Matters of Honor

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2008-01-29
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
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"Terrifically intelligent, moving, and entertaining." The New York Sun "With snappy dialogue [and] intelligent prose . . . Begley paints a memorable portrait of lasting friendship and of the strength required to step outside of the expectations that surround each of us." Rocky Mountain News At the beginning of the 1950s, three disparate young men are thrown together as roommates at Harvard College: Henry White, a Polish-Jewish refugee who survived World War II by hiding in Poland; Archibald P. Palmer III, an Army brat; and Sam Standish, ostensibly the scion of a fine New England family who has just learned that he was adopted at birth by parents he cannot respect. Each seeks to come to terms with his identity or to remake it altogether. Henry's task is especially daunting: He is determined to live as an American, free of the shackles of his hideous past. But reinvention is a bargain with the devil, and over the years each will find that it comes at a high cost, challenging one's honor and loyalty to parents, friends, and ultimately oneself. "Absorbing . . . In full Henry James mode, Begley uses a lucid prose style to dispassionately eviscerate the upper classes even as he illuminates the true meaning of friendship." Booklist "The final moral crisis of Henry's life [is] gorgeously evoked. . . . Begley's analysis of class and anti-Semitism in America is often brilliant." The Washington Post Book World "A moving tale . . . [Begley's] technique demands attentionand richly rewards it." The New York Observer "An elegant novel of enduring friendship." Publishers Weekly (starred review) From the Trade Paperback edition.

Author Biography

Louis Begley lives in New York City. His previous novels are Wartime Lies, The Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, About Schimdt, Mistler’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered, and Shipwreck.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter 1

This is my first memory of Henry: I stand at the door of one of the three bedrooms of the ground floor suite in the college dormitory to which I have been assigned. At the open window, with his back to me, a tall, slender, red-haired boy is leaning out and waving to someone. He has heard my footsteps, turns, and beckons to me saying, Take a look, a beautiful girl is blowing kisses to me. I've never seen her before. She must be mad.

I went to the window. Not more than ten feet away, a girl standing on the grass was indeed blowing kisses and waving her hand in the direction of our window. Between kisses, she grinned, her mouth made to seem very large by a thick layer of red lipstick. She wore a suit of beige tweed, dark green stockings, and a Tyrolean hat with a little pheasant feather. A couple of paces away from her I saw a middle-aged woman, in darker tweeds and a brown fedora. Something about her—the hat? an air of haughty distinction?—made me think of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, about to board the plane for Lisbon. I assumed, partly on account of their similar dress, that she was the girl's mother.

Several undergraduates had stopped on the path leading diagonally to the far corner of the Widener and were gawking at the scene. Neither the daughter's antics nor the audience they had attracted seemed to disturb the mother. But after a few more minutes she said something in a voice too low for us to hear, and the girl, having blown one more kiss, threw up her arms in theatrical despair. They strolled away.

I'm in love, sighed the red-haired boy. I want to throw myself at her feet.

Why don't you? I replied, only half kidding. It's not too late. Climb out the window right now and you won't even have to run to catch them.

Oh no, he wailed, I can't. Why did this have to happen today, when I'm not prepared?

As there wasn't a trace of irony in his voice or expression, I should have let the subject drop. Instead, I told him that, while a formal declaration might be premature, no harm could come of his proposing a cup of coffee in the Square.

He shook his head bitterly. I don't dare, he said. Don't you see how splendid she is? Penthesilea in tweeds! None but the son of Peleus could tame her. I am unworthy even of her scorn.

His face was a mask of discouragement.

I suppose that I shrugged. That or perhaps the expression on my face must have told him that I thought he had gone overboard. He recomposed his face into a bland smile and said, I suppose you are one of my roommates. I'm Henry White . . . from New York.

I had met New Yorkers before, mainly at school, although a number of New York families had summerhouses in the vicinity of Lenox, where my parents and I lived, and in the neighboring Berkshire towns of Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and Tyringham. This fellow didn't sound like any of them. He didn't mispronounce. In fact his speech was oddly slow and accurate, except when he got excited, as during the Peleus routine, with a thickness around the edge of words suggesting a dry mouth. It occurred to me that he might be some kind of foreigner, but, if he had an accent, I couldn't identify it. My notions of how foreigners spoke derived at the time exclusively from the movies and the French family with whom I had just spent the summer in a small town north of Paris. That Henry White of New York didn't have a French accent was quite clear.

I confirmed that I was indeed his roommate and, having introduced myself as Sam Standish, examined Henry more closely. His clothes were wrong; they looked brand-new. The jacket and trousers were of an odd color. Other than that, he was a fine-looking fellow. Is Sam short for Samuel? he asked me earnestly. He nodded when I confirmed that this was the case.

I hadn't had lunch and asked whether he would like to have a sandwich with me in the Square. He said that he had already eaten at the Freshman Union. I went out alone.

Courses weren't going to start for another couple of days, but the dormitories were open, and freshman orientation was in progress. I had assured my mother that I could get down to Cambridge by bus, even with my big footlocker. To my surprise, she had insisted that she really wanted to drive me down. But since she and my father were going out to dinner that evening, she wouldn't have lunch with me. She gave me a couple of bills, the cost of lunch for two by her reckoning, and sped off as soon as I had unpacked the car trunk. I had dragged my stuff into the living room of the suite and saw that I wasn't the first to arrive. Someone's luggage was in the middle of the room. Then I stuck my head into one of the bedrooms and came upon Henry.

After a solitary tuna-salad sandwich at Hayes-Bickford, I returned to the dormitory. Henry may have been watching for me at the window. In any event, he opened the door of the suite before I could turn the key in the lock and said he was glad I had come back so soon. He had a practical question he wanted to ask: Did I care which bedroom he took? He had spent the previous night in the one I had found him in but didn't think that gave him any sort of prior claim. He asked me to follow him to the bedroom he wanted and pointed to the right toward a dark brick classroom building shaped like a whale.

That's Sever, he said, an H. H. Richardson design, and over here, right in front of us, is Memorial Church.

I said that he could keep the room. The three bedrooms were all the same size, and I didn't care about the view. That Sever was a masterpiece of late-nineteenth-century American architecture was unknown to me then, but I don't think that knowing it would have made any difference. I didn't expect to spend much time at the window. Henry, very pleased, sat on my desk chair while I unpacked. When I finished, he helped me make the bed.

The ice had been broken, it seemed, so I asked why he hadn't at least spoken to the girl. After all, she was blatantly trying to pick him up. Henry shook his head and said it was out of the question. The timing was fatally wrong. He might have followed her to find out whether she went to Radcliffe, and in which dorm she lived, but his conspicuous red hair ruled that out. People recognized him instantly. If the girl or her mother had turned around and seen him, they'd know it was he and would think he was some kind of nut who couldn't understand a joke. That would have spoiled everything. He would have to wait.

You're nuts, I told him. There is no possible harm in her and her mother's knowing that you'd like to shake the hand of the girl who took the trouble to blow kisses at you.

He shook his head again. Timing, he said, timing. The stars aren't aligned. I have to wait.

It was none of my business, and probably I should have known enough not to insist on a subject that made him uneasy. But as I was condemned to room with Henry for a year, I thought I was entitled to investigate whether he was a pompous jerk or really deranged.

These questions did not preoccupy me long. Within a couple of weeks, Henry decided that we were close friends—a conclusion I had not yet reached—and he began to unburden himself to me about his feelings with such unsparing frankness and volubility that I sometimes found myself wishing I hadn't done whatever had put him so at ease. Unprompted by me, he spoke again about the girl and acknowledged his behavior as peculiar. It wasn't shyness, he insisted, that had stopped him in his tracks, but a conviction that he must make himself suitable first or face inevitable rejection—not only by this girl and her mother but by every other girl he might find attractive.

And it's not just girls, he said, I mean rejected by everyone here! Do you remember the Raymond Massey character in Arsenic and Old Lace, the one whom Dr. Einstein, the Peter Lorre character, made into a monster by botching the operation on his face? Raymond Massey is me. I too have been botched. And therefore I say: Dr. Einstein, we must operate again!

I said this was more evidence that he was nuts.

He shook his head and said that observations he had made during just two meals, dinner and lunch, that he had eaten alone at the Union, before I arrived to find him standing at the window, had confirmed his fears. He was hopelessly out of place in this world of creatures like the girl or me for that matter. He had watched the freshmen milling about the place, studied their appearance and manner, and saw no one like him. Certainly no one dressed like him. Or, put another way, no one he would have wanted to know who looked anything like him or had equally disastrous clothes.

While recounting these experiences, he laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. I didn't know what to make of this and suggested that his survey of the freshman class might not be scientific. Henry said that could be. But as I would come to see, in fact Henry missed little of what went on and, as a rule, remembered everything. For now he granted my point and reduced his claim: the Freshman Union survey had confirmed what he had already realized at home, before leaving for Cambridge, when his mother was packing the things he was to take with him to college. I was by then familiar with them: a sky-blue suit he had worn at his high school graduation, a tan flannel jacket, and two pairs of brown trousers. His mother had chosen every item, and every item was too large because she expected him to grow into it and seemed unwilling to admit that he had reached his full height. He had begged to be allowed to buy his clothes in Cambridge or Boston once he knew how other people dressed, but she wouldn't hear of it: he was too irresponsible and extravagant, and he had no appreciation of quality. Besides, he said, the way she looks at it, it's my father's money and she is entitled to the fun of spending it. That's how she has gotten me to look like an underage bookkeeper.

By that time, I had gotten used to Henry's wardrobe, but when I recalled our first meeting, and the impression he had made on me, I couldn't deny that he had good reason not to want the girl to see him in one of those outfits. Not if he wanted to make the best possible impression.

To go back to that afternoon, after making my bed we inspected the luggage of our missing roommate in the living room. It consisted of a steamer trunk and a large pigskin suitcase, both so scuffed up that they would have seemed proof of exotic travel even without the stickers of the Normandie, Queen Mary, and various hotels with resonant names that had been glued to them. The owner, to judge by the tag attached to the trunk handle, was Archibald P. Palmer III. The name was followed by an APO address. My father had been in the service during the war, and APO was a familiar institution. I explained to Henry that we would have an army brat living with us. It wasn't the military postal service, however, that intrigued him. He wanted to know whether we should infer from the Roman numerals that our roommate belonged to high society. He was inclined to think so, based on engagement and wedding announcements he had read in The New York Times. It wasn't unusual, he said, to find for instance that Mr. Ebenezer Witherspoon III, the elder son of Ebenezer Witherspoon II, a collector of Americana and a yachtsman, with homes in Cold Spring, Long Island, Manhattan, and Palm Beach, Florida, and great-grandson of Ebenezer Witherspoon, a business partner of Commodore Vanderbilt, was to be married to the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Sperry Rand IV, with homes in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and likewise Manhattan.

True enough, I told him, but as Roman numerals were not unheard of among less elevated classes, I suggested that we withhold judgment until we had met Mr. Palmer.

We went to dinner at the Union and afterward saw, at the University Theater, a stupid movie that I have completely forgotten. A raucous party was in progress across the hall in the dormitory when we got back. Through an open door, someone yelled an invitation to come in for a drink. Having wormed out of Henry over dinner that he had graduated from some public high school in Brooklyn, I assumed that he might be reluctant to plunge into a room full of boisterous prep school jocks. However, he seemed game to meet them, and we went in. I had one beer before the noise drove me out. On my way to the door I looked around the room for Henry. A drink in hand, he seemed to be managing well enough; in fact he looked as though he were having a good time.

Our third roommate arrived the following day in the late afternoon. I was present when, animated by the importance of getting this sort of thing right, he explained to Henry the origin of his Roman numeral. He had the same first name and middle initial as his father and paternal grandfather. That made him the third, whereas had he been named after his father, without a grandfather or great-grandfather also named Archibald P., he would have been Archibald P. Palmer Jr., like his father, the colonel, and he further explained that, had he been named for a grandfather, without an intervening Archibald P. father, he would have been Archibald P. Palmer II. His own firstborn son would be IV, he had decided, and would be called Quartus by the family. I had the feeling that Archie (that is what he asked us to call him) realized that Henry was after something more than a recitation of rules laid down by Emily Post, but for the moment that was all he seemed inclined to reveal.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Matters of Honor by Louis Begley
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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