Medieval scholar Emery Truitt takes his first position in the arid highlands of the American west. Distant peaks of the Sawtooth Range on the eastern horizon stand as a barrier to his hopes for a post in the ivied halls of New England. Discouraged, he nonetheless forges ahead through this academic wasteland where officious cowboys manage the college, the faculty is lackluster, and the students unimaginative.
College student Kristina Day, daughter of board chair Christian Day and sole heir to the Hawke agricultural empire, admires the monkish professor who has opened her eyes to a vast world beyond the confines of her rural homeland. Engaged to a distant relative in the Hawke clan, Kristi represents all the hope her family holds for future generations. Increasingly at odds with her father’s vision, she tests an untrodden path by applying for the position of Professor Truitt’s assistant.
As soon as Truitt denies Kristi the post, his own goals are interrupted by a personal tragedy rising from his past. Hidden secrets unleash a vortex of ills around him that rob him of name and standing. To regain his honor, he must seek the answers to a lost past and only then is he able to recognize the gifts that Kristi has to offer.
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Emery Truitt crossed the expanse of lawn bordering St. Clements College with a certain spring to his step. The distant mountain peaks — always jagged and raw — now seemed radiant in the wash of light from the rising sun. He had won — and on his own terms. All that nonsense of moving with the herd, of "going along" in order to advance himself in the academic chain of being, had proven to be nothing at all. The promotion had come without surrender of his ideals.
The mid-May sun rose quickly, dissipating the cold air — orange and gold hues streaked across a sky giving way to the softening yellows, and then turned to blue. Truitt spied one of the great rusted hawks circling above, in search of a morning meal. Not a herd animal, but a singular icon of strength and intelligence, the hawk was going it alone — and succeeding, Truitt noted, as the bird dropped into the field and wrenched the life from its fuzzy prey.
Herd mentality led to mediocrity and complacency, a sure road to slaughter. There was little glory in that. Truitt had won his promotion without compromise, without surrendering his time or his will to the fly-fishing, rock hunting, and backcountry mindsets of his peers. With attention to scholarship and education, on his own, he had moved from the rank of Assistant, a mere instructor, to Associate Professor. He had gained the prestige and entitlements endowed on that position.
As he approached the limestone block Admin Building, Truitt recalled his earliest response to the place, Abandon every hope. ... With steep bluffs surrounding the small campus, it resembled something out of Dante's inferno, a hot place devoid of soul. Over time, the vision was justified as he had come to see it as a soulless place, leeching the very spirit from his dreams.
The college town of Hawkes Ferry in southwestern Idaho was smaller than his hometown in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware — and far more desolate, hugging a two-lane road that wound up the sagebrush steppe, eventually ending on a bluff above a narrow river gorge. Everyone wore cowboy boots, jeans and ten-gallon hats in the shops, in the diner, and even to church. The whole place might have been a backdrop for a B-rated movie whose denizens rambled along in a haze of cowboy-think. Every day that he passed in this outland pulled him further and further from the realization of his goal. Or so he had believed, but now he was back on track.
Truitt had always been an academic star, from his earliest recollections. His superior intelligence had been honed in the town library of Sycamore Falls where his aunt served as librarian, caretaker and guardian. From a nook tucked behind her desk, he had watched as she stocked shelves, checked out books, and exchanged niceties with town folk as well as members of the town council and directors from the state board. Truitt's young life had been swaddled in the leather bindings and stitched pages of Knowledge.
His first scholarship allowed him to attend the elite Priory at St. John's Academy where, at the age of six, he found a seat among the sons of the privileged. It had been a rough go at first. His being the only day student, he had been relegated to the bottom rung of society, like a bastard stepson in the family attic. There's herd mentality for you.
Yet by the time he was in the third level, he had won the favor of key fourth and fifth levels, by sharing the fruit of his adept skill at research. His love of learning, of erudition and books, had served to raise his status. When he graduated from the Academy, he had secured a prestigious, four-year scholarship to Columbia University. Truitt had tied his proverbial wagon to a scholarly star, and it had rarely failed him.
In the Admin Building, he passed two students who greeted him with reserve. After collecting his mail, Truitt climbed the stairs to his office on the second floor, in the Humanities Department. He made short business of the memos, meeting schedules and administrative proclamations that had been shoved into his box. He was disappointed to find no mention of staff changes or promotions, until he reasoned that the news would hardly have had time to make the press by this morning. The last memo, a reminder of Saturday's year-end barbecue, had been addressed to "All Hands." Truitt frowned at the notion that there was no distinction between professional faculty and unschooled administrative staff, and both were collectively on par with farmers and cowboys. He tossed the memo into his waste bin.
It was true that he had expected much more from this first position. He had anticipated a rural atmosphere, of course, something a bit more provincial than the old-world college towns of New England. But he had not foreseen the stark wilderness of the country he had landed in. The arid, desolate terrain that surrounded St. Clements yielded little to nurture his aspirations. Yet considering the promotion, he had in the end carved out a singular niche of opportunity for himself. Few Columbia fellows had yet to run the gauntlet from Assistant to Associate Professor in the six short years since graduation. And Truitt himself had no confidence that he would make the grade either, or that the College Board of St. Clements would approve his promotion given his faltering association with its president.
The call from his department chair on the previous evening had surprised Truitt. Even more astonishing to him was his own response to the news. He listened to the news with a tacit joy, then responded to Dr. Mudd with reserved gratitude. Before the phone hit the cradle, Truitt was already rearranging his plans, for he had been expecting another result. To that end, he had already set things in motion to make a move the following year. Yet, he had not been encouraged by the responses from a dozen applications he had made. Only one position held any possibility at all and, for Truitt, the small college in West Virginia was hardly his idea of progress. He had only applied there as a last ditch effort, enticed only by its proximity to the northeast and home.
The promotion would enhance his appeal when he sought a more favorable position in the future. He would, of course, stay the ground now, and gain experience and exposure to a wider body of colleagues. For the new position came with a grant for professional enrichment such as membership in the national congress of medievalists and its summer conference.
Truitt set about the morning's work with elation. Even the drollest papers from his medieval lit class could not dampen his mood. He sorted through the themes that he had read and graded over the weekend, ordering them by grades from top to bottom. Being as conscientious and thorough as he was, he set about to review every comment and finalize the grade in pen, considering the work of the individual student in terms of the class as a group.
The task made for a long morning. Truitt was already anticipating the hiring of a teaching assistant — another benefit of his new position — who would be addressing the less savory administrative tasks that went with teaching undergraduates. With the right person, he could surrender discussion groups from his core classes of English composition and introductory lit. That would leave Truitt time to focus on the upper level courses, on his responsibilities as advisor to a group of English majors, and to further develop his body of work on the Calabrian monk. In particular, Truitt wanted Thomas Martin for the job, a noteworthy student, who had followed Truitt from his freshman comp class to the medieval lit course.
Martin's paper sat at the top of the pile, just as the student stood above the rest of them, with insight and intelligence of a doctoral candidate. In the batch of fair-to-middling essays, Martin had selected the most serious and difficult topic, "Divine Intellect and Divine Illumination." He had exhibited a mature grasp on key arguments differentiating the work of Aquinas from Augustine with an exacting interpretation of both source texts. His argumentation was concise and clear, albeit delivered in the casual style of students arguing in the commons. Truitt had praised the work in a note on the front page under the A grade, which he now confirmed in red ink. He flipped to the back page to assure that he had been equitable in noting the student's disparity between subject and style. It was a gaffe that would be corrected with experience, but could not override the excellence of his topic.
The class had done tolerably well as a third year group. The ladies — there were four of them in the class — had predictably chosen themes regarding chivalry and romance. And the next paper was one of these, "Noblesse Oblige and the Medieval Knight" The topic was sentimental, nowhere near matching the elevated nature of Martin's theme. The student had a good opinion of her work and her person, something he hesitated to reward. Still, it had been thoroughly researched, appropriately annotated, and well written. Truitt could assign Miss Day nothing less than an A-minus, considering the leniency he had extended on Martin's style. In truth, he also needed to demonstrate fairness to prove that he was not favoring the male students as he had been recently accused of.
He confirmed the grade in red ink, yet when it came to writing the usual comment below the grade, he found he could not do it. Conflicted by a need to be seen as unbiased on the one side and a higher value for truth, he found he could make no comment at all. He turned the paper aside, assuring himself that he would fix this in the future by clearly denoting A-level topics from the others. He was, after all, nothing, if not fair and just.
It was nearly ten o'clock by the time he was done with the medieval term papers. He thought of taking a breather, but was just as anxious to be done with the sophomore essays on Romantic Literature. Spreading the papers on his desk, he was ordering them from bottom to top, hoping to save the best for last.
A sharp rap on the door commanded his attention.
Before Truitt was able to utter a word the door opened, and the janitor's head popped through.
"Yes?" Truitt asked with little interest as he returned to his work.
The janitor pushed the door open, standing full form in the office, armed with a tool. "Sorry to disturb ya', perfesser ... Got the news, did you ... about the system repairs and all?"
Truitt glanced at the discarded mail, unable to recall such a notice.
"Perhaps — just this morning, though." He continued to work.
"Glad to hear it." was the response, but the door didn't close.
Truitt looked up at the man.
The janitor wasn't budging. "Need to check the radiator. You're first on the list."
Truitt was first because of his junior position in the department, he had little doubt about that. Yet, things were about to change. He needed to take a stand with the staff, and start acting the part of an Associate, by responding as any of the others would in this situation. "As you can see, I'm busy at the moment. Come back at two. I have a class then." He readdressed the work in front of him, and by the tone of his voice, dismissed the man's expectations.
"Oh sure ... I see ... but I got to be outta here by noon myself. Taking the missus to town, you see. Doctors and all."
No, Truitt did not see. "Then start somewhere else. Like the second floor."
"Gotta work down from the top, you see. Boiler's in the basement. Steam rises."
"Yes. Yes, but in someone else's office," Truitt urged. Did he have to plan out the man's schedule to get him to return to this office later?
The janitor shook his head, bouncing the tool gently against his hand. "No can do. Everyone's busy right now ... students ... finals. With year-end to-dos. Dr. Mudd says start right here. 'Perfesser Truitt won't mind' he says."
Truitt sighed impulsively, then restrained any outward show of irritation. He'd been trumped by the department chair. "Fine." Recalling his improved position, Truitt resigned himself to the interruption.
Noblesse oblige and all that.
"Just be quick about it." Truitt said, trying to concentrate on his work.
"That's the spirit, perfesser. Be done in no time. Just checking a valve or two ..."
"Quietly." Truitt said.
"Sure thing," the janitor muttered. Attacking the radiator with aplomb, he tapped and twisted metal upon metal, causing an erratic tattoo that jolted Truitt's concentration.
A rattling clank ended in a clunk followed by the human utterance, "Whoops!"
Truitt was determined not to look up.
Steam hissed, followed by another interjection, "Aw jeez!" Then a noxious odor filled the room.
Truitt scooped up the papers, shoved them into his bag, and left through the door with all the dignity he could muster.
"Be done in just a sec, perfesser!" The janitor called after him.
Truitt was already headed down the stairs and toward the Faculty House.
Against the distant sounds of silverware on pottery and the aroma of roasting beef in the faculty dining hall, Truitt continued grading the papers. At this hour — wedged between breakfast service and lunch — he would be able to work in relative peace with minimal interruptions. There were only two other teachers in the building, both hovering over grading tasks. The lobby was busy, though, with College Board members scuttling about, disappearing into the executive dining room.
Reading papers of the underclassmen was Truitt's least favorite task. The sophomores were not only wanting in rational thought, but had also lost any sense of grammar they might have picked up in Freshman Comp. In complete abdication of the essay form they, in toto, favored the rambling commentary of the pop mags found in the Sunday paper.
Scarcely a decent paper in the bunch. Still, Truitt pulled out four passable essays. Putting these on the bottom of the pile, he hoped to finish up the batch with some sense of satisfaction from the exercise. He wanted to complete the job this morning. That would leave him free to work on more important things this evening, like finishing his second article for The Medieval Journal.
Spotting Leif Sanders out the window, Truitt knew he was heading for the dining hall, and would, no doubt, want to join him for lunch. Truitt did not want the interruption. As the geology professor paused at the door to extinguish a cigarette, Truitt shifted his chair to position his back toward the entrance. He picked up the next paper and allowed himself to be engrossed in it, a rather poor interpretation of Wordsworth's Ode.
It didn't matter. As he set the paper on the table to grade it, Sanders stood lurking over him like a raptor ready to pounce.
"Well, well, well, Dr. Truitt." The man was actually smirking as he tossed his satchel on the table. "What shall become of you, I wonder?"
Truitt surrendered, setting aside the rest of the work. "And why should you be wasting your time and energy worrying about me?"
"Rumors aflying," Sanders said plopping into the chair across the table from his friend. "And here I thought you had big plans for your life that didn't include sticking around this wasteland."
The fierceness of his hazel eyes melted into the warmth of a grin. Truitt smiled, stashing the papers into his bag.
"Yet, old man, somehow, I can't picture you fading quietly away from this place, in your dotage," Sanders said.
"Dotage? You? Hardly. And why should you be thinking of me at all?" Truitt said, already knowing what the answer would be.
"Promotions. It seems you've made Associate — congratulations." He clapped Truitt soundly on the shoulder. "And you thought they'd pass you over, once again."
"I was a little surprised when Mudd told me that I'd made the cut, actually. I thought the political winds were still against me."
"Christian Day, you mean? You should listen to your elders, you young whippersnapper. I told you not to put too much into all that. You forget that Day and his cohorts were once pleading passing grades from me in Earth Science."
Truitt sighed in relief. "I'm just glad it's over."
"Egad!" Sanders said with some concern. "What would I have done here without you?"
"Seems to me that you're jumping ship, in any case."
"Yes, but only to Salmon River. Two hundred miles, maybe — not two thousand." Sanders stood to survey the flux of teachers filling the room. "Shall we celebrate your victory over lunch? Or should I go away and leave you to the uninspired notions of underclassmen?"
Excerpted from "There is Love"
Copyright © 2017 Jo Guasasco Meador.
Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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