<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <i>My father walked with me up from the shore at Drake's Bay. It was early spring, still a bit blustery along the coast, but we'd made it mostly under sail until the wind abruptly failed and the sea, never exactly quiet, became indecisive. We anchored and rowed in, where the grass was deep and lush and the elk barely glanced up from their dinner. From the ridge top the schooner looked a masterpiece of the traditional boat builder's craft, a model on a scratched glass tabletop, a museum specimen. We sat, and Dr. Thomas Storey took out his pipe and his oilskin tobacco pouch, and I smelled Prince Albert and the north Pacific Ocean. There was nothing else beyond the bay and its landscape, no other boats, people, cars, or structures, apart from the idle fish pier and shed. I was young, maybe sixteen or seventeen; we'd made this trip many times, and I never knew why, at least not until recently, this was the one I'd remember years later. "So, what are you going to be?" he asked. <p> I wanted to annoy or test him and I said "rock musician," though I didn't play an instrument and hung out with a totally different crowd at school. He nodded but I thought he hadn't really listened; he was the most distant man I'd ever know. "If you choose to study history, Ethan, remember this. No matter how far away or how far back you go, it's always with us, every minute, and every evil and every blessed thing anyone has ever done."</i> <p> <p> On that autumn Sunday, Kay and I walked once again past the Williams Institute. It was a cumbersome stone structure just visible to passers-by on Arlington Street. You had the sense it had once been imbedded in its hillside with pretensions of permanence; then, as with other human foibles in California earthquake country, soil creep was expelling it like something the Berkeley Hills had eaten by mistake. We couldn't see much more than the bulging retaining walls, concrete green and scaled, cracked deeply and wet to the touch, but the building's upper floors gave it all away: swaybacked or hogged up depending on where you looked, furred by windthrow from the deodar cedars and capping a few asymmetric and undersized windows. We always noticed the place because the steps leading up from the street often had strange, found-art objects like old sporting trophies or castoff clothing, neatly folded. And because it felt unsafe somehow, and scary in a B-cinema sort of way. But we were curious nonetheless. <p> We were on a regular routine of aerobic walking in those days. The truly aerobic part was long gone by then, but we stuck with it for the companionship; two people in love who seem to show it best when sharing views of architectural detail, or French lupines and bougainvillea or the mossy, morose oaks along the way, making up stories about where the roaming housecats were headed or discussing what we might have for breakfast. That day we stopped for coffee and a shared newspaper in Kensington. It was early and the town center just starting its mellow, upper-middle-class rhythms of brioche and strollers and L.L. Bean, the first week of October, California in suspended summer that can last till Christmas in some years. When we'd found a table outside with the right combination of sun and shade we disassembled the <i>Chronicle</i> in our usual fashion, real-estate section for her and me sorting through everything else, for something of interest to a historian. <p> "Ethan," she said after a moment and without preamble, "it's for sale." Kay's dark hair fell forward slightly when she read the paper in her usual pose, newsprint spread out on the table and pinned down by her elbows, fingers netted beneath her chin. There was something about <i>real estate</i> that made her young and sexy again, not terribly odd for a woman who'd spent years living aboard a sailboat in San Francisco Bay with no special affection for the nautical life. The walks often ended with wistful visits to open houses. It made me feel guilty, but only to the point of wanting to indulge her. She'd never asked to move ashore, not directly. However, neither of us was still young. "The Williams Institute. They're open today. We should go." I paused long enough for her to say: "You're thinking of something else you have to do." She made a little noise like an alarm going off. "Too late." <p> "No, no. I'd like to go, really." She smiled, knowing I'd like a lot of things better. <p> The open house wasn't until one, and it was quite warm when we'd retrieved the distant car and found a place to park. The hills on the east side of San Francisco Bay seem to rumple upwards about as fast as they slump downwards towards the sea. Between tectonics, or whatever it is, and the long Indian summer, the clear air and our mood, it seemed in the moment that we would live forever, that we had ample time to dawdle over a 1920s folly of a manor house no one would ever think of buying. We knew it was called the Williams Institute only because beside the precipitous driveway the barely readable name had been etched into the concrete, in a shallow cove in the wall that also contained a splintered redwood bench. We had no idea, nor had ever tried to find out what it might have been, though it seemed fitting that such a large, odd place had a label. We walked up the drive under a canopy of softly chattering eucalyptus leaves overhead and finally saw it in full frontal exposure. Georgian, I suppose, if Georgians could be in ivy-ravaged stone instead of brick and have a gambrel roof. The front was that plain expanse with identical nine-over-six pane windows, a high, relatively narrow box with a cupola on top and a chimney at each end. In short, a house both noble and decrepit, and boring. I'd been expecting something more cinematic. <p> I said, "I don't see any signs." Normally open houses go to great lengths to advertise themselves and their smiling agents. Bay Area real estate has much in common with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, even in down times, and can be entertaining for its frantic display and competitive commotion. This was exhausting or sort of fun, depending on your energy level and provided that you yourself have someplace to go home to. <p> "Door's open, though," said Kay, always the braver one in these situations, and strode through. Inside, the temperature dropped ten degrees. It was surprisingly well kept given the outside, 1940s ponderous furnishings and oriental carpets in a large foyer that ended in a staircase. There was something of Julia Morgan here, William Randolph Hearst's architect, noble arches defining the rooms beneath barrel-vaulted ceilings, and smooth, tea-brown tiles under the carpets. The wainscoting was a dark mahogany and what light there was came from a stained-glass window on the staircase. It was hard to tell the function of the room, unless its function was reception, like the entry of a small hotel without a front desk. A young woman with sharp, severe Berkeley-intellectual features and cropped sandy hair was sitting in a wingback chair and somehow in the poor light reading <i>Architectural Digest</i> magazine. <p> "Can I help you?" she asked without rising. Kay introduced us, said that we lived in Kensington, had always been curious about the property and, oddly, that we were retired, none of which was especially true, some of it patently false, all suggesting that we were serious people. There was a general atmosphere of play-acting on both sides when visiting open houses, or so Kay had informed me the previous time she made up a good story. <p> "I'm Karen Molina, the resident curator." A trace of accent; southern European, but there was little darkness about her open and friendly face. She looked a little like Meg Ryan. Kay asked if that meant people lived here, the surprise evident in her voice. "No. I should have said `property manager,' except that I stay here occasionally. The house is owned by a European family who never come to the states. I am a post-graduate at UC and keep things tidy and academically organized for the times when they consider selling." No hurry to leave the security of the University of California, I noted, but spending a decade there after getting a Ph.D. at Berkeley was not unknown. It had taken me about that long to get started on life. <p> "The Williams family?" <p> She rose to shake our hands. "How do you do? The Willems, actually." She spelled it carefully. It was odd we'd looked at the stone sign all this time and never read it correctly. "Yes, but two generations away from the one that started the institute." She looked from Kay to me with an expression of amiable calculation, then asked if we'd like to see it. We paused at the turn of the staircase, under a stained glass in the shape of a rose, as if she thought we'd need a rest. "The institute part was never fully realized, but you'll see how it was set up for resident scholars. History, as you'll guess from the collections." Kay tugged my sleeve. <i>History, honey. Your thing.</i> We reached a long, balconied landing that faced the back of the building and was the recipient of most of the rose's pinkish light. Also darkly wain-scotted, it connected two very large rooms the size of elementary school gymnasia and two capacious suites of rooms at each end. The rooms at the end were identical opposites, four-poster beds facing the fireplaces, sitting rooms and baths adjacent. One was obviously Karen's, with a computer on a Duncan Phyfe satinwood sewing table and an MP3 player on the bedside table. No TV, however. Karen apologized for a mess that didn't exist and walked us to the southernmost door of the two center rooms. "Get ready to sneeze from the book dust." <p> The sun—we were now facing west through one of the dormers at the bay and the late afternoon—cut a swath through the dust, which wasn't bad at all, just enough to get my allergy started. But the room had the deep spicy smell of old books: a little like balsamic vinegar, I'd always thought. Besides two leather chairs and long tables covered with sheets, there was little but books in the room. In the angular light they were furnishing enough, not just shelves along the walls, laddered to the high arch of the ceiling, but freestanding as shelves human-proportioned and other smaller shelves like end tables near the chairs. <p> I was already thinking about football on the small TV over our chart table. I'd had a life of too many books, and the boat had shelf space for about six of them. It did not seem like Kay's kind of place either and I expected her to say something polite and resigned, already thinking of another house to visit before the universal closing time of four o'clock. But instead she was all cornices and floor tiles with Karen, and they chatted in the way women strangers do, polite and bright, the kind of conversation men savor as long as they can stay out of it. <p> The other room had no dormer window but a relatively recent skylight addition. It was large but dwarfed by the size of the space it tried to illuminate. Absent the dormer, the shelves went all the way around. There was more of the beauty of books here, embraced by them. There was a comfortable oriental rug on the floor, facing couches with a library table with low bankers' lamps. By the bindings, I saw that these books were much older. I glanced around for the appropriate equipment and found it: humidity and temperature controls. If Kay expected me to be drawn in, I was determined to disappoint and stayed mute; so she asked Karen what was the nature of the collection. <p> "Fifteenth- to seventeenth-century first editions, mainly. Never very well organized, I'm afraid. But they are valuable I know, and are not for sale along with the house, of course. They'll go to the university or to private collectors at auction." <p> We returned downstairs and viewed a kitchen straight out of Dickens, great soapstone sinks for the plucking of chickens and washing dirty dishes for ten dinner guests, and a stove just barely electrified. No place to sit and chat. A room off each end of the foyer, walls painted a burgundy that had stood the test of time well, except for a single dagger-shaped water stain from one of the upstairs baths. The space in front of the kitchen was a formal dining room, where the discussion turned to mahogany tables and the wood's susceptibility to fade in natural light, bow-fronted china cabinets and collections of ceramics. The other was bookless, but had a clubby feel nonetheless. The fireplace had a marbled mantle carved in animal figures, brass rail in need of polish, wingback chairs so softly commodious I started considering a nap instead of the game. <p> When we were outside, Kay said: "Well, you were the usual bored and tolerant hubby. We've been looking up at that house for two years. Did you notice anything at all?" <p> "They cut the dormer off and replaced it with a skylight to protect the books," I said. <p> She sighed. "We couldn't even afford the delftware." Seated in the car she paused and said, "Maybe we could." <p> "Could what?" <p> "Afford the china." <p> "OK, let's make them an offer." <p> "I'm serious, Ethan. You're a professor of history and the oldest thing you own is a wooden schooner." She wasn't really serious, because at some level she knew I'd buy the china and store it in a vault somewhere if I thought that would please her. It had been that way from the day we met. <p> <p> "You," she'd said when we first spoke, ten years before, "look like a history professor should look." I was packing my briefcase after a dazed bout with the students in Hist 344, 19th Century Europe. It was a night class; no time to get back to the boat, dinner a taco and a coke at the union. The time had just relapsed to Standard, the November campus cold and musky smelling. The corridor outside the room would be empty, an existentially long, despairing tunnel of beige walls with regular, identical overhead lights. I was evenly poised between wanting to flee and wanting to hear what she had to say. She gave me no choice; Kay never really gave me a choice from the very beginning. As if answering the response I had not given, she plunged in again, counting the points on her fingers. "Three-piece suit of respectable cut but old beyond imagining; prematurely grey beard trimmed with garden shears, rimless spectacles. You're underfed, underappreciated and easily bored by anything that happened after the Treaty of Ghent." She'd been up to the front a couple of times with questions that suggested a skepticism about history, both its facts and its relevance. Not a bad attitude for a student, really. But I was going to have to glance down at the class list before I remembered her name. She took note of my silence while I did so. "Including me, I'm afraid." <p> "Treaty of Ghent was way later than I usually teach," I said, deciding to meet her intensely focused yet guileless stare. "Ms. O'Toole, isn't it?" <p> "Kay." <p> Flirting with graduate students was not much better than flirting with undergraduate students, but the old bachelor in me had few defenses beyond a slavish adherence to routine and a poorly trimmed beard. She was short with raven hair in a long black braid tight as rope, and wearing a jean skirt with a floral sleeveless top in spite of the rummy weather. She had the kind of strong womanly face that would grow more beautiful as she aged, but which now made her look like a failed fashion model going back to school to learn a trade. Her coloring was more the Welsh brand of Celtic, and she had a habit of touching the side of her neck with the tips of her fingers as she spoke. "I'd always thought the standard was tweeds with leather patches," I said. <p> "Do you have tweeds with leather patches?" <p> "As a matter of fact I do." <p> "There you go then." She was running out of steam. A little older than she'd first looked, perhaps an extension student. Still easily ten years younger than I was. <p> "I'm glad I meet your preconceptions." <p> Strangely, she looked crushed, as if this really was a gambit of some sort and she'd completely failed. I was entranced. No one reacted strongly to anything I said, normally, and I rarely spoke just to be provocative. "I'm tired and I need a cup of coffee before I start home. Will you join me?" She said yes, with a smile that said <i>finally</i>. <p> We were both genuinely fatigued, and it was just coffee. She was pre-law; from a solid Central Valley farm family; living with two other women in the Sunset. She had a cousin in the History Department at UC Berkeley. She loved my lectures, so she said. Why else would she be there? I was tenure track, a little late in the race, lived on a boat. Never married. "Wow. Hunh. Are you gay?" Not an impolite question in San Francisco in the 1990s. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>DRAKE'S BAY</b> by <b>T.A. ROBERTS</b> Copyright © 2010 by T. A. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.