That morning, in anticipation of the party to be held at their house in the evening, Ruth unearthed the vacuum cleaner from the front hall closet. She had to move aside a heap of belongings to reach it—umbrellas and boots and musty-smelling coats—as well as Peter’s old film projector, heavy as lead in its mossy green case, and half a dozen cartons containing reels of footage from their early days at Derry. A brand-new teacher then, his enthusiasm like a light inside his face, Peter had recorded everything during those first years, endless hours of slow-moving football games, canoe races on windy spring afternoons with the boats shunting jerkily across the lake, the winter evening Robert Frost came to read his poems in the chapel.
Mr. Frost had been aloof that night at dinner, attending vaguely to the conversational gambits offered by the school trustees who had been assembled for the occasion. The meal had been splendid fare by the dining hall’s usual standards, stuffed clams and lobster with melted butter, corn and boiled potatoes, blueberry pie. The evening had been a triumph for Peter, who had arranged it, and an honor for Derry, which then had no real standing among boys’ schools of the day, its pupils drawn historically from poor families rather than the well-heeled aristocracy of New England.
The trustees, already worried about the school’s financial future, however, had begun to entertain ambitions for wealthier students, and even those men who did not read poetry—which was probably all of them, Ruth had thought at the time—understood that Mr. Frost’s appearance conferred distinction on the Derry School, a reputation for intellectual seriousness that the school could not otherwise acquire no matter how much money it raised, or how many prosperous families it attracted. Poetry, the reading and writing of it, was understood to be a hallmark of patrician gentility. It was evidence—however baffling to the practical men of industry and commerce who made up Derry’s board of trustees at the time—of refinement. They were in search of pedigrees and the resources that came with them. If a poetry reading had to be part of the bargain, so be it.
Mr. Frost had eaten his dinner with apparent appetite but without saying much, his head bent over his plate. His face was so shut away and expressionless that Ruth imagined he had suffered recently a personal loss of great severity.
But when he began to read in the chapel later that night, coming up to the podium after Peter’s introduction with the slow steps of a man accompanying a coffin to the grave, his voice was surprisingly strong. Ruth knew that even the philistines among the trustees could not have failed to be moved.
I have been one acquainted with the night, Mr. Frost began.
A light was trained on the page before him, and he put his palm against the open book on the podium as if to crack its spine. He paused. Then he looked up, and he did not look down again for the duration of the poem.
I have walked out in rain, he recited, and back in rain.
When he read the line I have outwalked the furthest city light, Ruth thought that every boy, every teacher sitting in the cold, hard pews of the chapel with its smudged smoke stains on the white walls, and its old glass windows full of air bubbles, and the tall hurricane globes on the altar containing the candle flames—every one of the listeners in the chapel that night—was made aware of the miles of forest surrounding the school, the tumbled, rocky coast of Maine at the edge of the forest and its terminus at the sea, the black restless body of the Atlantic Ocean. Surely they felt themselves at that moment as alone as a man could be, Ruth thought, as alone as the lonely speaker of the poem, unwilling to meet the eyes of the night watchman whom he passes in the dark. Surely they understood that this lonely feeling was inside of them, too, even if it had lain there mostly a thing concealed from them by the blessed ordinariness of their days.
Yet the occasion had been miraculous as well as solemn. The poem reminded them that the world around them lay beneath what Mr. Frost called the dome of heaven; Ruth pictured images from her art history classes at Smith: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the gilded onion domes of Moscow, their golden beauty. And that night, as if to illuminate heaven and its arch above them, the sky had been filled with a meteor shower, streaks of light descending through the darkness.
Outside the chapel after the reading, in the cold night air that smelled of the pine trees, everyone had stopped to stare up at the sky, some of the boys straying off the path into the snow, where they stood alone, heads tilted back, mouths open, faces upturned toward the stars. They had looked so vulnerable there, Ruth had thought, so faithful and willing, like those sad believers who trudged to the tops of hillsides in their old garments and with their heads shaved, expecting to be delivered up to God.
She remembered Mr. Frost beside Peter, their hands deep in their coat pockets, their faces calm but watchful, everyone silent.
Peter had studied with a professor at Yale who knew Mr. Frost, and it was through this man, actually a childhood friend of Robert Frost’s wife, that Peter had been able to secure the famous poet’s presence at Derry that night. As the assembled school stood there, the sky above them electric with light, Ruth had wrapped her arms around herself inside her coat. She had been absurdly pleased for Peter, as if he had orchestrated the display of meteors as a flattering tribute.
How small she had felt that evening. Mr. Frost had read his poems to them in a voice of judgment, not benevolence; he had seemed in some way hardly to see them at all. Yet she had felt the importance and the beauty of it all, as well, a sense of imminence in the world, something about to happen.
Later, reading in the library, she discovered that the meteor shower, common in December, was named for an obsolete constellation no longer found on star maps. The meteors visible to them that night had been orphan lights, travelers from a vanished source.