To the first of June, seven thousand emigrants had arrived . . . and the government agent there had received notice that 55,000 had contracted for passage during the season, and nearly all from Ireland. The number expected to come to Canada and the States is estimated by some as high as 100,000. The rest of Europe will probably send to the States 75,000 more.
* New York Herald, summer 1845 *
Becoming a policeman of the Sixth Ward of the city of New York was an unwelcome surprise to me.
It's not the work I imagined myself doing at twenty-seven, but then again I'd bet all the other police would tell it the same, since three months ago this job didn't exist. We're a new-hatched operation. I suppose I'd better say first how I came to need employment, three months back, in the summer of 1845, though it's a pretty hard push to talk about that. The memory fights for top billing as my ugliest. I'll do my best.
On July eighteenth, I was tending bar at Nick's Oyster Cellar, as I'd done since I was all of seventeen years old. The squared-off beam of light coming through the door at the top of the steps was searing the dirt into the planked floor. I like July, the way its particular blue had spread over the world when I'd worked on a ferryboat to Staten Island at age twelve, for instance, head back and mouth full of fresh salt breeze. But 1845 was a bad summer. The air was yeasty and wet as a bread oven by eleven in the morning, and you could taste the smell of it at the back of your throat. I was fighting not to notice the mix of fever sweat and the deceased cart horse half pushed into the alley round the corner, as the beast seemed by degrees to be getting deader. There are meant to be garbage collectors in New York, but they're a myth. My copy of the Herald lay open, already read back to front as is my morning habit, smugly announcing that the mercury was at ninety-six and several more laborers had unfortunately died of heatstroke. It was all steadily ruining my opinion of July. I couldn't afford to let my mood sour, though. Not on that day.
Mercy Underhill, I was sure of it, was about to visit my bar. She hadn't done so for four days, and in our unspoken pattern that was a record, and I needed to talk to her. Or at least try. I'd recently decided that adoring her was no longer going to stand in my way.
Nick's was laid out in the usual fashion for such places, and I loved its perfect typicalness: a very long stretch of bar, wide enough for the pewter oyster platters and the dozens of beer tumblers and the glasses of whiskey or gin. Dim as a cave, being half underground. But on mornings like that one the sun cut through wonderfully, so we didn't yet need the yellow-papered oil lamps that sent friendly smoke marks up the plaster. No furniture, just a series of booths with bare benches lining the walls, curtained if you wanted although no one ever closed them. Nick's wasn't a place for secrets. It was a forum for the frantic young bulls and bears to scream things across the room after a twelve-hour stint at the Exchange, while I listened.
I stood pouring off a gallon of whiskey for a ginger boy I didn't recognize. The East River's bank swarms with rickety foreign creatures trying to shake off their sea legs, and Nick's was on New Street, very close to the water. The lad waited with his head tilted and his little claws on the cedar bar plank. He stood like a sparrow. Too tall to be eight years old, too scared to be ten. Hollow-boned, eyes glassily seeking free scraps.
“This for your parents?” I wiped my fingers on my apron, corking the earthenware jug.
“For Da.” He shrugged.
His hand came out of his pocket with a ragtag assortment of currency.
“Two shillings makes two bits, so I'll take that pair and wish you welcome. I'm Timothy Wilde. I don't pour shallow, and I don't water the merchandise.”
“Thankee,” he said, reaching for the jug.
There were dark treacle stains at the underarms of his tattered shirt due to the last molasses barrel he'd gammed from being too high, I saw next. So my latest customer was a sugar thief. Interesting.
That's a typical saloon keeper's trick: I notice a great many things about people. A fine city barman I'd be if I couldn't spot the difference between a Sligo dock rat with a career in contraband molasses and the local alderman's son asking after the same jug of spirits. Barmen are considerably better paid when they're sharp, and I was saving all the coin I could lay hands on. For something too crucial to even be called important.
“I'd change professions, if I were you.”
The bright black sparrow's eyes turned to slits.
“Molasses sales,” I explained. “When the product isn't yours, locals take exception.” One of his elbows shifted, growing more fluttery by the second. “You've a ladle, I suppose, and sneak from the market casks when their owners are making change? All right, just quit the syrups and talk to the newsboys. They make a good wage, too, and don't catch beatings when the molasses sellers have learned their sly little faces.”
The boy ran off with a nod like a spasm, clutching the sweating jug under his wing. He left me feeling pretty wise, and neighborly to boot.
“It's useless to counsel these creatures,” Hopstill intoned from the end of the bar, sipping his morning cup of gin. “He'd have been better off drowned on the way over.”
Hopstill is a London man by birth, and not very republican. His face is equine and drooping, his cheeks vaguely yellow. That's due to the brimstone for the fireworks. He works as a lightning-maker, sealed away in a garret creating pretty explosions for theatricals at Niblo's Garden. Doesn't care for children, Hopstill. I don't mind them a bit, admiring candor the way I do. Hopstill doesn't care for Irish folk either. That's common enough practice, though. It doesn't seem sporting to me, blaming the Irish for eagerly taking the lowest, filthiest work when the lowest, filthiest work is all they're ever offered, but then fairness isn't high on the list of our city's priorities. And the lowest, filthiest work is getting pretty hard to come by these days, as the main of it's already been snapped up by their kin.
“You read the Herald,” I said, fighting not to be annoyed. “Forty thousands of emigrants since last January and you want them all to join the light-fingered gentry? Advising them is only common sense. I'd sooner work than steal, myself, but sooner steal than starve.”
“A fool's exercise,” Hopstill scoffed, pushing his palm through the sheaves of grey straw that pass for his hair. “You read the Herald. That rank patch of mud is on the brink of civil war. And now I hear tell from London that their potatoes have started rotting. Did you hear about that? Just rotting, blighted as a plague of ancient Egypt. Not that anyone's surprised. You won't catch me associating with a race that's so thoroughly called down the wrath of God.”
I blinked. But then, I had often been shocked by the sage opinions bar guests had gifted me regarding the members of the Catholic church, the only breathing examples they'd ever seen being the Irish variety. Bar guests who were otherwise--for all appearances-- perfectly sane. First thing the priests do with the novice nuns is sodomize them, and the priests as do thoroughest work rise up the ranks, that's the system--they aren't even fully ordained until their first rape is done with. Why, Tim, I thought you savvied the pope lived off the flesh of aborted fetuses; it's common enough knowledge. I said no way in hell, is what, the very idea of letting an Irish take the extra room, what with the devils they summon for their rituals, would that be right with little Jem in the house? Popery is widely considered to be a sick corruption of Christianity ruled by the Antichrist, the spread of which will quash the Second Coming like an ant. I don't bother responding to this brand of insanity for two reasons: idiots treasure their facts like newborns, and the entire topic makes my shoulders ache. Anyhow, I'm unlikely to turn the tide. Americans have been feeling this way about foreigners since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
Hopstill misread my silence as agreement. He nodded, sipping his spirits. “These beggars shall steal whatever isn't nailed down once they arrive here. We may as well save our breath.”
It went without saying that they would arrive. I walk along the docks edging South Street only two blocks distant on my way home from Nick's pretty often, and they boast ships thick as the mice, carrying passengers plentiful as the fleas. They have done for years-- even during the Panic, when I'd watched men starve. There's work to be had again now, railways to lay and warehouses to be built. But whether you pity the emigrants or rant about drowning them, on one subject every single citizen is in lockstep agreement: there's an unholy tremendous amount of them. A great many Irish, and all of those Catholics. And nearly everyone concurs with the sentiment that follows after: we haven't the means nor the desire to feed them all. If it gets any worse, the city fathers will have to pry open their wallets and start a greeting system--some way to keep foreigners from huddling in waterfront alleys, begging crusts from the pickpockets until they learn how to lift a purse. The week before, I'd passed a ship actively vomiting up seventy or eighty skeletal creatures from the Emerald Isle, the emigrants staring glassy-eyed at the metropolis as if it were a physical impossibility.
“That's none too charitable, is it, Hops?” I observed.
“Charity has nothing to do with it.” He scowled, landing his cup on the counter with a dull ping. “Or rather, this particular metro polis will have nothing to do with charity in cases where charity is a waste of time. I should sooner teach a pig morals than an Irishman. And I'll take a plate of oysters.”
I called out an order for a dozen with pepper to Julius, the young black fellow who scrubbed and cracked the shells. Hopstillis a menace to cheerful thought. It was hovering on the tip of my tongue to mention this to him. But just then, a dark gap cut into the spear of light arrowing down the stairs and Mercy Underhill walked into my place of employment.
“Good morning, Mr. Hopstill,” she called in her tender little chant. “And Mr. Wilde.”
If Mercy Underhill were any more perfect, it would take a long day's work to fall in love with her. But she has exactly enough faults to make it ridiculously easy. A cleft like a split peach divides her chin, for instance, and her blue eyes are set pretty wide, giving her an uncomprehending look when she's taking in your conversation. There isn't an uncomprehending thought in her head, however, which is another feature some men would find a fault. Mercy is downright bookish, pale as a quill feather, raised entirely on texts and arguments by the Reverend Thomas Underhill, and the men who notice she's beautiful have the devil's own time of it coaxing her face out of whatever's latest from Harper Brothers Publishing.
We try our best, though.
“I require two pints . . . two? Yes, I think that ought to do it. Of New England rum, please, Mr. Wilde,” she requested. “What were you talking of ?”
She hadn't any vessel, only her open wicker basket with flour and herbs and the usual hastily penned scraps of half-finished poetry keeking out, so I pulled a rippled glass jar from a shelf.” Hopstill was proving that New York at large is about as charitable as a coffin vendor in a plague town.”
“Rum,” Hopstill announced sourly. “I didn't take either you or the reverend for rum imbibers.”
Mercy smoothed back a lock of her sleek but continually escaping black hair as she absorbed this remark. Her bottom lip rests just behind her top lip, and she tucks the bottom one in slightly when she's ruminating. She did then.
“Did you know, Mr. Wilde,” she inquired, “that elixir proprietatis is the only medicine that can offer immediate relief when dysentery threatens? I pulverize saffron with myrrh and aloe and then suffer the concoction to stand a fortnight in the hot sun mixed with New England rum.”
Mercy passed me a quantity of dimes. It was still good to see so many disks of metal money clinking around again. Coins vanished completely during the Panic, replaced by receipts for restaurant meals and tickets for coffee. A man could hew granite for ten hours and get paid in milk and Jamaica Beach clams.
“That'll teach you to question an Underhill, Hops,” I advised over my shoulder.
“Did Mr. Hopstill ask a question, Mr. Wilde?” Mercy mused.
That's how she does it, and damned if it doesn't fasten my tongue to my teeth every single time. Two blinks, a gauzy lost lamb expression, a remark she pretends is unrelated, and you're hung up by your toes. Hopstill sniffed blackly, understanding he was good as banished from the continent. And by a girl who turned twenty-two this past June. I don't know where she learns such things.
“I'll carry this as far as your corner,” I offered, turning out from behind the bar with Mercy's spirits.
Thinking all the while, Are you really going to do this? I'd been fast friends with Mercy for well over a decade. It could all stay the same. You lifting things for her and watching the curl at the back of her neck and working out what she's reading so you can read it, too.
“Why are you leaving your bar?” She smiled at me.
“I've been gripped by a spirit of adventure.”
New Street was a swarm, the sheen of polished sable beaver hats punishing my eyes above the sea of navy frock coats. It's only a two-block street terminating to the north at Wall, all giant stone storefronts with awnings shielding the pedestrians from the scorching blaze. Pure commerce. From every canopy hangs a sign, and plastered to every sign and glued to every wall is a poster: parti-colored neckerchiefs, ten for a dollar. whitting's hand soap a guarantee against ringworm. All the populous streets on the island are papered in shrieking broadsheets, no exceptions, the flaked headlines of yesteryear just visible under the freshly glued advertisements. I glimpsed my brother Val's smirk translated into woodcut and tacked to a door, then caught myself stifling a grimace: valentine wilde supports the formation of the new york city police force.
Well and good. I'd probably oppose it, in that case. Crime is rampant, robbery expected, assault common, murder often unsolved. But supposing Val was in favor of the violently debated new police, I'd take my chances with anarchy. Up to the previous year, apart from a recently formed group of hapless men called Harper's Police, who wore blue coats to advertise themselves as fit for beatings by the spirited, there was no such thing as a Peeler in this town. There was a Watch in New York, certainly. They were ancient hangdogs parched for money who toiled all day and then slept all night in watchmen's booths, ardently watched by the brimming population of criminals. We'd in excess of four hundred thousand souls prowling the streets, counting the perpetual piebald mob of visitors from around the globe. And less than five hundred watchmen, snoring invertical coffins as their dreams bounced around like tenpins inside their leather helmets. As for daylight keepers of the peace, don't even ask. There were nine of them.
But if my brother, Valentine, is in favor of something, that something isn't particularly likely to be a good idea.
“I thought you might want a bruiser to get you past the throng,” I remarked to Mercy. It was half a joke. I'm solid, and quick, too, but a bantam. An inch taller than Mercy, if I'm lucky. But Napoleon didn't figure height stood between him and the Rhineland, and I lose fights about as often as he did.
“Oh? Oh, I see. Well, that was very kind, then.”
She wasn't actually surprised; the set of her robin's-egg-blue eyes told me that much, and I decided to watch my step. Mercy is very difficult to navigate. But I know my way around the city, and around Mercy Underhill. I was born in a cheerless cottage in Greenwich Village before New York even touched its borders, and I'd been learning Mercy's quirks since she was nine.
“I wonder something this morning.” She paused, her wide-set eyes sliding my way and then dropping off again. “But it's silly, maybe. You'll laugh.”
“If you ask me not to, I won't.”
“I wonder why you never use my name, you see, Mr. Wilde.”
New York's winds are never fresh in the summer. But as we turned onto Wall, bank after bank scrolling past us in line after line of Grecian columns, the air turned sweeter. Or maybe I just remembered it that way afterward, but suddenly it all seemed pure dust and hot stone. Clean, like parchment. That smell was worth a fortune. “I don't know what you mean,” I said.
“There, yes. I'm sorry--I don't mean to be cryptic.” Mercy's bottom lip slid underneath her top one just a little, only a fraction of a warm wet inch, and I thought in that moment I could taste it, too. “You could have just said, 'I don't know what you mean, Miss Underhill.' And then we wouldn't be talking about it any longer.”
“What does that make you think?”
I spied a jagged hole in the pavement. Pivoting quickly, I guided Mercy out of its path with a swish of her pale green summer skirts. Maybe she'd caught sight of the little cave herself, though, for I didn't startle her. Her head didn't even turn. Escorting Mercy down a block, depending on her mood, you might not be there for all the attention she pays you. And I'm not exactly Sunday, so to speak. I've never been a special occasion. I'm all of the other days in the workweek, and there are plenty of us streaming by without notice. But I could fix that, or I thought I could.
“Do you mean to make me theorize that you like the topic of my name, Mr. Wilde?” she asked me, looking as if she was trying not to laugh.
I'd caught her out, though. No one ever answers her questions with questions, just the way she never acknowledges answering questions at all. That's another fault of Mercy's I'm fixed on. She's a reverend's daughter, to be certain, but she talks clever as a jade if only you're keen enough to notice.
“Do you know what I'd like to do?” I questioned in return, thinking that was the trick of it. “I've managed to put some money away, four hundred in cash. Not like all these maniacs who take their first extra dollar and play it against the price of China tea. I want to buy some land, out on Staten Island maybe, and have a river ferry. Steamships are dear, but I can take my time finding a good price.”
I remembered being two years orphaned, scrawny and pale skinned and twelve. Wheedling my way through sheer tenacity into the employment of a hulking but kindly Welsh boatman during one of the leaner periods Valentine and I had ever faced, having lived off of mealy apples for a week. Maybe I was hired on as a deck hand because the fellow suspected as much. I recalled standing at the prow of the ferry before the rails I'd just polished until my fingers were peeling, head thrown back as an ecstatic midsummer thunderstorm exploded in the still-blazing sunshine. For five minutes, spray and rain had danced in the dazzling light, and for five minutes, I'd not wondered whether my brother back on Manhattan Island had yet managed to kill himself. It felt wonderful. Like being erased.
Mercy quickened her grip slightly. “What has your anecdote to do with my question?”
Be a man and take the plunge, I thought.
“Maybe I don't want to call you Miss Underhill, ever,” I answered her. “Maybe I'd like to call you Mercy. What is it you'd like best to be called?"
I was a touchstone at Nick's Oyster Cellar that night, a lightning-bright lucky charm. All my pale glorified cardsharps, all the faro-champagne-morphine-and-
“Three more bottles of champagne!” shouted a weedy fellow called Inman. He could scarce breathe for being jostled by black-coated elbows. I wondered sometimes what made the financiers head for another sweltering cockpit the moment they quit the chamber of the Board of Brokers.
“Take a glass for yourself on my account, Tim, cotton's higher than an opium fiend!”
People tell me things. Always have done. They hemorrhage information like a slit bag spills dried beans. It's only gotten worse as I've manned an oyster cellar. Incredibly useful, but it does get to be draining at times--as if I'm part barman and part midnight hole in the ground, just a quick-dug hollow to bury secrets in. If Mercy would only manage to fall into the same habit, that would be something miraculous.
A stream of honest-working sweat trickled down my back by nine o'clock, when the sun went down. Men sweating for other reasons demanded drinks and oysters as if the world had spun off its axis. Apparently there was nothing for it but to annihilate the feast before we all slid off. I was moving fast enough for a dozen, juggling orders, calling back friendly insults, counting the shower of coins.
“What's the good news, Timothy?”
“We've got enough cold champagne to float an ark on,” I shouted back at Hopstill, who'd reappeared. Julius materialized behind me, hoisting a bucket of fresh-shaved ice. “Next round's on the house.”
The way I figured it, Mercy Underhill hadn't said no to any of my remarks. Nor “You seem to have the wrong idea,” nor “Leave me be.” Instead, she'd said a good many completely unrelated things before I left her at the corner of Pine and William streets, a breeze picking up from the east, where the coffeehouses churned rich burning smells into the heavy air.
She'd said, “I can understand your not liking my family name, Mr. Wilde. It makes me think of being buried,” for example. She'd said, “Your own parents, God rest them, had the generosity to leave you the surname of a lord chancellor of England. I'd love to live in London. How cool London must be in the summer, and there the parks have real grass, and everything electric green from the rain. Or so my mother always told me, whenever a New York summer seemed too much to bear.” That was a regular catechism of Mercy's, whatever the season--a little prayer to her late mother, Olivia Underhill, a native of London who'd been odd and generous and imaginative and beautiful and wonderfully like her only child.
Mercy had added, “I've finished the twentieth chapter of my novel. Don't you think that's a thrilling number? Had you ever expected me to get so far? Will you give me your honest opinion, once it's finished?”
If she aimed to discourage me, she was going to have to up her game.
And I might not be a scholar in title, or a churchman, but Reverend Thomas Underhill liked me fine. Barmen are pillars of the community and the hub of New York's wheel, and I had four hundred dollars in slick silver buried in the straw tick of my bed. Mercy Underhill, in my opinion, ought to be called Mercy Wilde--and then I'd never know where another conversation was headed for the rest of my life.
“Give me fifty dollars and I'll see you're a rich man by the end of the fortnight, Tim!” shrieked Inman from yards away in the roiling vat of bodies. “Sam Morse's telegraph can make you aking!”
“Take your fairy money and go to hell,” I returned cheerfully, reaching for a slop rag. “You ever play the market, Julius?”
“I'd likelier burn money than speculate it,” Julius answered without looking at me, deftly pulling the corks from a row of drenched champagne bottles with his wide fingers. He's a sensible fellow, quick and quiet, with fragrant tea leaves braided into his hair. “Fire can heat a man's soup. You calculate they know the Panic was their doing? You think they remember?”
I wasn't listening to Julius any longer by that time. Instead I was dwelling thick as laudanum on the last thing Mercy had said to me.
Don't think you've hurt my feelings. I'm not married to the name, after all.
It was the only sentence directly to the purpose I'd ever heard her say, I think. At least, it was the first since she was about fifteen, and even so, the remark had a sideways charm to it. So that was a heady, graceful moment. The moment when I discovered that Mercy saying something near-plain is every bit as beautiful as Mercy talking circles like a flame-red kite in the wind.
At four in the morning, I passed Julius an extra two dollars as he propped the mop handle in the corner. He nodded. Worn to a thinly buzzing alertness, we headed for the steps leading up to the awakening city.
“You ever wonder what it's like to sleep at nighttime?” I asked as I locked the cellar door behind us.
“You won't catch me in a bed after dark. Keep the devil guessing,” Julius answered, winking at his own joke.
We reached the street just as dawn flared with grasping red fingers over the horizon. Or so the corner of my eye thought, as I settled my hat on my head. Julius was quicker to catch on.
“Fire!” Julius bellowed in his low, smooth voice, cupping his hands around his sharply defined lips. “Fire in New Street!”
For a moment, I stood there, frozen in the dark with a streak of scarlet above me, already acting about as useless as a broken gas-lamp inspector. Feeling the same sickness in my belly the word fire always causes me.
The explosion was heard at Flushing and supposed to be the shock of an earthquake. Cinders fell on Staten Island, and for several miles over in New Jersey, the sun was obscured by smoke during the forenoon.
* New York Herald, July 1845 *
The third floor of the storefront across the street from us looked as if it had imprisoned an amber sun. Fierce yellow tongues were eating away the outer windows, the fire already laying claim to what must have been a vast inner storeroom. Fires in these parts are about as common as riots, and every bit as fatal, but here one raged in plain sight without anyone having yet given the alarm. So whatever the cause, it had been horribly quick--a lamp left lit near a pile of cotton wool, a cigar end in a rubbish bin. Any small, stupid, deadly mistake would serve. It's a large warehouse that faces Nick's, taking up much of the small block, and my heart took a second dip in my chest when I recognized that a glow so very bright must have reached throughout the entire floor and now surely raged against the wall of the adjacent building.
Julius and I were racing toward the blaze an instant later. You run toward as-yet-undiscovered fires in New York, not away from them, offering your own help until the all-volunteer fire companies arrive on the scene. People have roasted for want of a hand out a window. I glanced behind us, longing for the clang of the fire bell even though I detested the sound.
“How can no one have seen it yet?” I gasped.
“It's not sensible.” Stopping, Julius sent up the cry of “Fire!” again and then hurtled after me.
Neighbors trickled into the street under the charcoal sky, staring in awe and with a weird city-dweller's thrill-seeking pleasure at the wide ribbon of flame on the upper floor. Behind us, at last the nearest fire bell rent the air with its shocking peals--single clangs to summon help to Ward One. Moments later, the answering echo erupted from the cupola of City Hall, beyond the park.
“Wait,” I said, pulling sharply at Julius's shoulder.
The remaining windows of the storage facility began lighting up like a series of matchsticks--sparks had clearly invaded every story, fire devouring the interior as if the huge building were made of paper. Glass shattering in sudden pistol shots that I couldn't quite understand.
Then I did understand, and that was far worse.
“This is Max Hendrickson's store,” I whispered.
Julius's brown eyes went wide.
“Jesus have mercy,” he said. “If the fire hits his stock of whale oil--”
Red flannel flashed past us as a volunteer fireman with his braces hanging off and his curious leather helmet drooping over his face careened around the corner of Exchange Place. Hell-bent to claim the nearest fire plug for his own engine company, I thought with my familiar slight flare of disdain. And thereby all the glory.
Meanwhile, it occurred to me that my future was now less than certain.
“Go, fetch your valuables,” Julius ordered before I said anything. “And pray you have a house an hour from now.”
I lived in Stone Street, two blocks below the southern terminus of New Street, down Broad, and I sprinted around the corner away from the doomed building with nothing but Mercy, my residence, and its four hundred dollars in silver on my mind. I would get that money if it killed me. Storefronts I'd passed a thousand times went by in an eye blink, handcrafted chairs and leather-bound books and bolts of cloth just visible behind the darkened shop displays, my boots flying over eroding cobblestones, running as if hell were at my heels.
That was my first mistake. Hell turned out to be in front of me, over a block away from the New Street fi re.
The instant my foot touched Broad, a detonation like a volcano erupting burst 38 Broad Street into a plume of rock, granite missiles the size of grown men sailing above me. The structure had hurled a quarry's worth of stone into the buildings opposite by the time I skidded to a halt.
At first I thought, Holy Christ, someone's set a bomb in our midst. But 38 Broad, I remembered in the back of my hellfire-dazzled mind as the mammoth warehouse rent itself in pieces before my eyes, was presently a saltpeter storage facility. It held shipments of gunpowder belonging to the well-liked merchant duo of Crocker and Warren. Which was a shame for New York, really. As thunder nearly shattered my eardrums, I thought, Bad luck. A window must have been open, for cinders from the oil fire in New Street had obviously been borne on the wind across the thoroughfare and into a room of powder kegs. Amid the fury, airy curlicues of ash hung perfectly still high above the cobbles. Maybe it was thick of me to even ponder the role of luck at the time, but exploding saltpeter warehouses seem to have a slowing effect on my wits.
Belatedly, I turned to run. I'd taken two steps when I saw a woman flying past me, her mouth open and her face fixed in surprise, her hair streaming backward in a lazy arc. One shoe was blown from her foot, and the foot itself had a smudge of blood on the instep. And that was when I started seeing things funny, just as I realized that I was flying, too. Then I heard--no, felt, for the world was silent--the entire earth ripping in half as easily and raggedly as an old piece of cotton.
When I opened my eyes again, the planet had inverted itself. And it was still busily exploding.
My head rested against a door still within its frame, but doors aren't meant to be horizontal. I wondered why this one was. And why there seemed to be hulking pieces of stone surrounding me on all sides.
A tiny matchstick's worth of flame nuzzled at the woman's red calfskin shoe six inches from my hand. That single spark angered me terribly--its smug, devious approach. I wanted to save the shoe, return it to the flying woman, but I couldn't seem to move my arms. The index finger of my right hand twitched, the movement of a dull, brained little animal. I glimpsed the sky through a crevice and wondered how dawn had risen so quickly.
I knew that voice. I felt a flood of irritation, and also of plain, stupid fear under the shock. He wasn't too full of morphine to be standing, then. Of course not. That would be so easy. Instead he was clearly striding into the very center of the bull's-eye, with shrapnel and brimstone raining freely down upon his person. How very like him.
“Timothy, call out where you are! For the love of God, Tim, answer me!”
My tongue stuck stubbornly to the back of my teeth. I didn't want that voice to see me sprawled in a Chinese dancing girl's pose, unable to so much as lift a singed shoe. I didn't want that voice anywhere near a warehouse acting like the world's biggest cannon either. But all I could register was a cottony sense of no.
Something sticky and metallic was running down my cheek.
Light. Too much of it.
A flickering yellow blaze like a god-sized fireplace struck my eyes when someone began tearing away the rocks. Only my upper body had been partly buried. My legs were in the open air and soon enough my face was, too, when a cleanly shaven but bearish figure tossed aside a heavy iron shutter.
“Christ, Tim. Julius Carpenter just saved your hide, telling me which way you'd gone. There's nary yet breathing in this street.”
I blinked at my six-years'-elder brother, the soot-grimed mountain of a hook-and-ladder man with his ax swinging freely from his belt and his face obscured by the inferno behind him. The anger in my chest grew watery, mingled with sudden relief. When he pulled me up by the arms, I bit down on a yell and managed by some miracle to keep my feet once I was upright. He threw my arm over his coarse red shirt before setting off fast as I could keep pace with him, back the way I'd come, both of us stumbling through the rubble as if it were ankle-deep sand on a beach.
“There's a girl, Val,” I rasped. “She landed very near me. We have to--”
“Gingerly, gingerly,” growled Valentine Wilde. I'd never have heard him through the pervasive ringing if he'd not been two inches from my ear. “You're more than half hocused, aren't you? Wait till we're out of this and I can see you better.”
“I saw a piece of her, Timothy. She'll be put to bed with a shovel. Shut your head a moment.”
I don't remember much more until Valentine had reached a brick wall under a gaslight back on New Street and propped me up against it. What had been a half-deserted stone business thoroughfare was now an overturned hornet's nest. At least three volunteer engine companies had already arrived, and a viciously tight thread of visible tension ran between each and every man in a red shirt. Nota one was brawling, or bickering over fire plugs, or donning brass knuckles. Every time one fire fighter met another's eye, his only expression was And next? And next?Half of them were looking at my brother, their eyes skimming toward him and then fixing. Wilde. Wilde isn't afraid of anything. Wilde sees his way clear. Wilde runs into infernos as if they're rose gardens. All right, Wilde. And next? I wanted to force them all quiet with my bare hands over their mouths, make them stop calling out to him.
What exactly do they expect him to do about the city exploding?
“You're well and truly buttered, my boy. Get to the nearest dispensary,” Valentine ordered. “I'd cart you up to the hospital, but it's too far and the boys need me. The whole stait'll burn if we--”
“Get to it, then,” I coughed bitterly. Maybe if I went along with him for once, he'd see reason out of pure contrariness. Nothing makes me more furious than my brother's obsession with open flame. “I have to stop home, and then I'll--”
“Don't rig with me,” my brother snapped. “Get to a doctor. You're hurt worse than you think, Tim.”
“Wilde! Give us a hand, it's spreading!”
My brother was swallowed by a bedlam of red shirts screaming orders at one another and sending feathers of spray from their hoses to slice midair through the lazy pin curls of smoke. Looking away from Val purposefully with a hard jerk of my neck, I could see the bloated figure of Justice George Washington Matsell shepherding a clutch of whimpering females away from burning apartments toward the Custom House steps. Matsell is no mere politician; he's half legend to locals, a highly visible figure, not least because he weighs about as much as a bison. Following a trusted civic leader like Justice Matsell seemed a likely direction to head for safety.
But I, either because I was infuriated or because I'd been knocked in the head, staggered toward my home. The world as I knew it had gone mad. Small wonder I had as well.
I walked south through a snowstorm in which the flakes were the color of lead, feeling reckless and unmoored. Bowling Green has a fountain at the center--a glad, gushing fountain, rivers tumbling over its lip. The fountain burbled away, but a man couldn't hear it because the surrounding brick buildings had flames pouring like waterfalls out their windows. Red fire raged upward and glassy red water pounded downward and I staggered past the trees with my arms around my stomach, wondering why my face felt like I'd just stepped out of the salt water at Coney Island and turned in to a cold March wind.
Stone Street, when I reached it, proved a battlement of fire, my own house disintegrating into the earth even while it was being carried away on the updrafts. Just the sight of it pulled me to pieces a little. In my mind's eye, as the wasted runoff from the fire engines began to trickle past my feet, soon gushing with chicken bones and bits of trampled lettuce, I imagined my molten silver coursing along the cobble cracks. Ten years of savings looked like a mercury river, painting mirrors on the soles of my boots.
“Only chairs,” sobbed a woman. “We had a table, and he might have grabbed the linens. Only chairs, only chairs, only chairs.”
I opened my eyes. I'd been walking, I knew, but they must have been shut. I was at the southmost tip of the island, in the middle of Battery Gardens. But not as I'd ever seen it.
The Battery is a promenade for those who have time for recreational walks. It's blanketed with cigar stubs and peanut shells, yes, but the wind from the ocean carries the care right out of my bones, and the sycamores don't stop my view of the New Jersey forests across the Hudson. It's a grand place, and locals and tourists alike lean on the iron rails in the afternoons, all staring off over the water alone together.
But the Battery was now a furniture warehouse. The woman rocking back and forth over her chairs had four of them--while to my left, a small hill of cotton bales had been rescued from the fire. Chests of tea were mounting like a dizzying Tower of Babel above a gigantic pile of broomsticks. The air that had been foul with summertime half an hour earlier reeked with the cindery dust of burning whale oil.
“Oh, my dear God,” said a woman carrying at least fifty pounds of sugar in a neatly stamped sack, peering at my face. “You ought to see a doctor, sir.”
I barely heard her. I'd slumped to the grass with the rocking chairs and sacks of flour. Meanwhile thinking the only thought an ambitious fellow from New York would've indulged in as he lost consciousness while the city was erupting.
If I have to save for another ten years, she'll pick somebody else.
When I woke up a pauper, nauseated and disoriented, my brother had already picked a new profession for me. Unfortunately, that's the sort of fellow Valentine is.
“There you are. Bully,” my brother drawled from the chair he'd pulled up to my bedside and then sat in backside front, dangling his thick blond arm and half-chewed cigar over the sanded cedar.” Some of New York is still standing, by the way. Not your ken or your workplace, though. I checked. Those look like the inside of my fireplace.”
We were both alive, then, which seemed pretty favorable. But where? The windowsill a few feet from me hosted a series of herb pots and a bowl of cheery upright asparagus, either decoration or future dinner. Then I spied a huge, glorious painting of an American eagle bearing arrows in its talons on the far wall and winced inwardly.
Val's place, on Spring Street. I'd not been there in months. It's the second floor of a fine cozy row house with hysterical political posters and the usual strapping patriotic pictures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson blanketing the walls. Firemen are New York's heroes, and the heroes make an actual living by way of politics, as they aren't paid for running headlong into blazing infernos. So their days break down thus: for recreation, they douse fires, be at the good nature out of rivals from other engine companies in organized gang brawls, and drink and whore their way up and down the Bowery. And for work, they get their friends elected or appointed to city jobs, so that they all manage to elect or appoint each other. People would object louder to this system if they didn't worship the firemen. Who's against a flash-man when he's dressed in red cotton and you're handing your baby out a window?
I haven't the stomach for any of it. Politics or prolonged exposure to Val.
Valentine is a Democrat, in the identical way some men are doctors or stevedores or brewers, and his goal in professional life is to crush the hated Whigs to powder. The Democrats don't worry much over the few scattered Anti-Masonics, whose only aim is to convince America that the Freemasons intend to murder us all in our beds. Nor do they lose sleep over the Liberty Party, because as glad as New Yorkers are that slavery here was abolished entirely in1827, joining an entire political engine dedicated to the welfare of blacks is extremely unfashionable. What chafes Val's hide are the machinations of the Whigs: they're merchants and doctors and lawyers generally, most of the well-to-do and everyone with pretensions in that direction, gentlemen with clean hands who make a tremendous racket about raising tariffs and modernizing banks. The accepted Democratic response to Whig arguments is to praise the natural virtue of the peasant, and then to throw the ballot boxes coming from Whig districts into the Hudson.
The main difference between them isn't political, though, to my mind. As I grasp the matter, the Democrats would like every last taxpaying Irishman to vote for them, and the Whigs would like every last taxpaying Irishman to be deported to Canada.
It all repulses me. I'll own that my brother lives pretty comfortably, though. And for a man who always neglects the top two buttons of his fireman's shirt and thinks of morphine the way most people think of tonic water, he's laughably clean in domestic habits. He sweeps the floor every morning and polishes his andirons with rum every other month.
“Thirsty? Water, rum, gin, or small beer?” My brother went to rummage in the kitchen and deposited two mugs on the table next to me when he returned. “Here, have your pick of the first pair. Would you believe that thirty-eight Broad Street, apart from the saltpeter, had its basement stuffed with French cream? Barrel after barrel of brandy, Tim. Worst streak of luck I've ever seen . . .”
As he continued, I squinted, focusing my vision. Val wore a halfhearted attempt at his typical Bowery Boy glory, sporting a fine white shirt and black trousers with a silk waistcoat covered in peonies only half done up. Clean and healthy, but clearly exhausted. My brother is the living spit of me on a thirty-percent-larger scale, with a boyish, dimpled face, dark blond hair with a deep peak at the brow, and pensive bags under his bright green eyes. They aren't much to do with deep thinking on either one of us, though. Particularly not Val. No, Val is more the type to stagger out of a bawdy house having just knifed someone, with an adoring moll under each gnarled arm, lush with gin and laughing like the bass clef of a pipe organ, the very living definition of an American dead rabbit. When my brother laughs, he flinches, as if he shouldn't be laughing. And he shouldn't. A darker-minded gentleman never stalked the festering city streets in brushed black tails.
“It was a sight, Tim,” Val concluded with a one-sided grin. “And the light-fingered sort at work within seconds. Damned if I didn't spot a clever old toast of seventy years who'd hooked so many cigars he had to carry 'em in his togs. Tied the canvas of his trousers with two strings at the ankle and filled on up.”
That was when I realized what was wrong, apart from actual injuries: I was up to my eyebrows with laudanum. My brother had dosed me so high after the doctor (so I hoped) departed that the image of a man's trousers overflowing with cigars seemed pretty nightmarish. Valentine is careful about how much vinegar goes in his fish gravy, and careful about boiling the milk for his coffee, but a man with so many drugs in his veins is apt to miscalculate opiates. Meanwhile, a mysterious pain gnawed at the side of my head with burning reptile fangs. I wanted to feel it. Identify it, maybe.
“Never mind cigars. How did I get here?” I asked with a thick tongue.
“I found you on the Battery in a fortress of Holy Writ. One of the fire-boys had spied you keeping company with the Bible Society, flat on your back with all your lights out--I told you to find a sawbones, you incarnate tit--but of course, any Party man would know you for my brother, and they sent me word straightaway. These autum-bawlers were standing guard over your lifeless hide and their one thousand, two hundred and sixty-one Bibles salvaged from Nassau Street.”
Autum-bawlers. Churchmen, then. I had a vision of three fellows in drab clerical tweeds outlined against the murky starlight. Arguing over the safety of leaving one man behind with me and the stacks of Bibles, sending two to fetch parts of their press. Then one had suggested fetching a doctor instead, and the others told him not to be ridiculous. God would give me strength provided they saw that His presses remained unscathed. I hadn't been in a position to argue at the time.
“When I arrived, they handed you over,” Val continued casually, picking an errant piece of tobacco off his tongue. “You have two nasty bruised ribs and . . . well, nothing else that'll keep you down long.”
“Sorry you missed any of the fire.”
“Anyway, I've set us both up easy,” Val announced, as if getting back to a topic we'd accidentally left behind. “We've both a new occupation, my Tim. One you'll take to like a bird to air.”
I wasn't minding him.
I was fiddling with my fingertips at the oily cotton wool bandaging over the upper right-hand quadrant of my face. My eye was fine, I knew, for I could see clear as church glass, though the drugs glossed everything. And by Val's own account, it was miraculous that the worst of my injuries had been a couple of bruised ribs. So I couldn't have been brained too badly. Could I?
I kept hearing my brother's words, though, bitten out regretful but hasty as he'd turned away to pull people out of disintegrating row houses. He'd sounded dry as sandpaper. A voice I'd not heard in years. And so, picturing myself suddenly made my blood run slick and slippery as an eel.
You're hurt worse than you think, Tim.
“I don't want your setups. To run for state senate or work as a hydrant inspector,” I grated out, ignoring my own thoughts.
“It's plumper than oyster pie, I'm telling you.” Standing, Valentine began doing up buttons, leaving the wet cigar end at the side of his expressive mouth. “Got us both appointments only this morning, through the Party. Course, mine is . . . a bit higher up. And in this district. You, I only managed to post in the Sixth Ward. You'll have to live there, find a new ken, since roundsmen are required to live in the same ward they patrol. But that's no matter. Your house is getting hosed off into the river by now.”
“Whatever it is, no.”
“Don't get so peppery, Timothy. There's to be a police force.”
“Everyone knows that. Anyhow, I saw your poster. It didn't endear them to me.”
Despite my misgivings or maybe because of them, the police saga had been the first political tale I'd closely followed in years. Harmless citizens were shrieking for a system of constables, and less harmless patriots were bellowing that the freemen of New York would never stomach a standing army. Legislation passed in June, a Democrat victory, and the harmless citizens had won out at long last thanks to tireless thugs like my brother--men who liked danger, power, and bribes in equal measure.
“You'll come round soon enough, now you're a policeman yourself.”
“Ha!” I barked bitterly, sending a twinge of suffering through my pate. “I call that nice. You want me trussed up in a blue strait-waistcoat for the real men to throw rotten eggs at?”
Valentine snorted and somehow managed to make me feel even smaller than I normally do in his company. No easy trick. But he's an expert.
“You think a free republican like me would be caught walking around in blue livery? Dry up, Tim. We've a real police now, no uniforms, and with George Washington Matsell himself at the head. For good, they're claiming.”
I blinked blearily. Justice Matsell, the equally infamous and obese civic figure I'd seen in the thick of the fire, shooing gawkers toward the oasis of the courthouse. I'd also heard from diverse sources that he was a degraded lump of blubber, that he was the righteous hand of God come to bring order to the streets, that he was a power-hungry troll, that he was a benign philosopher who'd owned a bookstore selling the sordid works of Robert Dale Owen and Thomas Paine, and that he was a damned dirty Englishman. I'd nodded at all accounts as if their gospel verity was unassailable. Mainly because I didn't give a damn. What did I know about governance, after all?
As for joining the new police force, that was clearly a plot of Val's to make me look ridiculous.
“I don't need your help,” I declared.
“No,” Valentine sneered, snapping one of his braces.
With considerable calculation, I sat up in his bed. The room reeled around me as if I were a maypole, and a hot molten flash branded my temple.
Nothing is as bad as it seems, I thought with the last remnants of my dense optimism. It couldn't be. I'd already lost everything once, I'd been ten, and so had countless other people I knew, and they all picked up and kept going. Or they picked up and went in a slightly different direction.
“I'll go back to bartending,” I decided.
“You have any notion of how many people are out of work this morning?”
“At a hotel or another of the better oyster cellars.”
“How does your face feel, Tim?” Valentine snapped.
Sulfur drifted through the air now. A hot and grainy sort of rage tugged at my throat.
“Like it was slapped with a laundry iron,” I answered.
“And you're supposing it looks sprucer than it feels?” he mocked me more quietly. “You're in difficulties, little Timothy. You took a dose of hot oil where it'll be noticed. You want to tend bar from behind a three-foot pine plank up the arse end of a vegetable grocery, I'll drink to your fortune. But you're likelier to be hired on at Barnum's American Museum as the Man Who Lost Part of His Physog than you are to tend bar at a hotel.”
I bit the end of my tongue hard, tasting gunmetal.
I wasn't thinking any longer about ways to earn money so I wouldn't have to eat Valentine's goddamned chicken fricassee. My brother can cook as well as he cleans. I wasn't even figuring the odds of my being able to stand up long enough to punch him in the jaw.
No, I was ruminating, it seems that two days back you had a pile of silver and a whole face.
I wanted Mercy Underhill like I wanted to breathe air, and then in the same heartbeat hoped she'd never see me again. Mercy could have her pick. And I'd gone from being a man with a great many things in his favor to another sort: a highly disreputable fellow whose sole possessions were a scar I couldn't imagine seeing for myself without my neck flushing clammy, and an equally disgraceful brother who earned his bread giving concussions to somber swallowtailed Whigs.
“I hate you,” I said with very careful clarity to Valentine.
That was comforting, like bad whiskey burning my throat. Bitter and familiar.
“Then take the sodding job, so you don't have to sleep in my ken,” he suggested.
Valentine dragged his fingers through his tawny hair, ambling over to his desk to pour himself a measure of rum. Completely, entirely unmoved, which so happens to be the most infuriating thing about my infuriating older brother. If he cares a rotten fig that I hate him, I wish to Christ he'd be more visible about it.
“The Sixth Ward is hell's privy pit,” I pointed out.
“August first.” Valentine drained his spirits and then adjusted his braces with a second snap of impatience. His green eyes raked over me as he went for his beautifully shining black coat. “You have ten days to find a ken in the Sixth Ward. If you were political, I could've done better, settle you here in the Eighth, but you aren't, are you?”
He raised his brows while I attempted to look properly defiant about my political shortcomings. But it hurt my head, so I relaxed against the pillows again.
“It's five hundred dollars a year, plus whatever you can make by way of rewards or letting the flusher rabbits you nab grease you. Or you can always foist off the brothels. I don't give a damn.”
“No,” I agreed.
“Like I said, I arranged it all with Matsell. You and I both start August first. I'm to be a captain,” he added with more than a touch of brag. “A respected metropolitan figure, and making steady chink at it, too, and plenty of time left for fighting fires with the lads. What do you think of that?”
“I think I'll see you in hell.”
“Well, that's true enough,” Valentine shot back with a smile that would have looked cold on an undertaker. “You'll be living there, after all.”
The next morning, when I was sober enough to see straight, I awoke to my brother snoring on a flat pallet before his fireplace, smelling vividly of absinthe, and a copy of the Herald set out for me on the side table next to the bed. Val could read a lawyer's own brief and then argue him into an early grave if he liked, but he's better used to making news than mulling over it in print. So I knew the paper was mine. And here is what I read, after gasping my way through a burn so fierce that I thought my face must surely have been newly afire:
EXTRA New York Herald, THREE O'CLOCK P.M.: TERRIBLE CONFLAGRATION: The greatest, the most terrible fire that has occurred in this city since the great conflagration of December 1835 has spread destruction throughout the lower part of the city. Three hundred buildings, according to the best calculation, have been burned to the ground. . . .
My eyes faltered, not wanting to follow any further.
It is a close estimate to set the loss at from five to six millions of dollars . . .
Now, there was a fact I already knew instinctively, couldn't fail to have grasped despite my sorry physical state. A great deal of money had gone up in smoke over the Hudson. That was apparent. It wasn't dollars or buildings that plagued my unconscious brother, though, tracing a line between his brows though he must still have been drunk as a lord. Val's single redeeming quality consists of his method for calculating fire losses. And the code is stamped deep in his ribs, somewhere gripping and permanent. Thus I felt a hurt greater than my own real wounds, a raw and sympathetic sensation, when I read:
It is supposed that many lives have been lost by the terrible explosion.
The number, thank Christ, was thirty when all was said and done--a low figure of fatalities when the unholy chaos was considered.
But it wasn't low enough for Valentine. Nor for me. Not by a long mile.