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Stately and plump, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde lightly with the pale tips of spatulate fingers pressed aside the wooden batwing doors and, regally blinking, sailed forward into the gaudy gaslight glare. Banners of blue smoke, cigarette and pipe and cigar, coiled and slowly uncoiled at the ceiling. The crowd droned. A tinny piano hammered. Somewhere, stage right, a woman shrieked: perhaps in laughter.
Along the dark sweep of cherrywood bar, and duplicated in the bright silver sweep of mirror beyond it, a row of Stetsons swiveled. Beneath their brims, eyes widened in surprise or narrowed in puzzlement.
Languidly plucking the cigarette from his lips and exhaling a billow of clove-scented smoke, Oscar paused for a moment, as much to savor the reaction of the crowd as to determine his own.
Pleased. Yes, he was pleased. The huge saloon was packed, a gratifying turnout, every table surrounded by a clutch of cowboys and miners and shopkeepers and giddy gaudy women, all of the men wearing hats and all of them (and some of the women, it seemed) sporting identical handlebar mustaches, like walruses. And at the moment, all of them, men and women both, were gaping at Oscar.
His clothes tonight were subdued, somewhat. No cape, no knee britches. He wore pale yellow patent leather boots, lime green twill trousers, a white silk shirt with a flowing Byronic collar loosely secured by a broad silk cravat whose yellow exactly matched the boots, and the three-quarter-length velveteen dinner jacket he had ordered shortly after he arrived in New York City. He had specified that the jacket be the shade of a lake beneath moonlight; but, as he admitted (although only to himself), its hue more closely resembled the dull gray of a field mouse's rump. Still, it was beautifully cut; and if perfection were in fact an impossible destination, then we must learn to enjoy the achievements which present themselves along the way.
In the boutonniere at the jacket's left lapel was a small red rose. This flower struck a bit of a false note—roses being after all rather vulgar—but Henry had told him that just now there were no lilies to be had in all of Denver. The entire town was lilyless. The undertakers had cornered the market, said Henry. A recent rash of hangings and gunfights. Although perhaps not in that order.
Really, the florists should have been better prepared. Hangings were reportedly a commonplace. And gunfights were evidently the local equivalent of cricket. Certainly, from what Oscar had heard, the earnestness of the players and the zeal of the audience were much the same. But cricket, of course, was far more deadly.
Oscar smiled. Not half bad. He must remember that.
He glanced around. The audience, his no longer, had returned to its cards and bottles and conversation. Time to move along.
He saw the Countess and O'Conner sitting with von Hesse at a small round table on the far side of the room. He took a puff of the cigarette and ambled across the hardwood floor, sauntering around the tables, carefully picking his way over the tawny drifts of sawdust and the occasional dark suspicious stain on the oak planking. (Not all the saloon's patrons understood the purpose of a spittoon, or had any interest in learning it.) Behind him he trailed a most satisfactory wake of murmurs and mutters.
O'Conner raised a glass of whiskey in salute as Oscar approached. Wearing his inevitable rumpled brown suit, an item which would have sent a shudder of horror rippling down Bond Street, the newspaperman sat slouched in one chair with his feet propped upon the rung of another, his left side and left elbow braced against the table. "Hail, O Poet," he said, and leered. He was drunk, but he had been drunk since joining the lecture tour in San Francisco, over four weeks before; and probably for twenty or thirty years before that. Every day, slowly but relentlessly, he consumed at least a quart of bourbon whiskey. Amazingly, his hands never faltered; he never lost his lucidity, never slurred his words. Perhaps he became bumbling and incomprehensible only when sober. Unlikely that anyone would ever know.
Oscar nodded to him. "O'Conner." It never hurt to be pleasant to a representative of the press. Particularly when the representative was covering this lecture tour for the New York Sun (circulation 220,000).
"Where's your protégé?" asked O'Conner.
"Young Ruddick, you mean?" said Oscar. "I've no idea."
"Oscair," breathed the Countess in her voice of smoke and honey, "how adorable you look tonight. I admire very much the cravat. Do you think I should look presentable in that shade of yellow?"
Oscar smiled. "I venture to say, madame, that you should look presentable in whatever you chose to wear."
"Or chose not to," said O'Conner, leering over his whiskey glass and interrupting before Oscar had a chance at cleverness himself.
O'Conner's remark was a trifle coarse, but it was apposite. (And also perhaps usable, sometime in the future.) The Countess was undeniably a handsome woman. A rosy complexion, only a few lines at the corners of her hooded blue eyes, thick tumbling ringlets of blond hair untouched by gray (but lightly touched, no doubt, by anoccasional application of cash). She was wearing a dress of black tulle, gathered at theshoulders, sleeveless, plunging dizzily in a décolletage which would have occasioned her arrest almost anywhere in England, and possibly in even a few remote corners of France.
O'Conner had been attempting to seduce her since the tour left San Francisco. The Countess's virtue, such as it was, had apparently remained intact. Oscar suspected that the Countess's virtue, like the mortgage on the chalet she owned in Plaisir, had been several times renegotiated over the years. Still, her sleek white arms demanded admiration, and the alabaster swell of those round white breasts ...
Oscar's reverie was broken as von Hesse stood up from the table. His back straight, he made a small stiff formal nod. Somehow the dark gray suit he wore contrived to resemble a military uniform. The effect was heightened by his hair: shiny pink scalp gleamed beneath a close-cropped bristle of white. "Please, Mr. Wilde, you will join us?"
"Delighted," said Oscar. He pulled back a chair and sat down. Von Hesse sat opposite him, his spine never once veering from the vertical.
Von Hesse smiled his small crisp smile and asked him, "You are, as they say, out on the town tonight? On your own, eh?"
Oscar nodded. "For a bit, yes." He looked around for an ashtray, saw that the table held only a whiskey bottle and three glasses, and so tapped the ash from his cigarette onto the floor. When in Rome. "Later this evening I'm to pay court to the man who owns the Opera House here. A chap named Tabor. The good Mr. Vail arranged it. Evidently, Tabor's a man who's dug tons of silver out of the ground and converted them into tons of gold." He inhaled on the cigarette. "Or perhaps it was the other way round. The intricacies of high finance have always escaped me."
"Silver mines," said O'Conner, sipping at his whiskey as quite openly he ogled the sweep of aristocratic breast offered by the Countess. "He owns the richest silver mines in Colorado."
"He is married?" asked the Countess.
Oscar smiled. He found it endlessly endearing, this tendency she had in any conversation to deflect it suddenly, and with an utter lack of self-consciousness, toward herself and her concerns. It was a trait with which he sympathized. "All successful men are married, Countess. Society inflicts marriage upon them as a punishment for their presumption."
She returned the smile. "And what of yourself, dear Oscair?"
He laughed. "Ah, well. My own presumption, alas, continues to outpace my success."
"Tabor's married, all right," said O'Conner. "But while the wife's stuck back in Leadville, old Horace is here in Denver, playing house with Baby Doe."
"And what, pray," said Oscar, "is a Baby Doe?"
"Elizabeth McCourt Doe. Baby Doe. A real beauty, they say. A knockout. She came here from Virginia with a husband in tow, and dumped him when she decided she wanted a silver baron of her own. She latched on to Tabor a couple years ago."
The Countess blinked quizzically. "A baron?"
O'Conner leered. "Not a real one, Countess. You outrank him." His glance dipped again to her breasts.
"As you would," said Oscar, "even if he were a prince, and genuine."
O'Conner frowned slightly at Oscar and sipped at his whiskey. "Anyway," he said, "if you're meeting Tabor tonight, you'll be meeting Baby Doe too. He doesn't let her out of his sight. He may be an old fool, but he's not stupid."
"Now, now, Mr. O'Conner," von Hesse said, running his hand lightly over his scalp. "Let us not judge others, lest we ourselves be judged."
O'Conner shrugged. "Part of my job, General. The laborer is worthy of his hire."
Von Hesse smiled. "I was never a general officer, Mr. O'Conner. And does not a reporter's job consist of determining the truth in a given situation, and presenting only that?"
O'Conner grinned again. "Depends what you mean by truth, doesn't it? Truth's a pretty slippery thing. Ask Pilate. Ask any politician."
Von Hesse nodded thoughtfully. The man was seldom less than thoughtful. "You subscribe, then, to a sort of relativism. I believe, myself, in the existence of an objective truth. What about you, Mr. Wilde?"
Oscar inhaled on his cigarette. "I think that truth is greatly overrated, mein Herr. Lies are infinitely more entertaining. Anyone, after all, can tell the truth. But only an artist can create a beautiful lie."
"I disagree," said von Hesse. "Art, I think, must always at base be concerned with truth. Art, like religion, aspires to the Infinite."
"Ah," said Oscar, "but only Art stands a chance of actually arriving there." And then, recognizing an exit line when he heard it, he stood up. He dropped his cigarette to the floor, stepped on it. "I'll fetch us something else to drink, shall I?"
The bar was still crowded; but, toward its center, his back to the room, stood a single individual who was bracketed on each side by an empty space. The man was slender and, like most men, shorter than Oscar, perhaps five feet, seven inches tall. He wore black trousers and a nicely tailored black frock coat, nipped in at the waist. He was hatless, unusual here in the West where males kept their heads covered from the moment they arose until the moment they went to bed, and conceivably beyond.
Oscar glanced in the mirror opposite and saw that the man, lost in thought, was staring down at his whiskey glass. His thick black hair was combed back in soft waves from a high, intelligent forehead. Thin eyebrows arched gracefully over large dark brown eyes. Below the narrow pointed nose and draped neatly over the sensitive, almost feminine lips was a carefully trimmed handlebar mustache. The man wore a slim black bow tie and a starched white shirt and a snugly fitting waistcoat ornately brocaded in gold silk. Oscar rather envied him the waistcoat.
The barman—barkeep, they called him here—approached, a tall slender man drying his hands at the hem of his once white apron. "What'll it be, sport?"
"Have you any tea?" Oscar asked him.
"Tea? This is a saloon, sport."
"Whiskey, then. A bottle."
The barman handed Oscar a clean glass and a full bottle of whiskey (Old Harmony, The Finest Bourbon Whiskey West Of The Pecos). As Oscar turned to leave, his elbow accidentally bumped into the shoulder of the man standing beside him.
"Terribly sorry," Oscar said, and smiled pleasantly.
The man turned to him. His eyes weren't brown. They were black: as black as the outermost regions of the night sky, and at least as empty and as cold. Staring into that emptiness, Oscar all at once felt as though the ground had shifted beneath his feet. For a moment, it was as though a sudden seismic shock had splintered the reality he knew and given him a glimpse, unwonted and unwanted, into an awful Secret that yawned, fathomless, beneath it. The skin of his face went abruptly chill and he realized, with no small surprise, that he was frightened.
It was for only an instant, a few seconds, but they were the longest seconds he could remember living, because he knew—knew without knowing how he knew—that he had never come so close before to Death.
And then the eyes narrowed fractionally, a microscopic tightening at the delicate folds of skin that held them, and the man spoke. "You're the poet," he said. His face was expressionless and his voice was low and soft, a whisper.
"Yes," Oscar said, and his own voice was absurdly thin and reedy, the piping of a rodent. He cleared it. "Yes," he said again. "The poet. Wilde. Oscar Wilde." He shifted the empty glass into his left hand and held out his right. Americans loved shaking hands.
Those black empty eyes peered down at the hand for a moment that seemed like several years, and then at last the man reached forward and took it in his own. The fingers were long and slender, like those of a pianist or a surgeon, but they seemed fleshless, frigid, a clutter of bones. Even so, ridiculously, Oscar felt a relief so strong that he fancied it might actually be rising off him visibly, a white vapor streaming from his ears.
Had it been necessary, he would have clutched the other's hand all night long, but the man released him after only a brief brisk shake.
"John Holliday," said the man in that soft uncanny whisper. "Saw you at Platt's Hall in San Francisco." Nothing in his face or voice told Oscar what the man had thought of the lecture, or that he had given it any thought, or that in fact he ever thought at all.
"Ah," said Oscar. "Did you? San Francisco, eh?" He was acutely aware that he was babbling, trying desperately to plug the vacant space between them with sound, any sound. This would never do. Fortunately he had something prepared. San Francisco: debutante. "I rather enjoyed San Francisco," he said. "It has an impudent self-consciousness which reminds one of a debutante in her first gown."
Holliday's expression, or lack of it, didn't change in the slightest. His empty eyes stared emptily into Oscar's. Oscar abruptly experienced that feeling which obtains at the top of a stairway when one takes, clunk, that extra step which remarkably is not there.
Another tack, then. He inhaled deeply, filling himself with as much bonhomie as he could muster. Then, holding up the bourbon bottle, cheerily he said, "Fancy a drink?"
Once again Holliday's expression remained unchanged. But he nodded his head—once only, and so slightly the movement might have been imaginary. "Obliged," he whispered.
Oscar set the glass down on the bar top and uncorked the bottle. Carefully, he filled Holliday's glass and then his own. He put down the bottle and raised the glass ceremoniously. "To what shall we toast?" Oscar asked.
Holliday lifted his glass and for the first time his face showed some animation: Faintly, and for only an instant, the right corner of his mouth twitched upward, behind the handlebar mustache. It could have been a smile; it could have been a nervous tic. Oscar believed it to be a smile—unlikely that Holliday possessed any nervous tics. To be burdened with such, one must first be burdened with nerves.
Holliday said softly, "To dying in bed."
Reflexively, Oscar began to say, "And to living in it, too." Immediately he decided against this. "To dying in bed," he repeated, and clinked his glass against Holliday's. The two men tossed back their whiskey.
Oscar had drunk bourbon before, although never with much pleasure; this particular brand was exceptionally repellent. It was harsh, oily, and probably toxic. What little actual taste it provided was doubtless a result of the membranes in his mouth dissolving. But he didn't flinch as the vile stuff seared its way down his throat. He smacked his lips appreciatively and announced, "Delightful."
"It's donkey piss," whispered Holliday.
"Ah," said Oscar, caught once again off guard. "Yes. Donkey piss. But I like to think that there's room in this world even for donkey piss. I expect that donkeys like to think so, too."
Holliday's black empty eyes turned to him, moving swiftly, mechanically, as though set on gimbals, and they looked into Oscar's. For a split second Oscar thought that reality might splinter again; but then Holliday's mouth twitched in another quick ghost of a smile and he said, "You in town for long?"
Excerpted from Wilde West by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1991 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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