Not less averse than from dogging the Duke was I from remaining another instant in the presence of Miss Dobson. There seemed to be no possible excuse for her. This time she had gone too far. She was outrageous. As soon as the Duke had had time to get clear away, I floated out into the night.
I may have consciously reasoned that the best way to forget the present was in the revival of memories. Or I may have been driven by a mere homing instinct. Anyhow, it was in the direction of my old College that I went. Midnight was tolling as I floated in through the shut grim gate at which I had so often stood knocking for admission.
The man who now occupied my room had sported his oak—my oak. I read the name on the visiting-card attached thereto—E. J. Craddock—and went in.
E. J. Craddock, interloper, was sitting at my table, with elbows squared and head on one side, in the act of literary composition. The oars and caps on my walls betokened him a rowing-man. Indeed, I recognised his somewhat heavy face as that of the man whom, from the Judas barge this afternoon, I had seen rowing "stroke" in my College Eight.
He ought, therefore, to have been in bed and asleep two hours ago. And the offence of his vigil was aggravated by a large tumbler that stood in front of him, containing whisky and soda. From this he took a deep draught. Then he read over what he had written. I did not care to peer over his shoulder at MS. which, though written in my room, was not intended for my eyes. But the writer's brain was open to me; and he had written "I, the undersigned Edward Joseph Craddock, do hereby leave and bequeath all my personal and other property to Zuleika Dobson, spinster. This is my last will and testament."
He gnawed his pen, and presently altered the "hereby leave" to "hereby and herewith leave." Fool!
I thereby and therewith left him. As I emerged through the floor of the room above—through the very carpet that had so often been steeped in wine, and encrusted with smithereens of glass, in the brave old days of a well-remembered occupant—I found two men, both of them evidently reading-men. One of them was pacing round the room. "Do you know," he was saying, "what she reminded me of, all the time? Those words—aren't they in the Song of Solomon?—'fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and... and...'"
"'Terrible as an army with banners,'" supplied his host—rather testily, for he was writing a letter. It began "My dear Father. By the time you receive this I shall have taken a step which..."
Clearly it was vain to seek distraction in my old College. I floated out into the untenanted meadows. Over them was the usual coverlet of white vapour, trailed from the Isis right up to Merton Wall. The scent of these meadows' moisture is the scent of Oxford. Even in hottest noon, one feels that the sun has not dried THEM. Always there is moisture drifting across them, drifting into the Colleges. It, one suspects, must have had much to do with the evocation of what is called the Oxford spirit—that gentlest spirit, so lingering and searching, so dear to them who as youths were brought into ken of it, so exasperating to them who were not. Yes, certainly, it is this mild, miasmal air, not less than the grey beauty and gravity of the buildings, that has helped Oxford to produce, and foster eternally, her peculiar race of artist-scholars, scholar-artists. The undergraduate, in his brief periods of residence, is too buoyant to be mastered by the spirit of the place. He does but salute it, and catch the manner. It is on him who stays to spend his maturity here that the spirit will in its fulness gradually descend. The buildings and their traditions keep astir in his mind whatsoever is gracious; the climate, enfolding and enfeebling him, lulling him, keeps him careless of the sharp, harsh, exigent realities of the outer world. Careless? Not utterly. These realities may be seen by him. He may study them, be amused or touched by them. But they cannot fire him. Oxford is too damp for that. The "movements" made there have been no more than protests against the mobility of others. They have been without the dynamic quality implied in their name. They have been no more than the sighs of men gazing at what other men had left behind them; faint, impossible appeals to the god of retrogression, uttered for their own sake and ritual, rather than with any intent that they should be heard. Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action. But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday. If the Colleges could be transferred to the dry and bracing top of some hill, doubtless they would be more evidently useful to the nation. But let us be glad there is no engineer or enchanter to compass that task. Egomet, I would liefer have the rest of England subside into the sea than have Oxford set on a salubrious level. For there is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires—that mysterious, inenubilable spirit, spirit of Oxford. Oxford! The very sight of the word printed, or sound of it spoken, is fraught for me with most actual magic.
And on that moonlit night when I floated among the vapours of these meadows, myself less than a vapour, I knew and loved Oxford as never before, as never since. Yonder, in the Colleges, was the fume and fret of tragedy—Love as Death's decoy, and Youth following her. What then? Not Oxford was menaced. Come what might, not a stone of Oxford's walls would be loosened, nor a wreath of her vapours be undone, nor lost a breath of her sacred spirit.
I floated up into the higher, drier air, that I might, for once, see the total body of that spirit.
There lay Oxford far beneath me, like a map in grey and black and silver. All that I had known only as great single things I saw now outspread in apposition, and tiny; tiny symbols, as it were, of themselves, greatly symbolising their oneness. There they lay, these multitudinous and disparate quadrangles, all their rivalries merged in the making of a great catholic pattern. And the roofs of the buildings around them seemed level with their lawns. No higher the roofs of the very towers. Up from their tiny segment of the earth's spinning surface they stood negligible beneath infinity. And new, too, quite new, in eternity; transient upstarts. I saw Oxford as a place that had no more past and no more future than a mining-camp. I smiled down. O hoary and unassailable mushroom!... But if a man carry his sense of proportion far enough, lo! he is back at the point from which he started. He knows that eternity, as conceived by him, is but an instant in eternity, and infinity but a speck in infinity. How should they belittle the things near to him?... Oxford was venerable and magical, after all, and enduring. Aye, and not because she would endure was it the less lamentable that the young lives within her walls were like to be taken. My equanimity was gone; and a tear fell on Oxford.
And then, as though Oxford herself were speaking up to me, the air vibrated with a sweet noise of music. It was the hour of one; the end of the Duke's hour of grace. Through the silvery tangle of sounds from other clocks I floated quickly down to the Broad.