Read The Small Room Online

Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (7 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“Ah, you are looking at the Constable. Charming, isn't it? It belongs to Olive Hunt, actually; she saw I had fallen in love with it, and kindly lent it to me. By the way, Olive may drop in later on. She often does. Says she likes my martinis: Have one.”

The atmosphere was cordial, so much so that Lucy wondered whether there were not some special reason for such attention to a temporary instructor in a different department. She felt absurdly nervous, and was dismayed to find her hand shaking as she took the martini glass.

“The spectacle you have just witnessed must have been entertaining for you?” But just as Lucy was registering how pompous Carryl Cope did sound, the tone changed. “Good gracious, child, don't sit in that uncomfortable chair! Come here where I can see you!”

She sat down obediently in a red leather armchair directly opposite the small imperious figure on the sofa. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Were you entertained?”

“In a way,” Lucy said warily. “I'm so new at all this. I suppose I'm torn between awe and laughter.” She caught the slight wince. “I thought you were splendid.”

“Damn fool! I should have kept my trap shut. Jennifer saved the day with that exquisite judicial mind of hers.” Then, having given the devil his due, she added, “I can't say I like Agnes Skeffington, though. Genius is always intolerable when you come right down to it. Don't you agree?”

“I haven't had much experience with genius.”

“Not that young doctor?” But, catching Lucy's look of dismay, Carryl Cope quickly added, “Very rude of me, to mention your private affairs. But you might as well get used to living in a goldfish bowl.”

“I was only startled,” Lucy said at once. “I try not to think about John.” Then she suddenly laughed. “But he's not a genius, anyway, though he is maddening, of course.”

“In what way, if I may be permitted to press on?”

Lucy felt a great longing to talk about John, and a fear of doing it, a fear of exposing herself to this woman's curiosity and, worse, to her perspicacity which Lucy suspected might be something like John's—irrefutably there, but also at times besides the point. And his entrance into the room, the return of his presence at just this moment, was painful. One does not bury the past, she thought; one lives with it. “I'm sorry,” she said, feeling the pause becoming embarrassingly long. “I find it hard to formulate. Maybe one of our points of contention was that he is interested in the general, the abstract, and I in the specific and the personal. His language itself used to madden me,” and she smiled.

Carryl Cope laughed. “I never can understand why women expect men to be like themselves.”

“Anyway, it's all over. We do not even write.” Liquor is quicker, she thought, dismayed by the acute pain she felt in the middle of her chest. “I think we really loved each other, but somehow we could never communicate, so it ended by becoming like an illness.”

“And you are convalescing here?” The challenge in the faintly mocking air was beginning to be familiar. “You are not really committed to us, are you?”

“I don't know,” Lucy said, balking at being pinned down. “I don't think I'm a very good teacher, at present. But perhaps I should not have been a very good wife.” She said this lightly, but it boomeranged and hurt as it reverberated in her heart.

“You are a rather curious phenomenon. It's unusual to go through the labor of getting a Doctor's degree unless one is serious. Were you? Or did you want to marry that John of yours? Was that the main thing?”

“That was the main thing,” Lucy said, forced to honesty though she knew she was being disappointing. “Isn't that serious enough for you?”

Carryl Cope got up and took the tray of glasses out to the kitchen. She had not responded to this little prick, and Lucy wondered if she were offended, but she herself was on her mettle now.

“You have never regretted not marrying?” she asked, standing in the door of the kitchen. It was odd that they both took it for granted that marriage and the sort of prestige Carryl Cope represented were generally found to be incompatible.

“No.” The answer was definite. “When I was young no one wanted to marry me; and when I was old, I wanted to marry no one. Here you are, Dr. Winter.” Lucy was handed a second martini and this time the “Dr.” was heavily ironic.

“I must seem to you slightly ridiculous.”

“My dear child,” the tone was irritable, “it is I who am ridiculous. In my heart of hearts I have to agree that the intellectual woman, as Dr. Johnson said of the woman preacher, can only be compared to a dog standing on its hind legs.”

“Yet you have given your life to persuading generations of students of just the opposite …”

“No, I teach for the singular, for the exceptional; I teach for the one in a hundred, one in a thousand maybe. And you forget,” the tiger glared, “that teaching is only half my life; my work is still, don't you know, quite extraordinarily absorbing. I sometimes think I am just beginning to discover what it is all about …” This last was said so modestly that Lucy was touched. “Good God! Without my own work I would go mad. It gives me some nourishment at the roots.” Then she smiled and recovered herself; the eyes that had flashed out became hooded and withdrawn. “I get awfully angry with my work, want to throw it out the window and read a detective story. What people will not understand about our profession as teachers,” she said, walking up and down the length of the room, “is that it takes the marrow out of your bones, and something or other has to put it back. For me, work does that. Where is Olive?” she asked suddenly, and Lucy suspected that it was not a
non sequitur
, but that Carryl Cope also required nourishment of a more personal kind. “I suppose you have an idea that all is peace and quiet, that this is a safe little grove without a faun or a fury in it, just a collection of (we hope!) brilliant old maids, a sort of secular retreat where perpetually active minds perpetually sow seeds in virgin ground.”

Lucy smiled. “Well,” she said cautiously, “I wouldn't say quite that, though the ground is virgin all right—and it does seem rather safe.”


Carryl Cope walked over to the window. She looked very small, standing against the long crimson curtains, small and tired. “Safe?” she asked again and turned back, thrusting her hands into her pockets. “My dear child, if you could, for one moment, look into the lives around you …”

“How I would like to!”

“Did it ever cross your innocent mind that people with no personal lives, no passions, no conflicts could not possibly do the sort of teaching an institution of this kind demands? What do you think we are?”

A momentary vision crossed Lucy's mind of flocks of professors dashing off to Italy or Greece on sabbatical leave, to have love affairs with D. H. Lawrence gamekeepers or fishermen, and she could not swallow the delighted smile the vision evoked.

“Oh well, smile.” Carryl Cope shrugged it off, as if Lucy were beyond the pale.

At this moment of possible revelation, or confidence, she was sorry to hear the muted ring of the doorbell; Carryl murmured, “Excuse me. That will be Olive. Where
you been?” Lucy registered the cross, intimate inflection as she rose to her feet to confront Olive Hunt (whom every college has, she remembered, but surely not always just like this!) She shook hands with a rangy, gray-haired woman with piercing blue eyes, an emaciated face that must once have been beautiful, in a tweed suit with a diamond sunburst at her throat, long elegant feet and hands.

“Olive, this is our new instructor, Dr. Winter, of the English department.”

“Harriet has told me about you,” she said brusquely; she was evidently full of some preoccupation of her own, and hardly looked at Lucy. “I've been having another wrangle with Blake,” she announced to the room at large, for Carryl had disappeared down the hall. “It is a mystery to me why perfectly good people who have no reason to let themselves be bamboozled, end by listening to fools and charlatans.”

“Blake listens to you, dear.” Carryl stood in the door, shining with mockery and pleasure. “Drink this and calm down.”

“I won't calm down!” But she laughed, then sat down abruptly, stretched out her long slim legs, crossed at the ankles, and fixed her piercing blue gaze on Lucy. “Forgive me. I am, as you can see, exercised.”

“All colleges have them,” Carryl murmured, “after all.” Lucy presumed that the personal pronoun must refer, not to elderly ladies on the Board of Trustees, but to resident psychiatrists. The subject kept coming up, she noticed.

“Appleton has never conformed, Carryl, as you very well know. We had three communists on the faculty during that McCarthy business,” she explained to Lucy, with a toss of her head, “and a damn nuisance they were, I must say.”

“Harriet is certainly not, and never was, a communist,” Carryl said sharply.

“Oh well,” Olive shrugged this off, “she might as well have been for all the trouble we had about her.”

For an instant Carryl Cope looked as if she were going to be angry, then gave Olive a queer little glance, half commiserating, half irritated. “You know, when you come right down to it, Olive, this is none of your business.” Lucy sensed that their relationship thrived on this sort of banter, and especially when the banter had an edge. “The trustees do not make faculty appointments.”

“None would be made over our unanimous veto.”

“You couldn't possibly get it,” Carryl needled. “I don't think you realize quite how old-fashioned you and I have become.”

“My dear child, what the girls need is not more ‘help'—ugh, how I loathe that word!—but greater demands on their intellects and souls. I expect that last word has no meaning to one of your generation, Dr. Winter?”

“I'd probably use the word ‘psyche,' but not for any good reason. I must admit, though, that a resident psychiatrist seems to me not a bad idea.”


Lucy was not going to let herself be daunted by a diamond sunburst and the ineffable air of authority that rises like a cloud from those who possess large trust funds. “For one thing because I don't believe in professors having to take on the students' personal problems.”

“Hear, hear!” Carryl Cope uttered loudly.

“No one expects you to.”

“No, maybe not. But it happens that you find yourself face to face with a problem, willy nilly. I have a Freshman whom I dread to see in conference because she is clearly incapacitated by some private woe.”

“How do you know? Perhaps she is just lazy, or going through a phase.”

“I know because the girl appears in class in a state of alarming self-neglect, dirty, hair hardly brushed; because she keeps her head down throughout the hour, and because it is clear that she spends a great deal of time crying.”

“So did I when I was her age,” Olive said, unexpectedly. “I suspect that I rather enjoyed it. I got out of it, not because I had a professor who took a personal interest in me, but because I did have (thank God!) a professor who made me take an interest in a subject. It happened to be Greek. Give her psychiatric attention—for I presume what you are saying is that you would be glad to turn this weeper over to someone else and take her back when she combs her hair and stops crying—give her
, and she'll just wallow in

Lucy cast a questioning glance in Carryl Cope's direction, but it gave her no clue.

“Maybe I'm just not a very good teacher,” Lucy said with her back to the wall. “But she is not at the moment capable of reading
The Iliad
, let alone getting interested in it.”

“The translations are inadequate.” Lucy felt baffled by this assault from temperament, originality, and non-reason in equal quantities.

“‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,'” Carryl Cope quoted the much-quoted, but Lucy was happy to hear Yeats invoked in this room, which he would have enjoyed, as well as the personality it reflected, learned, curious, wearing a mask of mockery to conceal—what? Lucy liked Carryl Cope; she did not dislike Olive Hunt, but she found her truly eccentric, off-center. She had, Lucy suspected, led a wholly undisciplined and self-indulgent life, though nothing would astonish her more than to be told so. Probably she got up at six and either did physical exercises or spiritual ones, mortified herself in idiosyncratic ways, and thought because of this that she had a disciplined mind and knew what a life like Carryl Cope's, so much more demanding in every way, was all about.

Had Carryl's point of view been colored by
influence? Was this her vulnerability, her Achilles heel, an attachment that provided a Constable over the mantel and these passionate tensions, and what else? How dangerous love can be, Lucy thought, while the discussion continued between the other two. She came back to it to hear Miss Hunt saying, in an apparent total reversal from her position earlier on.

“Is the subject the point? Isn't it a means to an end? And isn't the end of teaching to bring people up, to get that sordid Freshman of yours onto her feet and functioning as a human being? So it's no excuse,” she turned back to Lucy with a fleeting smile, “to say she can't read
The Iliad
. It's all woven together, surely. But you want to split people up, hand over part of your student to a psychiatrist while you stuff her noodle with information. I call that abdicating!”

“Olive, you are being rather hard on Lucy.” Carryl Cope used her given name for the first time and Lucy was pleased. “Of course, there are students who simply do not belong in college. This girl sounds like one of those. Oh dear, do let's change the subject. I feel quite winded!”

“But let me just answer!”

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