Then, for months, there was nothing in life save work: a careful planning out of day and night in order that sleeping and eating and exercise might encroach as little as possible on the working hours.
From early morning till late at night the desperate meek untidy heads of girls were bowed over tables in the library, their faces when they lifted them were feverish and blurred with work.
Pages rustled; pencils whispered; squeaking shoes tiptoed in and out. Somebody tapped out a dreary tune on her teeth; somebody had a running cold; somebody giggled beneath her breath; somebody sighed and sighed.
This week there was nothing in your mind save the machine which obeyed you smoothly, turning but dates and biographies, contrasting, discussing, theorizing.
Judith walked in a dream among the pale examination faces that flowed to their doom. Already at nine o'clock the heat struck up from the streets, rolled downwards from the roofs. By midday it would by extremely unpleasant in Cambridge.
This was the great examination hall. Girls were filing in, each carrying a glass of water, and searching in a sort of panic for her place. Here was a white ticket labelled Earle, J. So Judith Earte really was expected, an integral part of this grotesque organized unreality. No hope now.
The bench was hard.
All over the room girls' heads turned, nodding and winking at friends, whispering, giggling and grimacing with desperate bravery. One simulated suicide by leaning her bosom on her fountain pen.
Then panic descended suddenly upon Judith. Her head was like a floating bubble; there was nothing in it at all. She caught at threads of knowledge and they broke, withered and dissolved like cobwebs in the hand. She struggled to throw off a crowding confusion of half remembered words.
A headful of useless scraps rattling about in emptiness — The clock struck nine.
'You can begin now', said a thin voice from the dais.
There was an enormous sigh, a rustling of paper, then silence.
The questions had, nearly all, at first glance a familiar reassuring look. It was all right. Panic vanished, the mind assembled its energies coolly, precisely, the pen flew.
After an hour the first pause to cool her forehead with a stick of frozen Eau de Cologne and to sip some water.
Girls were wriggling and biting their pens. Somewhere the toothtapper was playing her dreary tune.
Another hour fled. The trouble was having too much to say, rather than too little. The room was rigid, dark with concentration now.
Three hours. It was over. You could not remember what you had written; but you had never felt more firm and sure of mind. Three hours nearer to life.
A troop of undergraduates passed on the way from their examination room. They looked amused and exhilarated. They stuffed their papers into their pockets, lit pipes, straightened their shoulders and went cheerfully to lunch.
The girls crept out in twos and threes, earnestly talking, comparing the white slips they carried.
'Did you do this one?'
'What did you put for that?'
'Oh, I say! Will they take off marks do you think?'
'It was a beast.'
'Oh, it might have been worse.'
Girls really should be trained to be less obviously female students. It only needed a little discipline.
'Of course I see now I shan't pass — It seems a pity, after all that work — My memory is practically gone —'
Back to the vault now for another three hours.
That day passed smoothly; and the next.
Suddenly there were no answers to be written from nine till twelve, from two till five — no lectures, no coachings, no notes, no fixed working hours. Instead, a great idleness under whose burden you felt lost and oppressed. The academic years were gone for ever.
(Extract from "Dusty Answer" by R. Lehman)
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