Read The Small Room Online

Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (13 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“Oh democracy, the crimes that are committed in thy name!”

But suddenly Lucy met Pippa's honest gaze and felt ashamed. “You mustn't let me down.”

“I'm sorry. I am just not in a position to say very much.”

But this was a mistake, as Pippa's quick response made clear. “Of course everyone knows it's Professor Cope. Jane has always been her pet.”

This was something Lucy could not evade. “I would like to say one thing about Jane: whatever she did and for whatever stupid reasons or non-reasons, she
a brilliant student. This is not a case of a poor student trying to get by. Surely, Pippa, Jane is worth saving?”

“Oh, she's bright enough. But does that excuse a criminal? Do people who steal get let off because they're brilliant? You yourself said that stealing ideas was worse than stealing money!”

“I know,” Lucy said, miserably confused by this voice that insisted on saying aloud all her own doubts.

“You don't agree with Carryl Cope. You can't!”

“Well, I must admit that I am not sure what I think.” Lucy was abysmally aware of that. She was only making things worse every time she opened her mouth.

“It ought to come out into the open. It's bad for the college, all this whispering in corners. Do you think it helps Jane? No one speaks to her. She's an absolute pariah!”

“Is she?” This was news to Lucy. “Isn't there any faction on her side? Hasn't she talked to any of you about it?”

“She's never talked to us,” Pippa said bitterly. “Her roommate says she's never even cried.”

But now Lucy sat up straight and had something to say. “It takes some courage to face out the self-righteous indignation of your peers. My sympathy is with Jane.”

“I can't believe it,” Pippa said with dignity. “I just can't believe it,” she repeated, outrage written on her face.

“Well,” Lucy smiled, “you'll find out in time that you come to believe a lot of things you once said you couldn't believe.”

“Gosh, I think you're wonderful!” The radiant aura of love, spoken at last, surrounded Pippa and made Lucy flush. She had no idea why this sudden reversal from indignation to passionate approval, but it was certainly a relief.

“I feel like a perfect ass,” Lucy said.

And suddenly they both laughed. “Well, no one else admits it. One thing that enrages us is the solid smug front the faculty presents—as if there were a wall between us and them. You don't do that. You admit that you are confused.”

“Oh dear,” Lucy sighed, and lit a cigarette. She found undeserved praise sweet; she was grateful to Pippa, grateful for the trust that had given her courage to take the leap, after all. “It was good of you to come and talk to me, Pippa. But please remember that I am inexperienced and if I have doubts, they spring partly from lack of wisdom. I want you to know that I have the greatest respect for Professor Cope.”

“Please try to explain,” Pippa said, her eyes shining.

The walls have fallen, Lucy thought, moved in spite of herself. For she sensed that the intimacy which this painful interview was establishing between her and Pippa, far from feeding a “crush” as she had feared it would, was rooted now in mutual respect. “How are they to learn anything about feeling if they don't feel?” she heard Carryl Cope asking.

“When a student as brilliant as Jane does something so fantastically out of character as to steal a paper, and risk having it published to boot, what do you suppose motivates her?”

“I don't know,” Pippa wailed.

“Well, think. Here is a girl who has borne the full weight of belief, who has been constantly spurred by a tremendously powerful personality. Has it ever occurred to you that being ‘teacher's pet,' as you call it, may be a very demanding role to play? It's possible that Jane couldn't stand the strain this apparently fortunate relationship imposed. I have even imagined—this is pure guesswork—that she stole the essay with the unconscious hope that she would be discovered and so set free.” Lucy felt the weight of Pippa's concentrated attention now and trembled. What if she were wrong? “I have to trust you, Pippa, now. Don't you think that if you were Professor Cope and realized that you had laid a heavy burden on a very young person, had forced her perhaps beyond her strength, that you would wish to take the blame? And if you assumed that responsibility—surely not an ignoble act—would it not be a responsibility toward true justice, not just the pattern of custom or law? Would it be just to punish someone who, instead of punishment, was in dire need of help?”

While she spoke, Lucy had felt forced to get up, to move around. Now she stood opposite Pippa and gently laid a hand on the bent head.

“You make me ashamed,” Pippa said.

“I don't mean to. I've only tried to let you through the wall onto the other side.” And then, feeling that the atmosphere had been highly charged long enough, she added with a smile, “Maybe now you can take the message to Garcia—it
rather a jungle world you have to penetrate.”

“I wish you would talk to the student council,” Pippa said feverently. “I wish you would!”

“I'm sorry, but that would be to assume a function beyond my scope. Why don't you suggest to your roommate that she take the matter up with the President? That might help clear the air.”

“Yes,” Pippa sighed. “Oh, I feel so much better,” she added. “You can't imagine.”

“I feel better, too,” Lucy admitted. “You're a good girl, Pippa.”

At the door they shook hands warmly … like two human beings for a change, Lucy thought. And not for the first time that day, she caught herself wondering whether crisis may be one of the climates where education flourishes—a climate that forces honesty out, breaks down the walls of what ough to be, and reveals what
, instead.


On the Tuesday before the Thanksgiving break there was already departure in the air, as the clotted unity of the college became atomized into four or five hundred individuals each with a separate destination. Holidays, Lucy sensed, were dangerous; the careful threading together of each class, the continuity, all that had been built up day by day was shifting and would suddenly break apart. But if holidays were dangerous, they were also necessary, and especially this holiday which might divert the underground flow and discontent of spirit in which the college as a whole found itself.

Debby, inviting Lucy over for cocktails, had said, “We all need a drink!” and Lucy had heartily agreed. Now she enjoyed putting on a red dress, looking at herself in the mirror, a woman about to go forth and talk with her contemporaries for a change. It was a relief to saunter across campus, letting the reins she held so tightly slacken a little and tasting the slightly acid smell of the day, overcast but not cold, as if it were a cordial. I'm happy, she thought; in spite of everything, I'm happy. It was that pure happiness she recognized as a friend, happiness that comes from nowhere, for no reason, like a flash of sunlight, happiness made of nothing, a red dress, a party. Debby, who was outdoors raking leaves in the yard, waved. “I'll be right with you! Walk in …”

The Atwoods had painted the walls themselves, pale gray, streaked in spots, and Henry had put up shelves, long planks, with bricks for ends to hold some of the books; others were still piled on the floor; the furniture was a mixture of wicker garden furniture and shabby Victorian which they had no doubt picked up around Appleton; there was a bunch of chrysanthemums in a tall tin can. Lucy smiled as she noticed Henry's initials, wreathed in flowers, painted upon it.

“What a lot you've done, Debby!”

By the time the Beveridges arrived, bringing Jennifer Finch with them in their car, Henry had mixed a martini, and they settled in, whispering and cheeping, chattering and whistling like a flock of birds, as if they had not seen each other for years. They talked about colors for the room—Debby was still looking for curtain material—about the latest novels, about how much a really good stereo setup would cost.

“What a holiday feeling!” Lucy exclaimed, slipping off one shoe,

“You're going home?” Miss Finch asked, a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh yes,” Lucy sighed, deflated by the prospect. “It's rather dreary, as a matter of fact. Don't let's talk about that. I envy you people who really
here.” She turned to Henry. “Isn't it fun to be settling in, making the bookshelves, raking your own leaves?”

Earnestly shining, he agreed that it was.

Maria was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out before her, ankles crossed. “All I dream of is getting away to some warm place, of going to Italy, with all the children swarming in the back of the car.”

“Italy in November can hardly be called warm,” Jack said imperturably. “This is the season when your Italian friends dream about central heating, an apartment house in New York with low ceilings and no draughts.”

“Italy is warm to me at any season,” Maria answered shortly.

“Carryl's going over this summer, the lucky dog!” Jack's had been an innocent enough remark, but Lucy felt the tension gather at once. The sentence lay on the air while they all sniffed at it, and walked around it, their hackles rising.

“I don't care,” Maria burst out, “we've got to talk about it!”

“Do we have to, honey?” Jack murmured, but clearly without hope.

“I want to know what Jennifer thinks; the golden opportunity has arrived.” Maria was half laughing but the smouldering look had come back into her eyes.

“I too yearn to know,” Lucy said, turning toward Jennifer.

Jennifer sipped her drink as if she were considering it judicially, comparing it to other martinis, comparing this occasion to other occasions when martinis had been judged too dry or not quite dry enough. “I have an idea that the subject has become, for some occult reason, taboo.”

“It's gone underground to poison the roots,” Maria announced dramatically. “We all know that”

“There are times when I think Maria missed her vocation.” Jack, Lucy thought, was still trying to keep things from going the way they certainly would go, willy-nilly, at this point. “She should have been a tragic actress trouping round the world playing Medea!”

Debby and Henry exchanged a look of amusement and pleasure. They were immensely likable, yet Lucy sometimes thought they were a little like chameleons, always hoping to find the background against which they might rest and stay the same color. Would Appleton be it?

“But perhaps Maria is right,” Jennifer Finch remarked into the air. “Henry, let me congratulate you upon this martini. I pronounce it perfect.” There she sat, a purple velvet bow at her throat, a fine voile blouse under her lavender tweed, her face crumpled and dear as a pansy's, enjoying the moment and even its tension to the full, unwilling to take anything whatever with morbid seriousness. She addressed herself to Jack, “Can you remember any event on this campus in any way comparable to this, or creating around it the atmosphere of the last weeks? I must confess that I cannot. It would be foolish to pretend we are not disturbed: we are.”

“You've said it!” Jack answered with one of his lightning smiles.

“All I know,” Debby said, “is that someone stole a piece that was to come out in
Appleton Essays
. All I know is that all copies have been withdrawn and this has created a huge buzz.”

Jennifer Finch gave a sudden laugh, and then when she had thoroughly tasted her own amusement, laid it aside, and began to recite, “Teach me to heare Mermaids singing / Or to keep off envies stinging / and finde what winde / serves to advance an honest minde.” This recitation was followed by a deep sigh. “What wind serves to advance an honest mind?” she asked them.

“We attended a faculty meeting not long ago at which the main theme was, you may remember, ‘the price of excellence.'” Jack's tone was light. The woman is a genius, Lucy thought, for she was aware that Jennifer commanded the tone. “I suppose one might say of Carryl, bless her, that she is paying the price with a vengeance.”

“Whose excellence, her own or that of Jane Seaman?” Maria was not going to be quelled.

“Possibly both. Wouldn't you agree?” Jack turned to Jennifer again. “Wouldn't you say that Carryl in this instance is defending herself

“I would so much like to be pinned down, or rather to pin myself down, but the more I look at all sides of this, the less I seem able to make up my mind what is right, what is wrong, or rather what is possible and what is impossible, right
wrong. One might at times decide that Carryl may be right, but what she has done, impossible.”

“You reduce ethics to expediency, then?” Lucy asked.

“I am not quite ready to answer that cogent question.” Jennifer smiled her slow smile.

“But how can it be right to cover up a crime?” Debby cried out.

“First of all we would have to decide who had committed the crime, and then just what the crime was.”

“Yes!” Maria broke in triumphantly. “Yes, Jennifer, and the only possible explanation is that Carryl Cope herself feels guilty, and also that she is protecting an investment. She just can't admit that she has failed with Jane, failed abysmally, that the ugly duckling will never be a swan.”

“But why is that a crime?” Lucy asked. “I mean, is one never allowed to make a mistake in this sacred grove?”

Jack riposted at the same instant, so their voices mingled. “Maybe Jane will turn out to be a swan! Carryl is betting heavily on
, it seems to me!”

“Whereas,” Henry nodded eagerly, “Jane would be finished if she were expelled. And one hears that her family is no help. I feel sorry for her,” he added, rather shamefacedly. “One might say about Jane, too, is one never allowed to make a mistake?”

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