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Chapter 18

ACADEMIC


The last sunlight was playing on the roofs when the travellers entered that High Street grave and holy to all Oxford men. The spirit hovering above the spires was as different from its concretions in their caps and gowns as ever the spirit of Christ was from church dogmas.

"Shall we go into Grinnings'?" asked Shelton, as they passed the club.

But each looked at his clothes, for two elegant young men in flannel suits were coming out.

"You go," said Crocker, with a smirk.

Shelton shook his head. Never before had he felt such love for this old city. It was gone now from out his life, but everything about it seemed so good and fine; even its exclusive air was not ignoble. Clothed in the calm of history, the golden web of glorious tradition, radiant with the alchemy of memories, it bewitched him like the perfume of a woman's dress. At the entrance of a college they glanced in at the cool grey patch of stone beyond, and the scarlet of a window flowerbox--secluded, mysteriously calm--a narrow vision of the sacred past. Pale and trencher-capped, a youth with pimply face and random nose, grabbing at his cloven gown, was gazing at the noticeboard. The college porter--large man, fresh-faced, and small-mouthed--stood at his lodge door in a frank and deferential attitude. An image of routine, he looked like one engaged to give a decorous air to multitudes of pecadilloes. His blue eyes rested on the travellers. "I don't know you, sirs, but if you want to speak I shall be glad to hear the observations you may have to make," they seemed to say.

Against the wall reposed a bicycle with tennis-racquet buckled to its handle. A bull-dog bitch, working her snout from side to side, was snuffling horribly; the great iron-studded door to which her chain was fastened stayed immovable. Through this narrow mouth, human metal had been poured for centuries--poured, moulded, given back.

"Come along," said Shelton.

They now entered the Bishop's Head, and had their dinner in the room where Shelton had given his Derby dinner to four-and-twenty well-bred youths; here was the picture of the racehorse that the wineglass, thrown by one of them, had missed when it hit the waiter; and there, serving Crocker with anchovy sauce, was the very waiter. When they had finished, Shelton felt the old desire to rise with difficulty from the table; the old longing to patrol the streets with arm hooked in some other arm; the old eagerness to dare and do something heroic--and unlawful; the old sense that he was of the forest set, in the forest college, of the forest country in the finest world. The streets, all grave and mellow in the sunset, seemed to applaud this after-dinner stroll; the entrance quad of his old college--spaciously majestic, monastically modern, for years the heart of his universe, the focus of what had gone before it in his life, casting the shadow of its grey walls over all that had come after-brought him a sense of rest from conflict, and trust in his own important safety. The garden-gate, whose lofty spikes he had so often crowned with empty water-bottles, failed to rouse him. Nor when they passed the staircase where he had flung a leg of lamb at some indelicate disturbing tutor, did he feel remorse. High on that staircase were the rooms in which he had crammed for his degree, upon the system by which the scholar simmers on the fire of cramming, boils over at the moment of examination, and is extinct for ever after. His coach's face recurred to him, a man with thrusting eyes, who reeled off knowledge all the week, and disappeared to town on Sundays.

They passed their tutor's staircase.

"I wonder if little Turl would remember us?" said Crocker; "I should like to see him. Shall we go and look him up?"

"Little Turl?" said Shelton dreamily.

Mounting, they knocked upon a solid door.

"Come in," said the voice of Sleep itself.

A little man with a pink face and large red ears was sitting in a fat pink chair, as if he had been grown there.

"What do you want?" he asked of them, blinking.

"Don't you know me, sir?"

"God bless me! Crocker, isn't it? I didn't recognise you with a beard."

Crocker, who had not been shaved since starting on his travels, chuckled feebly.

"You remember Shelton, sir?" he said.

"Shelton? Oh yes! How do you do, Shelton? Sit down; take a cigar"; and, crossing his fat little legs, the little gentleman looked them up and down with drowsy interest, as who should say, "Now, after, all you know, why come and wake me up like this?"

Shelton and Crocker took two other chairs; they too seemed thinking, "Yes, why did we come and wake him up like this?" And Shelton, who could not tell the reason why, took refuge in the smoke of his cigar. The panelled walls were hung with prints of celebrated Greek remains; the soft, thick carpet on the floor was grateful to his tired feet; the backs of many books gleamed richly in the light of the oil lamps; the culture and tobacco smoke stole on his senses; he but vaguely comprehended Crocker's amiable talk, vaguely the answers of his little host, whose face, blinking behind the bowl of his huge meerschaum pipe, had such a queer resemblance to a moon. The door was opened, and a tall creature, whose eyes were large and brown, whose face was rosy and ironical, entered with a manly stride.

"Oh!" he said, looking round him with his chin a little in the air, "am I intruding, Turl?"

The little host, blinking more than ever, murmured,

"Not at all, Berryman--take a pew!"

The visitor called Berryman sat down, and gazed up at the wall with his fine eyes.

Shelton had a faint remembrance of this don, and bowed; but the newcomer sat smiling, and did not notice the salute.

"Trimmer and Washer are coming round," he said, and as he spoke the door opened to admit these gentlemen. Of the same height, but different appearance, their manner was faintly jocular, faintly supercilious, as if they tolerated everything. The one whose name was Trimmer had patches of red on his large cheek-bones, and on his cheeks a bluish tint. His lips were rather full, so that he had a likeness to a spider. Washer, who was thin and pale, wore an intellectual smile.

The little fat host moved the hand that held the meerschaum.

"Crocker, Shelton," he said.

An awkward silence followed. Shelton tried to rouse the cultured portion of his wits; but the sense that nothing would be treated seriously paralysed his faculties; he stayed silent, staring at the glowing tip of his cigar. It seemed to him unfair to have intruded on these gentlemen without its having been made quite clear to them beforehand who and what he was; he rose to take his leave, but Washer had begun to speak.

"Madame Bovary!" he said quizzically, reading the title of the book on the little fat man's bookrest; and, holding it closer to his boiled-looking eyes, he repeated, as though it were a joke, "Madame Bovary!"

"Do you mean to say, Turl, that you can stand that stuff?" said Berryman.

As might have been expected, this celebrated novel's name had galvanised him into life; he strolled over to the bookcase, took down a book, opened it, and began to read, wandering in a desultory way about the room.

"Ha! Berryman," said a conciliatory voice behind--it came from Trimmer, who had set his back against the hearth, and grasped with either hand a fistful of his gown--"the book's a classic!"

"Classic!" exclaimed Berryman, transfixing Shelton with his eyes; "the fellow ought to have been horsewhipped for writing such putridity!"

A feeling of hostility instantly sprang up in Shelton; he looked at his little host, who, however, merely blinked.

"Berryman only means," explains Washer, a certain malice in his smile, "that the author is n't one of his particular pets."

"For God's sake, you know, don't get Berryman on his horse!" growled the little fat man suddenly.

Berryman returned his volume to the shelf and took another down. There was something almost godlike in his sarcastic absent-mindedness.

"Imagine a man writing that stuff," he said, "if he'd ever been at Eton! What do we want to know about that sort of thing? A writer should be a sportsman and a gentleman"; and again he looked down over his chin at Shelton, as though expecting him to controvert the sentiment.

"Don't you--" began the latter.

But Berryman's attention had wandered to the wall.

"I really don't care," said he, "to know what a woman feels when she is going to the dogs; it does n't interest me."

The voice of Trimmer made things pleasant:

"Question of moral standards, that, and nothing more."

He had stretched his legs like compasses,--and the way he grasped his gown-wings seemed to turn him to a pair of scales. His lowering smile embraced the room, deprecating strong expressions. "After all," he seemed to say, "we are men of the world; we know there 's not very much in anything. This is the modern spirit; why not give it a look in?"

"Do I understand you to say, Berryman, that you don't enjoy a spicy book?" asked Washer with his smile; and at this question the little fat man sniggered, blinking tempestuously, as if to say, "Nothing pleasanter, don't you know, before a hot fire in cold weather."

Berryman paid no attention to the impertinent inquiry, continuing to dip into his volume and walk up and down.

"I've nothing to say," he remarked, stopping before Shelton, and looking down, as if at last aware of him, "to those who talk of being justified through Art. I call a spade a spade."

Shelton did not answer, because he could not tell whether Berryman was addressing him or society at large. And Berryman went on:

"Do we want to know about the feelings of a middle-class woman with a taste for vice? Tell me the point of it. No man who was in the habit of taking baths would choose such a subject."

"You come to the question of-ah-subjects," the voice of Trimmer genially buzzed he had gathered his garments tight across his back--"my dear fellow, Art, properly applied, justifies all subjects."

"For Art," squeaked Berryman, putting back his second volume and taking down a third, "you have Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Ossian; for garbage, a number of unwashed gentlemen."

There was a laugh; Shelton glanced round at all in turn. With the exception of Crocker, who was half asleep and smiling idiotically, they wore, one and all, a look as if by no chance could they consider any subject fit to move their hearts; as if, one and all, they were so profoundly anchored on the sea of life that waves could only seem impertinent. It may have been some glimmer in this glance of Shelton's that brought Trimmer once more to the rescue with his compromising air.

"The French," said he, "have quite a different standard from ourselves in literature, just as they have a different standard in regard to honour. All this is purely artificial."

What he, meant, however, Shelton found it difficult to tell.

"Honour," said Washer, "'l'honneur, die Ehre' duelling, unfaithful wives--"

He was clearly going to add to this, but it was lost; for the little fat man, taking the meerschaum with trembling fingers, and holding it within two inches of his chin, murmured:

"You fellows, Berryman's awf'ly strong on honour."

He blinked twice, and put the meerschaum back between his lips.

Without returning the third volume to its shelf, Berryman took down a fourth; with chest expanded, he appeared about to use the books as dumb-bells.

"Quite so," said Trimmer; "the change from duelling to law courts is profoundly--"

Whether he were going to say "significant" or "insignificant," in Shelton's estimate he did not know himself. Fortunately Berryman broke in:

"Law courts or not, when a man runs away with a wife of mine, I shall punch his head!"

"Come, come!" said Turner, spasmodically grasping his two wings.

Shelton had a gleam of inspiration. "If your wife deceived you," he thought, looking at Trimmer's eyes, "you 'd keep it quiet, and hold it over her."

Washer passed his hand over his pale chaps: his smile had never wavered; he looked like one for ever lost in the making of an epigram.

The punching theorist stretched his body, holding the books level with his shoulders, as though to stone his hearers with his point of view. His face grew paler, his fine eyes finer, his lips ironical. Almost painful was this combination of the "strong" man and the student who was bound to go to pieces if you hit him a smart blow.

"As for forgiving faithless wives," he said, "and all that sort of thing, I don't believe in sentiment."

The words were high-pitched and sarcastic. Shelton looked hastily around. All their faces were complacent. He grew red, and suddenly remarked, in a soft; clear voice:

"I see!"

He was conscious that he had never before made an impression of this sort, and that he never would again. The cold hostility flashing out all round was most enlightening; it instantly gave way to the polite, satirical indulgence peculiar to highly-cultivated men. Crocker rose nervously; he seemed scared, and was obviously relieved when Shelton, following his example, grasped the little fat man's hand, who said good-night in a voice shaken by tobacco.

"Who are your unshaven friends?" he heard as the door was closed behind them.


John Galsworthy

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