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In the last day of May in the early ‘nineties, about six o’clock of the evening, old Jolyon Forsyte sat under the oak tree below the terrace of his house at Robin Hill. He was waiting for the midges to bite him, before abandoning the glory of the afternoon. His thin brown hand, where blue veins stood out, held the end of a cigar in its tapering, long-nailed fingers — a pointed polished nail had survived with him from those earlier Victorian days when to touch nothing, even with the tips of the fingers, had been so distinguished. His domed forehead, great white moustache, lean cheeks, and long lean jaw were covered from the westering sunshine by an old brown Panama hat. His legs were crossed; in all his attitude was serenity and a kind of elegance, as of an old man who every morning put eau de Cologne upon his silk handkerchief. At his feet lay a woolly brown-and-white dog trying to be a Pomeranian — the dog Balthasar between whom and old Jolyon primal aversion had changed into attachment with the years. Close to his chair was a swing, and on the swing was seated one of Holly’s dolls — called ‘Duffer Alice’— with her body fallen over her legs and her doleful nose buried in a black petticoat. She was never out of disgrace, so it did not matter to her how she sat. Below the oak tree the lawn dipped down a bank, stretched to the fernery, and, beyond that refinement, became fields, dropping to the pond, the coppice, and the prospect —‘Fine, remarkable’— at which Swithin Forsyte, from under this very tree, had stared five years ago when he drove down with Irene to look at the house. Old Jolyon had heard of his brother’s exploit — that drive which had become quite celebrated on Forsyte ‘Change. Swithin! And the fellow had gone and died, last November, at the age of only seventy-nine, renewing the doubt whether Forsytes could live for ever, which had first arisen when Aunt Ann passed away. Died! and left only Jolyon and James, Roger and Nicholas and Timothy, Julia, Hester, Susan! And old Jolyon thought: ‘Eighty-five! I don’t feel it — except when I get that pain.’
His memory went searching. He had not felt his age since he had bought his nephew Soames’ ill-starred house and settled into it here at Robin Hill over three years ago. It was as if he had been getting younger every spring, living in the country with his son and his grandchildren — June, and the little ones of the second marriage, Jolly and Holly; living down here out of the racket of London and the cackle of Forsyte ‘Change,’ free of his boards, in a delicious atmosphere of no work and all play, with plenty of occupation in the perfecting and mellowing of the house and its twenty acres, and in ministering to the whims of Holly and Jolly. All the knots and crankiness, which had gathered in his heart during that long and tragic business of June, Soames, Irene his wife, and poor young Bosinney, had been smoothed out. Even June had thrown off her melancholy at last — witness this travel in Spain she was taking now with her father and her stepmother. Curiously perfect peace was left by their departure; blissful, yet blank, because his son was not there. Jo was never anything but a comfort and a pleasure to him nowadays — an amiable chap; but women, somehow — even the best — got a little on one’s nerves, unless of course one admired them.
Far-off a cuckoo called; a wood-pigeon was cooing from the first elm-tree in the field, and how the daisies and buttercups had sprung up after the last mowing! The wind had got into the sou’ west, too — a delicious air, sappy! He pushed his hat back and let the sun fall on his chin and cheek. Somehow, to-day, he wanted company — wanted a pretty face to look at. People treated the old as if they wanted nothing. And with the un-Forsytean philosophy which ever intruded on his soul, he thought: ‘One’s never had enough. With a foot in the grave one’ll want something, I shouldn’t be surprised!’ Down here — away from the exigencies of affairs — his grandchildren, and the flowers, trees, birds of his little domain, to say nothing of sun and moon and stars above them, said, ‘Open, sesame,’ to him day and night. And sesame had opened — how much, perhaps, he did not know. He had always been responsive to what they had begun to call ‘Nature,’ genuinely, almost religiously responsive, though he had never lost his habit of calling a sunset a sunset and a view a view, however deeply they might move him. But nowadays Nature actually made him ache, he appreciated it so. Every one of these calm, bright, lengthening days, with Holly’s hand in his, and the dog Balthasar in front looking studiously for what he never found, he would stroll, watching the roses open, fruit budding on the walls, sunlight brightening the oak leaves and saplings in the coppice, watching the water-lily leaves unfold and glisten, and the silvery young corn of the one wheat field; listening to the starlings and skylarks, and the Alderney cows chewing the cud, flicking slow their tufted tails; and every one of these fine days he ached a little from sheer love of it all, feeling perhaps, deep down, that he had not very much longer to enjoy it. The thought that some day — perhaps not ten years hence, perhaps not five — all this world would be taken away from him, before he had exhausted his powers of loving it, seemed to him in the nature of an injustice brooding over his horizon. If anything came after this life, it wouldn’t be what he wanted; not Robin Hill, and flowers and birds and pretty faces — too few, even now, of those about him! With the years his dislike of humbug had increased; the orthodoxy he had worn in the ‘sixties, as he had worn side-whiskers out of sheer exuberance, had long dropped off, leaving him reverent before three things alone — beauty, upright conduct, and the sense of property; and the greatest of these now was beauty. He had always had wide interests, and, indeed could still read The Times, but he was liable at any moment to put it down if he heard a blackbird sing. Upright conduct, property — somehow, they were tiring; the blackbirds and the sunsets never tired him, only gave him an uneasy feeling that he could not get enough of them. Staring into the stilly radiance of the early evening and at the little gold and white flowers on the lawn, a thought came to him: This weather was like the music of ‘Orfeo,’ which he had recently heard at Covent Garden. A beautiful opera, not like Meyerbeer, nor even quite Mozart, but, in its way, perhaps even more lovely; something classical and of the Golden Age about it, chaste and mellow, and the Ravogli ‘almost worthy of the old days’— highest praise he could bestow. The yearning of Orpheus for the beauty he was losing, for his love going down to Hades, as in life love and beauty did go — the yearning which sang and throbbed through the golden music, stirred also in the lingering beauty of the world that evening. And with the tip of his cork-soled, elastic-sided boot he involuntarily stirred the ribs of the dog Balthasar, causing the animal to wake and attack his fleas; for though he was supposed to have none, nothing could persuade him of the fact. When he had finished he rubbed the place he had been scratching against his master’s calf, and settled down again with his chin over the instep of the disturbing boot. And into old Jolyon’s mind came a sudden recollection — a face he had seen at that opera three weeks ago — Irene, the wife of his precious nephew Soames, that man of property! Though he had not met her since the day of the ‘At Home’ in his old house at Stanhope Gate, which celebrated his granddaughter June’s ill-starred engagement to young Bosinney, he had remembered her at once, for he had always admired her — a very pretty creature. After the death of young Bosinney, whose mistress she had so reprehensibly become, he had heard that she had left Soames at once. Goodness only knew what she had been doing since. That sight of her face — a side view — in the row in front, had been literally the only reminder these three years that she was still alive. No one ever spoke of her. And yet Jo had told him something once — something which had upset him completely. The boy had got it from George Forsyte, he believed, who had seen Bosinney in the fog the day he was run over — something which explained the young fellow’s distress — an act of Soames towards his wife — a shocking act. Jo had seen her, too, that afternoon, after the news was out, seen her for a moment, and his description had always lingered in old Jolyon’s mind —‘wild and lost’ he had called her. And next day June had gone there — bottled up her feelings and gone there, and the maid had cried and told her how her mistress had slipped out in the night and vanished. A tragic business altogether! One thing was certain — Soames had never been able to lay hands on her again. And he was living at Brighton, and journeying up and down — a fitting fate, the man of property! For when he once took a dislike to anyone — as he had to his nephew — old Jolyon never got over it. He remembered still the sense of relief with which he had heard the news of Irene’s disappearance. It had been shocking to think of her a prisoner in that house to which she must have wandered back, when Jo saw her, wandered back for a moment — like a wounded animal to its hole after seeing that news, ‘Tragic death of an Architect,’ in the street. Her face had struck him very much the other night — more beautiful than he had remembered, but like a mask, with something going on beneath it. A young woman still — twenty-eight perhaps. Ah, well! Very likely she had another lover by now. But at this subversive thought — for married women should never love: once, even, had been too much — his instep rose, and with it the dog Balthasar’s head. The sagacious animal stood up and looked into old Jolyon’s face. ‘Walk?’ he seemed to say; and old Jolyon answered: “Come on, old chap!”