To Paradise (Hanya Yanagihara)

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XVII

Home! He had been away for only a little less than a week, and yet how strange it already seemed—how strange and yet how familiar, its fragrance of furniture wax and lilies, of Earl Grey tea and fire. And, of course, of his grandfather: his tobacco and orange-blossom cologne.

He had told himself he would not be nervous entering Washington Square—it was his house; it would be his house—and yet, when he reached the top of the flight of stairs, he hesitated: Normally, he would stride in, but for a moment he felt as if he should knock, and had the door not suddenly opened (Adams, showing Norris out), he might have remained there forever. Norris’s eyes perceptibly widened upon seeing him, but he quickly recovered himself and wished David a pleasant evening, adding that he hoped to see him again soon, and even Adams, who was much better trained than the loathsome Walden, involuntarily raised his eyebrows before quickly and severely lowering them into a scowl, as if punishing them for their disobedience.

“Mister David, you look very well. Welcome home. Your grandfather is in his drawing room.”

He thanked Adams, handing him his hat and allowing him to take his coat, and then up he went. Dinner was served early on Sundays, and so he too had arrived early, just past his grandfather’s lunchtime. Being away from Washington Square had made him realize how he had come to measure time by its metronome: Noon was not just noon, it was when he and his grandfather finished their weekend midday meal; five-thirty p.m. was not just five-thirty p.m., it was when they would sit again for dinner. Seven a.m. was when his grandfather would leave for the bank; five p.m. was when he would return. His clock, his days, were determined by his grandfather, and he had for all his years yielded unthinkingly to him. Even in exile, he could feel the old ache of those Sunday-night dinners, could see, as clearly as if it were a painting, his siblings and grandfather gathered around the mirrored shine of the dining-room table, could smell the rich fattiness of the roasted quail.

Outside his grandfather’s drawing room, he stopped again and paused, inhaling deeply, before finally tapping his knuckle against the door and, hearing his grandfather’s voice, entering. When he did, his grandfather rose, unusually for him, and the two stood in silence, each staring at the other as if he were someone he had seen once and then forgotten.

“David,” said his grandfather, blandly.

“Grandfather,” he said.

His grandfather came to him. “Let me look at you,” he said, and took David’s cheeks in his palms, turning his head slightly this way and that, as if the riddles of David’s current life might be writ on his face, before dropping his hands to his side again, his expression betraying nothing. “Sit,” he told David, and David did, in his usual chair.

For a period, they were silent, and then his grandfather began to speak. “I shall not begin where I might: by rebuking you, or questioning you, though I cannot promise I will be able to resist either for the entirety of our conversation. For now, though, I have two things I mean to show you.” He watched as his grandfather reached into a box on the table next to him and drew out a bundle of letters, dozens of them, tied with string, and upon receiving them, David saw that they were all from Edward, and looked up, outraged. “Do not,” his grandfather said, before he could speak. “You dare not.” And David, though furious, hurriedly untied the knot and tore at the first one in silence. Inside was the first of the letters he had written to Edward when Edward had left to see his sisters and, on a separate sheet, Edward’s reply. The second envelope, cut open and resealed, contained another of his letters, and another of Edward’s replies. So did the third, and the fourth, and the fifth—all the letters Edward had never replied to, finally answered. As he read, he could not stop himself from beaming, or his hands from trembling: at the romance of the gesture, from realizing how much he had needed these responses, from the cruelty of their being withheld from him, from relief that they had been left unopened for him to read, for him alone to see. Here too was the letter that Edward had referred to, the one he had had delivered two days before the museum show, when David had been lying in his bed, insensate and tormented, here it was, and many more besides. Here was proof of Edward’s love for him, his devotion in every word, in every sheet of onionskin—here was why he had not heard from Edward during his confinement: because Edward had been writing him these letters. He suddenly had a vision of himself, in bed and staring at the stain, and, west from here, Edward scribbling by candlelight, his hand stiff and sore, each of them unaware of the other’s discomfort, but both thinking only of each other.

And then he was incensed, and yet once again, his grandfather began speaking before he could. “You must not judge me too harshly, child—though I do apologize for keeping these from you. But you were so ill, so upset, that I could not know if these would harm you further. It was such an extraordinary quantity of letters, that I thought they might be from—from—” He stopped.

“Well, they were not,” he snapped.

“I know that now,” his grandfather continued, and his face became grim. “And this leads me to the second thing I need you to read,” and once again he reached into the box and this time handed David a large brown envelope, which contained a sheaf of stitched pages, the top sheet marked, in large letters, “Confidential—for Mister Nathaniel Bingham, upon request,” and suddenly David felt a fear ripple through him, and he held the pages in his lap, careful not to look at them.

But “Read it,” his grandfather said, in that same tight, bland voice. And, when David refused to move, “Read it.

March 17, 1894

Dear Mister Bingham,

   We have completed the report on the gentleman in question, Edward Bishop, and have recorded the details of the subject’s life within these pages.

The subject was born Edward Martins Knowlton on August 2, 1870, in Savannah, Georgia, to Francis Knowlton, a schoolteacher, and Sarabeth Knowlton (née Martins). The Knowltons had one other child, a daughter, Isabelle (known as Belle) Harriet Knowlton, born January 27, 1873. Mister Knowlton was a beloved teacher, but he was also a known and inveterate gambler, and the family was often in debt. Knowlton borrowed heavily from his and his wife’s extended family, but it was when he was discovered to be stealing money from the school’s coffers that he was fired and threatened with probable imprisonment. At the same time, Knowlton was found to be much more indebted than even his family knew—he had accrued hundreds of dollars’ worth, with no way to repay it.

The night before he was to be arraigned, Knowlton fled with his wife and two children. His neighbors found the house almost exactly as they’d left it, though with signs that they had departed in great haste; the larder had been ransacked for dry goods, and drawers had been left ajar. A child’s forgotten sock lay on the staircase. The authorities immediately began pursuit, but it is thought that Knowlton sought refuge in one of the underground houses, likely claiming religious persecution.

From here, the trail on Knowlton and his wife ends. The two children, Edward and Belle, are recorded as registered in a safe house in Frederick, Maryland, on October 4, 1877, but they are identified as orphans. According to notes from the shelter, neither child could or would talk about what had happened to their parents, but the boy did at one point say that “the man with the horse found them and we hid,” which led the facility director to believe that the Knowlton parents were captured by a Colony patrol just before crossing into Maryland and the children were later found and taken to the shelter by a good Samaritan.

The siblings remained at the house for another two months before being moved with a number of other parentless children found in the area to an institution for Colony orphans in Philadelphia on December 12, 1877. Here they were almost immediately adopted by a couple from Burlington, Vermont, Luke and Victoria Bishop, who already had two daughters, Laura (eight) and Margaret (nine), also Colony orphans, though both were adopted in infancy. The Bishops were wealthy, upstanding citizens: Mister Bishop owned a successful lumber concern, which he managed with his wife.

But the early, pleasant relations between the Bishops and their new son were soon to sour. While Belle adjusted quickly to her new life, Edward resisted it. The boy was highly attractive, as well as intelligent and charming, but, as Victoria Bishop put it, “lacked any true sense of industry or self-control.” Indeed, while his sisters dutifully completed their chores and homework, Edward was forever finding ways to shirk responsibility; he even engaged in petty blackmail to coerce Belle into doing his chores for him. Though obviously quick-witted, he was an indifferent student and indeed was suspended from school after he was found to have cheated on a mathematics exam. He loved sweets, and several times filched candy from the general store. And yet, as his adoptive mother emphasized, he was also beloved by his sisters, especially Belle, despite the small ways in which she was often manipulated by him. He was, she says, exceptionally patient with animals, including the family’s lame dog, as well as a gifted singer, an excellent writer and reader, and deeply affectionate. Though he had very few true friends, preferring to be with Belle, he was well-liked and had many acquaintances and never seemed to be lonely.

When the boy was ten years old, the family acquired a piano—Mister Bishop had learned to play in his youth—and although all the children were given lessons, it was Edward who demonstrated the most talent and natural skill. “It seemed to quiet something within him,” Missus Bishop said, adding that she and her husband were “relieved” that their son might have found an affinity for something. They engaged additional tutors for him, and were gratified to see Edward at last applying himself so diligently to something.

As Edward grew older, the Bishops’ difficulties with him increased. He was, his mother notes, something of a conundrum for them; though capable, he was bored by school and began to skip classes, and was again caught committing a series of petty thefts—pencils and small change and the like—from his classmates, which bewildered his parents, as they had never denied him anything he wished. After he was expelled from his third preparatory school in as many years, his parents hired a private tutor so that he might finish his education; he managed to earn his degree, barely, and thence attended a conservatory of little prestige in western Massachusetts, where he completed only one year before taking a small inheritance he had from one of his uncles and decamping for New York City, where he moved into the Harlem house of his maternal great-aunt Bethesda. Both of his parents approved of the situation: Since she became widowed nine years prior, Bethesda’s mind had slipped considerably, and though she had plenty of attendants—she was quite wealthy—they felt that Edward’s presence would be soothing for her; she had always been deeply fond of him, and, being childless, had considered him as her own son.

The first autumn after leaving school, Edward returned to visit his family for Thanksgiving, where they all spent a pleasant weekend. After Edward had left for New York, and his sisters to their homes—Laura and Margaret, who was newly married, were living in Burlington, near their parents, and Belle was preparing to attend nursing school in New Hampshire—Missus Bishop decided she would do some tidying. It was then, in her bedroom, that she discovered that her favorite necklace, a pearl on a gold strand that her husband had given her for their anniversary, was missing. She immediately set to searching, but after many hours, after checking every place it could possibly be, she was still not able to locate it. It was then that she realized where it might have disappeared to, or, rather, who might have disappeared it, and as if to banish the thought from her mind, she embarked upon a resorting and refolding of all of her husband’s handkerchiefs, which she did not of course need to do but felt she must.

She was too frightened to ask Edward if he had taken her necklace, and she dared not mention it to her husband, who was far less tolerant of their son than she was and, she knew, would say something he would later regret. She promised herself she would not suspect her son, but after Christmas came and went, and with it, her children, and with them, or one of them, rather—as she later discovered—a silver filigree bracelet, she was forced to confront her suspicions again. She did not know why Edward would not just tell her that he needed money, for she would have given it to him, even if her husband would not. But the next time he came to visit, she hid everything he might be able to easily locate in a box deep within the locked trunk she kept in her closet, secreting her valuables from her own child.

Of Edward’s present life, she knew very little. She had heard from acquaintances that he was singing in a nightclub, which worried her—not for her family’s reputation but because her son, though intelligent, was so young and could, she felt, be easily influenced. She wrote him letters, but he rarely responded, and in his silence, she tried not to wonder whether she knew him at all. But at least she knew he was with her aunt, and although Bethesda’s mind continued to deteriorate, she would receive an occasional lucid letter in which Bethesda would write warmly and appreciatively of her grand-nephew and his presence.

Then, a little more than two years ago, her associations with Edward came to an end. She received one day a frantic telegram from her aunt’s attorney informing her that he had been alerted by Aunt Bethesda’s bank that large amounts of money had been withdrawn from her account. Missus Bishop left immediately for New York, where a dismaying round of meetings revealed that, over the past twelvemonth, Edward himself had signed for increasingly substantial sums from his aunt’s trust; an investigation by the bank (one of your competitors, you will be relieved to hear) revealed that Edward had seduced Bethesda Carroll’s trustee’s assistant, a plain and gullible young man, who gulpingly confessed that he had knowingly violated company bylaws in order to help Edward secure the funds—thousands of dollars, though Missus Bishop declined to specify an exact number—that he desired. Back at the house, Missus Bishop discovered her aunt cared for but completely unaware of her surroundings or even who Edward was; she discovered as well that small things—pieces of silver and china, her aunt’s diamond necklace—were also missing. I asked her how she could be certain it was her son, and not one of her aunt’s many attendants or staff, who had taken it, and here she began to cry and said that they had been in her aunt’s employ for years, and nothing had ever vanished—the only new addition to her aunt’s life was, she admitted through tears, her son.

But where was her son? He seemed to have disappeared. Missus Bishop searched for him and even hired an investigator, but he had not been recovered by the time she was forced to return to Burlington.

All along, she had successfully concealed from her husband Edward’s lapses. Now, though, that Edward’s activities had crossed into the criminal, she was forced to confess. As she feared, her husband reacted violently, disowning Edward entirely, and, after summoning his daughters to tell them of their brother’s wickedness, forbidding them from speaking to him again. All three wept, for they loved their brother, with Belle especially distraught.

But Mister Bishop remained unmoved: They were never to speak to him again, and if he should try to contact them, they must ignore him. “We made a mistake,” his wife remembers him saying, and although he hastened to add, “Not you, Belle,” Missus Bishop says, “I saw her face and knew it was too late.”

Even if they had been allowed to contact Edward, however, they would have been unable, for he seemed to have vanished completely. The investigator his mother had hired continued to search but concluded he must have left the city, and likely the state, and, perhaps, the Free States altogether. For almost a year, there was silence. And then, about six months ago, the investigator wrote once more to Missus Bishop: Edward had been located. He was in New York and playing piano in a nightclub near Wall Street, one popular with moneyed young society people, and living in a single room in a boardinghouse on Bethune Street. Missus Bishop was perplexed by this revelation: A boardinghouse! But where had the money gone, the monies he had taken from her aunt? Was Edward a gambler, as his late father had been? There had been no signs of such behavior, but, given how much she apparently did not know about her son, it did not seem implausible. She ordered the investigator to monitor Edward’s comings and goings for a week to see if she might glean more information from his daily movements, but these too proved frustrating: Edward never went into a bank, nor did he visit any gambling dens. Instead, his movements were restricted to his room and to a grand house near Gramercy Park. Upon further investigation, this was determined to be the residence of a Mister Christopher D. (I have struck his name from this record to protect his and his family’s privacy), a well-born man of nine-and-twenty who lived with his aging parents, Mister and Missus D., who own a trading concern and are of considerable wealth. The young Mister D. was described by the investigator as “lonely” and “homely,” and it appears that Edward Bishop was able to quickly seduce him, to such an extent that Mister D. proposed marriage—and was accepted—three months into their acquaintance. It appears, though, that his parents, learning of their son’s proposal and strongly disapproving, called upon Edward for a meeting, during which they offered to secure him a job as a teacher at a charitable foundation of which they knew, as well as a quantity of cash, in return for his promise that he would conclusively end all relations with their son and heir. Edward agreed, the monies were delivered, and he ceased contact with young Mister D., who is said to this day to be “bereft,” and, the Bishops’ investigator told me, has made regular and increasingly desperate attempts to contact his former fiancé. (The charitable foundation, I am sorry to report, is The Hiram Bingham Charitable School and Institution, where until February Edward Bishop was employed as a music teacher.)

And here we come to Mister Bishop’s current state of affairs. According to the matron of the institution, Mister Bishop—whom she described, dismissively, as “fey” and “a flibbertigibbet” while admitting he was enormously popular with his students: “The most popular teacher we have ever had, I am sorry to say”—requested a period of leave toward the end of January in order to tend to his sick mother in Burlington. (Obviously, a lie, as Missus Bishop is and has always been in excellent health.) Edward did indeed venture north, but here again, his account diverges from the truth. His first stop was to friends of his in Boston, the Cookes, a brother-and-sister duo who pose as a young married couple for reasons I will return to later in this narrative. His second stop was to Manchester, where Belle was living in a respectable boardinghouse and finishing her training as a nurse. It appears that Belle, despite her father’s admonishments, had remained in communication with Edward since his banishment from the family, even sending him a portion of her monthly allowance. It is unclear what exactly transpired between the siblings, but late in February, at least a week past the date Edward told the matron he would return, the two traveled to Burlington, where, it seemed, Belle hoped to reconcile her brother with his father. Laura, the younger of their elder sisters, had recently given birth, and Belle must have assumed that her parents would be in a forgiving mood.

Needless to say, the visit did not unfold as the siblings had hoped. Mister Bishop, upon seeing his wayward son, exploded in anger, and there was a heated exchange; he had by this point learned of his son’s theft of his wife’s jewelry and personal items, and confronted Edward with this information. Edward, hearing this, made a sudden lunge for his mother, who, even now, remains confident that Edward was simply reacting to the fever of the moment and had no intention of actually harming her, but his action alarmed Mister Bishop, who threw a punch at his son, which knocked the latter to the floor. A scuffle ensued, with all the women attempting to separate the two, and in the melee, Missus Bishop was struck in the face.

It was not certain that Edward had been the one to land the blow, but it no longer mattered: Mister Bishop ordered Edward out of the house, and then told Belle she had a choice—she could remain in the family, or she could leave with her brother, but she could not do both. To the Bishops’ great astonishment, she left, turning her back without a word on the family that had raised her. (Such, Missus Bishop weepingly told me, is the power of Edward’s charm and the spell he is able to cast over those he has seduced.)

Together, Edward and Belle—she now entirely dependent upon her brother—fled. They returned to Manchester to gather Belle’s valuables (and, certainly, her money), and then continued onward to Boston, to the Cookes’. Like the Bishops, the Cookes too were Colony orphans, and, like them, they too were adopted into a wealthy family. It is thought that Aubrey, the brother, met Edward in New York when Edward was living with Aunt Bethesda, and began a relationship—by all accounts deeply passionate and true—that endures to this day. Aubrey was, and is, a spectacularly handsome man of some seven-and-twenty years, educated and familiar with the ways of good society, and he and his sister were all but assured an easy life. However, when Aubrey was twenty and his sister, Susannah, nineteen, their parents died suddenly in a road accident, and when their affairs were settled, it was revealed that the money their children had always assumed would be theirs was nonexistent, diminished by years of bad investments and overwhelming debts.

A different man or woman would have turned to honest work, but that was not Aubrey and Susannah’s way. Instead, under the guise of being young newlyweds, they separately began to prey upon lonely, married men and women—they were indiscriminate about which—of great wealth, often in loveless unions, offering their friendship and company. Then, once they had made them fall in love, they would demand money on threat of exposing them to their spouses. To a one, their victims paid, too fearful of the consequences and too humiliated by their own gullibility, and together, the Cookes amassed a good sum, which, along with, presumably, the money Edward stole from his aunt and was paid by poor Mister D.’s parents, they intend to use to open a silk-weaving concern in the West. My sources indicate that Edward, along with the Cookes, have been arranging this for at least a year; their scheme is that, being mindful of the laws of ’76, Edward will pretend to be married to Susannah Cooke, and Belle to Aubrey.

As of November of last year, the plan was almost ready to execute when a blight killed the majority of the mulberry trees. Panicked, Aubrey and Edward agreed that they would try to find one last source of money. They know that it is only a matter of time before one of the Cookes’ victims speaks and they find themselves in grave legal trouble. All they needed was one final sum, enough to see them through the farm’s opening and first few years of operation.

And then, in January of this year, Edward Bishop met your grandson.

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