Read an Excerpt
IT SEEMS THAT fate is on my side. I have given the matter some thought,
over years now, and can find no other satisfactory explanation for the
fact that I so often enter situations at their crucial moments. Do not
mistake me. I have no wish to brag or complain about this particular
aptitude--least of all to exaggerate it. It is, rather, a trait--perhaps a
talent--I have come to take for granted, as a traveller on an
exhaustive journey far from the expected signposts of home might
take for granted certain tickets, visas, even the entertainments of his
itinerary. As long ago as school, I recognized and relied upon it. In fact,
as the Sixties became one thing and then another outside the high
windows of our classrooms and the Japanese cherry blossoms and the
white dogwood and the weeping peach all would shiver and dance, I
could nod off, my mind caught by dream or memory, then, by instinct,
return my attention to the master just before he would impart the
answer to a question later to be found on the term exam. My eye
could wander from a football game only to come back for the crucial
touchdown, the yearbook snapshot--and so on, whether the matter
under consideration were the World Series or the more emotional,
intricate contests of teenage sex and love.
Everyone has luck, of course, and lacks it at the same time. And I
would not make so much of my own, except that I am suddenly afraid. I
am afraid because it is three o'clock in the morning and my wife is not in
bed beside me. Her breathing is absent, her smell diminished; her long
periods of stillness and her sudden body shifts, the basic rhythm of our
night together, like her weight upon our mattress, have vanished. And
responding to this untimely lack of her, I have snapped
awake from a vivid and disturbing dream with the immediate feeling that
we are at the beginning of some new phase in our lives. There is no light,
no sound of water or coughing from the bathroom. The door to our
bedroom, however, appears to be ajar, as though pulled with too much
care for whatever noise the latch might make. And Julia's dressing gown,
which had, as usual, been draped over a bedpost, is missing, along with the
oversize T-shirt (this one faded, from a Dire Straits concert years before)
she habitually removes once she is safely under sheet, blanket and duvet.
Married a few years now and still foreign to each other in innumerable
ways, we continue to sleep naked, Julia and I. The physical was the
promise of our attraction and we continue to make love more frequently
and carelessly than, I have read, experts say is average for people who
are as used to each other as we.
The carpet is cold when I step onto it. The air, damp and tomblike,
plays on my skin as I walk toward the wall socket, bend over and press
the switch beside it that will send current directly into the electric heater.
The coils of the heater redden quickly. But I hesitate. Perhaps my wife
will return in a minute, I think. Perhaps, if there is a problem, it is one for
the immediate family rather than those, like me, who have married into it.
Perhaps Julia heard a noise in the kennel, wheezing from her brother's
room at the end of the long hall or a telephone. Or, perhaps, after our
large meal, including two champagnes and two Cointreaus that I
remember, she required some medicine from a cabinet in a distant room.
Any number of explanations for her departure are possible, and yet I
know that time will prove them wrong. We are on the verge of things too
mysterious for comfort. I'm positive. I can feel it.
Our room is not the one Julia occupied as a child. That is smaller,
brighter, nearer to the narrow stairs that lead up to the morning nursery.
Ours is a great cube from which, from evening until breakfast, enormous
solid oak interior shutters exclude all daylight. Until our marriage, it had
actually belonged to what were then called the State Apartments. But no
sovereign having come to stay at Castlemorland since an expensive
re-decoration was undertaken in the Thirties, Lord Cheviot decided to
allot this suite's principal bedroom to us, his most frequent visitors, and to
set aside a few less august, if still superbly cheerful rooms against the
possibility of a visit from Her Majesty. I like to think--and have
occasionally convinced myself--that the gesture was meant, in some
way, to signify his approval of me as his daughter's
husband; to settle once and for all (in the English way: without
declaration) any lingering question about the desirability of an American
marriage for a girl of Julia's background. Of course, as was many times
hospitably pointed out to me, Julia's grandmother had been
American--Midwestern, in fact, from Chicago. But I understood that this
was a different thing entirely. Her grandmother had brought a substantial
fortune with her--the bulk of the famous mining fortune which had
permitted the Midleton-Lyghams to keep and improve Castlemorland
when other ancient families had already begun to vacate their piles. And
even had she been less rich, she had come into the family at a time when
there was no question that a woman would assume her husband's name,
would dissolve her identity into his, bear and bring up his children and live
wherever he chose. I, on the other hand, might, by the very nature of a
merchant banker's life, simply pick up one day and announce that Mr.
John and Lady Julia Brook would henceforth be found at Park Avenue
and Seventy-third Street in New York City, or in a cottage off some
quaintly named lane in Greenwich, Connecticut, or even, God forbid, for
an indefinite spell in central Tokyo. Indeed, I could imagine circumstances
under which I would have no choice without compromising my hopes for
our future. But added to this, which would have been as true for any
ambitious Englishman, was her family's natural, unspoken fear of the
difference between us, their apprehension that, at some pivotal moment in
the future, I might become homesick. I discounted the idea. I knew
myself, I thought. And I was not wistful. I loved my wife, loved her house
and our children. Still, I could see that others had not yet been able to
dismiss the notion so blithely. Thus, I had been tempted to read into the
assignment of a bedroom, as into many unremarkable events, more than
was there. The fact is that I know as well as anyone why our room was
given to us: to lure our return.
I can hear nothing as I wait, trying to decide whether--and, if so,
when--to go in search of her. Is she ill? Unhappy? Deceiving me? I put
the last thought out of my mind. It is impossible. I would know. I would
have felt the tension in her hours before. We would not have made love.
I step into my slippers and put on my crimson dressing gown--my
glasses rather than bother with the soft contact lenses soaking in their
vials. Then I hear a door, voices, a door again; and it is once more quiet.
I go into the hall, dimly lit by sconces, the strip of red carpet lush beneath
faint puddles of lamplight, the stone walls, the vaulted plaster ceiling formal and
cold. The noise has come from downstairs and I move carefully, alert but trying
not to appear overly concerned should Julia come upon me. On the
gray-and-yellow marble stairs, I pass the muralled portraits of Adrian and
Julia as children, then that of Charlotte, the sister who arrived between
them only to die of leukemia at the age of six. Charlotte's expression is
impish. She is less pretty, but her smile once again strikes me as even
more theatrical than my wife's.
The overhead light in the vestibule is on. Beneath it, draped from a
peg in the right wall, I can see a tan covert coat. Even through glass
panes, it is clear from the limpness with which it hangs that the coat is
wet. It must have rained, I think, since we brought the dogs inside before
resting. In the hallway a green canvas-and-cowhide overnight case sits on
the floor, beside a console table. Wet keys lay on the table's marble top,
next to several loose coins and a clutch of hand-addressed blue envelopes
waiting to be posted. I recognize the keys, the top coat and the case.
All four doors leading to the reception rooms are closed at this hour. I
look up to the infrared projector at the cornice, then check the signal box
mounted just inside the adjacent boot room to be sure that the alarm has
been turned off before I place my hand on the door to a sitting room. The
door, it develops, has already been unlocked. It gives way slowly, but the
room is dark. Outside the french doors in the far wall, clouds obscure a
late harvest moonlight. The far courtyard is indiscernible. The double door
which joins the sitting room to the library, however, is open--about a
quarter of its way. The damasked panels of the first door face me
squarely, but I can tell that the one behind it, which opens into the library,
remains tight. I make my way around chairs and sofa, being careful of
lamp and television cords, and, for an instant, press my face against the
glass of the courtyard doors. Beyond them a thin rain continues, steadily,
without energy. Then I place my palm against the ivory hand panel of the
final library door and nudge it. Cautiously. Julia's voice grows from a
whisper, apparently unaware of my presence. I am about to announce
myself with a second, more forceful, more flourished push when I hear
her say, angrily: "He claims to have proof; but what could he have?"
I let my arm go limp at once, curiosity--actually, the beginning of
fear--overcoming any shame I feel at eavesdropping.
Her cousin Rupert says, "I can't imagine."
"There isn't any," Julia assures him.
"No," he agrees, then pauses long enough to swallow some liquid. I
can hear ice shift in a glass. "I know. None at all. What does he want?"
"Power over me."
"Power--of what sort exactly?" This is the analytical Rupert I hear
speaking: Rupert the deal maker, the City-wide success, cool, direct,
keen, impolitic. There is none of the more familiar nightclubbing style in
"No sort," Julia answers. "Just power. For me to know he has power
"Bastard," Rupert utters dismissively.
Very quickly their voices fade. I make out the phrase "deal with them"
in Rupert's tired voice, then the word "yes" in Julia's; but the context of
their words--any specific intention--is unclear. Then I hear Rupert
leaving by the library's other doors, those that lead directly back into the
hall where he has left his case and keys. And he is quickly on the stairs.
His next words, when they come, fall from the first landing. Whispers
thrown from a height, they seem to gather strength before reaching their
target--and me. "Not to worry," he says. "We'll make short work of him
when the time comes. Now, night, darling. Got an early start in the
Julia remains behind, presumably to lock up and re-trigger the alarm.
I am careful not to disturb anything as I retrace my steps. I have
caught the atmosphere of stealth I suspected on waking and do not wish
to be found out. I do want to be found, though, because I do want
answers. When Julia subsequently comes upon me in the Great Hall, it
can look to her only as though I am on my way to the kitchen with a
hunger attack. I hear her voice over my shoulder and immediately there is
something distressing in it: a lack of surprise, which catches me off guard.
I have not had a midnight hunger attack in ages--if I think about it,
probably since my senior year at The University. It is, therefore, unnatural
that Julia, while she must reach this unavoidable conclusion, should show
so little amazement.
"Are you looking for me?" she asks.
I hesitate, wince, then turn. "No," I hear myself tell her.
She looks horrified--well, mock-horrified, biting her lower lip,
dejecting her brow in a way that lets me know that whatever is to come
will be unpredictable.
"Actually, I was going to the kitchen," I explain, aware at once how
this lie has trapped me and will require others to support it. It is a mistake,
I realize, just as it has been a mistake to listen in on her conversation with
Rupert without disclosing my presence. Unhappily, though my wife and I
are in love and share many of our most intimate secrets, including those of
our pasts and of our friends, I recognize it in the nature of our marriage
that some privacies can be violated only with dangerous risk. We are
modern people who have committed ourselves to one another out of
desire and with considerable hope, but also a measured amount of
"Oh, I see. Let me get this straight. You wake in the middle of the
night and, finding your lover gone, head off not to find her, but in pursuit
"A chicken leg?"
"Didn't you notice I wasn't there?"
"Yes," I smile. "I noticed."
My wife, at thirty-two and after bearing twins, still has the lithe figure
of certain northern European women: long, perfect legs rising to a shape
only just beyond the androgynous hiplessness of adolescence. Her
breasts are still as exquisitely modelled and as erect as they must have
been a decade earlier; when the occasion is right they insist upon no
brassiere, no bikini top, to put forth the illusion of youth. Her hair is dark,
burnt almond even after long exposure to the sun, a gift from her paternal
line; her eyes, magically green and large--cool and damp in their ovals.
With her mood, they can be reticent, enigmatic, or utterly suggestive; and
their limpid intelligence saves her face, with its fine English complexion and
bone structure, from the parochial dimensions of any nationality. I kiss
her cautiously. For a moment our tongues entwine and we hold our
breathing, then she breaks away, abruptly studies me, and decides to kiss
me once more with even greater fierceness, her hands clasped
momentarily behind my neck. It is as though I am about to lift her when
she breaks away and leads me, through narrow pantries, to the kitchen.
"I couldn't sleep," she explains, as we forage for a snack. "Not very
well at any rate, after the first hour or so of the deepest sleep had worn
off. I don't know why. Too much on my mind more than likely. Lying
awake--you were out cold, your head sandwiched between pillows, as
usual--lying awake, I heard a noise. A normal enough noise for a house
like this, however. There wasn't really any reason to investigate, but it
provided an excuse to get out of bed--away from nagging thoughts, I
mean--and I guess I hoped that doing so might be a way of putting me
over the brink of exhaustion."
"It turned out to be Rupert--just Rupert. He drove up from London
after dinner with a client. He nearly got done on the M-4, he said and
would have, he bets, if it hadn't been for another car that undertook him,
weaving back and forth across lanes. The police went for that one
instead." As she relates this information, Julia fusses with a blue enamel
kettle, tilting it to better judge the amount of water it contains. "Would you
like coffee?" she asks, lifting back the cover of the AGA's left ring. "Or a
cup of tea? Do I bother?"
"I don't think so," I say.
"No," she agrees. "You're right."
"Did Rupert have any other news?" I ask, striving for a definite
matter-of-factness of tone.
"Nothing." She speaks the word nervously. I cannot tell if she has
guessed at my suspicions.
We take an apple, a wedge of Camembert, a plate, knife and paper
towels into the library and sit beside one another on the worn velvet
sofa with the double-depth seat. Near it, facing us from its mahogany
stand in a small alcove, is a century-old globe on which Britain and its empire
have been painted in pink. The hemisphere of Europe, Africa and Central
Asia is visible to us. From England at the upper left to the mass of India at
mid- to bottom right, the globe is splotched with the brilliant hue of
vanished power, remembered glory. I imagine long summer twilights a
hundred years ago when those who beheld this globe--the men who used
this library for an office from which to oversee their estate or who merely
gathered in it after dinner--were, more or less, in control of what they
surveyed; when each day brought to them new reasons for confidence in
the future. My wife is, in many ways, heiress to the anxiety which
followed the demise of their pre-eminence. And
though she and her friends have been bequeathed an attractive sureness
of manner, they wear it more often as armor or decoration than as an
outward manifestation of abiding faith in themselves or their situations. If
truth be told, I believe they are frightened--not so much by change as by
the rate of change lately, the speed with which ways of life are
Again, I prompt Julia. "You were telling me," I say, "about Rupert."
"No. That was all. We chatted to each other for a few minutes.
Entirely banally. Then he went upstairs, completely knackered--must've
all but passed you on the steps."
She has avoided my eyes. I stare at her until she turns toward me and
we both cannot help laughing. "Darling," I say, "I could swear you're up
"Up to something?" she exclaims, irately pinning me down. "Of course
I'm up to something. It's my brother's birthday tomorrow and I hope I'm
up to a lot--which I have no intention of letting you in on because, no
doubt the moment he began to fish for it, you would tell him everything
and spoil the surprise."
"Don't say `bugger that'. You're not English. You weren't at school
here. You shouldn't work so hard to--I mean, you shouldn't use so many
expressions that.... Never mind."
"They slip in."
"And I don't see how they're a bit different from hundreds of
American expressions that are always being appropriated by English
slang. In fact, if you want to get down to it, the American language is the
one that's seductive. The entire American popular culture. The world is
full of people whose fantasies come from America, who want to be
American and modern--not English anachronisms."
"I'm sure you're right," Julia says. "And I'm sorry." The tension of
talking around the point of her discussion with Rupert has affected both of
us. We are slightly disoriented. "But don't forget that my grandmother
"And that I married an American. By choice. If I had wanted a
Guards officer I'm fairly sure I could have snared someone. So don't tag
me as some sort of snob. I like America. How could any woman in my
situation not like it! I don't mean that I mind a bit about Adrian inheriting
all this and my not. I don't. I was brought up to the idea. Any other policy
and Castlemorland would have ceased to exist before I ever had the chance to
know it. You can't divide by three and four every twenty-five years and
hold on for too long. So it's not primogeniture--not any loss of material
things--that bothers me. But look about you--at the pictures. The eighth
Earl, the second Marquess . . . Two, four, six . . . eight family portraits in
this room alone and they're all of men. Granted there are plenty of ladies
scattered about the other rooms, but they do not form a line, except by the
fact that, at some point or other, all of them married into the
Midleton-Lyghams. No pictures of a Countess's mother, few enough of
their daughters, none of anyone after that. It's so peculiar. I suppose it
isn't very different--only less visible--in families without titles. Women,
after all, take their husbands' names, or did until recently--and still tend
to do, I think, even in the States, once they have children. Rut what a title
provides is a kind of right--very nearly an obligation--to trace a single
line; the line of the grandest, most formidable not to mention forbidding
people back through history and bugger, as you would say, whatever
strumpets find their way in, or ne'r-do-well second sons eventually fall out.
Daughters, as I've said, being beneath consideration to begin with."
"Interesting," I reply, wide awake now, expecting more talk but clearly
no sleep before morning.
"What is interesting is to imagine the female lines that have gone into a
family like this one. My mother, her mother, who died in childbirth, her's
and so on. Or starting with my American grandmother, on that side of the
Atlantic, and going back. She was far less dispensable to the survival of
this house, after all, than many of the whiskered gentlemen you see on the
walls." Julia sits forward, places the plate with the core of our apple and
the Camembert-encrusted knife on the coffee table. I lean forward, too,
and deposit our paper towels on top of this plate; and for a moment it is as
if we are about to depart a restaurant. Then, without studying each other,
we both sit back and my right leg is draped over my wife's left and my
arm is around her and she has relaxed her head onto my shoulder. I smell
perfume, the residue of herbal shampoo, the beckoning scent of our earlier
"Are you trying to excite me again to prove that you are still a boy?"
"Oh, I am," I tease, though I have suddenly come to feel unsure, even
suspicious, of her. I must test the extent, the depth of our faith in one another
by making her let go of herself. I must shake her famous control. "Do you
want to go upstairs?" I ask.
I slip my arm around her waist. My palm and fingertips rest there,
then slide along the quilted surface of her dressing gown until they settle
against the shape of her breast. She is leaning into me still, each
breath more quiet, as though the burst of energy which brought her
awake has abruptly exhausted itself and she is again on the edge of
sleep. I begin to stroke the square puffs of wool.
She is briefly passive, then her own hands begin to untie the belt of my
robe and, with that accomplished, to draw its panels open. It is a ludicrous
posture, in this setting especially; but if I feel exposed, I am also curious,
excited by the unending expressions of our physical attraction to one
another, amused by the lengths to which Julia will sometimes go. I bend
my head back, arch it along the top of the sofa, stare at a section of dimly
lit, indecipherable frieze. I take a deep breath. I swallow.
All of a sudden she lets go. Just as quickly her fingers press into my
belly, giving no massage now but a rapid tickle. She immediately shifts
position, straddles me. I abandon my thoughts, my doubts, even the idea of
imminent sex. I am--have always been--very ticklish and the laughter
her hands draw out is involuntary, utterly consuming. It is also the gift of
the child in her, of those not quite tamed, never predictable aspects of her
otherwise disciplined personality. By reflex, I reach for her shoulders to
push her away; but she is bent toward me and, convulsed, I lack the
strength to raise her. The collar of her dressing gown slides lower at my
touch, however, festooning just below the wings of her back. The
gathered wool has the effect of reigning in the freedom of her sleeves.
She looks directly at me, laughs, sticks out her tongue in a silly, girlish, yet
provocative way. And while I concentrate on her eyes she steals the
instant to bring her arms to her side so that the sleeves fall from them.
Now, her dressing gown, like a blanket, descends from my knees to the
floor, bundling about my slippers. Quickly casting off her T-shirt, Julia is
naked, eager, but in an impish frame of mind. She tickles me once
again. When she stops, she stands. Unselfconsciousy, she strides from
the grouping of chairs and sofa toward the center of the huge
barrel-vaulted Adam room, where she waits for me, exactly as she
might wait for a glass of sherry before lunch in twelve hours time.
"Not in your bloody dressing gown," she admonishes even as I have begun to
remove it." That's better."
"What's got into you?" I ask.
"Desire to please my husband," she explains unconvincingly. "That's
all. Of course, if you'd rather, we could go up now. Everything as
usual, with no surprises. There wouldn't be any danger of our
being discovered. No chance of anyone coming in to see you as--well,
not so respectable as they'd thought. Never mind me. We could go back to
our bedroom, back to the safety of our past routine and, since we are a
married couple, make love like bureaucrats. Everything you want as you
want it. No uncertainty. You have my word. No tension."
"Boring," I say.
The library is a long room, with apsidal ends set off behind columnar
screens. In the day it is bright with the light of four great windows and a
central set of doors which give onto an interior court carpeted with
grass and slate and in season, tended crescents of fuchsia foxgloves. At
the center of this cloister, firm upon its pediment, a triumphant cast-iron
figure of Mercury presides, while in the perfectly round pool below it
water ripples in a wind of seldom determinable origin. At this hour, of
course, the courtyard is dark. The moon is obscured behind rain
clouds. And heavy scarlet curtains have been drawn. The room is lit by
the butterscotch glow of a few shaded lamps reflected in the pier glasses
that are set between the windows, and when Julia extinguishes the last of
these lamps it is impossible to see. At once a sense of smell takes over:
centuries of Cuban tobacco, burnt oak and beeswax perfume the air.
Hearing becomes more acute: the dead of night gives off an even,
compelling, monotonous quiet.
Taking my hand, leading me to the Baumbauer writing table which
faces the mantle and whose back is to the set of outside doors, Julia asks,
"Because a hero has to take a risk, succeed in an adventure before he can
win the princess? Is that why you say `Boring'?" This is a favorite theme
of hers and I recognize it, of course, at once. It is an idea she picked up in
a book she read, or a lecture she once heard. I can't remember. But she
has written monographs on the subject of heroes--and especially
heroines--and the adventures they pursue; their stories filled her
dissertation. My wife knows the rituals, the paths exceptional people have
travelled in tribes whose members she has never encountered, whose
terrain she has never visited, or whose spans had ended millennia before
I laugh. "You're not a princess," I tell her. "Is that really how you
think I see you?"
"Partially." She has found the armchair. She pulls it back silently,
taking a seat as my pupils expand.
"How many times do I have to tell you it was love at first sight?" I
demand. "Before I knew your name. Before I knew that there were such
things as marquesses, much less families so eccentric they pronounce
`Lygham' as `lime.' Before I knew about any of this: great houses and
pictures and land, furniture that, because you are a woman, you'll never
see a stick of."
I stand in back of her chair, my hands on her shoulders, massaging,
almost kneading them; my palms slide to the sides of her breasts, applying
the lightest friction before I bring them higher again. There is no draught, but
the room is chilly. And I wonder how long Julia will be content to sit
here--if this is an old fantasy of hers or one she has just conceived. It is
from this writing table that Castlemorland has been run for centuries.
From it the affairs of the house and estate are now directed by her
brother, since her father's recent death. Thus, it is, in many ways, the soul
of the house and its link to the land. The stacks of papers upon it detail the
plans and histories of farming and forestry operations, the sale and
renovation of village houses, the schedules and expenses of gamekeeping,
the dates and guest lists of shooting days. It is a magnificent writing
table--one Julia still calls a bureau plat--its ebony veneers and bronze
mounts and red velvet surface somewhat taken for granted in its utilitarian
role at the center of this masculine room in which Churchill and
Melbourne and Pitt the younger all held forth.
Indeed, the signatures in the volumes of guest books stored in lower
shelves of the north bookcases include many of the most eminent names
of England since Victorian times. And one imagines, upon encountering
them, a house more glorious than at present: the same treasure trove, but
staffed, as it was meant to be, by no fewer than thirty servants inside; its
cellar and larder and coffers overflowing. Our escapade would have
been impossible then--or would it? I wonder. From some moment earlier
in the century, an unbroken party seems to roll back through time,
undarkened by conditions in the nation at large, with Castlemorland as
its focus. Barely touched by the personalities of its
owners, the house seems to have enjoyed a steady, splendorous life of its
own: not the comet-like blaze of Gatsby's mansion, but something durable
and mellow and more beguiling, accumulated out of the long and short
stays of famous men; out of exquisite lunches, dinners and balls and a
village fete held once each year. Beneath my hands I can feel, in my
wife's slow breathing, her absorption of this history as well as her attempt
to will herself--and, very likely, me--into the company of the ghosts that
surround us. Whether she seeks merely to join or to humiliate these ghosts
I cannot be certain,' but it is clear that she wishes to dominate at least one
indelible moment in the history of the room, to be able to see this male
precinct, in future, through the memory of our disrespectful use of it. Our
Still, she is keeping her secret, refusing to share it, whatever it is, with
me as she has with her cousin Rupert. I wait for her to rise, to give me
the slightest tug, some signal. When she doesn't, I repeat "Love at first
sight" in a whisper, adding, "And it was before I knew anything,
anything at all, about Americans in your past."
"Rupert never mentioned them?"
"Perhaps once or twice."
Julia's mention of Rupert's name further unsettles me. With a sudden,
cold cramp in my groin, I realize now that the secret between them must be
more frightening than I had thought. Otherwise, she would hardly keep it
through the intimate games we are playing.
"What's the matter?" Julia asks.
"Nothing at all. I just lost track of my thought for a second."
"Are you cold?"
"Oblivious to it." I take a deep breath, stifle a yawn, sense that a
moment is required before we make love.
Julia looks down from the desk at her own naked thighs. Her frown is
pensive, as if suddenly removed from the circumstances in which we
find ourselves. She has taken my hands in hers and she squeezes them