Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 5 – “Beverly”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 5 – “Beverly”)

Onwards we push, and we’re about to meet a new and very important character, in a chapter named for her.  Connections are becoming clearer, and seeds planted in earlier chapters will begin to bear fruit here.

We open with a description of the Penn family, and their home overlooking the Central Park reservoir.  There’s Isaac, the patriarch, as well as publisher and owner of the New York Sun (technically, as we’ll see in part two, it’s really two newspapers: the New York Morning Whale, and the New York Evening Sun), who spent much of his childhood and young-adulthood on a whaling ship.

Then there are his four children: Harry (who will one day follow in Isaac’s footsteps), Jack, three-year-old Willa, and eighteen-year-old Beverly.  We hear Beverly before we see her; she’s practicing on the piano when an optometrist arrives to examine her and make her a new pair of glasses.  Our first view of her is through his eyes (I think there’s something symbolic here – we first see Beverly through the lens of a man whose job is to make lenses – but I’m honestly not sure exactly what Helprin is saying or implying with that).

And then a young woman appeared in the doorway, apparently blushing, with cheerful eyes that stared in the direction of the ice-clad windows.  She breathed as if she had a fever, and the expression on her face suggested a pleasant delirium.  Her golden hair was lit so brilliantly in a crosslight that it appeared to be burning like the sun.

Beverly, of course, is suffering from consumption (no spoiler; we’ll find out on the very next page) – just as Peter Lake’s parents did.  And note the description of her hair – golden, burning like the sun.  Exactly as the clouds appeared to be burning with gold in the first chapter, when the horse so desperately wanted to cross over to them.  And just as in the golden room that Pearly Soames envisioned.  What does it imply about Beverly that she carries with her that same gold?

The optometrist examines Beverly, and in the course of his work, he observes that she is in fact consumptive.  He also determines that her vision is perfect.  Isaac protests that she’s worn glasses since she was a young child, but the optometrist answers:

“What can I tell you?  She doesn’t need them now.”

Just as her fever and her bouts of delirium have sharpened her vision of the universe, allowing her to see things that others can’t (more on that in a moment), so, too, her literal vision has been sharpened to perfection.

After the examination, there’s a family dinner, and then Beverly prepares for bed.  This is quite involved, because she sleeps out on the roof.  Due to her illness, heat and closed rooms are tantamount to a death sentence for her, and she requires  the fresh, cold air of the outdoors.  The Penns’ wealth provides for a sleeping arrangement worthy of an Arctic expedition, with every kind of cold-weather clothing and gear imaginable.  Beverly ascends to her perch, and commences to look at the stars:

not for ten minutes or a quarter-hour as most people did, but for hour after hour.  Even astronomers did not take in the sky with such devotion, for they were constantly occupied with charting, measurements, the fallabilties of their earthbound instruments, and concentration upon one or another celestial problem.  Beverly had the whole of it; she could see it all.

In her long hours observing the sky, Beverly sees things that she doesn’t understand – at first, she doesn’t even realize she’s seeing them.  She remembers waking up one morning to find a notebook filled with equations, all in her own handwriting, but which she doesn’t remember writing.  She brings them to the planetarium and shows them to an expert, who finds them fascinating.  When he asks her what they mean to her, she replies:

“They mean to me that the universe growls, and sings.  No, shouts.”

He presses her on the point:

“How, exactly?”

“Like a dog, but low, low.  And then it shouts, mixed voices, tones, a white and silver sound.”  The astronomer’s eyes were already wide, but she made his heart thud when she said, “The light is silent, but then it clashes like cymbals, and arches out like a fountain, to travel and yet be still.  It crosses space, without moving, on a fixed beam, as cleanly and silently as a pillar of ruby or diamond.”

Compare this with Peter Lake’s thoughts on his refuge in the “back of the sky” in the previous chapter.

And it’s here that we leave Beverly, as her attention returns to her present, falling asleep on a snowy, frozen rooftop, one consumptive among a legion of them:

They were there, each one alone – as all will someday be – in conversation with the stars, mining ephemeral love from cold and distant light.

Even if you didn’t know from the back cover of the book that Peter Lake and Beverly Penn were going to meet and experience an extraordinary love, it ought to be clear from this chapter and the previous one that they’re meant for each other.  It’s also clear that the fate of the world – of worlds – may hinge on their love and what becomes of it.  We’ll begin to get into that in the next chapter…


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