THIS is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man. In the story the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession. I selected my own profession, not, of course, because I think Fellows of Colleges more likely to be thus corrupted than anyone else, but because my own profession is naturally that which I know best. A very small university is imagined because that has certain conveniences for fiction. Edgestow has no resemblance, save for its smallness, to Durham – a university with which the only connection I have ever had was entirely pleasant.
In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace-I would not wish even War and Peace or The Faerie Qyeene any shorter-but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.
"MATRIMONY was ordained, thirdly," said Jane Studdock to herself, "for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other." She had not been to church since her schooldays until she went there six months ago to be married, and the words of the service had stuck in her mind.
Through the open door she could see the tiny kitchen of the flat and knew how tidy it was. The beds were made and the rooms "done". There was nothing that had to be done till six o’clock, even supposing that Mark was really coming home for dinner. But there was a College meeting today. Almost certainly Mark would ring up about tea-time to say that the meeting was taking longer than he had expected and that he would have to dine in College.
"Mutual society, help, and comfort," said Jane bitterly. In reality marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement.
"Here I am, starting to waste another morning, mooning," said Jane to herself sharply. "I must do some work."By work she meant her doctorate thesis on Donne. She still believed that if she got out all her note-books and editions and really sat down to the job she could force herself back into her lost enthusiasm for the subject. But before she did so she turned over a newspaper which was lying on the table and glanced at a picture on the back page.
The moment she saw the picture, she remembered her dream; not only the dream but the time after she had crept out of bed and sat waiting for the morning, afraid to put on the light for fear Mark should wake up and fuss, yet feeling offended by the sound of his regular breathing. He was an excellent sleeper. Only one thing ever seemed able to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long.
She had begun by dreaming simply of a face. It was a foreign-looking face, bearded and rather yellow, with a hooked nose. It was frightened. The mouth sagged open and the eyes stared as she had seen other men’s eyes stare for a second or two when some sudden shock had occurred. But this face seemed to be meeting a shock that lasted for hours. Then gradually she became aware of more. The face belonged to a man who was sitting hunched up in one corner of a little square room with white-washed walls. At last the door was opened and a rather good-looking man with a pointed grey beard came in. The prisoner seemed to recognise him as an old acquaintance and they began to talk. In all the dreams which Jane had hitherto dreamed, one either understood what the dream-people were saying or else one did not hear it. But in this dream-and that helped to make its extraordinary realism-the conversation was in French, and Jane understood bits of it, but by no means all, just as she would have done in real life. The visitor was telling the prisoner something which he apparently intended him to regard as good news. And the prisoner at first looked up with a gleam of hope in his eye and said "Tiens .. . ah.. . fa marche": but then he wavered and changed his mind. The visitor continued in a low, fluent voice to press his point. He was a good-looking man in his rather cold way, but he wore pince-nez, and these kept on catching the light so as to make his eyes invisible. This, combined with the almost unnatural perfection of his teeth, gave Jane a disagreeable impression. She could not make out what it was that the visitor was proposing. At this point the dream became nightmare. The visitor, still smiling his cold smile, seized the prisoner’s head between his hands. He gave it a sharp turn-just as Jane had last summer seen men give a sharp turn to the helmet on a diver’s head. The visitor unscrewed the prisoner’s head and took it away. Then all became confused. The head was still the centre of the dream, but it was a different head now-a head with a reddish-white beard all covered with earth. It belonged to an old man whom some people were digging up in a kind of churchyard-a sort of ancient British, druidical kind of man, in a long mantle. This ancient thing was coming to life. "Look out!" she cried in her dream. "He’s alive. Stop! stop! You’re waking him."But they did not stop. The old, buried man sat up and began talking in something that sounded vaguely like Spanish. And this frightened Jane so badly that she woke up.
But it was not the mere memory of a nightmare that made the room swim before Jane’s eyes. There, on the back page of the newspaper, was the head she had seen in the nightmare : the first head (if there had been two of them) – the head of the prisoner. She took up the paper. EXECUTION OF ALCASAN was the headline, and beneath it, SCIENTIST BLUEBEARD GOES TO GUILLOTINE. She remembered having vaguely followed the case. Alcasan was a distinguished radiologist in a neighbouring country-an Arab by descent, they said-who had cut short a brilliant career by poisoning his wife. So that was the origin of her dream. She must have looked at this photo in the paper before going to bed. But that couldn’t be it. It was this morning’s paper. But of course there must have been some earlier picture which she had seen and forgotten-weeks ago when the trial began. And now for Donne.
"I must get back my power of concentrating," said Jane: and then, "Was there a previous picture of Alcasan? Supposing . ."
Five minutes later she swept all her books away, went to the mirror, put on her hat, and went out. She was not sure where she was going. Anywhere, to be out of that flat, that whole house.
Mark, meanwhile, was walking down to Bracton College. Edgestow is the smallest of universities. Apart from Bracton and from the new women’s college beyond the railway, there are only two colleges; Northumberland, below Bracton on the River Wynd, and Duke’s opposite the Abbey. Bracton takes no undergraduates. It was founded in 1300 for the support of ten learned men whose duties were to pray for the soul of Henry de Bracton and study the laws of England. The number of Fellows has gradually increased to forty, of whom only six now study Law and of whom none, perhaps, prays for the soul of Bracton. Mark Studdock was a Sociologist and had been elected five years ago. He was beginning to find his feet. If he had felt any doubt on that point (which he did not) it would have been laid to rest when he found himself meeting Curry just outside the post office, and seen how natural Curry found it that they should walk to College together and discuss the agenda for the meeting. Curry was the sub-warden of Bracton.
"Yes," said Curry. "It will take the hell of a time. Probably go on after dinner. We shall have the obstructionists wasting time. Luckily that’s the worst they can do."
You would never have guessed from the tone of Studdock’s reply what intense pleasure he derived from Curry’s use of the pronoun "we". So very recently he had been an outsider, watching the proceedings of what he then called "Curry and his gang" with awe and with little understanding. Now he was inside, and "the gang" was "we" or "the progressive element in College". It had happened quite suddenly and was still sweet in the mouth.
"You think it’ll go through, then?" said Studdock.
"Sure to," said Curry. "We’ve got the Warden, and the Bursar, and all the chemical and biochemical people for a start. Bill the Blizzard will probably do something pretty devastating, but he’s bound to side with us if it comes to a vote. Besides: I haven’t yet told you. Dick’s going to be there. He came up in time for dinner last night."
Studdock’s mind darted hither and thither in search of some safe way to conceal the fact that he did not know who Dick was. In the nick of time he remembered a very obscure colleague whose Christian name was Richard.