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Wheat in the Ear

Chapter IX. — The Professor

page 92

Chapter IX.
The Professor.

Stanley Stanton, professor of English literature, was a man of thirty, tall and slender of figure, with the slight stoop of the student. His face was long, narrow, clean-shaven, and smooth; his features marked by a classical delicacy; his forehead was prominent and full, attesting to intellectual development. His hair, which he wore rather long, was light-brown in colour, abundant, and of exquisite fineness; his dark blue eyes were mild and gentle, their glance being exceedingly difficult to arrest, for they were usually gazing afar off with an expression of profound melancholy and abstraction. This absent look was greatly attributable to nervousness. Mankind, in the concrete form, distracted and perplexed him; he had devoted his youth to the study of human nature as presented by the classical masters. Rarely did living, breathing contemporaries stir or stimulate; he sought companionship and page 93 inspiration in the creations of the poets. In their company he was at ease and judicial, quick to discover alike merit and improprieties. He was never insensible to literary excellence, and discerned with acuteness; but when flesh and blood took the place of imagery, he was confounded, confused, and silent, any momentary pleasure he derived from passing intercourse being more than paid for by the reaction of disappointment. His sensibility to excellence had become so abnormal by close study of the ideal, that the contradictions and inconsistencies of human nature disgusted him, and his fastidiousness made him unsociable, although naturally of a gracious and amiable disposition.

His elevation of thought and freedom from vice, coupled with his reputation for learning, had established for him a position at college which made his dicta grateful. He regarded his class as a mental receptacle in which to cast the fruit of his researches. He treated the receptacle with liberality, enriching it with the picked product of his industry and scholarship. He was a devout and large-minded worshipper of genius and talent, and his few friends were among those who were, at least, as fair scholars as himself. General acquaintance page 94 with all sorts and conditions of men was repugnant to him, not from arrogance but inadaptability; for he was never able to dissociate the individual from his ideas. The intellectual force was the man to him; and he would have been distressed to learn that Homer's head had ever endured the indign ty of aching. His own reserve and solitude prot cted him from criticism; his finest parts came only under view; his brilliant qualities were public property; the man was undiscussed because unknown. Whether his innermost heart and mind held vague longings and unsatisfied desires, as the innermost heart of most men do, none questioned. He was startlingly punctual; the moment the university clock sounded the last stroke of seven, before the tower had ceased to vibrate from the bell, he appeared, silent as an apparition, through the doorway beside his platform; and at the last stroke of eight disappeared as silently. The information he condensed into that hour continued to be a marvel to his students.

When his eyes fell upon Joan, with an expression that told that his brain went with them, she felt that a personal episode might be recorded in the memoranda of her day.

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She read a suggestion of interest in the purpleblue eyes.

“You are a careful student, and possess artistic observation,” said the Professor.

Joan flushed with pleasure, and Miss Goodyear with vexation. Should the girl discover the power of her art, she would be allured from the emotionless and systematic part allotted to her.

Joan was holding her head proudly under the Professor's praise, her physical beauty heightened by excitement and anticipation. In a moment Miss Goodyear had drawn off the Professor's attention mastering it and riveting it upon herself. She regarded this man as a pure apostle of learning; there was no coquetry in look or thought; his delicate austerity set him apart from sex. She feared nothing but the force of his dicta on the passion which slumbered, or only blazed fitfully, in the girl's mind.

So soon as the Professor could do so courteously, he turned again to Joan and questioned the method of her study—her first discovery of expression. She answered him promptly, with a communicativeness unusual with her, introducing the farm life in her replies; and Miss Goodyear noticed the Professor's page 96 perplexity and surprise, which told his thought that the daintily-proportioned and intelligent girl before him was not a typical farm girl. He murmured some words from “The Miller's Daughter,” and having found a precedent, his perplexity passed away, and he gave himself again to the subject that engaged them, glowing and expanding.

“I tried,” said Joan, “to catch the harmonies of Nature, and read them into the poet's interpretation.”

“—Interpretation!” echoed the Professor. He had an odd fashion, when following closely, of reiterating, in an undertone, the speaker's final words. It was always a sign that he was interested, and listening intensely. He was sensitive and susceptible of impression, and this growing girl impressed him with her ardour. How had she, untaught, hit upon this illumination of expression, which had escaped the rigidities of his training? She had suggested a connection between sound and colour.

Joan, conscious of his changed demeanour, chatted on:

“I have promised Miss Goodyear faithfully,” she was saying, when he interrupted her.

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“Be accurate. There is fidelity of performance—none of promise. Read Miss Austen on the subject.”

Joan was estranged and extinguished, and, while Miss Goodyear smiled, the girl flushed with humiliation. She resented being thrown back on dry technicalities.

Miss Goodyear soon had the Professor deep in metrical joys, and came up later from her intellectual plunge beautiful and glowing.

On leaving Miss Goodyear's house, Professor Stanton turned towards the river which ran in silver ripples beneath a spring moon. A mist hung about its waters enshrouding the willow-fringed banks in mystery, making distance indiscernible.

Among dark clumps of trees, red lights gleamed from many windows; the tall colleges and villa residences stood for all the world at that moment in Stanley Stanton's range of vision—physical and mental; there was a veil between earth and sky; the beyond was obliterated.

A clock in a neighbouring tower struck ten. The silvery chime was taken up by a deep bass, and passed on into the far distance, with echoes faint and few, leaving the silence tingling with sugges- page 98 tions. The Professor looked at his watch instinctively, and returned it to his pocket, unconscious of the action; paused, gazed into the vista of mistiness, and, finding it unenticing, turned towards one of the red brick houses near. Entering the lighted Gothic porch, he let himself in, and strode along the blue-and-white tiled hall, without a glance right or left, or the pleased dalliance of a man glad to be at home. His footsteps echoed, as footsteps do in an uninhabited house, and as one who receives a shock of loneliness he hurried up the polished stairs, unlocked a door, entered his study and shut the door to quickly, an unusual flurry apparent in his movements. He was impatient to shut himself in with himself—as impatient as though his social call had been a pilgrimage into misery.

He lighted the gas and glanced round, seeking familiar and beloved objects. Like Joan's garret, the room looked east and west. The intervening walls were lined with books, a huge desk standing in the centre of the room. The east window gave a view of the distant city, the lights of which twinkled like golden stars; also of a row of detached villas, among them Girton College, and, at the end of the street, the spires of the university. The west window over-looked page 99 the Avon, its serpentine course being traceable here and there, patches in silver between enshrouding foliage; and beyond, level stretches of the treestudded park.

The Professor gazed first from the east window, then crossed to the west. After a few minutes he returned to the eastern one. Finally his gaze was focussed to the red light in Girton Cottage porch, which, a little to his right, gleamed ruddily among the foliage upon the opposite side of the belt.

“An exquisite voice,” he murmured; “passionate, delicate, refreshing as song. A fine instrument of expression. As an elocutionist she would take rank. Will Miss Goodyear introduce her to the public?”

There was no answer from the direction in which he gazed, and, finding scanty leisure from the calls of his profession, he seated himself at his desk. He headed a sheet of paper with the line, “City-born Poets.” But he did not add to it. The girl's voice had him in toils. What music she extracted from words, and infused into them! She was an interpreter of the poets. Did she approach them as men to be revered, or adopt their music as a strain best fitted for that instrument of hers? Did she utilise them simply for sound effects, or approach them with page 100 intellectual integrity? Her tones vibrated with artistic passion; they seemed an outpouring of tender comprehension. He sighed; his life had been a continual and futile effort for expression, but his critical faculty would permit him no satisfaction at any attempt made; ignorance and egotism threw no glamour over his work. Mediocrity he despised, and he dissected his own productions mercilessly, permitting them no public life. From boyhood his accumulative faculty had been remarkable. His study had been profound; but he had no inspiration, no creative power. He could sit in judgment, dissect, assimilate; but he could not make. Tonight a girl had told him that he could not realise, that the lark only could interpret Shelley's “Skylark.”

The vague aspiration of his youth had been utterance; in this hour this desire took inordinate proportions; that which had been of worth to him, that accuracy in which he prided, sank into insignificance; his knowledge seemed poor and mean. In this hour of intellectual anguish he would have bartered his accumulated learning for that enfranchisement of spirit, that freedom from bond and technicality which means speech. His eyes were page 101 dulled with suffering, his nervous hand trembled as he drew Keats towards him. He read for a minute only, then hid his pale face in the volume. Was anything left to say? Had not all been expressed? Did not the perceptions of the masters link together all reasonings and conclusions of all time and space? Every graceful embodiment of an idea was old; there was nothing for the writer of to-day but a modified version of impressions received. What use in striving after originality? Was he not better employed as a student? Was not the passive attitude the only one left to literature?

With trembling hand he began to write. His theme required only accuracy; his mission was to convince, not charm. He was concerned with knowledge more than beauty.

When the dawn broke he was reading Jean Ingelow's “Honours.”

“Still must I plod, and still in cities moil,
From precious leisure learned leisure far,
Dull my best self with handling common soil;
Yet mine those honours are.
“Mine they are called; they are a name which means
‘This man has steady pulses, tranquil nerves.’
Here, as in other fields, the most he gleans
Who works and never swerves.
page 102 “We measure not his mind; we cannot tell
What lieth under, over, or beside
The test we put him to: he doth excel,
We know, where he is tried;
But if he boast some further excellence,
Mind to create as well as to attain—”

He closed the book hurriedly, and turned off the gas.