(THE BLUE HALLS second segment)
Connor Philips Buckminster III was in every way a natural victim, with round pudgy face and folds of soft flesh overflowing a worn leather belt cinched too tight, the excess dangling over khaki trousers creased in various planes unintended by any manufacturer, smudged with grey-brown matter best left unidentified. He had round, earnest eyes in a chubby cheeked face. Connor was a crab without a shell, a defenseless creature formed by ten years of coddling now abandoned in a sea of predators. He was one of those the school termed an “Old Boy”, whose father attended the school in his own youth and held to the believe the rigors of boarding school life had “done him good” and would ultimately send his own son “down the right road”. C.P. Buckminster II was made of sterner stuff than C.P. Buckminster III, however–a trait that bypassed his son.
Connor was housed in the Old Building in a huge cavern of a room appropriately nicknamed The Cave. He shared this space with thirteen other ten and eleven-year-old boys, each assigned a cubicle sectioned off from the next by a thin wood panel, in appearance not so much individual rooms as kennels. The ceiling soared high above; the tops of the divider panels fell short by several feet, the resulting open space a conveyor of every small sound. A sliding curtain across the front of each compartment was the extent of privacy. This arrangement of seven stalls each side left a wide common space, an expanse of hardwood floor that reverberated drum-like with each tap of a small hard-heeled shoe. At lights out, The Cave resembled nothing less than a field of ground squirrels, heads poked out from behind curtains, small bodies scurrying from one hole to the next when the master’s attention was elsewhere. The man assigned to oversee this menagerie was out of his depth. Tall, spare, with tight curls springing from his head as if in a state of continual fright, George Gardner wore the visage of a hunted man. Before the first month was out the corner of his mouth had begun to twitch involuntarily. His eyes darted here and there as if perpetually seeking an avenue of escape, his entire countenance took on a searching, haunted look.
Young Connor was my guitar student. Every Thursday evening at 7:30 pm without fail he excused himself from Study hall and by 7:31 his footfalls sounded on the stairs, accompanied by a series of thuds as his over large guitar case slapped against the wall in the narrow confines of the stairwell. The boy’s parents, traveling through Greece at the time, bid me teach their son to play classical guitar. Connor, however, was desperate to learn a more modern piece in an attempt to impress his dorm mates. A compromise was reached; if he practiced his fingering during the week and attended to classical studies during the first part of our lesson, we would work on a piece of his choosing during the final ten minutes. It was during this more relaxed portion of his lesson we often chatted and the thread of the conversation sometimes led to matters other than music.
During one such moment Connor paused in the attempt to stretch pudgy fingers beyond their capacity on the wide fingerboard and looked up at me. “Mr. Tasker,” he asked, “what are the Blue Halls? Why can’t we go there?”
In truth, I had often wondered this myself. Among the subterranean corridors located in the murky depths of the Old Building, the Blue Halls were notorious. These passages were declared off limits at all times, not just during evening hours. The Headmaster had raised the issue at the very first pre-session faculty meeting. “There is really no reason for a child ever to go there,” he declared. “Please be vigilant to this rule.” During the first weeks of school that followed, I heard the name Blue Halls whispered about from time to time, usually among old students; I learned of double dares to go there at night, heard fragments of dramatic stories about them ranging from children disappearing forever to dreadful apparitions appearing suddenly––all originating with the tale teller, I had no doubt, as young men of that age are prone to creating wonderful tales.
The night I was to teach my first lesson in the tiny below-stairs studio, Mr. Porthall, the administrator in charge of evening study hall, claimed the seat next to me at the Headmistress’s Coffee Hour, which took place in the faculty lounge every evening after dinner. He was a large man, soft and wide, with permanently pursed lips, which along with his wide button eyes tended to establish on his face an expression of constant incredulity.
“Mr. Tasker,” he said, fixing me with a stern look, “I believe you are aware our boarders are not to use the Blue Halls under any circumstances.” He emphasized his words with a light tap of a long finger on my arm. “Please remind your students to pass to and from the study hall by the upper passageway. They will receive instructions from me to that effect each time they depart the study hall to report to your studio.”
I agreed to this, having no reason for dissent, yet found the request, and the man’s insistence upon it, somewhat puzzling. I understood the administrative concern for safety, efficiency of passage, and best use of the boys’ time. Certainly wandering about corridors when one ought to be studying should be discouraged. But why the Blue halls, in particular, I wondered? There were many passageways in the Old Building; several, to my mind, a good deal darker and more prone to a possibility of accident than the Blue Halls, from the little I had seen of them. Yet no other out-of-bounds area was ever mentioned with such frequency.
As a responsive and responsible faculty member, however, and a new one at that, it was not my place to raise the question and I therefore obediently recited the appropriate mantra at the end of each of my lessons, and as each boy departed listened for his footsteps to thump up the stairs in the acceptable direction.