Savage Girl: A Novel

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9780143126928: Savage Girl: A Novel

“An over-the-top romp through 1870s America . . . compulsively readable.” —Oprah.com

Jean Zimmerman’s spectacular follow-up to The Orphanmaster has it all: Gilded Age romance, robber baron excess, detective story suspense, and a compelling female protagonist whom readers will fall in love with.

In 1875, the Delegates, an outlandishly wealthy Manhattan couple on a tour of the American West, seek out a sideshow attraction called “Savage Girl.” Her handlers avow that the wild, seemingly mute Bronwyn has been raised by wolves. Presented with the perfect blank slate to explore the power of civilized nurture, the Delegates take her back east to be introduced into high society. Cleaned up, Bronwyn is blazingly smart and darkly beautiful; as she takes steps toward her grand debut, a series of suitors find her irresistible—and begin to turn up murdered.

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About the Author:

JEAN ZIMMERMAN is the author of The Orphanmaster and numerous works of nonfiction, including Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance. She lives in Westchester County, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Jean Zimmerman

Prologue

Manhattan. May 19, 1876

I wait for the police in the study overlooking Gramercy Park, the body prone on the floor a few feet away. Outside, rain has cooled the green spring evening. In here the heat is stifling.

Midnight. I’ve been in this room before, many times in the course of my twenty-two years. The Turkish rug on the floor, the Empire chairs, the shelves of uncracked books, all familiar to me. A massive mahogany partners desk, from England, in the William IV style, installed as proof of the late victim’s diligence, a rich boy’s insistence that he is, after all, engaged in honest work.

Of the dead man, a schoolmate of mine, I feature two possibilities. She killed him, in which case they will surely hang her. Either that or I killed him, in a fit of madness the specifics of which I have no memory.

This last is not as unlikely as it sounds. I have taken the rest cure for neurasthenia several times and every so often suffer faints, waking to find a small swath of my life gone. Peculiarities of the recent past, a series of strange incidents and dark coincidences, force me at least to entertain the idea that I am a monster.

The fact that in recent months I developed a passionate hatred for the dead man increases the possibility of my involvement in his demise.

On the other hand, if she is indeed the murderer, I can prevent her day of reckoning only by taking the burden of guilt upon myself.

So you see, either way, if I must assume her guilt or confess my own, it works out much the same, demanding identical action on my part. My path is clear. I need to be caught red-handed. I have to wait in this room until discovery, alarm, arrest.

I summon up the mental image of a stern-faced detective with a fat, unkempt mustache. Mr. Hugo Delegate—for that is my name—you must accompany us to the Tombs. Will he place me in restraints? Will it be that bad?

But they will come, rest assured. There are numerous lawmen who would be highly interested in what has occurred on Gramercy Park this evening. From where I sit, I can almost sense them drawing near, having journeyed from all over the country—from Nevada, from Chicago, from Massachusetts and New York—their disparate paths converging at a millionaire’s mansion off a private park in Manhattan.

Not only the constabulary either but the gentlemen of the press, rabid dogs all, will no doubt descend upon the scene of the crime. The pack will be in full howl. From my experience, newsmen are even more relentless than police, profit being superior to justice as a great motivator of human beings.

The witness is a participant, or so my mother once told me. I followed the girl murderess here to this house. It is never difficult to track her. She is oddly without guile, so possessed of a naïve faith that no one would suspect her of crime.

I feel . . . what do I feel? Paralyzed. A sense of impending doom hovers over me like psychosis. Another brief shower patters at the windows. I think of the gentle rain that droppeth in Shakespeare.

The body. My longtime acquaintance and sometime friend, Beverly Ralston Willets, twenty-four years old, or perhaps twenty-three— young anyway. His corpse, in a suit of brown serge.

He has been done as the others have been done. A slashing stab to the femoral artery in the groin, meaning exsanguination within two or three minutes. A blood pool the size of a bathtub stains the twill of the carpet. The killer mutilates the corpus after death.

I position myself so I do not have to directly confront the victim. Close up, death has an arrogant smell. Should I dab some of the gore on my hands, stain the seas scarlet, impress the detectives?

There are a couple of jeroboams of blood in the human body. Six quarts, more or less. This I know because in my classes at Harvard I pursue the study of medicine and practice as an anatomist. I dissect the dead, who do not bleed.

Could not my anatomical work serve as a reason for the authorities to suspect me of this killing? As well as for me to suspect myself?

The prosecutor, in court: Gentlemen of the jury, I submit that Hugo Delegate is a habitual plunderer of men.

I am alone. I am already dead. Perhaps she will murder me in this exact same manner. If not, I’ll almost certainly go away to spend the rest of my life behind bars.

The body emits a horrible, gaseous sigh, startling me out of my musings.

Cocking my right leg over my left, I sit, waiting for them to come. On my way here through the city, I got caught in a spring shower. I occupy my time watching the rain dry on the leather upper of my boot.

 

Then, later that night, the Tombs, south two miles from the murder scene, on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. The Halls of Justice. The majority of mortals rightly fear a trip to the prison; it is such a forbidding brick heap, a cold, ugly, heavy-pillared structure as gloomy as its nickname. Where the city’s criminal miscreants (that’s me) languish, and where justice languishes as well.

Not that I know it intimately, but I have been to the Tombs before, too, a couple of times, as an observer. The law grinds on, night and day, pulverizing its victims to dust while elevating others, attorneys and jurists, to heights of wealth and power.

For the Tombs is not just a prison but an all-in-one buttress of justice, with busy courts, jury rooms, clerkdoms, offices for judges and prosecutors, smoky hallways, and deal-making alcoves. A palace of diligence or, if you happen to be wearing police bracelets, a hive of evil.

The building rests upon the site of a former swamp, and it began sinking into the ground immediately upon being erected. Vapors rise continually from its foundations, resembling the fingers of demons, pulling all occupants, willing or not, toward the stinking pits of Lake Avernus.

As I did in the little Gramercy Park study, I wait, having been brought here, yes, in bracelets.

I delight to imagine my lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel, two lords of the Tombs, hurrying to my prison lair.

In the still of the night! At four a.m., the deserted hour, the hour that no one wants!

Such are the benefits of wealth. I am the son of Friedrich Delegate, nephew of Sonny Delegate, grandson of August Delegate, so lawyers hurry through the dark.

The surrounding neighborhood represents the foulest that Manhattan has to offer. The streets are deserted of all honest men at this time of night and the nearby financial district wholly abandoned of its scrivener ants and predatory beetles. In my mind’s eye, I see my attorneys, two figures, one tall and plump, one short and bony, proceed through empty streets.

At the portal of the prison, a uniformed officer of the city sleeps at his post. He wakes, alarmed, at the creak of the massive brass door. “Attorney Howe, sir! Attorney Hummel!” A common enough sight, these two, even in the wee hours, but somehow their arrival is forever unsettling.

Howe is resplendent in dozens of diamonds, which he wears even to bed. Hummel all in black like a crow, observing perpetual mourning, they say, for the death of his conscience.

Deeper and downward they come, closer to where I wait, into the prison’s fetid lower levels, the cramped cell block designated “Murderer’s Row” because it lodges killers. Finally to arrive at an end-of-the- line passageway.

Where I sit, calmly passive, on a rude pallet in a filthy cell, the confessed assassin.

Hugo, Mr. Howe says, wringing his hands and rushing to my side as if I were his dying mother. The man is always a shade histrionic. Abe Hummel a silent shadow beside the talkative Bill Howe.

Howe rails at the turnkey about my accommodations, the scandal of it, treating an eminent scion of Manhattan this way, it is totally outrageous, did he, the turnkey, know who I, meaning me, was, if he, Howe, and his esteemed partner in the law, Hummel, have anything to say about it, the turnkey will soon find himself transferred to outdoor duty at potter’s field on Blackwell’s Island, et cetera, et cetera.

So the three of us, myself and my attorneys, move to more comfortable quarters for our talk.

Upstairs, we pass through dark, echoing halls.

On the way they explain (Howe, that is; Hummel remains mum), that because I had been arrested on a Friday night, they will likely not be able to arrange my bail until Monday.

Three nights in the Tombs. Perhaps a sympathetic judge, and they know many, will see his way clear to hold a special arraignment hearing. If not, they will endeavor to make me as comfortable as they can. Stay by my side through thick and thin. It is best not to be caught in the commission of a crime on the weekend, Howe counsels me.

Four flights up, more empty hallways. A right turn into the offices of the director of the jail. Unoccupied. Howe and Hummel make us at home.

Say nothing to no one except us, Howe says, admonishing. But to us, Hugo, you must tell everything.

Hummel silent as a snake, as usual.

I don’t know where to begin, I say.

It is traditional, in these situations, Howe says, fluttering his hands expansively, to begin at the beginning.

I take a deep breath. There was a cabin in the wilderness of the Washoe, I say, where a headless body was discovered.

Another body, Howe says, a mournful expression on his face.

Yes.

Not the one discovered this night in Gramercy.

No. This is outside Virginia City, Nevada, in the Comstock.

We must interrupt you, Attorney Howe says, twisting his face in little moues of apology. At times I think he has taken Hummel on as partner only so that it might appear natural for him to speak in the royal “we.”

We must ask, Hugo. Did you yourself discover this alleged body?

Well, no, I say.

He asks, Then were you present when the discovery occurred?

Again I say no.

So we must stop you at the outset, Howe says, directing you, in your best interest, not to speculate, not to fabricate, not to re-create scenarios from whole cloth but to stick to the hard fact of what you yourself saw, heard, and experienced, and refrain from flying off half-way across the country to a cabin in the wilderness.

Yet that is where— I start to say, but Howe interrupts.

No, Hugo, no. We must insist. Only that of which you yourself have firsthand knowledge. The truth and only the truth. Out of that we, your duly engaged attorneys, will pick and choose.

I recall a directive of my father’s, coaching me in business practices. It is a good idea, he said, to tell your lawyers everything.

Why do I have to tell it at all? To these men who will never understand, who represent the wider world, that also will never understand?

I begin again, saying, In June of 1875, we made our way down Virginia City’s “A” Street . . .

 

 Part One In the Drone Cage

 

  1

 

In June of 1875, we made our way down Virginia City’s “A” Street, proceeding south from the center of town toward the mountains.

Inwardly I had to smile at the picture rendered by our little group. Two women, one earthly, one Celestial. My mother, Anna Maria Delegate, and her lady’s maid from China, Song Tu-Li.

My mother swaddled herself in vast amounts of white satin. Tu-Li wore the blue silk smock of her countrymen, hers rendered in rich brocade, so that at first you might mistake her for a peasant while on closer inspection you would conclude she was a princess.

Then, wandering behind milady and her maid, adding the zest of oddity, the berdache, the Zuni man-woman, Tahktoo. Anatomically male, garmented as a female, an indigene from the deserts of the Arizona Territory.

And me, along on this tour of the American West with my mother and my father, to be shown the family business and be removed from the unhealthy vapors of a New York City warm season. I had been in a sanatorium, down with a woeful bout of disturbed thoughts, restlessness and depression of spirits. Having barely seen the inside of Harvard Hall all spring, I wound up taking a leave from school.

The funny thing, the striking fact of the matter, was that amid the numberless crowds on “A” Street that afternoon, our company elicited not a wayward glance or comment. A Celestial, a man-woman, and two terrestrials, one of them a nutter. Few among the busy rabble noticed us.

In the High Sierra, a brisk, springlike Nevada summer. The crowded, unpaved thoroughfare rang with shouts of teamsters and the noisy leather-and-wood creak of their rigs, the snorting of mules, the excited bellow of commerce. Wide pedestrian walks ran along-side the street in both directions, packed shoulder to shoulder with people.

It astonished me that my mother and Tu-Li were the only women among the multitudes, the only ones on “A” Street, “B” Street or “C” Street either, the only ones in the whole of Virginia City (except, perhaps, those in the very specific red-lit neighborhood down on “D” Street).

Out and about in the mining town, sometimes it seemed that Anna Maria Delegate and her maid were the only females in the newly minted state of Nevada, for that matter the only ones on the whole planet.

My own private musing, of course. I knew that the governor himself had a wife somewhere. And there was “The Mencken,” a performer who strapped herself to the back of a horse in a nude body stocking and did tricks on the stage of Maguire’s Theater.

Still, the unbolted street hordes were entirely male. Prospectors slathered in dried muck. Drunks pickled in tarantula juice. Assorted dips, tossers and clips. Mountain men carrying their Navies on their belts, ready for a quarrel. Mexicans hawking corn flatcakes. Paiutes in rags and fringes. Potbellied nabobs in cutaways.

And Chinese laborers, universally called coolies or, more poetically, Celestials, since they hailed from the Celestial Kingdom.

Any farther from the States, locals said, and you’d fall into the Bay.

We were following Tu-Li to a spectacle of some sort, one that she had discovered but would not describe, keeping us in suspense.

“Where is it?” asked Anna Maria.

“Just ahead, madam,” Tu-Li said.

I have never called my mother “Mother” nor my father “Father” since I was a child. This was at their insistence. Mother was Anna or, more properly, Anna Maria. Father was “Freddy.”

We were “equals, equals!” Freddy informed me, over and over. My parents were much under the sway of Dr. Froebel and the other new child-raising experts. Freddy’s real name was Friedrich-August-Heinrich, too much of a mouthful for anybody.

“My God, what a place this is,” Anna Maria said.

Virginia City was most definitely a “my God” kind of place. Like a riot at a carnival. The north-south avenues in the town were so infernally busy that a buggy could wait a full half hour to cross them. New arrivals and Comstock veterans alike trotted along pushing wheelbarro...

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