Hiram Mason University
By late August the classroom and dormitory buildings at Hiram Mason University were ready, exactly on time. Better yet, it looked as if it would be possible to meet the mortgage payments on them. Unlike almost any other college, ours was designed to actually cover expenses out of tuition. Our buildings were cheap, our administrative costs low, and our largely part-time faculty was cheaper yet. It was fortunate that Lefty had inherited an institution that was accredited, and had managed not to lose that status. The result was that we got the same government-subsidized tuition as any other college. If the college could survive in its expanded condition, the sale of housing would generate the profit.
Everything would be quite crowded, and there would be a few more classes than had originally been allowed. Maria asked,
"Is it better to have a class at seven in the morning or nine at night?"
Lefty decided on seven in the morning. As he said,
"These students'll be earnest and full of energy. It'll seem natural to them to get up at six."
I hoped so. Ralph and I had schedules of our own choosing. My own began at the decent hour of ten.
Another detail was a house for ourselves. We had more or less promised the Smiths, now vacationing in Maine, that we would move into the college neighborhood. None of us wanted to give up the riverfront home we had come to like, if not love, but we obviously had to do something. We decided in the end to have two homes, one at the college where we would spend our weekdays, and the other in Covington for weekends and vacations.
At the college, they were just pouring the concrete for the third circle, the one which was to consist of small duplex apartments with a shared kitchen. Our cook would live in one apartment, and the mate to it would contain, not only the maid's quarters, but the dining room for all of us. We would then flow over the next two buildings, an apartment for each of us, except that Brenda and Maria would share one across from myself.
Jane would fix up all our quarters as attractively as possible, and we would invite over for tea and snacks the young veterans and their wives. I could imagine our remarking, in the presence of all and sundry, how easy it was to walk over to class in the morning without having to commute, and what scope a bare concrete building gave for the creative decorator. We wouldn't be so quick to mention that the kitchens we shared were used only for making tea, or that Jane's interiors were far removed from their budgets.
At the beginning of September, we had the Smiths and some of their friends over for a look. Brenda was in high pitch, and it was hard to imagine that she had previously been in psychic difficulty. When we were alone, Mrs. Smith said to me,
"I'm happy to see Maria looking so well. When we left for Maine, she wasn't speaking."
I told her about Pettigrew and Maria's quick recovery without going into much detail, certainly nothing about Brenda.
Two of our apartments were ready to be seen, and a tea had been arranged. Not being crowded in the manner of the students, we each had an upstairs room of some size from which the partitions had been ommitted. The tea took place in the one Jane had done up for herself. The walls were pure white with paintings hung on them. These were of moderate size, the work of students at the art academy, and of young local artists. They tended to be rather bright, and were good without being overpowering. Jane explained that, while the painters might not have fully developed their individual styles, these were the sorts of people we wished to encourage.
The freshness of the paintings, combined with the ascetic furnishings and the large skylight in the sloping ceiling, gave the feeling of a studio. In the minds of some of these people, an art studio was a place where people did things they might not afterwards acknowledge, and our little party did quickly become less inhibited than it would have been elsewhere.
In circumstances such as ours, it was easy to think of a day in late September as a reverse D-day, the day we were to be invaded. In fact, there had already been an invasion of mail and paper over the past several months. We had been advertizing fairly heavily, and the response in applications for admission had been good. However, since most of the students were veterans getting subsidies from the government, the paperwork was daunting. Lefty's secretaries struggled mightily, but were falling behind just when it looked as if we might actually see some money from the government.
The trouble consisted in the fact that many of the forms hardly made sense. We were sometimes confronted with documents that led us to think that the government believed us to be farmers applying for agricultural aid or shipbuilders desirous of building destroyers. We were all caught up in what was becoming a serious mess when Maria, her class scheduling done, volunteered her services.
The primary reason for her success seemed to consist in the fact that she didn't allow obfuscation to irritate her. According to Maria, American bureaucracy was clear and cogent when compared to that of Germany. I eventually came to realize that nothing about the forms was accidental. If we were forced to sound like farmers, it was because the groups that pushed through the education titles of the G. I. Bill were those who also pushed through agricultural subsidies. They had simply used a little of the same language twice. We, in turn, made ourselves sound like particularly virtuous farmers poised to produce a first-class crop of students. It sounded crazy, but it worked.
There was a general celebration in the office on the day on which the first government cheque arrived.
By contrast, the building of more and more apartments was simple. More concrete was poured, more rafters dropped into slots, and more roofs tacked on. Jane found a couple of young men, unemployed artists, who would construct furniture to her design. As she said to me,
"In buying furniture one is obliged to pay for simplicity. It's necessary to pay people not to vulgarize it. But, if one can find people who don't fancy themselves as furniture designers, quantities of rather decent chairs, tables, and beds can be produced quite cheaply."
In this atmosphere, where problems were being solved every day, an infectious optimism and happiness arose. Jane was playing a larger role in events than she ever had before. One might almost suspect that, in her terms, she had found something to do with her life. Brenda, on the other hand, was becoming ever more convinced that the largest gamble she had ever undertaken would succeed. For Maria, the whole thing was a game, but a diverting one. Her attitude was actually quite close to that of Lefty, who, one day, confided to me,
"This is better'n selling furnaces."
For myself, I was forever the chief steward. I took a certain pleasure in each thing that went well at the college, but, for the most part, I was happy if the others were happy.
The one exception to this rising tide was Ralph. He wasn't unhappy, and he was certainly not irritable, sulky, or disgruntled. But he had never been those things. It was noticeable only that there was a certain tension about him, one that increased despite what seemed to be the successive solution of our problems. I didn't return to the YMCA, but I would have wagered that Nickerson was aware of this change in Ralph.
Looking back on it now, I can more clearly see why Ralph was nervous as the school year opened. He believed that America was unique, the only developed country of any size in the history of the world in which there weren't rigid and immovable class barriers. He believed, as did many, that wherever America went, the rest of the world would follow. He believed that America was great, and would be greater yet, for one reason, and one reason only. America made a serious effort to educate its ordinary citizens, not just for whatever vocation was appropriate to their "station", but up to the limits of their ability. He believed that the ability of the ordinary person is very great if not stifled.
There would arise, Ralph thought, a vast army of educated Americans, unlike any group the world had ever seen. They would see, not only the solutions to problems, but also the pettiness and pointlessness of all those quarrels which had bedeviled mankind from the earliest darkness of the species. As I might have put it, and Ralph would not have, everyone would become a bit like Ralph himself.
Where and how, one might have asked, did Ralph expect these events to take place? The answer didn't lie in the great universities. Ralph assumed that they would do what they had always done. But the number of graduates they produced would be too small for the sort of thing he had in mind.
The answer did lie in the many thousands of lesser colleges spread across the land. All together, they were capable of educating half a generation, something that had never in history been contemplated. Each year there would be expansions in the system and, eventually, going to college would be as natural as enrolling in the first grade.
At no point was Ralph naive in the sense of being reassured by mere numbers of graduates. He believed that every college could and would become a good one, and that it must turn out men and women who were genuinely educated. For him, the whole immense scheme depended on the average graduate of the average college.
Hiram Mason University was certainly not an average college, but Ralph came increasingly to regard it as the test. There was, in fact, more justification for this assumption than one might have supposed. The American system of higher education has never managed to select students effectively and stratify itself.
There are idiots at Harvard, men who blather out the most extraordinary bigotries without the merest self-doubt. On the other hand, it isn't possible to find a college so bad that it won't have its home-grown and self-developed genius. The proportions do vary from one place to another, but the same basic elements exist everywhere. They exist regardless of the size, affluence, affiliation, or location of the institution. Ralph was right in thinking that, if the milennium was at hand, it would not fail to show itself at our college.
There are, I have discovered, different sorts of grand design. Brenda's, in all conscience, was grand enough. The idea of re-establishing a fortune the size of the Sanderson one wouldn't have occurred to most people. On the other hand, Brenda's design mostly involved things that she would do herself. She did get help from others, and often had to assess the talents and inclinations of other people, but nothing Brenda wanted to do ever involved the inner soul of any other person.
Ralph's design was of the opposed sort, and was of an incomparably greater order of magnitude. His idea was to take people who weren't at all intellectual and change, not only their ways of thinking, but their values. Where Brenda carefully avoided the hard core of alien personalities, except to take advantage of them and make money from them, Ralph proposed to meddle with their essences. For the college to be a success in Ralph's sense, it must also be one in Brenda's sense. But, for Ralph, that was only the beginning.
The influx of students into our new apartments began a few days before the start of term. All of us, intensely curious, watched as they arrived in an assortment of old cars, many with all manner of objects tied to the roofs.
Our immediate neighbor was a handsome young man with an authoritative mien. His wife was quite pretty, enough so that one wondered whether he had once been the high school football hero and she the prom queen. However, it was she, and not he, who looked as if she had been seriously defeated at some point in her young life.
The explanation for that look was provided when two small children exploded from the car and had to be run down. Pressed rather indiscreetly to the windows, we speculated on the children. The consensus was that they were two-year old boy twins, conceived in forty three, before the father went overseas, and then born in forty four. We couldn't make out whether they were identical. Brenda pointed out,
"If they are, the mother at least has the sense not to dress them identically."
I opined that the father was an ex-sergeant. He didn't have the airs and graces of even a wartime officer, but he was used to giving orders and being obeyed. While these orders seemed to have no effect on his sons, he instead spoke sharply to his wife. Ralph said,
"He's used to a chain of command, and he knows how to delegate authority. She's the corporal."
The sergeant next attempted to organize his family as a conveyor-belt to take things into their new home. The children were to carry their toys and other small objects, and the wife was to carry middle-sized objects while he himself took the larger things. Surprisingly enough, the boys did take a few trips as the sergeant handed things to them, and to his wife. So far, he was too occupied with problems of organization to carry anything himself.
This fact wasn't lost on either Brenda or Jane, particularly when their new neighbor tripped carrying a load that was too big for her to grasp properly. The segeant helped her up quickly, giving her a few pointers as he did so. Ralph wanted to go out to help, but Brenda restrained him.
"Don't intervene just yet. I want to see how things work out."
After a bit, the children, probably exploring their new home, no longer emerged. The wife continued to function rapidly and efficiently, and the sergeant had something ready to hand to her each time she hurried back to him. Indeed, it turned out that there was only one thing she couldn't manage, the couch tied to the top of the car.
When everything else had been taken in, the sergeant, with many gestures, explained to his wife just how they were going to manage the couch. At this point, Ralph could no longer be restrained, and went out to help.
Ralph is the sort of person who's always well received, and his welcome was particularly enthusiastic in this case. When the wife then dashed for the house, making excuses over her shoulder, Brenda said,
"She's worried what the boys might be into while the sergeant's been explaining the world to her."
The sergeant, smiling happily, was now explaining the world to Ralph, or at least that part of it that pertained to the movement of the couch. This process took some time. Brenda said,
"I bet he smokes a pipe and likes to stand in front of the fireplace explaining things."
"It's a good thing he won't have a fireplace."
"Jane could make him one out of cardboard."
"The sergeant must have a real one. I believe him to be a man of little patience with fictions."
The couch, a rather flimsy thing, was taken in mainly by Ralph, who remained a while to visit. When he returned, we quizzed him. He replied,
"Their name is Preston, Howard and Celia. Howard was a quartermaster sergeant, but he's okay. Those kids have plenty of energy, though."
The mere sight of the little boys in action seemed to have tired Ralph. I have observed young children, almost always at a comfortable distance, and I understood completely. I also thought it fortunate that neither Brenda nor Jane was now likely to visit such a catastrophe on us.
The next morning, we had, not children, but Thelma. I met her as she floated down from the steps of the night train, and she looked great, perhaps ten years older than Brenda. Being rich simply agrees with some people, even if, as now, the money belonged to her husband rather then herself. She hugged me, all silk and perfume, and said,
"I had such a wonderful sleep on the train! All that clickety-clacking and the moonlight coming in the window makes me just want to cuddle up with my pillows and dream of waves on a beach."
I was glad that Brenda hadn't come to the station. Brenda was having trouble sleeping, and here was a woman who didn't know the meaning of sleeplessness. I could imagine her advising Brenda to take the train to New York and back alternate nights in order to sleep well.
Thelma was, of course, fun. She always had been. We had breakfast in grand style at a downtown hotel, in the course of which she didn't mention Brenda, or the reason for her visit, at all.
It was a nice morning, still cool, and I asked Thelma if she would like to walk across the bridge to Covington. She was enthusiastic, and we set out. Since she was only staying for the day and continuing her travels on another night train that evening, I had no trouble carrying the light case she had brought with her. The light breeze just rippled her dress as she sashayed along with her hand on my arm when she wasn't using it to gesture.
Everything was fine, the river, the steamboats, and the Covington shoreline, until Thelma saw our house. She then began to laugh so hard that we had to stop, sheltered from view of the house by a large tree. I had no idea what was so funny, but Thelma pulled herself together, still with the occasional giggle, and we made our approach.
When Maria came running up and greeted us, I soon realized that Thelma had never been informed that Brenda had adopted a daughter. Some women would have been non-plussed to suddenly find themselves grandmothers, but Thelma, always happy to hug almost anyone, hugged Maria and said,
"Let's celibrate something. Even if it isn't your birthday, we can pretend it is."
Maria then began to laugh and replied,
"Since I don't know when my birthday is, this might as well be it."
According to our calculations, Maria was now fourteen or fifteen, and, having had her home broken up when she was seven or so, it was a little surprising that one who had come to understand the Axiom of Infinity hadn't known her own birthday. But, then again, the former might have seemed more important that the latter.
Thelma was intensely curious as to why Maria didn't know her birthday, but also showed more tact than I had given her credit for. Maria freely volunteered great chunks of her history, more than she ever had to me, and I discreetly drifted off into the house. Brenda was there, waiting and watching, and said to me,
"It's amazing that they get along so well. Maria must have five times Thelma's intelligence."
"For mathematics. But in certain other areas, Thelma's really no slouch. And she has lots of experience."
"Yes. I suppose, if you put their two kinds of experience together, the sum total would be impressive."
"That seems to be what they're doing. If you don't go out, they may be at it for hours."
Brenda did finally go out, approaching Thelma with the little smile which could be mocking, but which was, in this case, defensive. Thelma immediately became the hostess, and conducted the other two ladies into their own home, the one which had caused her so much amusement. I was ready with the lemonade, and we had hardly settled down when Jane and Ralph came in. They had intentionally gone out to give Brenda a chance to be alone with her mother, but Thelma had used up almost all that time with Maria.
Thelma could manage anything from an intimate personal dialogue to a masked ball, and, of course, Jane and Ralph were attractive interesting people. Thelma remembered Ralph as a college student, and joked that she was actually his step-grandmother. Everything went swimmingly with Brenda happy to play a minor role.
The next event was an expedition across the river to get Maria a birthday present. Although it had clouded over and still wasn't hot, we took the cars in the expectation of having a lot to bring back. When asked, Maria said that she wanted to go to a large second-hand book store on the edge of the central business district. I wasn't sure that Thelma had ever been to such a place, but she said it was the perfect thing.
There were four floors full of books, and, indeed, Maria and I had been there a number of times. This time, the message was clear. Maria was to make off with everything that we could possibly carry at Thelma's expense.
It was the sort of place in which everyone finds his or her little nook and starts dipping into novels, histories, or other eccenticities, as the case may be. Even Thelma could have contented herself with books on gardening or the social history of New York City, but she was at Maria's elbow encouraging the purchase of books on Greek philosophy, the wildflowers of Appalachia, and number theory.
Thelma spoke with admiring awe of Greek philosophy as just the thing for Maria, and of wildflowers with some knowledge. I knew that she was finding out exactly what Maria was like, revealing something of herself in the process. Brenda and I were a little distance away, when, feeling hungry and seeing the huge pile of books Thelma and Maria had accumulated, I suggested lunch.
At the end, "just as a joke", Thelma asked the rather dyspeptic-looking clerk for a book I hadn't heard of. The clerk produced it almost immediately, and Thelma, laughing, opened it to show us a picture of herself in a chorus line in nineteen aught five. Maria was delighted and fascinated, and put it on the top of her pile of books.
Lunch took place at a nice airy restaurant on the terrace of a hotel. We had hardly sat down when Thelma said,
"I just remembered that I have a friend in Cincinnati. Would anyone mind if I invited him to have lunch with us?"
We all made polite noises, and Thelma added,
"I think Thomas, and perhaps Brenda, may remember him from New York."
She then mentioned Mr. X's real name, as if he had been a stock broker or banker, or perhaps a purely social acquaintance. Brenda was beginning to make a gurgling noise even before Thelma announced brightly,
"He's now an FBI agent here in Cincinnati."
I was really afraid that Brenda might choke as Thelma went out to telephone. I pounded Brenda on the back, and got her functioning again as Ralph and Jane looked on concernedly.
Jane and Maria, of course, had no notion of what was going on. We had judged Ralph too young to be let in on the existence of Mr. X, and most particularly on the fact that Thelma had employed him professionally. They must have seen that Brenda and I were considerably affected, but asked no questions. Thelma was back almost immediately, and announced happily,
"He's free and only a couple of blocks away. He'll be right over."
She then turned to Maria and explained,
"He's an old friend of mine, a most capable and efficient man. Of course, in the FBI they do shoot people now and then. I don't suppose that's very pleasant, but it can still be done quite neatly without any mess to speak of."
Maria laughed and Thelma laughed with her. I couldn't make out whether Thelma had intended Maria to laugh when she spoke, but Thelma was very adaptable, able to follow one of her own conversational openings to advantage, whatever effect it might have. I myself withdrew from the conversation to work things out in my own mind.
It made sense in a way. Mr. X, known widely because his murders all had a certain distinctive style, had never been arrested for anything. So far as I knew, he had never, under his own name, been suspected of anything. He also had a brilliant war record as a fighter pilot. He was just the sort of man J. Edgar Hoover would want. Moreover, I had recognized from the beginning that Mr. X had a sardonic sense of humor.
Mr. X arrived, as lean and hungry as always, but with a smiling urbane look for our benefit. After the exchange of greetings, which I think he enjoyed in his own way, a place was made for him between Thelma and Maria. The round table was a bit too big for a single conversation, and, as it fragmented, I saw that Thelma had involved herself and Maria in a rather intense discussion with him.
Brenda was next to me, and she asked me in an undertone,
"Is this a new career, or a way of more effectively continuing an existing one?"
"I have no idea. But the old one and the new one could certainly dove-tail very nicely."
Brenda looked closely at him across the table, and concluded,
"I'm sure that's it. Anyone but Thelma would know better than to introduce him to Maria."
"It's too late now, I'm afraid."
Indeed it was. Mr. X invited us all over to visit the FBI office after lunch, and showed us the finger-prints of some famous criminals. Maria finger-printed herself, and put the result in her little pink purse.
Nothing else of any significance happened during the rest of Thelma's visit, and I suppose that some folks might have thanked God for that. What was most significant was, in fact, something that didn't happen. Neither Brenda nor Thelma made the least attempt to speak to the other alone.
I, again, was the one to convey Thelma to the train. She was still going at high speed, perhaps so that I wouldn't have a chance to refer to Mr. X. Then, when she was about to board the train, she kissed me as I had never been kissed before. I suppose I must have stood there with my mouth open as she ascended the steps and gave her little wave.
I now recognize that I've included enough information to allow the reader who cares to do a little research to identify Mr. X by his real name. Moreover, I may as well say here that there were murders yet to come which were put down to his handiwork. Among these was the killing of Mr. Martin Howison, the Harvard alumnus, and his wife. That occurred scarcely a month from our luncheon with him. The question of who is to read this work thus comes increasingly to the fore.
I have spoken to Brenda on this issue, and she has laid down some new rules. As before, it will go to her first, and she will have the opportunity to excise any material she wants. However, she has now ruled that, if she should pre- decease me, the work, in whatever state it may be, will be conveyed to Maria, and to no one else.