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The Yellow DollDeadwood, Hickok, and Opium
By DAVID A. SOMA
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2011 David A. Soma
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJune 28, 1876
The British can march around better than most, and on the hundredth anniversary of their colony's revolt, their parade was unrivaled by any grand march of the Army of the Potomac down Massachusetts Avenue. England's little toehold in America was a few acres of land where its legation house was located on the outskirts of the federal city. It was a chunk of land squeezed by a thicket of trees on the west—quite popular with local hunters—and on the east by a large vegetable garden that supplied most of Washington's flourishing eating establishments with its pick of the day.
Niles got himself so caught up watching the British celebrate the setting sun. He slipped the note that he found in the folds of his napkin into his vest pocket to read later, away from the crowd surrounding the parade ground. If the note were his instructions, he was not about to share them with anyone who might be tempted to sneak a peek over his shoulder—or worse yet, ask him outright what was on the paper, at which point, Niles Dewy would have to lie, which was something he would rather put off.
At the precise appointed hour near the end of the day when it was best to bow to the fading, golden light at His Majesty's outposts scattered across the empire, the flag was lowered to a flourish of military music, shouting of orders, and precise parade formations. These formations were executed by polished brigades of soldiers, who had been arriving in Washington from the far corners of the world all summer long in preparation for just this moment. For the English, all of this pomp was proof that the sun would never set on their empire and that British civility still existed, despite the Americans' declaration to the contrary. A summer sunset ruled the length of the Potomac River valley, displaying strips of orange and pink pinned to a humidity-washed blue sky.
It had been quite a spectacle.
Not until after the sun had set did the British Empire really get down to the business of impressing the great-grandchildren of those long-ago revolutionaries with the spoils of the empire. Besides bringing in a small army of soldiers for the parade, the English offered a buffet furnished by the British Royal Navy's supply line.
There were eggs the size of cannonballs from its Australian colony, along with roasts as big as a Buffalo hump of dark, rich meat from the birds that laid them.
There was a concoction of spices from India called curry, flavored beef strips, chicken pieces, and vegetables.
There were salted and dried fish of every size, color, and description from the oceans of the world.
There was roast lamb and mutton stews that were the pride of the Scottish highlands.
Wild geese, venison, and bear were provided by the Hudson Bay Company in Canada.
There were Scottish-sired eggs by the barrel.
There were plenty of drinks made with rum, limes, and sugar from the Caribbean, and there were bananas and other fruits with no names from far-flung island holdings.
There were also wild game dishes from their African colonies best left unknown by the evening's distinguished gathering of diners.
British navy vessels and dozens of British merchant ships had been arriving at the Bladensburg docks on the Maryland side of the District of Columbia, stoking the legation with all of the finest that the empire had to offer.
"Did you enjoy the ceremony, Mr. Dewy?" The waiter, wearing a stiff, high-necked white tunic, was a small person with dark, almond-shaped eyes and a long, black, braided queue. He offered a silver tray of rum and sugar-filled glasses.
Before answering, Niles looked around at the people nearest them, and then he leaned forward and whispered so that no one could easily hear, "I can't imagine the sort of party you all would have thrown if you'd beaten our revolutionary butts a hundred years ago."
"Ah," the waiter quietly replied, tucking a wide smile beneath a bow. "The British are not me, Mr. Dewy. Rubee is Chinese ... I simply provide my services."
"And it is always a pleasure to be served by such a distinguished Chinese." Then, leaning even closer to the waiter, he said, "Thanks for the invitation." He bowed and smiled with appreciation.
"Pleasure is mine, Mr. Dewy," Rubee replied, bowing at the waist again before moving across the lawn to a group of ladies looking a bit wilted in the capital city's June swelter.
Niles wandered from the crowd, smiling over the little exchange he had just had with the waiter. He marveled at how so much could be said by saying so little. Like spring rains, winter snow, and falling leaves, summer was the time for Niles Dewy. And as far as he was concerned, summer was the best time to make pictures; it was the most profitable of all seasons.
Dewy was a name Rubee had devised. Really, it was Dui in Chinese, a word for the western point on the compass, a place where happiness was supposed to dwell. It was the name that Rubee used for signaling when they were about to embark on another journey. Using it tonight meant that they would soon be in pursuit of that happiness.
Niles Dewy had come to life once again.
When he was a comfortable distance away from the crowd, he stopped in a pocket of evening cool trapped under a giant oak. From there, he could watch the affair and Rubee moving among the guests, offering fresh beverages. Other than Niles's gaze, little attention was paid to the waiter. Most guests simply took their refreshments from Rubee's tray, ignoring the person offering it. Even from this distance, he could see that the smile on Rubee's face was one of humble pleasure. He suspected that Rubee's pleasure was found in some kind of anonymity. To be unseen was a quality of this Chinese, one he had come to appreciate. It was also one of the reasons why they had become partners.
Later, inside the legation in search of some of those fruits of the empire, he spotted his friend again. Rubee had traded the silver tray for a station at one of the buffet tables, flashing a set of carving knives over a glistening, roasted-to-perfection baron of beef.
Rubee handed him a small porcelain plate, holding a neat mound of thinly sliced beef and a fresh roll carefully tucked against the edge of the meat. The plate rested on a large linen napkin neatly pressed into a stiff square.
"Soon, Mr. Dewy," Rubee said, bowing again as Niles walk away.
"My wish also," Niles said, saluting a corner of the napkin against his brow. In doing so, he felt something inside the napkin. At first, he thought that it was some of the napkin's starch. No. There definitely was something in the folds of the napkin. Not until he was outside again and sitting alone on a stone wall at the edge of the parade ground did he unfold the linen and find the paper. Niles pulled the slip out and found the message from Rubee. The note, written in Rubee's careful penmanship, told him the date and time that a livery would pick up his baggage—July 6, two days after the nation's centennial celebration.
He had a week to prepare for a journey—one that it seemed he was always ready for. He had come to expect Rubee's annual summer engagements. They got him out of the federal city during the worst parts of summer and made him a rich man in the process. He had never backed out of one of the offers to travel, never giving a second thought to what was ahead.
And this trip would be no different. Rubee's annual engagements provided Niles Dewy with dozens of wet-plate photographs—frames of people, places, and events for which the East Coast tabloids were willing to pay. But Niles would never sell his work.
The profit from Rubee's endeavors made existence in the capital city a comfortable one.
"May I sit?"
The questioner this time was not the waiter. No. This time, the person doing the asking was a beautiful young woman. She did not wait for his answer before hoisting herself onto the stone wall next to him.
"Be my guest," Niles answered, sliding off the stones to stand.
"I've been watching you all evening, Mr. ...?" she asked, injecting a long pause and waiting for him to fill the silence.
"Dewy, madam." He said it slowly enough to allow himself enough time to look around to see if one of the gentlemen perhaps was searching for the lady he had arrived with. For now, it appeared that no one seemed to care.
"Dewy? Is that a first name?" she asked, looking him square in the eyes.
"Miles," she interrupted. "Like in far away?"
"No. N like in no. Niles ... Niles Dewy."
"Well, Mr. Dewy, it is nice that you are someone who knows how to say no. It can be so difficult sometimes. And you are also a man who doesn't show how hot he really is in this horrid weather. You stay dry."
"It's not easy, believe me. I can't imagine how you must feel with all of those clothes on. Well, I mean ..." He felt the blush rise up his cheek.
The woman smiled, nodding her head. "It is hot."
"Excuse me, but have we met before?"
"No, I'm sure not. I go to many of these things. So, to amuse myself, I play a game. I pick someone out of the crowd and watch him or her all night. It's fun."
"Good. I think people should have fun."
"That's why you caught my eye. I've been watching you," she said, tilting a mischievous smile his way. In a low voice, leaning closer, she told him, "And so far, the only person I've seen you talk with, Mr. Dewy, is one of the waiters."
"I happen to know the waiter."
"Interesting. How would a man of your stature," she said, giving Niles a look from head to foot, "know a Chinaman?"
"I shot him once."
She was very good at not letting what he had just said break her composure. "What do you do, Mr. Dewy?"
"I'm a shooter."
"Oh my," she said, covering her mouth with her gloved hands. "Are you a gunfighter, Mr. Dewy?" she whispered.
"No, no, no, sorry," he apologized. "I'm a photographer. I shoot photographs, Miss ...?"
"Sarah Culbert," she answered, offering her hand in introduction. "Well, I am glad to know that you are not mixed up with guns ... such dreadful things. Don't you agree?"
"Well, they can be useful."
"That is a dangerous answer, Mr. Dewy."
"Sometimes it can get a bit dangerous making photographs."
"So, have you taken any pretty pictures lately?"
"I may have made a few, but I'm certain that none are as pretty as the picture you would make, Miss Culbert."
"You're full of it, aren't you, Mr. Dewy?"
"Yes, I am." This Sarah Culbert was asking too many questions, so he returned the favor, hoping that she would rather talk about herself instead of asking questions about him. "What is a Sarah Culbert?"
"Daughter of Congressman Culbert," she answered, still resting her eyes on his face. "She is bored and not fond of heat or Washington."
"Well, then, this would seem a fine place to be for one who is bored and overheated," he joked, waving at the many guests wandering about the legation's grounds.
"Why haven't I seen you before at one of these Washington affairs, Mr. Dewy?" Her smile certainly left the impression that she truly was disappointed that their paths had not crossed before.
"I apologize for such an oversight, Miss Culbert. This isn't exactly my usual circuit. And I often travel during the summer months. Perhaps that's why—"
"How exciting!" she interrupted. "Traveling. I'm going to do more of it myself," she declared, and then she leaned closer. "I want to see the frontier out west. Maybe as far as California."
"That's far from Washington. I haven't been that far. Not yet, anyway."
"We haven't made it yet, either. I'll let you in a little secret," she whispered, leaning close to Niles's ear. "Father comes to all of these embassy parties hoping to receive an invitation to tour their country and the continent someday," she whispered. "Have you ever been there, Mr. Dewy?"
"No, not the European continent. Only this one," he told her, rising off his seat on the stone wall. "Would you excuse me, Miss Culbert?"
"Maybe we will meet again, Mr. Dewy. Perhaps during next week's Independence Day celebration?"
"I don't think that will be possible," Niles told her, feeling a twinge of guilt when he caught another hint of disappointment in her eyes. He bowed his good-byes and began moving away.
"Such a shame, Mr. Dewy," she said, returning his smile. "Someday, I would like to see your photographs," she added as she slipped off the wall. "I could see them tonight if you allowed."
"It is getting late. Maybe some other time."
She watched Niles's face. "You give me one excuse. That is not good enough for Sarah Culbert. Come on," she said, taking a hold of his arm. "Do you have your own carriage, or will we have to hire a taxi?"
With a firm grip on his hand, she guided them through the guests to the front of the legation, where they found lines of carriages in wait. A group of taxis had reined their horses directly across from where Niles and Sarah walked out.
Niles found it hard to speak. He was in shock over what had happened in the last twenty minutes. Here he was being taken by a woman to his townhouse to look at his work. Niles was one who seldom entertained guests. Nobody came to his home except for maybe a subject he had photographed earlier coming by to see how the plate had developed. It was a fact of life with which he was comfortable living. The night was humid, but that was not the reason Niles was sweating.
"Tell the driver your address," she told him as she was climbing into the cab.
Even in shock, Niles was still polite, holding her arm for support as she maneuvered the buggy's tiny step halfway between the ground and the carriage door. Niles did as she said and then set himself next to her on the small leather seat. "You certainly have an interesting way of getting things done."
"Interesting?" Miss Culbert asked.
Niles wished that he could study her features, but the dark shadows inside the cab prevented him from doing so. He decided that it was better to fill the darkness with conversation. "I hope my work is not disappointing. It's not organized. I make a lot of plates, and I don't really sell them. Most of the plates line the walls on the floor. I'd hang them from the ceiling if I could."
"It won't be disappointing, Mr. Dewy. I'm looking forward to this." It was a short ride from the legation to Niles's home, yet it was long enough for Niles to learn that Miss Culbert was from somewhere in the Carolinas and from some small town that he had never heard of. Her father had made it all the way from that Carolina hamlet to Washington, where he now lived with his daughter. That was the end of her story.
"So that it can't be said that you brought me here, I'll pay for the ride."
"Thank you. But I think I can handle any raised eyebrows we may cause."
"Please, I insist; it will make me feel better. That way, I know I am not being bought. Does that make you feel better?"
In the light of the streetlamps along his street, Niles could clearly see the look on her face. He felt that she was showing smugness, almost a power. Maybe it was just downright stubbornness. Whatever it was, Sarah Culbert had a definite way of controlling her circumstances.
From the first exposure she looked at, she seemed to be quite pleased with his work, almost overwhelmed with some of them. They quickly settled into a pattern, going through the hundreds of prints that filled the sitting room, dining room, and the vestibule where they had entered. There was one of the Chinese workmen all stopping their rail-laying work for that one instant to look at the cameraman, and there was another of a Negro boy, maybe twelve or thirteen years of age, sitting alone on wooden steps.
"Where did you find her?" she asked, picking out one of the plates on the floor leaning against a wall. It was a picture of a Negro woman who had stopped her work in a garden. With hoe in hand, she waited for the camera.
"Down by the Potomac. That's her garden. She grows vegetables for the restaurants downtown. I would venture a guess that you have eaten some."
Niles had been able to watch Miss Culbert while they looked at the pictures. She was not a tall woman, shorter than Niles's six feet. She had brown hair, which, for the evening, was pulled away from her face. He guessed her age to be in the late twenties.
Excerpted from The Yellow Doll by DAVID A. SOMA Copyright © 2011 by David A. Soma. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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