"As if there werent enough of these people already," said a woman in a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowds of steerage passengers from earlier ships. Her husband winced and nodded. Theyd just spent the season in London. Before the war, they had traveled first class and never had to set foot in Castle Garden, but most of her money was Southernwhich was to say diminished since the War Between the Statesand theyd been forced to make concessions.
Beatrice shed her hat, let down the braids that had been twisted under it and adjusted her posture and face in subtle ways that stripped her of nearly a decade in a handful of seconds: She was suddenly quite a little girl. The second-class couple emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of "Ah, New York, so good to be home!" At the curb, while the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his lady up onto the tufted leather carriage bench, Beatrice pressed forward. With her hand outstretched, she said, "Welcome to America, sir, miss! Have you anything extra to help me and my ailing mother?"
The couple looked awayhe to the side, his wife to him. That was the trick, of course: to force them to look away.
Beatrices fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent. Watches were her specialty, but this time she focused on the lady, who wore a pin on her lapel that reminded Beatrice of her mothers long-gone gold-rimmed brooch. She wasnt sure how good it was, how much it would bring, so she also grabbed the silk and suede wallet that protruded from the gentlewomans muff, which turned out to be bulging at the seams, though some of the currency was foreign. Then Beatrice was gone, and the couple was grateful. The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness. The wheels ground forward. They were halfway home before they realized what theyd lost, at which point Beatrice was just pushing through the swinging doors of Marm Mandelbaums pawnshop, wondering what price shed have to accept on the brooch in exchange for the old shrews discretion.
Asleep in the dark, with his limbs tucked up against his belly for warmth, he had made himself small, just a fetal lump in the middle of his narrow pallet. His blankets were topped by his overcoat, and hed tucked the whole pile tightly around himself to keep it from sliding off into the night. The floor of the tack room had been strewn with hay, the wall by the bed decorated with a couple of nails from which, on warmer nights, he might have hung his clothes. The horseshoe propped upright on a crossbeam above his head was a relic of a previous tenants superstitions. There was little in that room to suggest who he was, this stableman, except perhaps the worn cashmere and shredded silk lining of his coatit had been a fine garment, once. And on the narrow shelf made by another beam, a bowie knife and a few whittled figurines: a bear, a gorilla and a strange hybrid creature, like a griffin, but of his own imagining, composed of assorted parts of the exotic creatures he cared for.
It was no ordinary stable where he worked. The horse stalls were inhabited not by hacks but by dancing white Arabians, and there were no cows at all, but an orangutan, a giraffe, a python, a tiger. He had never expected this land of dreams to be quite so dreamlike, so uncanny. The job he had landed through the Labor Exchange was certainly not what hed imagined doing in America when hed left home. What he wanted to do was build cathedrals or, barring such glory, churches, houses, even roads. That was his training and, what with the constant stream of immigration to New York, hed been sure there would be work for a man with experience in the building trades. It hadnt been so easy, though. So there he was at P. T. Barnums American Museum, shoveling dung and hay and whiling away his few bits of spare time carving figures from odd chunks of wood he found lying about.
Excerpted from Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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