Light from April's full moon swept over the Museum's façade and down the building's marble veneer. It illuminated the man—sized letters that hung high and large enough for a person as far uptown as Canal Street to see, spelling out Barnum's American Museum. From where I sat in my fourth-floor window, nearly all of Manhattan's sky was visible.
I pressed my back against the window frame and watched the moonlight dissolve a fistful of clouds. Its glow rolled across Broadway to cover the spires of St. Paul's and the front of City Hall, the mourning flag for Lincoln still listlessly hanging there, then spilled across the stables and roofs of houses abandoned to haberdashers and tailors. Most of higher society had stampeded uptown toward Fifth Avenue years ago, sticking to the highest part of the island and avoiding the land that sloped down toward the rivers on either side.
A bum staggered to a halt below me on a Broadway emptied by the encroaching night. He bellowed something indistinguishable, then tipped back on his heels to gawk, open—mouthed, up, up, up along the high Museum walls. He gazed in awe at the oval paintings of exotic tigers, whales, and a white-horned rhinoceros that were strung between each story of windows like pendants across the bosom of a well—endowed harlot. Who could blame the poor man for staring? Thousands before him had fallen for the gussied up old place, everyone from the city's poorest paupers to the families of its Upper Ten— and once even a prince. They, too, had all been enticed by the Museum's glitter. And why not? The place was irresistible. Banners and fluttering flags beckoned from the roof like welcoming hands, and a pied-piper band spewed out terrible music from the balcony twelve hours a day, every day except Sunday. "I take great pains to hire the poorest musicians I can find," Barnum liked to say. "They play so badly that the crowd moves into the Museum just to get out of earshot." Colossal gas lamps flanked the front doors, and just inside stood a huge golden statue of Apollo, his horses rearing, a lyre dangling from his naked shoulder. The great illuminator's index finger pointed toward the ticket window, just in case a visitor failed to see its shiny plaque.
The truth was, even I still found the place impressive after living here for nearly a decade. I'd been one of Phineas Taylor Barnum's Human Curiosities (viewed thrice daily under the moniker Bartholomew Fortuno, the World's Thinnest Man) since 1855, and, all in all, I could not complain about the way my life had unfolded. Few talents managed to make their way as far in the business as I had— Barnum's Museum was the pinnacle of our trade— and I made a good living off the gifts nature had given me. I had found a comfortable home.
So it was with a great sense of satisfaction that I sat on my windowsill that chilly spring night, just after the end of the War of the Rebellion, unaware that change twisted its way to me through the darkened New York streets. Mindlessly, I ran a hand lovingly across my right shoulder, never tiring of the intricacies of socket and bone, then lit a cheroot in defense against the fetid air; the local breweries, tanneries, slaughter houses, and fat—melting establishments smoldered away even in the middle of the night. Looking north I could make out Five Points, the Bowery, and the mean area around Greenwich Street that was jammed with immigrants and other unsavory folks. So many Irishmen, Italians, and Germans had crammed themselves below Houston Street that I could all but hear the clang of their knife fights. I avoided visiting that part of town. In fact, whenever possible, I avoided leaving Barnum's Museum at all. A man like me had no business in the wider world. Let the outside world come to me and pay to do it.
Catching a whiff of spring blossoms from the West Side orchards, I couldn't help but turn to Matina, who sat on my divan, tatting a lace doily to replace the one she'd stained with lamb gravy the week before. Next to her rested a tray of empty dishes from her evening snack and a pillow she'd embroidered for me years ago with the words He Who Stands with the Devil Does Himself Harm.
"I told you it was possible to smell the orchards from here, my dear. Come and sniff for yourself."
"All I smell is garbage," Matina answered, from her seat. "Come away from the window, Barthy. I've something I want to show you before I leave for the night."
Matina, my friend and frequent companion, had spent the evening with me as she often did, and I was glad to have her company. She'd been a permanent fixture at the Museum for four years that spring, having come from Doc Spaulding's Floating Palace, the great boat circus that barged up and down the Mississippi. Her stage name back then was Annie Angel the Fat Girl, and although she no longer performed under that sobriquet, it suited her well. Matina was as charming as a beautiful child. With her blond finger curls, alabaster skin, and great blue eyes that gazed out at the world as if she were seeing it for the first time, she resembled a great big porcelain doll.
Flip sides of the same coin, we'd taken to each other the first time we met, and our friendship had only grown over the years, in spite of constant taunts from Ricardo the Rubber Man. "The woman weighs over three hundred pounds, Fortuno! And look at you. A stick figure! I'll bet it slips in like a needle in the haystack." I was mortified by such crass observations, especially when they were made in front of my lady friend, but everyone knew that Ricardo's taunts had little truth to them. Matina had understood from the beginning that my body was not built for plea sure, and we'd both accepted the limitations of our relationship a long time ago. I liked to think our friendship was stronger because of it.
Earlier this evening, I'd spent an hour or so reading aloud from the current installment of Our Mutual Friend in Harper's. Dickens's fine wit made Matina smile, and she giggled like a girl as she put away her lace and then plumped up the pillow on the sofa and tapped the seat next to her.
"Come look at my new discovery," she said, digging into her bag and hauling out an oversized book. She flung it onto the low table in front of her, jangling the lamp as it landed. "It's by the same man who wrote Peter Parley's Tales of America. But this one is about people like us. I hear it goes back hundreds of years."
The book, bound in black cloth and covered with fine embossing and gold letters, was titled Curiosities of Human Nature.
"He illustrates quite well, I think. Wouldn't it be marvelous if someday we wound up in a book like this?"
The leaves of the book crackled as I thumbed through the pages. Matina was right; the woodcuts were of excellent quality. Although I vastly preferred my own books on congenital anomalies— Willem Vrolik's Handbook of Pathological Anatomy or his more dramatic Tabulae ad illustrandam embryogenesin hominis et mammaliam tam naturalem quam abnormem— Matina's new book was not a bad alternative. Her taste usually tended toward the pictorial— like most New York ladies, Matina kept an extensive collection of cartes not only of Prodigies and Wunderkinds but of famous New York families like the Schermerhorns and the Joneses— but at least she was literate.
Matina flipped through the pages of her new treasure one by one. "It's quite comprehensive. Look here. He's done a whole section on dwarfs. Jeffery Hudson, born in 1619, only three feet nine." She furrowed her eyebrows and read out loud. " ‘Midgets and dwarfs have generally one trait in common with children, a high opinion of their own little persons and great vanity.' Ha!" She looked up, bright—eyed. "Well. We could have told him that!"
She was quite right. Over the years at least a dozen midgets had cursed us with their presence, and— with the exception of Tom Thumb and his lovely wife, Miss Lavinia—not one of them was tolerable. Dwarfs could be even worse— testy, arrogant, and impossible to please— but fortunately, Barnum rarely hired dwarfs. He thought them too misshapen for the delicate sensibilities of his feminine clientele.
"And here's a story about a young boy, six years old, who did impossible calculations in his head. You see here?" Matina used her finger like a teacher's baton, poking at the page. "Zerah Colburn calculated in his head the number of seconds in two thousand years. In less than a heartbeat he answered, Sixty—three billion seventy million." She looked at me with a touch of irony. "They say he had a very large head."
"Any good phrenologist would tell you that head size and intelligence are closely correlated," I observed.
Matina laughed. "What if I were to knock my forehead and develop a big bump right here?" She poked a finger into the front part of her brow. "Would that make me smarter than you?"
I let the comment pass.
Around midnight, Matina complained of heartburn and said she was ready for bed. I thought she would soon leave for her own quarters, but she surprised me by walking toward my bedroom.
"Do you mind if I rest here a minute or two? My stomach is bothering me something terrible. I won't stay long." As she passed, I caught a whiff of the sweet smell that always hovered about her. Tonight: a potpourri of pork shanks, braised leeks, and apples mixed with her usual lavender perfume.
Down went Matina's massive body on my bed, the wood frame groaning in protest, and within minutes she fell into a snoring sleep. Much as I would have preferred her to go to her own rooms, I could hardly have said no. It was my duty as a friend to accommodate Matina's physical problems. She suffered from a number of ailments, ranging from sleep difficulty to the swelling of her legs and, most recently, a racing of her heart even at rest, but anyone with gifts like ours knows to take a philosophical view of such complaints. I myself often suffered from swollen joints, the pain of bony knees knocking together, the bumps of exposed elbows, a lightheadedness appearing at inopportune moments, or an unpadded chair torturing my hips and spine. Every gift has its price.
I laid my comforter over Matina's bare arms— her off—the—shoulder gown was charming but not very sensible— and left to tidy up my parlor. After lowering the gas lamps, I swallowed a nip of tonic for my aching joints and shimmied back out onto my bedroom window ledge to watch the evening pass.
The clatter of a carriage in the street soon caught my attention. Gripping the window's frame, I tilted out to find the source. At first I saw nothing, only street shadows and lamplight and a gray dog darting between the sycamores across the road. And then there it was, a grand carriage appearing at the far end of Broadway, the clop—clop of its horses drawing it toward the Museum. How curious. One might expect to see a two-seater at such an hour, carrying someone's mistress home or taking a gentleman from the fancy brothels like Flora's or the Black Crook down to the scruffier waterfront ballrooms, but this was a landau coach, posh and stylish, its top latched down and its lacquered sides glinting in the moonlight.
Rather than turn west toward the more pleasant Church Street, the coach continued straight, passing the twin gas lamps that stood guard before the Museum's entrance. I leaned a bit farther out the window, straining to keep the carriage in sight. It came to a stop a few paces later. One of the horses whinnied as the driver jumped from his perch and drew open a cushioned door, ceremoniously rolling out the steps. A glimpse inside the cab attested to its luxuriousness: its walls were plush with padded fabric, its seats were covered with fine leather, and its floor was elegantly tiled. It was much finer than any coach I'd ever had the plea sure of riding in. I considered waking Matina, who took great delight in mysterious happenings, but the next thing I saw kept me riveted to my place.
Out of the coach, a tiny foot emerged, followed by a gloved hand reaching delicately toward the extended arm of the driver. An apparition appeared. She wore a full veil of white attached to a fashionable bonnet, and her traveling coat was of unquestionable excellence. This was a woman of quality if ever I saw one. She faltered on the stair, and the driver took her by the waist to assist her. She brushed aside his hands and gently stepped onto the wooden planks of the walk in front of the Museum.
"How dare you manhandle this woman, sir?"
A booming voice that could only belong to Barnum rang out from inside the carriage. Most intriguing. Had the great Phineas T. returned early from his scouting trip? Barnum often left us to chase down rumors and ferret out new talent, and usually he stayed on the road for months at a time, scouring the traveling circuses, the carnivals, and the other grand cities for the unnatural, the exotic, and the new. According to the Museum manager, Benjamin Fish, Barnum was not due back from his current trip until mid—June. That was still nearly two months away, but here he was, forcing his bearlike body out of the carriage door and stomping across the dirty planks of the walkway, sending the rats below scurrying into the street. I gazed down at the great man. Barnum's receding hairline hinted at his age, but his eyebrows— as bushy and wild as ever— spoke to how vital he still remained.
Barnum puffed out his chest, his belly protruding above his satin waistband, and approached the driver, who looked around the abandoned street as if Barnum were addressing someone else.
"Have you heard me, man?"
"I ain't done nothin,' sir," the driver yelped. "Tried to help her down is all."
"You've acted beyond your position," Barnum said. "You've forgotten your place."
I realized that I'd lost sight of Barnum's mysterious companion, but then I spotted her resting against a post. She straightened her veil with a small gloved hand as the driver shifted back on his heels. Barnum advanced. The driver clenched his fists in what looked like an acceptance of Barnum's challenge, but then he scuttled back and hopped onto his coach, barreling away in a storm of scattered stones and dust.
Barnum and the veiled woman, alone now, lingered in the gaslight below. I could make out only the mu?ed rise and fall of Barnum's voice against the soft murmurings of the woman's responses. Moments later, the great front doors opened and they disappeared into the Atrium. I retreated from the window back into the bedroom, calmed by the sound of Matina's rhythmic breathing.
In my parlor, I picked up the tray full of Matina's empty plates and glasses and set it outside in the hall for the chambermaid to fetch. The veiled woman must be a new act. But, if so, why would Barnum slip her in under cover of night? It made no sense at all. Barnum was the consummate showman. No one in the world knew how to create drama and interest the way he did, and every new act was an opportunity for him to step into the spotlight and seize the attention of all of New York. Human Curiosities were Barnum's greatest pride. He was forever boasting of our gifts. "My Curiosities are the royalty of the underworld," he would say."Like everyone else, but more. So much more." In fact, when I first came to the Museum, Barnum cleared an entire room for my exhibit. He gathered every skeleton in the place— from a six-inch steppe lemming to the reassembled bones of a Romanian water buffalo— and placed them, smallest to largest, around the perimeter of the room. Full—sized portraits of yours truly in all my six—foot, sixty-seven—pound glory touted me as the thinnest man in the world.
Barnum gave an equal introduction to Jonathan Alley, labeling the muscled newcomer The Giant Boy of Hungary and dressing him in bright red pantaloons and one of those tidy bow ties commonly worn by boys from the better families. Although Alley was nearly twenty-five years old at the time and bore the shadow of a rugged beard, Barnum worked the monster-child illusion perfectly. Alley came to the Museum with great flourish, caged atop a painted wagon drawn down the center of Broadway during the height of commerce. The "boy monster" rattled the bars of a cage full of bunting and big yellow balls. I laughed until my side stitched when I first saw the man. "I think it's a perfectly decent presentation," Matina had said, offended by my laughter. But then hadn't she started her career dressed as a cherub, wings and all?
When Barnum hired his giant, Emma Swan, The World's Tallest Woman, he flew flags off the balconies and made up twenty—foot posters of her seated with two midgets on her lap. He claimed that she stood eight feet high— what did it matter if she had to pile up her hair and teeter around on shoes with four—inch heels in order to mea sure up? Barnum even had Ricardo the Rubber Man stretched from one balcony to the next for an entire morning during the first week he came to us. Yes, all of us had been given a proper introduction to the public. So why would he sneak this newest act into the Museum in the dead of night?
I pulled the shutters closed and stuck my head into the bedroom. Matina was sprawled across two—thirds of the bed, her hair flaxen in the moonlight. Her generous breasts rose and fell like waves on the ocean beneath the blue silk of her dress. What if the woman I'd seen with Barnum was competition for Matina? She'd be furious. But no. The woman I'd seen outside did not look large. Had Barnum perhaps found a new Hottentot Venus? Again, no. The new woman was slim and elegant, with no protruding buttocks, at least as far as I could tell. Still, the real Hottentot Venus had been dead for years— I'd heard rumors that certain oversized parts of her had been pickled and now floated in a jar on display by special invitation only at Kahn's Anatomical Museum— and a new Venus would be a true coup.
Maybe I should wake Matina. Surely, she'd know who was coming up through the circuits. And oh, how she'd love the gossip of a mystery woman! But I decided it best not to disturb her. Instead, I settled into the small space beside her, pulled my mother's comforter over my ribs, and gave myself over to dreams of great and mysterious women.
The clanging bells of St. Paul's woke me from a fitful sleep. Matina had slipped out sometime during the night without disturbing me, and, as I lay in bed, my thoughts moved again to the mysterious woman from the night before. If she was a new act, I hoped she'd be extraordinary. Too many of Barnum's recent discoveries had been less than stellar, and I'd begun to worry that he'd forgotten the difference between new and unique.
When curiosity finally bested comfort, I forced myself up out of bed and moved into the parlor, thrusting open the shutters onto a clear Sunday morn. Below me, early-rising sinners hustled up Broadway toward St. Paul's for the morning ser vices. In less than an hour, our own in—house church ser vice would begin, and though I'd planned to take a soothing bath before worship— and had reserved the bathtub days ago for this purpose— I'd now have to settle for a dose of tonic and a quick toilette in my room. The maid had already picked up my chamber pot from the hall and left fresh water by the door, along with the single boiled egg I sometimes ate for breakfast. Ignoring the egg, I hauled the pitcher to the bedroom. Water sloshed over the side onto the already stained marble of my dresser. I made a mental note to speak to the maid about not overfilling it.
Checking my image in the wall mirror, I shaved carefully, wishing Matina hadn't told me that her Peterson's claimed it was no longer fashionable to let one's facial hair grow. After applying a touch of pomade to my hair and slipping into my trousers, waistcoat, and Sunday cravat, I decided I didn't look half bad. One good thing about being only bones: My clothing never bunched or pulled. Hurrying out into the resident hall, I took a moment to peer around and noted that none of the empty sleeping rooms had been disturbed the night before. Where on earth had the veiled woman slept? How curious. But I was already late for church, so I pushed through the door separating our living space from the fourth—floor exhibits and hurried along. An irritable kangaroo thumped her tail as I passed, her odor strong but not offensive. I tipped my hat to her and then cringed, as I walked by the glass cages where the boa and other unsavory snakes lay curled around the center stovepipe for warmth. Snakes bothered me, always had. And the last day I wished to see them was on the Sabbath.
Because the Museum was closed on Sunday mornings and there'd be no visitors to disturb me, I bypassed the ser vice stairs and cut directly through the public part of the third floor, hustling past the exhibits in the curio salons. These rooms were filled from floor to ceiling with the treasures Barnum brought back from his expeditions. Cases of butterflies and insects, Chinese balls, and whistles made of pigs' tails were displayed in neat lines beneath glass. For good luck, I tapped the display case where the pear—shaped diamond called the Idol's Eye was nestled, then hurried by bows and arrows and stone heads, the poisoned shafts from the lost tribe of Kahil El Zabar, the Samoan Sea Worm that could gut a cat in seconds, and a giant hairball that had been rescued from the stomach of a black—bellied sow.
I scanned the second floor for any hint of the new act but found nothing: no packs of undistributed flyers, no announcements, and no word of her on the big Notice Board in the backstage Green Room. Not even an advance broadside on the marquee near the Moral Lecture Room, the Museum's famous theater. Though I was already late for ser vices, I made one final dash to the first floor, sure I'd stumble across a pamphlet or poster announcing Barnum's latest discovery. But I discovered nothing new at all.
Strands of the opening hymn, "Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee," wafted downstairs, and I ran up the Grand Staircase to the temporary "chapel." Every Sunday, Barnum had the chapel set up in the same minor theater in which I did my daily shows. There were three of these minor theaters flanking the Moral Lecture Room. This particular room boasted a small elevated stage, a plank floor, three portal windows peering out on an airshaft of floating dust, and ten or so rows of straight—backed chairs. The only truly elegant touch— and all three minor rooms had variations of the same— was the doorframe. Each room boasted a carved figurehead taken from an old warship, ram heads around one entrance, ancient Roman saints on horse back framing another. Today's "chapel" door showed two full—length carvings of the Greek goddess Athena in her half—naked glory.
I patted my hair into place and entered, scanning the dark room for the new act, but saw only Matina, the giant Emma Swan, three house maids, and a handful of actors currently playing in Ring of Fate. Reverend Smalley glowered down at me from his pulpit as I dutifully slid into place next to Matina. I settled onto one of the same chairs our audiences sat in to watch me perform, wishing I had a cushion to protect my thin frame from the hard wooden seat. The stale stink of yesterday's crowd still filled the room. But Matina looked charming in a white bonnet and day dress of lavender silk with large puffing flounces running around the hemline.
"Why did you leave without waking me?" I whispered, leaning toward her.
"Shush now. You're late and the Reverend is staring at you."
"You'll never guess what I saw last night."
The little congregation starting singing "Fairest Lord Jesus," and Matina raised an eyebrow at me.
"I'll tell you, but you must keep what I say to yourself."
"Of course, Barthy, of course."
"Barnum is back."
Matina let her hymnbook slide to her lap. "He is? Why so early, for goodness' sake?"
I let her wait a moment, to build the suspense. "I think he's brought a new act with him."
"What do you mean, a new act?" Matina whispered. "Who in the world is it?"
"Not sure. Barely saw her, I'm afraid."
The good Reverend lifted a cautionary finger at us, and Matina lifted her book to her face again, studying it intently. Then she leaned over to me, her lips pursed. "Her, you say?"
"And today, no sign of her at all."
Matina said nothing else. We sat through a lackluster sermon about how we received grace through our own free will— drivel, in my opinion, since no man is the master of his own destiny— but I could tell that Matina was dying to hear more; few things pleased her as much as news that no one else was privy to.
As soon as the ser vice finished and we left the room, Matina demanded, "Tell me everything!" I filled in all the details, but she kept asking questions I couldn't answer: Where did she come from? Could you tell how old she was? How tall?
"You must pay better attention to what you see," Matina admonished me, as we made our way down the ser vice stairs, her hand wrapped around mine like warm bread. I let her squeeze my fingers as I led her out the staff door and through the back courtyard near the kitchens. When we reached the dining room, she said, more to herself than to me, "How odd that I haven't heard a thing. I usually get wind of what Barnum is planning before anyone else."
I opened the dining room door for Matina and gestured her forward. Ricardo the Rubber Man, resplendent in green pantaloons, leaned rudely across the table, fingering the fine piece of table linen that had been scavenged from Barnum's rooftop café after someone had written Give us a kiss on it in India ink.
"Now ain't lunch looking appetizing?" He snaked one of his arms out and wrapped it all the way around Matina's ample waist, tugging up the back of her hoopskirt so that it showed the bottoms of her petticoats.
I rapped Ricardo on the hand with my walking stick, which made a sharp cracking noise as it smacked against his knuckles.
"Bastard!" Ricardo whipped away his hand, intentionally dislocating his fingers. Normally, I'd admire a Curiosity with skills as unique as Ricardo's, but I must admit that his long tongue, his sloppy words, and his aversion to baths revolted me.
"Look what you did, you broke my fingers!" he hollered at me, dangling his hand in front of my face.
"Leave them alone!" Alley bellowed from the far side of the table, and Ricardo backed away grudgingly, pulling his ears long like a hound's and barking.
Alley and Ricardo had been rivals for years. Ricardo liked to claim that his own gift was vastly superior to everyone else's and took great plea sure in offending the ladies of our company. But Alley kept him in line. For all his slovenly habits and his sad eyes, Alley surged with power. No torn and baggy clothes could hide his massive legs and shoulders. Potency and good health gushed through him, and Ricardo had little choice but to respect his greater strength.
I took Matina by the elbow and steered her along the back side of the table across from the windows. She settled onto one of the reinforced benches, and I pulled up my customary chair, on which I kept a pillow to ease the pain of sitting. I nodded across the table to Zippy the What—Is—It? Next to him sat Nurse, a frantic woman with an overbite and thinning hair who'd been hired a few years ago to protect him from an elf boy who'd tormented him endlessly by lobbing rocks at Zippy's tapering head.
The giant Emma Swan scowled down the table at all of us. "Might it be possible to have a quiet lunch today? The good Lord favors the gentle and the meek." Emma was the daughter of a Nova Scotia preacher and wasn't about to let us forget it. She had a face as long and square as a horse's, but with a rolling chin instead of a neck. Her dogma was backed by little piousness, as Matina pointed out.
"For all her talk of meekness, that woman is quick to speak her mind," Matina muttered. "But for once I think she might be right."
She nodded toward a flyer hanging on the inside of the dining room door. in memoriam ran across the top of the flyer, above an American flag and a bust of President Lincoln. In the middle, a poem was flanked by two pillars, one that displayed Lincoln's birth date, the other the date of his death. "Tomorrow is Lincoln's funeral. None of us should fuss today."
Emma seemed about to make a snide remark but changed her mind and bowed her head instead. "What a world we live in. What a world."
We all held our tongues when Cook shoved through the dining room door, pushing a cart loaded with huge platters of mutton and pails of boiled potatoes. Feeding a giant, a muscleman, and Matina took some work. Cook, a hardy Italian woman with broad cheekbones and a penchant for spiced fish and brandy, so hated to hear us gossiping that she sometimes refused to serve our food while we were in what she called "your snotty little moods." So we stayed quiet as she hauled the meat and potatoes onto the sideboard with the rest of our usual Sunday fare. Behind her, Bridgett, a pretty Irish girl with black curls rolling about her face like tiny serpents, carried in two trays of pie. She wore the blue striped uniform Cook insisted on, but it didn't hide the dirt ring around her neck or disguise the worn, oversize shoes that flapped around her soiled feet. She blushed a high red when she spotted Alley, who kept his head ducked, staring down at his plate.
After Cook left, we all calmed down and took to our food with different levels of appreciation. As usual, I counted out a dozen green beans, no more, no less, and placed them horizontally on my plate, along with a bit of horse radish to add zing. After cutting each bean into thirds, I dipped a piece into the horse radish and popped it into my mouth, chewed twenty—five times before swallowing it, then started on the next piece.
It wasn't until Cook returned with the pudding that Matina looked down along the quiet table. "I've got some very interesting news," Matina announced, sitting back until everyone appeared to be listening.
"Matina," I admonished. "I think it best not to—"
She waved me away with one hand. "Barnum's back," she said, measuring her effect. "Barthy saw him from his window last night. And apparently he's brought a mysterious person with him. A new act!"
Ricardo rolled off the bench and lay on the floor at Matina's feet, bugging his eyes out at her. "We've already heard, my sweet pumpkin. And not only that—"
Alley cut him off. "I'm the one who seen her."
"You?" Matina frowned, realizing she'd lost her thunder.
"What's she like up close?" I asked.
Ricardo uncurled. "I saw her, too! She was covered up like a convict so she's either a real monster or a looker."
"You did not see her. A liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue," Emma admonished.
Ricardo rushed to explain. "Alley was in the hall when they came in. He saw Barnum slip her into his office. He closed the door and locked it, and the two of them stayed in the office for at least an hour, all alone."
Matina heaved her body from the table and made her way toward the sideboard, poking Alley in the side of the head as she passed. "If you know so much, tell me her name," Matina said.
Alley's broad shoulders slumped forward and his stringy brown hair rested on his shoulders like a boy's. "The first name, it's like two letters: I. L." he said. "Last name Adams. Iell Adams. That's all I know." As usual when talking to a woman, he did not look at Matina's face but gazed somewhere over her shoulder instead.
"Have you ever heard of such nonsense?" Matina made a haughty face, then spooned herself out two bowls of pudding."I.L. What kind of name is that? And who told you this?"
Alley gave Matina one of his rare smiles. "The carriage driver who brung her. I know 'im. He came 'round this morning to complain about Barnum."
"But where did she sleep?" Matina demanded. "Barthy told me there's no one new in any of the resident rooms."
"My bet," Ricardo said, "is she's a chippy . . . a hussy . . . a whore."
Zippy sang out in a girlish voice:
A hussy ain't the only gal, She's the only gal for me.
"Go ahead, Alley. Tell her the best part," Emma said, suddenly a co—conspirator.
"He's housing her outside."
I dropped my knife. It clattered loudly on the china before falling to the floor. Who in the world could this woman be? All the Curiosities lived together in the fourth-floor resident wing; we had done so for many years. Barnum only made special arrangements for his most lucrative acts, like Charles Stratton or Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. Boarding those performers at the St. Nicholas Hotel elevated their social standing, as did renaming them Princess This or General That. It wasn't as if I envied their privilege. I had always liked Charles Stratton, even after Barnum named him Tom Thumb. Charles and I had met for a drink or two over the years, and sometimes Alley and I would join him at the pony races to share his private box along with a few well—dressed ladies for hire. When Charles got married, he insisted Alley and I attend his wedding, but Barnum would not hear of it. "They don't need the likes of you two taking away from their time in the sun," he'd said.
This I resented, though I also felt a surge of plea sure that Barnum thought my presence would attract so much notice. And good Lord, what a fuss that wedding turned out to be. a great little wed ding— marriage of gen. tom thumb and miss lavinia warren, the World headlines read, the social event of the year. Over twelve thousand people attended the reception, and President Lincoln and his wife received the newlyweds at the White House later in the week.
"Whoever this Iell is, she must really be something, else why all the mystery? And we're out of butter, for goodness' sake." Matina rang the little bell next to the soup terrine, and Cook's new assistant, Bridgett, came scurrying into the room, giddy as a girl. Her dark hair was tugged back so tightly from her face that her eyes flattened unnaturally, giving her an almost oriental appearance. Cook had obviously taken a hand in making the poor girl presentable.
"Ma'am?" Bridgett curtsied, an action that brought smiles to more than one of us. We were used to kitchen help coming and going— God knows we weren't the easiest group to service— but rarely did one of them demonstrate such admiration. We'd see how the girl felt about us after a few months of slinging piles of food and cleaning dozens of platters and bowls.
"Butter." Matina pointed to the butter plate, and Bridgett went running, causing Matina to lift an eyebrow in amusement as she maneuvered to her seat, a plate in both hands. I shifted a bit to accommodate.
"If she ain't no chippy," Ricardo said, "this act must be something that will make Barnum rich. Why else would he bother?"
I set my cup upright and poured myself some tea. "Money isn't everything."
"Barnum's like a dog on the prowl when he smells something he wants," Emma said.
"Or on a leash," Matina added. "At least if his wife is around." They both snickered, their usual rivalry overshadowed by their mutual love of good gossip. "Remember those acrobats? And that poor chambermaid? What was she called, Barthy?"
"Abigail something or another," I said, remembering only the poor girl's first name.
Matina shrugged. "Mrs. Barnum had her declared insane, and they toted her off to the asylum uptown."
"As well she should have," Emma said. "I swear, the only one around here with any sense is Barnum's wife. Lord knows, Mr. Barnum isn't worth the land he stands on."
"You think it made sense to have that poor girl carted off when all she did was mention an indiscretion or two?" Matina slathered more butter on her roll.
"An indiscretion?" I asked, surprised by Matina's stance. "That ‘poor girl' caused a horrible fuss. Blathering to the Times and the Herald. Barnum's reputation was at stake."
"And what do you care about Barnum's reputation?"
"His good name reflects on all of us," I said.
Matina blew out a cheekful of air. "We do not need Barnum or his reputation."
But she knew I was right. Under Barnum's care we were celebrated as Curiosities and given proper respect for our gifts, but without his showmanship the public would see us simply as freaks. Barnum's Museum was at the top of the heap. Nowhere else in the world were people like us treated so well. There were other museums, of course, plus the theaters and some private clubs, which could guarantee at least a living wage. But after that came the long slide down— to the circuses, the pit shows, the traveling menageries, and the Bowery dives. The anatomy museums were the lowest rung of the ladder.
Among our kind, there was a clear class system. Although all of us were considered Curiosities, the True Prodigies were the highest among us. These were individuals born with such rare God—given gifts that they could never be confused with ordinary mortals: men with flippers, armless girls, parasitic twins. Barnum shied away from True Prodigies. With the exception of the connected twins, Chang and Eng, whom he had showed with smashing success a few years ago, he never hired them. "I'd sooner take on my uncle's donkey than an act that might offend a gentlewoman or inspire a man to drink," Barnum once claimed.
The next level down were the regular Prodigies like Matina, Alley, Emma, and me. All of us were more or less the right shape and pleasant enough of feature, but with unusual proportions. Our special gifts emphasized different aspects of human beings— their hunger, their strength, their purity. We traditional Prodigies were the type Barnum favored most, though I'd always thought that showed a lack of vision on his part.
After the Prodigies came the Exotics, those whose odd bodies were helped along by a touch of show business. Like Ricardo, for example. He boasted at every opportunity that he was a True Prodigy because of how he could stretch and bend. None of us agreed. As far as we were concerned, he was a talented trickster but little else— as was our other Exotic, Zippy, whose fame owed as much to Darwin's Origin of Species as to any innate skill. It was sheer luck that his elongated head and simian propensities made it easy for Barnum to bill him as the missing link, the lone survivor of an Amazonian tribe discovered during an exploration of the River Gamba. The truth? He hailed from Liberty Corner, New Jersey, and was the son of former slaves.
Last came the Gaffs, self—made Curiosities who faked what came to the rest of us naturally. They had no inherent worth whatsoever. I felt a surge of pride looking around the table at my colleagues. We had not a Gaff among us.
Matina dabbed at her mouth with a corner of a napkin. "Well, I think one of us should warn this new person, I really do. Accepting favors from Barnum is a dangerous path."
"Oh, I'll warn her all right." Ricardo bounded from his chair and pulled a box of phosphorous matches from his pocket. He struck a match until it flared, then threw it in the middle of the table, yelling, "Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!" in imitation of a fire truck.
"Stop that this instant!" Matina admonished Ricardo as she slapped at the match flame with her napkin.
"We need something heavier to put out those flames." Ricardo stretched his arms across the table toward Matina's breasts, prompting an outbreak of laughter.
I glared at Ricardo.
He just laughed. "What? Would you slap my hands for going where yours go every day?"
I rose. "If you continue to insult Matina, you will have to answer to me!"
Ricardo cackled and rose to my challenge, but Alley held up one of his huge hands and waved him down.
"Give me those matches," Alley said. "You know better than that."
Reluctantly, Ricardo tossed the box of matches at Alley, who tucked them into his pocket.
As I settled back into my chair, Matina patted me gently on the knee. "Look at you, defending me," she whispered. "Such a sweet man."
I nodded, grateful for Alley's intervention, but all I could think about for the rest of the day was Barnum's new discovery. Who was she? I was dying to know.
Ellen Bryson holds a BA in English from Columbia University and an MA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. Formerly a modern dancer, she lives in Southern California. This is her first novel.