The possessive instinct, which, so determinedly balked, was animating two members of the Forsyte family towards riddance of what they could no longer possess, was hardening daily in the British body politic. Nicholas, originally so doubtful concerning a war which must affect property, had been heard to say that these Boers were a pig-headed lot; they were causing a lot of expense, and the sooner they had their lesson the better. He would send out Wolseley! Seeing always a little further than other people — whence the most considerable fortune of all the Forsytes — he had perceived already that Buller was not the man —‘a bull of a chap, who just went butting, and if they didn’t look out Ladysmith would fall.’ This was early in December, so that when Black Week came, he was enabled to say to everybody: ‘I told you so.’ During that week of gloom such as no Forsyte could remember, very young Nicholas attended so many drills in his corps, ‘The Devil’s Own,’ that young Nicholas consulted the family physician about his son’s health and was alarmed to find that he was perfectly sound. The boy had only just eaten his dinners and been called to the bar, at some expense, and it was in a way a nightmare to his father and mother that he should be playing with military efficiency at a time when military efficiency in the civilian population might conceivably be wanted. His grandfather, of course, pooh-poohed the notion, too thoroughly educated in the feeling that no British war could be other than little and professional, and profoundly distrustful of Imperial commitments, by which, moreover, he stood to lose, for he owned De Beers, now going down fast, more than a sufficient sacrifice on the part of his grandson.
At Oxford, however, rather different sentiments prevailed. The inherent effervescence of conglomerate youth had, during the two months of the term before Black Week, been gradually crystallising out into vivid oppositions. Normal adolescence, ever in England of a conservative tendency though not taking things too seriously, was vehement for a fight to a finish and a good licking for the Boers. Of this larger faction Val Dartie was naturally a member. Radical youth, on the other hand, a small but perhaps more vocal body, was for stopping the war and giving the Boers autonomy. Until Black Week, however, the groups were amorphous, without sharp edges, and argument remained but academic. Jolly was one of those who knew not where he stood. A streak of his grandfather old Jolyon’s love of justice prevented, him from seeing one side only. Moreover, in his set of ‘the best’ there was a ‘jumping-Jesus’ of extremely advanced opinions and some personal magnetism. Jolly wavered. His father, too, seemed doubtful in his views. And though, as was proper at the age of twenty, he kept a sharp eye on his father, watchful for defects which might still be remedied, still that father had an ‘air’ which gave a sort of glamour to his creed of ironic tolerance. Artists of course; were notoriously Hamlet-like, and to this extent one must discount for one’s father, even if one loved him. But Jolyon’s original view, that to ‘put your nose in where you aren’t wanted’ (as the Uitlanders had done) ‘and then work the oracle till you get on top is not being quite the clean potato,’ had, whether founded in fact or no, a certain attraction for his son, who thought a deal about gentility. On the other hand Jolly could not abide such as his set called ‘cranks,’ and Val’s set called ‘smugs,’ so that he was still balancing when the clock of Black Week struck. One — two — three, came those ominous repulses at Stormberg, Magersfontein, Colenso. The sturdy English soul reacting after the first cried, ‘Ah! but Methuen!’ after the second: ‘Ah! but Buller!’ then, in inspissated gloom, hardened. And Jolly said to himself: ‘No, damn it! We’ve got to lick the beggars now; I don’t care whether we’re right or wrong.’ And, if he had known it, his father was thinking the same thought.
That next Sunday, last of the term, Jolly was bidden to wine with ‘one of the best.’ After the second toast, ‘Buller and damnation to the Boers,’ drunk — no heel taps — in the college Burgundy, he noticed that Val Dartie, also a guest, was looking at him with a grin and saying something to his neighbour. He was sure it was disparaging. The last boy in the world to make himself conspicuous or cause public disturbance, Jolly grew rather red and shut his lips. The queer hostility he had always felt towards his second-cousin was strongly and suddenly reinforced. ‘All right!’ he thought, ‘you wait, my friend!’ More wine than was good for him, as the custom was, helped him to remember, when they all trooped forth to a secluded spot, to touch Val on the arm.
“What did you say about me in there?”
“Mayn’t I say what I like?”
“Well, I said you were a pro-Boer — and so you are!”
“You’re a liar!”
“D’you want a row?”
“Of course, but not here; in the garden.”
“All right. Come on.”
They went, eyeing each other askance, unsteady, and unflinching; they climbed the garden railings. The spikes on the top slightly ripped Val’s sleeve, and occupied his mind. Jolly’s mind was occupied by the thought that they were going to fight in the precincts of a college foreign to them both. It was not the thing, but never mind — the young beast!
They passed over the grass into very nearly darkness, and took off their coats.
“You’re not screwed, are you?” said Jolly suddenly. “I can’t fight you if you’re screwed.”
“No more than you.”
“All right then.”
Without shaking hands, they put themselves at once into postures of defence. They had drunk too much for science, and so were especially careful to assume correct attitudes, until Jolly smote Val almost accidentally on the nose. After that it was all a dark and ugly scrimmage in the deep shadow of the old trees, with no one to call ‘time,’ till, battered and blown, they unclinched and staggered back from each other, as a voice said:
“Your names, young gentlemen?”
At this bland query spoken from under the lamp at the garden gate, like some demand of a god, their nerves gave way, and snatching up their coats, they ran at the railings, shinned up them, and made for the secluded spot whence they had issued to the fight. Here, in dim light, they mopped their faces, and without a word walked, ten paces apart, to the college gate. They went out silently, Val going towards the Broad along the Brewery, Jolly down the lane towards the High. His head, still fumed, was busy with regret that he had not displayed more science, passing in review the counters and knockout blows which he had not delivered. His mind strayed on to an imagined combat, infinitely unlike that which he had just been through, infinitely gallant, with sash and sword, with thrust and parry, as if he were in the pages of his beloved Dumas. He fancied himself La Mole, and Aramis, Bussy, Chicot, and D’Artagnan rolled into one, but he quite failed to envisage Val as Coconnas, Brissac, or Rochefort. The fellow was just a confounded cousin who didn’t come up to Cocker. Never mind! He had given him one or two. ‘Pro-Boer!’ The word still rankled, and thoughts of enlisting jostled his aching head; of riding over the veldt, firing gallantly, while the Boers rolled over like rabbits. And, turning up his smarting eyes, he saw the stars shining between the housetops of the High, and himself lying out on the Karoo (whatever that was) rolled in a blanket, with his rifle ready and his gaze fixed on a glittering heaven.
He had a fearful ‘head’ next morning, which he doctored, as became one of ‘the best,’ by soaking it in cold water, brewing strong coffee which he could not drink, and only sipping a little Hock at lunch. The legend that ‘some fool’ had run into him round a corner accounted for a bruise on his cheek. He would on no account have mentioned the fight, for, on second thoughts, it fell far short of his standards.
The next day he went ‘down,’ and travelled through to Robin Hill. Nobody was there but June and Holly, for his father had gone to Paris. He spent a restless and unsettled Vacation, quite out of touch with either of his sisters. June, indeed, was occupied with lame ducks, whom, as a rule, Jolly could not stand, especially that Eric Cobbley and his family, ‘hopeless outsiders,’ who were always littering up the house in the Vacation. And between Holly and himself there was a strange division, as if she were beginning to have opinions of her own, which was so — unnecessary. He punched viciously at a ball, rode furiously but alone in Richmond Park, making a point of jumping the stiff, high hurdles put up to close certain worn avenues of grass — keeping his nerve in, he called it. Jolly was more afraid of being afraid than most boys are. He bought a rifle, too, and put a range up in the home field, shooting across the pond into the kitchen-garden wall, to the peril of gardeners, with the thought that some day, perhaps, he would enlist and save South Africa for his country. In fact, now that they were appealing for Yeomanry recruits the boy was thoroughly upset. Ought he to go? None of ‘the best,’ so far as he knew — and he was in correspondence with several — were thinking of joining. If they had been making a move he would have gone at once — very competitive, and with a strong sense of form, he could not bear to be left behind in anything — but to do it off his own bat might look like ‘swagger’; because of course it wasn’t really necessary. Besides, he did not want to go, for the other side of this young Forsyte recoiled from leaping before he looked. It was altogether mixed pickles within him, hot and sickly pickles, and he became quite unlike his serene and rather lordly self.
And then one day he saw that which moved him to uneasy wrath — two riders, in a glade of the Park close to the Ham Gate, of whom she on the left-hand was most assuredly Holly on her silver roan, and he on the right-hand as assuredly that ‘squirt’ Val Dartie. His first impulse was to urge on his own horse and demand the meaning of this portent, tell the fellow to ‘bunk,’ and take Holly home. His second — to feel that he would look a fool if they refused. He reined his horse in behind a tree, then perceived that it was equally impossible to spy on them. Nothing for it but to go home and await her coming! Sneaking out with that young bounder! He could not consult with June, because she had gone up that morning in the train of Eric Cobbley and his lot. And his father was still in ‘that rotten Paris.’ He felt that this was emphatically one of those moments for which he had trained himself, assiduously, at school, where he and a boy called Brent had frequently set fire to newspapers and placed them in the centre of their studies to accustom them to coolness in moments of danger. He did not feel at all cool waiting in the stable-yard, idly stroking the dog Balthasar, who queasy as an old fat monk, and sad in the absence of his master, turned up his face, panting with gratitude for this attention. It was half an hour before Holly came, flushed and ever so much prettier than she had any right to look. He saw her look at him quickly — guiltily of course — then followed her in, and, taking her arm, conducted her into what had been their grandfather’s study. The room, not much used now, was still vaguely haunted for them both by a presence with which they associated tenderness, large drooping white moustaches, the scent of cigar smoke, and laughter. Here Jolly, in the prime of his youth, before he went to school at all, had been wont to wrestle with his grandfather, who even at eighty had an irresistible habit of crooking his leg. Here Holly, perched on the arm of the great leather chair, had stroked hair curving silvery over an ear into which she would whisper secrets. Through that window they had all three sallied times without number to cricket on the lawn, and a mysterious game called ‘Wopsy-doozle,’ not to be understood by outsiders, which made old Jolyon very hot. Here once on a warm night Holly had appeared in her ‘nighty,’ having had a bad dream, to have the clutch of it released. And here Jolly, having begun the day badly by introducing fizzy magnesia into Mademoiselle Beauce’s new-laid egg, and gone on to worse, had been sent down (in the absence of his father) to the ensuing dialogue:
“Now, my boy, you mustn’t go on like this.”
“Well, she boxed my ears, Gran, so I only boxed hers, and then she boxed mine again.”
“Strike a lady? That’ll never do! Have you begged her pardon?”
“Then you must go and do it at once. Come along.”
“But she began it, Gran; and she had two to my one.”
“My dear, it was an outrageous thing to do.”
“Well, she lost her temper; and I didn’t lose mine.”
“You come too, then, Gran.”
“Well — this time only.”
And they had gone hand in hand.
Here — where the Waverley novels and Byron’s works and Gibbon’s Roman Empire and Humboldt’s Cosmos, and the bronzes on the mantelpiece, and that masterpiece of the oily school, ‘Dutch Fishing-Boats at Sunset,’ were fixed as fate, and for all sign of change old Jolyon might have been sitting there still, with legs crossed, in the arm chair, and domed forehead and deep eyes grave above The Times — here they came, those two grandchildren. And Jolly said:
“I saw you and that fellow in the Park.”
The sight of blood rushing into her cheeks gave him some satisfaction; she ought to be ashamed!
“Well?” she said.
Jolly was surprised; he had expected more, or less.
“Do you know,” he said weightily, “that he called me a pro-Boer last term? And I had to fight him.”
Jolly wished to answer: ‘I should have,’ but it seemed beneath him.
“Look here!” he said, “what’s the meaning of it? Without telling anybody!”
“Why should I? Dad isn’t here; why shouldn’t I ride with him?”
“You’ve got me to ride with. I think he’s an awful young rotter.”
Holly went pale with anger.
“He isn’t. It’s your own fault for not liking him.”
And slipping past her brother she went out, leaving him staring at the bronze Venus sitting on a tortoise, which had been shielded from him so far by his sister’s dark head under her soft felt riding hat. He felt queerly disturbed, shaken to his young foundations. A lifelong domination lay shattered round his feet. He went up to the Venus and mechanically inspected the tortoise.
Why didn’t he like Val Dartie? He could not tell. Ignorant of family history, barely aware of that vague feud which had started thirteen years before with Bosinney’s defection from June in favour of Soames’ wife, knowing really almost nothing about Val he was at sea. He just did dislike him. The question, however, was: What should he do? Val Dartie, it was true, was a second-cousin, but it was not the thing for Holly to go about with him. And yet to ‘tell’ of what he had chanced on was against his creed. In this dilemma he went and sat in the old leather chair and crossed his legs. It grew dark while he sat there staring out through the long window at the old oak-tree, ample yet bare of leaves, becoming slowly just a shape of deeper dark printed on the dusk.
‘Grandfather!’ he thought without sequence, and took out his watch. He could not see the hands, but he set the repeater going. ‘Five o’clock!’ His grandfather’s first gold hunter watch, butter-smooth with age — all the milling worn from it, and dented with the mark of many a fall. The chime was like a little voice from out of that golden age, when they first came from St. John’s Wood, London, to this house — came driving with grandfather in his carriage, and almost instantly took to the trees. Trees to climb, and grandfather watering the geranium-beds below! What was to be done? Tell Dad he must come home? Confide in June? — only she was so — so sudden! Do nothing and trust to luck? After all, the Vac. would soon be over. Go up and see Val and warn him off? But how get his address? Holly wouldn’t give it him! A maze of paths, a cloud of possibilities! He lit a cigarette. When he had smoked it halfway through his brow relaxed, almost as if some thin old hand had been passed gently over it; and in his ear something seemed to whisper: ‘Do nothing; be nice to Holly, be nice to her, my dear!’ And Jolly heaved a sigh of contentment, blowing smoke through his nostrils. . . .
But up in her room, divested of her habit, Holly was still frowning. ‘He is not — he is not!’ were the words which kept forming on her lips.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08