Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades-Oakley Hall. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров
“I will make a prediction,” Bierce said. “It has got to do with the Railroad.”
Nix snorted. Bierce had an obsession about the Southern Pacific, the “Railrogues” as he called the Big Four, Leland Stanford, Collis B. Huntington, Charles Crocker and company.
“Simple deduction,” Bierce said. “The Southern Pacific is behind 90 percent of the corruption in the State of California. A strangled and slashed dove is an eruption of corruption. Ergo.”
Nix and I gaped at him.
“When a monopoly controls the state legislature—both houses and both political parties—and runs the state from their offices at Fourth and Townsend, it is a state of disgrace. The SP is the monopoly on transportation in the State of California, and the monopoly on corruption.”
“They don’t control the Democrat party in the City,” I said. “The San Francisco Democracy is Antimonopoly.”
Bierce said scornfully, “Do not be too sure of that, Tom.”
What Bierce said of the SP was true enough. The transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869 and since then the Big Four’s Monopoly had covered the state like knee-deep muck. The Railroad not only owned the Republican legislature, they hired bullyboys and enforcers and, in the Mussel Slough Massacre, gunmen. And my father worked for them.
But Bierce also denounced the Democrat machine that ran the City government—Chris Buckley, the Blind Boss, and Mayor Washington Bartlett and the Supervisors—in what he called the “hauls of power.”
I was a member of a Democrat club called the True Blue Democracy. Sometimes we had brawls with Railroad toughs who liked to break up our meetings.
Nix finished his beer, clapped on his helmet and rose. “Come along then, Tom,” he said to me.
So I went along with him to the City Morgue in Dunbar Alley, to view my first corpse.
I was born and raised in Sacramento, where my mother and father still lived on M Street, my mother with her children grown and gone, sitting on the porch to smoke a cigar when one came her way, watching the wagons pass. My father, the Gent, was apt to troop off after the latest bonanza. He’d never got the gold fever out of his blood. Between jaunts he worked for the SP at one job or another. In his time, I knew, he had chased women as well as silver strikes.
I left home to move down the Sacramento River to San Francisco as soon as I finished my schooling. I was a fireman for four years. After that I worked at the Chronicle for six months as a printer’s devil. There I began writing pieces and showing them to an editor who recommended me to Bierce at The Hornet.
And I attended Policemen’s and Firemen’s and Charity Balls, in the hopes of meeting my True Love, in San Francisco where there were not enough women to go around.
I roomed with a family named Barnacle, on Pine Street, and made my ablutions at the Pine Street Baths. Jonas Barnacle was a carpenter who suffered from “the weakness” and did not work much, except to make repairs on his house and sit on the stoop observing street passages. Mrs. B. was the harried keeper of a boardinghouse with four male boarders who shared dinners with her and Mr. Barnacle and the young Barnacles aged five to thirteen, the oldest being pretty Belinda, whom I’d promised to marry when she was eighteen.
My room was the third-floor loft, with bed, desk, washbasin and pitcher, three shelves of books and a slice of view out a bay window down Pine to Kearny. An outside rickety staircase gave me more privacy than any of the other tenants, though I had less headroom. Boarders were forbidden to bring women to their rooms.
There was an outhouse in the backyard, with its path obstructed by Mrs. B.’s washing on the clotheslines Mondays. I had nailed a buggy seat to the cellar wall, and went down there to practice boxing maneuvers and straight lefts and right hooks, to help protect the True Blue Democracy Antimonopolies from the Monopoly bullies.
Belinda Barnacle sat on the stoop with a book hugged to her chest, watching me thump up the wooden steps. She was a bright-haired, small-featured, skinny child with no figure to her yet. “Good evening, Tom!”
“Good evening, Belinda.” I was not feeling much like our usual evening literary conversation because of what I had seen at the Morgue. But I asked what she was reading.
She showed me the cover of one of the books I had lent her: Ivanhoe.
“Is a Jewess like Mr. Cohen?”
“They wrote things on his store. ‘Jews must go!’ Like ‘Chinese must go!’ ”
“People write things like that about Irishers too, Belinda. It is just low-tone people trying to make somebody else lower still.” The ignorant persecuting the helpless, as Bierce might have said. Belinda had asked to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which had nothing but low-tone characters, but I didn’t think she was ready for it yet. The novel had come out to a lot of criticism from readers who had liked The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Bierce had praised its plain style of narrative, though I suspected him of being jealous of Mark Twain’s successes. Bierce was the only famous writer other than Sidney Lanier who had actually served in the War between the States.
I had to wash off the morgue stink. The sight of that poor, chalk-pale, torn-apart body had laid a pall over me. It was beyond comprehension why anyone would want to do such a thing. I hadn’t been shown the ace of spades.
“I’ve got to get a bath,” I said.
“Are you going to the Firemen’s Ball?”
Belinda hugged Ivanhoe to her chest. Tight braids hung down the back of her checked gingham dress. Her feet were pigeon-toed in scuffed shoes.
“Will you dance with ladies there?”
“I hope to.”
“Will you dance the waltz?”
“Indeed we will!”
“Father Kennedy says it is very sinful.”
“I don’t believe Father Kennedy has ever seen a waltz waltzed.”
She grinned, showing outsize front teeth, which gave her a charming raffish air. “Will you take me waltzing some day, Tom?”
“With Father Kennedy’s permission!” I said and trotted up the steps that Jonas Barnacle ought to spend some time strengthening with his hammer and a pocketful of nails.
It was to be the night I met my True Love.
MISS, n. – A title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market.
–THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY
Her name was Amelia Brittain, and she had come to the Firemen’s Ball accompanied by her brother, who was home from Yale. I was fortunate to be granted a dance with a young lady whose father was at least minor nobility of what Bierce called the “instant aristocrats” of Nob Hill. She was tall and graceful-gawky with a heart-shaped high-color face and light brown hair frizzed around her forehead like a halo. She weighed no more than an ounce of lace in my arms as we swept around the gleaming floor. I breathed her flower scent and took notice of the engagement ring on the hand I held in mine. The ring cast expensive glints as we circled under the heat of the gaslights.
Yes, she was engaged; to Beaumont McNair. I knew who Beau McNair was, all