RARE DAYS IN LOST VALLEY: THE BELLWETHER UNIVERSITY BOOK OF UNIVERSAL TRUTHS
The action shifts between the University of Michigan area in Ann Arbor and an international conference held at a nearby smaller college.
Characters include a Dean who began his career escorting young ladies at their comings out, the Dean’s unacknowledged English daughter, an inarticulate Head of Communications who loves dogs and goldfish, a President with high ambitions but confused intelligence, a visiting Australian with a problematic accent, a misty poet, an uncertain feminist, a gushing multi-culturalist, a Chinese innkeeper who reluctantly hosts the conference, a famous and reclusive scholar who never appears in public, and a sinister professor of English whose multiple schemes are fittingly rewarded at the end.
AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER FOUR
The French and the Indians
“‘Bellwether,’ a term from the French” thinks President Abel Baker. He stands in his office, overlooking the campus of Bellwether University. Before him stretches green grass, clipped hedges, a square enclosure of paternally smiling classroom buildings and dormitories faced mostly in a grayish stone quarried not far from here. Against the buildings the dark trunks and leafy greenery of deciduous trees and the darker green of an occasional spruce or hemlock form contrasts of shape, color, and texture that strike him as especially pleasing on this June day. Off to his right, Stonewall Manor imposes its regal presence. In the distance, the Huron River gleams in the sun. Beyond it, slightly to the south and west, the small mountain that helps to make the valley a valley looks gently down. It casts no shadow over the fair scene, except toward nightfall in December on the darkest night of the year. Which is not now. Off toward the river a dog is arf arfing and yip yipping with a sound not unattractive to the President’s ear, which is accustomed to it. Not long since he has amused himself by beating a drum with the palm of his hand and chanting melodious syllables not easily to be distinguished by the uninitiated from arf arf arf and yip yip yip. Abel Baker would be insulted by that suggestion, however, for he imagines himself in his heart of hearts to be continually pumping no small portion of the blood of Indian ancestors.
He is a renaissance man, reborn every day.
“‘Bellwether,’ a term from the French,” he thinks. To balance his Indian ancestry, he takes due pride in his European heritage, part of which he believes to be French, and he likes to show off his facility with that strange language. But how best to work it into his speech? “‘Belle,’” he continues to think, “from the French for ‘beautiful’. ‘Wether,’ from the Old English for ‘weather’. ‘Beautiful weather.’ For all of us at Bellwether University the name rings like a bell calling us to enjoy the weather that welcomes you, our distinguished visitors, to this lovely campus. We hope and expect that during your stay you will find time to obey the clarion call of that beautiful bell and sally forth to enjoy the June belleness, that quality of beauty that shines forth from all the points of the compass in the weather of our green and pleasant campus, and so on and so on. And so forth and so forth.” He pauses while the wheels of thought turn. “Hmn, hmn. Some of this and some of that. I invite you all to a most enjoyable stay in our little Eden here in Lost Valley. That’s nice,” he thinks. "Stop right there. Or maybe end with ‘our Lost Valley Eden’.” Gwendolyn frequently tells him it is good to end a speech with the strongest word. Then wait for the applause. At that point it is good to step back from the podium, just slightly, and remove the hands from the paper. Hint, hint. I have nothing more to say. Applause. He tilts his head, not quite a bow. And smiles. He has done his thing. Wait. He waves toward Professor Ripley Rollins, who will continue the proceedings. Perhaps he should end where he began with a reference to beautiful weather. Something like ‘I invite you all to a most enjoyable stay in our little Lost Valley Eden with all its beautiful weather’.”
Nicely done, he congratulates himself. The middle needs fixing, but when he dictates it to Gwendolyn she will take care of that. Possibly, though, when he waves to Ripley Rollins, inviting him to take the podium, he needs to say a few words of introduction. Professor Ripley Rollins, the distinguished Professor Ripley Rollins, start again with the personal touch. My good friend Ripley Rollins, My good friend Professor Ripley Rollins, whose distinguished presence has graced these hallowed halls for a long time. How long? It will come to him, and if not Gwendolyn will fix it. Name his book. Underline that for dictation, Name the Rollins book. At whose instigation. Following whose initiative. The chief cook and bottle washer. You can’t say that of course, as Gwendolyn will remind him. Unless he leaves it out. Delete chief cook and bottle washer.
“Here is the speech. Dr. Baker.”
Startled out of his compositional frame of mind, he welcomes the young lady into his office. Doing so, he notices once again how often his thoughts merge with present events and he pauses to tally the elements of his present pride: (1) Indian and (2) French to be found among the offshoots of his generally (3) English ancestry, and (4) amazing psychic powers.
“Speech? What speech?”
“The welcoming speech for the conference.”
Conference? This is a thought he hesitates to voice. He knows there is a conference, because he is hard at work composing a welcoming address. Can there possibly be another conference he has forgotten about?
He tests the waters. “Another conference?”
“I don’t know about another one. I mean the Conference on Multicultural and Multidisciplinary Initiatives.”
There is a polite knock on the door.
The man who enters is Wardley Patterson, Bellwether’s Vice-President for Material Resources. “Excuse me, Dr. Baker,” he says. “I have the covers and inside pages for the conference program.”
“The International Conference”
“Yes, of course.” Despite these words of assurance, President Baker, if he could see himself in a mirror at this moment, would be aware that a look of slight bewilderment has enveloped his manly features. Gwendolyn Graceworth and Wardley Patterson are both immediately aware of this phenomenon, although they come to the conclusion from different signs. For Wardley the point of surety is the perceptible glaze that has crept over his employer’s eyes. For Gwendolyn, it is the dropping of the chin and the gaping of the mouth. Why the conference should produce these symptoms is a puzzle to them both.
Meanwhile, the wheels of Baker’s agile mind are turning. They soon grind out for him the possibility that the International Conference referred to by Patterson is the same conference that Gwendolyn has alluded to by the more mellifluous title of Conference on Multiculturalism and Multidisciplinary Initiatives. He is pleased to see that possibility become certainty when he reads the title page of the material Patterson gives him.
“Yes, yes. I see,” he says. “Here it is, right on the cover: INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON MULTICULTURAL AND MULTIDISCIPLINARY INITIATIVES: THE NOW AND THE HOW. Very nice indeed. International Conference on Multicultural and so on and so on. Yes, that makes it quite clear. Good job, Wardley.”
“Thank you, sir. But it’s not my job. Professor Rollins just brought it over. He couldn’t stay himself, he said. He seemed nervous, but insisted you should see it immediately. Otherwise I wouldn’t have interrupted your writing session.”
“Well, I am seeing it immediately. It looks fine. Does he want comments? Tell him I like the way he has placed Stonewall Manor on the front with the Indian standing in front of it. Look at that, Gwendolyn,” he says. “They’ve made the Indian bigger than the building. Look at the way the word ‘HOW’ comes out above Old Huron’s head, as though he were saying it as a welcome. Very clever fellow, that Ripley Rollins. Ask him, Wardley, if he can draw in a balloon, like in a cartoon. You know, a circle around the word ‘HOW’ and lines coming to a point near Old Huron’s mouth. Here, take it back to him. I suppose he’s in a rush.”
“I think he wanted you to look inside, sir.”
“Near the back. The Something Session with Vivian Wayne. Where I placed the paper clip. He wanted you to see that.”
“I see it. But why should I see it?” He finds it curious how many people share this affliction of Patterson’s, an inability to come swiftly to the point. It pays to keep probing.
“He thinks there may be a problem with Wayne, that he may not show.”
Baker reassembles the pages, removes the paper clip, and with presidential authority returns the program to Patterson. Then, dismissively, “What’s one scholar more or less. Tell him to consider the balloon.”
“Now,” he says to Gwendolyn, “where were we?”
“I was just about to show you your welcoming speech for the conference.”
Again he feels confronted by a superfluity of conferences. He has just been composing in his head a welcoming speech for the conference that he thinks of as the Indian one, the one that will culminate in the annual Ceremony of the Happy Huron Heritage. Clearly, that must be the one with the Indian on the front of the program. What does the woman mean? She has a sheaf of papers in her hand, and so he answers, “Oh, yes, the conference. Have a chair and we’ll go over it together.”
He settles himself comfortably in the chair behind his desk and looks at the first page. Then he jumps to a bolt upright position. If he were a character in one of those comic strips with balloons, his eyes would be portrayed as bulging impossibly from their sockets. “Talk about psychic powers.”
“I said ‘Talk about psychic powers’.”
“I thought you did, but why?”
“This speech,” he sputters. “It’s amazingly like the one I was just now composing in my head.”
“That is a coincidence,” she says, “but I think I can explain it.”
“No, wait. Just listen to this. You give me a speech that begins ‘Bellwether, as everyone knows, is a term for the leader of a flock of sheep. The wether, or male sheep, carries a bell that helps locate the flock.’ In my head I am writing a speech that begins 'Bellwether, a term from the French. Belle, from the French for beautiful. Wether, from the Old English for Weather’.”
He puts down the page and stares for a moment into space.
“Now of these two versions, one has some pretty goofy ideas, but just look at the structure. We both begin with the word ‘Bellwether’ and we both proceed to define the word, taking it in its component parts. You weren’t typing, were you,” he continues, “just before you came in, while I was in here thinking? That would explain some of the coincidence as a remarkable case of psychic transmission, only some of the sense got mangled in the airwaves.”
“Well, I did finish it just a while ago, but I don’t think I was tuning in on your thoughts. I had the copy you gave me yesterday”
“Copy I gave you yesterday?” His eyes are doing the out-of-the-sockets jump again. This becomes more and more weird. “You mean to tell me I wrote something as goofy as that stuff about bells and sheep?”
“No,” she admits.
“Well, then. Why did you say I did?”
“I didn’t mean to say that. I meant to say you wrote a speech and gave it to me.”
“I did? Then, if I didn’t write what I see here, what did I write?”
“You wrote pretty much the same words you just recited to me.”
“I did?” President Baker allows his eyes to sink once more into their sockets. He is feeling an eerie sense of something he might call deja vu if his command of French were better than it is. Deep in the recesses of his brain he begins to think there lurks a memory of bells and sheep that seems not inappropriate to the present conversation. And then there comes the image of the sheep with a bell around its neck, carved in stone and set into one of the gateposts by the main entry to the campus.
“Well, then,” he stumbles on, “If I wrote about good weather, how did those words turn into bell-ringing sheep?” All he is asking for is complete clarification. When it comes down to cases, he prides himself on his quick mind. He thinks he knows the answer already.
“Bell-ringing sheep?” she repeats. “But you know that’s what the university name means.”
“Then why did I write that it meant ‘beautiful weather’?”
“I thought,” she says” that perhaps you meant it as a joke. You know, a pun.”
“Well, maybe I did. You think it’s funny?”
“So you changed it?”
“I thought not everyone would get the joke, so I tried to give the derivation of the name in its straight form. Many of the people you will be speaking to will be visitors to the campus unacquainted with your sense of humor.”
“So you changed it?”
“I took that liberty.”
He looks again at the first page of his speech, recognizing a phrase here, an image there, exactly as he has been trying to get it together. Odd that he doesn’t remember writing anything yesterday, but this looks very like what he has in mind. A lot that he doesn't recognize he puts down as Gwendolyn Graceworth taking liberties.
“Taking liberties is part of your job,” he says, approvingly.