The Order By Alan Thompson

FLAMES SURGED into the night, spewing sparks like Catherine wheels. Larger bits of burning debris, shot from the inferno, rose into the sky and vanished. Firemen, desperate to stop it from spreading, trained hoses from all sides and from atop the adjacent building. Smoke and the odor of wet char wafted over High Street.
The Order
The Order By Alan Thompson

New Hope’s once-thriving business district – now shabby Georgian storefronts of plate glass and brick – would be saved, but the old Post Office building – an actual Post Office for the first half of my life, then a church for atheists, and finally a bar – was done. It was warm for October and a pale moon, low in the sky, contrasted with the red and yellow blaze.

“May I sit down?” I turned my head. A young woman, her face lighted intermittently by the flames, had detached herself from the crowd and approached my bench.

“Sure,” I said, making room. It wasn’t really my bench. Situated in front of Castle Hall – it had a new name now I couldn’t remember – and across the street from the Post Office, it was the perch from which I had viewed New Hope’s affairs since I was a boy.

Her sexuality was blatant. Tall and high-breasted, she obviously wore nothing beneath the white tank top. Tight shorts barely reached her thighs. Black corkscrew curls sprang from her head and tumbled to her shoulders, and the pale skin glistened. Her scent was soap tinged with a woman’s perspiration.

Prominent cheekbones highlighted large blue eyes set wide apart. The mouth was small, the lips – painted pink – full, and tiny, elfin ears were barely visible beneath the hair. Her chin thrust forward aggressively.

We sat for a while in silence. “How does a brick building burn like that?” she said in a lilting accent I didn’t recognize.

“Well – it’s not all brick. That’s just the veneer. And it probably started inside.” I paused. “A lot of the building, and the tables and chairs and stuff, burn pretty well.” A man emerged from a white car with flashing red lights. “Let’s ask an expert.” I lifted a hand.

After speaking to one of his men, the Chief of the New Hope Fire Department crossed the street and stood before us. “Hi, Harry,” he said. “Enjoying the show?”

“I would’ve preferred another building.” He grinned. I gestured. “This young lady –”

“I’m Amélie Dessalles,” she said.

I knew the name. “Harry Monmouth,” I said. “And this is Jerry Dunlap. He runs the fire department.” They nodded. “How did it start?”

“We won’t know for a few days,” he said. “Most likely a burner that didn’t get turned off. Hot grease mixing with something else.” He paused. “It was built in the 30s. No sprinklers. A fire trap, actually.” He sighed. “When they turned it into a bar, it was only a matter of time. We’re lucky no one was inside.” He looked over his shoulder. “I have to get back to work. See you, Harry. Ms. Dessalles.”

Only scattered patches of low-lying flames rose now from the smoldering ruins. Sections of the exterior walls still stood, and part of the roof, and the façade – a shallow pediment over the front doors – appeared untouched. The white cupola, once on top of the building, now intact among the ashes, resembled a telephone booth with a whirligig on top. Amélie Dessalles murmured into a tiny tape recorder.

The crowd – certainly all students at this hour – began to melt away. She stood up. “Thanks for sharing your bench, Mr. Monmouth.”

I rose. “Harry. You’re a student here, aren’t you?”

She nodded. “Graduate student. I’m getting my master’s in journalism.”

“Making notes for a story?”

“Yes. I’m editor of the Echo.”

Nodding, I said, “I read it every day.”

She smiled and turned away. “Goodbye, Mr. – Harry.”

“It’s almost midnight. Can I walk you home?”

She shook her head. “Not necessary. I have to go by the office. But thanks again.” She took the diagonal path across the Upper Quad and disappeared into the darkness.

I turned east toward home, my mind again on the destruction behind me. It was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, this little Southern village – bastardized, like the Post Office, by the College’s ruthless growth – would be gone, leaving behind a gulag dedicated to what now passed for progress.

I paused at the corner of High and Capital Streets. The Chancellor’s House, a yellow frame mansion surrounded by trees and shrubbery, blazed with light. Perhaps its new occupant was already planning the College’s next incursion, or maybe he had turned to more immediate things. His school was under siege from within and without.

About to turn away, I saw the lantern hanging in the portico flicker twice before going dark. A man, a wraith who barely cast a shadow, stepped from the darkness on the far side of Capital Street and approached the house. The door opened, revealing a singular silhouette, then closed behind him. I turned my watch to the moon – it was a few minutes past midnight, late for ordinary company.

A block further up the hill, I arrived at the old Federalist “farmhouse” where I’d lived most of my life. I was alone now. The guilt, lodged in me since the death of my wife, rose again.

Inside, I poured a glass of scotch and climbed the steps to the second floor, then up the closed staircase to the circular room on the third. Moonlight poured through the many windows. Originally a study for the man of the house, it had gone through several iterations since I was a child before reverting to its original purpose after our children – four boys – were gone. They were widely-dispersed now, seemingly happy, with no thought of returning to this place.

I shook my head. The house and the things inside it – accumulated over two centuries – were a burden now, and the memories, oddly, became less tangible and more painful every day. It had never occurred to me to abandon my past and, yet, my children apparently could do without theirs. Each of them had gently declined my offer of the family manse and shown no interest in its contents. I looked around the familiar room. What would I do with all this junk?

The telephone on my desk, once just a link to the outside world, was now an answering device that fielded all the unwanted charitable, commercial and political pleas from strangers and computers. Having successfully resisted cellphones for two decades, I used the machine to decide who I wanted to talk to. The red light was blinking.

I pushed a button. There were two messages, both from Bobby Hood. A partner in crime since childhood, Bobby had been Azure County’s Judge for many years. Semi-retired now, he still handled a few cases and served as an adjunct professor at the College’s law school, but mostly he played golf. I made a note to call him tomorrow.

The telephone rang. Squinting at the number on the screen, I lifted the receiver. “Bobby. What’re you doing up at this hour?”

“I wanted to talk to you before I turned in.”

“Have you heard about the Post Office?”

“What about it?”

“It burned down tonight. I was there.”

“What happened?”

“They don’t know. Something in the kitchen, probably. What’s up?”

“The Order has a new Rex. He’s called a meeting for tomorrow night. At midnight.” He paused. “He asked me to call you.”

“What’s he want? Money?”

“I don’t think so. There’s some kind of problem.”

“Who is he?”

“His name’s Kay. Roland Kay. You’ve probably heard of him.”

“Yes.” Roland Kay was one of the College’s more singular undergraduates. “Midnight’s ridiculous.”

“You’re up now.”

“It was a special occasion. I’m usually asleep by ten.”

He laughed. “We always had our meetings at midnight. It’ll be two special occasions in a row.” He paused. “Are you coming?”

I didn’t want to. “Sure. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

I laid the receiver in its cradle and leaned back in my chair. The Order – more formally, L’Ordre des Chevaliers du Château Noir – was a secret society at the College comprised of male undergraduates and faculty. Membership was by invitation only. Bobby and I had been dubbed “knights” in an elaborate ceremony at the Castle almost four decades earlier. I hadn’t been inside its walls since I graduated from law school.

Perhaps overstimulated by the evening’s excitement, I wasn’t sleepy. I walked downstairs to the kitchen and fixed another drink. An unread copy of the New Hope Chronicle lay on the counter. The picture of an old friend, surrounded by laughing black faces at one of the local elementary schools, was on the front page.

I’d known Wesley Vaughn since we played football together at the old high school. A willing casualty of the racial politics of the day, he had abandoned his friends at Washington High School to join the white kids – some for, some against, most indifferent to his cause. An all-state linebacker in high school, he’d spent a few semesters at Central State before blowing out a knee. He drifted into religion and finally earned his degree, and then came the meteoric ascent in politics. According to the Chronicle, he was well ahead in the race for Governor one week before the election.

I had contributed to all his campaigns though there was much I didn’t agree with. The denizens of the College – employees, professors, administrators – were also enthusiastic donors in the early days, but their generosity waned when he moved beyond their patronizing expectations. The College and Wes Vaughn were now openly hostile, a cause for concern should he win the election, but the school had endured unfriendly politicians in the past. It was the most powerful institution in the state, and a Vaughn administration would be only a minor glitch in the academic software.

I went to bed a few minutes later considering Amélie Dessalles and lost youth, ideas that could be melded only in my head. As always, though, another woman’s face intervened just before I fell asleep.





2





IT WAS Homecoming weekend and the campus was crowded. High Street, on the other hand, was not. Now a mere extension of the College, it was forced to compete for patrons – all more or less temporary – with newer, more enticing venues, many owned and operated by the school.

The few people on the sidewalks were old grads, dressed in azure and white, determined to find New Hope as it used to be. Smiles were fixed and faces puzzled as they searched for the place they knew in better days. I counted five empty storefronts on my way to the coffee shop where I ate breakfast every day.

There was a new sign stenciled on the door:





The College Coffee Shop is dedicated to the health of its patrons. We will no longer serve food or drink that might adversely impact their well-being. Bon appétit!





That sounded ominous. This sort of “virtue” had become a club for those inclined to use it. The coffee shop had recently changed hands and the new proprietor was wielding her cudgel.

I carried a copy of The Daily Echo, the College’s student newspaper, to the table in the window. My regular waitress appeared. I gave her my usual order – coffee now, fried eggs and bacon, white toast and buttered grits later – and braced for the response.

She seemed embarrassed. “I can only bring you the grits,” she said. “Without the butter.” She pointed to the sign. “We have a new nutrition policy.”

“Nobody can eat grits without butter. What about the coffee?”

She shook her head. “Sorry.”

After considering my options, I ordered a breakfast approved by management and sat gazing out at the street. A bus with no riders blocked the view for a moment before continuing on, still without passengers. Loose debris rose and fluttered in its wake.

The paper’s front-page headline was disturbing: “Professor Accused of Rape!” Skeptical, I read the brief story. An unnamed student had leveled the charge against an English professor named Aubrey Wolfe. Rather than take it to the police, she had lodged her complaint with the College’s Office of Student Safety, one of myriad fiefs created recently to shield the students from unwanted vexation. The facts giving rise to the charge were not revealed – the edicts of the Office of Student Safety barred any dissemination beyond the fact of the complaint and the identity of the accused.

The rest of the paper was the usual collection of news from the tribes. The College was increasingly a place where the students looked different and thought alike. Minute distinctions of race, gender and sexual identity were guarded jealously while the diversity of ideas was actively suppressed, and The Daily Echo reflected this seeming anomaly. Each story, whatever it was about, labored to display many points of view in support of the same conclusion.

This approach extended even to the “police blotter,” a collection of paragraphs reporting the malignancies of the modern world – murders, suicides, overdoses to overcome reality. Each one carefully noted the race and gender of victim and perpetrator, and little else, as if that were sufficient to explain the event. Frequently now, there was enough local crime to fill the space.

The editorials written by Amélie Dessalles were didactic. At the beginning of the fall semester, she had proclaimed an agenda designed to “reclaim the College from its past” and “eliminate the forces of oppression from its campus.” She outlined three broad categories in need of radical “reform” – the curriculum, the administration and “student life.” Thereafter, she periodically pointed out defects that required attention.

Her program resonated with many of the faculty. Some were products of the riotous 60s who never left campus or changed their views, others were acolytes who continued to expand their agenda. Armed with tenure and occupying “chairs” that served as “platforms,” they were free to give vent to the rage suppressed for so long. A few still wanted to learn and write and teach, but politics and ideology were the order of the day. The leaden certainty of those who knew best muted all dissent.

Today’s editorial was about “institutional racism.” Overt acts of actual racism being in short supply, institutional racism – an ill-defined concept depending entirely on the perceptions of those who railed against it – kept the drumbeat of race at the forefront of campus life. The very first object of Amélie’s wrath was the statue of a soldier, located on the Upper Quadrangle, dedicated to the College’s Civil War dead. Known to one and all as “Silent Sam,” it had survived the pique of students and faculty since I was a child. Citing its supposed endorsement of slavery and oppression of people of color, Amélie demanded that it be removed. Prominent members of the faculty agreed.

The townspeople, led by the chairman of the local historical society, pushed back. “It’s part of our history,” he said, “regardless of how we look at it now. The Civil War happened. Lots of people really died.”

The new Chancellor, faced with his first crisis, equivocated. He agreed with Amélie philosophically, but legislators, alumnae and donors did not. And, in a moment of unusual candor, he noted that following the logic of her argument would mean “tearing down half the campus.” After a few mealy-mouthed comments about “learning from the past” and “not obscuring our history,” he finally organized a paintball contest wherein students could “kill” the soldier with “bullets” of red paint. Cash prizes were awarded. The paint was still there.

The statue’s defenders were outraged and, though she fired a few shots herself, so was Amélie. According to her editorial, the administration’s refusal to remove the statue was just another example of the racism that permeated the entire institution. Argument, persuasion, words were no longer adequate – a not so subtle suggestion was made that students take matters into their own hands.





SITTING IN one of two seats we had claimed for nearly a century, I marveled at the crowd. Almost every seat in the great bowl, 75,000 of them, was occupied. The skyboxes that ringed the stadium, however – including the luxurious College Club where the school’s luminaries once gathered to watch – had been abandoned. Imperial games had become plebian.

A few years earlier, the day after the football team came within a jump ball of winning the national championship, the organization charged with overseeing intercollegiate athletics had begun an investigation into academic irregularities at the school. A year later, it imposed what was then considered the “death penalty” on the College’s athletic program: No scholarships, no television appearances or money, and no post-season play or bowl games. The sanctions applied to every sport, from men’s football to women’s lacrosse.

Scholarship athletes were allowed to transfer and most did. Lawsuits, dozens of them, were filed, all seeking to overturn the penalty. A few lingered – the rest had been decided against the College. The school’s total demise was predicted in many quarters, wished for in some.

Instead, the College continued to compete. In the beginning the wins were few, especially in the marquee sports, but now soccer and tennis and golf and volleyball again won more than they lost, and the football team was competitive. The fans, who stayed away at first, returned, though most of the College royalty had moved on. Only those required to pander to the alumnae attended the games.

At the same time the fans came back, the football team encountered another problem – pickets, marches and protests. Before the first home game of the season, students stood three deep, arms linked, around the entire perimeter of the stadium. There were lots of complaints: The mascot – a ram, no less – was both predator and victim, the uniforms – which made large men look even larger – were sexist, the whole enterprise was militaristic and masculine to the nth degree.

Male exclusivity was the greatest sin. Amélie demanded to know why there were no women on the team. The head coach, choosing to overlook the obvious physical risks, responded that none had turned out when the team assembled in August. Amélie said no one had encouraged females to play. The coach suggested that those who wanted to play football should come see him. So far none had volunteered, despite Amélie’s ongoing urging.

The seat next to mine was unoccupied, not unusual even while my bride still lived. Stoic in the face of personal trials, she cringed at the violence on the field and refused to attend the games our boys played in high school. Warmed by the bright sunshine on my side of the stadium, I poured a discreet cup of scotch over ice and settled back to watch the game. The evocative scent of cut grass reached my nose.

Two hours later – no TV commercials and the College’s style of play had shortened the games considerably – I joined the throng in the aisles. The home team had lost, but not by much. Of perhaps sixty players, a core of about fifteen played the bulk of the game, offense and defense. Inevitably, they tired in the fourth quarter against teams with fresh players on both sides of the ball.

But the game was still within reach when the College’s quarterback, who was also one of the starting safeties, was knocked unconscious with three minutes to play. His substitute, the other starting safety, fumbled the next snap, and the opposition ran out the clock. The fans, who had come to relish the David-and-Goliath aspect of the football program, were mostly satisfied but already worried about next week’s opponent and the health of our quarterback.

There were lots of voters at the game and Wes Vaughn, attended by several state troopers, was stationed on the main concourse, shaking hands and calling to old friends. A head taller than everyone else, his shiny black pate was easy to spot amid the vortex of white. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face. He raised a hand. “Harry. I need to talk to you.”

I leaned against a wall and waited. A moment later, Wes gestured toward the VIP parking lot. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride home.” As we approached the car – a black limousine with “GVNR” on the plate – he said, “Did you see that editorial in the Echo this morning?”

I ran my hand along the hood of the car, hot from the sun. “You’ve come a long way from West End,” I said, referring to the black community where he was born and raised. Located on the western edge of New Hope, it was now completely gentrified and beginning to suffer the same neglect as the rest of the village.

He shook his head. “Not really. It’s still where I come from. It’s just harder to find.” He slid into the back seat. I followed and sat facing him. The leather seats creaked. “Did you see the editorial?” he said.

“Yes.”

“That girl should be in jail.”

I smiled. “Do you always start your day with the student newspaper?”

“It’s the best way to find out what’s going on over here. The inmates are running the asylum. The Chancellor’s a joke.”

“Well –”

“Do you know how much we pay him? Over $1 million. And he’s got Vice-Chancellors for this and that, and program heads and three levels of deans and – and commissars who make almost as much as he does. And what do they do for the people of this state? Nothing. It’s insane.”

I repeated the mantra imbedded in all the promotional materials: “The College is one of the country’s premier institutions of higher learning. It trains the future leaders of our state.”

He laughed. “To do what? Look at the stuff they’re teaching now.” He lifted a College catalogue from the floor and opened it. “’Twentieth Century African-American Slang.’ ‘Lesbian Tropes in Marxist Literature.’” He ran his finger down a page. “This is my favorite: ‘History of the Condom.’ What do we need to know about condoms of the past?”

“They still offer plenty of normal courses.”

“For now. What’s going to happen when that Dessalles woman and her cronies in the administration really take over?” He shook his head.

We were quiet as the big car turned right on Tower Road and eased through knots of people leaving the stadium. We stopped for the light at Capital Street. A group of protesters, stark naked except for bags over their heads, were chanting and raising signs on the steps of the College’s old gymnasium. “What are they protesting?” Wes said. “Clothes?”

“It’s about gender stereotypes on campus. Or something.”

“They should be in jail, too. What’s happened to this place?” We sat in silence again as the limousine turned left. He looked back at me. “There’ll be a vacancy on the Board of Trustees right after the election,” he said. “I’m appointing you to fill it.”

I smiled again. “Don’t you think you should wait until after the election before appointing your cronies to high office?”

“No. I’m ten points ahead. And I want a running start, particularly where the College is concerned.” He paused. “I need somebody I can trust. Will you do it?”

“Ask somebody else, Wes. I don’t –”

“Harry. Come on.”

“Okay, okay.”

“Thanks.”

We’d finally made it to the Chancellor’s House. “Let me out here,” I said. “I want to stop by the office.”

I stepped out of the car. “I’ll be in touch,” he called.

I climbed to the sidewalk and watched the car crest the hill and disappear from view. My office was an old stucco bungalow on the north side of High Street. Like the house a block away, it had been in my family for generations. I no longer practiced law though my bar dues were current due to the rigmarole required to resign, and my secretary came in three days a week to keep me company.

I pushed through the door and crossed the reception area to my office. It was a very old room. The buff plaster walls were smooth but irregular, and the cypress ceiling, never painted, was nearly black with age. The floor was made of wide pine planks almost as dark as the ceiling. Full-length bookcases lined two walls and surrounded the door and an oval window that looked west. More windows on the east side of the room, part of an addition built during World War II, looked out at the gravel parking lot. A stone fireplace with small windows on either side occupied most of the back wall.

The office had never been decorated – it had accumulated instead. Haphazard group photographs dating from the early 1900s – professors, doctors and lawyers – reflected the vocations of its occupants. Gavels, medical instruments and journals lay where they’d been dropped somewhere in the past. Only the partner’s desk, made for my great-grandfather 100 years earlier, was pristine. Two leather armchairs sat in front of the desk, and another chair with matching ottoman was placed next to the “new” windows.

My contribution to the room was a framed caricature of me drawn by my wife while we were still in law school. My hair was yellow then, and the blue eyes gleamed. The hair, not quite so plentiful, was white now, and the eyes not so bright or blue. The boy in the drawing was confident and eager. The man he’d become was equally certain of a few things, resigned to many others.

I lifted a leather case to the desk and removed a laptop computer. A gift from my children, it had gone unused for months before a grudging curiosity finally made me read the “directions.” Bemused by my failure to comprehend, and aggravated by my inability to just make the damn thing work, I enlisted the aid of a visiting grandson and soon had a rudimentary grasp of the machine.

I was fine as long as I didn’t stray from the functions – email, word processing and the Internet – he taught me to use. My increasing dependence on this electronic wizard had, in fact, become worrisome. I didn’t want to be an appendage of the machine, but it was far easier than plowing through newspapers or books at the library.

I clicked on Google and typed “amelie dessalles.” Several women, nearly all of them French, were highlighted. None was the editor of The Daily Echo. The paper’s website, though, had a short biography.

A native of Martinique, an island in the French West Indies, Amélie Dessalles had immigrated to the United States when she was twelve years old. She attended an elite private school in Manhattan and graduated from Wellesley with a bachelor’s degree in something called Peace and Justice. Though she came to the College with no journalism experience, she had been appointed editor of the Echo after her first year in the graduate program.

The bio concluded with a list of campus organizations of which she was a member – Students Against the Canon, the Safety Committee, Lesbians and Feminists, the Real Diversity Initiative and Phi Beta Kappa. I smiled at the last one. It seemed out of place.

About to turn the computer off, I remembered another name. Aubrey Wolfe was indeed a fully-tenured member of the College’s English Department. Thirty-nine years old and the author of several books on medieval literature, Wolfe was now in charge of the Department’s newest program, Advanced Gender Studies. “Is Gender Obsolete?” was typical of the courses in the curriculum.

Confused when I began reading, a few pronouns at the end seemed to clear things up. Contrary to my expectations, Aubrey Wolfe was a woman. “Rape” had long been a matter of politics on campus, and now it seemed the perpetrator as well as the victim might be female.





3





THE CASTLE was only a few minutes from my house. Situated on a promontory overlooking Castle Park, it was made in the image of an 11th century Norman fortress. Its features included stone towers and battlements and tall, narrow windows. Built by the Order in the middle of the 19th century, it stood in splendid isolation amongst a forest of oaks and pines and poplars.

At the bottom of the hill I stopped to consider my route. I could plunge into the heavily-wooded park east of the College’s outdoor theater and climb to the Castle, the most direct path and the one I always chose in the old days. Or, I could turn onto Club Drive and make my way uphill to the dirt road that led to the Castle, a longer, less adventurous journey. I had intended to bring a flashlight and forgotten it, but chose the woods anyway.

The moon was almost full, a good thing because the trail was sadly neglected. I picked my way over fallen trees and branches, and slogged through years of dead leaves, emerging from the forest ten minutes later. Pausing for a moment at the Paladin’s Seat, a large stone bench built at the same time as the Castle, I looked out over the trees at the steadily encroaching glow of progress. New Hope Creek, rushing downhill on my right, reflected the moonlight.

Turning, I saw dark figures approaching from the road. Secrecy was an essential element of the Order. There were no pictures in the College annual, no Homecoming floats, bands or beer busts. Guests at the Castle were not permitted. Meetings were called as needed, and any sign there might be someone inside was studiously avoided. Everyone walked to meetings, always held at midnight, and entered through a door – camouflaged by shrubs and small trees – at the rear of the property.

I joined a short line. The arched door, barred like a prison cell, stood open, and a young man checked names on a clipboard. If past history held, the paper would be burned at the end of the meeting. Even now, only the members knew who the other members were.

The names weren’t actually our own. In fact, our real names had never been spoken inside the Castle. The Order, inspired by Thomas Malory’s 15th century version of the Arthurian legend, identified each new initiate as one of the knights who sat at Arthur’s Round Table. Each of us kept that name until we left the College, at which time it could be used by a new member. Thus, there were only twenty-five active members at any given time. Outside the environs of the Castle, members treated one another as friends of no particular significance.

“Percivale,” I said when I reached the head of the line.

“Number?”

“Nine twelve.” There would be another Percivale at the meeting. My membership number, engraved on a pin kept in my wife’s jewelry box, was 912.

After crossing the Gallery, I climbed the closed spiral staircase to the Armory, so-called because of the medieval weapons – swords, halberds, flails and an enormous war hammer – that hung on the walls. Battered couches and chairs and tables were scattered about, and a full suit of armor stood by the door. Passing through the ground floor of the Keep, empty but for books in cases and an iron chandelier lit by eighteen candles, I pushed into the Great Hall, a two-story room that occupied an entire wing of the Castle.

Like the rest of the building, the walls and floors were made of rough black stone. Colorful heraldic banners, one for each knight, hung from the vaulted ceiling. Red and blue tapestries covered the walls and heavy drapes were pulled across the leaded windows. A mammoth stone fireplace was built into the north wall.

The Hall was dominated by a round wooden table placed in the center of the room. Almost twenty feet in diameter, it was supported by a central pedestal. A woolen rug, blue with gold silk stars woven into it, stretched beneath the table, and twenty-five high-backed wooden armchairs ranged around it. Light was provided by candles in sconces along the walls and another iron fixture hanging from the ceiling. The smell was burning wax.

It was here that the Order held its meetings and celebrated the Arthurian festivals that served as its primary social occasions: Christmas, Easter, Ascension and Whitsun. The beginning of the school year, after the initiation of new members, was given over to planning each feast. Christmas was the first – the other three, all associated with the Resurrection, happened in the spring.

Each place at the table was inlaid with a small porcelain shield depicting a knight’s coat-of-arms. All the chairs but one were taken. Bobby Hood sat in Mordred’s seat. I crossed to Percivale’s chair and sat down. The current Mordred and Percivale stood behind us.

Age was the thief of time – my recollection of this place was more vivid than its reality. The edges of everything were dull, the colors not so bright. The other knights were boys. The Rex, seated directly across the table, occupied Arthur’s chair, elevated slightly above the others. He was not a boy. He rose. The whispered conversations stopped.

A native of Ocean City, 150 miles southeast of New Hope, Roland Kay had been an outstanding football and baseball player in high school but, rather than take his athletic prowess on to the College, he joined the Marine Corps. His multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had included a firefight in which he personally killed dozens of the enemy while saving the lives of many wounded comrades. As a consequence, he was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House, after which he retired from the military and matriculated at the College as a twenty-four-year-old freshman.

Now twenty-seven, he was an imposing presence. Several inches over six feet, it was easy to imagine him crushing an enemy. Powerful shoulders, arms and chest attested to the strength he would bring to any fight and, yet, his manner conveyed nothing war-like or belligerent. Rather, he seemed reserved, almost detached.

It wasn’t physical prowess, of course, that had made him a hero. Modern warfare, that most virulent reflection of our times, required only that he pull a trigger or drop a bomb. Heroism – nerve, will, invincibility – was all in the head.

He looked around the room. “We have with us tonight,” he began, “two paladins from our past: Mordred and Percivale, our only surviving local alumni.” He paused. “I’ve searched the chronicles of the Order, and find no precedent for this meeting. Never before have we needed to go beyond the active membership to handle our affairs. But – I believe advice from older, wiser heads is called for now, so I’ve asked our distinguished alumni to attend.” He gestured. “Thank you for coming.” His eyes swept the table again. “Let us reaffirm our oath.”

Everyone rose. The words, seldom recalled for so many years, still came easily:





“I swear again, and reaffirm my solemn oath:

To serve the Rex in valor and faith

To protect the weak and defenseless

To give succor to widows and orphans

To refrain from the wanton giving of offense

To live by honor

To despise pecuniary reward

To eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit

To speak the truth

To respect the honor of women

To preserve the secrets of the Order

And, above all, to defend the Castle.

So help me God.”





Everyone but Kay resumed his seat. “To cite the relevant history,” he said, “this order was founded in 1835. For the first twenty years, we occupied a lodge in town. Then we bought ninety-four acres of land and built this Castle.” He paused. “The College and New Hope have grown up around us.”

He drew an envelope from his coat pocket and laid it on the table. “We gave thirty-five acres to the College about 100 years ago. That’s now Castle Park. I’m told the remaining fifty-nine acres are quite valuable.”

He tapped the envelope. “I found this on the floor of the Vestibule last week. I guess they pushed it under the door. There was also a sign out by the road which I removed. And –” he waved the letter in the air “– according to this, notices will be posted in the New Hope Chronicle for the next ninety days. They want to take our property.” He paused. “Including the Castle.”

“Who does?” said one of the knights.

“The College. To build a new house for the Chancellor.”

Bobby lifted a hand. “Yes, sir?” said Kay.

“Is that it?” Bobby said. “That’s a lot of land for one house.”

“The letter also mentions ‘additional amenities.’” Kay paused. “Can they do this?”

“Maybe,” Bobby said. “The taking has to be for a public use. And they have to pay you ‘just compensation.’”

“Can we fight it?”

“Well –” Bobby pointed at me – “we have the best lawyer in the state right here. Ask him.”

Heads turned. “Yes,” I said. “You can fight it. But you need to decide if you want to. It’ll be expensive, and I’m afraid you’ll lose anyway.” I stopped. “Plus, I don’t see how the Order’s secrecy could be maintained.”

“What’s the next step?” said Kay.

“Each party submits an appraisal of the property. The parties then negotiate a price, typically somewhere in between. If there’s no agreement, the court decides.”

“How can we stop it?”

“You file suit to challenge the ‘taking.’ In this case, you would probably argue that providing the Chancellor with palace and grounds doesn’t constitute a valid public purpose.”

“It doesn’t, does it?” said another knight.

I smiled. “I don’t think so. But others will differ. The state is an entitled behemoth in our lives, and the College its most privileged offspring.” I paused. “I don’t believe it’s ever lost a condemnation case.”

The room was silent. Kay rose. “We have all sworn to defend the Castle. I decree that the Order take all steps necessary to preserve its property. Does anyone disagree?” The Rex decided all things but, in a nod to democracy Arthur never confronted, he was required to invite discussion. No one spoke.

“Very well,” he said. “This meeting is adjourned. Refreshments are served in the Dungeon.”

Kay stopped me and Bobby at the door. “I know it’s late,” he said, “but – could you give me a few more minutes?” Another man joined us. His black eyes were buttons without depth, giving the dark face a flat expression that could only stare. The other features were delicate, almost feminine, and the lank black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Whippet-thin, he looked to be in his mid-thirties. “This is Gawain,” said the Rex. “Our faculty member.”

We climbed stone stairs to the second floor of the Keep. A round tower, the Keep was the spine from which the other rooms radiated. Its walls were three feet thick, the most secure part of the fortress. If an attack were launched from without – not likely now, but not unusual in the days of the Conqueror – the knights would ultimately retire to the Keep to defend the Castle.

The second floor was a single large room used by the Rex as an office. Wooden filing cabinets ringed the room, and another set of steps climbed to the battlements on the roof. Moonlight seeped through the murder holes.

Kay settled behind his desk. We pulled chairs nearer to him and sat down. He looked at me. “Will you represent us?”

I shook my head. “I quit practicing law years ago.”

“But –”

“Bobby – Mordred – is a well-respected former judge. And he’s still working. You couldn’t ask for better representation.” I smiled. “He might cut you a break on his fee.”

We all turned to Bobby. He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then: “I’ll do it on one condition.”

“Yes?” said the Rex.

“That Harry takes the second chair. Officially or unofficially.”

I hesitated. The Order had played an important role in my life. Perhaps now I could give something back. “Okay.”

Kay smiled. “Good. You mentioned expense and secrecy. We are not without funds. We’ve been blessed with generous alumni. But we must preserve our secrecy.” He stopped. “The Order isn’t the Order without it.” I nodded. “So what can we do?”

“If you submit to the court’s jurisdiction,” I said, “it’s inevitable that the judge or the other side or both will try to find out who you – we – are. Membership, activities, everything. Whether it’s relevant or not. And the rules favor that sort of disclosure.” I paused. “I believe we should wait as long as possible before we file suit. Something might turn up to help us.”

“Like what?” said Bobby.

“Well – this sort of lavish empire-building makes a lot of people mad. And we’re going to have a new governor in a few days.”

The professor spoke. “You mean Vaughn might step in?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if he can. But I know he won’t like it.” I stood up. “In the meantime, I’ll try to stir up some opposition. And we’ll get ready to file suit.” I looked at Kay. “I’ll have to look into the Order’s records. Is that a problem?”

He shook his head. “Just call me.”

I decided to go home the long way. The professor caught up with me on Club Drive. We re-introduced ourselves. “I’m Gabriel Chambers,” he said. “I teach classics here.” He spoke slowly, as if trying to get his words just right.

“Harry Monmouth.”

“Do you really think the Governor would intervene in this thing? It seems so – so trivial.”

“What? Stealing the Order’s property for some ridiculous boondoggle?”

“It’s not stealing. The College will have to pay something.” He smiled. “You’re actually going to tweak the Leviathan?”

“I guess so.”

We parted at the bottom of the hill. The Order had a professor in its ranks because it had always done so. In the beginning, the faculty – barely older than the undergraduates themselves – were counted as friends, men who shared the same social and academic backgrounds. That was no longer the case, but the tradition continued. Professor Chambers seemed less than enthusiastic about the Order’s future.





4





THE CAMPAIGN began the following Monday. In a front-page editorial, The Daily Echo demanded the end of the Order, “an elite, privileged bastion of discrimination and oppression that refuses to acknowledge the new campus norms of race, gender and personhood.” There was a quote from the Chancellor: “There’s no place for secrecy at the College,” he said, noting that the Castle property was “essential to our future development.” Not content to simply lay claim to its property, it was necessary that he quash the Order as well.

A native of France and enthusiast for all things European, the Chancellor’s appointment had been met with dismay in less enlightened parts of the state, but support on campus was overwhelming. Fealty to one’s birthplace was scorned by the academic cognoscenti – we were all citizens of the world now – but, if we had to have nations, let them be European. Defects in his character that would ordinarily arouse outrage and condemnation were overlooked.

Diminutive in stature, the Chancellor wore his hair fashionably long and eschewed the academic beard for a carefully measured stubble. He signaled his solidarity on campus by wearing clothes – caftans, keffiehs, dashikis – favored by segments of his disparate flock, but it was rumored he maintained a closetful of Savile Row suits necessary for fundraising. He sported a tattoo of a rooster on the underside of his wrist where it could be easily concealed when necessary.

He doted on his third wife, many years his junior. She was a businesswoman. Shortly after coming to New Hope, she had purchased College Realty from the estate of an old friend of mine. An aggressive dynamo who had offended the rest of the real estate people in town, she nevertheless revived a business in decline since my friend was diagnosed with cancer.

Theirs was reputedly an “open” marriage, an arrangement not acknowledged publicly due to the benighted attitudes of those who paid the bills. She was frequently seen in the company of other men, though always in situations that might be perceived as innocent. The Chancellor was more discreet. As far as I knew, no potential for affairs on his part had been observed.

In truth, he was only one of many examples of the slavish conformity practiced by the College in recent years. At one time the epitome of its kind, a public institution with the highest standards that nevertheless happily retained its regional and historical character, the school now strived mightily to imitate its so-called betters. Social justice decreed in New Haven was imposed on New Hope. Confrontation on Harvard Yard begat conflict on the Upper Quad. Riots at Berkeley established a standard against which students at the College might be measured.

As far as the Order was concerned, the Chancellor and Amélie Dessalles knew nothing about it. Completely self-supporting, it was a private organization whose house and grounds were off-campus. It did not participate in campus culture or politics, though it was likely that its members did so as individuals. Its only connection to the College was its history and the fact that the school was the source of its membership.

Only dimly aware of its existence when I was an undergraduate, I was surprised when – in the fall of my junior year – the Order invited me to become a member. None of my friends knew anything about it, so I approached my English Lit professor – rumored to be somehow associated with the Order – after class. “Doctor Wilson?” He stopped pushing papers into a briefcase. “Do you have a minute?”

“Of course, Mr. Monmouth. What can I do for you?”

I showed him the invitation, calligraphy on heavy paper. “Do you know anything about these guys?”

He bent his head to read it, a smile playing on his lips. “What would you like to know?”

“Well – who are they? What do they do?”

He was still smiling. “I’m told it’s a secret society.” I nodded. He continued: “If I knew a secret and told you, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?”

“I guess not. But – why ask me to join?”

“I hear it’s a very exclusive group.” He paused. “They’re interested in virtue.”

“Virtue?” He nodded. Virtue was seldom mentioned. Like so much else by then, it was in the eye of the beholder. A universal notion of virtue had long been lost to uncertainty. “I don’t understand. What’s that have to do with me?”

He smiled again. “I can’t say. Maybe you have to join to find out.”

In the end, that’s what I did, but not until exhausting the little information available. The English translation of the name was “The Order of the Knights of the Black Castle.” I knew what knights were – as a boy, I’d read and re-read the stories of Arthur and Lancelot and Galahad. That they were virtuous to one degree or another was always part of the tale, but I was more interested in the tournaments and the jousts and the swordplay.

At some point later in life, I consumed more adult fare about Camelot and the Round Table, poems and novels in which purity and honor and virtue, rather than fighting and brutality, were the central themes. Whether the characters and their ideals ever existed, of course, was a matter of conjecture. Everyone acknowledged that there were real chevaliers in medieval France and England, but the chivalry attributed to them was judged more symbolic than real.

The Order, however, took it seriously. Each of its members was expected to actually live in accordance with his oath. If he refused to do so, he was expelled. It was awkward at first – honor and valor were deemed desirable traits by college men in the 19th century but, by the time my invitation was extended, irony had set in, and such ideas were awash in ambiguity at best.

As it turned out, Doctor Wilson was the Order’s faculty member at the time. We talked again a few minutes before the initiation ceremony. “I’m not sure how this is going to work,” I said.

“How do you mean?”

“Well – I won’t be slaying dragons or seeking the Holy Grail or – or rescuing fair maidens. What am I supposed to do?”

He laughed. “You’re supposed to live – to try to live – a chivalrous life in a modern world. It’s a tremendous opportunity when you think about it.” He paused. “If, let’s say, you’ve been less than you should be up to now, this is a chance to start over.” He stopped again. “And who knows? Maybe you will rescue a fair maiden.”





DESPITE HIS lead in the polls, Wes Vaughn continued to crisscross the state in search of votes. A final debate with his opponent was set to take place at the College three days before the election. Students and faculty protested the event as “hurtful” and “divisive” but since the state, of which the Governor was chief executive, owned the College and paid its employees, the Chancellor proclaimed that his hands were tied.

The venue for the debate was the new Student Center on the Upper Quadrangle. The original building, a two-story Georgian named for an earlier Chancellor, had been torn down. In its place the College erected a mammoth structure whose architecture was supposed to reflect the aspirations of all the “communities” on campus. Its formal name was Emancipation Hall, but everyone referred to it as “the Maze.” Completely lacking in architectural significance, it rendered the other buildings on the quad, once vaguely dignified and grand, consequential.

I left home early in order to visit the Chancellor’s alternative to the debate. In a sop to those threatened by the parley at the Maze, he had erected a huge pavilion on the lawn with plush sofas and chairs and soft music. Videos of puppies and bunny rabbits recycled endlessly on large screens, and milk and cookies were served. The scent of honeysuckle dispersed from canisters in the ceiling was overpowering. There was a “bouncy house” next to the pavilion.

Members of The Rape Coalition passed out fliers. A rally in support of Aubrey Wolfe was scheduled for the following evening, surprising in light of the outrage over rape on campus and the posturing usually on display. In the ordinary course of things, The Rape Coalition was front and center supporting the victim and condemning the perpetrator regardless of the state of the evidence.

A couple of lines at the bottom of the page caught my eye. “We are all at risk! Biology is not a straitjacket!” What did that mean? Maybe the fact that Wolfe was a woman had something to do with it. Historically, and legally, rape was strictly a male crime.

About to leave, I saw a familiar face – the Order’s current Percivale, cookie in hand, seated on a couch reading The Daily Echo. He looked up. “Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”

“Going to the debate?”

He shook his head. “There won’t be any debate.”

“Why not?”

“Because certain groups don’t want a debate.”

“So – they’re going to stop it?”

“That’s what I hear.”

Guided by signs, I wound my way through the Maze to the Nathanial Turner Auditorium and found a seat near the front. The room was surprisingly full, a blend of students, faculty and press. The candidates were already behind their podiums, and television cameras and microphones were distributed about the stage. There was a smell, faint but familiar, I couldn’t account for.

Wes stood ramrod straight, a massive presence, his face blank. His opponent, the current governor, essayed the easygoing, man-of-the-people demeanor that had won elections for four decades. A lifelong politician, if he was disturbed by his standing in the polls he didn’t show it.

The moderator, the Chairman of the New Hope Historical Society, introduced both men. There was a smattering of applause after the Governor’s name – otherwise, the room was silent. The first question was addressed to Wes. “Reverend Vaughn, the state’s budget has gone unbalanced for four years running despite the proviso in our constitution that it be balanced every year. What would you do to correct that?”

“I’d balance the budget. We borrow money for things we don’t need. My plan –”

A voice came from the back. “Bullshit!”

Wes scanned the audience for a moment and began again. “My budget –”

“Bullshit!” this time from many voices. Then, from all over the room: “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”

As the chant continued, the moderator turned and raised his arms. “Please,” he shouted. “Please. Stop. Show some respect for our –” The noise grew louder, drowning out his voice. Something thrown from the audience hit him in the face. In a moment, dozens of baggies littered the stage. One landed near me.

Because the contents were obvious, there was no need to open it, but I did so anyway. The odor confirmed what I already knew. The hecklers had supplemented their chant with samples of the real thing, though bulls were probably not involved.

In the meantime, the Governor and the moderator had left the stage. Wes stood alone, a grim smile on his face. After the bags stopped falling, the chant died out. He picked up one of the bags as the cameras zoomed in. Holding it up, he spoke to the television audience: “This is what you think it is. The polite word for it, if there is such a thing, is excrement.” He paused and opened his arms wide. “And this is what your College has become.”

Later that evening, a mob tossed ropes around Silent Sam’s neck and pulled him to the ground. Using tire tools and sledgehammers, they rendered him unrecognizable and, with a last furious effort, managed to separate his battered head from his shoulders. Campus police, caught on hundreds of cellphone cameras, watched from a safe distance.





THE IDEA that rape no longer required a male participant intrigued me, and the rally in support of Aubrey Wolfe – slated for the outdoor theater on the edge of Castle Park – was only a block away. Rape victims and the various groups that advocated for them – The Rape Coalition, Femmes Against Rape, Rape 24/7 – had demanded a dedicated location on campus where victims could share their stories in an unthreatening, caring milieu. The College offered the theater and, after complaints that it was open to the weather, built a shell from the back of the stage to the last row of seats. Now named after the school’s most prominent victim, it resembled a metal football helmet.

Much of the rest of the campus had likewise been appropriated by the ever-proliferating communities coagulating among students and faculty. The dormitories had all been renamed for avatars of various racial groups and cultures, like Sacajawea Hall and Chicana Place, and students living in those dorms conformed to the historical attitudes and opinions of their particular icon on pain of expulsion.

Regrettably, the new names proposed by the loudest voices far outnumbered the dormitories, a source of friction amongst those charged with operating them. Consequently, after the supply of cafeterias and TV rooms had been exhausted, each resident was compelled to pick – from a list approved up and down by each special hierarchy – a name for his or her own individual room which was then affirmed by a bronze plate over the door.

Recently, the dozens of academic buildings on campus had begun to assume new identities as well. One of Amélie’s early editorials suggested that they be named after the slaves who built them, an idea that appealed to me. Naming public edifices after men who neither built nor paid for them had always seemed a perk too far. Whether the building was constructed before or after emancipation didn’t matter because, as she put it, “the workers were all oppressed anyway.”

Wolfe’s accuser had gone public earlier that day. Using every form of social media at her disposal, she related a familiar story: A trusted professor, too much to drink, anger, shame, betrayal. She seemed to celebrate her degradation – a video taken outside the professor’s home on Hill Street showed a handsome black girl holding up torn underwear, tears streaming down her face.

Although the general public had been invited to the rally for Aubrey Wolfe, the few attendees were all students who seemed to know each other. Mostly female, many of them wore tee shirts that read, “I’M A VICTIM, TOO!” on the front and “F*** THE MALES!” on the back. Two girls at the entryway handed out free condoms. Amélie Dessalles was seated in the front row. The people on the stage, older than their audience, sat in a circle talking amongst themselves.

I pondered the juxtaposition of the tee shirts and the condoms. The former reflected the widespread portrayal of men on campus as predators and the unrelenting scorn in which they were held. The latter implied that men still served a purpose, albeit at the whim of their female superiors. But if they actually used those condoms, perhaps provided by one of these girls, they were open to all sorts of harassment, denunciation and punishment.

I wondered at the boys there – five of them, sitting apart from the girls at the back of the room. Why did they associate with women who, backed by the campus hierarchy, cried rape at every turn regardless of the truth of the charge? Surely they would soon learn the folly of such behavior despite their hormones. Sex was a powerful instinct, but so was self-preservation. The species might be at risk.

Twenty minutes after the event was supposed to begin, a person of indeterminate gender approached the podium. “I’m Doctor Melanie Fuller-Smith,” she said in a cultivated British accent, “Chair of the English Department. I’m a woman. Thank you for being here tonight.” She introduced the other three people on the stage, name and sex. The last was “Doctor Aubrey Wolfe, a woman.” Wolfe wore khaki trousers and a long-sleeved shirt open at the throat, and moccasins without socks. Her features were hard to discern from my vantage in the last row, but the clipped hair was dark, the skin pale. There was something odd about her.

The Chair described the purpose for the gathering. “As you know, a complaint has been filed against Doctor Wolfe in the Office of Student Safety. The charge, of course, is ludicrous. More importantly, we have no control over how we’re born, nor are we responsible for the regrettable impulses that result.” She paused. “Most of you know the accuser – Marianne Salley, a onetime member of The Rape Coalition. A sadly deluded child out of place on this campus.”

Heads on the stage nodded. Except for a few muttered assents, the audience – Marianne Salley’s contemporaries – was silent. Doctor Fuller-Smith continued: “She has no place among us now. But that’s neither here nor there. We must dispose of these charges and see they don’t happen again.” She held up a stack of paper. “These are blank petitions supporting Doctor Wolfe.” Lowering her head, she began to read:





“’We, the undersigned, demand that the charges against Doctor Aubrey Wolfe, now pending in the Office of Student Safety, be withdrawn, and that all mention of same be expunged from her record. Doctor Wolfe is a compassionate, highly-esteemed member of the faculty, always in the vanguard of social justice on campus. Her accuser, Marianne Salley, is an unstable child with no insight into the nuances of the act she alleges. The charge is a nullity within an enlightened society.’”





She looked up. “There’s space for twenty-five names on each petition. I’m told that 1,000 signatures should be sufficient.” Fuller-Smith paused. “This isn’t only about Doctor Wolfe. It’s an attack on all of us. It must be stopped now.” She turned her head. “Doctor Wolfe, would you like to say a few words?”

Wolfe approached the lectern. Very tall, and thin, she spoke in a low, wavering voice. “Thank you, Doctor Fuller-Smith.” She turned to her audience. “Thank you for what you’re doing. I know some of you may wonder at this, but please know – I didn’t rape Marianne Salley. No one respects women more than I do. Thank you.”

The crowd lined up to receive the petitions. Convinced that I’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole and encountered a combination of Humpty Dumpty and the Queen of Hearts, I remained in my seat and considered the proceedings. A woman claimed that another woman raped her. A group that existed only to denounce rape on campus, real and imagined, now cited “nuances” and “regrettable impulses” to justify an attack on one of its own. Despite Wolfe’s denial, guilt or innocence didn’t matter. Rape, this rape, was a “nullity” no longer recognized in “an enlightened society.”

Amélie was waiting outside. She was smiling. “Harry. What brings you here?”

“I live right up the street. I saw the lights and decided to drop in.”

“I’ve been reading up on you. I’d love to see your house.”

“Sure. Anytime you –”

“It’s only nine o’clock. What about now?”

“Well – okay. Why not?”

We climbed the hill in silence. She seemed relaxed, gracious even, completely unlike the woman who penned the screeds in The Daily Echo. Rather than a snarling tribune of the proletariat, she was appealing in person, the foremost attribute of the demagogue.

When we reached the house, I turned toward the side entrance that opened into the kitchen. She stopped me. “Can we go in from the front?” she said.

“Sure.” We walked on to High Street and turned right, then right again onto the brick path leading to the temple – pediment and steps and columns – that was the front porch. A red and white realtor’s sign stood by the walkway. “You’re selling it?” she said.

“Yes.” I unlocked the door, ushered her inside and switched on a light. She was my first female guest, other than daughters-in-law, since my wife died. “A tour?” I said.

“Please.”

We passed through the rooms on the first floor, then I led her up the curved staircase to the second. We looked into several dusty bedrooms and the nursery where our youngest child spent his first few years. “You have four sons, don’t you?” she said.

I smiled. “Yes.”

“And three were adopted?” I nodded. “Three little black boys?” I nodded again. “Why?”

“I owed them. And their uncle. He was my friend.”

She raised her brows, but didn’t respond. We climbed more stairs to the room on the third floor. “This was your grandfather’s study?” she said.

“Yes. Mine now.”

“Is this where your mother was murdered?”

I hesitated. She didn’t have the story quite right but I had no intention of correcting her. “A long time ago,” I said. I paused again. “I’m flattered, but why the interest in my ancient history?”

“I think it’s good to know your adversaries.”

“Adversaries? Are we adversaries?”

“It’s inevitable, Harry. I’m part of the revolution. You won’t be able to avoid it. You’ll be on the other side.”

Had she somehow got wind of my connection to the Order? Or did she just sense my doubt about the scruples of her “revolution”? I grinned. “How about a drink?” I said.

“Great.”

We made our way to the kitchen. She sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs in front of the fireplace while I sorted through the bottles. “White wine?” I called.

“Do you have any scotch?”

“Sure. How do you like it?”

“Straight up. Just ice.”

I filled two tumblers with ice and scotch, handed one to her and sat in the other chair. We drank in silence. “I need some help,” I said, finally. “What happened at that meeting tonight?”

“What do you mean? The girls were given their marching orders. Aubrey Wolfe must be saved.”

“Why? I thought those people were against rape.”

“Not when it doesn’t advance the cause. Rape on campus usually falls short of ‘crime.’” Her voice supplied the quote marks. “No one’s prosecuted.” She sipped her drink. “They just kick the boys out of school and wait for the lawsuits, the costs of which are absorbed by the taxpayers.”

“Kind of hard on the boys, isn’t it?”

“They should keep their hands and other body parts to themselves.”

“What’s the point?”

“Rape victims are powerful symbols. Nobody’s in favor of rape. People listen when they speak.” She stopped. “And they’re really just casualties of this white male culture we’re trying to overcome. White men are criminals. Each rape’s another nail in the coffin.”

I stared at her. “Do you really believe that?” She didn’t answer. “Still. I don’t know exactly how a woman can rape another woman, but –”

She smiled. “If Aubrey Wolfe raped Marianne Salley, she did it in the usual way.”

“I don’t understand.”

“She became a woman last year, but she has a man’s – plumbing. She used to be a man.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just what I said. She’s a man, biologically speaking.”

“You’re kidding.” She shook her head. “How do you know?”

“Everybody knows.” She paused. “You would call her a man. She calls herself a woman. That’s what counts.”





5





HALLOWEEN, ONCE a minor holiday for children, had morphed into a festival of the perverse celebrated by non-children. Appropri-ated to serve all manner of impulses usually suppressed, it was embraced by the alienated on campus as an opportunity for anonymous dissent. Costumes and masks aimed at the prevailing pieties proliferated – sombreros, dreadlocks and Native American headdresses, among other things, were worn by people not entitled to do so. A year earlier, the pain occasioned by this assault on the cultures bivouacked at the College had led to a riot on the Lower Quadrangle and hand-to-hand combat in the Bower, the school’s arboretum.

Rather than deal with the issues raised by this intrusion into the psyches of the offended, the Chancellor simply cancelled Halloween. On October 31st, he decreed, anyone caught wearing anything other than what he usually wore would be expelled. Those most aggrieved by the earlier defiance, however, were unsatisfied, and consulted with the administration on other ways to relieve the pain.

The November 1 issue of The Daily Echo announced that the College would celebrate the following day, All Souls’ Day, with readings from the Bible and skits based on scenes from the Old Testament. Students were encouraged to dress up as their favorite biblical character. Complimentary “blood,” otherwise known as red wine, would be served in all cafeterias and snack bars. Objections to the plan were silenced by the usual coterie of those in charge.

All Souls’ Day was also Election Day. The celebration was on full display as I crossed campus to my polling place. The most popular costume was Jesus wearing a crown of thorns fashioned from cardboard and carrying a papier-mâché cross on his back. Angels rolled “rocks” – also revelers in costume – before them, and devils carried pitchforks. Despite the temperature, a not quite naked woman bore a real snake around her neck. The skits were reported to be very amusing, and the wine flowed. All this while the citizens of the state cast their ballots.





THE ELECTION was over almost before it began. Early votes put Wes Vaughn way ahead and, when the final accounting was done, the margin of victory was an astonishing twenty points. Exit polling showed that “turmoil at the College” was one of the primary concerns.

At a press conference the next morning, the new governor assured the public those concerns would be met. “We no longer get any bang for our buck at the College,” he said. “We’re going to change things in New Hope.”

Students and faculty were defiant. Litigation emanating from the law school challenged the election results. There were sit-ins and hug-ins and cry-ins to protest and rail at the new Governor’s “racism,” the all-purpose epithet for those at odds with campus orthodoxy. High Street merchants offered “safe houses” where student and citizen alike could be distracted from the reality of Wesley Vaughn. Toilet paper with the Governor’s image on each sheet was distributed.

The Chancellor and his array of administrators were more circumspect. Lacking the tenure of the faculty and the unaccountability of the students, they smiled and assured the press of their willingness to work with the new administration. But – the College was a creature of 200 years of law and tradition. Its allies were everywhere, embedded in every agency, commission and office, and no uppity black preacher was going to tell them what to do. A few rules and regulations might be revoked, a statute or two repealed, but nothing would really change. Smug in the College’s invulnerability, the Chancellor hunkered down and waited for the opening salvo.

Wes was in my office the day after the election. “That – blasphemous outrage yesterday was the last straw,” he said. “And not just for me.” He paused. “The Board of Trustees meets next week.” He handed me a large manila envelope. “I want you to distribute this at the meeting. My people have been working on it for months.”

I drew a thick sheaf of paper from the envelope and flipped through it. “It’ll give me more control over what’s going on here,” he said. “Elected officials will actually have a say in how the people’s money is spent.”

“The people’s money is only about twenty per cent of the budget these days.”

“I know. But it’s a critical twenty per cent. Most of the salaries. The School of Arts and Sciences.”

“They’re going to fight this. No matter what they say in public.”

“The legislature will do what I tell them to do.”

“It’s not just the legislature, Wes. Thousands of people, in and out of state government, are invested in the status quo. They’ll slow-walk everything you try to do.” I paused. “When you leave office, it’ll all go away.”

He smiled. “This is just my first offer, Harry. If they don’t accept it, they’ll be sorry.”





BOBBY AND I had agreed on a division of duties in the Order’s fight with the College: He would handle the legal proceedings, I would look into the merits on each side. I decided to begin with the Order’s acquisition of its ninety-four acres, originally known as “Piney Prospect.”

I met the Rex in the Gallery and we climbed to his office. He unlocked the door and handed me the key. “I have a class in twenty minutes,” he said. “Just lock up when you’re through.”

“Thanks.” He turned away. “Are you starting on Saturday?” I said.

He looked back, smiling. “I guess so. We don’t seem to have a choice.” He paused. “It won’t be pretty, I’m afraid.” He pulled the door closed behind him.

Both of the football team’s quarterbacks were out for the year. The second-string tight end – a backup quarterback in high school – had finished the last game, a stinging loss to the only team in the conference the College usually defeated. Afterwards, the coach had mused publicly about drafting Roland Kay for the job. He resisted – he hadn’t touched a football in years, he didn’t know the plays, there had to be somebody else – but finally agreed. The whole state was agog at the prospect that one of its own, a man awarded his country’s highest medal for valor, would be the College’s quarterback next Saturday.

I surveyed my task. The archives of the Order, spanning almost 200 years, were kept in twelve wooden filing cabinets of three drawers each. Each year was consolidated into a closed accordion folder, and labeled with the year and a warning it was not to be opened absent permission from “Rex, L’Ordre des Chevaliers du Château Noir.”

Construction of the Castle didn’t commence until the 1850s, but I began at the beginning – 1835. It took twenty minutes to go through the first twenty years. The Order began as an unnamed social club for rich boys more interested in women and booze than scholarship. They purchased a lodge on a wooded lot at the corner of Boundary and East Second Street, and dedicated it to debauchery. The files for that period consisted mainly of membership rosters and invoices for food and liquor, many of which appeared to go unpaid. There was evidence of several disputes with neighbors and visits from local law enforcement.

Things changed with the arrival of a new member in 1856. The scion of wealthy planters from New Hanover County, his name was Michael James Roy. In exchange for his paying off the membership’s indebtedness, the club became the Order, and Roy was elected the first Rex. He purchased the Piney Prospect property and work on the Castle, which he also financed, began a year later. It was completed in the summer of 1860. According to the deed, Roy took title to the property in his own name, which meant something further – another deed or a will – was necessary to prove the Order’s ownership. I made a mental note to check the real estate records at the courthouse.

It was during this period that most of the rituals, fruits of the dreamy, romantic mind of Michael Roy, were established. I found hand-written copies of the original and current oaths, the constitution, and the Rex’s Pledge. According to the constitution’s preamble, the Order was meant to be “the most ideal and ennobling secret order in the college world,” dedicated to “moral work, scholarship and social grace with a strong sense of chivalry.” Its motto was “Noblesse Oblige.”

The Rex’s Pledge, added to the rites just before the Civil War, was written on parchment in old English calligraphy. A rhyming oath, it enjoined each new Rex to “defend” the Castle. I’d seen it before, on a brass plaque in the basement of the Keep, the Order’s Chapel. Always locked, the room was used solely to elect and anoint a new Rex. Only those who had previously served as Rex participated in the conclave. I’d been there once, part of a cleaning crew my first year as a member.

I pulled more files. The College was shut down during the Civil War, and the Order’s affairs suspended. The only item of note was that Michael Roy remained in New Hope rather than join the fight, and actually lived in the Castle for the duration of the War. Later, he participated in the Order’s revival and lingered for a while, then disappeared. I searched for news of him in subsequent years – I was particularly interested in the date of death – and found nothing. Presumably, I would find the evidence I needed at the Azure County Courthouse.

I gathered the files on the table and returned them to the cabinets. About to turn away, I noticed a folder with no date wedged into the back of a drawer. It contained a book, a journal bound in cracked brown leather. The handwriting was Michael Roy’s.

I turned the pages slowly. They spanned the early years of his time in New Hope, concluding in March, 1858. Only the dates were comprehensible. The entries, often separated by weeks at a time, were all in Greek. I recognized the symbols of the Greek alphabet, but the words they formed were beyond me.

The Rex stood in the doorway. “How’s it going?” he called. “Are you finished?”

“Just about.” I held up the book. “Have you seen this?”

He turned a few pages. “No. What is it?”

“It’s a journal. I think it was kept by Michael Roy. Ever heard of him?” He shook his head. “He was one of your predecessors. The guy who built this place, in fact.”

“Is it important?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know Greek. Do you?”

He laughed. “No.”

“Your professor – Gawain – told me he teaches classical literature. He might be able to translate this.” I paused. “Is that okay with you?”

He nodded. “If you think it’s necessary.”

I hesitated again. “How long has he been a member of the Order?”





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