Read An Oxford Tragedy Online

Authors: J. C. Masterman

An Oxford Tragedy

An Oxford Tragedy

By
J. C. Masterman

A quelli il popolo
,

Che teme un morso
,

Fa largo, e subito

Muta discorso:

A noi repubblica

Di lieto umore
,

Tutti spalancano

Le braccia e il core!

A conti fatti

Beati i matti!

                     GIUSTI:
           
Le Memorie di Pisa

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

A Note on the Author

Chapter One

If you open the Oxford University
Calendar
and turn to St Thomas's College you will find my name – Francis Wheatley Winn, Vice-President and Senior Tutor. A note at the bottom of the page will make it clear to the initiated that I won, in my youth, some academic distinction, and that I take my part in the administrative side of University life. That is all that the
Calendar
will reveal, but for the purpose of this history, I must say something more, for, in the nature of things, you must see it all through my eyes, or rather – to be more exact – through my spectacles. And there at once, before we are fairly started, is a difficulty. For you must see it through those spectacles or not at all, and they, no doubt, are a little blurred with prejudices and misty with my old-fashioned sentimentality. I have taught history all my life, and, though I have written no book, I have sought patiently enough for the truth. I should like to think now that I could set down all this story objectively – without a hint of my own personality or my own feelings – but I know that to be impossible, and I shall not even attempt to do it. No, if I am to tell the whole truth it can only be the truth as I saw it, and you, for your part, must resign yourself to seeing it through spectacles which you can neither polish nor remove.

I am a don; my age is sixty; I flatter myself that I am broad-minded, and that I have intelligence above the average; I surmise that by habit of mind I am critical rather than constructive. Sometimes in moments of self-examination I admit that I am apt to be a little fussy and ineffective. To myself, I confess, I am a subject of profound interest: the examination of my own mental processes is a never-failing source of pleasure to me, and I like, in moments of leisure, to let my fancy construct for me the life which I
might have lived had I plunged into the world of politics or letters, or challenged comparison with my intellectual equals at the Bar. I live in imagination a series of lives of honourable distinction, encouraged by public recognition and applauded by the great world. But only in imagination. In sober fact, since I took my degree, I have never seriously considered deserting the security which my fellowship gives me. For the truth is that I am donnish, and my life is bound up in the life of the college to which I belong.

I must not describe my own character in too much detail. A searching analysis of it would indeed be of absorbing interest to myself, but I have enough judgement to know that it would be intolerable for those of you who read these pages. I am a middle-aged don with a tendency to introspection and absurdly careful of my own reputation; we will leave it at that. Let me give up speaking of myself, and tell instead a plain tale of all that happened that evening – the evening of which we still speak as the night of the murder. Perhaps in the telling, my own character will become clearer than if I spent a chapter in the describing of it; perhaps even it will become a little clearer than I could wish.

It was only about seven o'clock, then, as I crossed the Quad, but I had dressed early, for I had two duties to discharge before dinner that night. In the first place, I wanted a few words with Maurice Hargreaves, our Dean, about an undergraduate in whom I was interested. Scarborough was the son of an old friend and early pupil of mine at Oxford, and had been accordingly commended to my special care. He was not himself my pupil, for the combined influence of his father and of the Headmaster of the very expensive public school which he had adorned had succeeded in urging him, not very willingly, into the further study of the classics, whilst I profess modern history; I had, however, endeavoured, in the optimistic though
rather muddled phrase of Fred Scarborough, ‘to give the boy a leg up, and keep an eye on him.' The effect had not so far been noticeably successful. Scarborough was now still only in his second term, but he had already acquired something of a reputation for idleness and as a rebel against authority. With my knowledge of Fred's own character as a young man to guide me I had interpreted my instruction in a liberal spirit, and the eye which I had kept upon him had been not infrequently an intentionally blind one, but I was beginning to feel that the time was rapidly approaching when I must make some effort to check some of my protégé's extravagances. That he had already, in his first term, run foul of his tutor, Shirley, had neither impressed nor alarmed me, for Shirley had the unfortunate habit of alienating the sympathy and acquiring the dislike of almost all those with whom he came in contact. A brilliant scholar, he was constitutionally incapable of curing his sarcastic and biting tongue, and his colleagues and pupils alike winced under a contempt of speech and manner which he seemed to make little or no attempt to mollify or conceal. Never in his life had Shirley suffered a fool gladly; and even his acquaintances who could claim some intellectual eminence were fortunate if they did not harbour in their minds the memory of caustic and even humiliating corrections from him. That Scarborough, who was the essence of high-spirited and good-natured mediocrity, should resent the ill-concealed contempt of his tutor was only to be expected, and caused me no uneasiness; but when he also began to run foul of the Dean it was a different story. A series of peccadilloes had led to fines and ‘gatings' which had left both Scarborough and the Dean exasperated. I felt that the time had come to throw, if I could, a little oil on the troubled waters. Accordingly, I had decided as a preliminary to have ten minutes' conversation with Maurice that evening at a time when he would in
all probability be both alone and accessible. I walked through his outer room, which he seldom used except as a dining-room, and knocked on the door of his inner room.

‘And what can the Dean do for the Senior Tutor?' said Maurice, when I had settled into one of his arm-chairs and lit a cigarette.

As I considered how best to frame my request into words, it passed through my mind how little I really knew of the character and inmost thoughts of a man who had been my colleague for fifteen years. He had had a brilliant and uniformly successful career at Oxford. In his undergraduate days he had been a distinguished athlete, but that had not prevented him from winning also his triumphs in the schools. His election to a fellowship in his own college had followed almost as a matter of course. As a don he had been equally successful; he was a thoroughly efficient teacher with power to make an unwilling pupil work; in college his advice was sound and practical; he had published two or three books which had enjoyed a considerable vogue; having some private means he was generous and he entertained on a lavish scale. The men, or a large majority of them, liked him and respected his ability. And yet, if the truth be told, I myself had never been quite able to suppress a faint feeling of irritation in his presence. He was always, so it seemed to me, a thought too successful, a shade too certain of himself. His books seemed to me too dogmatic to carry conviction: he would bludgeon down a critic or an opponent instead of meeting him with argument and persuasion. And in the man himself I seemed to detect a certain coarseness of fibre and a determination to pursue his own way which bordered upon selfishness. Though I never pried into his affairs I could not help guessing that he was a sensualist, and that, in the vacations at least, he indulged himself a thought too freely in pleasures which were hardly suited to the position he held. But I must not
exaggerate. These were only misgivings which I seldom allowed myself to dwell on. I am only trying to explain why I did not, as many did, surrender entirely to his forceful personality. Instead I struggled always against a vague feeling of inferiority, which made me at the same time irritated and fretful. Friendly though he always was, he could never quite disguise a suspicion of patronage, a touch of the supercilious, in his manner towards me. He was now a man of nearly forty, still handsome and even striking in appearance, though to my eye his features seemed to have thickened and coarsened in the last few years. There was a hint now that before very long he would belong to an unattractive class – that of athletes who have run a little bit to seed.

‘It's about Scarborough,' I said at length. ‘I knew his father pretty well, as you know, and I promised to keep an eye on the boy. He seems to be developing into a bit of a rebel. Of course, I don't want to interfere in a matter of discipline – that's your job – but I wondered whether you couldn't treat him a bit easier. He's been gated a long time, for example, and I believe that only makes him anxious either to climb out of college at night or else to stir up riots inside. Couldn't you try to cure him by kindness for a while? He's not a bad lad really – indeed he's the sort of man that you usually like. Why not try the policy of reconciliation?'

Half-way through my rather clumsy appeal I was conscious that Maurice had not the slightest intention of acceding to my request. His expression remained perfectly good-tempered, but it reflected at the same time an entire confidence in his own judgement and a determination not to alter it in any particular. It was the expression which I particularly disliked, and which made me feel as though I was a rather tiresome schoolboy in the presence of his master.

‘My dear Francis,' he said with a smile which was both friendly and yet faintly condescending, ‘you really are too soft-hearted. Now look here. You say you don't want to interfere in a matter of discipline, and yet that is just what you're trying to do. No, no, don't apologize, I know you're acting from the best of motives. But you want me to let off Scarborough, partly because you know his father, partly because you like him, and partly because you don't know very much about his evil deeds. Now I do know a good deal about him, and I shall deal with him as I think best. To begin with, he's hand in glove with Garnett. Now you know as well as I do that the President took Garnett here as a favour. He's four or five years older than the rest of our men, and he lived for a couple of years on a ranch somewhere in Mexico, and God knows where else besides, after he left school. Well, there's no mad plan he won't carry out. He climbs in and out of college like a cat, he drinks more than he should, he doesn't do a stroke of work. How the poor old President was bamboozled into admitting him here I simply can't imagine. And now look at this.'

He opened a drawer of the writing-table by his side and pulled out a revolver. A faint smile of amusement passed over his face as he observed my astonishment and dismay.

‘Now that revolver was brought to me this morning by Pine, and where do you think he found it?' (Pine is our Head Porter, and little that happens in St Thomas's escapes his notice. He has a wonderful flair for knowing just what is going on.) It did not seem to me that Maurice expected an answer to his question, so I waited for him to continue. ‘Well,' he went on, ‘Scarborough and Garnett have been complaining, rather impertinently, of the cats in the garden under their bedroom windows. Yesterday a cat was shot there; to-day Pine, who I'm bound to say is a pretty efficient man, and seldom suspects the wrong person,
found this revolver in Garnett's room, together with some bullets which were in Scarborough's room next door. Where they got the thing from I don't know, but they've no shadow of excuse for being in possession of a revolver, and still less for using it. You see it's loaded still in four chambers.' He held the revolver up for my inspection. ‘Tomorrow morning I propose to twist the tails of those two young men – good and proper, so please, my dear Francis, don't come to me appealing for mercy. I shall, if you would like to know my private opinion, be very surprised if either of them succeeds in remaining a resident member of this college until the end of his three years! Now don't think me rude, but I really must go and dress for dinner.'

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