We were sitting feet to fire in the tiny library on the second floor of Hart House, the rain sheeting down the lead glass windows.
"Mind you don't burn," Rory murmured, in a sleepy rainy day voice, "Your pant leg might catch fire and we'd have to whisk you to the infirmary."
I smirked. "If that's an oblique reference to the Student Health Services, I may have to do you some damage."
"My dear Machen—nothing of the sort—although, I must concede, I know at Hoskin is a Lady richly left—and she is fair, and fairer than that word."
He waved his arm dreamily as if conducting the Philharmonic.
I clucked derisively.
"All that education lost on a wastrel—whatever was old Garfield thinking?"
"He was thinking his eldest born son needed a profession—and voila—here I am, Mr. Chips."
"Must you bring Trish into every conversation?"
Beatrice Alistair was a counselor at the University Wellness Centre and was a hauntingly austere and beautiful creature. In God's color palette, he made her a Winter.
Rory crooned like a lark. "Beatrice—the divine Ms. Alistair—our own Florence Nightingale."
"Trish? Hardly—she's as remote as the Mountains of the Moon."
He swiveled in his chair, facing me like a prosecuting attorney, "Do you love her, Stephen?"
"Ahha! I can see you do—your face betrays you." He lowered his voice to a guttural grow—"you could never lie."
"Oh what's the point, Rory? She's as elusive as the Abominable Snowman and about as accessible."
"Nonsense, Mon Ami—you'll find a way—we'll find a way."
I sat up in alarm. "Now, Rory—I don't want you interfering—you know what happened with the Dean."
I was referring to Rory's last great exploit we termed, Romancing the Stone.
Rory seduced the Dean's secretary, Helen Stone, and tried persuading her to gently pressure the Dean into granting us tenure.
We ended up on probation and Helen was let go.
Rory was unrepentant. "Yes, a most unfortunate incident—and most impertinent of you to mention it, my dear Machen—but, I'll put it down to your lack of breeding."
I rolled my eyes. "Can we talk about something else?"
"Well, in the manner of red herrings, I hear we're having a priest."
"What are you going on about now?"
"A priest—a friar—a Capuchin. Yes, apparently the Dean's gone mad—he's hired some defrocked spy to keep track of us."
"Doctor Lonnigan," I said gravely, "you will answer in plain English, please."
Rory's expression changed and he got quite animated—as giddy as a schoolboy.
"I heard through, Rose..."
"Stop!" I commanded. "My God, Rory, you're not romancing the Dean's new secretary, are you?"
"No—not at all—nothing of the sort. We just happened to meet at lunch. She was sitting with a few friends and we all got to chat. I heard her mention a new staff member had been hired in the Humanities—and she added conspiratorially, he was an ex-priest."
I shook my head in wonderment. "And what makes you think he was hired to spy on us?"
"Seriously, Stephen—a Capuchin? They can't be trusted."
"Oh, c'mon Rory—this isn't the Middle Ages and we're not involved in some cloak and dagger mystery like The Romance of the Rose."
He eyed me balefully and I realized what I just said.
"Well, at least, I hope to God we're not involved—that is, you're not involved," I corrected myself.
"Fear not, Squire—I will serve you faithfully—whatever."
It was precisely the 'whatever' I was concerned about.
Two weeks later we were attending the Faculty Ball. The Great Room at Hart House had been rented out and everyone was decked out in his or her finest array.
I almost expected to hear the clatter of horseshoes on cobbles and Lady Alistair to alight from a gleaming coach, black as shining glass.
Instead, I heard the tinkle of glasses and the subdued conversation typical of cocktail parties everywhere.
The entire academic company seemed transformed into a glittering troupe of noblemen and ladies—and none more lovely than the divine Beatrice.
"Have you identified the interloper?" Rory hissed in my ear.
Actually, I was contemplating my chances of asking Beatrice to dance. Surrounded by a black-tied circle of admirers, I would say they varied from nil to nonexitent.
"I've narrowed the field to two likely candidates—Henrik Bushman and Pierce Baird."
"And on what basis did you arrive at that conclusion?"
He colored. "Elementary, Dear Machen—they were the only two additions to the Humanities Department this term."
"Seems appropriate," I said drily.
"Actually, there's something else. Both men flit around Rose like moths drawn to a candle."
"Maybe they're attracted to her," I suggested.
"Perhaps, but I suspect one of them is the Dean's personal confidant—empowered by him to adopt a covert position in order to report back on miscreants, such as ourselves."
"You mean, yourself—Look Rory, I don't want to risk my position indulging in more harebrained pranks. Count me out."
"But Stephen, surely you can't be serious—we have an opportunity to catch the conscience of the Dean—you can't pass on that."
"Just watch me," I said.
Squaring my shoulders, I walked determinedly over to Beatrice and cut through her circle of admirers.
"Doctor Alistair—would you care to dance?"
She looked at me, a bemused smile on her face. "Id be delighted, Doctor Machen."
I accepted her outstretched hand and led her away. "Enchanting," I heard Professor Barnes, the Humanities Chairman, whisper to Dean Fraser as we passed.
We both nodded politely to the two men.
When I placed my hand on Beatrice's waist and swept her up into a gentle waltz, I felt our souls transmigrated—we were autumn leaves, gliding and floating on the wind, borne over a glittering pond.
Strauss's Viennese Waltz never sounded so sweet and Beatrice felt weightless, as light as a feather.
The whirling room, the sequined gowns and the lovely music all combined to evoke in my soul a sweet concord of happiness and romance.
I didn't want the dance to end, but it did. I looked into Beatrice's eyes and saw the same emotion reflected back.
I heard myself boldly ask, "May I have the honor of sharing your last dance tonight?"
"Of course," she replied, her eyes glistening with joy.
I walked her back to her friends and returned to find Rory gone. I glanced furtively about the room, but he was nowhere to be seen.
At midnight, we all sat down to an elaborate feast in the dining hall.
The seating was previously arranged and the place card to my left was elegantly written in calligraphic scrip, Dr. Rory Lonnigan.
Rory, however, had disappeared.
Oddly, Rose, the Dean's secretary was seated opposite us, and on either side of her were her two suitors—Henrik Bushman and Pierce Baird.
I glanced at the place card to my right and saw Dr. Beatrice Alistair. Directly to her right, was Dean Fraser.
I felt the light touch of a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see Beatrice, preparing to sit down. I rose and drew back her chair, seating her as elegantly as a skilled waiter in the Franz Josef Room.
The Dean entered and we all rose in respect and when he was seated, the waiters appeared with bottles of champagne.
The Dean's glass was the first to be filled. The waiter hovered, the white linen-wrapped bottle suspended in mid-air. But just then, a voice rang out.
The waiter snapped to attention like a gendarme before the Commissar.
Rory appeared, with a bottle of Dom Perignon nestled in a silver ice bucket.
"Only the best, for Dean Fraser," he proclaimed.
The table politely applauded and the Dean nodded in appreciation.
Rory supplanted the waiter and the pretender retreated to serve the plebs.
Bearing the ice bucket before him like a priest with the monstrance wrapped in a golden stole, he loudly intoned in a sonorous voice, Introibo ad altare Dei.
Henrik Bushman, smiled and responded, qui lætificat iuventutem meam.
Rory smiled at me triumphantly.
He caught his mouse. Apparently, old habits never die.
Poor Henrik was outed by baiting him with the opening lines of the Tridentine Mass—I will go into the altar of God—and the response, To God the joy of my youth.
Rose didn't bat an eyelash. The Dean washed back the champagne in a satisfied gulp, holding out his glass for a refill.
Pierce Blair seemed insufferably bored.
Only Henrik Bushman was perturbed. He sat in stony silence; sat red-faced and glowering.
Beatrice saved the last dance for me and we've been partners ever since.
Herik Bushman's career in the Humanities was short-lived.
Rory and Rose became an item, giving rise to another byword, The Romance of the Rose.
Surprisingly, Rory and I were granted tenure, the only stipulation being, that at each succeeding faculty Ball, Rory Lonnigan was to be seated next to the Dean.
As for me, I have no interest in spy mysteries—I am only interested in the woman who loves me.