Copyright © 2014 by Jean Zimmerman
Manhattan. May 19, 1876
I wait for the police in the study overlooking Gramercy Park, the body prone on the floor a few feet away. Outside, rain has cooled the green spring evening. In here the heat is stifling.
Midnight. I’ve been in this room before, many times in the course of my twenty-two years. The Turkish rug on the floor, the Empire chairs, the shelves of uncracked books, all familiar to me. A massive mahogany partners desk, from England, in the William IV style, installed as proof of the late victim’s diligence, a rich boy’s insistence that he is, after all, engaged in honest work.
Of the dead man, a schoolmate of mine, I feature two possibilities. She killed him, in which case they will surely hang her. Either that or I killed him, in a fit of madness the specifics of which I have no memory.
This last is not as unlikely as it sounds. I have taken the rest cure for neurasthenia several times and every so often suffer faints, waking to find a small swath of my life gone. Peculiarities of the recent past, a series of strange incidents and dark coincidences, force me at least to entertain the idea that I am a monster.
The fact that in recent months I developed a passionate hatred for the dead man increases the possibility of my involvement in his demise.
On the other hand, if she is indeed the murderer, I can prevent her day of reckoning only by taking the burden of guilt upon myself.
So you see, either way, if I must assume her guilt or confess my own, it works out much the same, demanding identical action on my part. My path is clear. I need to be caught red-handed. I have to wait in this room until discovery, alarm, arrest.
I summon up the mental image of a stern-faced detective with a fat, unkempt mustache. Mr. Hugo Delegate—for that is my name—you must accompany us to the Tombs. Will he place me in restraints? Will it be that bad?
But they will come, rest assured. There are numerous lawmen who would be highly interested in what has occurred on Gramercy Park this evening. From where I sit, I can almost sense them drawing near, having journeyed from all over the country—from Nevada, from Chicago, from Massachusetts and New York—their disparate paths converging at a millionaire’s mansion off a private park in Manhattan.
Not only the constabulary either but the gentlemen of the press, rabid dogs all, will no doubt descend upon the scene of the crime. The pack will be in full howl. From my experience, newsmen are even more relentless than police, profit being superior to justice as a great motivator of human beings.
The witness is a participant, or so my mother once told me. I followed the girl murderess here to this house. It is never difficult to track her. She is oddly without guile, so possessed of a naïve faith that no one would suspect her of crime.
I feel . . . what do I feel? Paralyzed. A sense of impending doom hovers over me like psychosis. Another brief shower patters at the windows. I think of the gentle rain that droppeth in Shakespeare.
The body. My longtime acquaintance and sometime friend, Beverly Ralston Willets, twenty-four years old, or perhaps twenty-three— young anyway. His corpse, in a suit of brown serge.
He has been done as the others have been done. A slashing stab to the femoral artery in the groin, meaning exsanguination within two or three minutes. A blood pool the size of a bathtub stains the twill of the carpet. The killer mutilates the corpus after death.
I position myself so I do not have to directly confront the victim. Close up, death has an arrogant smell. Should I dab some of the gore on my hands, stain the seas scarlet, impress the detectives?
There are a couple of jeroboams of blood in the human body. Six quarts, more or less. This I know because in my classes at Harvard I pursue the study of medicine and practice as an anatomist. I dissect the dead, who do not bleed.
Could not my anatomical work serve as a reason for the authorities to suspect me of this killing? As well as for me to suspect myself?
The prosecutor, in court: Gentlemen of the jury, I submit that Hugo Delegate is a habitual plunderer of men.
I am alone. I am already dead. Perhaps she will murder me in this exact same manner. If not, I’ll almost certainly go away to spend the rest of my life behind bars.
The body emits a horrible, gaseous sigh, startling me out of my musings.
Cocking my right leg over my left, I sit, waiting for them to come. On my way here through the city, I got caught in a spring shower. I occupy my time watching the rain dry on the leather upper of my boot.
Then, later that night, the Tombs, south two miles from the murder scene, on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. The Halls of Justice. The majority of mortals rightly fear a trip to the prison; it is such a forbidding brick heap, a cold, ugly, heavy-pillared structure as gloomy as its nickname. Where the city’s criminal miscreants (that’s me) languish, and where justice languishes as well.
Not that I know it intimately, but I have been to the Tombs before, too, a couple of times, as an observer. The law grinds on, night and day, pulverizing its victims to dust while elevating others, attorneys and jurists, to heights of wealth and power.
For the Tombs is not just a prison but an all-in-one buttress of justice, with busy courts, jury rooms, clerkdoms, offices for judges and prosecutors, smoky hallways, and deal-making alcoves. A palace of diligence or, if you happen to be wearing police bracelets, a hive of evil.
The building rests upon the site of a former swamp, and it began sinking into the ground immediately upon being erected. Vapors rise continually from its foundations, resembling the fingers of demons, pulling all occupants, willing or not, toward the stinking pits of Lake Avernus.
As I did in the little Gramercy Park study, I wait, having been brought here, yes, in bracelets.
I delight to imagine my lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel, two lords of the Tombs, hurrying to my prison lair.
In the still of the night! At four a.m., the deserted hour, the hour that no one wants!
Such are the benefits of wealth. I am the son of Friedrich Delegate, nephew of Sonny Delegate, grandson of August Delegate, so lawyers hurry through the dark.
The surrounding neighborhood represents the foulest that Manhattan has to offer. The streets are deserted of all honest men at this time of night and the nearby financial district wholly abandoned of its scrivener ants and predatory beetles. In my mind’s eye, I see my attorneys, two figures, one tall and plump, one short and bony, proceed through empty streets.
At the portal of the prison, a uniformed officer of the city sleeps at his post. He wakes, alarmed, at the creak of the massive brass door. “Attorney Howe, sir! Attorney Hummel!” A common enough sight, these two, even in the wee hours, but somehow their arrival is forever unsettling.
Howe is resplendent in dozens of diamonds, which he wears even to bed. Hummel all in black like a crow, observing perpetual mourning, they say, for the death of his conscience.
Deeper and downward they come, closer to where I wait, into the prison’s fetid lower levels, the cramped cell block designated “Murderer’s Row” because it lodges killers. Finally to arrive at an end-of-the- line passageway.
Where I sit, calmly passive, on a rude pallet in a filthy cell, the confessed assassin.
Hugo, Mr. Howe says, wringing his hands and rushing to my side as if I were his dying mother. The man is always a shade histrionic. Abe Hummel a silent shadow beside the talkative Bill Howe.
Howe rails at the turnkey about my accommodations, the scandal of it, treating an eminent scion of Manhattan this way, it is totally outrageous, did he, the turnkey, know who I, meaning me, was, if he, Howe, and his esteemed partner in the law, Hummel, have anything to say about it, the turnkey will soon find himself transferred to outdoor duty at potter’s field on Blackwell’s Island, et cetera, et cetera.
So the three of us, myself and my attorneys, move to more comfortable quarters for our talk.
Upstairs, we pass through dark, echoing halls.
On the way they explain (Howe, that is; Hummel remains mum), that because I had been arrested on a Friday night, they will likely not be able to arrange my bail until Monday.
Three nights in the Tombs. Perhaps a sympathetic judge, and they know many, will see his way clear to hold a special arraignment hearing. If not, they will endeavor to make me as comfortable as they can. Stay by my side through thick and thin. It is best not to be caught in the commission of a crime on the weekend, Howe counsels me.
Four flights up, more empty hallways. A right turn into the offices of the director of the jail. Unoccupied. Howe and Hummel make us at home.
Say nothing to no one except us, Howe says, admonishing. But to us, Hugo, you must tell everything.
Hummel silent as a snake, as usual.
I don’t know where to begin, I say.
It is traditional, in these situations, Howe says, fluttering his hands expansively, to begin at the beginning.
I take a deep breath. There was a cabin in the wilderness of the Washoe, I say, where a headless body was discovered.
Another body, Howe says, a mournful expression on his face.
Not the one discovered this night in Gramercy.
No. This is outside Virginia City, Nevada, in the Comstock.
We must interrupt you, Attorney Howe says, twisting his face in little moues of apology. At times I think he has taken Hummel on as partner only so that it might appear natural for him to speak in the royal “we.”
We must ask, Hugo. Did you yourself discover this alleged body?
Well, no, I say.
He asks, Then were you present when the discovery occurred?
Again I say no.
So we must stop you at the outset, Howe says, directing you, in your best interest, not to speculate, not to fabricate, not to re-create scenarios from whole cloth but to stick to the hard fact of what you yourself saw, heard, and experienced, and refrain from flying off half-way across the country to a cabin in the wilderness.
Yet that is where— I start to say, but Howe interrupts.
No, Hugo, no. We must insist. Only that of which you yourself have firsthand knowledge. The truth and only the truth. Out of that we, your duly engaged attorneys, will pick and choose.
I recall a directive of my father’s, coaching me in business practices. It is a good idea, he said, to tell your lawyers everything.
Why do I have to tell it at all? To these men who will never understand, who represent the wider world, that also will never understand?
I begin again, saying, In June of 1875, we made our way down Virginia City’s “A” Street . . .
In the Drone Cage
In June of 1875, we made our way down Virginia City’s “A” Street, proceeding south from the center of town toward the mountains.
Inwardly I had to smile at the picture rendered by our little group. Two women, one earthly, one Celestial. My mother, Anna Maria Delegate, and her lady’s maid from China, Song Tu-Li.
My mother swaddled herself in vast amounts of white satin. Tu-Li wore the blue silk smock of her countrymen, hers rendered in rich brocade, so that at first you might mistake her for a peasant while on closer inspection you would conclude she was a princess.
Then, wandering behind milady and her maid, adding the zest of oddity, the berdache, the Zuni man-woman, Tahktoo. Anatomically male, garmented as a female, an indigene from the deserts of the Arizona Territory.
And me, along on this tour of the American West with my mother and my father, to be shown the family business and be removed from the unhealthy vapors of a New York City warm season. I had been in a sanatorium, down with a woeful bout of disturbed thoughts, restlessness and depression of spirits. Having barely seen the inside of Harvard Hall all spring, I wound up taking a leave from school.
The funny thing, the striking fact of the matter, was that amid the numberless crowds on “A” Street that afternoon, our company elicited not a wayward glance or comment. A Celestial, a man-woman, and two terrestrials, one of them a nutter. Few among the busy rabble noticed us.
In the High Sierra, a brisk, springlike Nevada summer. The crowded, unpaved thoroughfare rang with shouts of teamsters and the noisy leather-and-wood creak of their rigs, the snorting of mules, the excited bellow of commerce. Wide pedestrian walks ran along-side the street in both directions, packed shoulder to shoulder with people.
It astonished me that my mother and Tu-Li were the only women among the multitudes, the only ones on “A” Street, “B” Street or “C” Street either, the only ones in the whole of Virginia City (except, perhaps, those in the very specific red-lit neighborhood down on “D” Street).
Out and about in the mining town, sometimes it seemed that Anna Maria Delegate and her maid were the only females in the newly minted state of Nevada, for that matter the only ones on the whole planet.
My own private musing, of course. I knew that the governor himself had a wife somewhere. And there was “The Mencken,” a performer who strapped herself to the back of a horse in a nude body stocking and did tricks on the stage of Maguire’s Theater.
Still, the unbolted street hordes were entirely male. Prospectors slathered in dried muck. Drunks pickled in tarantula juice. Assorted dips, tossers and clips. Mountain men carrying their Navies on their belts, ready for a quarrel. Mexicans hawking corn flatcakes. Paiutes in rags and fringes. Potbellied nabobs in cutaways.
And Chinese laborers, universally called coolies or, more poetically, Celestials, since they hailed from the Celestial Kingdom.
Any farther from the States, locals said, and you’d fall into the Bay.
We were following Tu-Li to a spectacle of some sort, one that she had discovered but would not describe, keeping us in suspense.
“Where is it?” asked Anna Maria.
“Just ahead, madam,” Tu-Li said.
I have never called my mother “Mother” nor my father “Father” since I was a child. This was at their insistence. Mother was Anna or, more properly, Anna Maria. Father was “Freddy.”
We were “equals, equals!” Freddy informed me, over and over. My parents were much under the sway of Dr. Froebel and the other new child-raising experts. Freddy’s real name was Friedrich-August-Heinrich, too much of a mouthful for anybody.
“My God, what a place this is,” Anna Maria said.
Virginia City was most definitely a “my God” kind of place. Like a riot at a carnival. The north-south avenues in the town were so infernally busy that a buggy could wait a full half hour to cross them. New arrivals and Comstock veterans alike trotted along pushing wheelbarrows piled high with their belongings, weaving in and out amid the wagon traffic.
I amused myself, for a time, by dropping back and walking a few feet behind the cross-dressing berdache, Tahktoo. Passersby, those not too boiled to focus, allowed a look of confusion to pass over their features before they walked on. Was that . . . ? Man? Woman? The berdache existed in the crowd like a question mark.
Just then a wild-eyed creature ran pell-mell past us down “A” Street toward the iron-fronted, vaultlike headquarters of Wells Fargo, a handful of blue dirt gripped in his fist, screaming out, “The assay! the assay!”
No one else paid the yowling fellow any mind, but my mother turned her head to follow his progress. He dodged wagons and drays until he disappeared. The assay, the assay. Would he be trampled by mules? Swindled at the government assay office when he attempted to place a valuation on his scrap of ore? Or would he be the newest entry in the swelling ranks of Washoe millionaires?
Virginia—locals dropped the “City”—was a town that drove men mad. There is a hole in the human heart, Anna Maria once informed me, part of her effort to school her son in the ways of the world. It is deep and cold, she said solemnly, and can never be filled.
Except by gold.
From beneath our feet as we walked came the muffled whump-thump of explosions, repeating every few minutes. I could feel the force rise through my ankles. They were blowing apart veins of silver in the mines below the town.
If gold could not be found to fill the hole, then silver might do.
My mother had clearly worn the wrong clothes. Dressing Anna Maria this morning, Tu-Li told her, “You will be the only woman in fashion west of the Mississippi.” Her trailing silk overskirt with its ruffles, pleated frills and ruching, her bonnet, a parasol! All in white. She looked like an angel, a stern angel, the kind that might knock you on your behind.
But here in the Washoe Valley, white was redundant.
The street, the mountain that rose over the town, the canvas wall tents and saloons and banking establishments, and especially the men—all were covered in alkali grit, plaster white, fine as flour, taken up off the ground by the constant, hellish wind, swirling out of the myriad man-made holes in the earth, stinging the eyes, burning the lips, sweeping everywhere before settling on everything like thick cream on a spoon.
Until the whole place resembled a whited sepulcher.
Dust and wind, dust and wind. You went to Virginia and what did you find? Dust and wind.
It hadn’t mattered what my mother wore. She could have been in mourning black and she would have wound up in white. Dust freckled Tu-Li’s blouse of deep indigo blue. A Negro, walking those streets, magically became a white man. Dust lay ankle deep on the porches and walks.
“A” Street, the first thoroughfare settled in Virginia City, was no longer the busiest in town. By 1875 it had been fifteen years since miners carted the first “blue stuff ” out of the earth.
Wet, mucky cobalt gravel, at first carelessly discarded, considered only as a waste by-product of the tiny bits of gold-flecked ore it carried within.
Some genius finally bothered to look at the blue stuff closely, and the detritus revealed itself to be silver ore of the highest grade. Silver ore can be made to pay at six-percent purity. This was sixty-eight percent.
A dismal wagon-track crossroads in the middle of the Nevada nowhere saw itself instantly transformed into a silver-rush boomtown. Within a week after the discovery, “A” Street was packed thick with tents, plain-board shanties, and had wooden-framed storefronts going up.
Virginia. Or the Comstock, for the man who gave his name to the first famous mine. Or the Washoe, for the valley it faced. The Silverland. The residents called it by every name except its own. They cursed it when it came up dry, and worshipped it when it came in blue.
The assay! The assay!
Above the town, silver seekers had carved the slope into numerous narrow ledges, dotted with rictuslike wildcat mines, the face of the mountain eaten away and pitted as if with a wasting disease.
Overhead, the turquoise reaches of the sky flooded with the sparkling sunlight omnipresent in the West. So different from our home in New York City, with its dull cloudscapes in every season, even summer.
But what amplitude Virginia had in sunlight it made up for with a total lack of vegetation. No trees, no shrubbery, no green grass. Only sparse sagebrush, its pungent, earthy scent floating on the ever-present Washoe winds.
“Give way!” came a shout.
We all jumped back, nearly run over by a dray muscling past, its flatbed stacked with gleaming silver bricks under a loose sheet of flapping canvas. The slouch-hatted bullwhacker managed to hold the reins loosely in one hand and a bottle tightly in the other, while his cargo’s guards, two stone-faced men propping scatterguns against their thighs, sat stoically suffering every jolt.
Late afternoon, near the end of the second shift in the mines. The work at extracting wealth from the earth ran on around the clock, day and night, every day of the year. Capitalism, as my political-economy professor at Harvard said, was a perpetual-motion machine.
My mother brushed off the mud that clung to her snow-white hem after the near collision. She stepped forth under the balconies of the flat-fronted buildings, an intrepid schooner navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
My father styled himself a social scientist, but I considered Anna Maria to be the more discerning observer of the family. The raucous Nevada settlement offered much in the way of spectacle: mansions, parades, cockfights, bear and bull baiting, duels, bicycles, nitroglycerin, wild Indians.
Whiskey over all. Virginia City averaged a booze-soaked murder a day.
We proceeded past the Nevada House, inviting diners to take meals at fifty cents but with a smell of rancid grease wafting from inside that repelled all appetite.
Next door a bounty stockade, stinking also, stack after stack of ill-cured wolf pelts, bearskins, immense piles of mountain lion hides, the maculate coat of a jaguar nailed to the pine-log wall, eagle and hawk carcasses collected in heaps.
A bounty officer lounged at the portal of the place. Hunters got paid in government money (fifteen dollars for a wolf skin, ten dollars for bear or cougar) for their exterminating efforts. Coyote, fox, lynx, bobcat, wolverines. Man the predator clearing out competing predators, claiming his territory.
What really distinguished Virginia was its saloons. We had only recently arrived in town and were staying not more than a week, but I most wanted to investigate these popular gambling-and-drinking venues, the site of so much rascality.
Enter and lose your shirt. Leave and win a kick in the pants.
“I am interested merely as a witness,” I told Anna Maria. “Not as a participant.”
“A witness is a participant,” she said.
The Red Dog. The Old Globe. Bucket of Blood. The Silver Queen. The Suicide Table.
And now, at the far south end of “A,” my personal favorite so far, a dangerous hybrid establishment, Costello’s Saloon and Shooting Gallery. The threshold of the front doorway, I noticed, had been set with dice.
Through the saloon’s single window shone an amber whiskey gleam. A peppering bang of gunshots could be heard from the interior.
“Just ahead, madam,” Tu-Li said, motioning my mother forward. Tu-Li had been out at dawn to bring our garments to the Chinese district to be laundered. There she heard of a place to visit that might attract the curious of mind.
“Just ahead where?” Anna Maria said, halting and holding on to my arm. “There is nowhere else to go.”
“A” Street stopped just past the saloon, dead-ending at the steep rise of the mountain. Above, the ledges and mucked-out mine holes. The men working them appeared, in the slanting afternoon light, like scarabs crawling over the raggy surface of an Egyptian mummy.
Garish billboards punctuated the slope directly above town. Carter’s Livery. Balthazar Bier-Keller. The Melodeon Hall of Dance. A large freshly painted sign for the International, the town’s respectable hotel, in which we had taken a floor.
“Where?” I said.
Tu-Li bowed imperceptibly and motioned with her open palm, a maître d’ showing diners to their table.
An alley ran alongside the saloon. Lined on both sides with carts, booths, tents and hovels, the pathetic offerings of peddlers, hawkers and cheapjacks of the type that crowded the whole town, ancillary commerce to the mines.
At the mouth of the alley, a hand-painted sign.
SAVAGE GIRL, it read.
Or rather the sign had originally spelled out SAVIJ GIR, and then someone with more orthographic sophistication had come along and corrected it.
“Here?” my mother said.
Tu-Li nodded. “You will see,” she said.
The sign, the misspelling and the subsequent rectification somehow struck me as particularly dispiriting. I could read a whole history in it. The entire alleyway stank of poverty, failure and claims that hadn’t proved out. I was ready to pop over to Costello’s for a glass of beer and some target practice.
Upon the apparition of three tourists and a Zuni hermaphrodite approaching the mouth of their little hell, the vendors in the alleyway of broken dreams woke up and began to beckon Anna forward. She was, in her European finery, clearly the mark.
Come buy my patched-together mule harness, come buy my rusty Ames shovel, my mended socks, my rags, my nightmare.
No, no, no. I witnessed my mother at the moment of decision. She would definitely not venture into the little alley.
Tu-Li had led us on a goose chase.
Anna Maria would turn around, push her way down “A” Street, retreat to her hotel suite or, further, to our family’s private railcars, parked on a siding of the Virginia & Truckee line, waiting to whisk her across the endless plains to the East, out of the tiresome, ever-present alkali wind, back to civilization and happiness and our clean, dustfree, sparkling existence in Manhattan.
“No, no, thank you,” Anna said.
“I think you will like it,” said Tu-Li. “It is what you look for.”
“Absolument pas,” Anna said.
But I had a different idea.
Beside the words, the weathered wood of the Savage Girl sign had a smudge upon it. I leaned forward. The sign maker had drawn a picture, very crude, a hairy animal countenance with oversize, oddly human eyes and a woman’s mouth painted in lurid, now-faded red.
The hand of the wind stirred the dust in the little lane. I shivered, feeling a frisson of . . . of exactly what? Fear? Attraction? I couldn’t say.
Anna Maria had planned a rendezvous with my father at the Brilliant Mine just before sunset. We had arranged to meet Freddy after completing our walkabout through town. By the slant of the sun, Anna Maria could see that it was getting close to the agreed-upon time, and she wanted to hustle us along.
“I think I will go down for a peek,” I said. The dirt of the alleyway had been laid with muddy duckboards.
“We must join your father, Hugo,” she said. “Tu-Li, Tahktoo.”
“Come along with me,” I said to Anna Maria. “You who have forced open so many closed doors in your life.”
“Flatterer,” she said.
“Just a brief look,” I said. “Unless you’re fearful.”
She hesitated. Then she took my arm and we headed into the alley. My mother could never resist a challenge.
Avoiding the peddlers tugging at our sleeves, we followed Tu-Li along the little lane. There the alley ended at a tongue-and-groove façade with a plain pine door, two blacked-out and boarded-over windows on either side. A barn of some sort, constructed of exhausted, peeling wood.
The building stood at the bottom of the slope, but the ground behind it fell away into a gulch before rising, so that which we stood before actually represented the building’s second story. My mother looked over to me, on her face a bride-at-the-altar mix of anticipation and disquiet.
The portal’s homely plank boards had a peephole. As I stepped for- ward, the door cracked open.
Blocking the threshold appeared one of the oddest-looking beings I have ever encountered. A human toad of sorts. His slits were like eyes. A white-coated tongue emerged from a lipless mouth, and behold, he spoke.
“We don’t allow no women.”
Addressing my mother, who from my experience was easily up to the task of dealing with wart-giving creatures of all stripes.
“Young man,” she said, giving his humanity the benefit of the doubt, “you must let us in.”
“No women and no Celestials,” the Toad said. He looked at Tu-Li, who stared back at him evenly.
“No women?” Anna said. She pulled the berdache forward. “What about my friend?”
The doorkeeper could not wrap his mind around Tahktoo. I witnessed the tiny engine of the man’s brain seize up and begin to smoke.
We had gotten this far, and we weren’t about to turn back.
Anna Maria said, “I’m entering.”
“We don’t allow no women.”
“Not allowing,” my mother said, “is not allowed.”
More brain sizzle from the doorkeeper. He couldn’t handle that one either.
Then, as if he had been jerked up to heaven by an abrupt act of rapture, the Toad suddenly disappeared with a yelp.
In his place stood a huckster in dundrearies and a blue-checkered suit, smiling, bowing, gesturing us forward. His nostrils flared. He had the look of a man who smelled money.
The Toad might not recognize a three-hundred-dollar silk gown, imported by Anna Maria this year from Worth in Paris, but the huckster most certainly did.
“Madam, madam, please, you are most welcome,” he said, correctly assessing my mother as the true power in the group. “My name is Professor Dr. Calef Scott. I will assure your safety and comfort.”
“Thank you,” Anna Maria said.
“My assistant, Mr. R. T. Flenniken, has his marching orders but, like so many individuals of limited capacities, is burdened by a pronounced inability to modify his instructions with good judgment. In short, he is a fool.”
During this speech he ushered us into his establishment. If his assistant resembled a toad, Scott himself was a stuffed duck.
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the interior but then understood that the barn was not just dim, it was wholly dark. Canvas tent cloth had been stapled to the walls, obstructing the late-afternoon light coming through the gaps in the planking and also, I realized, keeping out the peering eyes of the nonpaying public.
“We ask a small token, madam.” Dr. Scott winked, and my mother pushed a gold eagle into his hand.
It was too much. The dollar entrance fee for each of the four of us, times five. Scott smiled like a happy child.
“This way, if you please,” he said. “I will place you in complete segregation from the hoi polloi.”
We had entered upon a gallery or balcony of some sort, a narrow platform that ran the length of the barn, with a sagging railing marking its far edge.
The gallery gave out onto the two-storied barn proper. We stared down from our second level to the rectangular floor below, thirty by fifty feet, an unswept dirt surface scattered with straw. In one corner stood a large cage, its door haphazardly shut, a soiled blanket tossed over it that obscured its interior, barely visible in the gloom anyway.
On the opposite side of the space from the cage, an odd edifice, a tall, circular galvanized tub, perhaps five feet high and almost the same in diameter, its lip spilling over with water. A stock-dipping tank or some such.
A slim pipe angled down from high on the far side of the barn, eye level with we who stood in the gallery, positioned so that it dribbled an uneven stream of scalding water into the tub. The pipe, and the surface of the bath itself, threw off wisps of steam into the murky shadows of the interior.
Tapping into no doubt one of the myriad local hot springs. The overflow from the tub drained away down a gutter cut into the dirt floor.
“Where is she?” called out a greasy workman among the audience. The five-o’clock show, the second of six performances daily.
The ragged company of spectators packed close to the rail. I counted seventeen of them, with more coming every minute. The dude beside me casually tossed the lit stub of his cheroot to the floor of the gallery, not bothering to stamp it out. I stepped on the burning fag, thinking of the firetrap barn we were crowded into, and the fellow glared at me as though I had somehow trespassed.
Whiskey vapor, tobacco smoke, sweat, exhalations of eggy bad breath. The foul human stink engulfed us more as the audience grew in size.
Far from being made nervous by the hurly-burly around her, my mother assumed an expression of intelligent intellectual engagement, as though she were observing some indigenous foreign tribe, that she might one day lecture upon it.
Dr. Scott maneuvered us to a corner of the gallery, where a chastened R. T. Flenniken, whom it amused the doctor to dress in livery, quickly positioned four rickety wooden chairs, fawning and smiling all the while.
Scott made as if to withdraw but addressed Anna. “Madam, I discern you may be a woman of some parts. If you wish to discuss the natural phenomenon you are about to witness, I will make myself available after the spectacle.”
He backed away, bowing.
Then, at the last moment, his glance fell on me. With the practiced eye of a showman assessing his audience, he gave a secret smile and tugged at my arm. Pulling me away from my mother, he physically positioned me in the absolute far corner of the balcony, right up at the front, shoving aside a drover dressed in chaps to put me there.
“Keep a sharp lookout and you’ll see something,” Scott whispered.
Then he left.
A long, restless beat.
“Where the hell is she?” the workman repeated. “I paid my dollar!”
“Shut up,” someone else said.
By this I understood that the crowd was made up of an uneasy mix of first-timers and regulars.
Directly below us, on the floor of the barn, a torch blazed up in the darkness, wielded by Dr. Scott. He began to speak.
“Gentlemen!” he shouted. Then, with a bow toward my mother, “Ladies.”
He waved his torch in a circle as though it were a baton. The pine-pitch flame traced loops and flowery arcs in the darkness.
“Cast your minds into the blank and trackless emptiness of the Sierra wilderness. Savage, wild, forsaken by God and man. Thronged with ferocious packs of bloodthirsty beasts!”
A high, keening howl tore through the darkness of the barn, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.