Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
“But as I said: Nothing of consequence to the rest of the nation. So, yes, please do thank your grandfather on our behalf. Though it
sounds as if you should thank your siblings as well—Miss Holson says both of them are in arranged marriages, too.”
“Yes, from families long close to ours: Peter, my brother John’s husband, is from the city, too; Eliza, Eden’s wife, is from Connecticut.”
“Do they have children?”
“John and Peter have one; Eden and Eliza have two. And you are helping to raise your nephews, I understand?”
“Yes, indeed, and they are very dear to me. But I should like to have children of my own, someday.”
Here he knew he should agree, should say that he too yearned for children, but he found himself unable to do so. But Charles easily filled the space where his response should have been, and they spoke of his nephews, and sisters and brother, and his house on Nantucket, the conversation once again moving along, until Charles finally stood, and David did as well.
“I must leave,” Charles said. “But I have had a lovely time, and am so glad you chose to meet me. I will be back in the city in another fortnight; I hope you might choose to see me again?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, and rang the bell, and the two of them shook hands again before Norris escorted Charles back to the entrance, and David knocked on the door on the opposite side of the room, and when he heard a voice beckoning him, entered directly into his grandfather’s office.
“Ah!” said his grandfather, standing from his desk and handing his accountant a stack of papers. “Here you are! Sarah—”
“Yes, sir, right away,” Sarah said, and left, silently closing the door behind her.
His grandfather came out from behind his desk and sat in one of the two chairs facing it, indicating that David should sit in the other. “Well,” said his grandfather, “I will not be coy, and neither must you; I have been eager to see you and hear your impressions of the gentleman.”
“He was—” he began, and faltered. “He was agreeable,” he said at last, “more agreeable than I’d imagined.”
“That is a fine thing to hear,” his grandfather said. “Of what did you speak?”
He told his grandfather about their conversation, saving the part about Charles’s time in the West for last, and as he relayed it, he watched his grandfather’s silvery eyebrows raise. “Is that so?” his grandfather asked, mildly, and David knew what he was thinking: that such information had not arisen in their investigation of Charles Griffith, and because Bingham Brothers had access to the most prominent figures in all professions—doctors, lawyers, investigators—he was wondering what other things they might not know, what other mysteries might remain to be uncovered.
“Will you meet him again?” Grandfather asked when he was finished.
“He will be back in a fortnight, and asked if he might see me again; I said he might.”
He had thought his grandfather would be satisfied with this answer, but instead he stood, with a pensive expression, and walked to one of the large windows, lightly stroking the edge of its long, weighty silk curtain as he looked down at the street. For a moment he remained there, in silence, but when he turned again, he was smiling once more, his familiar, dear smile that always made David feel, no matter how dire his life seemed, that he was someplace comfortable.
“Well,” his grandfather said, “then he is a very lucky man.”
The weeks passed swiftly, as they always seemed to in late autumn, and although of course the arrival of Christmas was never a surprise, they were doomed, it appeared, to be ill-prepared, no matter how strenuously they had vowed the previous year to plan further in advance, so that by
Thanksgiving, the menus might be determined, the gifts for the children bought and tied with ribbon, the envelopes of money for the servants sealed, the decorations hung.
It was in the midst of this activity that he met for a second time with Charles Griffith, in early December; they had attended a concert of early Liszt works performed by the New York Philharmonic-Orchestra, and afterward had walked north, to a café on the southern end of the Park where David sometimes paused in his perambulations of the city for cake and coffee. This time as well the conversation came easily, and they spoke of books they had read, and plays and exhibits they had seen, and of David’s family—his grandfather and, briefly, his sister and brother.
Arranged marriages inevitably demanded an acceleration of intimacies, and, subsequently, a falling away of standard proprieties, and so, after they had spoken for a while, he was emboldened to ask Charles about his former husband.
“Ah,” Charles said. “Well—I suppose you already know his name was William, William Hobbes, and he died nine years ago.” David nodded. “It was a cancer that began in his throat and took him very quickly.
“He was a teacher at a little school in Falmouth, from a family
of lobstermen in the North—we met shortly after I had returned from California. It was a very happy time for both of us, I believe; I was learning how to run my family’s business alongside my sister and brother, and we were both young and adventurous. In the summer, when school let out, he would come with me to Nantucket, where all of us—my younger sister and her husband and their sons, my brother and his wife and their daughters, my parents, my other sister and her family on their visits from up North—lived together in the family house. One year, my father sent me to the border to meet some of our trappers, and we spent almost the entire season in Maine and Canada with our business partners, going from place to place: It is such a beautiful land there.
“I thought I would be with him my entire life. We decided we would become parents later: We would have a girl and a boy. We would go to London, to Paris, to Florence—he was so much smarter than I—I wanted to be the one who would show him the frescoes and statues he had read about all his life. I thought I would be the one to accompany him to those museums. I dreamed of it—we would tour the cathedrals, we would eat mussels by the river, I would get to see those places I thought beautiful but never appreciated as much as he would, and this time I would see them with him and therefore I would see them anew.
“When you are a sailor, or when you have spent significant time with them, you understand that to make plans is folly—God will do what he wishes, and our plans are nothing against His. I knew this, and yet I was unable to stop myself. I knew it was silly, and yet I was unable to stop myself—I dreamed and dreamed. I planned the house I would build for us, on a cliff overlooking the rocks and the sea, with lupines all around it.
“But then he died, and a year later my younger sister’s husband died in the sickness of eighty-five, and since then, as you know, I have lived with her. The first three years after William was taken from me, I was consumed with work, and in work I found solace. But, curiously, it is as I have moved further from his death that I think of him more—and not only of him but of the companionship we had, and that I imagined we always would. And now my nephews
are almost grown, and my sister betrothed, and I have come, these past few years, to realize that I—” And here Charles stopped, suddenly, his cheeks coloring. “I have spoken too long, and too plainly,” he said, finally. “I hope you will accept my apologies.”
“There is no need to apologize,” David said, quietly, though in truth he was surprised, albeit not embarrassed, by the man’s forthrightness, his near-confession of loneliness. But after this, they neither one knew how to re-begin their conversation, and their encounter ended soon after, with Charles thanking him, formally, but without offering a third meeting, and the two of them retrieving their coats and hats. Outside, Charles went north in his hansom, and David south in his, back to Washington Square. On his return, he considered this strange encounter, and how, despite its strangeness, it had not been unpleasant, and had indeed made him feel
—there could be no other word—to be brought into another’s confidence as he had, to be allowed to be the witness of such vulnerability.
So he was more unprepared than he ought to have been when, sitting in the parlor after Christmas lunch (duck, its skin crisp and pimpled from the oven, and surrounded by pearl-like crimson currant berries), John announced, a trace of triumph in his voice, “So, David, I hear you are being courted by a gentleman from Massachusetts.”
“Not courted,” replied Grandfather, quickly.
“An offer, then? Well, who is he?”
He let Grandfather provide only the barest of sketches: shipper and trader, the Cape and Nantucket, widowed and childless. Eliza was the first to speak: “He sounds lovely,” she said, staunchly—dear, cheerful Eliza, in her gray wool trousers and length of paisley silk knotted around her plump neck!—while the rest of his family sat in silence.
“Would you move to Nantucket, then?” asked Eden.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t considered it.”
“Then you haven’t accepted,” Peter said: a statement, rather than a question.
“But you plan to?” (Peter, again.)
“I don’t know,” he admitted again, feeling himself grow flustered.
“Enough,” said his grandfather. “It is Christmas, and besides, it is for David to choose, not the rest of us.”
The party dissolved shortly after this, and his siblings went to gather their children and nannies from John’s room, which had been made into a playroom for his and Eden’s sons and daughter, and there were goodbyes and well-wishes, and then he and his grandfather were alone once more.
“Come back up with me,” his grandfather said, and David did, resuming the same seat he always took in his grandfather’s drawing room: across from his grandfather, slightly to his left. “I have not wanted to pry, but I admit I am curious: You have had two meetings now. Do you have any sense of whether you might want to accept the gentleman?”
“I know I ought, but I don’t—Eden and John made their decisions so quickly. I wish I knew, as they had.”
“You must not think of what Eden and John did. You are not they, and these decisions are not to be made rashly. The only thing you are required to do is consider the man’s offer seriously, and, if the answer is no, inform him immediately, or have Frances do so—though really, after two meetings, it ought to be you. But you must take your time, and not feel bad for doing so. When your father was matched with your mother, it took her six months to accept.” He smiled, slightly. “Not that that ought to be your example.”
He smiled, too. But then he asked the question he knew he must: “Grandfather,” he said, “what does he know of me?” And then, when his grandfather did not answer, only stared into his glass of whiskey, he ventured further. “Does he know of my confinements?”
“No,” his grandfather said, fiercely, his head snapping back up. “He does not. And he does not need to know—it is not his business.”
“But,” he began, “is it not a kind of duplicity not to tell him?”
“Of course not. Duplicity suggests we would be intentionally withholding something meaningful from him, and this is not meaningful—it is not information that should affect his decision.”
“Maybe it shouldn’t—but wouldn’t it?”
“If it did, then he would not be a man worth marrying to begin with.”
His grandfather’s logic, usually sterling, was here so faulty that, even were David in the habit of contradicting him, he would not, for fear that the entire edifice of his grandfather’s story would come tumbling down. If his confinements were not meaningful, then why should they not be divulged? And was not the way to judge Charles Griffith’s true character by telling him, fully and honestly, the truth of himself? Furthermore, if his illnesses were not in fact a source of shame, why had they both taken pains to conceal them? It was true that they had not beforehand learned everything about Charles that they might have—Grandfather had grumbled, after that first meeting, about being ignorant of his time in San Francisco—but what they
learned was simple and irrefutable. There was no evidence that Charles Griffith was not an honorable man.
He worried that, though he might not know it himself, and would be insulted to hear it, his grandfather had somehow decided that David’s weaknesses were a reasonable burden for Charles to assume in exchange for marrying a Bingham. True, Charles was wealthy—not as wealthy as the Binghams, though no one would be—but his money was new. True, he was intelligent, but he was not educated; he had not attended college, he had no Latin or Greek, he had traveled the world not in the pursuit of knowledge but in the pursuit of business. True, he was worldly, but he was not sophisticated. David had not thought himself someone who believed such things, but he wondered if he was defective enough so that his grandfather was thinking of him and Charles as belonging on two sides of a ledger: His illnesses for Charles’s lack of refinement. His lack of industry for Charles’s advanced age. At the bottom, would the two of them come out the same, a zero underlined once in ink in his grandfather’s hand?
“It will soon be a new year,” his grandfather said into this silence, “and new years are always more revealing than old ones. You will make your decision, and it will be yes or no, and the years will keep ending and beginning and ending and beginning, whatever you choose.” And with this, David understood he was being dismissed,
and he stood and then bent to kiss his grandfather good night before climbing to his own room.
Then, too soon, the new year was almost upon them, and the Binghams gathered once again to toast its arrival. It was their tradition that on the last day of the year, all the servants should be invited to have a glass of champagne with the family in the dining room, and the group of them—the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the maids and footmen, the cook and butler and housekeeper and coachman and their various underlings—stood gathered around the table where the maids had earlier placed bottles of champagne wedged into crystal bowls of ice and arrangements of oranges pierced with cloves and dishes of roasted walnuts and platters of mincemeat pies, to listen to Grandfather salute the new year. “Six more years until the twentieth century!” Grandfather crowed, and the servants tittered nervously, because they disliked change and uncertainty, and the thought of one epoch ending and another beginning made them fearful, even as they knew that in the house at Washington Square, nothing would change: David would occupy the room he had always, and his siblings would come and go, and Nathaniel Bingham would be their master forever and ever.
Several days after that celebration, David took one of the hansoms to the orphanage. This was one of the first institutions of its kind in the city, and the Binghams had been its primary patron since its founding, which was only a few years after the Free States’ own founding. Over the decades, its population shrank and grew as the Colonies passed through periods of either relative wealth or worsening poverty; the journey north was a difficult and arduous one, and many of the children had been orphaned when their parents died en route, attempting to escape to the Free States. The worst period was three decades ago, during and directly after the War of Rebellion, just before David was born, when the refugee population in New York reached its peak and the governors of New York and Pennsylvania had sent mounted soldiers down to the latter’s southern border on a humanitarian mission, to find and relocate escapees from the Colonies. Any unattended children they encountered—as well as some with parents, but parents clearly unfit to tend to them—
were, depending on their age, sent either to one of the Free States’ trade schools or to one of their charitable institutions, where they would become available for adoption.
Like most charities of its kind, Hiram Bingham’s housed very few infants and toddlers—there was such a demand for them that they were adopted quickly; unless they were sick or deformed or an imbecile, it was rare for a baby to remain more than a month in the orphanage. Both of David’s siblings had procured their children from here, and if David himself were ever to desire an heir, he would find him within the institution as well. John and Peter’s son was a Colony orphan; Eden and Eliza’s children were saved from the squalid hovel of some wretched Irish immigrant couple who could scarcely afford to feed them. There were frequent lively debates, in the newspapers and in drawing rooms, about what to do with the ever-increasing number of immigrants finding their way to the Manhattan shores—these days from Italy, Germany, Russia, and Prussia, not to mention the Orient—but one thing everyone had to agree upon, even if grudgingly, was that the European immigrants provided children for couples who wanted them, not only in their own city but throughout the Free States.
So fierce was the competition for a child that recently the government had introduced a campaign encouraging people to adopt older children. But this had been largely unsuccessful, and it was well understood, even by the children themselves, that those over the age of six were unlikely to ever find a home. This meant that the Binghams’ institution, like others, concentrated on teaching its wards how to read and do sums, so that they might be prepared to learn a trade; when they were fourteen, they would be apprenticed to a tailor or a carpenter or a seamstress or a cook or any number of people whose skills were essential to the continued prosperity and functioning of the Free States. Or they would join the militia or the navy, and serve their country in that way.