The fumes of the evening were blown away


Miranda was at the window as Peter drove off next morning in a
hansom-cab. The sun was shining, the earth green after rain. Peter was
starting on his first unaccompanied journey in his first hansom-cab, and
he was unable to feel as miserable as he should. Miranda gave him a
smile that struggled to be free of sadness at losing him for four days,
and of envy at his adventure. Peter knew how she felt, and he was angry
with himself for being happy.

The miles flew quickly by. Peter soon began to wonder in pleasant
excitement what Oxford was like.

At Oxford station he was immediately sensible of the advantages of a
town where a great many people live only to anticipate the wishes of
young gentlemen. In Hamingburgh only people with great presence of mind
can succeed in being attended to by the men who in that independent city
put themselves, as cabmen, porters, and shop assistants, into positions
of superiority to the public. Peter was amazed at the deference with
which his arrival upon the platform was met. The whole town seemed only
anxious that he should reach his lodgings as quickly and as comfortably
as possible.

ecbasis

Peter’s impressions thereafter were fierce and rapid. His four days
were a wonderful round of visits. He perused the colleges, the gardens,
and the river. He called upon old schoolfellows for whom the life of
Oxford was already commonplace; who had long since forgotten that they
were living in one of the loveliest of mediæval towns; who blindly
perambulated the cloisters, weighing the issues of a Test Match. He
visited professors by invitation, and listened for the first time in his
life to after-dinner conversation incredibly polite. After his papers
were written for the day, he could make a quiet meal and issue
adventurously into the streets, eagerly looking into the career at whose
threshold he had arrived.

Peter was in a city of illusion. He constructed the life, whose outward
activities he so curiously followed, from the stones of Oxford, and saw,
as it seemed to him, an existence surrendered to lovely influences of
culture and the awful discipline of knowledge. With reverence he
encountered in the quadrangle of the college whose hospitality he was
seeking, a majestic figure, silver-haired, of dreaming aspect, passing
gravely to his pulpit of learning. This was that famous Warden, renowned
in Europe as the author of many books wherein the mightiest found
themselves corrected.

Later in the day he enviously saw the inhabitants of this happy world,
who in the morning had followed the Warden in to his lecture to get
wisdom, issue from their rooms (whose windows opened within rustle of
the trees and prospect of a venerable lawn) dressed for the field or
river. It particularly impressed Peter that in this attire they should
take their way unconcerned through the streets of the town. No one would
have dared, in Hamingburgh, to be thus conspicuous. How debonair and
free was life in this heavenly city!

At evening Peter walked in the streets and quadrangles, getting precious
glimpses of an interior studiously lit, with groups, as he fancied them,
of sober scholars in grave debate upon their studies of the morning; or,
perhaps, in pleasant reminiscence of their games of the afternoon.
Sometimes Peter would hear a burst of laughter or see through the panes
of a college window a group of men deep in poker or bridge. Peter then
remembered wild tales of the license of young bloods, and was not
displeased. It added a zest to his meditations.

Peter’s last evening focussed his impressions. It was the agreeable
habit of the dons of Gamaliel College to invite their candidates to
dinner when the trial was over. Peter accepted the invitation with
dismay. It was the first time he had ever proposed to take an evening
meal by way of dinner; he was afraid.

Nevertheless, the reality was quite pleasant. His first impression of
the dons of Gamaliel was of their kindly interest in himself. He seemed
to be specially selected for attention. The Warden in his welcome looked
perusingly at him. Peter’s instinct, quick to feel an atmosphere,
warned him, as they talked, that he was being tactfully drawn. He
noticed also the smiles that occasionally passed when he plunged into
some vigorous opinion about the books he hated or loved. Insensibly he
grew more cautious, and, as the dinner advanced, he was amazed to hear
himself, as though he were listening to someone else, saying things in a
new way. Peter was beginning to acquire the Oxford manner. His old life
was receding. He caught vaguely at a memory of Miranda, but she lived in
another world. Here he sat a king of the earth. A beautifully spoken,
white-haired servant at his elbow filled his glass with golden wine, and
as he accepted regally of delicate meats from dishes respectfully
offered, he heard himself, in tones already grown strangely in tune with
those of his companions, contributing discreet opinions.

Peter, too, was drinking. He discovered how easy it was to talk at ease,
to sparkle, to throw out, in grand disorder, the thronging visions of
his brain. Far from shrinking in diffidence from the necessity to assert
himself and to be prominent, he began now actively to intervene.

Peter never remembered how first they came to talk of bees. But he did
not for years forget the dramatic circumstances of this conversation. He
never lost the horror with which he realised immediately after the event
that he had contradicted the Reverend Warden, and that the whole table
was waiting for him to make his contention good.

“Well, Mr. Paragon, how do you explain all this?”

The room had suddenly become silent. All the little conversations had
gone out. For the first time Peter felt that an audience was hanging
upon him. He flushed, set his teeth, and talked. He talked with
enthusiasm, tempered instinctively with the Oxford manner. His
enthusiasm delighted the dons of Gamaliel, to whom it was very strange,
and his experience interested them. Peter loved his bees and handled
them well. When he had ended his account, all kinds of questions were
asked. More than ever he felt elated and sure of himself. He emptied yet
another glass of the golden wine.

“I’m becoming quite brilliant,” he thought.

Then he saw that the Warden was speaking into an ear of the white-haired
servant, glancing with ever so slight a gesture at Peter’s empty glass.
This time the servant in passing round the table omitted Peter.

ecbasis

Peter was quick to understand. He arrested himself in the act of saying
something foolish. Clearly the wine had gone into his head. He wondered
whether he would be able to stand up when the time came. He sank
suddenly into himself, answering when he was appealed to directly, but
otherwise content to watch the table. He thought with remorse of
Miranda, almost forgotten amid the excitement of these last days. He saw
again the garden as it looked on the evening of his farewell. He wanted
to be away from these strange people, from the raftered hall, the table
soft-lit, beautiful with silver and glass. The voices went far-off. Only
when his neighbour touched him on the shoulder did he notice that his
companions were moving.

The Warden bade him a cordial good-bye. He smiled at Peter in a way that
made his heart leap with a conviction that he had been successful.

“I wonder,” Peter said to himself as he walked back to his rooms–“I
wonder if I am really drunk?” He had never felt before quite as he did
to-night. Now that he was in the open, he wanted to leap and to sing.

The municipal band was playing as he turned into the street. Round it
were gathered in promenade an idle crowd of young shopkeepers, coupled,
or desirous of being coupled, with girls of the town.

Peter noticed a handsome young woman at the edge of the crowd, hanging
upon the arm of a young man. She was closely observing him as he came
up. It seemed to Peter that she mischievously challenged him. Her
companion was staring vacantly at the bandsmen. Peter paused
irresolutely, flushed a burning red, and passed hastily away.

He was astonished and humiliated at his physical commotion. The music
sounded hatefully the three-four rhythm of surrender. He was yet able to
hear it as he stood under the window of his room. He saw again the
enigmatic eyes of the girl, the faint welcome of her smile, so slight as
to be no more than a shadow, the coquettish recoil of her shoulders as
he paused.

He turned into his lodgings, and ten o’clock began to strike on the
Oxford bells. He waited for several minutes till the last had sounded.
Oxford, for Peter, was to the end a city of bells. He never lost the
impression of his first night as he lay, too excited for sleep, his
thoughts interrupted with the hours as they sounded, high and low, till
the last straggler had ended. It always profoundly affected him, this
converse at night between turret and turret of the sleeping stones. It
came at last to emphasize his impression of Oxford as a place whose
actual and permanent life was in the walls and trees, whose men were
shadows.

To-night the bells invited Peter to look into the greater life he
expected to lead in this place. The scattered glimpses of a beautiful
world at whose threshold he stood were now united in a hope that soon he
would permanently share it within call of the hours as melodiously in
this grey city they passed.

The fumes of the evening were blown away; the band in the street was no
longer heard. Peter, awake in bed, heard yet another striking of the
hour. He was looking back to his last evening with Miranda. How did she
come into this new life? He thought of her sleeping, parted by a wall’s
breadth from his empty room at home, and was invaded with a desire to be
near her greater than his envy of anything that sounded in the striking
bells.

“Miranda.” He repeated the syllables to himself as the bells were
striking, and fell asleep upon her name.

You may also like