The Venice of the West
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 Double Fiction Issue


Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
 The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
 A Swan Among Geese

 So Much?
 Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
 Holy Relics


Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Bushwhacked
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet
 Wetbellies

space
  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning

 

Wetbellies

When Marina told me John Sargent had been arrested, I swept my wretched Atlantic letter into the wastebasket.

“Why did they arrest John?” I asked, “I’m the one who was dueling, not him.”

“It has nothing to do with the duel. The Tsar has been assassinated. Apparently John was at the palace at the time, so he was arrested.”

“Balderdash. John couldn’t assassinate a sparrow.”

“Exactly, but people are arrested for balderdash all the time here.”

“We have to do something. Where are they holding him? Can I get in to see him?”

She took me by the hand. “No, Mark, you can’t get involved. John is still at the palace, and I have been ordered to report there. I will see what can be done. I fear that they will round up everyone connected to John, starting with you. You are in great danger.”

“Pshaw and piffle.”

“Stop joking, Mark.” She started throwing her things into her carpet bag, shaking her head at my patent stupidity. “The best thing you can do is pack your things and be ready to leave Sakrametska at a moment’s notice. You might have to leave John and me here, and get across the border while you can.”

“You can’t be serious. I’d never leave John in a pickle. You nuther. We need to bust John loose, then we can all go together.”

“Impossible.”

She wouldn’t listen. She was panicked in a way that I had not seen before. In five minutes she had packed all her things, erasing every hint that she been in the room.

She paused in the doorway, torn between haste and some secret she had not the time nor temerity to confide.

“Mark, whatever ugly things you hear about me, whatever happens next, you must believe I love you.”

“Of course, I believe it with all my heart, but…”

“I have to go. I hope I can see you again.”

She kissed my hand and left.

I was flummoxed. Marina gone, John imprisoned, the authorities presumably after me. Every instinct of self preservation urged me to flee, but I could not abandon John, nor give up on Marina. I determined to break John out of jail.

I carefully reviewed all the methods I knew from my wide reading of escape literature, to wit the Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo. One by one I discarded the options for which I was not equipped: I lacked the cavalry for a large mounted assault. My stock of explosives was not adequate to blow my nose, much less blow up a jail. I had neither steel file nor culinary skills to bake it into a cake. What remained was bribery and trickery. I would have to make do with a wad of ruble notes and my native chicanery. I got all my money out of the Imperial Hotel safe and sharpened my wits with a dram of vodka. Just in case, I wrapped up one of my loaded pistols in a box with white paper and a red ribbon.

The palace was in turmoil. I went round to a side court overhung with trees, where the cooks and chambermaids loiter for a breath of air, playing hooky from their duties. There I found an under-butler being interviewed by two reporters from the local paper. By hanging about I found out that John had not left the palace, as far as the butler knew, and butlers know everything. John was somewhere in the suite of chambers occupied by the Ministry of Culture. That made sense to me. I had long suspected that Ministry of Culture was the local Russian idiom for Secret Police or Department of Spying and Lying.

That suited me just fine. It meant that John wasn’t locked away in an iron cage yet. I approached the guards at the front entrances and said that I had an appointment with the undersecretary of literary affairs, one of Krepotsky’s flunkies.

“I am presenting him with copies of my collected works,” I said, holding up the gift-wrapped box.

One of the guards recognized me from the recent command performance, and passed me inside. A few roubles got me to the office of the undersecretary, who was not in, thanks to Providence. I convinced my escort to leave me in the antechamber to wait. When he left, I skedaddled down the hall and around the corner to Krepotsky’s neighborhood. If anyone was involved in a frame-up, it would be that sly weasel.

Krepotsky’s secretary was not at his post. I heard voices from his office. I laid my ear gently against the oak panel of the door, but it was opened out from under me by two soldiers. Past them I saw Krepotsky at his desk and John sitting in a side chair, rubbing his wrists.

“Mr. Twain,” Krepotsky called out, “You are welcome. Come in, please come in.”

I went in and the soldiers went out and closed the door.

Krepotsky indicated my package and said, “Is for me?”

“No, it’s for John,” I said. “It’s his birthday.” I handed John the package and he took it with a wry lift of his eyebrows. Krepotsky looked at some papers in his hand and said, “is not Mr. Sargent’s birthday. He was born January 12.”

“The Tsar has been murdered,” John said to me, an adroit change of subject.

“I know, I came as soon as I heard.” I turned to Krepotsky. “I have made a deep study of modern police methods. I can help find the assassin. Have you ever heard of the science of finger-prints?”

“That will not be necessary. We know who killed Tsar.”

“Really, who?”

He indicated John. “Mr. Sargent.”

John went white, then Krepotsky laughed.

“Sorry, Mr. Sargent.” he said. “I joke. But is not funny. Is serious. You are both in serious trouble.”

I asked, “What are you talking about?”

“Allow me to explain.” Krepotsky went to a door nearby and opened it to reveal Marina. She entered the room without a word and sat down on a spindly gilt chair. She looked grim and distant, avoiding our eyes. Krepotsky lowered himself to a chair and pulled a sheaf of papers from his desk drawer. He leaned across the desk and tossed them into my lap.

“You know these letters, yes?”

I riffled through them and my heart dropped into my boots. The letters were in Marina’s handwriting, in Russian, with Bill Howells name and address at the top of each and my name at the bottom. They were Russian transcriptions of all my satiric Atlantic pieces. I glanced at Marina but she would not meet my eye. I now knew one ugly things

I handed the letters back to Krepotsky and said, “Sorry, I don’t read Russian.”

“Of course. You do not. Why learn language of stupid people?”

I shrugged, at a loss for words, for once.

Krepotsky continued, laying out his points on his fingers, like the terms of an indictment: “You write lies about Rossland for USA newspaper. You sneak into Rossland to spy on quicksilver mine. You try to buy dangerous, illegal chemicals. You ask everyone questions. You hide from my man and spy on gold mines. Just today you make illegal duel. You make…” He turned to Marina and rattled off some Russian for her to translate. “You make embarrassment for me.”

“It was just for fun,” I said. “Nobody takes my writing seriously.”

“Everything I take seriously. Tsar Nicholai is dead. He has no son, so right now army rules. They make me ruler of State Security. Everything I take serious.”

He turned to John. “You also spy on quicksilver mine,. You make drawings of mines, docks, ships…” he looked to Marina for another word. “…fortifications.”

He was frustrated with his own lack of vocabulary, although I thought he was doing quite well, considering: clear, forceful, and very damning in a certain light. He began speaking in Russian with pauses for Marina to translate.

“Mr. Twain,” she said, as if she had not been rubbing my feet and buttering my biscuits for weeks, “You and Mr. Sargent are in serious trouble, for more than just dueling or writing letters. The cabal to which Minister Krepotsky belongs has seized power in the interim and is trying to prevent civil war. In their eyes, you are both spies.”

You have been spying on me,” I said. “Those copies of my letters are in your handwriting.”

“Quiet. I told you, everyone spies on everybody here. I was just doing my job: copying your letters, reporting all your activities.” She put little quotation marks around “all” with her eyes, letting me know that not all our activities had been in her reports.

John said, “But we are just tourists. We have merely been seeing the sights and writing letters home.”

“Oh John,” she sighed, “You and I know that, but think how it appears to the secret police. To state security, everyone is guilty.”

Krepotsky cleared his throat and said something to her in Russian. He understood enough English to know that she was not on his topic.

She continued: “Times have changed now. With the Tsar dead, there will be a great purge of dissidents. All enemies of Rossland will be rounded up and executed, or put in prison for years, until they are too old and feeble to be a threat.

Krepotsky chimed in with more Russian, and Marina translated his speech:

“We know you are innocent, but you have been very careless. The cabal is full of hotheads who want an immediate purge of all foreigners. If you remain in Rossland, you will be held in custody for a very long time, and might even be executed.”

Krepotsky handed me a thin stack of bank notes.

“Use this money to book passage on the six o’clock steamer to Alta California, under the names Mr. Dostoevsky and Mr. Turgenev. You won’t have any trouble leaving the country if you are on that boat, using those names. Remain in this room for twenty minutes, to give the minister time to clear an exit path for you. Leave by the same door Mr. Sargent used to enter this afternoon.”

Krepotsky and Marina left the room. We sat in silence for a moment, then John asked me, “What was that all about?”

 “The end of the vacation.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to bust you out of jail.”

“like the Man in the Iron Mask?”

“Exackly. I can’t let the Russkies nab my pardner.”

“Well, thank you

“You’re welcome.”

I looked at my watch. It was awfully quiet in the room.

“Now why,” I said, “do you reckon Krepotsky wants us sneaking out on our own? Why not just waltz us out the back door himself, and turn us loose?”

“Marina said he had to clear the way.”

“I know, but something don’t smell right about this situation.”

“You’ve never trusted him.”

“Correct, and I’m not starting to trust him now.”

At that moment, Marina came back into the room and threw her arms around my neck. She was breathing hard and struggled to catch her breath.

“Oh, Mark, thank God you haven’t left yet. You can’t leave the way Krepotsky told you. He has two sharpshooters waiting outside that door. They’ll kill you the moment you leave. He’ll say you were shot trying to escape, and save them the risk of a trial and the truth coming out.”

“What is the truth?”

“I don’t know. But if Krepotsky’s involved, it’s a nasty truth.”

John said, “How can we get out of the palace? It’s full of soldiers with guns, and we’re unarmed.”

“Happy birthday,” I said, pointing at the package in his lap. He looked at me like I was crazy, but he unwrapped the gun.

“I never thought I’d be glad to see one of these,” he said.

I said, “To get out of here, we’ll have to fit in. We need to get the drop on a couple of palace guards and take their uniforms.”

“No,” John said. “I have a better idea.”

He led us to a closet in the portrait studio where he had been working on the Tsar’s Portrait. He opened the door and began pulling out uniforms, formal gowns, fancy peasant dress, and other Rosslandish finery.

“We dress up Ivan the Terrible in these when their owners can’t pose in person,” John said.

“Who in blazes is Ivan the Terrible?” I asked.

He pointed to a dressmaker’s dummy in the corner.

I became General Gogol, with a fine brocaded coat, a red sash heavy with medals, and a long gold scabbard with a broken sword in it. John put on the jodhpurs, boots, and gold-appliquéd horse coat of a cavalry commander. Marina became a Kazak princess with paste pearls and a veil.

John and I lead Marina, wearing John’s shackles loosely about her wrists, out the front door, bold as brass. The guards and palace functionaries we passed were all too accustomed to deferring to uniforms, and no one wanted to question high ranking officers about what they were doing with a beautiful young prisoner.

In the Grand Plaza we hailed a cab and I sat up top with the driver to keep a lookout. As we pulled away there was a commotion on the front steps of the palace. A captain of guards ran down them and shouted to our driver to halt. I pushed the driver from his perch, grabbed the reins, and shook them out over the horse’s back. We clattered out of the plaza and onto the wide boulevard leading to the bridge over the Sakrametska.

I looked over my shoulder to see men and horses milling in the courtyard. All too soon a mounted pursuit was after us. We shot over the bridge, John yelling to me to “Turn left, turn left.” I hauled the terrified animal around to the left and careened down the strand. After a couple of blocks John and Marina yelled to me to stop. We spilled out of the cab and Marina grabbed the gun. She shot twice over the horse’s head and it took off down the street like scalded cat, the empty cab bouncing and jouncing behind.

John led us down a passage alongside some pilings, to the waterside between warehouses. He had us wade among the confusing piles until we emerged inside a warehouse, where we climbed up a ladder to the upper floor level.

“This is a boat loft we almost rented as a studio,” John explained. “It’s empty now and the owner is unlikely to come around.”

We sat on nail kegs and sawhorses under some high windows and watched the day slowly dim. From time to time traffic would pass outside and we would freeze, then continue our quiet conversation.

I asked Marina, “Have you been copying all of my letters?”

“Yes, and John’s as well, when I could find them.” She did not seem particularly embarrassed by this. In fact, she added, “You both lie to your mothers. You should be ashamed.”

“How could you spy on us?” John asked, “I thought we were friends.”

“We are friends now, but when we met, you two were my job, nothing more.”

“Some job,” I said.

“I had no choice. If I didn’t report on you to Krepotsky, he could have me arrested as a spy for the Dons. It wouldn’t matter that I was a spy for him too.”

“So you are a half-breed double agent, which makes you two and half people. It’s a wonder you can keep it all straight.”

“You are angry, of course. Anyone would be angry. But look where I am now—at your side, not back in the palace, standing with Krepotsky over your dead body. If they catch us, I will hang as surely as you.”

“Then I reckon they better not find us.”

“Wait a minute,” John said, “Can’t we let things calm down a little, then give ourselves up to the police? At a trial, we’d have a chance to tell our story and prove our innocence.”

Both Marina and I laughed.

“But we are just tourists.”

“That is how I have been trying to paint you: both just silly tourists, with no good sense, but no political motives. It would have been enough , in normal times. But you made too good a pair of scapegoats for Krepotsky and his cabal. You arrived just in time to take the blame for the assassination—a foreign journalist of known Democratic ideals, and a foreign youth from artistic circles in Paris, long known for breeding revolution.”

“Then what are we going to do?” John asked. “We can’t just buy a ticket on a train or a boat, and it’s too far to walk to Alta California.’

“We could float down the river,” I said. “We could be Wetbellies.”

“That’s crazy,” John said.

“Not at all. I did it all the time on the Mississippi when I was a boy. We’ll make floats out of these nail kegs, and drift out of town in the dark of night. What do you say?”

John looked at the keg he was sitting and sighed. “All right. You did get me this far, and you were right about not trusting Krepotsky. But I could have made something of that portrait. Some hack will finish it now, if it gets finished at all.”

“So we are a couple of Wetbellies?”

“Sure.” We shook hands.

“Make that three Wetbellies,” Marina said. “I’m going with you all the way.”

 

  © Patrick Fanning, 2012  

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