An Autumn Sowing by E.F. Benson

An Autumn Sowing (1917) is a refreshing take on stuffy Edwardian British society, the story of Thomas Keeling’s experiences where life and love can appear in the most uncertain of places.

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. {2}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{3} 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{4} 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{5} 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{6} 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{7} 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{8} 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,{9} 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{10} 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{11} 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.{12}’

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{13} 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{14} 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{15} 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{16} 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{17} 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{18} 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{19} 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{20} 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.{21}’

‘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{22} 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{23} ‘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{24}’ 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-la{25}w’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{26} 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{27} 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{28} 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{29} 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{30} 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,{32} 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{33} 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{34} 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{35} 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{36} 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{38} 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{39} 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{40} 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.{41}

‘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.{42}’

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,{43} 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{44} 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{45} 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.’


‘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{46} 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{47} 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{48} 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,{49} 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, {50}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.{51}

‘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{52} 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{53} 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{54} 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.{55}

‘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{56} 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{57} 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{58} 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{59} 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{60} 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{61} 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{62} 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.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9Next page


Social media scholar. Troublemaker. Twitter specialist. Unapologetic web evangelist. Explorer. Writer. Organizer.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button