Ash Wednesday Eve, 1905
Fellow historians will be shocked, dismayed, and perhaps incredulous — I am daring to suggest that the Curse did not first manifest itself on June 4, 1905, which was the disastrous morning of Annabel Slade's wedding, and generally acknowledged to be the initial public manifestation of the Curse, but rather earlier, in the late winter of the year, on the eve of Ash Wednesday in early March.
This was the evening of Woodrow Wilson's (clandestine) visit to his longtime mentor Winslow Slade, but also the evening of the day when Woodrow Wilson experienced a considerable shock to his sense of family, indeed racial identity.
Innocently it began: at Nassau Hall, in the president's office, with a visit from a young seminarian named Yaeger Washington Ruggles who had also been employed as Latin preceptor at the university, to assist in the instruction of undergraduates. (Intent upon reforming the quality of education at Princeton, with its reputation as a Southern-biased, largely Presbyterian boys' school set beside which its rival Harvard University was a paradigm of academic excellence, Woodrow Wilson had initiated a new pedagogy in which bright young men were hired to assist older professors in their lecture courses; Yaeger Ruggles was one of these young preceptors, popular in the better homes of Princeton as at the university, as eligible bachelors are likely to be in a university town.) Yaeger Ruggles was a slender, slight, soft-spoken fellow Virginian, a distant cousin of Wilson's who had introduced himself to the university president after he'd enrolled in his first year at the Princeton Theological Seminary; Wilson had personally hired him to be a preceptor, impressed with his courtesy, bearing, and intelligence. At their first meeting, Yaeger Ruggles had brought with him a letter from an elderly aunt, living in Roanoke, herself a cousin of Wilson's father's aunt. This web of intricate connections was very Southern; despite the fact that Woodrow Wilson's branch of the family was clearly more affluent, and more socially prominent than Yaeger Ruggles's family, who dwelt largely in the mountainous area west of Roanoke, Woodrow Wilson had made an effort to befriend the young man, inviting him to the larger receptions and soirees at his home, and introducing him to the sons and daughters of his well-to-do Princeton associates and neighbors. Though older than Ruggles by more than twenty years, Woodrow Wilson saw in his young kinsman something of himself, at an earlier age when he'd been a law student in Virginia with an abiding interest in theology. (Woodrow Wilson was the son of a preeminent Presbyterian minister who'd been a chaplain for the Confederate Army; his maternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in Rome, Georgia, also a staunch religious and political conservative.) At the time of Yaeger Ruggles's visit to President Wilson, in his office in Nassau Hall, the two had been acquainted for more than two years. Woodrow Wilson had not seen so much of his young relative as he'd wished, for his Princeton social life had to be spent in cultivating the rich and influential. "A private college requires donors. Tuition alone is inadequate" — so Woodrow Wilson said often, in speeches as in private conversations. He did regret not seeing more of Yaeger, for he had but three daughters and no son; and now, with his wife's chronic ill health, that had become a sort of malaise of the spirit, as well as her advancing age, it was not likely that Woodrow would ever have a son. Yaeger's warm dark intelligent eyes invariably moved Woodrow to an indefinable emotion, with the intensity of memory. His hair was very dark, as Woodrow's had once been, but thick and springy, where Woodrow's was rather thin, combed flat against his head. And there was something thrilling about the young man's softly modulated baritone voice also, that seemed to remind Wilson of a beloved voice or voices of his childhood in Virginia and Georgia. It had been a wild impulse of Woodrow's — (since childhood in his rigid Presbyterian household, Woodrow had been prone to near-irresistible urges and impulses of every kind, to which he'd rarely given in) — to begin singing in Yaeger's presence, that the younger man might join him; for Woodrow had loved his college glee clubs, and liked to think that he had a passably fair tenor voice, if untrained and, in recent years, unused.
But it would be a Protestant hymn Woodrow would sing with Yaeger, something melancholy, mournful, yearning, and deliciously submissive — Rock of Ages, cleft for me! Let me hide myself in Thee! Let the water and the blood, that thy wounded side did flow . . .
Woodrow had not yet heard Yaeger speak in public, but he'd predicted, in Princeton
circles, and to the very dean of the seminary himself, that his young "Virginian cousin" would one day be an excellent minister — at which time, Woodrow wryly thought, Yaeger too would understand the value of cultivating the wealthy at the expense of one's own predilections.
But this afternoon, Yaeger Washington Ruggles was not so composed as he usually was. He appeared to be short of breath, as if he'd bounded up the stone steps of Nassau Hall; he did not smile so readily and so sympathetically as he usually did. Nor was his hurried handshake so firm, or so warm. Woodrow saw with a pang of displeasure — (for it pained him, to feel even an inward rebuke of anyone whom he liked) — that the seminarian's shirt collar was open at his throat, as if, in an effort to breathe, he'd unconsciously tugged at it; he had not shaved fastidiously and his skin, ordinarily of a more healthy tone than Woodrow's own, seemed darkened as by a shadow.
From The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright 2013 by Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing.