26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 46

`Edward of Unique Achievement'

Evelyn Waugh

The following story, subtitled 'A Tale of Blood and Alcohol in an Oxford College, was first published in Cherwell in 1923 and has not been reprinted in Britain since. It will appear in The Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh, edited and introduced by Anna Pasternak Slater, to be published by Everyman on 29 October at f10.99.

Ihave for a long time hesitated to tell this story of Edward. For six weeks past, since Edward late one evening interrupted my essay to grow expansive over my whisky, I have done the manly thing and told no one — at least practically no one. But late- ly this wasting of 'copy' — as good journal- ists are wont to describe the misfortunes of their friends — has been for me a matter of increasing and intolerable regret; and now that I have learned from Anne, 'in a man- ner which it is not convenient to record', much of which Edward and Poxe are igno- rant, I find it wholly impossible to remain silent. I have obscured the identities of the chief actors so far as it has been in my power to do so. Edward at any rate I feel should be safe from detection.

The more I consider the nature of Edward the more incredible it all seems. He is to all outward showing the most wholly and overmasteringly ordinary undergraduate. Every afternoon, nearly, he may be heard ordering his tea down the Carlton Club telephone: 'China tea, dry toast and butter and white cake, for one, please.' He is clothed in tweeds or flannels and usually wears an old Wykehamist tie. No proctor would hesitate to recognise him as a member of the University.

Yet in this is Edward alone among all the other young men in Old Wykehamist ties and the Carlton Club. Some few weeks ago he murdered his tutor, a Mr Curtis. So very few people out of College were aware of Mr Curtis's existence that his sudden death was received without consternation. He was just no more seen, as undistin- guished dons do disappear in large Col- leges. After all it was to everyone's interest to keep things quiet — Mr Curtis's sole rel- ative, a brother with a large practice at Pangbourne, quite realised this when the Warden explained things to him. The police, I think, never heard of it; if they did it was quite soon forgotten. It was said by Poxe — though with how much truth I would not venture to judge — that pressure was brought on Cockburn to keep the affair out of the Isis (there was some doubt about his degree — the Dean of Edward's College was examining it — but, as I say, I will not make myself responsible for any- thing Poxe says).

I do not know why Edward hated Mr Curtis so much. I never had the privilege of meeting him, but as I used to watch him moving about the quad, usually alone or with Anne, who is married to the Warden, I thought that he seemed, considering that he was a history tutor, a pleasant young man enough. But, however that may be, Edward hated him with an absorbing and unmeasurable hatred, so that at last he became convinced that Mr Curtis's exis- tence was not compatible with his own. This was a state of mind into which any undergraduate might have slipped; where Edward showed himself essentially differ- ent from the other young men in Old Wykehamist ties in the Carlton Club was in his immediate perception that the more convenient solution was not suicide but murder. Most undergraduates would kill themselves sooner or later if they stayed up long enough; very few would kill anyone else.

Once decided upon, the murder was accomplished with the straightforward efficiency which one would expect from a student of the cinematograph and one who, until his second failure in History previous (through his inability to draw maps), had been a senior History scholar.

Mr Curtis's room was on the first floor just above the side gate. The side gate was closed at nine and the key kept in the porter's lodge. The other key was kept in the Bursary. Edward knew that this was the key which he would have to take. He went into the Bursary at lunch time and found the Bursar there. The keys were hung on a nail by his desk. The Bursar sat at the desk. Edward began a story of a burned carpet; the Bursar became angry but did not move. He included the sofa; the Bursar stood up but remained at his desk. Edward threw a chair into the conflagration and then described how the three Minimax extin- guishers which he had promised were all empty, 'perhaps during the Bump Supper; you know sir'. It was enough; the Bursar strode up and down thoroughly moved; Edward secured the key and hurrying to his room burned the carpet and the sofa and the chair and emptied the extinguishers in case the Bursar should come to investigate. His scout thought him drunk.

Edward then hurried to Mr Curtis and secured an interview for ten that evening; he sent a note to the President of the Union desiring to speak that evening — it was on Thursday that these things occurred — and then feeling that he had accom- plished a good work, lunched very quietly at the Carlton Club.

After lunch Edward set out on his bicycle and rode through much dust to Abingdon. There, not at the first antique shop but at the smaller one on the other side of the square, he bought a dagger; at Radley he bought a stone and, sitting under a hedge, he sharpened it Returning with this in his pocket, he lay for a long time in a very hot bath. It was with considerable contentment that he sat down to eat dinner alone at the George — there were still several details to be thought out.

The Union that evening was fuller than usual; some politician from London of enormous distinction was speaking. Edward, in private business, asked ques- tions of force and ingenuity about the despatch boxes, the clock, the gas burners in the roof and the busts of the Prime Ministers: he was observed by all. At five- to-ten he slipped out saying to the Teller as he went that he was coming back; others were about him who were making for the coffee room while drinks could still be obtained. Edward's bicycle was among the others at the St Michael Street gate cluster- ing about the notice which forbade their presence. In eight minutes he was back again in his place, reviewing with complete satisfaction his evening's achievement; almost immediately he was called upon to speak. His speech was, perhaps, more suc- cessful as an alibi than as a piece of orato- ry, but few were there to hear it. As he walked home that evening there was singing in his heart. It had been an admirable murder. Everything had hap- pened perfectly. He had gone in at the side gate, unobserved, and reached Mr Curtis's room. His tutor had that habit, more fitting for a housemaster than a don, of continu- ing to read or write some few words after his visitors entered, in order to emphasise his superiority. It was while he was finish- ing his sentence that Edward killed him and the sentence was merged into a pool of blood. On his way back, Edward had gone down George Street as far as the canal and there had sunk the dagger. It had been a good evening, Edward thought.

Hastings, the night porter at Edward's College, always liked to delay people and talk to them in the porch. It was a habit which many resented, but Edward tonight was so overflowing with good nature that he actually started the conver- sation.

`A dull debate at the Union tonight, Hastings.'

`Indeed, sir; and did you speak?'

`I tried to.'

'Ali, well, sir; if you wanted excitement you should have stayed in College tonight. Most unusual happenings, sir. I don't think I ever remember anything quite like it hap- pening before, not since I've been at the College.'

`Why, what's happened, Hastings?'

`You may well ask, sir. I knew his Lord- ship would come to a bad end.'

`Do tell me what has happened, Hast- ings.'

`Well, sir, you knows what Lord Poxe is when he gets drunk, sir. There's no stopping him. Well, he come in tonight, sir, oh, very drunk. He never see me when I opened the door — just ran in and fell down on the grass. Then he gets up and starts swearing something wicked — said the dons hadn't no right to put grass there for a gentleman to fall over. Said he was going to go and murder the lot of them.'

`Well, Hastings?'

`Well, he's done it, sir.'

`What! All of them, Hastings?'

`No, sir, not all; but Mr Curtis, sir. The Dean went to find him to tell him to go to bed and found him asleep on the floor of Mr Curtis's room and Mr Curtis,' with great glee, 'dripping blood, sir. Quite slow- ly, pit-a-pat, as you might say.'

`Well, I'm damned!'

`Yes, indeed, sir. So was the Dean. He is with the Warden now, sir.'

The sky filled with chimes; it was twelve o'clock.

`Well, I must go to bed, Hastings. It's a funny business.'

`Yes, sir, and good night, sir.'

`Good night, Hastings.'

So Edward went to bed with a grave dis- quiet. It was a pity that Poxe should have done this; it was really a very great pity. But as he grew sleepier the conviction grew that perhaps this was the best that could have happened. He thought of Poxe — a sad figure. His father had been forced to resign from the Diplomatic Corps after that disgraceful business with the Montene- grin minister's younger daughter, and had then married his first cousin, begotten an heir and drunk himself to death at the age of 42. It was thought that Poxe would never beget an heir, and it was certain that he would not live to be 42. He was nearly always half-sober. And so Edward's thoughts drifted to the decay of great fami- lies, to Renaissance Italy, and then far away beyond St Mary's tower where it was just striking half-past twelve. A good evening and sleep . . . .

Everyone in College had heard the story next morning. It reached me through my scout who called me with: 'Half-past seven sir, and Lord Poxe has murdered Mr Cur- tis.' I met Poxe in the bathroom, very white and dejected. I asked him about the mur- der.

`Well, I suppose I've rather rotted things up this time. I can't remember a thing about it except that I was furious about some grass, and that two people put me to bed. It's a melancholy business. They can't hang me, can they?'

I suggested inebriates' asylum and had my bath. I was sincerely sorry about poor Poxe, but felt he would probably be better shut up. After all it was not safe to have a• man who did that sort of thing about the College; it was not as though he was sel- dom drunk. I went to breakfast at the Old Oak tea rooms and found Edward there.

He was in great form, and for this I disliked him, that he should be in good form at breakfast; however, he was really rather amusing about the Poxe murder as it was already called.

Edward asked if he might work in my rooms — he knew I never used them — as he had had a fire in his. I said that I wanted them this morning and advised the Union. Then I went back.

At about eleven, I saw from my window the Warden's side door open and Poxe come, out, radiantly cheerful. I called him into my room, and he told me of what had happened. It must certainly have been a cheering interview for Poxe.

He had gone to see the Warden with all the trepidation that should befit a young nobleman suddenly confronted with the prospect of being hanged. The old man had been seated on one side of the table with the Dean next to him. Poxe had been asked to sit down. The Warden had begun: `I have asked you to come and see me, Lord Poxe, in what for both of us, I think, and certainly for me, is a very bitter occa- sion. Last night, when in a state of intoxica- tion, as you will perhaps have been informed, you entered the room of your tutor, Mr Curtis, and stabbed him to death. I suppose that you do not deny this?'

Poxe was silent.

`It was a foolish act, Lord Poxe, an act of wanton foolishness, but I do not wish to be hard on you.' The Warden's voice broke with emotion. 'My poor boy, you are the 15th Lord Poxe and, as I have at different occasions reminded you, not unconnected with my own family. Lady Emily Crane, your great aunt, you will remember, mar- ried a Mr Arthur Thorn, my grandfather. I feel that the College owes it to your posi- tion to treat this matter as discreetly as possible.'

Poxe nodded enthusiastically. Among tradesmen and dons he had always found his title of vast value.

`The Dean and I have discussed the mat- ter at some length and have come to the conclusion that there is no reason why this matter should be referred to the ordinary State authorities at all; it has, as, of course, you are aware, always been a principle of University government so far as is possible to impede and nullify the workings of the ordinary courts of law. In this case it seems particularly advisable, as it is only too likely that the criminal courts would be unwilling to treat this matter with the clemency which we think desirable.

Nor, indeed, is a precedent far to seek.

In the 15th century a commoner of this College struck off the head of the Bursar — true, that was in open fight and not before the young man had received severe injuries; but things, of course, were far rougher then. On that occasion the distin- guished scholar who held the position it is my privilege unworthily to occupy inflicted upon the delinquent the fine of twopence to be paid to the Bursar's relatives.'

Poxe brightened.

`Of course, the value of the penny has, since that time, markedly decreased, but calculating it as nearly as one can in days of rather haphazard accountancy, the Dean and I decided that the fine must have val- ued about 13 shillings.

`I need hardly say, Lord Poxe, that this whole matter has been acutely distressing to the Dean and myself. We hope and trust that it will not occur again. It is probable that in the event of a second offence the College would find itself unable to treat the matter with the same generosity. Thank you, Lord Poxe.'

And thus the interview closed and Poxe went out, elated, to celebrate his escape in the manner which most immediately sug- gested itself to him; and Edward, in his fire-blackened room, felt that everything was turning out well. Without difficulty, an aged and dissolute doctor was unearthed in St Ebbs, where he lodged in squalor with one of the College servants, and earned an irregular livelihood by performing operations in North Oxford; this sorry man was persuaded to write a certificate of death from natural causes. The funeral was brief and ill-attended. The Warden toiled for three days in the compo- sition of a Greek epitaph and on the third evening persuaded the Dean to write one in Latin. And so for Poxe and Edward the matter ended.

One thing I feel should be added. It is merely an incident that may be of no signif- icance but which may explain much that seems improbable. I was told it in an inti- mate moment by Anne, who is married to the Warden, and of whom many stories are told. This is what she said: that on the night when Mr Curtis died she ran in a high state of emotion to her husband, the Warden, and cried, 'Oh why, why did you kill him? I never really loved him.' She stopped, seeing the Dean there also. He, a gentleman, rose to go, but the Warden detained him. And then Anne, falling on her knees, pounded out a tale of the most monstrous and unsuspect- ed transactions between herself and Mr Curtis.

`Supposing there were a trial,' asked the Warden, 'could this be kept a secret?' The Dean doubted gravely whether this would be possible. And then came to the Warden the full realisation of the imperish- able obligations of precedent, the memory of the head of the Bursar, the appreciation of the greatness of families not unconnect- ed with his own.

`At least, I think it must have been then,' Anne said as she turned up the light.