Another short chapter to round out your weekend.
She was halfway through her senior year, at Radcliffe, when the bottom fell out of the stock market, and the panic that gripped the nation seemed to ripple across campus for days and days. When things finally settled down, Claire, like most people in the country, finally realized just how terrible conditions had become across the land, from the so-called “dust bowl” all the way out to California, but in Boston, as well as New York, conditions in the nation’s financial centers carried on with much less effort than was popularly imagined. Wealthy people continued getting wealthy, in other words, and as a result the Wilkinson family suffered not at all. Indeed, as Charles would soon point out, the family’s fortunes had increased significantly, thanks to some timely advice he received prior to the crash.
Yet Claire was not at all interested in those wheelings and dealings. She had, during her second semester as a ‘Cliffie, become interested in the world beyond music. She had her first opportunity to study advanced mathematics at Cambridge, which led her deeper into physics and chemistry, and when the country began to convulse as stock markets crashed she found herself immersed in the study of high energy physics – until news of that other world intruded.
Then she read about the effects of the crash spreading not only across the country, but around the world. She listened in history class as her professor talked about the implications of reparations imposed in Germany after the war in Europe, and about how cycles of reinvestment, between American and German banks, would soon grind to a halt. The ruinous inflation that had visited the Weimar Republic in the early twenties would return, her professor warned, and when that happened there would be trouble. Real trouble.
Because there were violent opposition parties in Germany now, most problematically the National Socialists – who were anything but socialist. He made mention of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, which had taken power in 1921 by forming a tight alliance between fascists and existing corporate power structures in the Italian state, and he cautioned that German industrial might – if incorporated into a fascist regime – would prove ruinous to the aims of the League of Nations. If liquidity in the financial markets dried up, as it surely would in a crisis of this magnitude, there would be war in Europe again, and soon. Within ten years, he promised.
And Claire thought about this professor’s claims as she walked from class that afternoon.
What would war mean – to her, and to the future?
For the next few weeks she thought of little else, and when she went home for Thanksgiving she sat one evening with Charles and they talked about what she’d learned in class. They sat alone, in the library, and she talked for an hour or so – while her brother listened.
“The things your professor talked about, the collapse of reinvestment markets, is already happening. Inflation is already a concern.”
“So, hyper-inflation, rise of a populist, people’s party? You think that’s inevitable, too?”
Charles sighed, shook his head. “No, not inevitable, but probable. I’m just a junior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but we’re getting the same briefings Hoover gets, and the specter of inflation has the President spooked. He’s practically begging the French and the British to relax terms of the treaty, but as their banks begin to lose liquidity they’re actually talking about accelerating German reparations payments. It’s insane but Mussolini is eating it up, pumping money into the National Socialist Party in Munich. If Hoover can’t reverse this trend, I’d say your professor is dead on.”
“Actions have consequences.”
“You’re damn right they do!”
“What do you think I should do now?” she asked.
“What are your options?”
“Get married, or go to graduate school.”
“In physics? Do they even let women in those programs?”
She looked away, shrugged. “It’s not impossible. My advisor wants me to, and he told me there’d be no problem getting into Harvard, but he thinks Princeton is where the action’s at.”
“What kind of action?”
“The physics of high temperature reactions.”
“And…what are you not telling me?”
“Theoretically, there are weapons applications. There’s a physicist over there, in Germany. Heisenberg, who is a leader in the field.”
“What kind of weapons?”
“Possibly – bombs. It’s a long way off, and even the physics may prove questionable.”
“And you’re studying this stuff?”
“No, not really; it’s more like I’m learning the theory behind what’s taking shape. The real work, if it gets that far, will be happening at places like Princeton, Chicago and Berkeley.”
“Why don’t you go to California? Weather’s nice, and that would give me an excuse to visit you out there. And…you’ll be far away from this mess in Europe.”
“That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking.”
“Well, let me know when you get in. We’ll go out together and get you settled.”
“What happened to that Cartwright girl? Not rich enough for you?”
Charles turned red. “Oh, her family is wealthy enough, but her old man is a staunch Hoover supporter. He’d murder Stephanie if she married a Democrat.”
“Father would murder you for running as a Democrat.”
Charles laughed, a little, as the thought played out across his face. “Yup, he would’ve. Do you ever miss him? I mean, I know he wasn’t really…”
“Oh, I miss him. And yes, he was. I was seven years old when that ship went down; I can barely remember my father now.”
“Do you remember that dream? The one…?”
“Do you still have – dreams – like that?”
She turned away.
“Claire? It’s not like you to keep things from me.”
“The Navy Yard fire. I saw that coming, and Rupert’s death, too. I tried to tell him, but…”
“He shut you down. He never believed in all that stuff…”
“I believe what I saw. Amanda does, too. Mother and Liz? I think they’d be more inclined to believe you’re a witch of some sort…”
And they both laughed. Nervous little laughs.
“Well, we’d better go see how that bird is cooking…” he said at last.
“I hope you’ve learned how to carve; after last year’s debacle…”
“Ouch…say no more… Anyway, it’s your turn…”
By Christmas it was clear the coming recession would be deep and prolonged, and Charles talked with Claire about a man named Hitler.
In July, she and Charles took the train across the country to California, where he proposed to buy her a rambling bungalow on a hill overlooking the bay.
After a night and a day crossing to Chicago, she and Charles finally boarded Union Pacific’s Overland and settled into the Pullman car for their journey. A porter brought them cups of beef broth before the train left the ornate station, yet Claire could see the effects of the Crash on the platform below: children begging, indifferent business men walking past with not even a glance, the station restaurant advertising soup for a penny, hamburgers for two cents, forgotten men sitting by the entrance – hoping for a handout.
“It’s awful out here,” she said, looking at the shattered landscape, this evolving land of broken dreams. “It’s worse than Pittsburgh, and I never thought I’d see anything like that in my life.”
“You should hear what we’re being told about conditions in Germany.”
“Why isn’t more in the papers?”
“Oh, I suspect we’ve had enough problems of our own. Enough so that the powers that be assume we wouldn’t be interested enough to give a damn.”
“This is awful, Charles. Just awful. A few years ago…all these people hard at work. And now, look at them. Reduced to begging for food, begging for their survival.”
“You took Tillerman’s economic geography class. You know the score. This is just dialectical materialism playing out before your eyes. Systemic imbalances seeking distributive realignment…”
“Don’t blather on with that jargon, Charles. Look out this window, look at the reality behind your textbook analyses, look at the toll in human suffering, the real cost behind all these economic rationalizations…”
“It’s the same story it’s always been, Claire. The same processes that have been going on for thousands of years, and with each iteration we improve, we progress.”
“But the cost…?”
“One generation is sacrificed, the next three or four will benefit, then comes the next realignment, the next round of suffering…”
“What? And then what? Another Golden Age?”
“We either progress or we stagnate. We take chances, or we wither.”
“Is it really as simple as that?”
“No, of course not. That’s why there are political parties fighting it out over what the road to progress looks like. Now we have trade unions fighting it out with capital…but who knows what tomorrow will look like…?”
The train jerked and billowing clouds of black smoke filled the platform, then cinders were raining down on the panhandling children as the huge steam engine chuffed away from the station. A boy standing on the bricks below their window looked up at her, and she watched as black dust settled on his brow – then she waved at him, and tried to smile.
He turned and walked away, and she wondered what it must be like to be so hungry you had no energy left for even a simple gesture – and she wondered why the boy reminded her of her father. Her real father.
Wyoming was the same, but darkness was coming on now and most children were gone from the platforms that glided past. Yet she saw squalid encampments outside each little town the train passed through, the same scarecrow children she’d seen in each big city they stopped in, and their porter brought them drinks while she looked down at the passing scenes.
But hadn’t the Titanic been the same? The “unsinkable” Titanic? A few first class passengers cloistered above thousands of steerage class cattle jammed in tight spaces below the huge ship’s waterline? She wondered what had become of those people? Had they drowned with the rats that fled from the icy water as it swept through the cargo hold? Had they not even made it to the boat deck? Did those people ever make it to the boat deck, so to speak; did they ever really have a chance? Or did wealth conspire to keep them down with the rats?
They had a dinner of roast beef and creamed spinach, with a fat round Yorkshire pudding fresh out of the oven rounding out the feast, yet she found she had no appetite for such things that night and only picked at her food.
“You should eat your dinner, Claire,” Charles said softly, as always aware of her every passing mood. “They simply throw away whatever’s left.”
She nodded her head and picked at her spinach a while longer, then she gave up and pushed the plate away.
“So, have you decided to join an order?” he asked. “Steal away into the night, fall into a life of splendid isolation and moral contemplation?”
She smiled at her brother, this man who was really anything but. “What about you? How are you going to weather the storm?”
He looked away for a moment, lost in thought, then he turned back to her. “I’ve applied to the Department of State for a posting to Germany.”
She tried to hide her surprise, but failed: “You…what? You’re turning your back on politics?”
“For the time being, yes.”
“Berlin is the fulcrum, the pivot point of history right now. I want to be there. I want to watch what happens, if only so I can better understand the forces shaping our world.”
“And then what?”
“Someday I’ll return, perhaps run for the Senate.”
“And then…for president?”
He smiled. “You’re being presumptuous, aren’t you?”
“No, just making plans.”
The train slowed for the next station and she looked at the platform as it stopped, and she saw another boy standing down there, standing under a gaslight. Moths circled the light, and they circled the boy’s face too, but he ignored them – and looked directly into Claire’s eyes.
“Who is that?” Charles asked as he watched the scene unfold.
“He looks like my father, when he was young. He was in Chicago, too.”
“What? The same boy?”
“He must be traveling with us on this train…”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he isn’t.”
He watched Claire now, suddenly very aware of everything she said and did. She was in that place again, that place he found her in on another night, after the dream – yet now she simply stared at the boy on the platform.
She reached out for him, but the glass window kept them apart, then Charles watched as the boy reached out for her too, just as the train began pulling away from the station…then she turned to her brother.
He’d never seen such fear in his life. Fear, locked in her eyes, like a moth caught in the glare of an open flame.
She swallowed, hard, as she looked into Charles’ eyes, and she began to breathe more deeply, a little quicker, too.
“Claire? What is it?”
She stood and ran from the table, and he quickly followed.
She was standing with the lookouts in the crystal cold night, and she watched the reflections of stars on the mirror smooth sea while she tried to ignore the cold.
“Oh my God…” the lookout sighed, then he turned for the bell and began ringing it, then he was on the growler, shouting for the officer on watch in the wheelhouse.
“Iceberg, dead ahead!” the seaman yelled, and she turned and looked at the slowly building pandemonium as the ship woke up. Then she turned back and looked at the berg, willing the ship to turn, faster, even as she knew how this would end – again. But no, something was different this time.
The ship simply didn’t turn at all, and the seaman by her side groaned – and when she looked at him she saw her father standing by her side.
And then the bow of the great ship slammed into the iceberg, a frontal collision of such colossal force that the bow simply crushed inward – then fell away. Their lookout tower tore away too, and they fell on top of the wheelhouse just as an avalanche of ice rained down on them.
“Oh, God, it hurts!” she screamed, then she felt someone shaking her, and lights coming on in the darkness.
She opened her eyes, saw Charles and the Pullman porter standing over – shock and fear in their eyes. She looked at her hands and found they were covered in blood, and her berth was awash in briny ice.
(C) 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com