On Forsyte ‘Change news of the enlistment spread fast, together with the report that June, not to be outdone, was going to become a Red Cross nurse. These events were so extreme, so subversive of pure Forsyteism, as to have a binding effect upon the family, and Timothy’s was thronged next Sunday afternoon by members trying to find out what they thought about it all, and exchange with each other a sense of family credit. Giles and Jesse Hayman would no longer defend the coast but go to South Africa quite soon; Jolly and Val would be following in April; as to June — well, you never knew what she would really do.
The retirement from Spion Kop and the absence of any good news from the seat of war imparted an air of reality to all this, clinched in startling fashion by Timothy. The youngest of the old Forsytes — scarcely eighty, in fact popularly supposed to resemble their father, ‘Superior Dosset,’ even in his best-known characteristic of drinking Sherry — had been invisible for so many years that he was almost mythical. A long generation had elapsed since the risks of a publisher’s business had worked on his nerves at the age of forty, so that he had got out with a mere thirty-five thousand pounds in the world, and started to make his living by careful investment. Putting by every year, at compound interest, he had doubled his capital in forty years without having once known what it was like to shake in his shoes over money matters. He was now putting aside some two thousand a year, and, with the care he was taking of himself, expected, so Aunt Hester said, to double his capital again before he died. What he would do with it then, with his sisters dead and himself dead, was often mockingly queried by free spirits such as Francie, Euphemia, or young Nicholas’ second, Christopher, whose spirit was so free that he had actually said he was going on the stage. All admitted, however, that this was best known to Timothy himself, and possibly to Soames, who never divulged a secret.
Those few Forsytes who had seen him reported a man of thick and robust appearance, not very tall, with a brown-red complexion, grey hair, and little of the refinement of feature with which most of the Forsytes had been endowed by ‘Superior Dosset’s’ wife, a woman of some beauty and a gentle temperament. It was known that he had taken surprising interest in the war, sticking flags into a map ever since it began, and there was uneasiness as to what would happen if the English were driven into the sea, when it would be almost impossible for him to put the flags in the right places. As to his knowledge of family movements or his views about them, little was known, save that Aunt Hester was always declaring that he was very upset. It was, then, in the nature of a portent when Forsytes, arriving on the Sunday after the evacuation of Spion Kop, became conscious, one after the other, of a presence seated in the only really comfortable armchair, back to the light, concealing the lower part of his face with a large hand, and were greeted by the awed voice of Aunt Hester:
“Your Uncle Timothy, my dear.”
Timothy’s greeting to them all was somewhat identical; and rather, as it were, passed over by him than expressed:
“How de do? How de do? ‘Xcuse me gettin’ up!”
Francie was present, and Eustace had come in his car; Winifred had brought Imogen, breaking the ice of the restitution proceedings with the warmth of family appreciation at Val’s enlistment; and Marian Tweetyman with the last news of Giles and Jesse. These with Aunt Juley and Hester, young Nicholas, Euphemia, and — of all people! — George, who had come with Eustace in the car, constituted an assembly worthy of the family’s palmiest days. There was not one chair vacant in the whole of the little drawing-room, and anxiety was felt lest someone else should arrive.
The constraint caused by Timothy’s presence having worn off a little, conversation took a military turn. George asked Aunt Juley when she was going out with the Red Cross, almost reducing her to a state of gaiety; whereon he turned to Nicholas and said:
“Young Nick’s a warrior bold, isn’t he? When’s he going to don the wild khaki?”
Young Nicholas, smiling with a sort of sweet deprecation, intimated that of course his mother was very anxious.
“The Dromios are off, I hear,” said George, turning to Marian Tweetyman; “we shall all be there soon. En avant, the Forsytes! Roll, bowl, or pitch! Who’s for a cooler?”
Aunt Juley gurgled, George was so droll! Should Hester get Timothy’s map? Then he could show them all where they were.
At a sound from Timothy, interpreted as assent, Aunt Hester left the room.
George pursued his image of the Forsyte advance, addressing Timothy as Field Marshal; and Imogen, whom he had noted at once for ‘a pretty filly,’— as Vivandiere; and holding his top hat between his knees, he began to beat it with imaginary drumsticks. The reception accorded to his fantasy was mixed. All laughed — George was licensed; but all felt that the family was being ‘rotted’; and this seemed to them unnatural, now that it was going to give five of its members to the service of the Queen. George might go too far; and there was relief when he got up, offered his arm to Aunt Juley, marched up to Timothy, saluted him, kissed his aunt with mock passion, said, “Oh! what a treat, dear papa! Come on, Eustace!” and walked out, followed by the grave and fastidious Eustace, who had never smiled.
Aunt Juley’s bewildered, “Fancy not waiting for the map! You mustn’t mind him, Timothy. He’s so droll!” broke the hush, and Timothy removed the hand from his mouth.
“I don’t know what things are comin’ to,” he was heard to say. “What’s all this about goin’ out there? That’s not the way to beat those Boers.”
Francie alone had the hardihood to observe: “What is, then, Uncle Timothy?”
“All this new-fangled volunteerin’ and expense — lettin’ money out of the country.”
Just then Aunt Hester brought in the map, handling it like a baby with eruptions. With the assistance of Euphemia it was laid on the piano, a small Colwood grand, last played on, it was believed, the summer before Aunt Ann died, thirteen years ago. Timothy rose. He walked over to the piano, and stood looking at his map while they all gathered round.
“There you are,” he said; “that’s the position up to date; and very poor it is. H’m!”
“Yes,” said Francie, greatly daring, “but how are you going to alter it, Uncle Timothy, without more men?”
“Men!” said Timothy; “you don’t want men — wastin’ the country’s money. You want a Napoleon, he’d settle it in a month.”
“But if you haven’t got him, Uncle Timothy?”
“That’s their business,” replied Timothy. “What have we kept the Army up for — to eat their heads off in time of peace! They ought to be ashamed of themselves, comin’ on the country to help them like this! Let every man stick to his business, and we shall get on.”
And looking round him, he added almost angrily:
“Volunteerin’, indeed! Throwin’ good money after bad! We must save! Conserve energy that’s the only way.” And with a prolonged sound, not quite a sniff and not quite a snort, he trod on Euphemia’s toe, and went out, leaving a sensation and a faint scent of barley-sugar behind him.
The effect of something said with conviction by one who has evidently made a sacrifice to say it is ever considerable. And the eight Forsytes left behind, all women except young Nicholas, were silent for a moment round the map. Then Francie said:
“Really, I think he’s right, you know. After all, what is the Army for? They ought to have known. It’s only encouraging them.”
“My dear!” cried Aunt Juley, “but they’ve been so progressive. Think of their giving up their scarlet. They were always so proud of it. And now they all look like convicts. Hester and I were saying only yesterday we were sure they must feel it very much. Fancy what the Iron Duke would have said!”
“The new colour’s very smart,” said Winifred; “Val looks quite nice in his.”
Aunt Juley sighed.
“I do so wonder what Jolyon’s boy is like. To think we’ve never seen him! His father must be so proud of him.”
“His father’s in Paris,” said Winifred.
Aunt Hester’s shoulder was seen to mount suddenly, as if to ward off her sister’s next remark, for Juley’s crumpled cheeks had gushed.
“We had dear little Mrs. MacAnder here yesterday, just back from Paris. And whom d’you think she saw there in the street? You’ll never guess.”
“We shan’t try, Auntie,” said Euphemia.
“Irene! Imagine! After all this time; walking with a fair beard. . . . ”
“Auntie! you’ll kill me! A fair beard. . . . ”
“I was going to say,” said Aunt Juley severely, “a fair-bearded gentleman. And not a day older; she was always so pretty,” she added, with a sort of lingering apology.
“Oh! tell us about her, Auntie,” cried Imogen; “I can just remember her. She’s the skeleton in the family cupboard, isn’t she? And they’re such fun.”
Aunt Hester sat down. Really, Juley had done it now!
“She wasn’t much of a skeleton as I remember her,” murmured Euphemia, “extremely well-covered.”
“My dear!” said Aunt Juley, “what a peculiar way of putting it — not very nice.”
“No, but what was she like?” persisted Imogen.
“I’ll tell you, my child,” said Francie; “a kind of modern Venus, very well-dressed.”
Euphemia said sharply: “Venus was never dressed, and she had blue eyes of melting sapphire.”
At this juncture Nicholas took his leave.
“Mrs. Nick is awfully strict,” said Francie with a laugh.
“She has six children,” said Aunt Juley; “it’s very proper she should be careful.”
“Was Uncle Soames awfully fond of her?” pursued the inexorable Imogen, moving her dark luscious eyes from face to face.
Aunt Hester made a gesture of despair, just as Aunt Juley answered:
“Yes, your Uncle Soames was very much attached to her.”
“I suppose she ran off with someone?”
“No, certainly not; that is — not precisely.’
“What did she do, then, Auntie?”
“Come along, Imogen,” said Winifred, “we must be getting back.”
But Aunt Juley interjected resolutely: “She — she didn’t behave at all well.”
“Oh, bother!” cried Imogen; “that’s as far as I ever get.”
“Well, my dear,” said Francie, “she had a love affair which ended with the young man’s death; and then she left your uncle. I always rather liked her.”
“She used to give me chocolates,” murmured Imogen, “and smell nice.”
“Of course!” remarked Euphemia.
“Not of course at all!” replied Francie, who used a particularly expensive essence of gillyflower herself.
“I can’t think what we are about,” said Aunt Juley, raising her hands, “talking of such things!”
“Was she divorced?” asked Imogen from the door.
“Certainly not,” cried Aunt Juley; “that is — certainly not.”
A sound was heard over by the far door. Timothy had re-entered the back drawing-room. “I’ve come for my map,” he said. “Who’s been divorced?”
“No one, Uncle,” replied Francie with perfect truth.
Timothy took his map off the piano.
“Don’t let’s have anything of that sort in the family,” he said. “All this enlistin’s bad enough. The country’s breakin’ up; I don’t know what we’re comin’ to.” He shook a thick finger at the room: “Too many women nowadays, and they don’t know what they want.”
So saying, he grasped the map firmly with both hands, and went out as if afraid of being answered.
The seven women whom he had addressed broke into a subdued murmur, out of which emerged Francie’s, “Really, the Forsytes!” and Aunt Juley’s: “He must have his feet in mustard and hot water to-night, Hester; will you tell Jane? The blood has gone to his head again, I’m afraid. . . . ”
That evening, when she and Hester were sitting alone after dinner, she dropped a stitch in her crochet, and looked up:
“Hester, I can’t think where I’ve heard that dear Soames wants Irene to come back to him again. Who was it told us that George had made a funny drawing of him with the words, ‘He won’t be happy till he gets it’?”
“Eustace,” answered Aunt Hester from behind The Times; “he had it in his pocket, but he wouldn’t show it us.”
Aunt Juley was silent, ruminating. The clock ticked, The Times crackled, the fire sent forth its rustling purr. Aunt Juley dropped another stitch.
“Hester,” she said, “I have had such a dreadful thought.”
“Then don’t tell me,” said Aunt Hester quickly.
“Oh! but I must. You can’t think how dreadful!” Her voice sank to a whisper:
“Jolyon — Jolyon, they say, has a — has a fair beard, now.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08