From CHAPTER ONE of The Dante Club
by Matthew Pearl

JOHN KURTZ, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids. On one side, the Irish woman who had discovered the body was blubbering and wailing prayers unfamiliar (because they were Catholic) and unintelligible (because she was blubbering) that prickled the hair in Kurtz’s ear; on the other side was her soundless and despairing niece. The parlor had a wide arrangement of chairs and couches, but the women had squeezed in next to the guest as they waited. He had to concentrate on not spilling any of his tea, the black haircloth divan was rattling so hard with their shock.

Kurtz had faced other murders as chief of police. Not enough to make it routine, though—usually one a year, or two; often, Boston would pass through a twelve-month period without a homicide worth noticing. Those few who were murdered were of the low sort, so it had not been a necessary part of Kurtz’s position to console. He was a man too impatient with emotion to have excelled at it anyway. Deputy Police Chief Edward Savage, who sometimes wrote poetry, might have done better.

This—this was the only name Chief Kurtz could bear to attach to the horrifying situation that was to change the life of a city—was not only a murder. This was the murder of a Boston Brahmin, a member of the aristocratic, Harvard-schooled, Unitarian-blessed, drawing room caste of New England. And the victim was more than that: He was the highest official of the Massachusetts courts. This had not only killed a man, as sometimes murders do almost mercifully, but had obliterated him entirely.

The woman they were anticipating in the best parlor of Wide Oaks had boarded the first train she could in Providence after receiving the telegram. The train’s first-class cars lumbered forward with irresponsible leisure, but now that journey, like everything that had come before, seemed part of an unrecognizable oblivion. She had made a wager with herself, and with God, that if her family minister had not yet arrived at her house by the time she got there, the telegram’s message had been mistaken. It didn’t quite make sense, this half-articulated wager of hers, but she had to invent something to believe, something to keep from fainting dead away. Ednah Healey, balanced on the threshold of terror and loss, stared at nothing. Entering her parlor, she saw only the absence of her minister and fluttered with unreasoning victory.

Kurtz, a robust man with mustard coloring under his bushy mustache, realized he was trembling. He had rehearsed the exchange on the carriage ride to Wide Oaks. “Madam, how very sorry we are to call you back to this. Understand that Chief Justice Healey . . .” No, he had meant to preface that. “We thought it best,” he continued, “to explain the unfortunate circumstances here, you see, in your own house, where you’d be most comfortable.” He thought this idea a generous one.

“You couldn’t have found Judge Healey, Chief Kurtz,” she said, and ordered him to sit. “I’m sorry you’ve wasted this call, but there’s some simple mistake. The chief justice was—is staying in Beverly for a few quiet days of work while I visited Providence with our two sons. He is not expected back until tomorrow.”

Kurtz did not claim responsibility for refuting her. “Your chambermaid,” he said, indicating the bigger of the two servants, “found his body, madam. Outside, near the river.”

Nell Ranney, the chambermaid, welled with guilt for the discovery. She did not notice that there were a few bloodstained maggot remains in the pouch of her apron.

“It appears to have happened several days ago. Your husband never departed for the country, I’m afraid,” Kurtz said, worried he sounded too blunt.

Ednah Healey wept slowly at first, as a woman might for a dead household pet—reflective and governed but without anger. The olive-brown feather protruding from her hat nodded with dignified resistance.

Nell looked at Mrs. Healey longingly, then said with great humanity, “You ought to come back later in the day, Chief Kurtz, if you please.”

John Kurtz was grateful for the permission to escape Wide Oaks. He walked with appropriate solemnity toward his new driver, a young and handsome patrolman who was letting down the steps of the police carriage. There was no reason to hurry, not with what must be brewing already over this at the Central Station between the frantic city aldermen and Mayor Lincoln, who already had him by the ears for not raiding enough gambling “hells” and prostitution houses.

A terrible scream cleaved the air before he had walked very far. It belched forth in light echoes from the house’s dozen chimneys. Kurtz turned and watched with foolish detachment as Ednah Healey, feather hat flying away and hair unloosed in wild peaks, ran onto the front steps and launched a streaking white blur straight for his head.

Kurtz would later remember blinking—it seemed all he could do to prevent catastrophe, to blink. He bowed to his helplessness: The murder of Artemus Prescott Healey had finished him already. It was not the death itself. Death was as common a visitor in 1865 Boston as ever: infant sicknesses, consumption and unnamed and unforgiving fevers, uncontainable fires, stampeding riots, young women perishing in childbirth in such great number it seemed they had never been meant for this world in the first place, and—until just six months ago—war, which had reduced thousands upon thousands of Boston boys to names written on black-bordered notices and sent to their families. But the meticulous and nonsensical—the elaborate and meaningless—destruction of a single human being at the hands of an unknown . . .

Kurtz was yanked down hard by his coat and tumbled into the soft, sundrenched lawn. The vase thrown by Mrs. Healey shattered into a thousand blue-and-ivory shards against the paunch of an oak (one of the trees said to have given the estate its name). Perhaps, Kurtz thought, he should have sent Deputy Chief Savage to handle this after all.

Patrolman Nicholas Rey, Kurtz’s driver, released his arm and lifted him to his feet. The horses snorted and reared at the end of the carriageway.

“He did all he knew how! We all did! We didn’t deserve this, whatever they say to you, Chief! We didn’t deserve any of this! I’m all alone now!” Ednah Healey raised her clenched hands, and then said something that startled Kurtz. “I know who, Chief Kurtz! I know who’s done this! I know!”

Nell Ranney threw her thick arms around the screaming woman and shushed and caressed, cradling her as she would have cradled one of the Healey children so many years before. Ednah Healey clawed and pulled and spat, causing the comely junior police officer, Patrolman Rey, to intervene.

But the new widow’s rage expired, folding itself into the maid’s wide black blouse, where there was nothing else but the abundant bosom.


All original materials © Matthew Pearl.
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