Authors: Hanya Yanagihara
But he also felt, despite what Grandfather said, that it would not do for him to immediately refuse this offer: He was the only person he might blame for his current situation, and as the presence of the Griffiths made clear, his choices would not be infinite, despite his name and his grandfather’s money. So he told Grandfather that he would accept the meeting, and his grandfather—with what was, was it not, an expression of relief, barely concealed?—replied that he would tell Frances straightaway.
He was tired then, and made his excuses and went to his room. Though it was now unrecognizable from when he had first occupied it, he knew it so well that he could navigate it even in the dark. A second door led to what had been his and his siblings’ playroom and was now his study, and it was to here he retreated with the envelope his grandfather had given him before he had taken his leave for the night. Inside it was a small etching of the man, Charles Griffith, and he looked at it, closely, in the lamplight. Mister Griffith was fair, with light eyebrows and a soft, round face, and a full, though not excessive mustache; David could see that he was heavyset even from the drawing, which showed only his face and neck and the top of his shoulders.
All at once he was gripped by a panic, and he went to the window and opened it, quickly, and inhaled the cold, clear air. It was late, he realized, later than he’d thought, and beneath him nothing stirred. Was he really to contemplate leaving Washington Square, so soon after reluctantly imagining he perhaps never would? He turned back around and studied the room, trying to imagine everything in it—his shelves of books; his easel; his desk with his papers and inks and the framed portrait of his parents; his chaise, its scarlet piping now flattened and splitting with age, which he had had since his college years; his paisley-embroidered scarf of the softest wool, which Grandfather had given him two Christmases ago, special-ordered
from India; everything arranged for his comfort or for his delight, or both—relocated to a wooden house in Nantucket, and himself among them.
But he couldn’t. These things belonged here, in this house: It was as if the house itself had grown them, as if they were something living that would shrivel and die were they moved elsewhere. And then he thought: Was the same not true for him? Was he not also something the house had, if not spawned, then nourished and fed? If he left Washington Square, how would he ever know where he truly was in the world? How could he leave these walls that had stared blankly, plainly back at him through all of his states? How could he leave these floors, upon which he heard his grandfather walking late at night, come himself with bone broth and medicine in the months he was unable to leave his room? It was not always a joyful place. It had at times been a terrible one. But how could anywhere else feel so exactly his?
Once a year, the week before Christmas, the wards of The Hiram Bingham Charitable School and Institution were treated to a luncheon in one of the Bingham Brothers boardrooms. There was ham, and sweetmeats, and stewed apples, and custards, and at its conclusion, Nathaniel Bingham, their patron and the owner of the bank, would himself come greet them, accompanied by two of his clerks, both of whom were alumni of their very school, and who offered a promise of an adult life that was still too (and would, for most of them, alas, remain) remote and abstract for them to conjure. Mister Bingham would offer a brief speech, encouraging them to be industrious and obedient, and then the children would assemble themselves into two lines and each receive, from one of the clerks, a flat, thick bar of peppermint candy.
All three siblings attended this luncheon, and David’s favorite moment was not the expressions on the children’s faces when they were greeted with the sight of their feast but, rather, the one they assumed when they stepped into the bank’s lobby. He understood their awe, for he never failed to experience it as well: the vast floor of silvery marble, polished to a shining finish; the Ionic columns, hewn from the same stone; the grand rotunda ceiling, inlaid with a gleaming mosaic pattern; the three murals that occupied the length of three whole walls, painted so high that one was all but forced into a supplicative posture to properly see them—the first depicting his great-great-great-grandfather, Ezra, the war hero, distinguishing himself in the battle for independence from Britain; the second, his great-great-grandfather, Edmund, marching northward
with some of his fellow Utopians from Virginia to New York to found what would become known as the Free States; the third, his great-grandfather, Hiram, whom he had never known, founding Bingham Brothers and being elected mayor of New York. In the background of all the panels, rendered in browns and grays, were moments from his family’s and country’s history alike: the Siege of Yorktown, where Ezra had fought, his wife and young sons at home in Charlottesville; Edmund marrying his husband, Mark, and the first wars with the Colonies, which the Free States would win, but at great human and financial cost; Hiram and his two brothers, David and John, as young men, unaware that of the three of them, only Hiram, the youngest, would live into his forties, and that only he would produce an heir—his son, Nathaniel, David’s grandfather. At the bottom of each panel was a mounted marble plaque carved with a single word—Civility; Humility; Humanity—which, along with the phrase on the bank’s crest, was the Bingham family’s motto. The fourth panel, the one over the grand front doors, which opened onto Wall Street, was empty, a smooth blank expanse, and it was here that David’s grandfather’s accomplishments would one day be recorded: how he had grown Bingham Brothers into the wealthiest financial institution in not only the Free States but also America; how, until he had helped America fund its fight in the War of Rebellion and secured his country’s autonomy, he had successfully protected the Free States’ existence against every attempt to dismantle it and dissolve the rights of its citizenry; how he paid for the resettlement of free Negroes who had entered the Free States, helping them establish new lives for themselves in the North or the West, as well as escapees from the Colonies. True, Bingham Brothers was no longer the only or, some might argue, the most powerful institution in the Free States, especially with the recent flourishing of the arriviste Jewish banks that had begun to establish themselves in the city, but it was, all would agree, still the most influential, the most prestigious, the most renowned. Unlike the newcomers, David’s grandfather liked to say, Bingham did not confuse ambition for greed, or cleverness for wiliness—its responsibility was as much to the States themselves as to the people it served. “The Great Mister Bingham,”
the journals called Nathaniel, occasionally mockingly, as when he attempted to initiate one of his more ambitious projects—such as his proposal, a decade ago, to advance universal suffrage throughout America as well—but mostly sincerely, for David’s grandfather was, indisputably, a great man, someone whose deeds and visage deserved to be painted on plaster, the artist swinging perilously on a rope-and-wood seat high above the stone floor, trying not to look down as he stroked his brush, glossy with paint, over the surface.
But for all this, there was no fifth or sixth panel: No space had been allocated for his father, the family’s second war hero, or for him and his siblings. Although—what would his third of the panel even depict? A man, in his grandfather’s house, waiting for one season to shade into the next, for his life to announce itself to him at last?
Such pity, such indulgence, was unattractive and unbecoming, he knew, and he strode across the foyer to the towering oak doors at the back of the room, where his grandfather’s secretary, a man whom he and his siblings had always known as Norris for as long as he could remember, was already waiting for him.
“Mister David,” he said. “It’s been quite a while.”
“Hello, Norris,” he said. “It has. I trust you’ve been well?”
“Yes, Mister David. And you?”
“The gentleman is here already; I’ll take you to him. Your grandfather will want to see you afterward.”
He followed Norris down the wood-paneled corridor. He was a trim, neat man, with delicate, fine-drawn features, whose hair, when David was young, had been a bright gold and had over the decades faded to the color of parchment. His grandfather was forthright about almost all the matters of his and his family’s life, but about Norris he was evasive; it was accepted by everyone that Norris and his grandfather had an understanding, but despite Nathaniel Bingham’s avowed tolerance for all social classes and his avowed impatience with propriety, he had never introduced Norris as his companion, nor had he ever suggested, to his grandchildren or to anyone, that he might become legally bound to him. Norris came and went from their house at his liberty, but he had no bed there, no room; he never
addressed the Bingham children, from the time they were small, without preceding their names with “Master” or “Miss,” and they had long ago ceased suggesting that he might; he was in attendance at certain family events, but he was never included in their after-dinner talks with Grandfather in the parlor, or at Christmas and Easter. Even now, David had no certainty of where Norris lived—he felt he had once heard, somewhere or other, that he resided in a flat near Gramercy Park that Grandfather had purchased for him, years ago—or any specific information about whence he had come, and who his people might have been; he had arrived, before David was born, from the Colonies, and had been working as a coal boy at Bingham Brothers when Grandfather met him. In the Binghams’ company, he was unobtrusive and quiet but also at ease; he was so familiar that he was often forgotten—his presence was assumed, but his absence went unremarked.
Now Norris stopped outside one of the private conference rooms and opened the door, and both the man and the woman inside stood from their chairs and turned as he entered.
“I’ll leave you be,” Norris said, closing the door behind him quietly, as the woman advanced toward him.
“David!” she said. “I haven’t seen you in such a while.” This was Frances Holson, his grandfather’s longtime attorney, who, along with Norris, was privy to almost every detail of the Binghams’ lives. She, too, was a constant, but her place in the family firmament was both more important and better acknowledged—she had arranged both John’s and Eden’s marriages, and she was determined, it would seem, to arrange David’s as well.
“David,” she continued, “I am very pleased to present to you Mister Charles Griffith, of Nantucket and Falmouth. Mister Griffith, here is the young man about whom you have heard so much, Mister David Bingham.”
He was not as old-looking as David had feared, and despite his fair complexion, he was not ruddy, either: Charles Griffith was tall, and large, but self-assuredly so, broad through the shoulders and wide in the torso and neck. His jacket was tailored precisely, the wool soft and fine, and beneath his mustache his lips were
well-defined and still pink, and now turned upward in a smile. He was not handsome, not exactly, but he gave the impression of deftness, and vigor, and health, which combined to create an aspect of something almost pleasing.
His voice, when he spoke, was appealing too, deep and somehow furred at the edges: There was a softness, a gentleness to it that contrasted with his size and its suggestion of strength. “Mister Bingham,” he said, as they shook hands. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“As I have about you,” he said, though he’d not learned a significant amount more since first hearing Charles Griffith’s name almost six weeks prior. “Thank you so much for coming down—I trust you had a good journey?”
“Yes, quite,” Griffith replied. “And please—you must call me Charles.”
“And you must call me David.”
“Well!” said Frances. “I’ll leave you two gentlemen to talk, then. When you’re done, David, ring, and Norris will escort Mister Griffith out.”
They waited until she had left, the door shutting behind her, and then they both sat. Between them was a small table with a plate of shortbread cookies and a pot of what David knew, simply by scent, was Lapsang souchong, wildly expensive and difficult to obtain and his grandfather’s favorite tea, reserved for only the most special occasions. He knew this was his grandfather’s way of wishing him good luck, and the gesture moved him and made him sad, both. Charles already had tea, but David poured himself some, and as he lifted his cup to his lips, Charles did as well, and they sipped in unison.
“It’s rather strong,” he said, because he knew the taste of the tea was overpowering to many; Peter, who detested it, had once described it as “an oversmoked wood fire in liquid form.”
But “I’m very fond of it,” Charles said. “It reminds me of my time in San Francisco—you used to be able to find it quite easily there. Expensive, of course. But not as rare as it is here in the Free States.”
This surprised him. “You’ve spent time in the West?”
“Yes. This was, oh, twenty years ago. My father had recently
renewed our partnership up North with our fur trappers, and San Francisco had, of course, become rich by that time. He had the idea that I should go out there and establish an office and make some sales. So I did. It was a wonderful experience, actually; I was young, and the city was growing, and it was a marvelous era to be there.”
He was impressed by this—he had never known anyone who had actually lived in the West. “Are all the stories true?”
“Many of them. There’s an air there of—of unhealthiness, I suppose. Certainly licentiousness. It felt dangerous, at times—so many people trying to make a new life for themselves; so many people yearning for wealth; so many people bound to be disappointed—but also liberating. Though it was unreliable, as well. Fortunes came and went so fast there, and so too did people: The man who owed you money might vanish the next day, and there’d be no way to find him again. We were able to maintain the office for three years, but then, of course, we had to leave in seventy-six, after the laws were passed.”
“Still,” he said, “I envy you. Do you know, I’ve never even been out West?”
“But you’ve traveled extensively through Europe, Miss Holson tells me.”
“I took my Grand Tour, yes. But there was nothing licentious about that—unless you consider heaps of Canalettos, and Tintorettos, and Caravaggios licentious.”
Charles laughed then, and after that, the conversation came naturally. They spoke further of their respective wanderings—Charles was remarkably well traveled, his business taking him not only to the West and Europe but to Brazil and Argentina, too—and of New York, where Charles had once lived and where he still maintained a residence, which he visited often. As they talked, David listened for the Massachusetts accent many of his school classmates had had, with its broad, flat vowels and particular galloping cadence, but in vain. Charles’s was a pleasant voice but featureless, revealing little of his origins.
“I hope you won’t think this too forward to mention,” Charles
said, “but we are all of us in Massachusetts intrigued by this tradition of arranged marriage, and long have been.”
“Yes,” he laughed, unoffended. “All of the other states are. And I understand why—it’s a local practice, limited to New York and Connecticut.” Arranged marriages had begun around a century ago as a way for the first families who settled the Free States to create strategic alliances and consolidate their wealth.
“I understand why it originated here—these were always the richest provinces—but why do you suppose it has so endured?”
“I can’t say, quite. My grandfather’s theory is that, because significant dynasties soon arose from those marriages, it became essential for the financial integrity of the States for them to continue. He speaks of them as one might the cultivation of trees”—here Charles laughed, a pleasing noise—“the maintaining of a web of roots upon which the nation thrives and flowers.”
“Quite poetic for a banker. And patriotic.”
“Yes—he’s both, my grandfather.”
“Well, I suppose the rest of us Free Staters have your proclivity for arranged marriages to thank for our ongoing well-being.” He was teasing, David knew, but his voice was kind, and he returned Charles’s smile.
“Yes, I suppose. I shall thank my grandfather on your and your fellow Massachusettans’ behalf. Do you not practice them at all in New England? I had heard you do.”
“Yes, but with far less regularity: When we do, the reasons are similar—to unite like-minded families—but the consequences are never as meaningful as they are here. My younger sister recently facilitated a marriage between her maid and one of our sailors, for instance, but that was because her maid’s family has a small timber concern and the sailor’s a rope workshop, and the two wanted to consolidate their resources—not to mention that the young people were rather fond of each other but were both too shy to begin the process of courtship themselves.