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Sixteen years after the murder of Angela Hall had precipitated the decline of Caldwell College, Mark Darrow returned to campus, standing in the shadow of the Spire.
Darrow had come at the urgent request of Dr. Lionel Farr, his professor and mentor, one of the seminal figures in Caldwell’s history and in Darrow’s life. It was the end of the spring semester and blossoming dogwood trees, set between generous oaks, brightened the landscape with pink. Even here, Darrow could detect Farr’s in?uence; since becoming provost, Lionel Farr had overseen the planting of pine trees and neatly tended gardens, giving the foliage both variety and order. But the buildings spaced throughout had no par tic u lar theme: the oldest—elaborate brownstones with Gothic steeples and towers— were mixed with square, staid structures from the late nineteenth century and newer buildings in a variety of architectural styles, some more nondescript than others. As a student, Darrow had found this hodgepodge engaging, a stone- and- brick record of the growth of Caldwell College over time. Though the campus would never resemble that of a picture- book college, these structures had housed generations of students and nurtured much learning— including, as Darrow gratefully remembered, his own.
The current students looked much like Darrow’s classmates had all those years ago. With the subdued, somewhat dazed look of college kids facing ?nals, they wandered past him, taking little notice, Darrow reflected wryly, of the former campus legend, now a latethirtyish lawyer in a business suit, headed for his meeting with the presidential search committee of a small Ohio school in crisis. Then Darrow looked up at the Spire, recalling the most vivid hours of his youth, and all trace of humor vanished.
Erected two de cades before the Civil War by the school’s found er, the Reverend Charles Caldwell, the tower remained as Caldwell had intended: the epicenter of campus, with four brick pathways radiating outward like spokes, the other buildings set at an appropriate, almost reverent distance. At its base was chiseled, Christ, the Chief Cornerstone. From there, at Caldwell’s insistence, over two hundred feet of sandstone rose above everything but sky.
The found er’s aspirations had been realized— the Spire dominated both the landscape and the psyche of Caldwell College. Its image graced the yearbook, the alumni magazine, the school’s letterhead, and, for over 160 years, had decorated every diploma issued to a graduate of Caldwell. Part of Darrow’s fraternity initiation had been to memorize Webster’s de?nition of a spire: “a structure that tapers to a point at the top, as in a steeple.” Just below the steeple, in a space with four long openings, the great bell of the college hung, its deep resonant clang reserved for moments of celebration or sadness. The lawn beneath the Spire was the scene of graduations, weddings, pep rallies, and memorial ser vices. In the week before Caldwell’s annual football grudge match with its hated rival, Ohio Lutheran, students guarded it at night from vandals: by long tradition, the Spire was where, if Caldwell emerged triumphant, the celebration would begin. It was on such a Saturday in November that a twenty- one- year- old Mark Darrow had ascended the Spire for the ?rst and only time, never imagining that, within hours, this memory, and this place, would turn dark for all the years that followed.
A scant hour before, Mark had thrown the last of four touchdown passes, sealing Ohio Lutheran’s defeat; Coach Fiske, whose privilege this was, had designated Mark to ring the bell atop the Spire. Very rarely was a student admitted to the bell tower— the Spire’s oaken door had been padlocked since 1938, when a drunken celebrant had fallen from the Spire to his death. The new president, Clark Durbin, had opened the door for Mark and passed him the ceremonial bronze axe with the chip in its blade, the spoils of Caldwell’s victory. Then Mark stepped inside.
Alone, he paused inside the shadowy tower, filled with awe and reluctance. Since early childhood, Mark had loathed con?ned spaces; the absence of light frightened and depressed him. The winding staircase, dark and dank and steep, led, in Mark’s imagination, to a chamber suitable to druids or high priests. Battling claustrophobia, conscious of his responsibility to commence the celebration, Mark started climbing. He felt his chest tighten, a nameless terror choking his breathing. As a distraction, he counted each stone step to con?rm that— as his fraternity had also required him to remember— the Spire had 207 steps, each one foot high.
Reaching the top at last, Mark opened its door. The square chamber was bare, its mortared stone walls adding to its severity. Hanging over him was a massive brass bell. Mark’s other aversion was heights: though the four long openings of the tower began at his waist, he approached the one he had chosen gingerly, as though some invisible hand might send him hurtling into space. But as he surveyed the throng below, a surge of triumph overcame his fear.
The lawn was covered with students, many of whom had already embarked on an alcohol- fueled bacchanalia that, for some, might last until dawn. Among them stood Lionel Farr, his wife, Anne, and their twelve- year- old daughter, Taylor, who had waited with the others for Mark to appear. Mark spotted them and then, for Farr more than anyone, he brandished the axe, his grin of triumph spreading as Taylor waved back with an adolescent’s adoration. Seeing him, the crowd let loose with a deep- throated roar. Then, heart pounding, Mark reached for the heavy iron chain . . .
Staring up at the tower, Darrow could still hear the deep tolling whose echo had nearly deafened him. But now there were spotlights placed around the Spire, so that darkness never came here. This, too, was the work of Lionel Farr.
The moments before he had ?rst met Farr— an encounter that changed his life forever— were also imprinted in Darrow’s memory.
He had been a seventeen- year- old in a small Ohio town, a star football player but a middling student. With no real family or any future he could see, he hoped only to wrest one timeless moment from a high school athlete’s transient glory. His chance came down to the last play of his ?nal game as quarterback of the Wayne Generals. The air was crisp, carrying the smell of popcorn and burnt leaves; the ?eld, a bowl of light in the darkness, reverberated with the enthusiasm of a football town of seventeen thousand, perhaps half of them here huddled against the cold, screaming and stomping the wooden bleachers with booted feet, the small minority of blacks quieter and seated in their own clusters. There were six yards to go, four seconds left, three points between Wayne and its ?rst defeat in an otherwise perfect season. The Generals broke the huddle, seven linemen in blue jerseys loping toward the line of scrimmage, their shadows moving alongside, as Mark, two running backs, and a ?anker spread out behind them. Opposite them was the Cloverdale defense, eleven boys in green uniforms, their four defensive backs— poised to thwart a pass or run— portraits of taut alertness.
For an instant Mark took it all in— the light and darkness, the primal roar of the crowd, the illuminated clock frozen at 0:04. Pulsing with adrenaline, he positioned himself, setting his hands between the center’s legs, conscious of his halfback, George Garrison, slightly behind and to the right. Time slowed for Mark; the cadence of his
voice seemed to come from somewhere else.
The ball snapped into his hands.
Spinning, Mark slid the ball into George’s stomach, then withdrew it as George, the decoy, hit the line as though determined to break through. Alone, Mark sprinted toward the sideline with the ball. Two linebackers ran parallel, barring his path to the end zone while his own blockers fanned in front of him. Without seeming to look, Mark saw the ?anker, Steve Tillman, suddenly break toward the center of the ?eld, two feet ahead of the back assigned to cover him.
At once Mark decided. Stopping abruptly, he threw the ball, praying that Steve would reach it before it fell to earth. Desperately, Steve leaped, feet leaving the grass as he stretched, arms extended, grasping at the ball. Then he clasped it, clutching it to his stomach as he landed near the goal line amid the crowd’s thin cry of uncertainty, awaiting the referee’s signal that Steve had either reached it or fallen short, the difference between victory and defeat.
Mark’s heart raced. Then, gazing down at Steve, the referee thrust both hands into the air.
Tears came to Mark’s eyes, a swift surge of joy and loss. This was it, he was certain: the last clear triumph of his life.
The ?rst teammate to reach him, George Garrison, hugged him, his round black face alight. But when Steve Tillman wedged between them, George turned away. “You’re the best,” Steve said. When Mark reached out for George, he was gone.
The next half hour was a blur— the screaming crowd; the shouted questions from sports reporters; the celebration in the locker room, joyous yet shadowed by the se niors’ awareness, so vivid in Mark’s mind, that this was the end, deepened by his own de?ating knowledge that he had no plan or even hope for where his life might take him now. When he emerged into the chill night with Steve, his sole vision of the future was to take Steve’s station wagon and, armed with beer and whiskey, meet two girls at the reservoir.
A man stood in their path, hands thrust into his pockets. “Mark?”
Mark paused, impatient to be on his way, regarding the stranger with mild annoyance. “I’m Lionel Farr,” the man said in a voice of calm authority. “I teach at Caldwell College.”
Though Mark had met other professors at Caldwell— all of them parents of his classmates— Farr looked like none of them. An inch or two taller than Mark, Farr had strong features and the erect posture of an athlete or a soldier. Unlike most of the townspeople, he was bareheaded; instead of a jacket, he wore an olive wool coat, belted at the waist, adding to his martial air. Nodding to Steve, Farr asked Mark, “Can we talk for a moment?”
Shooting a glance at his friend, who was obviously mysti?ed, Mark saw George Garrison leaving with a pretty classmate, Angela Hall. He thought to call out to them; then, not knowing the black girl, and aware of Steve and George’s aversion to each other, he sti?ed the thought. “I’ll meet you at the car,” he told Steve.
Steve walked away, casting a last look of bemusement toward his friend. Turning to Farr, Mark said, “What is it?”
The brusque inquiry evoked the trace of a smile. “I’ve been watching you all season,” Farr responded. “You have great presence of mind and understand the game. You could play football in college.”
Mark shook his head. “Too small, too slow.”
Farr continued to look amused. “I didn’t mean at Ohio State. The right college— Division III- A, where small but slow has a chance to survive.”
Mark shook his head, feeling the obscure resentment of someone being baited. “Those schools don’t give scholarships. For grades, maybe, but not football.”
“What are your college plans?”
Mark looked down. “I don’t know. Money’s a problem.” He hesitated. “So’s my transcript.”
Farr waited until Mark met his eyes. “I understand. I know something about your life, Mark. The money and grades seem to be re
Instinctively, Mark bridled at this intimation of sympathy.
“I have friends at the high school,” Farr added mildly. “I hope you don’t mind that I did a little checking.”
In the semidarkness, Mark studied the professor’s face. “It sort of depends on the reason.”
Despite Mark’s curtness, Farr looked unfazed. “A good one, I think. But this isn’t the time and place to discuss it. My wife and I would like you to come for dinner.”
Mark was unsettled. He did not know this man at all, let alone what this was about. Seeing Mark’s reluctance, Farr continued, “Why don’t we say Monday. You can come to my four o’clock class, then home with me. A small taste of college life.”
Bereft of words, Mark responded to the stranger’s understated but palpable force of personality. “I guess so. Sure.”
“Good. I’ll call the Tillmans with directions.”
With this last suggestion that Farr was uncomfortably conversant with Mark’s life, Farr extended his hand.
As though responding to an order, Mark took it.
Years later, Mark Darrow wondered if his interest in justice and morality, the seeds of his law career, had wakened that next Monday in Farr’s four o’clock seminar.
Mark did not know the campus; for him it existed as a rare?ed world, in which young people smarter and more privileged than him engaged in a mysterious rite of passage, learning punctuated by drunken parties. “Brundage Hall is behind the Spire,” Dr. Farr had told him, and so he made his way toward the tower, which before he had only glimpsed above the trees that shrouded the campus. He took one path, then another, until the campus opened to the large grassy circle at its heart. Positioned at the center of the circle, the Spire was austere but strangely powerful: weathered and stained by time, it was topped by a graceful steeple so high that Mark had to lean back to see it. Hurrying past, he managed to ?nd Farr’s class.
Dressed in boots, khakis, and a wool ?sherman’s sweater, Farr paused momentarily in his lecture, nodding brie?y to Mark as he found a desk in one corner of the musty classroom. Turning back to the dozen or so students clustered near the front, Farr said, “Friedrich Nietz sche was hardly the ?rst phi los o pher to challenge the concept of objective morality. Who were his most convincing pre de ces sors?”
Several hands shot up; Farr pointed to a bearded, red- haired kid in an army jacket. “Callicles and Thrasymachus,” he answered, “in Plato’s dialogues. Both argued that the idea of ‘justice’ is a sham, a subjective means of social control, and that therefore a wise man subverts ‘justice’ to his own ends.”
“Then what makes Nietz sche distinctive?”
The redhead answered swiftly, eagerly: “He attacked two thousand years of Western thought, where phi los o phers promoted ‘morality’ as a kind of social glue.”
Farr nodded. After barely a minute, Mark had grasped how completely he commanded the classroom, how intensely the students wanted his approval or, at least, to interest him. “So if moralists are charlatans or fools, Mr. Clyde, what did Nietz sche think was at the root of our foolishness?”
“Religion,” a pudgy student in wire- rimmed glasses responded. “The Christians and Jews were weak; the Romans who ruled them were strong. Therefore these religions used the idea of morality as a defense against the Romans, who, by accepting ‘morality,’ would be more likely to allow them to survive.”
“If,” Farr asked, “our most sacred moral precepts—even the Ten Commandments— are merely a tactical invention of the weak, what does that imply?”
Mark felt the desire to object— he had learned the Ten Commandments in Sunday school, and the subordination of self from astring of coaches. “Racism,” a dark- haired female student said sharply. “If Jews are weak, and morality a fantasy they invented to survive, there’s no reason not to exterminate them.”
Farr gave her an arid smile. “To be fair, Nietz sche also says some rather nasty things about Christians, Germans, and his fellow philosophers.”
“But he can be read to justify evil.” Glancing at her notes, the young woman read, “ ‘As the wicked enjoy a hundred kinds of happiness of which the virtuous have no inkling, so do they possess a hundred kinds of beauty.’ Hitler would have agreed.”
Farr eyed her narrowly, his leonine head still, as though deciding whether to play this out. “What is Nietz sche positing about man’s inherent nature?”
“It suggests that we have within us the desire to be cruel and the need to dominate.”
Farr cocked his head. “Let’s put that to the test, Ms. Rosenberg. Suppose you ordered one of your classmates whipped or beaten. How would you feel?”
I couldn’t do that, Mark thought automatically. The young woman answered promptly, “I’d feel guilty.”
Farr’s cool blue eyes glinted. “To Nietz sche, justice is merely a mechanism through which the state exerts its will, dressing it up in moral sentiments to disguise its exercise of power. What does this do to the concept of guilt?”
The woman hesitated. “That it only exists in our own minds,” a clean- cut blond man interjected. “Nietz sche suggests that guilt is a mechanism of social control, keeping us from exercising our own free will.”
Once again, Farr nodded briskly. Mark felt the relationship between teacher and class as an organic entity, in which, directed by Farr, minds fed upon one another.
As the debate continued, Mark was surprised to discover that he grasped its core: Does whoever is in authority make the rules to suit themselves, or are some rules a simple matter of right and wrong? “For our next discussion,” Farr concluded, “I ask you to consider your own nature. Do you refrain from theft or rape or murder because you’re afraid of getting caught or because you’d feel guilty? And, if so, is your guilt based on anything more than what you’ve been trained to feel?” A smile played on Farr’s lips. “I expect an answer from each of you by Thursday.”
With that, the students began slowly ?ling out, as though still pondering the question. Picking up a trim leather briefcase, Farr asked in a tone of mild inquiry, “Do you have an answer, Mark?”
Looking up at the keen face of this professor, Mark felt the same need to please him he had seen in the others, even as he tried to ?nd the bones of a response. Instinctively, he said, “I don’t think the rules were just made up. If there weren’t any, we’d all end up killing each other. You can’t always count on being the strongest.”
Farr laughed softly. “I should introduce you to Thomas Hobbes. We can talk about him on the way home.”
A few minutes later, Mark entered yet another world.
The Farrs’ home, a rambling red- brick structure located on a tree-lined street, was strikingly different from the shotgun ranch house Mark had lived in for most of his seventeen years. It dated back to the 1850s, Farr explained. Lovingly restored, the living room featured a hardwood ?oor covered by rich- looking Oriental rugs; shelves ?lled with hardcover books; and paintings that, because they resembled nothing in life, Mark assumed to be modern art. But perhaps most striking was Anne Farr, extending her hand with a smile at once gracious and reserved, her jet- black hair showing the ?rst few strands of gray, her handsome, chiseled face so pale Mark thought of porcelain, her eastern accent suggesting what people called good breeding. “Excuse me while I see to dinner,” she told him pleasantly. “You two just enjoy yourselves.”
Excerpted from Spire by Richard North Patterson.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard North Patterson.
Published in September 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.