No doubt I might have tossed a monkey wrench into the Wheel of Fortune. As chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, I could have insisted that Eliot be kept on. I had nothing to lose. I am sixty-three, only scant years from retirement. An old bachelor, having given no hostages and having put money in my purse, I could have forced the issue. And for a while, I must admit, I was foolishly tempted. When you get along in years and have no family, you are a lonely man. It was as if I had suddenly been presented with a brilliant son and a charming daughter-in-law to fuss over me. Eliot and his wife Sharon had youth and freshness. They pumped vitamins into me. They were an elixir, a fire where I could warm myself. However, good sense won out. Sure, I could have rammed Eliot down the Dean's throat. But the Dean would never have promoted him, and the poor bastard would have remained the perennial assistant professor growing the long sharp nose of disappointment. Besides, in the final analysis, the Dean was right.
It is the law in Yarmouth, Carlyle once wrote, that every herring hang by its own head. I am perfectly ready to hang by mine. Yes, the responsibility lies with me. In fact, not only was I the unwitting trigger mechanism, but, as you will see, when it came right down to it, I cast the deciding vote. I could have made the fight and got Eliot his tenure. On the other hand, if I were misjudging the Dean's temper, the whole affair might have blown up in our faces.
How can you convince the unknowing public that the linen you are washing may be just slightly soiled? Or that a kind of experiential wisdom resides in the cultural pattern which rejects someone like Eliot? Yes, I could have raised a mighty fuss. And all for what? To get Eliot a tenure contract. These days all you hear about is tenure, as if it were the passport to Zion. Well, I may not be lovable, but I guess I am an old cynic. In theory, once you are on tenure, you cannot be dismissed except after open trial, and only on charges of treason, immorality, or incompetence. However, there are more ways than one of skinning a professor. As for the sense of security that tenure is alleged to give you, I can refer you to the pleasantry current on our campus: you spend your thirties worrying about the treason clause, your forties worrying about the immorality clause, your fifties worrying about the incompetence clause, and your sixties worrying about retirement.
No, the essential point was that Eliot was still at an age -- thirty-two -- when I could get him another berth. Provided, obviously, that he departed without too much of a stink. Besides, I realized that I myself had been guilty of a stupid mistake. Indeed, two stupid mistakes. In the affaire Wentworth, the original sin was probably mine. With those three syllables probably, I pay my respects to the factor of Eliot's personality, to the ever-present variables, and to the mystic presences. Thank God for probably. Even with that sedative, I lost many a night's sleep. After all, even a lovable old cynic knows when he has behaved shabbily.
I recall the cold bright morning last January when Eliot dropped into my office to exchange amiable insults. On an impulse, which I was soon to regret, I tossed a folder across the desk. It was instantly recognizable as one of those folders descending upon a chairman like a flock of birds each spring, containing the photograph, the official transcripts and credentials, and the weary letters of recommendation, sent out by the graduate schools peddling their latest crop of Ph.D.'s. This one, from Chicago, was a very early robin indeed. And for good reason. The candidate happened to be a Negro, and they were going to need plenty of time to place him. If ever.
"How about hiring this baby," I asked prankishly, "and changing the complexion of the department?"
As soon as Eliot looked at the photograph and saw the Negroid face, he said in an acid voice: " 'And Laughter holding both his sides.' "
That was his favorite comment on a bad joke or an ornate piece of pedantry. It was one of the things I rather liked about him. He was refreshing. (Fresh! my colleagues would snort.) Agreed that Eliot sometimes rubbed us the wrong way. He did rub through the incrustation of the stale, the pretentious, the solemnly timid. And another thlng. How many of our sociologists could have thrown out a verse from Milton? As Eliot stood there with the cold flat morning light on his long narrow face, I found myself contrasting him with our standard product. He was no slave to the professional cliche, and he had done some reading. Nowadays we no longer read Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Aristotle, even Sumner and Boas. All we read is one another's textbooks, monographs, and reprints. Reproduction by cross-sterilization! Well, well, my dotage must be upon me. Forgive this digression into an old-fashioned viewpoint.
When I saw how seriously engrossed Eliot was in the folder, I realized that I had blundered. With an offhand manner, I tried to take it from him. But he merely frowned, stepped back, and went on with his study. Somewhat annoyed with him (and myself too), I beheld him at his least attractive. Certainly his posture would have taken no prizes. Not quite six feet in height, spindly, his shoulders stooped, his chest collapsed, he looked consumptive. And his clothes! He was apt, as on that morning, to be wearing black shoes (unshined) with a brown suit (unpressed). His head, however, compelled attention. Nose and chin were firmly cut. Thick brownish-black hair parted on one side and a heavy tangle of eyebrow deepened the swarthiness of the face. And dark-brown eyes looked out from under the drooping eyelids with a quizzical irreverence, an irreverence arising, as I had come to understand, not out of personal bitterness, but rather out of a need to shield his own honesty in a world of sham and cant. Without the mockery of his eyes, his face would have seemed saturnine, almost sullen. What never failed to astonish me was that this unpolished specimen had done both his undergraduate work and his doctorate at Princeton!
By every token, he should have enjoyed an immediate academic success. His training was excellent, his mind keen. His very name and family should have been a warrant of soundness. And yet, even though the market was tight, Michigan had given him the heave-ho after the customary three-year probation. Three years are, of course, time enough for the man's slip to show. Perhaps my colleague had been right in questioning his appointment. Perhaps their doubts had been more than a rationalization of their fears for their little bailiwicks. Perhaps that sixth sense of the academic world had detected the unreliable, the non-conformist, the odor of the stake. I could readily understand why Michigan had unloaded him, however reluctantly. Was it, indeed, wise to take a chance when you could procure the safe article? And Eliot was difficult. He was not quite the do-gooder so abhorred by present-day sociologists, but he was the gadfly type, even if he did lack the unpleasant self-congratulatory air which so many of that type have. To add to the difficulty, a small trust fund gave him an income which, while not sufficient for a man with a wife and child to flourish on, was just enough to deprive him of the useful virtue of docility ordinarily bestowed upon one by the providence of financial exigency. For instance, he spoke up his convictions brusquely, without paying the small toll of hesitation, circumlocution, and qualification demanded by academic propriety. As on that January morning.
"Say, this fellow really is first-rate," he said, looking up from the folder. "You've got to hire him, Harry."
"Now hold your horses," I said with an uneasy laugh. "You know we can't hire a Negro."
"Don't be infantile, Eliot! Do I have to point out to you that this is not Liberia, but the good old U.S.A.?"
"Do I have to point out to the eminent Prof Sanders that this is a university, not a country club? We've even got a couple on the basketball team."
I sighed. I knew I was in for it. "Listen to reason, Eliot. The great day hasn't dawned yet. You don't go out and hire a Negro the way you buy a standing rib roast. You've got to look at the broader picture."
That last wasa fatuous remark, and I suppose I deserved Eliot's grimace of disgust. "For Christ's sake, Harry, you're not going to turn into a god-damned administrator right before my eyes!"
Nevertheless, the grimace and the words stung, and I committed my second blunder. "Where have you been the last two and a half years?" I demanded sharply. "I thought I hired a trained anthropologist, not a starry-eyed English professor. Haven't you been observing the mores around you? May I inquire whether you have ever seen a Negro in one of our local barber shops? Or in one of our local restaurants?"
I stopped short. For looking at Eliot's face, I instantly realized that the poor innocent had not noticed. And for once, he was speechless He was in a state of moral shock. It was clearly a case of "Came the light." His eyes had been opened.
Of course, once Eliot created that scene in Corbin's and then got himself interviewed by the local newspaper, his doom was sealed. In the life scholastic, the only public scene you create is to read a paper at the American Sociological Society, and the only interview you give is to The New York Times, whose liturgical style swaddles all improprieties. While I was myself not a witness to the scene in Corbin's, I had a detailed account from a colleague who happened to be there; and having also twice by chance been present at similar scenes, I can easily picture what took place.
Let us set the stage. Occupying a fine old red-brick house, Corbin's is the most elegant restaurant in town, listed by both Duncan Hines and A.A.A., with a refined air and subdued sound, food a little too spiritualized for my taste, and Corbin himself always on the premises playing the character part of Mine Host. Enter, at about six-thirty, the height of the dinner hour, Eliot, pale with resolution, accompanied by an extremely nervous Negro graduate student in Music who (poor bastard) has been per- suaded to undergo this public humiliation on behalf of his people. Follows the stage business of craning of necks by the diners, among whom are some of the town's leading citizens. Corbin bustles forward to Eliot: "I'm very sorry, sir, but we're just about to close for the evening, and we're not seating any more patrons." Meanwhile, the waitresses, on cue, turn off the outside lights and pull down the front window shades. That was Corbin's effective way of dealing with this kind of situation. He would remain imperturbably polite and bland in the face of all protests, and he would lock the front door and surrender whatever business might yet have come to him that evening.
As Walter Scott remarked, a pedagogue is a man among boys and a boy among men. By bad luck, the boy Eliot had stumbled among men. The local sheet, as we all know, is the tool of the Democratic machine. Its editor was happy to be given this opportunity to embarrass not only the university, but also the Governor of the state, a Republican whose re-election depended on the large Negro vote in the industrial centers. Such are the sordid details. No one but Eliot was surprised to discover his interview about the incident in Corbin's boxed on page one in 14-point boldface. Eliot trotted out the usual platitudes and put them through their paces to remind us that our great Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens of the state, regardless of race, creed, or color. Even as I squirmed, I could not help being entertained at observing how the individual had been submerged in the role. The interview did not sound like Eliot at all. It sounded like any Indignant Liberal.
You may wonder whether I am not doing young Eliot an injustice. Having resided for only two short years in a community with an extravagantly ramified structure (plus the superimposed stresses of town and gown), how was he to be cognizant of all the boxes within boxes and wheels within wheels? But, after all, he was an anthropologist, with a brain and 20-20 vision. I must confess to a certain disappointment in him. Sent out to do a study of an Indian tribe, he would have come back smelling like a wigwam and loaded down with penetrating notes. Nonetheless, in his own everyday surroundings he proved to be as unobservant as a medieval mystic contemplating his own navel. There must be some anticatalyst in the university medium which retards the process of maturation. Take a salesman, a lawyer, or a candlestickmaker at age thirty-two. He would not have fallen into that error. Even after a casual reading of the newspapers, he would have been aware of the local folkways and of the political set-up. And he would have known that while our Board of Regents might overlook a moderate amount of immorality and a rather sizable amount of incompetence, it would not overlook violations of the first of the academic commandments: Don't be a troublemaker.
The day the interview appeared, I called Eliot into my office and we came as close to a stormy scene as I have ever come. "What precisely did you hope to accomplish by that silly business at Corbin's?" I demanded.
Eliot, looking sallow and strained, smiled at me for a moment before replying. "Put it down to heedless misguided youth, Harry. Someone has to get the old mule Society moving."
"I must say, Eliot, that the gadfly type has always been a puzzle to me. Indeed, I might well have voted to give Socrates the hemlock, if only to get rid of a public nuisance. How can an otherwise sensible person, mindful of the multiplicity of our social forces and the complexity of their interplay, presume to attempt to put the world in joint and make a fictive Justice prevail?"
"That, gentlemen, is the question before us," said Eliot dryly. I snorted my annoyance. "Eliot Wentworth, one of God's angry men!"
"No, Harry," he said quietly. "I don't enjoy being a public spectacle, and I think I know what I may be in for. But I can't help myself. I can't just stand by. I guess I'm one of those for whom the bell tolls. Some He made beasts of the field, and some He made fowls of the air."
"Okay. I admit we're not alike. I suppose that ultimately, unless you go in for the Freudian claptrap, it must come down to a problem in physiology. Given the right sort of test tube, flask, and Bunsen burner, one could work out the reaction that generates such a head of steam. But that question still plagues me: What did you hope to accomplish?"
"It all depends on whether you believe in social progress. Someone has to stir things up to prevent paralysis from setting in." Then he smiled mockingly. "At the very least, I added a little drama to the drab existence of the Administration."
That last crack made me cross. "Now who do you think battles with the Legislature for your salary check, and stands between you and all the bigots and jackasses in the state? You might recollect that elementary law of Society, the Law of the Fleas. Big fleas have little fleas. Conversely, little fleas dwell on big fleas. I carry you, the Dean carries me, the President carries the Dean. Equal rights is just a parcel of words to you. The poor bastard out there on the firing line is the President."
"Sure, sure," Eliot replied impatiently. "That's what he gets paid a princely stipend for."
The scene in Corbin's, I remember, occurred on a Wednesday evening, and the interview appeared on Thursday. The following Monday morning I received a phone call from Dean Hendricks inviting me to have lunch with him. I had been expecting that call. I could imagine the conferences over the week-end between him and the President, between the President and the Publicity Director, and very likely between the Governor and one or two of the Regents. That noon I met the Dean at the Faculty Club and we took a table to ourselves in the Ship, over against the sloping timbers between the farthest porthole and the elaborately spoked wheel. Spawned by the daydream of a landlocked architect, the Ship would have foundered in Farmer Brown's Pond, the only body of water in our vicinity. However, there, amid the ship's lanterns, the captain's chairs, the carved bas-relief of winches and capstans, and the other nautical accouterments, the faculty entertained visiting firemen and the Dean broached delicate matters with departmental chairmen.
Although the Dean is exactly my age, you wouldn't guess it. If I say so myself, he looks like an old man. As he sat across the table from me, the bald head with the red-rimmed eyes and the raw wrinkled neck sticking up above the white collar put me in mind of an ancient buzzard. Our conversation proceeded in accordance with immemorial practice, each topic keeping pace with a course in the luncheon. Thus Saturday night's basketball game came in with the vegetable soup; and the prospects for an early golf season, with the veal birds. Eliot came in rather abruptly with the dessert.
"Sanders, did you know Wentworth was going to put on that restaurant act?"
"Of course not, Dean. Wouldn't I have stopped him?"
The Dean studied me severely for a moment. "I don't need to tell you that it has caused the President considerable embarrassment. It couldn't have come at a worse time." He paused to swallow a spoonful of cherry-colored gelatin, then went on in a lowered tone. "What I'm about to tell you is in the strictest confidence. I hope that business of Wentworth's doesn't upset the apple cart. It has caught us in the middle of rather delicate negotiations." His voice trailed off, as though he had suddenly thought better of letting me in on the top secret.
In vain did I search those watery faded-blue eyes. Were there really negotiations? And if so, what were they? Or was the old buzzard simply bamboozling me? I have to acknowledge that I was no match for the Dean. Not only did he have all the advantage of status, but his veined relic of a face rebuffed every attempt of mine to read it. However, I did surmise how the Dean's remarks were going to conclude. By now I could do a definitive treatise on the ritualistic expressions accompanying the academic sacrifice.
"What kind of a fellow is Wentworth anyway?" he asked, as he took out a cigarette. I was already busy filling my pipe.
"Well, Dean, he's not a genius. How many geniuses have we got? But he is the most promising young anthropologist I've come across in several years."
The Dean lit his cigarette and then turned his bleached eyes on me. "I wonder if he isn't going to turn out to be a troublemaker." With that, poor Eliot was as effectively sacrificed as if an Aztec priest had torn out his bleeding heart and held it up still beating for the multitudes to behold.
If I go on with this story, it is because, notwithstanding its already ascertainable denouement, it holds a roadside interest. There is a resemblance here to watching a Greek tragedy. While we fully know the destiny in store for the protagonist, yet the actual working out of that destiny is attended by fascinating variations and surprises. And there were even a few surprises for me, although I was, in a sense, the agent of the Fate calling the turns.
Toward the end of February, I held the customary meeting of our six full professors in the department to pass on promotions, new appointments, and dismissals. Ordinarily, had I been seeking someone's promotion, I would have had them over to the house during the evening, with a good blaze in the fireplace and a decanter of Scotch to soften the resentments and grudges which had accumulated in their very human breasts over the months. But this time I called the meeting for a Saturday morning, and in our seminar room. Aside from the irritation of giving up a Saturday morning to departmental business, I wanted those cheerless bare walls painted an institutional tan and the scratched dusty table and floor to work upon them. Alas, such are the petty dodges a chairman must employ to bring about the decision he knows to be in the best interest of his department. Of course, I had prudently made some preliminary calculations of how the vote might go, and I was fairly positive that Eliot would be dismissed (or rather, not rehired) by a count of four to two. That would have been most agreeable to me, since it would have spared me the unpleasantness of casting a deciding vote and would have made it possible for me (with a decent dis- play of reluctance) to bow to the judgment of my staff. But I was not to be spared.
As I sat at one end of the table that morning and looked around at my colleagues, I felt like a clumsy craftsman surrounded by his botchwork. How had I in my sixteen years as chairman managed to get together so sorry a collection? I remember Eliot saying to me after the first occasion when he met the full professors all together: "Man, you sure can pick 'em! Where'd you get the menagerie?"
Rather huffily I retorted: "We may not be Princeton or Columbia, but that's as good a group of men as you'd find at any of our sister institutions."
"Oh, sister!" Eliot cried.
And I couldn't help laughing. It was, in part, their appearance. I sometimes wonder by what malicious handiwork we academics turn into such freaks. What intaglio process makes the smooth young flesh sink in with the years to bring into sharp relief the hidden quirks, cranks, and crazes, and transforms us into caricatures of ourselves? Well, I suppose I'm no beauty either. However, what dejected me as I looked around the table was the thought of how much talent had leaked out somewhere along the way. Here were men expertly trained and able enough, yet what a disappointment when measured against their early promise. What had happened? Why had they dribbled away (yes, and sold out) their gifts for such trifling gains? Browning's Andrea del Sarto would have shaken his head sadly at them. Their grasp had far exceeded their reach.
The good Lord deliver me from being judged by a jury of my colleagues. I have sat on too many such juries and seen the mystic presences of Academe operate (fortunately, as chairman, above the fray). I have watched spite, rancor, jealousy, guile, jobbery, self-approval, and self-righteousness assert themselves through the thin disguises. Oh, we do no worse unto one another than we are done by! And yet, unbelievable as it may seem, one factor somehow cancels out another, a proper balance is achieved, and generally a sound verdict is reached. As in the case of the University vs. Assistant Professor Eliot Wentworth. Two votes came through for Eliot according to expectation, those of Jolliffe and MacPherson. Jolliffe is our Crime and Social Disorganization man. Even Eliot, who had originally dubbed him the Hairless Jesus, had come to respect him. How that mild spirit succeeds in getting along with murderers, dope fiends, second-story artists, counterfeiters, grifters, prison wardens, and hard-boiled cops is the everlasting marvel of our university administration. Of all the professional Christians I have known, he is the sole exemplar of the meek and lowly of heart. Had Eliot been a safe-cracker or an imbecile, he would still have had Jolliffe's vote. As for MacPherson, our Anthropologist, he is a blunt pragmatic Scotchman, who was then just back, gaunt and brown, from another of his expeditions to Yucatan. With his acquired tolerance for the extremes of human culture and convention, he would not have cared whether Eliot was a polygamist or a cannibal. By yardstick and abacus, he had computed Eliot's published articles as he might have measured a pyramid or a cranium. And the resulting figures had proved fully adequate.
I had, of course, written off those two votes. They were easy enough to predict. The great surprise, and indeed embarrassment, for me was furnished by Atkinson (Social Theory). In this instance a bookie could have made a killing. I would have offered odds of 20 to 1 that Atkinson would howl out a bitter No. I am sure that Eliot's epithet "the Bearded Lady" had come to his ears. How he must have paced the floor, straggly beard aquiver, before he could swallow his mortification and render a just verdict. (Or, as the lovable old cynic in me suggests, did he cast that vote for Eliot out of hostility to me and what he thought I might wish?) Well, admirable as this triumph of the human spirit might be, there was no doubt that the Bearded Lady had presented me with an awkward problem. I had come a long way from being permitted to bow reluctantly to the judgment of my staff. I now had to have all the three other votes even to be given the chance as chairman to cast the deciding vote. Otherwise, I would be put in the extremely painful position of having to override my colleagues in order to get rid of Eliot.
Luckily, there is a certain predictability in human behavior and, aside from one anxious moment, the others came through as I had made book. Take Rausch, our Population and Statistics man. Observing him that Saturday morning, the way a woman might observe her husband after a decade and a half of marriage, I asked myself: "How in the world did Rausch ever look good to me?" He has an overstrained waxen face and a stammer. And he is vain, incredibly so, vain as only a pedant can be. He was my first important appointment; all I can say in my defense is that in his middle thirties he had seemed a brilliant catch and I had had to outbid both Nebraska and Duke for him. However, I had failed to detect the secret core of timidity or insecurity which was later to drive him into a series of safe little articles, an endless succession of inconsequential population studies dug out of the census figures for the counties, towns, and villages of our state. The kind of problem this eminent scholar set for himself was, How do villages under 500 compare with towns between 500 and 2,000 in the percentage of children joining the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Or, What percentage of the population of Stark County ranged according to income levels are high-school graduates? Since our state has a hundred counties and hundreds of towns and villages, these invaluable little studies could go on forever. And did.
It is a sad spectacle. Yet which department cannot boast its Rausch? Most of us on the faculty, when we glance at the long list of titles in his annual bibliography, recognize it as a case of compulsive scholarship, smile tolerantly, and think: "There but for the grace of the great god Neurosis go I." But not Eliot. That enfant terrible found it behooved him to ask one afternoon: "Dr. Rausch, what is the percentage of left- handed crapshooters in Elkinsville?" Rausch never forgot that. And when the time came to sit in judgment, he stammered with an earnest mien radiating impartiality: "It's true that Wentworth does have a kind of superficial flair, but do you think his approach to things is really at bottom a scholarly one?" Ah, but those fifty-year-old wattles fluttered with repressed fury.
Another interesting case was Dobbs (Family and Marriage). Dobbs is tall, erect, and clean-cut, an earlier handsomeness casting an air of distinction over his sixties, though his ashen hair has gone very thin. He enjoys a reputation with the ladies, and he dresses elegantly, going in for pearl-gray vests and Homburgs. (Eliot christened him the Clothes Horse.) He is a smooth number and nobody's fool. I remember his once saying to me, after he had been needled by Eliot: "Sure, Harry, you as chairman can afford to have a jester around. But we others at court can't regard him with precisely the same favor." Tracing his initials with his finger tip in the dust of the seminar table, Dobbs also put on the mask of impartiality. What he said was: "I suppose Wentworth is clever enough, but it seems to me that he's dispersing his energies." Now that was good, coming from Dobbs. The only energy he disperses is in knocking over the bottle in bottle pool at the Faculty Club. But here again, part of the picture was hidden. I knew what was eating him. Sharon! Yes, at a faculty dance she had once turned down a little proposition of his. I knew this because she had confided in me.
That leaves me with Frobisher, who handles our work in Methods. Everyone knows him for my yes-man. A tall black-haired fellow in his late forties, with a neat black mustache, Frobisher looks like a foreign diplomat. It is, incidentally, not me he yesses, but my status. He would do shameless flipflops to vote the way his Chairman wishes. And apparently he has worked out a rationale for himself which makes him impervious to amazed stares and sly smiles. Eliot addressed him once as Mrs. Bloom, to his great mystification, since he had never heard of Joyce nor of that notorious last chapter in Ulysses. While I can't say I respect Frobisher any more than his other colleagues do, I must confess that a chairman often finds a yes-man extremely useful.
Strangely enough, it was Frobisher who furnished the anxious moment. Indeed, he gave me quite a turn. The trouble was that I neglected to take into account the power of the conditioned reflex. For two years now I had conditioned Frobisher so that Eliot Wentworth's name was the signal for a chant of approval. That is why I was almost caught off base. Taking it for granted that I was all for keeping Eliot, Frobisher launched into his paean: "It seems to me that Wentworth is an extraordinarily bright young man, in many ways just the sort we want to build into a strong department like ours. Of course, the training he got at Princeton is really excellent. And he puts it to good use. I read that last monograph of his, and I must say it's of a quality you'd expect from a much older man." I suppressed a morbid prompting to let Frobisher run on, to see exactly how far he *could* go and still manage to scramble back over to the other side of the fence. But I knew I could not indulge myself, and I arranged my face in a frown. Sensitive as litmus paper, Frobisher reacted instantaneously. I didn't like doing that to him, but it was necessary. Never have I admired his adroitness as much as then. With hardly a pause, he changed pace almost in mid-sentence: "And, nevertheless, good as Wentworth is, the unfortunate fact is that he happens to be in a field where we already are exceptionally strong (this with a half-bow to MacPherson). Perhaps it would, after all, be wisest to let him go elsewhere and to look around for a young man we can try out in one of the other fields."
As you can see, I had my opportunity to cast the deciding vote. Of course, I was prepared to ride out the inevitable buzzing among the faculty. After all, they recognized a cause-and-effect sequence when they saw one. They had heard about the scene in Corbin's and had read Eliot's interview; now they took note of the failure to reappoint. However, it is not hard to ride out a tempest in the faculty teapot. That is part of a chairman's job. Fortunately, the buzzing is all noise and no sting. Eliot served as a conversation piece at the Faculty Club and at the spring cocktail parties. There was even a salutary cathartic effect: each speaker was furnished a cloak underneath which he could get his own grievances, real or imagined, off his chest. But despite all the talk and the sympathetic head-shakings, not one went to bat for the poor bastard. And to my surprise, breaking the news to Eliot was not rough at all. In fact, hc was gentle with me, as though I were the one getting the bad news. "If you can take it, Harry," he said, "I can." Whether he was letting me off easy because he liked me or because he felt sorry for me, I couldn't tell. In any case, we got him comfortably settled elsewhere.
But Fate had reserved one last twist. It still remained for Prof Harry Sanders That Lovable Old Cynic to receive a kick in his lovable old rump. I remember that whenever Eliot was about to impart an especially ironic morsel, he used to say: "This one is going to kill you!" Well, this one certainly killed me. Early last month the faculty assembled in Zoology Hall, appropriately surrounded by the pickled and bottled specimens in the glass cases lining the walls, for its first meeting of the fall semester. That is the occasion on which the various departmental chairmen introduce their new staff members. As I looked around to see what toll the past summer had taken of my colleagues, I was given a shock that sent the blood flaming to my cheeks. There not more than five rows behind me was a black face! And not even a brown or tan that might pass for a Hindu, but an uncompromising coal black.
To make matters worse, the black face was right next to Dirks, chairman of Chemistry, and, as everyone knows, a hard-bitten illiberal Republican. Even though I understood how desperate a situation Chemistry confronts these days in procuring staff, I couldn't shake away the fact that Dirks the Republican Chemist had done what Sanders the Sociologist had been too timid to do. I was mortified. What would Eliot think when he found out? Might I, after all, have hired the Negro as he suggested, and spared myself all the heartache and tossing? Or, contrary to my skepticism, had Eliot's little act of provocation produced this result, and had some intimation come down from the Republican Governor to the Republican Chemist? In either case, I felt that I had sacrificed Eliot to a phantom, that the Dean had made a monkey of me. Nor was it merely that my amour-propre was wounded. I suddenly realized how acutely I missed Eliot, and Sharon too. I was an old and lonely man. I needed them, their youth, their vigor, their honesty. Even Eliot's mockery had been a tonic to me. I had cheated myself, and at the close of a fairly honorable career had lost my peace of mind to boot.
I explain my reaction at such length only to account for a foolish bit of behavior I might otherwise not have been guilty of. The knife was turning in me. Hence it was that a week or so ago when I met the Dean at the Faculty Club I invited him to have lunch with me. We boarded the Ship and sat at that same table between the farthest porthole and the wheel; and we ate veal birds again, from their toughness probably the same hatch we had had be fore. All the time I was well aware that I was about to do something silly. (If I could really pump Hendricks, would he have got to be Dean?) But I was gripped by an impulse beyond my control. And I suppose I did not improve matters by becoming coy and trying cajolery.
"Dean," I said, "I don't know whether you ever ran across a story called The Lady, or the Tiger? It used to be a favorite in high-school English classes."
The Dean looked up at me, nodded, and said: "Frank Stockton." Then he bent his head back to his food.
"Well, you may recall how it ends," I went on. "The reader never does find out whether the poor bastard out there in the arena finally gets the lady or the tiger. Somehow I was put in mind of that story the other day at the faculty meeting when Dirks introduced that new assistant professor of his. Just as a matter of curiosity, Dean, last winter when you and I were talking about Eliot Wentworth, were you already negotiating for the black chemist? Or did Wentworth's little piece of agitation put the heat on and make you look around for one as a political gesture? Come on, Dean, which was it? Just between us girls."
The Dean remained silent, occupied with carving his veal bird. He put a forkful into his mouth and chewed deliberately, looking down at his plate. I counted the number of times those jaws chomped (eleven), and watched the progress of that mouthful as it moved along the raw wrinkled neck and down into the gullet. At last he lifted his relic of a face to mine and regarded me with those watery red-rimmed eyes. And all I got out of the old buzzard was a slow elaborate wink.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:26 EDT