At the Ephermal City
San Francisco, July, 1915
This was an early Indian summer, heat from the interior pushing back the damp ocean cold that normally dominated the City’s summer weather. Instead of thick avalanches of fog rolling through the Golden Gate, spilling over Twin Peaks and, to the north, shrouding the tall hills of Marin, the Bay Area was baking under a brilliantly clear sky.
The heat reached far and wide, all the way to San Jose and the southland beyond, baking the Salinas Valley and, to the West of that, the Monterey coastline, Carmel, and the Big Sur. North of San Rafael the heat climbed past the one hundred degrees and the distant fields and orchards of Napa and Sonoma burned in the summer sun, the still air magnifying the warming’s effect.
Old timers sniffed the air, smelling the trace scent of fires from the Sierras to the distant east, declaring this would be a long spell of heat, and so it was turning out to be. Each day the crowds roaming the avenues of the post-Victorian wonderland that was the Pan-American Pacific International Exposition looked forward with increased excitement to the late nights, not only for the blazing illuminations that would fill the sky and light the surrounding hills, but the hoped for cooling breezes dropping temperatures into the more bearable 80s and 70s, making pleasant the night time at the P.P.I.E., the great celebration of the completion of the building of the canal in Panama.
The first day of heat took fairgoers by surprise, resulting in an inordinate number of heat emergencies, women and men succumbing to the heat overtaxing the Fair’s first aid infrastructure. But as the days passed the crowds adapted, dressing down, in some cases scandalously so, even to the libertine sensibilities the more bohemian citizens of San Francisco.
Also on that first day of Indian Summer the tall white ship slipped through the Golden Gate, light canvas sails set full to catch the soft air off the Pacific as she cruised with the inflowing tide. She’d come in near sunset, air to her stern, her lazily rippling white sails glowing gold in the light of the descending sun as she cruised past the flotilla of gray warships that stood station off the Fair’s shoreline, a reminder of a different, lost time in the history of this port.
The tall ship’s visit was an unheralded one, and so her arrival was observed with no small commotion by fairgoers, who gathered in growing numbers along the marina as rumors of the majestic vessel spread through the fair, watching as the towering ship tacked north, soon to drop anchor at the mouth of Richardson Bay, off Sausalito. That night, miles distant, light illuminated the tall ship’s silhouette, bathing her in warm ambers easily seen from the marina and the surrounding hills above the fair grounds.
As the passing days warmed so, too, did rumors that made their way across the water, tales of the ship’s complement and events associated with their stay in Sausalito, stories that served to feed the human animal’s need for a taste of the sensational. It was learned the vessel was called the Nile, a name evoking allusions of the mystic and the strange for fairgoers versed with the current fascination with ancient Egypt, and reports soon spread of large dinners and parties running into the early mornings, of exotic women and odd, even unsettling happenings that grew all the more fantastic with each telling.
No mistake: the ladies know how to make an entrance.
Sipping tea at his cafe table situated on the corner of a small terrace overlooking the Fair and the bay waters beyond, the quiet man took in the vision of the graceful white ship, rolling gently in the lazy bay swells, a distant part of him undecided as to whether or not what he felt was anticipation or anxiety.
Do I know these people any more?
Did I ever?
“Did they know you?”
He looked up, and she was there, tall, unmoving, subtle rainbows of color flowing over her dark skin, colors and skin unseen by all except one such as he.
“And here you are.”
He stood to offer her a seat.
Taller than he, she leaned in and down, moist lips caressing his cheek as she whispered her greeting.
“Indeed, sweet prince.” She smiled against his cheek, whispering in his ear. “Here I am.”
She settled and he returned to his seat as a waiter stepped over to their table, that worthy eying the dark skinned woman with an expression conveying both interest and disapproval.
She smiled, then ordered tea and cookies.
The quiet man chuckled as the waiter turned away to fetch her order.
“You know, the Victorians haven’t quite loosed their hold over this era’s moral sensibilities. Even in these modern times, and in this great Bohemian city, well-dressed, respectable women are escorted in public, particularly when visiting entertainments such as our Exposition.”
She eyed him, curious and amused.
“So I’m a trollop, am I?”
“It would appear.”
“Oh, dear. That would explain some of the looks I’ve been receiving.”
“Yes. Our young waiter seems particularly scandalized you should arrive here, without escort, and take a seat at an apparent stranger’s table.”
“Not the first time this has happened in the past day, I must confess.” She laughed and reached across the small table to briefly squeeze his hand. “But I am not yet at the Fair, and I have found my escort.”
He smiled with affection. “In truth, were you not who you are, I would be surprised you were let in here at all.”
“Ah, the skin color silliness.”
She sighed, releasing his hand as she eased back in her chair. “Not to worry. Where I go, that particular prejudice tends to fade from the consciousness of the people around me. While you may see me as I really am, the people about us see me as something else, an unusually tall, pale skinned woman of means. But that is all: they remain blind to pigmentation. The thought never comes to them.”
“Not really a solution.”
“No.” She turned away. “And that’s not my concern.” She looked down from their vantage, west and north, taking in the fairgrounds. “These people are as ephermal as this wonderful amusement they’ve constructed. If they fix this illness in the time left them, it won’t be by my agency.”
The quiet man nodded thoughtfully, sipped his tea as he looked out across the wide waters to where the Nile was moored. Up until now visits from the ship to the Fair had been made across the bay by ferry or by means of the Nile’s pinnace, carrying crew members and passengers taking turns visiting the fair.
Not today. The white ship had lifted anchor, and was slowly moving south from the mouth of Richardson Bay, making sail, the main and fore lower topsails run out to prove propulsion, with jib and brig sheets catching wind to aid in steering. Once out on the bay, the course sails for all three masts would be added for additional speed and better handling, but that would be all. The hot wind out of the northeast was light, and the navigator was going to take her time crossing the expanse, in part out of care for the anchored fleet of warships and the traffic on the bay, but also for the opportunity to put on a show: the Nile was flying all her flags, brilliant rainbows of color outlining the spiderwebs of rigging as she made to deftly wind her way through the small vessels and large ships of war that filled the the bay.
He nodded in the ship’s direction. “How was the passage?”
“Passage? Oh, no. I arrived separately, last night, by train from the south. At the station, I encountered a beautiful young man who graciously bought me dinner, took me dancing, and shared his room with me. We parted but an hour ago. I will be meeting him again, later.” She smiled to herself. “Such a beautiful young boy, so tender, so full of life. I think I will remember him.” Her voice drifted off and she turned to the young prince, expression vaguely amused.
“They’re only now beginning to realize I am here.”
She was quiet once more, head slowly turning, taking in the view from their hilltop vantage, looking first to her right to the rebuilt downtown of the City, and then over and across the bay at the shores and golden hills to the east. She scanned left, looking north, taking in the islands spotting the bay.
“This land, the islands of the bay, all part of a violent geography.”
To the right of Richardson Bay rose the green hills of Angel Island, and those of the Tiburon peninsula behind.
“Yes.” He sipped his tea, thoughtful. “nearly two minutes it went on, tearing the world apart.” He lowered his cup to its saucer, the movement, like his words, slow and deliberate. “But it was the fire that followed that did the old girl in, just as it had in the years following the Gold Rush.”
Eyes still moving, she lifted her gaze to take in the high hills of the coastal range, the ridge elevating up to the forested heights of Mt. Tamalpias. Lastly, she turned to the mouth of the bay, the world famous Golden Gate, eyes finally resting once more upon the Fairgrounds below and to the west, stretching three miles along the northern shore of the San Francisco peninsula.
The Pan-American Pacific International Exhibition.
The Ephermal City, the World’s Metropolis of Dreams.
“This is a good place for you, I think.”
“Yes.” He grinned, nodding. “I live on the fault line at the edge of the world, at the furthermost reaches of everything geographical, in a region of unheralded possibility.”
“Of course.” He eyed her. “But true, nonetheless. This is the newest, smartest place in the New World. There is an energy to this frontier metropolis, and to the sprawling region that surrounds it, a wildness that lives in the roots of the resurrected city, young and vital, literally rebuilt from the ashes. Those who live here in this time understand from vivid experience how everything can end in seconds, as it did nine years ago. That understanding informs them, dictates who they are.” His arm swept out, the gesture lazy, obvious, taking in the surrounding city and bay. “People here, like no other place, live in the moment; they are hungry, some so fiercely they near glow with the fire that drives them. At the same time, they seem blessed with a rough innocence, a raw chivalry birthed in romance, in a tragic pessimism from which they find constant renewal.”
He laughed, an amused chuckle.
“Listen to me. Romance. I sound like George Sterling.”
He grinned. “An acquaintance. Wonderful, tragic man. A Romantic poet born a hundred years too late, I sometimes think, but regarded highly in this retrograde region of the world and, I must add, a wonderful person with whom to spend a day on a beach or in the country, or a night on the town.”
“Yes. Not a Homer, of course. But quite good.”
He was quiet a time.
“There is something unique here, a creative vigor that strengthens the spirit. I miss these things when I travel to the older, more worn parts of the world, especially now.” He sipped his tea, thoughtful. “This sphere is entering a new era, my Lady. I have seen signs during my trip to Europe. The inevitable has begun. This brief time of promise is going to give way to suffering and strife, and for all the great things they will accomplish, it will all come to naught.”
She turned to regard him.
“Ah, finally. There you are. I have missed you, my pessimistic young Prince.”
“Young, eh?” The quiet man smiled ruefully, ignoring the barb, and lifted his cup. “As I have missed you, my Lady.”
“That, too.” He sipped, eyeing her sideways. “There are too few secrets between us, after all.”
The waiter returned, setting tea before her. The man paid him.
The woman prepared her drink, taking in the surrounding people as she added honey. She nodded to the near corner, at a table of young Japanese men.
“Those men over there.”
He followed her gaze.
“The one to the right, in the white cotton jacket?” He nodded. “Does he not remind you of the Ronin?”
The young man eyed her askance before returning his attention to the table. “From a distance, perhaps.”
“Perhaps.” She smiled, touching his hand. “You loved him.”
“I have loved many.”
“Few, if any, as you did the Ronin.”
The young man closed his eyes, breathing softly. “Is there a point to this?”
“No.” Her expression was distant, thoughtful. “Yes. He does look like him.”
The woman sipped the tea, staring at her companion over the rim.
“Your father is here.”
“I know. He visited me yesterday while you were playing with your young man, and we roamed the grounds together, leaving only when they shut the Fair for the night.” He grimaced. “And then we hit the docks and availed ourselves of a drinking establishment.”
He nodded, frowning at the memory. “We did.”
“Was anyone harmed?”
“That does not sound like your father.”
He eyed her ruefully.
“You are being uncharitable.”
He sighed, sipping tea.
“Truth be told, his heart wasn’t in it.”
“Oh. That is unusual.”
“Yes. I fear the Fair has rendered him melancholy. The evanescent quality, I think, at least, in part. It all reminds him of the inevitable. And I think the Beaux Arts troubles him.”
The Elder looked down at the sprawling fairgrounds. “Yes. I’ve seen the brochures. The artistic thought that went into the Fair’s architectural design is remarkable. This Beaux Arts form, in particular, conjures thought of the Mount.” She smiled sadly, gazing absently at the palaces of the Fair. “This is all very grand. The humans dream great things and bring them to pass. They have done well during their run.”
“Indeed.” The young prince of a forgotten land gestured at the white ship as it tacked east, passing Angel Island. As he watched, she shifted course, sails moving and adjusting as her Captain turned the vessel into the light breeze, taking advantage of the outrushing tide to cut sharp into the bay, wind filling her sails, leaning and accelerating as she headed for the mouth of the Golden Gate.
“Consider our beautiful Nile, her current incarnation’s graceful lines informed by the great human shipbuilders of the past century: it is their art infused in her every form and function. You see her and you envision the majestic Clipper ships that brought new populations to this destination from the harbors of New York and Boston, making their runs around Cape Horn in 90 days or better.” He turned to her, sharing. “For long years after, even unto this day, their journeys were legend, and their names are remembered as one remembers heroic creatures of myth: The Glory of the Sea, Thermopylae, Sea Witch … the Flying Cloud …”
He smiled and shrugged, taking a long breath, his expression distant. “Or so it was, once upon a time.” He blinked, rousing from a dream, remembering his companion. “Yes.” There was a resignation in his voice. “Yes. They … we … have done well in our run.”
The woman smiled. “Ships. A new preoccupation, then? Shipbuilding? Sailing?”
“I am, you’ll remember, the heir of an island kingdom.” She smiled again and he laughed. “An interest, is all; at least, in the here and now. One of many explored during our long parting, my lady.” He grinned at her expression. “You need not feign surprise. This is why you enjoy these separations, as they allow me opportunity to accumulate experience. You hunger for what I give you, the personal perspective the Book cannot offer.” He paused, but the smile did not fade, instead becoming familiar, loving. “I am the only one you cannot see, hidden from the eye of time.” He reached out across the table, hand folding over and squeezing hers. “I am honored you regard me with such trust as to allow me to hide these things until such time I choose to share them.” He squeezed her hand once more and released her.
“And speaking of time.” The quiet man removed his watch from its pocket, thumbing the lid open. The smile grew wider.
“I’ve a fresh surprise for you. His name is John Phillip Sousa, and he conducts the most amazing music.” He stood and moved around the table to stand by her, placing his hand on her chair. “We are off to the Festival Hall to hear a wonderful concert and, after, we will stroll the Gardens of the Palaces, until we come to see my discovery, a place where you will behold Beaux Arts at its most compelling and,
with it, a revelation.”
She eyed him, suggesting a heightening of curiosity.
“Something has occurred.”
There was no question or doubt in her words. She looked out over the waters at the Nile.
“Concert first, and no discussion beforehand. After, in appropriate time. There are things to see at this World’s Fair, things to experience. As we make our way through the Exposition and take in the sights, we shall talk and you shall … see.”
“Of course. We always talk.” Her expression was a cypher, but he sensed her suppressed frustration.
He chuckled and stood, coming round the table to offer his hand.
She tilted her head, regarding him, curiosity evident.
“A surprise, you say?”
“Yes. A good one, too.”
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