More dazed than sensible, I took the cab back to the hotel, which was by now beginning to form its fantastical icicles as a result of the sprays of water from the fire hoses. I lingered only briefly, however, due to the combination of penetrating cold and shock, which had begun to make me shiver in earnest. I went back to my rooms at Worms, where I directed the head boy to make a good fire and to draw a hot bath.
Worms did not then, nor does it now, have private bathrooms within its suites, and so I locked the door to the common bath as I customarily did. The steam had made a cloud upon the cheval mirror, and I wiped away a circle of condensation so that I could just make out my bewildered face. There was a bloody scratch on my cheek I had not known about. I was not accustomed to spending any time in front of the glass, for I did not like to think myself vain, even in private, but that night I tried to imagine how I, as a man, might appear to a woman who had just met me. At that time I was thirty I had a considerable thicket of light brown hair, undistinguished in its color (this will surprise my son, for he has known me for a decade now as only bald), and what is commonly called a barrel chest. That is, I had strength in my body, a body quite out of keeping with my sedentary and intellectual occupations, a strength I could not refine but instead had learned to live with. I do not know that I had ever been called handsome, my excursions to Springfield notwithstanding, for my lips were thickish in the way of my Dutch forebears, and the bone structure of my face was all but lost within the stolid flesh bequeathed to me by generations of burghers. To dispel that somewhat unpleasant image, and to appear more academic, I had cultivated spectacles I did not actually need.
After my inspection, which taught me nothing I did not already know, except perhaps that one cannot hide ones naked emotions as well as one might wish, I lowered myself into water so hot that my submerged skin immediately turned bright pink, as though I had been scalded. The boy, who I knew was angling for an A in "Logic and Rhetoric," had set out a cup of hot cocoa, and I indulged in these innocent pleasures, all the while seeing in my minds eye the form and face of Etna Bliss and feeling anew the exquisite pressure of her arm against my own. Happily, the bath, as a hot soak will often do, produced a drowsiness sufficient to send me off to my bed.
In the morning, I woke in a state of agitation and was forced to complete my toilet in haste and miss breakfast altogether in order not to be late for my first class of the day, "The Romantic Lyric Poets" (Landon and Moore and Clare and so forth). When I arrived at the classroom, I saw that the fire in the stove had gone out for want of tending and that the students sat with their coats still on, their mufflers wrapped round their necks. Though cold, my classroom was not an unpleasant one. The wainscoting had recently been painted white, an inspired touch that lent an illusion of light and air previously denied by the dark walnut paneling so ubiquitous in those rooms. Above the wainscoting were large windows that looked out over the quadrangles elms and sycamores. As one could take in this view only while standing, I often laid my arm upon the deep sills and gazed out as the students wrote their exercises and examinations. That day, of course, the view was severely compromised by the black maw of the hotel and the soot-dirty snow; in any event, I was too distraught to appreciate a view of any kind beautiful or not.
It was immediately obvious that the students attentions were not on their lessons either. The talk was all of the fire, during which I attained some slight celebrity as a result of having actually been present in that ill-fated dining room; and like all good tellers of tales, I perhaps embellished some incidents and details to improve the narrative. I described the ball of fire and the melee that followed.
From All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Company.
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