Dawn of the Centuryby Robert Vaughan
In Volume One of The American Chronicles, Robert Vaughan panoramically evokes America at the beginning of the Twentieth century, poised on the brink of greatness and fraught with the tumult of rapid change.See more details below
In Volume One of The American Chronicles, Robert Vaughan panoramically evokes America at the beginning of the Twentieth century, poised on the brink of greatness and fraught with the tumult of rapid change.
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Dawn of the Century
The American Chronicles: Volume One
By Robert Vaughan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Robert Vaughan
All rights reserved.
The rain stopped before eleven; then the sun came out, so that by late afternoon it was the kind of soft, warm spring day that poets extol. On the center lawn at St. Louis's Jefferson College, in a plaza the students called the quad, young men and women lolled about, enjoying the sun, the flowers, the fragrant grass, but most of all the end of classes for the week and the upcoming weekend.
When Jefferson College opened its doors in 1853, it had very modest goals. Its founder and first president, Henry R. Spengeman, had established the all-male college named after Thomas Jefferson to "teach the English and dead languages, mathematics, mechanics, art, natural and moral philosophy, history, and the principles of the Constitution of the United States."
Henry Spengeman had been honored with a bronze statue of him, sculpted by Rodin in the style of his "The Thinker." Done at a scale three times life size and mounted on a large, concrete pedestal that had a brass plaque reading, IN MEMORY OF PROFESSOR HENRY R. SPENGEMAN, OUR BELOVED FOUNDER AND FIRST PRESIDENT, 1853-1881, the sculpture had the professor sitting on a chair, resting his chin on his right hand, while in his left he held a book. Those who could remember the professor said it was a typical pose.
The pedestal-mounted statue sat right in the middle of the quad and was set off by large, white-painted stones that formed a circle some one hundred feet in diameter. This was known as Statue Circle, and it was hallowed ground.
Jefferson College was still an all-male school; therefore the women present on the quad were guests of their male escorts. Some of the women were students at Mary Lindenwood, the women's college in nearby St. Charles. Enough commuter trains ran between the schools that weekend visits were easily arranged between the campuses.
Near the great bronze statue a group of four seniors were enjoying the privilege of their class. As upperclassmen they were authorized to be inside of Statue Circle, though the exact position of these particular young men—at the pedestal itself—was the most elite of the elite. Unlike the area inside Statue Circle, the pedestal wasn't reserved by tradition but had been staked out at the beginning of the school year by these four who, by dint of their popularity, social position, athletic ability, and academic achievement, had established themselves as the crème de la crème of the senior class. They called themselves the quad quad.
The obvious leader of the quad quad was Bob Canfield, a good-looking young man with well-chiseled features, dark hair and eyes, and a runner's chest and legs, all on a six-foot frame. A miler, he had that very day won an intercollegiate meet with his best time ever. The other three were also varsity trackmen: David Gelbman, another miler, and sprinters Terry Perkins and J. P. Winthrop.
Only two weeks of school remained, and the entire student body was feeling a sense of importance—the seniors because they'd be graduating, the juniors because they'd soon move into the exalted position of seniors, and the two lower classes because they'd be moving up.
At the moment there were no women with the quad quad, though Bob was expecting Connie Bateman on the next train from St. Charles. Connie, a student at Mary Lindenwood College, happened to be the daughter of William Bateman, the current president of Jefferson College. Though not officially engaged as yet, Bob and Connie had what was called "an understanding."
"What do you think?" Terry Perkins asked, holding up his sketch pad. "Have I captured the essence?" His pale-blue eyes sparkled with amusement, but his muscular, well-proportioned body almost seemed ready to challenge a less-than-favorable response.
"Let me see," J.P. answered. The tall, black-haired youth stood and struck a pose like that of Professor Avery, the art instructor. With his left arm across the body, his left hand cradling the right elbow, and his right hand on his chin, he narrowed his eyes and studied the picture. "Oh, my good fellow, do you really think you have captured the essence with this abysmal collection of lines and smudges?" he asked, perfectly duplicating the professor's sibilant voice. "Your trees have no symmetry, your flowers look as if they are made of wax, and your stream is running not downhill, but up. Oh, and tell me, Mr. Perkins, have you perhaps made a discovery that our noted astronomers have missed? Not one, but three suns in our solar system? For, dear boy, that is the only way one might explain your source of light."
Bob and David laughed, though through his laughter, David squinted his deep-blue eyes at his friend and asked, "You're being a little hard on him, aren't you, J.P.?"
"Do you want these lips to say what these eyes do not see?" J.P. quipped. "Mr. Perkins, I must tell you, you represent no threat to Winslow Homer; however ..." He let the last word hang.
"However?" Terry asked hopefully.
J.P. smiled. "However, I think you'll be able to pull a 'gentleman's C' in Professor Avery's class."
"Alleluia," Terry said, running a hand through his light-brown hair and breathing a sigh of relief.
The others applauded, for though they had all successfully completed their final art assignment, Terry's two previous attempts had been rejected as "unsatisfactory."
J. P. Winthrop was the best artist of the group and the most critical judge. If he guessed Professor Avery would give a C, then Terry could relax.
"Well, Terry, it's beginning to look as if when the rest of us walk across these hallowed grounds to receive our sheepskin, you'll be with us after all," David said, though in truth, even if Terry's submission was not accepted, there would be no danger of his not graduating. Like the others, he had maintained a very high average in all his classes.
"Yes," Terry said. "My honor is saved."
"It would've helped if you'd chosen a simpler subject," David suggested. The blond-haired youth shook his head slowly. "The Garden of Eden is not a logical subject for someone with your limited abilities. Why did you choose such a theme?"
"I was trying to play it smart," Terry answered. "I figured since no one knows what the Garden of Eden looks like, no one could say my idea was wrong. What I should've done is draw a lot of tree stumps, like Bob." He turned to the leader. "What did you call it again?"
"'The Naked Swamp,'" Bob answered.
"I don't understand it," Terry complained. "Here I try to draw something beautiful, like the Garden of Eden, and it takes me three times before Professor Avery will accept it, while you draw an ugly bunch of tree stumps, and you get an A your first time out. Who can explain it?"
"I can explain it," J.P. said. "Bob got an A because he deserved an A. The harsh reality of a swamp, empty save for the stark stumps repeated again and again, the stillness of the water, the loneliness of the sky ... Why, his picture was the work of genius."
No, Bob thought to himself, it wasn't the work of genius. And he was no artist. But in this case he did know his subject, perhaps as well as anyone alive. "The Naked Swamp" was in fact the sum total of his heritage.
He was from Sikeston, a small town in southeast Missouri that was sometimes called swampeast Missouri, for the entire bootheel of the state was covered with swamp. At one time it had also been covered with trees, and those trees had been the Canfield source of income. For three generations now the relative affluence of the Canfield family had been based on the sale of hardwood timber.
Jack and Green Canfield, Bob's father and grandfather respectively, had bought thousands of acres of swampland in the years following the Civil War, sometimes paying no more than a dollar fifty an acre and ten cents per tree. After getting control of the land, they would send in a team of woodcutters to bring out the timber.
The woodcutters worked from small boats, cutting the trees and leaving high, denuded stumps behind. The demand for hardwood lumber was insatiable, and for forty years business had been very profitable. But the business was nearly finished now. The demand was as great as ever, but forty years of gathering the lumber with no means of reforestation had exhausted the supply. And the intense harvesting had left hundreds of thousands of acres of ugly swampland, studded with stumps and infested with mosquitoes and cottonmouth snakes. Bob's family now owned one hundred fifty thousand acres of such land.
"Hello, the cars from St. Charles have arrived," Terry said, interrupting Bob's thoughts. "And there is Miss Bateman."
The quad quad looked in the direction of the commuter station and saw perhaps a dozen people coming down the hill toward the campus. One of the more strikingly beautiful of the new arrivals was Connie Bateman.
"Would you mind telling me, please," David asked in a long-suffering tone of voice, "what a woman like Miss Bateman sees in our friend here that she doesn't see in me?"
"Oh, nothing more than good looks, a sparkling personality, intelligence, athletic ability, wealth, and class," Terry answered.
"Okay, I'll concede all that. But what else?"
The others laughed.
Connie reached the bottom of the small hill, then started across the quad toward the statue. Though the seniors vigorously defended the sacred ground of Statue Circle against all underclassmen and outsiders, women friends of Jefferson College seniors were allowed inside. As Connie moved through the underclassmen and their young women, they made way for her like the sea parting for Moses. Reaching the perimeter, she stepped lightly over the ring of white rocks and, smiling brightly, approached the quad quad.
Connie was a very pretty woman with a profusion of auburn hair—one long roll of which hung coquettishly over her left shoulder—eyes that were nearly green, and a delicately molded, upturned nose. She was chic, haughty, and graceful, just like one of Dana Gibson's models brought to life ... and of course that was exactly the look she was trying to capture.
"Oh, my, look!" Terry said, pointing at Connie's clothes. She was wearing a white shirtwaist and a blue skirt that accented her wasplike waist, then fell softly over her hips and close enough to her legs to suggest their form. Like many college women, Connie was wearing a "walking skirt," which was short enough to expose her ankles. Though such attire was permitted for "sporting wear," it was not generally acceptable as truly proper dress, and many restaurants and clubs would have asked her to leave, had she shown up in such an ensemble.
"In order for a lady to be deemed properly dressed," a tongue-in-cheek article on etiquette in The Jeffersonian, the college's newspaper, once explained, "an observer must be kept in total mystery as to a female's means of locomotion. To be proper, neither a woman's feet nor her legs should ever be seen; therefore, she must appear to glide across the ground as if God had provided her with wheels."
However, it wasn't the short length of Connie's skirt that had caught Terry's attention. It was the colors.
"Look at what she's wearing—blue and white! My dear young lady, need I remind you that our colors are red and green? You are wearing the colors of Westminster. You dare to defile the sacred Statue Circle attired in the colors of another institution?"
"If you wish, David, I'll come to the lady's rescue," J.P. offered. "I'll slash my wrists and dye her dress red with my own blood."
"That wouldn't do any good," David pointed out. "You're a Winthrop. Your blood is blue, remember?"
J.P. shrugged and smiled at Connie. "I'm sorry, Miss Bateman. I did make the offer with all good intentions, but I'm afraid David is quite correct. Alas, we Winthrops are all blue-blooded, and were I to bleed on your dress, it would only make matters worse."
"Nevertheless, I am grateful for your gallant offer," Connie said, laughing. "And I'm sorry I couldn't come to the meet today, but I had an exam in English Lit. How did the quad quad do?"
"Bob took the laurels in his event, while David came in second," J.P. answered. "Terry was second in the one hundred, and I was third."
"Oh, it sounds as if you all did well. I do wish I could have come," Connie said, clapping her hands in delight.
Across the quad in his office on the third floor of Spengeman Hall, the current president of Jefferson College, Professor William T. Bateman, walked over to the window, automatically adjusting his tie and straightening his jacket as he did so. It was late afternoon, but he was a man of such meticulous neatness that though he had worn his suit all day, it still looked early-morning fresh.
Standing at the open window, he looked through the screen at the sunlit, familiar scene laid out below ... the white circle around Henry Spengeman's statue, the academic buildings fronting the grassy square, and the azaleas in full bloom on the hill near the commuter station. Professor Bateman often stood here, looking out over his domain much as a king might survey his realm.
Below him, the groups of strolling or sitting students and their guests were enjoying moments that for the rest of their lives would form some of their most pleasant memories. Professor Bateman knew that though these students would go on to other things, be it careers in the professions or business, they would always have these moments.
He thought himself distinctly blessed by the fact that his own memories were multiplied by the collective memories of all his students. He was a part of this college, and it was a part of him. He could not deny it without denying his own existence; its well-being was his well-being.
And that well-being was now threatened.
For the last two years enrollment of incoming students had decreased. The drop had been small enough so as not to raise too much of an alarm among the Board of Regents, and Professor Bateman had explained it away as being the result of the school's tightened academic standards.
"If we truly are to be competitive with Harvard, Yale, and the other finer schools of our country, then we must keep our academic standards high," he had told the board. "Now, while this will attract the top-quality students, it will also frighten away the more marginal ones, and our enrollment may experience a slight decrease. However, I am certain that we will be able to make up the difference shortly, and as our reputation grows, so will the applications for enrollment."
Despite his assurances, a new problem had recently developed. Missouri's four normal schools had had their designations changed to teachers' colleges. But while primarily specializing in turning out teachers, these state institutions now offered four-year college degrees at a fraction of what it would cost to attend Jefferson—and the state teachers' colleges were open to men and women.
Professor Bateman had been looking over the tentative enrollment for next year's class and was shocked to find an alarming drop in admission applications. He could no longer placate the board by telling them enrollment would come back. Something was going to have to be done to get it back. He couldn't lower tuition, but he did have another idea. However, implementing it would require a change in the original charter, and in order to bring that about, he was going to have to convince the Board of Regents to go along with him.
His plan was to make Jefferson College more attractive to prospective students by, when classes began next year, opening the doors to women as well as men. He was also going to propose that the school broaden its educational offering and be redesignated as a university. That would require an expenditure of more money at a time when decreased enrollment put operating funds at an all-time low, but in the professor's mind that was the only way to save the school.
For a few moments Professor Bateman allowed himself to dream about what the campus of Jefferson University might be like at the end of the twentieth century, if his plan proved successful: The campus would be crowded with great new academic buildings, bursting with students, and enjoying a reputation as "America's Oxford." And in a corner of his dream was a small concrete monument with a modest brass plaque, commemorating William T. Bateman as Jefferson's savior and one instrumental in its early guidance.
But first he would have to convince the Board of Regents that his idea was sound.
Excerpted from Dawn of the Century by Robert Vaughan. Copyright © 1992 Robert Vaughan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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