The interim between the death of Peter’s father and Peter’s ascent into
Oxford was filled with small events which impertinently buzzed about
him. Even his father’s funeral left no deep impression. It was formal
and necessary. Peter was haunted, as the ceremony dragged on, with a
reproachful sense that he was not, as he should, responding to its
solemnity. Passion, of love or grief or adoration, came to Peter by
inspiration. He could not punctually answer. He marvelled how easily at
the graveside the tears of his friends and neighbours were able to flow.
He himself had buried his father upon the night of his father’s death,
and had started life anew. The funeral was for him no more than the
ghost of a dead event.
Next came the removal of Mrs. Paragon into the well-appointed house of
Uncle Henry. Henry had arranged that henceforth his sister should live
with him; that Peter should look to him as a guardian, and think of
himself as his uncle’s inheritor. All these new arrangements passed high
over Peter’s head. They were a background of rumour and confusion to
days of exquisite sensibility and peace. Only one thing really mattered.
Uncle Henry’s house was in the fashionable road that ran parallel to
that in which Peter was born, so that Peter could reach Miranda by way
of the garden, which met hers at the wall’s end.
Adolescence carried him high and far, winging his fancy, giving to the
world forms and colours he had never yet perceived. His passion, unaware
of its physical texture, had almost disembodied him. Miranda focussed
the rays of his soul, and drew his energy to a point. He was pure air
and fire. Standing on the high balcony of his new room, he felt that,
were he to leap down, he must float like gossamer. Or, as he lay in the
grass beside Miranda, staring almost into the eye of the sun, he
acknowledged a kinship with the passing birds, imagined that he heard
the sap of the green world ebb and flow; or, pressing his cheeks to the
cool earth, he would seem to feel it spinning enormously through space.
They talked hardly at all, and then it was of some small intrusion into
their happy silence–the chatter of a bird in distress or the ragged
flying of a painted moth. Only seldom did Peter turn to assure himself
that Miranda was still beside him. He was absorbed with his own vast
content and gratitude for the warm and lovely world, his precious agony
of aspiration towards the inexpressible, his sense of immense,
unmeasured power. Miranda was his precious symbol. Uttered in her, for
his intimate contemplation, he spelled the message with which the air
was burdened, which shivered on the vibrating leaves, and burned in the
summer heat. When, after long gazing into blue distances of air, he
turned to find Miranda, it seemed that the blue had broken and yielded
From the balcony of his room at night he saw things so lovely that he
stood for long moments still, as though he listened. The trees, massed
solemnly together, waited sentiently to be stirred. The stars drew him
into the deep. Voices broke from the street. Light shining from far
windows, and the smoke of chimneys fantastically grouped, filled him
with a sense of pulsing, intimate life; a world of energy whose
stillness was the measure of its power, the slumber of a bee’s wing.
One of the far lighted windows belonged to Miranda. He was content to
know she was there, and recalled, clear in his mind’s eye, the lines and
gestures of her face. The beauty he saw there had seemed almost to break
his heart. It wavered upon him alternate with the stars and the dark
trees of the garden. Loveliness and a perpetual riddle delicately lurked
in the corners of her mouth. Sometimes, when they were together, he
would lay his finger very softly on Miranda’s lips.
He rarely kissed her. The flutter of his pulse died under an ecstasy
bodiless as his passion for the painted sky. He did not yet love the
girl who sometimes with a curious ferocity flung her arms about him and
crushed his face against her shabby dress. Rather he loved the beauty of
the world and his inspired ability, through her, to embrace it.
The time had now come for Peter to be removed to Oxford. Amid all the
novelty, the unimagined comfort and dignity, the beginning of new and
exciting friendships, the first encounter with men of learning and
position, Peter kept always a region of himself apart, whither he
retired to dream of Miranda. He wrote her long and impassioned letters,
pouring forth a flood of impetuous imagery wherein her kinship with all
intense and lovely things persisted in a thousand shapes. But gradually,
under many influences, a change prepared.
First, there was his contact with the intellectual life of Gamaliel. His
inquisitive idealism gradually came down from heaven, summoned to
definite earth by the ordered wisdom of Oxford. He had lately striven to
catch, in a net of words, inexpressible beauty and elusive thought. But
his desire to push expression to the limit of the comprehensible; his
gift of nervous, pictorial speech; the crowding truths, half seen, that
filled his brain were now opposed and estimated according to sure
knowledge and the standards which measure a successful examinee. Truth,
for ever about to show her face, at whose unsubstantial robe Peter had
sometimes caught, now appeared formal, severe, gowned, and reading a
schedule. All the knowledge of the world, it seemed, had been reduced
to categories. Style was something that dead authors had once achieved.
It could be ranged in periods and schools, some of which might with
advantage be imitated. Peter found that concerning all things there were
points of view. An acquaintance with these points of view and an ability
rapidly to number them was almost the only kind of excellence his
masters were able to reward.
The result of Peter’s contact with the tidy, well-appointed wisdom of
Gamaliel was disastrous. His imagination, starting adventurously into
the unknown, was systematically checked. This or that question he was
asking of the Sphinx was already answered. He fell from heaven upon a
passage of Hegel or a theory of Westermarck.
Peter quickened his disillusion by the energy and zeal of his reading.
He threw himself hungrily upon his books, and gloried in the ease with
which wisdom could be won and stored for reference. His ardour for
conquest, by map and ruler, of the kingdoms of knowledge lasted well
through his first term. Only obscurely was he conscious of clipped
Hard physical exercise also played a part in bringing Peter to the
ground. He was put into training for the river, and was soon filled with
a keen interest in his splendid thews. Stretched at length in the
evening, warm with triumphant mastery of some theorem concerning the
Absolute First Cause, Peter saw himself as typically a live intellectual
animal. Less and less did he live in outer space. He began athletically
to tread the earth.
Then, too, Peter made many friends–friends who in some ways were older
than he. He thought of Miranda as an elfin girl, but his friends talked
of women in a way Peter had never heard. For Peter sex had been one of
the things which he seemed always to have known. It had not insistently
troubled him. He now encountered it in the conversation of his friends
as something stealthily comic, perturbing and curiously attractive. He
did not actively join in these conversations, but they affected him.
The week slid away, and term was virtually at an end. Peter sat alone in
his room with Miranda’s last letter. In his ears the rhythm of oars and
the hum of cold wet air yet remained, drowning the small noises of the
fire. Miranda’s letter was bitterly reproachful–glowing at the top heat
of a lovers’ quarrel. Miranda felt Peter’s absence more than he could
do. She now had nothing but Peter, and already she was a woman.
Unconsciously she resented Peter’s imaginative ecstasies. She wanted him
to hold and to see. When he answered her from the clouds she was
desolate. Moreover, Peter wrote much of his work and play; and Miranda,
afraid and jealous of the life he was leading in Oxford, was tinder for
the least spark of difference.
The letter Peter held in his hand was all wounded passion. He could see
her tears and the droop of her mouth trembling with anger. He had
neglected a request she had made. He had written instead a description
of the boat he had helped to victory. Something in Miranda’s
letter–something he had not felt before–caught suddenly at a need in
him as yet unknown. He realised all at once that he wanted her to be
physically there. He read again her burning phrases and felt the call to
him of her thwarted hunger–felt it clearly beneath her superficial
estrangement and reproach. He flung himself desperately back into his
chair and remained for a moment still. Then he sprang up and wandered
restlessly in the dim room, at last pausing by the mantelpiece and
turning the lamp upon her photograph. It had caught the full, enigmatic
curve of her mouth, breaking into her familiar sad smile. Peter was
abruptly invaded with a secret wish, his blood singing in his ears, his
heart throbbing painfully, a longing to make his peace possessing him.
He felt curiously weak–almost as if he might fall. The room was
twisting under his eyes. He flexed his muscles and closed his eyes in
pain. Then, in deep relief, he, in fancy, bent forward and kissed her.
He decided to plead with her face to face, and he let pass the
intervening day in a luxury of anticipation. He dwelled, as he had not
before, on her physical grace. He would sweep away all her sorrow in
passionate words uttered upon her lips.
He reached his uncle’s house by an earlier train than was expected. His
mother was not at home, and he went to his room unchallenged. Out on the
balcony the wind roared to him through the bare trees. It was warm for a
December evening, and very dark. He looked towards Miranda’s house–a
darker spot on the dark; for there was no light in the windows. It
thrilled him to see how dark it was; and as he went through the garden
towards her, with the wind about him like a cloak, drawn close and
impeding him, he was glad of the freedom and secrecy it seemed to
promise. He could call aloud in that dark wind, and his words were
snatched away. His lips and face were trembling, but it did not matter,
for the darkness covered them.
At last he stood by the house. The door was half-open. His fancy leaped
at Miranda waiting for him. He had only to enter, and he pressed in her
He pushed open the door, and a hollow echo ran into many rooms and died
away upstairs. He was sensible now, in shelter from the wind, of a
stillness he had never known. It shot into him a quick terror. As he
stood and listened, he could hear water dripping into a cistern
somewhere in the roof. The door was blown violently shut, and the report
echoed as in a cavern. The house was empty.
Peter lighted a match, and held it above his head. He saw that the
linoleum had been torn from the floor; that the kitchen was empty of
furniture; that the dust and rubbish of removal lay in the four corners.
The match burnt his fingers and went out. Every sensation died in Peter.
He stood in the darkness, hearing small noises of water, the light
patter of soot dislodged from the chimney, the creak and rustle of a
When his eyes were used to the dark, he moved towards a glimmer from the
hall-door. He could not yet believe what he saw. He expected the silence
of his dream to break. Mechanically he went through the house, standing
at last under the eaves of Miranda’s attic-room. His eyes, straining to
the far corner, traced the white outline of the sloping ceiling. He
stood where Miranda had so often slept, a wall’s breadth from himself.
The water dripped pitilessly in the roof, and Peter, poor model of an
English boy, lay in grief, utterly abandoned, his clenched hands beating
the naked floor.