An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter X

Keeling had ten days to wait for the Saturday when he and Norah were to visit the bluebells together. He knew with that certainty of the heart which utterly transcends the soundest conclusions of reason and logic that she loved him; it seemed, too, that it was tacitly agreed between them that some confession, some mutual revelation would then take place. That was to be the hour of their own, away from the office and the typewriting, and all those things which, though they brought them together, essentially sundered them. What should be said then, what solution could possibly come out of it all, he could form no notion. He ceased even to puzzle over it. Perhaps there was no solution: perhaps this relationship was just static.

Outwardly the days passed precisely as usual. They had made their appointment, and no further allusion or reminder was necessary. Each evening brought nearer the hour of azure in that hollow among the empty downs, and he desired neither to shorten nor to lengthen out the days that separated him from it. But to him everything, except that moment, regular but rarely recurring, when her eye sought his with need and love in it,{298} seemed dream-like and unsubstantial. Nothing had power either to vex or please him. He was, as always, busy all day, and transacted his own or municipal business with all his usual thoroughness and acute judgment. But it all went on outside him; the terra-cotta cupolas which his industry had reared in the market-place were as unreal as the new system of drainage in the lower part of the town, which he had exerted all his influence to get carried through the obdurate conservatism that pointed to the low-death rate of Bracebridge under the old conditions. He got his way; all his life he had been accustomed to dominate and command and organise. Then when his day’s work was done, and he returned home for dinner and the ensuing hours, which lately had been so intolerable, he found they irritated him no longer, and the fatuous drip of his wife’s conversation was no more to him than some gutter that discharged not into his house but into the street outside. Simply he cared nothing for it, nor, when his failure to get elected to the County Club occurred to him, did he care: it appeared to have happened, but it must have happened to some stranger. Sometimes, before the pink clock announced that it was half-past ten, he would leave the drawing-room and go to his library, to see whether in his books there was to be found anything that stimulated his reactions {299}towards life. But they had no message: they were dumb or he was deaf. Even the catalogue showed no sign of life: it was Norah’s work, of course, but it was not Norah.

The day before their tryst out among the downs, this stupefied stagnation of emotion suddenly left him. All morning and through half the afternoon a succession of Spring showers had flung themselves in mad torrents against the plate-glass windows of his office, and more than once he had seen Norah look up, and knew as well as if she had spoken that she was speculating on the likelihood of another drenching afternoon to-morrow. But she said nothing, and again he knew that neither storm nor tempest would keep her back from their appointment, any more than it would keep him. The thing had to be: it was arranged so, and though they should find all the bluebells blackened and battered, and the thunder bellowed round them, that meeting in the bluebell wood was as certain as the rising of the sun.... And then the clock on his chimney-piece chimed five, and with a rush of reawakened perception, a change as swift and illuminating as the return of consciousness after an anaesthetic, he realised that by this time to-morrow their meeting would be over, and they would know, each of them, what they were to become to each other. The week’s incurious torpor, broken once and sometimes twice a day by her glance, rolled away from him: the world and all that it contained started into vividness{300} again. Simultaneously with the chiming clock, she got up, and brought him the finished typewritten letters for his signature. To-day there were but a dozen of them, and the work of reading and signing and bestowal in their envelopes was soon finished. But an intolerable sense of restraint and discomfort surrounded these proceedings: he did not look at her, nor she at him, and though both were hugely conscious of each other, it was as if they were strangers or enemies even under some truce. That feeling increased and intensified: once in handing a letter to him a finger of hers touched his, and both drew their hands quickly away. She hurried over her reading, he scrawled his name; they wanted to get away from each other as soon as was possible. Then the thought that they would have to sit here again together all morning to-morrow occurred to him, and that to him at least was unfaceable. In this reawakened vividness to the crisis that now impended in less than the space of a day and a night, he felt he could not meet her again over common tasks.

It had happened before occasionally that he had given her a holiday on Saturday morning from the half-day’s work, and he seized at this, as she handed him the last of the batch to be signed.

‘I don’t think you need come down to-morrow morning, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘You can take the half-day off.{301}’

He did not look up, but heard her give a little sigh of relief, and knew that once again he had found the pulse in her that beat with his own.

‘Yes,’ she said, and dropped the letters into his post-box.

She had been working that day at the table in his big room and stood there tidying it. Then she went back into the small room adjoining, and he heard her rustle into her mackintosh. Then returning she stood at the door of it a moment and from underneath his half raised eyes, he saw that she looked slowly all round his room, as if, perhaps, searching for something, or as if rather committing it to her memory. Then without another word to him she went out, and he heard her steps tapping along the cement-floored corridor to the lift. Once they paused, and he half-longed, half-dreaded that she was coming back. They began again, and stopped, and immediately afterwards he heard the clang of the grille, and the faint rumble of the descending lift. He had one overpowering impulse that brought him to his feet, to dash downstairs, and see her go out, or if she was gone already to follow her into the street, just for the sake of setting eyes on her once more, but it took him no further than that, and presently he sat down again.

That intense vividness of perception that had been lit within him when, half an hour ago, the clock on his chimney-piece chimed, still blazed.{302} He noticed a hundred minute details in the room, his ear separated the hum of the street below into its component ingredients: there was a boy whistling, there was a motor standing with its engines still working, there was a street-cry concerning daffodils, another concerning evening papers. Memory was similarly awake: he remembered that his wife was giving a little dinner-party this evening, that Silverdale, who was setting out on his mission to the docks next day, was to be among the guests, and that Alice expected that the slippers of Maltese crosses would be back from being made up, in time for him to take them with him. He recalled, out of the well of years, how in the early days of his married life Emmeline had made him a pair of slippers which did not fit, and in the same breath remembered the exact look of her face this very morning when a message had come from her cook saying that she could not get a bit of salmon anywhere. And as each impression registered itself on eye and ear and memory, he hated it. But nothing concerning Norah came into his mind: sometimes for a moment a blank floated across it, behind which perhaps was Norah, but she produced no image on it. He could not even recollect her face: he did not know what she was like. There was the horror of it all: everything in the world but she had the vividness of nightmare, and she, the only thing that did not belong to nightmare, had gone from him.{303}

He sat there, alone in the darkening room, doing nothing as far as definite effort went, and yet conscious of an intense internal activity in just looking at the myriads of images that this magic lantern of the mind presented to him. Now for a little it seemed to him that he contemplated a series of pictures that concerned the life which had once been his, and was now finished and rolled up, done with for ever. Now again for a little it seemed that all that was thus presented to him was the life that was going to be his, until for him all life was over. Alice would always be sewing slippers, his wife would always be ordering a bit of salmon, he would always be sitting in an empty office. For a few weeks there had passed across those eternal reiterations somebody whose very face he could not now recall, and when he tried to imagine her, he could see nothing but a blank, a black strip where words had been erased. To-morrow by this time he would know which of those two aspects was the true one: either the salmon and the slippers and this lonely meditation would be his no longer, or they would be all that he could call his. He felt, too, that it was already settled which it was to be: fate had already written in the inexorable book, and had closed it again. To-morrow the page would be shown him, he would read what was inscribed there. No effort on his part, no imposition of his will, no power of his to organise and build up would alter it. Though{304} the crisis was yet to come, its issue was already determined.

He struggled against this nightmare sense of impotence. All his life he had designed his own career, in bold firm strokes, and fate had builded as he had planned. Fate was not a predetermined thing: the book of destiny was written by the resolute and strong for themselves, they had a hand on the pen, and made destiny write what they willed. It should be so to-morrow: he had but to determine what he chose should be, and this was the hour of his choice....

Suddenly into the blanks, into the black erasures, there stole the images which just now he had tried in vain to recall. All else was erased, and Norah filled the empty spaces. Her presence, voice and gesture and form pervaded his whole consciousness: there was room for nothing else. They loved each other, and to each other they constituted the sum of all that was real. There was nothing for it but to accept that, to go away together, and let all the unrealities of life, The Cedars, the salmon, the slippers, pass out of focus, be dissolved, disintegrated.... And yet, and yet he knew that he did not make the choice with his whole self. Deep down in him, the very foundation on which his character was built, was that hidden rock of his integrity, of his stern Puritanism, of the morality of which his religion was made. He was willing to blow that up, he searched for{305} the explosive that would shatter it, he hacked and hammered at it, as if in experiment to see if he had the power to shatter it. It could hardly be that his character was stronger than himself: that seemed a contradiction in terms.

And yet all else in the world was hateful to him; he could contemplate life neither without Norah nor with her in continuance of their present relations. This afternoon he had longed for her to go away, and when she had gone he had been on the point of hurrying down like a madman into the street only to set eyes on her again. He could not imagine sitting here all day with her week after week, dictating letters, hearing her typing them, getting the clear glance from her now and again (and that would be the most intolerable of all), saying ‘good-evening’ to her when the day’s work was done, and ‘good-morning’ to her when it was beginning. Something must happen, and whatever that was, was already written in the book. There was no escape.

The clock chimed again, and his room had grown so dark that he had to turn on the electric light to see what the hour was. He went downstairs and through the show rooms, blazing with lights still populous with customers, into the square. The toneless blue of night had already advanced far past the zenith; in the west a band of orange marked where the sun had set, and just above it was a space of delicate pale green on the upper{306} edge of which a faint star twinkled. As he passed between the hornbeam hedges in the disused graveyard, the odour of the spring night, of dew on the path, of the green growth on the trees, was alert in the air. The mysterious rapture of the renewal of life tingled round him, the summons to expand, to blossom, to love was echoed and re-echoed from the bushes, where mated birds were still chirruping. As he walked through the gathering dusk, thick with the choruses of spring, the years fell from him like withered leaves long-lingering, and his step quickened into the pace of youth, though it only bore him to The Cedars, and the amazing futility of one of Lady Keeling’s smaller dinner-parties.

Two very auspicious pieces of news awaited him when he got home, and found his wife and Alice just about to go upstairs to dress. Alice’s slippers had come back from the shoe-maker’s, and could be presented to Mr Silverdale to-night, while, as by a miracle, a bit of salmon had been procured also. Lady Keeling had been driving by that little fishmonger’s in Drury Place, and there on the marble slab was quite a nice bit of salmon. She had brought it home herself on the box of the victoria, for fear of there being any mischance as to its delivery. Alice was even more excited, for nobody else had ever been permitted to work Master a pair of slippers, and Julia Fyson was coming to dinner, who, with eyes green{307} with jealousy, would see the presentation made. They were to be brought into the dining-room at the end of dinner, when Lady Keeling gave two short pressures to the electric bell that stood by her on the table, by the boy covered with buttons, wrapped round with endless swathings of paper. He was to present this bale to Mr Silverdale, saying that it was immediate and asking if there was any answer. Would it not be fun to see the astonished Master take off all those wrappings, and find the Maltese crosses within?

This entertaining scheme succeeded admirably. Alice showed a remarkable sense of dramatic by-play, and talked very eagerly to her neighbour, while Mr Silverdale stripped off layer after layer of paper, as if she was quite unaware that anything unusual was happening, and it was not till an unmistakable shape of slippers began to reveal itself in the core, that Master guessed.

‘It’s my Helper,’ he cried, ‘my sly little Helper.’ Then pushing back his chair, he took off his evening shoes, and putting on the slippers went solemnly round the table, saying to each of his hosts and fellow-guests, ‘May I introduce you to my slippers?’ But when he came to Alice he said, ‘I think you and my slippers have met before!’ There was never anything so deliciously playful.... But when he had padded back to his place, Keeling saw poor Alice’s eye go wandering, looking at every one in turn round that festive table except{308} Master. Finally, for one half second, her eye rested on him, and Keeling, as one of those who run, could read, and his heart went out to poor Alice. She was prodigiously silly, yet that one self-revealing glance decorated her. She loved, and that distinguished and dignified her.

After the guests had gone, Lady Keeling launched forth into her usual comments on the success of her dinner-party.

‘Well, I’m sure I should be puzzled to name a pleasanter evening’ she said. ‘I thought it all quite brilliant, though I’m sure I claim no share in its success except that I do think I gave you all a very good dinner. I’m sure I never tasted a better bit of spring salmon than that. Was it not lucky it caught my eye this afternoon. And the slippers, too, Alice! It was quite a little comedy: I am sure I have seen many less amusing scenes in a play. To introduce everybody to his slippers! That was a good idea, and it must have been quite ex tempore, for I am certain he did not know what was inside the packet till he came to the last wrappings.’

...Perhaps this was the last time that Keeling would ever listen to those maunderings. That would be determined in the bluebell wood. Perhaps to-morrow evening....

‘And then saying to Alice, “I think you and my slippers have met before!” That was fun, was it not? I saw you enjoyed that, Thomas, and{309} when you are pleased, I’m sure the joke is good enough for anybody. I wish I had asked Lord and Lady Inverbroom to dine to-night. They would have enjoyed it too, though perhaps he would feel a little shy of meeting you after that snub you gave him and his Club in taking their premises away from them.’

...Would the bluebells reflect their colour on to her face, as the daffodils she wore one day had done? By the way, no word had been said about the hour at which they should meet. But it did not matter: he would be there and she....

‘I have cancelled the notice I gave them,’ he said. ‘You will not have the pleasure of seeing the club furniture coming out into the street.’

‘Well, indeed! You are much too kind to them after what they did to you, Thomas. I am sorry you did that; they deserved a good slap to serve them out.’

An awful spirit of raillery seized the unfortunate woman. She would say something lightly and humorously, just to show she had nothing but goodwill towards Miss Propert; it should be quite in that felicitous comedy-style which had made the business of the slippers such a success.

‘Ah, but now I remember that Miss Propert did not want you to give them notice,’ she said. ‘Now we can guess why you took it back again. Oh, not a word more. I am discretion itself.{310}’

Even this did not hurt him. He was rather amused than otherwise.

‘Trust you for hitting the nail on the head, Emmeline,’ he said. ‘That was why.’

Lady Keeling rose in great good humour. Once, she remembered, her husband had been very rude when she made a little joke about his regard for Miss Propert. She had hit the nail on the head then, too, for no doubt there was something (ever so little) of truth in what she said, and it had ‘touched him up.’ But now he did not mind: that showed that there was no truth in it at all now. She had never thought there was anything serious, for Thomas was not that sort of man (and who should know better than she?), but perhaps he had been a little attracted. She was delighted to think that it was certainly all over.

‘Ah, I knew I had guessed,’ she said. ‘And perhaps Miss Propert’s right, for it is always best to be friendly with everybody even if they do behave shabbily. I have always found Miss Propert very sensible and well-behaved, and if she and her brother are coming to see your books on Sunday afternoon, Thomas, and you like to bring them in to tea, you will find me most civil and pleasant to them both. There! And now I think Alice and I will be getting to bed. Dear me, it’s after eleven already. Time flies so, when you are enjoying yourself.’

She gave him a cheerful kiss, she tapped the{311} barometer, and, taking Alice in tow, she left him. Their cheerful voices, talking about the slippers, died away as they went upstairs.

It was not one lark but many that were carolling specks against the blue, as Keeling walked along the ridge of the down next day, to where after an upland mile it dipped into the hollow where he and Norah had met before, and where they would meet again now. The afternoon was warm and windless, and the squalls and showers of yesterday had been translated into the vivider green that clothed the slopes. But all this epiphany of spring that had so kindled his heart before, passed by him to-day quite unobserved: he saw only the tops of the trees, which, climbing up on the sides of the hollow for which he was bound, fringed the edge of the ridge. Soon he had reached that, the track dipped over down the slope, and on each side, between the oak-trunks, and the stumps of the felled hazels, there was spread one continuous sheet of azure, as if the sky had flooded the ground with itself. But he hardly saw that even, for sitting on the bank, where, at the bottom of the hollow, the stream crossed the track, was Norah.

She had watched him come down the path, and when he was some ten paces from her, she rose. She had no word, it would seem, for him, nor he for her, and they stood in silence opposite{312} each other. But the clear glance shone on him, steady and quiet and complete. Then, as by some common impulse, her hands and his were clasped together.

‘Just Norah,’ he said.

The grave smile with which she had welcomed him grew a shade graver, a shade more tender.

‘Do you know how I love you?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I know. And—and I give you all you bring me. You know that, don’t you?’

Again by some common impulse they moved off the path, still with hands clasped. They walked through the fallen sky of bluebells, not seeing it, and came to where a fallen trunk, lopped of its branches, lay on the ground.

‘We will sit here a little, shall we?’ she said. ‘It mustn’t be long.’

‘Why not for ever?’ he asked.

‘You know that, too,’ she said.

At that moment there was nothing in the world for him but she.

‘I know nothing of the sort,’ he said. ‘We belong to each other. That’s all I know. I have you now: you needn’t think I shall let you go. You will leave that damned place this evening with me. That’s the only reason why we mustn’t be long here.’

She raised her eyes to his, and without speaking shook her head.

‘But it is to be so,’ he cried. ‘There’s no other{313} way out. We’ve found each other: do you think I am going to let us lose each other? There is no other way.’

Even as he spoke, that silent inexorable tug, that irresistible tide of character which sweeps up against all counter-streams of impulse which do not flow with it, began to move within him. He meant all he said, and yet he knew that it was not to be. And as he looked at her, he saw in her eyes that fathomless eternal pity, which is as much a part of love as is desire.

‘There is no way out there,’ she said. ‘Look into yourself and tell me if you really believe there is. The way is barred. You yourself bar it. How could I then pass over it?’

‘If you loved me——’ he began.

‘Ah, hush; don’t say that. It is nonsense, wicked nonsense. Isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

She was infinitely stronger than he: a dozen times in details she had proved that. Now, when there was no detail, but a vital issue at stake, she could show all her strength, instead of but sparring with him.

‘Well, then, listen,’ she said. ‘We are honest folk, my dear, both you and I. You are under certain obligations; you have a wife and children. And since I love you, I am under the same obligations. They are yours, and therefore they are mine. If it weren’t for them—but it is no use thinking of that.{314}’

‘But I repudiate them,’ he said. ‘They have become meaningless. You are the only thing which means anything to me. Norah! Norah! Thou beside me singing in the wilderness! What else is there? What else?’

His passion had lifted him upon his feet: he stood there before her, strong and masterful. He was accustomed always to get his way: he would get it now in spite of the swift-flowing tide against which his impulse struggled, in spite of her who was sailing up on the tide.

‘There is nothing else,’ she said. ‘But there is not that.’

He knelt down on the ground by her.

‘But, my darling,’ he said, ‘it is not our fault. It happened like that. God gave us hearts, did He not, and are we just to disobey what our hearts tell us? We belong to each other. What else can we do? Are we to eat our hearts out, you on one side of the table in that hell upstairs, I on the other? Don’t tell me that is the way out!

She raised her hands and let them lie with strong pressure on his shoulders.

‘No, there is no way out there,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t stand that, nor could you. But there is a way out, and you and I are going to take it.’

Again the infinite pity of her strength welled up and dimmed her eyes.

‘I am going away,’ she said. ‘I shall leave Bracebridge to-night. It’s all settled.{315}’

He shook himself free of her hands.

‘We go together then,’ he said, but there was no conviction in his voice. It was but a despairing, drowning cry.

She made a little gesture with her head.

‘Come back here,’ she said. ‘Let me put my hands on your shoulders again. Yes, just like that. It is all settled. Charles agrees. He knows enough: I think he guesses the rest. I shall go back to London, and get work there. I shall find it perfectly easy to do that. If you will give me a little testimonial, it would help me. You mustn’t come to see me. You mustn’t write to me. I won’t say anything so foolish as to tell you to forget me. You can’t, to begin with, and also I don’t want you to. I want you to remember me always, with love and with honour——’

She stopped for a moment, smiling at him through her tears.

‘You made me cry two mornings ago,’ she said, ‘and I felt so ashamed of myself. I don’t feel ashamed of myself now. I—I am rather proud of myself, and I want you to be proud of me.’

Her voice broke utterly, and she sat with her head in her hands, sobbing her heart out. Presently with one hand she felt for his, and sat thus clasping it.

‘Sit by me,’ she said at length, ‘and very soon we must walk back over the down, and when we come to the skylark’s nest you shall go on and{316} I will follow after a few minutes. Let’s go through these few months, as if pasting them into our memories. We must each have the same remembrance as the other. I hated you at first, do you know? I hated working for you. The books began to bring us together, the mischievous things. Then there came the wood-block for your book-plate, but you apologised. And then came the catalogue, was not that it? By that time I had got to love working for you, though I did not guess at once what was the matter with me. Then came the spring day, that first day of real spring, and I knew. And there is one thing I want to ask you. Did Lord Inverbroom ever tell you about my people?’

‘No, never.’

‘Well, you might like to know. My father was a great friend of his at one time. But he went off with another woman, deserting my mother. That was another reason why we have settled our affairs as we have settled them. I thought I would like to tell you that. We can’t bring on others the misery they brought.’

She put her hand through the crook of his arm.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘We came to see the bluebells, and we have never noticed them till now. Did I not say they would be a carpet spread under the trees. Shall we pick some? I should like to leave a bunch at the hospital on my way home.{317}’

Very soon her hands were full of them, and she tied her handkerchief round their juicy stems.

‘We must go’ she said. ‘But there will be bluebells in my heart all my life.’

They walked together up the slope on to the down, and along the ridge. As they got near to the end of it, where it plunged down again towards Bracebridge, their pace grew slower, and at last they stopped altogether.

‘It is good-bye’ she said, and quite simply like a child she raised her face to his.

He went on alone after that, and she sat down on the turf to wait, as she had done before, with her bunch of bluebells beside her. She kept her eyes on his receding figure, and just before it passed downwards out of sight he turned, as she knew he would do. A moment afterwards he had disappeared.

Late that night he was sitting alone in his library. The evening had passed precisely as it always did when he and his wife and Alice were by themselves. Lady Keeling had been neither more nor less fatuous than usual, Alice, the slippers being off her mind, had played a couple of games of backgammon with him, and had shown herself as futile an adversary as ever.

Norah had gone: that fact was indelibly imprinted on his mind, but as yet it aroused no emotion. It had produced no sense of desolation in him: all the strainings of doubt and desire{318} which had racked him before were dead. The suspense was over, his love would enjoy no fruition, and he had been all evening exactly as is the man who has been condemned to be hung, and now, though he has passed a month of sleeplessness or nightmare, has no anxiety to torture him, and for that first night after his trial is over, can rest in the certainty of the worst and the uttermost. Several times this evening Keeling had probed into his own heart, pricking it with the reminder of the knowledge that she had left him, but no response, no wail or cry of pain had come from it. His heart knew it, and there was no use in repeating the news. His heart had received it, and lay there beating quietly and steadily. Meantime all his surface-perceptions went on with no less vividness than was their wont. There was Alice making her usual mistakes over the moves of the pieces, there was Lady Keeling alternating between drowsiness and volubility. Her fat face wrinkled and bulged on one side when her head fell a little crooked as she dozed; it became symmetrical again when she recovered herself, and talked on her invariable topics, Lord Inverbroom, dinner, her engagements as Lady Mayoress, Mr Silverdale, and so forth. She alluded again to her husband’s magnanimity in not turning out the County Club from their premises, she even introduced Norah’s name, and endorsed her expressed intention to be polite to her if she came{319} in to tea on Sunday. When necessary he replied, ‘Quite so, my dear,’ but nothing reached him. It was perfectly easy now to be polite and patient. He was locked up somewhere inside himself, and sparrows were twittering in the bushes far outside.

This absolute numbness came with him into his library, where he went when his wife and daughter, on the warning of the pink clock, proceeded upstairs, after the usual kisses. He did not want to wake his sensibilities up, simply because he did not want anything. Even here, in his secret garden, all he saw round him was meaningless: his library was a big pleasant room and he wondered why he had kept it so sacredly remote from his wife and Alice. There were some books in it, of course. Hugh had got a mercantile idea from one, Alice had been a little shy of an illustration in another, and for some reason he had felt that these attitudes were not tuned to the spirit he found here. But to-night there was no spirit of any kind here, and Alice might be shocked if she chose, Hugh might pick up hints for the printing of advertisements, his wife might put the Leonardo volume in her chair if she did not find it high enough, and if that did not give her the desirable position in which to doze most comfortably, there was the catalogue ready to make her a footstool. Books, books?... They were all strange and silly. In some there were pictures over which he had pored, in others there were verses that had haunted{320} his memory as with magic, and all had a certain perfection about them, whether in print or page or binding or picture, that had once satisfied and intoxicated a certain desire for beauty that he had once felt. There they were on their shelves, there was the catalogue that described them, and the shelves were full of corpses, and the catalogue was like a column of deaths in the daily paper, of some remote individuals that concerned him no more than the victims of a plague in Ethiopia.

It was hot in here: except in summer a fire was always lit in the evening to keep damp out, unless he counter-ordered it, and he drew up the blind and opened the French window that gave on to the garden. An oblong of light cast itself outside, and in it he saw a row of daffodils that bordered the lawn across the gravel path, nodding in the night wind. They were very yellow: they would cast yellow reflections on anything near them....

Then awoke hunger in his heart, and it screamed out to him, starving. Perhaps she had not gone: perhaps she, like himself, had experienced a numbness of the heart, that made her feel that she did not care. He had been stupid and tongue-tied this afternoon, he had not shown her the depth of his passion, he had not made her listen to him. He had not done that: it was that she was waiting for, eager to be overmastered, to be made unable to resist. Surely she had not gone....

He let himself out of the front-door, remembering how, but a few months ago, he had done just that, on a night of snow. Now, as then, he wanted to be sure that she was safe at home, but now, not as then, he would not content himself with seeing the light behind the blind. He must see her, he must make her understand that they only existed for each other. Certainly she had not gone away ... certainly she was waiting exactly for this. She would be there still, he would make her feel the impossibility of any solution but this. She would bow to his indomitable force; she would recognise it, and consent, with her whole heart, to endorse it, to come away with him and cut the knot, and find all that God meant them to be to each other.

The empty sparsely-lit streets streamed by him, and it seemed that the earth seemed to be swiftly spinning below him; he just marked time as it turned. The night-wind of spring both cooled and intoxicated him, he felt surer and surer of the success of his errand as he went, and at the same time practical considerations occurred to him. Her brother would be in the house; it was still not late, and probably they would be together. Charles understood enough, so she had told him, to make him sanction her departure; now, when Keeling had seen her, he would understand more. Charles perhaps would open the door to him, for their two servants would have gone to bed, or be{322} out for Saturday night, and Keeling would say to him, ‘I must see your sister.’ That was what he would say; and Charles, understanding enough, would see the justice of that demand of love.

He came opposite the house, and his heart leaped, for there was a light behind her window-blind. He had known there would be, and he almost shouted for exultation at the fulfilment of his anticipation. Of course she had not gone: she was waiting just for this.

Swiftly and jubilantly he crossed the road: at the sight of that lit blind all the awakening pangs of his heart had passed from him, even as at the sight of the nodding daffodils had passed the apathy that encompassed it before. His intolerance of his wife, the dreaminess of his purposeless existence ceased to be: on the other hand his secret garden, now that the gardener who had made it sacred was waiting for him, bloomed again in an everlasting spring. In answer to his ring, which he heard faintly tinkling inside, there came steps on the stairs, and the dark fan-light over the door leaped into brightness, as some one turned on the switch. Then the door opened, and, as he had expected, there was Charles.

‘Sir Thomas?’ he said. ‘Won’t you come in? I answered the door myself, the servants have gone to bed. What can I do for you, sir?’

It was all happening exactly as Keeling had{323} anticipated, and he laughed for joy, as he stepped inside.

‘I want to see your sister for a minute’ he said, ‘We did not quite finish our talk this afternoon.’

Charles looked at him rather curiously, and Keeling wondered whether some doubt as to his sobriety had crossed the young man’s mind. The idea amused him.

‘But my sister has gone, sir,’ he said. ‘Surely you know that.’

Keeling closed the front-door into the street.

‘Ah, yes, and left her room lit,’ he said, joking with him out of sheer happiness.

‘I was in her room,’ said Charles. ‘I was packing some things which she had not time enough to pack herself.’

For a moment it seemed to Keeling that the light and the walls and the floor quivered.

‘Nonsense, Propert,’ he said, and his voice quivered too.

‘Perhaps you would like to come up and see for yourself, sir,’ said Charles.

Keeling looked at him with perfectly blank eyes.

‘Do you really mean she has gone?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. I felt sure you understood that. She said she had told you.’

He had grasped the back of a chair that stood near him, and leaned on it heavily. Then recovering his steadiness he spoke again.

‘Kindly give me her address then,’ he said. ‘She wanted me to write her a testimonial, which I am happy to do. She was a very efficient secretary; I have nothing but praise for her. I will send it her to-morrow.’

‘She spoke to me of that,’ said Charles, ‘and asked that you would send it to me, to forward to her. But I can’t give you her address without her express permission.’

‘But what nonsense this is,’ said Keeling angrily. ‘As if I couldn’t find her in a week for myself.’

‘I trust you will attempt to do no such thing, sir,’ said Charles.

‘And do you presume to dictate to me what I shall do and what I shall not?’ asked he.

Charles looked at him with some shadow of the pity he had seen to-day in Norah’s eyes.

‘I don’t dictate to you at all,’ he said. ‘I only remind you of Norah’s wishes.’

‘And do you agree with them? Do you approve of her mad freak in running off like this?’

‘Yes, sir; as far as I understand what has happened I do approve. I think it was the only honest course left her.’

Suddenly Keeling’s anger evaporated, leaving only a sore throbbing place where it had burned.

‘I hope she’s not—not very unhappy,’ he said. He could not help saying that: he had to speak of her to somebody.

‘She is utterly miserable,’ said Charles. ‘It{325} couldn’t be otherwise, could it? And you are miserable too, sir. I am—I am awfully sorry for you both. But I suppose that has got to be. Norah could do nothing else than what she has done.’

Keeling sank down in the chair on which he had been leaning. He felt completely tired out.

‘Do you think she will allow me to see her or write to her?’ he asked.

‘Not for a long time. But—there is no harm in my telling you this—she wants me to tell her how you are. She hopes, sir, that you will make yourself very busy. That’s the best thing to do, isn’t it?’

Keeling had no reply to this. The apathy of intense fatigue, of an excitement and anticipation suddenly nullified, was blunting the sharp edges of his misery. For a little while he sat there with his head in his hands, then slowly and stiffly he got up, looking bent and old.

‘I am sorry that I asked you for her address,’ he said; ‘I will be going home, and you must get back to your packing. Good-night, Propert.’

The world had ceased spinning for him as he walked back. He lifted heavy feet, as if he was going up some steep interminable hill....

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