An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IX

It is perhaps hardly necessary to state that Mrs Keeling on the eve of the ceremony for the opening of the Keeling wing had subscribed to a press cutting agency which would furnish her with innumerable accounts of all she knew so well. But print was an even more substantial joy than memory, and there appeared in the local press the most gratifying panegyrics on her husband. These were delightful enough, but most of all she loved the account of herself at that monumental moment when she presented the Princess with the bouquet of daffodils and gypsophila. She was never tired of the perusal of this, nor of the snapshot which some fortunate photographer had taken of her in the very middle of her royal curtsey, as she was actually handing the bouquet. This was reproduced several times: she framed one copy and kept all the rest, with the exception of one with regard to which she screwed herself up to the point of generosity that was necessary before she could prevail on herself to send it to her mother.

Then, while still the industrious press-cutters had not yet come to the end of those appetising morsels, the packets on her breakfast table swelled{261} in size again, and she was privileged to read over and over again that the honour of a baronetcy had been conferred on her husband. She did not mind how often she read this; all the London papers reproduced the gratifying intelligence, and though the wording in most of these was absolutely identical, repetition never caused the sweet savour to cloy on her palate. She was like a girl revelling in chocolate-drops; though they all tasted precisely alike, each tasted delicious, and she felt she could go on eating them for ever. Even better than those stately clippings from the great London luminaries were the more detailed coruscations of the local press. They gave biographies of her husband, magnanimously suppressing the fish-shop, and dwelling only on the enterprise which had made and the success which had crowned the Stores, and many (these were the sweetest of all) gave details about herself and her parentage and the number of her children. She was not habitually a great reader, only using books as a soporific till they tumbled from her drowsy grasp, but now she became a wakeful and enthusiastic student. The whole range of literature, since the days of primeval epics, had never roused in her one tithe of the emotion that those clippings afforded.

Keeling himself had no such craving to see in print all that he was perfectly well aware of, and even looked undazzled at the cards which{262} his wife had ordered, on one set of which he appeared alone as ‘Sir Thomas Keeling, Bart.,’ to differentiate him from mere knights, whilst on the other the Bart. appeared in conjunction with her. But the events themselves filled him with a good deal of solid satisfaction, due largely to their bearing on the approaching election at the County Club. Never from a business point of view had there been a more successful ‘timing’ of an enterprise: it was as if on the very day of his getting out his summer fashions, summer had come, with floods of hot sunshine that made irresistible to the ladies of Bracebridge the muslins and organdies and foulards that floated diaphanously in the freshly dressed windows. The summer of his munificence and his honours had just burst on the town, and, in spite of Lord Inverbroom’s warning, he felt, as he walked down to his office on the morning of the day on which the election took place, that every member of the Club would be, so to speak, a customer for his presence in future in those staid bow-windows. During these months of his Mayoralty, he had come into contact with, and had been at civic functions the host of a quantity of members of the County Club whose suffrages he sought to-day, and there was none among them who had not shown him courtesy and even deference. That no doubt was largely due to his position as mayor, but this Thomas Keeling who was a candidate for the Club was{263} the mayor, he who had given the new wing to the hospital, thereby averting a very unpleasant financial mess, he, too, whom his King had delighted to honour. To the business mind nothing could have happened more opportunely, and the business mind was his mind. He could not see how he could fail, after this bouquet of benefits and honours, to be ‘an attractive proposition’ to any club. As he walked down to his office that morning he swept the cobweb of Lord Inverbroom’s apprehensions away, and wondered at himself for having allowed them to infect him with a moment’s uneasiness, or to make him consider, even at the very back of his brain, what he should do if he were not elected. This morning he did not consider that at all: he was sure that the contingency for which he had provided would not arrive. The provision was filed away, and with it, shut up in the dusty volume, was the suggestion his agent had made that he might quite reasonably raise the rent that the Club paid for the premises which were now his property. That business was just concluded; he proposed to inform Lord Inverbroom at once of the fact that he was now the landlord of the County Club, and that the question of a rise in the rental might be considered as shelved. Lord Inverbroom would be in Bracebridge this morning, since he would be presiding at the election at the Club at twelve o’clock, and had promised to communicate the result at{264} once. Very likely Keeling would drop in at the club to have a bit of lunch there, and he could get a chat with Lord Inverbroom then.... But as he slid upwards in the droning lift that took him to the floor where his office was, the Club, the election, and all connected with it, vanished from his brain like the dispersing mists on a summer morning, for a few steps would take him along the corridor to the room where Norah was opening his letters.

That moment of his entry had become to him a matter of daily excitement and expectation. Sometimes the soft furrow would be ruled between her eyebrows, and she would give him but the glance of a stranger and a chilly ‘Good-morning,’ and instantly turn her attention to her work again. Sometimes she would show such a face as she had shown him that Sunday morning on the downs when they had listened to the skylark together, a face of childhood and the possession of spring, sometimes (and it was this that gave the grizzled elderly man the tremulous excitement of a boy when his hand opened the door) she would give him that look which had shot across the town-hall like the launching of a silver spear and transfixed him. But if he did not get it then, sometime during the morning, in some pause in the work, or perhaps even in the middle of his dictation, he would receive it from her, just that one look which made him know, so long as it lasted, that there{265} was no bar or impediment between himself and her. ‘There was neither speech nor language,’ but her essential self spoke, revealing, affirming to him its existence. Then without pause she would drop her eyes to her work again, and her busy pencil scooped and dabbed over the paper, and he heard in some secret place of his brain, while his lips pronounced sharp business-like sentences, the words, ‘And thou beside me singing in the wilderness.’... In the afternoon, when he came to read over her typewritten transcription of the dictation, he always knew at what point in some peremptory letter out of all the sheaf that moment of the clear glance had come. He was always on the look-out for it, but he could never induce it: she gave it him, so it had begun to seem, not in answer to him, but just when she could withhold it no longer.

This morning the correspondence was both heavy and complicated. A whole series of widely scattered dates had to be turned up, in order to trace some question of the payment of carriage on a certain consignment. It was a tiresome job, which Norah recommended him to leave for verification to the clerk downstairs whose business it was, and probably for that very reason Sir Thomas insisted on doing it himself. He was fractious, he was obstinately determined to have the matter settled here and now, and like a child, cross with hunger, he wanted the clear look she had not yet{266} given him. The furrow, that soft smudge, had long been marked on Norah’s forehead, as she turned up letter after letter that failed to deal with the point, and she spent what she considered a wasted half hour over it. She was still rather irritated when she found what she had been looking for, unclipped the communication from the spring that fastened it into its place and passed it him.

‘I think that’s what you are wanting, Sir Thomas,’ she said.

He took it from her, and noticing the rather incisive politeness of her tone, looked up at her. The furrow was still there, very impatiently ruled, but the clear glance was there also: radiantly it shone on him, quite undisturbed by the superficial agitation. It concerned not the surface of her, but the depths.

He did not look at the paper she handed him, on which his unconscious fingers had closed. He was not going to miss one infinitesimal fraction of the moment that she had at last given him. She frowned still, but that was the property of her tiresome search: it was neither his nor hers, as he or she ‘mattered.’

‘You will find it on the third line from the end,’ she said. ‘Messrs Hampden are perfectly right about it.’

And then the moment was over, except that in the secret place of his brain the voice sang in the{267} wilderness, and he looked at the letter she had given him. The words danced and swam; presently they steadied themselves.

‘I see,’ he said. ‘Well then, Miss Propert, you must cross out what I have dictated to you about it. Please read the letter through.... Yes, cross out from the sentence beginning, “Re the payment for carriage of goods.” Dear me, it is nearly one: what a lot of time we have spent over that. The booking-clerk would have done it much more quickly.’

The frown cleared, but the clear look did not return. It was over: it seemed she had satisfied herself.

‘I think we should have saved time,’ she said.

‘Yes, you were quite right. You like being right, don’t you?’

He got a smile for that, the sort of smile that anybody might have had from her.

‘I suppose I do,’ she said. ‘Certainly I hate being wrong.’

‘But I was wrong this time,’ he said. ‘I gave you a lot of trouble in consequence.’

That again was no use: he but got another smile and a friendly look of the sort he no longer wanted.

‘Is that all, then?’ he asked.

‘No, Sir Thomas, there are half a dozen more letters yet.’

He had just taken the next, when there came a tap at the door, and a boy entered. He was not{268} one of the messenger-boys of the Stores, with peaked cap and brass buttons, but Keeling had an impression of having seen him before. Then he recollected: he often lounged at the door of the County Club.

‘A note from Lord Inverbroom, sir,’ he said. ‘His lordship told me to give it you personally.’

‘Wait and see if there is an answer,’ said Keeling.

He tore open the envelope: it was already after one, and probably there would be no answer, since he would see Lord Inverbroom at the Club, where he proposed to have lunch. The note was quite short.

‘Dear Sir Thomas,—I promised to let you know the result of the election. The meeting is just over, and I am sorry to say you have not been elected. Please allow me to express my sincere regrets.

‘Yours truly, ‘Inverbroom.’

Keeling had one moment of sheer surprise: he had been perfectly sure of being elected. Then without any conscious feeling of rancour or disappointment, his mind passed direct to what he had already determined to do if this contingency, which since the opening of the hospital-wing he had thought impossible, actually occurred.

‘Wait a moment,’ he said to the messenger.{269} ‘There will be an answer for you to take back to Lord Inverbroom.’

He turned to Norah.

‘Please take this down direct on your typewriter,’ he said, ‘with a carbon copy to file.’

Norah put the two sheets on the roller, dated the paper, and waited.

Keeling thought for half a minute, drumming with his fingers on the table.

‘Are you ready?’ he said, and dictated.

‘Dear Lord Inverbroom,—Yours to hand re the election at the County Club to-day of which I note the contents.

‘I wish also to acquaint you as President with the fact that I have lately bought the freehold of your premises. I see that there is a break in your lease at Midsummer this year on both tenants’ and landlord’s side, and therefore beg to give you this formal notice that I do not intend to renew the lease hitherto held by your Club, as I shall be using the premises for some other purpose.

‘Yours faithfully,

‘Read it over please Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘and I will sign it. File this note of Lord Inverbroom’s with your carbon copy, and docket them.’

Norah brought him over the typed letter.

‘What docket shall I put on them?’ she asked.{270}

‘Non-election to County Club. Notice of termination of Club’s lease.’

He signed the letter to Lord Inverbroom and sent the boy back with it.

‘Now we will go on with the rest of the shorthand,’ he said.

Norah came back to the table, took up her pencil and then laid it down again. The frown was heavily creased in her forehead.

‘May I just say something to you before we begin?’ she said. ‘You may think it a great impertinence, but it is not meant impertinently.’

‘What is it?’ he said.

‘I beg you to call the boy back, and not send that note,’ she said. ‘I hate to think of your doing that. It isn’t the act of——’

She stopped suddenly. He easily supplied the rest of her sentence.

‘It isn’t the act of a gentleman,’ he said. ‘But they’ve just told me that I’m not one, or they would have elected me. They will like to know how right they are.’

He paused a moment.

‘I am sure you did not mean an impertinence, Miss Propert,’ he added, ‘but I think you have committed one.’

‘I am very sorry then,’ said she.

‘Yes. We will get on with the shorthand, please.’

Keeling seldom wasted thought or energy on{271} irremediable mischances: if a business proposition turned out badly he cut his loss on it, and dismissed it from his mind. But it was equally characteristic of him to strike, and strike hard, if opportunity offered at any firm which had let him in for his loss, and, in this case, since the Club had hit at him, he felt it was but fair that he should return the blow with precise and instantaneous vigour. That was right and proper, and his rejoinder to Norah that the Club who did not consider him sufficient of a gentleman to enter their doors should have the pleasure of knowing how right they were, had at least as much sober truth as irony about it. The opportunity to hit back was ready to hand; it would have been singular indeed, and in flat contradiction to his habits, if he had not taken it. But when once he had done that, he was satisfied; they did not want him as a member, and he did not want them as tenants, and there was the end of it. Yet, like some fermenting focus in his brain, minute as yet, but with the potentiality of leaven in it, was the fact that Norah had implored him not to send his answer to Lord Inverbroom. He still considered her interference an impertinence, but what stuck in his mind and began faintly to suggest other trains of thought was the equally undeniable fact that she had not meant it as an impertinence. In intention it had been a friendly speech inspired by the good-will of a friend. But he shrugged{272} his shoulders at it: she did not understand business, or, possibly, he did not understand clubs. So be it then: he did not want to understand them.

It was with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance that he saw Lord Inverbroom walking towards him along Alfred Road when he left the Stores that afternoon. The curiosity was due to the desire to see how Lord Inverbroom would behave, whether he would cross the street or cut him dead; the annoyance arose from the fact that he could not determine how to behave himself at this awkward encounter. But when he observed that there was to be no cutting or crossing the street at all, but perfect cordiality and an outstretched hand, it faintly and pleasantly occurred to him that, owing to his letter, there might be forthcoming another election at the Club, with a request that he would submit himself to a further suffrage. That would certainly have pleased him, for he had sufficient revengefulness in his character to decline such a proposition with thanks.

No such proposition was submitted to him.

‘I was just going to leave this note at your office, Sir Thomas,’ said Lord Inverbroom. ‘May I give it you instead and save myself a further walk? It is just the acknowledgment of your letter about the termination of our lease. Perhaps you will glance at it, to see that it is in order.’

Keeling felt, in spite of his business-like habits,{273} that this was unnecessary. True, this was a matter of business, and he should have verified the correctness of Lord Inverbroom’s information. But instead he merely put it into his pocket.

‘That is all right,’ he said.

‘Are you going home?’ asked the other. ‘My wife, I know, is calling on Lady Keeling, and she will pick me up there. If she has not been so fortunate as to find Lady Keeling in, she will wait for me in the motor. May we not walk down there together?’

‘I shall be delighted,’ said Keeling. He still did not know how to behave, but was gradually becoming aware that no ‘behaviour’ was necessary. ‘Behaviour’ as such, did not seem to exist for his companion, and he could not help wondering what took its place.

‘My wife is furious with me,’ Lord Inverbroom went on. ‘I have succumbed to the Leonardo book, instead of having the dining-room ceiling whitewashed. She has a materialistic mind, preferring whitewash to Leonardo. Besides, as I told her, she never looks at the ceiling, and I shall often look at my book. Have you come across anything lately which life is not worth living without? Perhaps you had better not tell me if you have, or I shall practise some further domestic economy.’

‘I shall be very pleased to show you anything I’ve got,’ said Keeling. ‘We will have a cup of{274} tea in my library unless Lady Inverbroom is waiting in your motor.’

‘Ah, that would be a great treat. Let us do that, in any case, Sir Thomas. Surely we can go in some back way so as to escape my wife’s notice if she is really waiting outside. It will do her good to wait: she is very impatient.’

Keeling was completely puzzled: if he had ventured to speak in this sense of Lady Keeling, he knew he would have made a sad mess of it. In his mouth, the same material would have merely expressed itself in a rude light. He tried rather mistakenly to copy the manner that was no manner at all.

‘Ah, I should get a good scolding if I treated Lady Keeling like that,’ he said.

It did not sound right as he said it; he had the perception of that. He perceived, too, that Lord Inverbroom did not pursue the style. Then, presently arriving, they found that the waiting motor contained no impatient Lady Inverbroom, and they stole into the library, at her husband’s desire, so that no news of his coming should reach her, until he had had a quarter of an hour there with his host. Then perhaps she might be told, if Sir Thomas would have the goodness....

Lord Inverbroom sauntered about in the grazing, ambulatory fashion of the book-lover and when his quarter of an hour was already more than spent, he put the volume he was examining back{275} into its place again with a certain air of decision.

‘I should like to express to you by actual word of mouth, Sir Thomas,’ he said, ‘my regret at what happened to-day. I am all the more sorry for it, because I notice that in our rules the landlord of the club is ex officio a member of it. If you only had told me that you had become our landlord, I could have informed you of that, and spared you this annoyance.’

There was no mistaking the sincerity of this, the good feeling of it. Keeling was moved to be equally sincere.

‘I knew that already,’ he said.

Lord Inverbroom looked completely puzzled.

‘Then will you pardon me for asking why you did not take advantage of it, and become a member of the club without any further bother?’

‘Because I wished to know that I was acceptable as a member of the club to the other members,’ said Keeling. ‘They have told me that I am not.’

There was a good deal of dignity in this reply: it sprang from a feeling that Lord Inverbroom was perfectly competent to appreciate.

‘I understand,’ he said. ‘And what you have said much increases my regret at the election going as it did.’ He paused a moment, evidently thinking, and Keeling, had an opportunity to wager been offered him, would have bet that his next words would convey, however delicately, the hope that Keeling would reconsider his letter{276} of the morning, announcing the termination of the Club’s lease. He was not prepared to do anything of the sort, and hoped, indeed, that the suggestion would not be made. But that he should have thought that the suggestion was going to be made showed very precisely how unintelligible to him was the whole nature of the class which Lord Inverbroom represented. No such suggestion was made, any more than half an hour ago any idea of a fresh election being held was mooted.

‘I had the pleasure of speaking very warmly in your favour, Sir Thomas,’ said Lord Inverbroom, at length, ‘and, of course, of voting for you. I may tell you that I am now considering, in consequence of the election, whether I shall not resign the presidency of the Club. It is an unusual proceeding to reject the president’s candidate; I think your rejection reflects upon me.’

Keeling was being insensibly affected by his companion’s simplicity. ‘Behaviour’ seemed a very easy matter to Lord Inverbroom: it was a mere matter of being simple....

‘I should be very sorry to have been the cause of that,’ he said, ‘and I don’t think it would be logical of you. You urged me to withdraw, which was the most you could do after you had promised to propose me.’

Lord Inverbroom’s sense of being puzzled increased. Here was a man who had written a{277} letter this morning turning the Club out of their premises merely because he had been blackballed, who yet showed, both by the fact of his seeking election in the ordinary way instead of claiming it ex officio, and by this delicate unbusiness-like appreciation of his own position, all those instincts which his letter of this morning so flatly contradicted.

‘Yes, I urged you not to stand,’ he said, ‘and that is the only reason why I hesitate about resigning. I should like you to know that if I remain in my post, that is the cause of my doing so. Otherwise I should resign.’

The other side of the question presented itself to Keeling. It would be a rare stroke to deprive the Club not only of its premises but of its president. Though he had just said that he hoped Lord Inverbroom would not resign, he felt it would be an extreme personal pleasure if he did. And then a further scheme came into his head, another nail in the coffin of the County Club, and with that all his inherent caddishness rose paramount over such indications of feelings as Lord Inverbroom understood and appreciated.

‘Perhaps if you left the County Club,’ he said, ‘you would do us the honour to join the Town Club. I am the president of that: I would think it, however, an honour to resign my post if you would consent to take it. I’ll warrant you there’ll be no mischance over that election.{278}’

Lord Inverbroom suddenly stiffened.

‘You are very good to suggest that,’ he said. ‘But it would be utterly out of the question. Well, Sir Thomas, I envy you your library. And here, I see, is your new catalogue. Miss Propert told me she was working at it. May I look at it? Yes, indeed, that is admirably done. Author and title of the book and illustrator as well, all entered. Her father was a great friend of mine. She may have told you that very tragic story.’

‘She has never mentioned her father to me. Was he—well, the sort of man whom the County Club would not have blackballed?’

Perhaps that was the worst thing he had said yet, though, indeed, he meant but a grimly humourous observation, not perceiving nor being able to perceive in how odious a position he put his guest. But Lord Inverbroom’s impenetrable armour of effortless good breeding could turn even that aside. He laughed.

‘Well, after what the Club has done to-day,’ he said, ‘there is no telling whom they would blackball. But certainly I should have been, at one time, very happy to propose him.’

Keeling’s preoccupation with the Club suddenly ceased. He wanted so much more to know anything that concerned Norah.

‘Perhaps you would tell me something about him,’ he said.

‘Ah, that would not be quite right, would it?{279}’ said Lord Inverbroom, still unperturbed, ‘if Miss Propert has not cared to speak to you of him.’

Keeling found himself alternately envying and detesting this impenetrable armour. There was no joint in it, it was abominably complete. And even while he hated it, he appreciated and coveted it.

‘I understand,’ he said. ‘No telling tales out of school.’

‘Quite so. And now will you take me to find my wife? Let us be in a conspiracy, and not mention that we have been in the house half an hour already. I should dearly like another half-hour, but all the time Lady Keeling is bearing the infliction of a prodigiously long call.’

‘Lady Keeling will be only too gratified,’ said her husband.

‘That is very kind of her. But, indeed, I think we had better go.’

Gratification was certainly not too strong a term to employ with regard to Lady Keeling’s feelings, nor, indeed, too strong to apply to Lady Inverbroom’s when her call was brought to an end. The sublimity of Princesses was not to be had every day, and the fortnight that had elapsed since that memorable visit, with the return of the routine of undistinguished Bracebridge, had caused so prolonged a visit from a peeress to mount into Lady Keeling’s head like an hour’s steady drinking of strong wine.{280}

‘Well, I’ve never enjoyed an hour’s chat more,’ she said, as Keeling returned after seeing their guests off, ‘and it seemed no more than five minutes. She was all affability, wasn’t she, Alice? and so full of admiration for all my—what did she call them? Some French word.’

‘Bibelots,’ suggested Alice.

‘Biblos; that was it. And she never seemed to think how time was flying, for she never once alluded to her husband’s being so late. To be sure she might have; she might perhaps have said she was afraid she was keeping me from my occupations, for I could have assured her very handsomely that I was more than pleased to sit and talk to her. And it is all quite true, Thomas, about the Princess’s visit next month. You may be sure I asked about that. She is coming down to spend three days with them, very quietly, Lady Inverbroom said; yes, she said that twice now I come to think of it, though I caught it perfectly the first time. But I shall be very much surprised if I don’t get a note asking us to dine and sleep, with Alice as well perhaps, for I said what a pleasure it would be to Alice to see her beautiful house and grounds some day. But I shall quite understand after what she said about the visit being very quiet, why there will be no party. After all, it was a very pleasant evening we spent there before when there were no guests at all. I said how much we enjoyed quiet visits with no ceremony.{281}’

‘Did you ask for any more invitations?’ said Keeling, as his wife paused for breath.

‘My dear Thomas, you quite misunderstand me. I asked for nothing, except that I might take Mamma some day for a drive through their park. I hope I know how to behave better than that. Another thing, too: Miss Propert has been there twice, once to tea and once to lunch. I hope she will not have her head turned, for it seems that she did not take her meals in the housekeeper’s room, but upstairs. But that is none of my business: I am sure Lady Inverbroom may give her lunch on the top of the church-steeple if she wishes, and I said very distinctly that I had always found her a very well-behaved young woman, and mentioned nothing about her bouncing in in the middle of my dinner-party, nor when she spent Sunday morning in your library. Bygones are bygones. That’s what I always say, and act on, too.’

This certainly appeared to have been the case: Lady Keeling’s miscroscopic mind seemed to have diverted its minute gaze altogether from Norah. To Keeling that was a miscroscopic relief, but no more, for it seemed to him to matter very little what his wife thought about Norah.

‘Lord Inverbroom was a great friend of Miss Propert’s father at one time,’ he said. ‘He told me so only to-day.’

‘Oh, indeed. Very likely in the sense that a{282} man may call his butler an old friend of the family. I should be quite pleased to speak of Parkinson like that. I am all for equality. We are all equal in the sight of Heaven, as Mr Silverdale says. Dear me, I wish I was his equal in energy: next month he holds a mission down at Easton Haven among all those ruffians at the docks, in addition to all his parish work.’

‘He is doing far too much,’ said Alice excitedly, ‘but he won’t listen. He is so naughty: he promises me he will be good, and not wear himself out, but he goes on just the same as ever, except that he gets worse and worse.’

Keeling listened to this with a mixture of pity and grim amusement. He felt sure that his poor Alice was in love with the man, and was sorry for Alice in that regard, but what grimly amused him was the utter impotence of Alice to keep her condition to herself. He was puzzled also, for all this spring Alice seemed to have remained as much in love with him as ever, but not to have got either worse or better. Silverdale filled her with some frantic and wholly maidenly excitement. It was like the love of some antique spinster for her lap-dog, intense and deplorable and sexless. He could even joke in a discreet manner with poor Alice about it, and gratify her by so doing.

‘Well, all you ladies who are so much in love with him ought to be able to manage him,’ he said.

Alice bent over her work (she had eventually{283} induced Mr Silverdale to sanction the creation of a pair of slippers) with a pleased, lop-sided smile.

‘Father, you don’t know him,’ she said. ‘He’s quite, quite unmanageable. You never saw any one so naughty.’

‘Punish him by not giving him his slippers. Give them me instead, and I’ll wear them when he comes to dinner.’

Alice looked almost shocked at the notion of such unhallowed feet being thrust into these hardly less than sacred embroideries: it was as if her mother had suggested making a skirt out of the parrots and pomegranates that adorned the ‘smart’ altar-cloth. But she divined that, in spite of her father’s inexplicable want of reverence for the Master (they had become Master and Helper, and sometimes she called him ‘sir,’ much as Norah had called her father, but for antipodal reasons), there lurked behind his rather unseemly jokes a kindly intention towards herself. He might laugh at her, but somehow below that she felt (and she knew not how) that a part of him understood, and did not laugh. It was as if he knew what it meant to be in love, to thirst and to be unslaked, to be hungry and not to be fed.

She gave him a quick glance out of her short-sighted eyes, a glance that deprecated and yet eagerly sought for the sympathy which she knew was somewhere about. And then Lady Keeling put in more of her wrecking and shattering remarks,{284} which so unerringly spoiled all the hints and lurking colours in human intercourse.

‘Well, that would be a funny notion for Sir Thomas Keeling to wear slippers at dinner,’ she said. ‘What a going-back to old days! I might as well wear some high-necked merino gown. But what your father says is quite true, Alice. We might really take Mr Silverdale in hand, and tell him that’s the last he’ll see of us all, unless he takes more care of himself. I saw him coming out of the County Club to-day, looking so tired that I almost stopped my carriage and told him to go home to bed. And talking of the County Club, Thomas, doesn’t your election come on soon? You must be sure to take me to have lunch in the ladies’ room one of these days. Lady Inverbroom told me she was lunching there to-day, and had quite a clean good sort of meal. Nothing very choice, I expect, but I dare say she doesn’t care much what she eats. I shall never forget what a tough pheasant we had when we dined there. If I’d been told I was eating a bit of leather, I should have believed it. Perhaps some day when Lord and Lady Inverbroom are in Bracebridge again, we might all have lunch together there.’

For the last six months Keeling had been obliged to keep a hand on himself when he was with his wife, for either she had developed an amazing talent for putting him on edge, or he a susceptibility for being irritated by her. Both causes{285} probably contributed, for since her accession to greatness, her condescension had vastly increased, while he on his side had certainly grown more sensitive to her pretentiousness. It was with the utmost difficulty that he restrained himself from snapping at her.

‘No, I’m afraid that can’t be, Emmeline,’ he said. ‘The election came off to-day, and the Club has settled it can do without me.’

‘Well, I never heard of such a thing! They haven’t elected you, do you mean, the Mayor of Bracebridge, and to say nothing of your being a baronet? Who are those purse-proud people, I should like to know? My dear Thomas, I have an idea. I should not wonder if Lord Inverbroom was in it. He has been quite cock of the walk, as you may say, up till now, and he doesn’t want any rival. What are you going to do? I hope you’ll serve them out well for it somehow.’

‘I have done so already. I bought the freehold of the Club not so long ago, and I have given them notice that I shall not renew their lease in the summer.’

Lady Keeling clapped her soft fat hands together.

‘That’s the right sort of way to treat them,’ she said, in great glee. ‘That will pay them out. I never heard of such a thing as not electing a baronet. Who do they think they are? What fun it will be to see all their great sofas being bundled{286} into the street. And they bought all their furniture at your Stores, did they not? That is the cream of it to my mind. I should not wonder if they want to sell it all back to you, second-hand. That would be a fine joke.’

For the first time, now that his wife so lavishly applauded his action, Keeling began to be not so satisfied with it. The fact that it commended itself to her type of mind, was an argument against it: her praise disgusted him: it was at least as impertinent as Norah’s disapprobation.

Alice fixed her faint eyes on her father.

‘Oh, I wish you hadn’t done that!’ she said. ‘Does Lord Inverbroom know that?’

‘Mark my words,’ said his wife, ‘Lord Inverbroom’s at the bottom of it all.’

‘Nothing of the kind, Emmeline,’ he said sharply. ‘Lord Inverbroom proposed me.’

Then he turned to Alice.

‘Yes, he knows,’ he said. ‘I gave notice to him. And why do you wish I hadn’t done it? I declare I’m getting like Mr Silverdale. All the ladies are concerning themselves with me. There’s your mother saying I’ve done right, and you and Miss Propert saying I’ve done wrong. There’s no pleasing you all.’

‘And what has Miss Propert got to do with it,’ asked Lady Keeling, ‘that she disapproves of what you’ve done? She’ll be wanting to run your Stores for you next, and just because she’s been{287} to lunch with Lord Inverbroom. I never heard of such impertinence as Miss Propert giving her opinion. You’ll have trouble with your Miss Propert. You ought to give her one of your good snubs, or dismiss her altogether. That would be far the best.’

Keeling felt as some practitioner of sortes Virgilianæ might do when he had opened at some strangely apposite text. To consult his wife about anything was like opening a book at random, a wholly irrational proceeding, but he could not but be impressed by the sudden applicability of this. His wife did not know the situation, any more than did the musty volume, but he wondered if she had not answered with a strange wisdom, wholly foreign to her.

‘Now you have given your opinion, Emmeline,’ he said, ‘and you must allow somebody else to talk. I want to know why Alice disapproves.’

Alice stitched violently at the slipper.

‘Mr Silverdale will be so sorry,’ she said. ‘He drops in there sometimes for a rubber of bridge, for he thinks that it is such a good thing to show that a clergyman can be a man of the world too.’

Keeling rose: this was altogether too much for him.

‘Well, we’ve wasted enough time talking about it all,’ he said, ‘if that’s all the reason I’m to hear.’

‘But it isn’t,’ said Alice. ‘I can’t express it, but I can feel it. I know I should agree with Miss{288} Propert and Lord Inverbroom about it. What did Miss Propert say?’

‘Well, talking of waste of time,’ observed Lady Keeling indignantly, ‘I can’t think of any worse waste than caring to know what Miss Propert said.’

Keeling turned to her.

‘Perhaps you can’t,’ he said, ‘and you’d better have your nap. That won’t be waste of time. You’re tired with talking, and I’m sure I am too.’

He left the room without more words, and Lady Keeling settled another cushion against what must be called the small of her back.

‘Your father’s served them out well,’ she said. ‘That’s the way to get on. To think of their not considering him good enough for their Club. He has shown his spirit very properly. But the idea of Miss Propert telling him what’s right and what isn’t, on twenty-five shillings a week.’

‘I can’t bear to think of Mr Silverdale not having his rubber of bridge now and then,’ said Alice. ‘It was such a refreshment to him.’

Keeling had intended to pass an hour among his books to wash off the scum, so to speak, of this atrocious conversation, but when he got to his library, and had taken down his new edition of Omar Khayyam, which Charles Propert had induced him to buy, he found it could give him very little emotion. He was aware of the exquisite type, of the strange sensuous wood-cuts that somehow{289} affected him like a subtle odour, of the beautiful binding, and not least of the text itself, but all these perfections were no more than presented to him; they did not penetrate. He could not rid himself of the scum; the odiousness of his wife’s approbation would not be washed off. And what made it cling was the fact that she had divined him correctly, had rejoiced at his ‘serving the Club out.’ It was just that which Norah deprecated, and he felt that Lord Inverbroom’s complete silence on the point, his forbearance to hint ever so faintly that perhaps Keeling would reconsider his action, expressed disapprobation as eloquently as Norah’s phrase, which he had finished for her, had done. It was a caddish act, that was what they both thought about it, and Alice, when she had finished her nonsense about Mr Silverdale’s rubber of bridge, had a similar protest in her mind. He did not rate poor Alice’s mind at any high figure; it was but the fact that she was allied to the other two, and opposed to her mother, that added a little weight to her opinion.

He wanted to be considered a gentleman, and when others declined to receive him as such, he had but justified their verdict by behaving like a cad.... He was a cad, here was the truth of it, as it struck him now, and that was why he had behaved like one.

He shut his meaningless book, now intensely disliking the step he had taken, which at the time{290} had seemed so smart a rejoinder. Probably if at this moment Lord Inverbroom had appeared, asking him to cancel it, he would have done so. But that was exactly what it was certain Lord Inverbroom would not do. There remained Norah; he wondered whether Norah would refer to it again. Probably not: he had made clear that he thought the offering of her opinion was a great impertinence. And now to his annoyance he remembered that his wife had also considered it as such. Again she agreed with him, and again the fact of her concurrence made him lose confidence in the justice of his own view. He had instantly acquitted Norah of deliberate impertinence; now he reconsidered whether it had been an impertinence at all.... What if it was the simple desire of a friend to save a friend from a blunder, an unworthiness?

He had grown to detest the time after dinner passed in the plushy, painted drawing-room. Hitherto, in all these years of increasing prosperity, during which the conscious effort of his brain had been directed to business and money-making, he had not objected after the work of the day to pass a quiescent hour or two before his early bedtime giving half an ear to his wife’s babble, which, with her brain thickened with refreshment, always reached its flood-tide of voluble incoherence now, giving half an eye to Alice with her industrious{291} needle. All the time a vague simmer of mercantile meditation gently occupied him; his mind, like some kitchen fire with the damper pushed in, kept itself just alight, smouldered and burned low, and Alice’s needle was but like the bars of the grate, and his wife’s prattle the mild rumble of water in the boiler. It was all domestic and normal, in accordance with the general destiny of prosperous men in middle age. Indeed, he was luckier in some respects than the average, for there had always been for him his secret garden, the hortus inclusus, into which neither his family nor his business interests ever entered. Now even that had been invaded, Norah’s catalogue had become to him the most precious of his books: she was like sunshine in his secret garden or like a bitter wind, something, anyhow, that got between him and his garden beds, while here in the drawing-room in the domestic hour after dinner the fact of her made itself even more insistently felt, for she turned Lady Keeling’s vapidities, to which hitherto he had been impervious, into an active stinging irritation, and even poor Alice’s industrious needle and the ever-growing pattern of Maltese crosses on Mr Silverdale’s slippers was like some monotonous recurring drip of water that set his nerves on edge. This was a pretty state of mind, he told himself, for a hardheaded business man of fifty, and yet even as with all the force of resolution that was in him he tried to find something{292} in his wife’s remarks that could awake a relevant reasonable reply, some rebellious consciousness in his brain would only concern itself with counting on the pink clock the hours that lay between the present moment and nine o’clock next morning. And then the pink clock melodiously announced on the Westminster chime that it was half past ten, and Alice put her needle into the middle of the last Maltese cross, and Lady Keeling waddled across the room and tapped the barometer, which a marble Diana held in her chaste hand, to see if the weather promised well for the bazaar to-morrow. The evening was over, and there would not be another for the next twenty-four hours.

He was always punctual at his office; lately he had been before his time there, and had begun to open letters before Norah arrived. This happened next morning, and among others that he had laid on his desk was Lord Inverbroom’s acknowledgment of his notice to terminate the County Club’s lease. Norah, when she came, finished this business for him, and in due course handed him the completed pile. Then, as usual, she took her place opposite him for the dictation of answers. She wore at her breast a couple of daffodils, and he noticed that, as she breathed, the faint yellow reflection they cast on her chin stirred upwards and downwards. No word had passed between them since she had{293} expressed regret for what he considered her impertinence the day before, and this morning she did not once meet his eye. Probably she considered herself in disgrace, and it maddened him to see her quiet acceptance of it, which struck him as contemptuous. She was like some noble slave, working, because she must work, for a master she despised. Well, if that was her attitude, so be it. She might despise, but he was master. At his request she read out a letter she had just taken down. In the middle he stopped her.

‘No, you have got that wrong,’ he said. ‘What I said was this,’—and he repeated it—‘please attend more closely.’

She made no reply, and two minutes afterwards he again found her at fault. And the brutality, the desire to make the beloved suffer, which in very ugly fashion often lies in wait close to the open high road of love, became more active.

‘You are wasting your time and mine, Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘if you do not listen.’

Again he waited for some reply, some expression of regret which she undoubtedly owed him, but none came. Then, looking up, while her pencil was busy, he saw that she did not reply because she could not. The reflection of the daffodils trembled violently on her chin, and her lower teeth were fast clenched on her upper lip to stifle the surrender of her mouth. And when he saw that, all his brutality, all the impulse that bade{294} him hurt the thing he loved, drained out of him, and left him hateful to himself.

He paused, leaving unfinished the sentence he was dictating, and sat there silent, not daring to look at her. He still felt she despised him, and now with additional reason; he resented the fact that any one should do that, his pride choked him, and yet he was ashamed. But oh, the contrast between this very uncomfortable moment, and the comfortable evenings with Emmeline!

But he could not bring himself to apologise, and presently he resumed his dictation. Norah, it appeared, had recovered control of herself, and when that letter was finished, she read it over to him quite steadily. The next she handed him was Lord Inverbroom’s acknowledgment, which he had himself placed among the rest of the morning’s correspondence.

‘Is that just to be filed?’ she said, ‘or is there any answer?’

He took it up.

‘Yes, there’s an answer,’ he said, and dictated.

‘Dear Lord Inverbroom,—Re lease of premises of County Club. If you will allow me I should like to cancel the notice of termination of said lease which I sent you yesterday, if this would be any convenience to the Club. I should like also to express to you personally my regret for my action.’

He paused.

‘I think that’s all I need say, Miss Propert, isn’t it?’ he asked.

And then there came for him the direct glance, a little dim yet, with the ‘clear shining after rain’ beaming through it.

‘Oh, I am so glad,’ she said. ‘And if it’s not impertinent may I suggest something?’

Never had the clear glance lasted so long. He expanded and throve in it.

‘Well, go on; but take care,’ he said.

‘It’s only that you should write it yourself,’ she said. ‘It would be more—more complete.’

‘And that will satisfy you?’

‘Quite. You will have done yourself justice.’

He pushed back his chair.

‘I don’t see why you should care,’ he said. ‘I’ve treated you like a brute all morning.’

‘I know you have. I cared about that too.’

‘Would you like me to apologise?’ he asked.

She shook her head and pointed at the letter.

‘Not again,’ she said. ‘You’ve sent me a lovely apology already, addressed to Lord Inverbroom.’

‘Have I, indeed? You must have everything your own way. And how are the bluebells getting on?’

‘Quite well. They’ll all be out in a fortnight, I think. I went to look again yesterday. The buds, fat little buttons, do you remember, have got tall stalks now. And the lark is still singing.{296}’

‘May we go there then on Saturday week?’ he asked.

She looked down a moment.

‘Yes,’ she said softly, raising her eyes again. ‘And now shall we get on with the letters, Sir Thomas. There are still a good many not answered.’

‘I would sooner talk to you,’ he said.

‘You shall dictate. That will be talking. And I will try to listen very attentively.’

‘Now don’t be mean, Miss Propert,’ said he.

For the second time that morning she let the clear glance shine on him. It brightened like dawn, filling the space between them. And it smote on his heart, stupefyingly sweet.

Return to the An Autumn Sowing Summary Return to the E.F. Benson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson