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But strength alone, though of the Muses born,
Is like a fallen angel: trees uptorn,
Darkness, and worms, and shrouds, and sepulchers
Delight it; for it feeds upon the burrs
And thorns of life; forgetting the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.
Angel pushed the canvas flap back just enough to look out at the mud street. She shivered in the cold afternoon air, that carried with it the stench of disenchantment.
Pair-a-Dice lay in the Mother Lode of California. It was the worst place she could have imagined, a shanty town of golden dreams built out of rotting sails from abandoned ships; a camp inhabited by outcasts and aristocrats, the displaced and dispossessed, the once-pampered and now-profane. Canvas-roofed bars and gambling houses lined mean streets ruled by unmasked depravity and greed, loneliness and grand illusions. Pair-a-Dice was wild jubilation. It wed black despair with fear and the foul taste of failure.
Smiling cynically, Angel saw on one corner a man preaching salvation while on the other his brother, hat in hand, fleeced the godforsaken. Everywhere she looked, there were desperate men, exiled from home and family, seeking escape from the purgatory forged by their own decaying hopes for a future.
These same fools called her a Cyprian and sought solace where they were most assured of finding nonefrom her. They drew lots for her favors, fourounces of gold, payable in advance to the Duchess, madam of the Palace, the tent brothel where she lived. Any comer could have Angel for one half hour. Her own meager percentage would be kept under lock and key and guarded by a woman-hating giant named Magowan. As for the restthose sad unfortunates who lacked the price to sample her talentsthey stood knee-deep in a sea of mud called Main Street, waiting for a chance glimpse of "the Angel." And she lived a year in a month in this place that was unfit for anything but business. When would it end? How had all her desperate plans brought her here, to this horrible place of dirt and broken dreams?
"No more right now," the Duchess was saying, ushering several men away. "I know you've been waiting, but Angel's tired, and you want her best, don't you?" Men complained and threatened, pleaded and bargained, but the Duchess knew when Angel had reached the limit of her endurance. "She needs a rest. Come back this evening. Drinks on the house."
Relieved that they were gone, Angel let go of the tent flap and went back to lie on the rumpled bed. She stared bleakly at the canvas ceiling. The Duchess had announced this morning at breakfast that the new building was almost finished and the girls would be moving in tomorrow. Angel was ready to have four walls around her again. At least then the cold night wind would not blow in on her through splits in the rotting sailcloth. She hadn't thought how much four walls meant to her when she paid passage on a barkentine destined for California. Then, all she had been thinking was escape. All she had seen was her chance for freedom. The mirage had dissolved soon enough when she reached the gangplank and learned she was one of three women aboard a ship with 120 vigorous young men, all of whom had nothing on their minds but adventure. The two hard-eyed prostitutes set to work right away, but Angel had tried to stay in her cabin. Within a fortnight, she saw clearly that she had one simple choice: go back to being a prostitute or be raped. What did it really matter anyway? What else did she know? She might as well line her pockets with gold like the others. Maybe then, just maybe, with enough money she could buy freedom.
She survived the rough seas, the foul-tasting lobscouse and hushama-grundy, the cramped quarters, and lack of dignity and decency in the hope that she would have enough money by the time she reached the shores of California to start a new life. Then, amid the excitement of docking, the final blow was struck.
The two other prostitutes set upon her in her cabin. By the time she regained consciousness, they were ashore with all her money and every possession she owned. All that was left to her was the clothes on her back. What was worse, not even one sailor remained aboard to row her ashore.
Beaten and numb with confusion, she sat huddled in the bow of the ship for two days before scavengers came. When they finished taking what they wanted from the deserted ship and her, they brought her to the dock. It was raining hard, and while they argued and divided their booty, she simply walked away.
She wandered for several days, hiding her face and hair beneath a soiled blanket one of the men had given her. She was hungry; she was cold; and she was resigned. Freedom was a dream.
She made her way by working Portsmouth Square until the Duchess, a woman well past her prime but possessed of a shrewd mind for business, found her and talked her into heading for the gold country.
"I've got four other girls, a Frenchie from Paris, a Celestial Ah Toy sold me, and two girls who look like they came off an empty potato boat from Ireland. A little food will fatten 'em up. Ah, but now, you. First time I saw you, I thought there's a girl who can get rich with the right management. A girl with your beauty could make her fortune up there in the gold camps. Those young miners will take the gold out of the stream and fight each other to put it right in your hand."
On an agreement that Angel would turn over eighty percent of her earnings, the Duchess promised to see that she was protected from bodily harm. "And I'll see you have the best clothing, food, and lodgings available."
Angel found the irony laughable. She had fled from Duke and fallen into the hands of Duchess. Just her luck.
For all her seeming benevolence, Duchess was a greedy tyrant. Angel knew she collected bribes to fix the lots, while not a speck of that gold dust found its way into the girls' pouches. The tips left for services well-rendered were divided according to the original agreement. Mai Ling, Ah Toy's Celestial slave girl, tried to hide her gold once, and Magowanwith his cruel smile and ham-sized handswas sent in to "have a talk with her."
Angel hated her life. She hated the Duchess. She hated Magowan. She hated her own wretched helplessness. Most of all she hated the men for their relentless quest for pleasure. She gave them her body but not a particle more. Maybe there wasn't any more. She didn't know. And that didn't seem to matter to any of the men. All they saw was her beauty, a flawless veil wrapped around a frozen heart, and they were enthralled. They looked into her angel eyes and were lost.
She was not fooled by their endless declarations of love. They wanted her in the same way they wanted the gold in the streams. They lusted for her. They fought for the chance to be with her. They scrambled, grappled, gambled, and grabbedand everything they had was spent without thought or consideration. They paid to become enslaved. She gave them what they thought was heaven and consigned them to hell.
What did it matter? She had nothing left. She didn't care. An even stronger force than the hatred that feasted on her was the weariness that sucked her soul dry. At eighteen, she was tired of living and resigned to the fact that nothing would ever change. She wondered why she had even been born. For this, she supposed. Take it or leave it. God's truth. And the only way to leave it was to kill herself. Every time she faced that fact, every time she had the chance, her courage failed.
Her only friend was a tired old harlot named Lucky, who was running to fat because of her thirst for brandy. Yet even Lucky knew nothing of where Angel had come from or been, or what had happened to make her the way she was. The other prostitutes thought of her as invulnerable. They all wondered about her, but they never asked questions. Angel made it clearly understood from the beginning that the past was sacred ground no one walked over. Except for Lucky, dumb-drunk Lucky for whom Angel held a fondness.
Lucky spent her off time deep in her cups. "You gotta have plans, Angel. You gotta hope for something in this world."
"Hope for what?"
"You can't get by any other way."
"I get by just fine."
"I don't look back, and I don't look forward."
"What about now? You gotta think about now, Angel."
Angel smiled faintly and brushed her long, golden hair. "Now doesn't exist."