On Forsyte 'Change, by John Galsworthy

Aunt Juley’s Courtship, 1855

The Crimean war and the marriage of Septimus Small with Miss Julia Forsyte, which both occupied part of the year 1855, were linked by a water picnic arranged for the entertainment of that ‘hero,’ Major Small, a younger brother of Septimus, who had been wounded in the leg. What bound Septimus himself to the Forsyte family was indubitably architecture, for he was a member of the firm of Dewbridge, Small and Keyman, who specialised in the domestic Gothic, which at that period was subjugating the taste of the British Islands. Roger Forsyte, in the course of his profession — the collection of house property — had many dealings with this firm which had designed for him a row of houses on a site he had picked up in Kensington, then somewhat out of the world; and to Septimus Small’s riverside villa at Twickenham Roger sometimes repaired on Sundays to consummate his plans over cigars and claret cup. After his marriage in 1853 he would be accompanied by Mrs. Roger, and they would take her on the river, paddling with a rather deep-sea stroke, in long whiskers, ducks, and shallow wide-brimmed straw hats, while pretty little Mrs. Roger held the tiller and covered the boat’s stern and other matters with her crinoline. In the severe winter 1854 Septimus, a man of weak constitution, inadvertently contracted bronchitis. He emerged with the long full beard and the cough which subsequently secured for him the cognomen ‘Cough Lozenge’ from the young Rogers, who all made their appearance between the years of ‘53 and ‘62 — George, inventor of the nickname, having ‘56 to his vintage. There can be no doubt that it was this cough and long beard which won the heart of Julia, then barely ‘Aunt Juley,’ since only young Jolyon, young Roger, young Nicholas, Ernest, and St. John Hayman had been born, and were still mostly in the cradle. When, years later, she heard that dear Septimus went about being called ‘Cough Lozenge’ in the family, she nearly had a fit.

In 1855, at the age of forty, she had a certain pink and pouting charm; but would have denied with vigour Roger’s frequent remark to Mrs. Roger: “Juley’s setting her cap at Sep.” The idea! HER cap, indeed, when it was entirely for HIS good, and his least cough set her trembling with a sort of delighted pity! He did so want someone to look after him and see that he took care at night, and to trim his beard, that was so manly and so sensible, covering his chest. To her the notion that anyone so interesting-looking, almost handsome, should be a ‘confirmed bachelor,’ as Roger put it, was painful. Her sister Susan, too, seven years younger than herself, and already for three years wedded to John Hayman, was always telling her how John admired her in this dress or in that, and had once gone so far as to imply that he admired her in nothing — so daring of Susan — not quite nice!

When, then, in July of 1855 she was invited to come with Roger and his wife to this water picnic, she was all of a flutter and gave much thought to her costume. She came out finally in pink with green ribbons in her bonnet, and a perfectly new crinoline. Roger, living then in Bayswater, warming a house that he intended to sell shortly at a reasonable profit — not till ‘sixty-nine did he anchor himself permanently in Prince’s Gate — called for her with his carriage of a new-fangled shape named ‘Victoria’ (always so unusual, Roger — eccentric, some people called it). On the way down to Twickenham he had to sit back to the horses on a narrow little seat that came out from below the high box, and was propped up with an iron stand; and he was so cross that it was quite a relief to them all three when they arrived, and dear Mr. Small met them at the gate, looking most manly in a puggaree and white trousers — ‘ducks,’ Roger called them, he was so droll. In his hand, too, he had a bunch of picotees, and held them to her nose with quite an air. “These are for you, Miss Julia,” he said. Tucked into her fichu they went beautifully with her dress, and were so fragrant; it would have been perfect if Roger had not closed his left eye quickly two or three times. As if —! Then they all went into the house to meet Major Small and have light refreshment before going on the river.

‘Parsons’ Villa’ (Aunt Juley subsequently changed the name to Sunninglea) had not been built by Dewbridge, Small and Keyman; it was in fact Georgian, on two floors, with French windows from the drawing-room on to the lawn, the river close below, and a little island opposite. In the drawing-room were four persons, making eight in all for the picnic: Major Small, a fine, full-bearded figure of a man, with a stiff leg, in a tussore suit; Hatty Chessman, always the life and soul of any party, and —“Who do you think, my dear?”— Augustus Perry; almost famous for those delightful books with music and rhymes in them, and his recitals at parties. It was he who made up that ‘Round’ which became so popular:

“A boat, a boat unto the ferry,
And we’ll go over and be merry,
And laugh and quaff and sing Down-derry.”

And he had witty variations for the last line, such as: “And laugh and quaff and drink brown sherry,” or: “And laugh and quaff — Augustus Perry.”

Seated on a chintz-covered chair with a glass of sherry cobbler in her hand, and a bowl of lavender close to her nose, Julia could not help looking at Mrs. Augustus Perry and wondering a little if she liked being the wife of anyone so popular, so sought after as Gus Perry, who played the guitar, too. She was hoping so much that she herself would not be in a boat with Roger — he was such a tease, especially if their dear host were in the same boat. And she hoped he was noticing how brightly she was talking with Major Small; and indeed it was an honour to be talking to him, for after all it was he who had the stiff leg, and was the hero; but all the time she contrived to watch their dear host and to note that he looked a little anxious. Then they all went down across the lawn to the two boats, so graceful, with striped cushions and brown varnish. It WAS a moment, not knowing in which boat she was to be, with Augustus Perry cracking so many jokes. But her arm was taken gently, firmly, above the elbow by Mr. Septimus, and she was stepping into a boat, and sitting down quite quickly beside her sister-inlaw on the stern seat.

“My dear,” she said, “I hope I am not required to steer. It’s such a responsibility.”

“Oh! I will steer, dear Juley,” replied her sister-inlaw.

Crinoline by crinoline they sat, and — so gratifying — who should step into the boat but dear Mr. Septimus himself, and Augustus Perry. She could not help smiling when that droll Gus said:

“I shall take my coat off, Sep.”

And Mr. Septimus, always courtly, asked:

“Do you mind, ladies?” Indeed, they didn’t!

So both took their coats off, and placed the oars in the rowlocks. And then the boat glided out. It WAS delightful! Julia felt, somehow, that not only herself, but dear little Mary beside her, who was looking so pretty, was glad that dear Roger (even though he was her husband) was not in their boat. How beautifully they rowed, almost together; Augustus Perry — his face was so round, without whiskers or anything — kept popping it out from behind Mr. Septimus’s back, to make such amusing remarks. And then he ‘caught a crab’ on purpose! How they did laugh; he looked so droll! So first they went up the stream, and then they came down the stream, with the water all green and the swans all white — and landed on the little island opposite Parson’s Villa, where they found the picnic baskets — fancy! It WAS all beautifully planned, and so romantic under the willow trees, with rugs for them to sit on, and Augustus Perry’s guitar, quite like a picture by Watteau.

The lunch was exquisite: lobster salad, pigeon pie, tipsy cake, raspberries, and champagne: with plates and spoons, forks and napkins, and a dear little water rat looking on. She had never enjoyed anything so much, and she was really quite relieved when Major Small flirted outrageously with Hatty Chessman, and gave them no more anxiety. To be waited on by their dear host was such a privilege, and Roger and Gus Perry were so droll; altogether it was enchanting. When they had all finished lunch and the gentlemen were smoking their cigars, they sang some delightful ‘rounds’: ‘A boat, a boat,’ ‘Three blind mice,’ ‘White sand and grey sand.’ Mr. Septimus’s voice was so manly — deep and hollow, almost like an organ. Then they played hide-and-seek. Each in turn was allowed five minutes to hide from the others — such a clever idea, so thoughtful. She herself hid among some willow bushes, and who do you think found her? Mr. Septimus: he was so surprised! When they had all hidden it was time for tea, and such a to-do boiling the kettle. Roger, indeed — it was just like him — suggested that they should leave the kettle and go over and have tea in the house; but that would have destroyed all the romance. And when at last the kettle did boil, it would have been a delicious cup, only the water was smoky. But nobody minded, because, of course, it was a picnic. Then came the moment when the other six got into one boat and rowed away. It seemed quite providential. So she and their dear host helped the servants to pack everything in the other boat to take over to the house. While they were doing that, she noticed that he coughed three times.

“I am sure,” she said, “dear Mr. Septimus, it’s too damp for you on the river so late. It is past six.” How good he was about it!

“Let us sit on the lawn, then, Miss Julia,” he said, “and wait for the others to come back.”

So they sat under the cedar tree where it was beautifully cool, and quite private, for the branches came down very low. She had quite a fluttery feeling, sitting there all alone with him for the first time. But he was so considerate, talking about Southey. Did she like his poetry? He himself preferred Milton.

“I must confess, Mr. Septimus,” she said, “that I have not read ‘Paradise Regained,’ but Milton is certainly a very beautiful poet — so sonorous.”

“And what do you think of Wordsworth, Miss Julia?”

“Oh! I love Mr. Wordsworth! I always feel he must have had such a beautiful character.”

As she said this she could not help wondering if he would ask her whether she read Byron. If he did, she should be daring and say: ‘Yes, indeed!’ She did not want to have secrets from him, and she had been so impressed by ‘Childe Harold,’ and ‘The Giaour.’ Of course Lord Byron had NOT had good principles, but she was sure dear Mr. Septimus would never suspect her of reading anything that was not nice. There was ‘Don Juan’ in Timothy’s study — several volumes. Hester had read them and been horrified. And when he did not ask her she felt quite disappointed; it would have drawn them closer together, she was sure. But she could feel that he was shy about it; because he asked her instead whether she liked the novels of Charles Dickens.

“Of course,” she said, “he is very clever, but I do think he writes about such very peculiar, such very common characters; and there is so much about drinking in ‘The Pickwick Papers,’ though most people, I know, like them very much. Do you admire ‘The Pickwick Papers,’ Mr. Septimus?”

“No, Miss Julia; it seems to me a very extravagant book.”

Time went so quickly under the cedar, and it would have been quite perfect if the midges had not bitten her dreadfully through her stockings; for, of course, she could not scratch, or even say “La!” She did so wonder whether they were biting him, too. The longer they sat there the more she felt that he did not take enough care of himself, with no scarf on, in the evening air; he did so need someone to look after him. And so the midges bit, and she smiled, and the boat came back, with Augustus Perry singing to his guitar. What an agreeable rattle he was, was he not? And how romantic always — music on the water!

Then it all came to an end, and she drove home alone with dear little Mary in the Victoria, Roger refusing to sit back to the horses on ‘that knife-board’ any more, and going off with Hatty Chessman in her brougham. Such a relief! It had been such a — such a holy afternoon, and she did so want not to be teased about it . . . .

On the Bayswater Road that night she sat a long time at her window thinking of Septimus’s beard, and whether she would dare to come to calling him ‘Sep,’ and whether he would ever ask her to let him go and see her eldest brother, dear Jolyon — now that their father was dead . . . .

And then came their correspondence; that WAS a delightful experience. His letters sometimes contained a sprig of lavender — his favourite scent; they were beautifully written, because of course he was an architect, and full of high principle, so refined. Now and then, indeed, she would feel as if he might be too refined, because she had often read the Marriage Service and — thought about what it meant, as who indeed would not? In her own letters she tried hard not to be just gossipy, but like Maria Edgeworth. All that time she was knitting him a scarf. It had to be quite a secret, and done in her bedroom, because if Timothy saw it he would be sure to say: “Is that for me?” And perhaps would add: “I don’t want a great thing like that.” And if she said: “No, it’s not for you,” he would be quite upset and want to know whom it was for; which would never do.

In August they went (Ann and Hester, herself and Timothy) to Brighton for the sea air, and in a letter she happened to mention it to Septimus — always Septimus in her thoughts. Imagine her surprise, then, when on the third day she saw him sitting on the pier. It gave her such a colour. Timothy stopped short at once.

“Why! That’s Sep Small! I’m off!” It showed how little he understood, or he would never have left her like that alone with him. But what an adorable hour that was, hanging over the pier by his side. He knew such a lot about marine things — he pressed seaweed, and could not bear nigger-minstrels. He told her, too, that the sea air was good for his cough, and she was sure he had noticed her hat, for he said in such a far-away voice: “I dote on these pork-pie hats you see about, Miss Julia, and the veils are so sensible!” And there was hers floating almost against his cheek. It was all so friendly and delightful; and she did long to ask him to come back with her to lunch at their hotel so that she could get out his scarf and say: “I have a little surprise for you, dear Mr. Septimus,” and clasp it round his neck; but she felt it would make a ‘how-de-do’! It would be too dreadful if Timothy showed anything by his manner; and sometimes he showed such a lot, especially if he were kept waiting for meals. For, of course, neither he nor dear Ann, nor even Hester, knew anything about her feelings for dear ‘Sep’; so on the whole it would be better not. And then — so providential! — HE asked if he might escort her back to her hotel, and what COULD she say except that she would be flattered! He looked so tall and aristocratic walking beside her, with his full beard, and a puggaree round his hat, and his white, green-lined umbrella. She hoped, indeed, that people might be thinking: ‘What a distinguished couple!’ Many hopes flitted in her mind while they strolled along the front, and watched the common people eating winkles, and smelled the tarry boats. And something tender welled up in her so that she could not help stopping to call his attention to the sea, so blue with little white waves.

“I DO love Nature,” she said.

“Ah! Miss Julia,” he answered — she always remembered his words — “the beauties of Nature are indeed only exceeded by those of — Tut! — I have a fly in my eye!”

“Dear Mr. Septimus, let me take it out with the corner of my handkerchief.”

And he let her. It took quite a long time; he was so brave, keeping his eye open; and when at last she got it out, very black and tiny, they both looked at it together; it seemed to her to draw them quite close, as if they were looking into each other’s souls. Such a wonderful moment! And then — her heart beat fast — he had taken her hand. Her knees felt weak; she looked up into his face, so thin and high-minded and anxious, with a little streak where the eye had watered; and something of adoration crept up among her pinkness and her pouts, into her light grey eyes. He lifted her hand slowly till it reached his beard, and stooped his lips to it. Fancy! On the esplanade! All went soft and sweet within her; her lips trembled, and two large tears rolled out of her eyes.

“Miss Julia,” he said, “Julia — may I hope?”

“Dear Septimus,” she answered, “indeed, you MAY.”

And through a mist she saw his puggaree float out in the delicious breeze, and under one end of it a common man stop eating winkles, to stare up at her, as if he had seen a rainbow.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54