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Kathleen - Chapter 1 Post by :chrisf Category :Long Stories Author :Christopher Morley Date :May 2012 Read :3298

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Kathleen - Chapter 1


The Scorpions were to meet at eight o'clock and before that hour Kenneth Forbes had to finish the first chapter of a serial story. The literary society, named in accordance with the grotesque whim of Oxford undergraduates, consisted of eight members, and it was proposed that each one should contribute a chapter. Forbes was of a fertile wit, and he had been nominated the first operator. He had been allowed the whole Christmas vacation to prepare his opening chapter; which was why on this first Sunday of term while the rest of Merton College was at dinner in hall, he sat at his desk desperately driving his pen across the paper.

Forbes's room in Fellows' Quad was one of those that had housed Queen Henrietta Maria in 1643, and though Forbes's own tastes were nondescript the chamber still had something of an air. The dark wood panelling might well have done honour to a royal lodger, and a motion-picture producer would have coveted it as a background for Mary Pickford. It was unspoiled by pictures: two or three political maps of Europe, sketchily drawn with coloured crayons, were pinned up here and there. The room was a typical Oxford apartment: dark, a little faded, but redeemed by the grate of glowing coals. Behind the chimney two recessed seats looked out over the college gardens; long red curtains were drawn to shut out the winter draughts. It was the true English January-- driving squalls of rain, dampness, and devastating chill. The east wind brought the booming toll from Magdalen tower very distinctly to the ear, closely followed by the tinny chime in Fellows' Quad. It was half past seven.

Forbes laid down his pen, looked quizzically at the last illegible lines slanting up the paper, and realized that he was hungry. His untasted tea and anchovy toast still stood in the fender where the scout had put them three hours before.

He switched on the electric light over the dining table in the centre of the room, and, dropping on the sofa before the fire, prodded the huge lumps of soft coal into a blaze. The triangular slices of anchovy toast were cold but still very good, and he devoured them with appetite. He lit a cigarette with a sigh of content, and reflected that he had not crossed his name off hall. Therefore he must pay eighteen pence for dinner, even though he had not eaten it. Also there lay somewhat heavily on his mind the fact that at ten the next morning he must read to his tutor an essay on "Danton and Robespierre," an essay as yet unwritten. That would mean a very early rising and an uncomfortable chilly session in the college library, a dismal place in the forenoon. Never mind, first came a jolly evening with the Scorpions. The meetings were always fun, and this one, coming after the separation of a six-weeks' vacation, promised special sport. Carter was down for a paper on Rabelais; King would have some of his amusing ballades and rondeaus; and above all there would be the first chapter of the serial, from which the members promised themselves much diversion. It was too late now to attempt anything on Danton and Robespierre; he picked up a volume of Belloc and sat cosily by the fire.

A thumping tread sounded on the winding stairs, then the faint clink of a large metal tray laid on the serving table outside, and a muffled knock at the "oak," the thick outer door which Forbes had "sported" when he came in at six to write his stint. He unfastened the barrier and admitted Hinton, the scout, who bore in a tray of eatables, ordered by Forbes from the college store-room for the refreshment of his coming guests. Forbes, like most men of modest means, made it a point of honour to entertain lavishly when it was his turn as host, and the display set out by Hinton made an attractive still life under the droplight. A big bowl of apples and oranges stood in the centre; tin boxes from Huntley and Palmer, a couple of large iced cakes, raisins, nuts, and a dish of candied fruits ended the solids. There was also a tray of coffee cups and a huge silver coffee pot bearing the college arms, flanked by a porcelain jug of hot milk. De Reszke cigarettes, whiskey and soda, and a new tin of John Cotton smoking mixture completed the spread--which would be faithfully reflected in Forbes's "battels," or weekly bills, later on. Young men at Oxford do themselves well, and this was a typical lay-out for an undergraduate evening.

Hinton, a ruddy old man with iron-gray hair and a very red and bulby nose, was a garrulous servant, and after a tentative cough made an attempt at small talk.

"I didn't see you in 'all to-night, sir."

"No," said Forbes, "I had some writing to do, Hinton."

"Oh yes, sir," said Hinton, according to the invariable formula of college servants. A moment later, after another embarrassed cough, he began again.

"Very wet night, sir; they say the towpath will be under water in another day or so."

Forbes was not a rowing man, and the probable submerging of the towpath was not news that affected him one way or the other. His only reply was to ask the scout to refill the coal-scuttle. For this task Hinton donned an old pair of gloves and carried in several large lumps of coal in his hands from the bin outside. Then he disappeared into the adjoining bedroom to pour out a few gallons of very cold water into Forbes's hip bath, to turn down the sheets, lay out his pajamas, and remove a muddy pair of boots to be cleaned. Such are the customs that make sweet the lives of succeeding undergraduates at Oxford. It is pleasant to know that Palmerston, Pitt, Gladstone, Asquith--they have all gone through the old routine. Forbes's father had occupied the very same rooms, thirty years before, and very likely old Hinton, then a "scout's boy," had blacked his boots. Certainly Forbes senior had lain in the same bedroom and watched Magdalen Tower through the trees while delaying to get up on chilly mornings.

"Anything else to-night, sir?" said Hinton, as Forbes put down Belloc and began to clean a very crusty briar.

"Nothing to-night."

"Thank you, sir," said Hinton and took his departure, after poking up the fire and removing the dead tea things.

The eight o'clock chimes spoke as Hinton clumped downstairs, and a few moments later Forbes's guests began to straggle in. All were wet and ruddy from rain and wind, and, as they discarded raincoats and caps, disclosed a pleasant medley of types. The Scorpions was a rather recent and informal society, but it had gathered from various colleges a little band of temperamental congenials who found a unique pleasure in their Sunday evening meetings. None of them was of the acknowledged literary successes of the university: their names were not those seen every week in the undergraduate journals. And yet this obscure group, which had drawn together in a spirit of satire, had in it two or three men of real gift. Forbes himself was a man of uncommon vivacity. Small, stocky, with an unruly thatch of yellow hair and a quaintly wry and homely face, he hid his shyness and his brilliancy behind a brusque manner. Ostensibly cynical and a witty satirist of his more sentimental fellows, his desk was full of charming ballades and _pieces d'amour_, scratched off at white heat in odd moments. His infinite fund of full-flavoured jest had won him the nickname of Priapus. But beneath the uncouth exterior of the man, behind his careless dress and humorously assumed coarseness, lay the soul of a poet--sensitive as a girl, and devout before the whisperings of Beauty.

Stephen Carter and Randall King were first to arrive, and seized the ends of the fireside couch while Forbes poured their coffee.

"A Clark Russell of an evening!" said Carter, stretching his golfing brogues to the blaze. "Don't you love a good drenching, downpouring night? I do!" He was a burly full-blooded blond, extravagantly facetious in convivial moments, and a mournful brooder in solitude. King, better known as "The Goblin," was a dark, whimsical elf in thick spectacles, much loved in the 'varsity dramatic society for his brilliant impersonations. The Goblin said nothing as he sipped his coffee and gazed at the fire.

"There you go again, Falstaff!" exclaimed Forbes to Carter, as he unlocked a corner cupboard and drew out a bottle of port. "The universal enthusiast! I believe you'll be enthusiastic about the examiners that plough you!"

"What, Falstaff get ploughed?" said a vast and rather handsome newcomer, flinging open the door without knocking. "I think he's down for a ruddy First!" This was Douglas Whitney, of Balliol.

Carter's only answer to both these remarks was to drain a glass of the port which Forbes was decanting.

"I say, Priapus, what vile port!" he said. "Is this some of the vintage you crocked poor old Hinton with?"

"Any port in a storm, Falstaff," said the Goblin, mildly.

As Forbes was pouring out the coffee loud shouts of "Minters!" greeted the next arrival. This was Johnny Blair of Tennessee and Trinity, the only American among the Scorpions. Blair was a Rhodes Scholar whose dulcet Southern drawl and quaint modes of speech were a constant delight to his English comrades. His great popularity in his own college was begun by his introduction of mint julep, which had given him his nickname.

"Hello, Minters!" cried Forbes. "What cheer?"

"Large tabling and belly cheer," said Blair, quoting his favourite Elizabethan author.

By the time Forbes had poured out eight cups of coffee and as many glasses of wine, Keith, Graham, and Twiston had come in, making the full gathering. There was much laughing and banter as the men stood round the table or by the fire, lighting pipes and cigarettes, and helping themselves to fruit and cake. Finally, when everyone was settled in a semicircle round the fire, Forbes hammered his coffee cup with a spoon. According to the custom of the society the host of the evening always acted as chairman.

"The meeting will please come to order," said Forbes. "Brother Scorpions, what is your pleasure? Has the secretary anything to report?"

The gatherings of the Scorpions were pleasingly devoid of formality, and untrammeled by parliamentary conventions. There were no minutes, and the only officer was a secretary who sent out postal cards each week, reminding the members of the time and place of the next meeting.

King, puffing happily at a large pipe, declared that no official business required attention.

"Then I call upon Falstaff for his delightful paper on Rabelais," said Forbes.

A small electric reading lamp was propped behind Carter's head, and the Scorpions disposed themselves to listen. Carter pulled an untidy manuscript from his pocket, and after an embarrassed cough, began to read.

The general tenor of an undergraduate essay on Rabelais, intended for the intimacy of a fireside circle, may readily be guessed. The general thesis of the composition was of course to prove that Rabelais was by no means the low-minded old dog of Puritan conception; or, as Carter put it, that he was "not simply a George Moore"; but that his amazing writings bore witness throughout to a high and devoted ethical purpose. It is even conjecturable that Carter may have said _puribus omnia pura_; but if he did so, it was with so droll an accent that his audience laughed again. At all events his reading was punctuated with cheery applause, and at the conclusion the Scorpions renewed their acquaintance with those historic affinities whiskey and soda. Discussion was brisk.

The meditative Goblin then was called upon for his poems; and, after becoming hesitation, unfolded a sheaf of verses. His rhymes were always full of quaint and elvish humour which was very endearing. His ballade with the refrain "_When Harry Baillie kept the Tabard Inn_," was voted the best of the six he read.

But the event of the evening was to be the serial story, which Forbes had been appointed to begin. A new round of refreshments was distributed, and then the host took his place under the reading lamp.

"This needs a word of explanation," he said. "Having the whole vacation to work on this, naturally I did nothing until tea time this afternoon. I didn't even have an idea in my head until yesterday. About four o'clock yesterday afternoon I was strolling down the Broad in desperation. You know when there is some hateful task that has to be done, one will snatch at any pretext for postponing it. I stopped in at Blackwell's to look for a book I wanted. Up in one corner of the shop, lying on a row of books, I found this."

Impressively he drew from his pocket a double sheet of notepaper and held it up.

"It was a letter, evidently written by some girl to a man at the 'varsity. Finding it there, forgotten and defenseless, I could not resist reading it. It was a very charming letter, not too intimate, but full of a delicious virgin coyness and reserve. Then a great idea struck me. Why not take the people mentioned in the letter and use them as the characters of our story? We know that they are real people; we know their first names; that's all we know about them. The rest can be left to the invention of the Scorpions."

Generous laughter greeted the idea.

"Let's hear the letter!" cried someone.

"Yes," said Forbes, "before reading my chapter I'll read you the letter. And then remember that our story is to be built up solely upon this document. There are to be no characters in the story except those mentioned in the letter, and our task must be to delineate them in such a way that they are in keeping with the suggestions the letter gives us. Here it is."

These are from Fred.

October 30, 1912.


Thank you so much for the tie--it is pretty and I do wear ties sometimes, so I sha'n't let the boys have it.

You must think me rather ungrateful not writing before, but I have been out the last two evenings and have had no time for letters. Yesterday Mother and I went to Birmingham as I had my half-term holiday.

I hope you managed to get some tea after writing to me, otherwise I shall feel so grieved to think I was the cause of your starvation. By the way, I read your latest poem and I don't like it--not that that will trouble you much I'm sure. The idea isn't at all bad, but that's all I like about it.

I haven't a bit of news, and I have just found out it is too late to catch the post to-night, so you will have to wait a little longer for this precious letter--it will be precious, won't it?

Charlie has just come home from his class, so I must bring his food for him. Daddy's lumbago is better, I'm glad to say.

Good-night, and with many thanks

I remain

Excuse this scrawl, but the pen's groggy.

A moment of silence followed the reading of the letter.

"Joe's a lucky boy," said Whitney. "She's a darling."

"The letter doesn't tell us much," said Forbes, as he handed it round for examination; "but more than you might think. Before writing my chapter I summarized the data. Here they are:

"1. _Joe_. He's a member of the 'varsity who writes poetry. Either it's published in some magazine or he sends it privately to her. The blighter has sent Kathleen a tie of some kind-- probably a scarf with his college or club colours. He's got as far as the plaintive stage: he tells her that he is going without his tea just to write to her. (Probably half a dozen crumpets and four cups of tea were simmering inside of him as he wrote). So much for Joe. I'll wager he's a Rhodes Scholar!

"2. _Kathleen_. I put her at seventeen, and (as Whitney says) she's a darling. She's at school still. She's adorably sane. She doesn't care for Joe's yowling poetry (probably he writes Verlaine kind of stuff, or free verse, or some blither of that sort). She has younger brothers ('the boys') and she helps her mother run the house. I think she likes Joe better than she cares to admit--see the touch of coquettishness where she says 'It _will be precious, won't it?' And how adorably she teases him in those four crosses marked 'These are from Fred.' Gad, I'm jealous of Joe already!

"3. _Fred_. I think he's the older brother; probably recently left the 'varsity; a friend of Joe's, perhaps.

"4. _Charlie is one of the younger brothers. He goes to some kind of night school or gymnasium. Probably an ugly little beggar. Why doesn't he get his food for himself?

"5. _The Mother_. Don't know anything about her except that she went to Birmingham with Kathleen.

"6. _The Father_. Has lumbago."

"One thing you don't mention," said Graham. "It's an easy run from here to Wolverhampton on a motor bike!"

"Rather a sell if Joe should turn out a boxing blue, and mash us all into pulp for bagging his letter!" said Whitney. There was a general laugh at this. Whitney was over six feet, rowed number 5 in the Balliol boat, and was nicknamed the Iron Duke for his muscular strength.

"Go on with your chapter, Priapus," said the Goblin.

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