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Read an extract About the book
  • Published: 7 May 2019
  • ISBN: 9780670920716
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 496
  • RRP: $32.99
Categories:

The Guest Book

Extract

One

The fall had turned to winter and then back again without conviction, November’s chill taken up and dropped like a woman never wearing the right coat until finally December laughed and took hold. Then the ice on the black pathways through the park fixed an unreflecting gaze upward month after month, the cold unwavering through what should have been spring, so that even in April, in the Bowery in New York City, the braziers still glowed on street corners, and a man trying to warm his hands could watch the firelight picked up and carried in the windows above his head and imagine the glow traveling all the way along the avenues, square by square above the streets, all the way uptown and into the warm apartments of those who, pausing on the threshold to turn off the light, left their rooms and descended in woolens and furs, grumbling about the cold—good god, when will it end?—until it turned without fanfare one morning in May, and spring let loose at last. All over the city, children were released from their winter coats and out into the greening arms of Central Park. So here we all are again, thought Kitty Milton, stepping into the taxicab on the way to meet her mother at the Philharmonic.

It was 1935.

She wore a soft cloche hat that belled below her ears, casting her eyes into shadow and making more pronounced the soft white of her chin tipped forward a little upon her long neck. Her coat swung easily around her knees, her upright figure swathed in a foamy green silk dress, the woolen coat just a shade darker.

The taxi pulled away from the curb toward Central Park, and through the window spring unfurled above her head in the elm trees, and down along the walkways the forsythia shouted its yellow news. She leaned her head upon the leather.

Life is wide, girls, Miss Scrivener had bid them all, years ago. Cross it with your arms open. And standing before the schoolgirls ranged in rows, all six feet of her—an old maid, her fiancé killed in the Great War—their teacher had thrown out her arms.

And Kitty hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry.

Well, wide it was, Kitty thought now, spring begun and nothing ahead but possibility. Ogden would be home soon from abroad; the ground had been broken on their house in Oyster Bay. She was thirty. It was ’35. Neddy was five, Moss was three, and baby Joan had just turned one. Her head filled with the delicious math of life—the word flushed up onto her cheeks and into her eyes, broadening into a smile as the taxi moved up Fifth Avenue.

She caught the driver’s eye in the mirror and knew she ought to turn her head away so he didn’t see her, smiling like an idiot, but she held his gaze instead. He winked. She smiled back and slid down on the seat, closing her eyes as the taxi plunged into the tunnel moving east to west, underneath the playgrounds in the park where her children were playing with a concentrated fury against the end of the morning, the arrival of lunchtime, crawling around the great bronze statue of a beloved Scottish poet, perching like little sparrows on the giant knee, climbing (if they were lucky, if their nurse wasn’t watching) all the way up to his massive sloping shoulder.

But the Milton boys were not lucky that way; the Milton boys’ nurse told them to get down, right now, get down immediately and come here.

Moss, the younger, who did not like when grown- ups looked at him with that distant, frowning attention that signaled more attention coming after, coming closer, slid off the statue, too quickly, and landed on one bare knee. “Ow,” he mouthed, and lowered his cheek to the hot, scuffed skin. “Ouch.”

But his brother had paid no attention to Nurse below him, their baby sister, Joan, on her big hip; Neddy kept climbing, creeping to the top of the statue’s head, and was—what was he doing?

“Edward.” Nurse moved quickly forward. “Edward! Get down. This instant.”

The boy was going to fall.

He had planted both feet, one on either side of the great head, the shaggy bronze hair covering the two ears, a foot on either shoulder, and was carefully, slowly, pushing himself up to stand, aloft.

The boy was going to break his neck.

“Edward,” Nurse said, very quietly now.

The other children stopped their crawling, frozen where they were on the statue, watching the boy above them who had climbed so high. Now he was the only thing moving upon the bronze.

“Edward.”

Slowly, carefully, Neddy raised himself, pushing off the poet’s head, wavering just an instant, then catching steady, and stood all the way up. Steady and up so high. Compact, perfect, he stood on the statue’s shoulders, a small being in short pants and a cardigan, now regarding the world of upturned, worried faces below him.

“Moss,” he squawked. “Lookit.”

And Moss tilted his head and saw up through the folds of the statue’s jacket, the great thick hands, up past another boy clinging to the open page of that enormous book, Neddy far above, standing, grinning, and crowing.

If he’d held out his hand and said Come, fly! Moss would have flown. For when your brother calls come, you step forward, you take his hand and go. How can you not? It was always him in the front, going first.

His head tipped, his cheek still on his knee, Moss grinned up at his brother.

Neddy nodded and lightly, easily, bent again and slid from the top of the bronze lump, clambering all the way down, arriving with a little bounce as he dropped to the pebbled ground.

“Your father,” Nurse promised, “will hear of this. This is going on the list.”

She unlocked the brake on the pram and pushed the boy’s shoulder roughly. “The list, Edward. You hear me?”

Neddy nodded. And started marching forward.

Moss stole his hand into his brother’s. Both boys kept step, ahead of the pram, their little backs straight as soldiers. Smiling.

There would be no list, they knew. It was only Mother at home. Father was in Berlin.

 

Indeed, Odgen Milton had just turned off the busy Tiergartenstrasse, thick with its double-decker buses, the determined low-slung black Mercedes entering the wooded park at the center of the city and merging onto Bellevue Allee, which stretched through the Tiergarten in a quiet and solemn line to the spot where he was bound. Almost immediately, the city vanished behind him. He walked beneath the thick alley of lindens in bloom overhead, gathering him immediately in that scent he had tried but never managed to describe to Kitty. Through the black trees along his left, one of the park’s vast meadows rolled all its green way to a distant, flashing lake. And everywhere out in the sunlight and air, in pairs and groups, on bicycles or on foot, there were Berliners turning their faces toward the long lovely end of the day, as they had done since the time of the kaisers.

With the easy grace of a man whose winning stroke was a sweeping crosscut from the back court, Milton made his way through the park, his lineage hanging lightly on his well-formed limbs, the habit of knowing just what to do in any given moment having been passed down from generation to generation. Descended as he was from one of the families to arrive just after the Mayflower (Aristocrats, Ogden, not refugees, as his mother, Harriet, once corrected him), Ogden had been raised with every advantage and told so. There had been a Milton in the first class of Harvard College in 1642 and a Milton in every subsequent class for which there was a young man to offer. A Milton Library was tucked under the wings of the Widener.

With his open American face, his frank American voice, one might think to oneself, there walks a good man. A noble man. He appeared dashing and splendid. He had the place and the power to make good, to do good. And he did so. He believed one could do right. He had been raised to expect that one could. His was the last generation for whom those givens remained as undisturbed as a silk purse.

The third in a line of Miltons at the helm of Milton Higginson, a bank begun in 1850 that sat squarely at the center of the fortunes of his country and now, increasingly, of Germany’s, this Ogden Milton had taken over the firm quite young, steering at first cautiously, then more and more easily before the wind into the broad, lucrative waters of the 1920s, advancing into Europe with the schoolboy’s grin that would never leave him even as an old man, an infectious grin that seemed to say Isn’t this marvelous. Isn’t this something. Meaning life. Meaning luck. Meaning his world.

The Miltons had excellent liquor and an adequate cook, and it was around their table that the men who did not have a visible hand in Washington, but who in the shadows remained most useful to the president, gathered. Families like the Miltons had always pulled the levers of the country in quiet, without considering that quiet to be anything strange, passing down that expectation to their sons early on—in the schools, the churches, the places along the sunlit rocks of the East Coast where all of them summered, from Campobello to Kennebunk to Oyster Bay. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after all, was one of them.

This was Ogden’s second trip to Germany in the past nine months, certain, as he was, that good men, fair play, and the open sluices of capital pouring into the right coffers would combat the madmen and fools. It was why he had invested heavily in this country. It was why he was now walking toward the party he could see ahead of him spread upon the lawn that edged the roses at the end of the broad walkway.

“You must come,” Bernhard Walser had remarked that morning after the two men had signed the papers, the notary had left, and the ink was drying between them on the oaken desk in the enormous green damask offices of Walser Steel, overlooking the river Spree. “It was Gertrude’s favorite spot in all the city.”

Walser turned his head toward the high open windows as if he’d heard her, as if his wife, dead for years, might any moment be coming along the pavement.

“She would have been fifty-seven today,” he mused now.

Milton reached for his pipe and tobacco, touched as always by the older man across from him. Bremen aristocrat, veteran of the Great War, chairman of the Walser Steel Company, in possession of one of the finest antiquarian libraries in Europe, and yet still a man who had wooed his wife, a famous English beauty—and a Jew—by reciting Goethe in a twilight garden in Mayfair. Walser was a man who wore his many jackets easily.

A singular man one couldn’t pin down, Ogden thought, tamping the tobacco in the bowl. Bigger than his britches.

No. Bigger than his cloth. The kind of man Ogden aspired to be.

Fifteen years ago, Ogden had walked out of the gates of Harvard Yard with the men in the class of 1920 and found his father leaning against a new Model T with a smile on his face. Go on over to Europe, for a look-see, he’d said. Invest, he’d said. Find the right men and the good ideas and put our money there. They had shipped the black car over, and through the summer months the lanky American had motored through England, down into France, and then to Germany, arriving in Berlin in the last golden days of autumn, the tremendous heady chaos of the Weimar Republic palpable in the narrow streets and cobbled squares and under the tiny lights embedded in the twining vines above men and women gathering in the open air of city biergartens. Refugees had poured in from the east after the war, and the new breath of strangers, perfumed with yeast and salt, honey and garlic, blew through the city. Talk was plentiful, passions were high, but neither would fill a stomach.

These people needed jobs. And no one had seen what this meant for the country with more clarity or insight, thought Ogden Milton now, as he had at the time, than Bernhard Walser.

So it had been with a clear conscience that Walser had quietly broken the Versailles treaty very early on and, with the help of investors like Ogden, built back Walser Steel through the twenties, incensed by what he saw as a French and British move to keep Germany out of competition, disguised as a false pacifism. True peace was only guaranteed by jobs. The machinery needed to build a strong economy was the machinery of peace, no matter what that machinery made: faucets, hairpins, or, as the Walser Gruppe had begun to do, the wings for planes.

“You must come,” Walser said again, returning his attention to the man before him now. “Elsa will be there. And some others you may know.”

Walser looked at him a moment.

“But you have not seen Elsa this trip, I think?”

“No.” Ogden rose. “I haven’t.”

Walser pushed across the desk a thick yellow envelope, emblazoned on the front with the Walser Gruppe letterhead, over which was stamped the Nazi seal.

Ogden took the envelope and smiled. “There we go, then,” he said.

Walser nodded. “There we go.”

 

Elsa Hoffman pulled the door shut and turned around on the stoop, depositing her key in the basket on her arm. There was no one on the street. No one loitering, watching. No one walking past the house. She turned right, toward the shops on Friedrichstrasse, her heels clicking down Linienstrasse, the sun reaching its long arm onto her shoulder and resting there.

“It is the prelude,” Gerhard whispered into her hair at night, the two of them lying under the open win dow, the night breeze on their bodies, his leg thrown over her, his hand cupping her face. “These are the days of tempo rubato, the tempo off, but we can’t see where the beat was stolen, we can’t see the changes.” Gerhard pulled the single sheet across them. “Wagner knew it—when you steal time from the ear, the body yearns for the order back, inside our chests beats the need to stop this, to resolve—the need to close the open chord.”

“Like this.” She lifted her head from the pillow and kissed him.

“Like that. Or like this.” He pulled her close.

No one followed. She walked steadily, having grown more and more practiced at evading attention. At first the work was only to be carrying notes for Gerhard to the others in the group. Then it became a bit more complicated, though still it seemed like playing, like childhood games. That first time, Gerhard’s brother Franz pulled her aside in the line for the champagne at the Philharmonie and asked if she might sit in the café outside the Hotel Adlon and take a coffee.

She had looked up at him and nodded. “Und dann?

Und—” He leaned to kiss her cheek in farewell, his hand on her waist and then sliding into her pocket. “Stand, and pay, and leave this money on the table,” he whispered, pulling away.

Today she was to meet the S-Bahn at Friedrichstrasse at eleven and simply watch that a man and a woman were not followed.

“And who are the man and the woman?” she had asked.

“You do not know. You should never know.”

She was to wait at the bottom of the stairs and follow the couple holding hands, the woman laughing up into the man’s eyes. Like any couple.

“How will I know it is the right couple?”

“She will stumble on the stairs, and he will hold her tighter so she doesn’t fall.”

It was a play.

Elsa went into the butcher shop first, nodding from the back of the store at Herr Plaut, then to the grocer and the baker. Meat, eggs, potatoes, bread.

Above the street the cathedral tower rose, and the three-quarter bells sounded as they did every hour. As they did every morning at this time, she knew, because she was out every morning, just like this, walking, the basket over her arm. The fear, that was the difference. This is happening. This is no game. You could be hurt. You could be arrested and taken away. For looking wrong. For catching the wrong person’s eye on the train.

If anyone watches you, let them see nothing.

The earlier train hurtled along on the tracks overhead at Friedrichstrasse and the silhouettes of the waiting people on the distant platform burst free and moved like the figures on a music box.

She shifted her basket.

Meat, eggs, potatoes, bread. Now stamps to write letters. The newsstand at the bottom of the U-Bahn station stairs.

“Morgen.” She nodded at Herr Josten.

Distantly, she heard the second train approaching. Ja. Sehr schön, beautiful, she answered Josten, opening her change purse for the coins. The rails above her head hummed.

“Bitte?”

“Your father,” Josten asked. “He is well?”

Ach ja, danke.” She smiled, handing him the coins.

The train pulled into the station on the tracks above.

She forced herself not to turn and look, to take the three stamps Josten held for her, to slide them into her change purse, to nod and thank him, smiling, just as she did every morning, turning away at last, and glancing up at the train only as one would check a blue sky suddenly crossed by clouds.

A couple descended the U-Bahn stairs hand in hand.


The Guest Book Sarah Blake

A sweeping, ambitious novel about three generations of a privileged American family, and the secrets that bind them.

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