VII JUNE TAKES A HAND.
One who was a sculptor, a Slav, a sometime resident in New York, an egoist, and impecunious, was to be found of an evening in June Forsyte’s studio on the bank of the Thames at Chiswick. On the evening of July 6, Boris Strumolowski—several of whose works were on show there because they were as yet too advanced to be on show anywhere else—had begun well, with that aloof and rather Christlike silence which admirably suited his youthful, round, broad-cheekboned countenance framed in bright hair banged like a girl’s. June had known him three weeks, and he still seemed to her the principal embodiment of genius, and hope of the future; a sort of Star of the East which had strayed into an unappreciative West. Until that evening he had conversationally confined himself to recording his impressions of the United States, whose dust he had just shaken from off his feet—a country, in his opinion, so barbarous in every way that he had sold practically nothing there, and become an object of suspicion to the police; a country, as he said, without a race of its own, without liberty, equality, or fraternity, without principles, traditions, taste, without—in a word—a soul. He had left it for his own good, and come to the only other country where he could live well. June had dwelt unhappily on him in her lonely moments, standing before his creations—frightening, but powerful and symbolic once they had been explained! That he, haloed by bright hair like an early Italian painting, and absorbed in his genius to the exclusion of all else—the only sign of course by which real genius could be told—should still be a “lame duck” agitated her warm heart almost to the exclusion of Paul Post. And she had begun to take steps to clear her Gallery, in order to fill it with Strumolowski masterpieces. She had at once encountered trouble. Paul Post had kicked; Vospovitch had stung. With all the emphasis of a genius which she did not as yet deny them, they had demanded another six weeks at least of her Gallery. The American stream, still flowing in, would soon be flowing out. The American stream was their right, their only hope, their salvation—since nobody in this “beastly” country cared for Art. June had yielded to the demonstration. After all Boris would not mind their having the full benefit of an American stream, which he himself so violently despised.
This evening she had put that to Boris with nobody else present, except Hannah Hobdey, the mediaeval black-and-whitist, and Jimmy Portugal, editor of the Neo-Artist. She had put it to him with that sudden confidence which continual contact with the neo-artistic world had never been able to dry up in her warm and generous nature. He had not broken his Christlike silence, however, for more than two minutes before she began to move her blue eyes from side to side, as a cat moves its tail. This—he said—was characteristic of England, the most selfish country in the world; the country which sucked the blood of other countries; destroyed the brains and hearts of Irishmen, Hindus, Egyptians, Boers, and Burmese, all the finest races in the world; bullying, hypocritical England! This was what he had expected, coming to such a country, where the climate was all fog, and the people all tradesmen perfectly blind to Art, and sunk in profiteering and the grossest materialism. Conscious that Hannah Hobdey was murmuring: “Hear, hear!” and Jimmy Portugal sniggering, June grew crimson, and suddenly rapped out:
“Then why did you ever come? We didn’t ask you.” The remark was so singularly at variance with all that she had led him to expect from her, that Strumolowski stretched out his hand and took a cigarette.
“England never wants an idealist,” he said.
But in June something primitively English was thoroughly upset; old Jolyon’s sense of justice had risen, as it were, from bed. “You come and sponge on us,” she said, “and then abuse us. If you think that’s playing the game, I don’t.”
She now discovered that which others had discovered before her—the thickness of hide beneath which the sensibility of genius is sometimes veiled. Strumolowski’s young and ingenuous face became the incarnation of a sneer.
“Sponge, one does not sponge, one takes what is owing—a tenth part of what is owing. You will repent to say that, Miss Forsyte.”
“Oh, no,” said June, “I shan’t.”
“Ah! We know very well, we artists—you take us to get what you can out of us. I want nothing from you”—and he blew out a cloud of June’s smoke.
Decision rose in an icy puff from the turmoil of insulted shame within her. “Very well, then, you can take your things away.”
And, almost in the same moment, she thought: ‘Poor boy! He’s only got a garret, and probably not a taxi fare. In front of these people, too; it’s positively disgusting!’
Young Strumolowski shook his head violently; his hair, thick, smooth, close as a golden plate, did not fall off.
“I can live on nothing,” he said shrilly; “I have often had to for the sake of my Art. It is you bourgeois who force us to spend money.”
The words hit June like a pebble, in the ribs. After all she had done for Art, all her identification with its troubles and lame ducks. She was struggling for adequate words when the door was opened, and her Austrian murmured:
“A young lady, gnadiges fraulein.”
“In the little meal-room.”
With a glance at Boris Strumolowski, at Hannah Hobdey, at Jimmy Portugal, June said nothing, and went out, devoid of equanimity. Entering the “little meal-room,” she perceived the young lady to be Fleur—looking very pretty, if pale. At this disenchanted moment a lame duck of her own breed was welcome to June, so homoeopathic by instinct.
The girl must have come, of course, because of Jon; or, if not, at least to get something out of her. And June felt just then that to assist somebody was the only bearable thing.
“So you’ve remembered to come,” she said.
“Yes. What a jolly little duck of a house! But please don’t let me bother you, if you’ve got people.”
“Not at all,” said June. “I want to let them stew in their own juice for a bit. Have you come about Jon?”
“You said you thought we ought to be told. Well, I’ve found out.”
“Oh!” said June blankly. “Not nice, is it?”
They were standing one on each side of the little bare table at which June took her meals. A vase on it was full of Iceland poppies; the girl raised her hand and touched them with a gloved finger. To her new-fangled dress, frilly about the hips and tight below the knees, June took a sudden liking—a charming colour, flax-blue.
‘She makes a picture,’ thought June. Her little room, with its whitewashed walls, its floor and hearth of old pink brick, its black paint, and latticed window athwart which the last of the sunlight was shining, had never looked so charming, set off by this young figure, with the creamy, slightly frowning face. She remembered with sudden vividness how nice she herself had looked in those old days when HER heart was set on Philip Bosinney, that dead lover, who had broken from her to destroy for ever Irene’s allegiance to this girl’s father. Did Fleur know of that, too?
“Well,” she said, “what are you going to do?”
It was some seconds before Fleur answered.
“I don’t want Jon to suffer. I must see him once more to put an end to it.”
“You’re going to put an end to it!”
“What else is there to do?”
The girl seemed to June, suddenly, intolerably spiritless.
“I suppose you’re right,” she muttered. “I know my father thinks so; but—I should never have done it myself. I can’t take things lying down.”
How poised and watchful that girl looked; how unemotional her voice sounded!
“People WILL assume that I’m in love.”
“Well, aren’t you?”
Fleur shrugged her shoulders. ‘I might have known it,’ thought June; ‘she’s Soames’ daughter—fish! And yet—he!’
“Well, what do you want ME to do?” she said with a sort of disgust.
“Could I see Jon here to-morrow on his way down to Holly’s? He’d come if you sent him a line to-night, and perhaps afterwards you’d let them know quietly at Robin Hill that it’s all over, and that they needn’t tell Jon about his mother.”
“All right!” said June abruptly. “I’ll write now, and you can post it. Half-past two to-morrow. I shan’t be in, myself.”
She sat down at the tiny bureau which filled one corner. When she looked round with the finished note Fleur was still touching the poppies with her gloved finger.
June licked a stamp. “Well, here it is. If you’re not in love, of course, there’s no more to be said. Jon’s lucky.”
Fleur took the note. “Thanks awfully!”
‘Cold-blooded little baggage!’ thought June. Jon, son of her father, to love, and not to be loved by the daughter of—Soames! It was humiliating!
“Is that all?”
Fleur nodded; her frills shook and trembled as she swayed towards the door.
“Good-bye! … Little piece of fashion!” muttered June, closing the door. “That family!” And she marched back towards her studio. Boris Strumolowski had regained his Christlike silence, and Jimmy Portugal was damning everybody, except the group in whose behalf he ran the Neo-Artist. Among the condemned were Eric Cobbley, and several other “lame-duck” genii who at one time or another had held first place in the repertoire of June’s aid and adoration. She experienced a sense of futility and disgust, and went to the window to let the river-wind blow those squeaky words away.
But when at length Jimmy Portugal had finished, and gone with Hannah Hobdey, she sat down and mothered young Strumolowski for half an hour, promising him a month, at least, of the American stream; so that he went away with his halo in perfect order. ‘In spite of all,’ June thought, ‘Boris IS wonderful.’
John Galsworthy, 1867-1933. To Let, 1921 The Forsyte Saga. Published by William Heinemann Ltd, London
Images: Anthony Gross, The Forsyte Saga
The Forsyte Saga, is a series of five novels published between 1906 and 1921 that chronicle the lives of an establishment upper-middle-class English family. The head of the family, Soames, represents the idea of art as a commodity and collects art as a business, ‘Soames had not spent thirty-eight years over his one hobby without knowing something more about pictures than their market values. He was, as it were, the missing link between the artist and the commercial public. Art for art’s sake and all that, of course, was cant. But aesthetics and good taste were necessary. The appreciation of enough persons of good taste was what gave a work of art its permanent market value, or in other words made it “a work of art.” ‘ Art is symbolic of the breakdown of British society and values of principle, tradition, class and taste. His errant daughter, June Forsyte, presents exhibitions in her studio-gallery of Neo-Artists, avant-garde European artists and an English medieval black and whitist, based on the idea of genius and art-for-arts-sake, which Soames describes as “lame ducks”.