WHEN, some fifty years hence, my grandchildren ask me what I did when I was at Oxford in the remote days towards the beginning of our monstrous century, I shall look back across the widening gulf of time and tell them with perfect good faith that I never worked less than eight hours a day, that I took a keen interest in Social Service, and that coffee was the strongest stimulant in which I indulged. And they will very justly say—but I hope I shall be out of hearing. That is why I propose to write my memoirs as soon as possible, before I have had time to forget, so that having the truth before me I shall never in time to come be able, consciously or unconsciously, to tell lies about myself.
At present I have no time to write a complete account of that decisive period in my history. I must content myself therefore with describing a single incident of my undergraduate days. I have selected this one because it is curious and at the same time wholly characteristic of Oxford life before the war.
My friend Lykeham was an Exhibitioner at Swellfoot College. He combined blood (he was immensely proud of his Anglo-Saxon descent and the derivation of his name from Old English lycam, a corpse) with brains. His tastes were eccentric, his habits deplorable, the range of his information immense. As he is now dead, I will say no more about his character.
To proceed with my anecdote: I had gone one evening, as was my custom, to visit him in his rooms at Swellfoot. It was just after nine when I mounted the stairs, and great Tom was still tolling.
“In Thomae laude
Resono bim bam sine fraude,”
as the charmingly imbecile motto used to run, and to-night he was living up to it by bim-bamming away in a persistent basso profondo that made an astonishing background of discord to the sound of frantic guitar playing which emanated from Lykeham’s room. From the fury of his twanging I could tell that something more than usually cataclysmic had happened, for mercifully it was only in moments of the greatest stress that Lykeham touched his guitar.
I entered the room with my hands over my ears. “For God’s sake——” I implored. Through the open window Tom was shouting a deep E flat, with a spread chord of under- and over-tones, while the guitar gibbered shrilly and hysterically in D natural. Lykeham laughed, banged down his guitar on to the sofa with such violence that it gave forth a trembling groan from all its strings, and ran forward to meet me. He slapped me on the shoulder with painful heartiness; his whole face radiated joy and excitement.
I can sympathize with people’s pains, but not with their pleasures. There is something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness.
“You are perspiring,” I said coldly.
Lykeham mopped himself, but went grinning.
“Well, what is it this time?” I asked. “Are you engaged to be married again?”
Lykeham burst forth with the triumphant pleasure of one who has at last found an opportunity of disburdening himself of an oppressive secret. “Far better than that,” he cried.
I groaned. “Some more than usually unpleasant amour, I suppose.” I knew that he had been in London the day before, a pressing engagement with the dentist having furnished an excuse to stay the night.
“Don’t be gross,” said Lykeham, with a nervous laugh which showed that my suspicions had been only too well founded.
“Well, let’s hear about the delectable Flossie or Effie or whatever her name was,” I said, with resignation.
“I tell you she was a goddess.”
“The goddess of reason, I suppose.”
“A goddess,” Lykeham continued; “the most wonderful creature I’ve ever seen. And the extraordinary thing is,” he added confidentially, and with ill-suppressed pride, “that it seems I myself am a god of sorts.”
“Of gardens; but do come down to facts.”
“I’ll tell you the whole story. It was like this: Last night I was in town, you know, and went to see that capital play that’s running at the Prince Consort’s. It’s one of those ingenious combinations of melodrama and problem play, which thrill you to the marrow and at the same time give you a virtuous feeling that you’ve been to see something serious. Well, I rolled in rather late, having secured an admirable place in the front row of the dress circle. I trampled in over the populace, and casually observed that there was a girl sitting next me, whom I apologized to for treading on her toes. I thought no more about her during the first act. In the interval, when the lights were on again, I turned round to look at things in general and discovered that there was a goddess sitting next me. One only had to look at her to see she was a goddess. She was quite incredibly beautiful—rather pale and virginal and slim, and at the same time very stately. I can’t describe her; she was simply perfect—there’s nothing more to be said.”
“Perfect,” I repeated, “but so were all the rest.”
“Fool!” Lykeham answered impatiently. “All the rest were just damned women. This was a goddess, I tell you. Don’t interrupt me any more. As I was looking with astonishment at her profile, she turned her head and looked squarely at me. I’ve never seen anything so lovely; I almost swooned away. Our eyes met——”
“What an awful novelist’s expression!” I expostulated.
“I can’t help it; there’s no other word. Our eyes did meet, and we both fell simultaneously in love.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“I could see it in her eyes. Well, to go on. We looked at one another several times during that first interval, and then the second act began. In the course of the act, entirely accidentally, I knocked my programme on to the floor, and reaching down to get it I touched her hand. Well, there was obviously nothing else to do but to take hold of it.”
“And what did she do?”
“Nothing. We sat like that the whole of the rest of the act, rapturously happy and——”
“And quietly perspiring palm to palm. I know exactly, so we can pass over that. Proceed.”
“Of course you don’t know in the least; you’ve never held a goddess’s hand. When the lights went up again I reluctantly dropped her hand, not liking the thought of the profane crowd seeing us, and for want of anything better to say, I asked her if she actually was a goddess. She said it was a curious question, as she’d been wondering what god I was. So we said, how incredible: and I said I was sure she was a goddess, and she said she was certain I was a god, and I bought some chocolates, and the third act began. Now, it being a melodrama, there was of course in the third act a murder and burglary scene, in which all the lights were turned out. In this thrilling moment of total blackness I suddenly felt her kiss me on the cheek.”
“I thought you said she was virginal.”
“So she was—absolutely, frozenly virginal; but she was made of a sort of burning ice, if you understand me. She was virginally passionate—just the combination you’d expect to find in a goddess. I admit I was startled when she kissed me, but with infinite presence of mind I kissed her back, on the mouth. Then the murder was finished and the lights went on again. Nothing much more happened till the end of the show, when I helped her on with her coat and we went out together, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and got into a taxi. I told the man to drive somewhere where we could get supper, and he drove there.”
“Not without embracements by the way?”
“No, not without certain embracements.”
“Always passionately virginal?”
“Always virginally passionate.”
“Well, we had supper—a positively Olympian affair, nectar and ambrosia and stolen hand-pressures. She became more and more wonderful every moment. My God, you should have seen her eyes! The whole soul seemed to burn in their depths, like fire under the sea——”
“For narrative,” I interrupted him, “the epic or heroic style is altogether more suitable than the lyrical.”
“Well, as I say, we had supper, and after that my memory becomes a sort of burning mist.”
“Let us make haste to draw the inevitable veil. What was her name?”
Lykeham confessed that he didn’t know; as she was a goddess, it didn’t really seem to matter what her earthly name was. How did he expect to find her again? He hadn’t thought of that, but knew she’d turn up somehow. I told him he was a fool, and asked which particular goddess he thought she was and which particular god he himself.
“We discussed that,” he said. “We first thought Ares and Aphrodite; but she wasn’t my idea of Aphrodite, and I don’t know that I’m very much like Ares.”
He looked pensively in the old Venetian mirror which hung over the fireplace. It was a complacent look, for Lykeham was rather vain about his personal appearance, which was, indeed, repulsive at first sight, but had, when you looked again, a certain strange and fascinating ugly beauty. Bearded, he would have made a passable Socrates. But Ares—no, certainly he wasn’t Ares.
“Perhaps you’re Hephæstus,” I suggested; but the idea was received coldly.
Was he sure that she was a goddess? Mightn’t she just have been a nymph of sorts? Europa, for instance. Lykeham repudiated the implied suggestion that he was a bull, nor would he hear of himself as a swan or a shower of gold. It was possible, however, he thought, that he was Apollo and she Daphne, reincarnated from her vegetable state. And though I laughed heartily at the idea of his being Phœbus Apollo, Lykeham stuck to the theory with increasing obstinacy. The more he thought of it the more it seemed to him probable that his nymph, with her burning cold virginal passion, was Daphne, while to doubt that he himself was Apollo seemed hardly to occur to him.
It was about a fortnight later, in June, towards the end of term, that we discovered Lykeham’s Olympian identity. We had gone, Lykeham and I, for an after-dinner walk. We set out through the pale tranquillity of twilight, and following the towpath up the river as far as Godstow, halted at the inn for a glass of port and a talk with the glorious old female Falstaff in black silk who kept it. We were royally entertained with gossip and old wine, and after Lykeham had sung a comic song which had reduced the old lady to a quivering jelly of hysterical laughter, we set out once more, intending to go yet a little farther up the river before we turned back. Darkness had fallen by this time; the stars were lighted in the sky; it was the sort of summer night to which Marlowe compared Helen of Troy. Over the meadows invisible peewits wheeled and uttered their melancholy cry; the far-off thunder of the weir bore a continuous, even burden to all the other small noises of the night. Lykeham and I walked on in silence. We had covered perhaps a quarter of a mile when all at once my companion stopped and began looking fixedly westward towards Witham Hill. I paused too, and saw that he was staring at the thin crescent of the moon, which was preparing to set in the dark woods that crowned the eminence.
“What are you looking at?” I asked.
But Lykeham paid no attention, only muttered something to himself. Then suddenly he cried out, “It’s she!” and started off at full gallop across the fields in the direction of the hill. Conceiving that he had gone suddenly mad, I followed. We crashed through the first hedge twenty yards apart. Then came the backwater; Lykeham leapt, flopped in three-quarters of the way across, and scrambled oozily ashore. I made a better jump and landed among the mud and rushes of the farther bank. Two more hedges and a ploughed field, a hedge, a road, a gate, another field, and then we were in Witham Wood itself. It was pitch black under the trees, and Lykeham had perforce to slacken his pace a little. I followed him by the noise he made crashing through the undergrowth and cursing when he hurt himself. That wood was a nightmare, but we got through it somehow and into the open glade at the top of the hill. Through the trees on the farther side of the clearing shone the moon, seeming incredibly close at hand. Then, suddenly, along the very path of the moonlight, the figure of a woman came walking through the trees into the open. Lykeham rushed towards her and flung himself at her feet and embraced her knees; she stooped down and smoothed his ruffled hair. I turned and walked away; it is not for a mere mortal to look on at the embracements of the gods.
As I walked back, I wondered who on earth—or rather who in heaven—Lykeham could be. For here was chaste Cynthia giving herself to him in the most unequivocal fashion. Could he be Endymion? No, the idea was too preposterous to be entertained for a moment. But I could think of no other loved by the virgin moon. Yet surely I seemed dimly to recollect that there had been some favoured god; for the life of me I could not remember who. All the way back along the river path I searched my mind for his name, and always it eluded me.
But on my return I looked up the matter in Lemprière, and almost died of laughing when I discovered the truth. I thought of Lykeham’s Venetian mirror and his complacent side glances at his own image, and his belief that he was Apollo, and I laughed and laughed. And when, considerably after midnight, Lykeham got back to college, I met him in the porch and took him quietly by the sleeve, and in his ear I whispered, “GOAT-FOOT,” and then I roared with laughter once again.