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Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (17 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“Hear, hear!” Jack said, too loudly.

Lucy was sorry for Blake, badgered by this group of high-powered individualists, and obviously exerting considerable self-control not to let out his suppressed irritation. He got up and walked over to the windows, then came back and sat down, learning forward. “I would feel very differently,” he said, “if any of the solutions before us seemed altogether right. But the hell of a situation like this is that there
no good solution. That being so, one looks then for the least damaging to all concerned.”

“That is what we did in the first place, isn't it?” Jennifer asked cautiously.

“Yes,” Blake sighed deeply. “I suppose we did.”

They had been voluble and now they were silent. A glum silence. Lucy felt the room had become a kind of airless prison. They were literally caught.

“But have we considered the possibility,” Miss Valentine offered, “that if the whole case is aired, the faculty and student government might vote
to expel Jane? We have taken it for granted that they would. I wonder why?”

“Because,” Jack said, springing back eagerly to his own position, “there is an immense amount of loose hostility and anger floating around against Carryl and against the kind of power she has exerted.”

“Still,” Jennifer lifted her chin a fraction, and looked out the window, “I feel we have to take that chance now. We have to defend Carryl openly, if we are to defend her at all.”

“I'm inclined to agree with you,” Blake said.

He is getting what he wants, Lucy thought, but for the wrong reasons. Should she speak out? “As far as Jane is concerned,” she said, taking the leap, “I think I can assure you that she herself would much rather have it this way, a ‘normal' punishment rather than the burden of ostracism, the unclarity of her own position.”

“Is that so?” Blake asked innocently.

“Good God, Blake, don't you have any idea what goes on?” Jack was really angry now. “That girl has been in hell. No wonder she needs a psychiatrist.”

“I may have been stupid, but I do not want to be shouted at, Jack.”

“I'm sorry,” Jack said, but not with a very good grace.

Lucy felt she was responsible for the truth now. “It is not what happened since the affair broke, it is what made Jane steal the essay in the first place that shows her need for help.” She looked anxiously from one to the other of these opinionated faces; even Jennifer looked adamant. They did not want to hear what she must say.

“Do go on, Dr. Winter,” the Dean pressed her.

The last thing Lucy wished was to play into Dean Valentine's hand, to justify old animosities, old struggles for power.

“I think I had better not,” she said, giving Hallie a desperate look.

“Dear Lucy,” Hallie said at once, “I think you must.”

And Jennifer added, “Lucy is in an extraordinary position, standing, as it were, in the crossfire. But Blake called us in, I believe, to try to get at the truth, am I right?”

“I had hoped for a discussion that might illuminate the essence, yes,” he said, looking depressed. “If you have some ideas about what is really involved here, I must ask you to speak.” He turned gravely and earnestly to Lucy. “We could hardly be in greater pain than we are,” he added with a saving smile.

“I'm scared.”

“Go on,” Jennifer prodded gently.

“Well,” Lucy swallowed and paused, then began in a rather stiff cold voice, “I think I
clear that Jane was put under more stress than she could stand. It looks to me as if she broke down not after the affair exploded, but that the real breakdown was clear in the act itself of stealing the Weil essay, and that she did it as a way out of unbearable pressure.” She paused, and heard the intent silence around her. It was frightening.

“You suggest that Professor Cope asked too much of Jane?” Dean Valentine asked.

“Perhaps that is what I mean,” Lucy faltered. “It's so very hard to be sure. But,” she took the plunge now and spoke quite fast, “there does seem to me a danger in setting such a very high premium on the outstanding student—outstanding intellectually—at the expense perhaps of other qualities. I do feel that it would have been more helpful in the long run if Jane had been steered toward some understanding of herself, and to be a little wary of her compulsive need to excel on one level only. Instead, she was forced like a plant in a hothouse, forced beyond her strength or her capacity.”

“Does she herself blame Professor Cope?” Blake asked. No one moved but the tension was unmistakable. Even Jennifer looked drawn.

Justice, Lucy thought, remembering the wind and the snow. What could she say? “Yes, she does. Whatever the basic conflict may be, Jane has projected it there at present And that means that Carryl Cope is the last person to be able to help her. Perhaps you are not aware that Professor Cope has invited Jane to join her in Italy this summer, with Olive Hunt.”

“Carryl has got herself in very deep, hasn't she?” Jennifer murmured, turning toward Hallie with a worried glance.

“Just a moment, please.” Blake dominated the group for the first time. “I want to get Miss Winter's full and complete view before we go any further. Your point, as I understand you, is that the college failed in this case by not becoming aware soon enough that she was pushing herself dangerously—compulsively, I suppose a psychiatrist would say? Do you feel that there is an overemphasis on intellectual achievement in the college as a whole? Is that the essence?”

“Oh, I don't know,” Lucy answered, quailing. “I'm much too new here to
anything of the sort.”

Jennifer came to the rescue. “The essence may be that this is the sort of case where a resident psychiatrist would have been apropos.”

Blake leaned back, a strange little smile hovering about his lips.

“We are being inexorably driven to the shearing,” he said. “Ah, that golden fleece!”

“It is what I have maintained for years,” Dean Valentine said.

Jennifer sat up very straight. Her arms gripped the arms of her chair. “If Lucy is right—and she has certainly given more to Jane Seaman, she, the newcomer, than any of the rest of us did or could—if Lucy is right, then a serious attack is being made on the values of this college. We are going to have to do some hard thinking.”

“Oh dear,” Lucy said, near to tears, “dear me …”

“You are getting your baptism of fire all right, my girl,” Jack said with a return to his old kindness. “I think it's high time we did some hard thinking. But I just can't see blaming Carryl for having pushed a brilliant student. If Jane couldn't measure up, that's surely not Carryl's fault. Jane's lack of balance probably stems from her unhappy family situation. What's wrong with us that we immediately put ashes on our heads and question our fundamental values because one student breaks down? Let's be realistic about this.”

“When one student breaks down, it is time to think, nevertheless,” Hallie said firmly.

“Yes.” Blake got up and walked over to the desk. “Yes,” he said again. Then he turned toward them, his kind strained face warmed by a smile. “I think I now have the sense of this meeting at last. With your permission, I am going to call the faculty and present Jane's case in the light of all we have been saying. I shall try to move away from the passions all this has aroused to the big questions that confront us. Thank you, Lucy Winter, for helping us to see our way.”

“You will talk this over with Carryl, Blake?” Jack asked anxiously. “You won't spring it on her?”

“I'll talk to Carryl and also to Olive,” Blake said decisively. Then he turned to Dean Valentine. “You are kind not to say ‘I told you so.'”

“Oh well—” The Dean got up and seemed warmer than she had ever appeared, and more natural. “All things happen in their own good time.”

“A sentiment of which Miss Wellington yonder would not approve. She was all for taking the times by storm,” Blake said, laughing. For a second they all turned toward the pale cold eyes that stared out of the portrait. Lucy was amused to detect something like a twinkle in them now, or so it seemed, so great was her own relief. “Thank you,” Blake turned and shook them each by the hand warmly, “this has been extremely helpful.”

But it is he, Lucy thought affectionately, who will bear the brunt of it.


Lucy was surprised and touched when she received a telephone call from Carryl Cope an hour after the fateful faculty meeting.

“We might as well make a tradition of this,” her voice had said, “come on over and have a martini. I need one and I suffer from the delusion that drinking alone is dangerous, while drinking
someone is safe; the reverse is probably the truth.”

“I'll be right over,” Lucy said. “I feel shaken.”

“Oh?” And Lucy could sense the shadowy smile that accompanied the query. “Well, come along then.”

Lucy was glad of the walk. It would clear her head. She was glad of the early dark under the bare creaking branches and the frost-bright sky; at an hour when she could hope to meet no one she knew. The faculty meeting had been a battering, shattering experience. Blake Tillotson had made valiant efforts to maintain a judicial tone, but it had been clear from the start that the anti-Cope faction was in no mood for calm, was determined to air its grievances, now the bottled-up poison could be released. There was talk of favoritism, of power usurped, of special privilege. And unfortunately anger had been met with anger. Jack Beveridge—where had his saving humor fled?—made a furious speech, flagrantly personal, attacking the opposition as “puerile and jealous.” He really seemed out of his senses, and it did not help to know that he was probably not so much furiously defending Carryl as furiously attacking Maria. The exhibition had been so painful that Carryl herself had been forced to rise and, with great dignity, set Jack's defense aside as irrelevant. How admirably she had behaved, Lucy thought! There was an example of mastery of stress, all right. In effect, she had abdicated, and because she did so, the final vote and its large majority was possible: the case would be sent to the student council (they were meeting this minute, Lucy realized, glancing at her watch) with a recommendation that Jane be expelled, but with an appending suggestion that there might be grounds for mercy, and that the door be left open for a possible reinstatement after a year. Perhaps, after all the noise and confusion, this was justice. But if so it was a justice so delayed, so poisoned by all that had preceded its definition, that there seemed to Lucy to be no relief in it.

After the vote, there was such a buzz that Blake had some difficulty in getting the faculty's attention and Lucy wondered if, in the excitement of the hour, they realized quite how momentous was the second item laid on the table. For Blake was asking that he be empowered to appoint a committee to look into the question of the appointment of a consulting psychiatrist to advise and counsel the students.

“I shall need your support to get such a suggestion past the trustees. It is a step, as I expect you all know, that they have consistently refused to sanction.” And he went on to point out that the Seaman case gave them opportunity for a new attack, since it might be posited that if Jane Seaman had had some help, she might not have been led into such a flagrant act, one which he found himself interpreting (perhaps overindulgently) as having been a cry of distress. “What is your pleasure?”

Carryl asked to be recognized immediately. She stood firm in her well-known view that it was ridiculous to employ a psychiatrist to do what any good teacher should be able to do. “If, as so many of you have made clear that you feel, I am responsible for the present mess, and for the confusion in a student's mind, if indeed I pushed her too hard—and because I too had some inklings of this, tried to defend her
I felt responsible—then I see no reason for throwing this responsibility away. I must presume that we are not incapable of learning by our mistakes. If I did not think so, I would feel forced to tender my resignation.”

This noble but rationally untenable position was, of course, attacked at once by several of the younger members. There was a roar of laughter when the old Professor of Mathematics rose to suggest that possibly a resident psychiatrist should be appointed to aid and comfort the faculty rather than the students. Jennifer's quiet authority opened the way to the final vote, one hundred and three to five in favor of the President's proposal. He had won the day, and—Lucy could not help thinking—lost the college a few sorely needed millions. How much did Carryl know about this? Everything, of course. How much had she been influenced by what she knew? The safe academic world was riddled with personal affairs, obviously. Passion reduced them all to childishness; it had been frightening to witness Jack Beveridge's disintegration. Was Carryl Cope herself not incorruptible?

Lucy could now see the lights in the upper windows of the old mansion. She felt acutely again the humiliation the faculty meeting must have meant for the woman up there; the little ironies, the overt resentment, these had been met with wonderful grace and self-control, but would there not be a reaction? She rang the bell, feeling dread and something like awe, not toward the famous Professor Cope, but toward the suffering, endearing, conflicted, noble human being. “I love her,” she thought, astonished at the intensity of the emotion she was experiencing.

And soon they were sitting again in the same two chairs where they had sat at the first interview so long ago. Carryl, seen against the drawn brocade curtains, looked like an old Cardinal, subtle, worldly, but at the same time, Lucy thought, behind that willed mask like a desperate fox with the pack after her.

“Blake is to call me when the verdict is in. It's a foregone conclusion, of course. But I do hate the suspense, just the same. And where is Jane now?” she asked, leaning forward, holding the martini glass so tightly in her two hands that it looked as if it might break.

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