An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter VI

Mrs Keeling had much enjoyed the sense of added pomp and dignity which her husband’s mayoralty gave her. She liked seeing placards in the streets that a concert in aid of some charity was given under the patronage of the Lady Mayoress, and would rustle into the arm-chair reserved for her in the middle of the front-row with the feeling that she had got this concert up, and was responsible not only for the assistance it gave to the charity in question, but for the excellence of the performance. She assumed a grander and more condescending air at her parties, and distinctly began to unbend to the inhabitants of Alfred Road instead of associating with them as equals. She knew her position as Lady Mayoress; it almost seemed to her that it was she who had raised her husband to the civic dignity, and when one morning she found among her letters an invitation from Lady Inverbroom for herself and him to dine and sleep one day early in December, at their place a few miles outside Bracebridge, she was easily able to see through the insincerity of Lady Inverbroom’s adding that it would give her husband such pleasure to show Mr Keeling his library. It was an amiable insincerity, but{164} Emmeline was secretly sure that the Lady Mayoress was the desired guest. She tried without success to control the trembling of her voice when she telephoned to Keeling—who had just left for the Stores (those vulgar stores)—the gratifying request. He was quite pleased to accept it, but she could detect no trembling in his voice. But men controlled their feelings better than women....

She took the parlour-maid as her maid, though her husband altogether refused to pass off the boy covered with buttons as his valet, and enjoyed a moment’s supreme triumph when she was able to reply to Lady Inverbroom, who hoped, when she showed her her room that she would ask the house-maid for anything she required, that she had brought her own maid. Then Lady Inverbroom (to hide her natural confusion) had poked the fire for her and pointed out the position of the bathroom, which communicated with her bedroom. Certainly that was most convenient, and dinner would be at half-past eight.

Mrs Keeling felt a little strange: the magnificence of this great house rather overawed her, and she had to remind herself several times, as she dressed, that she was Lady Mayoress. There were quantities of tall liveried footmen standing about when she went down, but she remembered to put her nose in the air to about the angle at which Lady Inverbroom’s nose was naturally levelled, and walked by them with an unseeing eye, as if{165} they were pieces of familiar furniture. She had soup on a silver plate, and was quite successful in avoiding what she would have called ‘a scroopy noise’ made with her spoon as she fed herself off that unusual material. Then when Lord Inverbroom alluded casually to the great Reynolds over the chimney piece, she flattered herself that she made a very apposite remark when, after duly admiring it, she said, ‘And who is the heir to all this beautiful property?’ for she was well aware that her hosts were childless. There were no guests in the house, except themselves, and though it would have been nice to let slip the names of illustrious people when alluding to this visit afterwards in Bracebridge, she felt glad at the time that there was no one else, for she was on the verge of feeling shy, which would never have done for a Lady Mayoress.

A few small incidents during dinner rather surprised her; once Lady Inverbroom, in helping herself to some hot sauce let a drop of it fall on the fingers of the footman who handed it to her. Instantly she turned round in her chair and said in a voice of real concern (just as if the man had not been a piece of furniture), ‘I beg your pardon; I hope I didn’t burn you!’ After dinner again, when cigarettes came round, she was rather astonished at being offered one, and holding her head very high, turned abruptly away. No doubt it was a mistake, but there would have been words{166} at the Cedars next morning, if the parlour-maid had offered a cigarette to any lady. Indeed she was rather astonished that Lord Inverbroom lit his without first asking her if she minded the perfume.

But what surprised her even more than her hostess’s politeness to a footman, or the handing of a cigarette to herself, was her husband’s obvious unconcern with the magnificence of his surroundings. He seemed perfectly at his ease, and though there was nothing in his manner which suggested a sort of haughty polish which she felt was suitable in these exalted places, he behaved as simply as if he was at home. In fact his simplicity almost made his wife blush once, when, on the occasion of a large puff of smoke coming down the chimney he said to Lord Inverbroom, ‘I can show you a new cowl which will quite stop that.’ But Lord Inverbroom did not seem the least uncomfortable at this sudden peeping out of the mercantile cloven hoof, and merely replied that a cowl that would prevent that chimney from smoking would be worth its weight in gold. That was very tactful, and Mrs Keeling was vexed that her husband would not leave the subject: instead he laughed and said that the cowl in question did not cost much more than its weight in iron. Then luckily the talk drifted away on to books, and though Mrs Keeling knew that by all the rules of polite behaviour her husband should have been engaging his hostess in light conversation while she talked{167} to her host, Keeling and Lord Inverbroom quite lost themselves in discussing some Italian book with pictures that had lately appeared. Lord Inverbroom said he could not afford it, which must be a joke....

In consequence of the two men talking together she was left to Lady Inverbroom, but as she had taken the trouble to read the small paragraphs in a Society journal that day, she could give her little tit-bits of information about the movements of the King and the Royal Family, while with half an ear she continued to listen to her husband, so as to interrupt in case he tended to unsuitable topics again. But she was so dumbfoundered when, à propos of book-plates (which sounded safe enough), she heard Lord Inverbroom say that he had a charming one lately made for him by a Miss Propert, that the apposite talk she was engaged in died on her lips.

‘She has just made one for me,’ said her husband. ‘Perhaps you didn’t know that she lives in Bracebridge with her brother. She is my secretary and typewriter.’

‘Indeed? I wonder if you would let her come over here one day. I should like to show her my books with her book-plate in them. Saturday, perhaps, if that is a half-holiday. Would she come to lunch, do you think, and spend the afternoon?’

Mrs Keeling was quite horrified; she longed{168} for her husband to tell him that Miss Propert was quite a humble sort of person. Then luckily it occurred to her that no doubt the idea was that she should have her lunch in the housekeeper’s room. This relieved her mind, and she continued to tell Lady Inverbroom the last news from Windsor. Shortly afterwards, with a little pressing on the part of her hostess, she was induced to precede her out of the dining-room, leaving the men alone.

The new wing of the hospital was a subject about which Lord Inverbroom wanted to talk to his guest, and for a little while that engaged them. This open weather had allowed the building to go on apace, and by the end of March the wing should be advanced enough to permit of the opening ceremony. The Board of hospital directors would see to that, and Lord Inverbroom sketched out his idea for the day. The ceremony of the opening he proposed should be in the morning, and for it he hoped to secure the presence of a very distinguished personage. Lunch would follow, and if Mr Keeling approved, he would at the luncheon announce the name of the munificent giver. Then he paused a moment.

‘Mr Keeling,’ he said, ‘I think there is no doubt that the Prime Minister would wish to submit your name to the King as the recipient of some honour in public recognition of your munificence. Would you allow me in confidence to tell him who our benefactor is? And would you in case{169} he sees the matter as I do, be disposed to accept a baronetcy? I may say that I do not think there is the slightest doubt that he will agree with me. Perhaps first you would like to mention it to Mrs Keeling.’

Keeling had no doubts on this subject at all, and felt sure his wife would have none. He was not in the least a snob, and to wish to be a baronet implied nothing of the kind.

‘I should be very much gratified and honoured,’ he said.

‘Very well. Perhaps you would mention it to your wife and let me know. The town and county generally owe you the deepest debt of gratitude.’

Now there was another subject on which Keeping had made up his mind to speak to Lord Inverbroom, and this intelligence encouraged him to do so. By purchasing the freehold of the County Club, he had acquired the right of membership, but with that streak of pride which was characteristic of him, he did not want to get elected to the Club as a right. He had, since he had made the purchase, thought this over, and wished to stand for election, could he secure a proposer and seconder, like any other candidate. That being so, he did not intend to tell Lord Inverbroom that he would, ex officio, become a member of the Club at the next quarter-day, when he entered into possession of his property, but had determined{170} to ask him if he, as president, would propose him in the ordinary course. The next election, he had already ascertained, took place early in April, when his blushing honours as benefactor to the hospital and baronet would be fresh upon him. There could be no more suitable opportunity for his request than the present.

‘I wonder if you would do me a great favour,’ he said bluntly.

‘I feel sure it would be a pleasure to me to do you any favour that is in my power,’ said the other.

‘Would you then be kind enough to propose me for election to the County Club next April?’ said Keeling.

There was a pause, the very slightest, quite imperceptible to Keeling, though John would probably have noticed it. But instantly Lord Inverbroom made up his mind that it was quite impossible to refuse this thing which he wished had not been asked. He had not the smallest personal objection to having Keeling as a member, but in that infinitesimal pause he divined, he was afraid unerringly, the feeling of the club generally. Ridiculous it might be, as many class-distinctions are, but he knew that it existed, and in general he shared it. He succeeded, however, in keeping cordiality in his voice, in consenting to do what he felt unable to refuse.

‘I shall be delighted to,’ he said. ‘Have you{171} got a seconder? Ah, I think that is not necessary when the President proposes a candidate. I will certainly put down your name when I go into Bracebridge next.’

Again there was a slight pause, and he rose, trying to avoid the appearance of breaking off a distasteful subject.

‘Well, Mr Keeling,’ he said. ‘I mean to keep you up a long time in my library to-night, so shall we go into the drawing-room at once, till the ladies go up to bed? Dear me, that awful chimney! It would be very good of you if you would let me have the cowl you told me of.’

Late as it was when Keeling went upstairs, he found a jubilant and wakeful wife waiting for him, with a positive cargo of questions and impressions which she had to unload at once. Her elation took a condescending and critical form, and she neither wanted nor paused for answers.

‘Well, I’m sure it’s been a very pleasant if a very quiet evening,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing nicer than to dine, as you may say, tête-à-tête like that and have a little agreeable conversation afterwards, not but what I should have been sorry to have as tough a pheasant as that served at my table, for I declare I could hardly get my teeth into it though it did come on a silver plate, and nothing but a nut and an apple for dessert, though you can get choice grapes so cheap now. But there! what does that matter when you dine with{172} friends? Such a pleasant talk as I had too with Lady Inverbroom, who, I’m sure, is a very sensible and agreeable sort of woman. Nothing very gifted, I dare say, but a great deal of common sense. Common sense now! I often wish it was commoner. But the time passed so quickly while you and Lord Inverbroom were talking together in the dining-room that I was quite surprised when you came in. The soup, too, did you not find it insipid? But I expect Lady Inverbroom does not have the sort of cook that I have always been accustomed to. No jewels either, just that little diamond brooch, which made me feel that I was too fine with the beautiful pearl pendant you gave me for my birthday. Don’t you agree with me, Thomas?’

‘You have talked about fifty things, my dear. I don’t know which you want me to agree with you about,’ said he.

‘Well, we will let it pass. Was it not odd that Lord Inverbroom had a book-plate by your Miss Propert? Quite a coincidence! But you made me feel quite hot when you talked about supplying him with a chimney-cowl, just as if he was a customer. Not that it really matters, and I thought you got on wonderfully well, though no doubt you felt a little strange at first. And what did you and Lord Inverbroom talk about when we left you? Books, I suppose.’

Keeling sat down by the fire.

‘If you want to know I will tell you,’ he said.

‘Of course I want to know. What should I ask for unless I wanted to know? Parkinson tells me they had quite a common supper in the room, nothing out of the way, just some of the fish that was left over and cold beef. I must ask Lady Inverbroom to drop in to lunch some day when she is in Bracebridge, and let her see how a pheasant should be served.’

‘I am going to tell you what we talked about, if you will be quiet for a moment. You do not yet know that I have given them the new wing to the hospital——’

‘What? You gave the new wing. Well, to think of your having kept me in the dark all this time! I do call that very generous, but generous you always are, as I’ve often told Mamma, about your money. I suppose that will cost a great deal of money.’

‘Yes, a great deal. Kindly allow me to get on. You are not to tell anybody about it till the day it is opened, when it will be announced. Lord Inverbroom thinks I shall be given a baronetcy. He suggested that I should tell you and see what you thought about it.’

Mrs Keeling sat straight up in bed.

‘Well, I never!’ she said. ‘Indeed Mamma was right when she said some people got on in the world. Sir Thomas Keeling, Bart., and Lady Keeling. It sounds very well, does it not? I do call{174} that money well laid out, however much it was—Sir Thomas and Lady Keeling! I hope Parkinson will pick it up quickly, and not stumble over it. “My lady” instead of “Ma’am.” She will have to practise.’

It was easy to see out of the depths of futilities that Mrs Keeling was pleased, and her husband retired to his dressing-room and shut the door on her raptures.

It was largely the remembrance of this visit, and the future accession of dignity which it had foreshadowed that inspired Mrs Keeling, as she drove home in her victoria after morning-service at St Thomas’s, a few Sundays later, with so comfortable a sense of her general felicity. The thought of being addressed on her envelopes as Lady Keeling, and by Parkinson as ‘My lady,’ caused her to take a livelier interest in the future than she usually did, for the comfortable present was generally enough for her. And with regard to the present her horizon was singularly unclouded, apart from the fact that Alice was suffering from influenza, an infliction which her mother bore very calmly. Her mind was not nimble, and it took her all the time that the slowly-lolloping horse occupied in traversing the road from the church to The Cedars in surveying those horizons, and running over, as she had just been bidden to do by Mr Silverdale in his sermon, her numerous{175} causes for thankfulness. She hardly knew where to begin, but the pearl-pendant, which her husband had given her on her birthday, and now oscillated with the movement of the carriage on the platinum chain round her ample neck, formed a satisfactory starting-point. It really was very handsome, and since she did not hold with the mean-spirited notion that presents were only tokens of affection, and that the kind thought that prompted a gift was of greater value than its cash-equivalent, she found great pleasure in the size and lustre of the pearl. Indeed she rather considered the value of the gift to be the criterion of the kindness of thought that had prompted it, and by that standard her husband’s thought had been very kind indeed. She had never known a kinder since, now many years ago, he had given her the half-hoop of diamonds that sparkled on her finger. And this gift had been all ‘of a piece’ with his general conduct. She knew for a fact that he was going to behave with his usual generosity at Christmas to her mother, and he had promised herself and Alice a fortnight’s holiday at Brighton in February. Perhaps he would come with them, but it was more likely that business would detain him. She found she did not care whether he came or not. It was her duty to be contented, whatever happened, when everything was so pleasant.

This imaginative flight into the future fatigued{176} her, or at any rate demanded an effort on the part of her brain, and very naturally she went back to the blessings that she found it easier to call to mind since they already existed. Quite high among these, a little lower perhaps than the pleasure of being Lady Mayoress, but higher than the fact that Alice was distinctly better this morning, was the sensible way in which her husband had behaved about those odd evening visits of Miss Propert when she worked at his library catalogue. Faint was the remembrance of that unpleasant moment when she had suddenly appeared among all the guests at the close of dinner, and was subsequently introduced into the drawing-room. But after that those visits had ceased altogether, and instead Miss Propert came in the middle of the morning when her husband was at his office. That was perfectly in accordance with the rules of correct behaviour, and when she chanced to meet Norah going into the library or leaving it at the conclusion of her work, she always had a civil and condescending word for her. She had no doubt whatever that the girl was a very decent young woman in her station of life, which was as much as could be said about anybody.

At this point she sat rather more upright in her carriage in order to be able to show how distant and stately was her recognition of Mrs Fyson, who was walking (not driving) in her direction. She gave her quite a little bow without the hint{177} of a smile, for that was just how she felt to Mrs Fyson, and the more clearly Mrs Fyson grasped that fact the better. She could barely see Mrs Fyson, that was the truth of it, and it was not wholly the sunlit mist of Inverbroom magnificence that obscured her. It is true that since the Inverbroom visit (followed up by a Lady Inverbroom lunch at The Cedars, when she had shown her how a pheasant should be served) Mrs Keeling had adopted to Alfred Road generally the attitude of a slowly-ascending balloon, hovering, bathed in sun; over the darkling and low-lying earth below it, and this would very usefully tend to prepare Alfred Road for the greater elevation to which she would suddenly shoot up, as by some release of ballast, when in the spring a certain announcement of honours should be promulgated. But it was not only that Alfred Road was growing dim and shadowy beneath her that prompted this stateliness to Mrs Fyson. That misguided lady (not a true lady) had been going about Bracebridge assuring her friends that Mr Silverdale had been so very attentive to her daughter Julia, that she was daily expecting that Mr Silverdale would seek an interview with Mr Fyson, and Julia a blushing one with her. Now, as Mrs Keeling was daily expecting a similar set of interviews to take place at The Cedars, it was clear that unless Mr Silverdale contemplated bigamist proposals (which would certainly be a very great change{178} from his celibate convictions) Mrs Fyson must be considered a mischievous and jealous tatler. Several days ago Alice had appeared suddenly in her mother’s boudoir, murdering sleep like Macbeth, to inform her that she was never going to speak to Julia again, nor wished to hear her name mentioned. She gave no reason, nor did Mrs Keeling need one, for this severance of relations beyond saying that certain remarks of Mrs Fyson were the immediate cause. She then immediately went to bed with influenza, which her mother attributed to rage and shock.

This, though the last of Mrs Fyson’s misdeeds, was not the first, and Mrs Keeling almost forgot the duty of thankfulness for blessings when she remembered that dreadful occasion. Shortly after Norah’s final appearance in the evening, Mrs Fyson had called, and under the pretext of a digestion-visit after her dinner had hissed out a series of impertinent questions as to how ‘it had all ended.’ Fool though she might be, Mrs Keeling was not of that peculiarly hopeless sort that confides domestic difficulties to the ears of gossips, and had with some appearance of astonishment merely said that she and Miss Propert had had a very pleasant chat while Mr Keeling was telephoning for a cab to take Miss Propert home. On which Mrs Fyson had looked exactly like a ferret and said, ‘Did he bring her into your drawing-room? That was very clever!{179}’

The remembrance of this odious suggestion was the only thing that seemed to cloud the serenity of Mrs Keeling’s horizon: indeed it scarcely did that, and corresponded rather to a very slight fall in the barometer, though no signs of untoward weather were anywhere visible. She did not often think of it, but she knew that it had not (like so many more important things) entirely vanished from her mind, and when she did think of it, it produced this slight declension from weather otherwise set fair. But immediately afterwards her thistle-down reflections would flutter away to the pearl-pendant, the Inverbroom visit, and the baronetage.

She had arrived at the front door of The Cedars, and as it was rather too cold to wait for the boy covered with buttons to remove her rug, she managed to do that for herself. Just as she stepped into the Gothic porch, the front-door opened and Norah came out. This was something of a surprise: it had not previously occurred to her that the catalogue-work went on on Sundays. But it was no business of hers whether her husband’s secretary chose to behave in an unsabbatical if not heathenish manner. That was quite her own concern, and a small elephantine reproach was all that the occasion demanded.

‘Why, Miss Propert,’ she said. ‘Fancy working on Sunday morning when all good people are at church!{180}’

Norah looked not only surprised but startled, but she instantly recovered herself.

‘I know; it is wicked of me,’ she said. ‘But I so much wanted to get on with my work. You are back early, aren’t you?’

This was true: the sermon on the duty of thankfulness had been short though joyous, and there was no Litany. Mrs Keeling had already congratulated herself on that, for she would have time to rest well before lunch and perhaps see Alice when she had rested. But when after a few more gracious remarks, she found herself in the hall, she did not immediately go to her boudoir to rest. Perhaps some little noise from the library, only half-consciously heard, caused her to pause, and then, Mrs Fyson’s unforgotten remark occurring to her, she went to that door and opened it. Her husband, whom she supposed to be at the cathedral, was standing in front of the fire.

‘Back from Cathedral already, Thomas?’ she said.

‘Yes, my dear, and you from church. I sat in the nave, if you want to know, and came out before the sermon.’

He paused a moment.

‘Probably you met Miss Propert at the door,’ he said. ‘She has been working at the catalogue, I find. How is Alice this morning? Have you seen her?’

The pearl-pendant gently wagged at Mrs Keelin{181}g’s throat: Mrs Fyson’s comment gently stirred in her head. She would have said this was clever too, this introduction of Miss Propert’s name without waiting for his wife to mention it. Clever or not, it served its immediate purpose, for she gave him news of Alice.

‘The sooner you take her off to the seaside the better,’ he said. ‘Change of air will do her good. I should go this week, if I were you.’

It seemed to Mrs Keeling that this was not being clever but stupid. She felt that it was a designed diversion to distract her thoughts. She was being ‘pearl-pendanted’ again without the pearl, and was not going to be put off like that.

‘Oh, I have too many engagements to think of that,’ she said, ‘and you would not be able to come with me!’

‘There is little chance of that whenever you go,’ said he.

An awful, an ill-inspired notion came into poor Mrs Keeling’s head. She determined on light good-humoured banter. Her intentions were excellent, her performance deplorable.

‘Too busy over the catalogue, eh?’ she asked. ‘Coming away before the sermon too. Naughty, as Mr Silverdale would say. Oh, I understand, my dear.’

The effect of this light humour was not at all what she had anticipated. He turned swiftly round to her, with a face appallingly grim.{182}

‘Never mind what Mr Silverdale would say,’ he said. ‘Tell me what it is that you understand. Now, quick, what is it you understand?’

She retreated a step with a fallen face.

‘What’s the matter?’ she said. ‘Dear me, what is the matter? It was only my joke.’

Instantly he saw his mistake. He had had the opportunity to treat the subject in the same playful spirit. But he had been unable to: it was all too serious to him. The grim Puritan streak in him, which had not prevented his falling in love with Norah, made it impossible for him to jest or suffer a jest about it. He was not a flirt, and did not care to have that tawdry cloak thrown on to his shoulders. But he had made a mistake: he ought to have accepted that ridiculous decoration with a grin as ridiculous. Now he tried to recapture the belated inanity.

‘Ah, you’re just chaffing me,’ he said, ‘and there’s no harm in that. But I didn’t care for what Mr Silverdale would say. He’s naughty too, if he’s not going to ask poor Alice to marry him, when she’s recovered from her influenza. Or have you done as I asked you, and cut your daughter out yourself? That’s a joke too: one bad joke deserves another, Emmeline.’

Suddenly it struck him that the situation was parallel to, but more significant than that which had occurred in her drawing-room when Norah had come into it for a few minutes one snowy{183} evening. Then, as now, his wife had hinted at an underlying truth, which he was aware of: then, as now, he had scolded her for the ridiculous suggestion her words implied. But to-day the same situation was intensified, it presented itself to him in colours many tones more vivid, even as the underlying truth had become of far greater concern to him. And, unless he was mistaken, it had become much more real to his wife. Her first vague, stupid (but truly-founded) suspicion had acquired solidity in her mind. He doubted whether he could, so to speak, bomb it to bits by the throwing to her of a pearl-pendant.

She looked at him a moment with eyes behind which there smouldered a real though a veiled hostility, and he found himself wishing that she would put it into words, and repeat definitely and seriously the accusation at which her dismal little jest about the work of the catalogue keeping him here in Bracebridge, had hinted. Then he could have denied it more explicitly, and with a violence that might have impressed her. But his roughness, his fierce challenging of her stupid chaff had effectively frightened her off any such repetition, and she gave him no opportunity of denial or defence. Only, as she left him, with the intention of seeing Alice before lunch, he noted this intensified situation. It had become more explosive, more dangerous, and now instead of taking it boldly out into the open, and encouraging{184} it to explode, with, probably, no very destructive results, he had caused his wife to lock it up in the confined space of her own mind, hiding it away from his anger or his ridicule. But it was doubtful whether she had detached the smouldering fuse of her own suspicions. They were at present of no very swiftly inflammable stuff: there was but a vague sense that her husband was more interested in Norah than he should be, and had he answered her chaff with something equally light, she might easily have put out that smouldering fuse. But he had not done that: he had flared and scolded, and his attempt to respond in the same spirit was hopelessly belated. She began to wonder whether Mrs Fyson was not right.... True, Mrs Fyson had said very little, but that little appeared now to be singularly suggestive.

The various sale departments at the Stores were thronged all day from morning to night during this week before Christmas with crowds of purchasers, but the correspondence on business matters, such as engaged Norah, fell off as the holidays approached, and next morning, when she arrived, she found not more than a dozen letters for her to open. Charles, however, was being worked off his feet in the book-department, where were a hundred types of suitable Christmas gifts (the more expensive being bound in stuffed morocco, so that the sides of them resembled flattish{185} cushions) and Norah intended, as soon as she had finished her shorthand transcription, to proceed at once with the typewriting, and then ask leave of Keeling to go and help her brother. He arrived but a few minutes after her, and in half an hour her shorthand dictation was finished.

‘I was going to typewrite these at once,’ she said, ‘if you’ll allow me, and then go and help Charles in the book department.’

Keeling pushed back his chair as he often did when he was disposed for a few minutes’ talk, putting a gap between himself and his business table. He gave her a smile and a long look.

‘Have you seen the books?’ he said. ‘I’m almost ashamed to get a profit out of such muck. Beastly paper, beastly printing, and squash bindings. The more expensive they are, the more loathsome.’

She laughed.

‘They are pretty bad,’ she said. ‘But there’s a big sale for them. May I go and help Charles?’

‘And not do any work in my library this morning?’ he asked.

‘Unless you wish me to.’

He paused.

‘I do rather,’ he said. ‘I want that work to go on as usual. Monday is your regular day to go there.’

Now yesterday, when Norah met Mrs Keeling in the porch, the latter had been so very normal{186} and condescending that she had scarcely given another thought to the encounter. Mrs Keeling had often met her coming or going to her work, and had always a word for her even as she had had yesterday. But instantly now, when Keeling expressed a wish that she should go there this morning, she connected it in her mind with that meeting.

‘I will go if you like,’ she said.

‘I shall be obliged if you will. I have a certain reason for wishing it. It’s a rubbishy reason enough, and I needn’t bother you with it.’

She looked up at him, and it was clear to each when their eyes met, that the same species of thought was in the mind of both: both at any rate were thinking of what had occurred yesterday. But immediately she looked away again, silently pondering something, and he, watching her, saw that soft frown like a vertical pencil-mark appear between her eyebrows. Then it cleared again, and she looked at him with a smile that conveyed her comprehension of the ‘rubbishy reason,’ and a sudden flush that came over her face confirmed that to him. Naturally it was as awkward, even as impossible for her to speak of it, as it was for him; she could but consent to go or refuse to.

‘I expect I see your point,’ she said. ‘I will go.’

For the first time it occurred to him that she had a voice in the matter, that it was only fair{187} to her to suggest that she should give up these visits to his house altogether. He would not be there when she went, but she understood now (indeed she had understood long ago, when she made her entry into the dinner-party) that Mrs Keeling had, so to speak, her eye on them. It was due to Norah that she should be allowed to say whether she wanted that eye taken off her.

‘Don’t go unless you wish,’ he said suddenly. ‘Give up the catalogue altogether if you like.’

The moment he suggested that, her whole nature, her consciousness of the entire innocence of her visits there, was up in arms against the proposal. Not to go there would imply that there was a reason for not going there, and there was none. Whatever had passed between Mrs Keeling and her husband yesterday was no business of hers; she intended to finish her work. This conclusion was comprised in the decision with which she answered him.

‘Why should I give up the catalogue?’ she said. ‘I have no intention of doing so unless you tell me to. My business is to finish it.’

Keeling hesitated: he wanted to say something to her which showed, however remotely, the gleam of his feelings, something which should let that spark of unspoken comprehension flash backwards and forwards again.

‘Yes, it’s just a matter of business, isn’t it?’ he said.{188}

She met his eyes with complete frankness: there was nothing to show whether she had caught the suggestion that lurked in his speech or not.

‘Then shall I go down to your house now, and get on with my business?’ she said.

He was half disappointed, half pleased. But, wisely, he gave up the idea of conveying to her that there was anything more than ‘business’ for him in her working among his books. If she understood that her handling them, her passing hours in his room, her preparing his catalogue was something so utterly different from what it would have been if any one else was doing it for him, she would have found the hint of that in what he had said. If she did not—well, it was exactly there that the disappointment came in. He pulled his chair a little nearer to the table again, where his work lay.

‘There is one other thing,’ he said. ‘You get four days’ holiday at Christmas, you and your brother. Are you going to spend them here?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Then take my advice and make your brother go to the seaside with you instead. You’ve been rather overworked lately and he has too. A change would do you both good.’

‘Oh, I don’t think we shall go away,’ she said.

He fidgeted with his papers a moment. When money concerned business, he could discuss and bargain with the nonchalance of a man who had{189} passed his life in making it. But when money began to trespass on the privacies of life, there was no one in the world more shy of mentioning it.

‘Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘don’t think me impertinent, but if there’s any question of expense about your going away, please let me advance you the money I shall be paying you for my catalogue. You’ve done a good deal of work on it already: it is quite a reasonable proposal.’

The moment he said that Norah knew that she did not want to be paid at all for her work on the catalogue. When she undertook to do it, he had just mentioned the question of payment, saying that she would let him know her charges some time, but since then the thought of what she was going to charge had not entered her head. And now, when she thought of those pleasant hours in his library, she disliked the thought of payment.

‘I don’t want to be paid at all,’ she said. ‘It was most of it work done in office hours, when otherwise I should have been in the office here. I have done a certain amount in the evening, but I enjoyed it: I found it much more amusing than playing Patience.’

‘No, I can’t allow that for a moment,’ he said.

‘What if you have to?’ she asked, smiling.

‘I shall not have the catalogue completed. And I shall insist on paying for what you have done. I shall get an estimate of your work made and a price fixed.{190}’

He did not smile back at her: he looked at the table and drummed it with his fingers, as she had often seen him do when he was discussing some business point on which he did not intend to yield.

‘Are you serious?’ she asked.

‘I was never more so.’

‘But I have really enjoyed doing it. I—I have done it for the sake of books. I like doing things for books.’

Keeling stopped his drumming fingers, and looked up with his grim face relaxing.

‘Don’t remind me of that affair over my book-plate,’ he said. ‘You are putting me into an odious position. It isn’t generous of you.’

‘What am I to do then?’ she asked.

He took his cheque-book out of his drawer and wrote.

‘Take that on account, please,’ he said. ‘If you want to be business-like, give me a receipt. And I advise you to spend some of it on a little holiday.’

She looked at the cheque.

‘I can’t take that as part payment,’ she said. ‘It is fully as much as the completed catalogue will cover.’

‘You are very obstinate,’ he said. ‘I will get an independent estimate of what is a fair price for the completed catalogue when you have finished it, and adjust my payment by that. Will that satisfy you?{191}’

‘Quite. But it seems to me I am far from obstinate. I have given way.’

‘Of course. I credit you with so much sense.’

Suddenly Norah found she did not mind yielding to him. She was rather surprised at that, for she knew there was some truth in Charles’s criticism that she preferred her own way to anybody else’s. It was an amiable way, but she liked having it. But now when Keeling so much took it for granted that she was going to do as he suggested, she found she had no objection to it. She wondered why....

‘Thank you very much,’ she said. ‘I will try to persuade Charles to take your advice too, and come away for a few days. And now I’ll go down to your house. Oh, your receipt. Shall I write it and file it?’

He had already pulled a sheaf of papers towards him, and was turning them over.

‘Please,’ he said.

It was a crisp morning, with touches of frost lingering in shadowed places where the warmth of the primrose-coloured winter sunshine had not reached them, and Norah preferred walking to taking the bus that would have set her down at the corner where Alfred Street became Alfred Road. She was keenly sensitive to the suggestion of brisk sunshine or the depression of heavy weather, but the kindly vigour of this winter morning did{192} not wholly account for the exhilaration and glee of her blood. There was more than that in it: the drench of a December gale would hardly have affected her to-day. As she went, she let herself examine for the first time the conditions that for the last six weeks had caused her every morning to awake with the sense of pleasure and eager anticipation of the ensuing day. Hitherto she had diverted her mind from causes, and been contented with effects. Her office-work (that work which had begun so distastefully) pleased and interested her, her catalogue work enthralled her, and now she turned round the corner, so to speak, of herself, and asked herself why this sunshine was spread over all she did.

She made no reservation on the subject: she told herself that it was because these things were done with Keeling or for him. With equal frankness, now that she had brought herself face to face with the question, she affirmed that she was not in love with him, and as far as she could know herself at all she knew that to be true. But it was equally true that she had never met any one who so satisfied her. Never for a moment had the least hint of sentimentality entered into their day-long intercourse. He could be, and sometimes was, gruff and grim, and she accepted his grimnesses and gruffnesses because they were his. At other times he showed a comprehending consideration for her, and she welcomed his{193} comprehension and his considerateness, for exactly the same reason. She knew she would not have cared the toss of a brass farthing if Mr Silverdale had comprehended her, or a railway porter had been considerate of her. All her life she had been independent and industrious, and that had sufficed for her. She had not wanted anything from anybody except employment and a decent recompense. Her emotional life had vented itself on those beloved creatures called books, and on that divine veiled figure called Art that stood behind them, and prompted, as from behind some theatre-wing, her deft imaginative work in designing and executing the wood blocks for book-plates. In every one there is a secret fountain which pours itself out broadcast, or quietly leaks and so saves itself from bursting. Books and the dreams she wove into her blocks had given her that leakage, and here had her fountain thrown up its feather of sparkling waters.

She had not been without certain expression of herself in more human terms. She had for years borne patiently with a querulous mother, but her patience and care for her had been the expression of decent and filial behaviour rather than of herself. When that task was over she had gone with comradeship to her brother, with whom she had a greater affinity of tastes. But now, as she walked westwards in the snap of wintry air and the joy of wintry sun, she realised how completely sisterhood and the kinship of a bookish mind accounted for her devotion to him. They were the best of friends, they lived together in the most amicable equality, in a comfortable atmosphere of courtesy and affection. She gave and she took, they lived and worked together equally, and that sense of ‘fairness,’ of reasonable contract between brother and sister was the root of their harmonious companionship.

And now, so she instinctively recognised, that sort of satisfaction in human intercourse had become to her childish and elementary. It was good (nothing could be better) as far as it went, but this morning she felt as some musician might feel, if he was asked to content himself with a series of full plain common chords on the piano. Nothing could be better (as far as it went) than that uncomplicated common chord: nor (as far as it went) could anything be better than living with so amiable and understanding a brother. Only now she wanted to give, instead of to give and take: she wanted to lose the sense of fairness, to serve and not to be served.

She had the satisfaction—and that made her step the more briskly and gave the sunshine this mysterious power of exhilaration—of knowing that she was serving and supplying. She loved the knowledge that never had Keeling’s typewriting been done for him so flawlessly, that never had the details of his business, such as came{195} within her ken, been so unerringly recorded. He might ask for the reference to the minutest point in a month-old letter, and she could always reinforce his deficient memory of it, and turn up the letter itself for confirmation of her knowledge. When days of overwhelming work had occurred, and he had suggested getting in a second typewriter to assist her, she had always, with a mixture of pride in her own efficiency, and of jealousy of a helping hand, proved herself capable of tackling any task that might be set her. Probably she could not have done it for any one else, but she could do it for him. It was easier, so she told herself, to do his work herself, than to instruct anybody else what to do. She allowed herself just that shade of self-deception, knowing all the time that there were plenty of ‘routine’ letters that any one else could have done as well as she. But she did not want anybody else to do them.

She was passing through the disused graveyard of the Cathedral where the clipped hedge of hornbeam bounded the asphalt path. The browned leaves still clung to the trees, and she suddenly remembered how she had passed down this path with Charles, and had said how distasteful it was to work for a cad. Her own words to hang on the air, even as the leaves still clung to the hedge, and she tried in vain to remember the mood in which those words were{196} green as the hornbeam leaves had then been, instead of being brown and lifeless. Lifeless they were, there was no vitality in them. They but clung to her memory, as the brown leaves to the hedge. She was scarcely ashamed of them: she only wondered at them, just as, in parenthesis of her thought, she wondered at the clothed twigs, when all the other trees had shed their foliage. They were not evergreen: they were just dead.

She came out, by this short cut across the Cathedral close, where the motor-bus would have taken her, and saw the row of separated houses stretch westward in Alfred Road. A quarter of a mile away was The Cedars, with the delightful big library, and the abominable residuum of the house. Very likely she would see Mrs Keeling, or Miss Keeling....

It was not only in matters of office work, of swift shorthand, of impeccable typewriting that she was of use to him. She guessed that he found in her a companionship that Mrs Keeling with her pearl-pendant and her propriety could not supply. Norah knew all about the pearl-pendant: Mrs Keeling had told her, as it wagged at her throat, that her husband had given it her on her birthday, and was it not handsome? It was tremendously handsome: there was no doubt whatever about that. But the pearl-pendant mattered to Norah exactly as much as did the cheque which she had just{197} been given. It mattered less, indeed: it did not express anything.

She faced the conclusion that her vague exhilaration of thought had brought her to. She did not only serve him in his office: she served him here in The Cedars. Neither Mrs Keeling nor his daughter could make his book-catalogue for him. Irrespective of their inability, he would not have allowed them to attempt it. But she could do it: he gave her access to his library and a free hand to do as she liked there.

She turned in at the gate and went up the drive to the Gothic porch. He gave her more than that: he gave her his need of her. He had expressed that when he had said her catalogue work was a pure matter of business. What he meant and what she understood was that it was not.

The boy covered with buttons opened the door to her. She hoped that Mrs Keeling would not be richly crossing the Gothic hall. She wanted only to get quietly into the library and go on with letter M. Letter M implied a quantity of cardboard slips.

She wanted to be left alone in the library, working for him. It did not matter whether he paid her for her work or not. She only wanted to go on working for him.

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