Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 6 – “A Goddess in the Bath”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 6 – “A Goddess in the Bath”)

We’re about to get to the first meeting between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn.  So let’s dive right in…

We open with Beverly seeing off the rest of her family, who are headed to their country house at the Lake of the Coheeries.  They’re going on ahead to open the house and to prepare the special sleeping arrangements Beverly will need, so she’s got a couple of nights on her own.  She’s

convinced that something special was about to happen – that she would, perhaps, get well, or run a great and sudden fever that would finally kill her.

That something, of course, will be Peter Lake.  We turn back to him, as he prepares to carry out his plan: stealing enough money to be able to set himself up somewhere else, somewhere safer.  Before that, though, he visits a cathedral – the Maritime Cathedral, endowed by Isaac Penn, as it turns out.  He then turns his attention back to burglary, and finds himself across the street from the Penn house.  He and the white horse watch as the Penns depart, and after them, Jayga, the last remaining servant.  He plans to return to the house in the early hours of the morning, do the job, and get out.

He happens to miss the flash of light as the door to the roof opens, so he doesn’t know that there’s still someone in the house; he just goes on his way, to an oyster house, to have a big meal in preparation for the task to come.  Helprin lovingly describes the place (he lovingly describes nearly everything in this book!), and then Peter gets down to business: four dozen oysters and a quart of hard cider.  And, a conversation with a barrister who’s gorging himself similarly.  Their conversation is brief, but it’s one of my favorite passages in the book.  Peter opens by telling his companion:

“I like to relax myself before a burglary.”

The barrister agrees, and he’s got a theory why this is a good thing:

“Wildness of that kind clears my mind and makes of it a tabula rasa, so to speak, able indeed to accept the imprint of pytacorian energy.”

(what exactly is pytacorian energy?  No idea, and the internet isn’t much help.  This link is the best answer I could find)

Peter Lake isn’t sure what it means, either.  But he likes it all the same:

“You must be a good lawyer, talking like that.  Mootfowl said that a lawyer’s job was to hypnotize people with intricate words, and then walk off with their property.”

A lawyer is no different than a burglar, in Peter Lake’s mind.  Not that he’d consider that an insult!

After a bath and a rest, Peter’s ready to go to work.  At four o’clock in the morning, he makes his way back to the Penn house, and now we get a back-and-forth, with Peter’s and Beverly’s actions alternating from paragraph to paragraph.  This is a fantastic sequence, wonderfully handled.  Beverly descends through the house to the bath, while Peter seeks a way in.  He notes that:

all the nonacrobatic entry points were heavily barred.

I love “nonacrobatic.”  It’s such an appropriate word for a burglar.  And its also not an impediment.  The alarms on the bars of the windows, however, are a bit more challenging.  As are the further alarms installed on all the windows.  And the ridiculously thick roof that he finds himself unable to cut through:

Isaac Penn was afraid of meteorites, and because of that the attic of his house was, more or less, a solid block of wood.

Beverly dives into the bath (ten feet long, eight wide; more swimming pool than bath, really), and Peter discovers the door from her rooftop perch into the house. He’s not sure if it’s a trap but decides to risk it anyway.  He enters the house and makes his way to Isaac Penn’s study.  He ignores a Gutenberg Bible in a glass case, because, after all:

it could not have been very old, having come from Guttenberg, a town in New Jersey.

But he does focus on the safe in the wall, which, it turns out, isn’t a safe at all but a giant plug of steel set into the wall for the sole purpose of keeping burglars occupied.  It does so while Beverly emerges from the bath.  She had been feeling free of her fever, but now, after chancing a swim, she’s not sure if it’s returned.  She had hesitated before going into the bath, but plunged ahead anyway, following Isaac Penn’s advice:

He had told her always to have courage, and sometimes to step into the breach – though he need not have told her, for it seemed to have been her temperament from the very start.

This echoes Peter Lake’s personality, and also a character we’ll meet in part 2 of the book.  For now, she continues to forge ahead.  As she tells herself:

Fight the fever.  Fight it, and, if necessary, go down fighting.  The courage would not go unrewarded, would it?  That is to be seen, she thought.

I think we already know the answer to that question.

As Beverly makes her way to the kitchen, and thence to the piano, Peter continues his fight with the safe; each of them misses multiple opportunities to see the other as Beverly passes by the study.  Finally, Peter gives up, and Beverly starts to play.  The music immediately draws him, and he likens it to the lights of the great bridges.  He watches, silently, as Beverly wrestles with the piano, falling in love with her more deeply by the second:

He had unspeakable admiration for the way she had risen from obvious weakness to court with such passion the elusive and demanding notes that he had heard.  She had done what Mootfowl had always argued.  She had risen above herself, right before his eyes.She had risen, and then fallen back, weakened, vulnerable, alone.  He wanted to follow her in this.

He wants to approach her but cannot imagine how, and then opts to simply withdraw, but he is betrayed.  A loose floorboard squeaks under hi weight, announcing his presence (this is one of the very few scenes that the film version uses more-or-less intact from the book).

Beverly takes in the sight, seemingly takes in everything about Peter in just a few moments.  She laughs, and then cries, and then looks at him and says:

“If you’re what I’ve got, then you’re what I’ll take.”

Peter is not offended; to the contrary, he agrees with her evaluation of him:

For the first time in his life, he felt exactly what he was, and he was not impressed.

He’s frozen in place, unable to approach her, or to leave.  Until she turns to him and stretches out her arms:

And he went to her as if he had been born for it.

Arguably, that’s exactly what he was born for, and she as well.  I don’t think that they fell in love in those brief moments in the conservatory after Peter stepped on the floorboard; they were, are and always will be in love; this is just the moment when they realize it (this is connected with the nature of both justice and time itself, as we’ll see later on in the book).

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3 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 1, chapter 6 – “A Goddess in the Bath”)”

  1. I was also stumped on pytacorian; it’s not in my OED. I should check if Helprin has a blog and challenge him on it because I hate when I don’t know what a word means. Cormac McCarthy’s books set in the Southwest drive me up the wall with regional mongrelized words which have some meaning which isn’t readily apparent.

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