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 at a touchstone at Nick's Oyster Cellar that night, a lightning-bright lucky charm. All my pale glorified card sharps, all the faro champagne-morphine-and-what-else-have-you addicts, the freaks who haunt the Exchange and make deals with damp handshakes in the back rooms of coffee houses - they all saw kismet on me and wanted a taste of it. A drink from Timothy Wilde was as good as a slap on the back from an Astor.
"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 cock-pit 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 coffee houses 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.
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