Harry Copeland is a soldier, home from the war but still haunted by its shadows. Catherine Hale is an heiress — and also an aspiring Broadway actress. Harry sees her from afar one fateful spring day in 1947, as they both board the Staten Island Ferry, kicking off a sprawling and enchanting tale of love, honor and terrible danger — because whatever Catherine comes to feel for Harry, she's not free to love him. In this excerpt, Harry begins his campaign for Catherine's heart. In Sunlight and In Shadow will be published Oct. 2
PARENTS' ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
hide captionMark Helprin's previous books include A Soldier of the Great War and Winter's Tale.
Mark Helprin's previous books include A Soldier of the Great War and Winter's Tale.
The very second he turned north on Seventh Avenue, though he was still in the garment district and had to take care not to be battered by high-velocity clothing racks, everything changed to the world of the theater — a world that, though not part of it, he and so many others knew almost as much as their own. It was theater's task as it portrayed its audiences to make them its intimates, and it succeeded so well that just the turning of a corner and moving in anticipation toward Times Square made him see differently. In the many ugly buildings, behind garish marquees, on narrow, undistinguished streets, worlds were in production, plays that when they opened were like new life and when they closed were like death.
When Catherine had told him, on the phone, that she was an actress rehearsing in a musical destined for Broadway, he was surprised. Although he knew little about her, it seemed that she was the kind of person who would not have been an actress. He suspected that though she was now poor, as she had intimated more than once, she had at one time been of a class that could look down upon a lot of things, and that, therefore, for her to have entered the theater would mean that she must have a transcendent understanding of dignity and was directed by a strong sense of what was real. For the poetry of the theater was that by indirection it found directions out, that with the conflagration of artifice and insincerity it generated a coherent light in which were held truths that can elude even the light of day. People who were comfortable and long established, or wanted to be, often did not understand this. But now, despite her well-spokenness and aristocratic bearing, she may have been forced to it. Perhaps her family had lost everything in the Crash and the Depression. If he could help her, he would. If he could give her security and provide for her, he would. If he could give her everything, he would. He already loved her.
He arrived at the stage door an hour early, because the time he spent at the loft had not passed quickly and because of that he had left before he might have. "Is this the rehearsal for Homecoming?" he asked the doorkeeper, a man who looked at anyone who asked any question to which he himself knew the answer as if that person were an idiot for asking a question the answer to which was already known.
"Miss Sedley?" Harry could hear the music coming from within. As it was being coaxed into shape it stopped and started in a way that audiences never know.
"I'm supposed to meet her," he said.
"I just wanted to know."
"So you would know that I'm supposed to be here. I'm supposed to meet her at six."
"I know." He was getting uncomfortable.
"You're going to stand here for an hour? Why not go get a hot dog?"
"I don't want a hot dog. We're going to have dinner."
As Harry passed him, he heard the doorkeeper say "Stupid!" under his breath. It was okay, for the doorkeeper now had the satisfaction that would enable him to get through the rest of the day and go back to his grave in the Bronx, and it hadn't cost Harry a thing.
The drawing room had been raised to clear the stage for the maneuvers of a chorus, and in semi-darkness, illuminated in the absence of scenery only by the stage lights reflecting from the boards and the players, he found a seat in the back and sat down unnoticed. Five minutes after he had settled in, the director commanded that Catherine do the song that just a day before she had accomplished with such stunning perfection. She appeared, rouged and lit as if the production had really made it to Broadway, which, in fact, this was. They rehearsed in makeup so as not to be disturbed by it later. Harry figured this out, having often been told to "train like you fight."
The music began. First it was a short, deep bow from the string section, and then it rhythmically took to the waves. But it would recede, leaving Catherine's voice alone to fill the theater and arrest every onlooker. Twelve beats after her introduction, she began to sing. On-stage, the light, the color, and her song exaggerated her presence almost beyond belief. And though he knew that her speaking voice was beautiful, when she had spoken to him she had not been singing. Her voice was so trained that it was able to carry throughout the theater the deepest emotion and truth, powerfully and yet gently, her enunciation clear, silken, and strong. On occasion she lessened the clarity and misted her expression, only to go back into the clear, which gave her a range for which musicology had yet to come up with a name, for there was no term for the glory within reach only of a woman's voice.
It said so much about her that could not be said in words, that he was battered. Until now he had been in love because he had been infatuated, entranced by her manner and appearance, excited by her presence, drawn to her by invisible attractions. Until now it had made perfect sense, for she was interesting and alluring. But now she took him far beyond sense. Her voice — its quality, its clarity despite the frequent mistiness of slightly offset double notes riding together, like the complex sounds of distant breaking waves — led far beyond her, enlarging her worth and depth by its embrace of seemingly all things. Her voice summoned and fused images in their thousands: memories, colors, views, other songs, fading light, blooming trees swaying in sunshine and wind. It united past, present, and future, limning and lighting faces and souls, their expressions carried forth over time, holding them as long as it could until they would vanish except for a remnant in the exhausted air, almost invisible, like smoke that hangs over a valley until the winds passing above pull it after them and it disappears. And when this knitting together of all things was gone, what was left was Catherine, the source and spring of life itself — daughter, wife, mother — to be loved and treasured above all else.
In the perfection of her song, by the voice that sprang from her, speaking words as he had never heard them spoken, he now loved her as he had never known he could love. He might never see her again, and decades might pass, yet he would love her indelibly, catastrophically, and forever. If half a century later he were alive, he would remember this song as the moment in which all such things were settled and beyond which he could not go. As she sang, and he understood that he loved her as he had never loved anyone in his life, he was almost frightened, because he knew that actresses and singers have such an effect quite commonly, and that most often it simply comes to nothing.
Then hers was subsumed in the voices of others. She sang in a higher range when she sang with them, and when their feet hit the boards in unison, precisely striking and precisely lifting in the glare of the spotlights, it was electric. With the help of the chorus, the deep emotion of her song had become celebration.
"Stop!" the director shouted. As if in midair, they stopped, mortal again, silent. "I want to break up this line so it doesn't look like the goddamned Rockettes." He turned to the choreographer. "Can't that be done?"
"We can do it in three," the choreographer answered immediately. "That way it's not symmetrical, and the eye won't be frozen. Someone looking on will always feel that it's out of balance, so it'll seem to be that much more in motion."
"Two parts stage right, one left?"
"It would have to be, because the pillars of Penn Station will be stage left."
"It's better that way, isn't it?"
"Yes," said the choreographer, "I think so."
"Where should Catherine be, in the center of the middle line?"
The choreographer ascended to the stage. He was as thin as a thread. "Divide up," he said, directing with his hands, and when he had marched them into position he looked at Catherine, who had remained standing, as straight as a column, stunning in the light.
"Catherine, why don't you take the left position in the middle line." She walked over and linked arms with a young man who seemed not to notice. "That's great. You become the center point, no matter how much you move." He turned to the director, though because of the lights he could hardly see him. "How about that?"
"Let's try it," the director said.
"From Catherine's song?" the conductor asked, twisting his body so he could get his question across clearly.
"No," said the director, "from the end of Catherine's song. We don't need to do her song again. Her song is just right."
The conductor raised his wand, and off they went in the sharp white light. As actors have always known, though a show may be perfect and triumphant, rehearsals, less than perfect but closer to the heart, are better.
She was standing in front of the theater, near but apart from a small line at the box office, where people who had been unable to get tickets for musicals were unenthusiastically buying them for the physics play. Now dressed more for dinner than the beach, she was in an elegant gray silk top lightly gathered at the neckline, with two ribboned panels hanging down from the collar at her left, and a pleated skirt of matching gray, which was shorter than the fashion of the moment and made him think of the twenties, in the latter years of which he had been an adolescent newly intoxicated with women. No more an adolescent, he had a great deal of self-control and was used to disappointment, so he knew or at least believed that no matter how much he might be knocked akilter by her he would not reveal it, which is not to say that he would not feel it.
Even for an actress, she showed a great deal of leg in the soft, light wool skirt that, because it was classically tailored, was enjoying a long run and had survived the fashions of the times. After she had left the stage and gone to change and to remove her makeup, he had walked around the block. He was a minute or two late, knowing that one could always safely be that late when meeting a well dressed woman, because she wouldn't have a watch or it would be too small to fit the blazes for minutes. Coming from the west, he saw her in profile, her posture undiminished, as straight and strong as he had remembered it, her face, though lit harshly by the lesser lights of the marquee, both gorgeous and thoughtful, and her legs as smooth as Jean Harlow's pajamas. How lovely that the woman with whom he was so deeply in love was also so sexually exciting.
She seemed agitated and displeased, but when he stopped at her left and she turned to him, her dark mood simply faded. He sensed that this was involuntary, and had broken her determination to be grave. Her eyes showed that though she may have decided to reject him, as long as he was in her presence she could not. Why she was torn so early on he could and did not imagine, but, like her, he brightened at the instant they met. "Hello," he said. Even in heels, she was somewhat shorter than he, and she looked up at him, thus softening her posture and her stance, so that she seemed very young. He had thought that she was in her late twenties and still youthful in many respects, but she was very womanly and had not struck him as girlish until this moment.
She was about to speak, but then, late like Harry, the church bells in Clinton rang out from the west and the full lighting of the marquee went on, with the sound of the relays — metal thrown against metal — in counterpoint to the bells, the electric currents fusing with a knock. It seemed strange, because the sun was fairly high in the sky. Her greeting displaced by sound and light, she stared at him and asked, "What happened to your eye?"
A long cut traversed almost the entire length of his left eyelid. It had begun to heal, but, unlike most wounds of that size, it was still red. "From a machine," he said.
"What kind of machine?"
"A leather punch, a kind of stamping machine."
"Did you put your head in it?"
"I was changing the belt. It snapped and whipped across my eye. Another eighth of an inch and we could go to a pirate restaurant."
"When did this happen?"
"Friday after we met. I wasn't paying attention."
He wanted to kiss her right there as she stood in the middle of the sidewalk. He wanted to draw her to him, to feel her body through the silk, and he thought that she would have let him, and that she would have kissed him back with the same urgency and heat, but he dared not, and instead just let it wash over him. An inimitable pressure would build up until the slightest touch, or even its imagination, would echo throughout his body and hers, blinding them to the practical.
Though they hardly knew it, they were already walking east. "I'm used to it," he said, coming back to the cut over his eye.
"How so?" She had no idea where they were going, and neither did he.
"In the war."
"Did you work in a factory?"
"A factory in its way, the Eighty-second Airborne, though I was often detached and sent to other formations. The cuts, abrasions, minor contusions . . . were continuous."
"Branches snapping back, not only when you parachute into trees or brush, but in moving across country. Under fire, you move when and where you have to. You don't notice things like brambles. And if there's gunfire directed at you, you throw yourself into all kinds of places without knowing where you're going to land. But that's not the half of it. Breaking windows, making cover, loading and unjamming weapons, attaching winches and trailers, fixing recalcitrant jeeps, pulling them out of the mud." He stopped and turned to her. "Shaving with a safety-razor blade held between the fingers. When bullets hit walls, rock, or stony ground, lots of little particles zing around. Mainly they sting, but sometimes they draw blood. Oh, and then there are animal bites, sheet metal cuts, trying to move around in the dark in places you've never been."
"What about bullets?" she asked.
"Well," he said, bashfully, it seemed to her, "those, too."
"Where are we going?" she asked, as if disenchanted with his catalog of minor wounds. He felt that his list had put her off, that he had sounded boorish and boastful, and, worse, that he was talking at her, which hurt him more than the little wounds.
"I know a lot of restaurants that were good, anyway, before the war, but they're closed on Monday. The French ones, that is."
"It doesn't have to be French," she told him. "It doesn't have to be fancy. I really can't afford that."
"I'll pay," he said. Of course he would pay. The man always paid.
"Not for me" was her reply.
"There's a reason," she said.
"I know," he answered. "I have to tell you about it."
"You have to tell me?"
"When we sit down."
She was puzzled. "Okay," she agreed, "but where?"
"There's a place in the Twenties between Fifth and Sixth that's open Mondays. Their specialty is fish (which they pronounce fis) grilled on charcoal." She wanted to go there. "Shall we walk or take the bus?"
They were at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, and at that instant a double-decker pulled up to them and opened its doors with the sound that seals make at the zoo when their keeper arrives with a bucket of squid. Catherine leapt onto the steps and was up the spiral staircase and out of sight before the doors closed. He paid and followed.
Appropriately for a couple that had come on together and would leave together, they sat next to one another. Their thighs were close enough so that when the bus occasionally lurched from side to side they touched, and for both of them this was enough to erase the previous awkward moments. Each touch, she felt, was as powerful as two shots of gin.
"What did you do in the war?" he asked, his gaze fixed on the side of her face as she deliberately looked ahead. He had misjudged her age: the construction of her face was such that, even when she was fifty, she would look thirty-five.
"I went to college. Other than rolling bandages and giving blood, I didn't do much for the war effort."
"That's okay," he said. "The war effort was for you. We were fighting for you."
"For me and not democracy?" she asked archly.
"I never met anyone who fought for anything but the flesh and blood of the living and the honor of the dead."
"What about the Atlantic Charter?"
"Who the hell knew or cared about that?"
"I just wish I could have done more," she told him.
"By your existence, you did more than enough."
"You're a flatterer," she said, half accusingly.
"No, I'm not" was his answer.
"You don't know me."
"Yes I do," he said. "I know you very well. And you know me."
Early on a Monday, the restaurant was nearly empty. As they waited to be escorted to the terrace, it was the first time they had been together in a small, quiet room. Until then, it had been in the open air, or the automat, which was noisy and busy, with a forty-foot ceiling and whirling fans. Here it was almost silent, the air still. Standing next to Catherine, Harry breathed in. Catherine often smelled like a good department store: new cloth, expensive perfume, fresh air, and, when she carried a purse, fine leather. And when at times, which he would come to know, she would have a gin and tonic, the scent of juniper coming from her lips was far more intoxicating than the alcohol. He wondered if women understood that their apparently insignificant attributes often have a power greater than that of armies. It was what he had meant when he had said that the war had been fought for her. Like the atom, which in its internal bonds contains the essence of matter and energy, in her glance, the sparkle of her eye, the grasp of her hand, the elasticity of her hair in motion, the way she stands, the blush of her cheek, sweep of her shoulder, tone of her voice, and snap of her locket, a woman is the spur and essence of existence.
They sat at a table in the garden, opposite a long brazier from which a fire cast up white smoke. Sometimes the wind blew the smoke around them before it rose. When this happened, and they were enveloped until they could barely see one another, they couldn't stop laughing, because sitting in a restaurant was not supposed to replicate the experience of being trapped in a burning building. Immediately when they had come in, the maitre d' and waiters had sized them up and judged that they were just beginning a love affair. The staff knew to keep out of sight even if the couple would be locked in one another's gaze, pay no attention to anyone else, and stay for hours, and even if the tip, either fantastically large or fantastically small, was anyone's guess, because such couples almost always handled money unmindfully.
Bread, olives, a dish of olive oil, a bottle of mineral water, and a bottle of retsina were brought to the table. In a heavy Greek accent, the waiter who put them down said, "In how many minutes — hours?
— tsall I come back to take your order?" Harry looked at Catherine, who merely smiled, and he said, "Twenty." "Minutes or hours?" the waiter asked, knowingly. Harry didn't answer. "If you want sooner, call me."
After he left, he came charging back, beginning to speak as he was halfway across the flagstones. "Forgot. Spessal dinner tonight. Oktopadi on grill, kotopolou fornu, salat, very good." He turned to go.
"Wait," Harry commanded, and, turning to Catherine, asked, "Would you like that?"
"What is it?"
"Marinated octopus on the grill, chicken from a clay oven. The octopus, like many people, is better than either its name or its appearance."
"Yes," she said, and then, to the waiter, "I'll have that."
"Two, then," Harry told the waiter, holding up two fingers, like Winston Churchill. "Duo."
"When the waiter disappeared, Catherine asked, "You know
Greek?" "A little." "Demotic Greek?" "Enough to get by as a tourist. I was in Greece before the war." "Doing what?" "Supposedly studying."
"I was a graduate student, what they call an 'advanced student.'"
"Magdalen College, Oxford."
"Just aha. What were you doing?"
"I wanted to write a doctoral thesis on the Mediterranean as a historical force unto itself. The civilizations that ring it have so much in common other than just the olive, and half of what they are they owe to the sea. It's certainly worth a book, which would be interesting, beautiful, and sensual."
"You wanted to write a sensual doctoral thesis?"
"You expected it to be accepted? I majored in music at a girls' college in Philadelphia. . . ."
"And I'm not exactly Ph.D. bait. But even I know that you could never get something like that through."
"You think I didn't?"
Her jaw dropped a little, but she kept on with her train of thought. "It would collapse the professoriate."
"You say that because, you see, you're a girl, and girls don't have what boys have, which is a goat-like capacity to bang with the head against heavy objects that will not move."
"Isn't that pointless?"
"Yes, except that, once in a million times, it does move."
"We have time."
"I was the class of 'thirty-seven. . . ."
"Harvard," he answered, like someone anticipating being struck. It was always that way.
"Oh no," she said, very annoyed.
"Why do you say that?" he asked, but he knew why.
"Harvard boys think they're semi-divine, and they aren't. They used to ride down to Bryn Mawr like Apollos in their chariots."
"I wasn't like that," he stated. And he wasn't.
"I know." Then it dawned on her, and she said, "You're eight years older than I am."
He did the arithmetic. "You were graduated last year?"
She seemed much older than twenty-three, and she thought that he seemed much younger than thirty-one or -two. The shock, however, was only momentary. "To write on the Mediterranean that way, how many languages would you have to know?"
"How many do you know?"
As he spoke, he counted on his fingers.
"All badly, except perhaps English. Unfortunately, I don't know Turkish."
"What a tragedy," she said. "How can you possibly get around in New York?"
"I manage, but what I know is nothing. Your song. . . ." He had to stop and start over again. "Your song . . . in its few words. Your enunciation. The way you sang those words, the way you expressed them. Nothing I've ever done can compare. I've never experienced anything as perfect. Just the caesura in the second stanza is the most extraordinary. . . ."
"But it's only a half-note," she interrupted.
"It may be only a half-note, but it's infinitely beautiful and it tells all." He meant, about you, and although he did not say it, she understood it.
And she, of great self-possession, could hardly breathe, much less speak, because it was true, because she had not realized it, because of what had been sent to her. Rather than go deeper, she made for the surface. "You heard me?"
After turning her eyes toward the tablecloth, a silence, and a few deep breaths, she looked back at him and said, "I majored in music and studied voice. I have a rich midrange. Seems to be expanding. I can't do opera, yet. I'm barely good enough to sing one song in a careless Broadway musical. No one has said to me, about my singing, what you said."
"The director thought it was perfect."
"How long were you in the theater?"
"I got there early and the idiot at the stage door invited me in."
"He is an idiot. We've got to get a new one. Did you pay him?"
"Usually, people do. That's his racket."
"He let me in for free."
After Harry had said what he had said, she could hardly look at him, and could not believe that her emotions were so strong. It frightened her, so she tried to slow the momentum. "Why didn't you write that book? What could be more lovely than writing a book about something you love?"
"I was in England for two years. I spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean and I got an M.Phil., but my father got sick — my mother died a long time ago — and I had to take care of him and the business. I was going to go back, but there were a lot of problems here — he never really got well. And then the war. I enlisted in 'forty-one, before Pearl Harbor."
"That was early. A lot of people were waiting to see, even after."
"I had an English sense of the war. My father died soon after we breached the Siegfried Line. I got out last year. I've been involved with the business since then."
"And what business is it that has a leather punch? Oh!" she said, making the connection, if late. He watched as it unfurled, knowing what was coming. "Copeland Leather. You're Copeland Leather."
"Actually, I'm just Harry," he said, waiting for what he knew she would do.
She held up her purse as if it were the golden fleece, looking at it in astonishment. "This," she declared, "is Copeland Leather."
"I was carrying your purse. Why didn't you say something?"
"I was thinking of other things."
"Thank you. So are you."
They dipped some bread in oil, and had some water and some wine. They were already in love and both of them knew it, but for both it was too fast. "What's the greatest mystery of the universe?" he asked.
All she could do was ask what.
"That Popeye's girlfriend is called Olive Oyl. What insanity led to that? Who can ever say? It's a question that, by its nature, probably can never be answered."
"By the way," she said, "we split this."
"You said you did, and you may be the only man in New York who does. Why?"
"It's a long story."
"Do you think I'm rich?"
"That would be a short story. And, no, I think you went to Bryn Mawr, you speak magnificently, and you wear very expensive clothes from another era because you may be living in reduced circumstances. Maybe you were rich, but not now. That means you don't envy the rich or have contempt for the poor, and it means you know a great deal even though you're young. Maybe it explains the depth of your song. I don't know. It has to come from someplace, an understanding, a compassion. You see very clearly. You feel deeply. You're older than your years."
"All right," she said, moving the candle that was dead-set between them to her right, so that nothing was between them, and then leaning forward a bit, "so tell me why I pay."
"As I said, it's a long story."
She shrugged, which said, I'm here, I have patience, tell it.
"When I was in France, in the war — and it seems to me now, as it did when I was a child, that Paris was and is the center of the world, and as if I'm dreaming now and if I wake up that's where I'll be — when I was a soldier, I would see women on the street, many of whom were young and attractive. I would make an instant connection with them, through the eyes. When you're in the army, fighting, you get that way. There are many men who are very crude, and they get cruder. They always thought of women as sort of prey, and in the absence of women, apart from civilian life, apart from civilization, that is, it gets worse, much worse. But, for me, suddenly coming into a city in France or Holland . . . a woman became as beautiful and venerable as. . . . I mean, why were we fighting if not . . . if not to protect. . . ."
"That June, the weather was magnificent. I used to look up at the moon at night, at rest, in battle, wherever I was. It was weightless, satiny, the color of pearl, feminine. It saved me. But, anyway, I would see women on the streets of liberated towns, and because everything had broken down, and for a while there were no supplies, and the soldiers coming in had money, food, and chocolate. . . . Love can't exist in servitude."
"If you bought me dinner it wouldn't be servitude."
"I know. There's more. I don't want to talk too much."
"I want you to talk to me," she told him. "I really do."
"It's a long story to make a point you already understand."
"What I'm saying to you," she said, "is that you can read me the telephone book if you want. And I would be perfectly happy."
"How about the Yellow Pages?"
"I prefer the White."
Smoke from the fire circled them like a veil. For a moment they sat in silence, but then he continued. "It was worse in Germany, much worse, although there were relatively peaceful islands in the war. We were southeast of Munich, pressing up toward the Alps in a country full of lakes and long roads through uninhabited stands of pine. I was with a guy who had been born in Germany and spoke German fluently. We had a jeep, and were supposed to make a reconnaissance all the way to the Swiss border. They wanted to know what was going on in the forests. G2 was obsessed with forests after the Ardennes, the Bulge, the Hürtgen. Who could blame them? And after Market Garden they put less faith in aerial reconnaissance, so they sent us and others through the allées in the pines.
"But there was nothing there, the forests were empty. This was one of those pockets that, except for a scarcity of goods, had been untouched by the war. You live for that, for the time you have when you pass through places like that, and there are lots of them, much more than people imagine. You find them in clearings and copses, and little groves of trees, and sometimes over a whole plain as far as you can see.
"It was the first really warm day in spring, and we were riding down what seemed to be an endless dirt road. Though we could have been shot at from the trees at any moment, we were happy. The air was a pleasure. I remember thinking how insistent it was. Most of the time it lets you forget it's there, but on that day the breeze embraced us. And you could smell the pine needles. They exhaled everything they had held on to during the winter. It was sweet like you can't believe.
"As we were driving between huge ranks of pines, we saw two figures up ahead. Off go the safeties, we slow, we go back to war — but they were girls. Who knows how old? Late teens? Early twenties? They had that peculiar charm. . . ." He looked at her, and smiled. She knew. "That explosive, happy, embarrassed charm that only a young woman can have.
"We offered them a ride. When they understood that we would not hurt them, that we would treat them with great deference and politeness, they were shocked and relieved. They were going to Munich, although they didn't tell us at the time. Munich was still in enemy hands, and we were alone, relatively nearby, but it was almost as if we were in Switzerland: no feeling of war, no tension.
"We came to a restaurant and hotel in the middle of the forest, on a hillside that overlooked a reservoir and the fast stream that filled it. I've always loved rivers. . . ."
"I know," she said. "You told me. And so have I. I don't know why anyone leaves them, but they do. I don't know why I leave them, because they've always made me very happy. Go on."
"We were the first Americans they had seen since the beginning of the war. The place was filled with refugees who were trying to get into Switzerland. Switzerland was close, but they weren't going to get in.
"There was a main dining room, with tablecloths and silver, and ninety-year-old waiters in black jackets like French waiters in a bistro, and then there was a bar in another room overlooking the river. In the disturbance created by the arrival of two armed American officers, the girls disappeared into the bar. We were led ceremoniously into the dining room, where everyone tried not to look at us, and the waiter came to take our order as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
"All they had was chicken, soup, and bread, which, then, was a lot. They had wine, too, but we couldn't have more than half a glass. We didn't know who would be around there. The German army could still shoot, we were in Germany, and the other half glass of wine was not worth dying for.
"After we ordered, my friend said, 'Where are the girls? Why don't we ask them to eat with us? The food will be better here, if it's not poisoned.' I jumped up. 'Bitte, essen mit uns,' I said to my friend, to see if it was correct and if it would do, and I left before he replied, because I knew it would.
"I passed through the dining room, saying 'Bitte, essen mit uns, Bitte, essen mit uns,' and then through curtained glass doors into the bar overlooking the river. The girls were sitting at a wooden table, alone because the bar was closed. They didn't have enough money to get anything to eat. When I looked at them, I loved them for what they were, what they had been through, and what they were going to go through. One of them had been badly scarred on one side of her face. I mentioned her when we met."
"It didn't matter. She still had the charm of youth. They were happy to eat with us, to eat at all. I remember how amused they were when I asked them in my rudimentary German to join us. And I remember how the sun sparkled on the river, blinding me and warming the room. The river grew shallow just before plunging into the reservoir, and rushed over a bed of small, rounded rocks with the color and blur of a school of fish. Polyhedrons of light backlit the girls, backlit their hair.
"We could have been killed so easily, because at dinner we forgot everything. The four of us together, with my friend interpreting and me speaking fractured German, and the girls speaking fractured English, and everybody speaking bad French. . . . They would consult on a word and then sally forth; we would consult on a word and then sally forth. It meant the end of the war, the restoration of everything . . . the restoration, to their rightful place, of love and kindness.
"Naturally, we had to pay for them, and they were in our debt. We were conquering — and I really mean conquering — their country. We were taking them on the road, feeding them, carrying them under our protection. When the waiter came and we paid him, in dollars that he took so eagerly it was a sure sign they had lost the war, I glanced at the girls, and the expression they had was that now the bill had come due. All the lightness I had felt suddenly drained.
"What can I say?" He hesitated and looked away, and then back at Catherine. "When you love someone, even if it's only infatuation, even if it's only immense respect, the last thing you want is subservience, obligation, dread, payment. I thought to myself that I never wanted to see that expression again. Never."
"So you don't mind if I pick up my half of the check?"
"I'd prefer it, although it's hard to explain to someone who assumes I'll follow the custom."
"I think you've explained it quite well. They didn't pay the bill, did they?"
"No. They expected to, but we weren't like that. My friend ended up marrying the one whose face had been disfigured — in a bombing raid, one of our bombs, or a British bomb. She was sixteen when it happened. He loves her, he really loves her. . . ." He couldn't finish.
Harry was apprehensive that he had spoken too much, that he had fallen too fast, that he had been too suggestive, too forward. Although he sensed that she was attracted to him, she moved on tides that he could not read. As comfortable and warm as she became, she was at times reserved, distressed, almost disdainful. She used the expression "Oh please," which he did not, and which he now realized was a class marker with the power to freeze him cold. It was the language and enunciation of someone who either needed nothing or had come from a society in which the norm was to need nothing. It was dismissive yet charming. It stunned him, almost frightened him, and at the same time made her infinitely desirable. For the way she said it was rich in intonation and expression — like her song. Of course, he was in love, even with the way she brushed her hair back from her face. Like her speech and diction, her emotions, hot and cold, were held in magnificent balance.
He thought he saw what was coming, and was determined to get through it successfully. It was like watching a big wave moving dangerously fast right at him. She looked down, gently clenched her left fist, closed her eyes, and shook her head very rapidly from side to side. "I shouldn't be here," she said. "I can't do this. I can't do this to Victor."
"Victor," he repeated.
"I hope it's a cat."
She tried hard and in vain not to laugh, and then said, resolutely, "It's a man," which made her laugh again.
"Oh," he said. "I'm not surprised that his name is Victor. Everyone I've ever known by that name has been able to beat me at one thing or another. It's as if there's something they know that I don't. I think it may be more than just coincidence, but rather that their parents gave them that name as part of or a prelude to a mad program of education in winning. Wouldn't you think that someone who cared about winning would name his child Victor? I see the Victors at age five being solemnly — desperately — instructed in how to cheat at tennis, how to play a sharp hand of poker, flatter a teacher, dress perfectly, and, above all, assume that they're going to win, and that they have no other choice, as it is their destiny. Winning is what they do, and all they can do. It stops there. Never have I failed to have been beaten by a Victor, even at chess, where, throughout the whole game, they smile like Cheshire cats.
"And yet, what victories have Victors achieved? Napoleon wasn't named Victor. It wasn't Victor the Great who conquered the known world, or Victor Caesar. For that matter, it wasn't Victor Nelson or Victor Wellington, Washington, Eisenhower, Montgomery, or Grant. Nor do we have Victor Shakespeare, Victor Einstein, Victor the Baptist, or Victor Christ. Victors are in fact in short supply as victors, except that they always make more money than I do, beat me at games, and get the girl. . . . But maybe not this time."
"You stun me," she said. "You drive me crazy."
"And you, me," he returned. "So Victor isn't a cat?"
"No," she said, "he isn't a cat."
"If he's not a cat, why are you laughing?"
"I shouldn't be. He's my fiancé. Victor Marrow."
She nodded, no longer laughing but almost crying.
"That's a name?"
"Yes. He's a Mellon."
"He's a melon," said Harry, deadpan.
Again, she nodded, and even sniffled.
"What kind of melon?"
"A Pittsburgh Mellon."
"Is that like a watermelon, or a cantaloupe?"
"No, you idiot," she said, with more affection than she could bear absent an immediate embrace, which could not and did not materialize.
"I thought his last name was Marrow?"
"His mother's a Mellon."
"Well, if his mother's a Mellon and his father's a Marrow, how can he tell if he's a watermelon or a squash? He must have had a very diffi
cult childhood." He looked at her. "It's not something to laugh about."
This made her laugh more.
"What does he look like?"
She came to and assessed Harry straight on. Then she drew in a breath both pleased and resigned, and said, "You're much handsomer, damn you, and he went to Yale."
"I'm glad you got that right, about Yale."
"He wouldn't agree."
"Deep down he would. They know."
"Yes," she said, "they do. I've noticed it myself. It's as if they know they can never catch up," and then she looked away. "Can I," she asked, "can I . . . take a break? Can we just not talk for a while, and maybe eat. There's too much, too much going on. I'll be all right, but I just need a . . . a minute."
"I myself need a week," he told her.
"You don't have a week," she said. Then she took a long drink of water. As she raised her glass, he could see her heart beating against the silk of her blouse.
"God," she said, partly because of the retsina, "this is wonderful. It doesn't taste like what you would think grilled octopus would be. I never would have ordered it."
"Nor would I."
"Why did you?"
"The first time I had it was in a tiny village in the Peloponnesus. It had taken several days for me to walk there over a high, deserted spine of mountains, but it was on the coast, not that far by sea from Piraeus. When I arrived, however, because of the difficulty and loneliness of the journey, I thought I had come to the end of the earth. Then a yacht full of Germans appeared, flying a big flag with a swastika, and the shutters were suddenly flung open in what turned out to have been a little waterfront restaurant that served whatever it could to the yachting trade.
"I didn't like it when the Germans came ashore. They were all so tall, and there were so many of them, and while I had a walking stick,
they had a yacht."
"Victor is even taller than you are," she said, "and he has a yacht."
"The yacht that didn't show?"
She confirmed this with a lifting of an eyebrow in an unmistakably condemnatory, and yet fairly hopeless, expression. And she saw very clearly and could not banish from her mind the yacht coming up from the south on humid and silvery air, bringing with it insistently another age, the rear guard of time, moving across the sea in force and at a different pace and as arrestingly as a ghost. Haunting, seductive, easy, it called for many kinds of surrender, each comfortable and tragic. Were she to have been rowed out, she would have been lost to this. She would have regretted and grieved for the rest of her life. She had come that close, and would have disappeared had it not been for the winds and tides.
Not knowing what she was thinking, Harry snapped her back to the restaurant, and then off to Greece before the war. "You know what happened to the Germans?"
"That, too, but before that, maybe as an omen, they couldn't start the outboard on their dory. They tried, each of the men taking turns, for a whole hour. Nothing. It was a delight to watch, because I knew they would have to turn to me."
"Of course. It was an Evinrude, which they pronounced Ayfinwootah. No wonder they couldn't start it. And they were really obsequious when they asked me to see if I could. I got into the dory and looked it over. Practically the first thing I saw was that the bleeder valve on the bulb in the gas line was open."
"To prime the engine you have to pump some gas into it by squeezing the bulb. It has a bleeder valve, as on a blood-pressure cuff, that's circular, and you can't always tell if it's open, but I saw that the threads of the screw were half shiny and half dull. The shiny ones had normally been inside the valve, protected from the salt air."
"And they didn't see?"
"They were not people who are used to doing things for themselves."
"Oh," she said, thinking of herself, her family, and Victor.
"So I knew I could do it, but I wanted to make it seem more complicated. I removed the engine cover and used my fingers to move and palpitate the most mysterious-looking parts. I didn't know what the hell they were, but I was jiggling them around at blinding speed like playing the piano. The Germans were looking at me, their mouths hanging open. Then I put back the cover really fast, and sort of set things up, including closing the bleeder valve and squeezing the bulb. It was empty at first, and then it filled, and I knew I had it. I set the choke and the throttle, turned to the audience, said Alles klar!, and gave the starter rope a single pull. The engine started with a roar before the rope was halfway out. If they were alive at the end of the war, when they saw the American flag on our vehicles, over our camps, and above their ministries, they might have thought once or twice of that moment."
"Why are you telling me this?" she asked, not because she hadn't wanted to hear, but as an encouragement for him to close the circle.
"Because, when they left, they thanked me in stilted English — I acknowledged in worse German — and they gave the restaurant owner a wad of bills. I hadn't been able to afford the restaurant. I was on a tight budget, and while they were being served grilled fish and lamb, I ate a can of sardines that I had carried with me.
"So the 'restaurateur' ran over to me and, picking up my pack, herded me onto the concrete dock where his restaurant was. The village was called Nea Epidavros. There were some very flimsy tables and chairs on the pier. He told me in Greek that the Germans had paid for my dinner. And the next thing he did was take off his shoes and shirt and dive into the water. I thought he was nuts. When he surfaced he was holding an octopus, which he then spent half an hour tenderizing by smashing it (dead after the first blow) against the concrete. He looked like a madman, or maybe a Guatemalan woman doing her laundry on the rocks by a river. The rest of the afternoon he marinated it, and by dark I had one of the best meals of my life, done on charcoal just like this, with retsina and all the rest. I could see the stars there so brightly I felt I was sailing among them. I was alone, and the Germans had disappeared over the sea." He paused. "I really wish you had been there."
"I never would have ordered it," she said.
"Neither would I. Like quite a few things in my life, it was the result of unforeseen action by Germany."
Riding the troughs and peaks of the waves, they were happy in one another's presence, with little awareness of anything else, frightened that it would not last, frightened that it would, staring at one another with great draughts of what felt like love, and then withdrawing coldly in the face of practicalities. For her, loyalty, prudence, staying the course, the expectations of her society. For him, the fear that she was so much unlike him, although she wasn't, and that even were he to win her she would soon stop loving him.
"Did Victor earn the money to buy his yacht, or did he inherit it? I'm not trying to set him up. I inherited my father's business, after all."
"Then you should know."
"That there's no division in such things. With the Marrows, the Mellons" — she hesitated — "and the Hales," naming three families famous for their wealth, "no one has any right or claim to the money any more than anyone else. It's just there, and each generation is trained to ride it. Victor's father didn't make the money either, but on the other hand he did, as does Victor. No one feels either proud or ashamed, although, in this set, one feels as if one is truly better than people who don't have money — as if they live half blind in the underworld and only the Marrows, the Mellons, and the Hales are free and can see."
"Would you feel that way?" he asked, wondering about the Sedleys.
"No," she answered. "I've been educated away from things like that."
"Love," she said. "If you can love, you can't think that way. Even when I was a very small child, I played with the Bonackers' children. I loved them, and understood that I was no better."
"The Bonackers?" He thought they might be a family.
"The farmers and fishermen of the eastern tip of Long Island."
"You lived there?"
"We did, for a time."
"And this is a strong and durable feeling?"
"This is the root of my life."
"I want, more than anything else," he said, "to know you."
"In the biblical sense?" She was embarrassed, but excited, to have said that.
"Yes, but that isn't what I meant."
"You can't," she said, "because I'm going to marry Victor. Last weekend, when you and I met, he was going to take me on the boat to East Hampton — his house is in Southampton — where he was supposed to announce our engagement at the Georgica. It's a club, on the beach. There was a gale off Norfolk and he had to run into the Chesapeake. The reception was canceled, but it's on for Sunday, a second time: two hundred people. We can't cancel. He's got the ring, a diamond the size of a ping-pong ball. He didn't give it to me, because he thinks I might lose it."
"You can end it with the flick of a finger," Harry said. "There's no law. You can at least postpone it. He's young, you're young, it's allowed, even expected."
"He's thirty-eight, closer to thirty-nine. His birthday's in September."
"He's got as many years on me as I have on you."
"And more if you count his character and his health. He seems much older. I'm supposed to like that."
"Catherine, do I have a chance with you?"
"Of course you have a chance. But I have to marry him. Everyone expects it. I'm more or less married to him already."
"No, you're only twenty-three."
"Since I was thirteen . . . ," she said, sorry that she would have to change the course of things this way.
"Since you were thirteen, what?"
She didn't answer.
"When you were only thirteen?"
"And he was thirty."
"You were a child."
"Not for long."
"Do your parents know?"
"When I started in the theater, my father took me aside. He walked me out into the garden, where he explained to me that theater people have different mores than we do, and that actresses are expected to be loose, but that I should not be ashamed of, and should guard, my virginity."
"You don't owe Victor anything. He should be imprisoned. He should be shot. You certainly don't have to marry him."
"There are other reasons."
"I'm an ingénue. Do you know what happens to ingénues?"
"Most of them," she said, "not being strategic thinkers, don't either. By the time you're twenty-five, they drop you. One in a thousand make the transition to leading lady, and the rest live the remainder of their lives in thrall to the brief period when they were in full and fragile bloom. But no one else in the world remembers, and no one cares. I don't have illusions about my career, even if I have hopes."
"I don't see the connection." He understood that she might be enchained by a number of things that he could not simply dismiss, but it seemed that the prospect of her freedom, and her right to it, had never been simply stated. "You don't have to marry so soon. You don't have to worry about finding a husband. And, God knows, you certainly don't have to marry Victor."
"My clock is different than yours," she told him, "and I'm not exactly fresh."
"That's absurd. It doesn't make any difference."
"It does. It does to most people. It does to me."
"It doesn't to me, and I'm right here."
"I know you're right here."
Her expression darkened. As she spoke, she trembled from emotion and anger. "You want me not to marry a man who has been . . . fucking me . . . for ten years, since I was thirteen years old, who everyone in the world thinks is going to marry me, who has bought the ring, invited two hundred people, hired the caterers, reserved the club, and told the goddamned, the goddamned New York Times? And this, this you want, on our first date?"
"I do," he said, as if it were a vow, which it was.
From In Sunlight and in Shadow, by Mark Helprin. Published by arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright (c) Mark Helprin, 2012