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Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (2 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“Shall we give them the treatment?” Jack Beveridge asked from the far corner where he was sitting on a stool, his cup balanced precariously on his knee. “Or shall we just gently torture them a little while?”

“Do we have to be initiated?” Deborah asked demurely. “Is Appleton a secret society?”

“Of course it is. Every college is.”

The conversation seemed to Lucy so mannered and unreal that she felt incapable of uttering a word. It was as if everyone, except possibly Harriet Summerson, were playing a role, and she suspected that even Hallie Summerson's brusque naturalness might be a mask, a slightly subtler mask than those the others had chosen to wear.

“Tell us a little about this secret society then.” Henry Atwood looked, Lucy thought, wonderfully happy, as if he had arrived at some long-hoped-for destination. This was endearing.

“But we know nothing about it ourselves,” Carryl Cope said with a relentless smile. “You are the anthropologists confronting a strange tribe.”

“Not so much a tribe as a personality.” Miss Finch stretched her knotted fingers toward the fire. “I do agree that first impressions may be more valid than what one thinks one knows later, more objective; there is an atmosphere, of course, a very specific atmosphere …”

“And just what is it, Jennifer?” Jack Beveridge interrupted. “Define it for us, do!”

Lucy noted that although Jennifer Finch, brown and mousy, appeared to be the least assuming person in the room, they turned to her with deference, a deference different from the playful obeisances directed toward Carryl Cope.

Miss Finch did not leap into the conversation with the speed of light as the others did. She alone, perhaps, was not playing a part, took no stance, but was simply thinking aloud in the presence of friends. “Let me put some apparently unrelated things together. You have noticed our Palladian library?”

“Yes indeed,” Lucy responded instantly. “It's beautiful.”

“Those white pillars that look so well in the snow—yes—” she proceeded as delicately as a water beetle skating the surface of a pool—“and let us not forget that Miss Cecilia Wellington founded the college on her father's money, after his death, because he had refused to allow her to go to Radcliffe (then known as The Annex, you remember); she went to Oxford instead, when she was nearly fifty, a late and, we must believe, not unfruitful revenge upon Papa; there is also the fact that Appleton, unlike most of the colleges founded in that period, is not and never has been affiliated with a church; the sciences, notably mathematics, have been more emphasized here than is usual in women's colleges. An atmosphere?” she queried. “Very hard to pin down, but I think I am not being unduly chauvinistic if I say that there is still a certain edge, an edge of excitement in being admitted to Appleton.”

“The last stronghold of the bluestocking, perhaps?” Jack Beveridge inserted slyly.

“And why not?” Carryl Cope fired back at once. “We don't teach domestic science; we are not interested especially in producing marriageable young ladies.”

“They do seem to have exceptionally bad manners,” Jack murmured.

Carryl Cope did not hear this remark; she had turned to Jennifer with unexpected gentleness and said, “We interrupted you. Do go on.”

“We have tended to foster the brilliant student.” Miss Finch swallowed a smile with a delightful air of internal amusement. “Odd that this should set us apart. One would have supposed the fostering of brilliance to be the function of a college.”

“But what becomes of them afterwards?” Lucy innocently asked. “I mean, is this a society in which brilliance in women is considered desirable?”

The three women professors answered volubly at once.

“The college was not founded to give society what it wants,” she heard Miss Cope, sharp and glittering. “Quite the contrary!”

But it was Harriet Summerson's voice which finally rose above the others. She was quite flushed, Lucy noticed, but whether this was a response to the question or caused by the exigencies of the tea table, it was hard to tell. Her remarks were punctuated by her lifting the tea pot and waving it, first at one and then at another of her guests, while Henry Atwood carried cups to and fro. “I don't think brilliance is quite the right word, Jennifer. We have presumed that by setting an uncompromising standard we might develop women who could take the lead, who would become responsible in the deepest sense. Shoddy work, students who manage to ‘get by,' are not going to grow into mature people, capable of handling power. We prize excellence.”

“I'm getting more and more nervous about my first class,” Lucy said mischievously.

“The freshmen do not yet know about excellence,” Jack Beveridge said. “I doubt if you need to worry.”

“The fact is,” Jennifer Finch continued her monologue, so often interrupted in the last few minutes, “that to maintain anything remotely resembling scholarship, one has to talk as if Appleton were a sort of nunnery where only the dedicated come to breathe a rarefied air. Possibly we achieve a slight degree of scholastic superiority by these heroic attitudes; sometimes we are merely ridiculous,” she ended, curiously remote, curiously detached.

The animation of a few moments before had subsided. Carryl Cope tapped a cigarette on her tortoise shell case.

“I wonder what really happens?” Among the other voices, Maria's had a curious lilt, not an accent so much as the expression of a temperament several degrees warmer than that of anyone who had spoken so far. “Young girls are like chameleons; they take on the color of their surroundings. Perhaps your bluestockings are just red or black stockings in disguise: put them in a school of domestic science and they will bake pies with just the awe they bring to Greek now. Are they moulded or do they achieve merely a perfection of imitation, learn to please their present masters? That Seaman girl, for instance. What is she really like?”

“Jane Seaman is a scholar. I'll vouch for that,” Carryl said. “That girl will go far.”

“Where will she go?” Maria pressed her point.

“She'll do original work.”

“Is she hungry and thirsty?” Maria asked. “She strikes me as rather smug.” There was, Lucy sensed, tension between these two women, as different as night and day.

“And why not, pray? She's head and shoulders above anyone else in the senior class, intellectually speaking, and she's worked like a demon.”

“No shop talk,” Harriet Summerson interrupted. “After all, the Atwoods and Miss Winter don't even know who Jane Seaman is.”

“Oh, do go on! I find it fascinating,” Lucy said.

“As a matter of fact, Jane has registered for your American Renaissance course, so you'll meet her soon enough.”

“Oh dear.” Lucy's dismay turned to embarrassment when everyone laughed.

“Actually,” Jack Beveridge said, “Jane is rather fun.” Jack provided some essence that was welcome among the intensities, the elaborate self-defence of the women professors. He provided the salt; also, Lucy felt he was kind.

“You can't imagine the relief it is to be here.” Henry Atwood burst into speech as a bird might burst into song, so great was his pleasure in the occasion and in himself for being present. “At Appleton, I mean.” He turned to his wife, who was helping to collect cups and saucers. “Isn't it, Debby? You see, where we were—”

“Where were you?” Carryl Cope asked.

“A little college in northern Michigan, Defoe. I'm sure you've never heard of it. Anyway, all they talked about there was religion and sports.”

“And whether anyone had been caught smoking,” Debby chimed in.

“Smoking, of course, was a sin.” His round face beamed. “Probably brilliance in a woman would also have been thought a sin, but there was no opportunity to discover.”

“It does sound peculiarly grim,” Carryl Cope said distantly. She was visibly not interested in what went on in northern Michigan.

“Didn't it make you feel like awful snobs?” Maria asked. Deborah shot her a quick startled glance. “Did you stop smoking, or did you smoke ostentatiously to prove your integrity?”

Henry blinked and swallowed. It was clear that he thought he had caught the tone of the occasion and now feared he had missed a cue. “We were very uncomfortable,” he said humbly. Lucy had not expected such transparent ingenuousness in a colleague; he is a dear, she thought. “I hated it, as a matter of fact. I hated feeling superior. I felt I was everything they dislike about the East. I'm sure we failed somehow.”

“No,” Debby was vehement. “You had two good students and one of them will go on to Chicago. That's not failure.”

“You make us feel overprotected,” Harriet Summerson said.

“Against ignorance and sloth, why not?” The tiger showed its claws for the first time. You had to be a little inhuman, Lucy suspected, to be as secure as Carryl Cope.

“It's time I got home to Mother.” The remark seemed incongruous coming from Jennifer Finch, who rose from her chair to make it. Lucy had imagined her as living alone with a cat. Now in the general movement of departure the front door stood open into the late afternoon sunlight, and there was the casual feel of a summer evening, of time opening out. Children went by on bicycles ringing their bells. Lucy, the last to say goodbye, asked if she could help wash up.

“Well, that's very kind of you, Dr. Winter.”

“Do call me Lucy, please.”

“Very well, Lucy, come along to the kitchen. It will only take a moment, and we can go on talking. I always hate it when everyone leaves at once, don't you? One is left high and dry.”

There was an old-fashioned wood-burning stove in one corner, covered with newspapers and used as a general dump. The window sills had rows of plants in odd jars along them, geraniums mostly. The linoleum was worn; in the center of the room stood a deal table, its clean wood scrubbed. They washed the dishes at a soapstone sink. “I do like your kitchen,” Lucy said, standing with a towel in her hand, ready to wipe.

“It's awfully old-fashioned. But I know where everything is and can put my hands on it without opening and shutting a lot of little doors.” Harriet Summerson worked quickly but absent-mindedly. At this moment she dumped the full sugar bowl into the dishpan. “Good Lord, what have I done now?” She burst into laughter, Lucy laughed too, and felt suddenly at home.

“I'm going to like it here,” she said, watching Miss Summerson pour the whole dishpan of water and sugar out, and rescue the cups and saucers. “I liked all those people.”

“It's a kind of zoo, really. I sometimes think we collect every species, but they
wonderful people. It may be a safe little world, but it's an immensely alive one. You will not be bored.”

“Does Maria Beveridge teach?”

“She used to. Jack met her at Middlebury. But now they have three little boys, you see.”

“How lovely to have three little boys!”

“Don't underestimate Jack, by the way. He's first class. He's developed an attitude of irony, cynicism, whatever it is, but that's only a defence—hard to be a man in this female seminary.” She had become brusque with shyness. “I like Maria. She has the effect of a quiet storm, or perhaps I should say a quieting storm: she clears the air.”

“Yes,” Lucy said. “I can see that. She's quite formidable.”

“High voltage all right, but on a different current from most of us. She's not really an intellectual. She's a nature. That's why she disturbs Carryl.”

Lucy smiled. “I shouldn't have thought anything could disturb Carryl Cope.”

“Lots of things do.” Harriet Summerson put the last cup into the drainer with an air of finality. She did not explain herself and Lucy didn't dare ask. It was clearly time to leave.

Miss Summerson turned and, leaning her back against the sink, pushed back her hair. Her eyes were as blue as a summer sea. “The hell of teaching is that one is never prepared. I often think that before every class I feel the same sort of terror I used to experience before an examination … and always I imagine that next year it will be different.” Lucy sensed that here, standing in the kitchen, she was close to the pulse of the life she was about to enter. She was in the presence of a mystery. It was not the words, ordinary enough, nor even what they expressed, but something intangible about Harriet Summerson herself, who now stood up and said, “I would like to ask you to stay for supper … that's what all this has been about … but I must work.”

“So must I,” Lucy said fervently.

At the door they shook hands. Then Harriet Summerson looked off into the long bands of sunlight lying across the road. “Is there a life more riddled with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?” she asked the evening air.

Lucy walked back across the campus with Harriet Summerson's question reverberating in her mind, and looked at the ugly red buildings with new eyes. She realized that the parting from John and its resonance had insulated her until now from thinking very much about the sort of life she was poised to enter, what joys and perils, what anxieties and power to endure lay ahead. Of course the absence of students had something to do with it; the most important element in this world was still lacking. Tomorrow and for all the days following it for a long autumn, winter, and spring, her attention would be focussed on a bevy of girls whom she could not even imagine. Would she be able to swing it? What could she tell them? What did she really know?


The girls arrived, and settled like flocks of garrulous starlings, perpetual chatter and perpetual motion. Lucy, looking down from her office on the fourth floor of one of the oldest buildings, compared the campus to a stage where a complicated ballet was being rehearsed. Small groups flowed together and parted; a girl in a blue blazer ran from one building to another; five or six others arranged themselves under an elm, in unconsciously romantic attitudes, a chorus of nymphs. The effect was enhanced by the freshmen's required red Eton caps, and by the unrequired but almost universal uniform of short pleated skirts and blazers. Looking down on all this casual, yet intimate life from above, Lucy felt lonely and a little scared.

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