City of God A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York

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  • Copyright: 2009-09-01
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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City of God, the latest installment in Beverly Swerling's gripping saga of old New York, takes readers to Manhattan's clamorous streets as the nation struggles to find a compromise between slave and free, but hears the drums of war. This is New York when one synagogue is no longer adequate for thousands of Jewish immigrants, when New Evangelicals rouse complacent Protestants with the promise of born-again salvation, and when it first sees Catholic nuns and calls them whores of Satan. It is New York when ships bring the fabulous wealth of nations to its wharves and auction houses, while a short distance away rival gangs fight to the death with broken bottles and teeth filed to points.Into this churning cauldron comes young Dr. Nicholas Turner. Nick knows that the discoveries of antisepsis and anesthesia promise medical miracles beyond the dreams of ages. He learns that to make such progress reality he must battle the city's corrupt politics and survive the snake pit that is Bellevue Hospital, all while resisting his love for the beautiful Carolina Devrey, his cousin's wife. Sam Devrey, head of the shipping company that bears his name and a visionary who believes the future will be ushered in by mighty clipper ships spreading acres of sail, battles demons of his own. The life he lives with Carolina in the elegant brownstone on newly fashionable Fifth Avenue is a charade meant to disguise his heart's true home, the secret downtown apartment of the exquisite Mei-hua, his Chinese child-bride. The worlds of all four are imperiled when Sam must rely on Nick's skills to save the woman he loves, and only Nick's honor guards Sam's secret. On a night when promises of hellfire seem to become reality and the city nearly burns to the ground, Carolina and Mei-hua confront the truth of their duplicitous marriages. Rage and revenge join love and passion as driving forces in a story played out against the background of the glittering New York that rises from the ashes, where Delmonico's and the Astor House host bejeweled women and top-hatted men, both with the din of commerce in their ears and the glint of gold in their eyes.As always, Swerling has conjured a dazzling cast of characters to people her city. Among those seeking born-again salvation are Addie Bellingham, befriended by the widow Manon Turner but willing to betray her, and Lilac Langton, who confesses her sins but avoids mentioning that she's a skilled abortionist in a city that has recently made abortion a crime. Ben Klein, a brilliant young physician, must balance devotion to his mentor and dedication to research with duty to the Jewish community. Wilbur Randolf, Carolina's father, indulges her in everything but fails her when she needs him most. Jenny Worthington, Wilbur's longtime mistress, is driven by avarice to make common cause with Fearless Flannagan, a member of a New York police force as corrupt as the city it serves. Ah Chee, Mei-hua's devoted servant, struggles through Manhattan's streets on bound feet and burns incense to the kitchen god in this place of foreign devils. They are all here, heroines and saints, villains and victims, and a vanished New York made to live again in an intricate tale of old debts and new rivalries.


Chapter One

Mei-hua lay curled next to him in the glow that followed love, her back against his chest, his arm around her waist, their breathing synchronized. Everything was perfect. Or so it seemed to Samuel Devrey.

After a time she moved just enough so one foot caressed his calf. The silken wrappings of her golden lily, the foot that had been first bound when she was three -- excruciating pain inflicted and endured for him, indeed at his behest -- were exquisitely erotic. Sam felt the sap rise in him yet again but he resisted. "There isn't time." He breathed the words into the jasmine scent of her hair.

His Mandarin could be understood, but it had been learned too late to be perfect. His tones were never exactly right. He spoke always the speech of the yang gwei zih, the foreign devil. Mei-hua would die a slow death before she would correct him. "My lord not need do much. Quick and easy. See."

She arched profoundly, one of those supple adjustments of her body that always astonished him, and her hips realigned so that he could take her effortlessly, in an act of possession as natural and undemanding as a whisper. It would have been against nature to refuse a generosity offered with such elegance. He moved the hand that had stroked her belly so it gripped her thigh, pressing her more closely to him. Both golden lilies were touching him now, wrapped around his legs. She was a silken splendid butterfly, tiny but exquisite, cocooned in his bulk. Her sigh of pleasure -- more a vibration than a sound -- thrilled him as if it were again the first time, three years earlier, when she was thirteen.

"You are astonishing," he said when he could speak.

She gently pulled away, then settled back against his body and pulled his hand back to her belly where it had been before. "What do you feel, lord?"

"Samuel," he corrected. "If I have to tell you again, I will spank you." Her smile was hidden from him, but he knew it was there. "For real this time." He attempted to sound severe. "You won't be able to sit for a week."

"I am sure I will deserve it. You are right in all things, lo -- Samuel. But you cannot spank me now."

"Why not?"

"It maybe..." He heard the hesitation though she hurried to cover it. "Maybe disturb harmony. Yourtai-tainever lose harmony. Never."

Repetition was the way the Chinese conveyed emphasis.Tai-taimeant not simply wife but senior wife, she to whom all other wives -- if such there might be -- owed allegiance. Devrey knew both things, but he seldom remembered to repeat a word he meant to strengthen. As for the rest, it wasn't practical.

He had married Mei-hua in the room beyond this one, in a ceremony he remembered as a bewildering shimmer of gongs and incense. Afterward she had been brought to this bed on its raised red satin platform hung about with quilted red velvet to perform her first duty as his wife, to sit absolutely still for hours and demonstrate her inner harmony. Meanwhile Devrey had been taken downstairs to eat and drink, and only occasionally remind himself that if he stepped out the door he would be not in this exotic Chinese world but on Cherry Street in New York, a few steps from the busy waterfront. Four hours later, when he had returned to the bedroom to claim what was his, Meihua was exactly as he'd left her. Except for her smile of joyous welcome.

"You could never be disharmonious," he said now.

His voice was steady, the words without any hint of anger or disapproval, but she could feel his fury in the heat of his skin and the coldness of his breath. "I try never displease you, lord." Not true. She had tried very hard. For many months now, as soon as he left her after lovemaking, she lay for long, boring hours with her feet above her head so his seed would find the son-making place deep inside. She had eaten only son-making food, though it was not always her favorite. Only the gods knew how hard she tried. And Ah Chee.

Mei-hua could not see the bedroom door from her present position, but she knew beyond doubt that her servant was near, probably listening. "I do nothing to displease my lord. Never. Never." Big lie, but never mind.

"Samuel," he corrected again, delivering at the same time one slap to her buttocks. Light enough to be playful but hard enough to sting.

Mei-hua stiffened and rolled away, clasping both hands below her waist as she did so. "Husband is correct. I deserve beating." She jumped off the bed, got the bamboo stick they used to close the red velvet curtains, and brought it to him, kneeling on the platform and leaning her head on her folded arms on the mattress. "I stay like this and husband beat back and shoulders until they bleed, only no part below waist. Then I will never -- "

"I have never beaten you, Mei-hua. Why would I start now? Above or below the waist." He got up and put the stick back by the window, then drew her to her feet, kissing her face all the while, little soft kisses.

"Because husband is displeased with me."

"No, I am not. I understand you." The silk robe, the long lung pao he'd worn earlier, lay on a nearby chair, splendid green satin with dragons embroidered in silver thread. Samuel passed it by in favor of his western clothes, carefully hung in an elaborately carved wardrobe. He pulled on the tight black trousers and black boots and high-necked white shirt and tied his stock. "I must go."

"It is early. Useless old Ah Chee made soup you like, with duck and pumpkin."

"Perhaps tomorrow. You rest now." He picked up her pale yellow silk robe and draped it over her shoulders, lifting her back into the bed as he did so. "Sleep, Mei-hua. Stay beautiful for me."

The room beyond was as exotic and foreign as the bedroom, if not as sensuous. The furnishings -- rosewood, ebony, ornaments of luminous porcelain and glowing brass -- had all arrived from Canton when Meihua did, part of her dowry, along with the servant woman.

Ah Chee's skin was creased leather and her hair white, but she seemed to Samuel ageless. She stood by the front door, eyes cast down, hands folded, ready to usher him out. Hard to say if she knew he was leaving by the way he was dressed or if, as he suspected, she listened regularly to everything that happened in the bedroom. "My lord stay a little stay," she urged. "Maybe take some of this old woman's poor soup. Stay."

Samuel walked straight to her and slapped her hard across the face. She did not move, seemed barely even to flinch. He slapped her a second time. He knew she wouldn't react, but it calmed some of the rage in his belly. "When didtai-taibleed last?" And when she didn't answer, "Tell me. If you lie, I swear I will cut out your tongue."

"In Last month, lord. Before start of Water Sheep year."

He did the calculation quickly. Last month was January, and this year, 1834, was Water Sheep. "When did she stop taking the special drink?" He bought the powder himself from a Mrs. Langton on Christopher Street. Guaranteed to prevent conception as long as a woman drank it dissolved in ale every morning before sunrise.

"Never, lord. Never. Never. Every day I wake uptai-taiand she drink." Ah Chee did not say that the girl hated the taste of ale with a rare passion, and spat it out almost as soon as the mixture touched her mouth. Anyway, the powder was probably useless. What did ayang gwei zihwoman know of such things? Ah Chee, whose job it had been to look after this plum blossom since the day she was born, got make-no-baby powder from Hor Jick the apothecary -- the closest thing to a proper doctor, ayi, in this place -- and sprinkled it on the girl's food, and twice a day rubbed excellent lizard skin cream on Mei-hua's beautiful flat belly. Until, that is, she had judged the plum blossom to be ready and stopped sprinkling and rubbing. "Never, lord, never," she repeated. "Tai-taidrink every day."

"Still? Even after she missed two monthlies?"

"Yes, lord, yes. Drink. Drink."

"You are a lying old witch." He itched to slap her again but knew it would make no difference.

Mei-hua, her ear pressed to the door, heard the latch click, signaling Samuel's departure. She ran from the bedroom in a whirl of yellow silk and flung herself at Ah Chee, fists flying, pounding out her rage. "You tell. You tell. Old woman say I do not bleed already two months. You tell."

Ah Chee stood calmly under the onslaught. Eventually Mei-hua's anger turned to misery, and she retreated to huddle, weeping, in the elaborately carved red-lacquered throne chair, usually reserved for her husband, under the scroll depicting Fu Xing, the god of happiness, whose benign smile did not alter whatever happened in this room.

For once the old woman did not rush to dry the girl's tears. "You think Lord Samuel stupid? Soontai-tai'sflat little girl belly get big and round. Will the lord not see? Will he thinktai-taiswallowed a melon?"

Such considerations were for the future. Mei-hua was concerned only with this terrible moment. "Now my lord will make you take me to the wretched Hor Jick devilyi, and he put filthy devilyihands on me and make son jump out of belly and -- "

"No, not happen. Not. No devil doctor Hor Taste Bad," Ah Chee said, using the nickname by which the apothecary was generally known.

Mei-hua stopped weeping and looked up. "Why you think this? Why?"

"Know definitely for sure. No Taste Bad. Absolutely." Ah Chee did not wait to answer more questions. Instead she went to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of hot soup. "Tai-taiopen mouth. I feed son."

"Wait -- "

Ah Chee did not wait. She spooned soup into the girl's open mouth. It was so hot that it scalded Mei-hua's throat, but she swallowed it quickly, turning her head aside so Ah Chee could not immediately force a second spoonful on her. "Wait, old woman. Wait. First tell why you are sure Lord Samuel not make you taketai-taito Taste Bad devilyi."

"Because Taste Bad devilyione of us, civilized person. Lord Samuel taketai-taihimself to whiteyang gwei zih. Make sure abortion done properly."

Mei-hua gasped in horror, and Ah Chee took the opportunity to spoon more hot soup down her throat.

Cherry Street ran parallel to the East River, two streets back from the docks, a little above the mercantile southern heart of the city. Though George Washington had lived briefly in a house on Cherry when he was president -- Martha complained that the ceilings were too low for the feathers in the ladies' hats -- the area was not the same. The wealthy had been fleeing the tumult of the lower town of late, deserting even their grand residences on Broadway and around Battery Park for the quiet of the numbered streets and avenues further up the island. These days, the grid adopted in 1809, a tight mesh of interlocking streets and avenues laid out across every inch of a Manhattan of hills and woods and streams, was closer to reality; it had been implemented from TenthStreet to Fourteenth and from First to Eighth avenues. The grid's virtue was that it allowed the greatest possible number of people to be housed on the island. It was a vision made inevitable because another had been realized.

Opened in 1827, the Erie Canal ran from Lake Erie in the west to the Hudson River in the east, establishing a direct water route to New York's magnificent harbor from the outer edge of the ever-expanding nation. There were twenty-four united states now, with Missouri the westernmost, and the far-flung territories of Michigan, Arkansas, and Florida bidding to join soon. The Erie Canal allowed the great city to open her mighty maw and swallow everything the industrious folk living so distant from the coast could produce, then spew it forth across the ocean. Such an increase of business was a racketing, riotous dream come true for the money men who had always ruled this town, but not one their wives wished to have clattering day and night outside their front doors. Uppertendom high society called themselves as they migrated north to the numbered streets above Bleecker. Cherry Street was no part of uppertendom's world.

A bitter wind blew off the river when Sam Devrey came into the street. Snow was coming down in earnest, and already the ragged roof line of the closely packed three- and four-story wooden houses was edged with a thick white border. The two buildings closest to the intersection of Cherry and Market Streets, numbers thirty-seven and thirty-nine, belonged to him personally, not to Devrey Shipping. Both were built of wood. Thirty-seven was three stories high, thirty-nine four, and each was three windows wide. Once private homes, they were now lodging houses like the others on the block, densely packed with laborers who paid fifty cents a week for whatever bit of floor they could claim. Devrey's lodgings were even more tightly packed than the others. His tenants were Chinese, willing to tolerate any degree of crowding to be with their own kind. Mostly they were sailors who had accidentally washed ashore, and mostly from one or another part of Canton, because that was the point on the globe where Asia touched the West. The single exception to the allocation of space was that Mei-hua and Ah Chee occupied the entire upper floor of the corner house, number thirty-nine, an area that would have housed at least twelve of the Chinese men.

None of Samuel's tenants questioned the arrangement, or in any way encroached on the young beauty most had never set eyes on, the supreme first ladytai-tai. As for Ah Chee, they nodded respectfully when she went past, and when sometimes she joined them for a game of cards and a drink of plum brandy, they were inclined to let her win. This despite the fact that except for those two, the tiny Chinese community was without females of any sort. It was but one of the hardships they bore. Another was their inability to look like everyone else in this place. That was not simply a matter of skin color or having almond-shape rather than round eyes. In China, since the coming of the Manchu in 1644, it was the law that every male must shave the front of his head and wear a queue, a long braid down his back. If he cut his queue a man could not return to die in what they called the Middle Kingdom, the land between heaven and earth. He would not be buried with his ancestors. In the matter of making a new life in America, Samuel's tenants considered themselves sojourners, those who had come to stay a little stay (so the expression in their language had it) and to return home. They found what work they could and sent as much money as possible back to relatives in China. In the matter of their attitude towards Devrey, he was a white man who spoke their language, a source of the temporary jobs on which they depended, and he could be counted on to provide rice when times were hard. In this place he need answer to no one.

"You leave now, lord?"


"Lord wait. I get horse."

The man was one of at least four called -- in the Chinese fashion, family name first -- Lee Yut. A good many were Lee Something else. Sixty-two tenants at this week's count, and pretty much all of them Lees or Hors or Bos, all from little villages where everyone was related and the second and third sons were sent to sea to be cooks and stewards to the officers of the ships in the China trade. Nicknames helped sort out the confusion. This particular Lee Yut was known as Leper Face because his skin was severely pitted by the pox, the scars so close together that in some places his flesh looked to have been eaten away.

Leper Face disappeared into the alley between the two buildings and returned a moment later with Devrey's mare. She snorted softly, pleased to see her master. Samuel patted her muzzle. Leper Face dropped to his knees and extended his clasped hands. Samuel took the leg-up and swung himself into the saddle. Horseback was not the most appealing manner of travel on a cold night like this one, but a private carriage would attract too much attention in these parts. There were a few of the new hansom cabs for hire in the city but no chance of finding one on Cherry Street. An omnibus, a large multiseat vehicle pulled by a team of six horses, ran a few streets to the west, but it was too public, and since it was used almost exclusively by the men of uppertendom traveling back and forth to their businesses, far too convivial.

Devrey adjusted his seat in the saddle, made a small sound in his throat, and the mare set out on the familiar northward journey. After a few seconds he turned and looked back. Leper Face had disappeared and Mei-hua's window was dark. Ah Chee was under strict instructions always to keep the curtains drawn after sunset, but once or twice he had seen a sliver of light and known Mei-hua was up there watching him, already -- or so he fancied -- counting the minutes until he returned.

Not tonight. All the windows were dark, and there were no gaslights in this neighborhood. Plenty to the south, of course, and recently as far up the town, to use the uppertendom expression, as his own front door on Fourteenth Street.

Copyright © 2008 by MichaelA, Ltd.

Excerpted from City of God: A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York by Beverly Swerling
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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