(Helen Jewett – upscale New York City prostitute – Photoshopped by Joe)
Who would have ever guessed that a temple to Aphrodite was on the corner of Bridge and Nassau streets. I thought the three of us were headed into the bowling saloon next door, where through the nearly closed blinds of a third-floor window I could feel the whore’s gaze…
February 1854 – Brooklyn, NY
I had a few pints of ale that afternoon and thirsted for another as I sauntered toward the whitewashed saloon. Above the driftwood door and four narrow windows was a large black sign lit by a Drummond light. Gold letters on the sign read, “King’s Saloon.” They were capped by a depiction of a bowling ball knocking bejeweled pins into a crown shape. I gazed up past the sign. A prostitute peered down from a third-floor window. I missed the red muslin globe advertising an oyster cellar that hung a foot over the sidewalk. I also didn’t see the handful of basement brick steps and tripped. Arms flailing, on my way down, I reached for the iron bar from which the globe hung. Jack snatched me by the back of the coat with one hand and caught my tumbling Brooks Brothers top hat with the other. He hoisted me back up to the sidewalk.
“Can’t believe I missed that,” I said.
Nostrils flaring, Jack’s brown eyes grew fiery. He slapped the hat, brim first into my gut. He hadn’t been too happy when he found me at O’Henry’s bar that afternoon. He had told me then that we had serious work ahead. I began to think he was having second thoughts about initiating me into his demon hunter corps.
“Thanks,” I said, and wiped the hat, before replacing it on my head.
“You should have let him fall!” Gabe the gorilla cried laughingly from the corner of Bridge and Nassau streets.
It was a mild winter evening. There had been a rainstorm in the afternoon. The pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk was fairly heavy. On the muddy streets were horse-drawn carts, trucks, and an omnibus that made its way east along Nassau Street.
“This business is of a most serious order,” Jack said, as we rejoined the gorilla. He looked about to see that no one would hear him. “Now is the time for sober preparation, as it is highly possible that within the next few days, we will face a wicked creature named Dido. Our man in Rotterdam has sent word that she is on a steamer coming from the waters of Constantinople. He says that Dido is what’s known as a siren, and her mere gaze can paralyze men. Her speaking voice he says is a deadly lure, and if one hears her sing, it will be their requiem. She is said to be the demonic embodiment of the first queen of Carthage, who set herself on fire when her lover left her. So let the name Dido sit in your conscious for a time and see what ghastly images haunt you.”
“Why are we at a brothel?” the gorilla asked.
“You’ve heard of the Empress,” Jack said. “Her and her girls are legendary in the art of seduction.”
“Jesus, this is her place,” the gorilla said in an effeminate huff and lowered his eyes accusingly at Jack. He pointed to me. “You trust this souse to meet her, and yet only now do you bring me here.”
“Never heard of her,” I said.
“I asked you weeks ago to come here,” Jack said, tightening the muscles of his face. A look passed between the men. “But be certain, Gabriel, tonight is not about pleasure; it is about preparation. The Empress is skilled in the art of seduction and knows the secret workings of the netherworld world. She will teach us how to avoid the trappings of this female demon of the siren order, as it is much different than the solicitations of masculine fiends.”
We entered “the temple” which was a modern-built brick mansion with green-curtained windows. There was a small hallway served by lustrous Venetian doors, flecked with specs of gold. The doors seemingly opened by the sweet breath of Aphrodite, and we were met by music and the hum of voices. Fine tobacco smoke clouded the air. The walls were darkly paneled and lit by magnificent chandeliers. There was a bar on one side and a small orchestra on the other. Upper crust, blue bloods, and sporting men populated the place. They were all dressed in fine suits. They played at roulette and card tables, and moved between a handful of ladies arrayed in what the gorilla said were the latest Parisian styles.
We went up a curving staircase and into a room where more beautifully painted and fashionable ladies lounged in plush-velvet ottomans, sofas, and divans. Most seemed delightfully occupied with male companions. At a piano was a young woman, who was as fresh and pretty as a child. She played the tune, “When I Saw Sweet Nellie Home.” The gorilla took up by her side and began to sing in an alto voice.
“Closer to my bosom come
Tell me do’st thou still remember
When I saw sweet Nelly home.
In the sky the bright stars glittered
On the grass the moonlight shone
From an august evening party
I was seeing Nelly home…”
A pear-shaped woman filled a glass with red wine for me, which I greatly appreciated, and which I saw Jack had also accepted a glass of. I spoke with her for a time. She said her name Evelyn and that she was from Ohio. I told her I had a wicked past and was currently employed to do unmentionable things. Evelyn then took it upon herself to tell me a tale of an artless though unchaste romance with her cousin. While we spoke, couples peeled off and retired to rooms in the back or upstairs. Such was the prostitute’s skill, I began to believe that she was looking for more than just money, that she believed I might be interested in courting her.
When a lady no older than twenty-five entered, she drew the attention of everyone in the room. She wore a long, white silk dress, which seemed to elongate her figure. She had a carefree gaze and a child’s smile. She might be the Empress, I thought, yet imagined such a sobriquet would have to be earned over the course of many libertine and debauched years.
Jack confirmed my suspicion as we were introduced. She welcomed the three of us to her house and had us sit in front of her.
“Seduction is the art of bringing one closer to God,” the Empress said in a measured tone. “It is normal and natural, though can be used for evil purposes. But be certain, here you are safe. My girls and myself help people learn their truest nature. This nature is one’s truth and can be found in the bodiless self; one that the good Lord may choose to someday to welcome into His Kingdom. Given that understanding, one should know that while they employ our services, they have the chance to glimpse everlasting life in our hands. Now you must remember that the siren Dido will tempt your mind and body, but she cannot bridge the gap to your soul. To prepare to face her, we must address the faults of mind and body. Both of those human institutions must be able to not only deny false pleasure, but the genuine article, too. So what I will have the three of you do is practice.”
“How?” the gorilla asked sweetly.
“You will spend the night trying to say ‘no’ to my girls.”
I looked across the room to catch Evelyn’s green-eyed gaze. She winked coquettishly. A chuckle escaped my lips. The night would be a strange game of resisting the charms of this woman, I thought. I was cheerfully confident–that just like the first light of a glorious morning sun, I would emerge triumphant.
When I turned back, I found the Empress stood before me. I climbed to my feet. A peculiar fruit scent went straight to my brain. It seemed to make my limbs grow weak. The Empress cupped my hand. The white silk dress she wore swept against the carpet as she led me alone to her boudoir…
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Thirty-Nine