An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter V

One night early in December Norah Propert was busily engaged in the sitting-room of her brother’s house just off the market-place at Bracebridge. She had left him over a book and a cigarette in the dining-room, and as soon as she had finished her supper had gone across the passage to her work again. The room was very simply decorated: to Mrs Keeling’s plush-and-mirror eye it would have seemed to be hardly decorated at all. There were a few framed photographs or cheap reproductions of famous pictures on the walls, a book-case held some three hundred volumes, the floor had a fawn-coloured drugget on it, and there was not a square inch of plush anywhere.

The table at which she worked was covered with small cardboard slips, bearing in her neat minute handwriting the titles and the authors of the books in Mr Keeling’s library. Each appeared twice, once under its author, once under its title, and these she was sorting out into an alphabetical file from which she would compile her catalogue. She had been at work on it for about a fortnight, and the faint hopes she had originally entertained of getting it finished by the end of the year had now completely vanished. He had been{129} buying books in very large numbers; already wing-bookcases had begun to invade the floor space of his room, and he intended in the spring to build out farther into the garden. But Norah was not at all sure that she regretted the vanishing of those hopes: the work interested her, and she had the true book-lover’s pride in making all the equipment connected with books as perfect as it could be. Three times a week she went with her brother after supper for a couple of hours’ work in Mr Keeling’s library: the other evenings she brought into order at home the collection of slips she had made there.

Those evenings spent at Mr Keeling’s house had a great attraction for her. She enjoyed the work itself, and as she made her slips she had refreshing glances at the books. It was a leisurely performance, not like her swift work in the office. Charles helped her in it, making author-slips or illustration-slips as she made title-slips. There was a fire on the hearth, a tray of sandwiches for them before they left, and more often than not Mr Keeling came and sat with them for half an hour, unpacking fresh volumes if any had come in, and looking through the book-catalogues that were sent him. And Norah was honest enough with herself to confess that it was not the work alone that interested her. Friendship, no less than friendship sudden and to her quite unexpected, had been the flower of the original enmity between{130} her and the man, who was never ‘sir’ to her even in the office now. It dated from the moment when he had made his unreserved apology to her over the matter of the book-plates. She knew what it must cost to a man of his type to say what he had said to his typewriter, and she had to revise all her previous estimates of him, and add him up honestly again. She found the total a very different one from that which she had supposed was correct. True, a woman does not like or dislike a man directly because of his qualities, but his qualities are the soil from which her like or dislike springs. They are part at any rate of his personality, in which she finds charm or repulsiveness. The upshot was, to take it at its smallest measure, that instead of disliking her work for him, she had grown to like it, because it was for him that she did it.

She was deep in her work now when her brother joined her. Charles was suffering from a cold of paralysing severity, and she looked up with a certain anxiety as a fit of coughing took him, for he was liable to bad bronchitis.

‘Charles, you ought to go to bed,’ she said, ‘and stop there to-morrow.’

‘I dare say, but I shan’t,’ said Charles hoarsely.

‘Why? It is very unwise of you. I’ll tell Mr Keeling as soon as I get there in the morning. I’m sure he’ll think you were right.’

‘Oh, I shall be better,’ said he. ‘Considering{131} that he saw me through an illness last year, the least I can do is to hold on as long as I can.’

‘So that he may have the pleasure of seeing you through another one this year,’ remarked Norah.

‘Don’t be so optimistic. I may die instead.’

‘You can if you like,’ she said, ‘but it would worry me very much.’

Charles subsided into his book again for a little, but presently put it down.

‘What about your work at Keeling’s to-morrow night?’ he said, ‘if I’m not fit to come out? You can’t very well go up there alone, can you?’

Norah paused before she answered.

‘Why on earth not?’ she said. ‘I sit with him alone all day in his office. Besides, I know he has a dinner-party to-morrow. I shan’t see him.’

‘And how do you know that?’ he asked.

‘Because a note came to the office from his wife, which I opened, not knowing her writing, which had something to do with it. He began dictating a reply for me to type-write, but I suggested he had better write a note himself.’

‘What awful impertinence!’

‘He didn’t think so. He’s rather touching. He said, “Then you don’t despair of making a gentleman of me in time..”’

‘I remember you told me once he was a cad. I shall go to bed, I think.’


‘You had much better. And do let me tell him you have stopped there to-morrow morning she said.

‘I doubt it. Good-night. I dare say I shall be all right to-morrow.’

Charles was no better next day, but merely obstinate, and went up to his work, as usual, with his sister. Keeling appeared shortly after, and, as usual, began the dictation. Now and then he gave sharp glances at Norah, and before long stopped in the middle of a letter.

‘What’s the matter, Miss Propert?’ he said. ‘Better tell me and not waste time, unless it’s private.’

He had no difficulty in making her look at him now. She looked up with a half smile.

‘How did you guess there was anything the matter?’ she asked.

‘How do I guess it is warm or cold? I feel it. Tell me.’

‘I’m rather anxious about Charles,’ she said. ‘He has got an appalling cough.’

‘Have you sent for the doctor?’

‘No. He insisted on coming up to his work.’

Keeling got up.

‘I’ll soon settle that,’ he said, going out.

He came back in a very short space of time.

‘You’ll find him in bed when you get home,’ he said.

‘Oh, thank you so much. I am so grateful.’

‘You needn’t be. I told him he wanted to{133} make me pay a big doctor’s bill for him instead of his paying a little one. He deserved that for being so idiotic as to come out. Read the letter, please, which we stopped in the middle of.’

All day the work went forward as usual: there was a heavy budget to answer, and it was not till nearly six that Norah had her letters ready for his signature. He made no payment to her for such over-time work, for the balance was more often on the other side, and she got away before her time. As he passed her back the last of the batch, he said,—

‘You are coming to the library this evening, are you not?’

‘I had meant to, if it is convenient to you.’

‘Perfectly. Perhaps you would leave a line on the table to say how your brother is. I don’t suppose I shall see you to-night.’

Mrs Keeling’s party that night, which sat down very punctually at half-past seven, and would disperse at half-past ten, was of the only-a-few-friends nature. Julia Fyson, Alice’s bosom friend, whom she had begun to dislike very cordially, was there, with her father and mother, the former, small and depressed, the latter, large and full-blooded and of a thoroughly poisonous nature. The four Keelings were there, and the extremely ladylike young woman whom Hugh had lately led to the altar. She was a shade too lady-like,{134} if anything, and never forgot to separate her little finger from the others when she was holding a cup or glass. They were ten in all, Mr Silverdale and Dr Inglis completing the number. As was usual at the table of that generous housekeeper Mrs Keeling, there were vast quantities of nitrogenous food provided in many courses, and it was not till nine that the dining-room door was opened, on the run, by Mr Silverdale to let the ladies leave the room. He made a suitable remark to each as she passed him, and Julia Fyson and Alice, with waists and arms interlaced, stopped to talk to him as they went out. Precisely at that moment, while they were all in the Gothic hall together, the boy covered with buttons opened the front door and admitted Norah Propert. The door into the dining-room was still being held wide by Silverdale, as the interlaced young ladies answered his humorous laments over the setting of the sun now that the ladies were leaving, and through it Keeling standing at the head of the table saw Norah there. She had had but one moment for thought as the front-door was opened to her, but the light from the hall streamed full on to the step and she judged it better to come in than, having been already seen, retreat again. Without looking up she walked across to the library door while still Mrs Fyson stared, and let herself in. She heard the dining-room door opposite close again while she fumbled for the switch of{135} the electric light; she heard indistinguishable murmurs from the hall. Only one caught her ear intelligibly when Mrs Keeling said, ‘Oh, Mr Keeling’s typewriter. She is cataloguing his books.’

It had begun to snow thickly outside, and she stood for a minute or two before the fire, shaking from her cloak the frozen petals, which fizzed on the coals. Certainly she had felt a disconcertment at the moment of her entry and passage through the hall, had found fault with the ill luck that had caused her to meet the gorged galaxy from the dining-room on the one and only night when her brother had not been with her. But the encounter did not long trouble her, and like warmth coming over frozen limbs, the fact of being here alone gave her a thrill of pleasure that surprised her. She was in his secret garden all by herself, without Charles to intrude his presence, without even Keeling himself. She did not want him here now; she was surrounded with him, and presently she plunged like some ecstatic diver into the work she had come to do for him. Soon the buzz of men’s conversation drifted past the door, prominent among which was Silverdale’s expressive and high-pitched voice, and without intention she found herself listening for Keeling’s. Then the murmur was cut off by the sound of a shutting door, and she went on with her work on the catalogue cards. Faint tinkles of a piano were heard as Alice performed several little pieces, faint{136} screams as Julia Fyson sang. Keeling was there, no doubt, and still she did not want him in his bodily presence. He was more completely with her in this room empty but for herself.

She had settled in her own mind to get away before the party broke up, but she grew absorbed in her work, and it came with something of a surprise and shock to her when again she heard the gabble of mixed voices outside, saying what a pleasant evening they had had, and realized that she must wait till those compliments were finished. She had not yet written the note which Keeling had asked her to leave on the table, regarding her brother’s health, and this she did now as she waited, giving a promising account of him. Soon the front-door closed for the last time, leaving silence in the hall, and she heard a well-known foot cross it in the direction of the drawing-room, pause and then come back. Keeling entered.

‘Good-evening, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘I want you, if you will, to leave your work now, and come into the drawing-room to talk to my wife and daughter for a few minutes, while I ring for a cab for you. It is snowing hard.’

‘Oh, I would rather not do that,’ said Norah. ‘I have got great big overshoes: there they are filling up the corner of the room; I shan’t mind the snow. And, Mr Keeling, go back to the drawing-room, and say I’ve gone.’

It was clear to each of them that the same{137} situation, that of Norah having been seen entering the house alone after dinner, and going to his private room, was in the mind of each of them. Norah, for her part, had a secret blush for the fact that she considered the incident at all, but her reply had revealed that she did, for she remembered that her brother had alluded to the question of her coming up here alone. But Keeling saw no absurdity in, so to speak, regularizing the situation, and his solution commended itself to him more than hers.

‘I should prefer that you came and were introduced to Mrs Keeling,’ he said. ‘I think that is better.’

Norah got up, smiling at him. Her internal blush had filtered through to her face.

‘If you think it best, I will,’ she said. ‘Whatever we do, don’t let us waste time here.’

‘Come then,’ he said.

He showed her the way to the drawing-room, where his wife and Alice were standing by the fire.

‘I have brought in Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘while I am getting a cab for her to take her home. It is snowing heavily. And this is my daughter, Miss Propert.’

Mrs Keeling made a great effort with herself to behave as befitted a mayoress and the daughter of a P. and O. captain. She thought it outrageous of her husband to have brought the girl in{138} here without consulting her, not being clever enough to see the obvious wisdom, both from his standpoint and that of the girl, of his doing so. But she had the fairness to admit in her own mind that it was not the girl’s fault: Mr Keeling had told her to come into the drawing-room, and naturally she came. Therefore she behaved to her as befitted the Mayoress talking to a typewriter, and was very grand and condescending.

‘I am sure you are very useful to Mr Keeling,’ she said, ‘in helping to arrange his books, and it must be a great treat to you to have access to so large a library, if you are fond of reading.’

The pretentious solemnity of this was not lost on Norah’s sense of humour. She was rather annoyed at the whole affair, but it was absurd not to see the lighter side of it, and answer accordingly.

‘Yes, I am very lucky,’ she said. ‘I was lucky in London too, where I had access to the library at the British Museum.’

This seemed a very proper speech to Mrs Keeling. It was delivered in clear, pleasant tones, with the appearance of respect, and she could not make out why Alice gave one of her queer, crooked smiles, or why she said,—

‘I suppose that is bigger than my father’s, Miss Propert.’

Norah looked up at her, laughing.

‘At a guess I should say it was,’ she said.{139}

Decidedly there was something here that Mrs Keeling did not wholly comprehend, and when she did not comprehend she called it being kept in the dark. She comprehended, however, that Norah was exceedingly good-looking, and that there was a certain air about her, which she supposed came from reading books. Simultaneously she remembered Mrs Fyson asking her who it was who had come in and passed into Mr Keeling’s library; and on being informed that lady had said, ‘How very odd,’ and at once changed the subject. Instantly she began to consider if it was very odd. But for the present she determined that nothing should mar the perfect behaviour of the Mayoress.

‘Pray sit down, Miss Propert,’ she said. ‘I fancy your brother is one of Mr Keeling’s clerks too.’

‘Yes; he usually comes with me in the evening,’ said Norah, ‘but he is in bed with a very bad cold.’

‘Indeed. Oh, indeed!’ said Mrs Keeling.

Conversation came to a dead halt here, and again Mrs Keeling, with growing resentment, took in Norah from head to foot. The seconds were beaten out sonorously by the pink clock on the chimney-piece, and at last Norah, now growing thoroughly uncomfortable in this hostile atmosphere, rose.

‘I think Mr Keeling had much better not bother about a cab for me,’ she said. ‘I can perfectly well walk home.{140}’

Mrs Keeling became a shade statelier, without abatement of her extremely proper behavior.

‘Mr Keeling will do as he thinks wisest about that,’ she said.

It seemed, however, not to be in Mr Keeling’s power to do what he thought wisest, for after a minute or two of ringing silence, he appeared with the news that there were no cabs to be got. It was snowing heavily and they were all out.

Norah held out her hand to Mrs Keeling. ‘I won’t keep you up any longer,’ she said. ‘I shall walk home at once.’

‘It’s impossible,’ said he, ‘there’s nearly a foot of snow now.’

‘All the more reason for getting home before there are two,’ said she.

‘I’ll see you home then,’ he said. ‘You can’t go alone.’

‘Indeed you shall do nothing of the sort,’ said she. ‘It is quite unnecessary. I absolutely forbid it.’

For a moment it was a mere tussle of will between them, and Norah’s reasons were the stronger. She looked at him a moment, and knew she had won, and without more words went back to the library and put on her over-boots, and gathered up the book-slips she had made that evening. He followed her as far as the hall, and waited for her.

‘Don’t look at my feet,’ she said gaily. ‘They{141} are officially invisible like the legs of the Queen of Spain.’

The grim mouth smiled, and the stern eyes grew kindly. She knew that transformation so well now.

‘You are very obstinate,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you let me walk home with you?’

‘I am right,’ she said. ‘And I think your plan was wrong.’

‘They weren’t rude to you?’ he asked, growing grim again.

‘Ah, you shouldn’t have asked that,’ she said. ‘They were exceedingly polite.’

He let her out into the snow, and felt that fire went with her; then returned to the drawing-room where he found unquestionable ice. Little sour wreaths of mist were already afloat in Mrs Keeling’s mind, which, though not yet condensed into actual thought, were chilling down to it in that narrow receptacle. Alice took her embroidery, and went upstairs, but his wife sat rather upright by the fire, looking at the evening paper which she held upside down. She meant to behave with perfect propriety again, but wished him to begin, so as to launch her propriety on a fair and even keel.

For his part he had known so many of those evenings, when the dinner-party went away precisely at half-past ten, and he was left to hear long comments by his wife on the soup and the{142} beef and the grouse and the pudding and the savoury, and what Dr Inglis said, and what Mrs Fyson thought. He hoped, when he first came back, after seeing Norah fade into the snow-storm, that he was to be regaled with such reminiscences, but hoped rather against hope. No reminiscences came to his aid, and he began to be aware, from the ice-bound conditions, that he must expect something far less jovial and trivial. But he had no accusing conscience, and if she chose to read her evening paper upside down in silence, he could at least read the morning paper the right way up. Then, as he would not give her a lead, make some remark, that is to say, to which she could take exception, she had to begin.

‘I must say I am surprised at your not seeing Miss Propert home,’ she said. ‘After bringing her into my drawing-room and forcing me to be civil to her, you might have had the civility yourself to see her to her house.’

He was aware that she was intending to exercise the dead-weight somewhere. It was not many weeks ago that she had brought it into play regarding Mr Silverdale and his Romish practices, when she had refused to leave his church for the simpler rites of the Cathedral. He had yielded there, because he did not really care whether she and Alice chose to attend a milliner-church or not. They might if they liked: it did not seriously matter. But the dead-weight, if she was{143} intending to exercise it over the question of Norah, mattered very much.

‘Would it have pleased you better if I had seen her home?’ he asked.

‘I can’t say whether I should have been pleased or not,’ she said. ‘It didn’t happen. But I’m sure I don’t know why you sent your typewriter in here to talk to me. I don’t know what you think I should find to say to her. With Alice here too.’

She had said too much, and knew it the moment she had said it. But the mists had congealed, and she felt obliged, as she would have expressed it, say, to Mrs Fyson, to speak her mind. She did not really speak her mind; she spoke what some perfectly groundless jealousy dictated to her.

He dropped the paper, and stood up by the fireplace.

‘You said, “With Alice here too,.”’ he said. ‘Oblige me by telling me what you mean.’

She saw that in a reasonable frame of mind she would not have meant anything. But she was cross and surfeited, and the cold in the head which had spared her so long was seriously threatening. She wanted, out of sheer perverseness, to defend an indefensible position.

‘Well, I’m sure Alice must have thought it very odd your bringing your typewriter into my drawing-room,’ she said.

‘No, you didn’t mean that!’ said Keeling.{144}

Mrs Keeling got up.

‘If you only want to contradict me,’ she said, ‘you can do it by yourself, Thomas. I’m not going to answer you. That rude girl came in here——’

‘Rude? You said, “rude.” How was she rude?’

He knew he was being unwise in bandying stupid words with his wife. But she continued to make accusations, and his want of breeding, to use a general term, did not allow him to pass them over in the silence that he knew they deserved.

‘How was she rude?’ he repeated.

‘She said something about the British Museum Library that I did not understand,’ she said.

‘And because you couldn’t understand, you think she was rude? Was that it?’

‘Well, if you had heard her say it——’ she began.

‘You know I did not. But I am quite certain that Miss Propert was not rude. And now about Alice’s being here, when I brought her in. What of that? I wish you to tell me if you meant anything. If you did not, I wish you to say so.’

He knew quite well that he was adopting a bullying tone. But he had no inclination to be bullied himself. One or other of them had to be vanquished over this, and he was quite determined that he would not hold the white flag. There was something to be fought for, something which he could not give up.{145}

‘You must allow it was very odd that your secretary should appear in the middle of my dinner-party,’ she said, ‘and simply stroll across to your room. I had been talking of your room half dinner-time with Mr Fyson, saying that none of us was allowed there. And then, in came this girl——’

He cut her short.

‘What has that to do with Alice?’ he repeated.

‘I was going to say that, only you always interrupt me,’ she said. ‘Then when our guests are gone, you bring her in here, just as if she was Julia Fyson, into my drawing-room. And Alice—well, Alice would think it very odd too, just as Mrs Fyson did. Of course it was not that which Mrs Fyson thought odd: I know you will try to catch me up, and ask me how Mrs Fyson knew, but that is always your way, Thomas. I know quite well that Mrs Fyson had gone away before you brought her in here.’

‘I don’t want to catch you up,’ he said. ‘I only want to know why Alice should not be here when I bring Miss Propert in to wait for a cab. You can’t give me any reason because there is no reason. Let’s get that clear, and then I want to talk about something else.’

Suddenly the whole of the vague internal movements of her mind flashed into his vision, as intelligible as some perfectly simple business{146} proposition. She had a certain justification too: it was awkward that Norah had run into the exit of the ladies, that his wife had been saying that none of them ever entered the library. He knew the mind of Bracebridge pretty well, the slightly malicious construction that women like Mrs Fyson would find themselves compelled to put on it all. He knew also the mind of his wife, and the effect which it clearly had had on her. Her sense of propriety, of dignity had been assaulted: it was a queer thing to have happened. Then there was Norah’s presence in her drawing-room. He had insisted on that, for, at the moment, it seemed the most straightforward thing to do. But he was beginning to think it had been a mistake. Something about the girl, her beauty (and never had that struck him so forcibly as when he saw her standing by Alice), her air of breeding, of education, of simplicity in front of those draped easels and painted looking-glasses had stirred some long latent potentiality for jealousy in his wife. It was that suggestion which suddenly enraged him.

‘Don’t be such a damned fool, Emmeline,’ he said angrily, answering his own thoughts. He had divined hers quite correctly, and the justice that lay behind this rude speech struck her full. Her only course was to take refuge in her own propriety. She knew how to behave.

‘Well, Mr Keeling,’ she said, ‘you can’t expect{147} me to say anything more about it, if all you want to do is to swear at me. Perhaps you would like to swear at me again. Pray do.’

‘No, that’s all,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you not to be a damned fool, and I meant it. The wisest thing you can do is to take my advice.’

She moistened her lips very genteelly with the tip of her tongue.

‘Then if you have finished with that,’ she said, ‘shall we pass on to the other matter you said you wanted to talk to me about.’

‘By all means. Your Mr Silverdale is stuffing Alice’s head with ridiculous notions. He’s doing the same to that other girl. Of course she’s no business of yours or mine, but Alice is. She’ll soon be fancying herself in love with him, if she doesn’t already.’

‘And do you want my opinion on the subject?’ asked the Mayoress.

‘Of course. I am consulting you.’

‘Then I think you are quite mistaken. They are great friends, and Mr Silverdale has the most wonderful and spiritual influence over her. She is quite changed. She is always doing something now for somebody else; she reads to Mamma, she takes a Sunday school, she is busy and happy active.’

Mr Keeling considered this.

‘My idea is that she’s doing it all for Mr Silverdale. She could have read to your mother before{148} Dr Inglis went to the Cathedral. Silverdale is the somebody she’s doing things for.’

‘It is due to his influence certainly. I know you dislike him, but then that is your opinion, and it does not agree with other people’s. His parishioners generally adore him.’

‘Especially the young ladies, and of these especially the silly ones. He can have an influence with my poor Alice without holding her hand and whispering to her. He’s a flirt, and I don’t like flirts, especially those who wrap up their nonsense in religion. Can’t you do something to stop it? He’s always coming here, isn’t he? I don’t like all that pawing and touching, and saying it is spiritual influence.’

Mrs Keeling felt shocked at this positively carnal view of Mr Silverdale’s tendernesses. At the same time she thought they had a promising aspect besides the spiritual one.

‘Well, I hope you’ll not say or do anything to put him off,’ she said, the practical side of the question claiming her. ‘I’m sure it’s high time Alice was married, and never yet has she taken to a young man as she’s taken to Mr Silverdale.’

Poor Keeling’s head whirled: a moment ago his wife had said that the two were great friends only on the spiritual plane, now she was saying precisely what she had begun by contradicting. He was satisfied, however, that he had her true opinion at last. It did not appear to him to be{149} worth anything, but there it was. He got up.

‘If I thought Silverdale had the slightest intention of marrying Alice,’ he said, ‘I shouldn’t mind how much he pawed her. But I don’t believe he has. I’ve a good mind to ask him.’

‘Indeed, I hope you will do nothing so indelicate,’ said she.

A humorous twinkle came into his eye.

‘I wish you would flirt with him yourself, Emmeline,’ he said, ‘and take him away from Alice. Perhaps you do: some of these clergy flirt with every decent-looking woman within reach, and you’re twice as handsome as Alice.’

This also was dreadfully indelicate, but it is not to be wondered at that Mrs Keeling cast a glance into the looking glass, where her reflection looked out like a Naiad amid the water-lilies, even while she reproved her husband for the broadness of his suggestion.

‘I never heard of such talk,’ said she. ‘Pray don’t let us have any more of it. For shame!’

But she went up to her bed in a far better temper than she would otherwise have done, and quite abandoned any idea of lying awake to punish him for his previous brutality.

He went back to his library when his wife left him, where an intangible something of Norah’s presence lingered. There was the chair she had{150} sat in, there was her note to him about her brother on the table, and the blotting paper on which she had blotted the entries she had made on the catalogue cards. He took up the top sheet and held it to the light, so as to be able to read the titles of the books. There were the authors’ names in big firm capitals, the book-titles in smaller writing but legible. She had done a lot to-night, for he remembered having put clean blotting paper for her, and the sheet was covered with impressions. Here she had been sitting at work, while he talked and listened to those people in the drawing-room who meant nothing to him....

He laid the sheet down with an impatient exclamation at himself, and thought over the incident of Norah’s meeting the party of ladies in the hall. Mrs Fyson had thought it odd, had she? So much the more mistaken was Mrs Fyson. There was nothing odd about it at all. His wife had been disposed to take Mrs Fyson’s view, and he had given her his opinion on that point pretty sharply. Nothing had ever passed between Norah and himself that might not with perfect propriety have taken place in the middle of the market-square with Mrs Fyson and all the ladies of Bracebridge straining their eyes and ears to detect anything which could have given one of them a single thing to think about. But the complete truth of that was not the whole truth. A situation which was in process of formation underlay that{151} truth, and just now that situation had expressed itself in eloquent silence when he took up the blotting-paper and read what Norah had written on the cards. He had not given a thought to the titles of the books and their authors, though probably his eyes had observed them: his mind had been wholly occupied with the knowledge that it was she who had written them.

It was that which his wife had expressed in her manner and her words: it was that for which he had chosen to swear at her. He had given her a good knock for hinting at it, and had followed up that knock by the stupid sort of joke about the superiority of her charms to those of Alice, which she was sure to appreciate. She had done so; she had said, ‘For shame!’ and gone simpering to bed. Perhaps that would take her mind off the other affair. He sincerely hoped it would, but he distrusted her stupidity. A cleverer woman would have probably accepted the more superficial truth that there had never passed between him and Norah a single intimate word, but a stupid one might easily let a dull unfounded suspicion take root in her mind. It was difficult to deal with stupid people: you never knew where their stupidity might break out next. Emmeline had a certain power of sticking, and Mrs Fyson had a brilliant imagination. Together they might evolve some odious by-product, one that would fumble and shove its way into the underlying truth.{152}

He got up with a shrug of the shoulders. There was no use in making conjectures about it all. Perhaps if he gave Emmeline a pearl-pendant for her birthday, which fortunately occurred next week, he could distract her mind. But it was impossible to tell about Emmeline: her stupidity was an incalculable item.

He went to the front door in order to make sure he had put the chain on, and then taking it off, opened the door and looked out into the night. The snow was still falling fast, and the prints of wheels and footsteps outside were already obliterated. Mr Silverdale had walked home, light-heartedly predicting a ‘jolly good snowballing match’ with his boys next day, and Keeling found himself detesting Mr Silverdale with acute intensity. Norah had walked home also.... In a moment he was back in the hall, putting on a mackintosh. He would have liked to put on boots as well but for that he would have had to go up to his dressing-room next door to his wife’s bedroom. Then gently closing the door behind him, he went out into the night. He must just walk as far as her house to make sure she was not still tramping her way through the snow, and traverse the streets she had traversed. It was absolutely necessary to satisfy himself about that, and he did not care how unreasonable it was—rational considerations had no application; an emotional dictate made him go. There was but{153} a mile of gas-lit thoroughfare between his house and hers, but he, striving to smother the emotion he would not admit, told himself that he must be satisfied she was not still out in this frozen inclement night. He gave that as a sop to his rational self; but he knew he threw it as to some caged wolf, to keep it from growling.

There was a moon somewhere above the snow-clouds that already were beginning to grow thin from the burden they had discharged, and the smug villas on each side of the road were clearly visible. She had to go up the length of Alfred Road, then turn down the street that led by St Thomas’s Vicarage, and emerge into West Street, where she lived with her brother. Already, a fortnight ago he had ascertained the number of their house, not asking for it directly, but causing her to volunteer the information, and since then he had half a dozen times gone through the street, on his way to and from the Stores in order to take a glance at it as he passed. He had wanted to know what the house looked like; he had wanted to construct the circumstances of her life, to know the aspect of her environment, to see the front-door out of which she came to her duties as his secretary. That all concerned her, and for that reason it concerned him. He knew the house well by now: he knew from chance remarks that he had angled for that her bedroom looked into the street, that Charles’s looked on to an old{154} disused graveyard behind. There was the dining-room and the sitting-room in front, and a paling behind which Michaelmas daisies flourished in a thin row. She cared for flowers, but not for flowers in a six-inch bed. They rather provoked her: they were playing at being flowers. She liked them when they grew in wild woodland spaces, and were not confined between a house-wall and a row of tiled path.

The empty streets, dumb with snow, flitted silently by him, and as they passed, he seemed to himself to be standing still while some circular movement of the earth carried him past the silly Vicarage and into West Street. It brought him up to the house: it showed him a red blind on the first floor lit from within. That was what he had come to see, and he waited a moment on the white pavement opposite watching it. She had got home, that was all right then, yet still he looked at the blind.

He turned and retraced his steps. Now that the object of his expedition was secured he was conscious of all the discomforts and absurdity of what he had been doing. The snow was deep, his evening shoes were wet through, his mackintosh heavy with clinging flakes, and his rational self made its voice heard, telling him what a fool’s errand was in progress. He heard, but his emotional self heeded nothing of that: it would not argue, it would not answer, it was well satisfied{155} with what he had done, telling him, now that he was going homewards again, that he would find there the blotting paper on which she had pressed the wet ink of her catalogue slips, reminding him that at nine next morning he would see her again. It would attend to no interruptions, its thoughts sufficed for itself. But he knew that his reason, his prudence were ringing him up, as it were, on the telephone. The bell tinkled with repeated calls for him to listen to what they had to say. But he refused to take the receiver down; he would not give his ear to their coherent message, and let them go on summoning him unheeded. He knew all they had to say, and did not want to hear it again. They took an altogether exaggerated view of his affairs, when they told him that the situation might easily develop into a dangerous one. He, with his emotional self to back him up, knew better than they, and had assured them that his self-control had the situation well in hand. They need not go on summoning him, he was not going to attend. In the leafless elms above there sang in this wintry and snow-bound night the shy strong bird of romance: never in his life had he heard such rapture of melody.

Despite his fifty years, and the hard dry business atmosphere of his life, there was something amazingly boyish in the inward agitation{156} in which Keeling, arriving ten minutes before his time at his office next morning, awaited Norah’s coming. His midnight excursion, dictated by some imperative necessity from within had, even if it was not a new stage in his emotional history, revealed a chapter already written but not yet read by him. He expected too, quite irrationally, that some corresponding illumination must have come to the girl, that she, like himself, must have progressed along a similar stage. He pictured himself telling her how he had left his house in order to have the satisfaction of seeing her lit window; he had a humorous word to say about the state of his dress shoes (in place of which he must not forget to order a pair from the boot and shoe department this morning). He could see her smile with eyes and mouth in answer to his youthful confession, as she always smiled when, as often happened now, some small mutual understanding flitted to and fro between them, and could easily imagine the tone of her reply, ‘Oh, but how dreadfully foolish of you, Mr Keeling. You want to be laid up too, like Charles.’ She would not say more than that, but there would be that glimmer of comprehension, of acceptance, that showed she had some share in the adventure, that she allowed it, looked on it with the kind eye of a friend.

There was never a swifter disillusionment than when she came in, and he stood up, as he had now{157} learned to do, at her entrance. He had heard her step along the passage, and the bird of romance, hidden perhaps behind the sofa or in the case of files, gave out a great jubilant throatful of song. But next moment it was as if some hand, Mrs Fyson’s perhaps, had wrung its neck and stopped its singing. She had a perfectly friendly smile for him, but the smile was not one shade more friendly than usual, her eyes did not hold lit within them a spark of closer intimacy than had habitually been there for the last fortnight. Whatever had happened to him last night, he saw that nothing whatever had happened to her. No sixth sense had conveyed to her the smallest hint of his midnight walk: she had been through no nocturnal experiences that the most sanguine could construe into correspondence with that, and on the moment he could no more have told her about his midnight walk, or have been humorous on the subject of disintegrated shoes than he could have taken her into his arms and kissed her. And by the standard of how incredibly remote she seemed, he could judge of the distance of his spirit’s leap towards her, when he stood outside her window last night. The very absence of any change in her was the light by which he saw the change in himself.

She had his letters opened for him with her usual speed, but as she worked he could see by the soft creased line between her eyebrows, even as he{158} had seen it yesterday morning, when she was anxious about her brother, that something troubled her. To-day, however, he did not question her: she might tell him if she felt disposed, and guessing that it was connected with the events of last night, his instinct told him that it was for her to speak or be silent. Then, when she had opened the letters, she placed them by him, and without a word, took up her writing-block and pencil for the shorthand dictation. But still her brow did not clear, the smudge of shadow lay perpendicularly between her eye-brows, as fixed as if it was some soft pencil mark on the skin.

To-day the work was not heavy, and nearly an hour before the interval for lunch he had finished the dictation of his answers. She knew his business engagements as well as himself, and reminding him that a land-agent was coming to see him at twelve on some private matter, took her papers into the little inner room. Then she came back for her typewriter, which stood on the table in the window where she usually worked, paused and came over to his table.

‘May I speak to you a moment?’ she asked.

‘Certainly, Miss Propert. What is it?’

She fingered the edge of the table, and with her instinct for tidiness, put straight a couple of papers that lay there.

‘It’s about last night,’ she said. ‘I told Charles what had happened, and he doesn’t want me to{159} come up to your house again like that in the evening. He knows as well as I do——’

She broke off, and the trouble cleared from her face, as she looked up at him smiling.

‘Charles wanted to write to you,’ she said, ‘but I said I would really prefer to explain. People are such fools, you know, aren’t they?’

There was mingled chagrin and pleasure for him in this speech. He admired the frank friendliness with which she spoke: but he would have liked to have seen in her some consciousness of the underlying truth which last night he had hugged to himself. But in her frankness there seemed to be a complete unconsciousness of any of his own sentiments, no twitter, however remote, of the bird of romance that had sung to him from the snowy trees.

He assented to the fact that people were fools. ‘But is that the end of my library catalogue?’ he asked.

‘No; I must finish it. I thought perhaps I could go there for an hour in the middle of the morning, when you were down here. I could still get your letters done in time for the evening post. If I went there every day for an hour I could get through as much as I did on alternate evenings.’

He knew this to be a sound and sensible plan, but he did not in the least wish to assent to it. In the first place, it would look as if he{160} acknowledged some basis of reason in his wife’s attitude the evening before; in the second place, he would no longer have those half-hours after dinner in his library with Norah and her brother. He knew that they had become the pearl of the day to him.

‘But since people are such fools,’ he said, ‘does it matter?’

‘Yes. I think it does. I don’t want to make unpleasantness.’

‘For me?’ he asked. ‘You make none.’

She flushed a little.

‘Yes. Personally I don’t care two straws. But Charles does rather.’

Keeling stood up.

‘I’m ashamed of myself,’ he said. ‘Your brother is perfectly right. Go down, then, as you suggest in the morning.’

‘We’ll settle it like that then,’ she said. ‘But I am so sorry. I liked those evenings.’

‘I didn’t object to them myself,’ said he. As she turned, their eyes met again, and Norah knew she had done right. But that knowledge gave her no atom of satisfaction.

The land-agent was announced, and Norah left the two together. Of late years Keeling had been buying both building-sites and houses in Bracebridge, and Simpson, his agent, had been instructed to inform him of any desirable site that was coming into the market. But at the{161} moment he felt singularly little interested in any purchase that Simpson might recommend.

‘Good-morning, Simpson,’ he said. ‘What have you come about?’

In the next room the typing machine had begun its clacking that came staccato and subdued through the baize-lined door. That seemed to him more momentous than anything his agent could tell him about.

‘Well, sir, there’s a building site just beyond your little place,’ began Mr Simpson. ‘It’s coming up next month for sale, but if you make an offer now, I think you might get it cheap.’

Keeling forced his mind away from the sound that came from next door, and looked at the map that the agent had spread out. But the purchase did not appeal to him.

‘Too far out,’ he said. ‘And I think the villa-building is being a bit overdone. Anything else?’ he said.

‘Yes, sir, if you’ll pay the price, there’s an important site which the owner wants to sell the freehold of. It’s the site of the County Club. The price asked seems rather high, but then I consider the Club are getting their premises absurdly cheap. You might fairly ask a much higher rental.’

Suddenly Keeling felt himself interested in this, and the clacking of the typewriter came to his ears no longer.{162}

‘What lease has the Club got?’ he asked.

‘I have ascertained that there is a break in it next Midsummer on both sides, notice to be given at Lady Day. The present owner had determined to put up their rent then, and the Committee, I believe, thought that quite reasonable. But he wants cash, and has instructed me to look out for a purchaser.’

Keeling had that faculty, which had stood him in such good stead all his life, of being able to make up his mind quickly when all the data were put before him. He did not hesitate now, and ten minutes after, when the details of the ownership and present lease were in his possession, he had authorised his agent to purchase for him.

‘I gather that the owner wishes the transaction to be private,’ he said. ‘And I wish the same.’

‘Certainly. I think you have made a wise purchase, sir,’ said Simpson. ‘I am told that the landlord is ex-officio a member of the Club. Good-morning, sir. I will have the deed made out with your lawyer without delay.’

Keeling nodded. The last speech had given him something to think about.

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