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Part 12 B

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« on: December 24, 2022, 07:41:19 am »

'Newland hasn't come in. You haven't seen her anywhere?'

'No--I've been round at Somerville. It's only just after twelve. She'll probably turn up. You don't think--?'

'We don't know what to think. It's not like Newland to be out without leave. And we've found things.'

She led Harriet into the Warden's sitting-room. Dr. Baring was seated at her desk, her handsome face stern and judicial. In front of her stood Miss Haydock, with her hands thrust into her dressing-gown pockets; she looked excited and angry. Miss Shaw, curled dismally in a corner of the big couch, was crying; while Miss Millbanks the Senior Student, half-frightened and half-defiant, hovered uneasily in the background. As Harriet came in with the Dean, everybody looked hopefully towards the door and then away again.

'Miss Vane,' said the Warden, 'the Dean tells me that you saw Miss Newland behaving in a peculiar manner on Magdalen Tower last May-Day. Can you give me any more exact details about that?'

Harriet told her story again.

'I am sorry,' she added in conclusion, 'that I didn't get her name at the time; but I didn't recognise her as one of our students. As a matter of fact, I don't remember ever noticing her at all, until she was pointed out to me yesterday by Miss Martin.'

'That's quite right,' said the Dean. 'I'm not at all surprised you shouldn't have known her. She's very quiet and shy and seldom comes in to Hall or shows herself anywhere. I think she works nearly all day at the Radcliffe. Of course, when you told me about the May-Day business, I decided that somebody ought to keep an eye on her. I informed Dr. Baring and Miss Shaw, and I asked Miss Millbanks whether any of the Third Year had noticed that she seemed to be in any trouble.'

I can't understand it,' cried Miss Shaw. 'Why couldn't she have come to me about it? I always encourage my pupils to give me their full confidence. I asked her again and again. I really thought she had a real affection for me ...'

She sniffed hopelessly into a damp handkerchief.

'I knew something was up,' said Miss Haydock, bluntly, 'But I didn't know what it was. The more questions you asked, the less she'd tell you--so I didn't ask many.'

'Has the girl no friends?' asked Harriet.

'I thought she looked on me as a friend,' complained Miss Shaw.

'She didn't make friends,' said Miss Haydock.

'She's a very reserved child,' said the Dean. 'I don't think anybody could make much out of her. I know I couldn't.'

'But what has happened, exactly?' asked Harriet.

'When Miss Martin spoke to Miss Millbanks about her,' said Miss Haydock, cutting in without respect of persons upon the Warden's reply, 'Miss Millbanks mentioned the matter to me, saying she couldn't see that we could be expected to do anything.'

'But I scarcely knew her ...' began Miss Millbanks.

'Nor did I,' said Miss Haydock. 'But I thought something had better be done about it. I took her out on the river this afternoon. She said she ought to work, but I told her not to be an idiot, or she'd crack up. We took a punt up over the Rollers and had tea along by the Parks. She seemed all right then. I brought her back and persuaded her to come and dine properly in Hall. After that, she said she wanted to go and work at the Radder. I had an engagement, so I couldn't go with her--besides, I thought she'd think it funny if I trailed after her all day. So I told Miss Millbanks that somebody else had better carry on.'

'Well, I carried on myself,' said Miss Millbanks, rather defiantly. 'I took my own work across there. I sat in a desk where I could see her. She was there till half-past nine. I came away at ten and found she'd gone.'

'Didn't you see her go?'

'No. I was reading and I suppose she slipped out. I'm sorry; but how was I to know? I've got Schools this term. It's all very well to say I oughtn't to have taken my eyes off her, but I'm not a nurse or anything--'

Harriet noticed how Miss Millbank's self-assurance had broken down. She was defending herself angrily and clumsily like a school-girl.

'On returning,' pursued the Warden, 'Miss Millbanks--'

'But has anything been done about it?' interrupted Harriet, impatient with this orderly academic exposition. 'I suppose you asked whether she's been up to the gallery of the Radcliffe.'

'I thought of that later on,' replied the Warden, 'and suggested that a search should be made there. I understand that it has been made, without result. However, a subsequent--'

'How about the river?'

'I am coming to that. Perhaps I had better continue in chronological order. I can assure you that no time has been wasted.'

'Very well, Warden.'

'On returning,' said the Warden, taking up her tale exactly where she had left it, 'Miss Millbanks told Miss Haydock about it, and they ascertained that Miss Newland was not in College. They then, very properly, informed the Dean, who instructed Padgett to telephone through as soon as she came in. At 11.15 she had not returned, and Padgett reported that fact. He mentioned at the same time that he had himself been feeling uneasy about Miss Newland. He had noticed that she had taken to going about alone, and that she looked strained and nervous.'

'Padgett is pretty shrewd,' said the Dean. 'I often think he knows more about the students than any of us.'

'Up till to-night,' wailed Miss Shaw, 'I should have said I knew all my pupils intimately.'

'Padgett also said he had seen several of the anonymous letters arrive at the Lodge for Miss Newland.'

'He ought to have reported that,' said Harriet.

'No,' said the Dean. 'It was after you came last term that we instructed him to report. The ones he saw came before that.'

'I see.'

'By that time,' said the Warden, 'we were beginning to feel alarmed, and Miss Martin rang up the police. In the meantime, Miss Haydock made a search in Miss Newland's room for anything that might throw light on her state of mind; and found--these.'

She took a little sheaf of papers from her desk and handed them to Harriet, who said 'Good God!'

The Poison-Pen, this time, had found a victim ready made to her hand. There were the letters, thirty or more of them ('and I don't suppose that's the lot, either,' was the Dean's comment)--menacing, abusive, insinuating--all hammering remorselessly upon the same theme. 'You needn't think you will get away with it'--'What will you do when you fail in Schools?'--'You deserve to fail and I shall see that you do'--then more horrible suggestions: 'Don't you feel your brain going?'--'If they see you are going mad they will send you down'--and finally, in a sinister series: 'You'd better end it now'--'Better dead than in the loony-bin'--'In your place I should throw myself out of the window'--'Try the river'--and so on; the continuous, deadly beating on weak nerves that of all things is hardest to resist.

'If only she had shown them to me!' Miss Shaw was crying.

'She wouldn't of course,' said Harriet. 'You have to be very well balanced to admit that people think you're going mad. That's what's done the mischief.'

'Of all the wicked things--' said the Dean. 'Think of that unfortunate child collecting all these horrors and brooding over them! I'd like to kill whoever it is!'

'It's a definite effort at murder,' said Harriet. 'But the point is, has it come off?'

There was a pause. Then the Warden said in an expressionless voice:

'One of the boat-house keys is missing.'

'Miss Stevens and Miss Edwards have gone up-stream in the Water-fly,' said the Dean, 'and Miss Burrows and Miss Barton have taken the other sculler down to the Isis. The police are searching too. They've been gone about three-quarters of an hour. We didn't discover till then that the key was gone.'

'Then there's not much we can do,' said Harriet, suppressing the angry comment that the boat-house keys should have been checked the moment Miss Newland's absence had been remarked. 'Miss Haydock--did Miss Newland say anything to you--anything at all--while you were out, that might suggest where she was likely to go in case she wanted to drown herself?'

The blunt phrase, spoken openly for the first time, shook everybody. Miss Haydock put her head in her hands.

'Wait a minute,' she said. 'I do remember something. We were well up through the Parks--Yes--It was after tea, and went a bit farther before turning. I struck a bad bit of water and nearly lost the pole. I remember saying it would be a nasty place to go in, because of the weeds. It's a bad bottom--all mud with deep holes in it. Miss Newland asked if that wasn't the place where a man had been drowned last year. I said I didn't know, but I thought it was near there. She didn't say anything more, and I'd forgotten it till this moment.'

Harriet looked at her watch.

'Half-past nine, she was last seen. She'd have to get to the boat-house. Had she a bicycle? No? Then it would take her nearly half an hour. Ten. Say another forty minutes to the Rollers, unless she was very quick--'

'She's not a quick punter. She'd take a canoe.'

'She'd have the wind and stream against her. Say 10.45. And she'd have to get the canoe over the Rollers by herself. That takes time. But she would still have over an hour. We may be too late, but it's just worth trying.'

'But she might have gone in anywhere.'

'Of course she might. But there's just the chance. People get an idea and stick to it. And they don't always make their minds up instantly.'

'If I know anything of the girl's psychology,' began Miss Shaw.

'What's the good of arguing?' said Harriet. 'She's either dead or alive and we've got to risk a guess. Who'll come with me? I'll get the car--we shall go quicker by road than by river. We can commandeer a boat somewhere above the Parks--if we have to break open a boat-house. Dean--'

'I'm with you,' said Miss Martin.

'We want torches and blankets. Hot coffee. Brandy. Better get the police to send up a constable to meet us at Timms's. Miss Haydock, you're a better oar than I am--'

'I'll come,' said Miss Haydock. 'Thank God for something to do.'


Lights on the river. The splash of sculls. The steady chock of the rowlocks.

The boat crept slowly down-stream. The constable, crouched in the bows, swept the beam of a powerful torch from bank to bank. Harriet, holding the rudder-lines, divided her attention between the dark current and the moving light ahead. The Dean, setting a slow and steady stroke, kept her eyes before her and her wits on the job.

At a word from the policeman, Harriet checked the boat and let her drift down towards a dismal shape, black and slimy on the black water. The boat lurched as the man leaned out. In the silence came the answering groan, splash, chuck of oars on the far side of the next bend.

'All right,' said the policeman. 'Only a bit o' sacking.'

'Ready? Paddle!'

The sculls struck the water again.

'Is that the Bursar's boat coming up?' said the Dean.

'Very likely,' said Harriet.

Just as she spoke, someone in the other boat gave a shout. There was a heavy splash and a cry ahead, and an answering shout from the constable:

'There she goes!'

'Pull like blazes,' said Harriet. As she drew on the rudder-lines to bring their nose round the bend, she saw, across stroke's shoulder in the beam of the torch, the thing they had come to find--the shining keel of a canoe adrift in mid-stream, with the paddles floating beside it; and all around it the water ran, ringed and rippling with the shock of the plunge.

'Look out, ladies. Don't run her down. She can't be far off.'

'Easy!' said Harriet. And then, 'Back her! Hold her!'

The stream chuckled and eddied over the reversed oar-blades. The constable shouted to the up-coming sculler, and then pointed away towards the left bank.

'Over by the willow there.'

The light caught the silver leaves, dripping like rain towards the river. Something swirled below them, pale and ominous.

'Easy. Paddle. One on bow. Another on bow. Another. Easy. Paddle. One. Two. Three. Easy. Paddle on stroke, back-water on bow. One. Two. Easy. Look out for your bow oars.'

The boat swung across the stream and turned, following the policeman's signal. He was kneeling and peering into the water on the bow side. A white patch glimmered up to the surface and sank again.

'Fetch her round a bit more, miss.'

'Ready? One on stroke, paddle. Another. Easy. Hold her.' He was leaning out, groping with both hands among the ribbon-weed. 'Back a little. Easy. Keep those bow oars out of the water. Trim the boat. Sit over to stroke. Have you got her?'

'I've got her--but the weeds are cruel strong.'

'Mind you don't go over or there'll be two of you. Miss Haydock--ready, ship! See if you can help the constable. Dean--paddle one very gentle stroke and sit well over.'

The boat rocked perilously as they heaved and tore at the clinging weeds, razor-sharp and strong as grave-bands. The Water-fly had come up now and was pulling across the stream. Harriet yelled to Miss Stevens to keep her sculls out of mischief. The boats edged together. The girl's head was out of the water, dead-white and lifeless, disfigured with black slime and dark stripes of weed. The constable was supporting the body. Miss Haydock had both hands in the stream, slashing with a knife at the ribbon-weed that was wrapped viciously about the legs. The other boat, hampered by its own lightness, was heeling over to stroke with gunwales awash, as her passengers reached and grappled.

'Trim your boat, damn you!' said Harriet, not pleased at the idea of having two fresh corpses to see to, and forgetting in her wrath to whom she was speaking. Miss Stevens paid no attention; but Miss Edwards threw her weight over; and as the boat lifted the body lifted too. Harriet, keeping her torch steady so that the rescuers could see what they were doing, watched the reluctant weeds loose their last coils and slip back.

'Better get her in here,' said the constable. Their boat had the less room in it, but the stronger arms and the better balance. There was a strong heave and a violent lurch as the dead weight was hauled over the side and rolled in a dripping heap at Miss Haydock's feet.


The constable was a capable and energetic young man. He took the first-aid measures in hand with admirable promptness. The women, gathered on the bank, watched with anxious faces. Other help had now arrived from the boat-house. Harriet took it upon herself to stem the stream of questions.

'Yes. One of our students. Not a good waterman. Alarmed to think she had taken a canoe out alone. Reckless. Yes, we were afraid there might be an accident. Wind. Strong current. Yes. No. Quite against the rules.' (If there was going to be an inquest, other explanations might have to be made there. But not here. Not now.) 'Very unwise. High spirits. Oh, yes. Most unfortunate. Taking risks ...'

'She'll do now,' said the constable.

He sat up and wiped the sweat from his eyes.

Brandy. Blankets. A melancholy little procession along the fields to the boat-house, but less melancholy than it might have been. Then an orgy of telephoning. Then the arrival of the doctor. Then Harriet found herself, suddenly shaking with nerves, being given whisky by some kindly person. The patient was better. The patient was quite all right. The capable policeman and Miss Haydock and Miss Stevens were having their hands dressed, where the sharp weeds had slashed them to the bone. People were talking; Harriet hoped they were not talking foolishly.

'Well,' said the Dean in her ear, 'we are having a night!'

'Who's with Miss Newland?'

'Miss Edwards. I've warned her not to let the child say anything if she can help it. And I've muzzled that nice policeman. Accident, my dear, accident. It's quite all right. We've taken your cue. You kept your head wonderfully. Miss Stevens lost hers a bit, though. Started to cry and talk about suicide. I soon shut her up.'

'Damn!' said Harriet. 'What did she want to do that for?'

'What indeed? You'd think she wanted to make a scandal.'

'Somebody obviously does.'

'You don't think Miss Stevens--? She did her bit with the rescue-work, you know.'

'Yes, I know. All right, Dean. I don't think. I won't try to think. I thought she and Miss Edwards would have that boat over between them.'

'Don't let's discuss it now. Thank Heaven the worst hasn't happened. The girl's safe and that's all that matters. What we've got to do now is to put the best face on it.'

It was nearly five in the morning when the rescuers, weary and bandaged, sat once again in the Warden's house. Everybody was praising everybody else.

'It was so clever of Miss Vane,' said the Dean, 'to realise that the wretched child would go up to that particular place. What a mercy that we arrived just when we did.'

'I'm not so sure about that,' said Harriet. 'We may have done more harm than good. Do you realise that it was only when she saw us coming that she made up her mind to do it?'

'Do you mean she mightn't have done it at all if we hadn't gone after her?'

'Difficult to say. She was putting it off, I think. What really sent her in was that shout from the other boat. Who shouted, by the way?'

'I shouted,' said Miss Stevens. 'I looked over my shoulder and saw her. So I shouted.'

'What was she doing when you saw her?'

'Standing up in the canoe.'

'No, she wasn't,' said Miss Edwards. 'I looked round when you shouted, and she was just getting to her feet then.'

'You're quite mistaken,' contradicted Miss Stevens. 'I say she was standing up when I saw her, and I shouted to stop her. You couldn't have seen past me.'

'I saw perfectly plainly,' said Miss Edwards. 'Miss Vane is quite right. It was when she heard the shout that she got up.'

'I know what I saw,' said the Bursar, obstinately.

'It's a pity you didn't take somebody to cox,' said the Dean. 'Nobody can see clearly what's going on behind her back.'

'It is hardly necessary to argue about it,' said the Warden, a little sharply. 'The tragedy has been prevented, and that is all that matters. I am exceedingly grateful to everybody.'

'I resent the suggestion,' said Miss Stevens, 'that I drove the unfortunate girl to destroy herself. And as for saying that we ought not to have gone in search of her--'

'I never said that,' said Harriet, wearily. 'I only said that if we had not gone it might not have happened. But of course we had to go.'

'What does Newland say herself?' demanded the Dean.

'Says, why couldn't we leave her alone?' replied Miss Edwards. 'I told her not to be an inconsiderate little ass.'

'Poor child!' said Miss Shaw.

'If I were you,' said Miss Edwards, 'I shouldn't be too soft with these people. Bracing up is what does them good. You let them talk too much about themselves--'

'But she didn't talk to me,' said Miss Shaw. 'I tried very hard to make her.'

'They'd talk much more if you'd only leave them alone.'

'I think we'd better all go to bed,' said Miss Martin.

'What a night,' said Harriet, as she rolled, dog-weary, between the sheets. 'What a gaudy night!' Her memory, thrashing round her brain like a cat in a sack, brought up the images of Mr. Pomfret and the pro-Proctor. They seemed to belong to another existence.

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