"Full of insights and laced with subtle humor.... The author shows us every detail of the trip, from the attitudes of the day to how to find water in desert sand and preparations for a Kiowa Sun Dance."
The Denver Post
Charles Babbage was an English genius of legendary eccentricity. He invented the cowcatcher, the ophthalmoscope, and the “penny post.” He was an expert lock picker, he wrote a ballet, he pursued a vendetta against London organ-grinders that made him the laughingstock of Europe. And all his life he was in desperate need of enormous sums of money to build
Charles Babbage was an English genius of legendary eccentricity. He invented the cowcatcher, the ophthalmoscope, and the “penny post.” He was an expert lock picker, he wrote a ballet, he pursued a vendetta against London organ-grinders that made him the laughingstock of Europe. And all his life he was in desperate need of enormous sums of money to build his fabled reasoning machine, the Difference Engine, the first digital computer in history.
To publicize his Engine, Babbage sponsors a private astronomical expedition—a party of four men and one remarkable woman—who will set out from Washington City and travel by wagon train two thousand miles west, beyond the last known outposts of civilization. Their ostensible purpose is to observe a total eclipse of the sun predicted by
Babbage’s computer, and to photograph it with the newly invented camera of Louis Daguerre.
The actual purpose, however…
Suffice it to say that in Shooting the Sun nothing is what it seems, eclipses have minds of their own, and even the best computer cannot predict treachery, greed, and the fickle passions of the human heart.
Miss Selena Cott
If you were my daughter," said the comte de Broglie, taking Selena Cott's hand and kissing his own thumb, as was the continental custom, "I would put you across my knee and paddle you."
Selena, who had known the comte since she was a baby, smiled at him and in her mind's eye pulled his great red French nose till it honked. "Well, of course you would," she replied, and retrieved her hand and used it to shade her brow. The docks of Baltimore City, where he had come to greet her, were astonishingly hot for the month of June, deafeningly noisy. She hardly knew whether to look at them or the disapproving comte, a small, foppish man of sixty or so, much given (as she now recalled) to the old-fashioned eighteenth-century ways. He had evidently doused himself in cologne, and unmistakably he had coated his face with rouge and white powder. Under the blazing American sun, with his black silk parasol held stiffly over his head, he looked like an exotic and demented Robinson Crusoe.
Because he disapproved, the comte was silent for a full twenty paces up the wharf, but because he was French he was constitutionally unable to keep it up.
"One young girl and two dozen men," he muttered as they reached the Customs building.
"Seulement cinq ou six," Selena said mildly. "Only five or six men."
"And in the middle of the burning desert!" The comte signalled briskly to a hatless black stevedore whose arms and face were gleaming with perspiration.
"Mr. Babbage made a calculation."
"Ah, Mr. Babbage," began the comte, and then apparently thought better of where his sentence was going. "The lady's telescope," he commanded the stevedore.
Inside the Customs building it was even hotter than outside. Selena fanned herself with her baggage ticket and followed the comte across a crowded reception hall toward a rank of queues and official desks at the other end. On every side, knots of busy merchants and sailors turned to stare as she passed by.
As indeed they might.
Selena Cott was twenty-three years old just that month, and even though she had worn it six of her seventeen days at sea, her blue taffeta travelling dress still clung to her figure with Parisian style. She was slender and five feet six inches tall, four inches taller than the comte. She had striking blonde hair, worn unconventionally short and without a bonnet, and a quick, dancing smile which caused the comte unconsciously to stretch to his full height and rise on his toes as he walked beside her, and which from the cradle on had quite unfairly disguised, as the comte had almost forgotten, her absolutely maddening obstinacy of purpose, whatever that purpose happened to be.
He glowered at the staring merchants and sailors. Selena ignored them and concentrated instead on the reception hall. There were four desks and queues in front of them now, and high overhead, suspended by ropes from the ceiling, the biggest American flag she had ever seen. Sunlight poured in on either side of the flag through a series of tall dirty windows like golden lava (in the heat she allowed herself to be fanciful). The room was lined with barrels and stacks of crates and smelled of fish scales, raw cotton, pine boards, and something she identified after a moment as linseed oil, and while the comte guided her into the shortest queue, reserved for disembarking passengers, she tried to remember the triangular trade routes that her father used to draw on his old sea charts on the Rue Jacob.
"The lady is American," the comte informed the clerk and flourished Selena's neatly folded passport. "Born in Massachusetts, America."
Whatever the clerk answered was lost in the growl of a steam-driven winch starting up on the docks outside. He spat on the floor, stamped her papers, and stabbed a thumb to his right, and thus, Selena concluded, the democratic formalities were over.
Selena was not a sentimental person. From her sea captain father she had inherited, along with her height and smile, an indisputably New England directness. She prided herself on being objective and self-controlled; to describe herself she liked the crisp, cool new word much in use, "scientist." Nonetheless, she thought she would have liked to stand there for an instant or two of quiet exhilaration, to drink it all inher return at last to her native soil, the twenty-eight bright stars glittering on the beautiful flag above her like a good omen, the rich liquid sounds of American voices, American accents. But the comte's hand was on her elbow, the black stevedore was holding a door open, and she found herself unceremoniously whisked outside, onto a tilted brick sidewalk under an awning.
Next to her, the comte seemed to have been suddenly transformed from eighteenth-century fop into brisk nineteenth-century man of business.
He rattled off a volley of orders to the stevedore. He opened his gold watch, then closed it with a snap. The parasol waved imperiously, and a hackney carriage detached itself from a row of wagons half a block away and clattered up. Yet another black man heaved her trunk into the back. Selena had time enough only to notice the horsesunfamiliar buff-colored drays with hooves the size of soup platesand then they were lurching and swaying up the street.
"Your mother, dear unhappy lady, says you're as reckless and terrible as ever." The comte smiled maliciously and leaned close to make himself heard over the racket of the wheels. "Still the same"he searched for a word, reverted to French"same old gamine."
"Tomboy," the comte agreed. Outside the carriage, the city of Baltimore was rolling past like a strip of badly painted theatrical scenerywooden storefronts with patched roofs and slanting porches; weedy vacant lots; an occasional two- or three-story red-brick building. There were signboards everywhere, stray animals, odd abandoned wagon parts, a pervasive sense of clutter: Gen. Mdse., Dry Goods, Jos. Parker Hatter, Jowett and Pitts Fairly Honest Stables.
"So I wrote the poor woman I would go with you as far as Cincinnati, or perhaps Louisville in the Kentucky."
"A mature chaperon," said Selena, with a touch of the comte's own malice, "just what a girl needs."
And the comte, who perhaps thought of himself as more gallant than "mature," gave an untranslatable but dismissive Gallic shrug. "And after that," he said, "the whole world goes black, no?"
"Not exactly that, no. What actually happens"
But before she could say a word more, the carriage came rocking and bouncing to a halt, and the comte held up one flat palm like a traffic policeman.
"And I also told her I would give you a modern comfortable trip, too, before you start in with all your mules and pirogues and covered wagons. Look out the window, there. They have the chemins in Europe, of course, your friend Babbage is an expert, but over here they blow up all the timeboom!"
With a cheerful cackle he jumped to the ground and held out his hand for Selena. Behind him, in the scorching, shimmering heat, she could barely read the sign: Baltimore & Washington Railway Company.
She took a step forward and felt the full, amazing sun slam her bare face and scalp like a hammer. A lady, as her mother insisted, should always travel in a bonnet.
Beyond a grill fence, a steam whistle blew. The comte lifted his parasol and led her ruthlessly up a set of stairs to the station entrance. Her telescope, he explained in French as they ducked inside, and all her other instruments had to be passed separately through Customs. He, the comte de Broglie himself, would go back to the docks and arrange it. Meanwhile the railway would take her thirty-six miles south to a place called Wheaton Millsthe ride was his treat (the malicious smile again) because his favorite tomboy was known to love all things scientific. And since they were repairing the lines into Washington, at Wheaton Mills the railway company would transfer her to a stagecoach and she would proceed on to the hotel as inscribed on her ticketno other arrangements required, females travelled alone all the time in America. He, the comte, would rejoin her tomorrow morning, with the instruments.
As he said all this he was guiding her through the station lobby and outside again to a high-roofed platform, where passengers were already clambering aboard a green and yellow three-car railway train.
In England and France, railway carriages were divided into first- and second-class compartments, and uniformed ushers stood at the doors to keep them separate. Here, shopgirls, filthy laborers, men in tall hats, children, matrons, Negroes all pushed ahead, shoulder-to-shoulder, indivisible, like one great sweating Hydra-headed body.
An Irish family with carpetbags and a wicker basket of live chickens squeezed past Selena, then a whiskered man in buckskin breeches and a derby. Somebody's valise slapped into her leg. The locomotive whistle screeched again. The comte thrust the ticket into her hand and made a courtly bow, only partially spoiled by another basket of chickens passing between them. "In America," he said as the train gave a mighty shudder from front to rear, "they call a railway wreck a 'concussion.' Bon voyage!"
The train gave a second lurch. Selena climbed aboard the nearest carriage and worked her way up the aisle to an empty seat by a window, and the wheels began to turn. A shoeless boy on the opposite bench gravely offered her a slice of green apple from his knife. She watched the comte on the distant platform, growing smaller by the second. He raised his parasol, the train entered a long, sweeping curve, and he vanished.
"She ain't American," the boy's mother told him. "Look at her clothes." The boy cut another slice of apple and put it in his mouth. Selena smoothed her skirt. "She was talking Latin back in the station," the woman added as the train passed into a vast open field of dark green leafy stalks, which after a moment Selena identified as the first actual tobacco plants she had ever seen in her life.
At the eight-mile signpost, they pulled into a siding parallel to the main track and waited while another passenger train clanged by, Baltimore-bound. On impulse Selena stood and walked up the aisle to the very front of the carriage, then stepped through a door and out onto an observation platform.
Two months ago Charles Babbage had taken her to the Liverpool Street Station in London, and together they had witnessed a demonstration of the famous locomotive "Rocket," reported to reach a straightaway speed of forty miles an hour. She could see at once that the American locomotive was far more compact, certainly less powerful. On the other side of the fuel car, a single driver stood on a narrow exposed shelf, gripping a handrail, with no roof or wall for protection. In front of him was a bell-shaped furnace topped with a polished whistle that blazed under the relentless sun like a brass ball of light. In front of the furnace was the boilera brilliantly painted green cylinder about six feet longand then a tall black smokestack. Four small wheels, two big ones in the rear, jointed pistons. Even at rest the whole contraption hissed and trembled; it radiated heat back in palpable, scalding waves, as if it might undergo a concussion at any moment. She smiled at the fireman sitting in the fuel car and leaned over to study the T-shaped design of the rails, which was still uncommon in Europe.
She was, Selena told herself, quite as American as anyone else on the train, in the state, in the whole strange, enormous, unfamiliar country, where she had, after all, been born. And she was not a tomboy, not "reckless." She thought of her father's bemused farewell, her mother's tears. In the carriage door window she adjusted the knot on her French scarf. Greasy smoke had already given her two black raccoon rings around her eyes, and as the locomotive abruptly began to roll again and pick up speed, her hair was blown straight back by the wind like a flag. Well, she thought, matching the fireman's huge grin and starting to think more kindly of the comtemaybe a little reckless.
Wheaton Mills proved to be no more than a dusty collection of wooden shacks beside a ramshackle tin-roofed granary. In the fields on the other side of the railway tracks, farm workers weeded rows of tobacco plants that seemed to flap and pant like big green tongues in the heat.
The railway passengers filed over a culvert and began to distribute themselves into three flat-topped stagecoaches waiting in a grove of pines. Black porters shifted their baggage. Selena took one glance inside the dank overcrowded passenger compartment of the nearest coach: then, holding her skirt with one hand, to a few jeers and catcalls, she climbed up to the open seat next to the driver.
He spat between his boots and looked at her. "Hot," he said, though for all the resemblance to the English Mr. Babbage spoke, or she spoke, for that matter, it could have been Bantu. Haw-ut.
"I like it haw-ut," she told him.
From Wheaton Mills to Washington City was still another six miles, though usually, according to the driver, the railway tracks were in use all the way in to the Second Street terminus, Washington, just the way you could take a steam engine train from Boston to Providence right now without a stop.
Selena rocked and swayed on her perch above the road. On her father's maps Washington City had always been marked with a large red star for "Nation's Capital," like London or Paris, and on those same maps the whole eastern seacoast of North America looked densely populated, a long printed necklace of impressive city names: Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston. But in fact the three stagecoaches might have been rolling across the empty plains of the Auvergne or the Massif Central. They passed a farmhouse or two, some barns. Twice a solitary rider went by in the opposite direction, and once, over a distant gray horizon of trees, she glimpsed the stately white topgallant sails of a square-rigger gliding south on Chesapeake Bay. But the general impression was one of emptiness, openness, endless space; scarcely inhabited or cultivated land.
Selena felt the faintest sensation of fear in her throat, like ice. What it was like a thousand miles to the west, she couldn't begin to imagine.
The sun had dropped below the trees when their coach crested a hill, and for a few moments Washington City spread out beneath them in a panoramic grid of rooftops and streets, bounded on the far southern edge by a curving band of bright brown river. Then they were plunging downhill, entering the village of Georgetown, and speeding at last up an unmistakable city street, even shabbier than Baltimore but busy with wagons, pedestrians, a horse-drawn omnibus on wooden rails. They crossed into Pennsylvania Avenue, which was muddy and wide and seemed to contain a remarkable number of pigs.
Her driver pointed to the right. The stagecoach passed a two-story white building, one wing unpainted, where gas lamps could be seen glowing in all the windows and a cow grazed on the lawn.
"Van Buren's house," the driver said succinctly, and then a minute later as he pulled back on the reins and kicked the brake lever, "Willard's Hotel."
Inside the lobby Selena followed the top-hatted bellman who had seized her trunk the instant the coach had skidded to a stop. At the desk she presented her ticket and opened the registration book. The clerk propped his elbows on the blotter and read aloud upside down: "Miss Selena Cott, Somerville-Babbage Western Expedition."
He wiped his nose on his sleeve and turned around to a pigeonhole cabinet of room keys and mail. When he turned back he had a crisp brown vellum envelope for her, and also a square packet of American newspapers, Niles' Weekly Register on top, folded and underlined so that she could see her own name in bold print at the head of a column. He replaced his elbows on the desk, gave her a friendly leer of appraisal, and drawled in a thick, barely intelligible United States Bantu, "Whole town's been waiting for yew, little lady."
Max Byrd is the author of the bestselling historical novels Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant. He makes his home in Davis, California.
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