Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
“Mister Bingham,” said Walden, dryly. “I’m very sorry to keep you waiting.”
David stiffened—he had never much liked Walden, for he knew his type: A Londoner, hired away by Charles at no doubt enormous expense, he struggled between feeling diminished for being the butler to a man of new money and no name…and feeling proud of himself for having a sense of authority so unimpeachable that a rich man had sought and wooed him from across the sea. Like all seductions, of course, the romance of his had ebbed, and now Walden was trapped in this vulgar territory in the New World, working for someone with means but with gaudy taste. David was a reminder to Walden that he might have done better for himself, might have found himself in the employ of new money that was at least not quite
“That’s quite all right, Walden,” said David, coolly. “My visit is unannounced, after all.”
“Indeed. We have missed seeing you here for some time, Mister Bingham.”
The comment was impertinent, and made to fluster him, and did, but he said nothing, until finally Walden continued, “I’m afraid Mister Griffith is still quite weak. He wonders—but will understand if you’d rather not—if you might come see him in his chambers?”
“Of course—that would be fine, if he’s certain?”
“Oh, yes. He is quite certain. Please: I believe you know the way.”
Walden had spoken mildly, but David bolted to his feet, furious, following Walden up the staircase, blushing as he remembered how
Walden had several times witnessed him being steered by an eager Charles into his bedroom, his palm on his lower back, and how David had detected on the butler’s face as he passed him a shadow of a smirk, one both lascivious and mocking.
At the door, he brushed past Walden, his formal, ironic bow—“Mister Bingham”—and then into the room, which was dark, its shades drawn against the late-morning skies, and lit only by a single lamp near Charles’s bedside. Charles himself sat in bed, propped up against tiers of pillows and still clad in his dressing gown. Around him were scatters of papers, and a little table with an inkwell and a quill, which Charles moved from atop his knees.
“David,” he said, quietly. “Come here, so I can see you.” He reached over and lit the lamp on the other side of the bed, and David advanced, drawing close a chair as he did.
He was surprised by how poorly Charles looked, his face and lips gray, the pouches beneath his eyes pleated and sagging, his sparse hair uncombed and floaty, and some of this surprise must have shown in his face, for Charles gave a twitching sort of smile and said, “I ought to have warned you before you entered.”
“Not at all,” he said. “It is always lovely to see you,” a statement both true and not, and Charles, as if understanding this, winced.
He had been fearing—and, he would have to admit to himself later, half hoping—that Charles was lovesick, lovesick for him, and so, when Charles explained that he had been felled with a cough, he experienced a slight, unbidden prick of disappointment, coupled with a larger measure of relief. “It is like nothing I’ve experienced in many years,” Charles said. “But I believe I am beyond the worst of it, though it still tires me to walk up and down the stairs. I’m afraid I’ve been trapped in this room and my study for the most part, examining these”—he indicated the wash of paper—“accounts and ledgers, and writing my correspondence.” David began to murmur his sympathies, but Charles stopped him with a gesture that was not unkind but declarative. “There is no need,” he said. “I thank you, but I shall be fine; I am on the mend already.”
For a long moment, there was a silence, during which Charles
looked at him and David looked at the floor, and when he finally spoke, Charles did, too.
“I’m sorry,” they said to each other, and then, at the same time, “Please—you first.”
“Charles,” he began. “You are a wonderful man. I so enjoy speaking to you. You are not only a good person but a wise one as well. I have been, and am, honored by your interest and by your affections. But—I cannot marry you.
“If you had been a callous man, or a selfish one, my behavior toward you would be unacceptable. But considering the sort of man you are, it is reprehensible. I have no explanations for myself, no justifications, no defense. I was and am completely in the wrong, and my sorrow for any pain I might have caused you will haunt me for the rest of my life. You deserve much better than me, that is for certain. I hope someday you might forgive me, though I do not expect it. But I will always wish well for you—that I know.”
He had not quite known what he was to say, even as he mounted the stairs to Charles’s room. It had been a season of apologies, he now saw: Charles to him, for not writing; Edward to him, again for not writing; he to Charles. There was only one other apology to make, and that was to his grandfather, but he could not contemplate that, not now.
Charles was quiet, and for a time they sat in the echo of David’s words, and when Charles finally did speak, his eyes were closed, and his voice was broken and hoarse. “I knew this,” he said. “I knew this was to be your answer. I knew it, and I had days—weeks, if I am to be honest—to prepare myself. But hearing it from you—” He fell silent.
“Charles,” he said, gently.
“Tell me—no, don’t. But—David, I know I am older than you, and not even a quarter as handsome. But—I have given this a great deal of thought as I anticipated this conversation—and wondered if there might be a way for us to be together in which—in which you might also find satisfaction with others.”
He did not immediately comprehend what Charles meant, but
once he did, he sighed, deeply moved. “Oh, Charles, you are very handsome,” he lied, to which Charles made a sad little smile but said nothing. “And you are very kind. But you would not want to be in a marriage like that.”
“No,” Charles admitted, “I would not. But if it might be a way of being with you—”
Charles sighed, and turned his head on the pillow. For a while he did not speak. Then: “Are you in love with another?”
“Yes,” he said, and his answer startled them both. It was as if he had shouted a horrible word, a terrible slur, and neither of them knew how to respond.
“How long?” asked Charles at last, in a low, dull voice. And then, when David did not respond, “Before we were intimate?” And then, again, “Who is he?”
“Not long,” he mumbled. “No. No one. A man I met.” It was a betrayal to reduce Edward to a nobody, a nameless figure, but he knew as well that he had to spare Charles’s feelings, that it was enough to simply recognize Edward’s existence aloud without specifying his particulars.
A third silence, and then Charles, who had been slumping against his pillows, his face turned from David, sat up with a rustling of his sheets. “David, I have something I must say to you, or I shall always regret it,” he began, speaking slowly. “I must take your declaration of love for another seriously, as much as it pains me—and it does. But for some time now I have wondered if you might be—frightened. If not of matrimony, then about having to keep your secrets from me, and if this is what has made you reluctant, what has made you stay distant from me.
“I know about your illnesses, David. Do not ask me from whom, but I have known for some time, and I wish to tell you now—perhaps, almost certainly, I should have said this earlier—that this knowledge has never deterred me from wanting to make you my husband, from wanting to spend my life with you.”
He was glad to be sitting, for he felt he might faint, and worse, as if his clothes had been ripped from him and he was standing in
the middle of Union Square, surrounded by crowds, all jeering and pointing at his nakedness, throwing slimy leaves of rotting cabbage at his head, dray horses prancing about him. Charles was correct: There was no point in trying to discover who had revealed his secret. He knew it was not his family, however cool his relationship with his siblings might be; such information was almost invariably spread by servants, and although the Binghams’ were loyal, and some had been in their employ for decades, there were always a few who left, seeking other, better work, and even those who did not talked among their own kind. All it would take was one chambermaid telling her sister, a scullery maid at another house, who would then tell her beau, a coachman at another house, who would then tell the second valet, who would then tell
beau, the cook’s assistant, who, in order to curry favor with his master, would tell the cook himself, who would then tell his sometimes-friend and always-nemesis, the butler, the figure who, even more than the master of the house, dictated the rhythms and therefore petty comforts of his life, who then, after his master’s young friend had left for the night, back to his manse on Washington Square, would tap on his master’s bedroom door and be bidden to enter and, clearing his throat, would begin, “Forgive me, sir—I have deliberated whether I might say something, but I feel that it is my moral obligation to do so,” and his master, irritated and accustomed to these kinds of dramas that servants so indulged in, who understood the way they both resented and relished being so privy to the most intimate aspects of their employers’ lives, would say, “Well, what is it? Out with it, Walden!,” and Walden, dipping his head in a pantomime of humility, as well as to hide the smile he could not keep from forming on his long, thin lips, would begin, “It is about young Mister Bingham, sir.”
“Do you mean to threaten me?” he whispered, when he had recovered himself.
“Threaten you! No, David, of course not! You mistake me. I mean only to reassure you, to tell you that if your past has made you understandably wary, that you have nothing to fear from me, that—”
“Because you shall not. You forget—I am still a Bingham. While
you? You are nobody. You are nothing. You may have money. You may even have some standing back in Massachusetts. But here? No one will ever listen to you. No one will ever believe you.”
The ugly words hung in the air between them, and for a long while, neither of them spoke. And then, in a quick, sudden movement, so sudden that David rose to his feet, thinking that Charles might strike him, Charles threw back his covers and stood, resting one hand against the bed to balance himself, and when he spoke, his voice was like metal, like nothing David had heard before.
“It seems I have been mistaken. About what I thought might be your fear. About you, in general. But now I have said all I mean to, and now we need never speak again.
“I wish you well, David—I do. I hope this man you love loves you back, and always will, and that you have a long life together, and that you will not find yourself as I do at my age, a fool standing in your bedclothes before a beautiful young man you trusted with your heart and whom you thought decent, and good, and who has revealed himself to be neither, but instead a spoiled child.”
He turned his back to David. “Walden will see you out,” he said, but David, recognizing the moment he had spoken the horror of what he had done, simply stood frozen in place. Seconds passed, and when it was clear Charles would not face him again, he too turned, and walked to the door, where he was certain that on the other side Walden waited, his ear pressed to the wood, a smile playing on his mouth, already planning how he would relay this remarkable story to his colleagues at that night’s staff meal.
He found himself leaving the house in a trance, and once outside, he stood dazed on the pavement. Around him, the world was impossibly vivid: the sky assaultively blue, the birds oppressively loud, the smell of horse manure, even in the cold, unpleasantly strong, the stitches in his fine kid gloves so precise and tiny and numerous that he could easily become lost in counting them.
There was a storm roiling within him, and to counter it, he began one of his own, directing his hansom to shop after shop, spending money in a way he never had, on boxes of fragile meringues, as snowy as lard; on a cashmere scarf the same black as Edward’s eyes; on a bushel of oranges, plump and as fragrant as blossoms; on a tin of caviar, each bead as shimmery as a pearl. He spent extravagantly, and only on extravagant things—nothing he purchased was necessary, and indeed most of them would decay or sour before there would be time to reasonably consume them. On and on he bought, taking some of the packages with him but sending most directly to Edward’s house, and so, by the time he finally reached Bethune Street, he had to wait at the bottom of the steps as two deliverymen hoisted between them a flowering kumquat tree through the entryway and another two exited, carrying an empty crate that had once held a complete Limoges tea service painted with animals of the African jungle. Upstairs, Edward was standing in the center of his room, his palms on either side of his head, directing—or, rather, not—the placement of the tree. “My goodness,” he kept repeating. “I suppose put it here—or, no: here, maybe. But—no, not there either—” And
when he saw David, he gave a cry of surprise and relief and perhaps exasperation as well. “David!” he said. “My darling! What is the meaning of all this? No, please, over there, I should think”—this to the deliverymen—“David! My dear, you’re back so late! What have you been doing?”
In response, he began pulling things from his pockets, tossing them onto the bed: the caviar, a triangle of White Stilton cheese, a little wooden box containing shards of his favorite crystallized ginger, liqueur-filled bonbons, each wrapped in a scrap of gaily colored tissue—everything sweet, everything delicious, things meant only to delight, to enchant away the regret that surrounded him like a cloud. He had been in such a frenzy that he had purchased things in multiples: not one bar of chocolate stippled with gooseberries but two; not one cone of candied chestnuts but three; not one more fine wool blanket to match the one he’d already bought Edward but two more.
But this they only discovered, laughingly, after they had gorged themselves, and by the time they were able to come to their senses—unclothed yet perspiring even in the damp chill of the room, lying on the floor because the bed was covered with packages—they were both holding their stomachs and moaning, theatrically, from all of the sugar, the rich creamy fat, the smoked duck and pâté that they had just consumed.
“Oh, David,” said Edward, “will you not regret this?”
“Of course not,” he said, and he didn’t—he had never behaved like this in his life. His actions had been necessary, he felt—his fortune would never feel his own until he behaved as if it were.
“We shall not live like this in California,” Edward murmured, dreamily, and instead of answering, David stood and found his trousers—thrown to a far corner (such as it was) of the room—and reached inside its pocket.
“What is this?” Edward asked, taking the little leather case from him, and opening its hinged lid. “Oh,” he said.
It was a small porcelain dove, perfectly captured, its tiny beak open in song, its black eyes bright. “It is for you, because you are
my little bird,” David explained, “and because I hope you will be forever after.”
Edward took the bird from its case and cupped it in his palm. “Are you asking me to marry you?” he asked, quietly.
“Yes,” David told him, “I am,” and Edward flung his arms around him. “I of course accept,” he said. “Of course I do!”
They would never be as happy again as they were that night. All around them, all within them, was pleasure. David especially felt himself born anew: In one day, he had lost an offer of marriage, and yet he had made his own. He felt, that night, invincible; every piece of happiness the room contained was because of him. Every sweet taste on their tongues, every soft cushion they lay their heads upon, every scent that perfumed the air: All of it was because of
. All of it
had provided. Running beneath these triumphs, though, like a dark and poisoned river, was his disgrace—the unconscionable things he’d said to Charles and, below that, the fact of his behavior, of how disrespectfully he had treated Charles, how he had used him out of restlessness and fearfulness and in desire of praise and attention. And beneath
was the specter of his grandfather, whom he had betrayed and to whom no apology would ever suffice. Whenever knowledge of these things bubbled up within him, he pushed them down again by slipping another bonbon into his or Edward’s mouth, or by making Edward turn him on his stomach.
Yet he knew that it would never be enough, that he had stained himself, and that the stain was irreversible. And so, the next morning, when the little maid tapped on the door, her eyes agoggle at the scene within the room, and presented him with a terse and inarguable note from his grandfather, he knew both that he had been found out at last and that there was nothing to do but return to Washington Square, where he would answer his shame—and declare his freedom.