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Part 11 B


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« on: December 24, 2022, 03:39:27 am »

In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool water of Mercury. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tir-nan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers. She held on her knee the loose-leaf note-book that contained her notes upon the Shrewsbury scandal; but her heart was not in that sordid inquiry. A detached pentameter, echoing out of nowhere, was beating in her ears--seven marching feet--a pentameter and a half:--

To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis--


Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.

She opened the note-book at another page and wrote the words down. She felt like the man in the Punch story: 'Nice little barf-room, Liza--what shall we do with it?' Blank verse?... No ... it was part of the octave of a sonnet ... it had the feel of a sonnet. But what a rhyme-sound! Curled? furled?... she fumbled over rhyme and metre, like an unpractised musician fingering the keys of a disused instrument.

Then, with many false starts and blank feet, returning and filling and erasing painfully as she went, she began to write again, knowing with a deep inner certainty that somehow, after long and bitter wandering, she was once more in her own place.

Here, then, at home ...

the centre, the middle sea, the heart of the labyrinth ...

Here, then, at home, by no more storms distrest, Stay we our steps--course--flight--hands folded and wings furled

Here, then, at home, by no more storms distrest, Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled; Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled, Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west, Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best, From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled, To that still centre where the spinning world Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.


Yes; there was something there, though the metre halted monotonously, lacking a free stress-shift, and the chime 'dizzying-spinning' was unsatisfactory. The lines swayed and lurched in her clumsy hands, uncontrollable. Still, such as it was, she had an octave.

And there it seemed to end. She had reached the full close, and had nothing more to say. She could find no turn for the sestet to take, no epigram, no change of mood. She put down a tentative line or two and crossed them out. If the right twist would not come of itself, it was useless to manufacture it. She had her image--the world sleeping like a great top on its everlasting spindle--and anything added to that would be mere verse-making. Something might come of it some day. In the meanwhile she had got her mood on to paper--and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their heads no further.

She shut up the note-book, scandal and sonnet together, and began to make her way slowly down the steep path. Half-way down, she met a small party coming up: two small, flaxen-haired girls in charge of a woman whose face seemed at first vaguely familiar. Then, as they came close, she realised that it was Annie, looking strange without her cap and apron, taking the children for a walk.

As in duty bound, Harriet greeted them and asked where they were living now.

'We've found a very nice place in Headington, madam, thank you. I'm stopping there myself for my holiday. These are my little girls. This one's Beatrice and this is Carola. Say how-do-you-do to Miss Vane.'

Harriet shook hands gravely with the children and asked their ages and how they were getting on.

'It's nice for you having them so close.'

'Yes, madam. I don't know what I should do without them.' The look of quick pride and joy was almost fiercely possessive. Harriet got a glimpse of a fundamental passion that she had, as it were, forgotten when she made her reckoning; it blazed across the serenity of her sonnet-mood like an ominous meteor.

'They're all I have--now that I've lost their father.'

'Oh, dear, yes,' said Harriet, a little uncomfortably. 'Has he--how long ago was that, Annie?'

'Three years, madam. He was driven to it. They said he did what he ought not, and it preyed on his mind. But I didn't care. He never did any harm to anybody, and a man's first duty is to his wife and family, isn't it? I'd have starved with him gladly, and worked my fingers to the bone to keep the children. But he couldn't get over it. It's a cruel world for anyone with his way to make and so much competition.'

'Yes, indeed,' said Harriet. The elder child, Beatrice, was looking up at her mother with eyes that were too intelligent for her eight years. It would be better to get off the subject of the husband's wrongs and iniquities, whatever they might be. She murmured that the children must be a great comfort.

'Yes, madam. There's nothing like having children of your own. They make life worth living. Beatrice here is her father's living image, aren't you, darling? I was sorry not to have a boy; but now I'm glad. It's difficult to bring up boys without a father.'

'And what are Beatrice and Carola going to be when they grow up?'

'I hope they'll be good girls, madam, and good wives and mothers--that's what I'll bring them up to be.'

'I want to ride a motor-cycle when I'm bigger,' said Beatrice, shaking her curls assertively.

'Oh, no darling. What things they say, don't they, madam?'

'Yes, I do,' said Beatrice. 'I'm going to have a motor-cycle and keep a garage.'

'Nonsense,' said her mother, a little sharply. 'You mustn't talk so. That's a boy's job.'

'But lots of girls do boys' jobs nowadays,' said Harriet.

'But they ought not, madam. It isn't fair. The boys have hard enough work to get jobs of their own. Please don't put such things into her head madam. You'll never get a husband, Beatrice, if you mess about in a garage, getting all ugly and dirty.'

'I don't want one,' said Beatrice, firmly. 'I'd rather have a motor-cycle.'

Annie looked annoyed; but laughed when Harriet laughed.

'She'll find out some day, won't she, madam?'

'Very likely she will,' said Harriet. If the woman took the view that any husband was better than none at all, it was useless to argue. And she had rather got into the habit of shying at all discussion that turned upon men and marriage. She said good-afternoon pleasantly and strode on, a little shaken in her mood, but not unduly so. Either one liked discussing these matters or one did not. And when there were ugly phantoms lurking in the corners of one's mind, skeletons that one dared not show to anybody, even to Peter--

Well, of course not to Peter; he was the last person. And he at any rate, had no niche in the grey stones of Oxford. He stood for London, for the swift, rattling, clattering, excitable and devilishly upsetting world of strain and uproar. Here, at the still centre (yes, that line was definitely good), he had no place. For a whole week, she had scarcely given him a thought.

And then the dons began to arrive, full of their vacation activities and ready to take up the burden of the most exacting, yet most lovable term of the academic year. Harriet watched them come, wondering which of those cheerful and determined faces concealed a secret. Miss de Vine had been consulting a library in some ancient Flemish town, where was preserved a remarkable family correspondence dealing with trade conditions between England and Flanders under Elizabeth. Her mind was full of statistics about wool and pepper, and it was difficult to get her to think back to what she had done on the last day of the Hilary Term. She had undoubtedly burnt some old papers--there might have been newspapers among them--certainly she never read the Daily Trumpet--she could throw no light on the mutilated newspaper found in the fireplace.

Miss Lydgate--as Harriet had expected--had contrived in a few short weeks to make havoc of her proofs. She was apologetic. She had spent a most interesting long week-end with Professor Somebody, who was a great authority upon Greek quantitative measures; and he had discovered several passages that contained inaccuracies and thrown an entirely fresh light upon the argument of Chapter Seven. Harriet groaned dismally.

Miss Shaw had taken five of her students for a reading-party, had seen four new plays and bought a rather exciting summer outfit. Miss Pyke had spent an enthralling time assisting the curator of a local museum to put together the fragments of three figured pots and a quantity of burial-urns that had been dug up in a field in Essex. Miss Hillyard was really glad to be back in Oxford; she had had to spend a month at her sister's house while the sister was having a baby; looking after her brother-in-law seemed to have soured her temper. The Dean, on the other hand, had been helping to get a niece married and had found the whole business full of humour, 'One of the bridesmaids went to the wrong church and only turned up when it was all over, and there were at least two hundred of us squeezed into a room that would only hold fifty, and I only got half a glass of champagne and no wedding-cake, my tummy was flapping against my spine; and the bridegroom lost his hat at the last moment, and my dear! would you believe it? people still give plated biscuit-barrels!' Miss Chilperic had gone with her fiancÚ and his sister to a number of interesting places to study mediŠval domestic sculpture. Miss Burrows had spent most of her time playing golf. There arrived also a reinforcement in the person of Miss Edwards, the Science tutor, just returned from taking a term's leave. She was a young and active woman, square in face and shoulder, with bobbed hair and a stand-no-nonsense manner. The only member missing from the Senior Common Room was Mrs. Goodwin, whose small son (a most unfortunate child) had come out with measles immediately upon his return to school and again required his mother's nursing.

'Of course she can't help it,' said the Dean, 'but it's a very great nuisance, just at the beginning of the Summer Term. If I'd only known, I could have come back earlier.'

'I don't see,' observed Miss Hillyard, grimly, 'what else you can expect, if you give jobs to widows with children. You have to be prepared for these perpetual interruptions. And for some reason, these domestic preoccupations always have to be put before the work.'

'Well,' said the Dean, 'one must put work aside in a case of serious illness.'

'But all children get measles.'

'Yes; but he's not a very strong child, you know. His father was tubercular, poor man--in fact, that's what he died of--and if measles should turn to pneumonia, as it so often does, the consequences might be serious.'

'But has it turned to pneumonia?'

'They're afraid it may. He's got it very badly. And, as he's a nervous little creature, he naturally likes to have his mother with him. And in any case, she'd be in quarantine.'

'The longer she stays with him, the longer she'll be in quarantine.'

'It's very tiresome, of course,' put in Miss Lydgate, mildly. 'But if Mrs. Goodwin had isolated herself and come back at the earliest possible moment--as she very bravely offered to do--she would have been suffering a great deal of anxiety.'

'A great many of us have to suffer from anxiety in one way or another,' said Miss Hillyard, sharply. 'I have been very anxious about my sister. It is always an anxious business to have a first baby at thirty-five. But if the event had happened to occur in term-time, it would have had to take place without my assistance.'

'It is always difficult to say which duty one should put first,' said Miss Pyke. 'Each case must be decided individually. I presume that, in bringing children into the world one accepts a certain responsibility towards them.'

'I'm not denying it,' said Miss Hillyard. 'But if the domestic responsibility is to take precedence of the public responsibility, then the work should be handed over to some one else to do.'

'But the children must be fed and clothed,' said Miss Edwards.

'Quite so. But the mother should not take a resident post.'

'Mrs. Goodwin is an excellent secretary,' said the Dean. 'I should be very sorry to lose her. And it's nice to think that we are able to help her in her very difficult position.'

Miss Hillyard lost patience.

'The fact is, though you will never admit it, that everybody in this place has an inferiority complex about married women and children. For all your talk about careers and independence, you all believe in your hearts that we ought to abase ourselves before any woman who has fulfilled her animal functions.'

'That is absolute nonsense,' said the Bursar.

'It is natural, I suppose, to feel that married women lead a fuller life,' began Miss Lydgate.

'And a more useful one,' retorted Miss Hillyard. 'Look at the fuss that's made over "Shrewsbury grandchildren"! Look how delighted you all are when old students get married! As if you were saying "Aha! education doesn't unfit us for real life after all!" And when a really brilliant scholar throws away all her prospects to marry a curate, you say perfunctorily, "What a pity! But of course her own life must come first."'

'I've never said such a thing,' cried the Dean indignantly. 'I always say they're perfect fools to marry.'

'I shouldn't mind,' said Miss Hillyard, unheeding, 'if you said openly that intellectual interests were only a second-best; but you pretend to put them first in theory and are ashamed of them in practice.'

'There's no need to get so heated about it,' said Miss Barton, breaking in upon the angry protest of Miss Pyke. 'After all, some of us may have deliberately chosen not to marry. And, if you will forgive my saying so--'

At this ominous phrase, always the prelude to something quite unforgivable, Harriet and the Dean broke hastily into the discussion.

'Considering that we are devoting our whole lives--'

'Even for a man, it is not always easy to say--'

Their common readiness confronted their good intention. Each broke off and begged the other's pardon, and Miss Barton went on unchecked:

'It is not altogether wise--or convincing--to show so much animus against married women. It was the same unreasonable prejudice that made you get that scout removed from your staircase--'

'I object,' said Miss Hillyard, with a heightened colour, 'to this preferential treatment. I do not see why we should put up with slackness on duty because a servant or a secretary happens to be a widow with children. I do not see why Annie should be given a room to herself in the Scouts' Wing, and charge over a corridor, when servants who have been here for longer than she has have to be content to share a room. I do not--'

'Well,' said Miss Stevens, 'I think she is entitled to a little consideration. A woman who has been accustomed to a nice home of her own--'

'Very likely,' said Miss Hillyard. 'At any rate, it was not my lack of consideration that led to her precious children being placed in the charge of a common thief.'

'I was always against that,' said the Dean.

'And why did you give in? Because poor Mrs. Jukes was such a nice woman and had a family to keep. She must be considered and rewarded for being fool enough to marry a scoundrel. What's the good of pretending that you put the interests of the College first, when you hesitate for two whole terms about getting rid of a dishonest porter, because you're so sorry for his family?'

'There,' said Miss Allison, 'I entirely agree with you. The College ought to come first in a case like that.'

'It ought always to come first. Mrs. Goodwin ought to see it, and resign her post if she can't carry out her duties properly.' She stood up, 'Perhaps, however, it is as well that she should be away and stay away. You may remember that, last time she was away, we had no trouble from anonymous letters or monkey-tricks.'

Miss Hillyard put down her coffee-cup and stalked out of the room. Everybody looked uncomfortable.

'Bless my heart!' said the Dean.

'Something very wrong there,' said Miss Edwards, bluntly.

'She's so prejudiced,' said Miss Lydgate. 'I always think it's a very great pity she never married.'

Miss Lydgate had a way of putting into language that a child could understand, things which other people did not say, or said otherwise.

'I should be sorry for the man, I must say,' observed Miss Shaw; 'but perhaps I am showing an undue consideration for the male sex. One is almost afraid to open one's mouth.'

'Poor Mrs. Goodwin!' exclaimed the Bursar. 'The very last person!'

She got up angrily and went out. Miss Lydgate followed her. Miss Chilperic, who had said nothing, but looked quite alarmed, murmured that she must get along to work. The Common Room slowly cleared, and Harriet was left with the Dean.

'Miss Lydgate has the most terrifying way of hitting the nail on the head,' said Miss Martin; 'because it is obviously much more likely that--'

'A great deal more likely,' said Harriet.

---

Mr. Jenkyn was a youngish and agreeable don whom Harriet had met the previous term at a party in North Oxford--the same party, in fact, which had led to her acquaintance with Mr. Reginald Pomfret. He resided at Magdalen, and was incidentally one of the pro-Proctors. Harriet had happened to say something to him about the Magdalen May-day ceremony, and he had promised to send her a ticket for the Tower. Being a scientist and a man of scrupulously exact mind, he remembered his promise; and the ticket duly arrived.

None of the Shrewsbury S.C.R. was going. Most of them had been up on May mornings before. Miss de Vine had not; but though she had been offered tickets, her heart would not stand the stairs. There were students who had received invitations; but they were not students whom Harriet knew. She therefore set off alone, well before sunrise, having made an appointment to meet Miss Edwards when she came down and take an outrigger down to the Isis for a pipe-opener before having breakfast on the river.

---

The choristers had sung their hymn. The sun had risen, rather red and angry, casting a faint flush over the roofs and spires of the waking city. Harriet leaned over the parapet, looking down upon the heart-breaking beauty of the curved High Street, scarcely disturbed as yet by the roar of petrol-driven traffic. Under her feet, the tower began to swing to the swinging of the bells. The little group of bicyclists and pedestrians far below began to break up and move away. Mr. Jenkyn came up, said a few pleasant words, remarked that he had to hurry off to go bathing with a friend at Parson's Pleasure; there was no need for her to hurry--could she get down the stairs all right alone?

Harriet laughed and thanked him, and he took leave of her at the stair-head. She moved to the East side of the tower. There lay the river and Magdalen Bridge, with its pack of punts and canoes. Among them, she distinguished the sturdy figure of Miss Edwards, in a bright orange jumper. It was wonderful to stand so above the world, with a sea of sound below and an ocean of air above, all mankind shrunk to the proportions of an ant-heap. True, a cluster of people still lingered upon the tower itself--her companions in this airy hermitage. They too, spell-bound with beauty--

Great Scott! What was that girl trying to do?

Harriet made a dive at the young woman who was just placing one knee on the stonework and drawing herself up between two crenellations of the parapet.

'Here!' she said, 'you mustn't do that. It's dangerous.'

The girl, a thin, fair, frightened-looking child, desisted at once.

'I only wanted to look over.'

'Well, that's very silly of you. You might get giddy. You'd better come along down. It would be very unpleasant for the Magdalen authorities if anyone fell over. They might have to stop letting people come up.'

'I'm so sorry. I didn't think.'

'Well, you should think. Is anybody with you?'

'No.'

'I'm going down now; you'd better come too.'

'Very well.'

Harriet shepherded the girl down the dark spiral. She had no proof of anything but rash curiosity, but she wondered. The girl spoke with a slightly common accent, and Harriet would have put her down for a shop-assistant, but for the fact that tickets for the Tower were more likely to be restricted to University people and their friends. She might be an undergraduate, come up with a County Scholarship. In any case, one was perhaps attaching too much importance to the incident.

They were passing the bell-chamber now, and the brazen clamour was loud and insistent. It reminded her of a story that Peter Wimsey had told her, years ago now, one day when only a resolute determination to talk on and on had enabled him to prevent a most unfortunate outing from ending in a quarrel. Something about a body in a belfry, and a flood, and the great bells bawling the alarm across three counties.

The noise of the bells died down behind her as she passed, and the recollection with it; but she had paused for a moment in the awkward descent, and the girl, whoever she was, had got ahead of her. When she reached the foot of the stair and came out into clear daylight, she saw the slight figure scurrying off through the passage into the quad. She was doubtful whether to pursue it or not. She followed at a distance, watched it turn townwards up the High, and suddenly found herself almost in the arms of Mr. Pomfret, coming down from Queen's in a very untidy grey flannel suit, with a towel over his arm.

'Hullo!' said Mr. Pomfret. 'You been saluting the sunrise?'

'Yes. Not a very good sunrise, but a good salute.'

'I think it's going to rain,' said Mr. Pomfret. 'But I said I would bathe and I am bathing.'

'Much the same here,' said Harriet. 'I said I'd scull, and I'm sculling.'

'Aren't we a pair of heroes?' said Mr. Pomfret. He accompanied her to Magdalen Bridge, was hailed by an irritable friend in a canoe, who said he had been waiting for half an hour, and went off up-river, grumbling that nobody loved him and that he knew it was going to rain.

Harriet joined Miss Edwards, who said, on hearing about the girl:

'Well, you might have got her name, I suppose. But I don't see what one could do about it. It wasn't one of our people, I suppose?'

'I didn't recognise her. And she didn't seem to recognise me.'

'Then it probably wasn't. Pity you didn't get the name, all the same. People oughtn't to do that kind of thing. Inconsiderate. Will you take bow or stroke?'

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