Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 3 – “In the Drifts”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 3 – “In the Drifts”)

We open a new chapter with a funeral, of someone we haven’t heard of – a shipping magnate, Vittoro Marratta of San Francisco.  We’re given a brief rundown of his life, a breakdown of his vast wealth, and then we go straight to the reading of his will.

We learn that Vittoro has two sons, Hardesty and Evan, and the will sets up a situation that calls to mind Jacob and Esau from the Old Testament.  One son will inherit everything; the other one will receive a gold salver that Vittorio carried with him from Italy when he came to the U.S. after World War I.  The younger, and far more responsible and respectable son, Hardesty, is to choose.

Hardesty, to the shock of everyone, chooses the salver, leaving a massive commercial fortune in the hands of a drug-addicted wastrel.  Hardesty makes the decision because he sees through to his father’s intent, and because the salver, in his estimation, imposes demands every bit as taxing as running a multi-national shipping empire.

The salver is pure gold, with an inscription listing four values: Honesty, Courage, Sacrifice and Patience.  In the center is a phrase inlaid in white gold in the center:

For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.

Justice, what it means, and how it could possibly be seen in a city like New York, has been a topic of discussion throughout the book.  And recall, too, that the ship that brought Peter Lake to New York as an infant was the City of Justice. 

Hardesty collects the salver, rebuffs the questions and protests of his brother, and sets off, to see if he can find (somewhere in Europe, he imagines) the perfectly just city.

I’ll digress here for a moment to talk about Hardesty’s age, and a question of history.  This chapter begins in September of 1995, the date specified in Vittorio’s will.  Hardesty is described as being in his mid 30’s (like Virginia Gamely in the last chapter), so he was born around 1960 or so.  What’s interesting is that he’s also described as having fought in two wars.  If he joined the army in his late teens or early 20’s, that puts his enlistment anywhere from 1978 to 1985, and the wars anywhere from ’78 up until the early 90’s.  The book was published in 1983, and presumably took a couple of years at least to wrote.  So I’m curious what wars Helprin thinks America would have been fighting in that time.  There’s nothing at all in the text to guide us.  In real life at the time, the Soviets were mired in Afghanistan, and the U.S. was dealing with terrorist attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.  But there’s nothing that could reasonably be described as a war.

Moving on, Hardesty hops a freight train to begin making his way to the East Coast.  But his journey is quickly interrupted by the arrival of a fellow train-rider, Jesse Honey.  This is a total digression that doesn’t move the plot one inch, but it’s hilarious, and Jesse is an unforgettable character.  He means well enough, but he brings chaos in his wake; Hardesty is almost killed several times, and an entire freight train is destroyed, before they finally part company.

Hardesty continues on, spending a few months at a Montana sheep ranch (this is glossed over in half a page or so) and then, with the money he’s earned, he plans to catch the trans-continental Polaris train to New York.  He does so, and is immediately welcomed by a group of elderly men, gamblers all, who teach him how to play poker.  It’s a good experience for Hardesty in several ways; one of the men reminds him of his father, which is a comfort to him; and he also wins seventy thousand dollars (by sheer luck) over the course of the game.  But once he takes his leave of the gamblers, there’s trouble.  The train is caught in a blizzard somewhere in the wilds of upstate New York, far from anywhere, and it looks as though the food, fuel and supplies of anything that can be burned to produce warmth are running out.

We switch perspectives and visit Mrs. Gamely.  It’s a year after Virginia left for New York City, and this winter is even more severe, after a summer that was hot well out of the bounds of normal weather.  Mrs. Gamely is philosophical about this:

“God is treating us to fire and ice.  He must have something in mind.”

She’s visited by a neighbor, who informs her of the stranded train and inquires whether she can take in any passengers.  She’s got room for five of them, once the Lake of the Coheeries men have, on skis and sleds, rescued them and brought them back to town.  Hardesty, along with four others, is brought to Mrs. Gamely’s house and he takes an immediate liking to her.  For her part, when he translates the inscription on the salver for her, she lapses into memories:

She had once believed in miracles, shining cities, and a golden age.  She had learned, however, soon enough, that such things were only illusions.  But now she wasn’t quite sure.

She recalls when she was only 4 or 5 years old, a winter as cold as the one she’s currently experiencing, when the Penn family brought Beverly’s body to be buried in Lake of the Coheeries.:

She had been awakened by the pull of the stars, which hissed and crackled like an icy waterfall, and were dancing all over the sky, brighter than she had ever seen them…It was then, as she looked over the lake, that she had learned the true meaning of the word “arise.”

Remember her last words to her daughter: “Rise, Virginia.  rise and see the whole world.”  And now we know what she means by rising – on the day of Beverly Penn’s burial, Mrs. Gamely learned about rising.  And about stars that hissed and crackled (just as Beverly described).

That’s the last we see of Mrs. Gamely for a while; we return to Hardesty and follow him as he arrives in Manhattan.  She’s given him a letter to to deliver to Virginia (because Coheeries mail is “heteronomic and ludibund” and does not often get through).  But Mrs. Gamely has no idea where Virginia is or how to find her.  So Hardesty, logically, starts at the library.  There’s no luck there, but he does get a recommendation for a boarding house to spend the night, which happens to be right across the street from a theater.  The Coheeries theater.  Donated by the Penn family.  And inside the theater, painted on the dome, are the very words of the inscription on Hardesty’s salver.

Also of note is one of the old vaudeville acts playing when Hardesty visits: The Spielers, consisting of Dolly, Little Liza Jane and Bosca, the dark girl.  I’m honestly not sure what to make of them: are they here from their own time, brought forward by the Cloud Wall?  Or is this theater, like the town it’s named for, somehow out of time itself?

Hardesty decides to follow up on the Penn-Coheeries connection, which leads him to the offices of the New York Sun (or, more properly, the New York Morning Whale, and the New York Evening Sun).  He runs into Praeger de Pinto, who, after much conversation, offers to introduce him to Virginia the next evening (and, probably, to offer Hardesty a job as well).

Hardesty returns, sees Virginia, and falls for her instantly.  Virginia notices:

This showed a certain weakness of character, but it was a commitment she could not ignore.  Thought she tried to hang on to the steep slopes down which she felt herself sliding, after just a few minute she gave up entirely.

They walk back to Virginia’s apartment together, taking the most direct route through the dangerous Five Points neighborhood.  En route, they spot a huge horse pulling a wagon, a horse with many wounds.  A horse that is almost certainly Athansor.  We’ll see more about him two chapters ahead.

For now, we follow Hardesty and Virginia as they talk, and quickly get to the heart of things.  Virginia declares that this winter is a harbinger of extraordinary changes to come:

“These winters have not been for nothing.  They are the plough.  The winds and the stars are harrowing the land and battering the city.  I feel it and can see it in everything.  The anmials know it is coming.  The ships in the harbor rush about and have come alive because it is coming.  I may be dead wrong, but I do believe that every act has significance, and that, in our time, all the ceaseless thunder is not for nothing.”

Remember Isaac Penn’s  – and Beverly’s – thoughts about justice, and the connectedness of all things?    Virginia – and Hardesty – see it, too, and that makes them a perfect match.

And thus, as fast as a whiplash, a marriage was made one evening in winter, in a city sure to rise.

Whew!  That was a lot to get through!  There’s a lot to think about here, and more seeds planted for what’s to come.


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3 Replies to “Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 2, chapter 3 – “In the Drifts”)”

  1. This was a very long chapter and took me a while to get through but it was very well written. The use of the word “salver” is very inspired, I think (without knowing how this all shakes out) instead of tray or something equally simply descriptive. It comes from the Latin verb to save and I have to think that will be borne out.

    In your summary you didn’t mention the Widow Endicott, a very vivid character who appears for barely a page but is so flamboyantly drawn that you’re left to wonder “did I just read that”? Finally Mrs. Gamely reminds me of my mother in that both were not well educated but had surprisingly impressive vocabularies. I’m wondering if that’s more of a reflection of how well spoken the general population was in previous times.

    1. I should have mentioned her – there’s just so much there that I end up skipping over some parts of the story. I could have written pages about the Jesse Honey story as well.

      I think you’re absolutely right about people being more well-spoken (and better educated in general) in past times.

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