Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XI

Converting the Slums

In an Age governed almost exclusively by Committees, Michael knew fairly well what Committees were governed by. A Committee must not meet too soon after food, for then the Committeemen would sleep; nor too soon before food, because then the Committeemen would be excitable. The Committeemen should be allowed to say what they liked, without direction, until each was tired of hearing the others say it. But there must be some one present, preferably the Chairman, who said little, thought more, and could be relied on to be awake when that moment was reached, whereupon a middle policy voiced by him to exhausted receivers, would probably be adopted.

Having secured his bishop, and Sir Godfrey Bedwin, who specialised in chests, and failed with his Uncle Lionel Charwell, who had scented the work destined for Lady Alison his wife, Michael convened the first meeting for three o’clock in South Square on the day of Fleur’s departure for the sea. Hilary was present, and a young woman, to take them down. Surprise came early. They all attended, and fell into conversation around the Spanish table. It was plain to Michael that the bishop and Sir Timothy Fanfield had expectations of the Chair; and he kicked his father under the table, fearing that one of them might propose the other in the hope of the other proposing the one. Sir Lawrence then murmured:

“My dear, that’s my shin.”

“I know,” muttered Michael; “shall we get on with it?”

Dropping his eyeglass, Sir Lawrence said:

“Exactly! Gentlemen, I propose that the Squire takes the Chair. Will you second that, Marquess?”

The Marquess nodded.

The blow was well received, and the Squire proceeded to the head of the table. He began as follows:—

“I won’t beat about the bush. You all know as much about it as I do, which is precious little. The whole thing is the idea of Mr. Hilary Charwell here, so I’ll ask him to explain it to us. The slums are C3 breeders, and verminous into the bargain, and anything we can do to abate this nuisance, I, for one, should be happy to do. Will you give tongue, Mr. Charwell?”

Hilary dropped at once into a warm, witty and thorough exposition of his views, dwelling particularly on the human character of a problem “hitherto,” he said, “almost exclusively confined to Borough Councils, Bigotry and Blue Books.” That he had made an impression was instantly demonstrated by the buzz of voices. The Squire, who was sitting with his head up and his heels down, his knees apart and his elbows close to his sides, muttered:

“Let it rip! Can we smoke, Mont?” And, refusing the cigars and cigarettes proffered by Michael, he filled a pipe, and smoked in silence for several minutes.

“Then we’re all agreed,” he said, suddenly, “that what we want to do is to form this Fund.”

No one having as yet expressed any such opinion, this was the more readily assented to.

“In that case, we’d better get down to it and draw up our appeal.” And, pointing his pipe at Sir Lawrence, he added:

“You’ve got the gift of the gab with a pen, Mont; suppose you and the bishop and Charwell here go into another room and knock us out a draft. Pitch it strong, but no waterworks.”

When the designated three had withdrawn, conversation broke out again. Michael could hear the Squire and Sir Godfrey Bedwin talking of distemper, and the Marquess discussing with Mr. Montross the electrification of the latter’s kitchen. Sir Timothy Fanfield was staring at the Goya. He was a tall, lean man of about seventy, with a thin, hooked nose, brown face, and large white moustaches, who had been in the Household Cavalry and come out of it.

A little afraid of his verdict on the Goya, Michael said hastily:

“Well, Sir Timothy, the coal strike doesn’t end.”

“No; they ought to be shot. I’m all for the working man; but I’d shoot his leaders tomorrow.”

“What about the mine-owners?” queried Michael.

“I’d shoot their leaders, too. We shall never have industrial peace till we shoot somebody. Fact is, we didn’t shoot half enough people during the war. Conshies and Communists and Profiteers — I’d have had ’em all against a wall.”

“I’m very glad you came on our Committee, sir,” Michael murmured; “we want someone with strong views.”

“Ah!” said Sir Timothy, and pointing his chin towards the end of the table, he lowered his voice. “Between ourselves — bit too moderate, the Squire. You want to take these scoundrels by the throat. I knew a chap that owned half a slum and had the face to ask me to subscribe to a Missionary Fund in China. I told the fellow he ought to be shot. Impudent beggar — he didn’t like it.”

“No?” said Michael; and at this moment the young woman pulled his sleeve. Was she to take anything down?

Not at present — Michael thought.

Sir Timothy was again staring at the Goya.

“Family portrait?” he said.

“No,” said Michael; it’s a Goya.”

“Deuce it is! Goy is Jewish for Christian. Female Christian — what?”

“No, sir. Name of the Spanish painter.”

“No idea there were any except Murillo and Velasquez — never see anything like THEM now-a-days. These modern painters, you know, ought to be tortured. I say,” and again he lowered his voice, “bishop! — what! — they’re always running some hare of their own — Anti-Birth-Control, or Missions of sorts. We want to cut this C3 population off at the root. Stop ’em having babies by hook or crook; and then shoot a slum landlord or two — deal with both ends. But they’ll jib at it, you’ll see. D’you know anything about ants?”

“Only that they’re busy,” said Michael.

“I’ve made a study of ’em. Come down to my place in Hampshire, and I’ll show you my slides — most interestin’ insects in the world.” He lowered his voice again:

“Who’s that talkin’ to the old Marquess? What! The rubber man? Jew, isn’t he? What axe is HE grinding? The composition of this Committee’s wrong, Mr. Mont. Old Shropshire’s a charmin’ old man, but —” Sir Timothy touched his forehead —“mad as a March hare about electricity. You’ve got a doctor, too. They’re too mealy-mouthed. What you want is a Committee that’ll go for those scoundrels. Tea? Never drink it. Chap who invented tea ought to have been strung up.”

At this moment the Sub-Committee re-entering the room, Michael rose, not without relief.

“Hallo!” he heard the Squire say: “you’ve been pretty slippy.”

The look of modest worth which passed over the faces of the Sub-Committee did not altogether deceive Michael, who knew that his Uncle had brought the draft appeal in his coat pocket. It was now handed up, and the Squire, putting on some horn-rimmed spectacles, began reading it aloud, as if it were an entry of hounds, or the rules of a race meeting. Michael could not help feeling that what it lost it gained — the Squire and emphasis were somehow incompatible. When he had finished reading, the Squire said:

“We can discuss it now, clause by clause. But time’s getting on, gentlemen. Personally, I think it about fills the bill. What do you say, Marquess?”

The Marquess leaned forward and took his beard in his hand.

“An admirable draft, with one exception. Not sufficient stress is laid on electrification of the kitchens. Sir Godfrey will bear me out. You can’t expect these poor people to keep their houses clean unless you can get rid of the smoke and the smells and the flies.”

“Well, we can put in something more about that, if you’ll give us the wording, Marquess.”

The Marquess began to write. Michael saw Sir Timothy twirl his moustaches.

“I’M not satisfied,” he began abruptly. “I want something that’ll make slum landlords sit up. We’re here to twist their tails. The appeal’s too mild.”

“M-m!” said the Squire; “What do you suggest, Fanfield?”

Sir Timothy read from his shirt cuff.

“‘We record our conviction that anyone who owns slum property ought to be shot. These gentlemen —’”

“THAT won’t do,” said the Squire.

“Why not?”

“All sorts of respectable people own slum property — Widows, Syndicates, Dukes, goodness-knows-who! We can’t go calling them gentlemen, and sayin’ they ought to be shot. It won’t DO.”

The bishop leaned forward:

“Might we rather word it like this? ‘The signatories much regret that those persons who own slum property are not more alive to their responsibilities to the community at large.’”

“Good Lord!” burst from Sir Timothy.

“I think we might pitch it stronger than that, Bishop,” said Sir Lawrence: “But we ought to have a lawyer here, to tell us exactly how far we can go.”

Michael turned to the Chairman:

“I’ve got one in the house, sir. My father-inlaw — I saw him come in just now. I daresay he’d advise us.”

“Old Forsyte!” said Sir Lawrence. “The very man! We ought to have him on the Committee, Squire. He’s well up in the law of libel.”

“Ah!” said the Marquess: “Mr. Forsyte! By all means — a steady head.”

“Let’s co-opt him, then,” said the Squire; “a lawyer’s always useful.”

Michael went out.

Having drawn the Fragonard blank, he went up to his study, and was greeted by Soames’ “What’s this?”

“Pretty good, sir, don’t you think? It’s Fleur’s — got feeling.”

“Yes,” muttered Soames; “too much, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“You saw the hats in the hall, no doubt. My Slum Conversion Committee are just drafting their appeal, and they’d be most frightfully obliged to you, sir, as a lawyer, if you’d come down and cast your eye over one or two of the allusions to slum landlords. They want to go just far enough, you know. In fact, if it wouldn’t bore you terribly, they’d like to co-opt you on the Committee.”

“Would they?” said Soames: “And who are THEY?”

Michael ran over the names.

Soames drew up a nostril. “Lot of titles! Is this a wild-cat thing?”

“Oh! no, sir. Our wish to have you on is a guarantee against that. Besides, our Chairman, Wilfred Bentworth, has refused a title three times.”

“Well,” said Soames, “I don’t know. I’ll come and have a look at them.”

“That’s very good of you. I think you’ll find them thoroughly respectable,” and he preceded Soames downstairs.

“This is quite out of my line,” said Soames on the threshold. He was greeted with a number of little silent bows and nods. It was his impression that they’d been having a scrap.

“Mr. — Mr. Forsyte,” said what he supposed was this Bentworth, “we want you as a lawyer to come on this Committee and keep us — er — straight — check our fire-eaters, like Fanfield there, if you know what I mean;” and he looked over his tortoiseshell spectacles at Sir Timothy. “Just cast your eye over this, will you be so good?” He passed a sheet of paper to Soames, who had sat down on a chair slipped under him by the young woman. Soames began to read:

“‘While we suppose that there may be circumstances which justify the possession of slum property, we never-the-less regret profoundly the apparent indifference of most slum owners to this great national evil. With the hearty cooperation of slum property owners, much might be done which at present cannot be done. We do not wish to hold them up to the execration of anyone, but we want them to realise that they must at least co-operate in getting rid of this blot on our civilisation.’”

He read it twice, holding the end of his nose between his thumb and finger; then said: “‘We don’t wish to hold them up to the execration of anyone.’ If you don’t, you don’t; then why say so? The word ‘execration’! H’m!”

“Exactly!” said the Chairman: “Most valuable to have you on the Committee, Mr. — Forsyte.”

“Not at all,” said Soames, staring round him: “I don’t know that I’m coming on.”

“Look here, sir!” And Soames saw a fellow who looked like a General in a story-book, leaning towards him: “D’you mean to say we can’t use a mild word like ‘execration,’ when we know they ought to be shot?”

Soames gave a pale smile: if there was a thing he couldn’t stand, it was militarism.

“You can use it if you like,” he said, “but not with me or any other man of judgment on the Committee.”

At his words at least four members of the Committee burst into speech. Had he said anything too strong?

“We’ll pass that without those words, then,” said the Chairman. “Now for your clause about the kitchens, Marquess. That’s important.”

The Marquess began reading; Soames looked at him almost with benevolence. They had hit it off very well over the Morland. No one objected to the addition, and it was adopted.

“That’s that, then. I don’t think there’s anything more. I want to get off.”

“A minute, Mr. Chairman.” Soames saw that the words were issuing from behind a walrus-like moustache. “I know more of these people than any of you here. I started life in the slums, and I want to tell you something. Suppose you get some money, suppose you convert some streets, will you convert those people? No, gentlemen; you won’t.”

“Their children, Mr. Montross, their children,” said a man whom Soames recognized as one of those who had married Michael to his daughter.

“I’m not against the appeal, Mr. Charwell, but I’m a self-made man and a realist, and I know what we’re up against. I’m going to put some money into this, gentlemen, but I want you to know that I do so with my eyes open.”

Soames saw the eyes, melancholy and brown, fixed on himself, and had a longing to say: “You bet!” But, looking at Sir Lawrence, he saw that “old Mont” had the longing, too, and closed his lips firmly.

“Capital!” said the Chairman. “Well, Mr. Forsyte, are you joining us?”

Soames looked round the table.

“I’ll go into the matter,” he said, “and let you know.”

Almost instantly the Committee broke towards their hats, and he was left opposite the Goya with the Marquess.

“A Goya, Mr. Forsyte, I think, and a good one. Am I mistaken, or didn’t it once belong to Burlingford?”

“Yes,” said Soames, astonished. “I bought it when Lord Burlingford sold his pictures in 1910.”

“I thought so. Poor Burlingford! He got very rattled, I remember over the House of Lords. But, you see, they’ve done nothing since. How English it all was!”

“They’re a dilatory lot,” murmured Soames, whose political recollections were of the vaguest.

“Fortunately, perhaps,” said the Marquess; “there is so much leisure for repentance.”

“I can show you another picture or two, here, if you care for them,” said Soames.

“Do,” said the Marquess; and Soames led him across the hall, now evacuated by the hats.

“Watteau, Fragonard, Pater, Chardin,” said Soames.

The Marquess was gazing from picture to picture with his head a little on one side.

“Delightful!” he said. “What a pleasant, and what a worthless age that was! After all, the French are the only people that can make vice attractive, except perhaps the Japanese, before they were spoiled. Tell me, Mr. Forsyte, do you know any Englishman who has done it?”

Soames, who had never studied the question and was hampered by not knowing whether he wanted an Englishman to do it, was hesitating when the Marquess added:

“And yet no such domestic people as the French.”

“My wife’s French,” said Soames, looking round his nose.

“Indeed!” said the Marquess: “How pleasant!”

Soames was again about to answer, when the Marquess continued:

“To see them go out on Sundays — the whole family, with their bread and cheese, their sausage and wine! A truly remarkable people!”

“I prefer ourselves,” said Soames, bluntly. “Less ornamental, perhaps, but —” he stopped short of his country’s virtues.

“The first of my family, Mr. Forsyte, was undoubtedly a Frenchman — not even a Norman Frenchman. There’s a tradition that he was engaged to keep William Rufus’s hair red, when it was on the turn. They gave him lands, so he must have been successful. We’ve had a red streak in the family ever since. My granddaughter —” He regarded Soames with a bird-like eye —“But she and your daughter hardly got on, I remember.”

“No,” said Soames, grimly, “they hardly got on.”

“I’m told they’ve made it up.”

“I don’t think so,” said Soames; “but that’s ancient history.”

In the stress of his present uneasiness he could have wished it were modern.

“Well, Mr. Forsyte, I’m delighted to have seen these pictures. Your son-inlaw tells me he’s going to electrify the kitchen here. Believe me, there’s nothing more conducive to a quiet stomach than a cook who never gets heated. Do tell Mrs. Forsyte that!”

“I will,” said Soames; “but the French are conservative.”

“Lamentably so,” replied the Marquess, holding out his hand: “Good-bye to you!”

“Good-bye!” said Soames, and remained at the window, gazing after the old man’s short, quick figure in its grey-green tweeds, with a feeling of having been slightly electrified.

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