Beat Down Frigid Rome

A native of Chicago, ESTHER WAGNER did her undergraduate work at Bryn Mawr and also taught there before getting her Ph.D. Now married, she is living in northwestern California, where she divides her time between writing and teaching.

THE bell had just rung for the first period, and old Latimer threw open the door with one of his long-armed, extravagant, precisely controlled gestures. He stood back to supervise with his cold ancient-looking smile the entry of his Latin I class from the Gothic, marches of the corridors to the centurion atmosphere of his classroom. He had a trick of fixing his eyes on the feet of his students as they crossed the doorsill, an elaborately blank glance which stilled the last flap of every loafer, deadened the last clump of every ski boot. At the end of this morning’s stream of feet came a pair of unobtrusively foreign-made, cordovanpolished brogues, and old Latimer shifted his gaze to the unlined pleasant face of his colleague, Mr. Merton, English teacher and Administrative Assistant to the Dean of Boys.

All the faculty felt rather sorry for Merton, who had to handle the college admissions correspondence and was continually writing hopeful, covertly pleading letters to the deans of admission of the great Eastern colleges. Merton had to give them the hard sell on sons of three generations of Harvard or Yale or Hurstleigh men who now found themselves doubtful candidates because they had made a couple of C’s in junior year. He resented this, remembering his own easy admission to the most august of colleges during the depression years, and sometimes thinking almost savagely of their jowlcd fathers, survivors of the Cretaceous age of the gentleman’s C. Worst of all, he couldn’t even be certain that his sure-fire candidates would get just where they wanted to go.

He now brought in to old Latimer a sheaf of application papers and a student’s dossier in a battered manila folder, from which a wild-eyed photograph unpromisingly slopped over at the top.

“Lang’s application for the Hurstleigh scholarship, sir,” he muttered, looking warily at the nearest amorphous little countenances staring apprehensively at the assignment on the blackboard or bowed in swift vocabulary review. “Here’s their stuff about qualifications, and Lang’s papers. The Head would like to have your letter today if it’s at all possible.”

“Fourth period, or end of third,” said old Latimer with the effortless laconic air which marked everything he said and did. He could make long speeches or perform the most complex personal rituals without ever letting go his characteristic effects of concision, condensation, compression. No one ever analyzed these effects or dissected his techniques; the Head never sent student teachers to work under him, though they were always assigned to visit his classes in the capacity of audience. His authority was beyond formulation. The Head was the Head; the Dean was the Little Corporal or the Boss-man; the Old Man was Latimer, who had no administrative position whatever, no connection with the faculty council, was never put on committees or made Sponsor of anything. He was the Old Man of the Mountain, the Old Man of the Sea. The funny thing was that he wasn’t even very old: fifty-five at the most, with thick silver-fox hair.

MERTON left and the freshmen were silent. The door swung to with a click, and there rose behind it the great strange atmosphere of the Latin room, haunting to generations of students, compounded of the smell of Latimer’s old beautiful tweeds, the wild fragrance of the ferns in his extravagant window boxes, the stone eyes of the Roman senators in prints on the front wall, the glint of gold letters on the leather bindings ranged on the desk, the complex lines of the small, fiercely exact reproduction of a Roman trireme encased in glass.

Old Latimer’s classes always began quietly enough. The students lifted their faces to him, confident, expecting something to happen. Some waited for the great gusts of temper that swept the room rhythmically, periodically, like the rise and fall of some giant breathing chest. Some hoped for a dramatic chastisement, in baritone shout or chill sibilant whisper, of some classmate; some simply wished to escape this. Old Latimer never had any trouble with discipline and never thought about it.

Now he ran rapidly over the vocabulary, asking for meanings of words, principal parts of verbs, suddenly swooping to demand a whole declension, the total conjugation of one of the hard tenses, like the future passive of the -io verbs. For good answers he gave his swift wolfish smile, baring an astonishingly long, sharp left incisor. For a slow one he waited in impassive, gentlemanly patience or in the most ill-concealed ennui, rolling up his eyes, shaking his chalk in his hand. The choice of manner depended on the personality of the student, the past performances, known ability, standing of the student after some scene of the day before, and so on.

Over kitten-like, earnest little Emily Rushmore in the front row, struggling with the forms of the infinitive in her accustomed style of mixed timidity and stubbornness, valor and misgiving, he lingered long, hinting, grinning, exhorting, correcting, suddenly thrusting his large-boned brilliant-eyed countenance within one inch of hers to hiss an ending at her, bowing with a genuine smiling courtesy when she hit happily on a correct form. The little girl’s face lit and shadowed, her eyelids drooped or lifted, following this peculiar orchestration. Latimer pressed her on to the fifth declension, new for the day; her maunderings over this caused him suddenly to throw up his hands, throwout his arms, throw back his head, and shout: “Emily Rushmore! Emily Rushmore!” Out came the rush of eloquence all knew would come, this time untinged with violence, just ringing with passion, elevated, sincere. In the great hills of North Dakota, he informed her, where the Sioux thought there abided forever the spirits of the dead, there was a great slab of mountain which bore her name. He called to her mind the images of great men hewn there by tremendous effort. Even so, he told her, he had hewn into the great slabs of her blank child’s mind the forms of the four great Latin declensions, “complete, Emily, with mutations and characteristic variations from the norm — the -i of the ablative of mare, insigne, animal, exemplar.” The low beautiful baritone rose to a deep shout as he showered on her the epithets of Slab, Granite Hillside, Erstwhile Smooth Expanse. “And now you boggle at the second -i in diei,” he added, suddenly in a normal, conversational voice, and smiled.

Emily began to relax; a delicate little giggle escaped her and a deep chortle spread through the class.

“Now, the translation,” said old Latimer, smothering a yawn. “It’s a simplified little anecdote taken from the Aeneid, which you — some of you, I mean — will be reading late next year.” He piloted them through the short story of Aeneas’ landing on the coast near Carthage, Dido’s reception of him, the banquet, and the beginning of the tale. He excoriated someone for making a passive active, praised someone for making the historical present a past, explained neatly and lucidly the Roman attitude toward the order of words, reminded everyone that some ablatives of manner take cum and some do not take cum, assigned a lesson dealing with the comparison of irregular adjectives, pointed out to everyone that the translation for that lesson described the love of Dido for Aeneas and incarnated the idea of romantic love which most appealed to the ancient world, “not exactly a valentine affair! June and moon were not its symbols, but chains and fire and destroying disease; naked force and terrible pain. Here is great Virgil telling about Dido wandering through the city, burned with it, pierced with it, sick with it . . .” and the deep beautiful voice rolled over the classroom in a tide of unintelligible sound, as strongly marked by rhythm as any music they had ever heard:

Heu vatum ignarae mentes! quid vota furentem, quid delubra iuvant? Est mollis flamma medullas intcrea, et taciturn vivit sub pectore volnus. Uritur infelix Dido . . .

Over the faces of two or three, the incantation seekers, who would never forget this face or room, this sound, so long as they lived, came the dropjawed, feeble-minded look of total acceptance they habitually wore at these moments. The bell rang; old Latimer seemed suddenly to forget the whole thing, smiled his briskest smile, said, “All right, now watch those irregulars,” and flung open his door.

IN EVERY school there is one teacher concerning whom a rumor circulates that he has a large personal fortune and teaches not for money but from some obscure disinterested motive. In Latimer’s school this role fell naturally to him, and each generation increased the collection of wild stories about his personal life and background, The man’s clothes, bearing, accent, all suggested some world of personal autonomy and distinction totally foreign to their own world of hard-working, commuting, cocktail-drinking, sense-talking older men, with their ordinary expensive suits, their speech full of flat a’s, slurred consonants, dulled vowels (guv’munt), and familiar well-understood words.

He seemed also a fortuitous ambassador from some world quite different from that represented by their other teachers. All this was augmented by the fact that nobody really did know anything much about Latimer. The students all knew that he was an accomplished athlete; he played an almost embarrassingly good game of tennis for one so old, was seen with his wife on golf links and on the bridle paths. He skated on the school pond once or twice a year, with great competence, using a fine pair of Austrian skates. But he coached no teams, never talked of sports or went to football games.

The faculty knew with a fair degree of certainty that he had taught in several Eastern colleges and in at least one of the great prep schools, and that there was some quite exciting story about his marriage to the mother of one of his pupils. The tall dashing-looking woman whom everybody knew only as Mrs. Latimer certainly was not a very representative faculty wife. She was more than merely civil, really friendly in a fast-talking, brilliantly smiling way. She gave a large cocktail party once a year for all the faculty and served very good food and drinks. She wore dark red or dark green or purple tweeds in the daytime and black silk in the evening. It was thought that she had many friends “in town” — not in the suburb where the school was located — and that these were not suburban types. Nobody ever saw her in the summer. She and her husband simply disappeared off the Middle Western map, to return always just in time for the opening reception given by the Head, coming into it as though they had never been away, hard and precise in physical outline, clipped of speech, vague and uninformative in conversation.

Parents and other teachers quite often felt that Latimer did not take as much personal interest in the students as was the prevailing mode at the school. Certainly he spent little time on his inept and failing students. But no one dared reproach him with this, in view of the long fanatical hours he devoted to helping the middle range of his students, lavishing upon them his burning gaze, his infinite powers of dramatization, his gifts of lucid explanation and varied repetition, in an impassioned effort to bring them out of their uncertainties and into that state of life where they could translate with confidence, decline and conjugate with aplomb, recognize without hesitation the landmarks of early Latin studies, indirect discourse, purpose clauses, and the like. He never spoke to these students or to any others about their outside life, never allowed them to speak of their family routines or their home atmospheres. They could not feel that he was interested in them as human beings; it seemed unlikely that he ever thought of them as such, and probable that he did not consider them people as they had been taught to expect that their teachers would.

Not one of them resented this. Indeed, it seemed to relieve them, a cool, sharp, stinging astringent applied to the irritations of their adolescence. And for all his lack of interest in their personal existences, when he turned that deep brilliant glance upon them to see what they knew about the passive periphrastic or whether they had studied the vocabulary, they felt noticed as in few other departments of their lives.

Old Latimer cared no more for himself as a human being than he did for them. His mad histrionics and Dionysian outbursts were not designed to compel their admiration nor to impose upon them a sense of his autocracy and difference. They were teaching devices, For all his personal complexities and the baroque, even rococo fabric of his individual being, he was the one person of power in their lives who wished and demanded of them something really simple and clear in outline. He wanted them to learn Latin.

HE NOW looked down at the little mess of papers on his desk. The face of his best student, Robert Lang, looked wildly up at him from the photograph, denuded of its habitual steel-rimmed glasses. He picked up the Hurstleigh folder on the classical scholarship, prepared by a man he knew well and coldly disliked, a representative at classical meetings and archacological congresses of the billboard world of Rotarianism, adjustment, genial cooperation, and general group dynamies. Latimer narrowed his eyes and tossed the folder aside. Next he picked up the general statement of Hurstleigh’s Dean of Admissions on the college’s admission policies. His eye fell on the phrase “breadth of extracurricular interests” and. further on. “ability to function effectively in the group,”and a savage scowl twisted the upper part of his face. It disappeared as he looked up to see Lang entering’ the room and quietly closing the door behind him.

The exotic airs generated in the classroom during the freshman class were dissipated in an instant as Latimer’s senior student took his seat immediately opposite the master’s chair and smiled his thin smile. Anything less “all-round" than the appearance and personal atmosphere of Robert Lang would be difficult to imagine, From head to foot of his physical being the general stigmata of unattractive adolescence were surcharged by the presence of an imposing array of particularities, behind a lierce hedge of skin disorders and scattered bristle, under a layer of impermanent childish flesh, slept a line regular profile and a nobly sculptured jawbone, But the boy s pale eyes shone with the fanaticisms of the early-blooming specialist: his encrusted shirt collar, bedraggled Fair Isle sweater, smudged shoes spoke of the sacrifice of one order of fastidiousness to auoi her.

Latimer always sat at his desk during his conferences with Lang, He spoke in even, courteous tones, both friendly and remote, as one gentleman addressing another slightly younger. “What is it today. Bob?” he asked quietly, taking up his green Cicero and leafing through its opening pages.

“The peroration from the Pro Cluentio, sir.” said Lang, and began to translate from his little student’s edition. The flowery and passionate appeal for the life of an upright man unjustly charged with a low murder, the crown of the great lawyer’s defense against a prosecution which had moved almost exclusively in the territories of political and class prejudice, took shape in effortless English. Here and there Lang paused for a moment to comment on a series of gerundives, to mention the names of less familiar grammatical constructions, to guess at the reason for a curious ordering of phrases.

Latimer listened in silence, inclining his head, turning the pages, catching the boy’s eye from time to time over the top of his book and communicating assent. At the end he nodded gravely and said, “All right. Now read a bit of the Latin, Bob, and remember the trouble we had last time with the long i’s.” Lang looked up from his page and did not look back at it as he recited the last section from memory, his eyes plunged deep into Latimer’s. “Orat vos Habitus, iudices, et flens obsecrat” — his voice sank and deepened at the end of the clause, in imitation not of Latimer but of his own notion of Cicero’s tones at this melodramatic moment. Latimer permitted himself a discreet smile.

“Well, Bob?” he asked, as the dying fall faded away. Lang’s smile, as discreet as his own. commented rest rainedI y on the last measures of the Speech.

“Well, sir . . , of course you can’t miss the Old Silvertongue in it. the Clarence Harrow touch: naturally he had to overdo it. with that jury, and all the emotion hung over from the other trial, eight years before. But you can’t help admiring his judgment, He brings it out about old Sassia being an unnatural mother and rubs it in about her coming up for the trial, such a terrible old bitch that nobody could miss it, even in the country towns. Then lie pulls out the stops about Clueniius ‘weeping begs you to restore him to his life, his kinsmen’ and the rest of it. and then to bring up the old prejudice from the other trial when Clueniius bribed the jury — that really took nerve. Nobody else would have dared; they would have ended with the boo-hoo stuff. I think he’s great. The trouble is, you can feel him thinking it. too. And you can tell he despised the jury and the court and the whole system. But it’s good. You feel he knows his business. It’s the thing you really can like about him in these straight law cases where he’s just bring a lawyer, the best in Rome, and forgetting the rest of it.”

“ The rest of it?”

‘Acs, being the great philosopher and the lather of his country and all that stuff that spoils him later on. The pleasures of old age part, the old woman part, all that.”

BOB,” said Latimer in a soft idle voice, twirling a gold pencil, “what do you want at Hurstleigh with that scholarship? What are you going to do in college?”

“I don’t know exactly, sir,”said Lang, surprised. “.Just learn Greek, I guess. Read the other Latin stuff Try archaeology and history, just be a classicist — learn to be one, I mean.”

“Is that w hat you want? Just to be a classicist?”

“Well ... I don’t know yet what part of it I can go in for permanently. I’ve got to find that out.”

“What, do you suppose,” inquired the Old Man, a sharp, flinty note edging into his voice, “is the role of the classicist in our present society?” Bob Lang caught and held his eyes in another of those long, profoundly calm gazes. He shrugged, without impertinence. “I don’t know much about it. I only know about a couple: Professor Hanley, I guess, and Ladislaw.”

“Hanley! Yes, Hanley lives like a duke at what passes for a great university. He has his cigarettes and his jackets made for him in London, and he makes a large thing out of teaching the boys the names of the wines they ought to like. He does give good parties, that I’ll say for him, and he keeps his invitation cards piled up on his mantel, and they do pile up. Everybody asks him to write introductions for their new little translation or their new little historical novel. But that, my dear Lang, is not a classicist. That is the Master of Hixon House. That is — uh, let’s say, a personality.”

Lang looked slightly alarmed, not so much at this novel portrait of an august figure, hitherto a name on a title page and in a catalogue, as at the sudden crackling tone in the Old Man’s voice. Since he had been taken out of the regular Latin class in the middle of his second year, two years ago, he had not seen any of Latimer s famous histrionics. There was a code drawn silently between the two. It was understood that this sort of thing was not necessary.

“Ladislaw!” continued the Old Man. his voice picking up speed, though still low-pitched. “You are probably unaware, Lang, that Ladislaw reaches the age of retirement next year. Last year he had performed on himself a brain operation known as a frontal lobotomy, calculated to remove from the sufferer all traces of the anxieties and tensions which have been disordering his personality, and with them all sense of responsibility and involvement in the knottier questions of life. I understand the result has been quite striking. Both Ladislaw and his administration can envisage the next year with fortitude, if not exactly with equanimity. Equanimity is, I am afraid, quite out of the question in the Ladislaw affair. But at any rate, the enrollment in classical studies at his university has for the past decade been such that it will not be necessary to replace him.

A violent silence fell. He resumed, speaking now with great weariness, “My friend, the poet Raphael Stein, maintains a very good position at Essex Academy. His students graduate with distinction, are joyously accepted everywhere simply on his say-so, and go on to major in government, history, economics, journalism—on his advice. The knowledge of Greek and Roman letters with which he has equipped them often stays with them, as a sort of interior decoration of the mind, for quite a while before it is relegated to the mental attic where, in most of their cases, one can only admit that it belongs. But Stein is not a classicist; he is a poet, who has found an agreeable, even quite sympathetic means of support.

“Throckmorton instructs young ladies in the number of half a dozen or so annually; he retires this year, and they are replacing him with a Scotchman who will devote most of his energies to the teaching of theology. Interest in religion and anthropology grows; the classics departments are, my boy, becoming more and more interdepartmental. It may perhaps be possible for you to make use of these bodies of knowledge as stalking horses, or as ritual masks, behind which you may carry on undisturbed your classicist’s freakish endeavors.”

“What about the department at Hurstleigh. sir?" asked Lang in the manner of one who more or less changes the subject. There was no answer. Latimer snapped off the point of his gold pencil, looked out the window, and let the matter drop. Feeling the need to get the conference back on that impersonal level which had for years now been the scene of his most profoundly enjoyable experiences, Lang introduced another theme.

“I was reading a poem of Yeats’s last night,” he said cautiously, feeling his way a bit. “It goes at the end: Whence had they come, The hand and lash that heat down frigid Rome? I couldn’t quite make it out. Why ‘frigid’?”

“Oh, just to suggest something cold and resistant, not easily beaten down, I imagine,” said the Old Man in the same low weary tone. “Good question, that Whence had I hey come? He has a poem about Whiggery, too: All’s Whiggery now . . .”

“Can’t get what he’s trying to bring out with that ‘Whiggery,’ either.”said Lang. “Mr. Fletcher told us what the Whigs were, and all. but it doesn’t help much.”

“The man himself tells you, boy! ‘A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind.’ You read a lot, don’t you? Tell me what you see in Latin! What’s in it for you?”

At it again, thought Lang. But with perfect aplomb he began to look round for something true to tell the Old Man. “Well, at first I thought it was the language itself, the constructions and all that. I like the syntax, and thinking about the forms. Take that motto, for instance, they’re always using in the Renaissance: Nec spe nee metu. You see it in the corner of old maps all the time. Well, if it’s an ablative of manner it would mean ‘with neither hope nor fear,’ and just bring out a kind of stoicism, a stiff-upper-lip attitude, ready to take the rough with the smooth. But it shouldn’t be an ablative of manner: no cum, and no adjective to let them off the cum. Some exceptions, like dolo — but not many. So if it’s an ablative of cause, it changes the whole thing: “Neither because of hope nor because of fear,’ and it means the man’s doing whatever he’s doing not because he wants to get something out of it, not because he’s afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t, but just because he wants to. Probably because of the thing itself. That sort of thing is interesting to think about; interesting to me, anyway. But this year, and last year with Virgil, there’s a lot more to it. You start to get an idea of what it was like, with them. I guess I just like the Romans. They’re my type, I mean.” He grinned suddenly and added, “Romani nil me alienum puto, you could say.”

Latimer grinned back at him over the pun. The bell rang. Lang snapped out of it, gathered up his books and papers, looked curiously at his folder on Latimer’s desk, snuffled a bit. and lurched out of the room.

THE Old Man stared after him, then turned his glance to the pile of papers. He took up the recommendation blank, unscrewed his fine gold fountain pen, and began to write rapidly.

Gentlemen:

I am requested to write in support of the application of my student Robert Lang for admission to your freshman class as Wroxbury Scholar. As I read your statements concerning your freshman class and concerning this scholarship, I find myself rather at a loss. It seems unlikely to me that Robert Lang will satisfy your most important requirements. It is with regret that I write this, but I feel that candor is in order.

The boy is the most brilliant scholar I have ever prepared. There is small doubt that his performance on the College Board will be as near perfect as the circumstances of the examination allow. His mastery of the language is complete, or nearly so; his acquaintance with Roman civilization of the late republican and early imperial period is broad and his understanding of it sensitive. He can compose sensible and elegant Latin sentences. His translations arc unexceptionable both in accuracy and in grace. In short, it is difficult to imagine him as a member of your firstyear Latin class under Professor SpeideJ.

Furthermore, it would be idle to pretend that he has profited from or enjoyed his experience as manager of the basketball squad here this winter. The duties of the position demanded nothing but a little correspondence, and attendance at the games; when Lang had fulfilled these obligations, which he found tedious but not difficult, he considered that he had done what was required. His participation in the group emotions and satisfactions made available to him through this experience was, in fact, minimal.

The truth is that Lang’s extracurricular interests arc not broad in the sense you intend. His grasp of three languages, Latin, french, and English, and his continually expanding acquaintance with the literature and histories, ancient and modern, preserved in these languages, have made it somewhat difficult for him to “function effectively in the group,”if I may be forgiven for borrowing a phrase of yours. In fact, Lang’s group considers him very odd indeed, and rightly so.

His complexion falls far short of the Hurstleigh ideal, and I fear his posture is inelegant. Should you wish me to supply you with any further relevant information, and should this information be in my possession, I shall of course be happy to furnish you with more details.

Very truly yours.

As the Old Man signed this letter, the door opened to admit Mr. Merton, hands full of folders and papers as usual. The young man smiled with satisfaction as he saw that the recommendation was complete and ready for the Head. Remembering with pleasure that Lang had made the highest score on record in the entire country on the junior College Board in Latin the last year, and permitting himself to hope for at least one easy admission, he stretched out his hand for the paper and let his eye run quickly over it. His expression changed rapidly as he took in the sense of the clear fine writing. Amusement and irritation gave way to a real indignation as he suddenly imagined himself showing this thing to the Head. He scowled and drew in his breath to launch his protest; then his eyes fell on Latimer, staring up at him, a muscle fluttering wildly near the temple, perspiration standing coldly at the hairline. The passion in the clawed old face was appalling.

Merton’s voice stopped in his throat, and for a moment he heard nothing but the bumping, plunging of his heart. Horrified, he watched tears gather in Latimer’s eyes. Silent, he left the room, clutching the sheet of paper with his others. As the bell screamed through the hall he darted on an impulse into the boys’ washroom, happily empty, and leaned against the wall for a moment. He was quite young, an English teacher of the new school, full of ideas about communication; hut he was not stupid, not unread, and above all not insensitive. He simply felt that it wasn’t normal to be invaded by this kind of thing at ten thirty in the morning. He waited passively, unresentfully, for the harsh grip of pity and terror to relax, before he should plunge again into the whirling, clattering corridor of the last period before Morning Exercise.