The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
March 27, 2023, 09:22:31 pm
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: Here you may discover hundreds of little-known composers, hear thousands of long-forgotten compositions, contribute your own rare recordings, and discuss the Arts, Literature and Linguistics in an erudite and decorous atmosphere full of freedom and delight.
  Home Help Search Gallery Staff List Login Register  

Part 14

Pages: [1]   Go Down
Author Topic: Part 14  (Read 10 times)
Level 7

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 1638

View Profile
« on: December 24, 2022, 11:02:24 am »

Truce gentle love, a parly now I crave, Me thinks, 'tis long since first these wars begun Nor thou nor I, the better yet can have: Bad is the match where neither party won. I offer free conditions of faire peace, My hart for hostage, that it shall remaine, Discharge our forces heere, let malice cease, So for my pledge, thou give me pledge againe.
   ---Michael Drayton

'It was a good storm,' said the Dean.

'First-class,' said the Bursar, dryly, 'for those that like it and don't have to cope with those that don't. The scouts' quarters were a pandemonium; I had to go over. There was Carrie in hysterics, and Cook thinking her last hour had come, and Annie shrieking to Heaven that her darling children would be terrified and wanting to rush off to Headington then and there to comfort them--'

'I wonder you didn't send her there at once in the best car available,' put in Miss Hillyard in sarcastic tones.

'--and one of the kitchen-maids having an outbreak of religious blues,' went on Miss Stevens, 'and confessing her sins to an admiring circle. I can't think why people have so little self-control.'

'I'm horribly afraid of thunder,' said Miss Chilperic.

'The wretched Newland was all upset again,' said the Dean. 'The Infirmarian was quite frightened about her. Said the Infirmary maid was hiding in the linen-cupboard and she didn't like to be left alone with Newland. However, Miss Shaw obligingly coped.'

'Who were the four students who were dancing in the quad in bathing-dresses?' inquired Miss Pyke. 'They had quite a ritual appearance. I was reminded of the ceremonial dances of the--'

'I was afraid the beeches were going to be struck,' said Miss Burrows. 'I sometimes wonder whether it's safe to have them so near the buildings. If they came down--'

'There's a bad leak in my ceiling, Bursar,' said Mrs. Goodwin. 'The rain came in like a water-spout--just over my bed. I had to move all the furniture, and the carpet is quite--'

'Anyhow,' repeated the Dean, 'it was a good storm, and it's cleared the air. Look at it. Could anybody want a better and brighter Sunday morning?'

Harriet nodded. The sun was brilliant on the wet grass and the wind blew fresh and cool.

'It's taken my headache away, thank goodness! I'd like to do something calm and cheerful and thoroughly Oxonian. Isn't everything a lovely colour? Like the blues and scarlets and greens in an illuminated missal!'

'I'll tell you what we'll do,' said the Dean, brightly. 'We'll toddle along like two good little people and hear the University Sermon. I can't think of anything more soothingly normal and academic than that. And Dr. Armstrong's preaching. He's always interesting.'

'The University Sermon?' said Harriet, amused. 'Well, that's the last thing I should have thought of for myself. But it's an idea; definitely an idea. We'll go.'

Yes; the Dean was right; here was the great Anglican compromise at its most soothing and ceremonial. The solemn procession of doctors in hood and habit; the Vice-Chancellor bowing to the preacher; and the bedels tripping before them; the throng of black gowns and the decorous gaiety of the summer-frocked wives of dons; the hymn and the bidding-prayer; the gowned and hooded preacher austere in cassock and bands; the quiet discourse delivered in a thin, clear, scholarly voice, and dealing gently with the relations of the Christian philosophy to atomic physics. Here were the Universities and the Church of England kissing one another in righteousness and peace, like the angels in a Botticelli Nativity: very exquisitely robed, very cheerful in a serious kind of way, a little mannered, a little conscious of their fine mutual courtesy. Here, without heat, they could discuss their common problem, agreeing pleasantly or pleasantly agreeing to differ. Of the grotesque and ugly devil-shapes sprawling at the foot of the picture these angels had no word to say. What solution could either of them produce, if challenged, for the Shrewsbury problem? Other bodies would be bolder: the Church of Rome would have its answer, smooth, competent and experienced; the queer, bitterly-jarring sects of the New Psychology would have another, ugly, awkward, tentative and applied with a passionate experimentalism. It was entertaining to imagine a Freudian University indissolubly wedded to a Roman Establishment: they certainly would not live so harmoniously together as the Anglican Church and the School of Litterę Humaniores. But it was delightful to believe, if only for an hour, that all human difficulties could be dealt with in this detached and amiable spirit. 'The University is a Paradise'--true, but--'then saw I that there was a way to hell even from the gates of Heaven' ...


The blessing was given; the voluntary rolled out--something fugal and pre-Bach; the procession reformed and dispersed again, passing out south and north; the congregation rose to their feet and began to stream away in an orderly disorder. The Dean, who was fond of early fugues, remained quietly in her place and Harriet sat dreamily beside her, with eyes fixed on the softly-tinted saints in the rood-screen. At length they both rose and made their way to the door. A mild, clear gust of wind met them as they passed between the twisted columns of Dr. Owen's porch, making the Dean clutch at the peak of her rebellious cap and bellying out their gowns into wide arcs and volutes. The sky, between pillow and pillow of rounded cloud, was pale and transparent blue of aquamarine.

Standing at the corner of Cat Street was a group of gowns, chatting with animation--among them, two Fellows of All Souls and a dignified figure which Harriet recognised as that of the Master of Balliol. Beside him was another M.A. who, as Harriet and the Dean went by, conversing of counterpoint, turned suddenly and lifted his mortar-board.

For a long moment, Harriet simply could not believe her eyes. Peter Wimsey. Peter, of all people. Peter, who was supposed to be in Warsaw, planted placidly in the High as though he had grown there from the beginning. Peter, wearing cap and gown like any orthodox Master of Arts, presenting every appearance of having piously attended the University Sermon, and now talking mild academic shop with two Fellows of All Souls and the Master of Balliol.

'And why not?' thought Harriet, after the first second of shock. 'He is a Master of Arts. He was at Balliol. Why shouldn't he talk to the Master if he likes? But how did he get here? And why? And when did he come? And why didn't he let me know?'

She found herself confusedly receiving introductions and presenting Lord Peter to the Dean.

'I rang up yesterday from Town,' Wimsey was saying, 'but you were out.' And then more explanations--something about flying over from Warsaw, and 'my nephew at the House,' and 'the Master's kind hospitality,' and sending a note round to College. Then, out of the jumble of polite nothings, a sentence she grasped clearly.

'If you are free and in College during the next half-hour or so, may I come round and look you up?'

'Yes, do,' said Harriet, lamely, 'that would be delightful.' She pulled herself together. 'I suppose it's no good asking you to lunch?'

It appeared that he was lunching with the Master, and that one of the All Souls men was lunching also. In fact, a little lunch-party with, she gathered, some kind of historical basis, mention of somebody's article for the Proceedings of Something or Other, which Wimsey was going to 'step into All Souls and look at--it won't take you ten minutes,' and references to the printing and distribution of Reformation polemical pamphlets--to Wimsey's expert knowledge--to the other man's expert knowledge--and to the inexpert pretence at knowledge of some historian from another university.

Then the whole group broke up. The Master raised his cap and drifted away, reminding Wimsey and the historian that lunch would be at 1.15; Peter said something to Harriet about being 'round in twenty minutes,' and then vanished with the two Fellows into All Souls, and Harriet and the Dean were walking together again.

'Well!' said the Dean, 'so that's the man.'

'Yes,' said Harriet weakly, 'that's him.'

'My dear, he's perfectly charming. You never said he was coming to Oxford.'

'I didn't know. I thought he was in Warsaw. I knew he was supposed to be coming up some time this term to see his nephew, but I'd no idea he could get away so soon. As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask him--only I don't suppose he could have got my letter--'

She felt that her efforts at explanation were only darkening counsel. In the end she made a clean breast of the whole affair to the Dean.

'I don't know whether he got my letter and knows already, or whether, if he doesn't, I ought to tell him. I know he's absolutely safe. But whether the Warden and the S.C.R.--I didn't expect him to turn up like this.'

'I should think it was the wisest thing you could have done,' said Miss Martin. 'I shouldn't say too much at College. Bring him along, if he'll come, and let him turn the whole lot of us inside out. A man with manners like that could twist the whole High Table round his little finger. What a mercy he's a historian--that will put him on the right side of Miss Hillyard.'

'I never thought of him as a historian.'

'Well, he took a First, anyway ... didn't you know?'

She had not known. She had not even troubled to wonder. She had never consciously connected Wimsey and Oxford in her mind. This was the Foreign Office business all over again. If he had realised her thoughtlessness it must have hurt him. She saw herself as a monster of callous ingratitude.

'I'm told he was looked upon as one of the ablest scholars of his year,' pursued the Dean. 'A. L. Smith thought highly of him. It's a pity, in a way, he didn't stick to History--but naturally, his chief interests wouldn't be academic.'

'No,' said Harriet.

So the Dean had been making inquiries. Naturally, she would. Probably the whole S.C.R. could by now give her detailed information about Wimsey's University career. That was comprehensible enough: they thought along those lines. But she herself might surely have found the energy for two minutes' study of the Calendar.

'Where shall I put him when he comes? I suppose if I take him off to my own room it will set a bad example to the students. And it is a bit cramped.'

'You can have my sitting-room. Much better than any of the public rooms, if you're going to discuss this beastly business. I wonder if he did get that letter. Perhaps the eager interest behind that penetrating eye was due to his suspicions of me. And I put it all down to my personal fascination! The man's dangerous, though he doesn't look it.'

'That's why he's dangerous. But if he read my letter, he'll know that it isn't you.'


Some minor confusions were cleared up when they reached College and found a note from Peter in Harriet's pigeon-hole. It explained that he had reached London early on Saturday afternoon and found Harriet's letter waiting for him at the Foreign Office. 'I tried to ring you, but left no name, as I did not know whether you wanted me to appear personally in this matter.' He had been engaged in London that afternoon, motored to Oxford for dinner, been captured by some Balliol friends and kindly invited by the Master to stay the night, and would call 'some time to-morrow' in the hope of finding her in.

So she waited in the Dean's room, idly watching the summer sun play through the branches of the plane-tree in the New Quad and make a dancing pattern upon the plinth, until she heard his knock. When she said 'Come in!' the commonplace formula seemed to take on a startling significance. For good or evil, she had called in something explosive from the outside world to break up the ordered tranquillity of the place; she had sold the breach to an alien force; she had sided with London against Oxford and with the world against the cloister.

But when he entered, she knew that the image had been a false one. He came into the quiet room as though he belonged there, and had never belonged to any other place.

'Hullo-ullo!' he said, with a faint echo of the old, flippant manner. Then he stripped off his gown and tossed it on the couch beside her own, laying his mortar-board on the table.

'I found your note when I got back. So you did get my letter?'

'Yes; I'm sorry you should have had all this bother. It seemed to me, as I was coming to Oxford in any case, I had better push along and see you. I meant to come round yesterday evening, but I got tied up with people--and I thought perhaps I had better announce myself first.'

'It was good of you to come. Sit down.'

She pulled an armchair forward, and he dropped into it rather heavily. She noticed, with a curious little prick of anxiety, how the clear light picked out the angles of the skull on jaw and temple.

'Peter! You look tired to death. What have you been doing with yourself?'

'Talking,' he said, discontentedly. 'Words, words, words. All these interminable weeks. I'm the professional funny man of the Foreign Office. You didn't know that? Well, I am. Not often, but waiting in the wings if wanted. Some turn goes wrong--some Under-Secretary's secretary with small discretion and less French uses an ill-considered phrase in an after-dinner speech, and they send on the patter-comedian to talk the house into a good humour again. I take people out to lunch and tell them funny stories and work them up to mellowing point. God! what a game!'

'I didn't know this, Peter. I've just discovered that I've been too selfish even to try and know anything. But it isn't like you to sound so dreadfully discouraged. You look--'

'Spare me, Harriet. Don't say I'm getting to look my age. That won't do. An eternal childishness is my one diplomatic asset.'

'You only look as though you hadn't slept for weeks.'

'I'm not sure that I have, now you mention it. I thought--at one point we all thought--something might be going to happen. All the old filthy uproar. I got as far as saying to Bunter one night: "It's coming; it's here; back to the Army again, sergeant...." But in the end, you know, it made a noise like a hoop and rolled away--for the moment.'

'Thanks to the comic cross-talk?'

'Oh, no. Great Scott, no. Mine was a very trivial affair. Slight frontier skirmish. Don't get it into your head that I'm the man who saved the Empire.'

'Then who did?'

'Dunno. Nobody knows. Nobody ever does know, for certain. The old bus wobbles one way, and you think, 'That's done it'! and then it wobbles the other way and you think, 'All serene'; and then, one day, it wobbles over too far and you're in the soup and can't remember how you got there.'

'That's what we're all afraid of, inside ourselves.'

'Yes. It terrifies me. It's a relief to get back and find you here--and all this going on as it used to do. Here's where the real things are done, Harriet--if only those bunglers out there will keep quiet and let it go on. God! how I loathe haste and violence and all that ghastly, slippery cleverness. Unsound, unscholarly, insincere--nothing but propaganda and special pleading and "what do we get out of this?" No time, no peace, no silence; nothing but conferences and newspapers and public speeches till one can't hear one's self think ... If only one could root one's self in here among the grass and stones and do something worth doing, even if it was only restoring a lost breathing for the love of the job and nothing else.'

She was astonished to hear him speak with so much passion.

'But Peter, you're saying exactly what I've been feeling all this time. But can it be done?'

'No; it can't be done. Though there are moments when one comes back and thinks it might.'

'"Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls."'

'Yes,' said he bitterly, 'and it goes on: "But they said: we will not walk therein." Rest? I had forgotten there was such a word.'

'So had I.'

They sat silent for a few minutes. Wimsey offered her his cigarette-case and struck a match for them both.

'Peter, it's queer we should sit here and talk like this. Do you remember that horrible time at Wilvercombe when we could find nothing to throw at one another but cheap wit and spiteful remarks? At least, I was spiteful: you never were.'

'It was the watering-place atmosphere,' said Wimsey. 'One is always vulgar at watering-places. It is the one haunting terror of my life that some day some perfectly irresistible peach of a problem will blossom out at Brighton or Blackpool, and that I shall be weak-minded enough to go and meddle with it.' The laughter had come back to his voice and his eyes were tranquil. 'Thank Heaven, it's extremely difficult to be cheap in Oxford--after one's second year, at any rate. Which reminds me that I haven't yet properly thanked you for being so kind to Saint-George.'

'Have you seen him yet?'

'No; I have threatened to descend on him on Monday, and show him a damned disinheriting countenance. He has gone off somewhere to-day with a party of friends. I know what that means. He's getting thoroughly spoilt.'

'Well, Peter, you can't wonder. He's terribly good-looking.'

'He's a precocious little monkey,' said his uncle, without enthusiasm. 'Though I can't blame him for that; it runs in the blood. But it's characteristic of his impudence that he should have gate-crashed your acquaintance, after you had firmly refused to meet any of my people.'

'I found him for myself, you see, Peter.'

'Literally, or so he says. I gather that he nearly knocked you down, damaged your property and generally made a nuisance of himself, and that you instantly concluded he must be some relation to me.'

'That's--if he said that, you know better than to believe it. But I couldn't very well miss the likeness.'

'Yet people have been known to speak slightingly of my personal appearance! I congratulate you on a perception worthy of Sherlock Holmes at his keenest.'

It amused and touched her to discover this childish streak of vanity in him. But she knew that he would see through her at once if she tried to pander to it by saying anything more flattering than the truth.

'I recognised the voice before I looked at him at all. And he has your hands; I shouldn't think anybody has ever spoken slightingly about those.'

'Confound it, Harriet! My one really shameful weakness. My most jealously guarded bit of personal conceit. Dragged into the light of day and remorsely exposed. I am idiotically proud of having inherited the Wimsey hands. My brother and my sister both missed them, but they go back in the family portraits for three hundred years.' His face clouded for a moment. 'I wonder all the strength hasn't been bred out of them by this time; our sands are running down fast. Harriet, will you come with me one day to Denver and see the place before the new civilisation grows in on it like the jungle? I don't want to go all Galsworthy about it. They'll tell you I don't care a damn for the whole outfit, and I don't know that I do. But I was born there, and I shall be sorry if I live to see the land sold for ribbon-building and the Hall turned over to a Hollywood Colour-Talkie king.'

'Lord Saint-George wouldn't do that, would he?'

'I don't know, Harriet. Why shouldn't he? Our kind of show is dead and done for. What the hell good does it do anybody these days? But he may care more than he thinks he does.'

'You care, don't you, Peter?'

'It's very easy for me to care, because I'm not called upon to do a hand's turn in the matter. I am the usual middle-aged prig, with an admirable talent for binding heavy burdens and laying them on other men's shoulders. Don't think I envy my nephew his job. I'd rather live at peace and lay my bones in the earth. Only I have a cursed hankering after certain musty old values, which I'm coward enough to deny, like my namesake of the Gospels. I never go home if I can help it, and I avoid coming here; the cocks crow too long and too loudly.'

'Peter, I'd no idea you felt like that. I'd like to see your home.'

'Would you? Then we'll go, one of these days. I won't inflict the family on you--though I think you'd like my Mother. But we'll choose a time when they're all away--except a dozen or so harmless dukes in the family vault. All embalmed, poor devils, to linger on dustily to the Day of Judgment. Typical, isn't it, of a family tradition that it won't even let you rot.'

Harriet could find nothing to say to him. She had fought him for five years, and found out nothing but his strength; now, within half an hour he had exposed all his weaknesses, one after the other. And she could not in honesty say: 'Why didn't you tell me before?' because she knew perfectly well what the answer ought to be. Fortunately, he did not seem to expect any comment.

'Great Scott!' was his next remark, 'Look at the time! You've let me maunder on, and we've never said a word about your problem.'

'I've been only too thankful to forget it for a bit.'

'I dare say you have,' he said, looking thoughtfully at her. 'Listen, Harriet, couldn't we make to-day a holiday? You've had enough of this blasted business. Come and be bothered with me for a change. It'll be a relief for you--like getting a nice go of rheumatism in exchange for toothache. Equally damnable, but different. I've got to go to this lunch-party, but it needn't take too long. How about a punt at 3 o'clock from Magdalen Bridge?'

'There'll be an awful crowd on the river. The Cherwell's not what it was, especially on a Sunday. More like Bank Holiday at Margate, with gramophones and bathing-dresses and everybody barging into everybody else.'

'Never mind. Let's go and do our bit of barging along with the happy populace. Unless you'd rather come in the car and fly with me to the world's end. But the roads will be worse than the river. And if we find a quiet spot, either I shall make a pest of myself or else we shall start on the infernal problem. There's safety in publicity.'

'Very well, Peter. We'll do exactly as you like.'

'Then we'll say Magdalen Bridge at three. Trust me, I'm not shirking the problem. If we can't see our way through it together, we'll find somebody who can. There are no seas innavigable nor lands unhabitable.'

He got up and held out a hand.

'Peter, what a rock you are! The shadow of a great rock in a weary land. My dear, what are you thinking about? One doesn't shake hands at Oxford.'

'The elephant never forgets.' He kissed her fingers gently. 'I have brought my formal cosmopolitan courtesy with me. My God! talk of courtesy--I'm going to be late for lunch.'

He snatched up cap and gown and was gone before she had time even to think of seeing him down to the Lodge.

'But it's just as well,' she thought, watching him run across the quad like an undergraduate, 'he hasn't too much time as it is. Bless the man, if he hasn't taken my gown instead of his own! Oh, well, it doesn't matter. We're much of a height and mine's pretty wide on the shoulders, so it's exactly the same thing.'

And then it struck her as strange that it should be the same thing.


Harriet smiled to herself as she went to change for the river. If Peter was keen on keeping up decayed traditions he would find plenty of opportunity by keeping to a pre-War standard of watermanship, manners and dress. Especially dress. A pair of grubby shorts or a faded regulation suit rolled negligently about the waist was the modern version of Cherwell fashions for men; for women, a sun-bathing costume with (for the tender-footed) a pair of gaily-coloured beach sandals. Harriet shook her head at the sunshine, which was now hot as well as bright. Even for the sake of startling Peter, she was not prepared to offer a display of grilled back and mosquito-bitten legs. She would go seemly and comfortable.

The Dean, meeting her under the beeches, gazed with exaggerated surprise at her dazzling display of white linen and pipe-clay.

'If this were twenty years ago I should say you were going on the river.'

'I am. Hand in hand with a statelier past.'

The Dean groaned gently. 'I'm afraid you are making yourself conspicuous. That kind of thing is not done. You are clothed, clean and cool. On a Sunday afternoon, too. I am ashamed of you. I hope, at least, the parcel under your arm contains the records of crooners.'

'Not even that,' said Harriet.

Actually, it contained her diary of the Shrewsbury scandal. She had thought that the best thing would be to let Peter take it away and study it for himself. Then he could decide what was best to be done about it.

She was punctual at the bridge, but found Peter there before her. His obsolete politeness in this respect was emphasised by the presence of Miss Flaxman and another Shrewsburian, who were sitting on the raft, apparently waiting for their escort, and looking rather hot and irritable. It amused Harriet to let Wimsey take charge of her parcel, hand her ceremoniously into the punt and arrange the cushions for her, and to know, by his ironical eyes, that he perfectly well understood the reason of her unusual meekness.

'Is it your pleasure to go up or down?'

'Well, going up there's more riot but a better bottom; going down you're right as far as the fork, and then you choose between thick mud and the Corporation dump.'

'It appears to be altogether a choice of evils. But you have only to command. My ear is open like a greedy shark to catch the tunings of a voice divine.'

'Great heavens! Where did you find that?'

'That, though you might not believe it, is the crashing conclusion of a sonnet by Keats. True, it is a youthful effort; but there are some things that even youth does not excuse.'

'Let us go down-stream. I need solitude to recover from the shock.'

He turned the punt out into the stream and shot the bridge accurately. Then:

'Admirable woman! You have allowed me to spread the tail of vanity before that pair of deserted Ariadnes. Would you now prefer to be independent and take the pole? I admit it is better fun to punt than to be punted, and that a desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.'

'Is it possible that you have a just and generous mind? I will not be outdone in generosity. I will sit like a perfect lady and watch you do the work. It's nice to see things well done.'

'If you say that, I shall get conceited and do something silly.'

He was, in fact, a pretty punter to watch, easy in action and quite remarkably quick. They picked their way at surprising speed down the crowded and tortuous stream until, in the narrow reach above the ferry, they were checked by another punt, which was clumsily revolving in mid-stream and cramming a couple of canoes rather dangerously against the bank.

'Before you come on this water,' cried Wimsey, thrusting the offenders off with his heel and staring offensively at the youth in charge (a stringy young man, naked to the waist and shrimp-pink with the sun) 'you should learn the rule of the river. Those canoes have the right of way. And if you can't handle a pole better than that, I recommend you to retire up the back-water and stay there till you know what God gave you feet for.'

Whereat a middle-aged man, whose punt was moored a little way farther on, turned his head sharply and cried in ringing tones:

'Good lord! Wimsey of Balliol!'

'Well, well, well,' said his lordship, abandoning the pink youth, and ranging up alongside the punt. 'Peake of Brasenose, by all that's holy. What brings you here?'

'Dash it,' said Mr. Peake, 'I live here. What brings you here is more to the point. You haven't met my wife--Lord Peter Wimsey, my dear--the cricket blue, you know. The rest is my family.'

He waved his hand vaguely over a collection of assorted offspring.

'Oh, I thought I'd look the old place up,' said Peter, when the introductions were completed all round. 'I've got a nephew here and all that. What are you doing? Tutor? Fellow? Lecturer?'

'Oh, I coach people. A dog's life, a dog's life. Dear me! A lot of water has flowed under Folly Bridge since we last met. But I'd have known your voice anywhere. The moment I heard those arrogant, off-hand, go-to-blazes tones I said, "Wimsey of Balliol." Wasn't I right?'

Wimsey shipped the pole and sat down.

'Have pity, old son, have pity! Let the dead bury their dead.'

'You know,' said Mr. Peake to the world at large, 'when we were up together--shocking long time ago that is--never mind! If anyone got landed with a country cousin or an American visitor who asked, as these people will, 'What is this thing called the Oxford manner?' we used to take 'em round and show 'em Wimsey of Balliol. He fitted in very handily between St. John's Gardens and the Martyrs' Memorial.'

'But suppose he wasn't there, or wouldn't perform?'

'That catastrophe never occurred. One never failed to find Wimsey of Balliol planted in the centre of the quad and laying down the law with exquisite insolence to somebody.'

Wimsey put his head between his hands.

'We were accustomed to lay bets,' went on Mr. Peake, who seemed to have preserved an undergraduate taste in humour, owing, no doubt, to continuous contact with First-Year mentality, 'upon what they would say about him afterwards. The Americans mostly said, "My, but isn't he just the perfect English aristocrat!" but some of them said, "Does he need that glass in his eye or is it just part of the costoom?"'

Harriet laughed, thinking of Miss Schuster-Slatt.

'My dear--' said Mrs. Peake, who seemed to have a kindly nature.

'The country cousins,' said Mr. Peake remorselessly, 'invariably became speechless and had to be revived with coffee and ices at Buol's.'

'Don't mind me,' said Peter, whose face was invisible except for the tip of a crimson ear.

'But you're wearing very well, Wimsey,' pursued Mr. Peake, benevolently. 'Kept your waist-line. Still good for a sprint between the wickets? Can't say I'm much use now, except for the Parents' Match, eh, Jim? That's what marriage does for a man--makes him fat and lazy. But you haven't changed. Not an atom. Not a hair. Absolutely unmistakable. And you're quite right about these louts on the river. I'm sick and tired of being barged into and getting their beastly punts over my bows. They don't even know enough to apologise. Think it's dashed funny. Stupid oafs. And gramophones bawling in your ears. And look at 'em! Just look at 'em! Enough to make you sick. Like the monkey-house at the Zoo!'

'Noble and nude and antique!' suggested Harriet.

'I don't mean that. I mean the pole-climbing. Watch that girl--hand over hand, up she goes! And turning round to shove as if she was trying to clear a drain. She'll be in if she isn't careful.'

'She's dressed for it.' said Wimsey.

'I'll tell you what,' said Mr. Peake, confidentially. 'That's the real reason for the costume. They expect to fall in. It's all right to come out with those beautiful creases down your flannels, but if you do go in it makes it all the funnier.'

'How true that is. Well, we're blocking the river. We'd better be getting on. I'll look you up one day, if Mrs. Peake will allow me. So long.'

The punts parted company.

'Dear me,' said Peter, when they were out of earshot; 'it's pleasant to meet old friends. And very salutary.'

'Yes; but don't you find it depressing when they go on making the same joke they were making about a hundred years ago?'

'Devilish depressing. It's the one great drawback to living in this place. It keeps you young. Too young.'

'It's rather pathetic, isn't it?'

The river was wider here, and by way of answer he bent his knees to the stroke, making the punt curtsey and the water run chuckling under the bows.

'Would you have your youth back if you could, Harriet?'

'Not for the world.'

'Nor I. Not for anything you could give me. Perhaps that's an exaggeration. For one thing you could give me I might want twenty years of my life back. But not the same twenty years. And if I went back to my twenties, I shouldn't be wanting the same thing.'

'What makes you so sure of that?' said Harriet, suddenly reminded of Mr. Pomfret and the pro-Proctor.

'The vivid recollection of my follies ... Harriet! Are you going to tell me that all young men in their twenties are not fools?' He stood, trailing the pole, and looking down at her; his raised eyebrows lent his face a touch of caricature.

'Well, well, well.... I hope it is not Saint-George, by the way. That would be a most unfortunate domestic complication.'

'No, not Saint-George.'

'I thought not; his follies are less ingenuous. But somebody. Well, I refuse to be alarmed, since you have sent him about his business.'

'I like the rapidity of your deductions.'

'You are incurably honest. If you had done anything drastic you would have told me so in your letter. You would have said, "Dear Peter, I have a case to submit to you; but before doing so I think it only right to inform you that I am engaged to Mr. Jones of Jesus." Should you not?'

'Probably. Should you have investigated the case all the same?'

'Why not? A case is a case. What is the bottom like in the Old River?'

'Foul. You're pulled back two strokes for every stroke you make.'

'Then we will stick to the New Cut. Well, Mr. Jones of Jesus has my sincere sympathy. I hope his troubles will not affect his class.'

'He is only in his Second Year.'

'Then he has time to get over it. I should like to meet him. He is probably the best friend I have in the world.'

Harriet said nothing. Peter's intelligence could always make rings round her own more slowly-moving wits. It was quite true that the spontaneous affections of Reggie Pomfret had, somehow, made it easier to believe that Peter's own feelings might be something more than an artist's tenderness for his own achievement. But it was indecent of Peter to reach that conclusion so rapidly. She resented the way in which he walked in and out of her mind as if it was his own flat.

'Good God!' said Peter, suddenly. He peered with an air of alarm into the dark green water. A string of oily bubbles floated slowly to the surface, showing where the pole had struck a patch of mud; and at the same moment their nostrils were assaulted by a loathsome stench of decay.

'What's the matter?'

'I've struck something horrible. Can't you smell it? It's scandalous the way corpses pursue me about. Honestly, Harriet ...'

'My dear idiot, it's only the corporation garbage dump.'

His eyes followed her pointing hand to the farther bank, where a cloud of flies circled about a horrid mound of putrefaction.

'Well, of all the--! What the devil do they mean by doing a thing like that?' He passed a wet hand across his forehead. 'For a moment I really thought I had run across Mr. Jones of Jesus. I was beginning to be sorry I had spoken so light-heartedly about the poor chap. Here! Let's get out of this!'

He drove the punt vigorously forward.

'The Isis for me. There is no romance left on this river.'
Report Spam   Logged

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Pages: [1]   Go Up
Jump to:  

Powered by EzPortal
Bookmark this site! | Upgrade This Forum
SMF For Free - Create your own Forum

Powered by SMF | SMF © 2016, Simple Machines
Privacy Policy