Actions

Work Header

The Alternator

Chapter Text

Peter Keating laughed. He was in a mood for joviality, given that he was about to depart on his honeymoon, but the immediate cause for mirth was that his maid had just come in to tell him that Dominique Francon was at the door. "Are you crazy?" he asked. He walked into the living room, and there she was.

"Hello, Peter," Dominique said quietly.

"Why, Dominique!" Peter exclaimed. "What a surprise! Please, take off your coat!" He could not think of why Dominique could be there. Surely she had not yet heard about Catherine, and there was no other reason he could think of why she would come to his apartment.

"I phoned your office, they said you were not in today. Peter, I have no time for social niceties," said Dominique, in a precise, impersonal voice. "I came here to ask you a question: will you marry me? This is a one-time offer, for this afternoon only. You must answer yes or no now."

Peter gaped at her. After a moment, he remembered to answer. "Dominique, I was married to Catherine Halsey this morning."

Dominique looked faintly surprised, but it faded quickly. "You can get an annulment," she said gravely. "Or a divorce."

Later, Keating would reflect that it was the adherence to propriety, those same external standards that Dominique herself liked to decry, that had saved him. It was not, in the moment himself, his love for Catherine, nor his ethical principles. It was simply and banally the thought of what people would say when they found he had annulled one marriage the day after it happened to contract another one.

"I see," he said. "No."

Dominique inclined her head. "Not the answer I wanted to hear —" despite himself, Keating felt a swell of pride and vanity — "but it is the right choice." And as quickly, Keating deflated. Dominique, he knew, could not have cared less about Catherine.

"You're playing games with me," he said harshly. "Dominique, I don't appreciate this at all."

Dominique laughed. "Peter, Peter. I wouldn't play games with you. Only with myself, and that's quite bad enough."

"Peter?" said a small voice. They both turned to see Catherine coming down the stairs. Catherine was artlessly dressed in a nondescript neutral-colored shift that did not do any favors for her figure or coloring, in contrast to Dominique's severely fashionable black sheath. Keating found himself preferring Catherine's dress.

"This is Catherine Halsey — I mean, Catherine Keating." And despite himself, despite the absurdity of introducing his wife to the woman who had just asked him to marry her, the woman whom he had seriously considered marrying, he felt a small bubble of pure unalloyed pleasure that Catherine was his wife.

Dominique looked at Catherine with something that was the closest to tenderness he had ever seen on her face. "Ah, I think I see… Well, Catherine, I will congratulate you on your marriage." And she shook Catherine's hand. "Peter: you have made the better choice, indeed. My compliments to you both." And, nodding to both of them, she walked out the door.

Catherine stared after her. "Wasn't that Dominique Francon? I think I saw her once, when she and her father visited Uncle Ellsworth. What did she want? What was she saying?"

Keating said, frowning, "She came to ask me to marry her."

Catherine turned his eyes on him in sudden shock. "What?"

"But I'm married already." He smiled at her. "I'll tell you about it… later. Because right now, we have a honeymoon to go to."

*

Keating wanted to take Catherine to Paris, but she didn't want to go quite so far on their first trip together, so instead they drove down to North Carolina and rented a beach house on the Outer Banks for a month.

Keating couldn't remember the last time he had spent a month apart from everything, even his mother. Perhaps he had never done so. At first, he kept listening for the jangle of the phone. He even caught himself wondering whether he should perhaps call Ellsworth Toohey or his mother. Ellsworth Toohey, the writer for the New York Banner, the philanthropist… Keating desperately wanted to call him, to hope for or beg for his approval, but at the same time he shied away from it.

"Of course, if you wish to call either of them, you must do so," Catherine said to him.

"No," he said, almost savagely. "This is our time, Katie."

Catherine smiled back, and he knew that she had felt the same way: wanting to call her uncle, and not wanting to, at the same time.

They walked along the beach every day. Catherine ran in and out of the waves, laughing like a child. Sometimes they would both swim in the water, and Keating taught her how to jump up when a wave appeared. "It's like flying in the water," Catherine said, charmed. They found pretty shells on the beach, and scared the seagulls, and once they found a Portugese man-of-war becalmed on the sand.

At night they lay in a huge canopied bed of the sort that neither of them had ever seen before this trip, and they talked of nothing in particular: the birds they had seen that day, various places in New York they intended to go together. The talking was accompanied by caresses and kisses, until the talk dissolved into silence and the caresses became more urgent.

At first they were awkward. The very first night, in fact, was an utter failure. "I'm sorry," Catherine said humbly. "I'm no good at this."

Keating hugged her. "We'll go slow. Tell me what you like and we'll do that, and just that. We won't do anything you're uncomfortable with."

It took several times, and at least one more complete failure, but as they went on, he found in her a hunger that matched his own.

*

One late night, Catherine's curves warm against his skin as they both lay sated in bed, Keating said to her softly, "Katie, I haven't told you about the Stoddard Temple."

Catherine moved her head lazily to look at him. "Uncle never talked about it," she said, "but I saw a lot of articles on his desk about the trial, and of course I know that the verdict came down shortly before we were married, that the architect was found guilty. Peter, darling, what is it?"

Keating pinched the bridge of his nose. "I did something terrible, at the Stoddard Temple trial. Katie, I've told you that Howard Roark, the architect of the Stoddard Temple, lived with Mother and me for a while."

She nodded. "You didn't like him."

"Christ, no! I didn't like him… although oddly, being with you makes me like him more. I don't know why. But… but he's a good architect. A really good architect."

"Better than you?" Keating could see her expression in the dim light: she looked as if she could not believe that were possible.

"Much better than I am. Katie, I'm going to tell you. I'm not a good architect. I'm not a completely incompetent fool, but… Roark is good." Keating closed his eyes. "No, he's better than good. He's a great architect, the kind that comes once in a generation, if that."

He felt a great weight off of him saying those words, the words that had been building in him since the trial. "And," he said, "at the Stoddard trial I told everyone he was terrible, he was a bad architect."

She was silent a moment. "Yes," she said finally, "I understand the seriousness of it. You were sinning, if you want to use that word, not just against him, but against yourself."

"Yes," he whispered.

"But Peter," she said, with an absolute kind of conviction, "that's over now."

"Yes," he said heavily. "I couldn't do it now. Because I would know that you would know… Katie, do you know, I feel as if we got married just in time, that we were starting to slide into a sort of morass from which we'd never be able to escape. I can't explain it any better than that."

"When you left me, the night before we got married," Catherine said, "I told Uncle Ellsworth that I wasn't afraid of him… I felt as if we had escaped just in time as well, Peter. I think this month is letting us climb out of that swamp."

*

As the month went on, he found himself unwinding from a stress he had not even known he had internalized, as if he had been holding his breath for the last ten years.

He bought paints and sat on the beach painting, while Catherine sat by, scribbling in a notebook. He was trying to capture, in the picture, something like the paradox of the waves: the energy of the rhythm of the waves' crashing being exactly what was so restful about it.

He looked at what he had done and knew it was not going to work. If he had seen another painter succeed in creating what he had in mind, he would have known it; but he could not himself do it.

Keating realized he had internalized the idea, perhaps from his mother and perhaps from Howard Roark, that creation — architecture, painting — was the only type of vocation of worth. It made him wonder what he had missed out on. Perhaps he could have been an engineer, or a teacher, or — or — a plumber. It was as if a whole vista of opportunities opened up before him.

He flipped the paintbrush up in the air; it landed in the water. Catherine looked up at the splash. "Darling, what was that?"

Keating started to laugh and found he could not stop. Finally, after several minutes, he sputtered out. "I was just ruminating on what I could and couldn't do.…Katie, do you know how good you are for me?"

"I should hope you think more of me than as a tonic," she teased. Keating grinned back, idiotically. It had been one of the joys of their honeymoon to see her relaxing, to see her coming out of her shell enough to tease him.

"Of course, my darling. But — with you I feel like I can be myself, like I can actually think about things. I don't feel stifled." He didn't say who made him feel stifled, though he thought Catherine could probably guess; after all, since his father died, he had only ever lived with one person, not counting Howard Roark.

She nodded. "I feel that way too. I never did any writing when I was living with Uncle, and on this trip I've started again… I was thinking, Peter, that when we get back from this trip I'd like to enroll in college. Uncle never wanted me to, and I tried not to want it, but — but I really do want to go."

"That's fantastic, Katie. I definitely think you should do that. You'll like college." He paused. "I've also been thinking about work. You know, Katie — I like painting, though I'm no damn good at it. And I don't actually like architecture all that much."

"Oh, Peter!"

"No, it's true. But I do like working with architects, and with customers. It's something I think I'm really good at." He gave a decisive nod. "I already spend a lot of time talking with customers, and pretending like that's not what I was doing, but I'm going to own it now. Research it. Figure out this new government market — there's going to be a lot of work there in the next ten years, I'm betting." He glanced over at her and grinned. "I'm sorry, Katie, your eyes are glazing over! It's probably not the done thing to talk about work on your honeymoon, is it!"

She laughed at him. "I love to hear anything you love talking about." She sobered. "But our honeymoon will be over soon enough, and we'll be back in the world."

"Yes. But it'll be good to be among people again. It'll be good to see our friends again, and to follow up with these plans we've made."

"Yes," she said, and kissed him.

*

When they arrived back at New York, there was some unpleasantness with Keating's mother. Keating wasn't proud of how he eventually shouted at her to leave Catherine alone, at which point his mother packed up her belongings in a huff and left to find her own place. But Catherine told him she was proud of him, and left no doubt whatsoever on this score.

After that, their lives settled down. Catherine took evening courses in English, linguistics, and child development. Keating hired a couple of good architects for the firm and concentrated his efforts on winning clients, putting in some time cultivating some government contacts. As his mother had flung at him in more than one heated discussion, Catherine was no good at cooking nor at witty dinner hostessing. However, engaging a perfectly adequate cook's services dispensed with the first problem. And as for the second objection, Catherine's obvious adoration of Keating was, while perhaps not equally as effective as glittering repartee, a more than acceptable substitute. "I envy you your wife," said one of the men Keating invited over for dinner, a man Keating knew was married to one of the most beautiful women in the country, a woman who made his life miserable, and vice versa.

"I'm lucky to have her," Keating said, and knew it was true. He shuddered to think of what it would have been like to marry Dominique Francon, and how lucky an escape he'd had; if she'd come one evening earlier, he knew he would have gone with her.

*

Both Keating and Catherine avoided Ellsworth Toohey. Neither of them discussed this.

*

During their honeymoon, Keating and Catherine had not read the papers; they'd missed all of the news during this time. It wasn't until he was sorting through the mail that he'd gotten during this time that he found the engraved invitation.

And that was how Keating learned about Dominique's marriage to Gail Wynand, the owner of the New York Banner. On further investigation, he found it had not been covered in the Wynand papers themselves, a curious omission given that it was splashed on the front pages of all the other New York papers. It had been a lavish wedding, with six hundred guests, exquisitely decorated and catered.

Keating compared his own quiet elopement with Catherine with a brief stab of envy — what must it have been like to have one's wedding be the event of the year, to have the eyes of all of New York on one — before realizing that, however gratifying it might have felt at the time, he vastly preferred his wedding to Catherine, and the simple happiness they had had together as they smiled at each other in front of the judge.

It had happened barely two weeks after Keating's own marriage; Dominique must have practically driven straight from his apartment to see Wynand in order for engraved invitations to have been sent before that time. Keating thought ruefully that this put nails in the coffin of any idea that Dominique might have secretly nursed a grand passion for him, not that he had really entertained that idea seriously at all.

"Poor bastard," he muttered, not even sure whether he referred to Dominique or to Wynand. And then he shook his head. What was he even talking about? The two of them were rich, beautiful, powerful; they had everything the world could ask.

True, Gail Wynand, the owner of the most scurrilous paper in the country, the one that pandered to the basest instincts of its readers, was not a person he would have thought would appeal at all to Dominique. To be Mrs. Wynand-Papers, he thought, must be a sort of torture to her. And the pictures of Dominique he found in the papers had a sort of concentrated suffering to them, as if she were a priestess of old, condemned to be slain.

No, he must be imagining things.

He dismissed Dominique Wynand from his mind, and he thought no more of her until the business with Cortlandt came up.