An Autumn Sowing

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter XI

Keeling went to his office on the following Monday morning, with his mind already made up about the extension of his business. He had an option on a big building site at the neighbouring manufacturing town of Nalesborough, and this he determined to exercise at once, and have put in hand, without delay, the erection of his new premises. His trade seemed to have reached its high-water mark here in Bracebridge, but the creation of a similar business elsewhere would occupy him for a dozen years yet, and what was more to his immediate purpose, give him a piece of critically important work now. Last summer he had more than half resolved to turn the Bracebridge Stores into a company, and, leaving Hugh as the director, himself retire from business, and enjoy among his books the leisure of which all his life he had had so little. Now his one desire was to set this new enterprise going, and thereby gain for himself not the leisure that lately he coveted, but the absorption which he hoped the work of organisation would bring him. It would be an immense task, and that was why he undertook it, for he had no desire any more for unoccupied hours, in which he could browse in{327} the pastures of his secret garden. What he wanted was work, work of the kind that kept him so busy all day, that he had no further energy left for thought. He proposed to continue directing the course of his Bracebridge business also: with these two to superintend, he surely would find stupefaction for those bees of the brain whose bitter honey-making he had no use for.

He had made an excursion into fairy land—that was how he framed the matter to himself. There had been The Cedars and work for him before, there would be work and The Cedars for him afterwards. Those who have drunk of the metheglin never perhaps afterwards are wholly free from the reminiscence of the sweet draught brewed magically from the heather and the honey, but they go back after their sojourn among the little people, and behave like ordinary mortals again, and eat the home-brewed bread, and move about their appointed ways. But the nights and days they have spent in the secret places of the earth will, till they die, be more vivid to them than all the actual experiences that they go through afterwards and went through before they penetrated the enchanted glen; the remembrance will colour their idle moments with the ensanguined hue of dream; that baseless fabric, that vision of hidden doors thrown open and the things that lurk within, is more rich, just because to them it is more real than the sober tonelessness of their profession or{328} pursuit. Therefore if they are wise, the best thing they can do is, like Prospero, to drown the magic book beneath the waters of absorbing employment. Often it will float up again to the surface, and each time it must be prodded back with averted eyes. So, for Keeling, a love that could not be realised once crowned the hill-tops of his nature; now that citadel and the very hill-tops themselves had been shaken down and strewn over the plains. He had now one paramount need—that of forgetting, and, since he could not forget, the need resolved itself into the effort to remember as little as possible, to use up in other ways the energy which was his, and the leisure that he could command if he chose.

He let himself into his office, where his letters were already being opened by the girl he had sent for to take over Norah’s work. On the little table by the window there still stood Norah’s typewriting machine, which it appeared she had altogether forgotten: her brother must be asked to take it away. By it was the pile of letters which dealt with businesses not yet concluded: all were in order with dockets of the affairs contained in them. Probably, before she quitted the office for the last time on Friday afternoon, she had foreseen that she would not return, and had left everything so that her successor might take up the work without difficulty. Nothing was omitted or left vague; she had finished everything{329} with the most meticulous care. He searched through these papers to see if there was any private word for him. But there was nothing: this was office work, and such private words as she had for him had all been said in the bluebell wood.

Her successor, a rasping young woman with strong knuckles, proved herself very efficient, and before long she retired to the small room adjoining with her sheaf of shorthand notes. Her typewriting machine was already installed there, and soon the clack of the keys proclaimed her a swift worker. For a few minutes only the sound worried him: there was a new touch, a new note, (one that meant nothing to him except that it told him that his work was going forward) to get accustomed to. But very soon he was absorbed in the mass of affairs which his new venture brought with it. There was twelve years’ work before him: here he was in the first hour of it. It stretched endlessly away, but he gave no attention to the enormous perspective. All he desired was to attend to the immediate foreground; he would progress inch by inch, detail by detail, till the perspective began to grow. He would look neither forwards nor backwards.

He left his office late that night after a long day’s uninterrupted work, and, still busy with some problem, took without thinking the path through the Cathedral graveyard, which farther on led past the house where Norah had lived. But{330} before he got there, he remembered, and turned off so as to avoid it. And then he paused, and retraced his steps again. Was it weak to avoid it, or was it weak to let himself walk by it? Perhaps the stronger course was just to get used to it. Sometime, perhaps, he would be able to go by it without noticing....

It was already the dinner-hour when he arrived home, and he went into his wife’s boudoir to tell her to begin without waiting for him. To his astonishment he found her not yet dressed, and as he entered, she hastily picked up her handkerchief, which was on the floor, and applied it to her eyes.

‘Why, Emmeline, what’s the matter?’ he said.

She did not seem to him to be actually crying, but the ritual of crying was there, and had to be respected.

‘Oh, my dear Thomas, you haven’t heard the terrible news then?’ she said. ‘I thought you would be sure to have seen it placarded somewhere. Alice went straight to her room, and I haven’t seen her since, though I repeatedly knocked at the door, which she has locked on the inside, and I’m sure it’s most unnatural of her not to let her own mother comfort her. It all happened in a moment: I have always said those great motor-cars shouldn’t be allowed to career about the streets, especially when they are all paved with cobbles as they are at Easton Haven, which are{331} so slippery when it’s wet. He slipped, and it went over him in a moment.’

‘Will you please tell me whom it went over?’ asked Keeling, as his wife paused for a second.

‘Why, poor Mr Silverdale, and to think that it was only last Friday that we had such fun over the slippers. I declare I shall never want to see a slipper again. He was crushed to a jelly, and I’m sure I hope the driver will be well hung for it, though they are certain to prove that it wasn’t his fault, which is so easy now that poor Mr Silverdale can’t give his account of the matter. It was all over in a moment, though I know quite well you didn’t like him, and said many sarcastic things about him and the young ladies whom he inspired. I’m sure I never said a hard thing about him, nor thought it either, though he didn’t ask Alice to be his wife. But I am convinced he would have if he had been spared, that’s one comfort. If only he had, all this might have been avoided, for they would be on their honeymoon now, let me see, February, March, April, or if they had come back, he wouldn’t have wanted to set out on this mission just yet, and so the van wouldn’t have been there. And what are we all to do now?’

These pathetic reflections had the effect of really working on Lady Keeling’s feelings, and her throat tied itself into knots.

‘His shepherd’s crook!’ she said. ‘All his delightful ways, though, as I say, you never liked{332} him. The muffins he has eaten sitting on the floor before this very fire! The way he used to run, like a boy! The Gregorian chants which he used to call so ripping! All that beautiful music! I declare I shall never want to go to church again. And pray what are we to do now? What’s to happen to Alice, if she won’t unlock her door.’

‘The best thing we can do is to leave Alice alone for the present,’ he said. ‘I’ll go up to her after dinner.’

‘She won’t see you,’ said Lady Keeling confidently. ‘She wouldn’t see me, who have always been so sympathetic about Mr Silverdale, so what chance is there of her seeing you?’

‘That is what I shall find out. Now it’s late already; I have been detained at the office, so let us go into dinner as we are.’

Lady Keeling sighed.

‘I couldn’t eat a morsel,’ she said, ‘though I know it is the duty of all of us to keep our strength up. There is hare soup too: he was so fond of hare soup. But I must run upstairs first, and put on a black fichu or something. I could not sit down to table without some little token of respect like that.’

Lady Keeling performed this duty of keeping her strength up with her usual conscientiousness, and after dinner her husband sent a note up to Alice, saying that he would be alone in his library if she would like to come down. While they were{333} still in the dining-room over coffee, the answer came back that she would do so, and presently he went in there, while Lady Keeling, in a great state of mystification as to how Alice could want to see her father, went back in what may be called dudgeon to the plush and mirrors of the drawing-room. It seemed to her very unnatural conduct on Alice’s part, but no doubt the poor girl’s head was so ‘turned’ with grief that she hardly knew what she was doing. Her mother could think of no other possible explanation. She indulged in a variety of conjectures about the funeral, and presently, exhausted by these imaginative efforts, fell asleep.

Keeling, when he went into his library, found Alice already there, sitting limply in front of the fire. She turned round when her father entered, and fixed on him a perfectly vacant and meaningless stare. Till then he had no notion what he should say to her: now when he saw that blank tragic gaze, he knew there was no necessity to think at all. He understood her completely, for he knew what it was to lose everything that his soul desired. And his heart went out to her in a manner it had never done before. She sat there helpless with her grief, and only some one like himself, helpless also, could reach her. Her silliness, her excited fussinesses had been stripped off her, and he saw the simplicity of her desolation.{334} From him had fallen his hardness, and in him she divined a man who, for some reason, could reach her and be with her. Before he had walked across the room to her, her expression changed: there came some sort of human gleam behind the blankness of her eyes, and she rose.

‘Father,’ she said, and then she ran to him, stumbling over her dress, and put her hands on his shoulders.

That grim mouth, which she had always thought so forbidding and unsympathetic, suddenly wore to her a perfectly new aspect: it was strong and tender.

‘My dear,’ he said, ‘I am so glad you have let me come to you. You are in deep waters, poor girl.’

‘I loved him,’ she said.

‘I know you did. That’s why you’re right to come to me. I can understand. I can’t do anything for you except understand. I’ve loved too: I’ve lost too. I know what it’s like.’

‘I felt you did: I don’t know why,’ she said.

‘Well, you felt right. We’re together, my dear.’

Since she had heard the news, she had sat dry-eyed and motionless in her bedroom. Now in the sense of a companionship that comprehended, the relief of tears came, and with head buried on his shoulder, she clung to him while the storm raged. He just let her feel the pressure of his arm, and for the rest stood there braced and firm in body and{335} steadfast soul. There was none who could help him, but comfortless himself he could comfort, and he waited with that live and infinite patience which is the gift only of the strong and masterful.

‘There, my dear,’ he said at length, ‘you have cried enough, and you’re better for it. Now you’re going to be very good and dry your eyes, and sit down again by the fire, while I fetch you something to eat. You’ve had nothing.’

‘I couldn’t eat,’ she said.

‘Oh, yes, you could. Now do just as I tell you, Alice. When you’ve eaten, we’ll talk again.’

Quietly and firmly he disengaged her arm from his, and putting her into her chair again, he presently returned, bringing a tray for her. Then, gently insisting, he made her eat and drink.

‘Ought I to see mother?’ she asked at length.

‘Just wish her good-night when you go upstairs. I’m going to pack you off to bed in half an hour.’

‘But she won’t talk and cry—and—and not understand?’ asked Alice.

‘No, she shan’t talk and cry. I’ll take care of that. I’ll act policeman. But I can’t promise you that she’ll understand. I should think nothing more unlikely.’

Alice had a faint smile for this.

‘I never knew you before to-night, father,’ she said.

‘No, but we must try to be friends now.’

Alice moved aside the table which carried her{336} tray. ‘You never liked him,’ she said. ‘How is it you can help me like this? How can you understand, if you didn’t like him?’

‘I know you did. That is all that concerns me.’

‘Yes, but you thought him silly, and you thought me silly.’

He smiled at her.

‘Yes, I often thought you both extraordinarily silly, if you will have it so,’ he said. ‘But I respect love.’

Alice’s face began slowly to get misshapen and knotted. He spoke to her rather firmly.

‘Don’t begin crying again, Alice,’ he said. ‘You’ve had your cry.’

‘But it’s all so hopeless. There’s nothing left for me. All the things we planned together——’

He interrupted.

‘You’ve got to carry them out alone. Set yourself to do them, my dear. Don’t leave out one. That’s the thing. Make yourself busy: occupy yourself.’

He got up, speaking to himself as much as to her.

‘That’s what we have both got to do,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to work instead of snivelling, we’ve got to set our teeth and go ahead. I’m going to be busier than I’ve been for years. I’m going to start a new Stores in Nalesborough, and see after them and the Stores here myself.’

‘But you were thinking of giving up your business altogether,’ said she.{337}

‘I was, but I have reconsidered that. I’m going to be busier than ever: let us see which of us can be the busiest. I can’t forget, nor can you, but we can leave as little time as possible for remembering.’

Suddenly their rôles were reversed, and she found herself in the position of sympathiser, if not comforter.

‘But I thought you were so full of energy and happiness,’ she said. ‘What has happened?’

‘Nothing that I can tell you,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to speak of myself.’

She got up too.

‘Poor father,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, whatever it is.’

‘Thank you, my dear. Don’t try to guess. And now I’ll take you in to your mother, just to say good-night. She shan’t bother you. And we’ve got to bite on the bullet, Alice.’

A few minutes later he returned alone to his library. All round him were the shelves, now packed from floor to ceiling with book cases half filled projecting into the room, and on the table lay the three volumes of the catalogue. From all round thoughts and associations and memories gathered and swarmed, and, forming into a wave of pent-up bitterness, they roared over him. Everything he cared about had crumbled and disappeared. Here was his secret garden, which from boyhood{338} he had tended and cultivated with ever-increasing care, and now each shelf was to him only a reminder of Norah, propping open the door he was resolved to shut. He had dreamed of leisure hours here, free from the sound of the grinding millstone of business, and now he only wanted to get back into the roar and thump of the wheels. He had wanted the society and companionship of men who would appreciate and sympathise, now they had shown that they did not want him, and indeed he wanted them no longer; his contractors and wholesale merchants and dealers would supply all the society he had any use for for years to come. He had let himself seek love, and he had found love, and just because it was love and no mere sensual gratification that he had sought, it had, with the full consent of all in him that was worthy of it, been plucked from him. And with its vanishing his secret garden had blossomed with bitter herbs, rosemary for rose and rue. Perhaps if he had looked he might find dim violets for remembrance, and if he waited and was patient there might spring up pansies for thoughts. But that at present was beyond the region of his desire: were he to seek for flowers, he would but seek poppies for forgetfulness.

The room was intolerable to him, he stifled and struggled in its air of bitter longings. His dreams had built a pavilion in his garden, and hung it with tapestries, and fate, terrible as an army with{339} banners, had torn them down and trampled upon them in its relentless march. He could at least refuse to look on the ruins any more.

He turned to leave the room, looking round it once more, even as last Friday Norah had looked round his office, knowing that she would not see it again. There was nothing here that belonged to the life that stretched in front of him: all was part of the past. The most he could do was to exercise the fortitude he had enjoined on Alice, and banish from sight the material things round which, close as the tendrils of ivy, were twined the associations of what he had missed. All that his books had to say to him was pitched in the tones of the voice that he must remember as little as possible, for now if he opened one and read, it was Norah whom he heard reading. She filled the room....

It was late: a long day’s work was behind him, another lay in front of him, and he went out turning the key in the lock. He hung it on one of the chamois-horns tipped with brass, that formed the hat-rack.

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