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Experiment 10

The Last Lecture–

The Last Lecture

In the moment of absolute tranquillity which preceded the shaping of his notes into a neat oblong, the grey-haired man, together with the formidable pile of books surrounding him, composed a rather faded still-life. The picture was completed as the lengthening early evening shadows cast by the adjoining buildings encompassed the room and its contents with a grey shroud, veiling those passing few seconds with a unique timelessness. Professor page 33Wilhelm gave a soundless yawn, stifled the sigh with a gesture, and drew a clay pipe from his pocket. After the third attempt he managed to light the imported tobacco, not because of any lack of dexterity brought about by senility, but because he had still, after forty years' lecturing at the same university, not rid himself of the unforgivable habit of returning dead matches into the box. But eccentricities were generally permitted the academic mind, he mused, and indeed, in some instances this was all they had to offer. Often they would remain known only to the person himself; but Professor Wilhelm was fully aware that the relationship between the parrot in the cage behind him, his clay pipe, and himself, had long been a topic of student conversation. He turned, then, to observe the bird that had been his study companion for so many years and that he had been so regularly identified with. A white cockatoo, it returned his gaze with fitting solemnity, occasionally twitching its head to nuzzle beneath a wing. (Professor Wilhelm had never bothered to name it, but simply referred to it as "parrot" in lighter moods, or, if there were occasion for annoyance when it manifested its hatred of captivity by pecking the Professor's fingers unawares, under a collective name of his own invention, "parratus cockatuus". Sometimes, the Professor queried his motivations, but when he read one morning tea time a newspaper headlining "Bohemian Orgies", he understood himself perfectly.)

This evening, however, the bird was less amiable than it had been for some weeks. Perhaps it was too draughty on the window ledge, thought the Professor. Or perhaps it, too, in its own way, suffered that end-of-term feeling. The breeze had increased in force, yet the bird was surely accustomed to the elements by now. It seemed to enjoy itself even more when in closer contact with the outdoor world, which was why he always left the window open. Perhaps it even enjoyed music; if it did, there was always the periodic entertainment provided by an assortment of bells which could be heard tolling across the town from various carillons and clock towers throughout the day. There was the possibility of releasing the bird, considered Professor Wilhelm, but then again, freedom was often page 34only a matter of acclimatisation to varying restrictions of environment.

Professor Wilhelm took another deliberate draw on his pipe. Turning his back on the parrot, he found himself once more in that familiar position of his, both elbows on the desk, head between hands, and essays to either side, neatly piled according to percentage attained. As he remained motionless, he wondered which of his senses he was most conscious of at that time; whether the steady coolness of hands on cheek, the faint aroma from the smouldering pipe, or the barely registering ticking of the ancient clock on the mantelpiece were receiving more attention than, say, the strain of his eyes focussing on the calendar at the end of the room, and that after a wearying academic year, too.

The Professor laughed. If there were any sensation he was most aware of right then, it was the bitter taste in his mouth of the interview he had just completed in the preceding hour. They had been most polite from the time he entered the office carrying the envelope and, of course, exceedingly diplomatic. What had been most surprising regarding the general aura of bonhomie was that those of the interviewers not from the immediate hierarchy of the university but representing Government interests answerable only to the Prime Minister had treated him with far more respect than he had expected. His colleagues, on the other hand, had been a little objectionable, and were it not for the fact that he wished to preserve a certain show of dignity through to the end, he would have most certainly walked out on the whole party. It had been quite unnecessary the way some of the members of other faculties, and even his own, had insinuated unsavoury behaviour on his part. Besides, many of them were considerably younger than he was, and even if they did not agree with his views, they could at least have respected his age and worthiness to hold them. But in all fairness, it had probably been a distinctly uncomfortable event for all of them, one which they had never participated in before, and this strangeness had perhaps induced certain fears which they took out on him in the form of bad manners.

page 35

The Vice-chancellor had been the most interesting of all. At the beginning of the interview he had said: "Every man has the right to believe in something, provided he is discreet and discerning." This somewhat naive remark could have been deliberately conceived as such, thought the Professor, in order to render him at first antagonistic and later, full of admiration for the philosophical statements that ensued as the interview progressed. Though the interview lasted only one hour, for the Professor it seemed more like a week. The questions were answered with patience, but instead of finishing there, they invariably seemed to open further doorways for new questions to be led into the interminable corridors of cross-examination. Professor Wilhelm remembered thinking during the coffee break (the chairman offered him sugar and cream before the other men) that the whole incident was vaguely surrealistic; but reality was quickly restored when a brief reference was made to his parrot, which slightly offended the Professor. "If it could talk, we'd learn the whole story," had muttered what looked like one of the librarians who was making notes of some kind in shorthand. Professor Wilhelm felt tempted to ask just why he was taking notes and just why he had brought "parratus cockatuus" into the conversation, but it seemed likely that little notice would be taken of him. Besides, a librarian was scarcely expected to know that this particular species of "parratus cockatuus" was incapable of mimicking language.

Before the coffee break finished, a senior lecturer (whom the Professor used to play golf with in undergraduate days) had whispered in his ear: "Don't worry, old chap, it's not you on trial, it's the system." Professor Wilhelm was about to ask what exactly was meant, and whether perhaps his nervous system was endangered, but before he could, the senior lecturer had bobbed behind a curtain of inscrutability, muttering something about his handicap being reduced to twelve. The gathering's atmosphere had almost assumed that of a cocktail party when the chairman rapped a paper knife on the table and called the meeting to order. Professor Wilhelm blinked twice and wiped the sweat from his brow with an embroidered linen handkerchief his wife had ironed that morning. It page 36was hard to believe this was his own country. . . .

. . . "Now where did you say you were born, Professor?"

All in all, it had been quite an extraordinary afternoon, he reflected. Immediately before the interview, one of the students he had assisted in the printing of the pamphlet had stopped him in the corridor. The student looked hot, flushed and a little excitable, for the first time without the usual calmness he had shown during the weeks of preparation of the publication. Whenever the Professor had had occasion to clarify then reinforce the more complex interpretations of their task, and this often met with conflicting opinions, especially from the more dogmatic younger people, this student, maturer than the others and one of his own class, had proved to be an excellent liaison. Although not commanding the admiration and respect of the older man, he was better suited to talking to the other students on their own terms, and was responsible for the snowballing ramifications of the movement throughout the college. What had begun largely as an experiment developed, through him, into something that had the support, directly or indirectly, of most of the undergraduates. Professor Wilhelm's lectures increased in popularity, and it was not an uncommon sight to see students sitting in the aisles during the last term. But Professor Wilhelm was perturbed that the student had stopped him so openly in the corridor to discuss the pamphlet. Already matters had gone too far in that it was now an open secret in most circles as to what was taking place. Apparently, even the impending interview was known to the students involved, for the student asked the Professor what he intended doing, and why he was carrying the envelope. The Professor looked quizzically at the student, in the same way as he had looked quizzically at students for forty years, and paused before replying. He said: "I think I shall just have to talk to them." The student had then reacted quite out of keeping with his character, the Professor recalled. He had hurried off, in the direction of the cafeteria, without another word. But it was the last day of the last term for the year and he had, more than likely, many matters to attend to. . . .

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. . . "We repeat, was the university's printing press used, Professor? And if so, what authority . . ."

Professor Wilhelm could not help but suppress a quiet chuckle as the interviewers stopped to compare notes before their next barrage of questions, for he had often discussed with the students just what would take place if their activities were uncovered. In actual fact, they had never really considered the possibility that the group would be revealed, and it was rather coincidental that it had been, considered Professor Wilhelm, due to the immense loyalty all the students involved had shown him from the very beginning. That, perhaps, would be the salient feature worth remembering. It was difficult to realise that the evenings of furtive meetings in private homes and coffee bars had finished, the meetings where idealism had had to come to terms with practicality, the meetings that had climaxed with the publication of the pamphlet and the headlines in the newspapers. . . .

. . . "The names of the students, what were their names, Professor?"

And it was not until those last few minutes of the interview that Professor Wilhelm perceived how detached he had been throughout. He remembered at one stage holding up the proceedings while he searched for the notes to be delivered in his lecture at five o'clock, which would begin shortly after the interview. The chairman told him that at a time like this he should hardly be thinking of lectures, but the Vice-chancellor reminded the chairman there was a syllabus still to be completed, and that fee-payers were entitled to their full course. . . .

. . . "You realise, of course, Professor, that your appointment here could automatically . . ."

The final proposition was so curious in its presentation and Professor Wilhelm was caught so completely unawares that he evaded the eyes of his colleagues by refuelling his pipe. This operation took a length of time out of all proportion and he wondered whether perhaps the slight shaking of his hands had anything to do with it. He decided to the contrary, because he had knowledge of this trembling for at least a month, and moreover his doctor page 38had attributed it to nothing more than overwork for a man of his age. After elaborating on this diagnosis for far longer than a guinea was customarily worth, the doctor had recommended retirement, but Professor Wilhelm was emphatic in refusing to terminate his career before he had achieved a more complete satisfaction. And ironically, this last statement posed him appeared, on the surface at least, to threaten this very striving for a deeper fulfilment.

Professor Wilhelm bore this potential jeopardy in mind as he addressed the interviewers for the last time. He explained that he finally realised his true place in relation to the university and that, for the time being, he had very little more to say. He said that everything the inquiry should know about was in the envelope, which he laid on the table in front of the Vice-chancellor, first dusting away some ash which had fallen from his pipe. In the time it took him to position the envelope and return to his seat, the Professor was overcome with an urge to address the meeting once more. He wanted to tell them that they were right, that a man's vocational status should not have to be endangered due to an extra-curricular activity indulged in probably more for the sake of a cause than anything else; he wanted to tell them this, and to point out that, as with most group actions, causes could be graded into inferior, mediocre and superior, and that the choosing of a cause was always harder to accomplish than any promulgation of the cause. Eventually, the Professor convinced himself that it was necessary to elucidate his actions. He reached for the envelope again and replaced it in his hip pocket; as he had expected, the room became suddenly silent.

"Did you . . . feel you wanted to add something, Professor Wilhelm?" asked the senior lecturer, swallowing the remains of his sentence with a flavouring of nervousness and embarrassment.

Professor Wilhelm paused. He gazed at a lone fly, obviously sent as an observer, circling and droning above the balding head of one of the Government representatives.

"No," he said, without deliberating. "I've changed my mind." In the long silence that followed, he glanced page 39at the chairman to see whether this met with his approval, but the chairman was busily engaged in testing the edge of the paper-knife on his forefinger and cleaning beneath his thumbnails.

The meeting then appeared to temporarily relapse into the informality of the coffee break. Professors of other faculties, in accordance with the traditions of any peer group, gathered around and congratulated him on his decision. The Vice-chancellor stated that as it was evident the Professor had not reached his conclusions, on what was basically an idealistic issue, without some supreme soul searching, then he could see no reason for further prolonging the inquiry. He mentioned quite affably that it was not, by any means, for this meeting to order or even recommend a suspension, but rather to aid a fellow colleague in distress. The Professor had devoted his lifetime as a servant of his students, contributing both to the social and intellectual development of a university which he was proud of, and which was proud of him. As the Vice-chancellor finished what had almost become a speech, the senior lecturer (whom the Professor used to play golf with in undergraduate days) invited Professor Wilhelm to a match in the weekend, and to bring his wife also, if he felt so inclined.

The paper-knife's scraping on the forefinger ceased.

"Well, then . . . it's only a matter of the envelope?" asked the chairman. A ripple of apologetic laughter floated around the interviewers.

"Yes, it . . . would appear so," smiled the balding Government representative. The fly circled a fraction closer.

Professor Wilhelm took the envelope from his pocket again and replaced it on the table. The interviewers took their places once more and there was instant silence apart from the heavy breathing of the librarian, who had considerably exerted himself in taking down a full, fair and accurate account of the proceedings. The first person to speak was a professor who had instructed at the same university for almost as long as Professor Wilhelm himself, provided sick leave was not taken into account, as page 40his health had failed him nearly as often as he had failed students.

"I propose we carry on in committee," he said, urgently and in one breath. "Begin at the beginning." There was a murmur of assent, but the chairman intervened, ruling that a vote was necessary.

"After all, this is a democracy," agreed the Vice-chancellor, adjusting the gold pin on his wool tie.

Professor Wilhelm sensed the unanimity even before the show of hands. He would have liked to have remained while he was still under discussion, but the interviewers evidently no longer required his presence, and were emphasizing this with a stony silence. He thought it best to leave without protest, as they were obviously preoccupied, and in any case, he had that lecture to deliver in five minutes' time.

Yes, the inquiry had certainly been extremely interesting, thought the Professor, rising from behind his desk and collecting his lecture notes. Perhaps the whole matter would be put down to eccentricity, to join the parrot, the clay pipe and himself. Whatever the outcome, however, he knew that he would be able to rely on the support of the students. There were the few occasions when he had lost his temper and denounced them all in uncontrollable generalities; his wife had usually to bear the brunt of these, countering by deliberately over-boiling his breakfast eggs to channel his anger in another direction. But by the end of the day, and the end of the evening meal, the issues were forgotten, and discarded as easily as the daily newspapers are thrown aside. Oddly, he had found that as the years passed, his tolerance of the younger generations had increased. He vividly recalled his violent reaction in that first year at the university when he arrived at his lecture room to find his delivery gesticulations mimicked by a bearded youth. Actually, the caricature had been quite a clever piece of acting, and later the youth became a successful cabinet minister. My motives could be strictly selfish, wondered Professor Wilhelm. Tolerance by the ageing could conceal a certain patronisation in order to sustain their own youth, even if only in the realm of page 41new ideas and trends; this contrasted sharply with the other type, prominent in Letters to the Editor, but honest in their jealousy. Professor Wilhelm knew that he was constantly learning from his pupils and, in a sense, they had far more to offer him than he had them.

He was about to leave his room then, when he heard the parrot uttering some barely audible, and, in their own way, quaint noises. What was it the librarian had said? "If it could talk, we'd learn the whole story." Yet as soon as Professor Wilhelm set his gaze on its beak, he noticed that its efforts were achieving very little, in spite of the concerted strain. And even if it were successful in self-expression, the Professor was doubtful whether it would ever win an appreciative audience, least of all from its own kind. But then, a bird can express itself in two ways, in song or in flight, said Professor Wilhelm, surprised to hear himself voicing his thought aloud. He opened the cage door and placed the bird on the back of his left hand, and with his right, he levered open the study window. Tentatively, he outstretched his arm until it was level with the window sill. Almost immediately, the bird struggled to rise in flight. The Professor had a preconceived notion that it would not succeed, but nevertheless, he had hoped that a better performance would be given. There was an element of futility in the way in which it beat its wings with no effect. Eventually, it was forced by the wind against the pane that protruded at right-angles to the building. Professor Wilhelm was puzzled, unsure whether to be pleased or not. Gently, he placed the parrot back in the cage.

The easterly outside the university was waning while the Professor hurried down the corridor, as fast as his ageing body would allow him. As he did so, he recollected a friend saying to him at the inquiry that he hoped the university would be able to benefit from many further years of his experience. His reply had been: "No, I will be finishing tonight." This had surprised his colleague, remembered the Professor, but now, as he walked into the lecture hall, with barely the hint of a falter in his stride and as proudly as he had first done so forty years earlier, page 42he knew that, by then, only a few minutes later, it would be obvious to all of them.

Professor Wilhelm put on his glasses and adjusted the notes on the reading stand. Reaching for the light switch, he laughed wryly to himself. It would have all been far more worthwhile to have seen their faces when they emptied the few grams of bird seed from tbe envelope, he thought. But still, it was a pity that "parratus cockatuus" had to go hungry tonight. Nevertheless, there were other matters to attend to, and if there were one thing the Professor was emphatic about, it was the methodical planning of his lectures. Fundamentally, he knew they were not creative, being merely contrived orations based on someone else's ideas; yet in a sense, they were true for him. He could not describe that indefinable impulse he felt swelling inside him halfway through a lecture, when he knew that what he was trying to say was winning a response. This end product was a reward in itself, but each section of the process had to be dealt with in turn, and so the Professor decided to repress everything pertaining to the interview from his mind, and to concentrate solely on the delivery of the lecture. His only hope was that the afternoon's incidents would not in any way affect this, for what value the pamphlet if it meant the failure of even one hour of his profession?

In an instant, he sensed that something was wrong. He looked up from his notes and saw, to his surprise, that the lecture hall was empty. He found this rather hard to understand, for only that afternoon, before the interview, he had spoken to the student who was in his own class. He took out his diary and checked to see whether the faculty had closed the day before, but there the entry was, pencilled in, and in his own awkward handwriting. He remembered the student had asked him what he was going to do and he had replied: "I shall just have to talk to them." There was the vague possibility that this had been misinterpreted, but it was hardly likely. He had known them all too well for there to be the remotest chance of that happening. Moreover, it was particularly unfair of him to think that, frowned the Professor; none of them was present to defend himself on such a cruel charge. page 43Either they genuinely believed the term had already concluded or, more probably, he himself had misinformed them with a slip of the tongue the day before. Still, it was a pity that none of them, even some of the older students whom he had come to know as closely as it was academically possible, was present, for he had planned on making the last lecture his finest effort.

And he knew it was the last lecture because, straining his eyes, he could now make out the two men who had entered quietly, pausing at the back entrance to light cigarettes. The balding one coughed artificially. It would be rather naive of me to think they were here for higher learning, thought the Professor, admitting, however, that it did first briefly occur to him. They approached nearer, appearing slightly out of place in the lecture hall. Middle-aged and pleasant featured, they slowed respectfully, allowing him time to regather his notes and return the diary to his pocket.

Professor Wilhelm turned off the light switch above the reading stand: somewhere, he could hear a bell tolling.