Ivy League Exploration and Cowboy Anarchists
After last week's deeply disturbing Northern Saga that morphed into a Horror Show, it was a relief to start page 156 with a lighthearted scene of Ivy League merriment in the Taft Hotel where the annual Yale-Harvard football game is being celebrated by "young men in striped mufflers knitted by sweethearts who had dutifully included rows of flask-size pockets." Our young hero Kit Travers finally meets his benefactor, Scarsdale Vibe, who relates a funny aphorism about Harvard being like a Tibetan prayer wheel, then slanders his own children as "the crockful of cucumbers I have sired," before offering Kit "a hefty trust fund, inheriting uncounted millions when I'm dead." Kit defends one of Vibe's sons, Colfax, a sweetly honest jock who is his Yale roommate, and rejects Vibe's offer of an inherited fortune. "Apologies, but with no idea how you've gone about earning it, I couldn't add much to it -- more likely be spending the rest of my life in courtrooms fighting off the turkey buzzards, not how I was fixing to occupy my adult years, exactly."
Kit is enthralled with "vectorism," which I don't understand even remotely no matter how many Wikipedia articles I read. The only reason Kit enjoys Yale is because of "the kindness and genius of [Professor Josiah] Willard Gibbs," who is an absolutely fascinating historical figure, the seventh in a long line of distinguished Yale scholars (his father was the "Amistad" Gibbs), and the founder of what is known as "vector calculus." There's a great quote attributed to him: "A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane." (photo of Gibbs below)
In a quick segue of time and place (bottom of page 159), Colfax Vibe invites Kit out to "the Long Island cottage" in the early spring, said cottage being "four stories tall, square, unadorned, dark stone facing ... Despite its aspect of abandonment, an uneasy tenancy was still pursued within, perhaps by some collateral branch of Vibes...it was unclear." The second floor is where the unnamed ghosts hang out, along with Fleetwood Vibe, who we met last week on page 138 through his diary during the ill-fated Vormance Expedition.
But before Fleetwood is seriously reintroduced, there is a soft-porn S/M scene between Kit and Colfax's Cousin Dittany in the horse stables. This is followed by a description of the unconventional family arrangements between Scarsdale Vibe, his wife Edwina (nee Beef) who has become a Thespian in Greenwich Village while living next door to Scarsdale's scandalous brother R. Wilshire Vibe, who also dabbles in the theatrical arts. We could almost be reading early Evelyn Waugh circa "Vile Bodies."
On page 164, Kit takes a walk on the estate with Fleetwood Vibe who may be alive or may be a ghost, it's not particularly clear. "They [the Vibe clan] don't actually know I'm here," he confided to Kit. "If they do, it's only in the way some can detect ghosts -- though you may have noticed already these are not the most spiritual of people." Their ensuing conversation about vectors and portals into other worlds is mystical, and contrasts with the banality of most explorations as described by Fleetwood: "all my colleagues care about is finding waterfalls. The more spectacular the falls, the better the chance for an expensive hotel."
He continues with a story about one of the "queer characters" he encountered while exploring in Eastern Africa, one Yitzhak Zilberfeld, "out traveling in the world scouting possibilities for a Jewish homeland." A discussion of Home and Zionism devolves into a Borscht Belt comedy routine when they're charged by an elephant and Fleetwood delivers the "Depends upon how much he's charging -- try to talk him down a little?" punchline while Yitzhak cries "Anti-Semitic!" All ends well, however, with a local paper trumpeting the news, "SAVES JEW FROM INSANE ELEPHANT." Zilberfeld tells Fleetwood that South Africa is the place to make a fortune. "There's fifty-thousand Chinese coolies all lined up, sleeping on the docks from Tientsin to Hong Kong, waiting to be shipped into the Transvaal the minute the shooting [from the Boer War] stops..." This leads to an offstage outburst from Scarsdale Vibe who is "mouth-foaming" because "This money is coming from nowhere."
On page 168, the backstory continues with the ghostly Fleetwood reviewing his African adventures which eventually find him in the Transvaal, murdering a laborer who has possibly stolen a diamond by giving him a choice between being shot or throwing himself down a mine shaft. The African chooses the latter, which comes to haunt Fleetwood's dreams and his soul, "warning that there was some grave imbalance in the structure of the world, which would have to be corrected. Then each time Fleetwood would be not so much overcome by remorse as bedazzled at having been shown the secret backlands of wealth, and how sooner or later it depended on some act of murder, seldom limited to once." Feeling like a cursed man, he joins the Vormance Expedition to get away north to "the purity, the geometry, the cold," and as we already know, that doesn't work out so well.
On page 171, the narrative takes us back in time and space to Colorado, where our Accidental Detective, Lew Basnight, has been exiled from Chicago by White City Investigations. His main investigative focus is on a legendary anarchist bomber, the Kieselguhr Kid, and Lew roams the mountains and trails of Colorado trying to pick up info on the Kid and other enemies of the mining owners. However, Lew finds his political sympathies shifting from a "convenient insulation...from too much sympathy for either victim or perpetrator" to outright sympathy with the workers. He muses about slinging "a frozen pile of horse-droppings...at the next silk hat he saw serenely borne along in the street, the next mounted policeman beating on an unprotected striker." Lew also realizes that the struggle in Colorado isn't "just unconnected skirmishing, a dynamite blast here and there, a few shots from ambush -- it was a war between two full-scale armies."
Lew soldiers on out of his baroquely messy office in Denver, with its stacks of files on all the various characters in Colorado, and notices "the really odd thing...was that the names of owners' operatives were also turning up among his files on the mine workers." In other words, he begins to suspect that there are plenty of false-flag anarchist bombings actually perpetrated by the owners and the strikebreaking vigilantes.
On page 179, after an unspecified number of years at this task, Lew's boss Nate Privett arrives in Denver for his annual tour of inspection, and when Lew complains that the Kieselguhr Kid case "is a bitch, and growing more difficult every day," Nate gives him a song-and-dance about how "we are only as good as our credibility, which is what Regional Operative-in-Charge Lew Basnight's been giving us here, what with the kind of respect you enjoy in the business--" to which Lew replies, "Oh, your mother's ass, Nate. Your own, for that matter. No hard feelings." On page 181, Lew gets drunk at Walker's saloon and the Anarchist's saloon, where he decides to switch sides, though "now it could be too late, already past the point where anybody stood a chance against the juggernaut that had rolled down the country and flat stolen it."
On page 182, Lew begins his Shameful Habit. When "handling explosives," he gets his hand on "cyclopropane plus dynamite" from "the widely-respected mad scientist Dr. Oyswharf" and handling the combination sends him into a psychedelic trance that ends with his communing with a steak on his plate, "not the animal origins a fellow might reasonably expect so much as the further realms of crystallography," and subsequently thrown into jail for unspecified bad behavior. When Lew returns to Dr. Oyswharf the next day, the doctor understandingly gives him more "Cyclomite" and warns Lew to "have your ticker looked at now and then" because "there's a strange chemical relation between these nitro explosives and the human heart.". Indeed, "from then on, whenever a dynamite blast went off, even far away out of earshot, something concurrent was triggered somewhere in Lew's consciousness...after a while even if one was only about to go off."
Soon after "Lew had brought up with Nate Privett his doubts about the Kieselguhr Kid--in effect quitting the case--that's just when whatever it was decided to have a crack at him." Whatever it was throws dynamite at Lew in a small arroyo in the mountains, and with instinctive timing, "Lew knew the carnival theory, which was to throw yourself into the middle of the blast the second it went off, so that the shock-wave would already be outside of and heading away from you, leaving you safe inside the vaccum at the center -- maybe knocked out for a little, but all in one piece." I assume that this is the eye of the hurricane theory, and have no idea if it's actually true.
Lew comes back to consciousness while being tended to by a pair of upper-class English twits named Nigel and Neville who are roaming the West, having been inspired by Oscar Wilde's 1882 American Excursion. They essentially adopt Lew and take him to New Mexico where they board a train with "a strangely luxurious string of oversize parlor, dining, and club cars." When they arrive in Galveston, Nigel and Neville realize they haven't brought any Wild West souvenirs for their friends, "like an actual scalp or something," so they decide to take Lew back to England as a souvenir instead.
Lew is stowed away inside a steamer trunk in the cargo hold where he's sick most of the time from bad weather, which turns out to be on account of "the disastrous hurricane that had struck Galveston the day after they left -- 135-mile-per-hour winds, the city underwater, six thousand dead." This is an actual historical event that occurred on September 8-9, 1900. When Lewis is struck "neurasthenic" by the news, they ask him "whatever is the matter?" and Lew's reply is "Six thousand people to begin with." The final two lines are worth repeating: "Happens out in India all the time," said Nigel. "It is the world, after all." "Yes, Lewis, wherever could you have been living, before that frightful bomb brought you to us?"