An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter IV

Alice Keeling was sitting close to the window of her mother’s room making the most of the fading light of a gray afternoon at the end of October, and busily fashioning leaves of gold thread to be the sumptuous foliage of no less sumptuous purple pomegranates, among which sat curious ecclesiastical fowls, resembling parrots. The gold thread had to be tacked into its place with stitches of gold silk, and this strip of gorgeous embroidery would form when completed part of the decoration of an altar-cloth for the church which till but a few weeks ago, had not even had an altar at all, but only a table. Many other changes had occurred in that hitherto uncompromising edifice. The tables of commandments had vanished utterly; a faint smell of incense hung permanently about the church, copiously renewed every Sunday, candles blazed, vestments flashed, and a confessional, undoubtedly Roman in origin, blocked up a considerable part of the vestry. But chief of all the changes was that of the personality of the vicar, and second to that the state of mind of the parish in general to which, taking it collectively, the word Christian could not properly be applied. But taking the parish in sections, it{98} would not be in the least improper to apply the word ecstatic to that section of it to which Alice Keeling belonged, and the embroidery on which she, like many other young ladies, was employed was not less a work of love than a work of piety. As the blear autumnal light faded, and her mother dozed quietly in her chair, having let her book fall from her lap for the third time, Alice, short-sightedly peering at the almost completed leaf, would have suffered her eyes to drop out of her head rather than relinquish her work. She was sewing little fibres and shreds of her heart into that pomegranate leaf, and it gave her the most exquisite satisfaction to do so.

It would have been easy, so the simple and obviously-minded person would think, for her to have turned on the electric light, and have saved her eyes. But there were subtler and more compelling reasons which stood in the way of doing that. The first was that the light would almost certainly awaken her mother, who, by beginning to talk again, as she always did when a nap had refreshed her, would put an end to Alice’s private reflections which flourished best in dusk and in silence. A second reason was that it was more than likely that Mr Silverdale would presently drop in for tea, and it was decidedly more interesting to be found sitting at work, with her profile outlined against the smouldering glow of sunset, than to be sitting under the less becoming glare of{99} an electric lamp. For the same reason she did not put on the spectacles which she would otherwise have worn.

The leaf was all but finished when her mother began to talk with such suddenness that Alice wondered for the moment whether she was but talking in her sleep. But the gist of her remarks was slightly too consecutive to admit of that supposition.

‘Though it looks very odd,’ she said, beginning to give utterance to her reflections in the middle of a sentence, ‘that your father and Hugh should go to Cathedral, while you and I go to St Thomas’s. But the Cathedral is very draughty, that’s what I always say, and with my autumn cold due, if not overdue, it would be flying in the face of Providence to encourage it by sitting in draughts. As for incense and confession and——’

Her voice suddenly ceased again, as if a tap been turned off by some external agency, and Alice wisely made no reply of any kind, feeling sure that in a minute or two her mother would begin to give vent to that faint snoring which betokened that she had gone to sleep again. That did not interrupt the flow of her ecstatic musings, whereas her mother’s general attitude to all the novel institutions which were so precious to her gave her a tendency to strong shudderings. Only half an hour ago Mrs Keeling had said that she was sure she saw nothing wrong in confession and{100} would not mind going herself if she could think of anything worth telling Mr Silverdale about.... Alice had drawn in her breath sharply when her mother said that, as if with a pang of spiritual toothache.

There came a slight sound from the drawing-room next door which would have been inaudible to any but expectant ears, and Alice bent over her work with more intense industry. Then the door opened very softly, and Mr Silverdale looked in. He was dressed in a black cassock and had a long wooden shepherd’s crook in his hand. He saw Alice seated in the window, he saw Mrs Keeling with her mouth slightly open and her eyes completely shut in a corner of the sofa, and rose to his happiest level.

‘Hush!’ he said, very gently, and tiptoed across the room to where Alice sat. He took her hand in his, pressing it, and spoke in the golden whisper which she was getting to know so well in the vestry.

‘My dear girl,’ he said, ‘how good and industrious you are.’

‘I shall get it done well before Christmas,’ whispered Alice.

‘How pleased the herald angels will be!’ he answered.

Alice gave a great jerk of emotion which most unfortunately upset her embroidery-frame, which fell off the table with a crash that might have{101} awaked the dead, and certainly awoke the living.

‘And vestments,’ said Mrs Keeling again going on precisely at the point where sleep had overtaken her, ‘I can’t see that there’s any harm in them, though your father——’

There was a moment’s dead silence as she became drowsily aware that there was somebody else in the room. Mr Silverdale’s gay laugh, as he gave a final pressure to Alice’s hand, told her who it was.

‘Dear lady,’ he said. ‘Go on with your Protestant exhortations. I have been exhorting all afternoon, and I am so tired of my own exhortations. We will listen, and try to agree with you, won’t we, Miss Alice?’

Mrs Keeling got up in some confusion.

‘Bless me, to imagine your having come in while I was so busy thinking about what I had been reading that I never heard the door open,’ she said, hastily picking up the book which had fallen face downwards on the floor. ‘Well, I’m sure it’s time for tea. How the evenings draw in! But there are unpleasanter things than a muffin and a chat by the fire when all’s said and done.’

Alice seemed inclined to prefer her pomegranates to muffins, and had to be personally conducted from her work, and told she was naughty by Mr Silverdale, who sat on the hearthrug with woollen stockings and very muddy boots protruding from{102} below his cassock, for he had had a game of football with his boys’ club before his afternoon preaching. He had only just had time to put on his cassock and snatch up his shepherd’s crook when the game was over, and ran to church, getting there in the nick of time. But he had kicked two goals at his football, and talked to twice that number of penitent souls afterwards in the vestry, so, as he delightedly exclaimed, he had had excellent sport. And he poked the fire with his shepherd’s crook.

‘And you didn’t go home and change after your football?’ asked Alice. ‘You are too bad! You promised me you would!’

He held up apologetic hands, and spoke in baby voice.

‘I vewy sowwy,’ he said. ‘I be dood to-morrow!’

‘I’m not sure I shall forgive you,’ said Alice radiantly.

‘Please! If I have another cup of tea to keep the cold out?’

‘Well, just this once,’ said Alice, pouring him out another cup.

He fixed his fine eyes on the fire, and became so like the figure of Jonah in the stained-glass window that Alice almost felt herself in Nineveh.

‘I’m getting spoiled here,’ he said, ‘all you dear ladies of Bracebridge positively spoil me with your altar-cloths and our extra cups of tea. I’m getting too comfortable. And here’s Miss Alice with{103} a cigarette at my elbow. But I don’t know whether it’s allowed. Have one with me, Miss Alice, and then your mother will have to scold us both, and I know she’s too fond of you to scold you.’

This was slightly too daring an experiment for Alice, but she resolved to have a try in her bedroom that night.

‘Indeed, it’s allowed,’ said Mrs Keeling, ‘but as for Alice smoking, well, that is a good joke. And as for your being too comfortable I call that another joke.’

‘I call it a very bad one,’ said Alice delightedly. ‘Mr Silverdale is very naughty. You mustn’t encourage him, Mamma, to think he is funny when he is only naughty!’

She went to the window and brought back her strip of pomegranates.

‘You’re naughty too,’ he said. ‘This is play-time. And now there’s something else I want to talk about. You ladies are the queens of your homes: don’t you think you could persuade Mr Keeling not to think me the thin edge of the Pope, so to speak?’

‘Delicious!’ said Alice, beginning to be naughty with her pomegranates.

Mrs Keeling shook her head.

‘It’s no use,’ she said. ‘You can have incense or Mr Keeling, but not both. And such a draughty pew as he’s got in the Cathedral!’

‘It isn’t only his attendance there that I mean,{104}’ said Mr Silverdale. ‘But you know his Stores are in my parish, and he employs some four hundred work-people there. I went to see him at his office this morning, and asked him if I couldn’t have a daily service for them.’

‘He didn’t refuse?’ said Alice.

‘He said they might all do what they liked, out of their work hours, but he couldn’t have them encroached on. I was tempted to give him a good rap with my shepherd’s crook, but there was a lady present. So I appealed to her for her assistance in persuading him.’

‘Indeed, and who was that?’ asked Mrs Keeling.

‘He introduced me: it was his secretary. Such a handsome girl. I think she tried to snub me, but we poor parsons are unsnubbable. She told me that she quite agreed with Mr Keeling.’

‘His typewriter dared to say that!’ hissed Alice. ‘Oh——’

‘Then he began dictating to her something about linoleums. But I’ve not done with him yet. The dear man! I’ll plague his life out for him if you’ll only help me.’

A pink lustre clock of horrible aspect suddenly chimed six, and he jumped up.

‘Evensong at half-past!’ he said. ‘Blow evensong! There!’

He picked up his crook.

‘I’ve got to get hold of all you dear people, he said, grasping Alice’s long lean fingers in one hand,{105} and Mrs Keeling’s plump ones in the other and, kissing them both. ‘What an hour of refreshment I have had. Blessings! Blessings!’

He ran lightly across the room, kissed his hand at the door, and they heard him running across the drawing room.

‘Blow evensong!’ said Alice ecstatically. ‘Wasn’t that delicious of him. And the Pope, too; the thin end of the Pope. But how could father be so rude as to begin dictating about linoleum?’

‘Your father doesn’t like working hours interfered with, my dear,’ said Mrs Keeling. ‘But we’ll do what we can. Anyhow, Mr Silverdale will have to change before he goes to church.’

‘Oh, I hope so,’ said Alice, extending her long neck over her embroidery.

‘Not that it will do any good talking to your father,’ continued Mrs Keeling placidly, ‘for I’m sure in all these thirty years I never saw him so vexed as when you and I said we should keep on going to St Thomas’s after the incense and the dressing-up began. But I had made up my mind too.’

Alice flushed a little.

‘I wish you would not call it dressings-up, Mamma,’ she said. ‘You know perfectly well that they are vestments. They all signify something: they have a spiritual meaning.’

‘Very likely, my dear,’ said Mrs Keeling{106} amiably, ‘and I’m sure that’s a beautiful bit of figured silk which he has his coat made of.’

Alice drew in her breath sharply.

‘Cope, Mamma,’ she said.

‘Yes, dear, I said coat,’ rejoined her mother, who was not aware that she was a little deaf.

Alice did not pursue the subject, and since there was now no chance of Mr Silverdale’s coming in again, she put on her spectacles, which enabled her to see the lines of the pomegranate foliage with far greater distinctness. Never before had she had so vivid an interest in life as during these last two months; indeed the greater part of the female section of the congregation at St Thomas’s had experienced a similar quickening of their emotions, and a ‘livelier iris’ burnished up the doves of the villas in Alfred Road. The iris in question, of course, was the effect of the personality of Cuthbert Silverdale, and if he was not, as he averred, being spoiled, the blame did not lie with his parishioners. They had discovered, as he no doubt meant them to do, that a soldier-saint had come among them, a missioner, a crusader, and they vied with each other in adoring and decorative obedience, making banners and embroideries for his church (for he allowed neither slippers nor neckties for himself) and in flocking to his discourses, and working under his guidance in the parish. There had been frantic discussions and quarrels over rites and doctrines; households had{107} been divided among themselves, and, as at The Cedars, sections of families had left St Thomas’s altogether and attached themselves to places of simpler ceremonial. The Bishop had been appealed to on the subject of lights, with the effect that the halo of a martyr had encircled Mr Silverdale’s head, without any of the inconveniences that generally attach to martyrdom, since the Bishop had not felt himself called upon to take any steps in the matter. Even a protesting round-robin, rather sparsely attested, had been sent him, in counterblast to which Alice Keeling with other enthusiastic young ladies had forwarded within a couple of days a far more voluminously signed document, quoting the prayer-book of Edward VI. in support of their pastor, according to their pastor’s interpretation of it at his Wednesday lectures on the history of the English Church.

Cuthbert Silverdale was not unaware of the emotion which he had roused in so many female breasts, and it is impossible to acquit him of a sort of clerical complacency in the knowledge that so many young ladies gazed and gazed on him with a mixture of religious and personal devotion. Though a firm believer in the celibacy of the clergy, he did not feel himself debarred from sentimental relations with both married and unmarried members of his flock, indeed the very fact that nothing could conceivably come of these little mawkishnesses made them appear perfectly{108} licit. He held their hands, and took their arms, and sat at their knees, and called them ‘dear girls’ two or three at a time, finding safety perhaps in numbers, and not wishing to encourage false hopes. He was an incorrigible if an innocent flirt; a licensed lap-dog practising familiarities which, if indulged in by the ordinary layman, would assuredly have led to kickings. In some curious manner he quite succeeded in deceiving himself as to the propriety of those affectionate demonstrations, and considered himself a sort of brother to all those young ladies, who worked for him with the industry (and more than the excitement) of devoted sisters. To do him justice he was just as familiar with the male members of his congregation, and patted his boys on the back, and linked his arm in theirs, but it would be idle to contend that he got as much satisfaction out of those male embraces.

There was no question, however, about the devotion and strenuousness of his life. His congregation, in spite of the secession of such plain men as Mr Keeling, crammed his church to the doors and spilt into the street, and he kindled a religious fervour in the parish, which all the terrors of hell as set forth by his predecessor had been unable to fan into a blaze. In a thoroughly cheap but in a masterly and intelligible manner he preached the gospel, and in his life practised it, by incessant personal exertions, of which others as{109} well as himself were very conscious. It was more his surface than his essential self which was so deplorable a mass of affectation and amorousness, and the horror he inspired in minds of a certain calibre by his skippings and his shepherd’s crook and his little caresses was really too pitiless a condemnation. Indeed, the gravest of his errors was not so much in what he did, as his omission to consider what effect his affectionate dabs and touches and pawings might have on their recipients. He would, in fact, have been both amazed and shocked if he could have been an unseen witness of Alice Keeling’s proceedings when she found herself in the privacy of her own bedroom that night.

She had gone up to bed early, feeling that nameless stir of the spirit which can only find expansion in solitude. She wanted to let herself go, to be herself, and the presence of her family forced her to wear the carapace of convention. But having pleaded fatigue at ten o’clock, though her eyes sparkled behind her spectacles, she escaped from the cramping influence of the drawing room, and locked herself into her own bedroom with her thoughts and her glowing altar-cloth.

She spread it over the side of her bed, and in front of it proceeded to her evening devotions. In the pre-Silverdale days these were the briefest and most tepid orisons, now they were invested with sincerity and heart-felt worship. First she{110} thought over her misdoings for the day, a series of the most harmless omissions and commissions, which she set honestly before herself. She had not got up with the punctuality she had vowed: she had not kept her mind free from irritation when she went to see her grandmother: she had been guilty of gluttony with regard to jam pancakes; she had said she was tired just now when she never had felt fresher in her life. Then followed her prayers; like the rest of her vicar’s numerous Bible-class she read a chapter from the Gospels, and she finished up with the appointed meditation from the devotional book which Mr Silverdale had given her.

Up to this point there would have been nothing to surprise or amaze him; he might not even have blushed to see how, when her meditations were done, she pored over the title page where he had written her name with good wishes from her friend C. S. She kissed that page before putting the book away in a box, which contained two or three notes from him, which she read through before locking them up again. They were perfectly harmless little notes, only no man should ever have written them. One had been received only this morning, and she had not read it more than a dozen times yet. It ran—

‘Won’t I just come in this afternoon after my football and my preachment, and get some{111} opodeldoc for my bruises and some muffins for my little Mary, and some refreshment for my silly tired brain. God bless you!

‘Your friend, ‘Cuthbert S.’

That required much study. He had never signed himself like that before. She wondered if she could ever venture to call him Mr Cuthbert, and said ‘Mr Cuthbert’ out aloud several times in order to get used to the unfamiliar syllables. ‘Preachment’ too: that was a word he often used; once when he came to see them he entered the room chanting,— ‘I admit the soft impeachment That I’ve been making preachment.’

Alice thought that quite lovely, even when she subsequently found out that the identical effusion had already been chanted on his arrival at the house of Mrs Fyson the day before. Julia Fyson, her most intimate friend and co-adorer of the vicar, had told her.

She locked up those treasures, and going to the window drew aside the curtain and looked out. The autumnal fall of the leaf from the trees in the garden had brought into view houses in the town hidden before; among these was St Thomas’s Vicarage, that stood slightly apart from the others and was easily recognisable. With the aid of an opera glass she could distinguish the windows, and{112} saw that a light was burning behind the blinds of his study. He had come in, then, and for a full minute she contemplated the luminous oblong. Later, she had sometimes seen that a window exactly above that was lit. She liked seeing that, for it meant that he was going to bed, and would soon be asleep, for he had mentioned that he went to sleep the moment he got into bed. Once she had watched till that light went out also.

She let the curtain fall into place again, and sat by the fire for a little feeling alive to the very tips of her fingers. To-morrow would be a busy day; she had her lesson for her Sunday-school to get ready (she and Julia Fyson were going to prepare that together); there was a hockey-match for girls in the afternoon, at which Mr Silverdale—she said ‘Mr Cuthbert’ aloud again—had promised to be referee, she was going to read the paper to her grandmother (this was now a daily task directly traceable to the vicar), and her altar-cloth would fill up any spare time.

But as the fire began to die down, the invigorating prospect of next day lost its quality, and there began to stir in her mind a vague disquiet. Hitherto it had really been enough for her that Mr Silverdale existed; to put him on a pedestal and adore in company with other reverential worshippers had satisfied her, and the inspiration had resulted in many useful activities. But to-night she began to wish that there had not been{113} so many other worshippers, towards whom he exhibited the same benignant and affectionate aspect. There was Julia Fyson, for instance: he would walk between them with an arm for each, and a pressure of the hand for Julia as well as herself. In moments of expansion she and Julia had confided to each other their adoration and its rewards; they had sung their hymns of praise together, and had bewailed to each other the rare moments when he seemed to be cold and distant with them, each administering comfort to the other, and being secretly rather pleased. But now Alice felt that any story of his coldness to Julia would give her more than a little pleasure. She would like him to be always cold to Julia. She wanted him herself. And at that moment the truth struck her: she was in love with him. Till then, she had not known it: till then, perhaps, there had been nothing definite and personal to know. But now, as the fire died down, she was aware of nothing else, and her heart starved and cried out. She had admired and adored before; those were self-supporting emotions. But this cried out for its due sustenance.

She got up and went to her looking-glass, turning on the electric light above it. Certainly Julia was much prettier than she, with her mutinous little pink and white face and her violet eyes. But she was such a little thing, she hardly came above Alice’s shoulder, and Alice, who knew her so{114} well, had often thought, in spite of her apparent earnestness nowadays, that she was flighty and undependable. With the self-consciousness that was the unfortunate fruit of her newly found habits of self-examination and confession, she told herself that Julia had not a quarter of her own grit and character. Only the other day, when he was walking between them, he had said, ‘I always think of my friends by nicknames.’ Then he had undeniably squeezed Julia’s arm and said, ‘You are “Sprite,” just “Sprite.”’ Julia had liked this, and with the anticipation of a less attractive nickname for Alice, had said, ‘And what is she?’ Then had come a memorable reply, for he had answered, ‘We must call her Alice in Wonderland: she lives in a fairyland of her own.’ And he had squeezed Alice’s arm too.

It was comforting to remember that, and Alice saw wonder and wistful pensiveness steal into the reflection of her face. There was the girl who would upset all his convictions about a celibate clergy; indeed, he had said that he did not think it morally wrong for them to marry. It was a case of the thin end of the wedge again, not this time of the Pope, but of Benedick, the married man.

Alice went once more to the window, and lifted the curtain. There was an oblong of light in the window above his study. She kissed her hand to {115}it, and once more said aloud, ‘Good-night, Mr Cuthbert.’... But it would have been juster if she had wished him a nightmare.

Had Alice been in a condition to observe any windows and the lights in them, except those of the dark study and the illuminated bedroom at the Vicarage, she would have seen that, late as it was, there was a patch of gravel on the garden-wall outside her father’s library window which smouldered amid the darkness of the night and showed there was another wakeful inhabitant in the house. He had gone to his room very shortly after Alice’s disappearance from the drawing room, leaving his wife talking about table linen to Hugh. He, like Alice, wanted, though more dimly than she, the expansion of solitude. But when he got into that retreat, he found he was not quite alone in it. He had intended to look through the Leonardo publication which had just arrived, and for which he thought he thirsted. But it still lay unturned on the table. He had but unpacked and identified it, and in ten minutes had forgotten about it altogether. Another presence haunted the room and disquieted him.

It was nearly a month since the Sunday afternoon when he had held conference with the two Properts here. He had gone back to his office on the following Monday morning, feeling that he had shown a human side to Norah. She had done the same to him: she had talked to ‘Mr{116} Keeling’; not to ‘sir’; there was some kind of communication between them other than orders from an employer to an employed, and obedience, swift and deft from the employed to the employer. When he arrived at the office, punctual to nine o’clock, with a large post awaiting his perusal, he had found she had not yet come, and had prepared a little friendly speech to her on the lines of Mr Keeling. She arrived not five minutes afterwards, and he had consciously enjoyed the sound of her steps running along the passage, from the lift. But when she entered she had no trace of the previous afternoon.

‘I am late, sir,’ she said. ‘I am exceedingly sorry.’

At that, despite himself, the Sunday afternoon mood dried up also. She was in the office again, was she? Well, so was he. If she had only looked at him, had called him Mr Keeling, he would have been Mr Keeling. As it was, he became ‘sir’ with a vengeance.

‘I hope it won’t happen again,’ he said. ‘I cannot allow unpunctuality. Open the rest of the letters, and give me them.’

She had frozen into the perfect secretary. With incredible speed she had the sheaf of letters before him, and with her writing pad in her hand awaited his dictation. Twice during the next hour she, with downcast eyes, corrected some error of his, once producing an impeccable file to show him{117} that a week before he had demanded a reduction on certain wholesale terms, once to set him right in a date regarding previous correspondence. She had been five minutes late that morning, but she had saved him fifty in future correspondence. She seemed to know her files by heart: it was idle to challenge her for proof when she made a correction.

Then she had gone back with her shorthand notes to her room, and all morning the noise of her nimble fingers disturbed him through the felt-lined door. He was in two minds about that: sometimes he thought he would send her into Hugh’s room, where another typewriter worked. Hugh was accustomed to the clack of the machine, and two would be no worse than one. Then again he thought that the muffling of the noise alone disturbed him, that if she sat at the table in the window, and did her work there, he would not notice it. It was the concealed clacking of the keys that worried him. Perhaps it would even help him to attend to his own business to see how zealously she attended to hers. Those deft long fingers! They were the incarnation of the efficiency which to him was the salt of life.

Five days had passed thus, and on the next Saturday he had asked her brother and her, this time giving the invitation to her, to visit his library again. She had refused with thanks and a ‘sir,’ but Charles had come. Keeling had{118} determined not to allude to his sister’s refusal, but had suddenly found himself doing so, and Charles, with respect, believed that she was having a friend to tea. And again, despite himself, he had said on Charles’s departure, ‘I hope I shall see you both again some Sunday soon.’

Well, he was not going to ask twice after one refusal of his favours, but, as the next week went by, he found the ‘sir’ and the dropped eyes altogether intolerable. These absolutely impersonal relationships were mysteriously worrying. She had shown herself a compatriot of the secret garden, and now she had retreated into the shell of the secretary again. This week the weather turned suddenly cold, and since there was no fireplace in her room, he invited her to sit at the table by the window in his, which was close to the central-heating hot-water pipes. A certain employer-sense of pride had come to his aid, and now he hardly ever glanced at her. But one day the whole card-house of this pride fell softly on the table, just as he took his hat and stick after the day’s work.

‘I wonder if you would do a book-plate for me, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘I should like to have a book-plate for my library.’

She paused in her work but did not look at him.

‘Yes, sir, I will gladly do you one,’ she said. ‘Shall I draw a design and see if you approve of it?’

‘No, I know nothing of these things. But I{119} should like a book-plate. Similar to the sort of thing you did for Lord Inverbroom.’

He hesitated a moment.

‘As regards size,’ he said, ‘perhaps you will come up and have a look at my books again, and get a guide from them.’

She smiled, or he thought she smiled, and that together with her reply enraged him.

‘That won’t be necessary,’ she said. ‘Book-plates will suit any volume except duodecimos. I don’t think you have any. If so, I could cut the margin down, sir. But I should like to submit my design to you before I cut the block.’

‘That also will not be necessary,’ he said. ‘Something in the style of Lord Inverbroom’s. Good-afternoon, Miss Propert.’

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said she.

It was extraordinary to him how this girl got on his mind. He thought he disliked her, but in some obscure way he could not help being interested in her. There was somebody there, somebody from whom there came a call to him. He wanted to know how she regarded him, what effect he had on her. And there were no data: she sat behind her impenetrable mask, and did her work in a manner more perfect than any secretary who had ever served him. She declined to come to his house with her brother, she had retreated again inside that beautiful shell. He noticed infinitesimal things about her: sometimes{120} she wore a hat, sometimes she left it in her room. One day she had a bandage round a finger of her left hand, and he wondered if she had cut herself. But her reserve and reticence permitted him no further approach to her: only he waited with something like impatience for the day when she would bring the block of his book-plate or an impression of it. There would surely be an opportunity for the personal relation to come in there.

He had begun to know that moment which few men of fifty, and those the luckiest of all, are unaware of. He wanted a companion, somebody who satisfied his human, not his corporal needs. While we are young, the youthful vital force feeds itself by its own excursions, satisfies itself with the fact of its travel and explorations. It is enough to go on, to lead the gipsy life and make the supper hot under the hedge-side, and sleep sound in the knowledge that next day there will be more travel and fresh horizons, and a dawn that shines on new valleys and hillsides. But when the plateau of life is reached, those are the fortunate ones who have their home already made. For thirty years he had had his own fireside and his wife, and his growing children. But never had he found his home: some spirit of the secret garden had inspired him, and now he felt mateless and all his money was dust and ashes in his mouth. Two things he wanted, one to be{121} different in breed from that which he was, the other to find a companion. The shadow of a companion lurked in his room, where were the piles of his books. Somewhere in that direction lay the lodestone.

Another week passed, and still he waited for some word from his secretary about the book-plate. He was not going to be eager about it, for he would not confess to himself the anxiety with which he awaited an opportunity that his twenty-five shillings a week secretary had denied him. But day by day he scrutinized her face, and wondered if she was going to say that the book-plate was finished.

The event occurred at the most inopportune moment. He had concluded a bargain, a day or two before, for the purchase of the entire vintage of a French vine-grower in the Bordeaux district, and had just opened a letter to say that owing to the absence of a certain payment in advance, the stock had been disposed of to another purchaser, and he had lost one of the best bargains he had ever made. But he felt sure that he had drawn the cheque in question: he remembered drawing it in his private cheque-book, just before leaving one afternoon, when the cashier had already gone home. He opened the drawer where he kept his cheque-book and examined it. There it was: it was true he had drawn the cheque, but he had forgotten to tear it out and despatch it, meaning no doubt to do so in the morning.{122}

Never in all his years of successful business had he made so stupid an omission, an omission for which he would at once have dismissed any of his staff, telling him that a man who was capable of doing that was of no use to Keeling. And it was himself who had deserved dismissal. He could remember it all now: he had locked the cheque up again as it was necessary to send a certain order form with it, and that was inaccessible now that his secretary had gone. He would do it in the morning, but when morning came he had thought of nothing but the request he was going to make that Norah should do him a book-plate. That, that trivial trumpery affair, utterly drove out of his head this important business transaction. He was furious with himself for his carelessness: it was not only that he had lost a considerable sum of money, it was the loss of self-respect that worried him. He could hardly believe that he had shown himself so rotten a business man: he might as well have sold stale fish, according to the amiable hint of his mother-in-law as have done this. And at that unfortunate moment when he was savage with himself and all the world Norah Propert appeared. Instantly he looked at his watch to see if she was again late. But it had not yet struck nine, it was he himself who was before his time.

She carried a small parcel with her, of which she untied the string.{123}

‘I have brought the block of your book-plate, sir,’ she said, ‘with a couple of impressions of it.’

He held out his hand for it without a word. She had produced a charming design, punning on his name. A ship lay on its side with its keel showing: in the foreground was a faun squatting on the sand reading: behind was a black sky with stars and a large moon. He knew it to be a charming piece of work, but his annoyance at himself clouded everything.

‘Yes, I see,’ he said. ‘What do you charge for it?’

‘Ten pounds,’ she said. ‘That will include a thousand copies.’

He looked at the block in silence for a moment. There did not seem to be much work on it: he could get a woodcut that size for half of the price. It was but three inches by two.

‘Ten pounds!’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t dream of giving more than seven for it. Even that would be a fancy price.’

He put the block down, laid the two impressions on the top of it, and turned over the leaves of his cheque-book in order to pay for the thing at once. But she picked up her work, and without a word began wrapping it up in the paper she had just taken off it. Already he knew he had made a blunder, and the blunder was the act of a cad. It had been his business to ask the price beforehand, if he wanted to know it, not to{124} quarrel with it afterwards. But the cad in him had full possession just then.

‘What are you doing?’ he said, and glancing up he found that for once she was looking at him with contemptuous anger, held perfectly in control.

‘I am going to take my work away again, sir, as you do not care to pay the price I ask for it,’ she said.

‘Nonsense. Seven pounds is a very good price. I know the cost of woodcuts.’

He had written the cheque and passed it over to her. She took no notice whatever of it, tied the string round her parcel and put it on the table in the window. Then, still without a word, she took up her pencil and her writing-pad, and sat down to receive his dictation.

In his heart he knew he was beaten. She had given him even a sharper lesson than he had given himself in the matter of the cheque he had forgotten to post. And that was but business; the error was expensive, but it was merely a matter of money as far as its effects went. He very much doubted whether money would settle this. He still thought that ten pounds was an excessive charge, but that did not detract from the fact that he had behaved meanly. His pride still choked him, but he knew that sooner or later he would be obliged to capitulate. He would have to apologize, and hope that his apology would be accepted.

The morning’s work went on precisely as usual, and not by the tremor of an eyelash did she betray whatever she might be feeling. Just that one look had she given him of sovereign disdain, and the remembrance of it stiffened him against her, and he battled against the surrender that he knew must come. If she was going to be proud, he could match her in that, and again he told himself that seven pounds was a very good price. He was not going to be imposed on....

All the morning the see-saw went on within him, and when she rose to go for her hour’s interval he noticed that she took the parcel containing the wood-block with her. And very ill-inspired he made an attempt at surrender.

‘Come, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘Let’s have an end of this. I should have asked the price before I commissioned you to do the work. Let me give you a cheque for ten pounds.’

She smiled: there was no doubt about that.

‘I’m afraid that’s quite impossible, sir,’ she said, ‘now that you have told me that you don’t consider my work worth that. Good-morning, sir.’

Up flamed his temper again at this. What on earth did the girl want more? He had offered her the price she asked; he had said he was wrong in not inquiring about it before. She might go hang, she and her niceties and her contempt.

She had come back in the afternoon without her parcel, and his imagination pictured her{126} telling her brother all that had happened. He felt he must have cut a sorry figure. ‘That’s the end of his books and his book-plates for me,’ would be the sort of way Norah would sum it all up. Probably they did not discuss it much: there really was very little need for comment on what he had done. The simple facts were sufficient: perhaps she had smiled again as she smiled when she rejected his first overtures.

All afternoon they worked within a few yards of each other, all afternoon his accusing conscience battered at his pride; and as she rose to go when the day’s work was over, he capitulated. He stood up also, grim and stern to the view, but beset with a shy pathetic anxiety that she would accept his regrets.

‘I want to ask your pardon, Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘for my conduct to you this morning. I am sure you did not charge me more than your work was worth. I like your design very much. I shall be truly grateful to you if you will let me have that plate. I am sorry. That’s all.... I am sorry.’

It cost him a good deal to say that, but at every word his burden lightened, though his anxiety to know how she would deal with him increased.

She raised her eyes to his, quite in the secret garden manner, and she smiled not as she had smiled when she left him this morning.

‘Thank you so much, Mr Keeling,’ she said.{127} ‘I shall be delighted to let you have the block if you feel like that about it. I will bring it back with me to-morrow, shall I?’

To-night as he thought over this, when the hour was quiet, and upstairs Alice kept vigil, Norah’s presence seemed to haunt the room. She had only been here once, but he could remember with such distinctness the trivial details of that afternoon, that his imagination gave him her again, now standing by the book-shelves, now seated in one of the chairs he had brought in that day, and kept here since. They would be needed again, he hoped, next Sunday, for with the arrival of the Leonardo book he had an adequate excuse for asking her again, and, he hoped, an adequate cause for her acceptance. There it lay on the table still unopened, and in the clinking of the ashes in the grate, and the night-wind that stirred in the bushes outside, he heard with the inward ear the sound of her voice, just a word or two spoken through the wind.

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