It was a relief to step down from the carriage of the locomotive. Imagine my surprise when my guide, one Camphor Jack Stadtler, insisted we board something purporting to be a stagecoach. The rails had ended abruptly in Colorado Springs and I was most grateful that the engineer had maintained sufficient control over his charge to bring it to a halt several feet short of where the track petered out. I had held my 'kerchief to my nose all the way from Denver to Colorado Springs, since Mr Stadtler failed singularly to live up to his name either by smell nor by the condition of his clothes. Said 'kerchief - though scented with lavender - was not sufficient to protect me from the former. I had whiled away the journey thus far in counting the holes left by moths in his frock coat. The coach was not entirely un-sprung, but riding in it did entail clamping one's hat to one's head and several involuntary embraces with fellow passengers. Since none of my fellow travellers were youths, gilded or no, this did not offer the pleasure it might have done, in, shall we say, Oxfordshire.
The leaving of Colorado Springs showed it in its most pleasing aspect. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the entering of Leadville. Vulgar ornacy stood cheek-by-jowl with abject dilapidation. Most vulgar of all seemed to be those buildings which bore the name of my sponsor for this way station on my tour of the United States. A colonnaded bank worthy of the Pergamon, a building housing the Leadville Herald, which doubtless was a compendium of the savage and ridiculous, from murder in front of the saloon to the next scheduled performance by Miss Lily Langtry. Worst of all, was the venue for my lecture. Miss Langtry was to appear there the following autumn and I could not help but think she might indeed stoop to conquer, but never quite so far as at the Tabor Opera House, Leadville.
Tabor himself was an unremarkable and serious-looking man. Bald of pate and bushy of eyebrow, he lacked only the dog-collar to make him one of the Almighty's earthly intermediaries, if only of the less papist - and hence, more boring - variety. I find, myself, any religion that does not require its adherents to dress up, is no sort of religion at all. As well hunt the fox in a worsted suit. It was a glorious day. Late spring in the Rocky Mountains had blessed it with a dry heat that lay lightly on the skin. My sponsor's handshake was unexpectedly limp and clammy, in marked contrast to that of his wife. The couple seemed to have shared the joy and misery of life in much the same manner as Mr & Mrs Spratt disposed of the fat and the lean of their comestibles. The woman, dumpy though she were, attempted to play the coquette with me. I chose not to inform her of the futility of such an endeavour, were she Salome herself. Presently, Mrs Tabor suggested we repair to the Silver Bar Saloon.
In truth, I rather liked the Silver Bar. The miners were, in the main, rough young fellows and as such better company than either Mrs or Mr Tabor, or their entourage of notaries of the town. Such entertainment as there was consisted of a pianist whose relationship with his instrument was at best strained. Mrs Tabor was at pains to point out the sign on the wall over the musician's head.
'Please Refrain from Shooting the Piano Player, He's Doing his Best.'
I remarked to the Tabors that it was the only rational approach to criticism, but I had as well cast necklaces of pearls before the filthiest of swine.
If I dared say I met anyone of consequence or interest in Leadville - a name apt for it's atmosphere, if not the source of its wealth – it were none other than the strange and outlandishly dressed fellow who appeared later in the evening in the Silver Bar. He was a tall man looking to be in the prime of life, no more than forty, but -in a kindly light - perhaps he could have been of an age with myself. Handsome, if a little coarse of feature, he outshone his clothes as a king would a beggar's rags. He spoke, if not beautifully, in a voice as mellifluous as it was hard to place in any kind of geographical context. I heard Edinburgh, London, New Orleans and an education in its tones.
I took the proffered hand,
'Moffat Anthrop' he said.
I gave him my own name and refrained from comment on the improbability of the one he had offered himself. He replied, neatly enough.
'Since you are famous enough to draw a crowd in Leadville, Sir. I expect even the piano player knows your name.'
He inserted a thumb in the pocket of his faded weskit. The faded playing cards managed the feat of seeming grubby and garish at one and the same time.
'Would you care for a shot, Sir?' I replied in the affirmative.
The man regaled me for some hours with a fantastical tale involving murders, inheritance, assumed identities, Hebraic plots, a robbery of the old Confederate Mint and the Underground Railroad. He claimed this autobiographical phantasy as the honest truth, which it most assuredly could not have been, for the man would have had to have passed three score and ten several years since. Yet he looked, as I say, no more than forty and with a following wind would have passed for ten years less. One of the saloon girls affixed herself close to the man's long coat for a time, but he lost patience and shrugged her off without so much as a glance of acknowledgement. I was forced to refuse the offer of a game at cards and was glad of it when I saw his merciless fleecing of the miners foolish enough to sit at table with him. In short, he managed to show as venal a nature as ever I had seen in a man in no more time than it took him to drink an entire bottle of whiskey and threaten a poor loser with a knife.
I told the fellow before I left the saloon,
'You are a most intriguing fellow, Sir, I've a mind to put you in a novel.'
He laughed and seemed younger than ever,
'See that you do, but I'd like a name that sounds sweet on the ear, if your pen can manage
such a thing.'
'You could give me your own, and I might use that, might I not?'
'Then use none that I gave you in my tale of earlier, Sir.'
'So, what name were you born with?' I asked him, blunt though it were.
He laughed again. 'No, Sir, I leave it to you.'
And though I felt the name Moffat suited him best, I called him Dorian Gray.
The novel Gibbous House, features Alasdair Moffat and is available here