When young Val left the presence of the last generation he was thinking: ‘This is jolly dull! Uncle Soames does take the bun. I wonder what this filly’s like?’ He anticipated no pleasure from her society; and suddenly he saw her standing there looking at him. Why, she was pretty! What luck!
“I’m afraid you don’t know me,” he said. “My name’s Val Dartie — I’m once removed, second cousin, something like that, you know. My mother’s name was Forsyte.”
Holly, whose slim brown hand remained in his because she was too shy to withdraw it, said:
“I don’t know any of my relations. Are there many?”
“Tons. They’re awful — most of them. At least, I don’t know — some of them. One’s relations always are, aren’t they?”
“I expect they think one awful too,” said Holly.
“I don’t know why they should. No one could think you awful, of course.”
Holly looked at him — the wistful candour in those grey eyes gave young Val a sudden feeling that he must protect her.
“I mean there are people and people,” he added astutely. “Your dad looks awfully decent, for instance.”
“Oh yes!” said Holly fervently; “he is.”
A flush mounted in Val’s cheeks — that scene in the Pandemonium promenade — the dark man with the pink carnation developing into his own father! “But you know what the Forsytes are,” he said almost viciously. “Oh! I forgot; you don’t.”
“What are they?”
“Oh! fearfully careful; not sportsmen a bit. Look at Uncle Soames!”
“I’d like to,” said Holly.
Val resisted a desire to run his arm through hers. “Oh! no,” he said, “let’s go out. You’ll see him quite soon enough. What’s your brother like?”
Holly led the way on to the terrace and down to the lawn without answering. How describe Jolly, who, ever since she remembered anything, had been her lord, master, and ideal?
“Does he sit on you?” said Val shrewdly. “I shall be knowing him at Oxford. Have you got any horses?”
Holly nodded. “Would you like to see the stables?”
They passed under the oak tree, through a thin shrubbery, into the stable-yard. There under a clock-tower lay a fluffy brown-and-white dog, so old that he did not get up, but faintly waved the tail curled over his back.
“That’s Balthasar,” said Holly; “he’s so old — awfully old, nearly as old as I am. Poor old boy! He’s devoted to Dad.”
“Balthasar! That’s a rum name. He isn’t purebred you know.”
“No! but he’s a darling,” and she bent down to stroke the dog. Gentle and supple, with dark covered head and slim browned neck and hands, she seemed to Val strange and sweet, like a thing slipped between him and all previous knowledge.
“When grandfather died,” she said, “he wouldn’t eat for two days. He saw him die, you know.”
“Was that old Uncle Jolyon? Mother always says he was a topper.”
“He was,” said Holly simply, and opened the stable door.
In a loose-box stood a silver roan of about fifteen hands, with a long black tail and mane. “This is mine — Fairy.”
“Ah!” said Val, “she’s a jolly palfrey. But you ought to bang her tail. She’d look much smarter.” Then catching her wondering look, he thought suddenly: ‘I don’t know — anything she likes!’ And he took a long sniff of the stable air. “Horses are ripping, aren’t they? My Dad . . . ” he stopped.
“Yes?” said Holly.
An impulse to unbosom himself almost overcame him — but not quite. “Oh! I don’t know he’s often gone a mucker over them. I’m jolly keen on them too — riding and hunting. I like racing awfully, as well; I should like to be a gentleman rider.” And oblivious of the fact that he had but one more day in town, with two engagements, he plumped out:
“I say, if I hire a gee to-morrow, will you come a ride in Richmond Park?”
Holly clasped her hands.
“Oh yes! I simply love riding. But there’s Jolly’s horse; why don’t you ride him? Here he is. We could go after tea.”
Val looked doubtfully at his trousered legs.
He had imagined them immaculate before her eyes in high brown boots and Bedford cords.
“I don’t much like riding his horse,” he said. “He mightn’t like it. Besides, Uncle Soames wants to get back, I expect. Not that I believe in buckling under to him, you know. You haven’t got an uncle, have you? This is rather a good beast,” he added, scrutinising Jolly’s horse, a dark brown, which was showing the whites of its eyes. “You haven’t got any hunting here, I suppose?”
“No; I don’t know that I want to hunt. It must be awfully exciting, of course; but it’s cruel, isn’t it? June says so.”
“Cruel?” ejaculated Val. “Oh! that’s all rot. Who’s June?”
“My sister — my half-sister, you know — much older than me.” She had put her hands up to both cheeks of Jolly’s horse, and was rubbing her nose against its nose with a gentle snuffling noise which seemed to have an hypnotic effect on the animal. Val contemplated her cheek resting against the horse’s nose, and her eyes gleaming round at him. ‘She’s really a duck,’ he thought.
They returned to the house less talkative, followed this time by the dog Balthasar, walking more slowly than anything on earth, and clearly expecting them not to exceed his speed limit.
“This is a ripping place,” said Val from under the oak tree, where they had paused to allow the dog Balthasar to come up.
“Yes,” said Holly, and sighed. “Of course I want to go everywhere. I wish I were a gipsy.”
“Yes, gipsies are jolly,” replied Val, with a conviction which had just come to him; “you’re rather like one, you know.”
Holly’s face shone suddenly and deeply, like dark leaves gilded by the sun.
“To go mad-rabbiting everywhere and see everything, and live in the open — oh! wouldn’t it be fun?”
“Let’s do it!” said Val.
“Oh yes, let’s!”
“It’d be grand sport, just you and I.”
Then Holly perceived the quaintness and gushed.
“Well, we’ve got to do it,” said Val obstinately, but reddening too.
“I believe in doing things you want to do. What’s down there?”
“The kitchen-garden, and the pond and the coppice, and the farm.”
“Let’s go down!”
Holly glanced back at the house.
“It’s tea-time, I expect; there’s Dad beckoning.”
Val, uttering a growly sound, followed her towards the house.
When they re-entered the hall gallery the sight of two middle-aged Forsytes drinking tea together had its magical effect, and they became quite silent. It was, indeed, an impressive spectacle. The two were seated side by side on an arrangement in marqueterie which looked like three silvery pink chairs made one, with a low tea-table in front of them. They seemed to have taken up that position, as far apart as the seat would permit, so that they need not look at each other too much; and they were eating and drinking rather than talking — Soames with his air of despising the tea-cake as it disappeared, Jolyon of finding himself slightly amusing. To the casual eye neither would have seemed greedy, but both were getting through a good deal of sustenance. The two young ones having been supplied with food, the process went on silent and absorbative, till, with the advent of cigarettes, Jolyon said to Soames:
“And how’s Uncle James?”
“Thanks, very shaky.”
“We’re a wonderful family, aren’t we? The other day I was calculating the average age of the ten old Forsytes from my father’s family Bible. I make it eighty-four already, and five still living. They ought to beat the record;” and looking whimsically at Soames, he added:
“We aren’t the men they were, you know.”
Soames smiled. ‘Do you really think I shall admit that I’m not their equal’; he seemed to be saying, ‘or that I’ve got to give up anything, especially life?’
“We may live to their age, perhaps,” pursued Jolyon, “but self-consciousness is a handicap, you know, and that’s the difference between us. We’ve lost conviction. How and when self-consciousness was born I never can make out. My father had a little, but I don’t believe any other of the old Forsytes ever had a scrap. Never to see yourself as others see you, it’s a wonderful preservative. The whole history of the last century is in the difference between us. And between us and you,” he added, gazing through a ring of smoke at Val and Holly, uncomfortable under his quizzical regard, “there’ll be — another difference. I wonder what.”
Soames took out his watch.
“We must go,” he said, “if we’re to catch our train.”
“Uncle Soames never misses a train,” muttered Val, with his mouth full.
“Why should I?” Soames answered simply.
“Oh! I don’t know,” grumbled Val, “other people do.”
At the front door he gave Holly’s slim brown hand a long and surreptitious squeeze.
“Look out for me to-morrow,” he whispered; “three o’clock. I’ll wait for you in the road; it’ll save time. We’ll have a ripping ride.” He gazed back at her from the lodge gate, and, but for the principles of a man about town, would have waved his hand. He felt in no mood to tolerate his uncle’s conversation. But he was not in danger. Soames preserved a perfect muteness, busy with far-away thoughts.
The yellow leaves came down about those two walking the mile and a half which Soames had traversed so often in those long-ago days when he came down to watch with secret pride the building of the house — that house which was to have been the home of him and her from whom he was now going to seek release. He looked back once, up that endless vista of autumn lane between the yellowing hedges. What an age ago! “I don’t want to see her,” he had said to Jolyon. Was that true? ‘I may have to,’ he thought; and he shivered, seized by one of those queer shudderings that they say mean footsteps on one’s grave. A chilly world! A queer world! And glancing sidelong at his nephew, he thought: ‘Wish I were his age! I wonder what she’s like now!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08