By the Flicker of the Gas Light


The excerpts from my forthcoming book continue today. (I’ve always wanted to say that. Doesn’t it make me sound all scholarly and shit?) Anyway, I’m back in town and things are a little busy so here’s a snippet from the rough draft. Enjoy. Or Don’t. Or whatever. It’s a long way from being finished, and even further from getting published.

As my good friend Scott wrote to me last week “I’m not sure how you are going to work in getting drunk in the backseat of a Plymouth and feeling up Catholic girls during turn of the century Batavia.”

My response? “You be surprised how easily drunkenness and heavy petting translate to the Victorian era.”

The sun was setting behind the cupola on the old courthouse, as Rowell stepped out of the hotel and into the street. Hurrying across the tracks he headed west on Ellicott Street at a fast pace, trying not to run, his heart racing inside of his chest. Looking up he saw the silhouette of the courthouse, its limestone walls glowing pink in the setting sun. He scanned the street ahead for familiar faces, but the streets were empty, save for a few train passengers heading toward the Ellicott House. What would it matter if he was seen by his neighbors hurrying through downtown? They’d assume he was late for dinner and hurrying to get home. Little would they know that it was Lynch that Jenny sat waiting for in the front parlor. It was Lynch whom she was thinking of as she put on her perfume and finest dress. It was Lynch that was in a train at that very moment, probably carrying a note from Jenny in his hands. Rowell’s heart burned with shame at the thought, and tears swelled up in his eyes.

The gun weighed heavy in the pocket of his coat. He felt along the cool steel barrel with his sweaty hand, over the chamber, and down along the ivory handle. In his other pocket, he felt the paper envelope filled with black pepper from the pantry. How long would it be before Palmer arrived with the other men? Two hours at the most? Could he keep quiet in his house for that long, knowing that Lynch was eating at his table, and sitting in his own chair in the parlor? Or would the pain become so great that he wouldn’t be able to keep from crying out? His vision blurred as he crossed Main, and walked up State Street.

If he hurried, Rowell was sure he could get to the house before the train arrived and get inside without being noticed. He was almost at a run now, his feet slapping hard against the bluestone slate sidewalk, sending shivers through the bones of his legs. Turning in at Hutchins Place, he walked until he came to the house behind his own, he slipped through the long cool shadows of the maple trees in his back garden, past the rose bushes that Jenny had planted in the spring, barren now, except for the brown leaves curled upon the vine. The girls would be inside playing in the nursery, or next door with the King children. Yes, surely Jenny would have asked Mrs. King to watch the children for the night. She wouldn’t invite a lover into the house while the children were there. She was impetuous, and impulsive, but not that foolish.

He climbed the back steps, and stood panting at the door. He waited for a few moments to quiet himself, and then he gently turned the knob, and pushed it open. The kitchen was empty. He stepped slowly towards the back stairs, listening for the sound of voices.

Climbing the stairway he took great care to place his feet along the outside of the steps, where they would be least likely to squeak. He felt as if he were a child again in Utica, playing hide and seek with Palmer at his father’s house. Only now the gun was real. Oh why had he agreed to take the gun? He hardly knew how to use the thing. Surely there would be no need to use it. He would surprise them, and rub the pepper in Lynch’s eyes then when he writhed about on the floor he could use anything to overpower him. He knew that Lynch was a big man, almost a full foot taller than he, but lying in bed blinded by the pepper, the fight would be equal. Yes, he would just keep the gun in his pocket in case something went wrong. He would find another way to subdue him. Rowell paused on the stairs, and considered his options. A kitchen pot would be too unwieldy, a rod from the fireplace too likely to hit Jenny. Turning, he started back down the stairs, and slipped out the kitchen door. The sunlight was gone, and dusk was descending quickly. He searched through the beds of the garden until he found a smooth stone, the size of a child’s fist. He put it into his pocket and started back into the house. As he opened the door, he heard voices coming down the hallway. It was Mrs. King from next door.

“Dear Jenny, do you really want me to stay with you?”

“Oh Harriet, please. I know it sounds silly but I am afraid to see him again. The thought of him being on his way here is making me giddy like a schoolgirl. Please stay, if only for a few minutes, until I have calmed down from the excitement.” Jenny implored.

“Very well then, I shall stay but only for tea. Then I will leave you two alone and go home to take care of the children. The housekeeper leaves at 7pm, and Hiram will be cross if I stay any longer”

“Oh thank you Harriet. You are such a dear friend. I will so like you to meet him.” Said Jenny.

Harriet laughed. “I must confess though, after all you have said of him I should very much like to see this man. If he is half as handsome as you describe I fear I should be smitten with him too.”

“He is! He is handsome indeed! Oh, just wait until you see him. You must promise not to steal his heart away from me though.” Jenny giggled.

Rowell could feel his face flush with embarrassment. How could she be so bold as to invite the neighbor in to meet her lover? Had she no sense of shame? Hearing her speak glowingly of Lynch stabbed him with pain. Holding his breath, he stepped quickly to the stairway, and began to climb again before they returned to the kitchen to prepare tea.

The upstairs was dark in the evening gloaming. Rowell stepped lightly down the upstairs hallway, and entered the spare bedroom that Jenny had used for sewing. He was sure to be able to hear everything from the parlor, and Jenny would have no need to be entering this room. He stood quietly by the doorway, listening to Jenny and Harriet as they busied themselves in the kitchen. Hands in his pockets, he turned the cold stone over, and over in his hand. How round and smooth it was, like a egg in its shape and texture.

He tried to picture in his mind how he would surprise them in the dark, and rub black pepper in Lynch’s eyes. He imagined Lynch howling with pain, and thrashing about on the bed, as he raised the rock to smash him. How could he rub the pepper with one hand while holding the rock in the other? If he couldn’t hold it in his hand he must find something to hold it in. So he stepped into the girl’s bedroom, and drew a long white stocking from the dresser. Sliding the rock inside of it, he put it back into his pocket and returned to the sewing room. He could hold the stocking in his hand as he grabbed Lynch, and blinded him with the pepper. Then he could easily use it as a sling to knock him out. If he came to, he would use the gun to hold him until Palmer and the men arrived. Then they would strip him, and send him out naked into the streets, to humiliate him, and teach him a lesson.

Now there was only waiting. In a few moments, he heard the sound of footsteps on the front porch, and then the ringing of the bell.

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10 thoughts on “By the Flicker of the Gas Light

  1. First off I’d like to say that if I had it to do over again I would make one of my boys middle names Hiram.

    Second. Fuck yeah!

    Third. Your turn of the century people are far more violent than my turn of the century people. We like to wear delicate clothing and prance around trying not to get dirty. This proves that everything I believed to be historically accurate in my small mind was not. I like to cling to half truths and fabrications. It keeps me going.

  2. Splendid.

    I love the way you have captured the inner workings of Rowell’s mind and feelings. He has many doubts, but he is resolute, so he wavers about the means, but never the ‘justice’ of his intent.

    I love the way you have built up the tension. I could feel my heart pound as I read along.

    I love how when Jenny is so cheerfully talking with her neighbor about her visiter to come (who may or may not be this fellow Lynch), she displays the actions of an innocent mind. Is Rowell just completely wrong about everything? Are things not as they seem to him?

    Ah, sweet mystery!

    Last, when you are writing about another era, do you ever find yourself taking on the language of the era? I noticed you said, “save for a few train passengers …” Or, was that Rowell’s way of thinking about it?

    I ask this because I find myself doing that. I am sure that your research has exposed you to a lot of earlier styles.

    • I’d like to pretend this is all planned out but I’d be lying. The character’s personalities are revealing themselves as I write. I’m sure subconsciously I am identifying parts of myyself, or people I have known and using their voices or mannerisms. I do try to use formal language though and terms that I come across in the old news papers.

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