It was December 10, 1903, when I boarded the Rio-Grande Western Railroad with Horace’s letter tucked neatly into the inside pocket of my petticoat, and his Christmas gift, a heart-shaped ruby brooch, fastened securely at my breast.
My dearest Eliza, the letter read, I have wonderful news! All my efforts have not been for naught. Last week while mining near Potosi Peak, we were rewarded when we struck a rich vein of silver! At long last, I am finally able to send for you so we may begin our lives together. We are to be very rich indeed! I have secured first-class passage for you to Telluride by railway—come at once! I should like to be married on Christmas Day, if at all possible. Lastly, I enclose an early Christmas gift—a heart for my heart. I do so hope you love it as much as I do you. Eternally yours, Horace.
I had never met Horace, and neither had my sister Eliza. They’d started corresponding by post the previous summer, having been introduced by one of Eliza’s professors at the University. The letters came regularly, once, twice, sometimes even three times in a week. Oh, how she went on and on—Horace this and Horace that! It was enough to turn even the strongest stomach.
Only the day prior, I found myself home earlier than usual and intercepted the mail before Eliza. The weight and bulk of this particular letter indicated it to be more than just paper and ink. My curiosity aroused, I was immediately holding it over a steaming kettle, loosening the seal. Once opened and read, a bee began to buzz in my bonnet. Why should Eliza be the one to marry well, to live a life of luxury and comfort, while I languished, left to a life of domestication and drudgery, my beauty fading away to nothing, the same fate that had befallen our mother?
According to our father, not only had I inherited my mother’s beauty—her porcelain skin, blue eyes, and rosebud lips—but also her predisposition to frivolity, folly, and all other such womanly ailments and shortcomings. Eliza, on the other hand, had inherited his head for numbers. She was his favorite, and they spent many an afternoon in his study, discussing politics, world events, and mathematical theories. She was the son he never had. With her close-set eyes, broad forehead and weak chin, she certainly looked the part.
By the time they found me out, it would be too late. The marriage would be consummated, and with any luck, I’d already be with child, if I wasn’t already. It’s true I’d had my pick of beaus, and I’d picked many, and often, the latest being one Georgie Whitmore, who’d promised a ring on my finger but never delivered. As of late, my dresses had begun to tighten about the mid-section, and I feared it only a matter of time before a little Whitmore would make its presence known.
I pocketed the letter and the brooch, and sat down to pen my first letter.
My dearest Horace, please forgive my penmanship as my hand trembles so with excitement, I can barely keep it still enough to get the words on the page. I will pack my belongings henceforth and leave straight away. You can expect my arrival in two weeks. Yours truly, Eliza.
The next letter I wrote was from Horace to Eliza, his handwriting being not as difficult to duplicate as it was quite womanly, full of flourishes, loops, curlicues, and the like.
Dearest Eliza, I regretfully inform you of my decision to marry another woman. I realized I could not spend the rest of my life looking upon such an uncomely visage as the one you possess, and I did not want a brood of possum-faced nippers running around. I found someone who is more pleasing to the eye than to the intellect. Do not contact me; I will not be changing my mind. P.S.—I hear that no-count Georgie Whitworth is available. No-longer-yours, Horace.
When I boarded the train the next morning, none was the wiser.
I lingered at the bar near the dining car, just out of view, sipping my Kentucky Straight, waiting for the sign from the Girl. Two hours had come and went, but still her hat remained perched on her head as if it had all the time in the world. I was vexed she was taking so long, but this was not unusual for her. She took her time, but she always got it right, unlike the others before her, who often got it wrong.
The Girl, and I called them all that—not because I couldn’t remember their names—well, maybe I couldn’t. They all looked the same: small, birdlike, and bony with big, sorrowful eyes that followed you everywhere you went. The main reason I called them Girl, even to their faces, was that it made the doing of what had to be done later … well, easier.
This particular Girl I found just outside of Tallahassee, painting portraits on the back of playing cards, charging a quarter each. She called them portraits miniatures, said the words with a French accent—oooh fancy—as if they were something other than what they really were, just another skin game. Her Pa had died, she’d said … blah blah blah. I’d heard it a thousand times before from every other girl that come before her. If there was a dead father in the picture, they were ripe for the picking, falling outta the trees almost.
I used this Girl same as the others. First, I’d spot the mark, then the Girl would lure them in, vouch for my trustworthiness, my upstanding nature. Next, I’d find out what ailed them. Something always ailed them, and whatever it was, I had just the fix. Any one of my magic elixirs, extracts, or cure-all tonics would do the trick. And the trick was, all the potions were the same: a tincture made from colloidal silver and laudanum. Whatever I’d sell them, and they always bought, would (usually) be enough to knock them out for the night. Then the Girl would go in and rifle their belongings unnoticed, taking whatever valuables could be found.
Then there was a second use for the Girl. I would get her started on the tonic straightaway. She, too, had ailments, didn’t she? Who didn’t? Once hooked, she’d do whatever I wanted. The wealthy gentlemen on board, the ones who wouldn’t dream of stepping foot into a brothel, had no problem paying a pretty penny for a quick tussle in a private compartment while the Missus was otherwise occupied. And at last, when the Girl had outlived her usefulness, and she always did, I would sell her to the closest cathouse. Then wait patiently for the next one to fall from a tree.
This particular Girl had proved her usefulness beyond the usual. It was her idea to do the before and after photographs. We’d buy them from a local photographer. They were no one we knew, just random folk, the uglier and worse off the better. Then the Girl would “fix” the photographs, with her painting skills. One poor fella, a large portly man with a goiter hanging off his neck, dead in the eyes, and balding; in the after photo, not only was the goiter gone, but he’d have miraculously lost 30 pounds, his complexion cleared, grown both a full head of hair and a renewed sex drive (you could tell the latter by the slight smile on his face that had not been there before). Since we’d incorporated the before and after photos, my sales had quadrupled.
One problem, though, thus far. This Girl had refused to partake of the tonic. Said it interfered with her painting, But I wasn’t too concerned since I now had the contraptions to consider.
Potions were a thing of the past, contraptions were the way of the future. But not just any old kind of contraption. The electrified kind. The Manipulator and the Health Jolting Chair had been around for years, but the new electrified versions, now they were something! They plugged directly into a lamp socket and gave a stimulating, electrical vibration while using them. All I needed was a wealthy investor or two, and I wouldn’t even need the potions anymore.
In Oklahoma City, the demonstration of the chair had not gone as planned due to some faulty wiring, but that was all fixed now. And with any luck, tonight’s demonstration in the dining car would be just the ticket to secure the funds I needed. After that, I’d have no use for the Girl; she could go back to her street corner and paint portraits on playing cards.
I was so caught up in my reverie I hadn’t noticed the Girl was giving the sign; the hat had finally come off and she was waving it impatiently in the air.
“Jasper, there you are,” she said as I sauntered up, rolling my suitcase of wares behind me. “I’d like you to meet my new friend Eliza.”
“Jasper W. Mucklebee, at your service.” I gave a slight bow before sliding into the vacant seat beside the Girl.
“How do,” Eliza replied. “You’re a salesman?”
“No, indeed, not a salesman. I’m an entrepreneur.”
Eliza looked alarmed. “Well, I, sir, am a Presbyterian. I’m not sure I should be consorting with the likes of an “En-Tree-Preenour.”
“Oh, my dear, not to fret. An entrepreneur is just another name for Presbyterian. Now, I can’t help but notice that beautiful ruby brooch you’re wearing. It’s stunning. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before.”
“No sir, it is one of a kind, special made. A wedding gift from my fiancé,” Eliza said, beaming. “We’re to be married on Christmas day.”
“Well then, congratulations are in order! But tell me, how do you do otherwise? Do you have any aches, pains, or ailments? No, don’t tell me, let me guess. Perhaps a touch of hysterics? A wandering womb? I’ve just the ticket for that, a little apparatus known as ‘the Manipulator.’ Perhaps you’re familiar? My version is electrified, much improved over the older hand-cranked version. When applied to the nether regions, it is most invigorating. I can offer you a free demonstration if you’d like. Privately, of course.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” Eliza blushed.
“Oh, I’m sure you do.” I winked at her. “But at any rate, if that’s not what ails you, I’m sure we can find something else.”
“Jasper, I was thinking,” said the Girl.
“Good for you!”
“Eliza confided in me that her fiancé is a learned man, and during their correspondence by mail, she’d been counseled by her sister on politics, world affairs, and the like. She’s worried that when the meetin’ time comes, she may not be up to conversating with him in such matters.” Here she leaned in and whispered, loud enough for all to hear. “I know I shouldn’t have told her about the ‘Thinking Tonic’, but you know better than anyone I was dumber than a dodger before I took it, and well, look at me now.”
“I told you not to tell anyone!” I said mock-scornful. “That is our own private supply of Thinking Tonic. We haven’t much left.”
“I’ll pay whatever you ask,” Eliza said. “Well, not me. I don’t have any money, but my fiancé does. He owns a silver mine in Telluride. He’s a very rich man.”
“Not to fret, my dear. I’m sure we can work something out. In the meantime, why not have a free sample on the house?” I was no longer thinking of the brooch, but of the chair, and the wealthy investor I needed.
When Pa up and died from the consumption, and Ma married Henry Scoggins, I couldn’t blame her. What else was she to do with all those little’uns to feed? But then I saw the way Henry’s look lingered on me just a little longer than it should’ve; it was the kind of look that should only be seen by a bride on her wedding night. I knew I had to cut and run. Ma and the boys would be fine, and there was nothing for it noways.
I was able to scrap a meager living from the portraits. The hours I’d spent with Pa in his shop, him working on pocket watches and me hunched over a small snippet of paper, painting a portrait to slip into the back side, had paid off. Pa gave me three cents a piece for each one, and while I was inclined to think he got more, I did not mind.
Jasper tried to get me on the tonic straightaway, but I wasn’t as stupid as he thunk. He didn’t partake himself, but he sure enjoyed his drink, and if there was one thing I’d learnt in all my born days, it was that nothing gets a tongue to waggin’ faster than the pulling of a cork. If you listen closely, sometimes you can learn a lot more from what isn’t being said than from what is.
When I set to chattin’ up the pretty lady with the red brooch, I could tell straight away she was a few cards short. Said her name was Eliza, but everyone called her Dolly, and I could see why; she looked just like a china doll and had a head full of air just like. She told me she’d never met her fiancé in person; they’d only conversated by post, and it was her sister who’d helped her write the letters. I put two and two together but did not see reason to convey these particulars to Jasper.
When she let it spill her fiancé was rich, I could see the cogs a-turnin’ in Jasper’s thick noggin, and I knew he was thinking about that dang chair of his. He’d planned another demonstration of the thing that very night, so he gave Eliza a taste of the tonic—just enough to make her agreeable but not enough to buffalo her completely.
During the last demonstration in Oklahoma City, there was a problem with the chair, and Jasper got a bigger jolt than he was expecting. The soles of his shoes started smoking and darn near melted off. This did not impress them potential investors so much, and old Jasper was fit to be tied. Now I’m not saying it was me who crossed those wires, and I’m not saying it wasn’t, but somehow after he’d fixed ’em, unbeknownst to him, somehow they got crossed again. Wires got a way of doing that. Pa had once told me that electricity likes to run through silver, so this time, for good measure, I spread a liberal amount of “Thinking Tonic” on the metal footplate. When Jasper’s bare feet (he thought it best to remove his shoes since the previous mishap) touched that metal place and he pulled the lever—Hooo-weee! His body got all stiff-like, his face contorted something awful, and his hair just about stood up on end. The lights in the dining car blinked on and off a few times before shutting off completely, and the vile stink of burnt meat filled the room. All in all, it added three additional hours to the trip.
Afterwards, Dolly was so shook up she asked if I wouldn’t mind laying down next to her and singing her to sleep, just as her sister had done when they were little’uns. I agreed as I knowed what it was like to feelin’ all alone in the world, so I snuggled up next to her and sang a few verses of Mary Blane, though I could not do it much justice without Pa’s banjo strumming to accompany me.
When I woke, she was gone. I looked everywhere, finally finding her in the small sleeping compartment I’d shared with Jasper. His case of wares was flung open, and from what I could count, eight or so empty bottles of “Thinking Tonic” were scattered about the floor. Dolly was deader than a dodger, but before she went, it looked as if she’d had a go with the Manipulator. Apparently, her womb had been a-wandering after all.
From the small sliver of light that poked out from under the curtain, I knew that dawn was not far off, and I best skedaddle out of there lickity split. I grabbed the ruby brooch off the dressing table, deciding last minute to look in the place where every woman keeps her most cherished possession, her petticoat pocket. It was there that I found the letter from Horace, and a family photo folded into quarters with the names written on the back; Mother, Father, Eliza and Dolly.
Pa would be proud that my painting skills would once again come in handy, and I quite liked the name Eliza. It would be a much pleasant change to being called Girl.
Originally published in Sundial Magazine and Dim and Flaring Lamps, a Historical Fiction Anthology of America.