An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter III

Thomas Keeling was seated before the circular desk in his office at the Stores, and since nine that morning, when as usual he had arrived on the stroke of the clock, had been finishing his study of the monthly balance sheets that had come in two days before. For many years now these reports had been very pleasant reading for the proprietor, and for the last eighteen months his accounts had shown a series of record-taking profits. This was no matter of surprise to him, for Bracebridge during the past decade had grown enormously since the new docks at Easton Haven, ten miles away, had converted that town from being a sleepy watering-place into one of the first ports of the kingdom. This had reacted on Bracebridge. Fresh avenues of villas had sprung up mushroom-like for the accommodation business men, who liked to get away in the evening from crowded streets and the crackle of cobble stones, while simultaneously the opening of the new railway-works at Bracebridge itself had implied the erection of miles upon miles of workmen’s dwellings. From a business point of view (to any who had business in the town) these were very satisfactory circumstances, provided{64} that he was sufficiently wide-awake to keep pace with the growing demand, and not, by letting the demand get ahead of his provision for it, cause or permit to spring up rival establishments. Keeling, it is hardly necessary to state, had fallen into no such drowsy error: the growth of Bracebridge, and in particular of those avenues of villas which housed so many excellent customers, had always been kept pace with, or indeed had been a little anticipated by him. He had never waited for a demand to arise, and then arranged about supplying it. With the imagination that is as much at the root of successful shop-keeping as it is (in slightly different form) at the root of successful poesy, he had always foreseen what customers would want. An instance had been the sudden and huge expansion of his furniture department made about the time the first spadefuls of earth were taken out of the hillside for the foundation of the earliest of the miles of villas which held the families of business men from Easton Haven. He had foreseen that profitable incursion, risking much on the strength of his pre-vision, with the result that now scarcely a new villa was built that was not furnished from the Stores. The expansion of the catering department had been a similar stroke, and the prosperous business man of Bracebridge ate the early asparagus from Keeling’s Stores, and drank Keeling’s sound wine, as he sat on Keeling’s chair of the No. 1 dining-room suite.

To-day as he finished the perusal of these most satisfactory renderings of last month’s accounts, Keeling felt that he had arrived at a stage, at a plateau on the high upland of his financial prosperity. It stretched all round him sunny and spacious, and he had no doubt in his own mind as to whether it had not been worth while to devote thirty years of a busy life in order to attain it. The reward of his efforts, namely, the establishment of this large and remunerative business, and the enjoyment of an income of which a fifth part provided him with all that he could want in the way of material comfort and complete ease in living, seemed to him a perfectly satisfactory return for his industry. But as far as he could see, there was no further expansion possible in Bracebridge: he had attained the limits of commercial prosperity there, and if he was to devote his energies, now still in their zenith to a further increase of fortune, he knew that this expansion must take the form of establishing fresh branches of business in other towns. He did not for a moment doubt his ability to succeed elsewhere as he had succeeded here, for he had not in the course of his sober industrious life arrived at any abatement of the forces that drive an enterprise to success. But to-day the doubt assailed him as to whether it was worth while.

He asked himself for what reason he should{66} continue to rise early and late take rest, and he could not give himself an adequate answer. In material affluence he had all and more than he could possibly need, his family was already amply provided for, and the spur of another ten thousand a year had not, so it appeared now that the time for its application had arrived, a rowel that stimulated him. He had often foreseen the coming of this day, and in imagination had seen himself answer to its call, but now that the day had definitely come he had but a dull ear for its summons. The big manufacturing town of Nalesborough, thirty miles off, was, as he knew, an admirable centre for the establishment of another branch of his business, and he had already secured a two years’ option on a suitable site there. There was no reason why he should not instantly exercise this option and get plans prepared at once. True, there was another year of the option still to run, and during that time the site was still potentially his, but he knew well, as he sat and debated with himself, that it was not through such hesitancy as this that his terra-cotta cupolas aspired so high. There was waiting for him, if he chose to put out the energy and capacity that were undoubtedly his, a vast increase of income. But though an increase of income was that which had been the central purpose of his last thirty years, he was still uncertain as to his future course. He was conscious (or some part of him, that{67} perhaps which dwelt in his secret garden, was conscious) that he really did not want any more money, though for years he had so much taken for granted that he did, that the acquisition of it had become a habit as natural to him as breathing.

He folded and docketed the sheets that showed the monthly profits, and most unusually for him at this busy hour of the morning, sat idly at his desk. The business of his stores here whirled along its course automatically, with Hugh who had been so sedulously trained in his father’s thorough-going school to look after it, and no longer needed his daily supervision. With the income which came to him from years of prudent investment he wanted no more, and he wondered whether the time was come to turn the business into a company. As vendor he would receive a considerable block of shares and yet leave the company with an excellent return for their money. Hugh would probably become general director, and he himself, secure in an ample fortune, would have all his time at his own disposal. Next year, it is true, he would be Mayor of Bracebridge, which would leave him but little leisure, for he had no notion of being anything but a hard-worked head of the town’s municipal affairs, but after that he could retire from active life altogether, as far as offices and superintendence went. But he by no means looked forward to a life of well-fed,{68} well-housed idleness; the secret garden should spread its groves, he would live permanently in the busy cultivation of it. But it must spread itself considerably: he must be immersed in its atmosphere and lawns and thickets as thoroughly as, hitherto, he had been immersed in the fortunes of the Stores.

Of a sudden vistas not wholly new to him, but at present very vaguely contemplated, rushed into focus. Some three years ago when, at the age of fourteen, John would naturally have taken his place in the Stores, beginning at the bottom even as Hugh had done, Keeling had determined his destiny otherwise, and had sent him to a public school. In taking this step, he had contemplated the vista that now was growing distinct and imminent. John was to enter a sphere of life which had not opened its gate to his father. The public school should be succeeded by the University, the University by some profession in which a perfectly different standard of person from that to which his father belonged made honourable careers. Putting it more bluntly, John was to be a gentleman. Though there was no one less of a snob than Keeling, he knew the difference between what John had already begun to be and himself perfectly well. Already John walked, talked, entered a room, sat down, got up in a manner quite different from that of the rest of his family. Even his mother, the daughter of the{69} P. & O. captain, even Alice, for all the French, German, and music lessons with which her girlhood had been made so laborious a time, had not—Keeling found it hard to define his thought to himself—a certain unobtrusive certainty of themselves which after three years only of a public school was as much a personal possession of John’s as his brown eyes and his white teeth. That quality had grown even as John’s stature had grown each time he came back for his holidays, and it was produced apparently by mere association with gentlemen. Little as Keeling thought of Mr Silverdale, he was aware that Mr Silverdale had that quality too. He might be silly and affected and unmanly, but when he and John ten days ago had sat opposite each other on Sunday evening, John sick and disgusted, Silverdale familiar and self-advertising, though he appeared to talk about drunkards, it was easy to see that they both belonged to a different class from the rest of them. Keeling admired and envied the quality, whatever it was, which produced the difference, and, since association with those who had it produced it, he saw no reason to suppose that it was out of his reach.

There were plenty of people in Bracebridge who possessed it, but except at meetings and on official occasions he did not come in contact with them. As ex-fishmonger, as proprietor and managing director of the Stores, he moved in a society quite{70} distinct from those to whom John was learning so quickly to belong. But he could see them tellingly contrasted with each other if he cared to walk along Alfred Street, past the church where he was so regular an attendant on Sunday, to where there stood side by side the two social clubs of Bracebridge, namely the Bracebridge Club to which he himself and other business men belonged, and next door, the County Club from which those of his own social standing were excluded. The Bracebridge Club was far the more flourishing of the two: its bow-windows were always full of sleek and prosperous merchants, having their glass of sherry before lunch, or reading the papers when they arrived in the pleasant hour after offices and shops were shut in the evening. These premises were always crowded at the sociable hours of the business day, and at the last committee meeting the subject of an extension of accommodation had been discussed. There was no such congestion next door, where retired colonels, and occasional canons of the cathedral, and county magnates in Bracebridge for the day spoke softly to each other, or sought the isolation of a screening newspaper in a leather arm-chair. But the quality which Keeling found so hard to define and so easy to recognize, and which to him was perfectly distinct from any snobbish appreciation of position or title, brooded over those portals of the County{71} Club. In the families of those who frequented it the produce of his own secret garden grew wild, as it were: the culture, the education of which it was the fruit were indigenous to the soil. He did not suppose that Colonel Crawshaw, or Canon Arbuthnot, or Lord Inverbroom discussed Omar Khayyam or the Morte d’Arthur any more than did Alderman James, or Town-Councillor Phillips, but there was the soil from which culture sprang, just as from it sprang that indefinable air of breeding which already he observed in John. One day he had seen John standing in the window there with Colonel Crawshaw and his son, who was a schoolfellow of John’s, and Keeling’s heart had swelled with a strange mixture of admiration and envy to see how much John was at ease, sitting on the arm of a big chair, and with a nameless insouciance of respect refusing a cigarette which Colonel Crawshaw had offered him. Lord Inverbroom stood by John; and John was perfectly at ease in these surroundings. That was a tiny instance, but none could have been more typical. Keeling wanted, with the want of a thirsty man, not so much to belong to the County Club, as to feel himself at ease there if he did belong.

He was roused from this quarter of an hour’s reverie, most unusual to him in the middle of the morning, by the entrance of one of the porters with a card on a tray.

‘His lordship is waiting, sir’ he said, ‘and{72} wants to know if you can see him for ten minutes.’

Keeling took the card which he found to concern the man of whom he had this moment been thinking. Lord Inverbroom was Lord Lieutenant of the County, who lived some six miles outside Bracebridge in a house famed for its library and pictures. Its owner had held office in the last Conservative Cabinet, and was now an indefatigable promoter of county interests. Keeling met him with tolerable frequency on various boards, and there was no one in the world for whom he entertained a profounder respect.

‘I’ll see him,’ he said. ‘Show him up.’

Next moment Lord Inverbroom entered. He was small and spare and highly finished in face, and wore extraordinarily shabby clothes, of which no one, least of all himself, was conscious.

‘Good-morning, Mr Keeling,’ he said, with great cordiality. ‘I owe you a thousand apologies for intruding, but I have quite a decent excuse.’

‘No excuse necessary, my lord,’ said Keeling. ‘Please take a chair.’

‘Thanks. Now I won’t occupy your time more than I can help. I have come to consult you about the County Hospital, of which, as you know, I am chairman. We have a meeting in half an hour from now, the notice of which, by some mistake, never reached me till this morning. That’s my excuse for descending on you like this.{73}’

He paused a moment.

‘There’s a very serious state of affairs,’ he said. ‘We have a heavy deficit this last year, and unless we can find some means of raising money, we shall have to abandon the building of that new wing, which we began in the spring. I’m glad to say that was not my fault, else I shouldn’t have ventured to come to you, for I only became chairman a couple of months ago. Now we are going to have the honour of having you for our Mayor next year, and I wanted to consult you as to whether you thought it possible that the town would lend us a sum of money to enable us to complete this new wing, which, in my opinion, is essential for the proper establishment of the hospital. Would such a scheme have your support? The Committee is meeting, as I said, in half an hour, and, if possible, I should like to be able to tell them that some such project is, or will be, under consideration.’

‘What sum do you require?’ asked Keeling.

‘Eighteen thousand pounds.’

‘That means twenty,’ said Keeling.

‘It probably means twenty,’ assented Lord Inverbroom. ‘We should pay, I suppose, four or five per cent. on the loan.’

Keeling tapped the table impatiently with his fingers. This was business, and in his opinion rotten business.

‘And considering that last year there was a{74} deficit,’ he said, ‘where would you get your money to pay the interest?’

‘That could be managed. I think I may say I could guarantee that.’

‘And how about the repayment of the loan itself?’ asked Keeling. ‘How will that be guaranteed? The hospital is working at a loss. I don’t mind that so much: appeals can be made to wipe off small deficits on working expenses. But an institution that is working at a loss can’t get a further loan from a public body without giving some security for its repayment. At least, if I was on that public body, I would resign my place rather than consent to it. What sort of balance sheet would we have to show the taxpayers? No, my lord, that’s quite out of the question.’

Secretly he wondered at the obtuseness of this man, who had thought such a scheme within the wildest range of possibilities. For himself he would not have lent a sixpence either of his own or of public money on such an enterprise. Yet he knew that Lord Inverbroom had been a Foreign Secretary of outstanding eminence, diplomatic, large-viewed, one who had earned the well-merited confidence of the public. Without doubt he had great qualities, but they did not appear to embrace the smallest perception on the subject of business.

Lord Inverbroom nodded to him, and rose.

‘I quite see your point, Mr Keeling,’ he said. ‘Now you put it to me so plainly, I only wonder{75} that I did not think of it before. I am afraid we shall have a melancholy meeting.’

As he spoke he became aware that Keeling was not paying the smallest attention to him; he appeared unconscious of him. His finger still tapped his desk, and he was frowning at his ink-bottle. Then he dismissed, as if settled, whatever was occupying his mind.

‘How much has been spent on the new wing already?’ he asked.

‘Approximately eight thousand pounds.’

‘And that will be thrown away unless you raise twenty thousand more?’

‘Not permanently thrown away, I hope. But it will give us no return in the way of hospital accommodation.’

‘And the new wing, on your guarantee, is urgently needed?’ asked Keeling.

‘I can assure you of that.’

Keeling sat silent for a moment longer. Then he rose too.

‘I will present your committee with the entire new wing,’ he said. ‘It will be called after me, the Keeling wing. I do not wish my gift to be made public as yet. I should like that done as soon as it is complete, at the opening in fact. That should take place during my year of office as Mayor.’

Lord Inverbroom held out his hand.

‘I won’t keep you any longer, Mr Keeling,’ he{76} said. ‘And any words of thanks on my part are superfluous. May I just tell my committee that an anonymous donor has come forward, and that we can proceed with the work?’

‘Yes, that will do.’

‘I envy you your munificence,’ said Lord Inverbroom.

As soon as his visitor was gone, Keeling went straight on with his morning’s work. There were a couple of heads of departments to see, and after that, consulting his memoranda, he found he had made an appointment to interview a new private type-writer, in place of one whom he had lately been obliged to dismiss.

Opposite the entry was the word ‘Propert,’ and he recollected that this was the Miss Propert who had lately come to live with her brother. Presently, in answer to his summons, she came in, and, as his custom was with his employees, he remained seated while she stood.

‘I have looked through your testimonials, Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘and they seem satisfactory. Your work will be to take down my correspondence in the morning, in shorthand, and bring it back typewritten for signature after luncheon. The hours will be from nine till five, with an hour’s interval, Saturday half day. Your salary will be twenty-five shillings a week.’

‘Thank you very much, sir,’ said she.

‘You will do the typewriting in that small room off this. You have a machine of your own?’

‘Yes, sir. I brought it down this morning.’

‘Very well. I engage you from to-day. There is a good deal to do this morning. If you are ready we will begin at once.’

In five minutes Norah Propert had deposited her typewriter in the next room, and was sitting opposite her employer with the breadth of the big table between them. As she had stood in front of him, Keeling noticed that she was tall: now as she sat with her eyes bent on her work, he hardly noticed that she was good-looking, with her light hair, dark eyebrows, and firm full-lipped mouth. What was of far greater importance was that she tore the sheets off her writing-pad very swiftly and noiselessly as each page was filled, and that when she came to some proper name, she spelled it aloud for confirmation. Occasionally when a letter was finished he told her to read it aloud, and there again he noticed not the charming quality of her voice so much as the distinctness with which she read.

For some hour and a half this dictation went on, with interruption when heads of departments brought in reports, or when Keeling had to send for information as to some point in his correspondence. He noticed that on these occasions she sat with her pencil in her hand, so as to be ready to proceed as soon as he began again. Once she{78} corrected him about a date that had occurred previously in a letter, and was right.

‘That is all,’ he said, at the end. ‘I will read them over and sign them, as soon as they are done.’

She had her hands full of the sheets, and he walked with her as far as the door of the very small room where the typewriting was to be done, and opened it for her. It was built out under the tiles, and was excessively hot and stuffy on this warm September morning.

‘I shall be here till half-past one, if you want to ask me anything,’ he said, and shut the door between her little cabin and his big cool room. This door was heavily padded at the edges, so that the clack of the typewriter hardly reached him.

It was not Keeling’s usage to take any step concerning finance or business without considering where that step would take him, though that consideration could often be condensed into a moment’s insight. The thought of his sudden munificence with regard to the hospital occupied his mind, when he settled down to work again, as little as did the thought of his new typist whom he had just shut up in the stuffy little chamber adjoining his own. Momentary as had been the time required for his offer, his determination to make it was but the logical next step in the secret ambition{79} which had so long been growing in his mind. Indeed his interview with Lord Inverbroom had been his opportunity no less than the hospital’s, and it would have been very unlike him not to take advantage of it. But he was not going to snatch at the fruit which it would help to bring within his reach: he had no wish that the Committee or the town generally should learn the identity of the benefactor until at the opening the name of the new wing should flash on the assembled gathering. That opening must be a day of pomp and magnificence: in course of time he would talk over that with Lord Inverbroom. At present he had plenty of occupations to concern himself with. And noticing the very fluent clacking that came faintly from behind the padded door, he filed the accounts which he had found so satisfactory, and buried himself in business again.

It was barely four o’clock when Miss Propert came in with her sheaf of typewritten correspondence for his inspection and signature. He had thought that this would occupy her for at least an hour longer, and as he read it over he looked for signs of carelessness that should betray haste rather than speed. But none such revealed themselves: all she had done was exceedingly accurate and neat, and showed no trace of hurry. He passed each sheet over to her, when he had read and signed it, for her to place it in its envelope, and looking across the table without raising his{80} eyes he noticed the decision and swiftness of her fingers as she folded the paper with sharp, accurate creases. He liked seeing things handled like that: that was the way to do a job, whether that job was the giving of a wing to the hospital or the insertion of a letter into its envelope. You knew what you meant to do and did it. And though it was not his habit to praise work when it was well done (for he paid for its being well done), but only to find fault with work badly done (since work badly done was not worth the hire of the labourer), he felt moved to give a word of commendation.

‘I see you can work quickly as well as carefully,’ he said.

‘I will do my best to satisfy you, sir,’ she answered.

He looked at her, and saw that her face seemed flushed. That, no doubt, was owing to the heat of the room where she had been working. He pushed a ledger and a pile of typewritten sheets towards her.

‘I want those entered by hand in the ledger,’ he said. ‘You can use that table over there in the window. When that is finished you can go.’

For another half-hour the two worked on at their separate tables. The girl never once raised her eyes from her task, but sat with one hand following down the list of names and figures, while with the other she entered them in their{81} due places in the ledger. But her employer more than once looked up at her, and noted, as he had noted before, the decision and quickness of her hands, and, as he had not noted before, the distinction of her profile. She was remarkably like her handsome brother; she was also like the picture of one of the Rhine-maidens in an illustrated edition of the Rheinegold. But he gave less thought to that than to the fact that he had evidently secured an efficient secretary.

He came to the end of his day’s work before her, and rose to go.

‘You can leave the ledger on this table when you have finished,’ he said.

She raised her eyes for a half-second.

‘Yes, sir,’ she said.

‘Your brother tells me you are as devoted to books as he,’ said Keeling.

This time she did not look up.

‘Yes, sir, I am very fond of them,’ she said, finishing an entry.

Keeling went out through his book department, where he nodded to Propert, into the bustle of the square, noticing, with a satisfaction that never failed him, as he walked by the various doors of his block of building, how busy was the traffic in and out of the Stores. It was still an hour to sunset: on the left the municipal offices and town-hall rose pretentious and hideous against the blue of the southern sky, while in front to{82} the west the gray Gothic glories of the Cathedral, separated from the square by a line of canonical houses, aspired high above the house-roofs and leaf-laden elm-towers in the Close. The fact struck him that the front of the town-hall, with its wealth of fussy adornment, its meaningless rows of polished marble pilasters, its foolish little pinnacles and finials, was somehow strangely like the drawing-room in his own house, with its decorations selected by the amazingly futile taste of his wife. There was a very similar confusion of detail about the two, a kindred ostentation of unnecessary objects. There was waste in them both, expense that was not represented on the other side of the ledger by a credit balance of efficiency. No one took pleasure in the little pink granite pilasters between the lights of the windows in the town-hall, and certainly they were entirely useless. The money spent on them was thrown away: whereas money spent ought to yield its dividend, producing either something that was useful or something that gave pleasure. If you liked a thing it was worth paying for it, if it was directly useful it was worth paying for it. But where was the return on the money spent on pink pilasters or on the lilies painted on the huge looking-glass above his wife’s drawing-room chimney-piece? Those lilies certainly were not useful, since they prevented the mirror exercising its proper function of reflecting what stood in front of it. Or did they yield{83} a dividend in pleasure to Emmeline? He did not believe that they did: he felt sure that she had just bought No. 1 drawing-room suite dining-room suite with extras, as set forth in his catalogue. He knew the catalogues well: with extras No. 1 suite came to £117. It had much in common with the front of the town-hall. So, too, if you came to consider it, had the crocodile with the calling-cards in the abominable hall.

The day, as Miss Propert had already discovered in her little stuffy den, was exceedingly hot and airless, and Keeling, when he had passed through the reverberating square and under the arch leading into the Cathedral Close, found it pleasant to sit down on one of the benches below the elm-trees, which soared loftily among the tombs of the disused graveyard facing the west front of the Cathedral. Owing to Miss Propert’s rapidity in typewriting he had left the Stores half an hour earlier than usual, and here, thanks to her, was half an hour of leisure gained, for which he had no imperative employment. The quiet gray graves with head-stones standing out from the smooth mown grass formed his foreground: behind them sprang the flying buttresses of the nave. They were intensely different from the decorations of the town-hall; they had, as he for all his ignorance in architecture could see, an obvious purpose to serve. Like the arm of a strong man akimbo, they gave the sense of strength, like the legs of{84} a strong man they propped that glorious trunk. They were decorated, it is true, and the decoration served no useful purpose, but somehow the carved stone-work appeared a work of love, a fantasy done for the pleasure of its performance, an ecstasy of the hammer and chisel and of him who wielded them. They were like flames on the edge of a smouldering log of wood. He felt sure that the man who had executed them had enjoyed the work, or at the least the man who had planned them had planned them, you might say, ‘for fun.’ Elsewhere on the battlemented angles of the nave were grotesque gargoyles of devils and bats and nameless winged things with lead spouts in their mouths to carry off the rain-water from the roof. Commercially they might perhaps have been omitted, and a more economical device of piping have served the same purpose, but they had about them a certain joy of execution. There was imagination in them, something that justified them for all their nightmare hideousness. The people who made them laughed in their hearts, they executed some strange dream, and put it up there to glorify God. But the man who perpetrated the little pink granite pilasters on the town-hall, and the man who painted the lilies on the looking-glass above Mrs Keeling’s drawing-room chimney-piece had nothing to justify them. The lilies and the pilasters were no manner of good: there was a difference between them{85} the flying buttresses and the gargoyles. But the latter gave pleasure: they paid their dividends to any one who looked at them. So did the verses in Omar Khayyam to those who cared to read them. They were justified, too, in a way that No. 1 drawing-room suite was not justified for the £117 that, with extras, it cost the purchaser.

Dimly, like the moving of an unborn child, the sense of beauty, that profitless thing, without which there is no profit in all the concerns of the world, began to trouble Keeling with a livelier indication of life than any that he had yet experienced from it. In some disconnected way it was connected with John’s education and Lord Inverbroom’s manner, and the denizens of the windows of the County Club as opposed to those who more numerously gathered in the windows of the Town Club next door. Propert, his salesman in the book department, had a cousinship to these men who made gargoyles and beautiful books, whereas Emmeline was only cousin to the pilasters in the Town Hall and the No. 1 drawing-room suite. Propert’s sister, according to her brother’s account, had the same type of relationship as himself. But the main point about her was her swiftness in shorthand writing and the accuracy of her transcription on to the typewriting machine. Keeling had never had a secretary who finished a heavy day’s work in so short a time. He owed her the extra half-hour’s leisure, which had led{86} to this appreciation of the gargoyles and buttresses of the Cathedral. For thirty years he had passed this way almost daily, but until to-day he had never seen them before in the sense that seeing means a digestion of sight.

Behind him, where he sat, ran a thick-set hedge of clipped hornbeams, bordering the asphalt walk that led through the graveyard. It was still in full leaf, and completely screened him from passengers going through the Close. There had been many passengers going along the path there, and he had heard a score of sentences spoken as they passed within a yard of him behind the hornbeam hedge. Sentence after sentence had entered his ears without being really conveyed to his brain. Then suddenly close behind him he heard a voice speaking very distinctly. It said this:—

‘It’s so horrid to work for a cad, Charles. I haven’t done it before. Oh, I know he was awfully kind to you——’

The voice merged into the buzz of autumn noises, and footsteps and other conversation, but it had stood apart and distinct. Keeling knew he recognised the voice, but for the moment could not put a name to its owner; it was a woman’s voice, very distinct and pleasant in tone. And in order to satisfy a sudden, unreasonable curiosity, he got up from his seat and, looking out down the path over the hornbeam hedge, saw but a few yards down the path the head of his book{87} department and his sister, the very efficient secretary and typewriter whom he had engaged that morning. Their heads were turned to each other and there was no doubt whatever about their identity.

Well, nothing could possibly matter less to him, so it seemed at that moment, than what his typewriter thought about him. All that mattered was what he thought about his typewriter, whom he considered a very efficient young woman, who got through her work with extraordinary accuracy and speed. He did not care two straws whether she considered him a cad, for what signified the opinion of a girl whose sole connection with you was the nimbleness of her fingers, employed at twenty-five shillings a week? As long as she did her work well, she might take any view she chose about her employer who, for his part, had no views about her except those concerned with the speed and accuracy of her transcriptions.... And then, even as he assured himself that he was as indifferent to her opinion as the moon, he found himself hating the fact that she thought him a cad. Why had she thought that, he asked himself. He had been perfectly polite to her with the icy aloofness of the employer; he had even melted a little from that, for he had opened the door for her to go into her typewriting den, because her hands were full of the papers that composed her work. Why a cad then?{88}

He gave orders to his mind to dismiss the matter, and with his long-striding, sauntering walk that carried him so quickly over the ground, continued his way homewards. But despite his determination, he found that his thoughts went hovering back to that unfortunate and unintentional piece of eavesdropping. He wondered whether Charles Propert agreed with his sister (as if that mattered either!) and quite strongly hoped that he did not. Certainly Keeling had been kind enough and generous enough to him.... Then, more decidedly still, he pished the whole subject away: there were other things in the world to think about.

For the next week Miss Propert continued to display a galaxy of unvarying excellence in her duties, and Keeling, though he told himself that he had dismissed her overheard criticism from his mind altogether, and perhaps believed that he had done so, acted towards her in sundry little ways, as if he consciously deprecated her opinion and sought to change it. The weather, for instance, continuing very hot, he ordered an electric fan to be placed in the small stuffy den where she did her work, saying nothing about it to her, but setting it going while she was absent for her hour’s interval in the middle of the day. On another occasion when he was sitting at his table with his hat on, he took it off as she entered, on a third he{89} cleared a space for her to write at when she came to receive his dictation for the morning. In part, though he would have denied it, his dislike of her verdict on him prompted these infinitesimal courtesies, but in part another incentive dictated them. Vaguely and distantly she was beginning to mean something to him personally, she was acquiring a significance apart from her duties. He began to notice not only the speed and efficiency of her fingers, but the comely shape of her hand: he began to heed not only the distinctness of her voice as she read over her shorthand transcripts to him, but its quality. It reminded him rather of John’s voice.... And oftener and oftener as he dictated his correspondence he looked up with his gray eyes set deep below their bushy eyebrows at that quiet, handsome face, which hardly ever raised its eyes to his. Somehow her perfect fulfilment of the complete duties of the secretary, devoid of any other human relationship to him whatever, began to pique him. She treated him as if he had no existence apart from his function as her employer. He had never before had so ideal a secretary, so intelligent and accurate a piece of office-furniture, and now, having got it, he was inconsistent enough to harbour a smothered wish that she was a shade more human in her dealings with him. He wished that she would not call him ‘sir’ so invariably, whenever {90}she spoke to him: he looked out for the smallest indication on her part of being conscious of him in some human manner. But no such indication appeared, and the complete absence of it vexed him, though as often as it vexed him (the vexation was the smallest of annoyances) he strenuously denied to himself that such a feeling existed at all in his mind.

He had made an engagement with her brother that he should come up one Sunday afternoon some fortnight after Miss Propert had entered his employment, to spend a couple of hours among the herbage of the secret garden. The young man had come into his room just before midday closing time on Saturday, with the weekly returns of the lending library that had just been added to the book department, when a sudden idea struck Keeling.

‘I shall see you to-morrow afternoon, then,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you will bring your sister with you, as you tell me she is a book-lover too.’

She was at the moment in the little typewriting den adjoining, the door of which was open. Through it he could just see her hands arranging the papers on her table; the rest of her was invisible. But as he spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard by her, he observed that her hands paused in the deft speed of their tidying and remained quite motionless for a second or two. And he knew as well as if some flawless telegraphic communication had been set up between{91} her brain and his that she was debating in her mind whether she should come or not. ‘She thought him a cad, but no doubt she wanted to see his books;’ that was the message that came to him from her.

Keeling nodded towards the room where the hands had become busy again. He knew she had heard, overheard if you will, and since she did not choose to give her answer herself, he did not choose to convey the invitation to her again. Some faint stirrings of human relationship began at that moment to enter into living existence, for each set up their little screen of pride. Neither would have done that had there not been something, ever so small, to screen.

‘Will you ask her?’ he said to her brother. ‘She is in there.’

He waited, hat and stick in hand, while a couple of sentences passed between them. Then Charles came out.

‘She is very much obliged to you, sir,’ he said. ‘She will be very much pleased to come.’

‘Damned condescending of her,’ thought Keeling to himself. What right had a secretary at twenty-five shillings a week to send him messages through her brother? But if a message was to be sent, he was glad it was that one.

Keeling received the two next afternoon in his secret garden, and had taken the trouble to bring{92} in a couple of more comfortable chairs. For the first time he looked at his secretary without the sundering spectacles of the employer, and on the instant became aware that she, on her side, had, so to speak, taken off the blinkers of the employed. She was here as his guest, asked by him personally because he wished to welcome her and show her his books, and her eyes, instead of being glued to her work, met his with a frank cordiality. He was not accustomed to shake hands with her brother on his Sunday visits here, but the girl advanced to him with her hand out, presupposing his welcome. Whatever hesitancy she might have had in accepting his invitation, she had, by the fact of her accepting it, put her indecision completely away, and for the first time she smiled at him.

‘It was so good of you to let me come and see your books, Mr Keeling,’ she said. ‘My brother has often told me what delightful Sunday afternoons he has passed with you here.’

He did not fail to notice that he was ‘sir’ no longer, but ‘Mr Keeling,’ nor did he fail to grasp the significance. He was ‘sir’ in his office, he was Mr Keeling in his house. Somehow that pleased him: it was like a mot juste in a comedy.

‘Your brother has often been very useful to me in my collecting,’ he said, with a hint of{93} ‘employer’ still lingering in his attitude towards him.

She sat down in one of the big chairs that Keeling had brought in. That was the purpose for which he had fetched them, but for the moment he put on his employer-spectacles again to observe the unusual sight of his secretary sitting unbidden while he stood. Then the girl’s complete and unconscious certainty that she knew how to behave herself, whisked them from in front of his eyes again, and he saw only his guest sitting there, to whom were due his powers of entertaining and interesting her.

‘Charles tells me you go in for beautiful books rather than rare ones,’ she said. ‘Charles, have you told Mr Keeling about the official Italian book on Leonardo?’

‘No; I was going to mention it to you to-day, sir,’ he said.

‘Leonardo?’ asked Keeling.

‘Yes, Leonardo da Vinci....’

Immediately she saw that he had never heard of him, and without pause conveyed incidental information.

‘It will reproduce all pictures certainly by him,’ she said, ‘and a quantity of his sketches, with his drawings of flying machines, the Venice ones, you know. It will be published to subscribers only.’

Keeling nodded to Charles.

‘Will you see to that for me?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. It’s published at £25, isn’t it, Norah?’

‘Yes, or is it £30? Ah, there’s the Singleton Press Morte d’Arthur. May I look at that? It is one I have never seen. Ah, what a page! What type!’

For the next hour the three burrowed into or nibbled at Keeling’s volumes, now losing themselves completely in the interest which was in common between them, now for a moment conscious of their mutual relations as employer and employed. But those intervals grew rarer, and in Keeling’s mind were replaced by the new consciousness of his secretary with her mask off. She, on her part, found no difficulty in separating her employer from Mr Keeling with this really wonderful collection of beautiful modern books, and indeed there was little in common between them. The hobby was like a thawing sun of February that uncongealed the ice of the office, and, as long as it shone on them, the melting seemed not less than a complete break up of the frost.

‘Lord Inverbroom lives near, does he not?’ she asked. ‘That’s a wonderful library. Is the public allowed to see it? I suppose not. I would not trust Charles within arm’s length of a Caxton if I had one.’

‘Kind of you,’ remarked Charles. ‘My{95} sister designed and cut a book-plate for him, sir.’

Keeling saw her out of the corner of his eye just shake her head at her brother, and she instantly changed the subject. The reason seemed clear enough in the midst of these walls of books that had no such decoration. But she need not have shown such delicacy, he thought to himself, for he had no notion of ordering a plate from her. And very soon she rose.

‘We must be off, Charles,’ she said, ‘if we are to have our walk. Thank you so much, Mr Keeling, for showing me your treasures.’

He was sorry she was going, but made no attempt to detain her, and presently she was walking back along the still sunny road with her brother.

‘I’m sorry I called him a cad,’ she said. ‘He’s only a cad in his office perhaps. My dear, did you see the crocodile holding a tray for cards? What an awful house.’

‘Nice books,’ said Charles.

‘Very. He’s worthy of them too: he really likes them. Perhaps they’ll civilise him. Do you know, I feel rather a brute for having gone there.’


‘Because I don’t like him. But he’s kind; and that makes it worse. What does he think about apart from his books? Just money, I suppose. I won’t go there again anyhow.{96}’

‘Until he gets the Leonardo book.’

She sighed.

‘I shall have to then, if he asks me,’ she said. ‘Or couldn’t you manage to steal it?’

Charles made no definite promise on this point, and they walked on for a little in silence.

‘I’m not even quite certain if I do dislike him,’ she said.

‘Have you been thinking about that all this time?’ he asked.

‘I suppose I must have been. Let’s think about something else.’

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