.’ The habit of her mind would have killed anybody but a Forsyte at forty; but she was seventy-two, and had never looked better. And one felt that there were capacities for enjoyment about her which might yet come out. She owned three canaries, the cat Tommy, and half a parrot — in common with her sister Hester; — and these poor creatures (kept carefully out of Timothy’s way — he was nervous about animals), unlike human beings, recognising that she could not help being blighted, attached themselves to her passionately.

She was sombrely magnificent this evening in black bombazine, with a mauve front cut in a shy triangle, and crowned with a black velvet ribbon round the base of her thin throat; black and mauve for evening wear was esteemed very chaste by nearly every Forsyte.

Pouting at Swithin, she said:

“Ann has been asking for you. You haven’t been near us for an age!”

Swithin put his thumbs within the armholes of his waistcoat, and replied:

“Ann’s getting very shaky; she ought to have a doctor!”

“Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Forsyte!”

Nicholas Forsyte, cocking his rectangular eyebrows, wore a smile. He had succeeded during the day in bringing to fruition a scheme for the employment of a tribe from Upper India in the gold-mines of Ceylon. A pet plan, carried at last in the teeth of great difficulties — he was justly pleased. It would double the output of his mines, and, as he had often forcibly argued, all experience tended to show that a man must die; and whether he died of a miserable old age in his own country, or prematurely of damp in the bottom of a foreign mine, was surely of little consequence, provided that by a change in his mode of life he benefited the British Empire.

His ability was undoubted. Raising his broken nose towards his listener, he would add:

“For want of a few hundred of these fellows we haven’t paid a dividend for years, and look at the price of the shares. I can’t get ten shillings for them.”

He had been at Yarmouth, too, and had come back feeling that he had added at least ten years to his own life. He grasped Swithin’s hand, exclaiming in a jocular voice:

“Well, so here we are again!”

Mrs. Nicholas, an effete woman, smiled a smile of frightened jollity behind his back.

“Mr. and Mrs. James Forsyte! Mr. and Mrs. Soames Forsyte!”

Swithin drew his heels together, his deportment ever admirable.

“Well, James, well Emily! How are you, Soames? How do you do?”

His hand enclosed Irene’s, and his eyes swelled. She was a pretty woman — a little too pale, but her figure, her eyes, her teeth! Too good for that chap Soames!

The gods had given Irene dark brown eyes and golden hair, that strange combination, provocative of men’s glances, which is said to be the mark of a weak character. And the full, soft pallor of her neck and shoulders, above a gold-coloured frock, gave to her personality an alluring strangeness.

Soames stood behind, his eyes fastened on his wife’s neck. The hands of Swithin’s watch, which he still held open in his hand, had left eight behind; it was half an hour beyond his dinner-time — he had had no lunch — and a strange primeval impatience surged up within him.

“It’s not like Jolyon to be late!” he said to Irene, with uncontrollable vexation. “I suppose it’ll be June keeping him!”

“People in love are always late,” she answered.

Swithin stared at her; a dusky orange dyed his cheeks.

“They’ve no business to be. Some fashionable nonsense!”

And behind this outburst the inarticulate violence of primitive generations seemed to mutter and grumble.

“Tell me what you think of my new star, Uncle Swithin,” said Irene softly.

Among the lace in the bosom of her dress was shining a five-pointed star, made of eleven diamonds. Swithin looked at the star. He had a pretty taste in stones; no question could have been more sympathetically devised to distract his attention.

“Who gave you that?” he asked.

“Soames.”

There was no change in her face, but Swithin’s pale eyes bulged as though he might suddenly have been afflicted with insight.

“I dare say you’re dull at home,” he said. “Any day you like to come and dine with me, I’ll give you as good a bottle of wine as you’ll get in London.”

“Miss June Forsyte — Mr. Jolyon Forsyte! . . . Mr. Boswainey! . . . ”

Swithin moved his arm, and said in a rumbling voice:

“Dinner, now — dinner!”

He took in Irene, on the ground that he had not entertained her since she was a bride. June was the portion of Bosinney, who was placed between Irene and his fiancee. On the other side of June was James with Mrs. Nicholas, then old Jolyon with Mrs. James, Nicholas with Hatty Chessman, Soames with Mrs. Small, completing, the circle to Swithin again.

Family dinners of the Forsytes observe certain traditions. There are, for instance, no hors d’oeuvre. The reason for this is unknown. Theory among the younger members traces it to the disgraceful price of oysters; it is more probably due to a desire to come to the point, to a good practical sense deciding at once that hors d’oeuvre are but poor things. The Jameses alone, unable to withstand a custom almost universal in Park Lane, are now and then unfaithful.

A silent, almost morose, inattention to each other succeeds to the subsidence into their seats, lasting till well into the first entree, but interspersed with remarks such as, “Tom’s bad again; I can’t tell what’s the matter with him!” “I suppose Ann doesn’t come down in the mornings?”—“What’s the name of your doctor, Fanny?” “Stubbs?” “He’s a quack!”—“Winifred? She’s got too many children. Four, isn’t it? She’s as thin as a lath!”—“What d’you give for this sherry, Swithin? Too dry for me!”

With the second glass of champagne, a kind of hum makes itself heard, which, when divested of casual accessories and resolved into its primal element, is found to be James telling a story, and this goes on for a long time, encroaching sometimes even upon what must universally be recognised as the crowning point of a Forsyte feast —‘the saddle of mutton.’

No Forsyte has given a dinner without providing a saddle of mutton. There is something in its succulent solidity which makes it suitable to people ‘of a certain position.’ It is nourishing and tasty; the sort of thing a man remembers eating. It has a past and a future, like a deposit paid into a bank; and it is something that can be argued about.

Each branch of the family tenaciously held to a particular locality — old Jolyon swearing by Dartmoor, James by Welsh, Swithin by Southdown, Nicholas maintaining that people might sneer, but there was nothing like New Zealand! As for Roger, the ‘original’ of the brothers, he had been obliged to invent a locality of his own, and with an ingenuity worthy of a man who had devised a new profession for his sons, he had discovered a shop where they sold German; on being remonstrated with, he had proved his point by producing a butcher’s bill, which showed that he paid more than any of the others. It was on this occasion that old Jolyon, turning to June, had said in one of his bursts of philosophy:

“You may depend upon it, they’re a cranky lot, the Forsytes — and you’ll find it out, as you grow older!”

Timothy alone held apart, for though he ate saddle of mutton heartily, he was, he said, afraid of it.

To anyone interested psychologically in Forsytes, this great saddle-of-mutton trait is of prime importance; not only does it illustrate their tenacity, both collectively and as individuals, but it marks them as belonging in fibre and instincts to that great class which believes in nourishment and flavour, and yields to no sentimental craving for beauty.

Younger members of the family indeed would have done without a joint altogether, preferring guinea-fowl, or lobster salad — something which appealed to the imagination, and had less nourishment — but these were females; or, if not, had been corrupted by their wives, or by mothers, who having been forced to eat saddle of mutton throughout their married lives, had passed a secret hostility towards it into the fibre of their sons.

The great saddle-of-mutton controversy at an end, a Tewkesbury ham commenced, together with the least touch of West Indian — Swithin was so long over this course that he caused a block in the progress of the dinner. To devote himself to it with better heart, he paused in his conversation.

From his seat by Mrs. Septimus Small Soames was watching. He had a reason of his own connected with a pet building scheme, for observing Bosinney. The architect might do for his purpose; he looked clever, as he sat leaning back in his chair, moodily making little ramparts with bread-crumbs. Soames noted his dress clothes to be well cut, but too small, as though made many years ago.

He saw him turn to Irene and say something and her face sparkle as he often saw it sparkle at other people — never at himself. He tried to catch what they were saying, but Aunt Juley was speaking.

Hadn’t that always seemed very extraordinary to Soames? Only last Sunday dear Mr. Scole, had been so witty in his sermon, so sarcastic, “For what,” he had said, “shall it profit a man if he gain his own soul, but lose all his property?” That, he had said, was the motto of the middle-class; now, what had he meant by that? Of course, it might be what middle-class people believed — she didn’t know; what did Soames think?

He answered abstractedly: “How should I know? Scoles is a humbug, though, isn’t he?” For Bosinney was looking round the table, as if pointing out the peculiarities of the guests, and Soames wondered what he was saying. By her smile Irene was evidently agreeing with his remarks. She seemed always to agree with other people.

Her eyes were turned on himself; Soames dropped his glance at once. The smile had died off her lips.

A humbug? But what did Soames mean? If Mr. Scoles was a humbug, a clergyman — then anybody might be — it was frightful!

“Well, and so they are!” said Soames.

During Aunt Juley’s momentary and horrified silence he caught some words of Irene’s that sounded like: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!’

But Swithin had finished his ham.

“Where do you go for your mushrooms?” he was saying to Irene in a voice like a courtier’s; “you ought to go to Smileybob’s — he’ll give ’em you fresh. These little men, they won’t take the trouble!”

Irene turned to answer him, and Soames saw Bosinney watching her and smiling to himself. A curious smile the fellow had. A half-simple arrangement, like a child who smiles when he is pleased. As for George’s nickname —‘The Buccaneer’— he did not think much of that. And, seeing Bosinney turn to June, Soames smiled too, but sardonically — he did not like June, who was not looking too pleased.

This was not surprising, for she had just held the following conversation with James:

“I stayed on the river on my way home, Uncle James, and saw a beautiful site for a house.”

James, a slow and thorough eater, stopped the process of mastication.

“Eh?” he said. “Now, where was that?”

“Close to Pangbourne.”

James placed a piece of ham in his mouth, and June waited.

“I suppose you wouldn’t know whether the land about there was freehold?” he asked at last. “You wouldn’t know anything about the price of land about there?”

“Yes,” said June; “I made inquiries.” Her little resolute face under its copper crown was suspiciously eager and aglow.

James regarded her with the air of an inquisitor.

“What? You’re not thinking of buying land!” he ejaculated, dropping his fork.

June was greatly encouraged by his interest. It had long been her pet plan that her uncles should benefit themselves and Bosinney by building country-houses.

“Of course not,” she said. “I thought it would be such a splendid place for — you or — someone to build a country-house!”

James looked at her sideways, and placed a second piece of ham in his mouth. . . .

“Land ought to be very dear about there,” he said.

What June had taken for personal interest was only the impersonal excitement of every Forsyte who hears of something eligible in danger of passing into other hands. But she refused to see the disappearance of her chance, and continued to press her point.

“You ought to go into the country, Uncle James. I wish I had a lot of money, I wouldn’t live another day in London.”

James was stirred to the depths of his long thin figure; he had no idea his niece held such downright views.

“Why don’t you go into the country?” repeated June; “it would do you a lot of good.”

“Why?” began James in a fluster. “Buying land — what good d’you suppose I can do buying land, building houses? — I couldn’t get four per cent. for my money!”

“What does that matter? You’d get fresh air.”

“Fresh air!” exclaimed James; “what should I do with fresh air,”

“I should have thought anybody liked to have fresh air,” said June scornfully.

James wiped his napkin all over his mouth.

“You don’t know the value of money,” he said, avoiding her eye.

“No! and I hope I never shall!” and, biting her lip with inexpressible mortification, poor June was silent.

Why were her own relations so rich, and Phil never knew where the money was coming from for to-morrow’s tobacco. Why couldn’t they do something for him? But they were so selfish. Why couldn’t they build country-houses? She had all that naive dogmatism which is so pathetic, and sometimes achieves such great results. Bosinney, to whom she turned in her discomfiture, was talking to Irene, and a chill fell on June’s spirit. Her eyes grew steady with anger, like old Jolyon’s when his will was crossed.

James, too, was much disturbed. He felt as though someone had threatened his right to invest his money at five per cent. Jolyon had spoiled her. None of his girls would have said such a thing. James had always been exceedingly liberal to his children, and the consciousness of this made him feel it all the more deeply. He trifled moodily with his strawberries, then, deluging them with cream, he ate them quickly; they, at all events, should not escape him.

No wonder he was upset. Engaged for fifty-four years (he had been admitted a solicitor on the earliest day sanctioned by the law) in arranging mortgages, preserving investments at a dead level of high and safe interest, conducting negotiations on the principle of securing the utmost possible out of other people compatible with safety to his clients and himself, in calculations as to the exact pecuniary possibilities of all the relations of life, he had come at last to think purely in terms of money. Money was now his light, his medium for seeing, that without which he was really unable to see, really not cognisant of phenomena; and to have this thing, “I hope I shall never know the value of money!” said to his face, saddened and exasperated him. He knew it to be nonsense, or it would have frightened him. What was the world coming to! Suddenly recollecting the story of young Jolyon, however, he felt a little comforted, for what could you expect with a father like that! This turned his thoughts into a channel still less pleasant. What was all this talk about Soames and Irene?

As in all self-respecting families, an emporium had been established where family secrets were bartered, and family stock priced. It was known on Forsyte ‘Change that Irene regretted her marriage. Her regret was disapproved of. She ought to have known her own mind; no dependable woman made these mistakes.

James reflected sourly that they had a nice house (rather small) in an excellent position, no children, and no money troubles. Soames was reserved about his affairs, but he must be getting a very warm man. He had a capital income from the business — for Soames, like his father, was a member of that well-known firm of solicitors, Forsyte, Bustard and Forsyte — and had always been very careful. He had done quite unusually well with some mortgages he had taken up, too — a little timely foreclosure — most lucky hits!

There was no reason why Irene should not be happy, yet they said she’d been asking for a separate room. He knew where that ended. It wasn’t as if Soames drank.

James looked at his daughter-in-law. That unseen glance of his was cold and dubious. Appeal and fear were in it, and a sense of personal grievance. Why should he be worried like this? It was very likely all nonsense; women were funny things! They exaggerated so, you didn’t know what to believe; and then, nobody told him anything, he had to find out everything for himself. Again he looked furtively at Irene, and across from her to Soames. The latter, listening to Aunt Juley, was looking up, under his brows in the direction of Bosinney.

‘He’s fond of her, I know,’ thought James. ‘Look at the way he’s always giving her things.’

And the extraordinary unreasonableness of her disaffection struck him with increased force.

It was a pity, too, she was a taking little thing, and he, James, would be really quite fond of her if she’d only let him. She had taken up lately with June; that was doing her no good, that was certainly doing her no good. She was getting to have opinions of her own. He didn’t know what she wanted with anything of the sort. She’d a good home, and everything she could wish for. He felt that her friends ought to be chosen for her. To go on like this was dangerous.

June, indeed, with her habit of championing the unfortunate, had dragged from Irene a confession, and, in return, had preached the necessity of facing the evil, by separation, if need be. But in the face of these exhortations, Irene had kept a brooding silence, as though she found terrible the thought of this struggle carried through in cold blood. He would never give her up, she had said to June.

“Who cares?” June cried; “let him do what he likes — you’ve only to stick to it!” And she had not scrupled to say something of this sort at Timothy’s; James, when he heard of it, had felt a natural indignation and horror.

What if Irene were to take it into her head to — he could hardly frame the thought — to leave Soames? But he felt this thought so unbearable that he at once put it away; the shady visions it conjured up, the sound of family tongues buzzing in his ears, the horror of the conspicuous happening so close to him, to one of his own children! Luckily, she had no money — a beggarly fifty pound a year! And he thought of the deceased Heron, who had had nothing to leave her, with contempt. Brooding over his glass, his long legs twisted under the table, he quite omitted to rise when the ladies left the room. He would have to speak to Soames — would have to put him on his guard; they could not go on like this, now that such a contingency had occurred to him. And he noticed with sour disfavour that June had left her wine-glasses full of wine.

‘That little, thing’s at the bottom of it all,’ he mused; ‘Irene’d never have thought of it herself.’ James was a man of imagination.

The voice of Swithin roused him from his reverie.

“I gave four hundred pounds for it,” he was saying. “Of course it’s a regular work of art.”

“Four hundred! H’m! that’s a lot of money!” chimed in Nicholas.

The object alluded to was an elaborate group of statuary in Italian marble, which, placed upon a lofty stand (also of marble), diffused an atmosphere of culture throughout the room. The subsidiary figures, of which there were six, female, nude, and of highly ornate workmanship, were all pointing towards the central figure, also nude, and female, who was pointing at herself; and all this gave the observer a very pleasant sense of her extreme value. Aunt Juley, nearly opposite, had had the greatest difficulty in not looking at it all the evening.

Old Jolyon spoke; it was he who had started the discussion.

“Four hundred fiddlesticks! Don’t tell me you gave four hundred for that?”

Between the points of his collar Swithin’s chin made the second painful oscillatory movement of the evening.

“Four-hundred-pounds, of English money; not a farthing less. I don’t regret it. It’s not common English — it’s genuine modern Italian!”

Soames raised the corner of his lip in a smile, and looked across at Bosinney. The architect was grinning behind the fumes of his cigarette. Now, indeed, he looked more like a buccaneer.

“There’s a lot of work about it,” remarked James hastily, who was really moved by the size of the group. “It’d sell well at Jobson’s.”

“The poor foreign dey-vil that made it,” went on Swithin, “asked me five hundred — I gave him four. It’s worth eight. Looked half-starved, poor dey-vil!”

“Ah!” chimed in Nicholas suddenly, “poor, seedy-lookin’ chaps, these artists; it’s a wonder to me how they live. Now, there’s young Flageoletti, that Fanny and the girls are always hav’in’ in, to play the fiddle; if he makes a hundred a year it’s as much as ever he does!”

James shook his head. “Ah!” he said, “I don’t know how they live!”

Old Jolyon had risen, and, cigar in mouth, went to inspect the group at close quarters.

“Wouldn’t have given two for it!” he pronounced at last.

Soames saw his father and Nicholas glance at each other anxiously; and, on the other side of Swithin, Bosinney, still shrouded in smoke.

‘I wonder what he thinks of it?’ thought Soames, who knew well enough that this group was hopelessly vieux jeu; hopelessly of the last generation. There was no longer any sale at Jobson’s for such works of art.

Swithin’s answer came at last. “You never knew anything about a statue. You’ve got your pictures, and that’s all!”

Old Jolyon walked back to his seat, puffing his cigar. It was not likely that he was going to be drawn into an argument with an obstinate beggar like Swithin, pig-headed as a mule, who had never known a statue from a —-straw hat.

“Stucco!” was all he said.

It had long been physically impossible for Swithin to start; his fist came down on the table.

“Stucco! I should like to see anything you’ve got in your house half as good!”

And behind his speech seemed to sound again that rumbling violence of primitive generations.

It was James who saved the situation.

“Now, what do you say, Mr. Bosinney? You’re an architect; you ought to know all about statues and things!”

Every eye was turned upon Bosinney; all waited with a strange, suspicious look for his answer.

And Soames, speaking for the first time, asked:

“Yes, Bosinney, what do you say?”

Bosinney replied coolly:

“The work is a remarkable one.”

His words were addressed to Swithin, his eyes smiled slyly at old Jolyon; only Soames remained unsatisfied.

“Remarkable for what?”

“For its naivete”

The answer was followed by an impressive silence; Swithin alone was not sure whether a compliment was intended.

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