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The Dante Club: A Novelby Matthew Pearl
JOHN KURTZ, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids. On one side, the Irish woman who had discovered the body was blubbering and wailing prayers unfamiliar (because they were Catholic) and unintelligible (because she was blubbering) that prickled the hair in Kurtz's ear; on the other side was her soundless and despairing niece. The parlor had a wide arrangement of chairs and couches, but the women had squeezed in next to the guest as they waited. He had to concentrate on not spilling any of his tea, the black haircloth divan was rattling so hard with their shock.
Kurtz had faced other murders as chief of police. Not enough to make it routine, though--usually one a year, or two; often, Boston would pass through a twelve-month period without a homicide worth noticing. Those few who were murdered were of the low sort, so it had not been a necessary part of Kurtz's position to console. He was a man too impatient with emotion to have excelled at it anyway. Deputy Police Chief Edward Savage, who sometimes wrote poetry, might have done better.
This--this was the only name Chief Kurtz could bear to attach to the horrifying situation that was to change the life of a city--was not only a murder. This was the murder of a Boston Brahmin, a member of the aristocratic, Harvard-schooled, Unitarian-blessed, drawing room caste of New England. And the victim was more than that: He was the highest official of the Massachusetts courts. This had not only killed a man, as sometimes murders do almost mercifully, but had obliterated him entirely.
The woman they were anticipating in the best parlor of Wide Oaks had boarded the first train she could in Providence after receiving the telegram. The train's first-class cars lumbered forward with irresponsible leisure, but now that journey, like everything that had come before, seemed part of an unrecognizable oblivion. She had made a wager with herself, and with God, that if her family minister had not yet arrived at her house by the time she got there, the telegram's message had been mistaken. It didn't quite make sense, this half-articulated wager of hers, but she had to invent something to believe, something to keep from fainting dead away. Ednah Healey, balanced on the threshold of terror and loss, stared at nothing. Entering her parlor, she saw only the absence of her minister and fluttered with unreasoning victory.
Kurtz, a robust man with mustard coloring beneath his bushy mustache, realized he too was trembling. He had rehearsed the exchange on the carriage ride to Wide Oaks. "Madam, how very sorry we are to call you back to this. Understand that Chief Justice Healey..." No, he had meant to preface that. "We thought it best," he continued, "to explain the unfortunate circumstances here, you see, in your own house, where you'd be most comfortable." He thought this idea a generous one.
"You couldn't have found Judge Healey, Chief Kurtz," she said, and ordered him to sit. "I'm sorry you've wasted this call, but there's some simple mistake. The chief justice was--is staying in Beverly for a few quiet days of work while I visited Providence with our two sons. He is not expected back until tomorrow."
Kurtz did not claim responsibility for refuting her. "Your chambermaid," he said, indicating the bigger of the two servants, "found his body, madam. Outside, near the river."
Nell Ranney, the chambermaid, welled with guilt for the discovery. She did not notice that there were a few bloodstained maggot remains in the pouch of her apron.
"It appears to have happened several days ago. Your husband never departed for the country, I'm afraid," Kurtz said, worried he sounded too blunt.
Ednah Healey wept slowly at first, as a woman might for a dead household pet--reflective and governed but without anger. The olive-brown feather protruding from her hat nodded with dignified resistance.
Nell looked at Mrs. Healey longingly, then said with great humanity, "You ought to come back later in the day, Chief Kurtz, if you please."
John Kurtz was grateful for the permission to escape Wide Oaks. He walked with appropriate solemnity toward his new driver, a young and handsome patrolman who was letting down the steps of the police carriage. There was no reason to hurry, not with what must be brewing already over this at the Central Station between the frantic city aldermen and Mayor Lincoln, who already had him by the ears for not raiding enough gambling "hells" and prostitution houses to make the newspapers happy.
A terrible scream cleaved the air before he had walked very far. It belched forth in light echoes from the house's dozen chimneys. Kurtz turned and watched with foolish detachment as Ednah Healey, feather hat flying away and hair unloosed in wild peaks, ran onto the front steps and launched a streaking white blur straight for his head.
Kurtz would later remember blinking--it seemed all he could do to prevent catastrophe, to blink. He bowed to his helplessness: The murder of Artemus Prescott Healey had finished him already. It was not the death itself. Death was as common a visitor in 1865 Boston as ever: infant sicknesses, consumption and unnamed and unforgiving fevers, uncontainable fires, stampeding riots, young women perishing in childbirth in such great number it seemed they had never been meant for this world in the first place, and--until just six months ago--war, which had reduced thousands upon thousands of Boston boys to names written on black-bordered notices and sent to their families. But the meticulous and nonsensical--the elaborate and meaningless--destruction of a single human being at the hands of an unknown...
Kurtz was yanked down hard by his coat and tumbled into the soft, sun-drenched lawn. The vase thrown by Mrs. Healey shattered into a thousand blue-and-ivory shards against the paunch of an oak (one of the trees said to have given the estate its name). Perhaps, Kurtz thought, he should have sent Deputy Chief Savage to handle this after all.
Patrolman Nicholas Rey, Kurtz's driver, released his arm and lifted him to his feet. The horses snorted and reared at the end of the carriageway.
"He did all he knew how! We all did! We didn't deserve this, whatever they say to you, Chief! We didn't deserve any of this! I'm all alone now!" Ednah Healey raised her clenched hands, and then said something that startled Kurtz. "I know who, Chief Kurtz! I know who's done this! I know!"
Nell Ranney threw her thick arms around the screaming woman and shushed and caressed, cradling her as she would have cradled one of the Healey children so many years before. Ednah Healey clawed and pulled and spat in return, causing the comely junior police officer, Patrolman Rey, to intervene.
But the new widow's rage expired, folding itself into the maid's wide black blouse, where there was nothing else but the abundant bosom.
The old mansion had never sounded so empty.
Ednah Healey had departed on one of her frequent visits to the home of her family, the industrious Sullivans, in Providence, her husband remaining behind to work on a property dispute between Boston's two largest banking concerns. The judge bid his family good-bye in his usual mumbling and affectionate manner, and was generous enough to dismiss the help once Mrs. Healey was out of sight. Though the wife wouldn't do without servants, he enjoyed small moments of autonomy. Besides, he liked a drop of sherry on occasion, and the help was sure to report any temperance violations to their mistress, for they liked him but feared her deep within their bones.
He would start off the following day for a weekend of tranquil study in Beverly. The next proceeding that required Healey's presence would not be heard until Wednesday, when he would railroad back into the city, back to the courthouse.
Judge Healey didn't notice one way or another, but Nell Ranney, a maid for twenty years, since being driven out by famine and disease in her native Ireland, knew that a tidy environment was essential for a man of importance like the chief justice. So Nell came in on Monday, which was when she found the first splattering of dried red near the supply closet and another streaking near the foot of the stairs. She guessed that some wounded animal had found its way into the house and must have found the same way out.
Then she saw a fly on the parlor drapes. She shooed it out the open window with a high-pitched clicking of her tongue, fortified by the brandishing of her feather duster. But it reappeared while she was polishing the long mahogany dining table. She thought the new colored kitchen girls must have negligently left some crumbs. Contraband--which is how she still thought of the freedwomen and always would--did not care of actual cleanliness, only its appearance.
The insect, it seemed to Nell, gurgled loud as a train's engine. She killed the fly with a rolled up North American Review. The flattened specimen was about twice the size of a housefly and had three even black stripes across its bluish green trunk. And what a phizz! thought Nell Ranney. The head of the creature was something Judge Healey would murmur over admiringly before tossing the fly to the wastebasket. The bulging eyes, of a vibrant orange color, took up nearly half its torso. There was a strange tint of orange glowing out, or red. Something between the two, something yellow and black, too. Copper: the swirl of fire.
She returned to the house the next morning to clean the upstairs. Just as she crossed through the door, another fly sailed like an arrow past the tip of her nose. Outraged, she secured another of the judge's heavy magazines and stalked the fly up the main staircase. Nell always used the servants' stairs, even when alone in the house. But this situation called for rearranging priorities. She removed her shoes and her wide feet fell lightly over the warm, carpeted steps, following the fly into the Healeys' bedchamber.
The fire-eyes stared out jarringly; the body curled back like a horse ready to gallop, and the face of the insect looked for that moment like the face of a man. This was the last moment for many years, listening to the monotonous buzz, that Nell Ranney would know some measure of peace.
She rumbled forward and smashed the Review against the window and the fly. But she had faltered over something during her attack, and now looked down at the obstacle, twisted on her bare foot. She picked up the tangled mass, a full set of human teeth belonging to the upper chamber of a mouth.
She released it at once but stood attentively, as though it might censure her for the incivility.
They were false teeth, crafted with an artist's care by a prominent New York dentist to fulfill Judge Healey's desire for a smarter appearance on the bench. He was so proud of them--told their provenance to anyone who would listen, not understanding that the vanity leading to such appendages should prevent any discussion of them. They were a bit too bright and new, like staring right into the summer sun between a man's lips.
From the corner of her eye, Nell noticed a thick pool of blood that had curdled and caked on the carpet. And near that, a small pile of suit clothes folded neatly. These clothes were as familiar as Nell Ranney's own white apron, black blouse, and billowing black skirt. She had done much needlework on his pockets and sleeves; the judge never ordered new suits from Mr. Randridge, the exceptional School Street tailor, except when absolutely essential.
Returning downstairs to put on her shoes, the chambermaid only now noticed the splashes of blood on the banister and camouflaged by the plush red carpet that covered the stairs. Out the parlor's large oval window, beyond the immaculate garden, where the yard sloped into meadows, woods, dry fields, and, eventually, the Charles River, she saw a swarm of blowflies. Nell went outdoors to inspect.
The flies were collected over a pile of rubbish. The tremendous scent caused her eyes to tear as she approached. She secured a wheelbarrow and, as she did, recalled the calf the Healeys had permitted the stableboy to raise on the grounds. But that had been years ago. Both the stableboy and the calf had outgrown Wide Oaks and left it to its eternal sameness.
The flies were of that new fire-eyed variety. There were yellow hornets, too, which had taken some morbid interest in whatever putrid flesh was underneath. But more numerous than the flying creatures were the masses of bristling white pellets crackling with movement--sharp-backed worms, wriggling tightly over something, no, not just wriggling, popping, burrowing, sinking, eating into each other, into the...but what was supporting this horrendous mountain, alive with white slime? One end of the heap seemed like a thorny bush of chestnut and ivory strands of...
Above the heap stood a short wooden staff with a ragged flag, white on both sides; it was flapping with the undecided breeze.
She could not help knowing the truth about what lay in that heap, but in her fear she prayed she'd find the stableboy's calf. Her eyes could not resist making out the nakedness, the wide, slightly hunched back sloping into the crack of the enormous, snowy buttocks, brimming over with the crawling, pallid, bean-shaped maggots above the disproportionately short legs that were kicked out in opposite directions. A solid block of flies, hundreds of them, circled protectively. The back of the head was completely swathed in white worms, which must have numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds.
Nell kicked away the wasps' nest and stuffed the judge into the wheelbarrow. She half wheeled and half dragged his naked body through the meadows, over the garden, through the halls, and into his study. Throwing the body on a mound of legal papers, Nell pulled Judge Healey's head into her lap. Handfuls of maggots rained down from his nose and ears and slack mouth. She began tearing out the luminescent maggots from the back of his head. The wormy pellets were moist and hot. She also grabbed some of the fire-eyed flies that had trailed her inside, smashing them with the palm of her hand, pulling them apart by the wings, flinging them, one after another, across the room in empty vengeance. What was heard and seen next made her produce a roar loud enough to ring straight through New England.
Two grooms from the stable next door found Nell crawling away from the study on her hands and knees, crying insensibly.
"But what is it, Nellie, what is it? By Jesus, you ain't hurt now?"
It was later, when Nell Ranney told Ednah Healey that Judge Healey had groaned before dying in her arms, that the widow ran out and threw a vase at the chief of police. That her husband might have been conscious for those four days, even remotely aware, was too much to ask her to permit.
Mrs. Healey's professed knowledge of her husband's killer turned out to be rather imprecise. "It was Boston that killed him," she revealed later that day to Chief Kurtz, after she had stopped shaking. "This entire hideous city. It ate him alive."
She insisted Kurtz bring her to the body. It had taken the coroner's deputies three hours to slice out the quarter-inch spiraled maggots from their places inside the corpse; the tiny horny mouths had to be pried off. The pockets of devoured flesh left in their wake spanned all open areas; the terrible swelling at the back of the head still seemed to pulse with maggots even after their removal. The nostrils were now barely divided and the armpits eaten away. With the false teeth gone the face sagged low and loose like a dead accordion. Most humiliating, most pitiable, was not the broken condition, not even the fact that the body had been so maggot-ridden and layered in flies and wasps, but the simple fact of the nakedness. Sometimes a corpse, it is said, looks for all the world like a forked radish with a head fantastically carved upon it. Judge Healey had one of those bodies never meant to be seen naked by anyone except his wife.
Copyright © 2003 by Matthew Pearl
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