It’s the spring of 1877 in Washington, D.C., and at the U.S. Naval Observatory, great changes are afoot: historical, romantic, and scientific. When the brilliant Cynthia May—a Civil War widow whose beauty has been shadowed by worry and poverty—starts work as a human “computer” at the Observatory, astronomer Hugh Allison has found just the partner he needs for a radiant, half-crazed scheme which will make him live forever in the annals of science and space. But first the two scientists must overcome the very earthly obstacles presented by powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York; and a fraudulent astrologer who just might know their future. Masterfully combining historical detail and startling invention, bringing Reconstruction-era Washington to life along with the ambitions of the burgeoning American nation, acclaimed writer Thomas Mallon gives us a galvanizing story of earthly heartbreak and other-worldly triumph.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.16(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.67(d)|
About the Author
Thomas Mallon is the author of eight novels, including Watergate, Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman, and Fellow Travelers, and seven works of nonfiction. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications.
Read an Excerpt
March 8, 1877
The black ball rose up the flagpole. Spotting it from two blocks east, Cynthia May allowed herself to slow down. The hoisting of the canvas sphere, as big across as a wagon wheel, meant that ten minutes remained until noon, when Potomac ferry captains and fat boardinghouse mistresses all over northwest Washington would watch it drop and reset their clocks, and she would be due inside the Naval Observatory for her appointment.
She crossed E Street at the corner of Virginia, taking off her hat as she went. March 8th, and already so hot that, after twenty blocks of walking, she'd sweated through the skimpy silk lining beneath the straw. With the hat in one hand and her book in the other, she had no hand free to hold her nose against the stink coming up from the water filling half the street. She wondered why the whole swamp that was Foggy Bottom didn't sink, once and for all, into the river; and why the steps of the young man who'd been following her at a constant distance these past few blocks now seemed farther away. Had he been slowed by the smell, or by the thin streak of gray he'd no doubt noticed in her hair as soon as she took off her bonnet?
She turned around to smile, to show him the thirty-five years on the face atop her still-slim frame and, God only knew how, still-fast carriage. The boy looked startled, but appreciative, as if pleased to be fooled by such a handsome woman, however much she might be past eligibility for his serious attention.
She stepped onto the Observatory grounds, this supposed park without a bench to be found. Lifting her skirts and drawing them tight, she hoped to minimize the grass stains they were bound to acquire from the patch of shaded lawn she picked to sit on, a dozen feet from some clerks eating an early lunch. "You filthy thing," she hissed, smacking the mosquito on her bare wrist. "Die." She closed her eyes, determined, before the interview, to compose herself against the unnatural heat of this city; even now, a quarter century after leaving New Hampshire as a ten-year-old girl, she would not accept it. It was winter.
Her eyes still shut, she soundlessly recited five trigonometric formulae. Her numbers were fine; fixed and reliable, as she knew they would be. It was her appearance that was shaking her confidence, the spinsterish agitation her face might betray. Perhaps a bit hysterical, she could picture the examiners noting at the bottom of her paper, until they realized she was not a spinster but a widow, and their amusement turned to something worse, a depressed sort of pity that would make them decide how, all things being equal (or not) among the candidates, they'd really be better off having some bumptious young man about.
Even before noon arrived, she had worked her anticipated resentments into a grudge that felt actual, even long-standing. Rising to her feet, briskly enough to startle the nearby diners, she strode toward the building's east wing and into the Chronometer Room, where in a voice more loud than was necessary she greeted a young man bent over his desk.
"I am Cynthia May," she said. "I have an appointment with Professor Newcomb."
Mrs. John May, she was about to add, in case the fellow mistook what she'd told him for two Christian names, like Mary Jane, as people often did. But he just held up his left hand, like a policeman, indicating she should come no closer and say no more. With his other hand he tapped a telegraph key. A second later, up above, she heard a light thump.
"Time ball," he said, grinning broadly as he beckoned her forward with the same hand he'd used to halt her. "My one tap makes it fall, and gives Western Union their signal. So they can set all their clocks."
Surprised that the boy's keystroke should connect her to people far from the local ferry captains and boardinghouse mistresses, to cities not seething with faction and heat, she let her own face relax into a smile. More quietly than before, she said: "Mrs. John May, for -- "
"If it's Professor Newcomb you want, you don't want me," said the boy. "But the truth is you don't want him either, not just yet. If you're here about the computer's job, you're wanted first in Davis's office." He crooked his finger and drew a path on the air. "He likes to look 'em over."
Who could "he" be? Admiral Charles Davis had died three weeks ago. Cynthia knew so from both the Evening Star and Fanny Christian's most recent gentleman caller, a young ensign whose presence one evening at the boarders' table had been a rare concession from Mrs. O'Toole. Approaching the admiral's office, she could see that she was right: Charles H. Davis was now no more than his portrait, which hung outside the door, draped in black, the late subject's walrus mustache and rectangular flaps of hair quite immobile and unwelcoming.
Inside, she took her place on a bench between the two other applicants. Standing beside a desk, a much younger man, with the same flaps of hair and mustache, looked her up and down quite neutrally, not pausing in his drone of instructions to a slim, balding clerk whose nameplate identifed him as Mr. Harrison. "Tell Professor Baird at the Smithsonian that he may bring his party of ladies here to look through the Great Equatorial if he gives us plenty of advance warning, if the night they pick turns out to be clear, and if they get here early."
"Yes, Commander Davis," said the clerk.
"The son," whispered the job-seeker at Cynthia's right. "A lieutenant commander. Also Charles H. He was attached here when the old man was carried off. They've made him officer-in-charge until the new superintendent comes on."
Cynthia watched the younger Davis brush away a length of hair that hung in limp contrast to the stiff wisp of gold braid sparkling his uniform.
"Professor Newcomb will be along any moment," Mr. Harrison said to Cynthia, repeating the explanation he must already have given the others, his soft tone an apology for the lieutenant commander's preoccupation.
"Then," said Davis, still standing over his clerk, "you can tell Mr. Morrison that the narrative of the polar expedition is not yet ready for issue, and when you're done with that you can write Mr. Watson up in Oswego and tell him that the report he requests of the 1874 Transit of Venus is not yet published. That's right," he said, looking over to the applicants, as if to warn them of the Observatory's chronically short appropriations, "eighteen hundred and seventy-four." And with that he marched back from Mr. Harrison's desk to his own.
The young officer was clearly overwhelmed, whether with mourning or his temporary responsibilities, Cynthia could not tell. Whichever the case, her sympathies lay more naturally with the hard-worked Mr. Harrison, who was already into his ink bottle, turning the lieutenant commander's complaints into correspondence. His labors would go more quickly with a Remington, she thought, though the acquisition of one here anytime soon had to be unlikely, given how everything else seemed behind schedule. The Interior Department, where she worked, had just purchased a half dozen of the machines -- the first cause of her presence here today. When she'd heard that the reward for mastering the Remington's use and listening to its sixfold clatter in the clerks' room would be only fifty cents more a day, she had decided to act upon a piece of information picked up from Fanny Christian's gentleman caller.
"They're hiring another computer to work with the stargazers," he'd said in mocking awe of the scientists whose perimeter he sometimes paraded along. "Some of those fellows have domes bigger than the one on the building," he'd added, provoking such laughter that Cynthia had been able to slip away from the table without excusing herself. For the past eight nights, she had sat in her room working with The Principles of Trigonometry, an almost forgotten prize-book she had carried away from Miss Wilton's School for Young Ladies in Laconia, and brought with her to all the places, comfortable and shabby, that she had called home for the past twenty years. Always good with numbers -- "freakishly so," Miss Wilton had said -- she had made it her business to find out what the Observatory position entailed. She decided that, with a week of cramming, she just might escape her desk at Interior. Instead of becoming a typewriter, she would make herself a computer.
Despite the lieutenant commander's hints of institutional poverty, the Observatory job paid a dollar a day more than the one she had, an amount no doubt equally compelling to the two aspirants she sat between, a dismayingly pretty girl, probably no more than twenty-five, and a plump young man whose finger-poppings seemed louder to her nervous ears than the clatter of the Remingtons she was truant from today. She'd sent a note around to her department early in the morning, claiming to be ill. As it was, three days after President Hayes's swearing-in, the new Secretary's men would be too busy looking for the money the old Secretary's men had stolen to notice the absence of one female copyist.
"If you would fill these out," Mr. Harrison said, handing the applicants writing boards with forms headed "personal information."
All right, then: May, Cynthia. Not like Mary Jane. She wrote her name in the Spencerian hand she'd struggled to master twenty years ago, and which Remington would soon kill off just as surely as if he'd blasted it with one of his revolvers. Date and place of birth: April 10, 1842, Laconia, New Hampshire. Where it would still, quite sensibly, be winter, and Mr. Harrison and the put-upon lieutenant commander would be warming their hands at the same open stove, and getting a bit friendlier for it. She looked left, into the lap of her distaff competition. Even worse than she'd feared: b. 1855. Oh, honestly.
Present address: The first word looked more like a command than an adjective, an order to embarrass herself into admitting that 203 F Street, Mrs. O'Toole's peeling green lodging house, was her only remaining perch in the world. Length of stay at present address: Having to put down "7 months," the seven long months since she'd left the last lodging house (nearly as bad as the current one) seemed an affront, and so she wrote down 24 years, the amount of time she had lived, one way or another, in the District of Columbia, ever since her father, Frederick Lawrence, the bank manager in Laconia, had hitched his family's then-prosperous wagon to the little shooting star that was Franklin Pierce.
Fred Lawrence's usefulness to the curly-haired lawyer during a state constitutional convention in 1850 had earned him a summons to Washington at the start of 1853, to work under old Mr. Guthrie in the Treasury. Cynthia could still recall that man's Kentucky accent and wide-brimmed hat from the one visit she and her eleven-year-old twin brother had been permitted to make to the department early in Mr. Pierce's single, unsatisfactory term, during which the bank in Laconia failed, leaving her father to decide, even as Mr. Buchanan came in and the country began seriously to shatter, that Washington would now be a better place to sustain his family. Within five years, his bad judgment and the rebellion had reduced him to little more than a scrivener, who moved his family from one set of rooms to another, each smaller than the last. Frederick Lawrence, in his soft, pious voice, would remind them that they were hardly starving, though he ceased to use that word when information came, in the summer of 1864, that Frederick Lawrence, Jr., had in fact starved to death, at Andersonville.
Name of wife, the form requested. Mr. Harrison's courteous inked carat -- "or husband" -- prompted Cynthia to write Sgt. John May, dec. 1863, Chickamauga. Married less than three months before that battle, she had brought her child into the world six months later. There was even a place for Sally on the form. A box marked children, a small clerkly grave for daughter, d. 1870, diphtheria. Two years after Cynthia's father; five months before her mother.
For the last six years there had been no mouth to feed but her own, at the hotel restaurants and boardinghouse tables along F Street. From one rented room to the next, she carried with her what few pictures, books, and spoons she could stand to look at or afford not to sell.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania: so that's where the chubby knuckle-cracker next to her had come from. Go home, Mr. -- what is it? -- Gilworth. Go home and leave this job to me.
Could they please get on with the test itself? Having completed the sheet of personal questions, she put down her writing board and opened up her book, surprised, once she did, by the absence from the page of cosines and tangents. So accustomed had she become to seeing The Principles of Trigonometry open at her pillow and plate that she only now remembered how Hawthorne's Life of Franklin Pierce was the book she had carried with her this morning, determined to sell it for whatever it would fetch. She no longer had any desire to possess this nearly last family heirloom, a campaign tract signed by both author and subject; the symbol of her father's wrong turn. Whether or not she came home with this new job, she would come back with money for a new dress, something with no collar and plenty of color, something she could not wear to the Interior Department in the daily pursuit of Mrs. O'Toole's rent and her own weekly bag of oranges, which were cheaper than the doctor or tonic she'd require without them.
Where was the celebrated Professor Newcomb, inventor of the clock-drive on the Observatory's biggest telescope? Mr. Harrison had promised, the other day when she'd come to inquire about the position, that the great man would administer the examination himself, and the young man who had just entered the room and begun exchanging words with Lieutenant Commander Davis could surely not be he. So pretty and slender, scarcely older, she guessed, than "b. 1855." But the little roll of papers in his hand did look as if they might be examinations. He was tapping the baton they made against his cheek. Looked at all together, the blush of his brow and the blankness of the paper and the color of his eyes made a sort of red, white, and blue bunting, the banner at a summer picnic or -- on second thought, against the black mourning of his hair -- the flag upon a coffin. He was approaching them now; the slightly crooked teeth in his emergent grin making him look even younger, less a preoccupied intellect than a fellow of feeling and mischief.
"This is Professor Allison," explained Mr. Harrison, who had come out from behind his desk to make the introductions. "He will conduct the examination in the library."
They were led off single file, clear to the west wing, all the time listening to the young astronomer's Carolina accent. "Professor Newcomb couldn't make it, I'm afraid. He's been called away to a meeting. I don't know where or with whom. Perhaps the head of the Royal Society, or the empress of Brazil. I'm to be your poor substitute." He gave a humorous bow, his frock coat, Cynthia noted, nipping attractively into the slim waist. "You can take your places and get started," he said, pointing to some desks beneath shelves holding hundreds of ledgers. "It's all fairly clear on the page. But if anything is not, I shall be wandering in and out, and you can grab my arm and ask your questions." With that he was gone, leaving them with one another and the printed exam books.
She did have questions, the ones she often wished to pose to merry young men on the streets and to women like "b. 1855": What is it like to have missed the war, to have scampered through those years as a child, and to be living today in the here and now, not walking through an eternal aftermath? What must it be like to hear politicians speak of "reconstruction" as a civic task, duly planned and just completed, instead of a word for what would never come to your own inner dwelling, whose wooden beams remained split and strewn by the tempest?
The following exercises are to determine with what degree of accuracy and rapidity you can use the tables of logarithms. Since no mistake must be made in your work it is necessary that, after writing down each logarithm, you read it off from your paper, look back in the table, get the corresponding number, and see if it agrees with that given on the paper. You must proceed in reverse order in taking out numbers corresponding to logarithms. Write neatly and carefully and write your name on each sheet of paper.
"B. 1855" would have no trouble following the neatness injunction. Her examination and logarithms book were perfectly aligned on her desk; the extra pencil she'd brought lay perpendicular to both. Not a strand of her upswept hair dangled from her small straw hat.
Exercise in 5-Place Logarithms. From the following values of log cot a find a (to the nearest tenth of a minute), and then log sin a, log cos a, log b cos a and b cos a. log b = 0.10909. The algebraic signs in the first column are those of the cotangents themselves.
Cynthia's last look around before beginning revealed a now fretful Mr. Gilworth of Johnstown, Pa. Could he really be finding this exercise so difficult? She set about filling in the table, sprinkling the numbers like raisins into a cupcake tin. It was more soothing than sewing, and less of a strain on the eye.