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The professor and Louise looked at each other and nodded approvingly.
They were a calm, gracious, dignified couple. The professor still taught a course on Faulkner. He was surprised when I confessed that I had forgotten The Bear. He immediately produced a dog-eared copy. "I'm sure that, as a conservationist, you'll recognize this passage," he said. "Let me refresh your memory. And, if you'll permit me, your drink." The cool of the evening crept over Hidden Springs, and Louise suggested that we move inside by the fire.
Out of nowhere, an elderly man in a heavily starched white serving jacket appeared with a bucket of ice, a bottle of Virginia Gentleman and a silver pitcher filled with good Virginia branch water. He recharged our cups as the professor settled into his University of Virginia captain's chair and began to read aloud.
Now I remembered why I had forgotten The Bear. The professor went on and on and on. He didn't finish with Faulkner until we were ready to be seated for dinner. As we walked into the dining room, a full moon could be seen rising through the triple-sashed windows. In the distance a black Angus could be heard lowing at the Milky Way. The three of us took our places at a table as long as a Faulkner sentence. Another fire was ablaze, and I watched the flames flicker in my crystal wine glass as the professor said grace. Once the meal had been properly blessed, Louise tinkled a little bell. Out came the soup, and I prepared myself to strike. It is a Conservancy strategy to make the pitch right after the soup.
I took another sip of wine. My palate was already tingling with the taste of success. The deal was as good as done.
I was clearing my throat to speak when a cry came from the kitchen. "Professor! Professor! Come quick! We've got ourselves a snake!" Snake? My mouth suddenly went dry.
The professor looked over apologetically. "Please excuse me. The cook seems to be upset about something." He got up from the table and strode purposefully to the kitchen. I smiled at Louise. She smiled back. "It's probably nothing. Cook gets excited over the least little thing. I'm sure my husband can handle it."
I hoped so. I drained my lass and immediately reloaded. I could hear the professor stomping up the cellar stairs and shouting, "Sakes alive! You should see the size of that snake! He must be six feet if he's an inch. I don't believe I've ever seen one quite that big." By now the professor was in the doorway to the dining room with his arms fully outstretched.
I drained my glass again. I had read somewhere that the length of a person's outstretched arms equaled his height, which coincidentally was the length of a fathom. All I could fathom from this scene was that there was one damn big snake downstairs.
Louise and the professor looked expectantly at me. The message was clear. What they didn't have to say was, What luck! We have the biggest snake we've ever seen, right in our own cellar, and here's a professional conservationist to remove it.