Trees take little account of time, and the old oak on the upper lawn at Robin Hill looked no day older than when Bosinney sprawled under it and said to Soames: “Forsyte, I’ve found the very place for your house.” Since then Swithin had dreamed, and old Jolyon died, beneath its branches. And now, close to the swing, no-longer-young Jolyon often painted there. Of all spots in the world it was perhaps the most sacred to him, for he had loved his father.
Contemplating its great girth — crinkled and a little mossed, but not yet hollow — he would speculate on the passage of time. That tree had seen, perhaps, all real English history; it dated, he shouldn’t wonder, from the days of Elizabeth at least. His own fifty years were as nothing to its wood. When the house behind it, which he now owned, was three hundred years of age instead of twelve, that tree might still be standing there, vast and hollow — for who would commit such sacrilege as to cut it down? A Forsyte might perhaps still be living in that house, to guard it jealously. And Jolyon would wonder what the house would look like coated with such age. Wistaria was already about its walls — the new look had gone. Would it hold its own and keep the dignity Bosinney had bestowed on it, or would the giant London have lapped it round and made it into an asylum in the midst of a jerry-built wilderness? Often, within and without of it, he was persuaded that Bosinney had been moved by the spirit when he built. He had put his heart into that house, indeed! It might even become one of the ‘homes of England’— a rare achievement for a house in these degenerate days of building. And the aesthetic spirit, moving hand in hand with his Forsyte sense of possessive continuity, dwelt with pride and pleasure on his ownership thereof. There was the smack of reverence and ancestor-worship (if only for one ancestor) in his desire to hand this house down to his son and his son’s son. His father had loved the house, had loved the view, the grounds, that tree; his last years had been happy there, and no one had lived there before him. These last eleven years at Robin Hill had formed in Jolyon’s life as a painter, the important period of success. He was now in the very van of water-colour art, hanging on the line everywhere. His drawings fetched high prices. Specialising in that one medium with the tenacity of his breed, he had ‘arrived’— rather late, but not too late for a member of the family which made a point of living for ever. His art had really deepened and improved. In conformity with his position he had grown a short fair beard, which was just beginning to grizzle, and hid his Forsyte chin; his brown face had lost the warped expression of his ostracised period — he looked, if anything, younger. The loss of his wife in 1894 had been one of those domestic tragedies which turn out in the end for the good of all. He had, indeed, loved her to the last, for his was an affectionate spirit, but she had become increasingly difficult: jealous of her step-daughter June, jealous even of her own little daughter Holly, and making ceaseless plaint that he could not love her, ill as she was, and ‘useless to everyone, and better dead.’ He had mourned her sincerely, but his face had looked younger since she died. If she could only have believed that she made him happy, how much happier would the twenty years of their companionship have been!
June had never really got on well with her who had reprehensibly taken her own mother’s place; and ever since old Jolyon died she had been established in a sort of studio in London. But she had come back to Robin Hill on her stepmother’s death, and gathered the reins there into her small decided hands. Jolly was then at Harrow; Holly still learning from Mademoiselle Beauce. There had been nothing to keep Jolyon at home, and he had removed his grief and his paint-box abroad. There he had wandered, for the most part in Brittany, and at last had fetched up in Paris. He had stayed there several months, and come back with the younger face and the short fair beard. Essentially a man who merely lodged in any house, it had suited him perfectly that June should reign at Robin Hill, so that he was free to go off with his easel where and when he liked. She was inclined, it is true, to regard the house rather as an asylum for her proteges! but his own outcast days had filled Jolyon for ever with sympathy towards an outcast, and June’s ‘lame ducks’ about the place did not annoy him. By all means let her have them down — and feed them up; and though his slightly cynical humour perceived that they ministered to his daughter’s love of domination as well as moved her warm heart, he never ceased to admire her for having so many ducks. He fell, indeed, year by year into a more and more detached and brotherly attitude towards his own son and daughters, treating them with a sort of whimsical equality. When he went down to Harrow to see Jolly, he never quite knew which of them was the elder, and would sit eating cherries with him out of one paper bag, with an affectionate and ironical smile twisting up an eyebrow and curling his lips a little. And he was always careful to have money in his pocket, and to be modish in his dress, so that his son need not blush for him. They were perfect friends, but never seemed to have occasion for verbal confidences, both having the competitive self-consciousness of Forsytes. They knew they would stand by each other in scrapes, but there was no need to talk about it. Jolyon had a striking horror — partly original sin, but partly the result of his early immorality — of the moral attitude. The most he could ever have said to his son would have been:
“Look here, old man; don’t forget you’re a gentleman,” and then have wondered whimsically whether that was not a snobbish sentiment. The great cricket match was perhaps the most searching and awkward time they annually went through together, for Jolyon had been at Eton. They would be particularly careful during that match, continually saying: “Hooray! Oh! hard luck, old man!” or “Hooray! Oh! bad luck, Dad!” to each other, when some disaster at which their hearts bounded happened to the opposing school. And Jolyon would wear a grey top hat, instead of his usual soft one, to save his son’s feelings, for a black top hat he could not stomach. When Jolly went up to Oxford, Jolyon went up with him, amused, humble, and a little anxious not to discredit his boy amongst all these youths who seemed so much more assured and old than himself. He often thought, ‘Glad I’m a painter’ for he had long dropped under-writing at Lloyds —‘it’s so innocuous. You can’t look down on a painter — you can’t take him seriously enough.’ For Jolly, who had a sort of natural lordliness, had passed at once into a very small set, who secretly amused his father. The boy had fair hair which curled a little, and his grandfather’s deepset iron-grey eyes. He was well-built and very upright, and always pleased Jolyon’s aesthetic sense, so that he was a tiny bit afraid of him, as artists ever are of those of their own sex whom they admire physically. On that occasion, however, he actually did screw up his courage to give his son advice, and this was it:
“Look here, old man, you’re bound to get into debt; mind you come to me at once. Of course, I’ll always pay them. But you might remember that one respects oneself more afterwards if one pays one’s own way. And don’t ever borrow, except from me, will you?”
And Jolly had said:
“All right, Dad, I won’t,” and he never had.
“And there’s just one other thing. I don’t know much about morality and that, but there is this: It’s always worth while before you do anything to consider whether it’s going to hurt another person more than is absolutely necessary.”
Jolly had looked thoughtful, and nodded, and presently had squeezed his father’s hand. And Jolyon had thought: ‘I wonder if I had the right to say that?’ He always had a sort of dread of losing the dumb confidence they had in each other; remembering how for long years he had lost his own father’s, so that there had been nothing between them but love at a great distance. He under-estimated, no doubt, the change in the spirit of the age since he himself went up to Cambridge in ‘65; and perhaps he underestimated, too, his boy’s power of understanding that he was tolerant to the very bone. It was that tolerance of his, and possibly his scepticism, which ever made his relations towards June so queerly defensive. She was such a decided mortal; knew her own mind so terribly well; wanted things so inexorably until she got them — and then, indeed, often dropped them like a hot potato. Her mother had been like that, whence had come all those tears. Not that his incompatibility with his daughter was anything like what it had been with the first Mrs. Young Jolyon. One could be amused where a daughter was concerned; in a wife’s case one could not be amused. To see June set her heart and jaw on a thing until she got it was all right, because it was never anything which interfered fundamentally with Jolyon’s liberty — the one thing on which his jaw was also absolutely rigid, a considerable jaw, under that short grizzling beard. Nor was there ever any necessity for real heart-to-heart encounters. One could break away into irony — as indeed he often had to. But the real trouble with June was that she had never appealed to his aesthetic sense, though she might well have, with her red-gold hair and her viking-coloured eyes, and that touch of the Berserker in her spirit. It was very different with Holly, soft and quiet, shy and affectionate, with a playful imp in her somewhere. He watched this younger daughter of his through the duckling stage with extraordinary interest. Would she come out a swan? With her sallow oval face and her grey wistful eyes and those long dark lashes, she might, or she might not. Only this last year had he been able to guess. Yes, she would be a swan — rather a dark one, always a shy one, but an authentic swan. She was eighteen now, and Mademoiselle Beauce was gone — the excellent lady had removed, after eleven years haunted by her continuous reminiscences of the ‘well-brrred little Tayleurs,’ to another family whose bosom would now be agitated by her reminiscences of the ‘well-brrred little Forsytes.’ She had taught Holly to speak French like herself.
Portraiture was not Jolyon’s forte, but he had already drawn his younger daughter three times, and was drawing her a fourth, on the afternoon of October 4th, 1899, when a card was brought to him which caused his eyebrows to go up:
Mr. SOAMES FORSYTE
THE SHELTER, CONNOISSEURS CLUB, MAPLEDURHAM. ST. JAMES’S.
But here the Forsyte Saga must digress again. . . .
To return from a long travel in Spain to a darkened house, to a little daughter bewildered with tears, to the sight of a loved father lying peaceful in his last sleep, had never been, was never likely to be, forgotten by so impressionable and warm-hearted a man as Jolyon. A sense as of mystery, too, clung to that sad day, and about the end of one whose life had been so well-ordered, balanced, and above-board. It seemed incredible that his father could thus have vanished without, as it were, announcing his intention, without last words to his son, and due farewells. And those incoherent allusions of little Holly to ‘the lady in grey,’ of Mademoiselle Beauce to a Madame Errant (as it sounded) involved all things in a mist, lifted a little when he read his father’s will and the codicil thereto. It had been his duty as executor of that will and codicil to inform Irene, wife of his cousin Soames, of her life interest in fifteen thousand pounds. He had called on her to explain that the existing investment in India Stock, ear-marked to meet the charge, would produce for her the interesting net sum of L430 odd a year, clear of income tax. This was but the third time he had seen his cousin Soames’ wife — if indeed she was still his wife, of which he was not quite sure. He remembered having seen her sitting in the Botanical Gardens waiting for Bosinney — a passive, fascinating figure, reminding him of Titian’s ‘Heavenly Love,’ and again, when, charged by his father, he had gone to Montpellier Square on the afternoon when Bosinney’s death was known. He still recalled vividly her sudden appearance in the drawing-room doorway on that occasion — her beautiful face, passing from wild eagerness of hope to stony despair; remembered the compassion he had felt, Soames’ snarling smile, his words, “We are not at home!” and the slam of the front door.
This third time he saw a face and form more beautiful — freed from that warp of wild hope and despair. Looking at her, he thought: ‘Yes, you are just what the Dad would have admired!’ And the strange story of his father’s Indian summer became slowly clear to him. She spoke of old Jolyon with reverence and tears in her eyes. “He was so wonderfully kind to me; I don’t know why. He looked so beautiful and peaceful sitting in that chair under the tree; it was I who first came on him sitting there, you know. Such a lovely day. I don’t think an end could have been happier. We should all like to go out like that.”
‘Quite right!’ he had thought. ‘We should all a like to go out in full summer with beauty stepping towards us across a lawn.’ And looking round the little, almost empty drawing-room, he had asked her what she was going to do now. “I am going to live again a little, Cousin Jolyon. It’s wonderful to have money of one’s own. I’ve never had any. I shall keep this flat, I think; I’m used to it; but I shall be able to go to Italy.”
“Exactly!” Jolyon had murmured, looking at her faintly smiling lips; and he had gone away thinking: ‘A fascinating woman! What a waste! I’m glad the Dad left her that money.’ He had not seen her again, but every quarter he had signed her cheque, forwarding it to her bank, with a note to the Chelsea flat to say that he had done so; and always he had received a note in acknowledgment, generally from the flat, but sometimes from Italy; so that her personality had become embodied in slightly scented grey paper, an upright fine handwriting, and the words, ‘Dear Cousin Jolyon.’ Man of property that he now was, the slender cheque he signed often gave rise to the thought: ‘Well, I suppose she just manages’; sliding into a vague wonder how she was faring otherwise in a world of men not wont to let beauty go unpossessed. At first Holly had spoken of her sometimes, but ‘ladies in grey’ soon fade from children’s memories; and the tightening of June’s lips in those first weeks after her grandfather’s death whenever her former friend’s name was mentioned, had discouraged allusion. Only once, indeed, had June spoken definitely: “I’ve forgiven her. I’m frightfully glad she’s independent now. . . . ”
On receiving Soames’ card, Jolyon said to the maid — for he could not abide butlers —“Show him into the study, please, and say I’ll be there in a minute”; and then he looked at Holly and asked:
“Do you remember ‘the lady in grey,’ who used to give you music-lessons?”
“Oh yes, why? Has she come?”
Jolyon shook his head, and, changing his holland blouse for a coat, was silent, perceiving suddenly that such history was not for those young ears. His face, in fact, became whimsical perplexity incarnate while he journeyed towards the study.
Standing by the french-window, looking out across the terrace at the oak tree, were two figures, middle-aged and young, and he thought: ‘Who’s that boy? Surely they never had a child.’
The elder figure turned. The meeting of those two Forsytes of the second generation, so much more sophisticated than the first, in the house built for the one and owned and occupied by the other, was marked by subtle defensiveness beneath distinct attempt at cordiality. ‘Has he come about his wife?’ Jolyon was thinking; and Soames, ‘How shall I begin?’ while Val, brought to break the ice, stood negligently scrutinising this ‘bearded pard’ from under his dark, thick eyelashes.
“This is Val Dartie,” said Soames, “my sister’s son. He’s just going up to Oxford. I thought I’d like him to know your boy.”
“Ah! I’m sorry Jolly’s away. What college?”
“B.N.C.,” replied Val.
“Jolly’s at the ‘House,’ but he’ll be delighted to look you up.”
“Holly’s in — if you could put up with a female relation, she’d show you round. You’ll find her in the hall if you go through the curtains. I was just painting her.”
With another “Thanks, awfully!” Val vanished, leaving the two cousins with the ice unbroken.
“I see you’ve some drawings at the ‘Water Colours,’” said Soames.
Jolyon winced. He had been out of touch with the Forsyte family at large for twenty-six years, but they were connected in his mind with Frith’s ‘Derby Day’ and Landseer prints. He had heard from June that Soames was a connoisseur, which made it worse. He had become aware, too, of a curious sensation of repugnance.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said.
“No,” answered Soames between close lips, “not since — as a matter of fact, it’s about that I’ve come. You’re her trustee, I’m told.”
“Twelve years is a long time,” said Soames rapidly: “I— I’m tired of it.”
Jolyon found no more appropriate answer than:
“Won’t you smoke?”
Jolyon himself lit a cigarette.
“I wish to be free,” said Soames abruptly.
“I don’t see her,” murmured Jolyon through the fume of his cigarette.
“But you know where she lives, I suppose?”
Jolyon nodded. He did not mean to give her address without permission. Soames seemed to divine his thought.
“I don’t want her address,” he said; “I know it.”
“What exactly do you want?”
“She deserted me. I want a divorce.”
“Rather late in the day, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Soames. And there was a silence.
“I don’t know much about these things — at least, I’ve forgotten,” said Jolyon with a wry smile. He himself had had to wait for death to grant him a divorce from the first Mrs. Jolyon. “Do you wish me to see her about it?”
Soames raised his eyes to his cousin’s face. “I suppose there’s someone,” he said.
A shrug moved Jolyon’s shoulders.
“I don’t know at all. I imagine you may have both lived as if the other were dead. It’s usual in these cases.”
Soames turned to the window. A few early fallen oak-leaves strewed the terrace already, and were rolling round in the wind. Jolyon saw the figures of Holly and Val Dartie moving across the lawn towards the stables. ‘I’m not going to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,’ he thought. ‘I must act for her. The Dad would have wished that.’ And for a swift moment he seemed to see his father’s figure in the old armchair, just beyond Soames, sitting with knees crossed, The Times in his hand. It vanished.
“My father was fond of her,” he said quietly.
“Why he should have been I don’t know,” Soames answered without looking round. “She brought trouble to your daughter June; she brought trouble to everyone. I gave her all she wanted. I would have given her even — forgiveness — but she chose to leave me.”
In Jolyon compassion was checked by the tone of that close voice. What was there in the fellow that made it so difficult to be sorry for him?
“I can go and see her, if you like,” he said. “I suppose she might be glad of a divorce, but I know nothing.”
“Yes, please go. As I say, I know her address; but I’ve no wish to see her.” His tongue was busy with his lips, as if they were very dry.
“You’ll have some tea?” said Jolyon, stifling the words: ‘And see the house.’ And he led the way into the hall. When he had rung the bell and ordered tea, he went to his easel to turn his drawing to the wall. He could not bear, somehow, that his work should be seen by Soames, who was standing there in the middle of the great room which had been designed expressly to afford wall space for his own pictures. In his cousin’s face, with its unseizable family likeness to himself, and its chinny, narrow, concentrated look, Jolyon saw that which moved him to the thought: ‘That chap could never forget anything — nor ever give himself away. He’s pathetic!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54