I am one of Professor Hollier’s students.
And you work in this room?
After today, yes.
A very special student, then, who works so close to the great man. Because he is a very great man. Yes, my old classmate Clement Hollier is now a very great man among those who understand what he is doing. I suppose you must be one of those?
A student, as I said.
You must have a name, my dear.
I am Miss Theotoky.
Oh, what a jewel of a name! A flower in the mouth! Miss Theotoky. But surely more than that? Miss What Theotoky?
If you insist on knowing, my full name is Maria Magdalena Theotoky.
Better and better. But what a contrast! Theotoky — with the accent firmly on the first ‘o’ — linked with the name of the sinner out of whom our Lord cast seven devils. Not Canadian, I assume?
Of course. I keep forgetting that any name may be Canadian. But quite recently, in your case, I should say.
I was born here.
But your parents were not, I should guess. Now where did they come from?
And before England?
Why do you want to know?
Because I am insatiably curious. And you provoke curiosity, my dear. Very beautiful girls — and of course you know that you are very beautiful — provoke curiosity, and in my case I assure you a benevolent, fatherly curiosity. Now, you are not a lovely English rose. You are something more mysterious. That name –Theotoky — means the bringer of God, doesn’t it? Not English — oh dear me, no. Therefore, in a spirit of kindly, Christian curiosity, where were your parents before England?
Ah, now we have it! And your dear parents very wisely legged it to hell out of Hungary because of the trouble there. Am I not right?
Confidence begets confidence. And names are of the uttermost importance. So I’ll tell you about mine; it is a Huguenot name, and I suppose once, very long ago, some forebear of mine was a persuasive talker, and thus came by it. After several generations in Ireland it became Parlabane, and now, after several more generations in Canada, it is quite as Canadian as your own, my dear. I think we are foolish on this continent to imagine that after five hundred generations somewhere else we became wholly Canadian — hard-headed, no-nonsense North Americans — in the twinkling of a single life. Maria Magdalena Theotoky, I think we are going to be very good friends.
Yes — well, I must get on with my work. Professor Hollier will not be back for some time.
How lucky then that I have precisely that amount of time. I shall wait. By your leave, I’ll just put myself on this disreputable old sofa, which you are not using. What a wreck! Clem never had any sense of his surroundings. This place looks just like him. Which delights me, of course. I am very happy to be snuggled back into the bosom of dear old Spook.
I should warn you that the Rector greatly dislikes people calling the college Spook.
How very right-minded of the Rector. You may be sure that I shall never make that mistake in his presence. But between us, Molly — I think I shall call you Molly as short for Maria — how in the name of the ever-living God does the Rector expect that a place called the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost will not be called Spook? I like Spook. I think it is affectionate, and I like to be affectionate.
He was already stretched out on the sofa, which had such associations for me, and it was plain there would be no getting rid of him, so I was silent and went on with my work.
But how right he was! The room looked very much like Hollier, and like Spook, too. Spook is about a hundred and forty years old and was built in the time when Collegiate Gothic raged in the bosoms of architects like a fire. The architect of Spook knew his business, so it was not hideous, but it was full of odd corners and architecturally indefensible superfluities, and these rooms where Hollier lived were space-wasting and inconvenient. Up two long flights of stairs, they were the only rooms on their landing, except for a passage that led to the organ-loft of the chapel. There was the outer room, where I was working, which was of a good size, and had two big Gothic arched windows, and then, up three steps and somewhat around a corner was Hollier’s inner room, where he also slept. The washroom and John were down a long flight, and when Hollier wanted a bath he had to traipse to another wing of the college, in the great Oxbridge tradition. The surroundings were as Gothic as the nineteenth century could make them. But Hollier, who had no sense of congruity, had furnished them with decrepit junk from his mother’s house; what had legs was unsteady on them, and what was stuffed leaked stuffing here and there, and had unpleasantly greasy upholstery. The pictures were photographs of college groups from Hollier’s younger days here at Spook. Apart from the books there was only one thing in the room that seemed to belong there, and that was a large alchemist’s retort, of the kind that looks like an abstract sculpture of a pelican, that sat on top of a bookcase; someone who did not know of Hollier’s indifference to objects had given this picturesque object to him many years ago. His rooms were, by ordinary standards, a mess, but they had a coherence, and even a comfort, of their own. Once you stopped being offended by the muddle, neglect, and I suppose one must say dirt, they were oddly beautiful, like Hollier himself.
Parlabane lay on the sofa for almost two hours, during which I do not think he ever ceased to stare at me. I wanted to get away on some business of my own, but I had no intention of leaving him in possession, so I made work for myself, and thought about him. How had he managed to get so much out of me in so short a time? How did he get away with calling me my dear in such a way that I did not check him? And Molly ! The man was all of brass, but the brass had such a soft, buttery sheen that one was disarmed. I began to see why people had been so dismayed when they heard that Parlabane was back.
At last Hollier returned.
Clem! Dear old Clem! My dear man, how good to see you again!
John — I heard you were back.
And isn’t Spook delighted to see me! Haven’t I had a real Spook welcome! I’ve been brushing the frost off my habit all morning. But here I am, with my dear old friend, and charming Molly, who is going to be another dear friend.
You’ve met Miss Theotoky?
Darling Molly! We’ve been having a great old heart-to-heart.
Well, John, you’d better come inside and talk to me. Miss T., I’m sure you want to get away.
Miss T. is what he calls me in semi-formality — a way-station between my true name and Maria, which he uses very seldom.
They went up the steps into his inner room, and I trotted down the two long flights of stairs, feeling in my bones that something had gone deeply wrong. This was not going to be the wonderful term I had expected and longed for.
I like to be early at my work; that means being at my desk by half past nine, because academics of my kind begin late and work late. I let myself into Hollier’s outer room and breathed in a strong whiff of the stench not very clean men create when they sleep in a room with the windows closed — something like the lion’s cage at the zoo. There was Parlabane, stretched out on the sofa, fast asleep. He wore most of his clothes but his heavy monk’s robe he had used as a blanket. Like an animal, he was aware of me at once, opened his eyes, and yawned.
Good morning, dear Molly.
Have you been here all night?
The great man gave me permission to doss down here until Spook finds a room for me. I forgot to give the Bursar proper warning of my arrival. Now I must say my prayers and shave; a monk’s shave — in cold water and without soap, unless I can find some in the washroom. These austerities keep me humble.
He pulled on and laced a big pair of black boots, and then from a knapsack he had tucked behind the sofa he brought out a dirty bag which I suppose contained his washing things. He went out, mumbling under his breath — prayers, I assumed — and I opened the windows and gave the room a good airing.