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Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (5 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“Well,” Pippa, accepting defeat, gathered her books together as slowly as possible, “but if I could just see you when I get desperate? I'll try not to, I really will,” she added eagerly.

“I'm not a monster, after all,” Lucy said, and left it at that.

Pippa would have been delighted by the chaos she left behind her. Lucy stood at the window a long time, looking down on an already leafless maple, and the wind blowing the dried gold leaves about on the grass. Two girls went by arm in arm. She glanced from them to the white pillars of the library. How cool and discreet the world outside looked compared to the confused, upset, muddled world of this small room where so much happened and did not happen. She had behaved herself, Lucy thought with dismay, like an insufferable prig. Oh, what a bore it was to have to endure those penetrating, innocent, suffering, demanding eyes of Pippa's, those sherry-colored eyes that wept as easily as a summer shower! I want to be free to teach my students in peace, she thought. I want to be free to do that unselfconsciously, without all this personal stuff. I want to be allowed to give what I can give.

But had one any right to protect oneself? What had she been protecting? A relationship that could not be maintained as fruitful if it lapsed into personalities? And what was teaching all about anyway? If one did not believe one was teaching people how to live, how to experience, giving them the means to ripen, then what did one believe? Was it knowledge that concerned her primarily? And would knowledge alone bring them to appreciate Thoreau?

Lucy glanced at her watch and was filled with relief at the thought that she was invited out to dinner at the Beveridges', filled with relief to lay these thoughts and questions aside and hurry to get dressed, and to be a private person for a change.


The Atwoods and—of all people—the President himself, Blake Tillotson, were the other guests.

“Well,” he said, as he settled down in a big armchair, “I'm delighted to meet you people!”

A shrewd kindly face, that of a small-town banker, one might have guessed. He had actually been a Unitarian minister, had worked with the Service Committee in Germany after the war, and, Lucy remembered, had written a book about that experience. She disliked “good works,” and cared so little about politics that she sometimes failed to vote, so she had not read his book and did not intend to. Also she had sensed the college attitude, which was disdain of the administration in general. Still, Tillotson had done the right thing during the McCarthy business, and had had several terse exchanges with the local American Legion—about Hallie Summerson, no doubt. “We give him a C plus,” someone or other had said to Lucy not long ago, on the grounds that he had pretty well failed as a money raiser. He's a nice guy, Lucy thought, even if he won't take a martini. He had turned to Henry to ask how things were going.

“It's a shock to teach students so eager to learn!”

“Women are always eager to learn,” Maria was passing a bowl of red caviar and crackers. “This is the great advantage of a female seminary.”

“It has all the assets of a nunnery and none of the liabilities, perhaps?” The President was quicker than Lucy had imagined he would be.

“I don't miss the boys,” Henry Atwood said, and was astonished at the burst of laughter that greeted his remark.

Lucy let the conversation go on around her, happy to be passive and to make no effort, to look around the room and feel her way into the Beveridges' life here. Where were the little boys? They were nowhere to be seen, though she had noticed a small bicycle in the front hall, and a large sheet of brown paper covered with red and blue lines tacked up on the wall. The Beveridges were modern: white walls, suspended shelves filled with French and Italian books in paper covers, no reproductions of Impressionist painters, she noted with satisfaction. The furniture was classic twentieth century, somewhat worn and attered. She had hardly spoken to Jack in the general stir of arrival, and now looked over toward him, standing with a jug of martinis in his hand, much less nervous here in his own lair than he had been at Hallie Summerson's. The tic had vanished for the moment. Could Carryl Cope have put him off on that occasion? For Jack was obviously rooted in a background, New England, money, Lucy guessed, at any rate taste, the assurance of a born gentleman and scholar. Whereas Carryl Cope seemed suspended in an element of her own creation and it had nothing whatever to do with her background, in fact she appeared to have none that one could place. She spoke academese, a language that springs like Athene from an intellectual brow, and she spoke it with a non-regional, “good” accent.

“How's Olive these days?” Jack asked the President when there was a convenient pause.

“Well, she's getting old, you know. It seems impossible to believe, but she really is.” There was a twinkle in Tillotson's eye.

“How does it show?”

“She's irritable, touchy, and has taken to changing her will at the drop of a hat.”

“Or at the hiring of a psychiatrist?” Jack and Tillotson chuckled. The President turned politely to Lucy and the Atwoods.

“Perhaps you haven't yet heard of Olive Hunt, but you will.”

“You will,” Jack repeated gaily, “you will!”

“Impossible old snob!” Maria spoke with characteristic violence.

“Oh Maria, that's not quite fair,” Jack answered at once. “She's …” He broke off in midair, set his jug down on the mantelpiece, and rocked slightly on his heels. “She's not as easy to describe as I thought. What would you say, Blake?”

Blake Tillotson leaned back in his chair. “Every college has one, I suppose. She's the off-campus power. She lives in the town, a member of the board of trustees.”

“And she's Carryl's friend, don't forget that,” Maria added. What exactly did that mean, Lucy wondered.

“Give Carryl credit,” Jack said quickly, “she never would go and live with Olive. Said she couldn't afford to be rich.” He smiled fleetingly at Lucy. “
, by the way is one of the college
. You'll hear it again.”

“Why couldn't she afford to be rich?”

“She said it cut you off from life—and added, if I was accurately informed, ‘look at Olive!'”

“What a person!” Debby was sitting on the floor again. And Lucy, through her haze of martinis and enjoyment, made up a rhyme silently, “People who sit on the floor are a bore.”

“Well,” Blake Tillotson put his fingers together in a judicial Gothic arch, “like all characters as pronounced as hers, she has the defects of her qualities. She is violently opposed to our hiring a resident psychiatrist, but she wouldn't go so far as to change her will. I trust not. At present she is content with badgering me on the telephone.”

“It's disgraceful that she should take your time,” Maria said.

“You see, it is a question of belief. One has to respect that.” (Nice man, Lucy thought, a thoroughly nice man.)

“Why is Miss Hunt so against a psychiatrist?” Lucy was interested.

“She comes of the old-fashioned school which thinks you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

Jack chortled, and then explained himself. “I was just thinking of those actual boots of Olive's, do you remember? Girl-of-the-Limberlost stuff, a plaid jacket, khaki riding pants, and high laced boots. Good Lord, I'd forgotten all about them. And the old felt hat, her father's no doubt.” Jack's face was pink with laughter.

But Blake Tillotson went on quietly with his train of thought. “I suspect that she may have had some sort of breakdown herself, after her father's death, and that she pulled herself out of it on sheer guts.”

“And on Carryl Cope's guts!” Jack interrupted. “She used to call Carryl up in the middle of the night, demand her presence, got Carryl to teach her Latin.”

“She does sound like rather a problem,” Henry Atwood said, his eyes bright with interest.

“She's definite,” Blake Tillotson mused, “and that can be a problem, but she's also generous; she's violent, but she suffers for it afterwards, and actually apologizes for the scenes she makes; and, above all, we must admit,” he turned more aggressively and specifically toward Maria, “she cares deeply about Appleton.”

“Time for food,” Jack said, seeing that his wife was suspended at the door of the dining room, waiting for a pause, “But let me just say before all this gets written indelibly into the Atwoods' and Miss Winter's record: she's a brilliant woman, and a very kind one.”

“Hear, hear!” Maria shouted too loudly. “Come and get your plates, please. The fact is,” she murmured to Lucy, who had been the first to rise, “that she adores Jack, and he is flattered.”

“She does not adore me,” and for the first time he sounded irritated, “but it's a relief to talk to someone who is really interested in what I'm doing.”

Lucy, digging into a huge bowl of paella, spooning out clams, rice, pieces of lobster, was aware of the live current that had just sparked between these two. At moments such as this she missed John frightfully, felt as if she were cut in two and were dangling dangerously in thin air. It came on like toothache, the sharp pain, under her careful listening to Jack as he told her that he had been translating some of Valéry's poems and had found in Olive Hunt an acute critic. She helped herself to French bread, and salad, and then went and sat down beside Blake Tillotson, forcing her attention to the moment and away from the dangerous martini-induced operation of memory.

“You said just now that every college has an Olive Hunt, and the other day Hallie Summerson explained that every college has a pet radical. What are some of the other species, Dr. Tillotson?”

“A rather dangerous question, Miss Winter,” and he smiled his shrewd smile of an old turtle, not to be drawn out.

“The professional rebel, usually a student, usually a bright one,” Jack took her up.

“The good gray professor who has to be carried long past her—or his—time,” Maria added.

Blake Tillotson, who had winced slightly at this one, said quickly, “And surely the old janitor or groundsman who has total recall.”

The laughter of recognition was followed by a silence, the silence that good food brings in its wake.

“What a wonderful feast, Maria!” Debby led a chorus of approval, and for once the imperturbable Maria looked shy.

“Well,” she explained, “it came out all right. You know why?” She shrugged her shoulders. “The boys have gone to their granny for the weekend. I could concentrate. You know, Jack,” she turned to her husband with an intimate smile, “it's amazing the difference it makes. No Giorgio to make me feel anxious about the rice because he stirs it so much and feels so anxious himself; no Pietro to beg me not to murder the lobsters, and to scream when I put them into the water, no Stephen for me to stumble over!”

“They sound wonderful!” It occurred to Lucy that she would never never settle for being a female oddity, a professor, and give up all this, this nervous thread that pulled taut between Jack and Maria, the bicycle in the hall, the little boys, the rich expansive complex web of a family.

Then, before she was aware of how it began, they were off on a discussion of religion. At first she was amused. Hadn't she read somewhere that after a good meal the talk invariably turned to God? Then she looked around her and noticed the tension on all the faces, the absent look, the look of something like discomfort or fear as if, as they sat here in the small room, the roof had just blown off and an uncomforting huge sky opened over their heads. She had been aware of the studied avoidance of intensity at Appleton. Even Hallie had chosen to speak ironically of her political beliefs. Now with the mention of Traherne, and then of Simone Weil—those opposite poles—they all grew tense. Debby said with her unfailing brightness:

“She was rather a neurotic, wasn't she? All those headaches …”

“You ask the saint to be normal?” Maria asked, turning the full vehemence of her personality toward Debby with the utmost scorn. Lucy was fascinated to sense real commitment here, perhaps for the first time. “Don't you see, she was maintaining an almost impossible suspension between two worlds, determined to stand at the intersection of faith and non-faith, or rather the Church and the believers outside it, what could be more painful?” Maria shrugged. “Oh, an unpleasant person, of course, no charm,” she said angrily. “She was in extremity. Does it cost nothing to be a saint?”

Henry looked embarrassed, but whether on his wife's account or on Maria's one did not know. He said earnestly, “But Traherne was not in extremity. He was purely joyous. It seems to me that the joy has gone out of religion, and without joy, what is it?”

Lucy saw the fine edge under the banker's mask, the tension just under the skin as Tillotson answered, “An endless struggle to believe without giving up the intellect, an endless struggle to relate mystery and reason. What was easy for Traherne, because he did not need to face it, has become hard for us.”

“But why do we feel this need to believe?” Jack asked. He had gone out for a moment and come back with a French book in his hand. “After all, we're not children. Why this sense of absence? I find it embarrassing.” Lucy noticed that the nervous tic had come back.

“What seems to me embarrassing is to watch a generation coming into college who have gone back to Traherne's simple faith. This, if you will forgive me, Henry, does seem like a regression.” Tillotson leaned forward and, though he smiled, he was clearly in earnest. “My own instinct, I am afraid, is to inject doubt.”

“Very dangerous, Blake,” Maria teased gently.

“Believe me, I lie awake at night over this.” And he turned back to Henry, who had his characteristic expression of innocent amazement. “We have daily chapel, you may have noticed. That is by student request, and they run it themselves. I sometimes imagine the ghost of Miss Wellington hovering about in a state of extreme displeasure …” he ended with a laugh.

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