FROM ACROSS THE ROOM

Prologue

From the Desk of Henry James – October 21, 1881

To write well you must understand we all work in the dark. Doubt may either fuel your enthusiasm or block your way, but true passion is not something you can turn on and off. As a doctor listens to a heartbeat not with his ears but his soul, for you to become a writer you must live within your work. Think of each pen stroke as the advancement of your cause and do not waste paper on merely cataloging facts. Explore, relish, surprise, and delight in the words so someday your readers can do the same. The novelist faces many unknowns, so remember this—the novel exists to represent life.

Summer 1888

June 6, 1888.

DEAR AVERY —

In another age my kind was near extinction, killed in battle while struggling to put on chainmail. Today a writer can travel to a seaside resort, slouch on a padded lounge, and appraise your furious letter in comfort. Rest assured I am toiling away on the book, but as a matter of principle, I must refute your accusation I am again irresponsible. Again? You know my pages were delayed last time due to a simple miscalculation. According to my lunar calendar, I was a month early. Nevertheless, this time my delay in sending the promised chapters was unavoidable and shows a depth of character you might also find hard to believe.

Are you at least curious why I journeyed all the way to the Hotel Del Coronado to find my muse? A hotel is the ideal setting. The onslaught of fresh arrivals provides constant fodder while the locale ensures variety. True, high season calls for stamina; writing requires such keen skills of observation. Though some are born with this gift, the rest of us must learn the nuances of peering and loitering while enduring the occasional knock on the head with a beaded evening bag. You see what I must suffer for your greatness and the publisher’s profits?

Before you fling your spectacles and run your thick fingers through your thin hair, I am not in the least trying to be flippant. I am well aware that, as my agent, your income is based on my hard work, and losing Harper & Brothers Publishing is a distasteful consequence we both wish to avoid. My career is dependent on the publisher and their dotted line so let me explain my tardiness with enough background and detail to appease, nay impress, our good friends at Harpers.

Though the hotel offers many diversions, I abstained from the temptation of billiards and chess and set out my writing supplies even before unpacking. You see, Avery, right to work. Looking for inspiration, I even arranged a city tour. After a turn through the respectable streets of San Diego, a few extra coins persuaded my hackney driver to take me to the Stingaree District. In contrast to the luxury of the hotel, this area is described only in whispers and my intent was a quick survey to jot down scenery notes.

San Diego was built around the Mission Basilica and remnants of Spanish settlements. Along with drab wooden storefronts, much of the city proper is laden with handmade signs advertising clean office space and cheap irrigation supplies. It seems San Diego has stalled for need of water and respectable industry. Of course men always find ways to occupy their time. I just wonder what Father Serra would think if he saw what goes on just around the corner from his mission.

Trainloads of high-flying men in shirtsleeves blanketed walkways lit more by cigars than the dirty lamps, and powdered chippies in purple corsets were draped over balconies like flags on Decoration Day. I stepped over men gambling and passing jugs of Tarantula Juice right on the street corners, then a pitch-man with a greasy complexion slapped a pot of milky cream in my hand and said, “For the French Pox.” Before I could react, a harlot with ruby cheeks and a vacant stare offered me a way to need the jar of ointment.

Unrecognizable music blared from every direction, and my disgust at the scene was almost bested by the smell. The stench from the chickens, horses, and opium dens (their curtains parted to calloused deputies) was so thick not even the sea breeze could carry it away.

The district is small, so with the end in sight, I turned to go back, when all of sudden I was shoved and fell right into a stack of hay. The landing was soft but my surprise meant I also got a literal taste of the area. As I spit out sprigs and brushed bits from my waistcoat, I spotted my assailant: a woman running down the walkway with fistfuls of her skirt hiked up to her knees. She was chasing a man.

In truth, what caught my attention was the lady’s bloomers. Shenanigans are expected in such an area, but I could tell by the pastel brocade lace that the owner was not one of the regulars. I watched as the woman pursued the fleeing man around a corner. When I then heard her scream, I sprung into action like a mother cheetah.

To avoid the crowded walkway, I darted around a hitching post and hurled myself into the street. Just as my feet hit the dirt, a chuck wagon swerved and I scrambled back into my haystack. Ignoring the driver’s profanity, I regained my balance and charged down the center of the road, leaving a feed trail.

My pulse quickened until I no longer heard the awful music. As I ran toward the scream, my jacket caught on a piece of wood jutting from one of the buildings. I spun with the grace of a discus Olympian and slipped free in one fluid motion. A few more steps and I rounded the corner. My pounding heart seized as I skidded to a stop.

The woman stood ten feet down the dim alley with her hands raised over her head. Her back was to me, but at the sound of my entrance she turned to glance over her shoulder. I smiled. It was her.

The young lady and I, shall we say, met at the hotel’s newcomers gala. If repeated I shall deny this account, but because I respect your usual good humor I admit colliding into the stunned woman while examining the ballroom’s ceiling. The Crown Room is topped with a marvelous hand-fitted arch made of imported sugar pine, and I was captivated by the elaborate carvings. The young lady, however, was startled and I was indeed thankful for my tanned cheeks. After apologies I hoped she would consider a dance, but she slipped into the crowd before I could ask. You can imagine my surprise to find myself staring at her across a foul alleyway.

She fixed her eyes on mine. “This young man,” she said, nodding toward her assailant, her arms still raised over her head, “was just telling me that his sister is very ill and he needs money for medicine.” Then she addressed the young man. “You said your name is George, isn’t that right?” He gave a slight nod. “Well, I’m sorry, George, there’s no money in my handbag.” Her voice was refined and tranquil. If not for the sound of scurrying rodents and the smell of trash, she might have been at a society luncheon.

My eyes adjusted, and I saw George was a slight boy of no more than fifteen. A pistol quivered in his hand and sweat trickled along his hairline.

The lad was scared, not stupid. If the handbag was empty, he wanted to know why she had chased him. I too wanted an answer to that question, but when he snarled and waved the gun I chimed in, “Ladies are very particular about their handbags. She likely has a container of rouge she can’t part with.”

The woman ignored my comment and explained she always carried a special hair comb from her sister and hated to lose it. “It’s not worth anything but has great sentimental value. When I was a little girl, my sister and I would look through our mother’s dressing table while she was out. We tried on her hair pins and gloves and pretended we were debutantes. Well, one night …”

George was mesmerized. As she continued with her story I inched toward the pistol.

I found the woman’s voice inviting so I risked sneaking a glance at her. She was dressed for a daytime outing in a starched white ruffled shirt over a full navy skirt. A thick belt accented her narrow waist and her chestnut hair was piled under a curved-brimmed hat she wore tilted forward.

“So I understand not wanting to lose someone you love, George. Please let us help you,” she ended.

His arm went slack. I surged forward, grabbed the muzzle of the gun, and pulled it from his hand. Tears slid down the boy’s cheeks as he took what I offered from my billfold then returned the stolen handbag. Before we could ask any more questions, he rushed from the alley with his head lowered.

Expecting the delicate beauty to swoon and collapse in my arms, I steadied myself. Instead she turned to me with her hands planted on her hips and said, “Rouge? You think a woman would chase a bandit for a tin of rouge?”

In my shock I stammered, “I … don’t know. I … didn’t think a woman would chase a bandit.”

She raised her hand to cover a devious smile. “I’m not sure why I did it. There isn’t any money in there, or a hair comb for that matter. It was just instinct.”

Though a bit stunned and more than a bit intrigued, I removed my Derby. “Thomas Gadwell. It’s very nice to meet you.”

She curtsied as if we were back at the grand ballroom. “I’m Mary Harting,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to match a name with the shoe print on my gown.” When I began to apologize again, she waved her hands and tilted her head back so I could see her light-blue eyes under the slant of her hat. She accented the playfulness in her voice with a wide grin. “I believe now we’re even, though you were right in the middle of the walkway when I nudged you.”

“And you had a bandit to catch. I completely understand.”

We chuckled until shouting from the street drew our attention and we decided it safer to relocate. Before escorting Miss Harting from the scene, I unloaded the pistol, slid the gun into my overcoat pocket, and threw the bullets down the alley. As we emerged, I realized no one had responded to her scream. The gambling and frolic continued as if nothing had happened. I also noticed my companion was still grinning.

She accepted my arm as we made our way among blustering drunks and “steerers” paid to lure patrons. Miss Harting tried to stroll with an air of ease but soon she was like a sightseer at the zoo. She stopped in front of an overfilled chophouse and gaped at men using shards of broken glass as darts. When a fiddler passed by, plucking two strings and belting a song heard only in public baths, her eyes followed him until she turned in a full circle.

“It’s like something in a dime novel. I thought everyone was exaggerating,” she said.

“Unfortunately …” I let the sentiment speak for itself and asked the question pressing at my lips.

She explained a simple curiosity about the area and saw no impropriety in a short visit, especially since her parents were occupied for the evening. And, she said, if gentlemen, such as me, were allowed to travel unaccompanied she felt it fair to be granted the same privilege. “Do you agree, Mr. Gadwell?” She peered at me with raised eyebrows. “Or are you among those who believe women faint from reading newspaper headlines and medical journals.”

I laughed. “I thought dashing young men caused woman to faint.”

“I’ll let you in on a little secret, Mr. Gadwell. Fainting is a great way to escape dashing young men.” She had a relaxed, genuine manner I found refreshing.

“So, Miss Harting,” I began, when I made the connection. “Harting? As in the railroad?”

Her shoulders tensed but she spoke with refined gentleness as she admitted her father was Charlton Harting of Harting Railways. “I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors about his temper. Lies and gross exaggerations. My father’s been a bit irritable this trip, but normally he’s wonderful and caring.”

A chill ran down my spine. As you know, not all of the rumors about Charlton Harting are about his temper.

I wanted to change the subject when a thought left me numb. “What would your father say if he knew you were here?”

“My father,” she mumbled.

“Yes, your father. I can only imagine —”

“No, my father …” Miss Harting pointed to a round man in a velvet-trimmed frock coat and top hat. He was charging toward us on the other side of the street, the tails of his coat flapping in his own wake.

Miss Harting froze so I seized her hand and pulled her through an open doorway. The sound of clanging bottles and a tuneless piano filled my ears and I knew where we were even before she whispered, “Unbelievable.”

The hot saloon smelled of sour ale and unshaven men. Our entrance met with a few raised heads, but the men seemed more interested in their drinks. We dashed across the tavern to the table farthest from the door and sunk into chairs tucked in the shadowed corner.

“What in the world is my father doing here? He doesn’t frequent places like this.” She paused then asked, “Does he?”

I was about to offer my ignorance when Mr. Harting stepped into the saloon. Miss Harting gasped.

Mr. Harting marched to a table near the bar and sat across from a man in a straw boater and a russet knee-length cloak. They exchanged a brief greeting before Mr. Harting pulled an envelope from his jacket and set it in the center of the table. A waiter approached but Mr. Harting waved him away without a glance. The men sat staring at each other. Even from our distance the intensity made me uncomfortable.

At last the man in the cloak reached for the envelope, looked inside, and then nodded before sliding the envelope into a satchel beside him on the floor. Both men rose and the stranger held out his hand. Instead of a handshake, Mr. Harting lunged forward, grabbed the man’s collar and yanked him across the table until his face was but inches from his own. Sweat beaded at each man’s temple, but only Mr. Harting’s brow twitched with anger.

We were too far away to hear anything, but it was obvious whatever was said was most vital. The man’s straw hat wobbled like a stereoscope viewer until Mr. Harting released him with a shove and the man fell backward. To his credit, the stranger adjusted his lapel before retaking his seat. Mr. Harting straightened his own jacket and appeared ready to leave when he paused and turned in our direction.

My companion pressed against the wall and clenched her fingers as if to pray. This is not to say I stayed relaxed. A whiskey might have helped. Whatever caught his attention was fleeting, and Mr. Harting left without looking back.

Wanting to sound gallant, I assured her we were not seen. As she slumped forward on the table, the other man stood up, swung the satchel on his arm, and left. Miss Harting agreed to my suggestion we get back to the hotel; however, she wanted to know if I recognized the man. I did not, but suggested he looked like a business acquaintance.

“I don’t think so. Father’s workmen are thick from years of swinging spike drivers, and the desk men are usually scrawny. My father likes to be the biggest one in the office. He says small men are easier to control.”

There was no time for a response even if I had one. Three dancing girls emerged from behind a crimson velvet curtain. I scrambled to my feet to block Miss Harting’s view then offered her my arm. As we moved to leave, however, a tall chap in a dark overcoat stepped in front of us. For a moment I thought Mr. Harting had indeed spotted us. I straightened. Then I saw the rifle.

“Seems like you two have lost your way.”

I reached for the gun in my pocket, but Miss Harting put her hand on my arm. “Thank you, Sheriff, we were just leaving.”

I sighed when I saw his badge. The sheriff tipped his hat to the lady. As I passed he growled, “You’re a lucky ninny.”

“You have no idea,” I replied. I pulled out the pistol by the muzzle and dropped it on the table.

After checking the street for fathers, we found our way out of the quarter and hailed a coach. We were silent, though qualms over what a powerful man would hand-deliver in a tawdry saloon bobbled around us in the rocking carriage. To change the mood, I praised her bravery and compassion. She again surprised me.

“I’ve seen desperate conditions, Mr. Gadwell, I assure you. And I’ve witnessed my share of injustice and cruelty. But tonight, the lust and greed, it was somehow more tragic. Why do we bother with the appearances of morality? Why all the bowing and draping shawls over our shoulders in the horrible heat when men behave like that? I understand poverty. I know why people like George are forced into bad situations, but most of those men tonight were wealthy gentlemen. Did you notice all the gold studs? My father was even carrying his diamond pocket watch.”

Under difference circumstances the ride might have been a bit romantic; her petite shoulder just touching mine. Instead my thoughts were on the enormity of sitting beside the daughter of Charlton Harting.

When we reached the hotel, I escorted my damsel in distress through the quiet lobby to the main staircase. She thanked me for an unforgettable evening and repaid my bravery by allowing me to call her Mary. Then she leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “By the by, I saw the dancing girls.” She winked and disappeared up the staircase leaving me with my mouth flopped open.

So you see, Avery, I was called to arms. What else could be done? Harper & Brothers will understand chivalry must be proven, and it may be argued such acts are the linchpin to a good story. Needless to say, once this letter is sealed I shall fill my inkwell and get back to work. Unlike the time I had a hankering for pickled turnips and wound up trapped in the root cellar, nothing will keep me from finishing this book. Of course, you must concede that after such an ordeal, Miss Harting shall need some measure of soothing. But how long can that take.

Your humble servant,

Thomas

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