Jacob Eaton, in full

Well, not really “in full.” Just kind of in full. If you’ve been reading along in the last few months (thank you for your likes and subscriptions) you know a bit about who Jacob Eaton is and, therefore, something about this novel that I’ve been writing for years now. I’ve been posting bits and pieces of Jacob’s story here for a few months now. It’s been haphazard and not even in chronological order. I apologize for that, but I write as it comes to me, and it doesn’t always come in order. And I feel the need to push it out there into the blogosphere while it is hot off of the press. The input you give me (thanks for that, again) allows me some perspective on it. But this post here is – like I said – “kind of” a whole story. This, as posted here, should hang together and have those three important things – a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve been working on this so long and there is so much in this that I am surprised that is still under 10000 words. If you’ve been reading the bits and pieces all along, you may want to scan way down this post until you get to that part that you have not yet read. The next few posts – I think – will be from another character’s story. Happy reading. Please comment.

Jacob Eaton never said another word to his father about the theft of the lug nuts or of his last date with Rachel.  But good fathers see more than they hear and Dr. Eaton knew that his son was off his game at a time when he needed to be on it.  He knew better than to raise the subject directly, but in view of the extreme and unusual change in Jacob’s mood and the urgency of the hour, he ventured a few words that he had not spoken to his son since he last put him to bed with a story. “You don’t need to know what to ask in particular.  Just ask Him for help.  He sees everything.  You just need to ask.”

HE STOOD in the hallway outside of the classroom where his next-to-last session on American History was about to begin.  He was mulling over the prospect of cutting out, jumping on his motorbike, and heading to Lower Falls for a swim.  There could be no penalty for that now, even if he were caught.  The gradebooks had already been closed on seniors and in only a few days the school would lose jurisdiction over him entirely.  He had played by the rules his whole time there, but now there was nothing to be gained by going into the classroom and nothing to lose by walking away. 

And when the office-helper came out of the stairway and handed him the pink summons from the counselor’s office he thought much the same way.  Why honor this?  I don’t want anything they are selling.   He was almost to the back exit of the school when he looked at the paper slip again and turned and went down the little-used and unfamiliar hallway to the counselor’s office. 

He knew who Mr. Comer was by reputation, but he had never spoken to the man.

In the reception area he handed the slip to a sophomore girl, a student helper.

“He’s waiting for you,” she nodded toward the door.  “Go on in.”

When Jacob opened the door Mr. Comer stood and motioned for Jacob to take a seat in front of the desk.  Behind the tall counselor, framed certificates of his various educational achievements and a black and white photograph of the crew of the B-17 he had flown in the war hung on the wall.  His desktop was almost clear.

“Mr. Eaton. I think this is the first time we’ve ever spoken.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s not a bad thing, usually.” He sat and swiveled his chair away from the desk and took a file from a counter behind and laid it on the desk.  “Usually means you haven’t gotten into trouble.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I asked you here to talk to you about your college-entrance tests. This should have been done earlier, but I am kept pretty busy by the squeaking wheels; those who want to talk about them.  Want to find out what they mean; where they might find a place to go to school.  I didn’t even take a look at yours until someone from the testing company called me.”

“The company called you?  About my test?”

“Knowing what I now know, Jacob, I’m not sure I should credit your surprise.  You’re not really surprised, are you?”

“I don’t know anything about how those companies operate.  Don’t really care. Sir.”

“But you do know something, maybe a few things, about your tests, don’t you?”

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, sir.”

“You are aware that you dogged it on part three of the test, aren’t you?”

Jacob looked away.  “Who could possibly care about that?  I didn’t want to take those tests in the first place.  I’m going to junior college up the road here.  They don’t even care about those tests.”

“Well, that would be right in the normal situation, but your situation is not normal.”

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t be.  I’ve passed every class I’ve taken here.  And, like you said, I’ve never gotten into much trouble.”

Mr. Comer leaned back in his chair and smiled.  “I think you know why.  I don’t see how you couldn’t.  You’ve just tried to hide it.  Maybe even from yourself.”

Jacob shifted in his chair.

“You scored a perfect on two sections of the test.  On the third section, the writing part, you scored in the lowest percentile.”

Jacob nodded.  “Doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Well, it might.  It just might matter a whole lot. Have you given much thought to what you might want to do with your life?”

“No.  Just live, really.”

“But did you know that you could do anything?  With scores like this, the world will open up for you.  You can go anywhere you want.  Accomplish anything.  You can’t throw this away.”

Jacob did not respond.

“Your dad is a preacher, isn’t he?”

“He is.”

“So, you have heard about sin and all that.”

“Yes, I have.  Plenty.”

“You know what sin is, then.  You’ve probably sinned yourself.  Done something you shouldn’t have and then felt bad about it.”

“Hasn’t everybody?”

“Yes, everybody has, but what I am trying to tell you that whatever sins you’ve done up until this point, if you walk away from this gift, this talent that you’ve been given and the opportunity right at your fingertips to make something out of it – to exercise it, discover it, make it grow – you’ll regret that for the rest of your life.  Might not seem like much right now, but this is a turning point, Jacob.  You speak now or forever hold your peace.  What can be turns into what could have been in the blink of an eye.”

“I do know something about regret.”

“I’m glad to hear that.  Not that you’ve done something you regret, but that you understand what regret is.”

“It wasn’t me that did the thing that I regret.  But you go on, say what you’ve got to say.”

“The school has a scholarship for people like you.  It was instituted in 1915 by a guy who made a fortune in the timber and coal industries.  You know that house on the corner of River and Main?”

“Yeah.  The Phillips’ place?”

“That’s the one.  The guy who built that house is the one who endowed this scholarship.  Think his name was Martin. The school has only used it twice in fifty-five years.  We don’t find people who qualify for it very often.  There is plenty of money there right now, but the scholarship is for only one college.  Washington and Lee.  Ever heard of it?”

“I might have heard it mentioned a time or two.  Don’t know anything about it.”

“Well, it’s down in Lexington, Virginia, right off of Route 60.  It’s about a five-hour drive.”

“Never been to Lexington.”

“Anyhow, this school, this college, is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the whole country.  It’s on par in many ways with any of the Ivy League schools.  Harvard.  Yale.”

“I don’t really care about that.”

“Well, there’s where you’re wrong.  Wrong in your thinking.  That school…going to that school could make a tremendous difference in your life.  You’ll meet people who will challenge and interest you.  You’ll find peers there that will speak your language.  You will see opportunities that you have not imagined.”

“Why are you telling me this now?  It’s too late, even if I wanted to go.”

“Money talks, Jacob.  That’s another thing you will learn.  Washington and Lee is a very selective school.  It’s tough to get in, generally speaking.  But they love to get a student like you.  Someone who will raise the average of the test scores of the incoming class.  And they really love it when someone like you has the money.  And thanks to Mr. Martin, the college won’t have to underwrite you at all.”

“But I’d have to apply.  Go through all that process.”

“Jacob, did I tell you who the other two students were who got this scholarship?”


“One of them was me.  I graduated there twenty years ago and I have stayed on excellent terms with the school.  I know the people in the admissions office.  They have already heard about you.”

AT MIDNIGHT on August 31, Jacob Eaton was the only passenger waiting at the soon to be abandoned Walhonde Station on the C&O Railway. He stood on the platform in the humid warmth and watched the swifts darting and the moths fluttering in the floodlights.  The streets of the town had been empty for hours and when he saw the sedan approaching the grade crossing two blocks below the depot he thought for a moment it might have been her father’s car.  He stepped outside the circle of light under the station canopy and peered down the track for a better view, but couldn’t tell for certain.  

At 12:15 he went inside the building to ask if his train had been delayed. The door was not locked and the lights were on in the office and the lobby, but there was no one at the desk and, so far as he could tell, no one anywhere in the building.

When he saw his train, The George Washington, coming from the west, he began to doubt if the engineer would stop for him.  Had there been any kind of signal?  Would anybody know that there was a single passenger here, hoping to board?  But The George Washington, near to the end of its days and now consisting of only five cars, did screech and strain and hiss to a stop.  Before the train came to a complete halt a uniformed porter stepped out of a door between the cars, stood on the running board with his right hand gripping a vertical handle, and scanned the station for passengers.  Afraid that the man would order the train to move on, Jacob raised his hand and waved and shouted, “Over here.”  The porter nodded and Jacob, bag in hand, walked forward, stepped aboard, passed the man his ticket and took a seat in the almost empty railcar.  And as the train slowly rumbled back into its clacking rhythm he fell asleep and awoke in a bright morning in the new world that Mr. Comer had promised.

IT OCCURRED there just as Mr. Comer had predicted. Jacob Eaton got the education that would change his life, an education that would fit him to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best minds of his day in almost any field of endeavor.  But he did not get that education in the way that Mr. Comer had anticipated. He did benefit from the labors of the dedicated and learned faculty of the school.  In those hundred-year-old classrooms, brushing against some of the top professors in the country and the brightest minds of his own generation, he learned research and forensic skills and polished his speech and writing.  All of that would have more than justified the generous outlays of cash from the Martin endowment.  But what changed his life most profoundly, and what he would likely have found nowhere else, he learned in the basement of the college gymnasium where Otis Jackson had hung a heavy bag and laid mats and cordoned off a boxing ring.

Mr. Jackson was descended from ancestors who had been held in bondage by the school itself and by General Stonewall Jackson, who taught at the adjacent Virginia Military Institute prior to the civil war.  The school had kept his forebears on for generations after the emancipation as maids, food service workers and groundskeepers.  Otis himself was the first of the family to leave the employ of the school for service in the Army.  There his talent for boxing was discovered and he spent the better portion of his two-year stint fighting in exhibition matches all over the country.

After his discharge he found a trainer in Staunton, Virginia, and continued to box in local arenas for almost ten years.  At the end of that, and bearing the injuries that accumulate over such a career, he returned to his family and, as they would have put it then, “got on” with the college as a custodian of the Doremus Gymnasium.

He hung the bags in a corner of the basement of the gym not long after he started the job.  The space was not being used for anything else and was not really fit for anything the school might plan for.  The administration of the school was not unmindful of its immoral treatment of Jackson’s ancestors and wished to indulge the family wherever possible and nobody objected to his personal use of the little, concrete-floored rectangle.

It is the case that intellectuals, particularly male intellectuals, glory in esoterica, particularly sports esoterica. Thus, Jackson’s skill in the ring and the power of his punch became a subject of some interest and celebration among a certain element of the school’s faculty.  There were stories about several of his better bouts, including an early one where he knocked down, almost for the count, a youngster from Philadelphia who went on to hold the world welterweight title for almost five years.

When the Old Dominion Athletic Conference re-instituted boxing as a varsity sport, the administration at Washington and Lee was at first hesitant to field a team.  Boxing had not been a part of their tradition and was not included in their recruitment literature and an entry into the sport would require a substantial outlay of cash for the hiring of a coaching staff and the certain considerable increase in insurance coverage and on top of all that there was the prospect of serious injury to one or more students.

But when Otis Jackson heard of the prospect, he went to work.  He knew professors in both the business and journalism schools who would take his side in the matter.  And those few men, having a taste for the sport themselves and being proud of their knowledge of Otis’s career and well aware of the school’s moral debt to the Jackson family, pushed the right buttons and convinced the department to try the sport for one year, with Otis Jackson at the helm.  This was the year that Jacob Eaton arrived on campus.

It was Dean John Taylor, who had himself boxed at Harvard some twenty years before and who now headed up the college’s school of business, who took the lead in lobbying on behalf of Otis Jackson. He found the custodian in his basement gym, working out on the bag himself, dripping sweat, and convinced him to come along to the president’s office then and there to make the case for the new sport.  Taylor knew that president could not look the hopeful and sweating Otis Jackson in the face and deny him the chance he wanted.

“Okay,” the president said.  “I’m not convinced this thing will get off the ground, but you can advertise it.  See if any students are interested.”

And so Coach Jackson did.  The single sign he tacked to the board outside the entrance to the Doremus Gym read: “Boxing Team starting September 10, 4 o’clock in room below gym.  Equipment will be supplied.”

Jacob Eaton showed.  The two of them waited till 4: 30 for someone else to come along, but no one did.  Coach Jackson wrapped Eaton’s hands and gave him bag gloves.

“Start hittin’ that bag.  Do what you can.  See what you got.”

Jacob began working the bag.

“Keep them hands up.  You keep swingin’.  I’ll tell you when to quit.”

After five minutes of constant slugging, Jacob was hoping to hear the coach tell him to stop, but he let Jacob go until his gloved hands felt like lead and he was half dizzy and gasping for breath. At the end he bent over in exhaustion and heard the coach’s first advice.

“You standin’ too close to the bag.  You stuff you punches that away.  Cain’t hurt nobody.  You got to use your whole swing.  Make the bag go ‘thwack.’  You right hand look pretty good. You ever hit anybody with that right hand?”

“Yes, sir.  Couple of times.”

“It did the job, didn’t it?’

“It did.”

“We can work with that.  Now, let’s teach you something about breathin’.”

IN HIS freshman year, Jacon Eaton alone was the Washington and Lee boxing team.  His first bout was there in Lexington, against a fighter from neighboring Virginia Military Institute, an upperclassman who had twenty fights under his belt, fourteen of them wins.”

In his corner, before the first bell, Coach Jackson whispered to Jacob Eaton.  “I’m gonna tell you somethin’ important about that boy over there in that other corner.  He just as scared as you are.  Ever one of ‘em is.”

And then he gave Jacob strange advice.  “I don’t want you throwin’ the right at all.  You understand me?”

“Why? It’s all I’ve got.”

“You just listen.  You just do what I tell you. Don’t throw the right.  You keep jabbin’.  Jab, jab, jab.  All the time.  Dance and jab. You keep him thinking about the jab.”

After two rounds in which neither fighter had scored much, Jackson gave this instruction to his charge.  “Now, start off with the jab and when he drop his left you use that right hand. You let him have it. Make the first one count.  It’ll be the best one.  He ain’t gone be ready for it.  He won’t know what to do.  You get that right in there a time or two and this ref gone stop this fight.  He ain’t gone let anybody get kilt.”

Thirty seconds in to the three-minute round, Jacob landed his first right and knocked the Keydet back against the ropes.  When Jacob saw him stagger, he brought the right again and sent the kid to the canvas.

IN HIS four years at Washington and Lee, Jacob Eaton continued to be the school’s only boxer. He fought twenty-four bouts and won nineteen.  His senior year he was undefeated and won the conference belt and went on to place second in NCAA Division III regionals.  No one at the school came to any of his fights except Dean Taylor and those few business professors who had been instrumental in getting the sport started.  Nonetheless, he was named Athlete of the Year by the Old Dominion Conference.

What Jacob learned in that lonely basement, besides that the other guy was as scared as he was, were these things: to fight, you have to be ready, and being ready means getting ready all the time.  Eating, sleeping, training, resting.  It all mattered and it all had to be done right.  You can take more than you thought you could, and you will have to take more than you thought you could to get anywhere.  You can put out more than you thought you could, and to win, you have to do exactly that.  These were lessons that stayed with him as he entered competition for a Rhodes Scholarship and stayed with him further when he entered the practice of law, which is precisely a boxing match carried on it a courtroom.  All of those moral and ethical lessons stayed with him in the years to come.

In his first season, owing to the fact that only four other schools in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference were able to generate enough interest to field teams, Jacob Eaton fought only four bouts. He won them all by decision, but, as Coach Jackson kept reminding him, “You ain’t really fought nobody yet. Them boys think they know somethun, but they don’t know nothin about fightin.  Them coaches don’t know nothin’, either.  All got them boys just come in swingin’. Shouldn’t even be in no ring. They gone get somebody kilt.”

The following year Coach Jackson again posted a note on the corkboard outside the gym announcing the beginning of boxing practice.  Again, he and Jacob waited for some other undergraduate to show and again none did.  Thus, again, throughout another pre-season and season, Jacob was the sole recipient of all the skill and knowledge that Otis Jackson had collected over his years.  In this second year, practices went longer.  Jacob ran, jumped rope, mastered the speedbag, and added an extra measure of power to his already formidable right cross.  Although he and Coach Jackson were the only people ever in the tiny boxing room, Jackson had fastened one corner of the drum of the speedbag to a water pipe that ran directly beneath the basketball court above and when Jacob would work the bag the waterpipe would vibrate with the insane speed and violence of Jacob’s punches, sending a kind of long roar through the basketball gym. The young men above soon figured out what was making that rattadatattada racket and, once they understood the source of the percussion, they began to be impressed and Jacob began to be a subject of conversation.  That guy can hit.

By the time of his senior year, Jacob Eaton’s life had taken on a kind of mystique on campus.  Although none of the students ever attended his fights, the thunder from his thrashing of the speed bag continued to echo throughout the basketball gym during classes and intramural games and early risers saw him running stairways and jumping rope in all weathers all over that manicured campus.  So much so that one of the sportswriters of the campus newspaper began to wonder.

That school next door -the Virginia Military Institute – believed itself to be superior in almost every way to Washington and Lee.  Students there not only learned to balance equations and read the classics. They were soldiers; heroes in the strife.  And one particular hero, in this, Jacob’s Eaton’s senior year, was Bradley Ryan, who had dominated the Division I Southern Conference as a boxer for the past two seasons.  And so, this sportswriter wondered, what might our man, Jacob Eaton, have to say about this dominance of our next-door neighbor?  Could this otherwise quiet classmate of ours, who sets the entire gymnasium pulsing with his fury against the speedbag, and who has not lost a bout in his last two seasons, have the answer? Could Jacob Eaton whip the proud, neighboring warrior and reset the landscape in that little town?

And this sportswriter made his wonderings known throughout campus by including a teaser or two in every week’s column.  We hear talk about Bradley Ryan, but we hear thunder from the fists of our own Jacob Eaton.  Will this hero of the school next door give our guy a chance?   Is he willing to put that school’s pride on the line?

When Dean John Taylor read these columns, he spoke again to Otis Jackson.

“Coach.  Have you seen what they are saying about Eaton and this Ryan kid over at VMI?”

“I ain’t read them papers, but Jacob talked to me about it.”

“What do you think?”

“Ryan got ten pounds on Eaton.  They ain’t in the same class. Jacob welterweight.  Ryan middleweight.”

“Have you seen Ryan fight?”

“I seen his last bout.  After I heard the talk.”

“What do you think?”

“He’s better than anybody we’ve faced yet.  Bigger, too.”

“Can Eaton stay in the ring with him?”

“Eaton faster.  A little faster.  But them ten pounds he be givin away mean something.  Ryan be harder to move.”

“Does Eaton want to fight him?”

“Yeah.  He want it bad.”

“How about you?”

“I always wanna fight.”

“Can you get him ready?”

“We already workin’ on it.”

There were many administrative impediments to a school-sponsored fight between a Division III fighter and a Division I varsity man.  But the rivalry between the schools was great, having lasted more or less since the end of the civil war, and the egos of many decision-makers at both schools were caught up in it.  The schools, being in different NCAA divisions, had never competed directly in any other sport in over thirty years.  There was much sound and fury in the president’s office surrounding the issue, but in the end it came down to an insurance problem.  At last, they could not find a carrier anywhere who would insure the school against injury incurred in a boxing match that was neither sanctioned or regulated or officiated by the NCAA or any other intercollegiate agency.  No one, not even Jacob himself, was more disappointed than Dean Taylor, who had his own reasons for promoting the bout.  But even though the school could not sponsor the match, Taylor’s secret purpose would be fulfilled

By the time the school decided that it could not allow the fight, the campus had been abuzz with the idea for weeks and there were those in the fraternity houses who did not want the opportunity for a return to glory to pass.  And so the Lambda Chis rented the armory in nearby Staunton and hired a referee and judges and the fight went on.  Because this bout was in direct challenge to the kids next door and because it was engineered by the students themselves, in contravention of law and regulation, almost the entire student body came to the fight.  It went only five rounds, ending with a knockdown for the count of Bradley Ryan.  Ryan finally stood and demanded that the fight go on, but the referee would not allow it and Jacob Eaton, the once unknown undergraduate, became the toast of the Washington and Lee campus for the rest of the year.

That glory turned out to be more than fleeting, for when Dean Taylor spoke to Jacob about the prospect of becoming a Rhodes Scholar, Jacob asked what the criteria were for the award.  In that day and time, the committee considered not only academic achievement but “fondness of and success in manly sports such as cricket, football, boxing, and the like;” and “qualities of manhood.”  While teachers and administrators at the applicant’s college were to judge the candidate’s academic prowess, those two categories requiring skill in the manly arts were to be judged by the applicant’s peers.  It hardly needs to be said that in the wake of his defeat of Bradley Ryan, Jacob Eaton had won the unending gratitude and admiration of his peers at Washington and Lee.  Their letters to the committee were unprecedented in number and passion and Jacob Eaton, basement boxer, became Jacob Eaton, Rhodes Scholar.

And so Jacob Eaton moved finally from the tutelege of the old fighter and from the dim light of the basement room of the gymnasium to the dreaming spires of Oxford and to the care and keeping of the leading intellects of the western world.

But his right cross would also serve him again.  One more time.

The streets of Oxford were still strange to Jacob Eaton.  He’d been there two weeks, waiting for the start of term, the beginning of his experience as a Rhodes Scholar.  He had settled at least somewhat into his rooms on the quad in Corpus Christie College and was beginning to get used to the food.  Heavy, grilled breakfasts: eggs, sausage, grilled tomato, toast and tea.  And plowman’s lunches of cheese, onion, and fresh bread and a brown sauce they called “pickle,” which he liked from the first bite.

But he was an early arrival on campus.  The bulk of the student body would not arrive till the first of October for the Michaelmas term and so his days there, so far, had been solitary, almost wordless.  And in the evenings, that were coming earlier now and were cooler with each passing day, he left the dreaming spires of the empty college and walked into the city among the townspeople and past the restaurants and bars and stores. It was late on such a cool evening just after dusk that he turned the corner at Catte and Holywell Streets, and saw, half a block ahead of him, a street mugging that would change his life.

Two men had accosted a couple and one of the attackers was now holding the girl, kicking and screaming, in a headlock while the other was pushing and yelling at the young man.  Jacob began to trot, hiding behind a car that was moving slowly toward the scene and as the car approached the foursome, he darted from behind and wrapped his arm around the neck of the man holding the girl and cut off his breath.  The man immediately released the girl, slipped Jacob’s hold, and turned to face him in a boxer’s stance.  This, as he would immediately learn, was a big mistake.  Before the man could react, Jacob had jabbed him three times in the face and then landed his right cross – now famous in certain communities back home – on the attacker’s jaw.  Just like the VMI Keydet some six months before, he dropped.

While the other of the two attackers was momentarily distracted by Jacob’s surprise intervention, the young man yelled at the girl to run for the police and she did.  The young man then grabbed at the other attacker and the two of them fell to the pavement, struggling.  When Jacob’s foe passed out, he left him lying and jumped onto the other man, pinning his head to the pavement with his knee.  The bobbies arrived in minutes. 

With the two assailants secured in the police wagon, one of the officers, carrying a clipboard, approached Jacob and the young man.

Gentlemen, he said, I’m going to need your identifying information.  We’ve no doubt about what happened here, and this most likely is the end of it; you’ll hear no more about it.  But there is an outside chance that you may be witnesses.

Jacob began to speak, but the young man intervened.  I’m Edward Cavendish, he said.  Chief Cole will know of me.  If you will check with your office. My father spoke with him before I came to college here.

At this the officer stopped writing and went back to the wagon while Jacob and young Mr. Cavendish stood waiting.  In a few minutes the officer came back and spoke to Jacob.  I’m just going to need your name.  I assume you are a student here.

I am.

And were you in company with Mr. Cavendish here when this event occurred?

And, again, Edward Cavendish spoke, forestalling Jacob’s response. Yes, officer.  We were in the same party this evening.

That’s all I will need.  I’d offer to give you a ride back to the station so that you can collect your girlfriend, but my car is a bit full right now.

Thank you. We’re happy to walk.  It’s such a pleasant evening.  And our other stroll was interrupted.  Please tell Jane I’ll be by in a few minutes.

As the police wagon pulled away, Jacob heard his first greetings from an Oxford classmate.

“It’s a good job, that.” Edward Cavendish said as he extended a hand to Jacob.  “Where did you learn to fight?”

“Boxed a little in college.”

“Ah.  You’re an American. Of course. Why here in Oxford?”

“Rhodes scholar.”

“What college, man?”

“Corpus Christie.”

“Splendid. We are colleagues. And I owe you a drink.  At least one drink. Where shall we go?”

“You know the town, not me.  Just tell me where.”

“Alright.  The Eagle and the Child.  Three blocks down and one block left.  I’ve got to collect Jane down at the precinct and get her back to her college.  Meet you there in half an hour.”

“Fine.  But tell me this.  What did that officer find out about you when he went back to his car?”

“It’s a long story.  But you’re an American and you need to be learning something about British culture.  That’s what all this Rhodes business is about, isn’t it?”

What Jacob learned that evening in The Eagle and The Child was that Edward Cavendish was the eldest son of John Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, who ranked only beneath the Queen, the Marquess of Salisbury and the Earl of Derby in wealth and influence throughout the United Kingdom and what was left of the British Empire.

What was not immediately obvious, and what Jacob had no notion or apprehension of, was the honor code of men like Cavendish.  While the foibles and excesses of that class of people are well known and documented daily in the media and press, there are notions of loyalty and obligation and admiration for physical courage that have been inculcated into such men over a millennium and are so deeply embedded that they are passed unconsciously from generation to generation and do not need to be articulated.  They have been so rich for so long that they are no longer impressed by money or the things that it can buy.  What they value above all else are those things that money cannot buy, like physical courage and loyalty. There was also their near-religious belief that there was no such thing as mere coincidence.  That which happened occurred for a reason and there was meaning in every experience, every conversation, every confrontation.  In short, what Jacob had done for Cavendish in saving him from a beating, humiliation, and from injury to the girl he was then escorting was of existential significance.  Cavendish was obliged or obligated to Eaton, and as the days and weeks passed during their first term at Corpus Christie College, their respect for one another only grew stronger.  It was near the end of term when Cavendish offered his hospitality to his American friend.

The two men were almost finished with their final examinations and were taking a few moments for tea before the fire in Cavendish’s rooms.  They talked of professors and examinations and the upcoming break between terms.

So, will you be going home for the vacation?

No.  Too expensive, I’m afraid.

Well, what will you do?  You can’t stay here.

They tell me I can.  There are accommodations in Rhodes Hall for people like me.

No.  I didn’t mean that it couldn’t be physically or legally done.  I mean you just can’t do that to yourself.  You think this town is miserable during term, think of what it will be like in January when the sun never makes an appearance, the college halls are empty, your rooms are cold, the food is even worse than usual, and all your friends are home, sleeping late, warming themselves by the fires, and feasting on ham and turkey.  You’ll go stir crazy and might be tempted to self-destructive behavior.  Too depressed to excel in the coming term.  I won’t have it, man.  You’ll come home with me.  I’ve been wanting to show you Chatsworth Hall for some time now, anyway. Besides, my father has been dying to meet you ever since I told him of our scuffle with those thugs back at the start of term.

I couldn’t do that.  Christmas is a family time.  I don’t want to get in the way of that.  Don’t want to be underfoot.

Edward Cavendish chuckled.

You don’t understand what Chatsworth is.  We’re not talking three bedrooms and a bath.  Chatsworth is a castle, man.  We have a staff of over 40 workers.  You will not be a burden. We’ll have at least a dozen houseguests there for the entire holiday season, and the house will still be nearly empty.  We’d be bereft without company.  Couldn’t imagine it.  It’s not our way of life.  You have to come.  Do you like to ride?


No, man.  Camels.  Of course, horses.  What else?

Could have meant motorcycles.  I did have one of those.

Horses, man.  Horses.

I never have tried it.

Well, you haven’t lived then.  This will be a greater education than all of the lectures and papers of Michaelmas term.  We’ve got several very polite mounts that will suit you and four thousand acres of field and forest to explore.  You Americans are all country folk, anyway.  We’ve even got a horse-drawn sleigh.  Jingle Bells.  The whole bit.  There’ll be parties.  Women to meet.  Rich, good-looking girls.  There is no more to be said here.  Pack your bags.  Shine your shoes.  Our train leaves Tuesday at eight AM.  I’ll have your ticket with me. Breakfast in the club car.  Leave all your worries behind.

Chatsworth Hall was the work of many generations.  It had been in the Cavendish family since the sixteenth century and the planning of its architecture and landscape and the construction of its walls and windows had gone on for centuries longer than the entire history of the United States.  Its placement amid the green hills, its approach, its prospect, its symmetry, its quiet grandeur, its tended fields, forests and streams had been perfected over generations and at an untold cost in artistry, labor and materials afforded only at the height of the unprecedented and yet unsurpassed world-wide imperial power and wealth of the nation

Chatsworth was everything Edward had promised it would be.  Jacob took to riding like a fish to water and the trails over the wooded hills and along the winding streams gave hours of pleasure.  The country air, the fresh food, the extended, ambling exercise of the trail rides and the long-practiced traditions of the entire family and staff to cultivate true leisure in the great house and its magnificent grounds brought Jacob to a state of relaxation that he had never before known.  And, as Edward had promised, there were girls.  Every dinner was a lavish affair and included guests from the first families of the country.  It so happened that many of these families had eligible daughters who were of an age compatible with Edward.  On their rides through the country, Edward talked of these young women, asking Jacob for his opinions on each of them.  It was in these conversations that Jacob confided in Edward about his brief time with Rachel Thompson and told him that nothing had taken her place.

I hesitate to speak of it, he said.  Because it will seem, no matter how I put it, no matter the words, like a puny thing, all of my own imagining, and nothing that an even a sad and mediocre man would not be over in a matter of days.  My life has been nothing but blessing since then.  As would be obvious to anyone who saw me today – a student in the world’s finest university – riding on this beautiful estate in the confidence of a great man.  But I can’t forget her.  Nothing else has rung the bell for me.  No one else has sung the song.

Edward was not dismissive.  He asked Jacob of Rachel’s present whereabouts and situation and learned that she had married. There he stopped.

On the Monday following Epiphany Jacob was told that dinner would be served in the small dining room.  What this meant was that there would be no guests this evening.  None but Jacob himself.  And the hour would be more relaxed and intimate.  It was during this meal that the duke first addressed himself directly to Jacob.

Mr. Eaton, I am told that you have discovered an interest in art history there at Oxford.

That’s true.  It was the furthest thing from my mind when I took the scholarship.  I had no anticipation of it.  But the atmosphere there is alive with the past.  The ancient past.  A past that has no match or analogue in America.  A thousand years.  Unfathomable to me.  The buildings and the landscapes and the histories are one thing.  All right there in Oxford.  But there is something almost magical about the art.  The paintings and sculptures.  The stained glass. They are not just records of the past or even reminders.  They are more like a breathing piece or remnant of the past.  Something pulled out of another age and set sparkling before you.  It almost sings.

Has Edward shown our galleries to you?

Not yet, father.  It’s been a rather busy time for us so far.

Well, then.  All the better.  Mr. Eaton, are you a man who can keep a confidence?

I’d like to think so.

I have it on good authority that you can.

My authority, said Edward.

Yes.  Otherwise I should never have mentioned a word of this.  Just to start, we have drawings here that Marco Polo carried back from Cathay in the late 13th century.  If the world was told of them we’d have no end of trouble.

The gallery was on the third and highest floor of the mansion.  When he stepped inside Jacob saw walls covered with paintings, some landscapes and battle scenes, both land and sea, on canvases six feet wide.  Larger than life portraits of forebears   Once inside, John Cavendish opened a wide drawer and drew out a portfolio and laid it on a table in the corner of the room.  He took a watercolor from the folder and laid it on the table in front of Jacob.

The watercolor was of a small boat floating either on a quiet sea or a cloud.  The ambiguity was apparently intended.

This is one of my favorites. Lilias Trotter.  Could have been one of the greatest artists England ever produced. But she gave up her artistic career to serve as a missionary to the poorest of the poor in Algeria.  She died there in 1928.  These few watercolors she gave to John Ruskin, the preeminent art critic of the day. He was at first her mentor and then, by my lights, anyway, fell hopelessly in love with her. Couldn’t blame the man. She was a vision of heaven, that woman. Wasn’t having of any of what Ruskin was selling, though. Died a single woman after over 40 years of missionary work. No one knows we have these. No one knows that they exist, outside of this household. But here they are.

He drew two other paintings from the sheaf and laid them before Jacob.  One of the pages, a sketch of a flower, bore a beautifully hand-lettered paragraph in one corner.  John Cavendish held it up and read to Jacob and Edward.

These are her words: ‘Take the very hardest thing in your life – the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot.  Just there he can bring your soul into blossom.  When God delays in filling our little thoughts, it is to have Himself room to work out His great ones.’ Where is the very hardest thing in your life, Mr. Eaton?  Where is the place of most difficulty?

Jacob knew the place.  The single spot in a long, smooth surface where the stylus would catch.  One thing unforgotten and unexplained.  But it was unimaginable to him that anything at all could ever blossom there.  All but his own memory of it had evaporated.  No one – least of all almighty God – would give this passing moment any real substance.  Or even admit it as a place of difficulty.  There was no evidence anywhere to prove or even suggest that something real had happened. And as he contemplated the artist’s words, he believed that this place of difficulty where God might triumph must be one that was ahead of him.

But what lay immediately ahead of him were not matters of inward or outward difficulty.  No indeed.  After his year at Oxford was complete he received word of his acceptance in Yale Law School and in three short years found himself graduating at the top of his class and entering the practice of law as a highly-paid associate of the Wall Street firm Lawrence, Ellis, and Roberts.

copyright 2022

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