A Modern Comedy - 1. The White Monkey


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A Modern Comedy 1

From preface: In naming this second part of The Forsyte Chronicles "A Modern Comedy" the word Comedy is stretched, perhaps as far as the word Saga was stretched to cover the first part. And yet, what but a comedic view can be taken, what but comedic significance gleaned, of so restive a period as that in which we have lived since the war? An Age which knows not what it wants, yet is intensely preoccupied with getting it, must evoke a smile, if rather a sad one.
John Galsworthy
The White Monkey
To my wife
without whom I know not what could have been written,
this second trilogy of The Forsyte Chronicles is dedicated.
In naming this second part of The Forsyte Chronicles A Modern Comedy the word comedy is stretched, perhaps, as far as the word Saga was stretched to cover the first part. And yet, what but a comedic view can be taken, what but comedic significance gleaned, of so restive a period as that in which we have lived since the war? An Age which knows not what it wants, yet is intensely preoccupied with getting it, must evoke a smile, if rather a sad one.
To render the forms and colours of an epoch is beyond the powers of any novelist, and very far beyond the powers of this novelist; but to try and express a little of its spirit was undoubtedly at the back of his mind in penning this trilogy. Like the Irishmans chicken, our Present runs about so fast that it cannot be summed up; it can at most be snapshotted while it hurries looking for its Future without notion where, what, or when that Future will be.
The England of 1886, when the Forsyte Saga began, also had no Future, for England then expected its Present to endure, and rode its bicycle in a sort of dream, disturbed only by two boglesMr. Gladstone and the Irish Members.
The England of 1926when the Modern Comedy closeswith one foot in the air and the other in a Morris Oxford, is going round and round like a kitten after its tail, muttering: If one could only see where one wants to stop!
Everything being now relative, there is no longer absolute dependence to be placed on God, Free Trade, Marriage, Consols, Coal, or Caste.
Everywhere being now overcrowded, there is no place where anyone can stay for long, except the mere depopulated countryside, admittedly too dull, and certainly too unprofitable to dwell in.
Everyone, having been in an earthquake which lasted four years, has lost the habit of standing still.
And yet, the English character has changed very little, if at all. The General Strike of 1926, with which the last part of this trilogy begins, supplied proof of that. We are still a people that cannot be rushed, distrustful of extremes, saved by the grace of our defensive humour, well-tempered, resentful of interference, improvident and wasteful, but endowed with a certain genius for recovery. If we believe in nothing much else, we still believe in ourselves. That salient characteristic of the English will bear thinking about. Why, for instance, do we continually run ourselves down? Simply because we have not got the inferiority complex and are indifferent to what other people think of us. No people in the world seems openly less sure of itself; no people is secretly more sure. Incidentally, it might be worth the while of those who own certain public mouths inclined to blow the British trumpet to remember, that the blowing of ones own trumpet is the insidious beginning of the inferiority complex. Only those strong enough to keep silent about self are strong enough to be sure of self. The epoch we are passing through is one which favours misjudgment of the English character, and of the position of England. There never was a country where real deterioration of human fibre had less chance than in this island, because there is no other country whose climate is so changeable, so tempering to character, so formative of grit, and so basically healthy. What follows in this preface should be read in the light of that remark.
In the present epoch, no Early Victorianism survives. By Early Victorianism is meant that of the old Forsytes, already on the wane in 1886; what has survived, and potently, is the Victorianism of Soames and his generation, more self-conscious, but not sufficiently self-conscious to be either self-destructive or self-forgetful. It is against the background of this more or less fixed quantity that we can best see the shape and colour of the present intensely self-conscious and all-questioning generation. The old ForsytesOld Jolyon, Swithin and James, Roger, Nicholas and Timothylived their lives without ever asking whether life was worth living. They found it interesting, very absorbing from day to day, and even if they had no very intimate belief in a future life, they had very great faith in the progress of their own positions, and in laying up treasure for their children. Then came Young Jolyon and Soames and their contemporaries, who, although they had imbibed with Darwinism and the Varsities, definite doubts about a future life, and sufficient introspection to wonder whether they themselves were progressing, retained their sense of property and their desire to provide for, and to live on in their progeny. The generation which came in when Queen Victoria went out, through new ideas about the treatment of children, because of new modes of locomotion, and owing to the Great War, has decided that everything requires re-valuation. And, since there is, seemingly, very little future before property, and less before life, is determined to live now or never, without bothering about the fate of such offspring as it may chance to have. Not that the present generation is less fond of its children than were past generationshuman nature does not change on points so elementarybut when everything is keyed to such pitch of uncertainty, to secure the future at the expense of the present no longer seems worth while.
This is really the fundamental difference between the present and the past generations. People will not provide against that which they cannot see ahead.
All this, of course, refers only to that tenth or so of the population whose eyes are above the property line; below that line there are no Forsytes, and therefore no need for this preface to dip. What average Englishman, moreover, with less than three hundred a year ever took thought for the future, even in Early Victorian days?
This Modern Comedy, then, is staged against a background of that more or less fixed quantity, Soames, and his co-father-inlaw, light weight and ninth baronet, Sir Lawrence Mont, with such subsidiary neo-Victorians as the self-righteous Mr. Danby, Elderson, Mr. Blythe, Sir James Foskisson, Wilfred Bentworth, and Hilary Charwell. Pooling their idiosyncrasies, qualities, and mental attitudes, one gets a fairly comprehensive and steady past against which to limn the features of the presentFleur and Michael, Wilfrid Desert, Aubrey Greene, Marjorie Ferrar, Norah Curfew, Jon, the Rafaelite, and other minor characters. The multiple types and activities of todayeven above the Plimsoll line of propertywould escape the confines of twenty novels, so that this Modern Comedy is bound to be a gross under-statement of the present generation, but not perhaps a libel on it. Symbolism is boring, so let us hope that a certain resemblance between the case of Fleur and that of her generation chasing the serenity of which it has been defrauded may escape notice. The fact remains that for the moment, at least, youth is balancing, twirling on the tiptoes of uncertainty. What is to come? Will contentment yet be caught? How will it all settle down? Will things ever again settle downwho knows? Are there to come fresh wars, and fresh inventions hot-foot on those not yet mastered and digested? Or will Fate decree another pause, like that of Victorian times, during which re-valuated life will crystallise, and give property and its brood of definite beliefs a further innings?
But, however much or little A Modern Comedy may be deemed to reflect the spirit of an Age, it continues in the main to relate the tale of life which sprang from the meeting of Soames and Irene in a Bournemouth drawing-room in 1881, a tale which could but end when its spine snapped, and Soames took the ferry forty-five years later.
The chronicler, catechised (as he often is) concerning Soames, knows not precisely what he stands for. Taking him for all in all he was honest, anyway. He lived and moved and had his peculiar being, and, now he sleeps. His creator may be pardoned for thinking there was something fitting about his end; for, however far we have travelled from Greek culture and philosophy, there is still truth in the old Greek proverb: That which a man most loves shall in the end destroy him.

No retreat, no retreat
They must conquer or die
Who have no retreat!
Mr. Gay.
Chapter I.
Coming down the steps of Snooks Club, so nicknamed by George Forsyte in the late eighties, on that momentous mid-October afternoon of 1922, Sir Lawrence Mont, ninth baronet, set his fine nose towards the east wind, and moved his thin legs with speed. Political by birth rather than by nature, he reviewed the revolution which had restored his Party to power with a detachment not devoid of humour. Passing the Remove Club, he thought: Some sweating into shoes, there! No more confectioned dishes. A woodcockwithout trimmings, for a change!
The captains and the kings had departed from Snooks before he entered it, for he was not of that catch-penny crew, now paid off, no sir; fellows who turned their tails on the land the moment the war was over. Pah! But for an hour he had listened to echoes, and his lively twisting mind, embedded in deposits of the past, sceptical of the present and of all political protestations and pronouncements, had recorded with amusement the confusion of patriotism and personalities left behind by the fateful gathering. Like most landowners, he distrusted doctrine. If he had a political belief, it was a tax on wheat; and so far as he could see, he was now alone in itbut then he was not seeking election; in other words, his principle was not in danger of extinction from the votes of those who had to pay for bread. Principleshe musedau fond were pocket; and he wished the deuce people wouldnt pretend they werent! Pocket, in the deep sense of that word, of course, self-interest as member of a definite community. And how the devil was this definite community, the English nation, to exist, when all its land was going out of cultivation, and all its ships and docks in danger of destruction by aeroplanes? He had listened that hour past for a single mention of the land. Not one! It was not practical politics! Confound the fellows! They had to wear their breeches outkeeping seats or getting them. No connection between posteriors and posterity! No, by George! Thus reminded of posterity, it occurred to him rather suddenly that his sons wife showed no signs as yet. Two years! Time they were thinking about children. It was dangerous to get into the habit of not having them, when a title and estate depended. A smile twisted his lips and eyebrows which resembled spinneys of dark pothooks. A pretty young creature, most taking; and knew it, too! Whom was she not getting to know? Lions and tigers, monkeys and catsher house was becoming quite a menagerie of more or less celebrities. There was a certain unreality about that sort of thing! And opposite a British lion in Trafalgar Square Sir Lawrence thought: Shell be getting these to her house next! Shes got the collecting habit. Michael must look outin a collectors house theres always a lumber room for old junk, and husbands are liable to get into it. That reminds me: I promised her a Chinese Minister. Well, she must wait now till after the General Election.
Down Whitehall, under the grey easterly sky, the towers of Westminster came for a second into view. A certain unreality in that, too, he thought. Michael and his fads! Well, its the fashionSocialistic principles and a rich wife. Sacrifice with safety! Peace with plenty! Nostrumsten a penny!
Passing the newspaper hubbub of Charing Cross, frenzied by the political crisis, he turned up to the left towards Danby and Winter, publishers, where his son was junior partner. A new theme for a book had just begun to bend a mind which had already produced a Life of Montrose, Far Cathay, that work of Eastern travel, and a fanciful conversation between the shades of Gladstone and Disraelientitled A Duet. With every step taken, from Snooks eastward, his erect thin figure in Astrakhan-collared coat, his thin grey-moustached face, and tortoise-shell rimmed monocle under the lively dark eyebrow, had seemed more rare. It became almost a phenomenon in this dingy back street, where carts stuck like winter flies, and persons went by with books under their arms, as if educated.
He had nearly reached the door of Danbys when he encountered two young men. One of them was clearly his son, better dressed since his marriage, and smoking a cigarthank goodnessinstead of those eternal cigarettes; the otherah! yesMichaels sucking poet and best man, head in air, rather a sleek head under a velour hat! He said:
Ha, Michael!
HALLO, Bart! You know my governor, Wilfrid? Wilfrid Desert. Copper Coinsome poet, Bart, I tell you. You must read him. Were going home. Come along!
Sir Lawrence went along.
What happened at Snooks?
Le roi est mort. Labour can start lying, Michaelelection next month.
Bart was brought up, Wilfrid, in days that knew not Demos.
Well, Mr. Desert, do you find reality in politics now?
Do you find reality in anything, sir?
In income tax, perhaps.
Michael grinned.
Above knighthood, he said, theres no such thing as simple faith.
Suppose your friends came into power, Michaelin some ways not a bad thing, help em to grow upwhat could they do, eh? Could they raise national taste? Abolish the cinema? Teach English people to cook? Prevent other countries from threatening war? Make us grow our own food? Stop the increase of town life? Would they hang dabblers in poison gas? Could they prevent flying in war-time? Could they weaken the possessive instinctanywhere? Or do anything, in fact, but alter the incidence of possession a little? All party politics are top dressing. Were ruled by the inventors, and human nature; and we live in Queer Street, Mr. Desert.
Much my sentiments, sir.
Michael flourished his cigar.
Bad old men, you two!
And removing their hats, they passed the Cenotaph.
Curiously symptomaticthat thing, said Sir Lawrence; monument to the dread of swankmost characteristic. And the dread of swank
Go on, Bart, said Michael.
The fine, the large, the floridall off! No far-sighted views, no big schemes, no great principles, no great religion, or great artaestheticism in cliques and backwaters, small men in small hats.
As panteth the heart after Byron, Wilberforce, and the Nelson Monument. My poor old Bart! What about it, Wilfrid?
Yes, Mr. Desertwhat about it?
Deserts dark face contracted.
Its an age of paradox, he said. We all kick up for freedom, and the only institutions gaining strength are Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church. Were frightfully self-conscious about artand the only art development is the cinema. Were nuts on peaceand all were doing about it is to perfect poison gas.
Sir Lawrence glanced sideways at a young man so bitter.
And hows publishing, Michael?
Well, Copper Coin is selling like hot cakes; and theres quite a movement in A Duet. What about this for a new ad.: A Duet, by Sir Lawrence Mont, Bart. The most distinguished Conversation ever held between the Dead. That ought to get the psychic. Wilfrid suggested G.O.M. and Dizzybroadcasted from Hell. Which do you like best?
They had come, however, to a policeman holding up his hand against the nose of a van horse, so that everything marked time. The engines of the cars whirred idly, their drivers faces set towards the space withheld from them; a girl on a bicycle looked vacantly about her, grasping the back of the van, where a youth sat sideways with his legs stretched out towards her. Sir Lawrence glanced again at young Desert. A thin, pale-dark face, good-looking, but a hitch in it, as if not properly timed; nothing outre in dress or manner, and yet socially at large; less vivacious than that lively rascal, his own son, but as anchorless, and more scepticalmight feel things pretty deeply, though! The policeman lowered his arm.
You were in the war, Mr. Desert?
Oh, yes.
Air service?
And line. Bit of both.
Hard on a poet.
Not at all. Poetrys only possible when you may be blown up at any moment, or when you live in Putney.
Sir Lawrences eyebrow rose. Yes?
Tennyson, Browning, Wordsworth, Swinburnethey could turn it out; ils vivaient, mais si peu.
Is there not a third condition favourable?
And that, sir?
How shall I express ita certain cerebral agitation in connection with women?
Deserts face twitched, and seemed to darken.
Michael put his latchkey into the lock of his front door.
Chapter II.
The house in South Square, Westminster, to which the young Monts had come after their Spanish honeymoon two years before, might have been called emancipated. It was the work of an architect whose dream was a new house perfectly old, and an old house perfectly new. It followed, therefore, no recognised style or tradition, and was devoid of structural prejudice; but it soaked up the smuts of the metropolis with such special rapidity that its stone already respectably resembled that of Wren. Its windows and doors had gently rounded tops. The high-sloping roof, of a fine sooty pink, was almost Danish, and two ducky little windows looked out of it, giving an impression that very tall servants lived up there. There were rooms on each side of the front door, which was wide and set off by bay trees in black and gold bindings. The house was thick through, and the staircase, of a broad chastity, began at the far end of a hall which had room for quite a number of hats and coats and cards. There were four bathrooms; and not even a cellar underneath. The Forsyte instinct for a house had co-operated in its acquisition. Soames had picked it up for his daughter, undecorated, at that psychological moment when the bubble of inflation was pricked, and the air escaping from the balloon of the worlds trade. Fleur, however, had established immediate contact with the architectan element which Soames himself had never quite got overand decided not to have more than three styles in her house: Chinese, Spanish, and her own. The room to the left of the front door, running the breadth of the house, was Chinese, with ivory panels, a copper floor, central heating, and cut glass lustres. It contained four picturesall Chinesethe only school in which her father had not yet dabbled. The fireplace, wide and open, had Chinese dogs with Chinese tiles for them to stand on. The silk was chiefly of jade green. There were two wonderful old black-tea chests, picked up with Soames money at Jobsonsnot a bargain. There was no piano, partly because pianos were too uncompromisingly occidental, and partly because it would have taken up much room. Fleur aimed at space-collecting people rather than furniture or bibelots. The light, admitted by windows at both ends, was unfortunately not Chinese. She would stand sometimes in the centre of this room, thinkinghow to bunch her guests, how to make her room more Chinese without making it uncomfortable; how to seem to know all about literature and politics; how to accept everything her father gave her, without making him aware that his taste had no sense of the future; how to keep hold of Sibley Swan, the new literary star, and to get hold of Gurdon Minho, the old; of how Wilfrid Desert was getting too fond of her; of what was really her style in dress; of why Michael had such funny ears; and sometimes she stood not thinking at alljust aching a little.
When those three came in she was sitting before a red lacquer tea-table, finishing a very good tea. She always had tea brought in rather early, so that she could have a good quiet preliminary tuck-in all by herself, because she was not quite twenty-one, and this was her hour for remembering her youth. By her side Ting-a-ling was standing on his hind feet, his tawny forepaws on a Chinese footstool, his snubbed black and tawny muzzle turned up towards the fruits of his philosophy.
Thatll do, Ting. No more, ducky! NO MORE!
The expression of Ting-a-ling answered:
Well, then, stop, too! Dont subject me to torture!
A year and three months old, he had been bought by Michael out of a Bond Street shop window on Fleurs twentieth birthday, eleven months ago.
Two years of married life had not lengthened her short dark chestnut hair; had added a little more decision to her quick lips, a little more allurement to her white-lidded, dark-lashed hazel eyes, a little more poise and swing to her carriage, a little more chest and hip measurement; had taken a little from waist and calf measurement, a little colour from cheeks a little less round, and a little sweetness from a voice a little more caressing.
She stood up behind the tray, holding out her white round arm without a word. She avoided unnecessary greetings or farewells. She would have had to say them so often, and their purpose was better served by look, pressure, and slight inclination of head to one side.
With circular movement of her squeezed hand, she said:
Draw up. Cream, sir? Sugar, Wilfrid? Ting has had too muchdont feed him! Hand things, Michael. Ive heard all about the meeting at Snooks. Youre not going to canvass for Labour, Michaelcanvassings so silly. If any one canvassed me, I should vote the other way at once.
Yes, darling; but youre not the average elector.
Fleur looked at him. Very sweetly put! Conscious of Wilfrid biting his lips, of Sir Lawrence taking that in, of the amount of silk leg she was showing, of her black and cream teacups, she adjusted these matters. A flutter of her white lidsDesert ceased to bite his lips; a movement of her silk legsSir Lawrence ceased to look at him. Holding out her cups, she said:
I suppose Im not modern enough?
Desert, moving a bright little spoon round in his magpie cup, said without looking up:
As much more modern than the moderns, as you are more ancient.
Ware poetry! said Michael.
But when he had taken his father to see the new cartoons by Aubrey Greene, she said:
Kindly tell me what you meant, Wilfrid.
Deserts voice seemed to leap from restraint.
What does it matter? I dont want to waste time with that.
But I want to know. It sounded like a sneer.
A sneer? From me? Fleur!
Then tell me.
I meant that you have all their restlessness and practical get-thereness; but you have what they havent, Fleurpower to turn ones head. And mine is turned. You know it.
How would Michael like thatfrom YOU, his best man?
Desert moved quickly to the windows.
Fleur took Ting-a-ling on her lap. Such things had been said to her before; but from Wilfrid it was serious. Nice to think she had his heart, of course! Only, where on earth could she put it, where it wouldnt be seen except by her? He was incalculabledid strange things! She was a little afraidnot of him, but of that quality in him. He came back to the hearth, and said:
Ugly, isnt it? Put that dam dog down, Fleur; I cant see your face. If you were really fond of MichaelI swear I wouldnt; but youre not, you know.
Fleur said coldly:
You know very little; I AM fond of Michael.
Desert gave his little jerky laugh.
Oh yes; not the sort that counts.
Fleur looked up.
It counts quite enough to make one safe.
A flower that I cant pick.
Fleur nodded.
Quite sure, Fleur? Quite, quite sure?
Fleur stared; her eyes softened a little, her eyelids, so excessively white, drooped over them; she nodded. Desert said slowly:
The moment I believe that, I shall go East.
Not so stale as going West, but much the sameyou dont come back.
Fleur thought: The East? I should love to know the East! Pity one cant manage that, too. Pity!
You wont keep me in your Zoo, my dear. I shant hang around and feed on crumbs. You know what I feelit means a smash of some sort.
It hasnt been my fault, has it?
Yes; youve collected me, as you collect everybody that comes near you.

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