John Forster
by Percy Hethrington Fitzgerald
Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse

[At the risk of smiles, and perhaps some suspicion of vanity, I go on to copy what follows.] When I saw Mrs. Forster during those dismal days, she was good enough to relate to me much about his personal liking for me. He would tell them how I could do anything if I only gave myself fair play. He said he was going to write to give me a sound blowing up. "And yet," he added, "I doubt if he would take it from anybody else but me. He is a good fellow." [I still doubt whether I should add what follows, but I am not inclined to sacrifice such a tribute from such a man; told me, too, only a few days after his death.] He praised a novel of mine, No. 75, Brooke St., and here are his words: "The last scene and winding up is one of the most powerful things I have met."

Forster, devoted to the school of Macready, and all but trained by that actor, whose bust was placed in his hall, thought but poorly of the performances of our time. He pooh-poohed them all, including even the great and more brilliant successes. Once a clever American company came over, a phenomenal thing at that time, and appeared at the St. James's Theatre. They played She Stoops to Conquer, with two excellent performers as Old Hardcastle and Marlow; Brough was the Tony. I induced Forster to come and see them, and we made up a party. He listened with an amusing air of patronage, which was habitual with him—meant to encourage—and said often that "it was very good, very fair indeed." Brough he admitted was perhaps the nearest to the fitting tone and spirit of the piece. The two American actors, as it seemed to me, were excellent comedians.

I once saw him at St. James's Hall, drawn to hear one of his friend's last readings. I saw his entrance. He came piloted by the faithful Charles Kent, who led, or rather cleared the way, Forster following with a smiling modesty, as if he sought to avoid too much notice. His rotund figure was swathed in a tight fitting paletot, while a sort of nautical wrapper was round his throat. He fancied no doubt that many an eye was following him; that there was many a whisper, "That is the great John Forster." He passed on solemnly through the hall and out at the door leading to the artistes' rooms. Alas! no one was thinking of him; he had been too long absent from the stage. It is indeed extremely strange, and I often wonder at it, how little mark he made. The present and coming generations know nothing about him. I may add here that, at Dickens' very last Reading at this place, I and Charles Kent were the two—the only two—favoured with a place on the platform, behind the screens. From that coign, I heard him say his last farewell words: "Vanish from these garish lights for evermore!"

One summer Forster and his wife came down to Bangor, I believe from a genial good-natured wish to be there with his friends—a family who were often found there. He put up at the "George," then a house of lofty pretensions, though now it would seem but a modest affair enough. What a holiday it was! The great John unbent to an inconceivable degree; he was soft, engaging even, and in a bright and constant good humour. The family consisted of the mother, two daughters, and the son, moi qui vous parle—all of whom looked to him with a sort of awe and reverence, which was not unpleasing to him. The two girls he professed to admire and love; the mother, a woman of the world, had won him by her speech at his dinner party, during which a loud crash came from the hall; he said nothing, but she saw the temper working within, and quoted happily from Pope,

"And e'en unmoved hears China fall."

Immensely gratified at the implied compliment for his restraint, his angry brow was smoothed. To imagine a dame of our time quoting Pope at a dinner! at most she would have heard of him.

What walks and expeditions in that delightful Welsh district! and what unbounded hospitality! He would insist on his favourites coming to dinner every few days or so. It was impossible to refuse; equally impossible to make any excuse; he was so overpowering. Everything was swept away. At the time the dull pastime of acrostic-writing was in high vogue, and some ladies of the party thought to compliment him by fashioning one upon his name. He accepted the compliment with much complacent gratification; and, when the result was read aloud, it was found that the only epithet that would fit his name, having the proper number of letters, was "learned." His brow clouded. It was not what he expected. He was good-humouredly scornful. "Well, I declare, I did not expect this. I should have thought something like 'gallant,' or 'pleasant,' or 'agreeable'—but 'learned!' as though I were some old pundit. Thank you, ladies."

No one knew so much as Forster of the literary history of the days when Dickens first "rose"; and when such men as Lamb, Campbell, Talfourd, Theodore Hook, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and many more of that school were flourishing.

I see him now seated in the stern manipulating the ropes of the rudder, with all the air of perfect knowledge; diverting the boatmen, putting questions to them, and adroitly turning their answers into pieces of original information; lecturing on the various objects of interest we passed; yet all the time interesting, and excellent company. At times he began to talk of poetry, and would pour forth the stores of his wonderful memory, reciting passages with excellent elocution, and delighting his hearers. I recall the fine style in which he rolled forth "Hohenlinden," and "The Royal George," and the "Battle of the Baltic." At the close he would sink his voice to a low muttering, just murmuring impressively, "be-neath the wave!" Then would pause, and say, as if overcome—"Fine, very, very fine!" These exercises gave his audience genuine pleasure. On shore, visiting the various show things, he grew frolicsome, and insisted on the visitors as "Mr. and Mrs. ——," the names of characters in some novel I had written.

It would be an interesting question to consider how far Forster's influence improved or injured Dickens' work; for he tells us everything written by the latter was submitted to him, and corrections and alterations offered. I am inclined to confess that, when in his official mood, Forster's notions of humour were somewhat forced. It is thus almost startling to read his extravagant praise of a passage about Sapsea which the author discarded in Edwin Drood. Nothing better showed Boz's discretion. The well-known passage in The Old Curiosity Shop about the little marchioness and her make-believe of orange peel and water, and which Dickens allowed him to mend in his own way, was certainly altered for the worse.

I had the sad satisfaction, such as it was, of attending Forster's funeral, as well as that of his amiable wife. I had a seat in one of the mourning coaches, with that interesting man, James Anthony Froude. Not many were bidden to the ceremonial.

Mrs. Forster's life, like that of her husband, closed in much suffering. I believe she might have enjoyed a fair amount of health had she not clung with a sort of devotion, not unconnected with the memory of her husband, to the house which he had built. Nothing could induce her to go away. She was, moreover, offered a sum of over L20,000 for it shortly after his death, but declined; it was later sold for little over a third of the amount. He had bequeathed all his treasures to the nation, allowing her the life use, but with much generosity she at once handed over the books, pictures, prints, sketches, and other things. She bore her sufferings with wonderful patience and sweetness, and I remember the clergyman who attended her, and who was at the grave, being much affected.

Mrs. Forster was a woman of more sagacity and shrewdness of observation than she obtained credit for. She had seen and noted many curious things in her course. Often of a Sunday afternoon, when I used to pay her a visit, she would open herself very freely, and reveal to me many curious bits of secret history relating to her husband's literary friends. She was very amusing on the Sage of Chelsea. I recollect she treated Mrs. Carlyle's account of her dreary life and servitude to her great husband as a sort of romance or delusion, conveying that she was not at all a lady likely to be thus "put upon." In vulgar phrase, the boot was on the other leg.

* * * * *

I have thought it right to offer this small tribute to one who was in his way an interesting and remarkable man. No place has been found for him in the series known as English Men of Letters; and yet, as I have before pointed out, he had a place in literature that somewhat suggests the position of Dr. Johnson. What Forster said, or what Forster did, was at one time of importance to the community. This sort of arbiter is unknown nowadays, and perhaps would not be accepted. He will, however, ever be associated with Charles Dickens, as his friend, adviser, admirer, corrector, and biographer. There is a conventional meaning for the term "men of letters," men, that is, who have written books; but in the stricter sense it is surely one who is "learned in letters," as a lawyer is learned in the law. Johnson is much more thought of in this way than as a writer. Forster had this true instinct, and it was a curious thing one day to note his delight when I showed him a recent purchase: a figure of Johnson, his prototype, wrought in pottery, seated in chair, in an attitude of wisdom, his arms extended and bent, and evidently expatiating. Looking at it, he delivered an acute bit of criticism worthy of the Doctor himself.

"The interest," he said, "of this figure is not in the modelling, which is good, but because it represents Johnson as he was, in the eye of the crowd of his day; who looked on him, not as the writer, but as the grand argufier and layer-down of the law, the 'settler' of any knotty point whatever; with them the Doctor could decide anything. See how his arm is half raised, his fingers outspread, as if about to give his decision. You should show this to Carlyle, who will be delighted with it."

He often recurred to this and to the delight the Sage would have had. I forget whether I followed his advice. On the same occasion he noticed a figure of Washington. "Ah! there he stands," he said, "with his favourite air of state and dignity, and sense of what was due to his position. You will always notice that in the portraits there was a little assumption of the aristocrat." Forster's criticism was always of this kind—instructive and acute.

Forster was the envied possessor of nearly every one of Boz's MSS.—a treasure at the time not thought very much of, even by Dickens himself, but since his death become of extraordinary value. I should say that each was worth some two or three thousand pounds at the least. How amazing has been this appreciation of what dealers call "the Dickens stuff" during these years! It is almost incredible. I mind the day when a Dickens' book, a Dickens' letter, was taken tranquilly. A relation of my own, an old bachelor, had, as we thought, an eccentric penchant for early editions of Boz; and once, on the great man coming to the provincial city where he lived, waited on him to show him what he called his "Old Gold"; to wit, the earlier editions of Pickwick and Nickleby. We all smiled, and I remember Boz speaking to me good-naturedly of this enthusiasm. Not one of the party then—it was in 1865—dreamed that this old bachelor was far wiser than his generation. The original Pickwick, that is bound from the numbers, is indeed a nugget of old gold. I remember once asking Wills, his sub-editor, could I be allowed to have the original MSS. of some of Boz's short stories? He said, "To be sure, that nothing was more easy than to ask him, for the printer sent each back to him after use, carefully sealed up." What became of all these papers I cannot tell; but I doubt if anyone was then very eager about them.

Lately, turning over some old papers, I came upon a large bundle of proof "slips" of a story I had written for All the Year Round. It was called Howard's Son. To my surprise and pleasure I found that they had passed through Boz's own hands, and had been corrected throughout in his own careful and elaborate fashion, whole passages written in, others deleted, the punctuation altered and improved. Here was a trouvaille. These slips, I may add, have extraordinary value, and in the States would fetch a considerable sum. It was extraordinary what pains Boz took with the papers of his contributors, and how diligently and laboriously he improved and polished them.

Forster's latter days, that is, I suppose, for some seven or eight years, were an appalling state of martyrdom; no words could paint it. It was gout in its most terrible form, that is, on the chest. This malady was due, in the first place, to his early hard life, when rest and hours of sleep were neglected or set at nought. Too good living also was accountable. He loved good cheer and had an excellent taste in wines, fine clarets, etc. Such things were fatal to his complaint. This gout took the shape of an almost eternal cough, which scarcely ever left him. It began invariably with the night and kept him awake, the waters rising on his chest and overpowering him. I have seen him on the following day, lying spent and exhausted on a sofa and struggling to get some snatches of sleep, if he could. But as seven o'clock drew near, a change came. There was a dinner-party; he "pulled himself together:" began another jovial night and in good spirits. But he could not resist the tempting wines, etc., and of course had his usual "bad" night. Once dining with me, he as usual brought his Vichy bottle with him, and held forth on the necessity of "putting on the muzzle," restraint, etc. He "lectured" us all in a very suitable way, and maintained his restraint during dinner. There was a bottle of good Corton gently warming at the fire, about which he made inquiries, but which now, alas! need not be opened. When the ladies were gone, he became very pressing on this topic. "My dear fellow, you must not let me be a kill-joy, you must really open the bottle for yourself; why should you deny yourself for me? Nonsense!" It suggested Winkle going to fight a duel, saying to his friend, "Do not give information to the police." But I was inhospitably inflexible. These little touches were Forster all over. One would have given anything to let him have his two or three glasses, but one had to be cruel to be kind. Old Sam Johnson was of the same pattern, and could not resist a dinner-party, even when in serious plight. He certainly precipitated his death by his greed.

I well recall the confusion and grief of one morning in July, 1870, when opening the Times I read in large capitals, DEATH OF CHARLES DICKENS. It must have brought a shock more or less to every reader. Nothing was less expected, for we had not at that time the recurring evening editions, treading on each other's heels, to keep us posted up every hour in every event of the day.

I am tempted here to copy from an old diary the impressions of that painful time. The words were written on the evening of the funeral at 6 p.m.: "Died, dear Charles Dickens. I think at this moment of his bright genial manner, so cordial and hearty, of the delightful days at Belfast—on the Reading Tours—The Trains—the Evenings at the Hotel—his lying on the sofa listening to my stories and laughing in his joyous way. I think, too, of the last time that I saw him, which was at his office in Wellington Street, whither I went to ask him to come to some theatricals that we were getting up. We talked them over, and then he began to bewail so sadly, the burden of 'going out' to dinner parties. He said that he would like to come, but that he could not promise. However, he might come late in the night if he could get away from other places. I see his figure now before me, standing at the table, the small delicate-formed shoulders. Then bringing me into another room to show me one of the gigantic golden yellow All the Year Round placards, presently to be displayed on every wall and hoarding of the kingdom. This was the announcement of a new story I had written for his paper, which he had dubbed 'The Doctor's Mixture,' but of which, alas! he was destined never to revise the proofs. It had been just hung up 'to try the effect,' and was fresh from the printers."

I look back to another of Forster's visits to Dublin when he came in quest of materials for his Life of Swift. He was in the gayest and best of his humours, and behaved much as the redoubtable Doctor Johnson did on his visit to Edinburgh. I see him seated in the library at Trinity College, making his notes, surrounded by the Dons. Dining with him at his hotel, for even here he must entertain his host, he lit his cigar after dinner, when an aged waiter of the old school interrupted: "Ah, you musn't do that. It's agin the rules and forbidden." He little knew his Forster; what a storm broke on his head—"Leave the room, you rascal. How dare you, sir, interfere with me! Get out, sir," with much more: the scared waiter fled. "One of the pleasantest episodes in my life," I wrote in a diary, "has just closed. John Forster come and gone, after his visit here (i.e. to Dublin). Don't know when I liked a man more. He was most genial and satisfactory to talk with. His amiable and agreeable wife with him. She told a great deal of Boz and his life at home, giving a delightful picture of his ordinary day. He would write all the morning till one o'clock, and no one was allowed to see or interrupt him. Then came lunch; then a long hearty walk until dinner time. During the evening he would read in his own room, but the door was kept open so that he might hear the girls playing—an amiable touch. At Christmas time, when they would go down on a visit, he would entertain them by reading aloud his proofs and passages not yet published. She described to us 'Boffin,' out of Our Mutual Friend, as admirable. He shows all to Forster before-hand, and consults him as to plot, characters, etc. He has a humorous fashion of giving his little boys comic names; later to appear in his stories. Thus, one known as 'Plorn,' which later appeared as 'Plornish.' This is a pleasant picture of the great writer's domestic life, and it gives also a faint 'adumbration' of what is now forgotten: the intense curiosity and eager anticipation that was abroad as to what he was doing or preparing. Hints of his characters got known; their movements and developments were discussed, and the incidents of his story were like public events. We have nothing of this nowadays, for no writer or story rouses the same interest. Forster also told us a good deal about Carlyle, whose proof-sheets, from the abundant corrections, cost three or four times what the original 'setting' did." Thus the diary.

Once, on a Sunday in Dublin, I brought Forster to the cathedral in Marlborough Street to hear the High Mass, at which Cardinal Cullen officiated. He sat it out very patiently, and I remember on coming out drew a deep sigh, or gasp, with the remark, "Well, I suppose it's all right."

Forster, whatever might be said of his sire's calling, was at least of a good old Newcastle border stock of fine "grit" and sturdily independent. He was proud of his stock, and he has often lamented, not merely in print, but to myself, how people would confound him with mere Fosters. "Now we," he would say vehemently, "are Forsters with an r." When he became acquainted with a person nearly connected with myself, he was immensely pleased to find that she was a Foster; and, as she was of rank, it was amusing to find him not quite so eager to repudiate the Foster (without the r). "We are all the same, my dear friend. All Forresters, abbreviated as Forster or Foster, all one; the same crest." The lady had some fragments of a fine old crimson Derby service, plates with the Foster escutcheon, and he was immensely gratified when she presented him with one.

* * * * *

FREDERICK LOCKER was certainly one of the most agreeable and most interesting and most amiable beings that could be imagined. His face had a sort of Quixote quaintness, so had his talk, while his humour had a pleasant flavour. He lived at his place in the country, but I always looked forward—and now look back, alas!—to the many pleasant talks we would have together, each more than an hour long, on the occasion of these rare visits. All his stories were delightful, all his tastes elegant. His knowledge of books was profound and truly refined. His taste was most fastidious. Towards the close of his career he prepared a catalogue of his choice library, which showed to the world at once how elegant was his taste and knowledge. At once it became recherche. A few copies at a guinea were for sale, with a view to let the public know something of his treasures, but it is now at a fancy price. Once when I was in a dealer's shop "haggling" over an "old play," for which I think two guineas was asked, and which seemed to me a monstrous price, Locker came in quietly, and took the book up, which was the interlude of Jacke Drum. I told him of the price—"Take it, I advise you, he said, it is very cheap. I assure you I gave a vast deal more for my copy." I took it, and I believe at this moment I could get for my copy ten times that sum, in fact, there has not been a copy in the market. This interesting man was, I fancy, happy in both his marriages; the first bringing him rank and connection, the second lands and wealth. I bring him in here because he associated with Forster in one of his most grotesque moods. To Forster, however, this agreeable spirit was taboo. He had offended the great man, and as it had a ludicrous cast, and was, besides, truly Forsterian, I may here recur to it. Forster, as I have stated, had been left by Landor, the copyright of his now value unsaleable writings, and he was more pleased at the intended compliment than gratified by the legacy itself. My friend Locker, whose Lyra was well known, had thoughtlessly inserted in a new edition one, or some, of Landor's short pieces, and went his way. One day Forster discovered "the outrage," wrote tremendous letters, threatened law, and, I believe, obtained some satisfaction for the trespasses. But during the altercation he found that a copy had been presented to the Athenaeum Club library, and it bore the usual inscription and Minerva's head of the Club. Forster, sans facon, put the book in his pocket and took it away home, confiscated it in fact. There was a great hubbub. The committee met, determined that their property had been taken away, and demanded that it should be brought back. Forster flatly refused; defied the Club to do its worst. Secretary, solicitors, and every means were used to bring him to reason. It actually ended in his retaining the book, the Club shrinking from entering into public contest with so redoubtable an antagonist.

Forster was sumptuous in his tastes; always liking to have the best. When he wanted a thing considerations of the expense would not stand in the way. He was an admirable judge of a picture, and could in a few well-chosen words point out its merits. When he heard Lord Lytton was going to India, he gave Millais a commission to paint a portrait of the new Viceroy. Millais used good humouredly to relate the lofty condescending style in which it was announced. "It gives me, I assure you, great pleasure to learn that you are so advancing in your profession. I think highly of your abilities and shall be glad to encourage them;" or something to that effect. Millais at this time was at the very top of his profession, as indeed Forster knew well, but the state and grandeur of the subject, and his position in expending so large a sum—I suppose a thousand guineas, for it was a full length—lifted my old friend into one of his dreams. The portrait was a richly-coloured and effective one, giving the staring owl-like eyes of the poet-diplomatist. Another of Forster's purchases was Maclise's huge picture of Caxton showing his first printed book to the King.

It was a treat and an education to go round a picture gallery with him, so excellent and to the point were his criticisms. He seized on the essential merit of each. I remember going with him to see the collected works of his old friend Leslie, R.A., when he frankly confessed his disappointment at the general thinness of the colour and style, brought out conspicuously when the works were all gathered together: this was the effect, with a certain chalkiness. At the Dublin Exhibition he was greatly struck by a little cabinet picture by an Anglo-German artist, one Webb, and was eager to secure it, though he objected to the price. However, on the morning of his departure the secretary drove up on an outside car to announce that the artist would take fifty pounds, which Forster gave. This was "The Chess-players," which now hangs at South Kensington.

He had deep feeling and hesitation even as to putting anything into print without due pause and preparation. Print had not then become what it is now, with the telephone, type-writing, and other aids, a mere expression of conversation and of whatever floating ideas are passing through the mind. Mr. Purcell's wholesale exhibition of Cardinal Manning's inmost thoughts and feelings would have shocked him inexpressibly. I was present when a young fellow, to whom he had given some papers, brought him the proofs in which the whole was printed off without revision or restraint. He gave him a severe rebuke. "Sir, you seem to have no idea of the sacredness of the Press; you pitch in everything, as if into a bucket. Such carelessness is inexcusable." Among them was a letter from Colburn, the former husband of his wife. "I am perfectly astounded at you! Have you not the tact to see that such a thing as that should not appear?" And he drew his pen indignantly across it. That was a good lesson for the youth. In such matters, however, he did not spare friend or stranger.

It is curious, considering how sturdy a pattern of Englishman was Forster, that all his oldest friends were Irishmen, such as Maclise, Emerson Tennant, Whiteside, Macready, Quain, Foley, Mulready, and many more. For all these he had almost an affection, and he cherished their old and early intimacy. He liked especially the good-natured impulsive type of the Goldy pattern; for such he had interest and sympathy. As a young man, when studying for the Bar, he had been in Chitty's office, where he had for companions Whiteside and Tennant, afterwards Sir Emerson. Whiteside became the brilliant parliamentary orator and Chief Justice; Tennant a baronet and Governor of Ceylon; and Forster himself the distinguished writer and critic, the friend and biographer of Dickens. It was a remarkable trio certainly. Chitty, the veteran conveyancer, his old master, he never forgot, and was always delighted to have him to dinner, to do him honour in every way. His son, the judge, was a favourite protege, and became his executor. He had a warm regard for Sir Richard Quain, who was beside Lord Beaconsfield in extremis, who literally knew everyone that ought to be known, and who would visit a comparatively humble patient with equal interest. Quain was thoroughly good-natured, ever friendly and even affectionate. Forster's belief in him was as that in a fetish.

The faithful Quain was with his friend to the last moment. Poor Forster was being gradually overpowered by the rising bronchial humours with which, as he grew weaker, he could not struggle with or baffle. It was then that Quain, bending over, procured him a short reprieve and relief in his agony, putting his fingers down his throat and clearing away the impeding masses.

Sir Richard was not only physician-in-ordinary, but the warm and devoted friend, official consultant, as he was of the whole coterie. For a long course of years he had charge of his friend's health, if health it could be called where all was disease and misery; and it was his fate to see him affectionately through the great crisis at the last. There was a deal of this affection in Quain; he was eminently good-natured; good true-hearted Quain! Many a poor priest of his country has been to him, and from them he would never take, though not of his faith. Quain was indeed the literary man's physician; more so than Sir Andrew Clarke, who was presumed to hold the post by letters patent. For Clarke was presumed to know and cure the literary ailments; but Quain was the genial guide, philosopher and friend, always one of themselves, and indeed a literateur himself. Who will forget his quaint little figure, shrewd face, the native accent, never lost; and his "Ah me dear fellow, shure what can I do?" His red-wheeled carriage, generally well horsed, was familiar to us all, and recognisable. How he maintained this equipage, for we are told what "makes a mare to go," it was hard to conceive, for the generous man would positively refuse to take fees from his more intimate friends, at least of the literary class. With me, a very old friend and patient, there was a perpetual battle. He set his face against the two guinea fee, but humorously held out for his strict guinea, and would not bate the shilling. I have known him when a client presented two sovereigns empty his pockets of silver and scrupulously return nineteen shillings. And what an adviser he was! What confidence he imparted! The moment he bade you sit down and "tell him all about it" you felt secure.

It was always delightful to meet him. He had his moments of gloom, like most of his countrymen, for he never lost his native "hall mark," and retained to the last that sort of wheedling tone which is common in the South of Ireland. Yet he had none of that good-natured insincerity, to which a particular class of Irish are given. He was thoroughly sincere and genuine, and ready to support his words by deeds. His humour was racy. As when the Prince of Wales was sympathising with him on a false report of his death, adding, good naturedly, "I really was afraid, Dr. Quain, that we had lost you, and was thinking of sending a wreath." "Well, Sir," said the medico, "recollect that you are now committed to the wreath." I did not note, however, that when the event at last took place the wreath was sent. I always fancied that he was a disappointed man, and that he felt that his high position had not been suitably recognised; or at least that the recognition had been delayed. The baronetcy came late. But what he had set his heart upon, and claimed as his due, was the Presidency of the College of Physicians. This he was always near attaining, but men like Sir Andrew Clarke were preferred to him. I was a special friend for many years, and have had many a favoured "lift" in his carriage when we were going the same way. I was glad to be allowed to dedicate to him some volumes of personal memoirs. The last time I met this genial and amiable man was at the table of a well-known law lord, whom he astonished considerably by addressing me across the table all through dinner by my christian name. He was at the time seriously ill, in his last illness in fact, when, as he said, he had been "tartured to death by their operations." He had good taste in art, was fond of the French school of engraving, and was the friend and counsellor of many an artist. He was of the old Dickens school, of the coterie that included Maclise, Jerrold and the rest.

Once, when he and his family were staying close to Ipswich, I asked him to order me a photograph of the Great White Horse Inn, noted as the scene of Mr. Pickwick's adventure, and to my pleasure and astonishment found that he had commissioned an artist to prepare a whole series of large photographs depicting the old inn, both without and within, and from every point of view. In this handsome way he would oblige his friends. He was in immense demand as a cheerful diner out.

I was amused by a cynical appreciation of a friend and patient of his, uttered shortly after his death. We had met and were lamenting his loss. "Nothing, nobody can fill his place," he said.—"It is sad to lose such a friend."—"Indeed it is," said my companion, "I don't know what I shall do. No one else ever understood my constitution. I really don't know whom I am to go to now"—and he went his way in a pettish mood, as though his physician had rather shabbily deserted him. Alas, is there not much of this when one of these pleasant "specialists" departs?

His faithful devotion to his old friend Forster during that long illness was unflagging. He could not cure, but he did all that was possible by his unwearying attention to alleviate. How often have I found the red chariot waiting at the door, or when I was sitting with him would the door open and the grave manservant announce "Sir Rich-hard QUAIN." His talk, gossip, news, was part of the alleviation.

After all that must have been an almost joyous moment that brought poor Forster his release from those awful and intolerable days and nights of agony, borne with a fortitude of which the world had no conception. Eternal frightful spasms of coughing day and night, together with other maladies of the most serious kind. And yet, on the slightest respite, this man of wonderful fortitude would turn gay and festive, recover his spirits, and look forward to some enjoyment, a dinner it might be, where he was the old Forster once more, smiling enticingly on his favourite ladies, and unflinchingly prepared to go back to the night of horrors that awaited him!

Mrs. Forster, as her friends knew well, was one of the sweetest women "under the sun," a sweetness brought out by contrast with the obstreperous ways of her tempestuous mate. Often when something went wrong, rather did not go with the almost ideal smoothness at one of his many banquets (and there never was a more generously hospitable man), it was piteous to see her trying to smooth away the incident with the certainty of inflaming the dictator, and turning his wrath upon herself.

She knew well that not he, but his malady, was accountable. She believed from her heart in the duality of Forster. There was a hapless page boy whose very presence and assumed stupidity used to inflame his master to perfect Bersaker fits of rage. The scenes were exquisitely ludicrous, if painful; the contrast between the giant and the object of his wrath, scared out of his life with terror, was absolutely diverting. Thus the host would murmur "Biscuits!" which was not heard or not heeded; then louder and more sharply, "BIScuits!" then a roar that made all start, "BIScuits!!" Poor Mrs. Forster's agitation was sad to see, and between her and the butler the luckless lad was somehow got from the room. This attendant was an admirable comedy character, and in his way a typical servant, stolid and reserved. No one could have been so portentously sagacious as he looked. It was admirable to see his unruffled calm during his master's outbursts when something had gone wrong during the dinner. No violence could betray him into anything but the most placid and correct replies. There was something fine and pathetic in this, for it showed that he also recognised that it was not his true master that was thus raging. I recall talking with him shortly after his master's death. After paying his character a fine tribute he spoke of his illness. "You see, sir," he said at last, "what was at the bottom of it all was he 'ad no staminer, no staminer—NO STAMINER, sir." And he repeated the word many times with enjoyment. I have no doubt he picked it up at Forster's table and it had struck him as a good effective English word, spelled as he pronounced it.

Such was John Forster.

* * * * *


Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse