Jolly Forsyte was strolling down High Street, Oxford, on a November afternoon; Val Dartie was strolling up. Jolly had just changed out of boating flannels and was on his way to the ‘Frying-pan,’ to which he had recently been elected. Val had just changed out of riding clothes and was on his way to the fire — a bookmaker’s in Cornmarket.
“Hallo!” said Jolly.
“Hallo!” replied Val.
The cousins had met but twice, Jolly, the second-year man, having invited the freshman to breakfast; and last evening they had seen each other again under somewhat exotic circumstances.
Over a tailor’s in the Cornmarket resided one of those privileged young beings called minors, whose inheritances are large, whose parents are dead, whose guardians are remote, and whose instincts are vicious. At nineteen he had commenced one of those careers attractive and inexplicable to ordinary mortals for whom a single bankruptcy is good as a feast. Already famous for having the only roulette table then to be found in Oxford, he was anticipating his expectations at a dazzling rate. He out-crummed Crum, though of a sanguine and rather beefy type which lacked the latter’s fascinating languor. For Val it had been in the nature of baptism to be taken there to play roulette; in the nature of confirmation to get back into college, after hours, through a window whose bars were deceptive. Once, during that evening of delight, glancing up from the seductive green before him, he had caught sight, through a cloud of smoke, of his cousin standing opposite. ‘Rouge gagne, impair, et manque!’ He had not seen him again.
“Come in to the Frying-pan and have tea,” said Jolly, and they went in.
A stranger, seeing them together, would have noticed an unseizable resemblance between these second cousins of the third generations of Forsytes; the same bone formation in face, though Jolly’s eyes were darker grey, his hair lighter and more wavy.
“Tea and buttered buns, waiter, please,” said Jolly.
“Have one of my cigarettes?” said Val. “I saw you last night. How did you do?”
“I didn’t play.”
“I won fifteen quid.”
Though desirous of repeating a whimsical comment on gambling he had once heard his father make —‘When you’re fleeced you’re sick, and when you fleece you’re sorry — Jolly contented himself with:
“Rotten game, I think; I was at school with that chap. He’s an awful fool.”
“Oh! I don’t know,” said Val, as one might speak in defence of a disparaged god; “he’s a pretty good sport.”
They exchanged whiffs in silence.
“You met my people, didn’t you?” said Jolly. “They’re coming up to-morrow.”
Val grew a little red.
“Really! I can give you a rare good tip for the Manchester November handicap.”
“Thanks, I only take interest in the classic races.”
“You can’t make any money over them,” said Val.
“I hate the ring,” said Jolly; “there’s such a row and stink. I like the paddock.”
“I like to back my judgment,”’ answered Val.
Jolly smiled; his smile was like his father’s.
“I haven’t got any. I always lose money if I bet.”
“You have to buy experience, of course.”
“Yes, but it’s all messed-up with doing people in the eye.”
“Of course, or they’ll do you — that’s the excitement.”
Jolly looked a little scornful.
“What do you do with yourself? Row?”
“No — ride, and drive about. I’m going to play polo next term, if I can get my granddad to stump up.”
“That’s old Uncle James, isn’t it? What’s he like?”
“Older than forty hills,” said Val, “and always thinking he’s going to be ruined.”
“I suppose my granddad and he were brothers.”
“I don’t believe any of that old lot were sportsmen,” said Val; “they must have worshipped money.”
“Mine didn’t!” said Jolly warmly.
Val flipped the ash off his cigarette.
“Money’s only fit to spend,” he said; “I wish the deuce I had more.”
Jolly gave him that direct upward look of judgment which he had inherited from old Jolyon: One didn’t talk about money! And again there was silence, while they drank tea and ate the buttered buns.
“Where are your people going to stay?” asked Val, elaborately casual.
“‘Rainbow.’ What do you think of the war?”
“Rotten, so far. The Boers aren’t sports a bit. Why don’t they come out into the open?”
“Why should they? They’ve got everything against them except their way of fighting. I rather admire them.”
“They can ride and shoot,” admitted Val, “but they’re a lousy lot. Do you know Crum?”
“Of Merton? Only by sight. He’s in that fast set too, isn’t he? Rather La-di-da and Brummagem.”
Val said fixedly: “He’s a friend of mine.”
“Oh! Sorry!” And they sat awkwardly staring past each other, having pitched on their pet points of snobbery. For Jolly was forming himself unconsciously on a set whose motto was:
‘We defy you to bore us. Life isn’t half long enough, and we’re going to talk faster and more crisply, do more and know more, and dwell less on any subject than you can possibly imagine. We are “the best”— made of wire and whipcord.’ And Val was unconsciously forming himself on a set whose motto was: ‘We defy you to interest or excite us. We have had every sensation, or if we haven’t, we pretend we have. We are so exhausted with living that no hours are too small for us. We will lose our shirts with equanimity. We have flown fast and are past everything. All is cigarette smoke. Bismillah!’ Competitive spirit, bone-deep in the English, was obliging those two young Forsytes to have ideals; and at the close of a century ideals are mixed. The aristocracy had already in the main adopted the ‘jumping-Jesus’ principle; though here and there one like Crum — who was an ‘honourable’— stood starkly languid for that gambler’s Nirvana which had been the summum bonum of the old ‘dandies’ and of ‘the mashers’ in the eighties. And round Crum were still gathered a forlorn hope of blue-bloods with a plutocratic following.
But there was between the cousins another far less obvious antipathy — coming from the unseizable family resemblance, which each perhaps resented; or from some half-consciousness of that old feud persisting still between their branches of the clan, formed within them by odd words or half-hints dropped by their elders. And Jolly, tinkling his teaspoon, was musing: ‘His tie-pin and his waistcoat and his drawl and his betting — good Lord!’
And Val, finishing his bun, was thinking: ‘He’s rather a young beast!’
“I suppose you’ll be meeting your people?” he said, getting up. “I wish you’d tell them I should like to show them over B.N.C. — not that there’s anything much there — if they’d care to come.”
“Thanks, I’ll ask them.”
“Would they lunch? I’ve got rather a decent scout.”
Jolly doubted if they would have time.
“You’ll ask them, though?”
“Very good of you,” said Jolly, fully meaning that they should not go; but, instinctively polite, he added: “You’d better come and have dinner with us to-morrow.”
“Rather. What time?”
“No.” And they parted, a subtle antagonism alive within them.
Holly and her father arrived by a midday train. It was her first visit to the city of spires and dreams, and she was very silent, looking almost shyly at the brother who was part of this wonderful place. After lunch she wandered, examining his household gods with intense curiosity. Jolly’s sitting-room was panelled, and Art represented by a set of Bartolozzi prints which had belonged to old Jolyon, and by college photographs — of young men, live young men, a little heroic, and to be compared with her memories of Val. Jolyon also scrutinised with care that evidence of his boy’s character and tastes.
Jolly was anxious that they should see him rowing, so they set forth to the river. Holly, between her brother and her father, felt elated when heads were turned and eyes rested on her. That they might see him to the best advantage they left him at the Barge and crossed the river to the towing-path. Slight in build — for of all the Forsytes only old Swithin and George were beefy — Jolly was rowing ‘Two’ in a trial eight. He looked very earnest and strenuous. With pride Jolyon thought him the best-looking boy of the lot; Holly, as became a sister, was more struck by one or two of the others, but would not have said so for the world. The river was bright that afternoon, the meadows lush, the trees still beautiful with colour. Distinguished peace clung around the old city; Jolyon promised himself a day’s sketching if the weather held. The Eight passed a second time, spurting home along the Barges — Jolly’s face was very set, so as not to show that he was blown. They returned across the river and waited for him.
“Oh!” said Jolly in the Christ Church meadows, “I had to ask that chap Val Dartie to dine with us to-night. He wanted to give you lunch and show you B.N.C., so I thought I’d better; then you needn’t go. I don’t like him much.”
Holly’s rather sallow face had become suffused with pink.
“Oh! I don’t know. He seems to me rather showy and bad form. What are his people like, Dad? He’s only a second cousin, isn’t he?”
Jolyon took refuge in a smile.
“Ask Holly,” he said; “she saw his uncle.”
“I liked Val,” Holly answered, staring at the ground before her; “his uncle looked — awfully different.” She stole a glance at Jolly from under her lashes.
“Did you ever,” said Jolyon with whimsical intention, “hear our family history, my dears? It’s quite a fairy tale. The first Jolyon Forsyte — at all events the first we know anything of, and that would be your great-great-grandfather — dwelt in the land of Dorset on the edge of the sea, being by profession an ‘agriculturalist,’ as your great-aunt put it, and the son of an agriculturist — farmers, in fact; your grandfather used to call them, ‘Very small beer.’” He looked at Jolly to see how his lordliness was standing it, and with the other eye noted Holly’s malicious pleasure in the slight drop of her brother’s face.
“We may suppose him thick and sturdy, standing for England as it was before the Industrial Era began. The second Jolyon Forsyte — your great-grandfather, Jolly; better known as Superior Dosset Forsyte — built houses, so the chronicle runs, begat ten children, and migrated to London town. It is known that he drank sherry. We may suppose him representing the England of Napoleon’s wars, and general unrest. The eldest of his six sons was the third Jolyon, your grandfather, my dears — tea merchant and chairman of companies, one of the soundest Englishmen who ever lived — and to me the dearest.” Jolyon’s voice had lost its irony, and his son and daughter gazed at him solemnly, “He was just and tenacious, tender and young at heart. You remember him, and I remember him. Pass to the others! Your great-uncle James, that’s young Val’s grandfather, had a son called Soames — whereby hangs a tale of no love lost, and I don’t think I’ll tell it you. James and the other eight children of ‘Superior Dosset,’ of whom there are still five alive, may be said to have represented Victorian England, with its principles of trade and individualism at five per cent. and your money back — if you know what that means. At all events they’ve turned thirty thousand pounds into a cool million between them in the course of their long lives. They never did a wild thing — unless it was your great-uncle Swithin, who I believe was once swindled at thimble-rig, and was called ‘Four-in-hand Forsyte’ because he drove a pair. Their day is passing, and their type, not altogether for the advantage of the country. They were pedestrian, but they too were sound. I am the fourth Jolyon Forsyte — a poor holder of the name —”
“No, Dad,” said Jolly, and Holly squeezed his hand.
“Yes,” repeated Jolyon, “a poor specimen, representing, I’m afraid, nothing but the end of the century, unearned income, amateurism, and individual liberty — a different thing from individualism, Jolly. You are the fifth Jolyon Forsyte, old man, and you open the ball of the new century.”
As he spoke they turned in through the college gates, and Holly said: “It’s fascinating, Dad.”
None of them quite knew what she meant. Jolly was grave.
The Rainbow, distinguished, as only an Oxford hostel can be, for lack of modernity, provided one small oak-panelled private sitting-room, in which Holly sat to receive, white-frocked, shy, and alone, when the only guest arrived. Rather as one would touch a moth, Val took her hand. And wouldn’t she wear this ‘measly flower’? It would look ripping in her hair. He removed a gardenia from his coat.
“Oh! No, thank you — I couldn’t!” But she took it and pinned it at her neck, having suddenly remembered that word ‘showy’! Val’s buttonhole would give offence; and she so much wanted Jolly to like him. Did she realise that Val was at his best and quietest in her presence, and was that, perhaps, half the secret of his attraction for her?
“I never said anything about our ride, Val.”
“Rather not! It’s just between us.”
By the uneasiness of his hands and the fidgeting of his feet he was giving her a sense of power very delicious; a soft feeling too — the wish to make him happy.
“Do tell me about Oxford. It must be ever so lovely.”
Val admitted that it was frightfully decent to do what you liked; the lectures were nothing; and there were some very good chaps. “Only,” he added, “of course I wish I was in town, and could come down and see you.”
Holly moved one hand shyly on her knee, and her glance dropped.
“You haven’t forgotten,” he said, suddenly gathering courage, “that we’re going mad-rabbiting together?”
“Oh! That was only make-believe. One can’t do that sort of thing after one’s grown up, you know.”
“Dash it! cousins can,” said Val. “Next Long Vac. — it begins in June, you know, and goes on for ever — we’ll watch our chance.”
But, though the thrill of conspiracy ran through her veins, Holly shook her head. “It won’t come off,” she murmured.
“Won’t it!” said Val fervently; “who’s going to stop it? Not your father or your brother.”
At this moment Jolyon and Jolly came in; and romance fled into Val’s patent leather and Holly’s white satin toes, where it itched and tingled during an evening not conspicuous for open-heartedness.
Sensitive to atmosphere, Jolyon soon felt the latent antagonism between the boys, and was puzzled by Holly; so he became unconsciously ironical, which is fatal to the expansiveness of youth. A letter, handed to him after dinner, reduced him to a silence hardly broken till Jolly and Val rose to go. He went out with them, smoking his cigar, and walked with his son to the gates of Christ Church. Turning back, he took out the letter and read it again beneath a lamp.
“Soames came again to-night — my thirty-seventh birthday. You were right, I mustn’t stay here. I’m going to-morrow to the Piedmont Hotel, but I won’t go abroad without seeing you. I feel lonely and down-hearted.
“Yours affectionately, “IRENE.”
He folded the letter back into his pocket and walked on, astonished at the violence of his feelings. What had the fellow said or done?
He turned into High Street, down the Turf, and on among a maze of spires and domes and long college fronts and walls, bright or dark-shadowed in the strong moonlight. In this very heart of England’s gentility it was difficult to realise that a lonely woman could be importuned or hunted, but what else could her letter mean? Soames must have been pressing her to go back to him again, with public opinion and the Law on his side, too! ‘Eighteen-ninety-nine!,’ he thought, gazing at the broken glass shining on the top of a villa garden wall; ‘but when it comes to property we’re still a heathen people! I’ll go up to-morrow morning. I dare say it’ll be best for her to go abroad.’ Yet the thought displeased him. Why should Soames hunt her out of England! Besides, he might follow, and out there she would be still more helpless against the attentions of her own husband! ‘I must tread warily,’ he thought; ‘that fellow could make himself very nasty. I didn’t like his manner in the cab the other night.’ His thoughts turned to his daughter June. Could she help? Once on a time Irene had been her greatest friend, and now she was a ‘lame duck,’ such as must appeal to June’s nature! He determined to wire to his daughter to meet him at Paddington Station. Retracing his steps towards the Rainbow he questioned his own sensations. Would he be upsetting himself over every woman in like case? No! he would not. The candour of this conclusion discomfited him; and, finding that Holly had gone up to bed, he sought his own room. But he could not sleep, and sat for a long time at his window, huddled in an overcoat, watching the moonlight on the roofs.
Next door Holly too was awake, thinking of the lashes above and below Val’s eyes, especially below; and of what she could do to make Jolly like him better. The scent of the gardenia was strong in her little bedroom, and pleasant to her.
And Val, leaning out of his first-floor window in B.N.C., was gazing at a moonlit quadrangle without seeing it at all, seeing instead Holly, slim and white-frocked, as she sat beside the fire when he first went in.
But Jolly, in his bedroom narrow as a ghost, lay with a hand beneath his cheek and dreamed he was with Val in one boat, rowing a race against him, while his father was calling from the towpath: ‘Two! Get your hands away there, bless you!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08