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Chapter 14

Go, I mouth, nudging Paul toward the library door.

A plate of security glass forms a small window in the panel, and we peek through it into the darkness of the room.

A shadow is shifting across the top of one of the private tables. The beam of a flashlight hovers across its surface. I can make out a hand reaching into one of the drawers.

That's Bill's desk, Paul whispers.

His voice carries in the stairwell. The path of the flashlight freezes, then moves in our direction.

I push Paul down below the window.

Who is that? I ask,

I couldn't see.

We wait, listening for footsteps. When we hear them moving away into the distance, I peek into the room again. It's empty.

Paul pushes the door forward. The entire area is sunk in the long shadows of bookshelves. Moonlight presses at the sheet-glass windows to the north. The drawers of Stein's desk are still open.

''Is there another exit? I whisper as we approach.

Paul nods and points past a series of ceiling-high shelves.

Suddenly there are footsteps again, shuffling in the direction of the exit, followed by a click. The door latches gently into place.

I move toward the sound.

What are you doing? Paul whispers. He signals me back to him, by the desk.

I peer out the security glass into the far stairwell, but I can make out nothing.

Paul is already rummaging through Stein's papers, splaying his penlight over a clutter of notes and letters. He points at a locked drawer that's been pried open. The files in it have been pulled out and scattered over the desk. Edges of paper curl up like untended grass. There seems to be a folder for every professor in the history department.

RECOMMENDATION: CHAIRMAN WORTHINGTON

REC (A-M): BAUM, CARTER, GODFREY, LI

REC (N-Z): NEWMAN, ROSSINI, SACKLER, WORTHINGTON

(PRE GHAIR)

REC (OTHER DEPTS): CONNER, DELFOSSE, LUTKE, MASON,

QUINN

OLD CORRESPONDANCE: HARGRAVE/WILLIAMS, OXFORD

OLD CORRESPONDANCE: APPLETON, HARVARD

It means nothing to me, but Paul is fixed on them.

What's wrong? I ask.

Paul runs his flashlight across the desktop. Why does he need all these recommendations?

Two other files lie open. One is titled REC/CORRESPONDANCE: TAFT. The other is LEVERAGE/LEADS.

Taft's letter has been pushed into a corner, brushed aside. Paul rolls his shirt cuff over his fingers and yanks the paper into view.

William Stein is a competent young man. He has worked under me for five years, and has mainly been useful in matters administrative and clerical. I am confident that he will do a similar job wherever he goes.

God, Paul whispers. Vincent screwed him. He reads it again. Bill sounds like a secretary.

When Paul unfolds the dog-eared corner of the page, the date is from last month. He picks it up, revealing a handwritten postscript.

Bill: I am writing this for you in spite of everything. You deserve less. Vincent.

You bastard Paul whispers. Bill was trying to get away from you.

He pans the flashlight over the LEVERAGE/LEADS folder. A series of Stein's letter drafts lies on top, worked over in several pens. Lines have been inserted and removed until the text is difficult to follow. As Paul reads them, I can see the penlight begin to quiver in his hand.

Don Hargrove, begins the first letter, I am pleased to inform, you that my research on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is complete nears completion. My results will be available by the end of April, if not sooner. I assure you they are worth the wait. As I have heard nothing from you and Master Williams since my letter of 17 January, please confirm that the professorship position we discussed remains available. My heart is with Oxford, but I may not be able to fend off other universities once my paper is published and I'm faced with new offers.

Paul flips to the following page. I can hear him breathing now.

Chairman Appleton, I write to you with good news. My work on the Hypnerotomachia draws successfully to a close. As promised, The results will cast a shadow over everything else in Renaissance historical studies-or any historical studies-this year or next. Before I publish my results, I want to confirm that the assistant professorship is still available. My heart is with Harvard, but I may not be able to fend off other temptations once my paper is published and Fm faced with new offers.

Paul reads it a second time, then a third.

He was going to try to take it from me, he whispers faintly, stepping away from the desk to lean back on the wall.

How is that possible?

Maybe he thought no one would believe it was undergraduate work.

I refocus on the letter. When did he offer to type up your thesis?

Sometime last month.

He's been meaning to take it for that long?

Paul glares at me and moves his hand across the desk. Obviously. He's been writing these people since January.

When the letters settle on the desktop, a final sheet of correspondence peeks out from behind the Oxford and Harvard letters. When Paul sees the corner of the stationery, he pulls it out.

Richard, it begins, I hope this letter finds you well. Perhaps you've had better luck in Italy than you had in New York. If not, then we both know the situation you're in. We also both know Vincent. I think it's fair to say he has plans of his own for anything that comes of this. I therefore have a proposition for you. There's more than enough here to suit both of us, and I've come up with a division of labor I think you'll find fair. Please contact me soon to discuss. Leave me your phone numbers in Florence and Rome as well-the mail over there is unreliable, and I'd prefer to straighten this out ASAP. -B.

The reply, in a different pen and a different hand, has been written on the bottom of the original letter and sent back. There are two telephone numbers, one preceded by the letter E, the other by an R. A final note is jotted afterward:

As requested. Call after business hours, my time. What about Paul? -Richard.

Paul is speechless. He rifles through the papers again, but there's nothing else. When I try to console him, he motions me off.

We should tell the dean, I say finally.

Tell him what? That we were going through Bill's stuff?

Suddenly, a bright reflection curves along the opposite wall, followed by colored lights flashing through the sheet-glass windows. A police car has arrived in the front courtyard of the museum, siren mute. Two officers emerge. The red and blue lights go dead just as a second squad car arrives and two more officers follow.

Someone must've told them we were here, I say.

The note from Curry shakes in Paul's hand. He's standing in place, watching the dark forms hurry toward the main entrance.

Come on. I yank him toward the bookshelves by the rear exit.

Just then, the front door to the library opens and the beam of a flashlight lances across the room. We duck into a corner. Both officers enter the room.

Over there, the first officer says, gesturing in our direction.

I grab the knob and press the back door open. Paul ducks into the hallway as the first policeman nears. On my haunches, I clamber out and regain my feet. We slide with our backs to the wall, and Paul leads us to the stairs, racing toward the ground floor. When we return to the open space of the main hall, I can see a flashlight skirting a nearby wall.

Downstairs, Paul says. There's a service elevator.

We enter the Asian wing of the museum. Sculptures and vases sit behind ghostly walls of glass. Chinese scrolls lie unraveled and mounted beside tomb figures in display cabinets. The room is a murky shade of green.

This way, Paul urges as the footsteps come closer.

He leads me around a corner, back into a dead end, where the only exit is the large pair of metal doors to the service elevator.

Voices grow louder. I can make out two policemen standing at the foot of the stairs, trying to find their way around in the dark. Suddenly the entire floor is illuminated.

''We got lights comes the voice of a third.

Paul forces his key into the slot on the wall. When the elevator doors part, he pulls me in. A barrage of footsteps follows, moving in our direction.

Come on, come on.

The doors remain open. For a second I think they've cut the power to the elevator. Then, just as the first officer turns the corner, the metal walls slide shut. A hand beats against the doors when the officer catches up, but the sound fades as the cabin begins to move.

Where are we going? I ask.

Out the loading docks, Paul says, trying to catch his breath.

We exit into a holding area of some kind, and Paul forces open the door leading into a huge, cold room. I wait for my eyes to adjust. The garage doors of the loading bays loom before us. The wind outside is so close, it's making the metal panels tremble. I imagine footsteps racing downstairs in our direction, but nothing is audible through the thick door.

Paul rushes over to a switch on the wall. When he turns the knob, an engine stirs and the retractable loading door begins to budge.

That's enough, I say, once the opening is big enough to admit both of us on our backs.

But Paul shakes his head and the door continues to rise.

What are you doing?

The gap between the floor and the bottom of the door increases until it brings the entire vista of south campus into view. For a second I'm stopped short by how beautiful it is, how empty.

Suddenly Paul turns the motor knob in the opposite direction and the door starts to roll shut.

Go! he cries.

He darts from the wall toward the open bay, and I fumble, trying to get on my back. Paul is already in front of me. He rolls beneath the door, then pulls me out just before the metal connects with the ground.

I stand up, trying to catch my breath. When I begin moving in the direction of Dod, Paul jerks me back.

They'll see us from upstairs. He points to the windows on the west side of the building. After scanning the path to our east, he says, This way.

Are you okay? I ask, following.

He bobs his head and we trudge into the night, away from our quad and out of their sight lines. I can feel the wind beneath my coat collar, cooling the sweat on my neck. When I look back, Dod and Brown Hall are almost purely dark, as is every dormitory in the distance. Night has reached all corners of campus. Only the windows at the art museum are shot with light.

We continue east through Prospect Gardens, a botanical wonderland in the heart of campus. The tiny spring plantings are dashed with white, almost invisible underfoot, but the American beech and the cedar of Lebanon stand like guardian angels above them, arms outstretched to shoulder the snow. A police car patrols one of the side streets, and we pick up our pace.

My thoughts are jumpy, my mind working to understand what we've seen. Maybe it was Taft we saw at Stein's desk, rifling through his papers, erasing any connection between them. Maybe he called the police on us. I look over at Paul, wondering if the same thought has crossed his mind, but his expression is blank.

In the distance, the new music department shows signs of life.

We can go in there for a while, I suggest.

Where?

The practice rooms in the basement. Until we're clear.

Stray notes float in the air as we near. Night-owl musicians come to Woolworth to rehearse in private. Down toward Prospect, another campus police car skids by, splashing slush and rock salt onto the curb. I force myself to walk faster.

Construction on Woolworth has only recently finished, and the building that emerged from the scaffolding is a curious thing, fortresslike from the outside but glassy and fragile-looking from within. Its atrium curves like a river through the music library and classrooms on the ground floor, rising three stories to skylights above. The wind howls jealously around it. Paul unlocks the entrance to the building with his ID card, holding the door as I pass through.

Which way? he asks.

I lead him to the nearest staircase. Gil and I have been here twice since the building was opened, both times after drinks on a slow Saturday night. His father's second wife insisted that Gil learn to play something by Duke Ellington, the same way my father insisted that I learn something by Arcangelo Corelli, and between us we have eight years of lessons and almost nothing to show for it. Thumping our bottles on the top of an old baby grand, Gil would bungle 'A' Train, I would butcher La Follia, and we would pretend to keep a beat that neither of us had ever learned.

Paul and I pad down the basement hallway, to find that only one piano is still at work. Someone in a distant practice room is playing Rhapsody in Blue. We slip into a small, soundproof studio, and Paul edges behind the upright piano, taking a seat on the stool. He looks at the keys of the piano, mysterious as computer keys to him, and doesn't touch them. The overhead light sputters for a second, then goes dead. It's just as well.

I can't believe it, he says finally, taking a deep breath.

Why would they do it? I ask.

Paul runs his index finger across a key, scratching at the ebony. When he seems not to hear the question, I repeat myself.

What do you want me to say, Tom?

Maybe this is why Stein wanted to help in the first place.

When? Tonight with the diary?

Months ago.

You mean, when you stopped working on the Hypnerotomachia''

The chronology is a jab, a reminder that Stein's involvement traces ultimately back to me.

You think this is my fault?

No, Paul says quietly. Of course not.

But the accusation hangs in the air. The map of Rome, like the diary, has reminded me of what I left behind, how much progress we made before I left, how much I enjoyed it. I look at my hands, curled up in my lap. It was my father who said I had lazy hands. Five years of lessons hadn't produced a single presentable Corelli sonata; that's when he started pushing basketball instead.

The strong take from the weak, Thomas, but the smart take from the strong.

What about the note to Curry? I say, fixing on the back of the piano. The wood is unvarnished and raw along the entire side, where the upright is supposed to face a wall. It strikes me as a strange economy, like a professor who doesn't brush the back of his hair because he can't see it in the mirror. My father used to do that. It was a defect of perspective, I always thought-the mistake of someone who could only see the world one way. His students must have noticed it as often as I did. Every time he turned his back on them.

Richard would never try to take something from me, Paul says, biting at a nail. We must've missed something.

A hush settles in. The practice room is warm, and when we're both quiet there's no sound at all, besides an occasional hum from down the hall, where Gershwin has been replaced by a Beethoven sonata that rumbles in the distance. It reminds me of sitting through summer storms as a child. The power is out, the house is quiet, and nothing can be heard besides the roll of far-off thunder. My mother is reading to me by candlelight-Bartholomew Cubbins or an illustrated Sherlock Holmes-and the only thing on my mind is how the best stories always seem to be about men in funny hats.

I think it was Vincent in there, Paul says. At the police station he lied about his relationship with Bill. He told them Bill was the best graduate student he'd advised in years.

We both know Vincent, Stein's letter said. It's fair to say he has plans of his own for anything that comes of this.

You think Taft wants it for himself? I ask. He hasn't tried to publish anything on the Hypnerotomachia in years.

This isn't about publishing, Tom.

What's it about?

Paul stays quiet for a moment, then says, You heard what Vincent said tonight. He's never admitted before that Francesco was from Rome. Paul looks down at the pedals of the piano, jutting out from the wooden frame like tiny gold shoes. He's trying to take this away from me.

Take what away from you?

But again Paul hesitates. Never mind. Forget it.

What if it was Curry in the museum? I offer, when he turns away. The letter from Stein to Curry has complicated my vision of the man. It reminds me that he was more taken with the Hypnerotomachia than any of them.

He's not involved, Tom.

You saw how he acted when you showed him the diary. Curry still thought it was his.

No. I know him, Tom. Okay? You don't.

What's that supposed to mean?

You never trusted Richard. Even when he tried to help you.

I didn't need his help.

And you only hate Vincent because of your father.

I turn to him, surprised. He drove my father to-

To what? Run off the road?

Drove him to distraction. What the hell's wrong with you?

He wrote a book review, Tom.

He ruined his life.

He ruined his career. There's a difference.

Why are you defending him?

I'm not. I'm defending Richard. But Vincent never did anything to you.

I'm just about to dig into Paul, when I see the effect our conversation is having on him. He runs the base of his palm above his cheeks, blotting them. For a second I can only see headlights on the road. A horn is blaring.

Richard's always been good to me, Paul is saying.

I don't remember my father making a sound. Not once during that drive, not even when we skidded off the road.

You don't know them, he says. Either of them.

I'm not sure when the rain began-while we were driving to see my mother at the book show, or on the way to the hospital when I was riding in the ambulance.

I found this book review once of Vincent's first major work, Paul continues. A clipping in his house, from the early seventies, back when he was a hotshot at Columbia-before he came to the Institute and his career fell apart. It was glowing, the kind of thing professors dream about. At the end it said, 'Vincent Taft has already begun his next project: a definitive history of the Italian Renaissance. To judge from his existing work, it will be a magnum opus indeed; the sort of rare accomplishment in which the writing of history becomes the making of history.' I remember that, word for word. I found it spring of sophomore year, before I really knew him. That was the first time I started to understand who he was.

A book review. Like the one he sent my father, just to be sure he'd seen it. The Belladonna Hoax, by Vincent Taft.

He was a star, Tom. You know that. He had more going on upstairs than most of the faculty here combined. But he lost it. He didn't burn out, he just lost it.

The words are gathering momentum, crowding into the air as if a balance can be struck between the silence outside him and the pressure within. I feel like I'm swimming, flailing as the tide pulls me out. Paul begins to talk about Taft and Curry again, and I tell myself they're just characters in another book, men in hats, figments of the blackout imagination. But the more he talks, the more I begin to see them the way he does.

In the aftermath of the debacle surrounding the portmaster's diary, Taft moved from Manhattan into a white clapboard house at the Institute, a mile southwest of the Princeton campus. Maybe it was the solitude that got to him, the absence of colleagues to wrestle with, but within months, rumors of his drinking began to circulate through the academic community. The definitive history he'd planned quietly expired. His passion, his command of his gift, seemed to crumble.

Three years later, on the occasion of his next publication-a thin volume on the role of hieroglyphics in Renaissance art-it became clear that Taft's career had stalled. Seven years after that, when his next article was published in a minor journal, a reviewer called his decline a tragedy. According to Paul, die loss of what Taft had with Curry and my father continued to haunt him. In the twenty-five years that elapsed between his arrival at the Institute and his meeting with Paul, Vincent Taft published only four times, preferring to pass his time writing criticism of other scholars' work, especially my father's. Not once did he recover the fiery genius of his youth.

It was Paul's arrival at his doorstep during the spring of our freshman year that must've brought the Hypnerotomachia back into his life. Once Taft and Stein began assisting in the thesis work, Paul told me of startling flashes of brilliance in his mentor. Many nights the old bear toiled furiously alongside him, reciting long passages from obscure primary texts when Paul couldn't find them in the library.

That was the summer Richard funded my trip to Italy, Paul says, rubbing a palm against the edge of the piano stool. We were so excited. Even Vincent. He and Richard still weren't speaking, but they knew I was on to something. I was starting to figure things out.

I was staying in a flat Richard owned, the entire top floor of an old Renaissance palace. It was amazing, just gorgeous. There were paintings on the walls, paintings on the ceilings, paintings everywhere. In niches, above staircases. Tintorettos, Carraccis, Peruginos. It was like heaven, Tom. Just breathtaking, it was so beautiful. And he would wake up in the morning and say, all businesslike, 'Paul, I need to get some work done today' Then we'd get to talking, and half an hour later he would pull off his tie and say, 'To hell with it. Let's take the day off.' We would end up walking through the piazzas and just talking. The two of us, walking and talking for hours.

That's when he started telling me about his days at Princeton. About Ivy, and all of these adventures he'd had, these crazy things he'd done, these people he'd known. Your father, most of all. It was so alive, so vivid. I mean, it was unlike everything Princeton has ever been to me. I was just completely mesmerized. It was like living a dream, a perfect dream. Richard even called it that. The whole time we were in Italy, he seemed to be walking on clouds. He'd started seeing a sculptor from Venice, and was talking about proposing to her one day. I thought he might even try to reconcile with Vincent after that summer.

But they never did.

No. When we got back to the States, everything reverted. He and Vincent never spoke. The woman he'd been seeing broke it off. Richard started coming back to campus, trying to remember the fire he'd had when he and your father studied with McBee. Since then, he's been living more and more in the past. Vincent tried to get me to stay away from him, but this year it's Vincent I've been staying away from, trying to avoid the Institute, trying to work at Ivy whenever I could. I didn't want to tell him what we found until I had to.

That's when Vincent started forcing me to show him my conclusions, asking for weekly progress reports. Maybe he thought it was his only shot at getting the Hypnerotomachia back. Paul runs a hand through his hair. I should've known better. I should've written a B-grade thesis, then gotten the hell out of here. It is the greatest homes and the tallest trees that the gods bring low with bolts and thunder. For the gods love to thwart whatever is greater than the rest. They do not suffer pride in anyone but themselves. Herodotus wrote that. I must've read those lines fifty times and never gave them a second thought. It was Vincent who pointed them out to me. He knew what they meant.

You don't believe that.

I don't know what I believe anymore. I should've been watching Vincent and Bill more closely. If I hadn't been paying so much attention to myself, I could've seen this coming.

I stare at the light beneath the door. The piano down the hall has fallen silent.

Paul rises and begins moving toward the entrance. Let's get out of here, he says.


Chapter 13 | The Rule of Four | Chapter 15