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An Autumn Sowing
E. F. Benson
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, advertisedto 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.’
‘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!’
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.