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Part 22 B

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« on: December 25, 2022, 09:50:17 pm »

'Good gracious!' exclaimed Miss Pyke.

'--you must be expected to be thought a womanly woman. However; that is of no great importance. I fear the illusion was destroyed when you publicly informed me that personal attachments must come second to public duties.'

'But,' said Miss Edwards, impatiently, 'what happened to Arthur Robinson?'

'He was married to a woman called Charlotte Ann Clarke, who had been his landlady's daughter. His first child, born eight years ago, was called Beatrice. After the trouble at York, he changed his name to Wilson and took a post as junior master in a small preparatory school, where they didn't mind taking a man who had been deprived of his M.A., so long as he was cheap. His second daughter, born shortly afterwards, was named Carola. I'm afraid the Wilsons didn't find life too easy. He lost his first job--drink was the reason, I'm afraid--took another--got into trouble again and three years ago blew his brains out. There were photographs in the local paper. Here they are, you see. A fair, handsome man of about thirty-eight--irresolute, attractive, something of my nephew's type. And here is the photograph of the widow.'

'You are right,' said the Warden. 'That is Annie Wilson.'

'Yes. If you read the report of the inquest, you will see that he left a letter, saying that he had been hounded to death--rather a rambling letter, containing a Latin quotation, which the coroner translated.'

'Good gracious!' said Miss Pyke. 'Tristius haud illis monstrum--'

'Ita. A man wrote that after all; you see; so Miss Hillyard was so far right. Annie Wilson, being obliged to do something to support her children and herself, went into service.'

'I had very good references with her,' said the Bursar.

'No doubt; why not? She must somehow have kept track of Miss de Vine's movements; and when the appointment was announced last Christmas, she applied for a job here. She probably knew that, as an unfortunate widow with two small children, she would receive kindly consideration--'

'What did I tell you?' cried Miss Hillyard. 'I always said that this ridiculous sentimentality about married women would be the ruin of all discipline in this College. Their minds are not, and cannot be, on their work.'

'Oh, dear!' said Miss Lydgate. 'Poor soul! brooding over that grievance in this really unbalanced way! If only we had known, we could surely have done something to make her see the thing in a more rational light. Did it never occur to you, Miss de Vine, to inquire what happened to this unhappy man Robinson?'

'I am afraid it did not.'

'Why should you?' demanded Miss Hillyard.

The noise in the coal-cellar had ceased within the last few minutes. As though the silence had roused a train of association in her mind, Miss Chilperic turned to Peter and said, hesitatingly:

'If poor Annie really did all these dreadful things, how did she get shut up in the coal-hole?'

'Ah!' said Peter. 'That coal-hole very nearly shook my faith in my theory; especially as I didn't get the report from my research-staff till yesterday. But when you come to think of it, what else could she do? She laid a plot to attack Miss de Vine on her return from Town--the scouts probably knew which train she was coming by.'

'Nellie knew,' said Harriet.

'Then she could have told Annie. By an extraordinary piece of good fortune, the attack was delivered--not against Miss de Vine, who would have been taken unawares and whose heart is not strong, but against a younger and stronger woman, who was, up to a certain point, prepared to meet it. Even so, it was serious enough, and might easily have proved fatal. I find it difficult to forgive myself for not having spoken earlier--with or without proof--and put the suspect under observation.'

'Oh, nonsense!' said Harriet, quickly. 'If you had, she might have chucked the whole thing for the rest of the term, and we should still not know anything definite. I wasn't much hurt.'

'No. But it might not have been you. I knew you were ready to take the risk; but I had no right to expose Miss de Vine.'

'It seems to me,' said Miss de Vine, 'that the risk was rightly and properly mine.'

'The worst responsibility rests on me,' said the Warden. 'I should have telephoned the warning to you before you left Town.'

'Whose-ever fault it was,' said Peter, 'it was Miss Vane who was attacked. Instead of a nice, quiet throttling, there was a nasty fall and a lot of blood, some of which, no doubt, got on to the assailant's hands and dress. She was in an awkward position. She had got the wrong person, she was bloodstained and dishevelled, and Miss de Vine or somebody else might arrive at any moment. Even if she ran quickly back to her own room, she might be seen--her uniform was stained--and when the body was found (alive or dead) she would be a marked woman. Her only possible chance was to stage an attack on herself. She went out through the back of the loggia, threw herself into the coal-cellar, locked the door on herself and proceeded to cover up Miss Vane's blood-stains with her own. By the way, Miss Vane, if you remembered anything of your lesson, you must have marked her wrists for her.'

'I'll swear I did,' said Harriet.

'But any amount of bruising may be caused by trying to scramble through a ventilator. Well. The evidence, you see, is still circumstantial--even though my nephew is prepared to identify the woman he saw crossing Magdalen Bridge on Wednesday with the woman he met in the garden. One can catch a Headington bus from the other side of Magdalen Bridge. Meanwhile, you heard this fellow in the cellarage? If I am not mistaken, somebody is arriving with something like direct proof?'

A heavy step in the passage was followed by a knock on the door; and Padgett followed the knock almost before he was told to come in. His clothes bore traces of coal-dust, though some hasty washing had evidently been done to his hands and face.

'Excuse me, madam Warden, miss,' said Padgett. 'Here you are, Major. Right down at the bottom of the 'eap. 'Ad to shift the whole lot, I had.'

He laid a large key on the table.

'Have you tried it in the cellar-door?'

'Yes, sir. But there wasn't no need. Ere's my label on it, "Coal-cellar"--see?'

'Easy to lock yourself in and hide the key. Thank you, Padgett.'

'One moment, Padgett,' said the Warden. 'I want to see Annie Wilson. Will you please find her and bring her here.'

'Better not,' said Wimsey, in a low tone.

'I certainly shall,' said the Warden, sharply. 'You have made a public accusation against this unfortunate woman, and it is only right that she should be given an opportunity to answer it, Bring her here at once, Padgett.'

Peter's hands made a last eloquent gesture of resignation as Padgett went out.

'I think it is very necessary,' said the Bursar, 'that this matter should be cleared up completely and at once.'

'Do you really think it wise, Warden?' asked the Dean.

'Nobody shall be accused in this College,' said the Warden, 'without a hearing. Your arguments, Lord Peter, appear to be most convincing; but the evidence may bear some other interpretation. Annie Wilson is, no doubt, Charlotte Ann Robinson; but it does not follow that she is the author of the disturbances. I admit that appearances are against her, but there may be falsification or coincidence. The key, for example, may have been put into the coal-cellar at any time within the last three days.'

'I have been down to see Jukes,' began Peter; when the entrance of Annie interrupted him. Neat and subdued as usual, she approached the Warden:

'Padgett said you wished to see me, madam.' Then her eye fell on the newspaper spread out upon the table, and she drew in her breath with a long, sharp hiss, while her eyes went round the room like the eyes of a hunted animal.

'Mrs. Robinson,' said Peter, quickly and quietly. 'We can quite understand how you came to feel a grievance--perhaps a justifiable grievance--against the person responsible for the sad death of your husband. But how could you bring yourself to let your children help you to prepare those horrible messages? Didn't you realise that if anything had happened they might have been called upon to bear witness in court?'

'No, they wouldn't,' she said quickly. 'They knew nothing about it. They only helped to cut out the letters. Do you think I'd let them suffer?... My God! You can't do that.... I say you can't do it.... You beasts, I'd kill myself first.'

'Annie,' said Dr. Baring, 'are we to understand that you admit being responsible for all these abominable disturbances? I sent for you in order that you might clear yourself of certain suspicions which--'

'Clear myself! I wouldn't trouble to clear myself. You smug hypocrites--I'd like to see you bring me into court. I'd laugh in your faces. How would you look, sitting there while I told the judge how that woman there killed my husband?'

'I am exceedingly disturbed,' said Miss de Vine, 'to hear about all this. I knew nothing of it till just now. But indeed I had no choice in the matter. I could not foresee the consequences--and even if I had--'

'You wouldn't have cared. You killed him and you didn't care. I say you murdered him. What had he done to you? What harm had he done to anybody? He only wanted to live and be happy. You took the bread out of his mouth and flung his children and me out to starve. What did it matter to you? You had no children. You hadn't a man to care about. I know all about you. You had a man once and you threw him over because it was too much bother to look after him. But couldn't you leave my man alone? He told a lie about somebody else who was dead and dust hundreds of years ago. Nobody was the worse for that. Was a dirty bit of paper more important than all our lives and happiness? You broke him and killed him--all for nothing. Do you think that's a woman's job.'

'Most unhappily,' said Miss de Vine, 'it was my job.'

'What business had you with a job like that? A woman's job is to look after a husband and children. I wish I had killed you. I wish I could kill you all. I wish I could burn down this place and all the places like it--where you teach women to take men's jobs and rob them first and kill them afterwards.'

She turned to the Warden.

'Don't you know what you're doing? I've heard you sit round snivelling about unemployment--but it's you, it's women like you who take the work away from the men and break their hearts and lives. No wonder you can't get men for yourselves and hate the women who can. God keep the men out of your hands, that's what I say. You'd destroy your own husbands, if you had any, for an old book or bit of writing.... I loved my husband, and you broke his heart. If he'd been a thief or a murderer, I'd have loved him and stuck to him. He didn't mean to steal that old bit of paper--he only put it away. It made no difference to anybody. It wouldn't have helped a single man or woman or child in the world--it wouldn't have kept a cat alive; but you killed him for it.'

Peter had got up and stood behind Miss de Vine, with his hand over her wrist. She shook her head. Immovable, implacable, thought Harriet; this won't make her pulse miss a single beat. The rest of the Common-Room looked merely stunned.

'Oh, no!' said Annie, echoing Harriet's thoughts. 'She feels nothing. None of them feel anything. You brazen devils--you all stand together. You're only frightened for your skins and your miserable reputations. I scared you all, didn't I? God! how I laughed to see you all look at one another! You didn't even trust each other. You can't agree about anything except hating decent women and their men. I wish I'd torn the throats out of the lot of you. It would have been too good for you, though. I wanted to see you thrown out to starve, like us. I wanted to see you all dragged into the gutter. I wanted to see you--you--sneered at and trampled on and degraded and despised as we were. It would do you good to learn to scrub floors for a living as I've done, and use your hands for something, and say "madam" to a lot of scum.... But I made you shake in your shoes, anyhow. You couldn't even find out who was doing it--that's all your wonderful brains come to. There's nothing in your books about life and marriage and children, is there? Nothing about desperate people--or love--or hate or anything human. You're ignorant and stupid and helpless. You're a lot of fools. You can't do anything for yourselves. Even you, you silly old hags--you had to get a man to do your work for you.

'You brought him here.' She leaned over Harriet with her fierce eyes, as though she would have fallen on her and torn her to pieces. 'And you're the dirtiest hypocrite of the lot. I know who you are. You had a lover once, and he died. You chucked him out because you were too proud to marry him. You were his mistress and you sucked him dry, and you didn't value him enough to let him make an honest woman of you. He died because you weren't there to look after him. I suppose you'd say you loved him. You don't know what love means. It means sticking to your man through thick and thin and putting up with everything. But you take men and use them and throw them away when you've finished with them. They come after you like wasps round a jam-jar, and then they fall in and die. What are you going to do with that one there? You send for him when you need him and do your dirty work, and when you've finished with him you'll get rid of him, you don't want to cook his meals and mend his clothes and bear his children like a decent woman. You'll use him, like any other tool, to break me. You'd like to see me in prison and my children in a home, because you haven't the guts to do your proper job in the world. The whole bunch of you together haven't flesh and blood enough to make you fit for a man. As for you--'

Peter had come back to his place and was sitting with his head in his hands. She went over and shook him furiously by the shoulder, and as he looked up, spat in his face. 'You! you dirty traitor! You rotten little white-faced rat! It's men like you that make women like this. You don't know how to do anything but talk. What do you know about life with your title and your money and your clothes and motor-cars? You've never done a hand's turn of honest work. You can buy all the women you want. Wives and mothers may rot and die for all you care, while you chatter about duty and honour. Nobody would sacrifice anything for you--why should they? That woman's making a fool of you and you can't see it. If she marries you for your money she'll make a worse fool of you, and you'll deserve it. You're fit for nothing but to keep your hands white and father other men's children.... What are you going to do now, all of you? Run away and squeal to the magistrate because I made fools of you all? You daren't. You're afraid to come out into the light. You're afraid for your precious college and your precious selves. I'm not afraid. I did nothing but stand up for my own flesh and blood. Damn you! I can laugh at you all! You daren't touch me. You're afraid of me. I had a husband and I loved him--and you were jealous of me and you killed him. Oh, God! You killed him among you, and we never had a happy moment again.'

She suddenly burst out crying--half dreadful and half grotesque, with her cap crooked and her hands twisting her apron into a knot.

'For Heaven's sake,' muttered the Dean, desperately, 'can't this be stopped?'

Here Miss Barton got up.

'Come, Annie,' she said, briskly. 'We are all very sorry for you, but you mustn't behave in this foolish and hysterical way. What would the children think if they saw you now? You had better come and lie down quietly and take some aspirin. Bursar! will you please help me out with her?'

Miss Stevens, galvanised, got up and took Annie's other arm, and all three went out together. The Warden turned to Peter, who stood mechanically wiping his face with his handkerchief and looking at nobody.

'I apologise for allowing this scene to take place. I ought to have known better. You were perfectly right.'

'Of course he was right!' cried Harriet. Her head was throbbing like an engine. 'He's always right. He said it was dangerous to care for anybody. He said love was a brute and a devil. You're honest, Peter, aren't you? Damned honest--Oh, God! let me get out of here. I'm going to be sick.'

She stumbled blindly against him as he held the door open for her, and he had to steer her with a firm hand to the cloakroom door. When he came back, the Warden had risen, and the dons with her. They looked stupefied with the shock of seeing so many feelings stripped naked in public.

'Of course, Miss de Vine,' the Warden was saying, 'no sane person could possibly think of blaming you.'

'Thank you, Warden,' said Miss de Vine. 'Nobody, perhaps, but myself.'

'Lord Peter,' said the Warden, 'a little later on, when we are all feeling more ourselves, I think we should all like to say--'

'Please don't,' said he. 'It doesn't matter at all.'

The Warden went out, and the rest followed her like mutes at a funeral, leaving only Miss de Vine, sitting solitary beneath the window. Peter shut the door after them and came up to her. He was still passing his handkerchief across his mouth. Becoming aware of this, he tossed the linen into the waste-paper basket.

'I do blame myself,' said Miss de Vine less to him than to herself. 'Most bitterly. Not for my original action, which was unavoidable, but for the sequel. Nothing you can say to me could make me feel more responsible than I do already.'

'I can have nothing to say,' said he. 'Like you and every member of this Common Room, I admit the principle and the consequences must follow.'

'That won't do,' said the Fellow, bluntly. 'One ought to take some thought for other people. Miss Lydgate would have done what I did in the first place; but she would have made it her business to see what became of that unhappy man and his wife.'

'Miss Lydgate is a very great and a very rare person. But she could not prevent other people from suffering for her principles. That seems to be what principles are for, somehow.... I don't claim, you know,' he added, with something of his familiar diffidence, 'to be a Christian or anything of that kind. But there's one thing in the Bible that seems to me to be a mere statement of brutal fact--I mean, about bringing not peace but a sword.'

Miss de Vine looked up at him curiously.

'How much are you going to suffer for this?'

'God knows,' he said. 'That's my look out. Perhaps not at all. In any case, you know, I'm with you--every time.'

When Harriet emerged from the cloakroom, she found Miss de Vine alone.

'Thank Heaven, they've gone,' said Harriet. 'I'm afraid I made an exhibition of myself. It was rather--shattering, wasn't it? What's happened to Peter?'

'He's gone,' said Miss de Vine.

She hesitated, and then said:

'Miss Vane--I've no wish to pry impertinently into your affairs. Stop me if I'm saying too much. But we have talked a good deal about facing the facts. Isn't it time you faced the facts about the man?'

'I have been facing one fact for some time,' said Harriet, staring out with unseeing eyes into the quad, 'and that is, that if I once gave way to Peter, I should go up like straw.'

'That,' said Miss de Vine drily, 'is moderately obvious. How often has he used that weapon against you?'

'Never,' said Harriet, remembering the moments when he might have used it. 'Never.'

'Then what are you afraid of? Yourself?'

'Isn't this afternoon warning enough?'

'Perhaps. You have had the luck to come up against a very unselfish and a very honest man. He has done what you asked him without caring what it costs him and without shirking the issue. He hasn't tried to disguise the facts or bias your judgment. You admit that, at any rate.'

'I suppose he realised how I should feel about it?'

'Realised it?' said Miss de Vine, with a touch of irritation. 'My dear girl, give him the credit for the brains he's got. They are very good ones. He is painfully sensitive and far more intelligent than is good for him. But I really don't think you can go on like this. You won't break his patience or his control or his spirit; but you may break his health. He looks like a person pushed to the last verge of endurance.'

'He's been rushing about and working very hard,' said Harriet, defensively. 'I shouldn't be at all a comfortable person for him to live with. I've got a devilish temper.'

'Well, that's his risk, if he likes to take it. He doesn't seem to lack courage.'

'I should only make his life a misery.'

'Very well. If you are determined that you're not fit to black his boots, tell him so and send him away.'

'I've been trying to send Peter away for five years. It doesn't have that effect on him.'

'If you had really tried, you could have sent him away in five minutes.... Forgive me. I don't suppose you've had a very easy time with yourself. But it can't have been easy for him, either--looking on at it, and quite powerless to interfere.'

'Yes. I almost wish he had interfered, instead of being so horribly intelligent. It would be quite a relief to be ridden over rough-shod for a change.'

'He will never do that. That's his weakness. He'll never make up your mind for you. You'll have to make your own decisions. You needn't be afraid of losing your independence; he will always force it back on you. If you ever find any kind of repose with him, it can only be the repose of very delicate balance.'

'That's what he says himself. If you were me, should you like to marry a man like that?'

'Frankly,' said Miss de Vine, 'I should not. I would not do it for any consideration. A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.'

'I know. And I don't think I can stand being hurt any more.'

'Then,' said Miss de Vine, 'I suggest that you stop hurting other people. Face the facts and state a conclusion. Bring a scholar's mind to the problem and have done with it.'

'I believe you're quite right,' said Harriet. 'I will. And that reminds me. Miss Lydgate's History of Prosody was marked PRESS with her own hand this morning. I fled with it and seized on a student to take it down to the printers. I'm almost positive I heard a faint voice crying from the window about a footnote on page 97--but I pretended not to hear.'

'Well,' said Miss de Vine, laughing, 'thank goodness, that piece of scholarship has achieved a result at last!'
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