Read an Excerpt
April 27, 1848
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New York C i t y
Benjamin Knowles wobbled into the New World. He hadn’t stood on solid ground for nearly two weeks, and as he stepped from the gangway onto the Cunard pier he felt shaky. The adventure continued! Albeit for the moment in a place called New Jersey. Until an hour before, he had never heard of New Jersey.
But after a few moments he found his feet and spoke to his first American on American soil, the ship’s assistant bursar, a man with a swollen red nose standing at a portable blue cabinet. He took one of Ben’s £5 coins and counted out American money in exchange–a ten-dollar gold piece, two five-dollar gold pieces, and a silver dollar.
“Trade you four good Lady Libertys for just one of your girl,” the man said as he clicked and rubbed his dirty thumbnail across Victoria’s face, winked, then placed the four coins one at a time in Ben’s palm.
Ben stared at his new money. Each of the coins carried a portrait of Liberty, and all were extremely shiny.
“Plus your three cents for the ferry and another besides.” As the man dribbled the pennies onto the gold, he glanced behind Ben at some commotion near the gangway. “That foreign fella seems to be wanting you pretty bad, sir . . .”
Ben spun around, suddenly in a freak, his heart in his throat, imagining the worst–
But it was only Mr. Memmo, his fellow passenger, held up by an immigration agent skeptical of his true nationality.
“Mr. Knowles,” Memmo shouted, “because I am delayed here, I must say the fondest farewell to you just now–so off to our Gotham on your own, eh?”
Ben took a deep breath and waved goodbye. “Gotham”! It was a word he had read only in books.
The day seemed sunnier than any in London ever, and the river smelled sweet in comparison with the Thames. As his ferry, the Davy Crockett, chugged from New Jersey toward Manhattan, it passed through a flotilla of market boats sailing in every direction, dozens of sloops and schooners piled with sturgeon and lettuce and peaches and husked corn, the Coxsackie packed to the decks with snow-white lime and the Doctor Faustus with tengallon cans of milk, the Favorite full of dead ducks and the Revenge carrying live spring lambs. The river was so wide that each of the smaller craft–other ferries, a longboat here, a flat-bottomed launch there, cutters and yawls and even a few little punts–was apparently free to plot its own course at any angle it wished, channels and charts be damned. One big sidewheel steamer called the Novelty was pulling away from a pier straight ahead as another, the Intelligence, steamed in for a landing from the north, its puffy tails of black smoke and white steam extending almost the whole width of the river like some heavenly bridge.
The Davy Crockett’s engine slowed. Ben was at the bow, bags in hand. At the next pier over, cotton was being unloaded from a Charleston steamer. He wondered if these very bales might now be shipped across the Atlantic to his father’s mills in Lancashire. The year Ben had worked there, the arriving American cotton bales had always reminded him of coffins–coffins in a dream, white and soft and impossibly heavy. This morning they looked only like cotton.
Ben stepped off and wandered into the confusion.
He looked and listened and smelled more acutely than he ever had before. His preconceptions were already sloughing away as the actual America, bit by vivid bit, began to replace accreted years of wishful speculation. His last look at the Old World had been Liverpool’s orderly stone wharves; this first glimpse of the New World was all rotting wood and ramshackle sheds, a jumble of painted signs and paper billboards and chalked words and prices on blackboards. Everything and everyone seemed to shout and hawk.
A few yards away a respectable-looking older woman was addressing a pair of respectable-looking younger men, one of whom was not just laughing aloud but guffawing in the street so madly that he seemed about to tumble over. The bustle of people and carts and animals seemed greater than in London, wilder and even slightly desperate, but also somehow happier. And strangers looked at him as intently as he looked at each of them–looked him straight in the eye, as no Londoner who wasn’t a whore or a lunatic would think of doing.
In this place of which he had only read and dreamed, he had the odd sense of arriving home. A “cosmopolite,” the friendly American newspaperman he met on the ship this morning had called him. Ben savored the phrase, hoped that it might become true. It was a word that his brother Philip used as a polite disparagement for artists and feckless Europeans and Jews.
In the footpath on the far side of the street he spotted two Negroes, a man and a boy, maybe father and son, starting to sing at the tops of their lungs and clap in time to their tune. “He got the whole danged world, he got the whole world in his hands.” Ben’s mouth dropped open at the sight. He had stepped off the boat only a minute ago, and here was minstrelsy, no cocoa butter and burnt cork on white men, no West End stage parody, but the real thing, in the American street. Their associate, a white boy, held a tin bowl he shook for coins from onlookers. Ben handed over his remaining penny and lifted his bags to go. He’s got the whole world in his hands.
As he walked toward a cluster of hackney cabs, he happened to glance at the smallest sign among the scores that surrounded him. He was walking down a street called Liberty.
His cabdriver was friendly and talkative in just the brassy way Americans were reputed to be. In their first minute together, he had asked Ben his age (twenty-six) and if he was planning to stay in New York for a while (yes).
“That there is the superb Trinity Church,” the driver said as he turned north, pointing like a hired guide at a brand-new fake-Gothic spire.
“Anglican?” Ben asked.
“Aristocratic,” the driver said without a smile, “and the tallest doggone thing on the continent.”
“And that fine place,” Ben asked of a building across Broadway, “is an army headquarters?” Two black men in regimental uniforms stood guard at either side of the main entrance.
“Because of the darkies at the door? Ha! You are a comical one, if I can say so, sir.” It was the Lafayette Bazaar, an arcade of shops, reading rooms, and photographers’ studios. The two men in blue costumes, the driver explained, “are just, well, hired showmen, I expect you could say.”
Ben’s first impressions of his hotel were disheartening. White and new and fine, the Astor House was the very picture of ten-shilling-a-night respectability. Except for its great size, it was in no way vulgar or strange, and Ben had come to America craving vulgarity and strangeness. His room, on the sixth floor, was outfitted with a feather bed, a steam radiator, water from a tap, even a water closet with plumbing. He did not feel that he was at the center of a rough new democratic dynamo. Indeed, he might as well have been in the most luxurious hotel in Rome or Paris or Berlin. With its marble and mahogany and miles of drapery, and a score of liveried men and footboys carrying parcels and platters and answering bells, this establishment would suit his father, or–good God–his brother Philip.
Yes, Ben said to himself, and what else should one expect of the Astor House, a hotel built by the famous millionaire himself? He had taken his father’s suggestion and used the firm’s travel clerk to arrange lodgings, and now he wondered if the Astor House was part of an Archie Knowles stratagem to pamper and disillusion him from the moment he arrived, to persuade Ben that he was indeed (as his father had said) “an overromantic carpet knight” who had sailed three thousand miles only to encounter the familiar. Ben vowed to find a permanent place to live in a more suitably . . . American way. Whatever that meant.
But as he walked downstairs for dinner, wondering why the public rooms of such a hotel featured so many large and empty brass flowerpots, the man walking just in front of him turned his head and, hardly pausing at all, spat a large bolus of syrupy tobacco juice several feet into the nearest pot. Aha: spittoons. Ben smiled. He was pleased. No such thing had ever happened in Berkeley Square.
The two young New Yorkers were seated in a corner of the largest of the dining saloons at the Astor House. Duff Lucking wore a brown serge frock coat, his first new one since before he left for Mexico. Polly Lucking wore her favorite dress, a brocaded yellow silk with a lace bodice, and her highheeled kid boots. Until they’d arrived, their destination had been a secret to her. For this week’s dinner Duff had announced he would “fête her royally” to celebrate the happy, happy news.
Duff had never tasted champagne, let alone Heidsieck at two dollars a glass. “A toast . . .”
Polly smiled as if embarrassed, but the show of humility was rote. She was as pleased as she had ever been. She had learned the day before that she was cast to play the young heroine Florence Dombey in the stage production based on Charles Dickens’s new novel. It would be the most significant role so far in her somewhat whiffling theatrical career.
“Now come on, Polly–raise your glass!”
She smiled and lifted her ginger fizz an inch or two off the table.
“To New York’s–no, to the nation’s–truest and finest young female player, Mary Ann Lucking!”
She wondered if she ought to drop her nickname professionally and begin to call herself Mary Ann.
“Prepare, New York,” Duff continued, a little loudly, “for the up-andcoming star of 1848!”
She smiled and sipped. She would now be a true actress, exclusively an actress. And how pleased she was that she had made the choice to leave Mrs. Stanhope’s employ before this stroke of good fortune. She was tempted to thank God for rewarding her right actions so promptly, even though her mother’s funeral Mass in ’46 was the last time she had even stepped into a church.
“Thank you, Duff. You are too generous.”
“Does this news mean you are finished with the lesser endeavors, Polly, the, the . . . other performances?”
“Queen Gertrude, do you mean?” she asked, feeling a little hurt. Polly would debut the next night in a brief run of Hamlet–not in the role of young Ophelia, the part for which she had tried out, but as Hamlet’s mother. She and King Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father were the only adults in the production, since the manager had decided to cast infant wonders in every other role–children no older than twelve, the girl playing Ophelia barely eight. “It is Shakespeare . . .”
“No, of course, indeed. No, I mean . . .” The scar on his cheek started to sting. “The other job. You…” He could not bring himself to utter the words. And he said so. “I am flummoxed, Polly.”
“At Heilperin’s?” Heilperin’s Studios was one of the places in the Bowery where men, amateur “artists,” paid fifty cents to sketch female models arranged in tableaux vivants and dressed (or, rather, all but undressed) as figures of antiquity and myth–Venus Rising from the Sea, Lady Godiva, a Greek Slave Girl. “Oh, that travesty,” she said. “I quit Heilperin’s weeks ago. Have I not told you?”
Duff smiled and sighed. “Well,” he asked, “do you know when you are off to Philadelphia with Burton’s company?” Dombey and Son would play its first performances there.
“At the beginning of July, they say. By steamer.” She would be a member of a troupe of players, on the road with fellow actors! “And then return at the end of the month to debut at his new theater in Chambers Street.”
A waiter arrived with their plates.
“No,” Duff corrected, “the Calf ’s Head in Brain Sauce is for my sister.” Polly had not yet made herself over into a vegetarian, as she intended. Duff was having Small Birds, Italian Style.
Across the room, a pianist was playing a Schumann song.
Duff and Polly did not notice the arrival of a young gentleman seated alone four tables apart from them.
And Ben Knowles’s eyes were darting like a boy’s, alert to every foreign detail–more spittoons scattered across the floor, diners gulping water, a fat man at the next table saying, “That’s the guy’s moniker, or what?”
“Dinner at the Astor House, Polly,” Duff said rather grandly. “I hope it is all that you imagined.”
She no longer wished to lie to Duff. But nor was she prepared to burden him with the entire truth. She had, in fact, dined here before, twice, once with Samuel Prime and once with a timber dealer she had met at 101 Mercer Street.
“It is,” she said, “precisely as I knew it would be. Every bit as splendid.”
He smiled and took her hand.
“And you are indistinguishable from the whole company of fashionables around us.” He raised his champagne again. “To our evening as snobs.”
Ten yards away, Ben pored over the blue-and-gold Menu of Cocktails. He wore a dazed smile and moved his lips as he read the names of the American drinks he knew (Mint Julep, Sherry Cobbler) and wondered about the ingredients of the ones he didn’t–the Timberdoodles, Syracuse Smashers, Flip-Flaps, Drizzles, and Great Big Boys. He considered ordering a glass of “the finest Pennsylvania rye whiskey (‘Monongahela’)” but decided instead on “the finest Kentucky corn whiskey (‘Bourbon’).”
He glanced around to find a waiter . . . and spotted a young woman just as a smile broke across her face. She was illuminated by a pool of gaslight.
He wanted to stare. Instead he ogled her for three or four seconds at a time, again and again, interrupting his gaze by pretending to read his menu. Her hair, the color of hay, was braided in a sleek chignon but hung a little loosely in front over the sides of her face and ears. In London she would be counted as a Mayfair flirt, no doubt–as carefully powdered and probably as high-strung as Lydia Winslow, Ben’s former fiancée, but with none of Lydia’s careful curls, and an easy smile of which Lydia was incapable. This girl moved her hands in the air as she spoke, like a European. She might be twenty, Ben thought, or perhaps closer to thirty; her eyes and smile seemed too womanly and sly for a girl’s, but her tomboy laughter was too natural for an experienced minx. He returned to his menu.
He was charmed by her, a young woman anyone would find pretty (although a little sharp-featured, and almost mannishly tall), but whom Ben found beautiful. Indeed, he was smitten as he had not been smitten in . . . months, certainly, or maybe years; no, to tell the truth, as he had never been smitten before.
And now he looked over again, this time eyeing the man holding her hand. He found it hard to credit this tanned, muscular young fellow as her beau, not because he looked unintelligent or uncongenial or (the scar on his face notwithstanding) ugly, but because he seemed so entirely boyish.
Duff stood and walked past Ben’s table to a side hallway across the room.
Ben’s glances at Polly grew longer. He watched her use her napkin to dab the corners of her mouth and then, so quickly that no one else in the place noticed, pluck a bread crumb from her bodice. He watched the tendons in her neck as she turned to look out the window at an old man walking a terrier on a leash down a turf path in the hotel’s interior garden. He watched her absentmindedly stroke the edge of the white damask tablecloth in her lap like a toddler rubbing the hem of her baby blanket.
When the pianist started playing a Chopin Fantaisie Impromptu, she suddenly turned toward the piano and happened to meet Ben’s glance for the briefest instant before they both turned away–she to greet her returning tablemate, he to inspect a random, grinning American whose side-whiskers were as broad and woolly as an unshorn sheep’s hock. Polly was accustomed to strange men stealing glances. Ben seldom eyed women so attentively, let alone wolfishly.
A half minute later, Ben looked over again and saw that she was now in animated conversation with her scarred, eager boy-man. Ben imagined, bitterly, that they were rhapsodizing about their married life, pledging eternal affection, sharing secrets, making love.
“You’ve turned gay as a cricket,” Polly said to her brother when he’d returned from the lavatory.
He began to explain, then stopped himself. “This is not proper table conversation.”
“What is it, Duff?”
Duff let his eyes widen and leaned in toward his sister to whisper. “The water closet. The seat is vulcanized. And when you pull the lever the stream comes out fast, like a millrace, as fast as a pump at a well. It absolutely blasts, Polly, and in an instant”–he started to blush–“everything . . . simply disappears down an iron drain.”
It was his first encounter with a privy hooked to a Croton water pipe. He had to restrain himself from actually recommending that she leave the table now to visit the ladies’ facility. And Polly had to restrain herself from confessing to him that she already had, months before.
“It absolutely takes the cake,” he said.
His slang amused her. “I am sure it does, if one has eaten cake.”
Duff was embarrassed by her little joke, as she had intended. His ears and cheeks turned as red as his scar.
Ben turned away from the couple to attack his roast duck and buttered corn and aubergines (“egg plants”). The waiter brought him a serving dish filled with two pounds of fried chipped potatoes. He ate as much as he could manage, but enough food for a second and probably a third dinner remained.After his dishes were taken away, a senior waiter in more elaborate livery approached. He had a worried expression.
“Did you find the Suprême de Canard Montmorency in some way unsatisfactory, sir?” the man asked, pronouncing the name of the duck dish as if it were supreme to Canada mount moron sea. “And your palms freet?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your duck and your fried puh-tay-toes. Were they not tasty to you?”
“Very tasty indeed, thank you. But I am unaccustomed to your extremely generous portions.”
The man relaxed, and seemed eager to pursue a different line of questioning. “Aha. English, eh, sir?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re from Great Britain, sir, are you?”
“May I inquire, then–your first time in America?”
“And how do you find it?” the man asked, assuming the odd tone of fretful tenderness and faintly simmering rage that Lydia Winslow had used whenever she would ask if Ben really and truly loved her. Ben was considering what honest reply to give when the man answered for him.
“I expect the liberty and equality you find here may come as a shock. I expect you are also surprised, too, to find this city as sophisticated as London or Paris or any in the world–yet far more congenial and sincere. Am I correct, sir?”
“Well, I have only just arrived, actually . . .” Ben expected Americans to be impertinent–he welcomed it–but he was startled by this man’s selfregard and appetite for praise.
“Our food at the Astor House is renowned for its excellence. The equal of any European table, they say.”
“I am simply . . . full. And as for your city and country, I expect to find that it is indeed the best of all possible worlds.”
Ben couldn’t have been more sincere. The restaurant captain, however, certain that an arrogant John Bull was mocking him, nodded and strode away.
Polly glanced once, quickly, at the long-haired stranger as the waiter set down her dish of ice cream and strawberries; he was no longer ogling.
Ben did not dare to look at her again until she and her companion walked past his table to leave. He inhaled her lavender breeze. The back of her dress was cut with a slight dip at the neck. And so as she made her exit from the saloon and Ben Knowles’s life, he turned and stared–helplessly, hopelessly– at those naked few inches at the summit of her long back.
He had dared in the last few minutes to imagine that he might somehow contrive to meet her, that she would fall in love with him, that she would become his American wife. But now–he returned to his meal and sighed–he knew he would never see her again.
But he would not mope. He took a deep breath. He finished his glass of bourbon whiskey and ordered another.
As he drank he considered once again the extraordinary turns his life had taken since February. And he decided that Lloyd Ashby would approve of everything he had done since the night in Paris they were last together. He dearly hoped so.
From the Trade Paperback edition.