To Let, by John Galsworthy

XI

The Last of the Forsytes

When they came to prepare that terrific symbol Timothy Forsyte — the one pure individualist left, the only man who hadn’t heard of the Great War — they found him wonderful — not even death had undermined his soundness.

To Smither and Cook that preparation came like final evidence of what they had never believed possible — the end of the old Forsyte family on earth. Poor Mr. Timothy must now take a harp and sing in the company of Miss Forsyte, Mrs. Julia, Miss Hester; with Mr. Jolyon, Mr. Swithin, Mr. James, Mr. Roger, and Mr. Nicholas of the party. Whether Mrs. Hayman would be there was more doubtful, seeing that she had been cremated. Secretly Cook thought that Mr. Timothy would be upset — he had always been so set against barrel organs. How many times had she not said: “Drat the thing! There it is again! Smither, you’d better run up and see what you can do.” And in her heart she would so have enjoyed the tunes, if she hadn’t known that Mr. Timothy would ring the bell in a minute and say: “Here, take him a halfpenny and tell him to move on.” Often they had been obliged to add threepence of their own before the man would go — Timothy had ever underrated the value of emotion. Luckily he had taken the organs for blue-bottles in his last years, which had been a comfort, and they had been able to enjoy the tunes. But a harp! Cook wondered. It WAS a change! And Mr. Timothy had never liked change. But she did not speak of this to Smither, who did so take a line of her own in regard to heaven that it quite put one about sometimes.

She cried while Timothy was being prepared, and they all had sherry afterwards out of the yearly Christmas bottle, which would not be needed now. Ah! dear! She had been there five-and-forty years and Smither nine-and-thirty! And now they would be going to a tiny house in Tooting, to live on their savings and what Miss Hester had so kindly left them — for to take fresh service after the glorious past — No! But they WOULD like just to see Mr. Soames again, and Mrs. Dartie, and Miss Francie, and Miss Euphemia. And even if they had to take their own cab, they felt they must go to the funeral. For six years Mr. Timothy had been their baby, getting younger and younger every day, till at last he had been too young to live.

They spent the regulation hours of waiting in polishing and dusting, in catching the one mouse left, and asphyxiating the last beetle, so as to leave it nice, discussing with each other what they would buy at the sale. Miss Ann’s work-box; Miss Juley’s (that is Mrs. Julia’s) seaweed album; the fire-screen Miss Hester had crewelled; and Mr. Timothy’s hair — little golden curls, glued into a black frame. Oh! they must have those — only the price of things had gone up so!

It fell to Soames to issue invitations for the funeral. He had them drawn up by Gradman in his office — only blood relations, and no flowers. Six carriages were ordered. The Will would be read afterwards at the house.

He arrived at eleven o’clock to see that all was ready. At a quarter past old Gradman came in black gloves and crape on his hat. He and Soames stood in the drawing-room waiting. At half-past eleven the carriages drew up in a long row. But no one else appeared. Gradman said:

“It surprises me, Mr. Soames. I posted them myself.”

“I don’t know,” said Soames; “he’d lost touch with the family.”

Soames had often noticed in old days how much more neighbourly his family were to the dead than to the living. But, now, the way they had flocked to Fleur’s wedding and abstained from Timothy’s funeral, seemed to show some vital change. There might, of course, be another reason; for Soames felt that if he had not known the contents of Timothy’s Will, he might have stayed away himself through delicacy. Timothy had left a lot of money, with nobody in particular to leave it to. They mightn’t like to seem to expect something.

At twelve o’clock the procession left the door; Timothy alone in the first carriage under glass. Then Soames alone; then Gradman alone; then Cook and Smither together. They started at a walk, but were soon trotting under a bright sky. At the entrance to Highgate Cemetery they were delayed by service in the Chapel. Soames would have liked to stay outside in the sunshine. He didn’t believe a word of it; on the other hand, it was a form of insurance which could not safely be neglected, in case there might be something in it after all.

They walked up two and two — he and Gradman, Cook and Smither — to the family vault. It was not very distinguished for the funeral of the last old Forsyte.

He took Gradman into his carriage on the way back to the Bayswater Road with a certain glow in his heart. He had a surprise in pickle for the old chap who had served the Forsytes four-and-fifty years — a treat that was entirely his doing. How well he remembered saying to Timothy the day after Aunt Hester’s funeral: “Well, Uncle Timothy, there’s Gradman. He’s taken a lot of trouble for the family. What do you say to leaving him five thousand?” and his surprise, seeing the difficulty there had been in getting Timothy to leave anything, when Timothy had nodded. And now the old chap would be as pleased as Punch, for Mrs. Gradman, he knew, had a weak heart, and their son had lost a leg in the war. It was extraordinarily gratifying to Soames to have left him five thousand pounds of Timothy’s money. They sat down together in the little drawing-room, whose walls — like a vision of heaven — were sky-blue and gold, with every picture-frame unnaturally bright, and every speck of dust removed from every piece of furniture, to read that little masterpiece — the Will of Timothy. With his back to the light in Aunt Hester’s chair, Soames faced Gradman with his face to the light on Aunt Ann’s sofa; and, crossing his legs, began:

“This is the last Will and Testament of me Timothy Forsyte of The Bower Bayswater Road London I appoint my nephew Soames Forsyte of The Shelter Mapledurham and Thomas Gradman of 159 Folly Road Highgate (hereinafter called my Trustees) to be the trustees and executors of this my Will. To the said Soames Forsyte I leave the sum of one thousand pounds free of legacy duty and to the said Thomas Gradman I leave the sum of five thousand pounds free of legacy duty.”

Soames paused. Old Gradman was leaning forward, convulsively gripping a stout black knee with each of his thick hands; his mouth had fallen open so that the gold fillings of three teeth gleamed; his eyes were blinking; two tears rolled slowly out of them. Soames read hastily on.

“All the rest of my property of whatsoever description I bequeath to my Trustees upon Trust to convert and hold the same upon the following trusts namely. To pay thereout all my debts funeral expenses and outgoings of any kind in connection with my Will and to hold the residue thereof in trust for that male lineal descendant of my father Jolyon Forsyte by his marriage with Ann Pierce who after the decease of all lineal descendants whether male or female of my said father by his said marriage in being at the time of my death shall last attain the age of twenty-one years absolutely it being my desire that my property shall be nursed to the extreme limit permitted by the laws of England for the benefit of such male lineal descendant as aforesaid.”

Soames read the investment and attestation clauses, and, ceasing, looked at Gradman. The old fellow was wiping his brow with a large handkerchief, whose brilliant colour supplied a sudden festive tinge to the proceedings.

“My word, Mr. Soames!” he said, and it was clear that the lawyer in him had utterly wiped out the man: “My word! Why, there are two babies now, and some quite young children — if one of them lives to be eighty — it’s not a great age — and add twenty-one — that’s a hundred years; and Mr. Timothy worth a hundred and fifty thousand pound if he’s worth a penny. Compound interest at five per cent doubles you in fourteen years. In fourteen years three hundred thousand — six hundred thousand in twenty-eight — twelve hundred thousand in forty-two — twenty-four hundred thousand in fifty-six — four million eight hundred thousand in seventy — nine million six hundred thousand in eighty-four — Why, in a hundred years it’ll be twenty million! And we shan’t live to see it! It IS a Will!”

Soames said dryly: “Anything may happen. The State might take the lot; they’re capable of anything in these days.”

“And carry five,” said Gradman to himself. “I forgot — Mr. Timothy’s in Consols; we shan’t get more than two per cent with this income tax. To be on the safe side, say seven million. Still, that’s a pretty penny.”

Soames rose and handed him the Will. “You’re going into the City. Take care of that, and do what’s necessary. Advertise; but there are no debts. When’s the sale?”

“Tuesday week,” said Gradman. “Life or lives in bein’ and twenty-one years afterwards — it’s a long way off. But I’m glad he’s left it in the family.” . . .

The sale — not at Jobson’s, in view of the Victorian nature of the effects — was far more freely attended than the funeral, though not by Cook and Smither, for Soames had taken it on himself to give them their hearts’ desires. Winifred was present, Euphemia, and Francie, and Eustace had come in his car. The miniatures, Barbizons, and J. R. drawings had been bought in by Soames; and relics of no marketable value were set aside in an off-room for members of the family who cared to have mementos. These were the only restrictions upon bidding characterised by an almost tragic langour. Not one piece of furniture, no picture or porcelain figure appealed to modern taste. The humming-birds had fallen like autumn leaves when taken from where they had not hummed for sixty years. It was painful to Soames to see the chairs his aunts had sat on, the little grand piano they had practically never played, the books whose outsides they had gazed at, the china they had dusted, the curtains they had drawn, the hearth-rug which had warmed their feet; above all, the beds they had lain and died in — sold to little dealers, and the housewives of Fulham. And yet — what could one do? Buy them and stick them in a lumber-room? No; they had to go the way of all flesh and furniture, and be worn out. But when they put up Aunt Ann’s sofa and were going to knock it down for thirty shillings, he cried out, suddenly: “Five pounds!” The sensation was considerable, and the sofa his.

When that little sale was over in the fusty saleroom, and those Victorian ashes scattered, he went out into the misty October sunshine feeling as if cosiness had died out of the world, and the board “To Let” was up, indeed. Revolutions on the horizon; Fleur in Spain; no comfort in Annette; no Timothy’s on the Bayswater Road. In the irritable desolation of his soul he went into the Goupenor Gallery. That chap Jolyon’s water-colours were on view there. He went in to look down his nose at them — it might give him some faint satisfaction. The news had trickled through from June to Val’s wife, from her to Val, from Val to his mother, from her to Soames, that the house — the fatal house at Robin Hill — was for sale, and Irene going to join her boy out in British Columbia, or some such place. For one wild moment the thought had come to Soames: ‘Why shouldn’t I buy it back? I meant it for my —!’ No sooner come than gone. Too lugubrious a triumph; with two many humiliating memories for himself and Fleur. She would never live there after what had happened. No, the place must go its way to some peer or profiteer. It had been a bone of contention from the first, the shell of the feud and with the woman gone, it was an empty shell. “For Sale or To Let.” With his mind’s eye he could see that board raised high above the ivied wall which he had built.

He passed through the first of the two rooms in the Gallery. There was certainly a body of work! And now that the fellow was dead it did not seem so trivial. The drawings were pleasing enough, with quite a sense of atmosphere, and something individual in the brush work. ‘His father and my father; he and I; his child and mine!’ thought Soames. So it had gone on! And all about that woman! Softened by the events of the past week, affected by the melancholy beauty of the autumn day, Soames came nearer than he had ever been to realisation of that truth — passing the understanding of a Forsyte pure — that the body of Beauty has a spiritual essence, uncapturable save by a devotion which thinks not of self. After all, he was near that truth in his devotion to his daughter; perhaps that made him understand a little how he had missed the prize. And there, among the drawings of his kinsman, who had attained to that which he had found beyond his reach, he thought of him and her with a tolerance which surprised him. But he did not buy a drawing.

Just as he passed the seat of custom on his return to the outer air he met with a contingency which had not been entirely absent from his mind when he went into the Gallery — Irene, herself, coming in. So she had not gone yet, and was still paying farewell visits to that fellow’s remains! He subdued the little involuntary leap of his subconsciousness, the mechanical reaction of his senses to the charm of this once-owned woman, and passed her with averted eyes. But when he had gone by he could not for the life of him help looking back. This, then, was finality — the heat and stress of his life, the madness and the longing thereof, the long, the only defeat he had known, would be over when she faded from his view this time; even such memories had their own queer aching value. She, too, was looking back. Suddenly she lifted her gloved hand, her lips smiled faintly, her dark eyes seemed to speak. It was the turn of Soames to make no answer to that smile and that little farewell wave; he went out into the fashionable street quivering from head to foot. He knew what she had meant to say: “Now that I am going for ever out of the reach of you and yours — forgive me; I wish you well.” That was the meaning; last sign of that terrible reality — passing morality, duty, common sense — her aversion from him who had owned her body but had never touched her spirit or her heart. It hurt; yes — more than if she had kept her mask unmoved, her hand unlifted.

Three days later, in that fast-yellowing October, Soames took a taxi-cab to Highgate Cemetery and mounted through its white forest to the Forsyte vault. Close to the cedar, above catacombs and columbaria, tall, ugly, and individual, it looked like an apex of the competitive system. He could remember a discussion wherein Swithin had advocated the addition to its face of the pheasant proper. The proposal had been rejected in favour of a wreath in stone, above the stark words: “The family vault of Jolyon Forsyte: 1850.” It was in good order. All trace of the recent interment had been removed, and its sober grey gloomed reposefully in the sunshine. The whole family lay there now, except old Jolyon’s wife, who had gone back under a contract to her own family vault in Suffolk; old Jolyon himself lying at Robin Hill; and Susan Hayman, cremated so that none knew where she might be. Soames gazed at it with satisfaction — massive, needing little attention; and this was important, for he was well aware that no one would attend to it when he himself was gone, and he would have to be looking out for lodgings soon. He might have twenty years before him, but one never knew. Twenty years without an aunt or uncle, with a wife of whom one had better not know anything, with a daughter gone from home. His mood inclined to melancholy and retrospection. This cemetery was quite full now — of people with extraordinary names, buried in extraordinary taste. Still, they had a fine view up here, right over London. Annette had once given him a story to read by that Frenchman, Maupassant — a most lugubrious concern, where all the skeletons emerged from their graves one night, and all the pious inscriptions on the stones were altered to descriptions of their sins. Not a true story at all. He didn’t know about the French, but there was not much real harm in English people except their teeth and their taste, which were certainly deplorable. “The family vault of Jolyon Forsyte, 1850.” A lot of people had been buried here since then — a lot of English life crumbled to mould and dust! The boom of an airplane passing under the gold-tinted clouds caused him to lift his eyes. The deuce of a lot of expansion had gone on. But it all came back to a cemetery — to a name and a date on a tomb. And he thought with a curious pride that he and his family had done little or nothing to help this feverish expansion. Good solid middlemen, they had gone to work with dignity to manage and possess. “Superior Dosset,” indeed, had built, in a dreadful, and Jolyon painted, in a doubtful period, but so far as he remembered not another of them all had soiled his hands by creating anything — unless you counted Val Dartie and his horse-breeding. Collectors, solicitors, barristers, merchants, publishers, accountants, directors, land agents, even soldiers — there they had been! The country had expanded, as it were, in spite of them. They had checked, controlled, defended, and taken advantage of the process — and when you considered how “Superior Dosset” had begun life with next to nothing, and his lineal descendants already owned what old Gradman estimated at between a million and a million and a half, it was not so bad! And yet he sometimes felt as if the family bolt was shot, their possessive instinct dying out. They seemed unable to make money — this fourth generation; they were going into art, literature, farming, or the army; or just living on what was left them — they had no push and no tenacity. They would die out if they didn’t take care.

Soames turned from the vault and faced towards the breeze. The air up here would be delicious if only he could rid his nerves of the feeling that mortality was in it. He gazed restlessly at the crosses and the urns, the angels, the “immortelles,” the flowers, gaudy or withering; and suddenly he noticed a spot which seemed so different from anything else up there that he was obliged to walk the few necessary yards and look at it. A sober corner, with a massive queer-shaped cross of grey rough-hewn granite, guarded by four dark yew-trees. The spot was free from the pressure of the other graves, having a little box-hedged garden on the far side, arid in front a goldening birch-tree. This oasis in the desert of conventional graves appealed to the aesthetic sense of Soames, and he sat down there in the sunshine. Through those trembling gold birch leaves he gazed out at London, and yielded to the waves of memory. He thought of Irene in Montpellier Square, when her hair was rusty-golden and her white shoulders his — Irene, the prize of his love — passion, resistant to his ownership. He saw Bosinney’s body lying in that white mortuary, and Irene sitting on the sofa looking at her picture with the eyes of a dying bird. Again he thought of her by the little green Niobe in the Bois de Boulogne, once more rejecting him. His fancy took him on beside his drifting river on the November day when Fleur was to be born, took him to the dead leaves floating on the green-tinged water and the snake-headed weed for ever swaying and nosing, sinuous, blind, tethered. And on again to the window opened to the cold starry night above Hyde Park, with his father lying dead. His fancy darted to that picture of “The Future Town,” to that boy’s and Fleur’s first meeting; to the blueish trail of Prosper Profond’s cigar, and Fleur in the window pointing down to where the fellow prowled. To the sight of Irene and that dead fellow sitting side by side in the Stand at Lord’s. To her and that boy at Robin Hill. To the sofa, where Fleur lay crushed up in the corner; to her lips pressed into his cheek, and her farewell “Daddy.” And suddenly he saw again Irene’s grey-gloved hand waving its last gesture of release.

He sat there a long time dreaming his career, faithful to the scut of his possessive instinct, warming himself even with its failures.

“To Let”— the Forsyte age and way of life, when a man owned his soul, his investments, and his woman, without check or question. And now the State had, or would have, his investments, his woman had herself, and God knew who had his soul. “To Let”— that sane and simple creed!

The waters of change were foaming in, carrying the promise of new forms only when their destructive flood should have passed its full. He sat there, subconscious of them, but with his thoughts resolutely set on the past — as a man might ride into a wild night with his face to the tail of his galloping horse. Athwart the Victorian dykes the waters were rolling on property, manners, and morals, on melody and the old forms of art — waters bringing to his mouth a salt taste as of blood, lapping to the foot of this Highgate Hill where Victorianism lay buried. And sitting there, high up on its most individual spot, Soames — like a figure of Investment — refused their restless sounds. Instinctively he would not fight them — there was in him too much primeval wisdom, of Man the possessive animal. They would quiet down when they had fulfilled their tidal fever of dispossessing and destroying; when the creations and the properties of others were sufficiently broken and dejected — they would lapse and ebb, and fresh forms would rise based on an instinct older than the fever of change — the instinct of Home.

“Je m’en fiche,” said Prosper Profond. Soames did not say “Je m’en fiche”— it was French, and the fellow was a thorn in his side — but deep down he knew that change was only the interval of death between two forms of life, destruction necessary to make room for fresher property. What though the board was up, and cosiness to let? — some one would come along and take it again some day.

And only one thing really troubled him, sitting there — the melancholy craving in his heart — because the sun was like enchantment on his face and on the clouds and on the golden birch leaves, and the wind’s rustle was so gentle, and the yew-tree green so dark, and the sickle of a moon pale in the sky.

Ah! He might wish and wish and never get it — the beauty and the loving in the world!

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