Authors: Ralph McInerny
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
For Sally and Guy
ONE GOLDEN OCTOBER DAY,
Roger and Philip Knight turned onto Notre Dame Avenue and as they neared Napoleon Boulevard Roger asked his brother to pull up in front of a venerable house of yellow brick. Roger regarded it with devotion and something like a nostalgic sigh escaped him.
“Who lives there?” Philip asked apprehensively. Did he fear that Roger had tired of their comfortable apartment in Notre Dame Village and was longing for them to have a home of their own again? Phil had shaken the dust of their house in Rye, New York, from his feet almost as willingly as he had left Manhattan some years earlier.
“It's the Lilac House.”
“I don't see any.”
“It's October. The University built this house for Maurice Francis Egan, one of the perks to lure him to Notre Dame.”
“The name is not familiar?”
It was not familiar to Philip but it became so as they continued home. Stopped by the light at Angela Boulevard before they could turn east, their eyes were drawn down the tree-lined avenue to the great pile of the Main Building and atop it, afire in the setting sun, the golden statue of Our Lady. Roger paused suitably and then continued his narration.
Maurice Francis Egan had been brought to Notre Dame by Father Sorin and named professor of literature, deserting the editorship of a New York newspaper to accept the offer. When the Main Building burned to the ground in 1879, Egan had edited a volume of poetry, the proceeds of the sales of which went to the rebuilding fund. How could Father Sorin fail to want to bind such a man more closely to Notre Dame? Hence the offer of a professorship and the construction of what Egan christened Lilac House, having planted lilac bushes all about the place. Roger's interest in Egan had taken its rise from Greg Whelan's remark that Roger's appointment to the Huneker Chair of Catholic Literature was reminiscent of Egan's Notre Dame connection.
“What do you have on him?” Roger had asked. Greg worked in the University archives.
And so he had. There were also some sixty books by Egan in the Hesburgh Libraryâpoetry, novels, criticism, an appreciation of Leo XIII, an account of the Knights of Columbus in peace and war, and his delightful autobiography,
Recollections of a Happy Life
Roger had been a prodigy, recipient of a Princeton doctorate at the age of twenty-one, the year after he had converted to Catholicism. Age and his enormous weight, plus a paucity of positions in philosophy, led Roger, in a fit of romantic melancholy, to enlist in the navy. The recruiter, perhaps moved by the thought of what naval discipline might do for this unpromising physical specimen, had suitably altered Roger's application and into boot camp he had gone. There he had proved more of a problem than a challenge. He had passed the crucial swimming test by floating the length of the pool, mesmerized by the neon lighting above him. Assigned to the base library, he had wallowed and read for a year until a stern lieutenant commander had pronounced him unfit for his country's service. Discharged, he moved in with his brother, Philip, and, when the perils of life in Manhattan had proved too much, again moved with him to Rye where he had assisted Philip in his profession as private investigator. His monograph on Baron Corvo appeared to rave reviews and modest sales and caught the eye of Father Carmody at Notre Dame in whose gift the newly endowed Huneker Chair of Catholic Studies effectively was. Roger's avoirdupois was not an impediment to professorial life; his learning and affability were weighty assets, and he had been offered and accepted the appointment. For three years, he had flourished in the classroom while Phil enjoyed access to the full spectrum of Notre Dame sports and continued his investigation business.
“Far more differences than similarities, Greg,” Roger had said.
“At any rate I hope
won't be lured away by another university.”
Maurice Francis Egan had left Notre Dame after less than a decade for a similar post at the nascent Catholic University of America. In Washington he had become a confidant of Theodore Roosevelt, and eventually spent a dozen years in Denmark as his country's representative. With that international career he sounded a good deal more like George Shuster than Roger Knight. But Roger was nonetheless grateful for having been put onto Maurice Francis Egan. Improbable as it seemed, it had been Maurice Francis Egan who occasioned Roger's friendship with Fred Neville.
After a brief stint in journalism, Fred, who had graduated in 1993, returned to Notre Dame as assistant to the sports information director and spent his days writing enigmatic press releases on the various athletic teams. He was tall and thin, round-shouldered and shy, and turned guiltily when Roger came upon him in the stacks on the eighth floor of the library, planted before a shelf containing the poetry and fiction of Maurice Francis Egan. Fred tried clumsily to return a book to the shelf, but it fell to the floor. He rose with it, face flushed, and tried to cover the title.
The Ghost in Hamlet
. You'll like it.”
“You've read it?”
“I have made it a personal project to read everything Maurice Francis Egan ever wrote.”
“Confessions of a Book Lover,”
“The Wiles of Sexton Maginnis,”
The litany continued, and then, “You're Roger Knight, aren't you? Professor Knight?”
“And you are?”
Roger looked at the man. He was too old to be a graduate student. Was he a new instructor in English?
“Good grief, no. I'm an amateur.” He looked beyond Roger and said huskily, “I'm in the athletic department.”
They went for coffee and that night Fred was their guest. Phil and Fred had the inexhaustible topic of Notre Dame athletics between them so a three-cornered friendship was formed. The brothers spelled one another, Roger talking books with Fred, Phil talking teams. The basketball season would soon be upon them and Roger listened to the two others discuss the prospects of the men's and women's teams in the upcoming season. Phil in turn listened patiently when Roger and Fred debated the merits of Maurice Francis Egan's poetry. Three happy bachelors. Sometimes four, when Greg joined them, the archivist's stammer disappearing when the conversation turned to Notre Dame lore. Often Roger and Greg, while a home game was in progress, visited in the Knights' apartment and if Phil returned with Fred, his duties done, the four consumed popcorn and talked into the wee hours. Phil was tolerant when the conversation drifted away from sports, waiting patiently until he could rescue Fred, as he thought it, from esoteric topics. Phil had tried to read an Egan novel but soon gave it up. The basketball season was off on a historic note and he could not believe the others could really be interested in stories written nearly a century before. After the women's team had clocked up their fifth straight victory he kept the conversation on a detailed analysis of the game. Fred seemed not to care what direction the discussion took.
The handouts Fred prepared for visiting newsmen betrayed some hints of his other interests. They were grammatical, with similes under a control not often found in press releases, and understated, Notre Dame athletics firmly lodged in the wider ambience of the university. From hockey to golf, from soccer to lacrosse, Fred's grasp of sports was formidable, a matter of wonderment to Phil. He could describe a football game played a quarter of a century ago as if he were giving a contemporary play-by-play account. But his passion was basketball. Only the most sensitive antenna could detect his preference for the men's team over the women's. In the privacy of the Knights' apartment, he could lament that the women too were turning the game into a contact sport.
“It should be a game of finesse,” he said.
“âChess on the hardboards,'” Phil said. He was quoting one of Fred's press releases.
Players could be carried from the gridiron on stretchers, hockey players skate bloodied to the bench, but basketball should not be a danger to life and limb. He waxed poetic about Griselda Novak, the plucky little guard who was leading the Lady Irish to what promised to be a statistical dream of a season. Griselda came downcourt with effortless grace, surveying the defense before her, passed the ball with rifling accuracy or drifted through giants of the opposition to finger roll the ball into the hoop. Fred brushed aside suggestions that a pro career awaited the wily Griselda.
“She's on the honor roll. Basketball is a game for her. She could end up on the faculty.”
“I have her in class,” Roger said. “I had no idea she was an athlete.”
Griselda was taking the course Roger was giving on writers who had been awarded the Laetare Medal and she had written an impressive paper on the woman who wrote under the pseudonym Christian Read. Griselda's honey-colored hair was worn in a ponytail on court and off and she did not walk with the rolling swagger of the woman athlete. She had even played a small role in a campus production in Washington Hall and an unctuous account went out from the sports publicity department, authored by Fred.
“She has stolen your heart away,” Roger teased.
Fred blushed. There was a moment of silence. In that celibate gathering, the attraction of female beauty was seldom alluded to. That Fred might be smitten by Griselda or some woman of more appropriate age seemed briefly possible. But the moment passed and the blood drained from Fred's face. The teasing suggestion that the eloquent member of the sports information office might be a Lothario was not pursued.
GRISELDA NOVAK WAS THAT
rarity among Notre Dame undergraduates, a native of South Bend. Her parents had succumbed to the dissolution of the ethnic west side of the city and migrated north to the sprawling suburb of Granger, which was why Griselda had attended Penn High School rather than St. Joseph's like her parents. The athletic program at Penn rivaled that of many colleges and Griselda had distinguished herself in both soccer and basketball, had been the subject of two laudatory profiles by the normally acerbic Hough of the
South Bend Tribune
, a paper Jim Novak, Griselda's father, subscribed to only for the sake of the obituaries and the sports page. Its editorials and featured op-ed columnists turned this habitually laconic lawyer into a muttering, sputtering, red-faced critic. Among his few confessable faults was to accuse his wife of sounding like Molly Ivens. But it was with Griselda rather than his wife that he discussed the news of the day. Griselda wrote for the school paper in a way that warmed her father's heart and she was an excellent student all around. It never occurred to the Novaks that her athletic accomplishments were anything more than grace notes to her schooling. Other parents with less gifted sons or daughters brooded over their children's future in sports and dreamed the dreams of avarice. A tennis player might be groomed for the pros, a gifted golfer be nurtured for future professional play. It was not unheard of that ambitious parents sought the advice of sports agents to advance the careers of their children. Not the Novaks. Griselda was a Merit Scholar and had been admitted to Notre Dame as a student. When Muffin McGraw saw Griselda in the bookstore tournament the coach urged Griselda to become a walk-on member of the women's basketball team where she soon outshone those who had been lured to South Bend with athletic scholarships. She loved the game but eschewed the role of jock. It was a fateful day when she signed up for Roger Knight's seminar devoted to Chesterton and Belloc. She had taken a course from him every semester since. A fissure appeared in her soul and had been widening ever since.
“Have you read everything that was ever written?” she asked Roger one afternoon. She had taken the wheel of the golf cart in which Roger got around the campus and at his direction driven to Grace where they sat at an outdoor table over coffee.
Roger laughed. “Hardly. But there are certain authors I read again and again.”
“I want to be like you.”
“You should work out, you know.”
“Oh, I have. But like the devil in Scripture who was driven out of a man but returned with seven others, the last state of that man was worse than the first.”
Griselda thought about it. “I think you're right. God wants you fat.”
“You make it sound meritorious.”
Roger's enormous weight and childlike manner brought out the mother in female undergraduates. Griselda had seen this in others and knew her own case to be different. She regretted talking to him about exercise. He was everything a professor ought to be. Her teammates dreamed of playing professional ball, her classmates contemplated various worldly futures, but sitting in Roger Knight's class had made Griselda realize that the campus was goal enough for her.
“I want to go on in English and then come back here on the faculty.”
He did not dismiss this possibility. He began to talk to her about graduate programs. They went on to discuss Christian Read, a woman novelist who had been one of the recipients of the Laetare Medal.
“Father Hudson was the editor of
magazine, a pet project of Father Sorin's. It no longer exists but in its day it was one of the most influential Catholic magazines. When Christian Readâthe pen name of Frances Tiernanâwas given the medal, Father Hudson and Father Zahm traveled to Alabama to confer it on her at Belmont Abbey.”
One of the fascinating things about Roger Knight was his knowledge of the history of Notre Dame. Everyone knew about Notre Dame athletics but Professor Knight talked of the faculty giants of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Notre Dame as if they were colleagues. It was with growing reluctance that Griselda went off to the Joyce Center for practice. Once on the court, however, she was absorbed in the game. The team had started off the season with a bang and already there was talk of another banner being hung from the rafters in recognition of postseason accomplishment. But after practice, walking through the twilit campus to her room, Griselda felt that she was returning to her real reason for being at Notre Dame. Back at her books, she regretted the time she had to put in practicing. One practiced in order to play and she loved to play, particularly at home when the student section was crammed and all the other seats filled with twelve thousand fans, but after all, basketball is only a game. She was wise enough not to speak such heresy to the coaches or her teammates. Though, Fred Neville might understand. After all, he was a friend of Roger Knight's.