Read The Small Room Online

Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (18 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“She's with Hallie, or will be after her session with the student council, poor kid. Hallie invited her over for the night. Oh, what a good person she is!”

Carryl sipped her drink, set the glass down. “Yes,” she gave a long sigh.

“Do you remember,” she fixed Lucy with a bright mocking eye, “when you first sat in that chair, you remarked what a safe little world this college world seemed to you?” She threw back her head and laughed, a loud boisterous laugh with an echo of desperation in it.

“I was a fool, still am. But at least I've learned that it's not at all safe.”

“Olive will change her will,” Carryl said on the current of her own thoughts. “That's the worst of all this. No …” she corrected herself, “Jane and Jane's state is the worst. But that is the next worst.”

“Mightn't she change her mind?”

“She might … I rather think she won't.”

“She is difficult,” Lucy said too quickly.

“I can't talk about Olive.” Carryl Cope got up and went to her desk.

“I'm sorry.”

“Not your fault. Mine. Has it occurred to you that this curious affair has rocked personal lives as well as the public estate?” Carryl was fussing about with papers, her back to Lucy.

“Yes. I suppose you know that Jack's intemperate speech came out of his personal life; he and Maria are at sword's points.”

But it was clear by the way Carryl turned and stared that this was news to her. “He certainly cooked my goose, that funny, dear, impossible creature. It's terrible when a New Englander loses his sense of humor; the raw nerve shows.”

“It was awful,” Lucy assented. “But you were magnificent. I must say I thought you were simply magnificent.”

“One can rise to the occasion,” Carryl said bitterly. “It's the old ham actor concealed within every professor. But I seem to fall down in the long run.” She came back and sat down. “Heaven knows why I talk to you like this.” She gave Lucy a piercing glance. “Queer that you should find yourself in the position of a general father confessor. I understand you took Jane home for the weekend; you seem to know all about the Beveridges … you are a rather formidable person, Dr. Winter.”

Lucy felt miserable under the barb. “I know,” she said, blushing furiously. “It's all a mistake. I mean, I just happened to be around when various things happened …” The explanation sounded ludicrous, and they both burst into spontaneous laughter. Once she had begun, Lucy simply could not stop. Tears started out of her eyes and she wiped them off, still swept by gusts of laughter. “How wonderful to laugh for a change!”

“I suppose,” Carryl said thoughfully when this fit had subsided, “that you were in the position of being able to move about freely among the hierarchies of this semi-fossilized world; fresh, flowing, and human. You know, Lucy, it is a pity that you may not continue to teach. You seem to have a certain genius for it.”

“I don't know yet,” Lucy answered. “I feel I know nothing about anything, least of all myself. Do you remember saying in this room that first time, ‘How are they going to learn anything about feeling if they don't feel?'”

“Heavens, don't quote me to myself. It's too frightening.” Carryl smiled, and the smile denied the words; she was pleased. On the wave of her pleasure she turned to Lucy. “I may have put on a good show—one has one's pride—but I find my situation very uncomfortable. You who know so much also know, I presume, just how low my prestige has fallen among both faculty and students …”

Lucy did not want to hear this. She found herself putting a hand up to her forehead, shielding her eyes.

“For my sins,” Carryl Cope added with a smile.

“Damn them all! Damn them all to hell!” Lucy had been outraged by the smugness of some of the young instructors. The outburst was not an exaggeration of her feelings at the moment, and came as a relief.

“Well, well, Dr. Winter, I think I had better make us a second drink, to calm the savage breast.” She got up and stood for a moment, her hands thrust into her pockets. “Of course it does give most people real pleasure to see the mighty fall.” And she added over her shoulder, “I do like to give people pleasure whenever I can.”

“Don't,” Lucy said. “Please don't.”

It was as if they had been gliding about fairly happily on thin ice and now had fallen through into black, cold water.

“Don't what? You must allow me to behave badly, my dear Lucy, in this off hour while we wait … after all, I have been much too good for my own health. Let the bear growl …” and she disappeared down the hall.

Dear bear, Lucy thought, do growl. Anything was better, even this lacerating irony, than the humiliation she had been forced to witness, and could do nothing to alleviate. While Carryl was gone, the doorbell gave an imperious ring, three shorts and one long.

“Oh hell, that's Olive!” Carryl called back from the hall as she went to the door. “The last person I want to see.” She looked in at Lucy with a mischievous smile. “Shall we pretend we're not here? No, better see her. After all, you're here to protect me.”

“I'd better go.” Lucy got up, dismayed at the prospect of acting as buffer under these circumstances.

“Lucy, you must stay!” The tone was imperative.

So she stayed; so she found herself again swept into Olive's disregard of anyone and anything except her present preoccupations; Olive was clearly not pleased to find Lucy there.

“Oh, it's you,” she said. “How do you do?” Then to Carryl, “Your stairs will be the death of me.” She sat down, picking fluff off her black skirt, agitated, tense, her piercing blue eyes narrowed, waiting for Carryl to come back from the kitchen.

“We were having a post-mortem,” Carryl said, handing round the glasses. “I asked Lucy to come over.”

“Why didn't you call me?” Olive paid no attention to this remark. “I was waiting for you to call.”

“Darling, I figured Blake would call you.”

“He did. Drat the man! The courage of a mouse.” She gave Carryl a straight angry look. “I warned him, Carryl, and I meant it. I'm not going to give my support to an institution that represents moral cowardice and self-indulgence.”

“No one would wish you to do so,” Carryl said coldly.

“You're on Blake's side!” Olive got up and stood, back to the fireplace, dominating the room. Old, passionate, furious, wrong, one could not help admiring her just the same, Lucy thought, with a twinge of envy at the kind of freedom women of this generation still had, because they moved from impulse, without
, because they did not recognize the meaning of the word “conflict,” except in relation to other people. They did not carry it around inside them like some horrible foetus that would never be born. If they were angry, they were angry—and it was someone else's fault.

“I voted against having a resident psychiatrist, if that is the subject of our discourse.” Carryl's tone was still icy.

“You did?” The piercing eyes widened. “This young woman, of course, thinks we are crazy old fuddy-duddies who cannot move with the times. But I can't see that fundamental principles change because one student hasn't any guts.”

“I voted as I did from conviction.” Carryl stood behind Lucy's chair, facing Olive. “But I must say, Olive, I shall be bitterly disappointed if you carry out your childish threat about a legacy to the college. This is a democracy after all, and I mean the college. A vote was taken.”


“Yes, childish. You have a right to your opinion. You have no right to punish other people for theirs.”

That, Lucy thought with admiration, is laying it on the line.

“I have the right to leave my money where I choose.”

“Indubitably. But if you use money to browbeat people, you are misusing it, Olive. Just as much as I misused power to try to cover for Jane. I have sorely repented of it, I can assure you.”

“You were quite right!” Olive blazed.

“No, I was quite wrong.”

“You've allowed yourself to be persuaded by a popular consensus: the majority is always right. I would never have believed it of you, Carryl.”

“Live and learn,” Carryl said. Lucy felt violently uncomfortable seated as she was, as she always seemed to be, in the crossfire.

“I won't be insulted, Carryl. Please change your tone.”

“I'm sorry. I'm tired. This has been rather a nerve-wracking month.”

Lucy half-rose, and felt a firm hand on her shoulder, forcing her to sit down again. “No, Lucy, you are not to leave. For heaven's sake sit down, Olive, and let's try to behave like rational human beings.” There was an ominous silence. “Please, darling!”

“Oh, very well.” Olive Hunt plumped herself down on the little sofa. Carryl drew a small chair forward so she was sitting quite close to Lucy. Together they faced the irate old woman, who now announced, “You won't change my mind.”

“Very well, then let's change the subject.”

“You are cruel.”

Lucy was dismayed to see that Olive was close to tears.

“I am tired,” Carryl said again. “Not that that can be an excuse. But, Olive,” she said in a patient willed voice, “I think you know where my deepest allegiance lies. If you remove yourself from Appleton—and that in effect is what you speak of doing—I think you must know that you remove yourself from me.”

“Is that a threat?”

For the moment Lucy sensed that she was not there, that she had been forgotten. If only she could slip out unnoticed!

“It's a reality, for me at least. If it is also a threat, that, I think, is your affair.”

“You're an arrogant fool!”

“And what are you, may one ask?”

“I'm not a coward, anyway.”

“No,” Carryl permitted herself a faint smile. “No one could accuse you of being that.”

“I'm an old woman.” The flash of fire in the blue eyes, the carriage of the head, the passion in the voice underlined the irony. She does not really believe she is old, Lucy thought, she hates being old.

“I sometimes wish you were,” Carryl answered blandly. “Now, Olive, please behave yourself, darling. After all, Lucy is not here to take part in or to witness a private quarrel.”

“She rules me with an iron hand.” Olive turned to Lucy, her anger suddenly vanished like fireworks into a dark sky. “I am absolutely cowed and put in my place. Don't you think she is intolerable?”

“Olive would have made a great actress. The scene at Appleton is far too small a stage for her histrionic gifts.” The indulgent, amused tone had come back, and Lucy knew that, for the moment at least, the danger was past. “Really, you must think us quite mad, two elderly infants playing battledore and shuttlecock with a zeal amounting to fury.”

This time Olive joined in the laughter, allowed Carryl to refill her glass, and looked up at her affectionately. “Well, poor Blake will not consider this a childish game, I can tell you.”

Carryl made no answer to this. She was obviously determined to let the quarrel drop, but that this took self-control was evident in the way she walked over to her desk, picked up a book, glanced at it, and slammed it down with a loud thud. “Are you still determined to take that odious girl to Italy with us?” Olive,
enfant terrible
, asked plaintively.

“I wonder …” Carryl turned toward Lucy and gave her a keen questioning look. “It would appear that she might not want to go. What do you think, Dr. Winter?”

“Yes, by all means, let us hear the long, long thoughts of youth,” Olive said, not unkindly.

“I think it would not be a very good idea,” Lucy said.

“Ah!” Olive gleamed her pleasure. “At last we are in the presence of a modicum of common sense. It was a ridiculous idea, as all ideas born of a mistaken sense of guilt are bound to be. The last thing in the world you should do is to go on seeing that girl personally.”

“I hate feeling impotent,” Carryl answered, walking restlessly about. “There must be something I can do for Jane. Do you really think, Lucy that this psychiatrist chap makes sense? And, by the way, do Jane's parents know about this? Do they approve?”

“I think,” Lucy answered warily, “that the idea has been to tell them once the whole case is, so to speak, settled. One's impression is that Jane's father is the big influence in her life, but that he is quite indifferent, absorbed in his second marriage; her mother appears to be totally irresponsible. Oh dear,” gloom settled in as Lucy contemplated this unfortunately not uncommon child of the times, “one must admit that Jane has every reason to look for security in the one area where she might be able to grasp it.”

“And where is that?” Olive asked. “In stealing other people's work, for instance?”

“In having to excel,” Lucy said quite sharply. She felt suddenly exasperated. It was tiring to have to bridge half a century, to have everything one generation took for granted still open to question.

“What did the psychiatrist say?” Carryl asked gently.

It was a legitimate question and Lucy had known that it would be asked, sooner or later. But it was not easy to formulate an answer that would be acceptable to Olive Hunt. Carryl, sensing her hesitation, added, with a mischievous glance at Olive. “I have been thinking that perhaps I should have a talk with this spook myself.”

But this time Olive did not rise. She had gone into one of her stances of withdrawal, was sitting with her hands clasped in her lap, and an expression of Buddha-like impassivity masking her face.

“Dr. Gunderson thinks that Jane is seriously disturbed … that she has been acting out recently certain ambivalences in her relation to her father, that she has, as they say, projected onto Professor Cope. According to this interpretation—and it makes sense to me—the plagiarism was done out of a subconscious need to be found out, to be punished …”

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