An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter VII

Alice Keeling had arrived at that stage of convalescence after her influenza when there is dawn on the wreck, and it seems faintly possible that the world will again eventually prove to contain more than temperature thermometers and beef-tea. She was going to leave Bracebridge with her mother next day for the projected fortnight at Brighton, and had tottered up and down the gravel path round the garden this morning for half an hour to accustom herself to air and locomotion again. While she was out, she had heard the telephone bell ring inside the house, a sound that always suggested to her nowadays an entrancing possibility, and this was confirmed when Parkinson came out to tell her that Mr Silverdale would like to speak to her. At that she ceased to totter: her feet positively twinkled on their way to the little round black ear of the machine. And the entrancing possibility was confirmed. Might Mr Silverdale drop in for the cup that cheered that afternoon? And was she better? And would she promise not to be naughty and get ill again? Indeed, she was vastly better on the moment, and said down the telephone in a voice still slightly hoarse, ‘I’m not naughty: me dood,{199}’ in the baby-dialect much affected by her and Mr Silverdale.

Alice was not of a prevaricating or deceptive nature, but having suddenly remembered that her mother was opening a bazaar that afternoon, and would not be back for tea, she gaily hastened to forget that again, for the chance of having tea alone with Mr Silverdale must not be jeopardised by such infinitesimal proprieties. She hastened also to forget to tell her mother that he had proposed himself, and only remembered to change her dress after lunch for something more becoming. She choose with a view to brightening herself up a daring red gown, which made her, by contrast, look rather whiter than the influenza had really left her. But she did not mind that: it was obviously out of the question to look in rosy and blooming health, and the best alternative was to appear interestingly pale. She remembered also to order hot buns for tea, though the idea of eating one in her present state was provocative of a shuddering qualm, and having her mother safely off the premises, sat waiting in Mrs Keeling’s boudoir ready to ring for tea as soon as her visitor appeared. Punctually the sound of the front-door bell, and according to his custom, he came running across the drawing-room, tapped at the boudoir door, and peeped in, his head alone appearing.

‘May me come in?’ he said. ‘And how are us?{200}’

He took her hand and playfully pretended to feel her pulse.

‘Now this is doctor’s orders,’ he said. ‘You are to sit cosily by the fire, and talk to any poor parson who comes to see you. The dose is to be taken at exactly half-past four!’

He sat down on the hearth-rug in front of her chair, and looked round the room.

‘This is the pleasantest club I know,’ he said. ‘And where’s the president?’

Alice guessed what he meant in a moment.

‘I don’t think mother is in yet,’ she said. ‘We won’t wait tea for her. Buns? There they are. And it’s two lumps of sugar, isn’t it? And how are you?’

‘Better,’ he said, ‘better already. Poor parson has been lonely without his dear kind Helper. But now he’s got her again.’

Alice gave a little quiver of delight, and the cup she handed him rocked on its saucer.

‘But poor parson’s going to be lonely again, isn’t he?’ he went on. ‘Didn’t ickle bird tell him that Helper was going to spread wings and fly away to Brighton for a fortnight? He mustn’t be selfish, mustn’t poor parson, but only be glad to think of Helper sitting in the sun, and drinking in life and health again.’

Alice wished that Julia Fyson could hear him say that. (Julia Fyson probably would have if she had had the influenza too, but that{201} benumbing possibility did not enter Alice’s head.) He had called her Helper before, but the oftener he called her that the better.

‘And now Helper is going to ask questions,’ she said, formally adopting the name. ‘She wants to know if poor parson has been good, and not been overworking himself.’

He turned to her with an air of childlike frankness.

‘He’s been pretty good,’ he said. ‘Not bad enough to be scolded. But if Helper will get nasty influenza, why parson must do some of her work.’

Alice could not keep up this pretty jesting tone any longer: it was much too serious and wonderful a thing to jest about that she should really be his Helper.

‘Oh, Mr Silverdale,’ she said, ‘have I really been of any use to you?’

He began to be firmly conscious of a wish that Mrs Keeling would appear. Alice’s pale eyes were fixed on him with an almost alarming expression of earnestness. He took refuge in the pretty jesting again.

‘Once upon a time,’ he said, ‘there was a young lady of such a modest disposition that though she had a Sunday School and a boys’ class, and made a beautiful, beautiful, altar-cloth—Oh, Helper,’ he broke off, ‘we had your altar-cloth in use for the first time last Sunday, and you not there to see how smart it looked.{202}’

That was another of the ways in which he made religious matters real to many of his congregation. He used the phraseology, even the slang, of ordinary life about them, speaking of ‘such a ripping prayer’ or ‘such a jolly celebration.’

‘Oh, I hope it fitted well,’ said Alice, diverted for the moment by the mention of this piece of ecclesiastical finery.

‘It was a perfect fit. I wish my coats fitted as well. I looked round to see if I couldn’t catch the eye of my Helper, and there wasn’t a Helper there at all. I wondered if you were ill. I could think of nothing else that would have kept you away, and just said a wee bitty prayer for Helper. And then after church I heard that she had horrid old flue. And now may I make chimney smoke? Smoke not smell nasty to poor Flu-flu?’

This was a joke of well-established standing, and asked permission to light a cigarette. Leave was given him, and he insisted that she should strike the match and hold it to the end of his cigarette.

‘Poor parson has no business to indulge himself,’ he said, and blew the inhaled smoke up the chimney in a gay puff.

He had steered the conversation away from the tidings that gleamed from Alice’s earnest eyes, he had taken it past that dangerous corner of religion, from which she might bolt back again to earnestness, and had brought it to its congenial{203} base of legitimate clerical flirtation, which allowed him to talk baby-talk with adoring parishioners, and squeeze hands and dab on the presumption that all this meant no more to anybody else than to him. This was pure assumption: it meant much more to poor Alice....

For one brief moment a certain clear-sightedness penetrated her infatuation, a certain business-like unidealising vision, inherited probably from her father, came to her aid, giving her a warning both peremptory and final. For that one moment she saw this adored priest as he was, more or less, to whom this baby-talk and this squeezing of hands and this lighting of matches were not symbols of anything that lay behind them, but only expressive of an amorous anæmia. Had he been in earnest with a hundredth part of her intention, he would have caught at it, made plain his want, and even if marriage was not within the scope of his desire, reached a hand to the love she brought him, and claimed the comradeship of it, even if he could do no more. But, in this moment of clear vision, she saw and she knew that he did not even do that. He but sat on the hearth-rug and wagged his tail and barked for biscuits.... Then the clouds of her own foolishness, derived perhaps from her mother’s side, and strangely swollen by her individual temperament obscured that brief ray of common sense, and she yielded herself up to the{204} entrancement of having Mr Silverdale sitting on the floor at her feet and lighting his cigarette from her match.

A sudden idiotic courage possessed her; she proposed to put things to the touch. The flickering firelight and her sense of convalescence inspired her. He had called her ‘Helper,’ he had said a thousand things behind which meaning might lurk. It was her business, like that of every sensible girl who wants to be married, to show him that his shy priest-like advances met a slightly less shy welcome. A wave of calculating fatuousness combed over her.

‘Poor parson doesn’t indulge himself as much as he ought,’ she said. ‘He won’t think a wee bitty about his own happiness, and so he makes others think of it for him.’

Alice looked not at him as she said these remarkable words but at the pink clock on the chimney-piece. She had the recklessness of physical weakness in her, she did not care what happened, if only one thing happened. If he would not take that lure, she was quite prepared to try him with another.

He half took it: he rose at it, but, so to speak, rose short. He continued to use baby-language, in order to indicate the distance that separated him from the earnest eyes that so pointedly looked at the pink clock.

‘Poor parson knows kind friends are thinking{205} for him,’ he said. ‘He knows it too well perhaps: he is so selfish that he leaves his happiness in the hands of others, and doesn’t bother about it himself.’

Suddenly it struck this unfortunate clergyman that his words might conceivedly bear a disastrous interpretation to his adorer. Anything was better than to let such an interpretation become coherent: he felt that Alice had been encouraged to be on the point of proposing to him. Without a moment’s delay (since every moment was precious so long as Alice did not take possession of it) he switched off violently on to religious topics. Just now they had seemed dangerous to him, at this awful moment they presented the appearance of an Ark of Refuge.

‘Parson has got too much to think about,’ he hastily continued, ‘to allow him to think of his own happiness. Isn’t it true, dear Miss Alice, that we only get our own happiness when we are thinking not about ourselves? I thought about myself for half an hour this morning, and I did get so dreadfully bored. I thought how pleased I should be if—and how delighted I should be if—and then, thank God, I found myself yawning. It was all so stupid!’

‘I don’t believe you could be stupid,’ said Alice with her infernal calmness, that again terrified him.

‘Stupid? I am always stupid,’ he said. ‘I{206} want to do something for everybody committed to my charge. I want to give myself to the drunkards and the drabs and the unbelievers. But I am like a foolish cook: I do not know how to serve myself up so as to become palatable.’

He could not help drawing a long breath of cigarette smoke mixed with relief. He thought that the corner had been quite safely steered round. There they were back again in parish work, and what could be nicer? He disregarded Alice’s gasp of appreciation at his modesty, and proceeded with an increased sense of comfort.

‘Give, give!’ he said. ‘Give and ask nothing. What you get doesn’t matter. Does it?’

He was feeling so comfortable now that he scarcely wished for Mrs Keeling’s entry. Alice’s earnest eyes, so he told himself (thereby revealing his ignorance of psychology) were dim with the perception of this fine interrogation. He was being wonderful, as he had so often been before, and the perception of that would surely fill her soul with the altruistic glee that possessed himself. He began, in the sense of personal security which this gave him, to get a little incautious. He did not wait for her acceptance of the prodigious doctrine that nothing you get matters to the problematical getter, but construed his own sense of security into her acquiescence.

‘So let us give,’ he said, just as if he was perorating in the pulpit, ‘let us give till we have spent{207} all our energies. That will take a long time, won’t it: for the act of giving seems but to increase your capability of it. Dear Miss Alice, I have a thousand plans that are yet unrealised, a thousand schemes for this little parish of ours. We must have more schools for religious education, more classes, more lives unselfishly lived. I want all the help I can get. I want to transfuse St Thomas’s with the certainty that the doubting disciple lacked. But I can’t do it alone. Those who see must lend me their eyes—I am a mere stupid man. I——’

And then the fatuous voice suddenly ceased. To his extreme terror Alice with her earnest eyes leaned forwards towards him. She was husky through influenza, but the purport of what she said was horribly clear.

‘Oh, Mr Silverdale,’ she said, ‘do you really mean that? That you can’t work alone as a mere man? Do you——’

Alice drew a long breath that wheezed in her poor throat and covered her eyes with her hands, for she was dazzled with the vision that was surely turning real. To her, to his Helper, he had said that he was no use as a mere man. Surely the purport of that was clear.

‘Do you mean me?’ she said.

Mr Silverdale got up off the hearthrug where he had been sitting nursing his knees with miraculous celerity. She behind her hidden eyes heard{208} him and knew, she felt she knew, that in another moment would come the touch of his hands on hers as he took them, and bade her look at him. Perhaps he would say, ‘Look at me, my darling’; perhaps his delicious joking ways would even at this sublimest of moments still assert themselves and he would say ‘Peep-o!’ But whatever he did would be delicious, would be perfect. But no touch came on her hands, and there was a long, an awful moment of dead silence, while behind poor Alice’s hands the dazzle died out of her vision. Before it was broken, she perceived that beyond a shadow of doubt he did not ‘mean her,’ and both were tongue-tied, he in the shame of having provoked a passion he had no use for, she in the shame of having revealed the passion he had not invited. She had come to the wrong house: she was an unbidden guest who must be directed outside the front-door again.

She got up, the sense of being wronged for the moment drowning her shame. It was his fault; he had made her think that he wanted her. She had long been termed his Helper, and now he had made himself clear by terming himself the mere man. At least she had thought he made himself clear. But the silence made him clearer.

‘I see you don’t mean me,’ she said quietly.

There was nothing for it but to confirm the justness of this perception.{209}

‘My dear Miss Alice,’ he said, ‘I am infinitely distressed.’

From the mere habit of pawing, he laid his hand on hers.

‘Infinitely distressed,’ he repeated. ‘I had no idea that you ever looked upon me——’

He could not complete that outrageous falsity with Alice’s eyes fixed on him. She waited, she longed to withdraw her hand from under his: it itched to pluck itself away and yet some counter-compelling influence from herself kept it there, delighting in his touch. The resentment at the encouragement she had received, which had provoked this ghastly fiasco, faded from her, her shame at having precipitated it faded also, and her mind, even in this cataclysm, but sunned itself in his presence. But that lasted only for a moment, her shame toppled it off its pre-eminence again, and again her sense of the wanton flirting of which she had been the victim banished her shame. Never in all the years of her placid existence had her mother felt the poignancy of any one of those emotions which made tumult together in Alice’s heart. And as if that was not enough, another added its discordant shrillness to the Babel within her. She pulled her hand away.

‘Tell me one thing,’ she said. ‘Is there some one else? Is it Julia Fyson? Oh, Mr Silverdale, do tell me it is not Julia Fyson!{210}’

Mr Silverdale suffered at that moment a profound disappointment. He had been telling himself that his hand was exercising a calming and controlling influence over this poor lady, and that presently she would say something very sensible and proper, though he could not quite tell what this would be. Instead, it was as if a wild cat had suddenly leaped out at him.

‘Certainly it is not Miss Julia Fyson,’ he exclaimed, in great dismay. For the moment his chronic fatuous complacency in the possession of his habitual adorers quite faded from his mind. They were intended to adore him tenderly, reverentially, fervently, but not to make proposals of marriage to him. He really did not care if he never put his arm round Julia Fyson’s waist again.

‘I assure you it is not Miss Fyson,’ he reiterated, wiping his moist forehead. ‘I wonder at your suggesting it. Besides, you surely know my views about the celibacy of the clergy.’

The humorousness, as it would have struck a bystander, of this amazing anticlimax escaped Alice. She knew it was an anticlimax, for she was not giving two thoughts to his principles, but was only involved in his practices. Anger suddenly flamed in her, giving her an odd grotesque dignity.

‘I dare say I have heard you express them,’ she said, ‘but I have also heard you express intimacy and affection towards me. You always{211} encouraged me, you held my hand, you whispered to me, and once, after my confession, you——’

‘No, no,’ said Mr Silverdale hurriedly.

‘But you did: you kissed me on the forehead and called me a little child,’ said Alice, with indignation that waxed as she recalled those tokens.

Mr Silverdale clasped his hands together.

‘I am infinitely distressed,’ he began. But Alice, with her temper rising to heights uncontemplated, interrupted him.

‘You said that twice before,’ she said. ‘And I don’t believe you care a bit.’

‘Hush!’ said Mr Silverdale, holding up his hand as he did at the benediction.

‘I won’t hush. You did all those things, and what was a girl to make of them except what I made of them? I put the natural construction on them. And you know it.’

The hand of benediction did not seem to be acting well, and Mr Silverdale took it down. He used it instead to cover his eyes. He was quite genuinely sorry for Alice, but at the back of his mind he could not help considering what a wonderful person he must be to inspire this passion without ever having meant to. There was a fascination about him....

‘I am deeply grieved,’ he said, ‘but as you will not listen to anything I say, there is no use in my saying any more. Good-bye, Miss Alice.{212}’

He put back his head in a proud, misunderstood attitude, and instantly at the thought of his leaving her like this, Alice’s anger began to ooze out of her. She pictured what the room would be like when the boudoir door had closed behind him, its intolerable emptiness. But she had still enough resentment left not to stop him.

‘Good-bye,’ she said.

‘Aren’t you going to shake hands?’ he asked.

The dying flame flickered up again.

‘We’ve got nothing to shake hands about,’ she said.

He bowed his head with a marvellous proud meekness, and left her.

Alice sat down again by the fire, and picked up a piece of buttered bun with a semicircular bite out of it which had fallen on the carpet. He must have been in the middle of that mastication when the fiasco began.... Yet, he could not have been, for he had begun to smoke. Perhaps he took another bun after he had finished his cigarette.... She considered this with a detached curiosity; it seemed to occupy all her mind. Then the boy covered with buttons came in to remove the tea-tray, and she noticed he had a piece of sticking plaster in the middle of his forehead. That was interesting too and curious.... And then she had a firm, an absolute conviction that Mr Silverdale had not gone away, that he was waiting in the hall, unable to tear himself from{213} her, and yet forbidden by his pride to come back. He had only left the room a couple of minutes; and surely she would find him seated in one of the Gothic chairs in the hall, with his hand over his face. She must go to him; their eyes would meet, and somehow or other the awful misunderstanding and estrangement in which they had parted would melt away. He would say, ‘Life is too strong for me; farewell the celibacy of the clergy,’ or something like that: or he would hold her hand for a long, a very long time, and perhaps whisper, ‘Then blessings on the fallings out,’ or ‘Whatever happens, nothing must interrupt our friendship.’ Perhaps the farewell to the celibacy of the clergy was an exaggerated optimism, but she would be so content, so happy with much less than that (provided always that he did not say his farewell to celibacy with Julia Fyson). She would be enraptured to continue on the old terms, now that she understood what he meant and what he did not mean. And perhaps she had spoiled it all, so that he would never again hold her hand or whisper to her, or kiss her with that sort of tender and fraternal affection as once in the vestry when she had made her guileless confession to him. It was a brother-kiss, a priest-kiss, coming almost from realms above, and now she had thrown that in his teeth. She had altogether failed to understand him, him and his friendship, his comradeship (and his pawings). In the{214} fading of her anger she longed for all that which she had thought meant so much, but which she prized now for its own sake. Surely she would find him still lingering in the hall, sorrowful and unhappy and misunderstood, but not reproachful, for he was too sublime for that. He had said he was infinitely grieved several times, and he would be great enough to forgive her. Perhaps he would be too deeply hurt to make any of those appropriate little speeches she had devised for him, and if so, the reconciliation for which already she yearned, the re-establishment of their relations on the old maudlin lines, must come from her initiative. Already with that curious passion some women have for being beaten and ill-treated, she longed to humble herself, to entreat his forgiveness.

She did not wait to put on a shawl, but walked quickly across the drawing-room, where she had so often heard his nimble tripping approach, and across the inner hall and out into that Gothic apartment where she would surely find him. Before she got there she had only one desire left, to abase herself and be raised up again. She was short-sighted, and as she came into the outer hall, her heart for a moment leaped within her, for she thought she saw him standing in the dusky corner by the library door. Then, with a sickening reaction, she saw the phantom resolve itself into a coat and hat of her father’s hanging up there, and she saw that the hall was empty, and Mr Silverdale gone. Still she would not give up; he might be standing just outside, unable quite to leave her like this, and opening the front door, she looked out on to the star-sown dusk. But certainly there was no one there.

She went back to her mother’s room and deliberately proceeded to torture herself. She had been to blame throughout, and not a spark of anger or resentment came to comfort her. All these past months he had brought joy and purpose into her aimless life, and she had but bitten the hand that fed her, and even worse than that, had scolded its owner for his bounty. It was with a sense of incredulity that she recalled some of her awful phrases, her rude, snappish interruptions, and yet in the midst of her self-humiliation she knew that she felt thrills of excitement, both at what had happened and what was taking shape in her brain as to what was going to happen. She had just that pleasure in her agonies of self-reproach, as does the penitent who scourges himself. She liked it to hurt, she gloried in the castigation that was surely doing her good.

Tingling from her self-inflicted penance, she went to her mother’s writing table, for she had to complete her humiliation by writing to him without delay, and expressing fully and unreservedly all that had made this last half-hour so replete with the luxury of self-reproach. But the expression{216} of it was not so easy as the perception of it had been, and she made half a dozen beginnings without satisfying herself. One began, ‘Oh, Mr Silverdale, how could I?’ but then she despaired of how to proceed. Another began, ‘I have honestly gone over every moment of this afternoon, and I find there is not a single point in which I am not entirely to blame,’ but that was too business-like and lacked emotion. But when she was almost in despair at these futile efforts, a brilliant idea came into her head. She would write in baby-language, which would surely touch his heart when he remembered how many serious things he and she had discussed together in this pretty jesting fashion.

‘Me vewy sorry,’ she wrote. ‘Me all messy with sorrowness. O poor parson, your Helper is vewy miserable. May things be as before? Will ‘oo forget and forgive, and let everything be nicey-nicey again? Fvom your wicked little Helper who hates herself.’

She could not improve on that either for silliness or pathetic sincerity, and unable to contemplate the delay which the post would entail, she gave it to the boy covered with buttons to carry it at once by hand to the Vicarage and wait for an answer. That would take half an hour: there were thirty delicious minutes of suspense, for though she did not doubt the purport of his answer, it was thrilling to have to wait for it.{217}

The thrillingness was slightly shorn of its vibrations by the return of her mother, who had a great deal to say about the felicitous manner in which she had opened the bazaar. She had brought back with her a small plush monkey climbing a string, and a realistic representation of a spider’s web, with a woolly spider sitting in the middle of it. The rim of the web was fitted with hooks, so that you could hang it up anywhere. She selected the base of the pink clock as the most suitable site.

‘Is it not clever and quaint?’ she said. ‘I must really tell Jane that it is not a real one, or she will be dusting it away. And the monkey too, that is even quainter. You can bend its arms and legs into all sorts of attitudes. I made a little speech, dear, and there was Lady Inverbroom on one side of me, and Mrs Crawshaw on the other. It was quite a gathering of county people. Lady Inverbroom asked after you; no, I think I told her you had the influenza first, and then she asked after you. Yes, that was the way of it. She had a mantle on which I don’t think can have cost more than four guineas, but then I’m sure it’s not her fault if she has to economise. For my part, if I had all those pictures with that great house to keep up, I should get my husband to sell one or two, and treat myself to a bit of finery and a better dinner in the evening.{218}’

‘Perhaps they are entailed,’ said Alice, thinking that by now her note would have arrived at the Vicarage.

‘Very likely, my dear,’ said her mother, ‘though it’s poor work entailing your pictures if you haven’t got anybody to leave them to. Indeed, I don’t see how they could be entailed unless you had somebody nearer than a second cousin to entail them for. I shouldn’t think the law would allow that for so distant a relation, though I’m sure I don’t know. Bless me, you’ve put on your new red dress. Whatever have you done that for? Just to sit quietly before the fire at home?’

Alice had the sense not to conceal a perfectly ordinary and innocent event, which if concealed and subsequently detected would make the concealment of it significant.

‘Oh, Mr Silverdale came to tea,’ she said. ‘He telephoned.’

‘All alone with you?’ said Mrs Keeling archly. ‘Well I’m sure! What did you talk about? or is it stupid of me to ask that?’

Alice felt her colour rising till she imagined her face as red as her gown. She decided to treat the question humorously.

‘Very stupid, Mamma dear,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t dream of telling you all we said to each other.’

At this moment the boy covered with buttons entered.

‘Mr Silverdale’s not at home, miss,’ he said. ‘But he will be given your note when he comes in, and send an answer.’

Now Mrs Keeling had a very high opinion of her powers of tact and intuition. Here was a situation that promised to drive the final nail into the cheap and flimsy coffin of Mrs Fyson’s hopes. Mr Silverdale had come to tea all alone with Alice, and here was Alice writing him a note that required an answer not half an hour afterwards. Her intuition instantly told her that Mr Silverdale had made a proposal of marriage to Alice, and that Alice had written to him saying that he must allow her a little time to think it over. (Why Alice should not have said that, or why Alice should not have instantly accepted him, her intuition did not tell her.) But it was certain that no other grouping of surmises would fit the facts. Then her intuition having done its work, though bursting with curiosity she summoned her tact to her aid, and began to talk about the spider’s web again. She was determined not to pry into her daughter’s heart, but wait for her daughter to open the door of it herself. Alice (and this only served to confirm Mrs Keeling’s conjectures) responded instantly to this tactful treatment, and began to talk so excitedly about the spider’s web, and the plush monkey, and their journey to Brighton next day, that Mrs Keeling almost began to be afraid that she was feverish again. But presently this volubility died down, and she{220} sat, so Mrs Keeling rightly conjectured, listening for something. Once she was certain that she heard steps in the next room, and went to see if her father had come in: once she was almost sure that the telephone bell had rung, and wondered who it could be disturbing them at their chat over the fire. Then, without doubt, the telephone bell did ring, and on this occasion she pretended she had not heard it, but hurriedly left the room on the pretext of taking her tonic. She left the door open, and Mrs Keeling could distinctly hear her asking her tonic apparently who it was, though well aware that it was strychnine.... Then after a pause she heard her thanking her tonic ever ever so much, and she came back looking as if it had done her a great deal of good already.

Odd as it may appear, there were limits to Mrs Keeling’s tact, or to state the matter in other terms, none to her curiosity. For a little while she resisted the incoming tide; but when Alice had informed her brightly for the third time that their train started at 11.29 next morning, she felt so strongly that a mother was her daughter’s proper confidante, that her tact retreated rapidly towards vanishing point.

‘I saw Mrs Fyson this afternoon,’ she said, beginning gently.

‘And did she see you?’ asked Alice, with a sort of idiotic eagerness. All the time there was ringing in her head, like a peal of baritone bells through{221} the quackings of the telephone, the lovely words, ‘My dear little Helper! Bless you, my dear little Helper.’

‘I imagine so, as I was opening the bazaar,’ said Mrs Keeling, with some dignity.

‘Of course, yes,’ said Alice, with enthusiasm. ‘How stupid of me not to have thought of that. That lovely spider! Do remember to tell Jane not to dust it away. I haven’t seen Mrs Fyson for a long time, nor Julia. I must write a note to Julia wishing her good-bye before I go to Brighton. Dear Julia.’

She got up and overturned a tray of pens in her eagerness to write to Julia. This, of course, gave fresh provender to her mother’s intuition. She could put two and two together as well as most people, and hardly ever failed to make the result ‘five.’ It was quite obvious that Mr Silverdale had proposed to Alice, and that in consequence Mrs Fyson’s ill-founded expectations for Julia had fallen as flat as a card-house. No wonder Alice could afford to forgive her friend.

‘Well, I’m glad to hear you speak like that, dear,’ she said, ‘because the last time you mentioned Julia’s name was to tell me that you didn’t want to hear it mentioned again. Mrs Fyson, too, I dare say she is a very well-meaning woman, though she does go about saying that all sorts of things are happening without any grounds except that she wants them to.{222}’

Alice made a large blot on her paper in agitation at hearing this allusion, and took another sheet of paper.

‘And I am sure Julia has an excellent heart,’ she said enthusiastically, recalling Mr Silverdale’s definite assurance that ‘it’ was not Julia. At the time she had been so full of more personal emotion that she had scarcely cared; now the balm of that was divinely soothing.

‘Quite an excellent heart,’ she said. ‘Julia has always been my friend, except just lately. And now it is all right again. Don’t you think that quarrels sometimes lead to even warmer attachments, Mamma?’

Mrs Keeling tried to recollect something about quarrels she had been party to. There was the case of the two little tiffs she had had lately with her husband, once when he had distinctly sworn at her, once when he had asked her so roughly what she meant with regard to her little joke about Norah and the catalogue. One of those, so it suddenly seemed to her now, had led to a pearl-pendant, which seemed to illustrate Alice’s theory of quarrels leading to warmer attachments. She had not connected the two before. She wondered whether Mrs Fyson would say that that was very clever too.... She determined to think it over when she had leisure. At present she was too curious about Alice to attend to it. But she would think it over at Brighton.{223}

‘Don’t you think they lead to warmer attachments, Mamma?’ repeated Alice, finding she got no answer.

Mrs Keeling was very cunning. She would apply this to Alice’s quarrel with Julia and just see what Alice would say next.

‘Well, dear,’ she said. ‘You couldn’t well be more warmly attached to Julia than you were. I’m sure you used to be quite inseparable.’

Alice gave a little hoarse laugh.

‘Oh, that,’ she said. ‘Dear Julia; I hope we shall be great friends again, when I come back from Brighton. I shall be very glad to, I am sure.’

Clearly the quarrels which led to warmer attachments had nothing to do with Alice’s late fury about Fysons, and her mother, throwing tact and delicacy about a daughter’s heart to the winds, tried another method of battering her way into it. She could not conceive why Alice did not tell her that Mr Silverdale had proposed to her.

‘I’ve been thinking, dear,’ she said, ‘that it would be but kind to ask Mr Silverdale down to Brighton while we are there. He looks as if a holiday would do him good. I would take a nice room for him in the hotel, and of course he would use our sitting room. Of course, I should make it quite clear to him that he was my guest, just as if he was staying with us here. Such walks and{224} talks as you and he could have! What do you think of that for a plan?’

Alice was so stiff with horror at ‘that for a plan’ that she could barely articulate. Of course Mr Silverdale would refuse to come, the horror was but due to the mere notion that he should be asked.

‘Oh, I don’t think that would do at all, Mamma!’ she said. ‘It would be a very odd thing to propose.’

‘I don’t see why. You and he are such friends. I shall write to him and suggest it, or you might; perhaps that would be best: he can but say he cannot manage it, though for my part I should be very much surprised if he did not accept.’

Alice got up from the table where she had just written an affectionate little note to Julia, and came up to her mother’s chair, quivering with apprehension.

‘You really must do nothing of the sort,’ she said. ‘There are reasons against it: I can’t tell you them.’

Mrs Keeling’s powers of intuition could make nothing of this. Starting with the firm conviction that Mr Silverdale had proposed to her daughter, there seemed no place where it would fit in.

‘You are very mysterious, dear,’ she said. ‘You seem to forget that I am your mother. And if you tell me that I must speak to nobody about it yet, you may be sure I shall not do so without{225} your leave. I was always famous for my ability to keep a secret. Why, not so long ago your father told me something which I am sure will make Mrs Fyson turn quite green with odious jealousy when she hears it, and I have not breathed a word to anybody. Not a word. So don’t be so mysterious, dear; I remember going to tell Mamma the moment your father spoke to me, and it was in the garden behind Mamma’s house; I could show you the very place, if you don’t believe me.’

‘But Mr Silverdale hasn’t spoken to me like that,’ said poor Alice.

‘Well then, there’s a reason the more for asking him to Brighton,’ said Mrs Keeling, now quite out of sight of her tact, ‘I know very well what all his attentions to you mean. I’ve never seen a man so devoted, for I’m sure your father never made such a fuss over me as that. You’ve got to meet a man half-way, dear; it’s only right to show him that you are not indifferent to him (or do I mean that he’s not indifferent to you? some words are so puzzling). He wants a wife, I can see that, and you may trust me that it’s you he wants. I shall invite him to Brighton, and if you only behave sensibly, he’ll ask you before we’re even thinking of coming back.’

‘But I don’t want him to ask me,’ said Alice, splendide mendax.

Mrs Keeling looked positively roguish.{226}

‘Oh, you just wait till he does, and that won’t be a very long wait,’ she said. ‘You think you’ll be shy and nervous, but you won’t when your turn comes. I’ll be bound you like him well enough really.’

This was about as pleasant to Alice as the prodding of an exposed nerve. But she held on unshaken to the main point.

‘If you ask him to Brighton,’ she said, ‘I shall instantly write to tell him that I am not going. That’s my last word. And if you knew what has happened, you would agree with me. He won’t come, but I can’t have him asked.’

Alice, in spite of her influenza and the shattering events of this afternoon, had something adamantine about her. She paused a moment.

‘Please promise me at once not to suggest this to him,’ she added.

Mrs Keeling rose from her chair. The dressing-bell had already sounded, and she had not had a moment’s rest since before lunch.

‘Well, I’m sure it’s little reward one gets for being a mother in these days,’ she said, ‘or a wife either, for what with your father’s typewriter lording it in the library, and you telling me what’s right and what isn’t in my own room, there’s little left for me to be mistress of. I wear myself to the bone in doing my duty to you and him, and all I get is to be sworn at and scolded, and when I lie awake at night making plans for your future,{227} you tell me that I might just as well have gone to sleep, for you won’t permit them. Pray may I go and dress, or haw you any other orders for me?’

‘No, I just want your promise that you won’t ask Mr Silverdale to Brighton,’ said Alice, unmoved by this withering sarcasm.

‘Well, what’s the use of repeating that like a parrot?’ observed Mrs Keeling. ‘Haven’t I promised?’

‘I didn’t hear you,’ said Alice.

‘Well, then, you may have your own way, and be crowed over by Mrs Fyson, since you prefer that to being taken care of by me.’

Alice’s smart red dress was good enough for a purely domestic dinner, and she sat down again by the fire when her mother had bewailed herself out of the room. She had got her way there, and that was a relief; she was Mr Silverdale’s Helper again, and that was a glow that had penetrated her very bones. When she wrote the little baby-note to him, she felt that if only she was granted such a welcome back as had been conveyed to her down the telephone, she would swoon with happiness. But already that which she thirsted for was dust in her mouth, like Dead Sea apples. She guessed that his little caresses and whispers had meant so much to her because she took them to be the symbols of so much more. Now she{228} knew better, they were without meaning. And the measure of her disillusionment may be taken from the fact that independently of all that had happened, she was glad that there would be no chance of his coming to Brighton. She wanted him to love her, and failing that, she did not want the little tokens that had made her think he did. He might just remain in Bracebridge and dab away at Julia if he wished, provided only that he meant nothing whatever by it. She did not love him a whit the less, but just now she did not want him whose presence for these last six months had filled her with sunshine. She must go away into the dark, and see what the dark felt like. And poor Alice, sitting by the fire in her smart red dress, began to make the most extraordinary faces in efforts at self-control. But the convulsions in her throat threatened to master her completely, and with bitten, quivering lips she ran to her room, and burst into tears.

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