Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 6 – “Ex Machina”)

Reading in Public – “Winter’s Tale” (part 4, chapter 6 – “Ex Machina”)

Onwards to the climax of “Winter’s Tale” – we’re down to the last four chapters.  This chapter’s title is a play on the phrase “Deus ex Machina”, but Helprin has edited that down.  Instead of “God from the machine” (an ending in which something completely out of the blue happens to resolve the story – the hand of God setting things aright), we simply have “from the machine.”  Given everything we’ve seen so far, I think we’re meant to take this as the city – the great machine – creating itself.  And maybe creating perfect justice, too.  The very first sentence talks about the Last Judgment, after all.

After a couple of pages of discussion about that topic, we move to Praeger de Pinto’s inauguration as Mayor of New York.  He gives a compelling speech, echoing themes we’ve seen throughout the book.  Note this especially:

“We learn that justice may not always follow a just act, that justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected, that a miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned.  Whoever knows this is willing to suffer, for he knows that nothing is in vain.”

And then he ends the speech with:

“Now, let me tell you about the bridge that Jackson Mead is going to build.”

And he does so.  The bridge will be made of light, in a beam of “infinite power”.  And where will the bridge go?

“Though one foot of the arc will rest upon the Battery, he would not say where this bridge will lead, preferring to leave that to my imagination – as I will leave it to yours.”

I think it’s safe to assume that the bridge is intended to lead directly to Heaven.

The crowd is stunned by this pronouncement, and then something even more stunning happens.  Praeger is given his mayoral name.  He’s afraid of what the Council of Elders will say, but he’s exalted above his wildest dreams.

“What we say here is not necessarily the future.  We are not that wise.  But we, like you, can dream.”

So what do they dub Praeger?  The Gold Mayor.  Which is even more momentous than Praeger thinks, given the emphasis on gold throughout the book.

We shift gears to Abby Marratta, who’s now in the hospital.  Second, third and tenth opinions were obtained, and finally Hardesty gets the diagnosis (which isn’t named, but it’s obviously consumption).  Hardesty considers his situation.  He recalls not fighting to save his father, and how his father approved of that self-restraint:

“I’m glad to see you know enough to conserve your courage for when it’s really needed.”

Hardesty and Virginia agree that they can’t simply accept the death sentence proclaimed upon their daughter.  They’re both more than willing to believe in miracles, although they also both realize there must be a cost:

“I think it would be vain to imagine that we could be favored without effort.  As I understand it, miracles come to those who risk defeat in seeking them.  They come to those who have exhausted themselves completely in a struggle to accomplish the impossible.

(there’s an interesting paraphrase to this in one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s books.  In “The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”, a character remarks that “Attempts must be made, even when there can be no hope.  The alternative is despair.  And betimes some wonder is wrought to redeem us.”)

We jump over to Peter Lake, who’s out on the ice, and headed to the Bayonne Marsh to see what he might remember.  But he never makes it there, because he discovers that there are men skating after him.  He doesn’t know who they are, yet, but it rings a bell nonetheless:

Peter Lake was glad to find himself in what seemed like a familiar situation.

He seeks to evade them by heading to another of the temporary cities on the ice, this one under the Brooklyn Bridge.  Unlike the more pleasant frozen city from the last chapter, this one, a neutral ground between Manhattan and the city of the poor, is a squalid, terrible place:

Though the contact between the rich and the poor might have brought about a positive exchange, it was the grosser appetites of each that sent them to the city on the ice.

While hiding from his pursuers, he finally remembers who they are: Short Tails.  And he can’t help but call out their name, which gets their attention and renews the chase.  He makes it back to Manhattan, and seems to run into more Short Tails nearly everywhere.  He can’t go back to his apartment; he knows that they know who he is and assumes they know his habits, even though he still doesn’t know why they’re after him:

He knew that they were called Short Tails, and that their job was to chase him, but he didn’t know why

He remembers something else – Grand Central Station.  He heads there, and looks up at the stars, dark now for decades, hanging in the sky.  Led by instinct and forgotten memory, he heads up to the sky, to a little door, with a lock he can easily pick (and which he himself installed nearly a century before).  He throws the switch, turning the stars back on, and he sees his hideaway, just as he left it back in 1915.

And then we’re back to Hardesty.  He’s trying to:

learn the feel of the impossible, so that he might know what to do when the time came when no one ever knows what to do.

He picks a fight with a pair of armed robbers, and then goes to a pool hall, seeks out the best player in the place, challenges him to a single game for $10,000 (with only $8 in his pocket) and announces he’s going to win the whole game right off the first break.  This is a great sequence, and I really enjoy Hardesty’s method of calculating precisely what to do.

It works, of course, but whatever wisdom he was hoping to find does not come to him.  After days of this sort of activity, Hardesty finds himself in a gym, and, looking up, sees a disc of golden light directly under the domed roof of the place, with a climbing rope hanging down.  He heads up the rope, determined to reach that disc, which is ever more enticing.

In climbing, he found the compound mortal agonies that he had sought, and as he moved higher on the golden rope he really did rise.

Just as St. Stephen did.

He reaches nearly to the top, and the rope bursts into flames – but they do not burn him, instead they heal his bloodied hands.  He tries to push himself into the golden disc, to see what is beyond it, and he’s pushed back, cast off the rope – but he’s carried gently down on unseen wings – angels, in his estimation.

He passes out, but awakens later, on the floor, unharmed, and he emerges into the streets, where, eventually, the moving crowds of pedestrians carry him into Grand Central Station.  He – unlike everyone else – notices the stars, lit for the first time in memory.  And he notices something else – a crack in the sky.  He realizes what it is – an access door in the ceiling, and he watches until it opens, and then opens again.  And, finally, he sees a face emerge and peer down.

And that’s where we end things.  Hardesty, in his extremity, sees something similar to what Beverly saw, and what Isaac Penn reported just before he died, and what Athansor remembers.  Another world beyond this one, a golden world.  He can’t force his way there, though – he’s pushed away from Heaven, sent back down to Earth.  He feels that he’s failed his daughter, but he hasn’t – it’s just not the right time yet.  But that time – the moment of perfect justice – may be nearly at hand.  And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that just at his moment of despair, he finds Peter Lake, amidst a sky of stars that has just been lit for the first time in decades.

Note the way everything is tied together – Praeger, the Gold Mayor, and golden light in a gym filled with the wings of angels, and then Peter Lake, dwelling invisibly in the back of the sky and causing the light to blaze forth.  That certainly tracks with Peter being, if not the messiah, then at least a direct insturment of God.  As a Christian hymn has it, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

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