Swan Song, by John Galsworthy

Chapter VI

Snuffbox

In the next room Val was saying to Holly:

“Had a chap I knew at college to see me today. Wanted me to lend him money. I once did, when I was jolly hard up myself, and never got it back. He used to impress me frightfully — such an awfully good-looking, languid beggar. I thought him top notch as a ‘blood.’ You should see him now!”

“I did. I was coming in as he was going out; I wondered who he was. I never saw a more bitterly contemptuous expression on a face. Did you lend him money?”

“Only a fiver.”

“Well, don’t lend him any more.”

“Hardly. D’you know what he’s done? Gone off with that Louis Quinze snuffbox of Mother’s that’s worth about two hundred. There’s been nobody else in that room.”

“Good heavens!”

“Yes, it’s pretty thick. He had the reputation of being the fastest man up at the ‘Varsity in my time — in with the gambling set. Since I went out to the Boer war I’ve never heard of him.”

“Isn’t your mother very annoyed, Val?”

“She wants to prosecute — it belonged to my granddad. But how can we — a college pal! . . . Besides, we shouldn’t get the box back.”

Holly ceased to brush her hair.

“It’s rather a comfort to me — this,” she said.

“What is?”

“Why, everybody says the standard of honesty’s gone down. It’s nice to find someone belonging to our generation that had it even less.”

“Rum comfort!”

“Human nature doesn’t alter, Val. I believe in the young generation. We don’t understand them — brought up in too settled times.”

“That may be. My own dad wasn’t too particular. But what am I to do about this?”

“Do you know his address?”

“He said the Brummell Club would find him — pretty queer haunt, if I remember. To come to sneaking things like that! It’s upset me fright-fully.”

Holly looked at him lying on his back in bed. Catching her eyes on him, he said:

“But for you, old girl, I might have gone a holy mucker myself.”

“Oh, no, Val! You’re too open-air. It’s the indoor people who go really wrong.”

Val grinned.

“Something in that — the only exercise I ever saw that fellow take was in a punt. He used to bet like anything, but he didn’t know a horse from a hedge-hog. Well, Mother must put up with it, I can’t do anything.”

Holly came up to his bed.

“Turn over, and I’ll tuck you up.”

Getting into bed herself, she lay awake, thinking of the man who had gone a holy mucker, and the contempt on his face — lined, dark, well-featured, with prematurely greying hair, and prematurely faded rings round the irises of the eyes; of his clothes, too, so preternaturally preserved, and the worn, careful school tie. She felt she knew him. No moral sense, and ingrained contempt for those who had. Poor Val! HE hadn’t so much moral sense that he need be despised for it! And yet —! With a good many risky male instincts, Val had been a loyal comrade all these years. If in philosophic reach or aesthetic taste he was not advanced, if he knew more of horses than of poetry, was he any the worse? She sometimes thought he was the better. The horse didn’t change shape or colour every five years and start reviling its predecessor. The horse was a constant, kept you from going too fast, and had a nose to stroke — more than you could say of a poet. They had, indeed, only one thing in common — a liking for sugar. Since the publication of her novel Holly had become member of the 1930 Club. Fleur had put her up, and whenever she came to town, she studied modernity there. Modernity was nothing but speed! People who blamed it might as well blame telephone, wireless, flying machine, and quick lunch counter. Beneath that top-dressing of speed, modernity was old. Women had worn fewer clothes when Jane Austen began to write. Drawers — the historians said — were only nineteenth-century productions. And take modern talk! After South Africa the speed of it certainly took one’s wind away; but the thoughts expressed were much her own thoughts as a girl, cut into breathless lengths, by car and telephone bell. Take modern courtships! They resulted in the same thing as under George the Second, but took longer to reach it, owing to the motor-cycle and the standing lunch. Take modern philosophy! People had no less real philosophy than Martin Tupper or Izaak Walton; only, unlike those celebrated ancients, they had no time to formulate it. As to a future life — modernity lived in hope, and not too much of that, as everyone had, from immemorial time. In fact, as a novelist naturally would, Holly jumped to conclusions. Scratch — she thought — the best of modern youth, and you would find Charles James Fox and Perdita in golf sweaters! A steady sound retrieved her thoughts. Val was asleep. How long and dark his eyelashes still were, but his mouth was open!

“Val,” she said, very softly; “Val! Don’t snore, dear!” . . .

* * * * *



A snuffbox may be precious, not so much for its enamel, its period, and its little brilliants, as because it has belonged to one’s father. Winifred, though her sense of property had been well proved by her retention of Montague Dartie ‘for poorer,’ throughout so many years, did not possess her brother Soames’ collecting instinct, nor, indeed, his taste in objects which George Forsyte had been the first to call ‘of bigotry and virtue.’ But the further Time removed her father James — a quarter of a century by now — the more she revered his memory. As some ancient general or philosopher, secured by age from competition, is acclaimed year by year a greater genius, so with James! His objection to change, his perfect domesticity, his power of saving money for his children, and his dread of not being told anything, were haloed for her more and more with every year that he spent underground. Her fashionable aspirations waning with the increase of adipose, the past waxed and became a very constellation of shining memories. The removal of this snuffbox — so tangible a reminder of James and Emily — tried her considerable equanimity more than anything that had happened to her for years. The thought that she had succumbed to the distinction of a voice on the telephone, caused her positive discomfort. With all her experience of distinction, she ought to have known better! She was, however, one of those women who, when a thing is done, admit the fact with a view to having it undone as soon as possible; and, having failed with Val, who merely said, “Awfully sorry, Mother, but there it is — jolly bad luck!” she summoned her brother.

Soames was little less than appalled. He remembered seeing James buy the box at Jobson’s for hardly more than one-tenth of what it would fetch now. Everything seemed futile if, in such a way, one could lose what had been nursed for forty years into so really magnificent a state of unearned increment. And the fellow who had taken it was of quite good family, or so his nephew said! Whether the honesty of the old Forsytes, in the atmosphere of which he had been brought up and turned out into the world, had been inherited or acquired — derived from their blood or their Banks — he had never considered. It had been in their systems just as the proverb “Honesty is the best policy” was in that of the private banking which then obtained. A slight reverie on banking was no uncommon affection of the mind in one who could recall the repercussion of “Understart and Darnett’s” failure, and the disappearance one by one of all the little, old Banks with legendary names. These great modern affairs were good for credit and bad for novelists — run on a Bank — there had been no better reading! Such monster concerns couldn’t ‘go broke,’ no matter what their clients did; but whether they made for honesty in the individual, Soames couldn’t tell. The snuffbox was gone, however; and if Winifred didn’t take care, she wouldn’t get it back. How, precisely, she was to take care he could not at present see; but he should advise her to put it into the hands of somebody at once.

“But whose, Soames?”

“There’s Scotland Yard,” answered Soames, gloomily. “I believe they’re very little good, except to make a fuss. There’s that fellow I employed in the Ferrar case. He charges very high.”

“I shouldn’t care so much,” said Winifred, “if it hadn’t belonged to the dear Dad.”

“Ruffians like that,” muttered Soames, “oughtn’t to be at large.”

“And to think,” said Winifred, “that it was especially to see him that Val came to stay here.”

“Was it?” said Soames, gloomily. “I suppose you’re sure that fellow took it?”

“Quite. I’d had it out to polish only a quarter of an hour before. After he went, I came back into the room at once, to put it away, and it was gone. Val had been in the room the whole time.”

Soames dwelled for a moment, then rejected a doubt about his nephew, for, though connected by blood with that precious father of his, Montague Dartie, and a racing man to boot, he was half a Forsyte after all.

“Well,” he said, “shall I send you this man — his name’s Becroft — always looks as if he’d over-shaved himself, but he’s got a certain amount of nous. I should suggest his getting in touch with that fellow’s club.”

“Suppose he’s already sold the box?” said Winifred.

“Yesterday afternoon? Should doubt that; but it wants immediate handling. I’ll see Becroft as I go away. Fleur’s overdoing it, with this canteen of hers.”

“They say she’s running it very well. I do think all these young women are so smart.”

“Quick enough,” grumbled Soames, “but steady does it in the long run.”

At that phrase — a maxim never far away from the lips of the old Forsytes in her youthful days — Winifred blinked her rather too light eyelashes.

“That was always rather a bore, you know, Soames. And in these days, if you’re not quick, things move past you, so.”

Soames gathered his hat. “That snuffbox will, if we don’t look sharp.”

“Well, thank you, dear boy. I do hope we get it back. The dear Pater was so proud of it, and when he died it wasn’t worth half what it is now.”

“Not a quarter,” said Soames, and the thought bored into him as he walked away. What was the use of having judgment, if anybody could come along and pocket the results! People sneered at property nowadays; but property was a proof of good judgment — it was one’s amour propre half the time. And he thought of the amour propre Bosinney had stolen from him in those far-off days of trouble. Yes, even marriage — was an exercise of judgment — a pitting of yourself against other people. You ‘spotted a winner,’ as they called it, or you didn’t — Irene hadn’t been ‘a winner’— not exactly! Ah! And he had forgotten to ask Winifred about that young Jon Forsyte who had suddenly come back into the wind. But about this snuffbox! The Brummell Club was some sort of betting place, he had heard; full of gamblers, and people who did and sold things on commission, he shouldn’t wonder. That was the vice of the day; that and the dole. Work? No! Sell things on commission — motor-cars, for choice. Brummell Club! Yes! This was the place! It had a window — he remembered. No harm, anyway, in asking if the fellow really belonged there! And entering, he enquired:

“Mr. Stainford a member here?”

“Yes. Don’t know if he’s in. Mr. Stainford been in, Bob?”

“Just come in.”

“Oh!” said Soames, rather taken aback.

“Gentleman to see him, Bob.”

A rather sinking sensation occurred within Soames.

“Come with me, sir.”

Soames took a deep breath, and his legs moved. In an alcove off the entrance — somewhat shabby and constricted — he could see a man lolling in an old armchair, smoking a cigarette through a holder. He had a little red book in one hand and a small pencil in the other, and held them as still as if he were about to jot down a conviction that he had not got. He wore a dark suit with little lines; his legs were crossed, and Soames noted that one foot in a worn brown shoe, treed and polished against age to the point of pathos, was slowly moving in a circle.

“Gemman to see you, sir.”

Soames now saw the face. Its eyebrows were lifted in a V reversed, its eyelids nearly covered its eyes. Together with the figure, it gave an impression of really remarkable languor. Thin to a degree, oval and pale, it seemed all shadow and slightly aquiline feature. The foot had become still, the whole affair still. Soames had the curious feeling of being in the presence of something arrogantly dead. Without time for thought, he began:

“Mr. Stainford, I think? Don’t disturb yourself. My name is Forsyte. You called at my sister’s in Green Street yesterday afternoon.”

A slight contraction of the lines round that small mouth was followed by the words:

“Will you sit down?”

The eyes had opened now, and must once have been beautiful. They narrowed again, so that Soames could not help feeling that their owner had outlived everything except himself. He swallowed a qualm and resumed:

“I just wanted to ask you a question. During your call, did you by any chance happen to notice a Louis Quinze snuffbox on the table? It’s — er — disappeared, and we want to fix the time of its loss.”

As a ghost might have smiled, so did the man in the chair; his eyes disappeared still further.

“Afraid not.”

With the thought, ‘He’s got it!’ Soames went on:

“I’m sorry — the thing had virtue as an heirloom. It has obviously been stolen. I wanted to narrow down the issue. If you’d noticed it, we could have fixed the exact hour — on the little table just where you were sitting — blue enamel.”

The thin shoulders wriggled slightly, as though resenting this attempt to place responsibility on them.

“Sorry I can’t help you; I noticed nothing but some rather good marqueterie.”

‘Coolest card I ever saw,’ thought Soames. ‘Wonder if it’s in his pocket.’

“The thing’s unique,” he said slowly. “The police won’t have much difficulty. Well, thanks very much. I apologise for troubling you. You knew my nephew at college, I believe. Good-morning.”

“Good-morning.”

From the door Soames took a stealthy glance. The figure was perfectly motionless, the legs still crossed, and above the little red book the pale forehead was poised under the smooth grizzling hair. Nothing to be made of that! But the fellow had it, he was sure.

He went out and down to the Green Park with a most peculiar feeling. Sneak thief! A gentleman to come to that! The Elderson affair had been bad, but somehow not pitiful like this. The whitened seams of the excellent suit, the traversing creases in the once admirable shoes, the faded tie exactly tied, were evidences of form preserved, day by day, from hand to mouth. They afflicted Soames. That languid figure! What DID a chap do when he had no money and couldn’t exert himself to save his life? Incapable of shame — that was clear! He must talk to Winifred again. And, turning on his heel, Soames walked back towards Green Street. Debouching from the Park, he saw on the opposite side of Piccadilly the languid figure. It, too, was moving in the direction of Green Street. Phew! He crossed over and followed. The chap had an air. He was walking like someone who had come into the world from another age — an age which set all its store on ‘form.’ He felt that ‘this chap’ would sooner part with life itself than exhibit interest in anything. Form! Could you carry contempt for emotion to such a pitch that you could no longer feel emotion? Could the lifted eyebrow become more important to you than all the movements of the heart and brain? Threadbare peacock’s feathers walking, with no peacock inside! To show feeling was perhaps the only thing of which that chap would be ashamed. And, a little astonished at his own powers of diagnosis, Soames followed round corner after corner, till he was actually in Green Street. By George! The chap WAS going to Winifred’s! ‘I’ll astonish his weak nerves!’ thought Soames. And, suddenly hastening, he said, rather breathlessly, on his sister’s very doorstep:

“Ah! Mr. Stainford! Come to return the snuffbox?”

With a sigh, and a slight stiffening of his cane on the pavement, the figure turned. Soames felt a sudden compunction — as of one who has jumped out at a child in the dark. The face, unmoved, with eyebrows still raised and lids still lowered, was greenishly pale, like that of a man whose heart is affected; a faint smile struggled on the lips. There was fully half a minute’s silence, then the pale lips spoke.

“Depends. How much?”

What little breath was in Soames’ body left him. The impudence! And again the lips moved.

“You can have it for ten pounds.”

“I can have it for nothing,” said Soames, “by asking a policeman to step here.”

The smile returned. “You won’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Not done.”

“Not done!” repeated Soames. “Why on earth not? Most barefaced thing I ever knew.”

“Ten pounds,” said the lips. “I want them badly.”

Soames stood and stared. The thing was so sublime; the fellow as easy as if asking for a match; not a flicker on a face which looked as if it might pass into death at any moment. Great art! He perceived that it was not the slightest use to indulge in moral utterance. The choice was between giving him the ten pounds or calling a policeman. He looked up and down the street.

“No — there isn’t one in sight. I have the box here — ten pounds.”

Soames began to stammer. The fellow was exercising on him a sort of fascination. And suddenly the whole thing tickled him. It was rich!

“Well!” he said, taking out two five-pound notes. “For brass —!”

A thin hand removed a slight protuberance from a side pocket.

“Thanks very much. Here it is! Good-morning!”

The fellow was moving away. He moved with the same incomparable languor; he didn’t look back. Soames stood with the snuffbox in his hand, staring after him.

“Well,” he said, aloud, “that’s a specimen they can’t produce now,” and he rang Winifred’s bell.

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