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Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (9 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“If a person is expelled on these grounds,” Lucy asked, for she felt now as if she were being pulled out under the first wave of shock by an undertow, pulled out farther than she knew how to handle, “what happens? I mean, could Jane transfer somewhere else? California?”

“I'm afraid not. I think doors would be pretty well closed against her. She is a Senior, after all.” Hallie looked old and tired.

The moment of relief at having passed the buck—for that, Lucy saw now, was what she had tried to do—was entirely gone. What if no one had spotted the thing? Wouldn't that have been better? What terrible fate had Lucy set in motion, thinking only of her own moral dilemma, the discomfort to herself? “I wish I hadn't told you.”

“You can't undo something by pretending it never happened. And the more I think about it,” Hallie said, lifting her head for the first time, “the more I keep wondering if we are not all responsible. Something has gone wrong somewhere …”

They sat in silence for some moments. There seemed nothing to say. Then Lucy got up, needing now to get away, to think, and above all, to go herself and talk to Jane.

“Hallie—” She hesitated, for she laid the problem in Hallie's lap and was now, in effect, about to withdraw it.

“You'd like to talk to Jane,” Hallie said after they had exchanged a strained look.

“Don't tell Carryl Cope for another twenty-four hours.”

“As you wish,” Hallie said. “But you know that you have set a machinery in motion that cannot be stopped now.” The tone was firm, even severe.

“Yes,” Lucy said. “I know.” It was just this knowledge that filled her with dismay. The messenger in the Greek plays was, after all, not responsible, but she was responsible. She had made a choice involving another human being's whole future, had made it, impetuously, out of shock. At the same time Lucy sensed that after their exchanged look Hallie had withdrawn, and that this withdrawal had taken place out of respect. If she had until now been treated rather like a child by a parent, she was now being treated as a colleague. The whole tone of their discourse since Hallie's spontaneous ejaculation of pity and support, “How awful for you,” had changed. If Lucy had set the machinery in motion, she must stay at the controls, and the machine had begun to move with vertiginous speed.

A whole scene from the distant past rose up within her and burst, with another of those small explosions she had been suffering from lately, the electric shock of recognition. It was when she was about twelve, and she had seen Edna May, a girl in her class, cheat on an exam, had watched with horrified fascination Edna May pass a note to her best friend, receive an answer, and copy it down. And Lucy had gone to Miss Powers and told the story, feeling sick to her stomach, had told, and had experienced the same temporary relief as when she had laid
The Mint
in Hallie's hands. Then too she had set a machinery in motion, and had felt the machine get out of control. Then too no one had blamed her overtly, even Edna May who wept, repented, and forgot the incident. But she, Lucy, never forgot. She carried around the wound of her own righteousness all that year; she bitterly despised herself. And finally she had broken down and wept—months after everyone else had forgotten the whole thing—had broken down and sobbed out the whole story to her father, had had hysterics in fact, and sat on his lap while he stroked her hair, in a moment of intimacy so rare between them that it seemed once only. He had spoken saving words that once: “Maybe it was a relief to Edna May to be found out. It's true you broke a code, but must you be a slave to codes? It might be more grown-up not to be.”

“I must go,” she said, wondering how long she had sat there, lost in the past, among those ghosts.

“Yes,” Hallie sighed. “Well …”

“I'm going to find Jane. Do you know what dorm she is in?”

“Hawthorne, I think. It will be all right,” Hallie said, accompanying Lucy to the door, and looking out to the winter sky. “We take things too seriously. The planets still swim overhead. Remember that.” She held out her hand then. The firm clasp was meant to transfuse courage, Lucy sensed, but instead communicated panic. Hallie Summerson was more vulnerable than one might have supposed. We all are, Lucy reminded herself. We are all more vulnerable than we can afford to admit.


On second thought Lucy decided to ask Jane to meet her in her office; it was after five and there would be no one dropping in at that time. On the telephone Jane had answered coolly that she was in the middle of a term paper, but would be glad to oblige if Lucy would excuse dungarees. It was hard not to be irritated by the guarded, slightly patronizing tone, as if she, Jane, were condescending to do a blundering professor a favor. And Lucy found the ten minutes' wait in the dismal office excruciating. A single electric-light bulb dangling from the ceiling under a dusty china globe did not help: the room felt more like a cell than ever.

She was standing peering out into the dark, with her back to the door, when she heard sneakered feet running down the hall. Jane had flung a red coat over her blue jeans; she had on a white boy's shirt; she looked disarmingly young.

“I ran,” she said, pushing the lock of hair back, “madly curious. What is all this about?” Her composure seemed absolute, and Lucy quailed.

“Sit down,” she said quietly. Lucy leaned back in her chair, and for a second, closed her eyes.

“It happens that I teach
The Iliad
this semester; in the course of some desultory reading on the subject, I found that magnificent piece of Simone Weil's in
The Mint.
” There was a pause. Lucy stared fixedly out at the naked trees outside and felt tears start. She reacted to this embarrassing emotion at once. “You know the rule. You know what overt plagiarism, in this case a sometimes line-by-line steal, means in any reputable college.”

“I'm sorry,” the cool voice spoke without a tremor. “I'm afraid I'm in the dark.”

Lucy had dreaded tears, anger, recriminations. She had not imagined as a possibility this refusal to admit the facts. She turned to face Jane, who was just in the act of offering her a cigarette; when Lucy refused it, she lit one herself, drew in and exhaled on a long breath.

“All I want to know is why you did it,” Lucy said gently. “You are too brilliant to need the support of someone else's ideas. You risked too much. Why?” She was unable to keep the pressure out of her voice, the fatal tremor out.

“I worked rather hard on that essay.” The tone was one of noble regret at the cruel ways of the world.

“Listen!” Lucy was sharp. “You are not going to get away with this, Jane. I spent several hours in the library comparing the two essays. You haven't a leg to stand on. Use your head.”

“Has it never happened in the course of history that two people have looked at things in the same way?”

“It may have. In this case it did not. You stole Weil's essay … and it looked like a safe steal; who would ever happen on that obscure English journal? You didn't know that the essay has been republished, I understand, in a paperback collection recently?” Lucy shot a glance at the impassive face, and felt completely baffled. “I didn't ask you here to argue. I wanted to try to help. If you don't wish to discuss it with me, that is surely your right.” Lucy got up to leave. She felt unutterably weary, as if her mouth were filled with ashes. “Damn it, Jane!” she exploded suddenly, “Give yourself a chance!”

There was a considerable pause. Lucy did not look at Jane.

“I never suspected you of sadism.”

Lucy felt the flush rise from her throat, the long stain of rage and frustration and shame. It was absurd to be so close to tears. “I can assure you that I deeply regret having ever read that essay. Having done so, it would surely be failing in kindness and in responsibility toward a human being not to speak to you myself.”

“All right, I am to beat my breast, confess etc., and then what?” Lucy looked up and met Jane's eyes for the first time. They looked mad rather than human, and they frightened her.

“Sit down, Jane,” she commanded. Since there was no response, she herself sat down. “Perhaps I will have a cigarette after all.”

A cigarette was produced, lit, and Lucy smoked while the silence grew and grew. Finally she broke it herself. “No one doubts that you have an excellent mind, Jane; no professor could fail to be grateful for the kind of response you make, and for your contributions to a class. I hope you are aware that you have my respect. Otherwise I would not be here. I would simply have turned in the evidence to the powers that be, student government in other words.”

“Those self-righteous girl scouts!”

“If that is what they are—and I rather suspect they may be—why did you put yourself in their hands? Why?” Lucy asked again, and she could not keep the exasperation out of her voice any longer.

“You're new here.” The tone was acidly patronizing.

“Yes, I'm new. Very well, what is it I can't understand?”

She saw the hands fly up to the forehead and press themselves there, as if to press down some wildness, some violent need to escape. “The pressure.” It was said very low, very calmly, but it was repeated three times: “the pressure, the pressure …”

“I'm sure it's not easy to achieve what you have achieved here in four years, nor to sustain it. As Professor Cope would say, one pays a high price for brilliance.”

“What does she know?” Lucy felt as if she had flayed the skin off an animal, so quiet the voice, so clear that the person within was screaming. “From the time I first had her as a Sophomore she has been at me to produce, produce, produce. I'm not a machine!”

Lucy heard Carryl Cope's voice, very far away, talking so convincingly about “the price of excellence”—was this it? This voice of hatred, hating everything, most of all itself? Joyless? Driven? Close enough to madness to make one tremble? “The more you do, the more you're expected to do, and each thing has got to be better, always better.” The voice went on monotonously, without inflection like an old record turning round and round on the same groove. The eyes that stared out at Lucy now were as hard as stones. The girl stood by the desk with her hands in her pockets, unyielding, with something of the blind courage of a little bull, the blind look in the eye. And Lucy was silent. Now there was nothing to do but listen. “When I came here I was in love with learning, literally. I was like a starving person who finds food. You can't imagine what my parents are like, how crazy anyone seems who wants to read, especially when they're as good a bridge player as I am, especially a girl. When I got here I thought I was in heaven, all that first year; the second year with Professor Cope in mediaeval history was even better. By then I began to feel like a person in my own right. I mean, it mattered to someone how I did, what I thought … Oh well,” the sly look came back; the lock of hair fell forward; she shrugged, but for a moment Lucy had seen the girl under the mask, the shaken human being. How do we dare, she thought, touch this? Force it to grow? Perhaps murder it in the process?

“What happened?” Lucy asked very gently. “Please try to tell me.”

“Why in hell should I?”

“Because I am here. Because I came to you,” Lucy answered, ignoring the insolence of the tone.

“To me

The question was a sneer; it crept through Lucy like a poison. But it had to be answered. The risk was very great, but it had to be answered with the truth.

“No, I talked first to Professor Summerson.”

“So,” Jane said with a sort of triumph. “It's all over campus by now.” She sat down, hugging her knees, rocking slightly, her chin bumping them with the same compulsive rhythm her words had expressed earlier.

“I'm quite sure not.”

“You don't know this place.”

“I trust Hallie Summerson.”

“Oh, she's a good enough egg, but she'll have to tell Carryl Cope. You know that as well as I do.”

Somehow in the last few minutes, Lucy had lost the initiative. “Jane,” she said with an effort, “we both know that it's not in my power to stop what has been set in motion.”

“Why did you come then? What is all this about?”

“Let me try to tell you.” Lucy paused, and said something like a prayer for a wisdom she did not possess, for some act of grace she could not imagine. “Maybe I felt that now for a little while we could stand in a small human space as two human beings, and that if I could understand what was back of an act of pure folly (for surely it was that) I might be able to help when—in a day or so—the world steps in, the law, the code, the machinery if you will, takes over.”

“Give me a sedative before throwing me to the wolves?”

For the first time Lucy felt anger rising in her. “Has it occurred to you, Jane, that you are throwing Carryl Cope to the wolves? She gave me that issue of
Appleton Essays
with particular pride.”

“What a sell for her! The infant prodigy turns out to be a fake!”

“No!” Lucy saw Jane wince and straighten up before the severity of the tone. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about your quality as a student. You are not a fake.”

“A thief then.”

“If you will,” for on this point Lucy would not yield. “Why did you do it?”

“Nausea.” The sneer was still there.

“I don't understand.”

“I just got tired of being pushed so hard, tired of the whole racket, tired of having a brain, tired of coming up to the jump and taking it again and again. Lost my nerve.” The words came out hard and flat. Where did one go from here?

“You've been doing extremely good work, distinguished work for me, Jane.”

“Yes, I can always make it at first. Then people begin to ask for more and more. Then I can't make it. Just like a jump, don't you see? The bars go higher and higher. It's crazy.” The voice was the shrill voice of a child, and broke. And Lucy remembered, in the sheer relief of the break, the moment when the rain comes in California, when the long winter drought breaks and the hills green over. For the first time since she had confronted Jane, it was possible to get up, go over, and lay a firm hand on her shoulder.

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