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Part 23


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« on: December 25, 2022, 11:44:10 pm »

The last refuge and surest remedy, to be put in practice in the utmost place, when no other means will take effect, is, to let them go together and enjoy one another; potissima cura est ut heros amasia sua potiatur, saith Guianerius.... Æsculapius himself, to this malady, cannot invent a better remedy, quam ut amanti cedat amatum ... than that a Lover have his desire.
   ---Robert Burton

There was no word from Peter in the morning. The Warden issued a brief and discreet announcement to the College that the offender had been traced and the trouble ended. The Senior Common Room, recovering a little from its shock, went quietly about the business of the term. They were all normal again. They had never been anything else. Now that the distorting-glass of suspicion was removed, they were kindly, intelligent human beings--not seeing, perhaps, very much farther beyond their own interests than the ordinary man beyond his job or the ordinary woman beyond her own household--but as understandable and pleasant as daily bread.

Harriet, having got Miss Lydgate's proofs off her mind, and feeling that she could not brace herself to deal with Wilfrid, took her notes on Lefanu, and went down to put in a little solid work at the Camera.

Shortly before noon, a hand touched her shoulder.

'They told me you were here,' said Peter. 'Can you spare a moment? We can go up on the roof.'

Harriet put down her pen and followed him across the circular chamber with its desks full of silent readers.

'I understand,' he said, pushing open the swing-door that leads to the winding staircase, 'that the problem is being medically dealt with.'

'Oh, yes. When the academic mind has really grasped a hypothesis--which may take a little time--it copes with great thoroughness and efficiency. Nothing will be overlooked.'

They climbed in silence, and came out at length through the little turret upon the gallery of the Camera. The previous day's rain had passed and left the sun shining upon a shining city. Stepping cautiously over the slatted flooring towards the south-east segment of the circle, they were a little surprised to come upon Miss Cattermole and Mr. Pomfret, who were seated side by side upon a stone projection and rose as they approached, in a flutter, like daws disturbed from a belfry.

'Don't move,' said Wimsey, graciously. 'Plenty of room for all of us.'

'It's quite all right, sir,' said Mr. Pomfret, 'We were just going. Really. I've got a lecture at twelve.'

'Dear me!' said Harriet, watching them disappear into the turret. But Peter had already lost interest in Mr. Pomfret and his affairs. He was leaning with his elbows on the parapet, looking down into Cat Street. Harriet joined him.

There, eastward, within a stone's throw, stood the twin towers of All Souls', fantastic, unreal as a house of cards, clear-cut in the sunshine, the drenched oval in the quad beneath brilliant as an emerald in the bezel of a ring. Behind them, black and grey, New College frowning like a fortress, with dark wings wheeling about her belfry louvres; and Queen's with her dome of green copper; and, as the eye turned southward, Magdalen, yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers; the Schools and the battlemented front of University; Merton, square-pinnacled, half-hidden behind the shadowed North side and mounting spire of St. Mary's. Westward again, Christ Church, vast between Cathedral spire and Tom Tower; Brasenose close at hand; St. Aldate's and Carfax beyond; spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills.

  Towery City, and branchy between towers,
  Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lack-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded,
  The dapple-eared lily below.


'Harriet,' said Peter; 'I want to ask your forgiveness for these last five years.'

'I think,' said Harriet, 'it ought to be the other way round.'

'I think not. When I remember how we first met--'

'Peter, don't think about that ghastly time. I was sick of myself, body and soul. I didn't know what I was doing.'

'And I chose that time, when I should have thought only of you, to thrust myself upon you, to make demands of you, like a damned arrogant fool--as though I had only to ask and have. Harriet, I ask you to believe that, whatever it looked like, my blundering was nothing worse than vanity and a blind, childish impatience to get my own way.'

She shook her head, finding no words.

'I had found you,' he went on, a little more quietly, 'beyond all hope or expectation, at a time when I thought no woman could ever mean anything to me beyond a little easy sale and exchange of pleasure. And I was so terrified of losing you before I could grasp you that I babbled out all my greed and fear as though, God help me, you had nothing to think of but me and my windy self-importance. As though it mattered. As though the very word of love had been the most crashing insolence a man could offer you.'

'No, Peter. Never that.'

'My dear--you showed me what you thought of me when you said you would live with me but not marry me.'

'Don't. I am ashamed of that.'

'Not so bitterly ashamed as I have been. If you knew how I have tried to forget it. I told myself that you were only afraid of the social consequences of marriage. I comforted myself with pretending that it showed you liked me a little. I bolstered up my conceit for months, before I would admit the humiliating truth that I ought to have known from the beginning--that you were sick of my pestering, that you would have thrown yourself to me as one throws a bone to a dog, to stop the brute from yelping.'

'Peter, that isn't true. It was myself I was sick of. How could I give you base coin for a marriage-portion?'

'At least I had the decency to know that I couldn't take it in settlement of a debt. But I have never dared to tell you what that rebuke meant to me, when at last I saw it for what it was.... Harriet; I have nothing much in the way of religion, or even morality, but I do recognise a code of behaviour of sorts. I do know that the worst sin--perhaps the only sin--passion can commit, is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell--there is no middle way.... Don't misunderstand me. I have bought it, often--but never by forced sale or at "stupendous sacrifice." ... Don't, for God's sake, ever think you owe me anything. If I can't have the real thing, I can make do with the imitation. But I will not have surrenders or crucifixions.... If you have come to feel any kindness for me at all, tell me that you would never make me that offer again.'

'Not for anything in the world. Not now or at any time since. It isn't only that I have found a value for myself. But when I made you the offer, it meant nothing to me--now it would mean something.'

'If you have found your own value,' he said, 'that is immeasurably the greatest thing.... It has taken me a long time to learn my lesson, Harriet. I have had to pull down brick by brick, the barriers I had built up by my own selfishness and folly. If, in all these years, I have managed to get back to the point at which I ought to have started, will you tell me so and give me leave to begin again? Once or twice in the last few days I have fancied that you might feel as though this unhappy interval might be wiped out and forgotten.'

'No; not that. But as though I could be glad to remember it.'

'Thank you. That is far more than I expected or deserved.'

'Peter--it's not fair to let you talk like this. It's I who ought to apologise. If I owe you nothing else, I owe you my self-respect. And I owe you my life--'

'Ah!' said he, smiling. 'But I have given you that back by letting you risk it. That was the last kick that sent my vanity out of doors.'

'Peter, I did manage to appreciate that. Mayn't I be grateful for that?'

'I don't want gratitude--'

'But won't you take it, now that I want to give it you?'

'If you feel that way about it, then I have no right to refuse. Let that clear all scores, Harriet. You have given me already far more than you know. You are free now and for ever, as far as I am concerned. You saw yesterday what personal claims might lead to--though I didn't intend you to see it in quite that brutal way. But if circumstances made me a little more honest than I meant to be, still, I did mean to be honest up to a point.'

'Yes,' said Harriet, thoughtfully. 'I can't see you burking a fact to support a thesis.'

'What would be the good? What could I ever have gained by letting you imagine a lie? I set out in a lordly manner to offer you heaven and earth. I find that all I have to give you is Oxford--which was yours already. Look! Go round about her and tell the towers thereof. It has been my humble privilege to clean and polish your property and present her for your inspection upon a silver salver. Enter into your heritage and do not, as is said in another connection, be afraid with any amazement.'

'Peter dear,' said Harriet. She turned her back upon the shining city, leaning back against the balustrade, and looking at him. 'Oh, damn!'

'Don't worry,' said Peter. 'It's quite all right. By the way, it looks as though it was Rome again for me next week. But I shan't leave Oxford till Monday. On Sunday there's a Balliol Concert. Will you come to it? We'll have one other gaudy night, and comfort our souls with the Bach Concerto for two violins. If you will bear with me so far. After that, I shall be clearing off and leaving you--'

'To Wilfrid and Co.,' said Harriet, in a kind of exasperation.

'Wilfrid?' said Peter, momentarily at a loss, with his mind scampering after rabbits.

'Yes. I'm rewriting Wilfrid.'

'Good God, yes. The chap with the morbid scruples. How's he getting on?'

'He's better, I think. Almost human. I shall have to dedicate the book to you, I think. "To Peter, who made Wilfrid what he is"--that sort of thing.... Don't laugh like that. I'm really working at Wilfrid.'

For some reason, that anxious assurance shook him as nothing else had done.

'My dear--if anything I have said ... If you have let me come as far as your work and your life ... Here! I think I'd better remove myself before I do anything foolish.... I shall be honoured to go down to posterity in the turn-up of Wilfrid's trouser.... You will come on Sunday? I am dining with the Master, but I will meet you at the foot of the stairs.... Till then.'

He slipped away along the gallery and was gone. Harriet was left to survey the kingdom of the mind, glittering from Merton to Bodley, from Carfax to Magdalen Tower. But her eyes were on one slight figure that crossed the cobbled Square, walking lightly under the shadow of St. Mary's into the High. All the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.

---

Masters, undergraduates, visitors; they sat huddled closely together on the backless oak benches, their elbows on the long tables, their eyes shaded with their fingers, or turned intelligently towards the platform where two famous violinists twisted together the fine, strong strands of the Concerto in D Minor. The Hall was very full; Harriet's gowned shoulder, touched her companion's, and the crescent of his long sleeve lay over her knee. He was wrapt in the motionless austerity with which all genuine musicians listen to genuine music. Harriet was musician enough to respect this aloofness; she knew well enough that the ecstatic rapture on the face of the man opposite meant only that he was hoping to be thought musical, and that the elderly lady over the way, waving her fingers to the beat, was a musical moron. She knew enough, herself, to read the sounds a little with her brains, laboriously unwinding the twined chains of melody link by link. Peter, she felt sure, could hear the whole intricate pattern, every part separately and simultaneously, each independent and equal, separate but inseparable, moving over and under and through, ravishing heart and mind together.

She waited till the last movement had ended and the packed hall was relaxing its attention in applause.

'Peter--what did you mean when you said that anybody could have the harmony if they would leave us the counterpoint?'

'Why,' said he, shaking his head, 'that I like my music polyphonic. If you think I meant anything else, you know what I meant.'

'Polyphonic music takes a lot of playing. You've got to be more than a fiddler. It needs a musician.'

'In this case, two fiddlers--both musicians.'

'I'm not much of a musician, Peter.'

'As they used to say in my youth: "All girls should learn a little music--enough to play a simple accompaniment." I admit that Bach isn't a matter of an autocratic virtuoso and a meek accompanist. But do you want to be either? Here's a gentleman coming to sing a group of ballads. Pray silence for the soloist. But let him be soon over, that we may hear the great striding fugue again.'

---

The final Chorale was sung, and the audience made their way out. Harriet's way lay through the Broad Street gate; Peter followed through the quad.

'It's a beautiful night--far too good to waste. Don't go back yet. Come down to Magdalen Bridge and send your love to London River.'

They turned along the Broad in silence, the light wind fluttering their gowns as they walked.

'There's something about this place,' said Peter presently, 'that alters one's values.' He paused, and added a little abruptly: 'I have said a good deal to you one way and another, lately; but you may have noticed that since we came to Oxford I have not asked you to marry me.'

'Yes,' said Harriet, her eyes fixed upon the severe and delicate silhouette of the Bodleian roof, just emerging between the Sheldonian and Clarendon Building. 'I had noticed it.'

'I have been afraid,' he said simply; 'because I knew that from anything you said to me here, there could be no going back.... But I will ask you now, and if you say No, I promise you that this time I will accept your answer. Harriet; you know that I love you: will you marry me?'

The traffic lights winked at the Holywell Corner: Yes; No; Wait. Cat Street was crossed and the shadows of New College walls had swallowed them up before she spoke:

'Tell me one thing, Peter. Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?'

'Desperately?... My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.'

They passed beneath the arch of the bridge and out into the pale light once more.

'Peter!'

She stood still; and he stopped perforce and turned towards her. She laid both hands upon the fronts of his gown, looking into his face while she searched for the word that should carry her over the last difficult breach.

It was he who found it for her. With a gesture of submission he bared his head and stood gravely, the square cap dangling in his hand.

'Placetne, magistra?'

'Placet.'


The Proctor, stumping grimly past with averted eyes, reflected that Oxford was losing all sense of dignity. But what could he do? If Senior Members of the University chose to stand--in their gowns, too!--closely and passionately embracing in New College Lane right under the Warden's windows, he was powerless to prevent it. He primly settled his white band and went upon his walk unheeded; and no hand plucked his velvet sleeve.

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