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Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room

BOOK: The Small Room

The Small Room

A Novel

May Sarton


“Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,

Or to keep off envies stinging,

And finde

What winde

Serves to advance an honest minde.”

John Donne


Lucy Winter sat in the train, swaying and rocking its way north from New York City, with a sense of achievement; the journey set a seal on the depressing limbo of the last months, the stifling summer in New York with her mother; already she sensed the change of air, the lift of autumn. There, out the window, she saw a streak of bright red through a maple. It flashed by like a sign or a symbol, the end of mourning her broken engagement, the actual vivid turn of a leaf toward her first teaching job.

Suddenly, by some trick of light, she was confronted by her own face, standing out enormous against a white farm and rocky pasture, as if a stranger had loomed up out of the New England landscape to stare at her. Was this stern character anyone she knew? She stared back, unsmiling, and judged what she saw: clear wide-apart gray eyes, a large rounded brow, mouth much too thin, soft brown hair held back in a loose knot. I look every inch a female professor, she thought with distaste. What had she got herself into? What indeed? She who had decided to do graduate work at Harvard, quite simply because John would be at the Medical School near by, she who had treated the Doctor's degree as a kind of private joke? No one could have been more serious, and at the same time less so … for she considered herself professionally out of the running, but she had loved the work itself. “This has been fun,” she said after the oral examination on her thesis. Dr. Winter indeed! Well, here she was, hoist with her own petard, on her way to Appleton of all places—the pristine well, the essence of female institutions of learning! How ironic can life get?

Fortunately she had been much too depressed when she had been interviewed for the job to consider the irony amusing; she had been properly serious. Also she had liked Miss Summerson, had liked her candid blue eyes, her shingled gray head with its aura of the twenties, her air of innocent enthusiasm that made it clear that Lucy would be entering an atmosphere rather different from laissez-faire sophisticated Harvard's. She had been asked searching questions. “You are not planning to marry in the immediate future?”

“I have just broken my engagement.”

“Oh, too bad.”

At the time Lucy had not found Miss Summerson's obvious relief amusing, but she did now. Then she had been raw, a monster of suffering and self-hatred. She had gone home, she remembered, and told her mother that she was about to be incarcerated, perhaps even for life, since the possibility of tenure in a year or so had been just hinted at. “We are rather a close community and the personal element counts. Whether you are happy with us, and how you get on the first year will show us the way.”

Lucy had repressed a smile; it did sound rather like a novitiate. Would she find she had a true vocation? Did she belong in this peculiar order?

Here in the train, on her way out of the tunnel of suffering and self-analysis, she could ask the question with a tremor of excitement. Her face had disappeared from the window, and she looked out at the villages with delight, the ancient brick factories, the white steeples, the differing arrangements of clapboard houses, chimneys, and lilac bushes. There was something peculiarly satisfying to her mind about the New England scene, the austerity and—yes—the elegance of it, she thought, as the train rushed past an open field with a single wine-glass elm standing alone among the goldenrod, a solitary splendor, a green fountain. Whatever Appleton might turn out to be, at least it was rooted in a landscape she found moving beyond her power to analyse. Her father had come from one of these little towns, perhaps that was partly why it felt like home, more than the big old-fashioned apartment on New York's West side where she had herself grown up, and where she had suffered from being the only child of a man too absorbed in his own work to be a father. It was perhaps significant that the long obituary in the
had failed (through some negligence) to mention his family, as if indeed she and her mother had been irrelevant to the implacable inner line, the endless search for more delicate methods in performing surgical operations on the heart. There had been hours lately when she had begun to miss acutely the father she never had; at the time of his death her love affair with John had shut out grief, had immunized her. Now that too was finished, she felt doubly deprived … now she had said goodbye to her obsessive passionate war with him, would she at last come to terms with her father? She held twenty-seven years of life in her hands. What would become of it? Of what use would it be?


Lucy was glad to leave her dreary room at the Faculty Club, leave the half-unpacked boxes of books and clothes, leave the ugly maple desk, and make her way across the campus to Hallie Summerson's for tea. At first glance the college bore little resemblance to her romantic image of what it might have been; there was only one beautiful building, Palladian white pillars and the echo of Greece in the pediment; it went back to the days of the seminary, had once been a church, and was now the library. The chapel was Gothic; stained-glass angels carried lilies in their hands, memorializing a student who died young. Most of the other buildings were a mortifying red brick with ugly slate roofs and narrow windows. But, as Lucy walked across the campus in the afternoon light, she saw that the anomalous collection of buildings was redeemed by the trees that wove their rich garlands, their splendid fountains and rococo arches in and out among the boring rectangular spaces, and gave the whole scene a kind of grace. She recognized Hallie Summerson's house in the distance—white, black, shutters, Gothic windows, so it had been described. To Lucy, in her unnerved state, it looked like a house in a fairy tale by Grimm, the scene of some dreadful confrontation. Would Carryl Cope be there, she wondered? Miss Summerson had murmured that she might be, and the murmur had been reverent. Appleton was a small enough college so that its stars burned with a peculiar ferocity. “Tiger, tiger, burning bright” … Miss Cope's reputation was of that brilliance, that magnitude. One had heard of her even if one's own subject was American literature and hers mediaeval history. She transcended her subject and the college. Odd that she had not chosen to teach in a university where she would have dealt with graduate students. As Lucy walked up the path, she wondered why; as she rang the bell, trembling absurdly, she remembered that Professor Cope was always dashing off on leave of absence to study Arabic or drive a jeep around Turkey exploring crusader castles—no doubt the powers at Appleton were indulgent to such excursions from academic routine.

The opening door interrupted these thoughts. Hallie Summerson welcomed her warmly, drew her into the parlor with one hand, and waved at a young couple with the other. “Here's Miss Winter, American literature. Mr. Atwood is doing his dissertation on Fielding. Do sit down, all of you!” She gestured vaguely at the various chairs, the small worn sofa, and disappeared into the kitchen.

The room, warmed by the September sunlight, was delightfully Victorian without self-consciousness; there were a few etchings and prints of cathedrals on the walls, and a death mask of Keats on the mantel. It felt like a room where thoughts could be spoken with ease, a room that could absorb shock.

“I feel awfully shy, don't you?” Lucy turned to Henry Atwood, sandy-haired, pink, who had been cracking his knuckles.

“Henry feels like a small cock in a yard of huge hens,” his wife answered for him. In knee-length socks, a blazer, and a pleated skirt, she looked absurdly young.

“It is rather a female institution, one gathers.”

“At least it's near Widener,” Henry explained, with a hunted smile. “We've been miles from a good library these years, and I do need books.”

The doorbell gave a loud peal, and since Miss Summersong did not appear, Lucy thought she had better answer its imperative summons.

“My name's Cope. Who are you?” Miss Cope uttered in one breath, just as Harriet Summerson dashed in with a tea pot in one hand and a hot water jug in the other.

“Come in, Carryl. This is Miss Winter, and Henry and Deborah Atwood, the new members of the department.”

Lucy had expected Carryl Cope to be huge (after all she was a monument, so to speak, already), and she was quite small. She had expected her to be handsome, and saw instead a faded yellowish face, fine hair like a child's, cut short, no make-up at all, eyes that narrowed rather than opened so one could not name their color, and a very pointed nose. She wore a crumpled seersucker suit and had, Lucy noted, small feet in elegant black slippers like a man's evening slippers.

“Sit down, you people!” Miss Summerson admonished them. “I just have to butter the muffins. Oh dear, there's the bell! Carryl, do go … I'll be back in half a second.…”

It was Professor Beveridge and his wife (Beveridge, Lucy seemed to remember, was Romance languages), and a Miss Finch whom Lucy could not place. Gentle and tentative, a braid of hair coiled round her head, she gravitated toward Carryl Cope. Maria Beveridge stood in the middle of the room like some huge plant from another zone; amply built, dark hair caught back in a barrette, dark eyes heavily shadowed, a wide bright mouth, a black dress—she was inescapably “foreign,” and Lucy was so absorbed in trying to decide Italian or Spanish, or what, that she hardly noticed Professor Beveridge himself until she realized that he had addressed her.

“I'm sorry. Did you ask me something?”

She saw that he was thin, tall, and faintly withered; his eyes were pale blue; the life of the face was gathered in their quick intense glance. Below them, the mouth drew itself down in a nervous tic, which Lucy did not find repellent.

“Oh,” she answered the repeated question, “yes, I'm terribly new here. It's my first day.”

“We'll temper the wind,” he said gravely.

“Is there a wind?” she asked, responding to the twinkle in his eye.

“Damn nonsense!” Carryl Cope's voice reached them from the embrasure of the window where she and Miss Finch had taken refuge. “Hallie!” she cried imperiously, “Where are you?”

“Coming,” Hallie Summerson appeared in the doorway, bearing a plate of English muffins. “You may well say, ‘at last'! You see, I burned the first batch. Do sit down, all of you.”

“What is all this I hear about appointing a resident psychiatrist? Jennifer has just been telling me about it. Those psychologists, I suppose. At it again!” Carryl Cope stood with her back to the fire and dominated the room, while she accepted the first cup of tea and drank it down in one gulp.

“Well, after all, ‘it' is their business, isn't it?” Hallie answered, unruffled. “But we are not going to talk shop, Carryl.” Lucy was amused at her firmness. “Have a muffin.”

“Oh? What are we going to talk about then? The price of putty?”

“I understand it is very expensive,” Jack Beveridge said.

There was a rippling smile. There was a pause. The room now seemed crowded, and when they did find chairs, Deborah Atwood chose the floor, where she looked more like an undergraduate than ever.

“Who is this child?” Miss Cope looked down at her with an air of unbelief.

“Deborah Atwood,” the child answered for herself.

“Are you to teach?”

“No, my husband—Henry is.”

“Oh, Mr. Atwood, assistant professor, of course.” And Carryl Cope turned to discover him, with obvious relief.

“I wish you would sit down, Carryl,” Harriet Summerson said.

“I like standing.”

“You tower enough as it is.”

“Don't be rude, Hallie. We have to impress these new professors.”

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