To Let, by John Galsworthy

V

Purely Forsyte Affairs

Soames, coming up to the City, with the intention of calling in at Green Street at the end of his day and taking Fleur back home with him, suffered from rumination. Sleeping partner that he was, he seldom visited the City now, but he still had a room of his own at Cuthcott Kingson & Forsyte’s, and one special clerk and a half assigned to the management of purely Forsyte affairs. They were somewhat in flux just now — an auspicious moment for the disposal of house property. And Soames was unloading the estates of his father and uncle Roger, and to some extent of his uncle Nicholas. His shrewd and matter-of-course probity in all money concerns had made him something of an autocrat in connection with these trusts. If Soames thought this or thought that, one had better save oneself the bother of thinking too. He guaranteed, as it were, irresponsibility to numerous Forsytes of the third and fourth generations. His fellow trustees, such as his cousins Roger or Nicholas, his cousins-inlaw Tweetyman and Spender, or his sister Cicely’s husband all trusted him; he signed first, and where he signed first they signed after, and nobody was a penny the worse. Just now they were all a good many pennies the better, and Soames was beginning to see the close of certain trusts, except for distribution of the income from securities as gilt-edged as was compatible with the period.

Passing the more feverish parts of the City towards the most perfect backwater in London, he ruminated. Money was extraordinarily tight; and morality extraordinarily loose! The War had done it. Banks were not lending; people breaking contracts all over the place. There was a feeling in the air and a look on faces that he did not like. The country seemed in for a spell of gambling and bankruptcies. There was satisfaction in the thought that neither he nor his trusts had an investment which could be affected by anything less maniacal than national repudiation or a levy on capital. If Soames had faith, it was in what he called “English common sense”— or the power to have things, if not one way then another. He might — like his father James before him — say he didn’t know what things were coming to, but he never in his heart believed they were. If it rested with him, they wouldn’t — and, after all, he was only an Englishman like any other, so quietly tenacious of what he had that he knew he would never really part with it without something more or less equivalent in exchange. Take his own case, for example! He was well off. Did that do anybody harm? He did not eat ten meals a day; he ate no more than, perhaps not so much as, a poor man. He spent no money on vice; breathed no more air, used no more water to speak of than the mechanic or the porter. He certainly had pretty things about him, but they had given employment in the making, and somebody must use them. He bought pictures, but Art must be encouraged. He was, in fact, an accidental channel through which money flowed, employing labour. What was there objectionable in that? In his charge money was in quicker and more useful flux than it would be in charge of the State and a lot of slow-fly money-sucking officials. And as to what he saved each year — it was just as much in flux as what he didn’t save, going into Water Board or Council Stocks, or something sound and useful. The State paid him no salary for being trustee of his own or other people’s money — HE DID ALL THAT FOR NOTHING. Therein lay the whole case against nationalisation — owners of private property were unpaid, and yet had every incentive to quicken up the flux. Under nationalisation — just the opposite! In a country smarting from officialism he felt that he had a strong case.

It particularly annoyed him, entering that backwater of perfect peace, to think that a lot of unscrupulous Trusts and Combinations had been cornering the market in goods of all kinds, and keeping prices at an artificial height. Such abusers of the individualistic system were the ruffians who caused all the trouble, and it was some satisfaction to see them getting into a stew at last lest the whole thing might come down with a run-and land in the soup.

The offices of Cuthcott Kingson & Forsyte occupied the ground and first floors of a house on the right-hand side; and, ascending to his room, Soames thought: ‘Time we had a coat of paint.’

His old clerk Gradman was seated, where he always was, at a huge bureau with countless pigeonholes. Half-the-clerk stood beside him, with a broker’s note recording investment of the proceeds from sale of the Bryanston Square house, in Roger Forsyte’s estate. Soames took it, and said:

“Vancouver City Stock. H’m! It’s down today!”

With a sort of grating ingratiation old Gradman answered him:

“Ye-es; but everything’s down, Mr. Soames.” And half-the-clerk withdrew.

Soames skewered the document onto a number of other papers and hung up his hat.

“I want to look at my Will and Marriage Settlement, Gradman.”

Old Gradman, moving to the limit of his swivel chair, drew out two drafts from the bottom left-hand drawer. Recovering his body, he raised his grizzle-haired face, very red from stooping.

“Copies, sir.”

Soames took them. It struck him suddenly how like Gradman was to the stout brindled yard dog they had been wont to keep on his chain at ‘The Shelter,’ till one day Fleur had come and insisted it should be let loose, so that it had at once bitten the cook and been destroyed. If you let Gradman off his chair, would he bite the cook?

Checking this frivolous fancy, Soames unfolded his Marriage Settlement. He had not looked at it for over eighteen years, not since he remade his Will when his father died and Fleur was born. He wanted to see whether the words “during coverture” were in. Yes, they were — odd expression, when you thought of it, and derived perhaps from horse-breeding! Interest on fifteen thousand pounds (which he paid her without deducting income tax) so long as she remained his wife, and afterwards during widowhood “dum casta”— old-fashioned and rather pointed words, put in to insure the conduct of Fleur’s mother. His Will made it up to an annuity of a thousand under the same conditions. All right! He returned the copies to Gradman, who took them without looking up, swung the chair, restored the papers to their drawer, and went on casting up.

“Gradman! I don’t like the condition of the country; there are a lot of people about without any common sense. I want to find a way by which I can safeguard Miss Fleur against anything which might arise.”

Gradman wrote the figure “2” on his blotting-paper.

“Ye-es,” he said; “there’s a nahsty spirit.”

“The ordinary restraint against anticipation doesn’t meet the case.”

“Nao,” said Gradman.

“Suppose those Labour fellows come in, or worse! It’s these people with fixed ideas who are the danger. Look at Ireland!”

“Ah!” said Gradman.

“Suppose I were to make a settlement on her at once with myself as beneficiary for life, they couldn’t take anything but the interest from me, unless of course they alter the law.”

Gradman moved his head and smiled.

“Aoh!” he said, “they wouldn’t do tha-at!”

“I don’t know,” muttered Soames; “I don’t trust them.”

“It’ll take two years, sir, to be valid against death duties.”

Soames sniffed. Two years! He was only sixty-five!

“That’s not the point. Draw a form of settlement that passes all my property to Miss Fleur’s children in equal shares, with antecedent life-interests first to myself and then to her without power of anticipation, and add a clause that in the event of anything happening to divert her life-interest, that interest passes to the trustees, to apply for her benefit, in their absolute discretion.”

Gradman grated: “Rather extreme at your age, sir; you lose control.”

“That’s my business,” said Soames sharply.

Gradman wrote on a piece of paper. “Life-interest — anticipation — divert interest — absolute discretion . . . ” and said:

“What trustees? There’s young Mr. Kingson, he’s a nice steady young fellow.”

“Yes, he might do for one. I must have three. There isn’t a Forsyte now who appeals to me.”

“Not young Mr. Nicholas? He’s at the Bar. We’ve given ’im briefs.”

“He’ll never set the Thames on fire,” said Soames.

A smile oozed out on Gradman’s face, greasy with countless mutton-chops, the smile of a man who sits all day.

“You can’t expect it, at his age, Mr. Soames.”

“Why? What is he? Forty?”

“Ye-es, quite a young fellow.”

“Well, put him in; but I want somebody who’ll take a personal interest. There’s no one that I can see.”

“What about Mr. Valerius, now he’s come home?”

“Val Dartie? With that father?”

“We-ell,” murmured Gradman, “he’s been dead seven years — the Statute runs against him.”

“No,” said Soames. “I don’t like the connection.”

He rose. Gradman said suddenly:

“If they were makin’ a levy on capital, they could come on the trustees, sir. So there you’d be just the same. I’d think it over, if I were you.”

“That’s true,” said Soames, “I will. What have you done about that dilapidation notice in Vere Street?”

“I ‘aven’t served it yet. The party’s very old. She won’t want to go out at her age.”

“I don’t know. This spirit of unrest touches every one.”

“Still, I’m lookin’ at things broadly, sir. She’s eighty-one.”

“Better serve it,” said Soames, “and see what she says. Oh! and Mr. Timothy? Is everything in order in case of accidents.”

“I’ve got the inventory of his estate all ready; had the furniture and pictures valued so that we know what reserves to put on. I shall be sorry when he goes, though. Dear me! It is a time since I first saw Mr. Timothy!”

“We can’t live for ever,” said Soames, taking down his hat.

“Nao,” said Gradman; “but it’ll be a pity — the last of the old family! Shall I take up the matter of that nuisance in Old Compton Street? Those organs — they’re nahsty things.”

“Do. I must call for Miss Fleur and catch the four o’clock. Good-day, Gradman.”

“Good-day, Mr. Soames. I hope Miss Fleur —”

“Well enough, but gads about too much.”

“Ye-es,” grated Gradman; “she’s young.”

Soames went out, musing: “Old Gradman! If he were younger I’d put him in the trust. There’s nobody I can depend on to take a real interest.”

Leaving the bilious and mathematical exactitude, the preposterous peace of that backwater, he thought suddenly: ‘During coverture! Why can’t they exclude fellows like Profond, instead of a lot of hard-working Germans?’ and was surprised at the depth of uneasiness which could provoke so unpatriotic a thought. But there it was! One never got a moment of real peace. Always something at the back of everything! And he made his way towards Green Street.

Two hours later by his watch, Thomas Gradman, stirring in his swivel chair, closed the last drawer of his bureau, and putting into his waistcoat pocket a bunch of keys so fat that they gave him a protuberance on the liver side, brushed his old top hat round with his sleeve, took his umbrella, and descended. Thick, short, and buttoned closely into his old frock coat, he walked towards Covent Garden market. He never missed that daily promenade to the Tube for Highgate, and seldom some critical transaction on the way in connection with vegetables and fruit. Generations might be born, and hats might change, wars be fought, and Forsytes fade away, but Thomas Gradman, faithful and grey, would take his daily walk and buy his daily vegetable. Times were not what they were, and his son had lost a leg, and they never gave him those nice little plaited baskets to carry the stuff in now, and these Tubes were convenient things — still he mustn’t complain; his health was good considering his time of life, and after fifty-four years in the Law he was getting a round eight hundred a year and a little worried of late, because it was mostly collector’s commission on the rents, and with all this conversion of Forsyte property going on, it looked like drying up, and the price of living still so high; but it was no good worrying —“The good God made us all”— as he was in the habit of saying; still, house property in London — he didn’t know what Mr. Roger or Mr. James would say if they could see it being sold like this — seemed to show a lack of faith; but Mr. Soames — he worried. Life and lives in being and twenty-one years after — beyond that you couldn’t go; still, he kept his health wonderfully — and Miss Fleur was a pretty little thing — she was; she’d marry; but lots of people had no children nowadays — he had had his first child at twenty-two; and Mr. Jolyon, married while he was at Cambridge, had his child the same year — gracious Peter! That was back in ’70, a long time before old Mr. Jolyon — fine judge of property — had taken his Will away from Mr. James — dear, yes! Those were the days when they were buyin’ property right and left, and none of this khaki and fallin’ over one another to get out of things; and cucumbers at twopence; and a melon — the old melons, that made your mouth water! Fifty years since he went into Mr. James’ office, and Mr. James had said to him: “Now, Gradman, you’re only a shaver — you pay attention, and you’ll make your five hundred a year before you’ve done.” And he had, and feared God, and served the Forsytes, and kept a vegetable diet at night. And, buying a copy of John Bull — not that he approved of it, an extravagant affair — he entered the Tube elevator with his mere brown-paper parcel, and was borne down into the bowels of the earth.

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