Five A, 5B, 5C, 5E, 5F: where was 5D? I had checked every seminar room on the fifth floor of Widener Library a zillion times. No 5D. I'd begun to think it lived in an alternate universe, restricted to the talented few like Avalon in the Arthurian legends and hidden from the uninitiated--meaning me.
I had no idea where I'd gone wrong. In eighteen months at Harvard, I'd never had this much trouble finding a seminar room. In fact, I rather prided myself on my ability to navigate the campus. Yet here I stood, facing the possibility of arriving late to my graduate seminar on the French Revolution. Which wouldn't matter except that it threatened to sink me with David Houghton, the professor I wanted to supervise my doctoral dissertation. David had built a career on studying the psychology of committed revolutionaries--exactly the area where I planned to specialize. He'd also made no bones about having more students than he could handle. And since I had no less than four potential competitors for any remaining slots in his roster, I preferred not to grease the skids under myself by failing to show up on time.
To make matters worse, my feet hurt. I had bought my black fake-leather pumps two-for-one at Fantastic Footwear, since my usual thrift-shop forays didn't include shoes. Now I knew why the store put them on sale: they had an evil buttoned strap perfectly positioned to rub the bone above my big toe raw. A grad student income doesn't include funds for Manolo Blahniks, although I suspected that, if I could afford them, they might prove no more comfortable than my Hot Pincers.
My woes didn't stop there. The dust of century-old books made me sneeze, and my backpack had carved a permanent furrow into my left shoulder. I kept trying to shift it to the right, but it was one of the ergonomically correct one-strap sort that aligned to one shoulder or the other. Guaranteed to turn anyone into a hunchback. I imagined myself as Shakespeare's Richard III, doomed to limp around the fifth floor until I dried up and mingled with the dust on the shelves. In the distance I saw David's head clear the stairwell.
My heart accelerated, and with it my breath. A hollow cough alternated with the sneezes. I ordered myself to calm down. Obviously, I had located the general area where I was supposed to be. In a pinch, I could follow David there. So what if he held my tardiness against me? If he refused to accept me as his student, I could work with someone else. Not on the French Revolution, but on something. Turkish peasants, maybe. Sure, I wanted to know about the Jacobins, but I could adjust. No one would send me to the guillotine for arriving late to class.
Besides, I was exaggerating. David wouldn’t turn me down for such petty reasons. Would he?
Clued in by the direction of David’s footsteps, I spotted a tiny corridor that had escaped notice during my first sixty rounds and made a beeline for it. When I reached it, I discovered an index card, yellowed with age, bearing the notation 5D, with an arrow, in old-fashioned fountain pen. As I limped down the hallway, subdued voices guided me. I stumbled into the right room just as the campus clock chimed two. The usual library seminar room: one large oval-shaped table, a bunch of chairs, lights, and a white board topped with a tube that might hold maps. Not even a window opening onto Harvard Yard.
Four students looked up, startled by the clamor I created as I crashed through the door. Two thoughts darted through my head at the same time. One, they had found the place without trouble. Two, did I look as wild-eyed, shaggy-haired, and dirt-strewn as I felt? I headed toward the only other woman in the group: Suzanne Henderson, a cute brunette whom some people would describe as my opposite number. Whereas I spent my time trying to figure out what drove people to commit to a life based on violence, Suzanne focused on the victims. Specifically, she had an interest in the French noblewomen whose lives the revolution destroyed, who wound up penniless and often friendless in England, Austria, and elsewhere. After three semesters of shared classes, she was also the closest thing I had to a friend. She’d tell me if I resembled something the cat dragged in.
On either side of her sat Simon Gray and Tony Kent. Simon played football, although not well enough for him to attend some Midwestern school instead of quarterbacking our pathetic excuse for a team. Dark brown hair, gray eyes, solid, the kind of muscles you’d expect from a football player, big but not linebacker enormous. He and Suzanne had arrived at the same time, already a couple. I liked Simon, although I found it hard to imagine what he and Suzanne talked about. He had a gift for picking the kind of research topic that makes people think academics don’t quite connect to the real world: crop failures that affected some itsy-bitsy village in the middle of nowhere from 1734 to 1736; age at marriage in Provence before and after the Fronde; the long-term impact of silk factories on shepherds—you get the picture. If Suzanne worried me to the extent that I doubted David would want to take us both on, Simon bothered me because if David succumbed to the lure of shepherds, I figured I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in the Inferno.
Tony—medium height and build, super-smart, African-American—tapped the conference table in front of him with long musician fingers. Marking rhythms for his next cello concert, I guessed. Or for the revolutionary songs that were his chosen area of specialization. “Ça Ira,” “La Marseillaise”—Tony had a bottomless store of anecdotes about where they came from and how people used them to mobilize the poor. He was younger than the rest of us, but so knowledgeable and focused he seemed older than his true age. Under present circumstances, I had to consider him something of a triple threat.
That left Ian Campbell, my personal bête noire, although no one would think it to look at him. To reach Suzanne, I squeezed past him. Ian was very tall, with chestnut hair, hazel eyes, a mild expression, a charming smile that he didn’t often show, and a hint of Scots accent even though he insisted he came from Chicago. Whereas Tony had squeaked past twenty-three last month, Ian had twenty-eight years under his belt, four more than I do.
That extra experience gave him a self-assurance I couldn’t match. It had attracted me at first, before I tried and failed to get him to confide two words about his past. Since then, I’d gone out of my way to avoid him, only to discover that the structure of the Harvard history department made that impossible. He appeared in every class, excelled at every assignment, aced every exam. Naturally, I detested him. He even had the best-developed and most interesting dissertation topic: he wanted to learn more about the bystanders—conservatives, revolutionaries, ordinary citizens, whoever. If they played both sides, “spoke Jacobin” (to borrow a phrase) while retaining their previous loyalties, or just ducked under the radar, Ian yearned to find out what made them tick. An idea so appealing I wished I had thought of it first.
And unless David had developed a mad yen for crop failures, he would pick Ian for sure, leaving the rest of us, as usual, fighting not to end up in the cold. Another reason Ian and I did not get along.
“Hello, Ninel,” he said as I pushed by. “Nice stockings.”
Determined not to let him rattle me, I suppressed a groan. I hate my full name, imposed courtesy of my dyed-in-the-red-wool grandmother in memory of a certain famous Bolshevik (read it backwards). Other than Babushka herself, no one but Ian ignored my preference for Nina. And my leggings, until the library covered them in dust, had been a precious find at the campus rummage sale, held outside Memorial Church last month. Candy striped, like the ones you see on Christmas elves, hence in tune with my sweater (pine trees). A little off-season for February, but Boston, winter, dull snow-laden day—it worked. I had worn the leggings to give myself confidence. Now Ian Campbell made them seem garish.
“Thanks,” I said, for lack of a brilliant comeback. Suzanne smiled in sympathy and patted the chair on her far side. “Do I look like a scarecrow?” I whispered as I slid onto the seat between her and Tony. She shook her head.
I’d skidded in just in time. The minute I stuffed my too-loud leggings under the table, David arrived. “Glad you could make it, Nina,” he said by way of greeting. “Busy day?”
Drat. He’d seen me scurrying down the hallway—hobbled by the evil shoes. I hadn’t gotten away with anything. But excuses wouldn’t help me, so I bit my tongue and waited while he settled himself at the head of the table.
I should explain that David was in his early thirties. That’s why we used his first name. A prodigy, he’d made his reputation even before he earned his doctorate. Brilliant, quirky, innovative. The bright young star in French revolutionary studies. Also outrageously handsome—dark, slender, blue-eyed, medium height—and blessed with one of those plummy English accents that make everyone sound like Lord Peter Wimsey. Harvard had lured him from across the Pond, offering tenure and freedom from the UK’s routine assessments of faculty progress, and he’d been inundated with student requests since he arrived last fall. This was my first course with him. Of course, I knew not to get moony over a professor. But if I were to lose it, David Houghton would be worth the sacrifice. As he studied us, I had to work to keep my jaw in line.
He sat at the head of the table, pulled out a piece of paper, and called our names. “Pennington” didn’t normally put me last, but this class was the exception. “Very well,” David said. “Everyone’s here. Before we start, I want you to understand something. All five of you have requested that I supervise your doctoral dissertations. I already have fifteen students, and with only so many hours in the day, I can’t accept five more. So this course will, in a sense, determine your fate. The two students who come out on top—I’ll explain what that means in a moment—will work with me. The rest need to find other advisers. The course centers on a computer simulation based on The Scarlet Pimpernel—”