An Autumn Sowing - E.F. Benson - ebook

An Autumn Sowing ebook

E.F. Benson

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The main character, Mr. Keeling, is a simple self-worker who started his business with the fish trade. That is how he became popular and famous. Having a lot of money behind him, the main character decided to fight the class community. This book puts an intriguing twist on an old story about a middle-aged man who falls in love with his secretary.

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice assumed a slightly nippy look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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