New Dog, Old Tricks
William Dean Howells
How goes business at the Atlantic—Weakly?
Sorry, the Demon Rum has set loose the Demon Pun in me. I am refreshing myself with some capital Barbados rotgut, enjoying the idle luxury of my suite of rooms at the Imperial Hotel in Sacramento. Tsar Nicholai has finally recalled my existence and come through with free hotel rooms, a carriage at my command, and an honorarium of 600 roubles. Although I reckon his largesse is the tsarist equivalent of me buying you a drink, it is welcome nonetheless. Old Nick o’ Lie has done much to temper my disdain for monarchs. He has almost convinced me not to steal his towels.
Sakrametska’s Embarcadero reminds me of Mississippi river towns like Vicksburg and Greenville in the old days. To wit, the sultry sun brooding in the white sky, the slow pulse of river traffic quickening with a big steamboat’s arrival, the fine gentlemen and ladies mixing with louts and layabouts on the wharves. But it is a bigger concern altogether. Three story hotels and swank restaurants lie cheek by jowl with squalid vodka mills and bordellos. There is even an opera house, with a great show of gilt cupids and red plush wallpaper and crystal doodads on the lamp fringes. Sakrametska is a city of contrasts: dogs and diamonds, swine and swells, mud and mademoiselles.
Like the Mississippi river gentry of my youth, the Russian upper “crust” refers in the main to the mud on their boots and the dried vomitus on their cravats. Away from the river, life on the streets is very like the American Wild West. A man of quality is not properly dressed without his six gun and spurs and a wide Panama sombrero. The code duello, although technically illegal, is alive and well. The soft nights ring with whoops and hollers and gunshots. Cattle may be driven down Main Street from midnight until six in the morning, and during those hours they are the most well-behaved citizens one will meet.
Still, I cannot deny the appeal of swaggering down main street at high noon with one’s teeth clamped on a fine cigar, one’s feet stamping regally through the pig droppings, the sun shining off a pair of silver six-shooters, women and children and dogs scurrying out of one’s way. I have a mind to acquire a pair of pistolas. Double action Nagants are the weapon of choice here, being manufactured just a few leagues north of town at the royal armory. A pair of the gas-sealing cavalry model with 160 centimeter barrels may be had for only R500, price including cartridge belt, holsters, and long straps to keep the guns out of the mud if one drops them at a gallop. The local swells cut a fine figure on the street, their belts bristling with brass and their red leather horse thongs brushing their boot tops. In this town, the are a more important male accoutrement than cufflinks or repeater watch. It is a surprising fashion to find in the capitol city of a governmental system so given to assassination.
Tomorrow we meet Old Nick himself in the Hall of Audience of the Winter Palace, which I reckon is what Emperors call the front parlor. Then I will perform my tricks for the Royal Family in the evening, lecturing in the back parlor, or Topaz Ballroom as it is known here. Mrs. Clemens would be so proud of her little Sammy, asked to roll over and play dead by the rulers of the earth.
Enough of this. One is very drunk and must have one’s beauty sleep. One must rise early, and give oneself a good currying.
Your earnest interrogator,
© Patrick Fanning, 2012