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Title: An Autumn Sowing
Author: Benson, E. F. (Edward Frederic)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "An Autumn Sowing" ***

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                           AN AUTUMN SOWING

                                  BY
                             E. F. BENSON

                         LONDON: 48 PALL MALL
                      W. COLLINS SONS & CO. LTD.
                      GLASGOW MELBOURNE AUCKLAND



                              Copyright

                    First Impression, November, 1917
                    Second     ”      November, 1917
                    Third      ”      October, 1919



CHAPTER I


Mr Keeling had expected an edifying half-hour when Dr Inglis gave out as
his text, ‘There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth,’ and as the
discourse proceeded, he felt that his anticipations were amply
justified. Based on this unshakable foundation, and buttressed by other
stalwart pronouncements, the doctrine of eternal damnation wore a very
safe and solid aspect. It was the justice of it that appealed to Mr
Keeling. Mankind had been warned in a perfectly unmistakable manner that
if they persisted in certain courses of action and in certain
inabilities to believe, they would be punished for ever and ever. That
was fair, that was reasonable: rules were made to be obeyed. If you were
truly sorry for having disobeyed them, a secondary principle, called
mercy, came to the succour of the repentant. But Dr Inglis did not say
so much about that. He was concerned with the inflexibility of his text.

It is said that a man’s conduct is coloured and inspired by his
religion, but it is equally true to say of another and more numerous
class that their religion is coloured and inspired by their conduct.
Certainly that was the case with Mr Keeling. His life did not so much
spring out of his religion, as his religion out of his life; and what he
felt every Sunday morning and evening in church was the fruit, the stern
honey distilled, so to speak, from the mental and moral integrity which
had pervaded him from Monday till Saturday inclusive. All the week the
bees collected that store of provender which was transmuted into the
frame of mind which was equivalent in him to religion. It did not in the
smallest degree enter into his week-day life: his week-day life secreted
it, and he found it very well expressed for him in the sermon of Dr
Inglis and the fiercer of King David’s psalms. The uprightness, honesty,
and industry which he demanded from himself he demanded also from
others; but it was not his religion that inspired those excellent
qualities. They inspired it.

Mr Keeling sat at one end of the varnished pitch-pine pew with his
children in a row between him and their mother at the other end. There
were large schedules of commandments on either side of the plain, bare
table (miscalled an altar), so that everybody could see what was
expected of him, while Dr Inglis told them what they could expect if
they were not very careful. Next his father sat John, who, from the
unfortunate accident of his being the youngest, went last into the pew,
while Mr Keeling stood like an angry shepherd in the aisle to herd his
family into the fold, just above which rose the pulpit where Dr Inglis
at this moment was speaking in a voice of icy conviction.

John’s position was thus a peculiarly depressing one, for his natural
instinct in those hours of tedium in church was to edge away as far as
possible from his father, but on the other side of him was his sister
Alice, who not only sang psalms and canticles and hymns with such
piercing resonance that John’s left ear sang and buzzed during the
prayers afterwards, but had marvellously angular knees and elbows, which
with a pious and unconscious air she pressed into John’s slim side if he
encroached on her due share of the pew. And when we consider that John
was just seventeen years old, an age when the young male animal has a
tendency to show symptoms of its growth and vigour by jerky, electric
movements known as ‘fidgets’ whenever it has to stop in one position for
more than a minute or two, it was reasonable that John should conclude
that his share of weeping and gnashing of teeth had begun already. But
church time did not last for ever and ever.... Beyond the angular Alice,
who was twenty-five, came Hugh, whose banns had been given out that day
for the first time, just before the sermon, and who was still feeling
rather hot and uncomfortable about it. He had hinted at breakfast that
perhaps he would not go to church that morning in consequence, but his
father had fixed him with so appalling a countenance that the hint
developed no further.

Alice’s banns had never been given out by anybody, and a physiognomist
might hazard the conjecture that they never would be, for she had in her
face, with its short-sighted eyes, high cheekbones, and mouth that
looked as if it had got unbuttoned, that indescribable air of
old-maidishness which fate sometimes imprints on the features of girls
still scarcely of marriageable age. They do not, as Alice did not, seem
to be of the types from which wives and mothers are developed. A
celibacy, tortured it may be, seems the fate inexplicably destined for
them by the irony of Nature who decreed that they should be women, and
they discharge their hearts in peevishness or in feverish activities.
Alice was inclined to the more amiable of these safety-valves, but she
could be peevish too.

At the end of the row, large, inane, and comfortable, came Mrs Keeling,
listening without appreciation, dissent, or emotion of any kind to this
uncompromising view of the future of miserable sinners, for that was not
the sort of thing that affected her in the slightest degree, since it
concerned not this world but the next. Though she quite believed in the
next world, she did not take the smallest interest in it: she regarded
it just about as the ordinary citizen of a country town regards
Australia. Very likely Dr Inglis was right about it, and we should all
know in time. She had pale eyebrows, rather prominent gray eyes, and
hair from which the original yellow was fast fading. Her general
appearance was of a woman who, thirty years ago, had probably been
exceedingly pretty in an absolutely meaningless manner. This, indeed,
had been the case, as certain photographs (fast fading too) scattered
about her ‘boudoir’ sufficiently proved. It was reasonable to suppose
that her marriage with so obviously dominant a man as Thomas Keeling
should have sucked all colour, mental and physical, out of her, but in
the process she had developed a certain protective strength of her own,
an inertia of dead weight. She did not make up her mind on many topics,
but when she did she sank deeply down like a stone, and a great deal of
grappling and effort was required to move her. She did not argue, she
did not struggle, she just remained. Her power of remaining, indeed, was
so remarkable that it was possible that there might be something alive,
some power of limpet-like suction that gave her force: on the other
hand, it was possible that this sticking was mere brute weight,
undirected by any human will. She stopped where she was, obeying habits
of heavy bodies, and it required a great deal of strength to shift her.
Even her husband, that notable remover of all obstacles that stood in
his way, seldom attempted to do so when he was convinced she meant to
abide. In the course of years he had tugged her, or perhaps she had
really gone of her own accord, to the sort of place where he wished her
to be, somewhere between an easy-chair in the awful drawing-room which
she had lately furnished, and the kitchen. In other words, she gave him
an extremely comfortable home, and took her place there as hostess. But
if he wanted more than that, she was, as he had found out, a millstone
round his neck. In common with many women of her type, she had a
practically inexhaustible flow of words to her mouth which seemed a
disintegration rather than an expression of the fabric of her faculties;
but every now and then among this debris there occurred an idea,
disconnected from all else, and floating down on its own account, which
seemed to suggest that Emmeline had a mind after all, though you would
never have thought it. But an idea did appear now and again, a bright,
solid, sensible idea, lying there like a jewel in a gutter. She had
tastes, too, a marked liking for sweet things, for quantities of cream
in her tea, for bright colours, for what we may call Mendelssohnic music
and for plush-like decorations. She had a good deal of geniality which,
so to speak, led nowhere, and a complete absence of physical cowardice,
which might be due to a want of imagination.

Apart from the strenuous matter of Dr Inglis’s discourse, a circumstance
that added interest to it was the fact that this was the last Sunday on
which he would officiate at St Thomas’s, Bracebridge, and he had already
been the recipient of a silver tea-set, deeply chased with scrolls and
vegetables, subscribed for by his parishioners and bought at Mr
Keeling’s stores, and a framed address in primary colours. He had been
appointed to a canonry of the Cathedral that stood in the centre of the
cup-shaped hollow on the sides of which Bracebridge so picturesquely
clustered, and his successor, a youngish man, with a short, pale beard,
now curiously coloured with the light that came through a stained glass
window opposite, had read the lessons and the litany.

Mr Silverdale, indeed, in spite of the special interest of Dr Inglis’s
discourse, was engrossing a good deal of Alice Keeling’s attention, and
her imagination was very busy. He had spent an assiduous week in calling
on his parishioners, but she had not been at home when he paid his visit
to her mother, who had formed no ideas about him, and Alice was now
looking forward with a good deal of excitement to to-night, when he was
going to take supper with them, after evening service, as her mother had
expressed it in her note, or after evensong, as he had expressed it in
his answer.

His conduct and appearance during the service had aroused her interest,
for he wore a richly coloured stole and a very short surplice, had
bowed in the direction of the east window as he walked up the chancel,
and had made a very deep obeisance somewhere in the middle of the Creed,
when everybody else stood upright. Somehow there was a different
atmosphere about him from that which surrounded the grim and austere Dr
Inglis, something in the pale face and in a rapt expression which she
easily read into his eyes, that made her mentally call him priest-like
rather than clergyman-like. Like most young women in whom the destiny of
old-maid is unrolling itself, Alice had a strong potentiality for
furtive romance, and while the pains of hell were being enunciated to
her inattentive ears, her short-sighted eyes were fixed on Mr
Silverdale, and she began to think of Lord Tennyson’s poem of Galahad
who was unmarried too.... She was so far lost in this that the rustle of
the uprising congregation at the end of the sermon, reached her
belatedly, and she rose in a considerable hurry, filling up the gap in
this tall barrier of Keelings. She and her mother were not less than
five feet ten in height, John’s inches had already outsoared them both,
while her father and Hugh, each a full six feet of solid stuff,
completed the substantial row. By one of Nature’s unkindest plans the
sons were handsome, the daughter plain, but all had the self-reliant
quality of size about them. A hymn followed, while the offertory, which
Mr Keeling helped to collect in serge-lined open mahogany plates, was in
progress, and the blessing, pronounced by Mr Silverdale, who made an
odd movement in the air with his right hand, brought the service to a
close.

       *       *       *       *       *

According to custom, Mr Keeling, with his two sons, went for a brisk
walk, whatever the weather, before lunch, while Alice and her mother,
one of whose habits was to set as few feet to the ground as was humanly
possible without incurring the danger of striking root, got into the
victoria that waited for them at the church-door, on which the fat horse
was roused from his reverie and began heavily lolloping homewards. It
was not usual in Bracebridge to have a carriage out on Sunday, and Mrs
Keeling, surveying less fortunate pedestrians through her
tortoise-shell-handled glass, was Sunday by Sunday a little Lucretian on
the subject. The matter of the carriage also was a monument to her own
immovableness, for her husband, years ago, had done his utmost to induce
her to traverse the half mile on her own feet.

‘Ah, there is poor Mrs Etheridge,’ she said. ‘She will get very hot and
dusty before she reaches home. I would offer her a lift, but it would
make such a crush for us all. And there is poor Mr Moulton. How he
limps! I noticed that when he was handing the other offertory plate. He
has a long walk before him too, has he not? But we cannot drive
everybody home. It is pleasant driving to-day: the thin rug keeps off
the dust, and I want no other covering. It is neither too hot nor too
cold, just what I like. But it looks threatening over there. I should
not wonder if poor Mrs Etheridge got a drenching before she reaches her
little house. Her house is damp too: I have often noticed that, and to
get hot and wet and sit in a damp house is the very way to get
pneumonia. You are very silent, Alice.’

Alice assumed a slightly nippy look.

‘I was waiting till you had finished, Mamma!’ she permitted herself to
observe.

Here Mrs Keeling’s disintegration of mind showed itself. She had but a
moment before been critical of Alice’s silence.

‘Yes, dear, that is what I always tried to teach you,’ she said, ‘when
you were children; just as my mother taught me. I’m sure I told you all
every day not to talk with your mouths full or when anybody else is
talking. If we all talked together there would be a fine noise, to be
sure, and nobody a bit the wiser. I took a great deal of trouble about
your manners, and I’m sure it was not thrown away, for I consider you’ve
all got very good manners, even John, when he chooses. Talking of that’
(This phrase meant nothing in Mrs Keeling’s mouth), ‘I noticed Mr
Silverdale in church. He seemed to me to have a hungry kind of look. I
dare say his housekeeper is very careless about his meals, not having a
wife. I hope he will make a good meal this evening. Perhaps it would be
safer, dear, if you refused the salmon mayonnaise, as you are not so
very fond of it. Mrs Bellaway would have it that there was plenty, but
she has such a small appetite herself.’

‘I saw nothing hungry about his face,’ said Alice, with decision. ‘He
looked so rapt and far-away as if anything like food was the last
subject he would think about.’

‘Very likely, my dear; you are wonderful at reading character. All the
same the people who don’t give a thought to food are just those who do
go hungry, so we may both of us be right. Is that a spot of rain or a
fly? I felt something on the back of my glove.’

Alice put her clasped hands between her knees and squeezed them. She was
perfectly willing to go without her mayonnaise, but she could not bear
her mother should think Mr Silverdale looked hungry.

‘I thought his face was so like Jonah preaching at Nineveh in the
stained glass window,’ she said.

Mrs Keeling suddenly became coherently humorous. An idea (not much of
one, but still an idea) floated down the debris from her mind.

‘Well, he had had nothing to eat for three days,’ she remarked. ‘That
seems to show that I’m right.’

The street down which they drove from church very soon ceased to be a
street in the sense of its being lined on each side by contiguous
houses, and became Alfred Road, and was bounded on each side by brick
and stucco villas. At first stood arm-in-arm, semi-detached, but
presently they took on an air of greater spaciousness and stood square
and singly, while the gardens that sandwiched them before and behind
were large enough to contain a grass-plot and six or seven laurels in
front, and a full-sized tennis-lawn and a small kitchen garden at the
back. But perhaps they scarcely warranted such names as ‘Chatsworth,’
‘Blenheim,’ ‘Balmoral,’ or ‘The Engadine,’ which appeared so prominently
on their painted gates. ‘Blenheim’ had once been Mrs Keeling’s home, and
her mother, a tiny, venomous old lady in a Bath-chair, lived and was
likely long to live there still, for she had admirable health, and the
keen, spiteful temper which gives its possessor so indignant and
absorbing an interest in life.

It was to a far narrower home than Blenheim that Emmeline had gone on
her marriage with Mr Keeling, and though the greater part of Alfred Road
had shaken their heads over her mating herself with a man so much below
her socially, her mother, wife, and now widow of a retired P. & O.
captain, had formed a juster estimate of her future son-in-law’s chin. A
silly, pretty girl like Emmeline, she thought, was very lucky to capture
a man who was going to make his way upwards so obviously as that
strapping young fellow with the square jaw. He was then but the
proprietor of the fishmonger’s shop at the end of the High Street, but
Mrs Goodford knew very well, without being told so by young Keeling
himself, that he was not of the sort which remain a small fishmonger.
Events had justified her insight, and it was to a much bigger house than
Mrs Goodford’s that her daughter was being driven on this Sunday
morning.

As the victoria pursued its leisurely way, the spaces between the
Blenheims and Chatsworths grew larger, the villas ceased to have but one
window on each side of the front door: they stood farther back from the
road, and were approached by small carriage drives culminating in what
was known as the ‘carriage sweep’ in front of the house, a gravelled
space where a carriage could turn completely round. Two gates led to the
carriage sweep, on one of which was painted ‘In,’ and on the other
‘Out,’ and the spaces surrounding the houses could justly be called
‘grounds’ since they embraced tennis lawns and kitchen gardens with
‘glass,’ and shrubberies with winding paths. Retired colonels must needs
have private money of their own in addition to their pensions to live so
spaciously, and Mr Keeling, even thus housed, was putting by very
considerable sums of money every year. Into one of those carriage
drives, advertised to passers-by as the entrance of ‘The Cedars’
(probably because there were three prosperous larch trees planted near
the ‘In’ gate), Mrs Keeling’s carriage turned, and after passing some
yards of shrubbery stopped before a wooden Gothic porch. Both ladies
appeared unconscious of having reached home till a small boy covered
with buttons came out of the house and removed the light carriage-rug
that covered their knees.

It was but a few months ago that Mr Keeling, taking advantage of a break
in the lease of his own house, and the undoubted bargain that he had
secured in this more spacious residence, had bought the freehold of ‘The
Cedars,’ and had given the furnishing and embellishment of it (naming
the total sum not to be exceeded) into the hands of his wife and the
head of the furnishing department in his stores. The Gothic porch,
already there, had suggested a ‘scheme’ to the artistic Mr Bowman, and
from it you walked into a large square hall of an amazing kind. On the
floor were red encaustic tiles with blue fleurs-de-lis, and the walls
and ceiling were covered with the most expensive and deeply-moulded
Lincrusta-Walton paper of Tudor design with alternate crowns and
portcullises. It was clearly inconvenient that visitors should be able
to look in through the window that opened on the ‘carriage-sweep’; so Mr
Bowman had arranged that it should not open at all, but be filled with
sham bottle-bottoms impervious to the eye. In front of it stood a large
pitch-pine table to hold the clothings and impedimenta of out-of-doors,
and on each side of it were chairs of Gothic design. The fireplace, also
new, had modern Dutch tiles in it, and a high battlemented mantel-shelf,
with turrets at the corners. For hats there was a mahogany hat-rack with
chamois-horns tipped with brass instead of pegs, and on the
Lincrusta-Walton walls were trophies of spears and battle-axes and
swords. Mr Bowman would have left the hall thus in classic severity, but
his partner in decoration here intervened, and insisted on its being
made more home-like. To secure this she added a second table on which
stood a small stuffed crocodile rampant holding in his outstretched
forelegs a copper tray for visitors’ calling cards. Mrs Keeling was very
much pleased with this, considering it so quaint, and when her friends
called, it often served as the header-board from which they leaped into
the sea of conversation. The grate of the fire-place, empty of fuel, in
this midsummer weather, was filled with multitudinous strips of
polychromatic paper with gilt threads among it, which streamed from some
fixed point up in the chimney, and suggested that a lady with a skirt
covered with ribbons had stuck in the chimney, her head and body being
invisible. By the fireplace Mrs Keeling had placed a painted wheelbarrow
with a gilt spade, containing fuchsias in pots, and among the trophies
of arms had inserted various Polynesian aprons of shells and leather
thongs brought back by her father from his voyages; these the outraged
Mr Bowman sarcastically allowed ‘added colour’ about which there was no
doubt whatever. Beyond this hall lay a farther inner one, out of which
ascended the main staircase furnished (here again could be traced Mr
Bowman’s chaste finger) with a grandfather’s clock, and reproductions of
cane-backed Jacobean chairs. From this opened a big drawing-room giving
on the lawn at the back, and communicating at one end with Mrs Keeling’s
‘boudoir.’ These rooms, as being more exclusively feminine, were
inspired in the matter of their decoration by Mrs Keeling’s unaided
taste; about them nothing need be said beyond the fact that it would
take any one a considerable time to ascertain whether they contained a
greater number of mirrors framed in plush and painted with lilies, or of
draped pictures standing at angles on easels. Saddlebag chairs, damask
curtains, Landseer prints, and a Brussels carpet were the chief
characteristics of the dining-room.

To the left of the Gothic and inner halls, a very large room had been
built out to the demolition of a laurel shrubbery. This was Mr Keeling’s
study, and when he gave his house over to the taste of his decorators,
he made the stipulation that they should not exercise their artistic
faculties therein, but leave it entirely to him. In fact, there had
been a short and violent scene of ejection when the card-holding
crocodile had appeared on a table there owing to the inadvertence of a
house-maid, for Mr Keeling had thrown it out of the window on to the
carriage sweep, and one of its hind legs had to be repaired. Here for
furniture he had a gray drugget on the floor, a couple of easy chairs,
half a dozen deal ones, an immense table and a step-ladder, while the
wall space was entirely taken up with book shelves. These were but as
yet half-filled, and stacks of books, some still in the parcels in which
they had arrived from dealers and publishers, stood on the floor. This
room with its books was Mr Keeling’s secret romance: all his life, even
from the days of the fish-shop, the collection of fine illustrated books
had been his hobby, his _hortus inclusus_, where lay his escape from the
eternal pursuit of money-making and from the tedium of domestic life.
There he indulged his undeveloped love of the romance of literature, and
the untutored joy with which design of line and colour inspired him. As
an apostle of thoroughness in business and everything else, his books
must be as well equipped as books could be: there must be fine bindings,
the best paper and printing, and above all there must be pictures. When
that was done you might say you had got a book. For rarity and antiquity
he cared nothing at all; a sumptuous edition of a book of nursery
rhymes was more desirable in his eyes than any Caxton. Here in his hard,
industrious, Puritan life, was Keeling’s secret garden, of which none of
his family held the key. Few at all entered the room, and into the
spirit of it none except perhaps the young man who was at the head of
the book department at Keeling’s stores. He had often been of use to the
proprietor in pointing out to him the publication of some new edition he
might wish to possess, and now and then, as on this particular Sunday
afternoon, he was invited to spend an hour at the house looking over Mr
Keeling’s latest purchases. He came, of course, by the back door, and
was conducted by the boy in buttons along the servants’ passage, for Mrs
Keeling would certainly not like to have the front door opened to him.
That would have been far from proper, and he might have put his hat on
one of the brass-tipped chamois horns. But there was no real danger of
that, for it had never occurred to Charles Propert to approach ‘The
Cedars’ by any but the tradesman’s entrance.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs Keeling in the passionless and oyster-like conduct of her life very
seldom allowed any external circumstance to annoy her, and when she
found on her arrival home this morning a note beside the crocodile in
the hall saying that her mother proposed to come to lunch, it did not
interfere with the few minutes’ nap that she always allowed herself on
Sunday morning after the pomp and fatigue of public worship. But it was
a fact that her husband did not much care for his mother-in-law’s
presence at his table, for as Mrs Keeling said, they were apt to worry
each other, and consequently Mrs Goodford’s visits usually took place on
week-days when Mr Keeling was at the Stores. But it did not ever so
faintly enter her head to send round to say that she would not be at
home for lunch, because, in the first place, she did not care
sufficiently whether Mamma came or not, and in the second place, because
there was not the slightest chance of Mamma’s believing her. The most
she could do was to intercept any worrying by excessive geniality, and
as they all sat down she remarked, pausing before she began to cut the
roast beef,--

‘Well, I do call this a nice family party! All of us at home, and Mamma
too!’

This did not quite seem to break the ice, and Mrs Goodford looked in
some contempt at her daughter with her eyes, little and red and wicked
like an elephant’s. Her face was so deeply wrinkled that her features
were almost invisible in the network, but what there was of them was
exceedingly sharp. She had taken off her bonnet, a sign that she meant
to stop all afternoon, and showed a head very sparsely covered with
white hair: at the back of it was fixed on a small bun of bright auburn,
which no doubt had been the colour of her hair some forty years ago.
This bun always fascinated John: it was impossible to conjecture how it
was attached to his grandmother’s head.

Mrs Goodford ate a slice of hot beef in dead silence, with a circular
mill-like motion of her chin. It disappeared before her daughter had
time to begin eating on her own account, which gave her an opportunity
for another attempt to thaw the glacial silence that presided over the
nice family party.

‘Well, and there’s Mamma finished her slice of beef already! What a
blessing a good appetite is, to be sure! You’ll let me give you another
slice, Mamma, won’t you?’

Mrs Goodford had pointedly taken a place next her daughter, which was as
far as she could get from Mr Keeling, and, still without speaking, she
advanced her plate up to the edge of the dish. Again she ate in silence,
and pushed her Yorkshire pudding to the extreme edge of her plate.

‘Nasty, mushy stuff,’ she observed. ‘I’d as soon eat a poultice.’

John, who had scarcely taken his eyes off the bun, putting his food into
his mouth by general sense of locality only, suddenly gave a hiccupy
kind of gasp. Mrs Goodford, exhilarated by beef, turned her
elephant-eyes on him.

‘I don’t quite catch what you said, John,’ she remarked. ‘Perhaps you
can tell me what the sermon was about this morning.’

‘Hell, Granny,’ said John cheerfully.

Mrs Goodford began to grow slightly more bellicose.

‘Your father would like that,’ she observed.

Hitherto Mr Keeling had devoted his mind to his own immediate concerns
which were those of eating. He had no wish to get worried with Mrs
Goodford, but it seemed that mere politeness required an answer to this.

‘I found it an excellent sermon,’ he said, with admirable neutrality; ‘I
only hope that Mr--Mr Silverdale will give us such good ones.’

Mrs Goodford scrutinised the faces of her grandchildren. Her eye fell on
Alice.

‘We must find a wife for him,’ she said. ‘I dare say we shall be able to
fit him out with a wife. He seems a polite sort of young man too. I
shouldn’t wonder if plenty of our Bracebridge young ladies would be
willing to become Mrs Silverside, or whatever the man’s name is.’

‘Dear me, Mamma!’ said Mrs Keeling, ‘you talk as if the gentleman was a
bit of beef.’

‘Mostly bones, as far as I could see,’ said Mrs Goodford, still not
taking her little eyes off Alice. ‘There wasn’t much beef on them.’

‘Well, I hope he’ll get a good meal this evening,’ said Mrs Keeling.
‘He’s taking his supper with us.’

‘Ah, I dare say he’ll find something he likes,’ said this dreadful old
lady, observing with malicious pleasure that Alice’s colour, as she
would have phrased it, ‘was mounting.’

A certain measure of relief came to poor Alice at this moment, for she
observed that everybody had finished the meat-course, and she and Hugh
(who had at present escaped the lash of his grandmother’s tongue) and
John hastily got up and began changing their elders’ plates, and
removing dishes. This was the custom of Sunday lunch at Mrs Keeling’s,
and a Sabbatarian design of saving the servants trouble lay at the back
of it. The detail of which it took no account was that it gave Hugh and
Alice and John three times as much trouble as it would have given the
servants, for they made endless collisions with each other as they went
round the table; two of them simultaneously tried to drag the roast beef
away in opposite directions, and the gravy spoon, tipped up by John’s
elbow, careered through the air with a comet-tail of congealed
meat-juice behind it. Ominous sounds of side-slip from heaped plates and
knives came from the dinner wagon, where the used china was piled, and
some five minutes of arduous work, filled with bumpings and crashings
and occasional spurts of suppressed laughter from John, who, like a true
wit, was delighted with his own swift and disconcerting reply to his
Granny, were needful to effect the changes required for the discussion
of plum tart and that strange form of refreshment known as ‘cold
shape.’ During these resonant minutes further conversation between the
elders was impossible, but Mrs Goodford was not wasting her time, but
saving up, storing her forces, reviewing her future topics.

It was obvious by this time that the family lunch was going to be rather
a stormy sort of passage, and Mrs Keeling had before this caught her
husband’s eye, and with dumb movements of her lips and querying eyebrows
had communicated ‘Champagne?’ to him, for it was known that when Mrs
Goodford was in a worrying mood, a glass of that agreeable beverage
often restored her to almost fatuous good humour. But her husband had
replied aloud, ‘Certainly not,’ and assumed his grimmest aspect. This
did not look well: as a rule he was content to suffer Mrs Goodford’s
most disagreeable humours in contemptuous silence. Now and then,
however, and his wife was afraid that this was one of those tempestuous
occasions, he was in no mind to lie prone under insults levelled at him
across his own table.

Mrs Goodford being helped first, poured the greater part of the cream
over her tart, and began on Hugh. Hugh would have been judged by a
sentimental school-girl to be much the best looking of all the Keelings,
for the resemblance between him and the wax types of manly beauty which
used to appear in the windows of hairdressers’ establishments was so
striking as to be almost uncanny. You wondered if there was a strain of
hairdresser blood in his ancestors. He had worked himself up from the
lowest offices in his father’s stores; he had been boy-messenger for the
delivery of parcels, he had sold behind the counters, he had been
through the accountant’s office, he had travelled on behalf of the
business, and knew the working of it all from A to Z. In course of time
he would become General Manager, and his father felt that in his capable
hands it was not likely that the business would deteriorate. He spoke
little, and usually paused before he spoke, and when he spoke he seldom
made a mistake. The brilliance of his appearance was backed by a solid
and sensible mind.

‘And they tell me you’re going to be married next, Hugh,’ said Mrs
Goodford.

Hugh considered this.

‘I don’t know what you mean by “next,” Grandmamma,’ he said. ‘But it is
quite true that I am going to be married.’

His mother again tried to introduce a little lightness into this sombre
opening.

‘Trust Hugh for not agreeing with anything he doesn’t understand,’ she
said.

Mrs Goodford took no notice whatever of this. It is likely that her
quick little eye had intercepted the telegraphic suggestion of
champagne, and that she was justly irritated at her son-in-law’s
rejection of it. She laid herself out to be more markedly disagreeable
than usual.

‘Well, all I can say is, that I hope your Miss Pemberton isn’t one of
those lively young ladies who are always laughing and joking, or you’ll
be fit to kill her with your serious airs. I should never have guessed
that you were going to be a bridegroom in a few weeks’ time.’

‘But you haven’t got to guess, Grandmamma,’ said Hugh. ‘You know
already.’

‘And I’m told she has a nice little fortune of her own,’ continued Mrs
Goodford. ‘Trust a Keeling for that. Ah, dear me, yes: there are some
that go up in the world and some that go down, and I never heard that
the Keelings were among those that go down.’

Hugh hardly thought about this at all before he answered. It was a
perfectly evident proposition.

‘I dare say not,’ he said, still non-committally.

‘Yes; and it was true before you were born or thought of,’ continued
this terrible old lady. ‘Your father didn’t marry so much beneath him
either. Ah, he was in a precious small way, he was, when he came
a-courting your mother.’

Mrs Goodford had now, so to speak, found her range. She had been like a
gun, that has made a few trial shots, dropping a shell now on Alice, now
on Hugh. But this last one went off right in the centre of the target.
She disliked her son-in-law with that peculiar animus which is the
privilege of those who are under a thousand obligations to the object of
their spite, for since nearly thirty years ago, when he had taken
Emmeline off her hands, till last Christmas, when he had given her a new
Bath-chair in addition to his usual present of a hundred pounds, Keeling
had treated her with consistent and contemptuous liberality. This
liberality, naturally, was not the offspring of any affection: the
dominant ingredient in it was pride. However Mrs Goodford might behave,
he was not to be disturbed from his sense of duty towards his
mother-in-law. Nor, at present, was he sufficiently provoked to make any
sort of retort, but merely told John to pass him the sugar.

Mrs Goodford finished her plum tart.

‘Yes, some do go up in the world,’ she went on. ‘Who’d have thought
thirty years ago that T. Keeling of the fish-shop in the High Street was
going to be Mr Thomas Keeling of the Stores?’

A slight smile appeared on Keeling’s grim face. He could not resist
replying to this.

‘Who’d have thought it, do you ask?’ he said. ‘Why, I thought it; I knew
it all along, I may say.’

‘And they tell me you’re going to be Mayor of Bracebridge next year,’
said Mrs Goodford, delighted to have drawn him into conversation with
her. If only she could engage him in it she trusted herself to make him
lose his temper before many minutes were over.

‘Yes, they’ve told you right there,’ said he. ‘Or perhaps you’ve got
some fault to find with that, Mrs Goodford.’

Mrs Keeling looked round in a distressed and flurried manner, with her
feeble geniality showing like some pale moon behind clouds that were
growing rapidly thicker.

‘Yes, and me the Lady Mayoress,’ she said. ‘Why, I’m ever so nervous
even now in the thinking of all the grand parties I shall have to give.
And the hospital will be finished next year too, and what a to-do we
shall have over that. And what do you say now, Mamma, to having your cup
of coffee in my boudoir quietly with Alice and me, leaving the gentlemen
to have a cigarette.’

Mrs Goodford gave a thin little laugh like a bat’s squeak.

‘No, I’ll sit here a bit longer,’ she said, ‘and talk to the gentlemen
and the Lord Mayor of Bracebridge. Dear me, to think of all the changes
we see! And I shouldn’t wonder if there was more in store yet. I learned
when I was a girl that there was once a King of England who used to like
a bit of stale fish----’

Keeling suddenly pointed an awful forefinger at her.

‘Now, that’s enough!’ he said. ‘Never in my life have I sold a bit of
bad goods, fish, flesh, or fowl, or whatever you like to name, that I
wasn’t willing to take it back with humble apologies for its having left
my shop. Not one atom of bad stuff did any one buy of me if I knew it.
And any one who says different to that speaks a false-hood. If you’ve
got anything to answer me there, Mrs Goodford, let’s have it now and
have done with it.’

There was not a word in reply, and after having given her good space to
answer him, he spoke again.

‘So we’ll have no more talk of stale fish at my table,’ he said.

Mrs Keeling rose.

‘Well, then, I’m sure that’s all comfortably settled,’ she said, ‘and
pray, Mamma, and you, Thomas, don’t go worrying each other any more,
when we might be having such a pleasant family party, on Sunday
afternoon too. Come along with me, Mamma, and let’s have our coffee
served in my boudoir, and let’s all sit and cool after our lunch.’

This appeal was more successful. Something in the simple dignity of
Keeling’s reply had silenced her, and she was led away like a wicked
little elephant between her daughter and Alice. Not one word did Keeling
say till they had left the room, and then, though his usual allowance of
port on Sunday was one glass after lunch and two after dinner, he
helped himself again and pushed the bottle towards Hugh.

‘Join your mother, John,’ he said to his other son.

‘Oh, mayn’t I----’ began John, with an eye to cherries.

‘You may do as I bid you without more words,’ said his father.

For a few minutes he sat glowering and sipping.

‘That’s why some men take to drink,’ he observed. ‘They’re driven silly
by some ill-conditioned woman like your grandmother. Nag, nag, nag: it
was Alice first, then you, then me. Does she come to eat her dinner with
us on Sunday just to insult us all, do you think?’

Hugh considered this as he helped himself.

‘I think that’s part of her reason,’ he said. ‘She also wants to get a
good dinner for nothing.’

‘I expect that’s about it. She may call me a tradesman if she likes, who
has been a fishmonger, for that’s quite true. But she shan’t call me
such a rotten bad man of business as to send out stale goods. She
wouldn’t be getting her hundred pounds regular as clock-work at
Christmas time, if I had been that sort of a man.’

‘You answered her very properly, I thought,’ remarked Hugh.

‘Of course I did. I didn’t want to do it: never in my life have I wanted
to speak like that to any woman, let alone your mother’s mother, but
she gave me no option. Now I’m off to my books.’

He rose.

‘It would be rather a good thing if you went into my mother’s room and
had your cup of coffee there,’ Hugh said, ‘it would show you paid no
heed to her rude speeches.’

‘Maybe it would, but she might treat me to some more, and I’ve no
inclination for them. Stale fish, indeed!’



CHAPTER II


Mr Keeling was accustomed to consider the hour or two after lunch on
Sunday as the most enjoyable time in the week, for then he gave himself
up to the full and uninterrupted pursuit of his hobby. None of his
family ever came into his study without invitation, and since he never
gave such invitation, he had no fear about being disturbed. Before now
he had tried to establish with one or other of them the communication of
his joy in his books: he had asked Alice into his sanctuary one Sunday,
but when he had shown her an exquisitely tooled binding by Cameron, she
had said, ‘Oh, what a pretty cover!’ A pretty cover!... somehow Alice’s
appreciation was more hopeless than if she had not admired it at all.
Then, opening it, she had come across a slightly compromising picture of
Bacchus and Ariadne, and had turned over in such a hurry she had
crumpled the corner of the page. Her father hardly knew whether her
maidenly confusion was not worse than the outrage on his adored volume.
Stern moralist and Puritan though he was, this sort of prudery seemed to
him an affectation that bordered on imbecility. On another he had asked
Hugh to look at his books, and Hugh had been much struck by the type of
the capital letters in an edition of Omar Khayyam, wondering if it could
be enlarged and used in some advertisement of the approaching summer
sale at the stores. ‘That’s the sort of type we want,’ he said. ‘It hits
you in the eye; that does. You can’t help reading what is written in
it.’ Very likely that was quite true, for Hugh had an excellent
perception in the matter of attractive type and arrangement in the
advertising department, but his father had shut up the book with a snap,
feeling that it was in the nature of a profanity to let the aroma of
business drift into an atmosphere incense-laden with his books. His wife
presented an even more hopeless case, for she was apt to tell her
friends how fond her husband was of reading, and how many new editions
he had ordered for his library. Clearly, if this temple was to retain
its sense of consecration he must permit no more of these infidel
intruders.

It is not too much to say that the room was of the nature of a temple,
for here a very essential and withdrawn part of himself passed hours of
praise and worship. Born in the humblest circumstances, he had, from the
days when he slept on a piece of sacking below the counter in his
father’s most unprofitable shop, devoted all the push, all the activity
of his energies to the grappling of business problems and the pursuit of
money-making. To many this becomes by the period of middle age a
passion not less incurable than drug drinking, and not less ruinous than
that to the nobler appetites of life. But Keeling had never allowed it
thus to usurp and swamp him; he always had guarded his secret garden,
fencing it impenetrably off from the clatter of the till. Here, though
undeveloped and sundered from the rest of his life, grew the rose of
romance, namely the sense of beauty in books; here shone for him the
light which never was on sea or land, which inspires every artist’s
dream. He was not in any degree creative, he had not the desire any more
than the skill to write or to draw when he lost himself in reverie over
the printed page or the illustrations in his sumptuous editions. But the
sense of wonder and admiration which is the oil in the artist’s lamp
burned steadily for him, and lit with a never-flickering flame the hours
he passed among his books. Above all, when he was here he lost
completely a certain sense of loneliness which was his constant
companion.

To-day he did not at once pass through the doors beyond which lay the
garden of enchantment. Mrs Goodford had irritated him beyond endurance,
and what irritated him even more than her rudeness was the fact that he
had allowed it to upset him. He had thought himself safe from annoyance
by virtue of his own contempt, but her gibe about the stale fish had
certainly pricked him in spite of its utter falsity. He would have
liked to cut off his usual Christmas present which enabled her to live
in comfort at Blenheim, and tell her she need not expect more till she
had shown herself capable of politeness. But he knew he would not do
this, and with an effort dismissed the ill-mannered old lady from his
mind.

But other things extraneous to the temple had come in with him as he
entered, like flies through an opened door, and still buzzed about him.
His wife’s want of comprehension was one of them. It was not often that
Mrs Goodford had the power to annoy him so thoroughly as she had done
to-day, but when she did, all that Emmeline had to contribute to the
situation was such a sentence as, ‘What a pity you and Mamma worry each
other so.’ She did not understand, and though he told himself that in
thirty years he should have got used to that, he found now and then, and
to-day with unusual vividness, that he had not done so. She had never
become a companion to him; he had never found in her that for which
ultimately a man is seeking, though at the time he may not know it, when
he goes a-wooing. A mouth, an eyebrow, the curve of a limb may be his
lure, and having attained it he may think for a few years of passion
that in gaining it he has gained what he sought, but unless he has
indeed got that which unconsciously he desired, he will find some day
when the gray ash begins to grow moss-like on his burning coals, that
though his children are round him, there is but a phantom opposite to
him. The romance of passion has burned itself out, and from the ashes
has no phœnix arisen with whom he can soar to the sun. He desired the
mouth or the eyebrow: he got them, and now in the changing lineaments he
can scarcely remember what that which so strangely moved him was like,
while in the fading of its brightness nothing else has emerged.

It was this undoubtedly which had occurred in the domestic history of
Keeling’s house. He had been infatuated with Emmeline’s prettiness at a
time when as a young man of sternly moral principles and strong physical
needs, the only possible course was to take a wife, while Emmeline, to
tell the truth, had no voice in the matter at all. Certainly she had
liked him, but of love in any ardent, compelling sense, she had never,
in the forty-seven years of her existence, shown the smallest symptom in
any direction whatever, and it was not likely that she was going to
develop the malady now. She had supposed (and her mother quite certainly
had supposed too) that she was going to marry somebody sometime, and
when this strong and splendidly handsome young man insisted that she was
going to marry him, she had really done little more than conclude that
he must be right, especially when her mother agreed with him. Events had
proved that as far as her part of the matter was concerned, she had
acted extremely wisely, for, since anything which might ever so
indulgently be classed under the broad heading of romance, was foreign
to her nature, she had secured the highest prize that life conceivably
held for her in enjoying years of complete and bovine content. When she
wanted a thing very much indeed, such as driving home after church on
Sunday morning instead of walking, she generally got it, and probably
the acutest of her trials were when John had the measles, or her husband
and mother worried each other. But being almost devoid of imagination
she had never thought that John was going to die of the measles or that
her husband was going to cut off his annual Christmas present to her
mother. Things as uncomfortable as that never really came near her; she
seemed to be as little liable to either sorrow or joy as if when a baby
she had been inoculated with some spiritual serum that rendered her
permanently immune. She was fond of her children, her card-bearing
crocodile in the hall, her husband, her comfort, and she quite looked
forward to being Lady Mayoress next year. There would always be
sufficient strawberries and iced coffee at her garden parties; her
husband need not be under any apprehension that she would not have
proper provision made. Dreadful scenes had occurred this year, when Mrs
Alington gave her last garden-party, and two of her guests had been seen
almost pulling the last strawberry in half.

Such in outline was the woman whom, nearly thirty years ago, Keeling had
carried off by the mere determination of his will, and in her must
largely be found the cause of the loneliness which so often beset him.
He was too busy a man to waste time over regretting it, but he knew that
it was there, and it formed the background in front of which the action
of his life took place. His wife had been to him the mother of his
children and an excellent housekeeper, but never had a spark of
intellectual sympathy passed between them, still less the light
invisible of romantic comprehension. Had he been as incapable of it as
she their marriage might have been as successful as to all appearance it
seemed to be. But he was capable of it; hence he felt alone. Only among
his books did he get relief from this secret chronic aching. There he
could pursue the quest of that which can never be attained, and thus is
both pursuit and quarry in one.

And now in his fiftieth year he was as friendless outside his home as he
was companionless there. The years during which friendships can be made,
that is to say, from boyhood up till about the age of forty, had passed
for him in a practically incessant effort of building up the immense
business which was his own property. And even if he had not been so
employed, it is doubtful whether he would ever have made friends. Partly
a certain stark austerity innate in him would have kept intimacy at a
distance, partly he had never penetrated into circles at Bracebridge
where he would have met his intellectual equals. Till now Keeling of the
fish-shop had but expanded into Mr Keeling, proprietor of the Universal
Stores, that reared such lofty terra-cotta cupolas in the High Street,
and the men he met, those with whom he habitually came in contact, he
met on purely business grounds, and they would have felt as little at
ease in the secret atmosphere of his library as he would have been in
entertaining them there. They looked up to him as the shrewdest as well
as the richest of the prosperous tradesmen of Bracebridge, and his
contributions and suggestions at the meetings of the Town Council were
received with the respect that their invariable common sense merited.
But there their intercourse terminated; he could not conceive what was
the pleasure of hitting a golf-ball over four miles of downland, and
faced with blank incomprehension the fact that those who had been
exercising their brains all day in business should sit up over games of
cards to find themselves richer or poorer by a couple of pounds at one
o’clock in the morning. He would willingly have drawn a cheque for such
a sum in order to be permitted to go to bed at eleven as usual. He had
no notion of sport in any form, neither had he the bonhomie, the
pleasure in the company of cheerful human beings as such, which really
lies at the root of the pursuits which he so frankly despised, nor any
zeal for the chatter of social intercourse. To him a glass of whisky and
soda was no more than half a pint of effervescing fluid, which you were
better without: it had to him no value or existence as a symbol of good
fellowship. There was never a man less _clubbable_. But in spite of the
bleakness of nature here indicated, and the severity of his aspect
towards his fellow men, he had a very considerable fund of kindly
impulses towards any who treated him with sincerity. An appeal for help,
whether it implied the expenditure of time or money was certainly
subjected to a strict scrutiny, but if it passed that, it was as
certainly responded to. He was as reticent about such acts of kindness
as he was about the pleasures of his secret garden, or the steady
increase in his annual receipts from his stores. But all three gave him
considerable satisfaction, and the luxury of giving was to him no whit
inferior to that of getting.

Charles Propert, who presently arrived from the kitchen-passage in
charge of the boy in buttons, was one of those who well knew his
employer’s generosity, for Keeling in a blunt and shamefaced way had
borne all the expense of a long illness which had incapacitated him the
previous winter, not only continuing to pay him his salary as head of
the book department at the stores during the weeks in which he was
invalided, but taking on himself all the charges for medical treatment
and sea-side convalescence. He was an exceedingly well-educated man of
two or three-and-thirty, and Keeling was far more at ease with him than
with any other of his acquaintances, because he frankly enjoyed his
society. He could have imagined himself sitting up till midnight talking
to young Propert, because he had admitted him into the secret garden:
Propert might indeed be described as the head gardener. Keeling nodded
as the young man entered, and from under his big eyebrows observed that
he was dressed entirely in black.

‘Good-afternoon, Propert,’ he said. ‘I got that edition of the _Morte
d’Arthur_ you told me of. But they made me pay for it.’

‘The Singleton Press edition, sir?’ asked Propert.

‘Yes; sit down and have a look at it. It’s a fine page, you know.’

‘Yes, sir, and if you’ll excuse me, I really think you got it rather
cheap.’

‘H’m! I wonder if you’d have thought that if you had been the
purchaser.’

Propert laughed.

‘I think so. As you said to me the other day, sir, good work is always
cheap in comparison with bad work.’

Keeling bent over the book, and with his eyes on the page, just touched
the arm of Propert’s black coat.

‘No trouble, I hope?’ he said.

‘Yes, sir. I heard yesterday of my mother’s death.’

‘Very sorry. If you want a couple of days off, just arrange in your
department. Then the copy of the _Rape of the Lock_ illustrated by
Beardsley came yesterday too. I like it better than anything I’ve seen
of his.’

‘There’s a very fine _Morte d’Arthur_ of his which you haven’t got,
sir,’ said Propert.

‘Order it for me, please. The man could draw, couldn’t he? Look at the
design of embroidery on the coat of that fellow kneeling there. There’s
nothing messy about that. But it doesn’t seem much of a poem as far as I
can judge. Not my idea of poetry; there’s more poetry in the prose of
the _Morte d’Arthur_. Take a cigarette and make yourself comfortable.’

He paused a moment.

‘Or perhaps you’d sooner not stop and talk to-day after your news,’ he
said.

Propert shook his head.

‘No, sir, I should like to stop.... Of course the _Rape of the Lock_ is
artificial: it belongs to its age: it’s got no more reality than a
Watteau picture----’

‘Watteau?’ asked Keeling.

‘Yes; you’ve got a book of reproductions of Watteau drawings. I don’t
think you cared for it much. Picnics and fêtes, and groups of people
under trees.’

Keeling nodded.

‘I remember. Stupid, insipid sort of thing. I never could make out why
you recommended me to buy it.’

‘I can sell it again for more than you paid for it, sir. The price of it
has gone up considerably.’

This savoured a little of business.

‘No, you needn’t do that,’ he said. ‘It’s a handsome book enough. And
then there is another Omar Khayyam.’

‘Indeed, sir; you’ve got a quantity of editions of that. But I know it’s
useless for me to urge you to get hold of the original edition.’

Mr Keeling passed him this latest acquisition.

‘Quite useless,’ he said. ‘What a man wants first editions for, unless
they’ve got some special beauty, I can’t understand. I would as soon
spend my money in getting postage-stamps because they are rare. But I
wanted to talk to you about that poem. What’s he after? Is it some
philosophy? Or is it a love poem? Or is he just a tippler?’

The conference lasted some time. Keeling was but learning now, through
this one channel of books, that attitude of mind which through instinct,
whetted and primed by education, came naturally to the younger man, and
it was just this that made these talks the very essence of the secret
garden. Propert, for all that he was but an employee at a few pounds a
week, was gardener there; he knew the names of the flowers, and what
was more, he had that comprehension and love of them which belongs to
the true gardener and not the specimen grower or florist only. It was
that which Keeling sought to acquire, and among the prosperous family
friends, who were associated with him in the management of civic
affairs, or in business relationships, he found no opportunity of coming
in contact with a similar mind. But Propert was freeborn in this
republic of art and letters, and Keeling was eager to acquire at any
cost the sense of native, unconscious citizenship. He felt he belonged
there, but he had to win his way back there.... He must have learned the
language in some psychically dim epoch of his existence, for exploration
among these alleys in his garden had to him the thrill not of discovery,
but the more delicate sense of recollection, of revisiting forgotten
scenes which were remembered as soon as they disentangled themselves
again from the jungle of materialistic interests that absorbed him all
the week. Mr Keeling had very likely hardly heard of the theory of
reincarnation, and had some modern Pythagoras spoken to him of beans, he
would undoubtedly have considered it great nonsense. But he would have
confessed to the illusion (the fancy he would have called it) of having
known something of all this before when Propert, with his handsome face
aglow and his eyes alight, sat and turned over books with him thus,
forgetting, as his own absorption increased, to interject his sentences
with the respectful ‘sir’ of their ordinary week-day intercourse.
Keeling ceased to be the proprietor and master of the universal stores,
he ceased even to be the proprietor of his own books. They and their
pictures and their binding and their aroma of the kingdom of intellect
and beauty, were common possessions of all who chose to claim them, and
belonged to neither of them individually any more than the French
language belongs to the teacher who instructs and the pupil who learns.

The hour that Propert usually stayed had to-day lengthened itself out
(so short was it) to two before the young man looked at his watch, and
jumped up from his chair.

‘I’m afraid I’ve been staying a very long time, sir,’ he said. ‘I had no
idea it was so late.’

Mr Keeling got up also, and walked to the window, where he spoke with
his back towards him.

‘I should like to know a little more about your family trouble,’ he
said. ‘Any other children beside yourself? I remember you once told me
your mother was a widow.’

‘Yes, sir, one sister,’ said Propert.

‘Unmarried? Work for her living?’ asked Keeling.

‘Yes, sir. I think she’ll come and live here with me,’ said he. ‘She’s
got work in London, but I don’t want her to live there alone.’

‘No; quite proper. What’s her work?’

‘Clerical work, including shorthand and typewriting.’

‘Efficient?’

‘Yes, sir. The highest certificates in both. She’s a bit of an artist
too in drawing and wood-cutting.’

Mr Keeling ceased to address the larch-trees that were the sponsors of
his house’s name, and turned round.

‘And a book-worm like you?’ he asked.

Propert laughed.

‘I wish I was a book-worm like her,’ he said. ‘But in London you get so
much more opportunity for study of all sorts. She had a British Museum
ticket, and studied at the Polytechnic.’

Keeling picked up the Singleton _Morte d’Arthur_ and carefully blew a
grain of cigarette ash from the opened page.

‘Let me know when she comes,’ he said. ‘I might be able to find her some
job, if she still wants work. Perhaps your mother’s death has made her
independent.’

He paused a moment.

‘Naturally I don’t want to be impertinent in inquiring into your
affairs, Propert,’ he said. ‘Don’t think that. But if I can help, let
me know. Going, are you? Good-bye; don’t forget to order me Beardsley’s
_Morte d’Arthur_.’

He walked out with him into the square Gothic hall with its hideous
tiles, its castellated chimney-piece, its painted wheelbarrow, its
card-bearing crocodile, and observed Propert going towards the
green-baize door that led to the kitchen passage.

‘Where are you going?’ asked Keeling.

‘I always come and go this way, sir,’ said Propert.

Keeling opened the front door for him.

‘This is the proper door to use, when you come to see me,’ he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

He stood a minute or two at the front door, with broken melodies from
Omar Khayyam lingering like fragments of half-remembered tunes in his
head. ‘And Thou, beside me singing in the wilderness,’ was one that sang
itself again and again to him. But no one had ever sung to him in the
wilderness. The chink of money, the flattering rustle of bank-notes had
sung to him in the High Street, and he could remember certain ardours of
his early manhood, when the thought that Emmeline was waiting for him at
home made him hurry back from the establishment which had been the
nucleus-cell which had developed into the acres of show-rooms and
passages that he now controlled. But Emmeline’s presence at home never
made him arrive at his work later than nine o’clock next morning. No
emotion, caused either by Emmeline or ledger-entries, had ever dominated
him: there had always been something beyond, something to which perhaps
his books and his Sunday afternoon dimly led. And they could scarcely
lead anywhere except to the Wilderness where the ‘Thou’ yet
unencountered, made Paradise with singing.... Then with a swift and
sudden return to normal consciousness, he became aware that Mrs
Goodford’s bath-chair was no longer drawn up on the grass below the
larches, and that he might, without risk of being worried again, beyond
the usual power of Emmeline to worry him, take his cup of tea in the
drawing-room before going to evening service.

       *       *       *       *       *

He found Emmeline alone, just beginning to make tea in the heavily
fluted tea-pot with its equipage of harlequin cups and saucers. Alice
and John were somewhere in the ‘grounds.’ Hugh had gone to see his young
lady (the expression was Mrs Keeling’s), and she herself had suffered a
slight eclipse from her usual geniality owing to her mother having
stopped the whole afternoon, and having thus interrupted her reading, by
which she meant going gently to sleep on the sofa, with her book
periodically falling off her lap. The first two times that this happened
she almost invariably picked it up, on the third occasion she had
really gone to sleep, and the rumble of its avalanche did not disturb
her. But the loss of this intellectual refreshment had rendered her
rather querulous, and since she was not of very vigorous vitality, her
querulousness oozed in a leaky manner from her instead of discharging
itself at high pressure. A tea-leaf had stuck, too, in the spout of the
tea-pot, which made that handsome piece contribute to the general
impression of dribbling at Mrs Keeling’s tea-table; it also provided her
with another grievance, though not quite so acute as that which took its
rise from what had occurred at lunch.

‘I’m sure it’s years since I’ve been so upset as I’ve been to-day,
Thomas,’ she said, ‘for what with you and Mamma worrying each other so
at lunch, and Mamma stopping all afternoon and biting my head off, if I
said as much as to hope that her rheumatism hadn’t troubled her lately,
and it’s wonderful how little it does trouble her really, for I’m sure
that though I don’t complain, I suffer twice as much as she does when we
get that damp November weather--Dear me, this tea-pot was always a bad
pourer: I should have been wiser to get a less handsome one with a
straight spout. Well, there’s your cup of tea, I’m sure you’ll be glad
of it. But there are some days when everything combines to vex one, and
it will all be in a piece with what has gone before, if Alice forgets
and takes some salmon-mayonnaise, and Mr Silverdale goes away thinking
that I’m a stingy housekeeper, which has never been said of me yet.’

Keeling failed to find any indication of ‘singing in the wilderness’
here, nor had he got that particular sense of humour which could find
provender for itself in these almost majestic structures of incoherence.
At all times his wife’s ideas ran softly into each other like the marks
left by words on blotting paper; now they exhibited a somewhat greater
energy and ran into each other with something of the vigour of vehicles
moving in opposing directions.

‘I do not know whether you wish to talk to me about your mother, your
rheumatism, your teapot, or your housekeeping,’ he remarked. ‘I will
talk about any you please, but one at a time.’

Mrs Keeling gave him his cup of tea, and waited a little before pouring
out her own. It was necessary to hold the teapot so long in the air in
order to extract a ration of fluid from it.

‘Yes, it’s very pleasant for you, Thomas,’ she said, ‘spending the
afternoon quietly among your books and leaving me to stand up to Mamma
for the way you spoke to her at lunch, when we might have been such a
pleasant family party. I don’t deny that Mamma gets worried at times,
and speaks when she had better have been silent, but----’

Her husband decided that it was her mother she wished to talk about, and
interrupted.

‘You may tell your mother this,’ he said, ‘that I won’t be called a
seller of bad goods by anybody. If another man did that I’d bring a
libel action against him to-morrow. Your mother should remember that
she’s largely dependent on me, and though she may detest me, she must
keep a civil tongue in her head about me in my presence. She may say
what she pleases of me behind my back, but don’t you repeat it to me.’

Mrs Keeling, fractious from her afternoon of absolute insomnia, forced a
small tear out of one of her eyes.

‘And there’s a word to me!’ she said. ‘Fancy telling me that my mother
detests my husband. That’s an un-Christian thing to say about anybody.’

‘It’s an un-Christian feeling, maybe, to have about anybody,’ said he,
‘but that’s your mother’s affair and not mine. She may feel about me
what she pleases, but I wish her to know she must speak properly to me,
or not speak at all. I shouldn’t have referred to it again, unless you
had begun, but now that you’ve begun it’s best you should know what my
opinion on the subject is. Before the children, too: I had better
manners than that when I was in the fish-shop myself.’

Mrs Keeling began to fear the worst, and forced a twin tear from her
other eye.

‘Well, what Mamma will do unless you help her this Christmas, is more
than I can tell,’ she said. ‘Coal is up now to winter prices, and
Mamma’s cellar is so small that she can’t get in enough to last her
through. And it’s little enough that I can do for her, for with John at
home it’s like having two young lions to feed, and how to save from the
house-money you give me I don’t see. I dare say it would be better if
Mamma got rid of Blenheim for what it would fetch and went into
furnished lodgings.’

‘Now who’s been talking about my not behaving properly to your mother
except yourself?’ said Keeling.

‘There’s other ways of saying a thing than saying it,’ said Mrs Keeling
cryptically. ‘You speak of Mamma detesting you, and not having the
manners of a fishmonger, and what’s that but another way of saying
you’re set against her?’

Mr Keeling regarded his wife with a faint twinkle lurking behind his
gray eyes.

‘Take your tea, Emmeline,’ he said, ‘and you’ll feel better. You haven’t
had your nap this afternoon, but have been listening to your mother
talking all sorts of rabid stuff against me. Don’t you deny it now, but
just remember I don’t care two straws what she says about me behind my
back. But I won’t stand her impertinence to my face. And as for coal in
the winter I can tell you that she still owes me for what she bought at
the Stores last January. Perhaps I’ll county-court her for the bill. I’m
glad you talked about coal, I had almost forgotten about that bill.’

It dawned faintly and vaguely on Mrs Keeling’s mind, as on summits
remote from where she transacted her ordinary mental processes, that her
husband did not quite mean what he said about that county-courting.
Possibly there lurked in those truculent remarks some recondite sort of
humour.

‘Certainly Mamma has no call to be so rude to you, when you do so much
for her,’ she said.

‘Just tell Mamma that,’ said he, rising. ‘That’s what I want her to
understand.’

       *       *       *       *       *

The prospect of Mr Silverdale’s presence at dinner that night had filled
Alice with secret and gentle flutterings, and accounted for the fact
that she wore her amethyst cross and practised several of Mendelssohn’s
_Songs Without Words_ before evening service, in case she was asked to
play after dinner. She reaped her due reward for these prudent steps,
since Mr Silverdale expressed his admiration for amethysts at dinner,
and afterwards came and sat close by the piano, beating time with
scarcely perceptible movements of a slim white hand, not in the manner
of one assisting her with the rhythm, but as if he himself pulsated with
it. He had produced an extraordinarily unfavourable impression on John
by constantly calling him by his Christian name, by talking about Tom
Brown when he heard he was at Rugby, and by using such fragments of
schoolboy slang as he happened to recollect from his boyish days. These
in the rapidly changing vernacular of schoolboys were now chiefly out of
date, but John saw quite clearly that the design was to be ‘boys
together,’ and despised him accordingly. On Mr Keeling he produced
merely the impression of a very ladylike young man of slightly inane
disposition, and as Hugh was away, spending the evening at the house of
his fiancée, Mr Silverdale was thrown on the hands of the ladies for
mutual entertainment. With them he succeeded as signally as he had
failed with John, saying that though preaching a sermon might be dry
work for his hearers it was hungry work for the performer, eating salmon
mayonnaise with great gusto, and remarking across the table to John,
‘Jolly good grub, isn’t it, John?’ a remark that endeared him to Mrs
Keeling, though it made John feel slightly sick, and caused him to leave
in a pointed manner on his plate the portion of the ‘good grub’ which he
had not yet consumed. Like a wise tactician, therefore, Mr Silverdale
abandoned the impregnable, and delivered his assaults where he was more
likely to be successful. He had an eager and joyful manner, as of one
who found the world an excellent joke.

‘Such a scolding as I had before church from my housekeeper,’ he said,
‘because I didn’t eat the buttered scones she sent me up for tea. I know
some one who would have polished them off, eh, John?’

John’s eye, which had exactly as much expression in it as a dead
codfish’s, cowed him for a moment, but he quickly recovered.

‘Such a scolding!’ he said. ‘She said I didn’t take sufficient care of
myself, and naturally I told her that I had so many others to look after
that I must take my turn with the rest. But when I told her that Mrs
Keeling was going to take care of me this evening, she thought no more
about the scones I hadn’t eaten! She knew I should be well looked
after.’

Mrs Keeling had had a good nap before dinner, and her geniality had
quite returned. She had also seen that Mrs Bellaway was right, and that
there was plenty of mayonnaise.

‘Well, that does put me in a responsible position,’ she said. ‘At least
I must insist on your having just a morsel more of the mayonnaise before
they take it away. It’s a very simple dinner I’m giving you to-night:
there’s but a chicken and a slice of cold meat and a meringue and a
savoury to follow.’

Mr Silverdale laughed gleefully.

‘Dear me, this is absolute starvation,’ he exclaimed. ‘I should have
eaten my scones.’

Mrs Keeling instantly saw that this was a joke.

‘I’ll leave my husband to starve you over the port afterwards,’ she
said.

Again he laughed.

‘You and Mr Keeling are spoiling me,’ he declared, though it must have
required a singularly vivid imagination to trace in Keeling’s face any
symptom of that indulgent tendency.

Alice, in the depths of her shy, silly heart, found that in spite of his
appreciation of the salmon, the chicken, the cold meat, and the
meringue, the Galahad aspect of this morning was growing. His
housekeeper had told him he did not sufficiently look after himself; it
was clear that he was wearing himself out, while the enthusiasm with
which presently he spoke of his work deepened the knightly impression.
His voice thrilled her; so, too, did the boyish gaiety with which he
spoke of serious things.

‘I adore my new parish,’ he said. ‘I was almost afraid when I took the
living I should find too little to do. But coming home late last night
from a bedside, if I saw one drunken man I must have seen twenty, some
roaring drunk, some simply stupidly drunk, dear fellows! I asked two of
them to come home with me, and have another drink, and there was I in
the middle with two drunken lads, one with a black eye, reeling along
Alfred Street. I don’t know what my parishioners must have thought of
their new pastor. You should seen my housekeeper’s face, when I told
her that I had brought two friends home with me.’

Mrs Keeling paused, laying down on her plate the piece of meringue which
was actually _en route_ for her mouth.

‘But you never gave them another drink, Mr Silverdale?’ she said.

‘Yes, my dear lady, I did. “Ho! Every one that thirsteth!” That was the
drink I had for them. Dear lads! They were too tipsy to kneel, but there
were tears in the eyes of one of them, before they had been with me five
minutes.’

‘Was that the one with the black eye?’ thought John. If his mouth had
not been full he would have said so.

‘I saw them home, of course, and next Saturday I’m going to have a
regular beano in those slums beyond the church. Don’t be shocked, Mrs
Keeling, if it’s your priest who has a black eye on Sunday morning.’

‘And the bedside where you had been before?’ asked Alice.

‘My dear Miss Alice, I wish you could have been with me. There was such
an atmosphere of terror in that room when I went in, that I felt half
stifled: the place was thick with the fear of death. I fought against
it, it was given me to overcome it, and ten minutes later that
disreputable old sinner who lay dying there had such a smile of peace
and rapture on his face that I cannot but believe that he saw the angels
standing round him.’

‘And he got better?’ asked Mrs Keeling, with breathless interest, but
feeling that this was very daring conversation.

Mr Silverdale laughed as if this was an excellent joke.

‘Better?’ he asked. ‘He got well, and sang his psalms in Heaven this
morning. I felt in church as if I could hear his voice.’

Alice remembered the rapt look she had seen there, which her mother
almost profanely had taken to be the sign of an insufficient breakfast,
and thrilled at knowing the true interpretation of it. The rapt look was
there again now, and seemed to her the most adorable expression she had
ever seen on a human countenance. Mrs Keeling was more impressed now,
and the moisture stood in her kind mild eyes.

‘Well, I call that beautiful,’ she said, ‘and if you’ll let me know when
the funeral is, I’ll send a wreath.’

Mr Silverdale laughed again: John considered he was for ever laughing at
nothing at all.

‘That would be delightful of you,’ he said, ‘but pray let us get rid of
the dreadful word funeral. Birthday should it not be?’

This was too much for John.

‘Oh, I thought birthday was the day you were born, not the day you were
buried,’ he said politely.

‘John!’ said his mother.

Mr Silverdale beamed on him.

‘John has had enough shop from his pastor, haven’t you, my dear boy?’ he
said, with the greatest good humour. ‘We clergy are terrible people for
talking shop, and we don’t seem to mind how boring and tiresome we are.
You get enough jaw at school, pi’jaw we used to call it, without being
preached at when you come home.’

But Alice fixed earnest eyes on him.

‘Oh, do tell us a little more,’ she said.

Again he laughed.

‘My dear Miss Alice, I must come to you and your mother,’ he said, ‘to
learn about my new parishioners. You’ve got to tell me all about them. I
want you to point out to me every disreputable man, woman, and child in
the place, and the naughtier they are the better I shall be pleased.
We’ll rout them out, won’t we, and not give them a minute’s peace, till
they promise to be good.’

Mr Keeling was almost as surfeited with this conversation as was John.
It appeared to him that though Mr Silverdale wished to give the
impression that he was talking about his flock, he was really talking
about himself, and seemed to find it an unusually engrossing topic. This
notion was strongly confirmed when he found himself with him afterwards
over a cigarette and a glass of port, for Mr Silverdale seemed to have a
never-ending fund of anecdotes about besotted wife-beaters and scoffing
atheists who were really dear fellows with any quantity of good in them,
as was proved from the remarkable response they invariably made to his
ministrations. These stories seemed to be about them, but in each the
point was that their floods of tears and subsequent baptism,
confirmation, or death-bed, as the case might be, were the result of the
moment when they first came across Mr Silverdale, who, as he told those
edifying occurrences, had an air of boisterous jollity, cracking nuts in
his teeth to impress John, and sipping his port with the air of a
connoisseur to impress his host, and interspersing the conversions with
knowing allusions to famous vintages. Subconsciously or consciously
(probably the latter) he was living up to the idea of being all things
to all men, without considering that it was possible to be the wrong
thing to the wrong man.

This sitting, though full of sparkle, was but brief, for Keeling was
sure that his guest’s presence would be more welcome to his wife and
daughter than it was to him, and before long he conducted him to the
drawing-room where Alice happened to be sitting at the piano, dreamily
recalling fragments of Mendelssohn (which she knew very accurately by
heart) with both pedals down. She had been watching the door, and so
when she saw it opening, she looked towards the window, so that Mr
Silverdale was half-way across the room to the piano before she
perceived his entrance. Then, very naturally, she got up, and under
threat of Mr Silverdale instantly going home if she did not consent to
sit down again and continue, resumed her melodies. He came and sat on a
low stool close to her, clasped one knee with his slim white hands, and
half closed his eyes.

‘Now for a breath of Heaven!’ he said. ‘I am quite wicked about music: I
adore it too much. Little bits of anything you can remember, dear Miss
Alice; what a delicious touch you have.’

Alice could do better than give him little bits, thanks to her excellent
memory and her practice this afternoon, and in addition to several
_Songs Without Words_, gave him a couple of pretty solid slow movements
out of Beethoven’s _Sonatas_. It was not altogether her fault that she
went on so long, for once when she attempted to get up, he said quite
aloud so that everybody could hear, ‘You naughty girl, sit down and play
that other piece at once.’ But when eventually the concert came to a
close, he pressed her hand for quite a considerable time behind the
shelter of the piano, and said almost in a whisper, ‘Oh, such rest, such
refreshment!’ Then instantly he became not so much the brisk man of the
world as the brisk boy of the world again, and playfully insisted on
performing that remarkable duet called ‘Chopsticks’ with her, and made
her promise that if Mr Keeling lost all his money, and she had to work
for her living, she would give him lessons on the piano at
seven-and-sixpence an hour. There was a little chaffering over this, for
as a poor priest he said that he ought not to give more than five
shillings an hour, while Mrs Keeling, joining in the pleasantries, urged
Alice to charge ten. The only possible term to the argument seemed to be
to split the difference and call it seven-and-sixpence, cash prepaid....
Mr Keeling was appealed to and thought that fair. But he thought it
remarkably foolish also.

Alice’s music had lasted so long that already the respectable hour of
half-past ten, at which in Bracebridge parties, the crunch of carriage
wheels on the gravel was invariably heard, had arrived, Mr Silverdale
had received such rest and refreshment that he sat on the edge of his
chair and talked buoyantly and boyishly for another half-hour. The
Galahad-aspect had vanished, so, too, had the entranced listener to slow
movements, and his conversation was more like that of a rather fast
young woman than a man of any kind. He told a Limerick-rhyme with a
distinct point to it, having warned them that it was rather naughty, and
eventually jumped up with a little scream when the ormolu clock struck
eleven, saying that he would get no end of a scolding from his
housekeeper for being late.

‘And I shall never be asked here again, either,’ he said, ‘if I inflict
myself on you so long. Good-night, Mrs Keeling: I have had a dear
evening, a dear evening, though I have wasted so much of it in silly
chatter. But if ever I am asked again, I will show you I can be serious
as well.’

He shook hands with her and Alice, just whispering to the latter, ‘Thank
you once more,’ and went out with his host. Through the open window of
the drawing-room they could hear him whistling ‘Oh, happy band of
pilgrims,’ as he ran lightly along Alfred Road to be scolded by his
housekeeper.



CHAPTER III


Thomas Keeling was seated before the circular desk in his office at the
Stores, and since nine that morning, when as usual he had arrived on the
stroke of the clock, had been finishing his study of the monthly balance
sheets that had come in two days before. For many years now these
reports had been very pleasant reading for the proprietor, and for the
last eighteen months his accounts had shown a series of record-taking
profits. This was no matter of surprise to him, for Bracebridge during
the past decade had grown enormously since the new docks at Easton
Haven, ten miles away, had converted that town from being a sleepy
watering-place into one of the first ports of the kingdom. This had
reacted on Bracebridge. Fresh avenues of villas had sprung up
mushroom-like for the accommodation business men, who liked to get away
in the evening from crowded streets and the crackle of cobble stones,
while simultaneously the opening of the new railway-works at Bracebridge
itself had implied the erection of miles upon miles of workmen’s
dwellings. From a business point of view (to any who had business in the
town) these were very satisfactory circumstances, provided that he was
sufficiently wide-awake to keep pace with the growing demand, and not,
by letting the demand get ahead of his provision for it, cause or permit
to spring up rival establishments. Keeling, it is hardly necessary to
state, had fallen into no such drowsy error: the growth of Bracebridge,
and in particular of those avenues of villas which housed so many
excellent customers, had always been kept pace with, or indeed had been
a little anticipated by him. He had never waited for a demand to arise,
and then arranged about supplying it. With the imagination that is as
much at the root of successful shop-keeping as it is (in slightly
different form) at the root of successful poesy, he had always foreseen
what customers would want. An instance had been the sudden and huge
expansion of his furniture department made about the time the first
spadefuls of earth were taken out of the hillside for the foundation of
the earliest of the miles of villas which held the families of business
men from Easton Haven. He had foreseen that profitable incursion,
risking much on the strength of his pre-vision, with the result that now
scarcely a new villa was built that was not furnished from the Stores.
The expansion of the catering department had been a similar stroke, and
the prosperous business man of Bracebridge ate the early asparagus from
Keeling’s Stores, and drank Keeling’s sound wine, as he sat on Keeling’s
chair of the No. 1 dining-room suite.

To-day as he finished the perusal of these most satisfactory renderings
of last month’s accounts, Keeling felt that he had arrived at a stage,
at a plateau on the high upland of his financial prosperity. It
stretched all round him sunny and spacious, and he had no doubt in his
own mind as to whether it had not been worth while to devote thirty
years of a busy life in order to attain it. The reward of his efforts,
namely, the establishment of this large and remunerative business, and
the enjoyment of an income of which a fifth part provided him with all
that he could want in the way of material comfort and complete ease in
living, seemed to him a perfectly satisfactory return for his industry.
But as far as he could see, there was no further expansion possible in
Bracebridge: he had attained the limits of commercial prosperity there,
and if he was to devote his energies, now still in their zenith to a
further increase of fortune, he knew that this expansion must take the
form of establishing fresh branches of business in other towns. He did
not for a moment doubt his ability to succeed elsewhere as he had
succeeded here, for he had not in the course of his sober industrious
life arrived at any abatement of the forces that drive an enterprise to
success. But to-day the doubt assailed him as to whether it was worth
while.

He asked himself for what reason he should continue to rise early and
late take rest, and he could not give himself an adequate answer. In
material affluence he had all and more than he could possibly need, his
family was already amply provided for, and the spur of another ten
thousand a year had not, so it appeared now that the time for its
application had arrived, a rowel that stimulated him. He had often
foreseen the coming of this day, and in imagination had seen himself
answer to its call, but now that the day had definitely come he had but
a dull ear for its summons. The big manufacturing town of Nalesborough,
thirty miles off, was, as he knew, an admirable centre for the
establishment of another branch of his business, and he had already
secured a two years’ option on a suitable site there. There was no
reason why he should not instantly exercise this option and get plans
prepared at once. True, there was another year of the option still to
run, and during that time the site was still potentially his, but he
knew well, as he sat and debated with himself, that it was not through
such hesitancy as this that his terra-cotta cupolas aspired so high.
There was waiting for him, if he chose to put out the energy and
capacity that were undoubtedly his, a vast increase of income. But
though an increase of income was that which had been the central purpose
of his last thirty years, he was still uncertain as to his future
course. He was conscious (or some part of him, that perhaps which dwelt
in his secret garden, was conscious) that he really did not want any
more money, though for years he had so much taken for granted that he
did, that the acquisition of it had become a habit as natural to him as
breathing.

He folded and docketed the sheets that showed the monthly profits, and
most unusually for him at this busy hour of the morning, sat idly at his
desk. The business of his stores here whirled along its course
automatically, with Hugh who had been so sedulously trained in his
father’s thorough-going school to look after it, and no longer needed
his daily supervision. With the income which came to him from years of
prudent investment he wanted no more, and he wondered whether the time
was come to turn the business into a company. As vendor he would receive
a considerable block of shares and yet leave the company with an
excellent return for their money. Hugh would probably become general
director, and he himself, secure in an ample fortune, would have all his
time at his own disposal. Next year, it is true, he would be Mayor of
Bracebridge, which would leave him but little leisure, for he had no
notion of being anything but a hard-worked head of the town’s municipal
affairs, but after that he could retire from active life altogether, as
far as offices and superintendence went. But he by no means looked
forward to a life of well-fed, well-housed idleness; the secret garden
should spread its groves, he would live permanently in the busy
cultivation of it. But it must spread itself considerably: he must be
immersed in its atmosphere and lawns and thickets as thoroughly as,
hitherto, he had been immersed in the fortunes of the Stores.

Of a sudden vistas not wholly new to him, but at present very vaguely
contemplated, rushed into focus. Some three years ago when, at the age
of fourteen, John would naturally have taken his place in the Stores,
beginning at the bottom even as Hugh had done, Keeling had determined
his destiny otherwise, and had sent him to a public school. In taking
this step, he had contemplated the vista that now was growing distinct
and imminent. John was to enter a sphere of life which had not opened
its gate to his father. The public school should be succeeded by the
University, the University by some profession in which a perfectly
different standard of person from that to which his father belonged made
honourable careers. Putting it more bluntly, John was to be a gentleman.
Though there was no one less of a snob than Keeling, he knew the
difference between what John had already begun to be and himself
perfectly well. Already John walked, talked, entered a room, sat down,
got up in a manner quite different from that of the rest of his family.
Even his mother, the daughter of the P. & O. captain, even Alice, for
all the French, German, and music lessons with which her girlhood had
been made so laborious a time, had not--Keeling found it hard to define
his thought to himself--a certain unobtrusive certainty of themselves
which after three years only of a public school was as much a personal
possession of John’s as his brown eyes and his white teeth. That quality
had grown even as John’s stature had grown each time he came back for
his holidays, and it was produced apparently by mere association with
gentlemen. Little as Keeling thought of Mr Silverdale, he was aware that
Mr Silverdale had that quality too. He might be silly and affected and
unmanly, but when he and John ten days ago had sat opposite each other
on Sunday evening, John sick and disgusted, Silverdale familiar and
self-advertising, though he appeared to talk about drunkards, it was
easy to see that they both belonged to a different class from the rest
of them. Keeling admired and envied the quality, whatever it was, which
produced the difference, and, since association with those who had it
produced it, he saw no reason to suppose that it was out of his reach.

There were plenty of people in Bracebridge who possessed it, but except
at meetings and on official occasions he did not come in contact with
them. As ex-fishmonger, as proprietor and managing director of the
Stores, he moved in a society quite distinct from those to whom John
was learning so quickly to belong. But he could see them tellingly
contrasted with each other if he cared to walk along Alfred Street, past
the church where he was so regular an attendant on Sunday, to where
there stood side by side the two social clubs of Bracebridge, namely the
Bracebridge Club to which he himself and other business men belonged,
and next door, the County Club from which those of his own social
standing were excluded. The Bracebridge Club was far the more
flourishing of the two: its bow-windows were always full of sleek and
prosperous merchants, having their glass of sherry before lunch, or
reading the papers when they arrived in the pleasant hour after offices
and shops were shut in the evening. These premises were always crowded
at the sociable hours of the business day, and at the last committee
meeting the subject of an extension of accommodation had been discussed.
There was no such congestion next door, where retired colonels, and
occasional canons of the cathedral, and county magnates in Bracebridge
for the day spoke softly to each other, or sought the isolation of a
screening newspaper in a leather arm-chair. But the quality which
Keeling found so hard to define and so easy to recognize, and which to
him was perfectly distinct from any snobbish appreciation of position or
title, brooded over those portals of the County Club. In the families
of those who frequented it the produce of his own secret garden grew
wild, as it were: the culture, the education of which it was the fruit
were indigenous to the soil. He did not suppose that Colonel Crawshaw,
or Canon Arbuthnot, or Lord Inverbroom discussed _Omar Khayyam_ or the
_Morte d’Arthur_ any more than did Alderman James, or Town-Councillor
Phillips, but there was the soil from which culture sprang, just as from
it sprang that indefinable air of breeding which already he observed in
John. One day he had seen John standing in the window there with Colonel
Crawshaw and his son, who was a schoolfellow of John’s, and Keeling’s
heart had swelled with a strange mixture of admiration and envy to see
how much John was at ease, sitting on the arm of a big chair, and with a
nameless insouciance of respect refusing a cigarette which Colonel
Crawshaw had offered him. Lord Inverbroom stood by John; and John was
perfectly at ease in these surroundings. That was a tiny instance, but
none could have been more typical. Keeling wanted, with the want of a
thirsty man, not so much to belong to the County Club, as to feel
himself at ease there if he did belong.

He was roused from this quarter of an hour’s reverie, most unusual to
him in the middle of the morning, by the entrance of one of the porters
with a card on a tray.

‘His lordship is waiting, sir’ he said, ‘and wants to know if you can
see him for ten minutes.’

Keeling took the card which he found to concern the man of whom he had
this moment been thinking. Lord Inverbroom was Lord Lieutenant of the
County, who lived some six miles outside Bracebridge in a house famed
for its library and pictures. Its owner had held office in the last
Conservative Cabinet, and was now an indefatigable promoter of county
interests. Keeling met him with tolerable frequency on various boards,
and there was no one in the world for whom he entertained a profounder
respect.

‘I’ll see him,’ he said. ‘Show him up.’

Next moment Lord Inverbroom entered. He was small and spare and highly
finished in face, and wore extraordinarily shabby clothes, of which no
one, least of all himself, was conscious.

‘Good-morning, Mr Keeling,’ he said, with great cordiality. ‘I owe you a
thousand apologies for intruding, but I have quite a decent excuse.’

‘No excuse necessary, my lord,’ said Keeling. ‘Please take a chair.’

‘Thanks. Now I won’t occupy your time more than I can help. I have come
to consult you about the County Hospital, of which, as you know, I am
chairman. We have a meeting in half an hour from now, the notice of
which, by some mistake, never reached me till this morning. That’s my
excuse for descending on you like this.’

He paused a moment.

‘There’s a very serious state of affairs,’ he said. ‘We have a heavy
deficit this last year, and unless we can find some means of raising
money, we shall have to abandon the building of that new wing, which we
began in the spring. I’m glad to say that was not my fault, else I
shouldn’t have ventured to come to you, for I only became chairman a
couple of months ago. Now we are going to have the honour of having you
for our Mayor next year, and I wanted to consult you as to whether you
thought it possible that the town would lend us a sum of money to enable
us to complete this new wing, which, in my opinion, is essential for the
proper establishment of the hospital. Would such a scheme have your
support? The Committee is meeting, as I said, in half an hour, and, if
possible, I should like to be able to tell them that some such project
is, or will be, under consideration.’

‘What sum do you require?’ asked Keeling.

‘Eighteen thousand pounds.’

‘That means twenty,’ said Keeling.

‘It probably means twenty,’ assented Lord Inverbroom. ‘We should pay, I
suppose, four or five per cent. on the loan.’

Keeling tapped the table impatiently with his fingers. This was
business, and in his opinion rotten business.

‘And considering that last year there was a deficit,’ he said, ‘where
would you get your money to pay the interest?’

‘That could be managed. I think I may say I could guarantee that.’

‘And how about the repayment of the loan itself?’ asked Keeling. ‘How
will that be guaranteed? The hospital is working at a loss. I don’t mind
that so much: appeals can be made to wipe off small deficits on working
expenses. But an institution that is working at a loss can’t get a
further loan from a public body without giving some security for its
repayment. At least, if I was on that public body, I would resign my
place rather than consent to it. What sort of balance sheet would we
have to show the taxpayers? No, my lord, that’s quite out of the
question.’

Secretly he wondered at the obtuseness of this man, who had thought such
a scheme within the wildest range of possibilities. For himself he would
not have lent a sixpence either of his own or of public money on such an
enterprise. Yet he knew that Lord Inverbroom had been a Foreign
Secretary of outstanding eminence, diplomatic, large-viewed, one who had
earned the well-merited confidence of the public. Without doubt he had
great qualities, but they did not appear to embrace the smallest
perception on the subject of business.

Lord Inverbroom nodded to him, and rose.

‘I quite see your point, Mr Keeling,’ he said. ‘Now you put it to me so
plainly, I only wonder that I did not think of it before. I am afraid
we shall have a melancholy meeting.’

As he spoke he became aware that Keeling was not paying the smallest
attention to him; he appeared unconscious of him. His finger still
tapped his desk, and he was frowning at his ink-bottle. Then he
dismissed, as if settled, whatever was occupying his mind.

‘How much has been spent on the new wing already?’ he asked.

‘Approximately eight thousand pounds.’

‘And that will be thrown away unless you raise twenty thousand more?’

‘Not permanently thrown away, I hope. But it will give us no return in
the way of hospital accommodation.’

‘And the new wing, on your guarantee, is urgently needed?’ asked
Keeling.

‘I can assure you of that.’

Keeling sat silent for a moment longer. Then he rose too.

‘I will present your committee with the entire new wing,’ he said. ‘It
will be called after me, the Keeling wing. I do not wish my gift to be
made public as yet. I should like that done as soon as it is complete,
at the opening in fact. That should take place during my year of office
as Mayor.’

Lord Inverbroom held out his hand.

‘I won’t keep you any longer, Mr Keeling,’ he said. ‘And any words of
thanks on my part are superfluous. May I just tell my committee that an
anonymous donor has come forward, and that we can proceed with the
work?’

‘Yes, that will do.’

‘I envy you your munificence,’ said Lord Inverbroom.

       *       *       *       *       *

As soon as his visitor was gone, Keeling went straight on with his
morning’s work. There were a couple of heads of departments to see, and
after that, consulting his memoranda, he found he had made an
appointment to interview a new private type-writer, in place of one whom
he had lately been obliged to dismiss.

Opposite the entry was the word ‘Propert,’ and he recollected that this
was the Miss Propert who had lately come to live with her brother.
Presently, in answer to his summons, she came in, and, as his custom was
with his employees, he remained seated while she stood.

‘I have looked through your testimonials, Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘and
they seem satisfactory. Your work will be to take down my correspondence
in the morning, in shorthand, and bring it back typewritten for
signature after luncheon. The hours will be from nine till five, with an
hour’s interval, Saturday half day. Your salary will be twenty-five
shillings a week.’

‘Thank you very much, sir,’ said she.

‘You will do the typewriting in that small room off this. You have a
machine of your own?’

‘Yes, sir. I brought it down this morning.’

‘Very well. I engage you from to-day. There is a good deal to do this
morning. If you are ready we will begin at once.’

In five minutes Norah Propert had deposited her typewriter in the next
room, and was sitting opposite her employer with the breadth of the big
table between them. As she had stood in front of him, Keeling noticed
that she was tall: now as she sat with her eyes bent on her work, he
hardly noticed that she was good-looking, with her light hair, dark
eyebrows, and firm full-lipped mouth. What was of far greater importance
was that she tore the sheets off her writing-pad very swiftly and
noiselessly as each page was filled, and that when she came to some
proper name, she spelled it aloud for confirmation. Occasionally when a
letter was finished he told her to read it aloud, and there again he
noticed not the charming quality of her voice so much as the
distinctness with which she read.

For some hour and a half this dictation went on, with interruption when
heads of departments brought in reports, or when Keeling had to send for
information as to some point in his correspondence. He noticed that on
these occasions she sat with her pencil in her hand, so as to be ready
to proceed as soon as he began again. Once she corrected him about a
date that had occurred previously in a letter, and was right.

‘That is all,’ he said, at the end. ‘I will read them over and sign
them, as soon as they are done.’

She had her hands full of the sheets, and he walked with her as far as
the door of the very small room where the typewriting was to be done,
and opened it for her. It was built out under the tiles, and was
excessively hot and stuffy on this warm September morning.

‘I shall be here till half-past one, if you want to ask me anything,’ he
said, and shut the door between her little cabin and his big cool room.
This door was heavily padded at the edges, so that the clack of the
typewriter hardly reached him.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was not Keeling’s usage to take any step concerning finance or
business without considering where that step would take him, though that
consideration could often be condensed into a moment’s insight. The
thought of his sudden munificence with regard to the hospital occupied
his mind, when he settled down to work again, as little as did the
thought of his new typist whom he had just shut up in the stuffy little
chamber adjoining his own. Momentary as had been the time required for
his offer, his determination to make it was but the logical next step in
the secret ambition which had so long been growing in his mind. Indeed
his interview with Lord Inverbroom had been his opportunity no less than
the hospital’s, and it would have been very unlike him not to take
advantage of it. But he was not going to snatch at the fruit which it
would help to bring within his reach: he had no wish that the Committee
or the town generally should learn the identity of the benefactor until
at the opening the name of the new wing should flash on the assembled
gathering. That opening must be a day of pomp and magnificence: in
course of time he would talk over that with Lord Inverbroom. At present
he had plenty of occupations to concern himself with. And noticing the
very fluent clacking that came faintly from behind the padded door, he
filed the accounts which he had found so satisfactory, and buried
himself in business again.

It was barely four o’clock when Miss Propert came in with her sheaf of
typewritten correspondence for his inspection and signature. He had
thought that this would occupy her for at least an hour longer, and as
he read it over he looked for signs of carelessness that should betray
haste rather than speed. But none such revealed themselves: all she had
done was exceedingly accurate and neat, and showed no trace of hurry. He
passed each sheet over to her, when he had read and signed it, for her
to place it in its envelope, and looking across the table without
raising his eyes he noticed the decision and swiftness of her fingers
as she folded the paper with sharp, accurate creases. He liked seeing
things handled like that: that was the way to do a job, whether that job
was the giving of a wing to the hospital or the insertion of a letter
into its envelope. You knew what you meant to do and did it. And though
it was not his habit to praise work when it was well done (for he paid
for its being well done), but only to find fault with work badly done
(since work badly done was not worth the hire of the labourer), he felt
moved to give a word of commendation.

‘I see you can work quickly as well as carefully,’ he said.

‘I will do my best to satisfy you, sir,’ she answered.

He looked at her, and saw that her face seemed flushed. That, no doubt,
was owing to the heat of the room where she had been working. He pushed
a ledger and a pile of typewritten sheets towards her.

‘I want those entered by hand in the ledger,’ he said. ‘You can use that
table over there in the window. When that is finished you can go.’

For another half-hour the two worked on at their separate tables. The
girl never once raised her eyes from her task, but sat with one hand
following down the list of names and figures, while with the other she
entered them in their due places in the ledger. But her employer more
than once looked up at her, and noted, as he had noted before, the
decision and quickness of her hands, and, as he had not noted before,
the distinction of her profile. She was remarkably like her handsome
brother; she was also like the picture of one of the Rhine-maidens in an
illustrated edition of the _Rheinegold_. But he gave less thought to
that than to the fact that he had evidently secured an efficient
secretary.

He came to the end of his day’s work before her, and rose to go.

‘You can leave the ledger on this table when you have finished,’ he
said.

She raised her eyes for a half-second.

‘Yes, sir,’ she said.

‘Your brother tells me you are as devoted to books as he,’ said Keeling.

This time she did not look up.

‘Yes, sir, I am very fond of them,’ she said, finishing an entry.

Keeling went out through his book department, where he nodded to
Propert, into the bustle of the square, noticing, with a satisfaction
that never failed him, as he walked by the various doors of his block of
building, how busy was the traffic in and out of the Stores. It was
still an hour to sunset: on the left the municipal offices and town-hall
rose pretentious and hideous against the blue of the southern sky, while
in front to the west the gray Gothic glories of the Cathedral,
separated from the square by a line of canonical houses, aspired high
above the house-roofs and leaf-laden elm-towers in the Close. The fact
struck him that the front of the town-hall, with its wealth of fussy
adornment, its meaningless rows of polished marble pilasters, its
foolish little pinnacles and finials, was somehow strangely like the
drawing-room in his own house, with its decorations selected by the
amazingly futile taste of his wife. There was a very similar confusion
of detail about the two, a kindred ostentation of unnecessary objects.
There was waste in them both, expense that was not represented on the
other side of the ledger by a credit balance of efficiency. No one took
pleasure in the little pink granite pilasters between the lights of the
windows in the town-hall, and certainly they were entirely useless. The
money spent on them was thrown away: whereas money spent ought to yield
its dividend, producing either something that was useful or something
that gave pleasure. If you liked a thing it was worth paying for it, if
it was directly useful it was worth paying for it. But where was the
return on the money spent on pink pilasters or on the lilies painted on
the huge looking-glass above his wife’s drawing-room chimney-piece?
Those lilies certainly were not useful, since they prevented the mirror
exercising its proper function of reflecting what stood in front of it.
Or did they yield a dividend in pleasure to Emmeline? He did not
believe that they did: he felt sure that she had just bought No. 1
drawing-room suite dining-room suite with extras, as set forth in his
catalogue. He knew the catalogues well: with extras No. 1 suite came to
£117. It had much in common with the front of the town-hall. So, too, if
you came to consider it, had the crocodile with the calling-cards in the
abominable hall.

The day, as Miss Propert had already discovered in her little stuffy
den, was exceedingly hot and airless, and Keeling, when he had passed
through the reverberating square and under the arch leading into the
Cathedral Close, found it pleasant to sit down on one of the benches
below the elm-trees, which soared loftily among the tombs of the disused
graveyard facing the west front of the Cathedral. Owing to Miss
Propert’s rapidity in typewriting he had left the Stores half an hour
earlier than usual, and here, thanks to her, was half an hour of leisure
gained, for which he had no imperative employment. The quiet gray graves
with head-stones standing out from the smooth mown grass formed his
foreground: behind them sprang the flying buttresses of the nave. They
were intensely different from the decorations of the town-hall; they
had, as he for all his ignorance in architecture could see, an obvious
purpose to serve. Like the arm of a strong man akimbo, they gave the
sense of strength, like the legs of a strong man they propped that
glorious trunk. They were decorated, it is true, and the decoration
served no useful purpose, but somehow the carved stone-work appeared a
work of love, a fantasy done for the pleasure of its performance, an
ecstasy of the hammer and chisel and of him who wielded them. They were
like flames on the edge of a smouldering log of wood. He felt sure that
the man who had executed them had enjoyed the work, or at the least the
man who had planned them had planned them, you might say, ‘for fun.’
Elsewhere on the battlemented angles of the nave were grotesque
gargoyles of devils and bats and nameless winged things with lead spouts
in their mouths to carry off the rain-water from the roof. Commercially
they might perhaps have been omitted, and a more economical device of
piping have served the same purpose, but they had about them a certain
joy of execution. There was imagination in them, something that
justified them for all their nightmare hideousness. The people who made
them laughed in their hearts, they executed some strange dream, and put
it up there to glorify God. But the man who perpetrated the little pink
granite pilasters on the town-hall, and the man who painted the lilies
on the looking-glass above Mrs Keeling’s drawing-room chimney-piece had
nothing to justify them. The lilies and the pilasters were no manner of
good: there was a difference between them the flying buttresses and the
gargoyles. But the latter gave pleasure: they paid their dividends to
any one who looked at them. So did the verses in _Omar Khayyam_ to those
who cared to read them. They were justified, too, in a way that No. 1
drawing-room suite was not justified for the £117 that, with extras, it
cost the purchaser.

Dimly, like the moving of an unborn child, the sense of beauty, that
profitless thing, without which there is no profit in all the concerns
of the world, began to trouble Keeling with a livelier indication of
life than any that he had yet experienced from it. In some disconnected
way it was connected with John’s education and Lord Inverbroom’s manner,
and the denizens of the windows of the County Club as opposed to those
who more numerously gathered in the windows of the Town Club next door.
Propert, his salesman in the book department, had a cousinship to these
men who made gargoyles and beautiful books, whereas Emmeline was only
cousin to the pilasters in the Town Hall and the No. 1 drawing-room
suite. Propert’s sister, according to her brother’s account, had the
same type of relationship as himself. But the main point about her was
her swiftness in shorthand writing and the accuracy of her transcription
on to the typewriting machine. Keeling had never had a secretary who
finished a heavy day’s work in so short a time. He owed her the extra
half-hour’s leisure, which had led to this appreciation of the
gargoyles and buttresses of the Cathedral. For thirty years he had
passed this way almost daily, but until to-day he had never seen them
before in the sense that seeing means a digestion of sight.

Behind him, where he sat, ran a thick-set hedge of clipped hornbeams,
bordering the asphalt walk that led through the graveyard. It was still
in full leaf, and completely screened him from passengers going through
the Close. There had been many passengers going along the path there,
and he had heard a score of sentences spoken as they passed within a
yard of him behind the hornbeam hedge. Sentence after sentence had
entered his ears without being really conveyed to his brain. Then
suddenly close behind him he heard a voice speaking very distinctly. It
said this:--

‘It’s so horrid to work for a cad, Charles. I haven’t done it before.
Oh, I know he was awfully kind to you----’

The voice merged into the buzz of autumn noises, and footsteps and other
conversation, but it had stood apart and distinct. Keeling knew he
recognised the voice, but for the moment could not put a name to its
owner; it was a woman’s voice, very distinct and pleasant in tone. And
in order to satisfy a sudden, unreasonable curiosity, he got up from his
seat and, looking out down the path over the hornbeam hedge, saw but a
few yards down the path the head of his book department and his sister,
the very efficient secretary and typewriter whom he had engaged that
morning. Their heads were turned to each other and there was no doubt
whatever about their identity.

Well, nothing could possibly matter less to him, so it seemed at that
moment, than what his typewriter thought about him. All that mattered
was what he thought about his typewriter, whom he considered a very
efficient young woman, who got through her work with extraordinary
accuracy and speed. He did not care two straws whether she considered
him a cad, for what signified the opinion of a girl whose sole
connection with you was the nimbleness of her fingers, employed at
twenty-five shillings a week? As long as she did her work well, she
might take any view she chose about her employer who, for his part, had
no views about her except those concerned with the speed and accuracy of
her transcriptions.... And then, even as he assured himself that he was
as indifferent to her opinion as the moon, he found himself hating the
fact that she thought him a cad. Why had she thought that, he asked
himself. He had been perfectly polite to her with the icy aloofness of
the employer; he had even melted a little from that, for he had opened
the door for her to go into her typewriting den, because her hands were
full of the papers that composed her work. Why a cad then?

He gave orders to his mind to dismiss the matter, and with his
long-striding, sauntering walk that carried him so quickly over the
ground, continued his way homewards. But despite his determination, he
found that his thoughts went hovering back to that unfortunate and
unintentional piece of eavesdropping. He wondered whether Charles
Propert agreed with his sister (as if that mattered either!) and quite
strongly hoped that he did not. Certainly Keeling had been kind enough
and generous enough to him.... Then, more decidedly still, he pished the
whole subject away: there were other things in the world to think about.

       *       *       *       *       *

For the next week Miss Propert continued to display a galaxy of
unvarying excellence in her duties, and Keeling, though he told himself
that he had dismissed her overheard criticism from his mind altogether,
and perhaps believed that he had done so, acted towards her in sundry
little ways, as if he consciously deprecated her opinion and sought to
change it. The weather, for instance, continuing very hot, he ordered an
electric fan to be placed in the small stuffy den where she did her
work, saying nothing about it to her, but setting it going while she was
absent for her hour’s interval in the middle of the day. On another
occasion when he was sitting at his table with his hat on, he took it
off as she entered, on a third he cleared a space for her to write at
when she came to receive his dictation for the morning. In part, though
he would have denied it, his dislike of her verdict on him prompted
these infinitesimal courtesies, but in part another incentive dictated
them. Vaguely and distantly she was beginning to mean something to him
personally, she was acquiring a significance apart from her duties. He
began to notice not only the speed and efficiency of her fingers, but
the comely shape of her hand: he began to heed not only the distinctness
of her voice as she read over her shorthand transcripts to him, but its
quality. It reminded him rather of John’s voice.... And oftener and
oftener as he dictated his correspondence he looked up with his gray
eyes set deep below their bushy eyebrows at that quiet, handsome face,
which hardly ever raised its eyes to his. Somehow her perfect fulfilment
of the complete duties of the secretary, devoid of any other human
relationship to him whatever, began to pique him. She treated him as if
he had no existence apart from his function as her employer. He had
never before had so ideal a secretary, so intelligent and accurate a
piece of office-furniture, and now, having got it, he was inconsistent
enough to harbour a smothered wish that she was a shade more human in
her dealings with him. He wished that she would not call him ‘sir’ so
invariably, whenever she spoke to him: he looked out for the smallest
indication on her part of being conscious of him in some human manner.
But no such indication appeared, and the complete absence of it vexed
him, though as often as it vexed him (the vexation was the smallest of
annoyances) he strenuously denied to himself that such a feeling existed
at all in his mind.

He had made an engagement with her brother that he should come up one
Sunday afternoon some fortnight after Miss Propert had entered his
employment, to spend a couple of hours among the herbage of the secret
garden. The young man had come into his room just before midday closing
time on Saturday, with the weekly returns of the lending library that
had just been added to the book department, when a sudden idea struck
Keeling.

‘I shall see you to-morrow afternoon, then,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you will
bring your sister with you, as you tell me she is a book-lover too.’

She was at the moment in the little typewriting den adjoining, the door
of which was open. Through it he could just see her hands arranging the
papers on her table; the rest of her was invisible. But as he spoke in a
voice loud enough to be heard by her, he observed that her hands paused
in the deft speed of their tidying and remained quite motionless for a
second or two. And he knew as well as if some flawless telegraphic
communication had been set up between her brain and his that she was
debating in her mind whether she should come or not. ‘She thought him a
cad, but no doubt she wanted to see his books;’ that was the message
that came to him from her.

Keeling nodded towards the room where the hands had become busy again.
He knew she had heard, overheard if you will, and since she did not
choose to give her answer herself, he did not choose to convey the
invitation to her again. Some faint stirrings of human relationship
began at that moment to enter into living existence, for each set up
their little screen of pride. Neither would have done that had there not
been something, ever so small, to screen.

‘Will you ask her?’ he said to her brother. ‘She is in there.’

He waited, hat and stick in hand, while a couple of sentences passed
between them. Then Charles came out.

‘She is very much obliged to you, sir,’ he said. ‘She will be very much
pleased to come.’

‘Damned condescending of her,’ thought Keeling to himself. What right
had a secretary at twenty-five shillings a week to send him messages
through her brother? But if a message was to be sent, he was glad it was
that one.

       *       *       *       *       *

Keeling received the two next afternoon in his secret garden, and had
taken the trouble to bring in a couple of more comfortable chairs. For
the first time he looked at his secretary without the sundering
spectacles of the employer, and on the instant became aware that she, on
her side, had, so to speak, taken off the blinkers of the employed. She
was here as his guest, asked by him personally because he wished to
welcome her and show her his books, and her eyes, instead of being glued
to her work, met his with a frank cordiality. He was not accustomed to
shake hands with her brother on his Sunday visits here, but the girl
advanced to him with her hand out, presupposing his welcome. Whatever
hesitancy she might have had in accepting his invitation, she had, by
the fact of her accepting it, put her indecision completely away, and
for the first time she smiled at him.

‘It was so good of you to let me come and see your books, Mr Keeling,’
she said. ‘My brother has often told me what delightful Sunday
afternoons he has passed with you here.’

He did not fail to notice that he was ‘sir’ no longer, but ‘Mr Keeling,’
nor did he fail to grasp the significance. He was ‘sir’ in his office,
he was Mr Keeling in his house. Somehow that pleased him: it was like a
_mot juste_ in a comedy.

‘Your brother has often been very useful to me in my collecting,’ he
said, with a hint of ‘employer’ still lingering in his attitude towards
him.

She sat down in one of the big chairs that Keeling had brought in. That
was the purpose for which he had fetched them, but for the moment he put
on his employer-spectacles again to observe the unusual sight of his
secretary sitting unbidden while he stood. Then the girl’s complete and
unconscious certainty that she knew how to behave herself, whisked them
from in front of his eyes again, and he saw only his guest sitting
there, to whom were due his powers of entertaining and interesting her.

‘Charles tells me you go in for beautiful books rather than rare ones,’
she said. ‘Charles, have you told Mr Keeling about the official Italian
book on Leonardo?’

‘No; I was going to mention it to you to-day, sir,’ he said.

‘Leonardo?’ asked Keeling.

‘Yes, Leonardo da Vinci....’

Immediately she saw that he had never heard of him, and without pause
conveyed incidental information.

‘It will reproduce all pictures certainly by him,’ she said, ‘and a
quantity of his sketches, with his drawings of flying machines, the
Venice ones, you know. It will be published to subscribers only.’

Keeling nodded to Charles.

‘Will you see to that for me?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. It’s published at £25, isn’t it, Norah?’

‘Yes, or is it £30? Ah, there’s the Singleton Press _Morte d’Arthur_.
May I look at that? It is one I have never seen. Ah, what a page! What
type!’

For the next hour the three burrowed into or nibbled at Keeling’s
volumes, now losing themselves completely in the interest which was in
common between them, now for a moment conscious of their mutual
relations as employer and employed. But those intervals grew rarer, and
in Keeling’s mind were replaced by the new consciousness of his
secretary with her mask off. She, on her part, found no difficulty in
separating her employer from Mr Keeling with this really wonderful
collection of beautiful modern books, and indeed there was little in
common between them. The hobby was like a thawing sun of February that
uncongealed the ice of the office, and, as long as it shone on them, the
melting seemed not less than a complete break up of the frost.

‘Lord Inverbroom lives near, does he not?’ she asked. ‘That’s a
wonderful library. Is the public allowed to see it? I suppose not. I
would not trust Charles within arm’s length of a Caxton if I had one.’

‘Kind of you,’ remarked Charles. ‘My sister designed and cut a
book-plate for him, sir.’

Keeling saw her out of the corner of his eye just shake her head at her
brother, and she instantly changed the subject. The reason seemed clear
enough in the midst of these walls of books that had no such decoration.
But she need not have shown such delicacy, he thought to himself, for he
had no notion of ordering a plate from her. And very soon she rose.

‘We must be off, Charles,’ she said, ‘if we are to have our walk. Thank
you so much, Mr Keeling, for showing me your treasures.’

He was sorry she was going, but made no attempt to detain her, and
presently she was walking back along the still sunny road with her
brother.

‘I’m sorry I called him a cad,’ she said. ‘He’s only a cad in his office
perhaps. My dear, did you see the crocodile holding a tray for cards?
What an awful house.’

‘Nice books,’ said Charles.

‘Very. He’s worthy of them too: he really likes them. Perhaps they’ll
civilise him. Do you know, I feel rather a brute for having gone there.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I don’t like him. But he’s kind; and that makes it worse. What
does he think about apart from his books? Just money, I suppose. I won’t
go there again anyhow.’

‘Until he gets the Leonardo book.’

She sighed.

‘I shall have to then, if he asks me,’ she said. ‘Or couldn’t you manage
to steal it?’

Charles made no definite promise on this point, and they walked on for a
little in silence.

‘I’m not even quite certain if I do dislike him,’ she said.

‘Have you been thinking about that all this time?’ he asked.

‘I suppose I must have been. Let’s think about something else.’



CHAPTER IV


Alice Keeling was sitting close to the window of her mother’s room
making the most of the fading light of a gray afternoon at the end of
October, and busily fashioning leaves of gold thread to be the sumptuous
foliage of no less sumptuous purple pomegranates, among which sat
curious ecclesiastical fowls, resembling parrots. The gold thread had to
be tacked into its place with stitches of gold silk, and this strip of
gorgeous embroidery would form when completed part of the decoration of
an altar-cloth for the church which till but a few weeks ago, had not
even had an altar at all, but only a table. Many other changes had
occurred in that hitherto uncompromising edifice. The tables of
commandments had vanished utterly; a faint smell of incense hung
permanently about the church, copiously renewed every Sunday, candles
blazed, vestments flashed, and a confessional, undoubtedly Roman in
origin, blocked up a considerable part of the vestry. But chief of all
the changes was that of the personality of the vicar, and second to that
the state of mind of the parish in general to which, taking it
collectively, the word Christian could not properly be applied. But
taking the parish in sections, it would not be in the least improper to
apply the word ecstatic to that section of it to which Alice Keeling
belonged, and the embroidery on which she, like many other young ladies,
was employed was not less a work of love than a work of piety. As the
blear autumnal light faded, and her mother dozed quietly in her chair,
having let her book fall from her lap for the third time, Alice,
short-sightedly peering at the almost completed leaf, would have
suffered her eyes to drop out of her head rather than relinquish her
work. She was sewing little fibres and shreds of her heart into that
pomegranate leaf, and it gave her the most exquisite satisfaction to do
so.

It would have been easy, so the simple and obviously-minded person would
think, for her to have turned on the electric light, and have saved her
eyes. But there were subtler and more compelling reasons which stood in
the way of doing that. The first was that the light would almost
certainly awaken her mother, who, by beginning to talk again, as she
always did when a nap had refreshed her, would put an end to Alice’s
private reflections which flourished best in dusk and in silence. A
second reason was that it was more than likely that Mr Silverdale would
presently drop in for tea, and it was decidedly more interesting to be
found sitting at work, with her profile outlined against the smouldering
glow of sunset, than to be sitting under the less becoming glare of an
electric lamp. For the same reason she did not put on the spectacles
which she would otherwise have worn.

The leaf was all but finished when her mother began to talk with such
suddenness that Alice wondered for the moment whether she was but
talking in her sleep. But the gist of her remarks was slightly too
consecutive to admit of that supposition.

‘Though it looks very odd,’ she said, beginning to give utterance to her
reflections in the middle of a sentence, ‘that your father and Hugh
should go to Cathedral, while you and I go to St Thomas’s. But the
Cathedral is very draughty, that’s what I always say, and with my autumn
cold due, if not overdue, it would be flying in the face of Providence
to encourage it by sitting in draughts. As for incense and confession
and----’

Her voice suddenly ceased again, as if a tap been turned off by some
external agency, and Alice wisely made no reply of any kind, feeling
sure that in a minute or two her mother would begin to give vent to that
faint snoring which betokened that she had gone to sleep again. That did
not interrupt the flow of her ecstatic musings, whereas her mother’s
general attitude to all the novel institutions which were so precious to
her gave her a tendency to strong shudderings. Only half an hour ago Mrs
Keeling had said that she was sure she saw nothing wrong in confession
and would not mind going herself if she could think of anything worth
telling Mr Silverdale about.... Alice had drawn in her breath sharply
when her mother said that, as if with a pang of spiritual toothache.

There came a slight sound from the drawing-room next door which would
have been inaudible to any but expectant ears, and Alice bent over her
work with more intense industry. Then the door opened very softly, and
Mr Silverdale looked in. He was dressed in a black cassock and had a
long wooden shepherd’s crook in his hand. He saw Alice seated in the
window, he saw Mrs Keeling with her mouth slightly open and her eyes
completely shut in a corner of the sofa, and rose to his happiest level.

‘Hush!’ he said, very gently, and tiptoed across the room to where Alice
sat. He took her hand in his, pressing it, and spoke in the golden
whisper which she was getting to know so well in the vestry.

‘My dear girl,’ he said, ‘how good and industrious you are.’

‘I shall get it done well before Christmas,’ whispered Alice.

‘How pleased the herald angels will be!’ he answered.

Alice gave a great jerk of emotion which most unfortunately upset her
embroidery-frame, which fell off the table with a crash that might have
awaked the dead, and certainly awoke the living.

‘And vestments,’ said Mrs Keeling again going on precisely at the point
where sleep had overtaken her, ‘I can’t see that there’s any harm in
them, though your father----’

There was a moment’s dead silence as she became drowsily aware that
there was somebody else in the room. Mr Silverdale’s gay laugh, as he
gave a final pressure to Alice’s hand, told her who it was.

‘Dear lady,’ he said. ‘Go on with your Protestant exhortations. I have
been exhorting all afternoon, and I am so tired of my own exhortations.
We will listen, and try to agree with you, won’t we, Miss Alice?’

Mrs Keeling got up in some confusion.

‘Bless me, to imagine your having come in while I was so busy thinking
about what I had been reading that I never heard the door open,’ she
said, hastily picking up the book which had fallen face downwards on the
floor. ‘Well, I’m sure it’s time for tea. How the evenings draw in! But
there are unpleasanter things than a muffin and a chat by the fire when
all’s said and done.’

Alice seemed inclined to prefer her pomegranates to muffins, and had to
be personally conducted from her work, and told she was naughty by Mr
Silverdale, who sat on the hearthrug with woollen stockings and very
muddy boots protruding from below his cassock, for he had had a game of
football with his boys’ club before his afternoon preaching. He had only
just had time to put on his cassock and snatch up his shepherd’s crook
when the game was over, and ran to church, getting there in the nick of
time. But he had kicked two goals at his football, and talked to twice
that number of penitent souls afterwards in the vestry, so, as he
delightedly exclaimed, he had had excellent sport. And he poked the fire
with his shepherd’s crook.

‘And you didn’t go home and change after your football?’ asked Alice.
‘You are too bad! You promised me you would!’

He held up apologetic hands, and spoke in baby voice.

‘I vewy sowwy,’ he said. ‘I be dood to-morrow!’

‘I’m not sure I shall forgive you,’ said Alice radiantly.

‘Please! If I have another cup of tea to keep the cold out?’

‘Well, just this once,’ said Alice, pouring him out another cup.

He fixed his fine eyes on the fire, and became so like the figure of
Jonah in the stained-glass window that Alice almost felt herself in
Nineveh.

‘I’m getting spoiled here,’ he said, ‘all you dear ladies of Bracebridge
positively spoil me with your altar-cloths and our extra cups of tea.
I’m getting too comfortable. And here’s Miss Alice with a cigarette at
my elbow. But I don’t know whether it’s allowed. Have one with me, Miss
Alice, and then your mother will have to scold us both, and I know she’s
too fond of you to scold you.’

This was slightly too daring an experiment for Alice, but she resolved
to have a try in her bedroom that night.

‘Indeed, it’s allowed,’ said Mrs Keeling, ‘but as for Alice smoking,
well, that is a good joke. And as for your being too comfortable I call
that another joke.’

‘I call it a very bad one,’ said Alice delightedly. ‘Mr Silverdale is
very naughty. You mustn’t encourage him, Mamma, to think he is funny
when he is only naughty!’

She went to the window and brought back her strip of pomegranates.

‘You’re naughty too,’ he said. ‘This is play-time. And now there’s
something else I want to talk about. You ladies are the queens of your
homes: don’t you think you could persuade Mr Keeling not to think me the
thin edge of the Pope, so to speak?’

‘Delicious!’ said Alice, beginning to be naughty with her pomegranates.

Mrs Keeling shook her head.

‘It’s no use,’ she said. ‘You can have incense or Mr Keeling, but not
both. And such a draughty pew as he’s got in the Cathedral!’

‘It isn’t only his attendance there that I mean,’ said Mr Silverdale.
‘But you know his Stores are in my parish, and he employs some four
hundred work-people there. I went to see him at his office this morning,
and asked him if I couldn’t have a daily service for them.’

‘He didn’t refuse?’ said Alice.

‘He said they might all do what they liked, out of their work hours, but
he couldn’t have them encroached on. I was tempted to give him a good
rap with my shepherd’s crook, but there was a lady present. So I
appealed to her for her assistance in persuading him.’

‘Indeed, and who was that?’ asked Mrs Keeling.

‘He introduced me: it was his secretary. Such a handsome girl. I think
she tried to snub me, but we poor parsons are unsnubbable. She told me
that she quite agreed with Mr Keeling.’

‘His typewriter dared to say that!’ hissed Alice. ‘Oh----’

‘Then he began dictating to her something about linoleums. But I’ve not
done with him yet. The dear man! I’ll plague his life out for him if
you’ll only help me.’

A pink lustre clock of horrible aspect suddenly chimed six, and he
jumped up.

‘Evensong at half-past!’ he said. ‘Blow evensong! There!’

He picked up his crook.

‘I’ve got to get hold of all you dear people, he said, grasping Alice’s
long lean fingers in one hand, and Mrs Keeling’s plump ones in the
other and, kissing them both. ‘What an hour of refreshment I have had.
Blessings! Blessings!’

He ran lightly across the room, kissed his hand at the door, and they
heard him running across the drawing room.

‘Blow evensong!’ said Alice ecstatically. ‘Wasn’t that delicious of him.
And the Pope, too; the thin end of the Pope. But how could father be so
rude as to begin dictating about linoleum?’

‘Your father doesn’t like working hours interfered with, my dear,’ said
Mrs Keeling. ‘But we’ll do what we can. Anyhow, Mr Silverdale will have
to change before he goes to church.’

‘Oh, I hope so,’ said Alice, extending her long neck over her
embroidery.

‘Not that it will do any good talking to your father,’ continued Mrs
Keeling placidly, ‘for I’m sure in all these thirty years I never saw
him so vexed as when you and I said we should keep on going to St
Thomas’s after the incense and the dressing-up began. But I had made up
my mind too.’

Alice flushed a little.

‘I wish you would not call it dressings-up, Mamma,’ she said. ‘You know
perfectly well that they are vestments. They all signify something: they
have a spiritual meaning.’

‘Very likely, my dear,’ said Mrs Keeling amiably, ‘and I’m sure that’s
a beautiful bit of figured silk which he has his coat made of.’

Alice drew in her breath sharply.

‘Cope, Mamma,’ she said.

‘Yes, dear, I said coat,’ rejoined her mother, who was not aware that
she was a little deaf.

Alice did not pursue the subject, and since there was now no chance of
Mr Silverdale’s coming in again, she put on her spectacles, which
enabled her to see the lines of the pomegranate foliage with far greater
distinctness. Never before had she had so vivid an interest in life as
during these last two months; indeed the greater part of the female
section of the congregation at St Thomas’s had experienced a similar
quickening of their emotions, and a ‘livelier iris’ burnished up the
doves of the villas in Alfred Road. The iris in question, of course, was
the effect of the personality of Cuthbert Silverdale, and if he was not,
as he averred, being spoiled, the blame did not lie with his
parishioners. They had discovered, as he no doubt meant them to do, that
a soldier-saint had come among them, a missioner, a crusader, and they
vied with each other in adoring and decorative obedience, making banners
and embroideries for his church (for he allowed neither slippers nor
neckties for himself) and in flocking to his discourses, and working
under his guidance in the parish. There had been frantic discussions and
quarrels over rites and doctrines; households had been divided among
themselves, and, as at The Cedars, sections of families had left St
Thomas’s altogether and attached themselves to places of simpler
ceremonial. The Bishop had been appealed to on the subject of lights,
with the effect that the halo of a martyr had encircled Mr Silverdale’s
head, without any of the inconveniences that generally attach to
martyrdom, since the Bishop had not felt himself called upon to take any
steps in the matter. Even a protesting round-robin, rather sparsely
attested, had been sent him, in counterblast to which Alice Keeling with
other enthusiastic young ladies had forwarded within a couple of days a
far more voluminously signed document, quoting the prayer-book of Edward
VI. in support of their pastor, according to their pastor’s
interpretation of it at his Wednesday lectures on the history of the
English Church.

Cuthbert Silverdale was not unaware of the emotion which he had roused
in so many female breasts, and it is impossible to acquit him of a sort
of clerical complacency in the knowledge that so many young ladies gazed
and gazed on him with a mixture of religious and personal devotion.
Though a firm believer in the celibacy of the clergy, he did not feel
himself debarred from sentimental relations with both married and
unmarried members of his flock, indeed the very fact that nothing could
conceivably come of these little mawkishnesses made them appear
perfectly licit. He held their hands, and took their arms, and sat at
their knees, and called them ‘dear girls’ two or three at a time,
finding safety perhaps in numbers, and not wishing to encourage false
hopes. He was an incorrigible if an innocent flirt; a licensed lap-dog
practising familiarities which, if indulged in by the ordinary layman,
would assuredly have led to kickings. In some curious manner he quite
succeeded in deceiving himself as to the propriety of those affectionate
demonstrations, and considered himself a sort of brother to all those
young ladies, who worked for him with the industry (and more than the
excitement) of devoted sisters. To do him justice he was just as
familiar with the male members of his congregation, and patted his boys
on the back, and linked his arm in theirs, but it would be idle to
contend that he got as much satisfaction out of those male embraces.

There was no question, however, about the devotion and strenuousness of
his life. His congregation, in spite of the secession of such plain men
as Mr Keeling, crammed his church to the doors and spilt into the
street, and he kindled a religious fervour in the parish, which all the
terrors of hell as set forth by his predecessor had been unable to fan
into a blaze. In a thoroughly cheap but in a masterly and intelligible
manner he preached the gospel, and in his life practised it, by
incessant personal exertions, of which others as well as himself were
very conscious. It was more his surface than his essential self which
was so deplorable a mass of affectation and amorousness, and the horror
he inspired in minds of a certain calibre by his skippings and his
shepherd’s crook and his little caresses was really too pitiless a
condemnation. Indeed, the gravest of his errors was not so much in what
he did, as his omission to consider what effect his affectionate dabs
and touches and pawings might have on their recipients. He would, in
fact, have been both amazed and shocked if he could have been an unseen
witness of Alice Keeling’s proceedings when she found herself in the
privacy of her own bedroom that night.

She had gone up to bed early, feeling that nameless stir of the spirit
which can only find expansion in solitude. She wanted to let herself go,
to be herself, and the presence of her family forced her to wear the
carapace of convention. But having pleaded fatigue at ten o’clock,
though her eyes sparkled behind her spectacles, she escaped from the
cramping influence of the drawing room, and locked herself into her own
bedroom with her thoughts and her glowing altar-cloth.

She spread it over the side of her bed, and in front of it proceeded to
her evening devotions. In the pre-Silverdale days these were the
briefest and most tepid orisons, now they were invested with sincerity
and heart-felt worship. First she thought over her misdoings for the
day, a series of the most harmless omissions and commissions, which she
set honestly before herself. She had not got up with the punctuality she
had vowed: she had not kept her mind free from irritation when she went
to see her grandmother: she had been guilty of gluttony with regard to
jam pancakes; she had said she was tired just now when she never had
felt fresher in her life. Then followed her prayers; like the rest of
her vicar’s numerous Bible-class she read a chapter from the Gospels,
and she finished up with the appointed meditation from the devotional
book which Mr Silverdale had given her.

Up to this point there would have been nothing to surprise or amaze him;
he might not even have blushed to see how, when her meditations were
done, she pored over the title page where he had written her name with
good wishes from her friend C. S. She kissed that page before putting
the book away in a box, which contained two or three notes from him,
which she read through before locking them up again. They were perfectly
harmless little notes, only no man should ever have written them. One
had been received only this morning, and she had not read it more than a
dozen times yet. It ran--

     ‘Won’t I just come in this afternoon after my football and my
     preachment, and get some opodeldoc for my bruises and some muffins
     for my little Mary, and some refreshment for my silly tired brain.
     God bless you!

                               ‘Your friend,

                                           ‘Cuthbert S.’



That required much study. He had never signed himself like that before.
She wondered if she could ever venture to call him Mr Cuthbert, and said
‘Mr Cuthbert’ out aloud several times in order to get used to the
unfamiliar syllables. ‘Preachment’ too: that was a word he often used;
once when he came to see them he entered the room chanting,--

    ‘I admit the soft impeachment
     That I’ve been making preachment.’

Alice thought that quite lovely, even when she subsequently found out
that the identical effusion had already been chanted on his arrival at
the house of Mrs Fyson the day before. Julia Fyson, her most intimate
friend and co-adorer of the vicar, had told her.

She locked up those treasures, and going to the window drew aside the
curtain and looked out. The autumnal fall of the leaf from the trees in
the garden had brought into view houses in the town hidden before; among
these was St Thomas’s Vicarage, that stood slightly apart from the
others and was easily recognisable. With the aid of an opera glass she
could distinguish the windows, and saw that a light was burning behind
the blinds of his study. He had come in, then, and for a full minute she
contemplated the luminous oblong. Later, she had sometimes seen that a
window exactly above that was lit. She liked seeing that, for it meant
that he was going to bed, and would soon be asleep, for he had mentioned
that he went to sleep the moment he got into bed. Once she had watched
till that light went out also.

She let the curtain fall into place again, and sat by the fire for a
little feeling alive to the very tips of her fingers. To-morrow would be
a busy day; she had her lesson for her Sunday-school to get ready (she
and Julia Fyson were going to prepare that together); there was a
hockey-match for girls in the afternoon, at which Mr Silverdale--she
said ‘Mr Cuthbert’ aloud again--had promised to be referee, she was
going to read the paper to her grandmother (this was now a daily task
directly traceable to the vicar), and her altar-cloth would fill up any
spare time.

But as the fire began to die down, the invigorating prospect of next day
lost its quality, and there began to stir in her mind a vague disquiet.
Hitherto it had really been enough for her that Mr Silverdale existed;
to put him on a pedestal and adore in company with other reverential
worshippers had satisfied her, and the inspiration had resulted in many
useful activities. But to-night she began to wish that there had not
been so many other worshippers, towards whom he exhibited the same
benignant and affectionate aspect. There was Julia Fyson, for instance:
he would walk between them with an arm for each, and a pressure of the
hand for Julia as well as herself. In moments of expansion she and Julia
had confided to each other their adoration and its rewards; they had
sung their hymns of praise together, and had bewailed to each other the
rare moments when he seemed to be cold and distant with them, each
administering comfort to the other, and being secretly rather pleased.
But now Alice felt that any story of his coldness to Julia would give
her more than a little pleasure. She would like him to be always cold to
Julia. She wanted him herself. And at that moment the truth struck her:
she was in love with him. Till then, she had not known it: till then,
perhaps, there had been nothing definite and personal to know. But now,
as the fire died down, she was aware of nothing else, and her heart
starved and cried out. She had admired and adored before; those were
self-supporting emotions. But this cried out for its due sustenance.

She got up and went to her looking-glass, turning on the electric light
above it. Certainly Julia was much prettier than she, with her mutinous
little pink and white face and her violet eyes. But she was such a
little thing, she hardly came above Alice’s shoulder, and Alice, who
knew her so well, had often thought, in spite of her apparent
earnestness nowadays, that she was flighty and undependable. With the
self-consciousness that was the unfortunate fruit of her newly found
habits of self-examination and confession, she told herself that Julia
had not a quarter of her own grit and character. Only the other day,
when he was walking between them, he had said, ‘I always think of my
friends by nicknames.’ Then he had undeniably squeezed Julia’s arm and
said, ‘You are “Sprite,” just “Sprite.”’ Julia had liked this, and with
the anticipation of a less attractive nickname for Alice, had said, ‘And
what is she?’ Then had come a memorable reply, for he had answered, ‘We
must call her Alice in Wonderland: she lives in a fairyland of her own.’
And he had squeezed Alice’s arm too.

It was comforting to remember that, and Alice saw wonder and wistful
pensiveness steal into the reflection of her face. There was the girl
who would upset all his convictions about a celibate clergy; indeed, he
had said that he did not think it morally wrong for them to marry. It
was a case of the thin end of the wedge again, not this time of the
Pope, but of Benedick, the married man.

Alice went once more to the window, and lifted the curtain. There was an
oblong of light in the window above his study. She kissed her hand to
it, and once more said aloud, ‘Good-night, Mr Cuthbert.’... But it
would have been juster if she had wished him a nightmare.

       *       *       *       *       *

Had Alice been in a condition to observe any windows and the lights in
them, except those of the dark study and the illuminated bedroom at the
Vicarage, she would have seen that, late as it was, there was a patch of
gravel on the garden-wall outside her father’s library window which
smouldered amid the darkness of the night and showed there was another
wakeful inhabitant in the house. He had gone to his room very shortly
after Alice’s disappearance from the drawing room, leaving his wife
talking about table linen to Hugh. He, like Alice, wanted, though more
dimly than she, the expansion of solitude. But when he got into that
retreat, he found he was not quite alone in it. He had intended to look
through the Leonardo publication which had just arrived, and for which
he thought he thirsted. But it still lay unturned on the table. He had
but unpacked and identified it, and in ten minutes had forgotten about
it altogether. Another presence haunted the room and disquieted him.

It was nearly a month since the Sunday afternoon when he had held
conference with the two Properts here. He had gone back to his office on
the following Monday morning, feeling that he had shown a human side to
Norah. She had done the same to him: she had talked to ‘Mr Keeling’;
not to ‘sir’; there was some kind of communication between them other
than orders from an employer to an employed, and obedience, swift and
deft from the employed to the employer. When he arrived at the office,
punctual to nine o’clock, with a large post awaiting his perusal, he had
found she had not yet come, and had prepared a little friendly speech to
her on the lines of Mr Keeling. She arrived not five minutes afterwards,
and he had consciously enjoyed the sound of her steps running along the
passage, from the lift. But when she entered she had no trace of the
previous afternoon.

‘I am late, sir,’ she said. ‘I am exceedingly sorry.’

At that, despite himself, the Sunday afternoon mood dried up also. She
was in the office again, was she? Well, so was he. If she had only
looked at him, had called him Mr Keeling, he would have been Mr Keeling.
As it was, he became ‘sir’ with a vengeance.

‘I hope it won’t happen again,’ he said. ‘I cannot allow unpunctuality.
Open the rest of the letters, and give me them.’

She had frozen into the perfect secretary. With incredible speed she had
the sheaf of letters before him, and with her writing pad in her hand
awaited his dictation. Twice during the next hour she, with downcast
eyes, corrected some error of his, once producing an impeccable file to
show him that a week before he had demanded a reduction on certain
wholesale terms, once to set him right in a date regarding previous
correspondence. She had been five minutes late that morning, but she had
saved him fifty in future correspondence. She seemed to know her files
by heart: it was idle to challenge her for proof when she made a
correction.

Then she had gone back with her shorthand notes to her room, and all
morning the noise of her nimble fingers disturbed him through the
felt-lined door. He was in two minds about that: sometimes he thought he
would send her into Hugh’s room, where another typewriter worked. Hugh
was accustomed to the clack of the machine, and two would be no worse
than one. Then again he thought that the muffling of the noise alone
disturbed him, that if she sat at the table in the window, and did her
work there, he would not notice it. It was the concealed clacking of the
keys that worried him. Perhaps it would even help him to attend to his
own business to see how zealously she attended to hers. Those deft long
fingers! They were the incarnation of the efficiency which to him was
the salt of life.

Five days had passed thus, and on the next Saturday he had asked her
brother and her, this time giving the invitation to her, to visit his
library again. She had refused with thanks and a ‘sir,’ but Charles had
come. Keeling had determined not to allude to his sister’s refusal, but
had suddenly found himself doing so, and Charles, with respect, believed
that she was having a friend to tea. And again, despite himself, he had
said on Charles’s departure, ‘I hope I shall see you both again some
Sunday soon.’

Well, he was not going to ask twice after one refusal of his favours,
but, as the next week went by, he found the ‘sir’ and the dropped eyes
altogether intolerable. These absolutely impersonal relationships were
mysteriously worrying. She had shown herself a compatriot of the secret
garden, and now she had retreated into the shell of the secretary again.
This week the weather turned suddenly cold, and since there was no
fireplace in her room, he invited her to sit at the table by the window
in his, which was close to the central-heating hot-water pipes. A
certain employer-sense of pride had come to his aid, and now he hardly
ever glanced at her. But one day the whole card-house of this pride fell
softly on the table, just as he took his hat and stick after the day’s
work.

‘I wonder if you would do a book-plate for me, Miss Propert,’ he said.
‘I should like to have a book-plate for my library.’

She paused in her work but did not look at him.

‘Yes, sir, I will gladly do you one,’ she said. ‘Shall I draw a design
and see if you approve of it?’

‘No, I know nothing of these things. But I should like a book-plate.
Similar to the sort of thing you did for Lord Inverbroom.’

He hesitated a moment.

‘As regards size,’ he said, ‘perhaps you will come up and have a look at
my books again, and get a guide from them.’

She smiled, or he thought she smiled, and that together with her reply
enraged him.

‘That won’t be necessary,’ she said. ‘Book-plates will suit any volume
except duodecimos. I don’t think you have any. If so, I could cut the
margin down, sir. But I should like to submit my design to you before I
cut the block.’

‘That also will not be necessary,’ he said. ‘Something in the style of
Lord Inverbroom’s. Good-afternoon, Miss Propert.’

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said she.

It was extraordinary to him how this girl got on his mind. He thought he
disliked her, but in some obscure way he could not help being interested
in her. There was somebody there, somebody from whom there came a call
to him. He wanted to know how she regarded him, what effect he had on
her. And there were no data: she sat behind her impenetrable mask, and
did her work in a manner more perfect than any secretary who had ever
served him. She declined to come to his house with her brother, she had
retreated again inside that beautiful shell. He noticed infinitesimal
things about her: sometimes she wore a hat, sometimes she left it in
her room. One day she had a bandage round a finger of her left hand, and
he wondered if she had cut herself. But her reserve and reticence
permitted him no further approach to her: only he waited with something
like impatience for the day when she would bring the block of his
book-plate or an impression of it. There would surely be an opportunity
for the personal relation to come in there.

He had begun to know that moment which few men of fifty, and those the
luckiest of all, are unaware of. He wanted a companion, somebody who
satisfied his human, not his corporal needs. While we are young, the
youthful vital force feeds itself by its own excursions, satisfies
itself with the fact of its travel and explorations. It is enough to go
on, to lead the gipsy life and make the supper hot under the hedge-side,
and sleep sound in the knowledge that next day there will be more travel
and fresh horizons, and a dawn that shines on new valleys and hillsides.
But when the plateau of life is reached, those are the fortunate ones
who have their home already made. For thirty years he had had his own
fireside and his wife, and his growing children. But never had he found
his home: some spirit of the secret garden had inspired him, and now he
felt mateless and all his money was dust and ashes in his mouth. Two
things he wanted, one to be different in breed from that which he was,
the other to find a companion. The shadow of a companion lurked in his
room, where were the piles of his books. Somewhere in that direction lay
the lodestone.

Another week passed, and still he waited for some word from his
secretary about the book-plate. He was not going to be eager about it,
for he would not confess to himself the anxiety with which he awaited an
opportunity that his twenty-five shillings a week secretary had denied
him. But day by day he scrutinized her face, and wondered if she was
going to say that the book-plate was finished.

The event occurred at the most inopportune moment. He had concluded a
bargain, a day or two before, for the purchase of the entire vintage of
a French vine-grower in the Bordeaux district, and had just opened a
letter to say that owing to the absence of a certain payment in advance,
the stock had been disposed of to another purchaser, and he had lost one
of the best bargains he had ever made. But he felt sure that he had
drawn the cheque in question: he remembered drawing it in his private
cheque-book, just before leaving one afternoon, when the cashier had
already gone home. He opened the drawer where he kept his cheque-book
and examined it. There it was: it was true he had drawn the cheque, but
he had forgotten to tear it out and despatch it, meaning no doubt to do
so in the morning.

Never in all his years of successful business had he made so stupid an
omission, an omission for which he would at once have dismissed any of
his staff, telling him that a man who was capable of doing that was of
no use to Keeling. And it was himself who had deserved dismissal. He
could remember it all now: he had locked the cheque up again as it was
necessary to send a certain order form with it, and that was
inaccessible now that his secretary had gone. He would do it in the
morning, but when morning came he had thought of nothing but the request
he was going to make that Norah should do him a book-plate. That, that
trivial trumpery affair, utterly drove out of his head this important
business transaction. He was furious with himself for his carelessness:
it was not only that he had lost a considerable sum of money, it was the
loss of self-respect that worried him. He could hardly believe that he
had shown himself so rotten a business man: he might as well have sold
stale fish, according to the amiable hint of his mother-in-law as have
done this. And at that unfortunate moment when he was savage with
himself and all the world Norah Propert appeared. Instantly he looked at
his watch to see if she was again late. But it had not yet struck nine,
it was he himself who was before his time.

She carried a small parcel with her, of which she untied the string.

‘I have brought the block of your book-plate, sir,’ she said, ‘with a
couple of impressions of it.’

He held out his hand for it without a word. She had produced a charming
design, punning on his name. A ship lay on its side with its keel
showing: in the foreground was a faun squatting on the sand reading:
behind was a black sky with stars and a large moon. He knew it to be a
charming piece of work, but his annoyance at himself clouded everything.

‘Yes, I see,’ he said. ‘What do you charge for it?’

‘Ten pounds,’ she said. ‘That will include a thousand copies.’

He looked at the block in silence for a moment. There did not seem to be
much work on it: he could get a woodcut that size for half of the price.
It was but three inches by two.

‘Ten pounds!’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t dream of giving more than seven for
it. Even that would be a fancy price.’

He put the block down, laid the two impressions on the top of it, and
turned over the leaves of his cheque-book in order to pay for the thing
at once. But she picked up her work, and without a word began wrapping
it up in the paper she had just taken off it. Already he knew he had
made a blunder, and the blunder was the act of a cad. It had been his
business to ask the price beforehand, if he wanted to know it, not to
quarrel with it afterwards. But the cad in him had full possession just
then.

‘What are you doing?’ he said, and glancing up he found that for once
she was looking at him with contemptuous anger, held perfectly in
control.

‘I am going to take my work away again, sir, as you do not care to pay
the price I ask for it,’ she said.

‘Nonsense. Seven pounds is a very good price. I know the cost of
woodcuts.’

He had written the cheque and passed it over to her. She took no notice
whatever of it, tied the string round her parcel and put it on the table
in the window. Then, still without a word, she took up her pencil and
her writing-pad, and sat down to receive his dictation.

In his heart he knew he was beaten. She had given him even a sharper
lesson than he had given himself in the matter of the cheque he had
forgotten to post. And that was but business; the error was expensive,
but it was merely a matter of money as far as its effects went. He very
much doubted whether money would settle this. He still thought that ten
pounds was an excessive charge, but that did not detract from the fact
that he had behaved meanly. His pride still choked him, but he knew that
sooner or later he would be obliged to capitulate. He would have to
apologize, and hope that his apology would be accepted.

The morning’s work went on precisely as usual, and not by the tremor of
an eyelash did she betray whatever she might be feeling. Just that one
look had she given him of sovereign disdain, and the remembrance of it
stiffened him against her, and he battled against the surrender that he
knew must come. If she was going to be proud, he could match her in
that, and again he told himself that seven pounds was a very good price.
He was not going to be imposed on....

All the morning the see-saw went on within him, and when she rose to go
for her hour’s interval he noticed that she took the parcel containing
the wood-block with her. And very ill-inspired he made an attempt at
surrender.

‘Come, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘Let’s have an end of this. I should have
asked the price before I commissioned you to do the work. Let me give
you a cheque for ten pounds.’

She smiled: there was no doubt about that.

‘I’m afraid that’s quite impossible, sir,’ she said, ‘now that you have
told me that you don’t consider my work worth that. Good-morning, sir.’

Up flamed his temper again at this. What on earth did the girl want
more? He had offered her the price she asked; he had said he was wrong
in not inquiring about it before. She might go hang, she and her
niceties and her contempt.

She had come back in the afternoon without her parcel, and his
imagination pictured her telling her brother all that had happened. He
felt he must have cut a sorry figure. ‘That’s the end of his books and
his book-plates for me,’ would be the sort of way Norah would sum it all
up. Probably they did not discuss it much: there really was very little
need for comment on what he had done. The simple facts were sufficient:
perhaps she had smiled again as she smiled when she rejected his first
overtures.

All afternoon they worked within a few yards of each other, all
afternoon his accusing conscience battered at his pride; and as she rose
to go when the day’s work was over, he capitulated. He stood up also,
grim and stern to the view, but beset with a shy pathetic anxiety that
she would accept his regrets.

‘I want to ask your pardon, Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘for my conduct to
you this morning. I am sure you did not charge me more than your work
was worth. I like your design very much. I shall be truly grateful to
you if you will let me have that plate. I am sorry. That’s all.... I am
sorry.’

It cost him a good deal to say that, but at every word his burden
lightened, though his anxiety to know how she would deal with him
increased.

She raised her eyes to his, quite in the secret garden manner, and she
smiled not as she had smiled when she left him this morning.

‘Thank you so much, Mr Keeling,’ she said. ‘I shall be delighted to let
you have the block if you feel like that about it. I will bring it back
with me to-morrow, shall I?’

To-night as he thought over this, when the hour was quiet, and upstairs
Alice kept vigil, Norah’s presence seemed to haunt the room. She had
only been here once, but he could remember with such distinctness the
trivial details of that afternoon, that his imagination gave him her
again, now standing by the book-shelves, now seated in one of the chairs
he had brought in that day, and kept here since. They would be needed
again, he hoped, next Sunday, for with the arrival of the Leonardo book
he had an adequate excuse for asking her again, and, he hoped, an
adequate cause for her acceptance. There it lay on the table still
unopened, and in the clinking of the ashes in the grate, and the
night-wind that stirred in the bushes outside, he heard with the inward
ear the sound of her voice, just a word or two spoken through the wind.



CHAPTER V


One night early in December Norah Propert was busily engaged in the
sitting-room of her brother’s house just off the market-place at
Bracebridge. She had left him over a book and a cigarette in the
dining-room, and as soon as she had finished her supper had gone across
the passage to her work again. The room was very simply decorated: to
Mrs Keeling’s plush-and-mirror eye it would have seemed to be hardly
decorated at all. There were a few framed photographs or cheap
reproductions of famous pictures on the walls, a book-case held some
three hundred volumes, the floor had a fawn-coloured drugget on it, and
there was not a square inch of plush anywhere.

The table at which she worked was covered with small cardboard slips,
bearing in her neat minute handwriting the titles and the authors of the
books in Mr Keeling’s library. Each appeared twice, once under its
author, once under its title, and these she was sorting out into an
alphabetical file from which she would compile her catalogue. She had
been at work on it for about a fortnight, and the faint hopes she had
originally entertained of getting it finished by the end of the year had
now completely vanished. He had been buying books in very large
numbers; already wing-bookcases had begun to invade the floor space of
his room, and he intended in the spring to build out farther into the
garden. But Norah was not at all sure that she regretted the vanishing
of those hopes: the work interested her, and she had the true
book-lover’s pride in making all the equipment connected with books as
perfect as it could be. Three times a week she went with her brother
after supper for a couple of hours’ work in Mr Keeling’s library: the
other evenings she brought into order at home the collection of slips
she had made there.

Those evenings spent at Mr Keeling’s house had a great attraction for
her. She enjoyed the work itself, and as she made her slips she had
refreshing glances at the books. It was a leisurely performance, not
like her swift work in the office. Charles helped her in it, making
author-slips or illustration-slips as she made title-slips. There was a
fire on the hearth, a tray of sandwiches for them before they left, and
more often than not Mr Keeling came and sat with them for half an hour,
unpacking fresh volumes if any had come in, and looking through the
book-catalogues that were sent him. And Norah was honest enough with
herself to confess that it was not the work alone that interested her.
Friendship, no less than friendship sudden and to her quite unexpected,
had been the flower of the original enmity between her and the man, who
was never ‘sir’ to her even in the office now. It dated from the moment
when he had made his unreserved apology to her over the matter of the
book-plates. She knew what it must cost to a man of his type to say what
he had said to his typewriter, and she had to revise all her previous
estimates of him, and add him up honestly again. She found the total a
very different one from that which she had supposed was correct. True, a
woman does not like or dislike a man directly because of his qualities,
but his qualities are the soil from which her like or dislike springs.
They are part at any rate of his personality, in which she finds charm
or repulsiveness. The upshot was, to take it at its smallest measure,
that instead of disliking her work for him, she had grown to like it,
because it was for him that she did it.

She was deep in her work now when her brother joined her. Charles was
suffering from a cold of paralysing severity, and she looked up with a
certain anxiety as a fit of coughing took him, for he was liable to bad
bronchitis.

‘Charles, you ought to go to bed,’ she said, ‘and stop there to-morrow.’

‘I dare say, but I shan’t,’ said Charles hoarsely.

‘Why? It is very unwise of you. I’ll tell Mr Keeling as soon as I get
there in the morning. I’m sure he’ll think you were right.’

‘Oh, I shall be better,’ said he. ‘Considering that he saw me through
an illness last year, the least I can do is to hold on as long as I
can.’

‘So that he may have the pleasure of seeing you through another one this
year,’ remarked Norah.

‘Don’t be so optimistic. I may die instead.’

‘You can if you like,’ she said, ‘but it would worry me very much.’

Charles subsided into his book again for a little, but presently put it
down.

‘What about your work at Keeling’s to-morrow night?’ he said, ‘if I’m
not fit to come out? You can’t very well go up there alone, can you?’

Norah paused before she answered.

‘Why on earth not?’ she said. ‘I sit with him alone all day in his
office. Besides, I know he has a dinner-party to-morrow. I shan’t see
him.’

‘And how do you know that?’ he asked.

‘Because a note came to the office from his wife, which I opened, not
knowing her writing, which had something to do with it. He began
dictating a reply for me to type-write, but I suggested he had better
write a note himself.’

‘What awful impertinence!’

‘He didn’t think so. He’s rather touching. He said, “Then you don’t
despair of making a gentleman of me in time.”’

‘I remember you told me once he was a cad. I shall go to bed, I think.’

‘You had much better. And do let me tell him you have stopped there
to-morrow morning she said.

‘I doubt it. Good-night. I dare say I shall be all right to-morrow.’

Charles was no better next day, but merely obstinate, and went up to his
work, as usual, with his sister. Keeling appeared shortly after, and, as
usual, began the dictation. Now and then he gave sharp glances at Norah,
and before long stopped in the middle of a letter.

‘What’s the matter, Miss Propert?’ he said. ‘Better tell me and not
waste time, unless it’s private.’

He had no difficulty in making her look at him now. She looked up with a
half smile.

‘How did you guess there was anything the matter?’ she asked.

‘How do I guess it is warm or cold? I feel it. Tell me.’

‘I’m rather anxious about Charles,’ she said. ‘He has got an appalling
cough.’

‘Have you sent for the doctor?’

‘No. He insisted on coming up to his work.’

Keeling got up.

‘I’ll soon settle that,’ he said, going out.

He came back in a very short space of time.

‘You’ll find him in bed when you get home,’ he said.

‘Oh, thank you so much. I am so grateful.’

‘You needn’t be. I told him he wanted to make me pay a big doctor’s
bill for him instead of his paying a little one. He deserved that for
being so idiotic as to come out. Read the letter, please, which we
stopped in the middle of.’

All day the work went forward as usual: there was a heavy budget to
answer, and it was not till nearly six that Norah had her letters ready
for his signature. He made no payment to her for such over-time work,
for the balance was more often on the other side, and she got away
before her time. As he passed her back the last of the batch, he said,--

‘You are coming to the library this evening, are you not?’

‘I had meant to, if it is convenient to you.’

‘Perfectly. Perhaps you would leave a line on the table to say how your
brother is. I don’t suppose I shall see you to-night.’

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs Keeling’s party that night, which sat down very punctually at
half-past seven, and would disperse at half-past ten, was of the
only-a-few-friends nature. Julia Fyson, Alice’s bosom friend, whom she
had begun to dislike very cordially, was there, with her father and
mother, the former, small and depressed, the latter, large and
full-blooded and of a thoroughly poisonous nature. The four Keelings
were there, and the extremely ladylike young woman whom Hugh had lately
led to the altar. She was a shade too lady-like, if anything, and never
forgot to separate her little finger from the others when she was
holding a cup or glass. They were ten in all, Mr Silverdale and Dr
Inglis completing the number. As was usual at the table of that generous
housekeeper Mrs Keeling, there were vast quantities of nitrogenous food
provided in many courses, and it was not till nine that the dining-room
door was opened, on the run, by Mr Silverdale to let the ladies leave
the room. He made a suitable remark to each as she passed him, and Julia
Fyson and Alice, with waists and arms interlaced, stopped to talk to him
as they went out. Precisely at that moment, while they were all in the
Gothic hall together, the boy covered with buttons opened the front door
and admitted Norah Propert. The door into the dining-room was still
being held wide by Silverdale, as the interlaced young ladies answered
his humorous laments over the setting of the sun now that the ladies
were leaving, and through it Keeling standing at the head of the table
saw Norah there. She had had but one moment for thought as the
front-door was opened to her, but the light from the hall streamed full
on to the step and she judged it better to come in than, having been
already seen, retreat again. Without looking up she walked across to the
library door while still Mrs Fyson stared, and let herself in. She heard
the dining-room door opposite close again while she fumbled for the
switch of the electric light; she heard indistinguishable murmurs from
the hall. Only one caught her ear intelligibly when Mrs Keeling said,
‘Oh, Mr Keeling’s typewriter. She is cataloguing his books.’

It had begun to snow thickly outside, and she stood for a minute or two
before the fire, shaking from her cloak the frozen petals, which fizzed
on the coals. Certainly she had felt a disconcertment at the moment of
her entry and passage through the hall, had found fault with the ill
luck that had caused her to meet the gorged galaxy from the dining-room
on the one and only night when her brother had not been with her. But
the encounter did not long trouble her, and like warmth coming over
frozen limbs, the fact of being here alone gave her a thrill of pleasure
that surprised her. She was in his secret garden all by herself, without
Charles to intrude his presence, without even Keeling himself. She did
not want him here now; she was surrounded with him, and presently she
plunged like some ecstatic diver into the work she had come to do for
him. Soon the buzz of men’s conversation drifted past the door,
prominent among which was Silverdale’s expressive and high-pitched
voice, and without intention she found herself listening for Keeling’s.
Then the murmur was cut off by the sound of a shutting door, and she
went on with her work on the catalogue cards. Faint tinkles of a piano
were heard as Alice performed several little pieces, faint screams as
Julia Fyson sang. Keeling was there, no doubt, and still she did not
want him in his bodily presence. He was more completely with her in this
room empty but for herself.

She had settled in her own mind to get away before the party broke up,
but she grew absorbed in her work, and it came with something of a
surprise and shock to her when again she heard the gabble of mixed
voices outside, saying what a pleasant evening they had had, and
realized that she must wait till those compliments were finished. She
had not yet written the note which Keeling had asked her to leave on the
table, regarding her brother’s health, and this she did now as she
waited, giving a promising account of him. Soon the front-door closed
for the last time, leaving silence in the hall, and she heard a
well-known foot cross it in the direction of the drawing-room, pause and
then come back. Keeling entered.

‘Good-evening, Miss Propert,’ he said. ‘I want you, if you will, to
leave your work now, and come into the drawing-room to talk to my wife
and daughter for a few minutes, while I ring for a cab for you. It is
snowing hard.’

‘Oh, I would rather not do that,’ said Norah. ‘I have got great big
overshoes: there they are filling up the corner of the room; I shan’t
mind the snow. And, Mr Keeling, go back to the drawing-room, and say
I’ve gone.’

It was clear to each of them that the same situation, that of Norah
having been seen entering the house alone after dinner, and going to his
private room, was in the mind of each of them. Norah, for her part, had
a secret blush for the fact that she considered the incident at all, but
her reply had revealed that she did, for she remembered that her brother
had alluded to the question of her coming up here alone. But Keeling saw
no absurdity in, so to speak, regularizing the situation, and his
solution commended itself to him more than hers.

‘I should prefer that you came and were introduced to Mrs Keeling,’ he
said. ‘I think that is better.’

Norah got up, smiling at him. Her internal blush had filtered through to
her face.

‘If you think it best, I will,’ she said. ‘Whatever we do, don’t let us
waste time here.’

‘Come then,’ he said.

He showed her the way to the drawing-room, where his wife and Alice were
standing by the fire.

‘I have brought in Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘while I am getting a cab for
her to take her home. It is snowing heavily. And this is my daughter,
Miss Propert.’

Mrs Keeling made a great effort with herself to behave as befitted a
mayoress and the daughter of a P. and O. captain. She thought it
outrageous of her husband to have brought the girl in here without
consulting her, not being clever enough to see the obvious wisdom, both
from his standpoint and that of the girl, of his doing so. But she had
the fairness to admit in her own mind that it was not the girl’s fault:
Mr Keeling had told her to come into the drawing-room, and naturally she
came. Therefore she behaved to her as befitted the Mayoress talking to a
typewriter, and was very grand and condescending.

‘I am sure you are very useful to Mr Keeling,’ she said, ‘in helping to
arrange his books, and it must be a great treat to you to have access to
so large a library, if you are fond of reading.’

The pretentious solemnity of this was not lost on Norah’s sense of
humour. She was rather annoyed at the whole affair, but it was absurd
not to see the lighter side of it, and answer accordingly.

‘Yes, I am very lucky,’ she said. ‘I was lucky in London too, where I
had access to the library at the British Museum.’

This seemed a very proper speech to Mrs Keeling. It was delivered in
clear, pleasant tones, with the appearance of respect, and she could not
make out why Alice gave one of her queer, crooked smiles, or why she
said,--

‘I suppose that is bigger than my father’s, Miss Propert.’

Norah looked up at her, laughing.

‘At a guess I should say it was,’ she said.

Decidedly there was something here that Mrs Keeling did not wholly
comprehend, and when she did not comprehend she called it being kept in
the dark. She comprehended, however, that Norah was exceedingly
good-looking, and that there was a certain air about her, which she
supposed came from reading books. Simultaneously she remembered Mrs
Fyson asking her who it was who had come in and passed into Mr Keeling’s
library; and on being informed that lady had said, ‘How very odd,’ and
at once changed the subject. Instantly she began to consider if it was
very odd. But for the present she determined that nothing should mar the
perfect behaviour of the Mayoress.

‘Pray sit down, Miss Propert,’ she said. ‘I fancy your brother is one of
Mr Keeling’s clerks too.’

‘Yes; he usually comes with me in the evening,’ said Norah, ‘but he is
in bed with a very bad cold.’

‘Indeed. Oh, indeed!’ said Mrs Keeling.

Conversation came to a dead halt here, and again Mrs Keeling, with
growing resentment, took in Norah from head to foot. The seconds were
beaten out sonorously by the pink clock on the chimney-piece, and at
last Norah, now growing thoroughly uncomfortable in this hostile
atmosphere, rose.

‘I think Mr Keeling had much better not bother about a cab for me,’ she
said. ‘I can perfectly well walk home.’

Mrs Keeling became a shade statelier, without abatement of her extremely
proper behavior.

‘Mr Keeling will do as he thinks wisest about that,’ she said.

It seemed, however, not to be in Mr Keeling’s power to do what he
thought wisest, for after a minute or two of ringing silence, he
appeared with the news that there were no cabs to be got. It was snowing
heavily and they were all out.

Norah held out her hand to Mrs Keeling. ‘I won’t keep you up any
longer,’ she said. ‘I shall walk home at once.’

‘It’s impossible,’ said he, ‘there’s nearly a foot of snow now.’

‘All the more reason for getting home before there are two,’ said she.

‘I’ll see you home then,’ he said. ‘You can’t go alone.’

‘Indeed you shall do nothing of the sort,’ said she. ‘It is quite
unnecessary. I absolutely forbid it.’

For a moment it was a mere tussle of will between them, and Norah’s
reasons were the stronger. She looked at him a moment, and knew she had
won, and without more words went back to the library and put on her
over-boots, and gathered up the book-slips she had made that evening. He
followed her as far as the hall, and waited for her.

‘Don’t look at my feet,’ she said gaily. ‘They are officially invisible
like the legs of the Queen of Spain.’

The grim mouth smiled, and the stern eyes grew kindly. She knew that
transformation so well now.

‘You are very obstinate,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you let me walk home with
you?’

‘I am right,’ she said. ‘And I think your plan was wrong.’

‘They weren’t rude to you?’ he asked, growing grim again.

‘Ah, you shouldn’t have asked that,’ she said. ‘They were exceedingly
polite.’

He let her out into the snow, and felt that fire went with her; then
returned to the drawing-room where he found unquestionable ice. Little
sour wreaths of mist were already afloat in Mrs Keeling’s mind, which,
though not yet condensed into actual thought, were chilling down to it
in that narrow receptacle. Alice took her embroidery, and went upstairs,
but his wife sat rather upright by the fire, looking at the evening
paper which she held upside down. She meant to behave with perfect
propriety again, but wished him to begin, so as to launch her propriety
on a fair and even keel.

For his part he had known so many of those evenings, when the
dinner-party went away precisely at half-past ten, and he was left to
hear long comments by his wife on the soup and the beef and the grouse
and the pudding and the savoury, and what Dr Inglis said, and what Mrs
Fyson thought. He hoped, when he first came back, after seeing Norah
fade into the snow-storm, that he was to be regaled with such
reminiscences, but hoped rather against hope. No reminiscences came to
his aid, and he began to be aware, from the ice-bound conditions, that
he must expect something far less jovial and trivial. But he had no
accusing conscience, and if she chose to read her evening paper upside
down in silence, he could at least read the morning paper the right way
up. Then, as he would not give her a lead, make some remark, that is to
say, to which she could take exception, she had to begin.

‘I must say I am surprised at your not seeing Miss Propert home,’ she
said. ‘After bringing her into my drawing-room and forcing me to be
civil to her, you might have had the civility yourself to see her to her
house.’

He was aware that she was intending to exercise the dead-weight
somewhere. It was not many weeks ago that she had brought it into play
regarding Mr Silverdale and his Romish practices, when she had refused
to leave his church for the simpler rites of the Cathedral. He had
yielded there, because he did not really care whether she and Alice
chose to attend a milliner-church or not. They might if they liked: it
did not seriously matter. But the dead-weight, if she was intending to
exercise it over the question of Norah, mattered very much.

‘Would it have pleased you better if I had seen her home?’ he asked.

‘I can’t say whether I should have been pleased or not,’ she said. ‘It
didn’t happen. But I’m sure I don’t know why you sent your typewriter in
here to talk to me. I don’t know what you think I should find to say to
her. With Alice here too.’

She had said too much, and knew it the moment she had said it. But the
mists had congealed, and she felt obliged, as she would have expressed
it, say, to Mrs Fyson, to speak her mind. She did not really speak her
mind; she spoke what some perfectly groundless jealousy dictated to her.

He dropped the paper, and stood up by the fireplace.

‘You said, “With Alice here too,”’ he said. ‘Oblige me by telling me
what you mean.’

She saw that in a reasonable frame of mind she would not have meant
anything. But she was cross and surfeited, and the cold in the head
which had spared her so long was seriously threatening. She wanted, out
of sheer perverseness, to defend an indefensible position.

‘Well, I’m sure Alice must have thought it very odd your bringing your
typewriter into my drawing-room,’ she said.

‘No, you didn’t mean that!’ said Keeling.

Mrs Keeling got up.

‘If you only want to contradict me,’ she said, ‘you can do it by
yourself, Thomas. I’m not going to answer you. That rude girl came in
here----’

‘Rude? You said, “rude.” How was she rude?’

He knew he was being unwise in bandying stupid words with his wife. But
she continued to make accusations, and his want of breeding, to use a
general term, did not allow him to pass them over in the silence that he
knew they deserved.

‘How was she rude?’ he repeated.

‘She said something about the British Museum Library that I did not
understand,’ she said.

‘And because you couldn’t understand, you think she was rude? Was that
it?’

‘Well, if you had heard her say it----’ she began.

‘You know I did not. But I am quite certain that Miss Propert was not
rude. And now about Alice’s being here, when I brought her in. What of
that? I wish you to tell me if you meant anything. If you did not, I
wish you to say so.’

He knew quite well that he was adopting a bullying tone. But he had no
inclination to be bullied himself. One or other of them had to be
vanquished over this, and he was quite determined that he would not hold
the white flag. There was something to be fought for, something which he
could not give up.

‘You must allow it was very odd that your secretary should appear in the
middle of my dinner-party,’ she said, ‘and simply stroll across to your
room. I had been talking of your room half dinner-time with Mr Fyson,
saying that none of us was allowed there. And then, in came this
girl----’

He cut her short.

‘What has that to do with Alice?’ he repeated.

‘I was going to say that, only you always interrupt me,’ she said. ‘Then
when our guests are gone, you bring her in here, just as if she was
Julia Fyson, into my drawing-room. And Alice--well, Alice would think it
very odd too, just as Mrs Fyson did. Of course it was not that which Mrs
Fyson thought odd: I know you will try to catch me up, and ask me how
Mrs Fyson knew, but that is always your way, Thomas. I know quite well
that Mrs Fyson had gone away before you brought her in here.’

‘I don’t want to catch you up,’ he said. ‘I only want to know why Alice
should not be here when I bring Miss Propert in to wait for a cab. You
can’t give me any reason because there is no reason. Let’s get that
clear, and then I want to talk about something else.’

Suddenly the whole of the vague internal movements of her mind flashed
into his vision, as intelligible as some perfectly simple business
proposition. She had a certain justification too: it was awkward that
Norah had run into the exit of the ladies, that his wife had been saying
that none of them ever entered the library. He knew the mind of
Bracebridge pretty well, the slightly malicious construction that women
like Mrs Fyson would find themselves compelled to put on it all. He knew
also the mind of his wife, and the effect which it clearly had had on
her. Her sense of propriety, of dignity had been assaulted: it was a
queer thing to have happened. Then there was Norah’s presence in her
drawing-room. He had insisted on that, for, at the moment, it seemed the
most straightforward thing to do. But he was beginning to think it had
been a mistake. Something about the girl, her beauty (and never had that
struck him so forcibly as when he saw her standing by Alice), her air of
breeding, of education, of simplicity in front of those draped easels
and painted looking-glasses had stirred some long latent potentiality
for jealousy in his wife. It was that suggestion which suddenly enraged
him.

‘Don’t be such a damned fool, Emmeline,’ he said angrily, answering his
own thoughts. He had divined hers quite correctly, and the justice that
lay behind this rude speech struck her full. Her only course was to take
refuge in her own propriety. _She_ knew how to behave.

‘Well, Mr Keeling,’ she said, ‘you can’t expect me to say anything more
about it, if all you want to do is to swear at me. Perhaps you would
like to swear at me again. Pray do.’

‘No, that’s all,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you not to be a damned fool, and I
meant it. The wisest thing you can do is to take my advice.’

She moistened her lips very genteelly with the tip of her tongue.

‘Then if you have finished with that,’ she said, ‘shall we pass on to
the other matter you said you wanted to talk to me about.’

‘By all means. Your Mr Silverdale is stuffing Alice’s head with
ridiculous notions. He’s doing the same to that other girl. Of course
she’s no business of yours or mine, but Alice is. She’ll soon be
fancying herself in love with him, if she doesn’t already.’

‘And do you want my opinion on the subject?’ asked the Mayoress.

‘Of course. I am consulting you.’

‘Then I think you are quite mistaken. They are great friends, and Mr
Silverdale has the most wonderful and spiritual influence over her. She
is quite changed. She is always doing something now for somebody else;
she reads to Mamma, she takes a Sunday school, she is busy and happy
active.’

Mr Keeling considered this.

‘My idea is that she’s doing it all for Mr Silverdale. She could have
read to your mother before Dr Inglis went to the Cathedral. Silverdale
is the somebody she’s doing things for.’

‘It is due to his influence certainly. I know you dislike him, but then
that is your opinion, and it does not agree with other people’s. His
parishioners generally adore him.’

‘Especially the young ladies, and of these especially the silly ones. He
can have an influence with my poor Alice without holding her hand and
whispering to her. He’s a flirt, and I don’t like flirts, especially
those who wrap up their nonsense in religion. Can’t you do something to
stop it? He’s always coming here, isn’t he? I don’t like all that pawing
and touching, and saying it is spiritual influence.’

Mrs Keeling felt shocked at this positively carnal view of Mr
Silverdale’s tendernesses. At the same time she thought they had a
promising aspect besides the spiritual one.

‘Well, I hope you’ll not say or do anything to put him off,’ she said,
the practical side of the question claiming her. ‘I’m sure it’s high
time Alice was married, and never yet has she taken to a young man as
she’s taken to Mr Silverdale.’

Poor Keeling’s head whirled: a moment ago his wife had said that the two
were great friends only on the spiritual plane, now she was saying
precisely what she had begun by contradicting. He was satisfied,
however, that he had her true opinion at last. It did not appear to him
to be worth anything, but there it was. He got up.

‘If I thought Silverdale had the slightest intention of marrying Alice,’
he said, ‘I shouldn’t mind how much he pawed her. But I don’t believe he
has. I’ve a good mind to ask him.’

‘Indeed, I hope you will do nothing so indelicate,’ said she.

A humorous twinkle came into his eye.

‘I wish you would flirt with him yourself, Emmeline,’ he said, ‘and take
him away from Alice. Perhaps you do: some of these clergy flirt with
every decent-looking woman within reach, and you’re twice as handsome as
Alice.’

This also was dreadfully indelicate, but it is not to be wondered at
that Mrs Keeling cast a glance into the looking glass, where her
reflection looked out like a Naiad amid the water-lilies, even while she
reproved her husband for the broadness of his suggestion.

‘I never heard of such talk,’ said she. ‘Pray don’t let us have any more
of it. For shame!’

But she went up to her bed in a far better temper than she would
otherwise have done, and quite abandoned any idea of lying awake to
punish him for his previous brutality.

       *       *       *       *       *

He went back to his library when his wife left him, where an intangible
something of Norah’s presence lingered. There was the chair she had sat
in, there was her note to him about her brother on the table, and the
blotting paper on which she had blotted the entries she had made on the
catalogue cards. He took up the top sheet and held it to the light, so
as to be able to read the titles of the books. There were the authors’
names in big firm capitals, the book-titles in smaller writing but
legible. She had done a lot to-night, for he remembered having put clean
blotting paper for her, and the sheet was covered with impressions. Here
she had been sitting at work, while he talked and listened to those
people in the drawing-room who meant nothing to him....

He laid the sheet down with an impatient exclamation at himself, and
thought over the incident of Norah’s meeting the party of ladies in the
hall. Mrs Fyson had thought it odd, had she? So much the more mistaken
was Mrs Fyson. There was nothing odd about it at all. His wife had been
disposed to take Mrs Fyson’s view, and he had given her his opinion on
that point pretty sharply. Nothing had ever passed between Norah and
himself that might not with perfect propriety have taken place in the
middle of the market-square with Mrs Fyson and all the ladies of
Bracebridge straining their eyes and ears to detect anything which could
have given one of them a single thing to think about. But the complete
truth of that was not the whole truth. A situation which was in process
of formation underlay that truth, and just now that situation had
expressed itself in eloquent silence when he took up the blotting-paper
and read what Norah had written on the cards. He had not given a thought
to the titles of the books and their authors, though probably his eyes
had observed them: his mind had been wholly occupied with the knowledge
that it was she who had written them.

It was that which his wife had expressed in her manner and her words: it
was that for which he had chosen to swear at her. He had given her a
good knock for hinting at it, and had followed up that knock by the
stupid sort of joke about the superiority of her charms to those of
Alice, which she was sure to appreciate. She had done so; she had said,
‘For shame!’ and gone simpering to bed. Perhaps that would take her mind
off the other affair. He sincerely hoped it would, but he distrusted her
stupidity. A cleverer woman would have probably accepted the more
superficial truth that there had never passed between him and Norah a
single intimate word, but a stupid one might easily let a dull unfounded
suspicion take root in her mind. It was difficult to deal with stupid
people: you never knew where their stupidity might break out next.
Emmeline had a certain power of sticking, and Mrs Fyson had a brilliant
imagination. Together they might evolve some odious by-product, one that
would fumble and shove its way into the underlying truth.

He got up with a shrug of the shoulders. There was no use in making
conjectures about it all. Perhaps if he gave Emmeline a pearl-pendant
for her birthday, which fortunately occurred next week, he could
distract her mind. But it was impossible to tell about Emmeline: her
stupidity was an incalculable item.

He went to the front door in order to make sure he had put the chain on,
and then taking it off, opened the door and looked out into the night.
The snow was still falling fast, and the prints of wheels and footsteps
outside were already obliterated. Mr Silverdale had walked home,
light-heartedly predicting a ‘jolly good snowballing match’ with his
boys next day, and Keeling found himself detesting Mr Silverdale with
acute intensity. Norah had walked home also.... In a moment he was back
in the hall, putting on a mackintosh. He would have liked to put on
boots as well but for that he would have had to go up to his
dressing-room next door to his wife’s bedroom. Then gently closing the
door behind him, he went out into the night. He must just walk as far as
her house to make sure she was not still tramping her way through the
snow, and traverse the streets she had traversed. It was absolutely
necessary to satisfy himself about that, and he did not care how
unreasonable it was--rational considerations had no application; an
emotional dictate made him go. There was but a mile of gas-lit
thoroughfare between his house and hers, but he, striving to smother the
emotion he would not admit, told himself that he must be satisfied she
was not still out in this frozen inclement night. He gave that as a sop
to his rational self; but he knew he threw it as to some caged wolf, to
keep it from growling.

There was a moon somewhere above the snow-clouds that already were
beginning to grow thin from the burden they had discharged, and the smug
villas on each side of the road were clearly visible. She had to go up
the length of Alfred Road, then turn down the street that led by St
Thomas’s Vicarage, and emerge into West Street, where she lived with her
brother. Already, a fortnight ago he had ascertained the number of their
house, not asking for it directly, but causing her to volunteer the
information, and since then he had half a dozen times gone through the
street, on his way to and from the Stores in order to take a glance at
it as he passed. He had wanted to know what the house looked like; he
had wanted to construct the circumstances of her life, to know the
aspect of her environment, to see the front-door out of which she came
to her duties as his secretary. That all concerned her, and for that
reason it concerned him. He knew the house well by now: he knew from
chance remarks that he had angled for that her bedroom looked into the
street, that Charles’s looked on to an old disused graveyard behind.
There was the dining-room and the sitting-room in front, and a paling
behind which Michaelmas daisies flourished in a thin row. She cared for
flowers, but not for flowers in a six-inch bed. They rather provoked
her: they were playing at being flowers. She liked them when they grew
in wild woodland spaces, and were not confined between a house-wall and
a row of tiled path.

The empty streets, dumb with snow, flitted silently by him, and as they
passed, he seemed to himself to be standing still while some circular
movement of the earth carried him past the silly Vicarage and into West
Street. It brought him up to the house: it showed him a red blind on the
first floor lit from within. That was what he had come to see, and he
waited a moment on the white pavement opposite watching it. She had got
home, that was all right then, yet still he looked at the blind.

He turned and retraced his steps. Now that the object of his expedition
was secured he was conscious of all the discomforts and absurdity of
what he had been doing. The snow was deep, his evening shoes were wet
through, his mackintosh heavy with clinging flakes, and his rational
self made its voice heard, telling him what a fool’s errand was in
progress. He heard, but his emotional self heeded nothing of that: it
would not argue, it would not answer, it was well satisfied with what
he had done, telling him, now that he was going homewards again, that he
would find there the blotting paper on which she had pressed the wet ink
of her catalogue slips, reminding him that at nine next morning he would
see her again. It would attend to no interruptions, its thoughts
sufficed for itself. But he knew that his reason, his prudence were
ringing him up, as it were, on the telephone. The bell tinkled with
repeated calls for him to listen to what they had to say. But he refused
to take the receiver down; he would not give his ear to their coherent
message, and let them go on summoning him unheeded. He knew all they had
to say, and did not want to hear it again. They took an altogether
exaggerated view of his affairs, when they told him that the situation
might easily develop into a dangerous one. He, with his emotional self
to back him up, knew better than they, and had assured them that his
self-control had the situation well in hand. They need not go on
summoning him, he was not going to attend. In the leafless elms above
there sang in this wintry and snow-bound night the shy strong bird of
romance: never in his life had he heard such rapture of melody.

       *       *       *       *       *

Despite his fifty years, and the hard dry business atmosphere of his
life, there was something amazingly boyish in the inward agitation in
which Keeling, arriving ten minutes before his time at his office next
morning, awaited Norah’s coming. His midnight excursion, dictated by
some imperative necessity from within had, even if it was not a new
stage in his emotional history, revealed a chapter already written but
not yet read by him. He expected too, quite irrationally, that some
corresponding illumination must have come to the girl, that she, like
himself, must have progressed along a similar stage. He pictured himself
telling her how he had left his house in order to have the satisfaction
of seeing her lit window; he had a humorous word to say about the state
of his dress shoes (in place of which he must not forget to order a pair
from the boot and shoe department this morning). He could see her smile
with eyes and mouth in answer to his youthful confession, as she always
smiled when, as often happened now, some small mutual understanding
flitted to and fro between them, and could easily imagine the tone of
her reply, ‘Oh, but how dreadfully foolish of you, Mr Keeling. You want
to be laid up too, like Charles.’ She would not say more than that, but
there would be that glimmer of comprehension, of acceptance, that showed
she had some share in the adventure, that she allowed it, looked on it
with the kind eye of a friend.

There was never a swifter disillusionment than when she came in, and he
stood up, as he had now learned to do, at her entrance. He had heard
her step along the passage, and the bird of romance, hidden perhaps
behind the sofa or in the case of files, gave out a great jubilant
throatful of song. But next moment it was as if some hand, Mrs Fyson’s
perhaps, had wrung its neck and stopped its singing. She had a perfectly
friendly smile for him, but the smile was not one shade more friendly
than usual, her eyes did not hold lit within them a spark of closer
intimacy than had habitually been there for the last fortnight. Whatever
had happened to him last night, he saw that nothing whatever had
happened to her. No sixth sense had conveyed to her the smallest hint of
his midnight walk: she had been through no nocturnal experiences that
the most sanguine could construe into correspondence with that, and on
the moment he could no more have told her about his midnight walk, or
have been humorous on the subject of disintegrated shoes than he could
have taken her into his arms and kissed her. And by the standard of how
incredibly remote she seemed, he could judge of the distance of his
spirit’s leap towards her, when he stood outside her window last night.
The very absence of any change in her was the light by which he saw the
change in himself.

She had his letters opened for him with her usual speed, but as she
worked he could see by the soft creased line between her eyebrows, even
as he had seen it yesterday morning, when she was anxious about her
brother, that something troubled her. To-day, however, he did not
question her: she might tell him if she felt disposed, and guessing that
it was connected with the events of last night, his instinct told him
that it was for her to speak or be silent. Then, when she had opened the
letters, she placed them by him, and without a word, took up her
writing-block and pencil for the shorthand dictation. But still her brow
did not clear, the smudge of shadow lay perpendicularly between her
eye-brows, as fixed as if it was some soft pencil mark on the skin.

To-day the work was not heavy, and nearly an hour before the interval
for lunch he had finished the dictation of his answers. She knew his
business engagements as well as himself, and reminding him that a
land-agent was coming to see him at twelve on some private matter, took
her papers into the little inner room. Then she came back for her
typewriter, which stood on the table in the window where she usually
worked, paused and came over to his table.

‘May I speak to you a moment?’ she asked.

‘Certainly, Miss Propert. What is it?’

She fingered the edge of the table, and with her instinct for tidiness,
put straight a couple of papers that lay there.

‘It’s about last night,’ she said. ‘I told Charles what had happened,
and he doesn’t want me to come up to your house again like that in the
evening. He knows as well as I do----’

She broke off, and the trouble cleared from her face, as she looked up
at him smiling.

‘Charles wanted to write to you,’ she said, ‘but I said I would really
prefer to explain. People are such fools, you know, aren’t they?’

There was mingled chagrin and pleasure for him in this speech. He
admired the frank friendliness with which she spoke: but he would have
liked to have seen in her some consciousness of the underlying truth
which last night he had hugged to himself. But in her frankness there
seemed to be a complete unconsciousness of any of his own sentiments, no
twitter, however remote, of the bird of romance that had sung to him
from the snowy trees.

He assented to the fact that people were fools. ‘But is that the end of
my library catalogue?’ he asked.

‘No; I must finish it. I thought perhaps I could go there for an hour in
the middle of the morning, when you were down here. I could still get
your letters done in time for the evening post. If I went there every
day for an hour I could get through as much as I did on alternate
evenings.’

He knew this to be a sound and sensible plan, but he did not in the
least wish to assent to it. In the first place, it would look as if he
acknowledged some basis of reason in his wife’s attitude the evening
before; in the second place, he would no longer have those half-hours
after dinner in his library with Norah and her brother. He knew that
they had become the pearl of the day to him.

‘But since people are such fools,’ he said, ‘does it matter?’

‘Yes. I think it does. I don’t want to make unpleasantness.’

‘For me?’ he asked. ‘You make none.’

She flushed a little.

‘Yes. Personally I don’t care two straws. But Charles does rather.’

Keeling stood up.

‘I’m ashamed of myself,’ he said. ‘Your brother is perfectly right. Go
down, then, as you suggest in the morning.’

‘We’ll settle it like that then,’ she said. ‘But I am so sorry. I liked
those evenings.’

‘I didn’t object to them myself,’ said he. As she turned, their eyes met
again, and Norah knew she had done right. But that knowledge gave her no
atom of satisfaction.

The land-agent was announced, and Norah left the two together. Of late
years Keeling had been buying both building-sites and houses in
Bracebridge, and Simpson, his agent, had been instructed to inform him
of any desirable site that was coming into the market. But at the
moment he felt singularly little interested in any purchase that Simpson
might recommend.

‘Good-morning, Simpson,’ he said. ‘What have you come about?’

In the next room the typing machine had begun its clacking that came
staccato and subdued through the baize-lined door. That seemed to him
more momentous than anything his agent could tell him about.

‘Well, sir, there’s a building site just beyond your little place,’
began Mr Simpson. ‘It’s coming up next month for sale, but if you make
an offer now, I think you might get it cheap.’

Keeling forced his mind away from the sound that came from next door,
and looked at the map that the agent had spread out. But the purchase
did not appeal to him.

‘Too far out,’ he said. ‘And I think the villa-building is being a bit
overdone. Anything else?’ he said.

‘Yes, sir, if you’ll pay the price, there’s an important site which the
owner wants to sell the freehold of. It’s the site of the County Club.
The price asked seems rather high, but then I consider the Club are
getting their premises absurdly cheap. You might fairly ask a much
higher rental.’

Suddenly Keeling felt himself interested in this, and the clacking of
the typewriter came to his ears no longer.

‘What lease has the Club got?’ he asked.

‘I have ascertained that there is a break in it next Midsummer on both
sides, notice to be given at Lady Day. The present owner had determined
to put up their rent then, and the Committee, I believe, thought that
quite reasonable. But he wants cash, and has instructed me to look out
for a purchaser.’

Keeling had that faculty, which had stood him in such good stead all his
life, of being able to make up his mind quickly when all the data were
put before him. He did not hesitate now, and ten minutes after, when the
details of the ownership and present lease were in his possession, he
had authorised his agent to purchase for him.

‘I gather that the owner wishes the transaction to be private,’ he said.
‘And I wish the same.’

‘Certainly. I think you have made a wise purchase, sir,’ said Simpson.
‘I am told that the landlord is ex-officio a member of the Club.
Good-morning, sir. I will have the deed made out with your lawyer
without delay.’

Keeling nodded. The last speech had given him something to think about.



CHAPTER VI


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeling sat down by the fire.

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Keeling sat straight up in bed.

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

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She retreated a step with a fallen face.

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

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

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

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

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

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

She laughed.

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

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

‘Unless you wish me to.’

He paused.

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

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

‘I will go if you like,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I suppose so.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you serious?’ she asked.

‘I was never more so.’

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

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

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

‘What am I to do then?’ she asked.

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

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

She looked at the cheque.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Please,’ he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



CHAPTER VII


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice guessed what he meant in a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned to her with an air of childlike frankness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you mean me?’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, no,’ said Mr Silverdale hurriedly.

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

Mr Silverdale clasped his hands together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good-bye,’ she said.

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

The dying flame flickered up again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this moment the boy covered with buttons entered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice gave a little hoarse laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But I don’t want him to ask me,’ said Alice, _splendide mendax_.

Mrs Keeling looked positively roguish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I didn’t hear you,’ said Alice.

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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



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 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 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 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. 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 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.’

‘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 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 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....

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 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.’

‘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 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.

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
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 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.

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 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 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--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 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?’

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 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 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 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 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.

‘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 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
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.



CHAPTER IX


It is perhaps hardly necessary to state that Mrs Keeling on the eve of
the ceremony for the opening of the Keeling wing had subscribed to a
press cutting agency which would furnish her with innumerable accounts
of all she knew so well. But print was an even more substantial joy than
memory, and there appeared in the local press the most gratifying
panegyrics on her husband. These were delightful enough, but most of all
she loved the account of herself at that monumental moment when she
presented the Princess with the bouquet of daffodils and gypsophila. She
was never tired of the perusal of this, nor of the snapshot which some
fortunate photographer had taken of her in the very middle of her royal
curtsey, as she was actually handing the bouquet. This was reproduced
several times: she framed one copy and kept all the rest, with the
exception of one with regard to which she screwed herself up to the
point of generosity that was necessary before she could prevail on
herself to send it to her mother.

Then, while still the industrious press-cutters had not yet come to the
end of those appetising morsels, the packets on her breakfast table
swelled in size again, and she was privileged to read over and over
again that the honour of a baronetcy had been conferred on her husband.
She did not mind how often she read this; all the London papers
reproduced the gratifying intelligence, and though the wording in most
of these was absolutely identical, repetition never caused the sweet
savour to cloy on her palate. She was like a girl revelling in
chocolate-drops; though they all tasted precisely alike, each tasted
delicious, and she felt she could go on eating them for ever. Even
better than those stately clippings from the great London luminaries
were the more detailed coruscations of the local press. They gave
biographies of her husband, magnanimously suppressing the fish-shop, and
dwelling only on the enterprise which had made and the success which had
crowned the Stores, and many (these were the sweetest of all) gave
details about herself and her parentage and the number of her children.
She was not habitually a great reader, only using books as a soporific
till they tumbled from her drowsy grasp, but now she became a wakeful
and enthusiastic student. The whole range of literature, since the days
of primeval epics, had never roused in her one tithe of the emotion that
those clippings afforded.

Keeling himself had no such craving to see in print all that he was
perfectly well aware of, and even looked undazzled at the cards which
his wife had ordered, on one set of which he appeared alone as ‘Sir
Thomas Keeling, Bart.,’ to differentiate him from mere knights, whilst
on the other the Bart. appeared in conjunction with her. But the events
themselves filled him with a good deal of solid satisfaction, due
largely to their bearing on the approaching election at the County Club.
Never from a business point of view had there been a more successful
‘timing’ of an enterprise: it was as if on the very day of his getting
out his summer fashions, summer had come, with floods of hot sunshine
that made irresistible to the ladies of Bracebridge the muslins and
organdies and foulards that floated diaphanously in the freshly dressed
windows. The summer of his munificence and his honours had just burst on
the town, and, in spite of Lord Inverbroom’s warning, he felt, as he
walked down to his office on the morning of the day on which the
election took place, that every member of the Club would be, so to
speak, a customer for his presence in future in those staid bow-windows.
During these months of his Mayoralty, he had come into contact with, and
had been at civic functions the host of a quantity of members of the
County Club whose suffrages he sought to-day, and there was none among
them who had not shown him courtesy and even deference. That no doubt
was largely due to his position as mayor, but this Thomas Keeling who
was a candidate for the Club was the mayor, he who had given the new
wing to the hospital, thereby averting a very unpleasant financial mess,
he, too, whom his King had delighted to honour. To the business mind
nothing could have happened more opportunely, and the business mind was
his mind. He could not see how he could fail, after this bouquet of
benefits and honours, to be ‘an attractive proposition’ to any club. As
he walked down to his office that morning he swept the cobweb of Lord
Inverbroom’s apprehensions away, and wondered at himself for having
allowed them to infect him with a moment’s uneasiness, or to make him
consider, even at the very back of his brain, what he should do if he
were not elected. This morning he did not consider that at all: he was
sure that the contingency for which he had provided would not arrive.
The provision was filed away, and with it, shut up in the dusty volume,
was the suggestion his agent had made that he might quite reasonably
raise the rent that the Club paid for the premises which were now his
property. That business was just concluded; he proposed to inform Lord
Inverbroom at once of the fact that he was now the landlord of the
County Club, and that the question of a rise in the rental might be
considered as shelved. Lord Inverbroom would be in Bracebridge this
morning, since he would be presiding at the election at the Club at
twelve o’clock, and had promised to communicate the result at once.
Very likely Keeling would drop in at the club to have a bit of lunch
there, and he could get a chat with Lord Inverbroom then.... But as he
slid upwards in the droning lift that took him to the floor where his
office was, the Club, the election, and all connected with it, vanished
from his brain like the dispersing mists on a summer morning, for a few
steps would take him along the corridor to the room where Norah was
opening his letters.

That moment of his entry had become to him a matter of daily excitement
and expectation. Sometimes the soft furrow would be ruled between her
eyebrows, and she would give him but the glance of a stranger and a
chilly ‘Good-morning,’ and instantly turn her attention to her work
again. Sometimes she would show such a face as she had shown him that
Sunday morning on the downs when they had listened to the skylark
together, a face of childhood and the possession of spring, sometimes
(and it was this that gave the grizzled elderly man the tremulous
excitement of a boy when his hand opened the door) she would give him
that look which had shot across the town-hall like the launching of a
silver spear and transfixed him. But if he did not get it then, sometime
during the morning, in some pause in the work, or perhaps even in the
middle of his dictation, he would receive it from her, just that one
look which made him know, so long as it lasted, that there was no bar
or impediment between himself and her. ‘There was neither speech nor
language,’ but her essential self spoke, revealing, affirming to him its
existence. Then without pause she would drop her eyes to her work again,
and her busy pencil scooped and dabbed over the paper, and he heard in
some secret place of his brain, while his lips pronounced sharp
business-like sentences, the words, ‘And thou beside me singing in the
wilderness.’... In the afternoon, when he came to read over her
typewritten transcription of the dictation, he always knew at what point
in some peremptory letter out of all the sheaf that moment of the clear
glance had come. He was always on the look-out for it, but he could
never induce it: she gave it him, so it had begun to seem, not in answer
to him, but just when she could withhold it no longer.

This morning the correspondence was both heavy and complicated. A whole
series of widely scattered dates had to be turned up, in order to trace
some question of the payment of carriage on a certain consignment. It
was a tiresome job, which Norah recommended him to leave for
verification to the clerk downstairs whose business it was, and probably
for that very reason Sir Thomas insisted on doing it himself. He was
fractious, he was obstinately determined to have the matter settled here
and now, and like a child, cross with hunger, he wanted the clear look
she had not yet given him. The furrow, that soft smudge, had long been
marked on Norah’s forehead, as she turned up letter after letter that
failed to deal with the point, and she spent what she considered a
wasted half hour over it. She was still rather irritated when she found
what she had been looking for, unclipped the communication from the
spring that fastened it into its place and passed it him.

‘I think that’s what you are wanting, Sir Thomas,’ she said.

He took it from her, and noticing the rather incisive politeness of her
tone, looked up at her. The furrow was still there, very impatiently
ruled, but the clear glance was there also: radiantly it shone on him,
quite undisturbed by the superficial agitation. It concerned not the
surface of her, but the depths.

He did not look at the paper she handed him, on which his unconscious
fingers had closed. He was not going to miss one infinitesimal fraction
of the moment that she had at last given him. She frowned still, but
that was the property of her tiresome search: it was neither his nor
hers, as he or she ‘mattered.’

‘You will find it on the third line from the end,’ she said. ‘Messrs
Hampden are perfectly right about it.’

And then the moment was over, except that in the secret place of his
brain the voice sang in the wilderness, and he looked at the letter she
had given him. The words danced and swam; presently they steadied
themselves.

‘I see,’ he said. ‘Well then, Miss Propert, you must cross out what I
have dictated to you about it. Please read the letter through.... Yes,
cross out from the sentence beginning, “Re the payment for carriage of
goods.” Dear me, it is nearly one: what a lot of time we have spent over
that. The booking-clerk would have done it much more quickly.’

The frown cleared, but the clear look did not return. It was over: it
seemed she had satisfied herself.

‘I think we should have saved time,’ she said.

‘Yes, you were quite right. You like being right, don’t you?’

He got a smile for that, the sort of smile that anybody might have had
from her.

‘I suppose I do,’ she said. ‘Certainly I hate being wrong.’

‘But I was wrong this time,’ he said. ‘I gave you a lot of trouble in
consequence.’

That again was no use: he but got another smile and a friendly look of
the sort he no longer wanted.

‘Is that all, then?’ he asked.

‘No, Sir Thomas, there are half a dozen more letters yet.’

He had just taken the next, when there came a tap at the door, and a boy
entered. He was not one of the messenger-boys of the Stores, with
peaked cap and brass buttons, but Keeling had an impression of having
seen him before. Then he recollected: he often lounged at the door of
the County Club.

‘A note from Lord Inverbroom, sir,’ he said. ‘His lordship told me to
give it you personally.’

‘Wait and see if there is an answer,’ said Keeling.

He tore open the envelope: it was already after one, and probably there
would be no answer, since he would see Lord Inverbroom at the Club,
where he proposed to have lunch. The note was quite short.

     ‘DEAR SIR THOMAS,--I promised to let you know the result of the
     election. The meeting is just over, and I am sorry to say you have
     not been elected. Please allow me to express my sincere regrets.

                                ‘Yours truly,

                                                 ‘INVERBROOM.’



Keeling had one moment of sheer surprise: he had been perfectly sure of
being elected. Then without any conscious feeling of rancour or
disappointment, his mind passed direct to what he had already determined
to do if this contingency, which since the opening of the hospital-wing
he had thought impossible, actually occurred.

‘Wait a moment,’ he said to the messenger. ‘There will be an answer for
you to take back to Lord Inverbroom.’

He turned to Norah.

‘Please take this down direct on your typewriter,’ he said, ‘with a
carbon copy to file.’

Norah put the two sheets on the roller, dated the paper, and waited.

Keeling thought for half a minute, drumming with his fingers on the
table.

‘Are you ready?’ he said, and dictated.

     ‘DEAR LORD INVERBROOM,--Yours to hand re the election at the County
     Club to-day of which I note the contents.

     ‘I wish also to acquaint you as President with the fact that I have
     lately bought the freehold of your premises. I see that there is a
     break in your lease at Midsummer this year on both tenants’ and
     landlord’s side, and therefore beg to give you this formal notice
     that I do not intend to renew the lease hitherto held by your Club,
     as I shall be using the premises for some other purpose.

                                          ‘Yours faithfully,



‘Read it over please Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘and I will sign it. File
this note of Lord Inverbroom’s with your carbon copy, and docket them.’

Norah brought him over the typed letter.

‘What docket shall I put on them?’ she asked.

‘Non-election to County Club. Notice of termination of Club’s lease.’

He signed the letter to Lord Inverbroom and sent the boy back with it.

‘Now we will go on with the rest of the shorthand,’ he said.

Norah came back to the table, took up her pencil and then laid it down
again. The frown was heavily creased in her forehead.

‘May I just say something to you before we begin?’ she said. ‘You may
think it a great impertinence, but it is not meant impertinently.’

‘What is it?’ he said.

‘I beg you to call the boy back, and not send that note,’ she said. ‘I
hate to think of your doing that. It isn’t the act of----’

She stopped suddenly. He easily supplied the rest of her sentence.

‘It isn’t the act of a gentleman,’ he said. ‘But they’ve just told me
that I’m not one, or they would have elected me. They will like to know
how right they are.’

He paused a moment.

‘I am sure you did not mean an impertinence, Miss Propert,’ he added,
‘but I think you have committed one.’

‘I am very sorry then,’ said she.

‘Yes. We will get on with the shorthand, please.’

Keeling seldom wasted thought or energy on irremediable mischances: if
a business proposition turned out badly he cut his loss on it, and
dismissed it from his mind. But it was equally characteristic of him to
strike, and strike hard, if opportunity offered at any firm which had
let him in for his loss, and, in this case, since the Club had hit at
him, he felt it was but fair that he should return the blow with precise
and instantaneous vigour. That was right and proper, and his rejoinder
to Norah that the Club who did not consider him sufficient of a
gentleman to enter their doors should have the pleasure of knowing how
right they were, had at least as much sober truth as irony about it. The
opportunity to hit back was ready to hand; it would have been singular
indeed, and in flat contradiction to his habits, if he had not taken it.
But when once he had done that, he was satisfied; they did not want him
as a member, and he did not want them as tenants, and there was the end
of it. Yet, like some fermenting focus in his brain, minute as yet, but
with the potentiality of leaven in it, was the fact that Norah had
implored him not to send his answer to Lord Inverbroom. He still
considered her interference an impertinence, but what stuck in his mind
and began faintly to suggest other trains of thought was the equally
undeniable fact that she had not meant it as an impertinence. In
intention it had been a friendly speech inspired by the good-will of a
friend. But he shrugged his shoulders at it: she did not understand
business, or, possibly, he did not understand clubs. So be it then: he
did not want to understand them.

It was with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance that he saw Lord
Inverbroom walking towards him along Alfred Road when he left the Stores
that afternoon. The curiosity was due to the desire to see how Lord
Inverbroom would behave, whether he would cross the street or cut him
dead; the annoyance arose from the fact that he could not determine how
to behave himself at this awkward encounter. But when he observed that
there was to be no cutting or crossing the street at all, but perfect
cordiality and an outstretched hand, it faintly and pleasantly occurred
to him that, owing to his letter, there might be forthcoming another
election at the Club, with a request that he would submit himself to a
further suffrage. That would certainly have pleased him, for he had
sufficient revengefulness in his character to decline such a proposition
with thanks.

No such proposition was submitted to him.

‘I was just going to leave this note at your office, Sir Thomas,’ said
Lord Inverbroom. ‘May I give it you instead and save myself a further
walk? It is just the acknowledgment of your letter about the termination
of our lease. Perhaps you will glance at it, to see that it is in
order.’

Keeling felt, in spite of his business-like habits, that this was
unnecessary. True, this was a matter of business, and he should have
verified the correctness of Lord Inverbroom’s information. But instead
he merely put it into his pocket.

‘That is all right,’ he said.

‘Are you going home?’ asked the other. ‘My wife, I know, is calling on
Lady Keeling, and she will pick me up there. If she has not been so
fortunate as to find Lady Keeling in, she will wait for me in the motor.
May we not walk down there together?’

‘I shall be delighted,’ said Keeling. He still did not know how to
behave, but was gradually becoming aware that no ‘behaviour’ was
necessary. ‘Behaviour’ as such, did not seem to exist for his companion,
and he could not help wondering what took its place.

‘My wife is furious with me,’ Lord Inverbroom went on. ‘I have succumbed
to the Leonardo book, instead of having the dining-room ceiling
whitewashed. She has a materialistic mind, preferring whitewash to
Leonardo. Besides, as I told her, she never looks at the ceiling, and I
shall often look at my book. Have you come across anything lately which
life is not worth living without? Perhaps you had better not tell me if
you have, or I shall practise some further domestic economy.’

‘I shall be very pleased to show you anything I’ve got,’ said Keeling.
‘We will have a cup of tea in my library unless Lady Inverbroom is
waiting in your motor.’

‘Ah, that would be a great treat. Let us do that, in any case, Sir
Thomas. Surely we can go in some back way so as to escape my wife’s
notice if she is really waiting outside. It will do her good to wait:
she is very impatient.’

Keeling was completely puzzled: if he had ventured to speak in this
sense of Lady Keeling, he knew he would have made a sad mess of it. In
his mouth, the same material would have merely expressed itself in a
rude light. He tried rather mistakenly to copy the manner that was no
manner at all.

‘Ah, I should get a good scolding if I treated Lady Keeling like that,’
he said.

It did not sound right as he said it; he had the perception of that. He
perceived, too, that Lord Inverbroom did not pursue the style. Then,
presently arriving, they found that the waiting motor contained no
impatient Lady Inverbroom, and they stole into the library, at her
husband’s desire, so that no news of his coming should reach her, until
he had had a quarter of an hour there with his host. Then perhaps she
might be told, if Sir Thomas would have the goodness....

Lord Inverbroom sauntered about in the grazing, ambulatory fashion of
the book-lover and when his quarter of an hour was already more than
spent, he put the volume he was examining back into its place again
with a certain air of decision.

‘I should like to express to you by actual word of mouth, Sir Thomas,’
he said, ‘my regret at what happened to-day. I am all the more sorry for
it, because I notice that in our rules the landlord of the club is _ex
officio_ a member of it. If you only had told me that you had become our
landlord, I could have informed you of that, and spared you this
annoyance.’

There was no mistaking the sincerity of this, the good feeling of it.
Keeling was moved to be equally sincere.

‘I knew that already,’ he said.

Lord Inverbroom looked completely puzzled.

‘Then will you pardon me for asking why you did not take advantage of
it, and become a member of the club without any further bother?’

‘Because I wished to know that I was acceptable as a member of the club
to the other members,’ said Keeling. ‘They have told me that I am not.’

There was a good deal of dignity in this reply: it sprang from a feeling
that Lord Inverbroom was perfectly competent to appreciate.

‘I understand,’ he said. ‘And what you have said much increases my
regret at the election going as it did.’ He paused a moment, evidently
thinking, and Keeling, had an opportunity to wager been offered him,
would have bet that his next words would convey, however delicately, the
hope that Keeling would reconsider his letter of the morning,
announcing the termination of the Club’s lease. He was not prepared to
do anything of the sort, and hoped, indeed, that the suggestion would
not be made. But that he should have thought that the suggestion was
going to be made showed very precisely how unintelligible to him was the
whole nature of the class which Lord Inverbroom represented. No such
suggestion was made, any more than half an hour ago any idea of a fresh
election being held was mooted.

‘I had the pleasure of speaking very warmly in your favour, Sir Thomas,’
said Lord Inverbroom, at length, ‘and, of course, of voting for you. I
may tell you that I am now considering, in consequence of the election,
whether I shall not resign the presidency of the Club. It is an unusual
proceeding to reject the president’s candidate; I think your rejection
reflects upon me.’

Keeling was being insensibly affected by his companion’s simplicity.
‘Behaviour’ seemed a very easy matter to Lord Inverbroom: it was a mere
matter of being simple....

‘I should be very sorry to have been the cause of that,’ he said, ‘and I
don’t think it would be logical of you. You urged me to withdraw, which
was the most you could do after you had promised to propose me.’

Lord Inverbroom’s sense of being puzzled increased. Here was a man who
had written a letter this morning turning the Club out of their
premises merely because he had been blackballed, who yet showed, both by
the fact of his seeking election in the ordinary way instead of claiming
it _ex officio_, and by this delicate unbusiness-like appreciation of
his own position, all those instincts which his letter of this morning
so flatly contradicted.

‘Yes, I urged you not to stand,’ he said, ‘and that is the only reason
why I hesitate about resigning. I should like you to know that if I
remain in my post, that is the cause of my doing so. Otherwise I should
resign.’

The other side of the question presented itself to Keeling. It would be
a rare stroke to deprive the Club not only of its premises but of its
president. Though he had just said that he hoped Lord Inverbroom would
not resign, he felt it would be an extreme personal pleasure if he did.
And then a further scheme came into his head, another nail in the coffin
of the County Club, and with that all his inherent caddishness rose
paramount over such indications of feelings as Lord Inverbroom
understood and appreciated.

‘Perhaps if you left the County Club,’ he said, ‘you would do us the
honour to join the Town Club. I am the president of that: I would think
it, however, an honour to resign my post if you would consent to take
it. I’ll warrant you there’ll be no mischance over that election.’

Lord Inverbroom suddenly stiffened.

‘You are very good to suggest that,’ he said. ‘But it would be utterly
out of the question. Well, Sir Thomas, I envy you your library. And
here, I see, is your new catalogue. Miss Propert told me she was working
at it. May I look at it? Yes, indeed, that is admirably done. Author and
title of the book and illustrator as well, all entered. Her father was a
great friend of mine. She may have told you that very tragic story.’

‘She has never mentioned her father to me. Was he--well, the sort of man
whom the County Club would not have blackballed?’

Perhaps that was the worst thing he had said yet, though, indeed, he
meant but a grimly humourous observation, not perceiving nor being able
to perceive in how odious a position he put his guest. But Lord
Inverbroom’s impenetrable armour of effortless good breeding could turn
even that aside. He laughed.

‘Well, after what the Club has done to-day,’ he said, ‘there is no
telling whom they would blackball. But certainly I should have been, at
one time, very happy to propose him.’

Keeling’s preoccupation with the Club suddenly ceased. He wanted so much
more to know anything that concerned Norah.

‘Perhaps you would tell me something about him,’ he said.

‘Ah, that would not be quite right, would it?’ said Lord Inverbroom,
still unperturbed, ‘if Miss Propert has not cared to speak to you of
him.’

Keeling found himself alternately envying and detesting this
impenetrable armour. There was no joint in it, it was abominably
complete. And even while he hated it, he appreciated and coveted it.

‘I understand,’ he said. ‘No telling tales out of school.’

‘Quite so. And now will you take me to find my wife? Let us be in a
conspiracy, and not mention that we have been in the house half an hour
already. I should dearly like another half-hour, but all the time Lady
Keeling is bearing the infliction of a prodigiously long call.’

‘Lady Keeling will be only too gratified,’ said her husband.

‘That is very kind of her. But, indeed, I think we had better go.’

Gratification was certainly not too strong a term to employ with regard
to Lady Keeling’s feelings, nor, indeed, too strong to apply to Lady
Inverbroom’s when her call was brought to an end. The sublimity of
Princesses was not to be had every day, and the fortnight that had
elapsed since that memorable visit, with the return of the routine of
undistinguished Bracebridge, had caused so prolonged a visit from a
peeress to mount into Lady Keeling’s head like an hour’s steady drinking
of strong wine.

‘Well, I’ve never enjoyed an hour’s chat more,’ she said, as Keeling
returned after seeing their guests off, ‘and it seemed no more than five
minutes. She was all affability, wasn’t she, Alice? and so full of
admiration for all my--what did she call them? Some French word.’

‘Bibelots,’ suggested Alice.

‘Biblos; that was it. And she never seemed to think how time was flying,
for she never once alluded to her husband’s being so late. To be sure
she might have; she might perhaps have said she was afraid she was
keeping me from my occupations, for I could have assured her very
handsomely that I was more than pleased to sit and talk to her. And it
is all quite true, Thomas, about the Princess’s visit next month. You
may be sure I asked about that. She is coming down to spend three days
with them, very quietly, Lady Inverbroom said; yes, she said that twice
now I come to think of it, though I caught it perfectly the first time.
But I shall be very much surprised if I don’t get a note asking us to
dine and sleep, with Alice as well perhaps, for I said what a pleasure
it would be to Alice to see her beautiful house and grounds some day.
But I shall quite understand after what she said about the visit being
very quiet, why there will be no party. After all, it was a very
pleasant evening we spent there before when there were no guests at all.
I said how much we enjoyed quiet visits with no ceremony.’

‘Did you ask for any more invitations?’ said Keeling, as his wife paused
for breath.

‘My dear Thomas, you quite misunderstand me. I asked for nothing, except
that I might take Mamma some day for a drive through their park. I hope
I know how to behave better than that. Another thing, too: Miss Propert
has been there twice, once to tea and once to lunch. I hope she will not
have her head turned, for it seems that she did not take her meals in
the housekeeper’s room, but upstairs. But that is none of my business: I
am sure Lady Inverbroom may give her lunch on the top of the
church-steeple if she wishes, and I said very distinctly that I had
always found her a very well-behaved young woman, and mentioned nothing
about her bouncing in in the middle of my dinner-party, nor when she
spent Sunday morning in your library. Bygones are bygones. That’s what I
always say, and act on, too.’

This certainly appeared to have been the case: Lady Keeling’s
miscroscopic mind seemed to have diverted its minute gaze altogether
from Norah. To Keeling that was a miscroscopic relief, but no more, for
it seemed to him to matter very little what his wife thought about
Norah.

‘Lord Inverbroom was a great friend of Miss Propert’s father at one
time,’ he said. ‘He told me so only to-day.’

‘Oh, indeed. Very likely in the sense that a man may call his butler an
old friend of the family. I should be quite pleased to speak of
Parkinson like that. I am all for equality. We are all equal in the
sight of Heaven, as Mr Silverdale says. Dear me, I wish I was his equal
in energy: next month he holds a mission down at Easton Haven among all
those ruffians at the docks, in addition to all his parish work.’

‘He is doing far too much,’ said Alice excitedly, ‘but he won’t listen.
He is so naughty: he promises me he will be good, and not wear himself
out, but he goes on just the same as ever, except that he gets worse and
worse.’

Keeling listened to this with a mixture of pity and grim amusement. He
felt sure that his poor Alice was in love with the man, and was sorry
for Alice in that regard, but what grimly amused him was the utter
impotence of Alice to keep her condition to herself. He was puzzled
also, for all this spring Alice seemed to have remained as much in love
with him as ever, but not to have got either worse or better. Silverdale
filled her with some frantic and wholly maidenly excitement. It was like
the love of some antique spinster for her lap-dog, intense and
deplorable and sexless. He could even joke in a discreet manner with
poor Alice about it, and gratify her by so doing.

‘Well, all you ladies who are so much in love with him ought to be able
to manage him,’ he said.

Alice bent over her work (she had eventually induced Mr Silverdale to
sanction the creation of a pair of slippers) with a pleased, lop-sided
smile.

‘Father, you don’t know him,’ she said. ‘He’s quite, quite unmanageable.
You never saw any one so naughty.’

‘Punish him by not giving him his slippers. Give them me instead, and
I’ll wear them when he comes to dinner.’

Alice looked almost shocked at the notion of such unhallowed feet being
thrust into these hardly less than sacred embroideries: it was as if her
mother had suggested making a skirt out of the parrots and pomegranates
that adorned the ‘smart’ altar-cloth. But she divined that, in spite of
her father’s inexplicable want of reverence for the Master (they had
become Master and Helper, and sometimes she called him ‘sir,’ much as
Norah had called her father, but for antipodal reasons), there lurked
behind his rather unseemly jokes a kindly intention towards herself. He
might laugh at her, but somehow below that she felt (and she knew not
how) that a part of him understood, and did not laugh. It was as if he
knew what it meant to be in love, to thirst and to be unslaked, to be
hungry and not to be fed.

She gave him a quick glance out of her short-sighted eyes, a glance that
deprecated and yet eagerly sought for the sympathy which she knew was
somewhere about. And then Lady Keeling put in more of her wrecking and
shattering remarks, which so unerringly spoiled all the hints and
lurking colours in human intercourse.

‘Well, that would be a funny notion for Sir Thomas Keeling to wear
slippers at dinner,’ she said. ‘What a going-back to old days! I might
as well wear some high-necked merino gown. But what your father says is
quite true, Alice. We might really take Mr Silverdale in hand, and tell
him that’s the last he’ll see of us all, unless he takes more care of
himself. I saw him coming out of the County Club to-day, looking so
tired that I almost stopped my carriage and told him to go home to bed.
And talking of the County Club, Thomas, doesn’t your election come on
soon? You must be sure to take me to have lunch in the ladies’ room one
of these days. Lady Inverbroom told me she was lunching there to-day,
and had quite a clean good sort of meal. Nothing very choice, I expect,
but I dare say she doesn’t care much what she eats. I shall never forget
what a tough pheasant we had when we dined there. If I’d been told I was
eating a bit of leather, I should have believed it. Perhaps some day
when Lord and Lady Inverbroom are in Bracebridge again, we might all
have lunch together there.’

For the last six months Keeling had been obliged to keep a hand on
himself when he was with his wife, for either she had developed an
amazing talent for putting him on edge, or he a susceptibility for being
irritated by her. Both causes probably contributed, for since her
accession to greatness, her condescension had vastly increased, while he
on his side had certainly grown more sensitive to her pretentiousness.
It was with the utmost difficulty that he restrained himself from
snapping at her.

‘No, I’m afraid that can’t be, Emmeline,’ he said. ‘The election came
off to-day, and the Club has settled it can do without me.’

‘Well, I never heard of such a thing! They haven’t elected you, do you
mean, the Mayor of Bracebridge, and to say nothing of your being a
baronet? Who are those purse-proud people, I should like to know? My
dear Thomas, I have an idea. I should not wonder if Lord Inverbroom was
in it. He has been quite cock of the walk, as you may say, up till now,
and he doesn’t want any rival. What are you going to do? I hope you’ll
serve them out well for it somehow.’

‘I have done so already. I bought the freehold of the Club not so long
ago, and I have given them notice that I shall not renew their lease in
the summer.’

Lady Keeling clapped her soft fat hands together.

‘That’s the right sort of way to treat them,’ she said, in great glee.
‘That will pay them out. I never heard of such a thing as not electing a
baronet. Who do they think they are? What fun it will be to see all
their great sofas being bundled into the street. And they bought all
their furniture at your Stores, did they not? That is the cream of it to
my mind. I should not wonder if they want to sell it all back to you,
second-hand. That would be a fine joke.’

For the first time, now that his wife so lavishly applauded his action,
Keeling began to be not so satisfied with it. The fact that it commended
itself to her type of mind, was an argument against it: her praise
disgusted him: it was at least as impertinent as Norah’s disapprobation.

Alice fixed her faint eyes on her father.

‘Oh, I wish you hadn’t done that!’ she said. ‘Does Lord Inverbroom know
that?’

‘Mark my words,’ said his wife, ‘Lord Inverbroom’s at the bottom of it
all.’

‘Nothing of the kind, Emmeline,’ he said sharply. ‘Lord Inverbroom
proposed me.’

Then he turned to Alice.

‘Yes, he knows,’ he said. ‘I gave notice to him. And why do you wish I
hadn’t done it? I declare I’m getting like Mr Silverdale. All the ladies
are concerning themselves with me. There’s your mother saying I’ve done
right, and you and Miss Propert saying I’ve done wrong. There’s no
pleasing you all.’

‘And what has Miss Propert got to do with it,’ asked Lady Keeling, ‘that
she disapproves of what you’ve done? She’ll be wanting to run your
Stores for you next, and just because she’s been to lunch with Lord
Inverbroom. I never heard of such impertinence as Miss Propert giving
her opinion. You’ll have trouble with your Miss Propert. You ought to
give her one of your good snubs, or dismiss her altogether. That would
be far the best.’

Keeling felt as some practitioner of _sortes Virgilianæ_ might do when
he had opened at some strangely apposite text. To consult his wife about
anything was like opening a book at random, a wholly irrational
proceeding, but he could not but be impressed by the sudden
applicability of this. His wife did not know the situation, any more
than did the musty volume, but he wondered if she had not answered with
a strange wisdom, wholly foreign to her.

‘Now you have given your opinion, Emmeline,’ he said, ‘and you must
allow somebody else to talk. I want to know why Alice disapproves.’

Alice stitched violently at the slipper.

‘Mr Silverdale will be so sorry,’ she said. ‘He drops in there sometimes
for a rubber of bridge, for he thinks that it is such a good thing to
show that a clergyman can be a man of the world too.’

Keeling rose: this was altogether too much for him.

‘Well, we’ve wasted enough time talking about it all,’ he said, ‘if
that’s all the reason I’m to hear.’

‘But it isn’t,’ said Alice. ‘I can’t express it, but I can feel it. I
know I should agree with Miss Propert and Lord Inverbroom about it.
What did Miss Propert say?’

‘Well, talking of waste of time,’ observed Lady Keeling indignantly, ‘I
can’t think of any worse waste than caring to know what Miss Propert
said.’

Keeling turned to her.

‘Perhaps you can’t,’ he said, ‘and you’d better have your nap. That
won’t be waste of time. You’re tired with talking, and I’m sure I am
too.’

He left the room without more words, and Lady Keeling settled another
cushion against what must be called the small of her back.

‘Your father’s served them out well,’ she said. ‘That’s the way to get
on. To think of their not considering him good enough for their Club. He
has shown his spirit very properly. But the idea of Miss Propert telling
him what’s right and what isn’t, on twenty-five shillings a week.’

‘I can’t bear to think of Mr Silverdale not having his rubber of bridge
now and then,’ said Alice. ‘It was such a refreshment to him.’

       *       *       *       *       *

Keeling had intended to pass an hour among his books to wash off the
scum, so to speak, of this atrocious conversation, but when he got to
his library, and had taken down his new edition of Omar Khayyam, which
Charles Propert had induced him to buy, he found it could give him very
little emotion. He was aware of the exquisite type, of the strange
sensuous wood-cuts that somehow affected him like a subtle odour, of
the beautiful binding, and not least of the text itself, but all these
perfections were no more than presented to him; they did not penetrate.
He could not rid himself of the scum; the odiousness of his wife’s
approbation would not be washed off. And what made it cling was the fact
that she had divined him correctly, had rejoiced at his ‘serving the
Club out.’ It was just that which Norah deprecated, and he felt that
Lord Inverbroom’s complete silence on the point, his forbearance to hint
ever so faintly that perhaps Keeling would reconsider his action,
expressed disapprobation as eloquently as Norah’s phrase, which he had
finished for her, had done. It was a caddish act, that was what they
both thought about it, and Alice, when she had finished her nonsense
about Mr Silverdale’s rubber of bridge, had a similar protest in her
mind. He did not rate poor Alice’s mind at any high figure; it was but
the fact that she was allied to the other two, and opposed to her
mother, that added a little weight to her opinion.

He wanted to be considered a gentleman, and when others declined to
receive him as such, he had but justified their verdict by behaving like
a cad.... He was a cad, here was the truth of it, as it struck him now,
and that was why he had behaved like one.

He shut his meaningless book, now intensely disliking the step he had
taken, which at the time had seemed so smart a rejoinder. Probably if
at this moment Lord Inverbroom had appeared, asking him to cancel it, he
would have done so. But that was exactly what it was certain Lord
Inverbroom would not do. There remained Norah; he wondered whether Norah
would refer to it again. Probably not: he had made clear that he thought
the offering of her opinion was a great impertinence. And now to his
annoyance he remembered that his wife had also considered it as such.
Again she agreed with him, and again the fact of her concurrence made
him lose confidence in the justice of his own view. He had instantly
acquitted Norah of deliberate impertinence; now he reconsidered whether
it had been an impertinence at all.... What if it was the simple desire
of a friend to save a friend from a blunder, an unworthiness?

       *       *       *       *       *

He had grown to detest the time after dinner passed in the plushy,
painted drawing-room. Hitherto, in all these years of increasing
prosperity, during which the conscious effort of his brain had been
directed to business and money-making, he had not objected after the
work of the day to pass a quiescent hour or two before his early bedtime
giving half an ear to his wife’s babble, which, with her brain thickened
with refreshment, always reached its flood-tide of voluble incoherence
now, giving half an eye to Alice with her industrious needle. All the
time a vague simmer of mercantile meditation gently occupied him; his
mind, like some kitchen fire with the damper pushed in, kept itself just
alight, smouldered and burned low, and Alice’s needle was but like the
bars of the grate, and his wife’s prattle the mild rumble of water in
the boiler. It was all domestic and normal, in accordance with the
general destiny of prosperous men in middle age. Indeed, he was luckier
in some respects than the average, for there had always been for him his
secret garden, the _hortus inclusus_, into which neither his family nor
his business interests ever entered. Now even that had been invaded,
Norah’s catalogue had become to him the most precious of his books: she
was like sunshine in his secret garden or like a bitter wind, something,
anyhow, that got between him and his garden beds, while here in the
drawing-room in the domestic hour after dinner the fact of her made
itself even more insistently felt, for she turned Lady Keeling’s
vapidities, to which hitherto he had been impervious, into an active
stinging irritation, and even poor Alice’s industrious needle and the
ever-growing pattern of Maltese crosses on Mr Silverdale’s slippers was
like some monotonous recurring drip of water that set his nerves on
edge. This was a pretty state of mind, he told himself, for a hardheaded
business man of fifty, and yet even as with all the force of resolution
that was in him he tried to find something in his wife’s remarks that
could awake a relevant reasonable reply, some rebellious consciousness
in his brain would only concern itself with counting on the pink clock
the hours that lay between the present moment and nine o’clock next
morning. And then the pink clock melodiously announced on the
Westminster chime that it was half past ten, and Alice put her needle
into the middle of the last Maltese cross, and Lady Keeling waddled
across the room and tapped the barometer, which a marble Diana held in
her chaste hand, to see if the weather promised well for the bazaar
to-morrow. The evening was over, and there would not be another for the
next twenty-four hours.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was always punctual at his office; lately he had been before his time
there, and had begun to open letters before Norah arrived. This happened
next morning, and among others that he had laid on his desk was Lord
Inverbroom’s acknowledgment of his notice to terminate the County Club’s
lease. Norah, when she came, finished this business for him, and in due
course handed him the completed pile. Then, as usual, she took her place
opposite him for the dictation of answers. She wore at her breast a
couple of daffodils, and he noticed that, as she breathed, the faint
yellow reflection they cast on her chin stirred upwards and downwards.
No word had passed between them since she had expressed regret for what
he considered her impertinence the day before, and this morning she did
not once meet his eye. Probably she considered herself in disgrace, and
it maddened him to see her quiet acceptance of it, which struck him as
contemptuous. She was like some noble slave, working, because she must
work, for a master she despised. Well, if that was her attitude, so be
it. She might despise, but he was master. At his request she read out a
letter she had just taken down. In the middle he stopped her.

‘No, you have got that wrong,’ he said. ‘What I said was this,’--and he
repeated it--‘please attend more closely.’

She made no reply, and two minutes afterwards he again found her at
fault. And the brutality, the desire to make the beloved suffer, which
in very ugly fashion often lies in wait close to the open high road of
love, became more active.

‘You are wasting your time and mine, Miss Propert,’ he said, ‘if you do
not listen.’

Again he waited for some reply, some expression of regret which she
undoubtedly owed him, but none came. Then, looking up, while her pencil
was busy, he saw that she did not reply because she could not. The
reflection of the daffodils trembled violently on her chin, and her
lower teeth were fast clenched on her upper lip to stifle the surrender
of her mouth. And when he saw that, all his brutality, all the impulse
that bade him hurt the thing he loved, drained out of him, and left him
hateful to himself.

He paused, leaving unfinished the sentence he was dictating, and sat
there silent, not daring to look at her. He still felt she despised him,
and now with additional reason; he resented the fact that any one should
do that, his pride choked him, and yet he was ashamed. But oh, the
contrast between this very uncomfortable moment, and the comfortable
evenings with Emmeline!

But he could not bring himself to apologise, and presently he resumed
his dictation. Norah, it appeared, had recovered control of herself, and
when that letter was finished, she read it over to him quite steadily.
The next she handed him was Lord Inverbroom’s acknowledgment, which he
had himself placed among the rest of the morning’s correspondence.

‘Is that just to be filed?’ she said, ‘or is there any answer?’

He took it up.

‘Yes, there’s an answer,’ he said, and dictated.

     ‘DEAR LORD INVERBROOM,--Re lease of premises of County Club. If you
     will allow me I should like to cancel the notice of termination of
     said lease which I sent you yesterday, if this would be any
     convenience to the Club. I should like also to express to you
     personally my regret for my action.’

He paused.

‘I think that’s all I need say, Miss Propert, isn’t it?’ he asked.

And then there came for him the direct glance, a little dim yet, with
the ‘clear shining after rain’ beaming through it.

‘Oh, I am so glad,’ she said. ‘And if it’s not impertinent may I suggest
something?’

Never had the clear glance lasted so long. He expanded and throve in it.

‘Well, go on; but take care,’ he said.

‘It’s only that you should write it yourself,’ she said. ‘It would be
more--more complete.’

‘And that will satisfy you?’

‘Quite. You will have done yourself justice.’

He pushed back his chair.

‘I don’t see why you should care,’ he said. ‘I’ve treated you like a
brute all morning.’

‘I know you have. I cared about that too.’

‘Would you like me to apologise?’ he asked.

She shook her head and pointed at the letter.

‘Not again,’ she said. ‘You’ve sent me a lovely apology already,
addressed to Lord Inverbroom.’

‘Have I, indeed? You must have everything your own way. And how are the
bluebells getting on?’

‘Quite well. They’ll all be out in a fortnight, I think. I went to look
again yesterday. The buds, fat little buttons, do you remember, have got
tall stalks now. And the lark is still singing.’

‘May we go there then on Saturday week?’ he asked.

She looked down a moment.

‘Yes,’ she said softly, raising her eyes again. ‘And now shall we get on
with the letters, Sir Thomas. There are still a good many not answered.’

‘I would sooner talk to you,’ he said.

‘You shall dictate. That will be talking. And I will try to listen very
attentively.’

‘Now don’t be mean, Miss Propert,’ said he.

For the second time that morning she let the clear glance shine on him.
It brightened like dawn, filling the space between them. And it smote on
his heart, stupefyingly sweet.



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, 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 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
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.’

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.
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.

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 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 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 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 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 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
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.’

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 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 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 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.’

‘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.’

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 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.’

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 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 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 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 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 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 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....



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 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
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 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 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 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 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 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. 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 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 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.

‘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 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 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.


GLASGOW: W. COLLINS SONS AND CO. LTD.





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