Two lines of a certain song in a certain famous old school’s songbook run as follows:
‘How the buttons on his blue frock shone, tra-la-la! How he carolled and he sang, like a bird!. . . . ’
Swithin did not exactly carol and sing like a bird, but he felt almost like endeavouring to hum a tune, as he stepped out of Hyde Park Mansions, and contemplated his horses drawn up before the door.
The afternoon was as balmy as a day in June, and to complete the simile of the old song, he had put on a blue frock-coat, dispensing with an overcoat, after sending Adolf down three times to make sure that there was not the least suspicion of east in the wind; and the frock-coat was buttoned so tightly around his personable form, that, if the buttons did not shine, they might pardonably have done so. Majestic on the pavement he fitted on a pair of dog-skin gloves; with his large bell-shaped top hat, and his great stature and bulk he looked too primeval for a Forsyte. His thick white hair, on which Adolf had bestowed a touch of pomatum, exhaled the fragrance of opoponax and cigars — the celebrated Swithin brand, for which he paid one hundred and forty shillings the hundred, and of which old Jolyon had unkindly said, he wouldn’t smoke them as a gift; they wanted the stomach of a horse!
“The new plaid rug!”
He would never teach that fellow to look smart; and Mrs. Soames he felt sure, had an eye!
“The phaeton hood down; I am going — to — drive — a — lady!”
A pretty woman would want to show off her frock; and well — he was going to drive a lady! It was like a new beginning to the good old days.
Ages since he had driven a woman! The last time, if he remembered, it had been Juley; the poor old soul had been as nervous as a cat the whole time, and so put him out of patience that, as he dropped her in the Bayswater Road, he had said: “Well I’m d —-d if I ever drive you again!” And he never had, not he!
Going up to his horses’ heads, he examined their bits; not that he knew anything about bits — he didn’t pay his coachman sixty pounds a year to do his work for him, that had never been his principle. Indeed, his reputation as a horsey man rested mainly on the fact that once, on Derby Day, he had been welshed by some thimble-riggers. But someone at the Club, after seeing him drive his greys up to the door — he always drove grey horses, you got more style for the money, some thought — had called him ‘Four-in-hand Forsyte.’ The name having reached his ears through that fellow Nicholas Treffry, old Jolyon’s dead partner, the great driving man notorious for more carriage accidents than any man in the kingdom — Swithin had ever after conceived it right to act up to it. The name had taken his fancy, not because he had ever driven four-in-hand, or was ever likely to, but because of something distinguished in the sound. Four-in-hand Forsyte! Not bad! Born too soon, Swithin had missed his vocation. Coming upon London twenty years later, he could not have failed to have become a stockbroker, but at the time when he was obliged to select, this great profession had not as yet became the chief glory of the upper-middle class. He had literally been forced into land agency.
Once in the driving seat, with the reins handed to him, and blinking over his pale old cheeks in the full sunlight, he took a slow look round — Adolf was already up behind; the cockaded groom at the horses’ heads stood ready to let go; everything was prepared for the signal, and Swithin gave it. The equipage dashed forward, and before you could say Jack Robinson, with a rattle and flourish drew up at Soames’ door.
Irene came out at once, and stepped in — he afterward described it at Timothy’s —“as light as — er — Taglioni, no fuss about it, no wanting this or wanting that;” and above all, Swithin dwelt on this, staring at Mrs. Septimus in a way that disconcerted her a good deal, “no silly nervousness!” To Aunt Hester he portrayed Irene’s hat. “Not one of your great flopping things, sprawling about, and catching the dust, that women are so fond of nowadays, but a neat little —” he made a circular motion of his hand, “white veil — capital taste.”
“What was it made of?” inquired Aunt Hester, who manifested a languid but permanent excitement at any mention of dress.
“Made of?” returned Swithin; “now how should I know?”
He sank into silence so profound that Aunt Hester began to be afraid he had fallen into a trance. She did not try to rouse him herself, it not being her custom.
‘I wish somebody would come,’ she thought; ‘I don’t like the look of him!’
But suddenly Swithin returned to life. “Made of” he wheezed out slowly, “what should it be made of?”
They had not gone four miles before Swithin received the impression that Irene liked driving with him. Her face was so soft behind that white veil, and her dark eyes shone so in the spring light, and whenever he spoke she raised them to him and smiled.
On Saturday morning Soames had found her at her writing-table with a note written to Swithin, putting him off. Why did she want to put him off? he asked. She might put her own people off when she liked, he would not have her putting off his people!
She had looked at him intently, had torn up the note, and said: “Very well!”
And then she began writing another. He took a casual glance presently, and saw that it was addressed to Bosinney.
“What are you writing to him about?” he asked.
Irene, looking at him again with that intent look, said quietly: “Something he wanted me to do for him!”
“Humph!” said Soames — “Commissions!”
“You’ll have your work cut out if you begin that sort of thing!” He said no more.
Swithin opened his eyes at the mention of Robin Hill; it was a long way for his horses, and he always dined at half-past seven, before the rush at the Club began; the new chef took more trouble with an early dinner — a lazy rascal!
He would like to have a look at the house, however. A house appealed to any Forsyte, and especially to one who had been an auctioneer. After all he said the distance was nothing. When he was a younger man he had had rooms at Richmond for many years, kept his carriage and pair there, and drove them up and down to business every day of his life.
Four-in-hand Forsyte they called him! His T-cart, his horses had been known from Hyde Park Corner to the Star and Garter. The Duke of Z. . . . wanted to get hold of them, would have given him double the money, but he had kept them; know a good thing when you have it, eh? A look of solemn pride came portentously on his shaven square old face, he rolled his head in his stand-up collar, like a turkey-cock preening himself.
She was really — a charming woman! He enlarged upon her frock afterwards to Aunt Juley, who held up her hands at his way of putting it.
Fitted her like a skin — tight as a drum; that was how he liked ’em, all of a piece, none of your daverdy, scarecrow women! He gazed at Mrs. Septimus Small, who took after James — long and thin.
“There’s style about her,” he went on, “fit for a king! And she’s so quiet with it too!”
“She seems to have made quite a conquest of you, any way,” drawled Aunt Hester from her corner.
Swithin heard extremely well when anybody attacked him.
“What’s that?” he said. “I know a — pretty — woman when I see one, and all I can say is, I don’t see the young man about that’s fit for her; but perhaps — you — do, come, perhaps — you-do!”
“Oh?” murmured Aunt Hester, “ask Juley!”
Long before they reached Robin Hill, however, the unaccustomed airing had made him terribly sleepy; he drove with his eyes closed, a life-time of deportment alone keeping his tall and bulky form from falling askew.
Bosinney, who was watching, came out to meet them, and all three entered the house together; Swithin in front making play with a stout gold-mounted Malacca cane, put into his hand by Adolf, for his knees were feeling the effects of their long stay in the same position. He had assumed his fur coat, to guard against the draughts of the unfinished house.
The staircase — he said — was handsome! the baronial style! They would want some statuary about! He came to a standstill between the columns of the doorway into the inner court, and held out his cane inquiringly.
What was this to be — this vestibule, or whatever they called it? But gazing at the skylight, inspiration came to him.
“Ah! the billiard-room!”
When told it was to be a tiled court with plants in the centre, he turned to Irene:
“Waste this on plants? You take my advice and have a billiard table here!”
Irene smiled. She had lifted her veil, banding it like a nun’s coif across her forehead, and the smile of her dark eyes below this seemed to Swithin more charming than ever. He nodded. She would take his advice he saw.
He had little to say of the drawing or dining-rooms, which he described as “spacious”; but fell into such raptures as he permitted to a man of his dignity, in the wine-cellar, to which he descended by stone steps, Bosinney going first with a light.
“You’ll have room here,” he said, “for six or seven hundred dozen — a very pooty little cellar!”
Bosinney having expressed the wish to show them the house from the copse below, Swithin came to a stop.
“There’s a fine view from here,” he remarked; “you haven’t such a thing as a chair?”
A chair was brought him from Bosinney’s tent.
“You go down,” he said blandly; “you two! I’ll sit here and look at the view.”
He sat down by the oak tree, in the sun; square and upright, with one hand stretched out, resting on the nob of his cane, the other planted on his knee; his fur coat thrown open, his hat, roofing with its flat top the pale square of his face; his stare, very blank, fixed on the landscape.
He nodded to them as they went off down through the fields. He was, indeed, not sorry to be left thus for a quiet moment of reflection. The air was balmy, not too much heat in the sun; the prospect a fine one, a remarka. . . . His head fell a little to one side; he jerked it up and thought: Odd! He — ah! They were waving to him from the bottom! He put up his hand, and moved it more than once. They were active — the prospect was remar. . . . His head fell to the left, he jerked it up at once; it fell to the right. It remained there; he was asleep.
And asleep, a sentinel on the — top of the rise, he appeared to rule over this prospect — remarkable — like some image blocked out by the special artist, of primeval Forsytes in pagan days, to record the domination of mind over matter!
And all the unnumbered generations of his yeoman ancestors, wont of a Sunday to stand akimbo surveying their little plots of land, their grey unmoving eyes hiding their instinct with its hidden roots of violence, their instinct for possession to the exclusion of all the world — all these unnumbered generations seemed to sit there with him on the top of the rise.
But from him, thus slumbering, his jealous Forsyte spirit travelled far, into God-knows-what jungle of fancies; with those two young people, to see what they were doing down there in the copse — in the copse where the spring was running riot with the scent of sap and bursting buds, the song of birds innumerable, a carpet of bluebells and sweet growing things, and the sun caught like gold in the tops of the trees; to see what they were doing, walking along there so close together on the path that was too narrow; walking along there so close that they were always touching; to watch Irene’s eyes, like dark thieves, stealing the heart out of the spring. And a great unseen chaperon, his spirit was there, stopping with them to look at the little furry corpse of a mole, not dead an hour, with his mushroom-and-silver coat untouched by the rain or dew; watching over Irene’s bent head, and the soft look of her pitying eyes; and over that young man’s head, gazing at her so hard, so strangely. Walking on with them, too, across the open space where a wood-cutter had been at work, where the bluebells were trampled down, and a trunk had swayed and staggered down from its gashed stump. Climbing it with them, over, and on to the very edge of the copse, whence there stretched an undiscovered country, from far away in which came the sounds, ‘Cuckoo-cuckoo!’
Silent, standing with them there, and uneasy at their silence! Very queer, very strange!
Then back again, as though guilty, through the wood — back to the cutting, still silent, amongst the songs of birds that never ceased, and the wild scent — hum! what was it — like that herb they put in — back to the log across the path. . . .
And then unseen, uneasy, flapping above them, trying to make noises, his Forsyte spirit watched her balanced on the log, her pretty figure swaying, smiling down at that young man gazing up with such strange, shining eyes, slipping now — a — ah! falling, o — oh! sliding — down his breast; her soft, warm body clutched, her head bent back from his lips; his kiss; her recoil; his cry: “You must know — I love you!” Must know — indeed, a pretty . . .? Love! Hah!
Swithin awoke; virtue had gone out of him. He had a taste in his mouth. Where was he?
Damme! He had been asleep!
He had dreamed something about a new soup, with a taste of mint in it.
Those young people — where had they got to? His left leg had pins and needles.
“Adolf!” The rascal was not there; the rascal was asleep somewhere.
He stood up, tall, square, bulky in his fur, looking anxiously down over the fields, and presently he saw them coming.
Irene was in front; that young fellow — what had they nicknamed him —‘The Buccaneer?’ looked precious hangdog there behind her; had got a flea in his ear, he shouldn’t wonder. Serve him right, taking her down all that way to look at the house! The proper place to look at a house from was the lawn.
They saw him. He extended his arm, and moved it spasmodically to encourage them. But they had stopped. What were they standing there for, talking — talking? They came on again. She had been, giving him a rub, he had not the least doubt of it, and no wonder, over a house like that — a great ugly thing, not the sort of house he was accustomed to.
He looked intently at their faces, with his pale, immovable stare. That young man looked very queer!
“You’ll never make anything of this!” he said tartly, pointing at the mansion; —“too newfangled!”
Bosinney gazed at him as though he had not heard; and Swithin afterwards described him to Aunt Hester as “an extravagant sort of fellow very odd way of looking at you — a bumpy beggar!”
What gave rise to this sudden piece of psychology he did not state; possibly Bosinney’s, prominent forehead and cheekbones and chin, or something hungry in his face, which quarrelled with Swithin’s conception of the calm satiety that should characterize the perfect gentleman.
He brightened up at the mention of tea. He had a contempt for tea — his brother Jolyon had been in tea; made a lot of money by it — but he was so thirsty, and had such a taste in his mouth, that he was prepared to drink anything. He longed to inform Irene of the taste in his mouth — she was so sympathetic — but it would not be a distinguished thing to do; he rolled his tongue round, and faintly smacked it against his palate.
In a far corner of the tent Adolf was bending his cat-like moustaches over a kettle. He left it at once to draw the cork of a pint-bottle of champagne. Swithin smiled, and, nodding at Bosinney, said: “Why, you’re quite a Monte Cristo!” This celebrated novel — one of the half-dozen he had read — had produced an extraordinary impression on his mind.
Taking his glass from the table, he held it away from him to scrutinize the colour; thirsty as he was, it was not likely that he was going to drink trash! Then, placing it to his lips, he took a sip.
“A very nice wine,” he said at last, passing it before his nose; “not the equal of my Heidsieck!”
It was at this moment that the idea came to him which he afterwards imparted at Timothy’s in this nutshell: “I shouldn’t wonder a bit if that architect chap were sweet upon Mrs. Soames!”
And from this moment his pale, round eyes never ceased to bulge with the interest of his discovery.
“The fellow,” he said to Mrs. Septimus, “follows her about with his eyes like a dog — the bumpy beggar! I don’t wonder at it — she’s a very charming woman, and, I should say, the pink of discretion!” A vague consciousness of perfume caging about Irene, like that from a flower with half-closed petals and a passionate heart, moved him to the creation of this image. “But I wasn’t sure of it,” he said, “till I saw him pick up her handkerchief.”
Mrs. Small’s eyes boiled with excitement.
“And did he give it her back?” she asked.
“Give it back?” said Swithin: “I saw him slobber on it when he thought I wasn’t looking!”
Mrs. Small gasped — too interested to speak.
“But she gave him no encouragement,” went on Swithin; he stopped, and stared for a minute or two in the way that alarmed Aunt Hester so — he had suddenly recollected that, as they were starting back in the phaeton, she had given Bosinney her hand a second time, and let it stay there too. . . . He had touched his horses smartly with the whip, anxious to get her all to himself. But she had looked back, and she had not answered his first question; neither had he been able to see her face — she had kept it hanging down.
There is somewhere a picture, which Swithin has not seen, of a man sitting on a rock, and by him, immersed in the still, green water, a sea-nymph lying on her back, with her hand on her naked breast. She has a half-smile on her face — a smile of hopeless surrender and of secret joy.
Seated by Swithin’s side, Irene may have been smiling like that.
When, warmed by champagne, he had her all to himself, he unbosomed himself of his wrongs; of his smothered resentment against the new chef at the club; his worry over the house in Wigmore Street, where the rascally tenant had gone bankrupt through helping his brother-in-law as if charity did not begin at home; of his deafness, too, and that pain he sometimes got in his right side. She listened, her eyes swimming under their lids. He thought she was thinking deeply of his troubles, and pitied himself terribly. Yet in his fur coat, with frogs across the breast, his top hat aslant, driving this beautiful woman, he had never felt more distinguished.
A coster, however, taking his girl for a Sunday airing, seemed to have the same impression about himself. This person had flogged his donkey into a gallop alongside, and sat, upright as a waxwork, in his shallopy chariot, his chin settled pompously on a red handkerchief, like Swithin’s on his full cravat; while his girl, with the ends of a fly-blown boa floating out behind, aped a woman of fashion. Her swain moved a stick with a ragged bit of string dangling from the end, reproducing with strange fidelity the circular flourish of Swithin’s whip, and rolled his head at his lady with a leer that had a weird likeness to Swithin’s primeval stare.
Though for a time unconscious of the lowly ruffian’s presence, Swithin presently took it into his head that he was being guyed. He laid his whip-lash across the mares flank. The two chariots, however, by some unfortunate fatality continued abreast. Swithin’s yellow, puffy face grew red; he raised his whip to lash the costermonger, but was saved from so far forgetting his dignity by a special intervention of Providence. A carriage driving out through a gate forced phaeton and donkey-cart into proximity; the wheels grated, the lighter vehicle skidded, and was overturned.
Swithin did not look round. On no account would he have pulled up to help the ruffian. Serve him right if he had broken his neck!
But he could not if he would. The greys had taken alarm. The phaeton swung from side to side, and people raised frightened faces as they went dashing past. Swithin’s great arms, stretched at full length, tugged at the reins. His cheeks were puffed, his lips compressed, his swollen face was of a dull, angry red.
Irene had her hand on the rail, and at every lurch she gripped it tightly. Swithin heard her ask:
“Are we going to have an accident, Uncle Swithin?”
He gasped out between his pants: “It’s nothing; a — little fresh!”
“I’ve never been in an accident.”
“Don’t you move!” He took a look at her. She was smiling, perfectly calm. “Sit still,” he repeated. “Never fear, I’ll get you home!”
And in the midst of all his terrible efforts, he was surprised to hear her answer in a voice not like her own:
“I don’t care if I never get home!”
The carriage giving a terrific lurch, Swithin’s exclamation was jerked back into his throat. The horses, winded by the rise of a hill, now steadied to a trot, and finally stopped of their own accord.
“When”— Swithin described it at Timothy’s —“I pulled ’em up, there she was as cool as myself. God bless my soul! she behaved as if she didn’t care whether she broke her neck or not! What was it she said: ‘I don’t care if I never get home?” Leaning over the handle of his cane, he wheezed out, to Mrs. Small’s terror: “And I’m not altogether surprised, with a finickin’ feller like young Soames for a husband!”
It did not occur to him to wonder what Bosinney had done after they had left him there alone; whether he had gone wandering about like the dog to which Swithin had compared him; wandering down to that copse where the spring was still in riot, the cuckoo still calling from afar; gone down there with her handkerchief pressed to lips, its fragrance mingling with the scent of mint and thyme. Gone down there with such a wild, exquisite pain in his heart that he could have cried out among the trees. Or what, indeed, the fellow had done. In fact, till he came to Timothy’s, Swithin had forgotten all about him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54