Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter XI

“Great Forsyte”

On the morning after the Slum Conversion Committee meeting Soames had started early. It was his intention to spend the night somewhere “down there,” look at his roots the following morning, and motor part of the way home. On the day after, he would return to town and see if he couldn’t carry Fleur back with him to Mapledurham for a long weekend. He reached a seaside hostel ten miles from his origin about six o’clock, ate a damp dinner, smoked his own cigar, and went to a bed in which, for insurance sake, he placed a camel’s hair shawl.

He had thought things out, and was provided with an ordinance map on an inordinate scale. He meant to begin his investigation by seeing the church. For he had little to go by except a memory that his father James had once been down, and had returned speaking of a church by the sea, and supposing that there might be “parish entries and that, but it was a long time back and he didn’t know.”

After an early breakfast he directed Riggs towards the church. As James had said, it was close to the sea, and it was open. Soames went in. A little old grey church with funny pews, and a damp smell. There wouldn’t be any tablets to his name, he supposed. There were not, and he went out again, to wander among the gravestones, overcome by a sense of unreality — everything underground, and each gravestone, older than the last century, undecipherable. He was about to turn away when he stumbled. Looking down in disapproval at a flat stone, he saw on the worn and lichened surface a capital F. He stood for a minute, scrutinizing, then went down on his knees with a sort of thrill. Two names — the first had an undoubted capital J, a y, and an n; the second name began with that capital F, and had what looked like an s in the middle, and the remains of a tall letter last but one! The date? By George — the date was legible! 1777. Scraping gingerly at the first name, he disinterred an o. Four letters out of the six in Jolyon; three letters out of Forsyte. There could hardly be a doubt that he had stumbled over his great-great-grandfather! Supposing the old chap had lived to the ordinary age of a Forsyte, his birth would be near the beginning of the eighteenth century! His eyes gimletted the stone with a hard grey glance as though to pierce to the bones beneath — clean as a whistle long since, no doubt! Then he rose from his knees and dusted them. He had a date now. And, singularly fortified, he emerged from the graveyard, and cast a suspicious look at Riggs. Had he been seen on his knees? But the fellow was seated, as usual, with his back to everything, smoking his eternal cigarette. Soames got into the car.

“I want the vicarage now, or whatever it is.”

“Yes, sir.”

He was always saying “Yes, sir,” without having an idea of where places were.

“You’d better ask,” he said, as the car moved up the rutted lane. Sooner than ask, the fellow would go back to London! Not that there was anyone to ask. Soames was impressed, indeed, by the extreme emptiness of this parish where his roots lay. It seemed terribly hilly, and full of space, with large fields, some woods in the coombe to the left, and a soil that you couldn’t swear by — not red and not white and not brown exactly; the sea was blue, however, and the cliffs, so far as he could judge, streaky. The lane bent to the right, past a blacksmith’s forge.

“Hi!” said Soames, “pull up!” He himself got out to ask. That fellow never made head or tail of what he was told.

The blacksmith was hammering at a wheel, and Soames waited till his presence was observed.

“Where’s the vicarage?”

“Up the lane, third ’ouse on the right.”

“Thank you,” said Soames, and, looking at the man suspiciously, added:

“Is the name Forsyte known hereabouts nowadays?”

“What’s that?”

“Have you ever heard the name Forsyte?”

“Farsyt? Noa.”

Soames heard him with a disappointed relief, and resumed his seat. What if he’d said: “Yes, it’s mine!”

A blacksmith’s was a respectable occupation, but he felt that he could do without it in the family. The car moved on.

The vicarage was smothered in creeper. Probably the Vicar would be, too! He rang a rusty bell and waited. The door was opened by a red-cheeked girl. It was all very rustic.

“I want the Vicar,” said Soames. “Is he in?”

“Yes, sir. What name?”

But at this moment a thin man in a thin suit and a thin beard came out from a doorway, saying:

“Am I wanted, Mary?”

“Yes,” said Soames; “here’s my card.”

There ought — he felt — to be a way of enquiring about one’s origin that would be distinguished; but, not finding it, he added simply:

“My family came from hereabouts some generations back; I just wanted to have a look at the place, and ask you a question or two.”

“Forsyte?” said the Vicar, gazing at the card: “I don’t know the name, but I daresay we shall find something.”

His clothes were extremely well worn, and Soames had the impression that his eyes would have been glad if they could. ‘Smells a fee,’ he thought; ‘poor devil!’

“Will you come in?” said the Vicar. “I’ve got some records and an old tythe map. We might have a look at them. The registers go back to 1580. I could make a search for you.”

“I don’t know if that’s worth while,” said Soames, following him into a room that impressed him as dismal beyond words.

“Do sit down,” said the Vicar. “I’ll get that map. Forsyte? I seem to remember the name now.”

The fellow was agreeable, and looked as if he could do with an honest penny!

“I’ve been up to the church,” said Soames: “it seems very close to the sea.”

“Yes; they used to use the pulpit, I’m afraid, to hide their smuggled brandy.”

“I got a date in the graveyard — 1777; the stones are very much let down.”

“Yes,” said the Vicar, who was groping in a cupboard; “one’s difficulty is the sea air. Here’s the map I spoke of”; and, unrolling a large and dingy map, he laid it on the table, weighting down the corners with a tin of tobacco, an inkstand, a book of sermons, and a dog whip. The latter was not heavy enough, and the map curled slowly away from Soames.

“Sometimes,” said the Vicar, restoring the corner, and looking round for something to secure it, “we get very useful information from these old maps.”

“I’ll keep it down,” said Soames, bending over the map. “I suppose you get a lot of Americans, fishing for ancestors?”

“Not a lot,” said the Vicar, with a sideway glance that Soames did not quite like. “I can remember two. Ah! here,” and his finger came down on the map, “I THOUGHT I remembered the name — it’s unusual. Look! This field close to the sea is marked ‘Great Forsyte!’”

Again Soames felt a thrill.

“What size is that field?”

“Twenty-four acres. There was the ruin of an old house, I remember, just there; they took the stones away in the war to make our shooting range. ‘Great Forsyte’— isn’t that interesting?”

“More interesting to me,” said Soames, “if they’d left the stones.”

“The spot is still marked with an old cross — the cattle use it for a rubbing stone. It’s close to the hedge on the right hand side of the coombe.”

“Could I get to it with the car?”

“Oh, yes; by going round the head of the coombe. Would you like me to come?”

“No, thanks,” said Soames. The idea of being overlooked while inspecting his roots was unpleasant to him. “But if you’d kindly make a search in the register while I’m gone, I could call back after lunch and see the result. My great-grandfather, Jolyon Forsyte, died at Studmouth. The stone I found was Jolyon Forsyte, buried in 1777 — he’d be my great-great-grandfather, no doubt. I daresay you could pick up his birth, and perhaps HIS father’s — I fancy they were a long-lived lot. The name Jolyon seems to have been a weakness with them.”

“I could make a search at once. It would take some hours. What would you think reasonable?”

“Five guineas?” hazarded Soames.

“Oh! That would be generous. I’ll make a very thorough search. Now, let me come and tell you how to get to it.” With a slight pang Soames followed him — a gentleman in trousers shiny behind.

“You go up this road to the fork, take the left-hand branch past the post-office, and right on round the head of the coombe, always bearing to the left, till you pass a farm called ‘Uphays.’ Then on till the lane begins to drop; there’s a gate on the right, and if you go through it you’ll find yourself at the top of that field with the sea before you. I’m so pleased to have found something. Won’t you have a little lunch with us when you come back?”

“Thank you,” said Soames, “very good of you, but I’ve got my lunch with me,” and was instantly ashamed of his thought. ‘Does he think I’m going to make off without paying?’ Raising his hat slightly, he got into the car, with his umbrella in his hand, so as to poke Riggs in the back when the fellow took his wrong turnings.

He sat, contented, using the umbrella gingerly now and then. So! To get baptized and buried, they used to cross the coombe. Twenty-four acres was quite a field. “Great Forsyte”; there must have been “Little Forsytes,” too.

The farm the Vicar had spoken of appeared to be a rambling place of old buildings, pigs and poultry.

“Keep on,” he said to Riggs, “until the lane drops, and go slow, I want a gate on the right.”

The fellow was rushing along as usual, and the lane already dropping downhill.

“Hold hard! There it is!” The car came to a standstill at a rather awkward bend.

“You’ve overshot it!” said Soames, and got out. “Wait here! I may be some time.”

Taking off his overcoat and carrying it on his arm, he went back to the gate, and passed through into a field of grass. He walked downwards to the hedge on the left, followed it round, and presently came in view of the sea, bright, peaceful, hazy, with a trail of smoke in the distance. The air beat in from the sea, fresh air, strong and salt. Ancestral! Soames took some deep breaths, savouring it, as one might an old wine. Its freshness went a little to his head, so impregnated with ozone or iodine, or whatever it was nowadays. And then, below him, perhaps a hundred yards away, above a hollow near the hedge he saw the stone, and again felt that thrill. He looked back. Yes! He was out of sight of the lane, and had his feelings to himself! And going up to the stone, he gazed down at the hollow between him and the hedge. Below it the field sloped to the beach, and what looked like the ghost of a lane ran up towards the hollow from the coombe. In that hollow then, the house had been; and there they’d lived, the old Forsytes, for generations, pickled in this air, without another house in sight — nothing but this expanse of grass in view and the sea beyond, and the gulls on that rock, and the waves beating over it. There they’d lived, tilling the land, and growing rheumatic, and crossing the coombe to church, and getting their brandy free, perhaps. He went up and examined the stone — upright, with another bit across the top — lintel of a barn, perhaps — nothing on it. Descending into the hollow, he poked about with his umbrella. During the war — the parson had said — they had removed the ruins. Only twelve years ago, but not a sign! Grassed over utterly, not even the shape visible. He explored up to the hedge. They’d made a clean sweep all right — nothing but grass now and a scrubble of fern and young gorse, such as would seize on a hollow for their growing. And, sitting on his overcoat with his back against the stone, Soames pondered. Had his forbears themselves built the house there in this lonely place — been the first to seat themselves on this bit of wind-swept soil? And something moved in him, as if the salty independence of that lonely spot were still in his bones. Old Jolyon and his own father and the rest of his uncles — no wonder they’d been independent, with this air and loneliness in their blood; and crabbed with the pickling of it — unable to give up, to let go, to die. For a moment he seemed to understand even himself. Southern spot, south aspect, not any of your northern roughness, but free, and salt, and solitary from sunrise to sunset, year in, year out, like that lonely rock with the gulls on it, for ever and for ever. And drawing the air deep into his lungs, he thought: ‘I’m not surprised old Timothy lived to be a hundred!’ A long time he sat there, nostalgically bemused, strangely unwilling to move. Never had he breathed anything quite like that air; or so, at least, it seemed to him. It had been the old England, when they lived down here — the England of pack-horses and very little smoke, of peat and wood fires, and wives who never left you, because they couldn’t, probably. A static England, that dug and wove, where your parish was your world, and you were a churchwarden if you didn’t take care. His own grandfather — begotten and born one hundred and fifty-six years ago, in the best bed, not two dozen paces from where he was sitting. What a change since then! For the better? Who could say? But here was this grass, and rock and sea, and the air and the gulls, and the old church over there beyond the coombe, precisely as they had been, only more so. If this field were in the market, he wouldn’t mind buying it as a curiosity. Only, if he did, nobody would come and sit here! They’d want to play golf over it or something. And, uneasy at having verged on the sentimental, Soames put his hand down and felt the grass. But it wasn’t damp, and he couldn’t conscientiously feel that he was catching rheumatism; and still he sat there, with the sunlight warming his cheeks, and his eyes fixed on the sea. The ships went up and down, far out — steamers; no smugglers nowadays, and you paid the deuce of a price for brandy! In the old time here, without newspapers, with nothing from the outer world, you’d grow up without any sense of the State or that sort of thing. There’d be the church and your Bible, he supposed, and the market some miles away, and you’d work and eat and sleep and breathe the air and drink your cider and embrace your wife and watch your children, from June to June; and a good thing, too! What more did you do now that brought you any satisfaction? ‘Change, it’s all on the surface,’ thought Soames; ‘the roots are the same. You can’t get beyond them — try as you will!’ Progress, civilization, what were they for? Unless, indeed, to foster hobbies — collecting pictures, or what not? He didn’t see how the old chaps down here could have had hobbies — except for bees, perhaps. Hobbies? Just for that — just to give people a chance to have hobbies? He’d had a lot of amusement out of his own; and but for progress would never have had it. No! He’d have been down here still, perhaps, shearing his sheep or following a plough, and his daughter would be a girl with sturdy ankles and one new hat. Perhaps it was just as well that you couldn’t stop the clock! Ah! and it was time he was getting back to the lane before that chap came to look for him. And, getting up, Soames descended once more into the hollow. This time, close to the hedge, an object caught his eye, a very old boot — a boot so old that you could hardly swear by it. His lips became contorted in a faint smile. He seemed to hear his dead cousin George with his wry Forsytean humour cackling: “The ancestral boot! What ho, my wild ones! Let the portcullis fall!” Yes! They would laugh at him in the family if they knew he’d been looking at their roots. He shouldn’t say anything about it. And suddenly he went up to the boot, and, hooking the point of his umbrella under what was left of the toecap, flung it pettishly over the hedge. It defiled the loneliness — the feeling he had known, drinking-in that air. And very slowly he went back to the lane, so as not to get hot, and have to sit all damp in the car. But at the gate he stood, transfixed. What was all this? Two large, hairy horses were attached tandem to the back of his car with ropes, and beside them were three men, one of whom was Riggs, and two dogs, one of whom was lame. Soames perceived at once that it was all “that fellow!” In trying to back up the hill, which he ought never to have gone down, he had jammed the car so that it couldn’t move. He was always doing something! At this moment, however, “the fellow” mounted the car and moved the wheel; while one of the men cracked a whip. “Haup!” The hairy horses moved. Something in that slow, strong movement affected Soames. Progress! They had been obliged to fetch horses to drag Progress up the hill!

“That’s a good horse!” he said, pointing to the biggest.

“Ah! We call ’im Lion —‘e can pull, Haup!”

The car passed on to the level ground, and the horses were detached. Soames went up to the man who had said “Haup!”

“Are you from the farm back there?”

“Yes.”

“Do you own this field?”

“I farm it.”

“What do you call it?”

“Call it? The big field.”

“It’s marked ‘Great Forsyte’ on the tithe map. D’you know that name?”

“Farsyt? There’s none of the name now. My grandmother was called Farsyt.”

“Was she?” said Soames, and again felt the thrill.

“Ah!” said the farmer.

Soames controlled himself.

“And what’s YOUR name, if I may ask?”

“Beer.”

Soames looked at him rather long, and took out his note case.

“You must allow me,” he said, “for your horses and your trouble.” And he offered a pound note. The farmer shook his head.

“That’s naught,” he said; “you’re welcome. We’re always haulin’ cars off this ‘ill.”

“I really can’t take something for nothing,” said Soames. “You’ll oblige me!”

“Well,” said the farmer, “I thank yeou,” and he took the note. “Haup!”

The released horses moved forward and the men and dogs followed after them. Soames got into the car, and, opening his packet of sandwiches, began to eat.

“Drive back to the vicarage — slowly.” And, while he ate, he wondered why he had felt a thrill on discovering that some of his own blood ran in a hard-bitten looking chap called Beer — if, indeed, that WAS his name.

It was two o’clock when he reached the vicarage, and the Vicar came to him with his mouth full.

“I find a great may entries, Mr. Forsyte; the name goes back to the beginning of the register. I shall have to take my time to give you the complete list. That Jolyon seems to have been born in 1710, son of Jolyon and Mary; he didn’t pay his tithes in 1757. There was another Jolyon born in 1680, evidently the father — he was church-warden from 1715 on; described as ‘Yeoman of Hays —’ he married a Bere.”

Soames gazed at him, and took out his note case. “How do you spell it?” he said.

“B-e-r-e.”

“Oh! The farmer up there said that was his name, too. I thought he was gammoning me. It seems his grandmother was called Forsyte, and she was the last of them here. Perhaps you could send me the Bere entries, too, for an inclusive seven guineas?”

“Oh! Six will be ample.”

“No. We’ll make it seven. You’ve got my card. I saw the stone. A healthy spot, right away from everything.” He laid the seven guineas on the table, and again had an impression, as of glad eyes. “I must be getting back to London now. Good-bye!”

“Good-bye, Mr. Forsyte. Anything I can find out I shall make a point of sending you.”

Soames shook his hand and went out to the car with the feeling that his roots would be conscientiously pulled up. After all, it was something to be dealing with a parson.

“Go on,” he said to Riggs; “we’ll get the best part of the way home.”

And, lying back in the car, thoroughly tired, he mused. Great Forsyte! Well! He was glad he had come down.

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