The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 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
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning


I Meet Mark Twain

The steamship from the Sandwich Islands to San Francisco carried mostly cargo, with only a dozen passengers: Myself, a Catholic priest with wife and six children, a retired colonel in an unspecified army, a sugar plantation manager, and Mark Twain.

At first I had no idea Mr. Twain was on board, since I spent the first half of the voyage in my tiny cabin or at the rail, in the throes of mal de mer. When I finally found my sea legs and ventured into society, it was late in the evening of our fourth day at sea. I entered the cramped “saloon” in search of food. The bar was deserted, and only one table was occupied, by three boisterous men playing cards. Oil lamps swung gently from the overhead beams, bathing the men with an ochre light and casting ultramarine violet shadows on the wall that moved with the undulations of the ship. I took some deep breaths, cautiously ate a cracker from a jar on the bar, and watched the game.

Mr. Twain was stacking coins and shuffling cards, looking and talking like a character from one of his books. He was a tall, thin, but vigorous older man of 44 years, with a fierce mustache and a corona of flaming red hair. A long crooked cigar was clamped in his teeth as he dealt cards, wobbled in his lips as he talked, or waved about in his hand as he used it like a conductor’s baton to punctuate his drawling speech. His dark eyes seemed to smolder and then spark as he glanced my way, and I felt he could see more of one’s character than one might choose to reveal.

“Pull up a pew,” he said to me, gesturing at a chair that was screwed to the deck. “We need a fourth to dilute the odds and swell the congregation. I’m Mark Twain, this is the Sugar Plum Fairy, and that reprobate is Colonel Sutherland.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, sliding into the chair, “I’m John Sargent.”

“Welcome to the fold. Are you familiar with a little game called Molokai Scratch?”

He had just published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1878, a year before, when I was studying painting with Carolus in Paris. Even though we expatriate art orphans were buried to our eyebrows in chiaroscuro and perspective, we knew his name. Mark Twain was the great American rustic, casting his irreverent eye over our decadent age and deflating pomposity wherever he found it. I was 23 at the time and stood in awe of his accomplishments.

I said, “Sorry, I’m not familiar with Molokai Scratch. Is it anything like Whist?”

“Very much like, except you deal only three cards at a time, black sevens and nines are wild for face cards, and there are no rubbers, no dummy, and no trump suit. Here, I’ll deal a hand for practice and you can be the Itch first. After you master Itching we’ll make you an expert Scratcher.”

I never learned all the rules, but it soon became obvious that Molokai Scratch was similar to Whist in only one way: a team of two players could communicate in code and distort the odds in their favor. Mr. Twain and Colonel Sutherland across from him were engaged in a lively exchange of blinks, coughs, sneezes, throat-clearings, and knuckle-crackings that soon won all the loose coins in my pocket.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Mr. Twain said at one point, raking in my last centavo, “In the third round, black sevens are only wild for black queens.”

sketch of Mark Twain playing cardsI excused myself and retired to a chair where I could sketch the card players surreptitiously. I made Mark Twain the focal point of the composition, placing his companions in silhouette and casting them in shadow. He had large hands with long tapering fingers that dipped and hovered over the cards and coins like gliding birds. He was wearing a burnt sienna suit of clothes over a cadmium scarlet vest, but I would paint him in banker’s broadcloth to show his prosperity as a popular author, with a slouch hat and bent cheroot to show his frontier roots.

I calculated that he was or would soon be part of the nouveau riche class who can afford to have their portraits painted, at least by a cut-rate nouveau artiste such as myself. The gift of a charcoal study would be a good investment in future patronage. Perhaps his publisher would be in need of an accurate likeness in conté, on which to base a frontispiece engraving?


  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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