Read The Sibyl in Her Grave Online

Authors: Sarah Caudwell

The Sibyl in Her Grave

To Anne, who
stands between me
and chaos

PROLOGUE

FOR CERTAIN OF MY
academic colleagues—I resist the temptation to refer in this context to the Bursar—the chief purpose of publication appears to be self-advertisement. Were it so for me, I should no doubt modify my account of the recent curious events in Parsons Haver in such a way as to reflect more credit on myself, for at more than one stage in my consideration of them I reached conclusions which afterwards proved erroneous. It was not until after the last of three mysterious deaths that finally the truth became clear to me.

I fear, however, that I myself cannot think it right to attempt to enlist Scholarship in the service of personal vanity or worldly ambition: she is the servant of Truth and can own no other allegiance. Though I may do less to promote my own reputation than I might hope would be to my advantage, and less to enhance the academic standing of my College than some will consider to be my duty, I cannot bring myself to place before you, dear reader, anything but a strictly accurate account of the events I have mentioned. If I thereby have
the misfortune to displease the Bursar, I must be resigned to enduring his displeasure.

By the same token, I cannot think that it would be seemly for me, as the historian of these events, to present myself as if I had played a leading role in them, thrusting myself on the attention of my readers like an amateur actor, cast as a spear-bearer, ineptly trying to shoulder his way into the spotlight. The place of the historian is not at the centre of the stage but in the shadows at the side, observing and explaining the actions of the protagonists in the drama. I shall not, therefore, take up your time and attention with any description or account of myself.

Some of my readers, it is true, have been kind enough to say that they would like to know more about me—what I look like, how I dress, how I spend my leisure hours and other details of a personal and sometimes even intimate nature. I do not doubt, however, that these enquiries are made purely as a matter of courtesy and that to take them
au pied de la lettre
would be as grave a solecism as to answer a polite “How do you do, Professor Tamar?” with a full account of the state of my digestion. Of what interest can it be to the reader of a work of history whether the writer of it is tall or short, thin or fat, of fair or dark complexion? It would seem to me an impertinence on my part to claim the attention of my readers for such trivia. Maintaining, therefore, that modest reticence which I think becoming to the historian, I shall say no more of myself than that my name is Hilary Tamar and that I am the Tutor in Legal History at St. George’s College, Oxford, of which I have the honour to be a Fellow.

In particular, I shall not explain my reasons for deciding, shortly after the end of the summer term, to spend
a few days in London: suffice it to say that the Bursar was still in residence at St. George’s and enough is enough. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Timothy Shepherd, a former pupil of mine now in practice at the Chancery Bar, has a flat conveniently situated at the top of Middle Temple Lane: I telephoned him, knowing the generosity of his nature, in reasonably confident hope of an offer of hospitality.

Timothy expressed his regret that he himself would be absent during the period I mentioned and thus unable to entertain me in person—he was appearing in a case in Manchester or Brussels or some such place. He kindly invited me, however, to treat the flat as my own during his absence and promised to leave a set of keys for me with Selena Jardine, a member of the same Chambers, to be collected on my arrival in London.

At about four o’clock in the afternoon on the Thursday before midsummer, I mounted the steps of 62 New Square and opened the door of the Clerks’ Room, intending to ask Henry, the Senior Clerk, to tell Selena of my arrival.

Plan of Parsons Haver
as drawn by Regina Sheldon for the assistance of visitors
.

1

THE TWO MEN
struggling on the floor of the Clerks’ Room differed widely in appearance: one young, of slender build, dressed in cotton and denim, with honey-coloured hair worn rather long and a pleasing delicacy of feature; the other perhaps in his sixties, tending to plumpness, wearing a pinstriped suit, with the round, pink face of a bad-tempered baby and very little hair at all. They rolled this way and that, as it seemed inextricably entwined, uttering indistinguishable cries and groans, whether of pain or pleasure I could not easily determine. A ladder was also involved in the proceedings.

I concluded after a few moments that their entanglement was neither hostile nor amorous, but of an involuntary nature on both sides, the result, very possibly, of an accidental collision between the older man and the ladder at a moment when the younger was standing, perhaps imperfectly balanced, on one of its upper rungs.

“Sir Robert—Sir Robert, are you all right?”

Selena’s voice, as she ran forward to assist the older
man to his feet, conveyed a tactful mixture of deference, apology and concern—it seemed likely that he was one of her clients. If so, this was not the moment to lay claim to her attention: I withdrew, thinking that a pleasant half hour or so could be spent in visiting Julia Larwood in the Revenue chambers next door.

At 63 New Square I found Julia sitting at her desk, surrounded by papers, tax encyclopedias, half-empty coffee cups, and overflowing ashtrays, more than ever resembling in appearance some particularly dishevelled heroine of Greek tragedy. I concluded that she was working on a matter of some importance.

“Yes,” said Julia, waving hospitably towards an armchair. “Yes, I am. I’m writing a letter to my aunt Regina. She is in urgent need of my advice.” She spoke a trifle defensively, no doubt aware that I would find the claim improbable.

Julia’s aunt Regina, having spent several periods of her life in more distant parts of the world, had now chosen, as I recalled, to settle in Parsons Haver in West Sussex—a charming village on the banks of the Arun or the Adur, I forget which, of the kind that Londoners are usually thinking of when they dream of the pleasures of rusticity. Having at one time in the Middle Ages flourished as a seaport, it has long since been deprived by the changing coastline of any commercial importance; but its cobbled streets, its knapped flint cottages and its fine Norman church continue to attract the discerning tourist and those in quest of an idyllic retirement.

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