Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades-Oakley Hall. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров
I waltzed sinfully with Amelia past the band of music on its dais, sweat damp on my forehead from the July heat, and a gleam on hers as well. She smiled at me with her pink lips. Her dark stripes of eyebrows were raised as though she was always pleasantly surprised. I may have led her to believe I was a more important journalist than was actually the case and did not mention that I turned into a printer’s helper and general tote-and-lift on Thursday nights when The Hornet went to press.
She said she didn’t think she had ever danced with a Democrat before.
We compared educations. I had received my sums, grammar and Latin from the Christian Brothers in Sacramento, she had “finished” at Miss Cooley’s Institute in San Francisco.
I steered her outside onto the balcony that overlooked the Tenderloin and, down to the left, the broad swath of Market Street cocooned in light. To the west the city lights spread out over the hills and ganged together in the valleys, disappearing into the fog bank. We stood at the railing in the cool air off the Bay. I pretended to be intent on admiring the views beneath us. I was unused to women who were almost as tall as I.
“It is so beautiful at night,” Amelia said. “But think of the evil events that may be happening down there even as we stand here.”
“Earlier this evening I viewed the remains of a poor young woman who had been slaughtered by a madman.”
“My father read of it in the Alta,” Amelia said. “A terrible murder. And she was a—low woman?”
“On Morton Street.” I pointed. Between Nob Hill and Market Street was Union Square, fronting on it the fancy parlorhouses of the Upper Tenderloin. Running off Union Square toward Market Street were the red-tinted lights of Morton Street. Out of our sight was Portsmouth Square, another rabbit hutch of cribs and whorehouses and, in between, the warrens of Chinatown where the slave girls shrilled their invitations.
It was shameful, with this young lady at my side, to be thinking of the City as a palpitating mass of fornication.
“It is difficult for a young person to understand—” she said in a low voice. “All these women—”
“They say there are three men for every woman in San Francisco,” I said. “Not so many years ago it was ten to one.”
“But it is not merely young men, I understand. Married men as well.” So we had been thinking of the same thing.
“A relief to their wives,” I said.
“I don’t understand that, Mr. Redmond.”
“The gratification of the husband often endangers the health of his wife.”
Her silence indicated that she didn’t understand that either, and I was digging myself deeper into this matter than was proper.
“Wives who already have six or eight children,” I added. “Or ten or twelve.”
“Yes, I understand,” she said quickly.
I turned to see the breeze riffling the curls that wisped around her face, which was set and intense as she gazed down on Morton Street. I glanced away so as not to be caught admiring her.
“Was she pretty, the murdered woman?” she asked.
“She was French. She had a bit of mustache, but she was pretty, yes.” I could feel the expression on my face, like mud drying.
“Not very young.”
She rubbed her hands over her forearms as though she was chilled and said, “Mr. Redmond, young women of my station are very innocent of the life that goes on around them. We were speaking of our educations just now. I would like to take advantage of your more comprehensive education.”
This time it was I who didn’t know what she meant. I found my own hands smoothing the sleeves of my jacket, in imitation of her gesture.
“Will you escort me down to Union Square and Morton Street, Mr. Redmond?” she said. “So I may see something of these—stews with my own eyes.”
She giggled suddenly. “My brother will be shocked. May I tell him you will escort me home?”
“Certainly!” I said, shivering.
So I accompanied Amelia Brittain down off Nob Hill, she in her cloak and bonnet, I wearing my derby and pretending more command of the evening than I actually felt. Her hand rested lightly on my arm. We turned down Bush Street in the darkness between the illuminated corners and passed men in groups of two and three. Some tipped their hats to Amelia.
The Alhambra Saloon, Boss Chris Buckley’s headquarters, wore a crown of balls of light. Just as we were passing, a group of drinkers pushed their way outside, boisterously laughing and compounding my nervousness.
Among his consort of cronies was the Blind Boss himself. His fat white eyeballs stared straight ahead, his hat was cocked on his head. Amelia and I were surrounded by his bunch.
“Good evening, Mr. Buckley,” I said. He would recognize my voice, for the magic of his hearing was that he could identify people by voice or even, some said, by footstep.
“Good evening indeed, Tom Redmond!” His face was wreathed in the ripples of his famous smile. “And how are you this pleasant evening, my friend?”
I introduced Miss Brittain.
Buckley doffed his hat and hunched his shoulders in a half bow. “And would this be the daughter of James M. Brittain?”
“Yes, he is my father,” Amelia said in a strong voice.
“The highly regarded mining engineer,” Buckley said, nodding. “Good evening to you, Miss Brittain. Your companion is a very fine young man, as I am sure you know. You must take trustful care of her, Tom. Good night, Miss Brittain! Good night, Tom!”
And he was swept away in his clutch of courtiers, who had, all, tipped their hats properly.
“That was the infamous Blind Boss!” Amelia whispered. Her hand had tightened on my arm.
“That was the famous Chris Buckley,” I said, and turned us to cross Bush headed for Morton Street.
It was no place for a lady, and I was sorry I’d ever contracted for this tour before we even reached Union Square. The streetlights here burned more brightly while the shadows between were denser and alive with the movement of hatted men passing every which way, and restlessly grouping together. They generated a deep rustle of conversations. The fog was blowing down the streets with shivery air that seemed to touch my face like fingers.
“I don’t believe I should take you any further along here, Miss Brittain,” I said.
“It is by my request that we are here, Mr. Redmond. Is there danger?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Are you concerned that I will be insulted?”
“I believe I can tolerate that. Can you?”
“Not without responding,” I said.
“It is a difference between the genders,” she said.
We were in an area where the difference between the genders was celebrated. We edged between and past the groups of men toward the entrance to Morton Street. Amelia’s hand lay on my arm an ounce more heavily. Morton Street slanted down from Stockton, crowded with men. A police wagon was just turning into it, blurred in the fog, two helmeted policemen aboard, one standing with the reins, the other shouting to give way.