An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter VIII

Spring weather, languid and damp, with mild airs and pale suns, had set in early in March, and now for a fortnight the restlessness and effervescence of the vernal month had been busy in the world. The grass showed through the grayness of its winter foliage the up-thrusting of the fresh green spikes and spears: big gummy buds stood upon the chestnut trees, a sherbet of pink almond flowers clothed the shrubs all along the front gardens of Alfred Road, and daffodils, faithful for once to their Shakespearian calendar, were ready with a day or two more of sun, to take the winds of March with beauty. Birds chirruped in every bush and were busy with straws and twigs; there were tokens everywhere of the great renewal. Then came three days of hot sun and tepid night showers and the sheaths of buds were loosed, and out of the swollen gummy lumps on the trees burst out the weak five-fingered chestnut leaves and the stiff varnished squibs of hawthorn.

It was many years since Keeling had given any notice at all to such unmarketable objects as chestnut-buds or building birds. Spring had a certain significance, of course, in the catering department, for early vegetables made their appearance, and{230} soon there would arrive the demand for plovers’ eggs: spring, in fact, was a phenomenon that stirred in his pocket rather than his heart. But this year it was full of hints to him, of delicate sensations too fugitive to be called emotions, of sudden little thrills of vague longings and unformulated desires. A surreptitious half-sheet lurked in the blotting-paper on his library table on which he scrawled the date of some new flower’s epiphany, or the fact that a thrush was building in the heart of a syringa outside the window. It was characteristic of his business habits to tabulate those things: it was characteristic also that he should thrust the catalogue deep into the leaves of his blotting-paper, as if it held some guilty secret.

On this particular Sunday morning, he had not gone to Cathedral service at all, but after his wife and Alice had set forth in the victoria to St Thomas’s, had walked out westwards along the road from The Cedars, to where half a mile away the last house was left behind and the billowing downs rolled away in open sea out of sight of the land of houses. In the main it was the sense of spring with its intimate stirrings that called him out, and the adventure was a remarkable one, for it was years since he had failed to attend Sunday morning service. But to-day he sought no stern omnipotent Presence, which his religion told him must be invoked among arches and altars: he{231} sought maybe the same, under the guise of a smiling face, in windy temples. It was not that he consciously sought it: as far as any formulated expression went, he would have said that he ‘chose’ to go for a walk in the country, and would attend Cathedral service in the evening as usual. But as he walked he wondered whether Norah would come to The Cedars that morning to work in his library. He had not the slightest intention, however reserved and veiled from himself, of going back there to see; he meant to walk until his wife and daughter would certainly be back from church again, though probably this was among the last two or three mornings that Norah would come to The Cedars at all, for the catalogue was on the point of completion.

But he knew there was another disposition of events possible. She had told him yesterday that she was not sure whether she would work there that morning or not. All the week her hours in the office had been long, and she might spend the morning out of doors. He knew already that she loved the downs, and indeed it was she who had told him of this particular path which he was now taking as a favourite ramble of hers. Her brother almost invariably walked with her, and Keeling was quite innocent of contriving an accidental meeting with her alone. But somewhere floating about in his heart was the imagined possibility that she might be alone, and that he would meet{232} her. He did not expect to meet her at all, but he knew he would love to see her, either with Charles or without, swinging along on this warm windy morning in the freedom of the country air and the great open spaces. They would suit her.... But primarily it was not she in any way that he sought: he wanted open space, and this wonderful sense of spring with its white bowlings of cloud along the blue, and its upthrusting of young grass. He wanted it untrammelled and wild, the tended daffodils and the buildings of birds so near house walls was not part of his mood.

He climbed quickly up the narrow chalky path, and at the top left it to tramp over the turf. Here he was on an eminence that commanded miles of open country, empty and yet brimful of this invasion of renewed life that combed through him like a swirl of sea-water through the thickets of subaqueous weed. His back was to the cup of hills round which Bracebridge clustered, and turning round he looked at it with a curious sense of detachment. There were the spires of the Cathedral, and hardly less prominent beside them the terra-cotta cupolas of the Stores. He wanted one as little as he wanted the other, and turned westwards, where the successive lines of downs stretched away like waves of a landless sea. Then he stopped again, for from a tussock of grass not fifty yards from him there shot up with throbbing throat and down-beating wings a solitary lark.{233} Somewhere in that tussock was the mate to whom it sang.

Quivering and tuneful it soared, now almost invisible against the blue, but easily seen again when a white cloud rolled up behind it, and the shadow preceding it turned the fresh emerald of the down grass to a dark purplish green. At that the delicate trembling hints of spring suddenly crystallised in Keeling’s heart into strong definite emotion. It was young, it sang to its mate as it climbed into the sky....

Soon it passed altogether out of his sight: it was just a sightless singing out of the winds of March. Then slowly descending it appeared again, and its song grew louder. Just before it dropped into its tussock of grass the song ceased.

Keeling waited quite still for a moment, and then came back into himself from the bright places into which he had aspired.

‘God, there’s no fool like an old fool,’ he said to himself as he skirted with a wide berth past the tussock where larks were nesting.

The ridge on which he walked declined downwards into a hollow full of sunshine flecked with shadow. A few big oak-trees stood there, still leafless, and the narrow path, with mossy banks on each side, led through a copse of hazel which had been felled the year before. The ground was covered with the fern-like leaves of wood anemones{234} and thickly tufted with the dark green spears, where in May the bluebells would seem like patches of fallen sky. It was sheltered here, and a brimstone butterfly flitted through the patches of sunlight. At the bottom of the hollow a runnel of water from some spring crossed the path, and babbled into a cup fringed with creeping ivy, and young crinkled primrose leaves. Then the path rose swiftly upwards again on the side of the next rolling billow of down, and coming towards him from it was the figure, tall and swiftly moving, of a girl. For a moment he resented the fact of any human presence here: the next he heard his heart creaking in his throat, for he saw who it was.

By the time he recognised her, he too was recognised, and half way up the climbing path they met. She was carrying her hat in her hand, and the sunlit sparks of fire in her brown bright hair, that the wind had disordered into a wildness that greatly became her and the spirit of the spring morning. Her brisk walking had kindled a glow in her cheeks, and she was a little out of breath, for she had run down the path from the crest of slope beyond. Standing a step or two above him on the steep slope their eyes were on a level; as straight as an arrow’s fight hers looked into his.

‘Not working at the catalogue, then, this morning?’ he said. ‘I wondered whether you would or not.{235}’

‘I meant to,’ she said, ‘until I smelt the wind. Then it was impossible. I should not care if every book in the world was burned, I think. And you, not at the Cathedral this morning?’

‘And that might be burned too,’ he said.

She laughed.

‘I’m a Pagan to-day,’ she said, ‘and so it appears are you. Pan is sitting somewhere in this wood. Did you hear his flute?’

‘No: only the wind and the song of a skylark.’

‘Perhaps that was he. He’s all over the place this morning.’

‘You told me about Pan,’ he said. ‘I had never heard of him before.’

‘Well, you heard him to-day. He was the wind and the skylark. He always is if you know how to listen. But I mustn’t keep you. You are going farther.’

He looked at his watch, not deriving any impression from it, then back at her.

‘No, I must turn too,’ he said. ‘Mayn’t I walk with you?’

‘Naturally till we get to the town, and then, as naturally, not. But we must wait in this hollow a little longer. It is brimful of spring. Look at the clumps of bluebell leaves. In a month there will be a thick blue carpet spread here.’

‘Which are the bluebells?’ he asked.

She pointed, and then bending down found in{236} the centre of one the bud from which the blossom would expand.

‘I thought they were just some sort of grass,’ he said. ‘The woods are covered with them. Will you show them to me when they are all out?’

‘Oh, Mr Keeling,’ she said. ‘You will surely be able to see them for yourself.’

‘Not so well.’

She rose from her examination of the bud, her face still flushed.

‘Yes, we’ll see them together some Saturday afternoon then,’ she said. ‘I won’t have any hand in your not going to Cathedral on Sunday morning. I suppose we must be getting back. What time was it when you looked at your watch just now?’

‘I forget. I don’t think I saw.’

She laughed.

‘I do that so often when I’m working at the catalogue in the evening,’ she said. ‘I look to see if it is time to go to bed, and then go on working. There isn’t any time so long as you are absorbed in anything.’

They mounted the steep ascent down which he had come a few minutes before. The wind was at their backs, ruthlessly blowing them towards Bracebridge.

‘And there’s the opening of the hospital wing to-morrow,’ she said. ‘I suppose you won’t be at the office in the morning at all?’

‘I shall just look in,’ he said. ‘Will you come to the opening and to the lunch afterwards with your brother? There is a table for some dozen of my staff.’

‘I am sure we should both like to. I love ceremonies and gold chains and personages. I’ve been visiting at the hospital, too, reading to patients.’

‘Have you? You never told me that.’

‘It wasn’t particularly interesting. But I am so sorry for people in hospital. I shall take a basket of bluebells there one day. Only it makes me feel cheap to read for an hour on Saturday afternoon, or pick some flowers. It is so little, and yet what more can I do? If I were rich I would spend thousands on hospitals.’

He was silent a moment.

‘Is that remark made to me?’ he asked.

‘I suppose it is just a little bit. It was very impertinent.’

‘I do subscribe to it, you know,’ he said.

‘Oh, yes; I saw your name among the subscribers when I was there yesterday,’ she said rather hurriedly.

Keeling felt a keen and secret enjoyment over this. He knew quite well what she must have seen, namely the fact that he was a yearly subscriber of £10, as set forth on the subscription board. He had no temptation whatever to tell her who was the anonymous donor of the new wing. She would hear that to-morrow, and in{238} the meantime would continue to consider him the donor of £10 a year. He liked that: he did not want any curtailment of it.

‘And no one knows who the giver of the new wing is?’ she asked.

‘I fancy Lord Inverbroom does,’ he replied, secretly praising himself for his remarkable ingenuity.

‘I enjoyed that afternoon I spent there,’ she said. ‘They are kind, they are simple, and it is only simple people who count. I wonder if Lord Inverbroom gave the wing himself.’

‘Ah, that had not occurred to me,’ said Keeling.

This served his purpose. Clearly no suspicion of being tricked by an ingenious answer crossed the girl’s mind, and she paused a moment shielding her eyes with her hand and looking towards Bracebridge. That shelter from the sun concealed all her face but her mouth, and looking at her he thought that if her mouth alone was visible of her, he could have picked it out as hers among a thousand others. The full upper lip was the slightest degree irregular; it drooped a little on the right, falling over the join with the lower lip: it was as if it was infinitesimally swollen there. For one second of stinging desire he longed to shut down her hand over her eyes, and kiss that corner of her mouth. It must have been that about which the skylark sang....{239}

They had come near to the end of the ridge where the steep descent on to the road began. Fifty yards in front, at present unnoticed by him, was the tussock out of which the bird had risen, and even as they paused, she looking at Bracebridge, and he at her, that carolling and jubilation began again. At once she put down her shielding hand, and laid it on his sleeve, as if he could not hear.

‘There’s your lark,’ she whispered.

She did not move while the song continued, her hand still rested unconsciously on his sleeve, her eyes looked straight at him, demanding his companionship in that young joy of life that thrilled her no less than the bird. It was that in the main that possessed her, and yet, for that delicate intimate moment, she had instinctively (so instinctively that she was unaware of her choice) chosen him as her companion. She wanted to listen to the lark with him (or his coat) on her finger-tips. Her whole soul was steeped in the joyful hour, and it was with him she shared it: it was theirs, not hers alone.

The song grew faint and louder again, then ceased, and she took her hand off his arm.

‘Thanks,’ she said.

They made a wide circuit round that windy home of melody.

‘And now which of us shall go first?’ she said, ‘for we must go alone now. Which of us{240} naturally walks fastest? You, I expect. So I shall sit here for five minutes more and then follow.’

He agreed to this, and strode off down the steep descent. Just before he was out of sight he turned to wave a hand at her. Then she was alone on the great empty down, still hatless, still flushed with wind and walking, and just behind her the tussock where the lark lived.

He found a note for himself on the hall table, and with it in his hand walked into his wife’s room to see if she had returned from church. She was already there, resting a little after the fatigue of worship, and extremely voluble.

‘So you are back too, Thomas,’ she said, ‘and what a pity you did not get back sooner. Lord Inverbroom has just called, and left a note for you. I wonder you did not see him in the Cathedral, for he went to service there. I said you always took a walk on Sunday morning after service, so sooner than wait, he wrote a note for you. Oh, you have it in your hand. What a curious handwriting his is: I should have thought a spider from the ink-pot could have done better than that, but no doubt you will be able to make it out. Of course I asked him to stop to lunch, for whether we are alone or expect company, I’m sure my table is good enough for anybody. Alice will not be here: she has gone to lunch with Mr Silverdale.{241}’

‘Oh! Is that quite proper?’

‘Not alone, my dear, what do you take me for? I hope I know what is proper and what is not. His sister has come to stay with him, a most ladylike sort of person, you might almost say distinguished. She and Alice made great friends instantly: I declare you would have thought they were sisters, instead of the two Silverdales. They were “my dear” to each other before they had talked for five minutes. I thought it quite an omen.’

‘Of what?’ asked he.

‘Why of their becoming sisters. I am no match-maker, thank God, but really the way in which Mr Silverdale introduced his sister to Alice, why, I have never seen anything like it. “This is my Helper, Margaret,” he said, or perhaps it was Martha: I could not quite catch the name. “This is my dear Helper (that was it) and I couldn’t do without her.” What do you say to that?’

‘I don’t say anything at all, my dear,’ he said. ‘Mr Silverdale has said it too often.’

‘Ah, but the tone: there is so much in the tone,’ said this excruciating lady. ‘How very odd it would be to hear a clergyman give out his own banns.’

‘I should think it remarkably odd if they were Alice’s too,’ said Keeling.

‘Well, and I dare say it won’t be long before you are finely surprised then. Pray tell me what Lord{242} Inverbroom says. I am sure it is about the opening of the hospital to-morrow. I have practised my royal curtsey. I can get down and up quite easily, indeed Mamma thought it most graceful, and she does not praise without reason. Perhaps Lord Inverbroom wants me to come down to the bottom of the steps and make my curtsey there. If he insists, of course I will do it, for naturally he knows more about court etiquette than I do at present. I will certainly bow to his superior knowledge.’

Keeling stood there with his letter still unopened. Half an hour ago he had been with Norah, listening to the skylark on the downs. Now on the pink clock in front of him hung the quaint spider’s web, which Jane had been most careful about. He felt as if he was caught there....

‘Or it may be about the bouquet,’ continued his wife. ‘Very likely he has found out that the princess has some favourite flower, in which case it would be only right to have it made of that instead of carnations and gypso-something, and I could say, “Your favourite flower, your Royal Highness,” or something of the sort. Pray open your letter, Thomas, and see what it is.’

Keeling found no difficulty in deciphering the handwriting. There were three pages, and glancing through them, he moved towards the door.

‘Nothing whatever about the ceremony to-morrow,’ he said.{243}

He went to his library and gave a more detailed perusal to what Lord Inverbroom had to say. It was a disagreeable letter to read, and he felt that the writing of it had been disagreeable to its author. It informed him that since Lord Inverbroom had put his name up for election into the County Club, he had become aware that there were a considerable number of members who would certainly vote against his election. Lord Inverbroom had spoken to various of these, but had not succeeded in mitigating their opposition and was afraid that his candidate would certainly not be elected. In these circumstances did Mr Keeling wish him to withdraw his name or not? He would be entirely guided by his wishes. He added a very simple and sincere expression of his regret at the course events had taken.

Keeling read this through once and once again before he passed to the consideration of the answer he would make to it. He found that it said very disagreeable things inoffensively, which seemed to him a feat, knowing that if he wrote a letter containing disagreeable news, the tone of his letter would be disagreeable also. He could not quite understand how it was done, but certainly he felt no kind of offence towards the writer.

But the contents were another matter, and they both annoyed him excessively, and kindled in him a blaze of defiance. He would much have{244} liked to know who were these members for whom he was not good enough, and whose opposition Lord Inverbroom had been unable to mitigate. But as far as withdrawing his candidature went for fear of the result of the election, or acquainting Lord Inverbroom of the fact that as purchaser of the property he had the ex officio privilege of being a member, such craven notions never entered his head. If sufficient members to secure his rejection, objected to him, they should record their objections: he was not going to withdraw on the chance of their doing so. He had never yet abandoned a business proposition for fear of competition, and it seemed to him that to withdraw his name was somehow parallel to being frightened out of a deal. Judging from the purely business standpoint (and there was his mistake) he expected to find that a large quantity of this supposed opposition was bluff. Besides, before the election came on, it would be known who had given the new wing to the hospital, and pulled the committee out of a quagmire of rotten finance: it would be known too, that whether the County Club thought him a suitable occupant of the bow-window that looked on Alfred Street, his Sovereign thought him good enough to go into dinner before any of them except Lord Inverbroom. He was no snob himself, but he suspected that a good many other people were.

Accordingly even before the gong sounded for{245} lunch, he had finished a note in answer to Lord Inverbroom’s as follows:—

‘Dear Lord Inverbroom,—I am obliged for your favour just to hand, and regret I was out. I should be obliged if you would kindly fulfil the engagement you entered into with me, and put me up for election as agreed. I do not in the least fear the result of the election, and so trust you may be in error about it.

‘Faithfully yours, ‘Thomas Keeling.’

This he read through before posting it. It was a sound business letter, saying just what it set out to say. But he wondered why it lacked that certain aroma of courtesy which distinguished the letter which it answered. He perceived that it was so, but no more knew how to remedy it than he knew how to fly. But he could walk pretty sturdily along the ground, and it required a stalwart push to upset him. And if the undesirable happened, and Lord Inverbroom’s fears proved to be well founded, he knew he had a sound knock ready for the whole assembly of those who collectively thought he was not good enough for them.

‘I’ll find an answer that’s good enough for them,’ he said to himself, as he slipped the letter into his post-box.{246}

In spite of her practice in the conduct of social functions as Lady Mayoress, and her natural aptitude for knowing how to behave suitably, Mrs Keeling had one moment of extremest terror when the Royal Princess came up the steps of the hospital next day, between Keeling and Lord Inverbroom, to where the Lady Mayoress awaited her. Her knees so trembled that though she felt that there would not be the smallest difficulty in sinking down in the curtsey, or indeed in sinking into the earth altogether, she much doubted her power of ever raising herself again, and the gypsophila in the bouquet she was about to present shook so violently that it appeared to be but a gray mist among the daffodils which had been ascertained to be the Princess’s favourite flower. She would have liked to run away, but there was nowhere to run to, and indeed the gorgeous heaviness of her satin gown rendered all active locomotion impossible. Then Her Royal Highness shook her hand, thanked her for the beautiful flowers and inhaled the perfume of the scentless daffodils before giving them to her lady-in-waiting to carry, and Mrs Keeling found herself able to say, ‘Your favourite flowers, Your Royal Highness,’ which broke the spell of her terror. Then followed the declaration that the new wing was open and the tour was made through the empty wards, while Mrs Keeling so swelled with pride and anticipation that she felt that it was she who had been the yet{247} anonymous benefactor. Sometimes she talked to the Princess, sometimes only to Lord Inverbroom, or was even so mindful of her proper place as to drop a condescending word or two to the bishop, whose only locus standi there, so she considered, was that he would presently be permitted to say grace. Lining the big hall and in corridors were the ‘common people’ of Bracebridge, Mrs Fyson and that class of person, and naturally Mrs Keeling swept by them, as she had swept by the footmen on that pleasant domestic evening at Lady Inverbroom’s.

Then came the lunch, in the town-hall near by, at which the bishop did his duty, and the guests theirs. There was a table and a raised dais for the principal of those, and on the floor of the hall a dozen others for the less distinguished. Close by against the wall were sitting those of Keeling’s staff who had been bidden to the ceremony, and he had already satisfied himself that Norah was there. Then at the close of lunch came Lord Inverbroom’s speech, and at the close of that the sentence for which Mrs Keeling had been waiting.

‘Your Royal Highness,’ he said, ‘and ladies and gentlemen, I will now ask you to drink the health of the munificent benefactor whose name, by his express desire, has till now remained a secret. I ask you to drink the health of our most honoured Mayor, Mr Thomas Keeling.’

Then followed the usual acclamation, and it{248} was sweet to the donor’s ears. But sweeter than it all to him was the moment when, as the guests sat down again and he rose to reply, he looked across at the table near the wall, and caught Norah’s eye. Just perceptibly she shook her head at him as if to reproach him with his ingeniousness the day before, but all her face was alight. He had never met so radiant an encounter from her....

Mrs Keeling was almost too superb to speak even to Lord Inverbroom in the interval after lunch, when presentations were made before the Princess drove to the station again. But she could not continue not to speak to anybody any more because of this great exaltation, and she was full of bright things as she went home with her husband.

‘It really all passed off very tolerably,’ she said; ‘do you not think so, my dear? And was it not gratifying? Just as the dear Princess shook hands with me for the second time before she drove away, holding my hand quite a long time, she said, “And I hear your friends will not call you Mrs Keeling very much longer.” Was not that delicately put? How common Lady Inverbroom looked beside her, but, after all, we can’t all be princesses. I was told by the lady-in-waiting, who was a very civil sort of woman indeed, that Her Royal Highness was going to stay with the poor Inverbrooms next month. I can hardly believe that: I should not think it was at all a likely sort of thing to happen, but I felt I really ought to warn Mrs{249}—I did not quite catch her name—what a very poor sort of dinner her mistress would get, if she fared no better than we did. But we must keep our ears open next month to find out if it really does happen, though I dare say we shall be the first to know, for after to-day Lady Inverbroom could scarcely fail to ask us to dine and sleep again.’

‘I cannot conceive why she should do any such thing,’ remarked Keeling.

‘My dear, you are too modest. You may be sure Lady Inverbroom would be only too glad to get somebody to interest and amuse the Princess, for she has no great fund of wit and ability herself. I saw the Princess laughing three times at something you said to her, and I dare say I missed other occasions. Did you see her pearls? Certainly they were very fine, and I’m sure we can take it for granted they were genuine, but I saw none among them, and I had a good look at them before and behind, that would match my pearl pendant.’

They drove on a little way in silence, for Mrs Keeling’s utterance got a little choked up with pride and gratification, like a congested gutter, and in all her husband’s mental equipment there was nothing that could be responsive to these futilities. They evoked nothing whatever in him; he had not the soil from which they sprang, which Mrs Keeling had carted into her own psychical garden in such abundance since she had become Lady Mayoress. Besides, for the present there{250} was nothing real to him, not the lunch, not the public recognition, not the impending Club election, except that moment when he had fixed Norah’s glance, drawn it to himself as on an imperishable thread across the crowded rooms, when he rose to reply. He almost wished his wife would go on talking again: her babble seemed to build a wall round him, which cutting him off by its inanity from other topics that might engage him, left him alone with Norah. Very soon his wish was fully gratified.

‘How one frightens oneself for no reason,’ she said. ‘I declare when the Princess came up the steps, I was ready to run away. But it all passed in a moment, and by the time I had said, “Your favourite flowers, ma’am,”—did I tell you I said, “Your favourite flowers, ma’am?” and she gave me such a sweet smile, I felt as if I had known her for years. There are some sorts of people with whom I feel at home at once, and that was how I felt this morning. It must be very pleasant always to go about such people, and I declare I quite envied her lady-in-waiting, though if I was she I should certainly have something done to my teeth. I must run round and see Mamma this afternoon, and I should not wonder if I paid a few calls as well, for I am sure everybody will be pining to know what the Princess said all the time we were having a talk together over our coffee. I must try to recollect every word of that, though I am sure I shall find difficulty in doing so, for we chattered away as if we had known each other all our lives.’

‘I dare say you will recollect it very well, my dear,’ said he, ‘if you give your mind to it. And if you cannot remember you can make it up.’

‘Well, if that isn’t a rude speech! But perhaps you’re tired, Thomas, with all this grandeur. For me, I never felt fresher in my life: it comes quite natural to me.’

‘No, I am not the least tired,’ he said. ‘As soon as I have changed my clothes, I shall go down to my office.’

‘Pray leave that for another day. I cannot bear to think of your demeaning yourself with business after what we have been doing: I do not think it is quite respectful to the Princess.’

Suddenly the babble that he had rather welcomed became intolerable. It had cut him off from the world, as if some thick swarm of flies had settled outside the window, utterly obscuring the outlook. Now, in a moment the window seemed to have been opened, and they swarmed in, buzzing about and settling on him.

‘And where should we have been if I hadn’t demeaned myself with business?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t the new wing of the hospital and your pearl pendant, and your chatting like an old friend to a Princess all come out of my demeaning myself?{252}’

Mrs Keeling paid no attention to this: she hardly heard.

‘And if she does come to stay with the Inverbrooms,’ she said, ‘I have no doubt she will express a wish to take lunch with us. We must see about getting a butler, Thomas. Parkinson is a good servant, but I should not like it to be known at court that I only kept a parlour maid.’

The carriage had stopped at the Gothic porch, and Keeling got out.

‘I will promise to let you have twenty butlers on the day she lunches with us,’ he said. ‘Come, get out, Emmeline, and take care how you walk. There’s something gone to your head. It may be champagne or it may be the Princess. I suspect it’s the Princess, and you’re intoxicated. Go indoors, and sleep it off, and let me find you sober at dinner-time. Take my arm.’

‘My dear, what things you say! I am ashamed of you, though I know it’s only your fun. The carriage must wait for me. I shall pay a call or two and then take a drive through the town. I think the citizens would feel it to be my duty to do that.’

Keeling found that Norah had got back to his office when he arrived, and was busy at the typewriting of the letters he had dictated to her that morning. She was in the little room opening off his, and the door was shut, but her presence was{253} indicated by the muffled clacking of her machine. That sound was infinitely more real to him than what he thought of as ‘the flummeries’ of the day, and he was far more interested in how she would take the divulging of the donor’s name than how all the rest of the town would take it. The significance which it held for him on account of the honour that would come to him, or on account of this matter of his election to the Club, mattered nothing in comparison to how she took it. He was determined to make no allusion to it himself, he would leave it to her to state the revision of her views about his support of the hospital.

While he waited for the completion of her work, he occupied himself with businesses that demanded his scrutiny, but all the while his ear was pricked to listen to the sound of her typewriting machine, or rather to listen for the silence of its cessation, for that would mean that Norah would presently come in with the letters for his signature. There was nothing in his work that demanded a close grip of his mind, and beneath the mechanical attention that he gave it, memory like some deep-water undertow was flowing on its own course past the hidden subaqueous landscape. There was a whole stretch of scenery there out of sight of the surface of his life. Till she had come into it, there was no man who possessed less of a secret history: he had his hobby of books as all the world knew, his blameless domestic conduct, his hard{254} Puritan morality and religion, his integrity and success in money-making and keen business faculty. That was all there was to him. But now he had dived below that, yet without making any break in the surface. All that he had done and been before continued its uninterrupted course; his life beneath the deep waters did not make itself known by as much as a bubble coming to the surface.

Gradually, while still his ear was alert to catch the silence next door which would show that Norah had finished her work, his surface-faculties moved more slowly and drowsily. The page he was reading, concerning some estimate, lay long unturned before him, and his eye ceased to travel along the lines that no longer conveyed any meaning to him. It was not the ceremony of to-day that occupied him, nor the moment when all Bracebridge knew that it was he who had made this munificent gift. Those things formed but the vaguest of backgrounds, in which too a veiled hatred of his wife was mingled: in front of that grey mist was the sunlit windy down, the skylark, the tufts of blue-bell foliage, and the companionship which gave them all their significance. And how significant, he now asked himself, were these same things to his companion? Did they mean anything to her because of him? True, she had silently and unconsciously taken him into her confidence when they listened together{255} to the sky-lost song, but would not anybody else, her brother for instance, have done just as well? Did her heart want him? He had no answer to that.

And what, if it was possible to introduce the hard angles of practical issues into these suffused dimnesses, was to be the end or even the continuation of this critical yet completely uneventful history? All the conduct, the habit, the traditions of his life were in utter discord with it. If he looked at it, even as far as it had gone, in the hard dry light which hitherto had guided him in his life, he could hardly think it credible that it was the case of Thomas Keeling which was under his scrutiny. But even more unconjecturable was the outcome. He could see no path of any sort ahead. If by some chance momentous revelation he knew that she wanted him with that quality of wanting which was his, what would happen? His whole reasonable and upright self revolted from the idea of clandestine intrigue, and with hardly less emphasis did it reject the idea of an honest, open, and deplorable break-up of his well-earned reputation and respectability. He could not really contemplate either course, but of the two the first was a shade the farther away from the confines of possibility. And if some similar revelation told him that he was nothing to Norah beyond a kind, just employer with certain tastes and perceptions akin to her own? There was no path{256} there either: he could not see how to proceed.... But he experienced no sense of self-censure in having got himself into this impossible place. It had not been his fault: only those who were quite ignorant of the nature of love could blame him for loving. A fish who did not need the air might as well say to a drowning man, ‘It is quite unnecessary to breathe; you have only to make a determined effort, and convince yourself that you needn’t breathe. Look at me: I don’t breathe, and I swim about in the utmost comfort. It is very wrong to breathe!’

Then suddenly all surmise and speculation was expunged from his mind, for no longer the clack of the typewriting machine came from next door. He heard the stir of a chair pushed back, and the rattle of a door handle. Norah was coming; who was of greater concern than all his thoughts about her.... And he was going to give her no quarter: she would have to introduce the subject of her feelings with regard to his niggardly hospital-subscription herself. He knew something of her pride from the affair of the book-plate, and he longed to see her take that armour off.

He looked rather grimly at his watch.

‘You are rather late,’ he said.

Apparently the breast-plate was not to be taken off just yet. She answered him as she had not answered him for many weeks.{257}

‘I am afraid I am, sir,’ she said. ‘But you kindly invited me to go to the luncheon and the opening of the new wing. I have been working ever since.’

He delighted in her, in the astonishing irony of her calling him ‘sir’ again. He had deserved it too, for he had spoken to her with the old office manner.

‘Have you them ready for me now?’ he asked, keeping the farce up.

‘Yes, sir. They only want your signature.’

He drew the sheets towards him, and began signing in silence, wondering when she proposed to say how sorry she was for misjudging him about his generosity. Surely he could not have misinterpreted that radiant glance she gave him when he rose to reply to the toast of his health.

She had gone back for a moment into her room to fetch the pile of directed envelopes which she had forgotten. Most injudiciously he allowed himself a swift glance at her as she re-entered, and saw beyond doubt that the corners of her mouth were twitching, that her eyes danced with some merriment that she could not completely control. His own face was better in command, and he knew he wore his grimmest aspect as he continued glancing through her typed letters and scrawling his name at the foot. As usual, she took each sheet from him, blotted it, and put it into its envelope. She always refused to use the little{258} piece of damped sponge for the gumming of the envelopes, but employed the tip of her tongue.

‘Is that all?’ he said, when he had gone through the pile.

‘Yes, sir.’

He rose. Had he been wrong about the glance he had got from her? If so, he might have been wrong in everything that concerned her from the first day of her appearance here.

‘I shall be getting home then,’ he said.

At the door he turned back again. Once more she had beaten him.

‘Look here, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘There’s enough of this.’

She laughed straight out.

‘Oh, I am so glad you said that,’ she said. ‘I was going to let you turn the door-handle before I spoke.’

He put down his hat again.

‘Oh, you were, were you?’ he said. ‘Well, what were you going to say when I did turn the door-handle?’

‘I think you are rather brutal,’ she said. ‘You don’t help me out at all.’

‘Not an atom,’ he said.

‘You know quite well. First I was going to apologise for all the thoughts that had ever been in my mind about you and the hospital. I was {259}an utter fool not to have known that you were the most generous——’

He interrupted her.

‘Never mind that.’

‘But I do mind that. It was idiotic of me, and it was ungrateful of me. I should have known you better than that.’

She came a step closer.

‘Will you forgive me?’ she said. ‘I adored that moment when your name was announced. I felt so proud of serving you.’

He held out his hand.

‘That is very friendly of you,’ he said. ‘But we are friends, aren’t we?’

And again she looked at him with that brightness and radiance in her face that he had seen once before only.

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