Chapter One of "Casting the Runes," from Publish and Perish
(with apologies to M. R. James)
"This. Is. Rubbish," said Victor Karswell, enunciating clearly. For emphasis, he slapped the desktop with Virginia's paper, rolled tightly in his pale little fist. In spite of herself, Virginia Dunning flinched, and she couldn't help but notice the tremor of satisfaction that crossed Karswell's lips. Watching her, he grasped the paper between both hands and rolled it tighter, and he swatted the desk again, making the various gleaming implements upon it—his sleek fountain pen, his silvery letter opener, the sharp spike on which he impaled departmental memos and student papers—seem to tremble in fear of him, like animate kitchenware in a cartoon.
"Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish!" he cried, in his high, thin voice. He twisted the paper between his hands and turned slightly away from her in his silent, well-oiled office chair, as if he were speechless with disappointment, looking through the blinds into the angled Texas glare.
Virginia took this respite from his gaze to shift slightly on the little footstool. She was furious at him, furious at herself for letting him get to her, and furious that she had nowhere to put her anger just now. At the moment, in fact, it was difficult enough just figuring out what to do with her knees. There were only two places to sit in Karswell's office. One was the massive, padded, custom-made oaken chair behind his desk, modeled after the chairs in the old British Library and not, God forbid, after the chairs in the new one, a postmodern monstrosity. The only other seat was a low footstool on the other side of Karswell's desk, where his visitors were invited to sit. Usually, when she knew she was going to see him, Virginia wore trousers or a skirt that fell to her ankles. But today she had worn a sundress that came to just above her knees, and Karswell had caught her in the history department office, checking her mailbox. Now she sat a bare ten inches off the floor, forced into one of two possible postures on the stool, both of them offensively coy. She could sit with her knees pressed together in front of her and her hands linked around them, like a pinup girl circa 1943, in which case her skirt slid back into her lap. She decided on the second choice, sitting side saddle, as it were, twisting her knees together to one side with her spine erect and her hands folded at her hip, a Gal Friday pose, Virginia thought, from some 30s screwball comedy. (Take a letter, Miss Smith, barks Claude Rains, and Jean Arthur marches briskly into his paneled office, steno pad pressed to her pert bosom, pausing only to straighten her seams.) Either way, Virginia revealed rather more thigh to Professor Karswell than he had any right to see. She could stand, of course, but that would be interpreted as insolence, and Jean Arthur, after all, never lipped off to Claude Rains, at least not until the final reel. Note to myself, she thought: Never wear a short skirt on campus, under any circumstances.
"I had hoped," Karswell continued, his voice the very model of pained disappointment, "that of all my junior colleagues, you might have remained professionally chaste. Your dissertation, while deficient in certain crucial respects, was admirably reasonable for someone your age." He gazed sorrowfully through the blinds, tapping her rolled-up paper against his palm. His face was in shadow, but strips of light fell across his waistcoat and his bow tie.
"But I see that you are, or have become," he went on, "intellectually promiscuous, giving yourself wantonly, like the rest of your thrill-seeking generation, to the vulgar pleasures of postmodernism."
He turned silently in his chair to level his gaze at her like a bright light. By any reasonable measure, this was harassment. The fact that he never touched her, never touched anyone, by all accounts, shouldn't matter; at the moment he might as well have had his hand up her skirt. She unclasped her fingers and put her hands firmly on the edges of the footstool, as if to push herself up, to stand and march out of his office. But she didn't. It wasn't that no one would believe her—hundreds would; it was well known that Karswell liked to watch—but she had no way to prove it. It was his word against hers, and at the moment her professional future literally lay between the palms of his hands. Close your eyes, she told herself, and think of tenure.
"And what is the result of your promiscuity, my dear Virginia?"
Karswell seemed to be waiting for an answer, but she would deny him that at least. After an awful moment, he lifted her paper by a corner between his thumb and forefinger, letting it uncurl like a shriveled flower.
"The result," he said sharply, "is that you have become infected with the French disease."
He pursed his lips.
"If I were feeling more forebearing this morning," he said, dangling the pages of her paper between his fingers, "I might ask you what the Jesuit fathers had to do with 'constructing' women on Easter Island."
Everything, she thought, and it's Rapanui, jerk, not Easter Island. But don't even try to answer, she told herself, he doesn't want an answer.
"But the truth is," he went on, his lips twitching with amusement, a schoolyard bully who had just thought of something funny to say, "when I hear the phrase 'gender, race, and class,' I reach for my revolver."
He let the paper sag from his fingers and splay across his desk with a soft hiss. He's been saving that one up, she thought, he wants me to repeat it, to add to his legend. She puckered her lips to keep from saying anything, and thought, count your blessings, it could have been worse. Karswell had been known to skewer the seminar papers of his graduate students, before their eyes, on the office spike he kept on his desk. Vic the Impaler, they called him, among other things.
"Of course, it goes without saying," Karswell said briskly, "that I cannot allow this to appear in the festschrift volume." He pressed the tips of his fingers together and leaned back in his chair; how he managed it, she could not tell. Karswell was such a short little guy he must have been pushing with the very tips of his toes.
Virginia shifted on the footstool. She wanted to stand, she ought to stand, but she clutched the edges of the stool as if to keep herself from ricocheting off the ceiling. The moment had come for her to speak, and she had to judge her words carefully.
"The publications committee has already accepted it, Victor," she heard herself say. "You can't unilaterally refuse it."
"Can't I?" Karswell's eyes popped wide. "My dear, I must. I have no choice. Professor Blackwood is a very old man, with a weak heart. If he were to see this, this, this—" Karswell gestured at her paper in dishabille on his desktop, unable to bring himself to name it—"if he were to see this in his festschrift volume, the poor dear man's heart would seize up and kill him." Karswell smiled again, and she fought the urge to shudder. "Though perhaps that is your intent."
Professor Blackwood, she wanted to say, had slept through his retirement dinner, from the soup course through the testimonials. He probably hadn't read a book in his field straight through since 1975.
"Victor," she said, drawing a breath, licking her lips, "the volume is already at the press..."
"From where I may remove it, with a simple phone call." Karswell's fingertips sprang apart, and he let his small hand hover over the phone on his desk. Then he closed his hand into a fist with an almost audible snap, and said, "Which is the heart of my dilemma. You've left me with a terrible choice, professor, a terrible choice. Do I postpone the volume, at great expense to the press—and at great inconvenience to the other authors, I might add—or do I proceed with the volume as it is, knowing that there is this rot, this corruption, at the very heart of it?"
Virginia twisted on the stool. She planted her feet firmly on the floor, her knees together, the skirt be damned. She felt her face get hot.
"I'm not rewriting it, Victor," she said. "For one thing, there isn't time..." For another, she wanted to say, it's the best fucking paper in the book.
"I blame myself," said Karswell, cutting her off with a gesture. "In the press of my other responsibilities, I did not catch up with your paper in as timely a fashion as I ought. Mea culpa, my dear Virginia. And since," he continued, lifting his finger to forestall her further protest, "and since I freely acknowledge my own dereliction in this matter, I am prepared to propose a solution which will, I think, allow us to proceed on schedule, and preserve, or at the very least protect, the reputation of everyone involved."
Virginia closed her mouth and turned her knees to the side again, tugging down her skirt. She crossed her arms.
Karswell leaned silently forward in his chair and gathered up the sheets of her paper, shaking them between his hands against the desk until they were even. His eyes gleamed as though he had his hands around her throat. Virginia fought the urge to flee the room. Then Karswell reached into his vest pocket, and to her astonishment brought out his notorious pince-nez, delicately squeezing the little lenses onto the bridge of his nose.
"I am prepared," he said, peering at her through the pince-nez, "to shoulder my share of responsibility for this debacle by offering to list myself as the primary author of the paper."
For the first time in this encounter, Virginia was grateful that she wasn't standing. If she had been, she'd have passed out for sure, toppled over from the shock like a redwood. As it was, all the blood drained out of her face and her jaw went slack. Karswell said nothing, but simply blinked at her calmly from behind his round lenses, waiting for her to compose herself. She could not think for a moment, let alone speak, and the only thought that came to her was, of course, I should have seen this coming. This is what he wanted all along.
"You have a long and productive career ahead of you, Professor Dunning," Karswell said finally, when she could not muster the words to reply, "and I trust you will be guided in this matter by my own long experience."
Virginia found herself rising to her feet, and at first she knew it only because Karswell lifted his face to follow her progress; it was as if she were being lifted by wires. All she could think of to say were cliches from some nighttime soap, herself as Amanda on Melrose, bristling with fury in a tight skirt, tossing back a wild mane of blonde hair, and saying, not until hell freezes over. I'll see you dead first, you little bastard. I'll get you if it's the last thing I do.
"I think that's a little...irregular, Victor," was what she did say, however. This was Victor Karswell, after all, not Courtney Thorne-Smith.
"I'm offering to protect you, my dear," Karswell said, attempting warmth and chilling Virginia to the bone. "I am offering, at no little risk to myself, to encompass you within the cloak of my reputation."
The image this conjured made it hard for Virginia to breathe. She plucked at her hands to keep them from shaking. I'm not your dear, she wanted to say. Call me that again and I'll have you up before the Dean. Call me that again, you little eunuch, and I'll drive that spike through your heart. Then suddenly the anger was replaced by a strange lightheadedness, and she wondered if this was what dying felt like: with a rising, rushing whoosh like the wind in the trees, her whole life rewound before her eyes, past the deceptions of lovers, the betrayals of friends, the lies of parents and teachers, until, the windy rush rising to an unbearable pitch, her little highlight reel came to rest in junior high, at that moment when book reports had been handed back by her English teacher, when Virginia had read every word of Moby-Dick and gotten a B+, and Jessica Lindenmeyer had read the Classics Comics version and gotten an A. The problem, then as now, was that Virginia's paper had been too good. With a windy crescendo like the last chord of Sgt. Pepper, she saw Mrs. Altenburg's precise handwriting across the page: "Virginia: Is this your own work?"
"Yes it is," she murmured, blinking in the gloom of Karswell's office.
"I beg your pardon," Karswell said, widening his eyes behind the pince-nez.
"No," she said more forcefully, straightening her shoulders. "It's my work, Victor. You may not put your name on it."
There was a long silence in which Virginia was half-afraid that Karswell could hear her heart beating.
"Think about what you're saying, my dear," he said quietly, his eyes oddly dark behind the little lenses.
Her throat was nearly too dry to speak, but she swallowed and managed to say, "I know what I'm doing, Victor."
"I see," Karswell said.
Against the thin strips of glare between the blinds, his face was suddenly hard to make out; he was working his mouth somehow, and it looked to Virginia as though he were trying to keep from smiling. Then he set his face, and rapped the edge of her paper against the desk.
"Is that your final decision?" he said.
"Yes," Virginia said. "Yes, it is."
"Very well." He lay the paper on his desk, reached for his fountain pen, lifted a few pages, and wrote something quickly and definitively near the end of the manuscript. He blew on the ink, capped the pen and put it aside, and held Virginia's paper out at arm's length.
"Then may I give you this, professor," he said. "I believe it is yours."
Virginia, her heart pounding, stepped across the carpet.
"Yes," she said, "it certainly is."
As she took the manuscript, she felt a chill run up her arm and down her spine, as if the paper itself had just come out of a deep freeze. As soon as she had it, Karswell snapped his hand away. Virginia rolled it in between her palms and rubbed it up and down, as if to warm the paper, and she turned on her heel and walked toward the door, her shoulders stiff, Karswell's gaze like a spear pointed at her back. As she turned to slip out the door, he was still watching her, his eyes dark behind his pince-nez.
"Goodbye, my dear," he said, and Virginia closed the door.
Copyright © 1997 by James Hynes