“Why, it’s you!” cried Mr. Pomfret, in an excited tone.
“Me again,” said Harriet. “Are you always out without your gown at this time of night?”
“Practically always,” said Mr. Pomfret, falling into step beside her. “Funny you should always catch me at it. Amazing luck, isn’t it?… I say, you’ve been avoiding me this term. Why?”
“Oh, no,” said Harriet; “only I’ve been rather busy.”
“But you have been avoiding me,” said Mr. Pomfret. “I know you have. I suppose it’s ridiculous to expect you to take any particular interest in me. I don’t suppose you ever think about me. You probably despise me.”
“Don’t be so absurd, Mr. Pomfret. Of course I don’t do anything of the sort. I like you very much, but-”
“Do you?… Then why won’t you let me see you? Look here, I must see you. There’s something I’ve got to tell you. When can I come and talk to you?”
“What about?” said Harriet, seized with a sudden and awful qualm.
“What about? Hang it, don’t be so unkind. Look here, Harriet-No, stop, you’ve got to listen. Darling, wonderful Harriet-”
“Mr. Pomfret, please-”
But Mr. Pomfret was not to be checked. His admiration had run away with him, and Harriet, cornered in the shadow of the big horse-chestnut by the Lamb and Flag, found herself listening to as eager an avowal of devotion as any young gentleman in his twenties ever lavished upon a lady considerably his senior in age and experience.
“I’m frightfully sorry, Mr. Pomfret. I never thought-No, really, it’s quite impossible. I’m at least ten years older than you are. And besides-”
“What does that matter?” With a large and clumsy gesture Mr. Pomfret swept away the difference of age and plunged on in a flood of eloquence, which Harriet, exasperated with herself and him, could not stop. He loved her, he adored her, he was intensely miserable, he could neither work nor play games for thinking of her, if she refused him he didn’t know what he should do with himself, she must have seen, she must have realized-he wanted to stand between her and all the world-
Mr. Pomfret was six feet three and broad and strong in proportion.
“Please don’t do that,” said Harriet, feeling as though she were feebly saying “Drop it, Caesar,” to somebody else’s large and disobedient Alsatian. “No, I mean it. I can’t let you-” And then in a different tone: “Look out, juggins! Here’s the Proctor.”
Mr. Pomfret, in some consternation, gathered himself together and turned as to flee. But the Proctor’s bull-dogs, who had been having a lively time with the tree-climbers in St. Giles, and were now out for blood, had come through the archway at a smart trot, and seeing a young gentleman not only engaged in nocturnal vagation without his gown but actually embracing a female (mulier vel meretrix, cujus consortio Christianis prorsus interdictum est) leapt gleefully upon him, as upon a lawful prey.
“Oh, blast!” said Mr. Pomfret. “Here, you-”
“The Proctor would like to speak to you, sir,” said the Bull-dog, grimly.
Harriet debated with herself whether it might not be more tactful to depart, leaving Mr. Pomfret to his fate. But the Proctor was close on the heels of his men; he was standing within a few yards other and already demanding to know the offender’s name and college. There seemed to be nothing for it but to face the matter out.
“Just a moment, Mr. Proctor,” began Harriet, struggling, for Mr. Pomfret’s sake, to control a rebellious uprush of laughter. “This gentleman is with me and you can’t-Oh! good evening, Mr. Jenkyn.”
It was, indeed, that amiable pro-Proctor. He gazed at Harriet, and was struck dumb with embarrassment.
“I say,” broke in Mr. Pomfret, awkwardly, but with a gentlemanly feeling that some explanation was due from him; “it was entirely my fault. I mean, I’m afraid I was annoying Miss Vane. She-I-”
“You can’t very well prog him, you know,” said Harriet, persuasively, “can you now?”
“Come to think of it,” replied Mr. Jenkyn, “I suppose I can’t. You’re a Senior Member, aren’t you?” He waved his bull-dogs to a distance. “I beg.your pardon,” he added, a little stiffly.
“Not at all,” said Harriet. “It’s a nice night. Did you have good hunting in St. Giles?”
“Two culprits will appear before their dean tomorrow,” said the pro-Proctor, rather more cheerfully. “I suppose nobody came through here?”
“Nobody but ourselves,” said Harriet; “and f can assure you that we haven’t been climbing trees.”
A wicked facility in quotation tempted her to add “except in the Hesperides”; but she respected Mr. Pomfret’s feelings and restrained herself.
“No, no,” said Mr. Jenkyn. He fingered his bands nervously and hitched his gown with its velvet facings protectively about his shoulders. “I had better be away in pursuit of those that have.”
“Good-night,” said Harriet.
“Good-night,” said Mr. Jenkyn, courteously raising his square cap. He turned sharply upon Mr. Pomfret. “Goodnight, sir.”
He stalked away with brisk steps between the posts into Museum Road, his long liripipe sleeves agitated and fluttering. Between Harriet and Mr. Pomfret there occurred one of those silences into which the first word spoken falls like the stroke of a gong. It seemed equally impossible to comment on the interruption or to resume the interrupted conversation. By common consent, however, they turned their backs upon the pro-Proctor and moved out once more into St. Giles. They had turned left and were passing through the now-deserted Fender before Mr. Pomfret found his tongue.
“A nice fool I look,” said Mr. Pomfret, bitterly.
“It was very unfortunate,” said Harriet, “but I must have looked much the more foolish. I very nearly ran away altogether. However, all’s well that ends well. He’s a very decent sort and I don’t suppose he’ll think twice about it.”
She remembered, with another disconcerting interior gurgle of mirth, an expression in use among the irreverent: “to catch a Senior girling.”
“To boy” was presumably the feminine equivalent of the verb “to girl”; she wondered whether Mr. Jenkyn would employ it in Common Room next day. She did not grudge him his entertainment; being old enough to know that even the most crashing social bricks make but a small ripple in the ocean of time, which quickly dies away. To Mr. Pomfret, however, the ripple must inevitably appear of the dimensions of a maelstrom. He was muttering sulkily something about a laughing-stock.
“Please,” said Harriet, “don’t worry about it. It’s of no importance. I don’t mind one bit.”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Pomfret. “Naturally, you can’t take me seriously. You’re treating me like a child.”
“Indeed I’m not. I’m very grateful-I’m very much honoured by everything you said to me. But really and truly, it’s quite impossible.”
“Oh, well, never mind,” said Mr. Pomfret, angrily.
It was too bad, thought Harriet. To have one’s young affections trampled upon was galling enough; to have been made an object of official ridicule as well was almost unbearable. She must do something to restore the young gentleman’s self-respect.
“Listen, Mr. Pomfret. I don’t think I shall ever marry anybody. Please believe that my objection isn’t personal at all. We have been very good friends. Can’t we-?”
Mr. Pomfret greeted this fine old bromide with a dreary snort.
“I suppose,” he said, in a savage tone, “there’s somebody else.”
“I don’t know that you’ve any right to ask that.”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Pomfret, affronted. “I’ve no right to ask you anything. I ought to apologize for asking you to marry me. And for making a scene in front of the Proggins-in fact, for existing. I’m exceedingly sorry.”
Very clearly, the only balm that could in the least soothe the wounded vanity of Mr. Pomfret would be the assurance that there was somebody else. But Harriet was not prepared to make any such admission; and besides, whether there was anybody else or not, nothing could make the notion of marrying Mr. Pomfret anything but preposterous. She begged him to take a reasonable view of the matter; but he continued to sulk; and indeed, nothing that could possibly be said could mitigate the essential absurdity of the situation. To offer a lady one’s chivalrous protection against the world in general, and to be compelled instead to accept her senior standing as a protection for one’s self against the just indignation of the Proctor is, and remains, farcical.