Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades-Oakley Hall. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров
and the Queen of Spades
HOMICIDE, n. – The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.
–THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY
When Ambrose Bierce heard of the first Morton Street Slasher murder, he said, “It appears there is a fellow who dislikes women more than I do.”
On certain subjects he was so sarcastic that it was plain mean. His eyes got small under shaggy eyebrows and his mouth twisted beneath his fair mustache, and he would say something scurrilous about women or women poets or preachers or the SP Railroad.
He was my hero then. I’d always had to wince when I heard people carry on in a manner that seemed a fraud to me, on the subjects of religion, or the pure goodness of poor folk, or their sainted mother, or someone hailed a hero on not much grounds. Bierce hated fraud right to the bone. When I’d quit the Fire Department for a job assisting Dutch John, the printer of The Hornet, I had in mind becoming a journalist like Bierce. I’d had a good education from the Christian Brothers in Sacramento, and I’d read a library of books. What other training could be necessary? Being a famous journalist seemed a fine way to make a living, and there was some tone to it, too: people greeting you on the street and calling out they’d liked your last piece or go-it after the Railroad some more.
Bierce was the editor of The Hornet and columnist of “Tattle.” I worked up the nerve to bring him pieces of local interest I had written, one on the SP, which he hated especially—the Railroad, that is. He was courteous enough with me, since I wasn’t a female poet who had offended him by publishing a volume of poetry he had to review in Tattle.
In fact when he wasn’t abominating one humbug or another, Bierce was a generous gentleman.
The Hornet was a satirical weekly, with offices on California Street, right next to the Bank of California with its soaring columns. The new owner and publisher was Mr. Robert Macgowan. There were a couple of boozy reporters who hung around the police station at Old City Hall, a lady typewriter, a caricaturist named Fats Chubb, Dutch John the printer and his assistant Frank Grief, a couple of typesetters and Bierce.
Sometimes Bierce and I left the Hornet offices together in the evening, dodging through the traffic of buggies, carriages, hacks, wagons, horsecars, horsemen and bicyclists on California Street, and under the broad green awning into Dinkins’s Saloon. The traffic on the downtown streets was so fierce that it was worth your life to cross over one of them, and almost every day, it seemed, in the Chronicle, the Examiner or the Alta California, there’d be a news piece on another bad accident, people killed and broken legs, and Something Must Be Done. But nothing was done except for things to get worse.
In Dinkins’s with a lager before him, Bierce liked to talk about writing. He was the famous Almighty God Bierce for A. G. Bierce, Bitter Bierce, with his Tattle read all over the City, and I was a lowly printer’s assistant and sometime reporter, who wasn’t sure Mr. Macgowan was going to keep on paying my wages, but Bierce was pleased to give me advice.
“Check it sentence by sentence and word by word. Get the rubbish out! If you can’t find the right adjective for a noun, leave it alone. A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Take out all the participles and adverbs you can. Participles grate like wheel rims on gravel.
Three participles in a sentence will ruin it. Too many adverbs makes language spineless.”
Dinkins’s had a long bar solid with drinkers’ backs, behind them a gleaming clutter of mahogany and mirrors and moony gaslight globes. Dick Dinkins laid out eats on the bar for the drinkers to dip into and kept the liquor flowing.
Bierce and I sat where we could see a broad slash of California Street through the door, with the traffic jammed up or moving fast and, on the sidewalk, gents in derbies and plug hats flipping canes in greeting to each other, and sometimes fine ladies or whores in pairs passing. Inside there was a pleasing stink of cigar smoke, beer, whiskey, sardines and cheese, and outside one of horse droppings, dust and busyness.
An old fellow with a billy-goat beard came over to ask Bierce if he’d heard the latest about Senator Sharon. Sharon had asked the famous French painter Meissonier if he was an Old Master, because Sharon wasn’t dealing with any painters that “wasn’t Old Masters.”
Bierce said he had heard it thirty-one times now by actual count. And added, “Served in the Senate, for our sins, his time / Each word a folly and each vote a crime.” And he had something to say about the “Rose of Sharon,” for one of Sharon’s mistresses was presently in court claiming the King of the Comstock had married her, and she was divorcing him for adultery with a demand for alimony and her share of his millions.
So the old-timer didn’t go off in a huff because though Bierce would scarify any kind of pretension that raised his ire in Tattle, when he was with fellows in a saloon there was an edge left off, or a joke added to soften his invective.
Bierce was in his forties at this time, a handsome figure of a man, just under six feet with sandy hair, a tangle of eyebrows and a full mustache. He had a smooth pink complexion and smelled of cologne, and he had a military way of carrying himself for he had been a major in the War. He was said to be the best-dressed journalist in San Francisco, with his tweed suit and high collar and fancy neckties with a diamond pin. I thought he was pretty much cock-of-the-walk, leaning back in his chair rubbing his glass against one side of his mustache and looking reflective, probably planning some verbal devilment.
Sergeant Nix stalked inside in his blue double-breasted nine-button uniform and sat down with his policeman’s helmet on the table, one of the corps of folks who kept Bierce apprised of what was going on in the City. “ ‘Lo, Bierce,” he said, and “ ‘lo, Tom,” to me.
Nix and I had been baseball pals when the police team played the firemen, before I took the job on The Hornet.
Dinkins brought Nix a beer with a creamy head on it, and Nix told us about the messy murder last night in Morton Street, which was an alley running off Union Square bounded on both sides by red-light houses.
“Frenchy name of Marie Gar,” Nix said. “Strangled her and slashed her open. Guts spilled out like a trout.”
“It appears there is a fellow that hates women more than I do,” Bierce said then.
“These cunt-hating lunatics,” Nix said. “Their mother run off with a gambler when they was little tykes. Or some whore gave them a dose of Little Casino, and they can’t wait to carve up a female.”
“Any clues?” Bierce wanted to know.
Nix had a face like a hatchet and a black mustache that halfway wrapped around it. He nodded, licking foam from his mustache. “Ace of spades,” he said. “Perpetrator left a playing card on the victim.”
“Interesting,” Bierce said. “Left how, if you please?”
“Stuck in her mouth like a letter in a postbox.”
Bierce made a clucking sound.
“Ace of spades,” I said. “Means death?”
They both looked at me.
“Anything a sterling young journalist like Tom Redmond ought to look into?” Bierce said.
“Ames from the Alta and that fat fellow from the Chronicle is all over it,” Nix said. He scratched his fingers through his coarse hair.