Mason's Retreatby Christopher Tilghman, Stephen Lang
This superb novel by the author of In a Father's Place confirms Tilghman as one of America's finest writers. Set on the Eastern shore of Maryland, on the eve of World War II, the story concerns the decline of the once-grand Mason family.
The story, set on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the years immediately preceding WW II, is filtered through the memoriesand imaginationof Harry Mason, whose grandfather Edward had reduced a successful family business to near-disaster and, in the process, all but destroyed such remnants of his family's preeminence and pride as remained intact in his own embattled wife and children. Their mutual ordeal worsens in 1936, when, after 13 years of Edward's failures as factory owner, husband, and father, they return from Englandto the Retreat, "a black hulk of a family ruin" that they laboriously transmute into a working farm that can support the disappointed Edith Mason and her boys, Sebastian and Simon, when Edward again "retreats"this time to prosperity (his firm manufactures airplane parts) created by the looming threat of war. But in Edward's absencenot excluding the absence they had felt when he was presentthe others grow apart from him and also distant from one another, and the downturn in this family's fortunes and fates can't help but worsen. Tilghman's powerful story is distinguished by deep and thoughtful characterizations (especially of the lonely Edith and of brooding, watchful Sebastian), and by an incisive understanding of the varieties of family dynamics that extends even to the smallest things parents and children tend to notice about each other. The narrative has a single serious flaw: Recurring hints promise a full revelation of some great wrong in the Mason family past, but, excepting a single act of insane cruelty, none is forthcoming.
Still, echoes of The Great Gatsby, William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, O'Neill, and Faulkner add further resonance to a novel that stands, despite its flaws, as a stunning individual, achievement.
“Powerful...A work of surpassing thematic seriousness and fictive artistry. In all respects, Mason's Retreat is exemplary.” The Washington Post Book World
“Stately, absorbing...Mr. Tilghman writes [with] authoritative elegance….His book, so rooted in the idea of coming home, makes one realize all over again that here on Earth there is no such place.” Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
“Comes close to pure, exhilarating perfection...Tilghman gives us richly drawn characters, shimmering detail, and an irresistibly moving theme---all presented in a graceful and powerful style.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Rich...bewitching...unforgettably rendered...The pieces in Tilghman's kaleidoscope [are] sharp, faceted, and gleaming.” Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times
“Beautifully written...fully imagined...Few first novels are narrated with the clarity, economy, and masterful assurance Tilghman brings to this remarkably moving and persuasive tale.” Entertainment Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
Mason's RetreatA Novel
By Christopher Tilghman
PicadorCopyright © 2012 Christopher Tilghman
All right reserved.
Harry Mason can picture his grandfather, Edward, on the sundeck of the Normandie, early morning, August, a pebbly North Atlantic mist. He is wearing a suit made of yards of heathery Irish tweed, and the fronts of his double-breasted Bur- berry, flapping slightly, are big as sails. He has paused on the silvered teak decking for a second or two and is looking toward the horizon. His large palms have gripped the cold steel of the life rail, greasy with sea dew. The waves are silver-flecked, broad- troughed; the swell is deep enough to turn walking into a slight climb-and-run, and the stewards and deck crews go about their daybreak duties with counterbalancing shifts of their weight. Edward Mason judges it a mariner’s sea, and it gives him strength to reflect on the timelessness of the scene. He had, until a moment earlier, been quite content and untroubled, but some passing breeze has reminded him of the uncertainties ahead, and now he must gather in his resources for a second or two. He assumes that those who see him in this nautical stance will not guess that he is performing damage control on his dreams. The man is good at this, especially when he has a lifeboat, in this case, the largest and finest liner in the world. Now isn’t that a comfort- ing thought? All around him the crew is at work. The smells of baked goods, of coffee and chocolate, blend with the sea mist into the narcotic essence of food. Edward Mason is one of those men who believe a fine appetite is something to give thanks for. He starts to feel a little better. He calms himself with the image of the outside appartement de luxe he has procured for himself, his wife, and two sons. He has made certain promises, mortgaged all to the French Line for this last extravagant passage, and, by God, except for a little too much vibration from the propeller shaft, the Frogs are delivering the goods.When Harry Mason thinks about his grandfather and his life, it is often in the twin, blended image of the man and this ship as they sliced back and forth across the Atlantic for those few years before the war. He loved that ship, from its whaleback bow to the elegant stepping of its afterdecks; no drowning person ever clung to a shattered spar with more desperate strength than Harry Mason’s grandfather gripped the Normandie. Every thwart and bulk- head adorned with gilt bas-reliefs, paintings by the latest rage, tile friezes, and carved sliding doors. The Normandie, the Normandie, huge but graceful, financial madness, the man’s likeness, his brother doomed to die young.Harry can hear his grandfather’s voice, on this early morning in 1936, bellowing out of the fog. The crossing is in its second full day, and by now the entire ship’s company—stewards, actors in the theater company, waiters—has experienced that voice; even Captain Thoreaux, standing stiffly on the wing of the bridge, has been distracted from his duties by a greeting projected from somewhere near the deck-tennis courts. The crew and passengers must be wondering whether there are two, or even several, of this large figure on board. Was he not taking a nightcap last night in the smoking room well after two, and is that not his voice out here somewhere in the deep mists of the promenade deck? Is that not he taking part in the regularly scheduled Sunrise Deck Walk, drawing close, suddenly a gray form above all the others, plunging forward like the clipped bow of this ship, rigid with turboelectric energy?"A splendid morning," he is pronouncing. The ladies, one of whom is being pushed in a large wicker wheelchair, are de- lighted with his company. Two men amble meekly behind, just in front of three enormous Rottweilers followed by a pair of dark-skinned stewards with brass water cans and fireplace shovels. "I must say, Mrs. Francis"—Mason leans down to enunciate carefully to the woman in the wheelchair—"you were quite right to insist I come."Mrs. Francis is an elderly American who makes transatlantic crossings frequently, always, it seems, just slightly out of phase with her husband, who has business dealings with the Germans. "Your wife and sons are still asleep?" she asks.Mason reflects that Edith, his wife, is always up by now, by six, and usually earlier. This habit of hers had disappointed him when he discovered it on their honeymoon sixteen years ago. As for the boys, he has hardly seen them since they boarded. "My wife is enjoying the luxuries," he says."As well she should," says Mrs. Francis. Her speech is flat and coarse: her words are all business. Mason takes pleasure in language. It was this sort of embellishment, a depth and savor to daily things, that he and Edith had been seeking when they moved to England in 1921."No one gives wives of industry credit for the work we do," Mrs. Francis adds.Her point is wide of the mark. Edith may deserve credit for things that she does, but not as a wife of industry: she has never set foot in the small machine tool company he owns in Manchester, and has certainly never come into contact with any of its employees or products. "Your husband is in the rubber industry?" he asks.She waits for the purser, a smallish but intelligent-looking man, to tell Mason that Mr. Francis owns a large and important tire manufacturer in Akron. Mrs. Francis has taken the Trouville Suite and is regarded by the French Line as a catch."A fine company," Edward says, though he knows nothing about the tire business and the thought of Ohio, that blank American middle ground, fills him with horror. He grew up in Boston and Edith grew up on the North Shore of Chicago."I must say—speaking as a rival—that American industry is a credit to us all.""Then you’ve spent your whole career in Europe . . . ?" she says, inviting him to give a complete accounting of himself. She looks back at the other passengers, who have paused under the lee of the center stack, and then beckons to the steward pushing her chair to continue.What can Mason say? He left the Sheffield School with his degree in engineering in 1916. He put in three years of apprentice- ship in Boston, and then spent a year in England because his father believed the English to be the best engineers in the world, which, from his father, was praise that spoke not just of talent but of character. He came back to America to court and marry Edith, whom he had met when she was studying art in Paris the summer before, and then returned to England, having bought a company, Machine Tool, in Manchester, with his father’s blessing and financial help. Should he tell this woman about those years, when he and Edith shone with youth, an effortless success on two continents, and when the works seemed to chug along with enough of Edward’s attention for him to claim credit for its modest successes? Then the Depression wiped him out. He was able to dance and parry for a number of years more, but now he had reached the end of the line. Not so uncommon a story, not an interesting one to this woman, Francis, who could only regard his failures as deserved. Mason decides to dodge. "Yes," he says. "Until recently my company has demanded close attention.""Naturally.""But I have never surrendered my American citizenship. Of course, my sons retain the right to choose at the appropriate time.""Then you expect to remain in America?""For a year or two, certainly. I own an estate in Maryland. Once the model dairy operation in the East, but badly managed in my absence, I’m afraid. It’ll take some time to put it to rights." As usual, he has difficulty admitting that this, despite all he has tried to do in his adult life, this is where he is headed. For the benefit of his spirits, he adds that the estate has been in his family for almost three hundred years."It sounds pretty dull, but maybe your children will think it’s fun."They continue through the mists without talking for a few minutes, accompanied by a slight squeaking from the wheelchair each time one of the wheels makes a revolution. The junior purser flinches at the sound, as if he fears this most important passenger will have him thrown to the sharks. Mrs. Francis, Mason has observed previously in the dining room, is perfectly ambulatory.Mrs. Francis shifts the conversation to matters that interest her more. "What do you think the English are up to?""In what respect?""With respect to the Continent, of course," she snaps at him. "You’re enough of an American to keep your perspective, right?" This is all becoming depressing. Mason regrets coming on the Sunrise Deck Walk, and he will not do so again, at least not with this woman as company. The politics of England, or of any country, for that matter, is not something he spends much time thinking about. His energies are consumed by his own negotiations and skirmishes. He wonders what to say, whether to try to bluff her, but suspects he will be immediately exposed. He decides to tell the truth, in some form. "My interests are cultural," he says.She is irritated and gets to the point. "My husband is impressed with the new Germany. He believes"—she does not lower her voice in consideration of the purser—"the British are making a mistake throwing in with the French. When was the last time they won a war on their own?"The woman’s ominous suggestion that the British will pay for their mistake serves as sufficient warning to Mason that he’d better cut this one off. "I shouldn’t think it would matter all that much." She looks up at him, and her sneer makes him understand that he is an insignificant industrialist, a man of no vision. Fortunately, they have only a few more paces to go be- fore they reach the railing. They are facing forward, looking down a ladder across the sweeping port wing of the bridge, its polished crew standing as rigid as spars. Mason stares out at the sea; standing here a moment or two will allow him to remove this woman from his mind and restore his interest in breakfast. Mrs. Francis clears her spotted throat loudly and directs the purser to push her back to her suite. She expects Edward to bid her good morning, and he knows he certainly should; more than anything else, his impeccable manners have been his salvation over the past few years, a priceless birthright from his father. But he cannot pull his gaze out of the funneled breeze over the bow; his face is forced into it like a compass needle as they head west toward the New World.During the time her husband has been strolling topside with Nazi sympathizers, Edith Mason has been sitting rather stiffly at a blondwood writing desk, writing a letter to her parents. The entire stateroom is blond—the paneling, the beds and dressing table—and while at first glance everything seems quite spacious, Edith has figured out that this illusion has been achieved by slightly reducing the dimensions of the furnishings; even the ashtrays and telephone are three-quarter size. Edith is not easily fooled, though she usually keeps the truth to herself. She would not remark on this miniaturization in her own behalf—she is only a little taller than the average woman and knows how to use her body, a slender woman whom men might describe, in more recent times, as athletic—but her husband has spent his life banging his head and stubbing his toe and bellowing about it, and she has come to notice any low doorframe and to cringe at any unexpected obstruction on the path ahead.She is dressed in a frayed terry-cloth bathrobe, and her black hair, with its tightly marcelled waves, is lopsided from sleeping soundly on one side; one patch is squashed down to her gimlet eyes. People sometimes think she is Eurasian, but the truth is that her eyes and cheekbones and coloring may speak of a touch of Native American in her blood; her people were out in Illinois and Wisconsin quite early in the last century, not that there is much of the hunter-gatherer, the trapper, or the settler left in her family now.She runs a hand back and forth over her exposed thigh; when she brings her mind back to her letter, she snaps the front of her robe shut and writes, "Dear M&D." Then she stops again. She would like simply to describe the voyage, tell them that Simon, at six, is still young enough to spend his days in the children’s playroom, with its fabulous toys and Punch and Judy shows, and that Sebastien has spent his time prowling about, just as one would expect of a boy almost fourteen years old. But the fact is that her mother and father, home in Winnetka, Illinois, and her older and younger sisters are waiting for meatier stuff, explanations, apologies; they’ll expect it all a few days from now in person when the family arrives for a visit. Edward will be summoned to her father’s office to formulate a plan; she will spend hours and hours with her mother in her garden; the boys will be driven senseless with boredom. Edith loves her parents and forgives them their concern. She’s fond of her sisters, too, even her older sister, Rosalie, who teased her as a child and has never liked Edward. But this visit—the first since the late twenties—is not one she’s looking forward to.When Edward announced, about six months ago, that he had decided to return to America to take over the family farm, she thought he was joking. They were living at the time in a huge borrowed flat that seemed abandoned, even with them in it. Anything would have been better than that, and it seemed to her that he was acknowledging this fact with a rather ironic, though bitter, twist. She laughed, as she had not done in quite a while; when things were good, much of what Edward said was funny. He was a man who sparkled when successful. Oh, she had said to herself, drying her eyes, we do still have our sense of humor. But one look back at Edward had told her the truth."You’re not joking?" "No. I’m not.""That place of that Miss Mary, your aunt or your cousin or whatever she was? Miss Mary Mason?""Bayly. Miss Mary Bayly. Her mother was a Mason." "Whoever," she says; in the best of times she has no patiencefor family. "I thought you were going to sell it.""Dear, I must make decisions about our family’s circumstances the best way I can. This has been on my mind for a number of years now."Edward did not claim to know much about the farm, a vast estate called—ominously—Mason’s Retreat. He told Edith that it had been in his family since the Catholic Masons escaped En- gland during the Cromwellian revolution. He had been there only once, in 1920, when he had been summoned by an elderly cousin he did not know he had, Miss Mary Bayly, to determine whether he was of sufficient character to take over the family seat. Miss Mary was dying without heir and had determined, to Edward’s mild surprise, that he was the next direct descendent in line from the original immigrant. He had spent the day with the farm manager and his wife hearing, Edith recalled, all manner of gossip and gothic family tales. He’d returned quite impressed, though his enthusiasm for the place quickly waned into indifference. What was the name of the farm manager? English. Mr. English, she thought, but that seemed not quite right. Miss Mary died the year Edward and Edith moved to England.Yet, he said, as if acknowledging a truth he had previously resisted, the Retreat was one of the Chesapeake’s great estates. Furthermore, she would be amazed at the ease and the amenity of plantation living, the abundant household help, a life that had not been possible in England for many decades. She would find in Baltimore, he told her, a center of American culture, and he expected that there would be many opportunities to attend functions and balls at the embassies in Washington. They would not be far from the city, he told her. "Even with the ferry ride," he said, adding that Cookestown, Maryland was on the Eastern Shore of the state. Perhaps, he said, they would take a pied-à-terre in the capital. "It could be quite gay, I think.""Oh, Edward," she said. "If you are truly determined to do this, all that matters is that the house is habitable."Edith checks her watch: still before eight. There has been no thumping on the bulkhead from the boys’ stateroom, which may indicate that they are still asleep, although Sebastien may well have slipped out hours ago. He is capable of moving silently; his father has punished him for eavesdropping, but it does not seem to make him change. From the time he could walk, Sebastien has prowled; when he is motionless, he lurks. As their dwellings be- came more and more modest over the past few years in England, he suffered cruelly from the lack of privacy; he has always needed more space than most children, and other children, especially, have a way of making him feel crowded. More than anything, she has taken hope from the thought that an estate in Maryland will give Sebastien air, sky, and land. For herself, she looks forward to light, to slanted rays of it, pools overflowing with it, a radiance of objects, sudden bursts and slow waves, the kind of light she re- members from her childhood on the Great Plains. Edith has spent the past few years starved of light in sunless flats and foggy streets. These are the simple visions that are sustaining her these days, sunlight in this mansion on the Chesapeake, or whatever it is, and room for Sebastien to run.There is a tapping at the door; she recognizes it as the wake-up call of their steward. She goes to the louvered panel and thanks him. She bathes and dresses with some difficulty as the ship begins to roll a little. She does not know that this slight shift in the direction of the sea means that they will be facing some weather over the next day or so. She goes through the door to wake the boys. Everything is as she predicted: Simon is there, sleeping with his small lips slightly parted; his mouth is still a babyish bow-tie shape, and his eyes, restfully shut at this time, are big and kind. His head rolls a little with the sea; the vibration sets his red hair slightly afire. The bedclothes of Sebastien’s empty bed are ragged, twisted and stressed down to the last fiber. She remarks, as always, the difference between her two sons and hopes that she does not love Simon more because—a coincidence in the name—he is so much simpler than Sebastien, in almost every way the dearer of the two.She sits down to pat Simon awake. Simon loves stuffed animals, and there are several in the bed with him, including his beloved toad—his favorite, which is why his older brother calls him Toad. His body remarks on her presence and forms around her like plaster. "Simon," she says, shaking him at last. "Sweetie," she says.He resists; this is one of the few moments of his day when he can be disagreeable."Time to get up.""No," he answers finally. "My stomach aches."Simon’s excuse for everything is a stomachache. "You’ll feel better after breakfast.""No," he says again, pulling the pillow over his head.She lets him pretend to fall back asleep. She looks around this stateroom: blond, blond. The French seem absolutely entranced with the blond look. She waits for him to make his move."Okay. Fine," snaps Simon. He flings back the covers and marches to the bathroom. Edward calls it the head. Last night at dinner he mentioned that perhaps they should buy a yacht, as soon as they were settled in Maryland and the farm income had reached a sufficient level. She did not argue with him about this—she knows Edward values his comforts too much to put up with cramped spaces—but the last thing in the world she wants to do is spend time on a boat. In the last six or seven years she has done all the floating with the tide, the traveling in the currents, she wishes to do. All she wants now is to be permanent for a while, anywhere. The Retreat could be a shack on the marsh, and if no one could come and kick them out, reclaim it because their daughter was moving back from the Continent—as Lord Belsen had done with their most recent flat—she’d be happy."Mother," Simon says when he returns, "I do not like Gov- erness." He is referring to the woman—a Scandinavian—who administers the playroom.Edith helps him into his shirt and shorts. In fact, she doesn’t much like the woman either: when she first met Simon she squeezed him painfully on the shoulder and pronounced him too thin. "Too tin," she said, but clearly what she meant was that skinny red-haired English boys, sallow in complexion and shy in manner, effeminate little things, were not at all to her taste. "Oh, I think she’s fine. It’s just for a few days."He sits to put on his shoes, and she joins him on the bed. "Will we have a new governess when we got to Maryland?" he asks.Edith is not sure of the answer, but she suspects not. She does not want him to notice how unsure their future is, so she teases. "Yes. She is an Indian," she says.The boy’s eyes widen with pleasure; he can be fed all day on small jokes, rolling new bits around on his tongue like new tastes. This is where Simon is lovely. Unlike Sebastien, Simon can live in mirth."You are lying," he says. Lies are funny to people like Simon; lies are pictures: the woman in buckskins and feathers, with a papoose on her back, squatting not in a teepee but in the nursery in Cottingham. He laughs. Edith can see in his merry eyes the pictures as they unfold. When the Indian wants to wake the boys, she makes a war cry with her hand against her mouth; instead of sewing, she sits in the dayroom in the afternoons and chews on buffalo hides. He smiles again, but now he’s ready to move on. "The Indians are all gone," he says."Of course they are," she answers. "I meant that she was a Negro." She’s thinking of Gone With the Wind, which she has read, with mounting dismay and anxiety, as preparation for this move. When she was growing up, a black woman named Florida had come in from Joliet two days a week to do laundry, and she had been a wonder of fashion and manner, by far the most stylish person who appeared in Edith’s girlhood. If this book is any guide, there are no women like Florida in the South.Simon’s brow furrows; he knows that if they have a governess, she could be a colored person. Simon may never have seen a Negro—Edith has tried to recall when he might have, but she can’t—and some of his friends in England, whose fathers fought the Zulus, have told him scary stories.Edith reads all this and recognizes that she made a mistake. "I don’t think we will have a governess," she says quickly. "You boys are too big, anyway."All at once, as if they have crossed some sort of line on the sea (which they have—the quartermaster on the bridge has just watched the barometer lose an inch in the space of three or four miles), the ship begins to heave and roll vigorously. She can hear the whipping strands of wind, and reaches above Simon to close the porthole. The light is silver. "I think it will storm," she says."Fun."She glances at her watch: a few minutes past nine. "We must go. Time for breakfast.""May I have a sweet roll?" he asks.She’s thinking ahead now, to Edward at breakfast, to finding Sebastien; this private moment with Simon is done. She doesn’t really hear him; she nods. "Where is Sebastien? Do you know?"He shakes his head. Of course he doesn’t know. Edith told Sebastien last night, very firmly, that he must not be late for breakfast, that he must be clean and properly dressed. None of these reminders were intended to give him permission to slip out early; she did not want his father to have reason to fault him.Together, Edith and Simon back out of their stateroom and into the long passageway. It is now advisable for them to keep a hand on the rail as they head forward. Edith has hoped to see Sebastien skulking around at the end of this corridor, by the lifts. This weather has begun to make her nervous; she wonders what is really happening up on the decks. Wind, rain: is it slippery and windy up there?She pushes the call button for the lift and as soon as the door opens she forces herself and Simon in. She thinks she should check the grand salon and the smoking room first; Sebastien likes those rooms, with all the mumbled conversations to overhear. When the door opens again, Edith moves down the staircases.She’s good at spotting his sandy-brown head in crowds; she’s had plenty of practice. She surveys the tables and chairs of the salon, but this room is so extravagantly designed and adorned that she can barely discern whether a single human is in there, much less her son. She grabs Simon’s hand tighter and they walk briskly through. There are a few groups, but no Sebastien. She goes through the small doors into the smoking room; heads turn now: a woman and a boy. Edith is beginning to get very worried, and she has no use whatsoever for this roomful of men, with their florid faces and self-satisfied mouths.She must be acting peculiar. Many people appear to have noticed her. Why shouldn’t she be worried? What could have possessed her to give him the run of the ship, a boy who knows nothing of the water, a boy who can’t even swim? He may be bobbing now in the froth of their path, waving for help. She pictures those paintings of Great Lakes shipwrecks that her father so loves—men with their heads slanted against the surface, cries for help in elongated o’s, one arm raised to the lifeboat, already too full, as it recedes into the painting’s back reaches."You’re hurting my hand," says Simon."I’m sorry," she says, relaxing her grip somewhat. In answer, the ship shudders as it begins to plow through heavier swells. Edith notices that stewards and other members of the crew seem to have been called out to secure the ship’s furnishings for rough weather, and she wonders what happens if someone falls over- board. Do they go back and look for him or just radio to other passing ships? She knows the French are wildly proud of the Normandie’s speed records, and she can only wonder what it would take to induce them to lose hours and hours circling around in the middle of the Atlantic.They get back into the lift, and the porter waits for her destination. She looks at her watch again: twenty past. She decides to go to the dining salon, make excuses to Edward, and then continue the search. Edward has never been willing to make accommodations for the children and pouts when they interfere with plans. Even when he was very young, Sebastien used to make himself late, or ask for something at an inconvenient moment, just for the sport of seeing everyone struggle.Edith and Simon are led down the dining room and toward a grotesque statue of Peace. The French seem to love these over- sized females and have put them at every promontory; this woman’s huge breasts take Edith’s appetite away. There, at the base of this landmark, are Edward and Sebastien. Edith drops her grip on Simon and stares at them. Simon rubs his hand. Edith is so busy feeling foolish and angry that she doesn’t remind herself that the last place she expected to find Sebastien was breakfast- ing at his father’s side. Edward begins to rise, still holding on to this morning’s edition of Gangplank, a full smile shining momentarily through the toast and jam. He’s proud of himself; he thinks this is the sort of thing she wants him to do."As you can see, my dear, the boy and I have begun." He beckons toward Sebastien, who is nearly obscured by sweet rolls, jam pots, chops, kidneys, and eggs. Edith glares disapprovingly at this mound of food, which Edward notices. "The fatted calf," he says. He often peppers his speech with biblical references, some quite long and flawlessly recalled, but always as a joke and a revenge against his mother, who had drilled all these passages into his head in the first place. "The return of the prodigal."She looks at him and realizes that he is mocking her, and she does not especially like it, still so fresh from terror. She glances quickly at Sebastien. "I was worried," she says.Sebastien shrugs. "I’m sorry," he says, staring from his deep hazel eyes. She knows it is silly, a mother’s superstition, the fruit of her darkest fears, but she has always felt she should not look too long into Sebastien’s eyes, as if everything were written there. She loves him far too much to want to know his future."Don’t shrug at me. I mean it.""We’ve been having a splendid time," says Edward, interrupting, playing a very unfamiliar role: peacemaker, protector of children."You should have sent him back to get me," she says. Edward manufactures a contrite expression. She looks again at Sebastien, sitting behind his breakfast. He was a big child, a little fat around the middle and rounded in the chin; he’s still big, but in the last year the loose flesh has melted and the fine bones of his face are coming through. He has dressed properly this morning, with a tie that is clean and unwrinkled. Perhaps she has overreacted. This is a rather unusual scene; she would love to have heard these two as they settled into the plan. Edward has given some signs that he will be an acceptable father when the time comes, but will Sebastien accept his father? He is old enough—and perceptive enough— to sense that there is something unjust about his parents’ dominion over him; as a younger child he was stubborn, but now his resistance is becoming more active, part of a larger plan."I want a sweet roll," says Simon. "I should like a chop likeSebastien’s."Edith quiets him, and is annoyed when Edward continues with his biblical reference." ‘It is meet to make merry,’ " he says to Simon, " ‘for this thy brother was dead—’ ""Please, Edward," says Edith. "A classical education . . .""I don’t think making jokes about the Bible is education." "I’m giving him culture, the greatest gift I have to bestow."He turns once again to Simon. "I will explain it to you. ‘A certain man had two sons.’ Absolutely fatal mistake, of course. No winning that game."Simon is now hooked, and he reacts the way Edith expects: he giggles."It’s not funny," she says to both of them.The waiter is standing above them, and she orders a sweet roll and a chop for Simon, as if to buy him back from his father. "The morning is quite beautiful," Edward says. "There is a strange, menacing color in the light. It’s turning stormy, you know." He points to the water in his glass, the liquid surface holding level, rigid as a wafer, as the table tips. "We won’t have any trouble, of course." He reaches for another piece of toast and takes a large, almost splintering bite. He has always chewed vigorously, crunching through foods like soup and pudding that don’t seem to contain anything crisp or dense. His brow furrows somewhat. "That old hag Francis. Terrible." He finishes chewing and then wipes his chin; the huge napkin covers his face. "Has some damn deal with Germany on her mind.""I don’t think Americans will ever understand Europe," saysEdith. "All they care about is Wallis Simpson.""Oh," says Edward expansively, "we shall see. I suspect America has changed a great deal since we left."Edith doesn’t really care if America has changed. Edward left his America by design, fueled by disdain; if America is now a different place, that gives him license to return. Edith left her America rather carelessly, cast it off in an extravagant display of youth. She was only twenty, and moving to England seemed glamorous and fun; that was what Edward promised when he proposed. Her marriage and expatriation had shocked her friends and family in Winnetka, which added to her pleasure, but she had never in- tended to turn her back on them, or on America. In many ways, as the years passed, it had been her family and America that had turned their backs on her."Did you sleep well?" Edward asks, after a particularly long- hanging roll of the ship. A muffled chorus of groans goes up during this hang-time, capped by the clattering of a single silver plate cover."I have been having wild dreams. Don’t ask me to describe them."He reaches over and pats the back of her hand. "Of course you have. We are on quite an adventure."Edith reflects that yes, this move is an adventure, at least, is a journey to a strange place, and yes, that would account for her dreams. She has spent months imagining a house in Maryland, helplessly attempting to fill in the blankness and uncertainty, and this has come out in dream as a visual cacophony. Yes, she thinks, Edward is right. She lets out a long, relaxing breath and is amazed by how much better she feels. As this great ship pitches and rolls through the glittering foam, she’d like to think they’re going to a better life. As reward. For growing up. For being a good mother. For being, at base, loyal to her husband, as difficult as that has been; for trying to understand his pain over the past several years and for forgiving two dalliances—two that she knows of—with office girls, and the one affair that was really not forgivable, the one that in many ways had killed her joy, just the way the Depression had killed his. She knows she must start—must continue—to pretend that there is still hope in her, because maybe the real thing will follow. She makes herself smile, and though it is far from the truth, she adds, "Yes. A nice family adventure." Sebastien looks up from his plate in time to see her take his father’s hand. There is no one on earth, nor will there ever be, whom Sebastien loves more than his mother, but he is not above finding fault in her. It makes him seethe to see her bright, hopeful smile, just as it makes him furious to see his little brother take humor from their father’s blusters. Smiles and laughter are lies in the face of what he knows is the truth: that this "family adventure" is his father’s final disaster. This place in America is simply the remains of the privilege. God knows what it is like.Each time they moved over the final few years in England the talk was the same, as if he couldn’t see with his own eyes that they were on a downward spiral: if the new house was passable, the move was "a new start"; if the house was dreadful, it was "temporary." What, he wonders, does it mean when the move is an adventure?Sebastien is a smart boy, despite an education thus far interrupted frequently by his father’s latest theories or financial set- backs. He knows, for example, that if anyone at this table is playing the part of the prodigal son, it is his father. He doubts that anyone in Chicago or in Maryland will slaughter the fatted calf when they arrive. Sebastien knows far more about this family’s finances than his mother does. He’s seen and read the threatening letters; he’s overheard the desperate transatlantic telephone calls to a bank in Boston; he knows the most explosive secret of all: that without his mother’s knowledge, this last bit of luxury, the crossing on the Normandie, has been paid for by her parents.He listens to them talk about the day. His father consults the Gangplank again, and notes that Design for Living is playing at the theater. There is a hat ball planned for the evening—how divert- ing! An illustrated lecture this morning on Diego Rivera and a talk on German rearmament. "That’s one I’ll avoid," his father says. "Mrs. Francis will be there, passing out armbands.""Simon and I will go for a walk," says Edith. Simon is ecstatic that he will not be sent to the nursery and jumps up. She stands, and immediately two waiters come to help the family depart. One of them brings his father’s coat, hat, and umbrella. The dining room is about half full; at the next table is a French family with a girl about Sebastien’s age. She smiles at Sebastien, and he pretends not to notice.By the time the family has wandered through the tables, and his father has stopped to greet an old man, who seemed heartily annoyed to have his breakfast interrupted, and they have proceeded up the grand bank of stairs and into the cloakroom, Sebastien has broken loose. He is suddenly so grateful to be free that a small, birdlike chirping escapes from his lips. He’s moving rapidly down the main hall past the lifts, up the stairs opposite the entrance to the chapel, past the florist’s and the gift shop. He has no plans other than to continue his searches through this ship: he does not know exactly what he is looking for—he never does—knows only that this ship has a heart somewhere, a place he can touch, an unseen X on the deck or a light shining from within a piece of steel. He has always needed to find this spot wherever he goes; he is haunted by it, especially because there always seems to be one, a place where everything makes sense for him, where there is rough balance. For a few years now he has wanted to explain this to his mother, but he is afraid. He knows it is odd—perhaps he is even mentally defective. He has already searched the boiler rooms, been caught by a stoker, and been brought roughly back to the passenger spaces and shoved into the gentler clutch of a tourist-class steward. He has spent an hour on the signal bridge, where the starched deckhands patted his head and indulged his presence until an officer came and sent him back down.At various times he has come upon his father making his own sweeps, and once, as they were entering the tourist-class gymnasium from opposite directions, their eyes met. His father pretended to be lost and made a large show of asking for directions to the lifts. They did not speak to each other. He wants most to explore the stewards’ quarters, the holds and storerooms. In the cutaway drawing of the ship, there is pictured an airplane stored in the garage on F Deck. It sits, darkened, still as a corpse. Sebastien wonders whether there really is an airplane on the ship, and whether it has a machine gun and can carry bombs. He wonders if there are German U-boats in the ocean. On the weather decks, he thinks he can hear the laughter of their crews coming up from the deep.He’s still standing outside the florist’s, looking down the passageway toward the other shops. The shopkeepers are stowing their wares; deckhands are hurriedly setting up storm railings across the wider expanses of the ship’s elegant spaces. As he moves forward, past the hairdresser’s and the manicurist’s, into the passageways of the appartements de luxe, he observes the stewards as they go door-to-door, preparing the passengers for a storm, lashing down steamer trunks, respectfully suggesting that picture frames, perfumes, and other personal items might be removed from tabletops. There is excitement in the air; everybody seems charged, as if this is the moment the ship will show its every quality. Sebastien knows he must find a place quickly where he can wait it out. The ship is pitching deeper into the troughs, and he knows now that he wants to be up where it is happening.People have begun to take more notice of him, warning him back to the supposed security of his family’s stateroom. He hates those looks, the same ones he used to get in London. The elevator operator eyes him warily, but takes him up. When Sebastien gets off the lift, now up in the ship’s superstructure, he can hear the wind and the claps of waves on the steep sides of the ship. For a moment he hesitates, realizes that he is at the entrance to the winter garden, and decides to go in.The door closes behind him with a hiss. The space is hushed by a deep blanket of fragrances: the light perfume of the blossoms over the sharper musk of soils, the slightly acrid burn of wet metal: cast-iron planters and lead-soldered watering cans. It seems stiller here, with the palms in their glassed-in planters waving only slightly, as if in a mild breeze. The light from outside is a gentle evening rose, which Sebastien knows is a stark warning of trouble ahead.He moves into the center of the room and is surprised to find that a single passenger, a young woman, has been watching him through the vegetation. She is pretty and she smiles at him. Her hair is brown and straight, and it ends in a slight wave on her collar, unlike the tightly marcelled coiffures of his mother and all the other women in the world. When she speaks to him, he can tell she is American. "It is rough out," she says, and then laughs at herself, because just then there is a huge handslap of water across the tall windows.He smiles back; he has to remind himself to speak out loud. "My mother will be seasick. She . . ." he starts to say, but is stopped by the flash of an image: the ship sinking, a battered wreck, but this winter garden, with him and this woman safe inside, floating serenely away from the fray."She?" The woman has not let her face lose its bright, encouraging look, but Sebastien can feel the solitariness of this scene. This woman is alone in the winter garden because she wants to be, needs to be."Oh. She was very nervous when we left. I don’t think she trusts ships.""And you?""I suppose we shall be fine. Don’t you?" "Of course we will.""You . . . ?" Sebastien begins. He doesn’t have anything to say, but he does not want to let her go. She is gathering up her coat and book."You’re funny," says the woman. "You never finish your sentences.""Oh," he says. He looks around this place, hushed like a church yard; he can almost hear the drowsy gong of unhurried sheep- bells. "You are American?" he asks finally."Yes.""Do you know where Maryland is?"Her expression takes on color now; she looks at him a little more closely. She tells Sebastien that she knows where Maryland is, and that a girlfriend of hers at Mount Holyoke—her college, she explains—lives in Baltimore, but she has never visited the city. She lives near Boston herself, in Massachusetts. "Do you know where Boston is?""Yes," he answers. "My father grew up there." "But you’re English?""I guess.""Are you going to visit someone in Maryland? Are you on vacation?" she asks."No," he says. She looks at him quizzically, and he can well understand why, but before this moment, he’s never said to any- one, much less to himself, that they were moving there to live."My father owns a farm," he says finally. "With horses? That will be fun.""I suppose.""You don’t sound very happy about it."He shrugs; he isn’t sure he knows why she bothers to say this. "Doesn’t it matter?" she asks."If I’m happy about it?" "Yes."He shrugs again. His mother tells him not to make this coarse gesture, but often indifference takes over and he does it involuntarily.The woman waits for him to respond further, and when he doesn’t, she reaches for her tablet and pen. She gets up just as the ship plows deep, and for a moment she grabs the air, and then latches on to his arm. Her hand, where it brushes his wrist, is hot as a coin. She wedges her legs between the table and the chair. "Why don’t you come back with me? We’ll find your father.""No," he says. "Thank you."She gives him a wary look. "Can I trust you?" she asks."Yes. I shall be careful.""Later on will you have tea with me?" she asks, and he nods, which satisfies her enough to leave him.He goes to the windows and looks out over the bow into the blackening sky. The changes are happening fast. He sees now that there is a deck area forward of the winter garden that ends with a high wavebreak to take care of weather coming over the bow. That is what is happening now—green seas breaking like thunder; when the ship rolls into the troughs, wave tops rise high above the smokestacks and spars. But this deck area, a broad expanse of silver planking, seems dry and secure. He forces open one of the doors and looks out over a hatch cover. The wind tears at his tie and his coattails, and the air is brittle, and dense with change; he is immediately soaked by a spray so fine and sharp that it doesn’t even feel wet. He sees where the side-deck railing meets the brilliant white steel of the wavebreak, and he knows that it is right there, half in the wind and half out, that he wants to stand. There are lifelines strung on stanchions out to a door in the center of the break, and railings from there. He sets out into the wind and the whistle, leans hard, and keeps pushing forward until he hits the protection of the break, and suddenly he is becalmed, the plowing of this great ship into the storm is at balance in this sheltered spot. This is what he has been looking for. When there is a snap of wind that eddies around the deck, he hears the voices of the crewmembers who have been sent out to retrieve him. He looks back and above, at the bridge, and sees that officers are pointing and shouting at him. He doesn’t care, he has made it now to his spot, and he’s holding on to it, with a roaring ship behind him and an endless gray expanse ahead. He is finally at that place beyond human inven- tion, and he is being lifted, by the huge waves and that tiny bow, by the muscular hands of the crewmen who are now trying to pry him away, by a momentary flight of his soul. Sebastien has never, ever, felt more free, and he knows that with a small wriggle of his arms he could escape the grasp of the cursing crew- men, alight the rail, and jump out over the water so far that only God could follow his flight.And this is where Harry Mason pictures Sebastien, his uncle, as a young boy, in the grip of foreign-speaking strangers who are fighting their way back across the foredeck to the illusory security of the superstructure. This is what Harry imagines to be true. The rest he knows. How the Normandie, whose Blue Ribbon was then flying on the Queen Mary but was soon to be retaken, completes this crossing in yet another splendid display and de- posits the family in the New World. In a few short years, those glorious salons and promenades, half submerged in the fecal muck of New York Harbor, will be cut off like gangrene, as if a thousand stewards had never served there, as if orchestras and theater companies had never performed there, as if no one had ever made love, or been denied love, in those beds now foul with harbor water. The seas will become what they have always been throughout history: a place for war, choppy with shattered debris, with weathered lifeboats carrying skeletons in the tradewinds. This war will save more than one failed career and rebuild, almost to earlier levels, thousands of family fortunes. This war, which nobody wants but everybody needs, is waiting ahead not like a storm or like a fire but like a promise. Harry knows what is to unfold in an old wreck of a house in Maryland, and knows that these events will haunt his father, Simon, for the rest of his life. Harry knows that this story, told to him over and over again for reasons that he can barely imagine, is now his to tell his own children, to be taken well or badly, to be believed wholly or in part, like a kiss.
Copyright © 1996, 2012 by Christopher Tilghman
Excerpted from Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Tilghman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Christopher Tilghman's stories, collected in In a Father's Place (Picador), have appeared in The New Yorker and many other publications, and several have been selected for The Best American Short Stories anthology. He lives in Massachusetts with his family.
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