Under the veil of one of the oldest and most tragic myths known to humankind, a king is born. Magnus King, the son of a well-born English woman, continues his family’s aristocratic legacy on the frontier of the American West until the night a deadly shooting changes everything.
Young Earl Ransom, a man found long ago on the Cheyenne prairie with no memory of his past or of how his destiny is linked to that of Magnus King, finds his way through a tale as old and tragic as the Greek myth of Oedipus.
King of Spades is the final volume of Frederick Manfred’s acclaimed five-volume series, The Buckskin Man Tales. For this Bison Books Classic edition, Joel Johnson provides a new introduction.
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About the Author
Frederick Manfred (1912–94) is the author of twenty-four novels, including the five-volume series The Buckskin Man Tales, which includes Lord Grizzly (finalist for the 1954 National Book Award), Riders of Judgment, Conquering Horse, and Scarlet Plume, all available in Bison Books editions.
Joel Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at Augustana College.
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King of Spades
By Frederick Manfred
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 1966 Frederick Feikema Manfred
All rights reserved.
When a son's blood is finally spilled, which mother weeps most? The old mother Europa? The new mother America? Katherine? Erden?
The first great miracle to appear on earth was the emergence of love in the mother lizard. And the first great bewilderment to appear on earth was the emergence of taboo: having learned of love from his mother, a son was not to return this love to his mother.
Caught in flesh and caught by flesh.
Even so, O Lord, how marvelous are all Thy fleshly works.
His mother was of good lineage. She was born in 1812 at the ancestral seat of the Worthingtons in Wessex, England. Her father the old earl lamented she wasn't a boy, but he loved her nonetheless as his firstborn and named her Henrietta after a favorite uncle.
The Worthington name went far back into hoary Anglo-Saxon times. It belonged to a family of Old Frisians known as the Wurthinga or the Woartelinga, meaning "root people" or "people of the root." The Wurthinga, who originally lived in Fryslân on the Continent, were once great sailors and shipwrights. The Wurthinga helped transport the Angles and Saxons and Jutes to England and in the end elected to settle with their tribal cousins in the new land.
Henrietta Worthington's childhood was a happy one. She was given all the advantages of being born into an English first family: the best private tutors, travel abroad, the best friends, leisure. She was loved by her mother and adored by her father. Because of her charm and sturdy intelligence, she became much more the favorite of her family than her younger brother George.
When she reached the age of eighteen, blond, sweetly mannered, attractive despite her rather large feet, her father the old earl announced that he had made plans to marry her to the son of a duke, a neighbor.
Then the trouble started.
Henrietta had fallen in love with another young man. Quietly, but with some show of force, she told her father that she did not much care for the neighbor's son, that she had already made up her mind she would marry an Alan King, a dark-haired lad living in Wiltshire.
"Pah! Who's this Alan King you speak of? An orphan. With no expectation."
"Alan can hardly help that, Father. His parents died during the plague."
"Too bad the plague didn't carry him off too."
"Mother approves of him."
"Pah! Your mother is a goose. With no sense in such matters."
"Appears to me this Alan King of yours might have poor blood too. In more ways than one. Weak."
"No matter. I have already made the arrangements with our neighbor. It is too late for your Alan."
Alan King was far from weak. It was true Alan tended to be mild-mannered, but he could also be a winning man. One day Alan talked Henrietta into eloping with him. Her mother helped him arrange it.
The old earl was shocked, outraged, and immediately cut Henrietta off without a cent. He announced that forthwith the title of earl as well as all the Worthington holdings would be handed down to her younger brother George. George was a wild one and up until then the old earl had always had misgivings about him.
A year later the old earl had a stroke and died, and George Worthington took over. Henrietta's mother died soon after.
Brother George issued orders that Henrietta should never again be allowed to set foot on a Worthington acre. George had his own reasons for hating Henrietta and her husband Alan King.
Not too much was known about Alan King, except that his father had once dug ditches and his mother had taken in washing. Even his given name, Alan, was of obscure origin.
Alan remembered his father talking about the better days when the Kings sat above the salt. There was the story, often told at family gatherings, that the name King had come from their once having had some kind of connection with the royal family. Another story often told was that the Kings had got their name from an ancestor who had played the part of the king in a village pageant. In any case, Alan's father, who sometimes wore a monocle, betrayed more than usual pride in the name King.
Alan was incensed when both Henrietta's father and her brother had cut her off because of him.
"We will go to America," Alan announced. "We will make our fortune there. Because I'll never give your drunken brother a chance to lord it over us. Gloat."
Henrietta was willing. She was of a mind to show her family they had made a mistake about her darling Alan.
Meantime the Honorable Elizabeth Dulcie, an aunt, assured Henrietta that should George die young and without issue, and there was a good chance he might as he was very reckless, she would take it upon herself to make sure that the earldom and the estate should pass on to any man child born to Henrietta.
A promoter named Newhall told Alan about a place in Iowa, America. It was a town called Weldon.
"For just a hundred pounds, or four hundred dollars American money, you can be settled up on eighty acres of land, with a house, yoke of oxen, horse, cow, twelve sheep, poultry, pig, wagon, plow, harrow, seed, and thirty weeks' provisions — enough to live on until you've raised a small crop."
Alan raised a dark brow. "This has been done?"
"Often. And if you happen to have a wife who doesn't get homesick, I can see no reason why, with ordinary luck, and blessed with patience and perseverance, you shouldn't prosper equal to your utmost expectation."
"It has been done then."
"You have the hundred pounds?"
"My wife can get it from her aunt."
"Take it and go. Because at Weldon you'll be living with the very pick and flower of British immigrants."
Alan and Henrietta went. Early in 1834.
Weldon turned out to be a rawboned place. There were, however, several British homes of some elegance some miles out in the country.
Alan and Henrietta built a house on a hill beside a stream.
They plowed and planted. They lived frugally. They sweated and dreamed through the summer months.
But the crop of wheat they reaped that first fall was so bad they couldn't sell it for hog feed. Luckily game was plentiful in the area and they managed to survive through Christmas.
They sold out for a pittance and in January moved to town.
Just in time. Magnus was born a week later, in 1835. Henrietta was in severe labor for three days, almost died. She was badly torn inside, and was never to have another child.
Alan King was known to have little or no knack with either animals or farm machinery and when he looked for work the next spring he was laughed at. The people in Weldon felt that if a man couldn't make a go of it farming, under ideal conditions, he couldn't make a go of it at anything else either.
Nor could Alan get on with his new neighbors in America. He could not unbend from what he thought he had once represented in England. He persisted in wearing his Oxford hat and his bright linens and his fashionably cut weskit. Local Weldonites considered him to be a conceited ass and for final proof of it pointed to the monocle he wore on any and all state occasions.
Alan was good at cards. But when he tried to work up a little friendly game in either of the two saloons in town, the House of Commons or the House of Lords, the callow swells hooted him out of doors.
Particularly galling was the fact that many of the Britishers around Weldon had money to burn. They were in most cases second sons of titled English families who had been given a liberal remittance to go to America and to stay there. Some drove a four-in-hand, with a man winding the horn. All of them went fox hunting, and played polo, and called each other "a capital fellow," "a brick," "an honest chum." Bitterness ate into Alan.
At last Alan came to the point where he was flat broke. When he tried to raise yet another fiver at one of the saloons, as well as a snit of beer, the elegant drunks spoke of him over their cups as having a great amount of cheek.
Henrietta decided to swallow her Worthington pride, and took in washing. They lived as beggars in a one-room shanty on the south edge of Weldon. Because they had fallen so low from high estate they were all the more despised by the townspeople.
Somehow Henrietta managed it that at least her husband could put in a good appearance, and Alan continued to wear his Oxford hat and his bright linens and his fashionably cut weskit. The more bowed and bent she became, the more Alan strutted and paraded.
One of little Magnus' first memories had to do with how his father Alan, after fixing a monocle to his eye, would tell about the illustrious Kings back in the old country, about how someday they would yet give Uncle George Worthington his comeuppance.
Little Magnus was nine when his father Alan went duck hunting, alone. It had rained; Alan fell into a slough; it snowed. Alan was chilled to the marrow. In three days Alan King drowned in his own phlegm.
Henrietta wrote her aunt the Honorable Elizabeth Dulcie in England to tell of Alan's death. There was no reply.
Henrietta continued to take in washing. She refused several offers to run the households of the richer British around. Lowly as it might seem to take in washing, at least it gave her independence. Both she and Magnus lived for the day when certain blessed news should come from England.
Henrietta taught Magnus everything she knew about the Worthingtons. She instructed Magnus on how to behave as an earl, should that day ever come. She told Magnus where the ancestral seat was; where certain Worthington cousins lived, one family in Friston in Sussex and the other in Frizinghall in Yorkshire. On occasion she even had Magnus practice wearing a monocle, and how he should swing a cane, and how to doff his hat and bow to the ladies, all in the manner of his father Alan. The Worthington line as well as the King line was in his blood and he was to keep it up. "Always remember that you're truly one of the bloods of England."
One day the Weldon town bully bumped Magnus off the boardwalk.
Magnus understood instantly what was afoot. He drew himself up to his full boyish height. "Don't you know who I am?"
"Sure I knows who you are."
Magnus fixed an imaginary monocle to his right eye. "I'm the grandson of an earl and my name is King."
"You're the son of a loafer and your name is bull."
"Get off the sidewalk, you clumsy ox, and let me pass."
The bully beat him up.
When Magnus told his mother about it, she complimented him. "Now you begin to sound like my father, your grandfather the earl. A true king after all."
As time went on, Henrietta became more and more dispirited and lonely. Gradually she lost all pleasure in life. Even the times when young Magnus washed her feet, something he liked to do because he loved the slim length of her foot, meant little or nothing to her.
Magnus grew up to be a handsome fellow like his father: dark wavy hair, dark darting eyes, a long nose, full lips, a strong chin. From the Worthington side of the family he inherited double-jointed fingers. He could wrap his hand around the head of his walking stick like a monkey might grab hold of a knot.
Magnus had gone to deliver some laundry one day, when the postmaster spotted him and handed him a black-edged letter. The letter was from the Honorable Elizabeth Dulcie in England and it was addressed to his mother.
Magnus ran home with it all excited. At last the great news had come.
Henrietta read it; and collapsed at her ironing board.
Henrietta stared at the calluses in the palms of her hands with low-dotted eyes.
"Uncle George is dead."
"Oh." Pause. "Isn't that good?"
"The letter says Uncle George went through the whole estate before he passed on. He died a poor man. And without issue. There is nothing left. It is all gone."
"All of it?"
"All of it. Except the title."
"Ha. Without the fortune the title means nothing. Not in America anyway."
Three days later Henrietta died in her sleep Mercifully.
Magnus was just nineteen. Magnus had never worked a day in his life. Without his mother to support him Magnus was no better than a common tramp. Of no use to anyone. Excess baggage in America.
Luckily the mayor of Weldon was a decent fellow and took pity on Magnus. He knew there was some good in Magnus, that Magnus in his leisure time had read widely and well and could write presentable letters. He suggested Magnus become notary public as well as town correspondent for a Chicago newspaper.
Magnus gave it some thought, finally decided it was not for him.
Magnus had observed that the local doctor had more freedom than any other citizen in town. A doctor could be an agnostic, even a town knocker, and it was usually overlooked. A doctor was generally allowed his crank notions in return for his ability to heal rotted limbs and spoiled brains.
Magnus decided that if he had to work for a living it would be as a doctor.
Magnus sold what few possessions his mother had left him and was off for Chicago. He enrolled at Rush Medical College.
To his considerable surprise, Magnus discovered that learning came easy for him. He had a retentive memory, a graphic imagination, quick analytic ability. He outstripped everyone in his class.
Magnus soon became impatient with the slower minds around him. He even presumed to question his professors. His naturally imperious manner grated his classmates as well as the medical faculty.
Magnus saw that prescribing castor oil when constipated, and cinnamon when loose, and calomel when in doubt was not true medicine, not even as Hippocrates had conceived it to be. He decided to investigate Indian medicine and country folklore remedies. He managed to get hold of a microscope and began his own exploring. In short, Magnus graduated from Rush with a reputation for being a brilliant malcontent.
At about the same time Magnus' love life underwent an abrupt change. Magnus had been totally devoted to his mother and as long as she had been alive had never dated a girl. Now suddenly he began to notice the girls, everywhere. It was as if he was out to make up for lost time. Let a body be wearing a dress and he was out to court it: waitresses, streetwalkers, older women, whores on the line. He even jumped the color line several times. His appetite was insatiable.
The last months at Rush it happened that Magnus had to change boardinghouses. He landed with an elderly spinster named Agnes Rodman. Miss Rodman had room for but one person and it was soon apparent that she expected the boarder to become a member of the family.
Miss Rodman was originally from England, and that Magnus liked. However, Miss Rodman had just reached the critical age, change of life, and she was as different in behavior and attitude from his own mother as a woman could possibly be.
Eventually Agnes Rodman would have been intolerable to live with if it hadn't been for her niece Katherine Rodman.
Katherine was an orphan. Her father was Miss Agnes' brother, and he and his wife had died in a pestilence. Aunt Agnes generally called her niece Kitty.
Kitty fooled one. Kitty looked seventeen but actually was thirteen. She was well developed physically, was precocious emotionally and mentally. Though shortish she had the long stride of the taller person. She had a large foot like Magnus' own mother, and curly light brown hair, and sensual lips cut hauntingly at the corners. Most arresting of all were her eyes. They were dissimilar, the left eye green and the right eye brown.
While Aunt Agnes prattled on her end of the table about such things as that horseback exercise was not proper for a girl, that a hot mustard bath was good for the hidden sin, that a pregnancy could help to terminate an insanity, that a marriage was one of the best tonics for the female psyche, Magnus and Kitty were exchanging warm looks at their end of the table.
Kitty had been a recent problem to her aunt. A nine-year-old boy named Dennis had been their previous boarder. Kitty had on occasion been left alone with Dennis. Dennis was shy. To get him to play with her, Kitty had enticed him with candy. Dennis loved jelly beans and finally became quite friendly. Soon Kitty took to hiding the jelly beans so he would have to reach across her body to get at them. Or look under her. Then she took to hiding the jelly beans on her person: inside her folded knee, in her clapped-shut armpit. She got him to explore her everywhere, until he explored that part of her where, tickling, it made her dizzy. Aunt Agnes caught them at it. Dennis was promptly shipped off to distant kin.
Aunt Agnes trusted Magnus on first sight. His quietly superior airs, the way he swung his walking stick, inspired respect.
Soon Aunt Agnes was busy spinning webs and fantasies around Magnus, mostly in behalf of Kitty, but also in part for herself. The thought went through Aunt Agnes' mind that in a few years, just as the young Dr. Magnus King should have established a fine practice in Chicago, Kitty would need a husband. Marrying Kitty off to Magnus would mend both sides of the fence at the same time — a girl who threatened to go wild would be safely harnessed in marriage, while she herself, Agnes Rodman, would for the rest of her natural life have free doctoring.
Aunt Agnes made up her mind that it wasn't going to be her fault if Kitty didn't make the perfect doctor's wife. Aunt Agnes got out several old doctor books and began to bend Kitty's ear knowingly about such matters as depraved appetites and prenatal impressions, about how tight lacing could be ruinous to the female innards, and the like.
Aunt Agnes also presumed to instruct Kitty on the nature of love. "At first one is attracted to the opposite sex because of animal passion, my dear. Plainly just that. Yet you must always bear in mind that out of this animal passion can rise a mighty and pure love, which is to the other what the delicate flower is to the unsightly tuber."
Aunt Agnes even told Kitty what her husband could expect of her in the way of submission, and how much of this she was to allow her husband. "Two or three indulgences a week may be looked upon as within the proper bounds of propriety."
Excerpted from King of Spades by Frederick Manfred. Copyright © 1966 Frederick Feikema Manfred. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE: Magnus King,
PART TWO: Earl Ransom,
PART THREE: Earl Ransom,
PART FOUR: Magnus King,