Edward Waite — 1850
I met the stagecoach the day Eleanor Dumont came to town. Actually, I met every stage. As editor of the Nevada Courier, I always looked for news. The city of Nevada in 1850 (later called Nevada City) was not a hotbed of stories—unless you count the occasional bar fight or the shooting of a claim jumper. Since President Polk announced in 1848 that California had "gold in abundance," people were pouring into town—most of them men.
Many of these men were still living in brush shanties, cloth strung over boards, and washing their clothes in the creeks. But they were making money—on some claims as much as $400 a day. Prices were high: fifty cents for an egg. Women who could bake or do laundry were earning as much as the men. I saw a man shell out thirty dollars for an apple pie! And President Polk was right about the abundance. Eventually, $440,000,000 in gold would come out of these hills. Much of it would go to the "pocket miners," people like Levi Strauss, Henry Wells, William Fargo—and Eleanor Dumont.
I was lounging on a chair outside my office, notebook in hand, when the coach pulled in. I was hoping to interview a new arrival, but I was not prepared for her. Blue satin ruffles and French-heeled shoes were things I hadn't seen since I left the United States.
I put a hand up to shield my eyes—the way you do when the light is too bright. Eleanor was a sudden burst of color in our dusty town. She was tiny, but it was impossible not to notice her. And while I stood—I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open—she walked directly to me and said, "Perdon, monsieur. You can help me find ze Hotel Fipps?"
In a stupor, I pointed the way without saying anything. She moved rapidly up the street, and I had to run to offer to carry her carpetbag.
She gave me a mocking look, and shook her head. "No, zank you. I care for myself."
While I tried to think of the next thing to say, she had already entered the Fipps Hotel.
Ten days later, she marched into my newspaper office. Half asleep at the desk, I was typesetting an advertisement for Grandma Barnes, who made and sold lye soap. Startled to see the mademoiselle, I jumped to my feet. She smiled at my discomfort. "I am needing 20 copies of a handbill. I announce the gala opening of the Vingt-et-un. There is to be music and free champagne. You can make for me, yes?"
I could make for her. Yes.
The mystery was solved. Mademoiselle was a gambler! Vingt-et-un, it turned out, was French for 21, and she had rented a building on Broad Street to open a gaming parlor.
The handbill said that violinists were coming from Sacramento for the opening. I laughed to myself reading that. Apparently she had no understanding of the men who would be her customers. Fiddlers, sure, but violinists? I doubted that anyone in Nevada City had even tasted champagne. These men were whiskey drinkers. The handbill said formal dress was de rigueur, which made me chuckle. The mademoiselle had come to the wrong place.
The moment she left for her hotel, I headed to Broad Street to see for myself. Looking over the swinging doors into the once-vacant room, I saw men hanging chandeliers, washing windows, and setting up tables and chairs. Boxes of champagne bottles lined the walls. Apparently our newest arrival had endless cash in her carpetbag. There must have been ten men at work in that room.
On the night of the grand opening, I dug out a suit and necktie, tucked my notebook into a pocket, and walked to the 21 Club. Music poured into the street. Men were already entering, removing their hats and slicking their hair with nervous fingers. Women were not allowed in the 21.
Inside, Eleanor welcomed us and indicated seats around four tables. Each table had six vacant chairs and a smiling young man with slicked-back hair and a deck of cards in his hand. When all of us were seated, she grandly took her place at the head table.
Waiters in white shirts circulated with champagne flutes on trays, and violinists strolled by. I might have been in New York City or San Francisco. My surprise only increased as the evening wore on. Profanity and any form of crude behavior was forbidden. I saw men gamble, lose money, and struggle to express their frustration without cursing. The Bolton brothers stood behind the mademoiselle's table to ensure that her rules were obeyed.
One-eyed Sam Caldwell looked up with surprise when I took a seat beside him at Eleanor's table. "Well, well, well, Professor. I didn't know they taught gambling in those fancy colleges back East."
Unprovoked, I answered, "I suppose I can learn. How hard can it be if you can do it?"
Sam laughed, and Eleanor smiled at me. "You will play?"
Oh, yes. I would play. I had never gambled, but it turns out that 21 is not hard to learn at all. The object is to get the highest number on the cards in your hand without going over 21. Face cards count as 10 and the ace can be one or 11, depending on how you want to play it.
Each player is dealt two cards, one face up, and can ask for another up to five times. When all players at the table have all the cards they want, the hands are revealed. The player whose cards add up to the highest number wins.
Eleanor seemed to always remember what had been dealt and correctly calculate the odds that the next card would be a low number or a high one. Some suspected she cheated, but no one could figure out how it was done and eventually we all accepted the fact that she was just better at the game.
The 21 soon expanded to a larger room, renamed the Dumont Palace and big enough for 12 tables in play. Eleanor took on Dave Tobin, a professional gambler I would never have trusted, to manage the daily business operations. Miners poured into the Dumont Palace every night. Fortunes were lost in that room.
On a normal Saturday night I lost my stake quickly. But I kept coming back. Eleanor's dark curls, her flashing rings as she dealt the cards: I was mesmerized.
For months I had been trying to work up the nerve to ask Lydia Townsend to marry me. We had ridden out together on Sunday afternoons, and I know that she considered that almost an engagement. I liked Lydia well enough. She was pretty, and independent. She made a tidy living for herself selling baked goods. I'm the first in line for a good pie, and I never had to pay for one after I started courting Lydia. She was well-mannered, not rough-hewn like the women who seemed determined to prove themselves as tough as the men. But her quiet manner dimmed in the flash of Eleanor Dumont's jeweled fingers and tinkling laugh. I was smitten, and I'm pretty sure Lydia could see that, although she never asked what I was doing on the evenings when I did not call on her.
We went on that way for months. Every evening would find me dressed in a suit and string tie, losing money at the 21 if I had money to lose, sipping lemonade on Lydia's front porch when I did not. I had many long conversations with myself about this unhealthy pattern. I was well aware that my double-mindedness was unfair to Lydia—and unfair to myself. I felt guilty every time I walked through those swinging doors. But I went back again. And again.
I had purchased a tract of land on a hillside near town, and started a savings to build a house. Now I had gambled my way through most of that money. I knew it was foolish. But as the sun went down and music poured into the street from the 21, I was pulled inside.
I determined to rent a horse and carriage on a lovely, sunny day, and invite Eleanor to the hillside where I planned to build my dream home. I would walk her through the idyllic future I envisioned.
Flirting was part of my job. Mimicking a French accent, paste jewelry and silks, hinting at possible future liaisons: these were all part of the mystique I was obliged to maintain. Each customer who got a sly wink or a wicked smile thought himself my favorite. It's a business. I didn't pretend to have skills beyond the fact that men found me attractive, and I understood numbers. Those assets do not endure. I knew that my looks and my skill, like the Gold Rush itself, were not endless. My career might be brief. I had no family on whom I could depend. I had to remain focused on making money while I could.
But I was attracted to Edward. He was the tallest man in any room, with one lock of hair that persistently fell over his eyes. He was friendly, and never seemed to take offense when jokes were made at his expense, mocking his naiveté, calling him "Professor." The unmannerly men around us sometimes seemed to have lost all recollection of civilized behavior—coming unwashed into my Palace, spitting on the floor if not admonished.
I found myself watching for him every evening, waiting for him to walk through the swinging doors. My attention was diverted, and I was aware of a sinking feeling when he did not appear. I felt disappointed if he could not get a place in my game. I sent away more than one player who was leaving good money on the table to create a spot for Edward. My feelings were beginning to cost me.
One Sunday afternoon, Edward invited me to go for a carriage ride. I knew it was dangerous. His reputation would be sullied if he were seen with me, and my feelings for him could unravel my air of aloof mystery. But I was bored. More than that, I was lonely. Mostly, I was just plain curious. I had never felt this longing toward a man, and it surprised me.
I packed a basket with boiled eggs, cheese, apples, and one of Lydia's meat pies. I tried to ignore a wave of guilt as Lydia put the pie, still warm and carefully wrapped in a cloth, into my hands. I hoped she did not divine how I planned to share it.
I brought a quilt to spread on the grass in a scenic spot overlooking the valley. Here I planned to build our house. We could see all the way into the Sacramento valley from my hillside—and share a glimpse into our future together. I would have ordered one of her violinists if I could have afforded it. I would present Eleanor with a vision of our home on that hillside: our beautiful children playing merrily, our vegetable garden, our chickens, Beulah, our beloved Guernsey milk cow, the smell of fresh-baked bread, servants. This would become our paradise. I planned to paint an irresistible picture.
The warmth of his excitement was contagious. The flush on his cheeks as he helped me from the carriage caused my own heart to pound. I had flirted with dozens of men, but this fluttery feeling was something I had not encountered. I could think of nothing to say. Luckily, Edward had enough words for both of us.
The first shock of reality came as he spread a quilt and opened the picnic basket. I was literally brought back to earth, astonished that he expected me to sit on the ground. It was no easy matter to place the hoop in my skirt, seat myself inside the hoop and arrange my petticoats so they did not fly up. I tried to hold onto the good feelings, but they were already slipping away.
Like the serpent in the garden, he handed me an apple and said, "Your life here with me will be transformed. No dealing cards to uncultured ruffians. We will build a school for the children, and a church where all will be welcome. As the Courier expands its reach, we will gather news from other towns and make it the biggest newspaper in the West. We will host famous entertainers—maybe Lola Montez or Lotta Crabtree."
He leaned back on his elbows, and gazed into the distance. "I could run for office." He took my hand as he continued. "You would be a charming hostess, and . . . what I'm trying to say, Miss Dumont, is that the future belongs to us. We can shape it to our dreams."
My increasing discomfort had to do with my perch on the lumpy ground, but also with the picture he was painting. I calculated probabilities for a living. At the turn—and this was clearly the turn—the cards were going the wrong way.
Who would bake that sweet-smelling bread? Who would bandage the scraped knees of those beautiful children? Who would milk that patient Guernsey? Wives and mothers needed many more skills than I possessed.
And who would sit without squirming through the dull sermons in that church? I was finding it difficult enough to sit on this quilt for an hour, listening to him. The games I played were won or lost in minutes, in an atmosphere of constant excitement. I had no patience for plans that required days, months, or years of plodding.
I caught a clear vision that afternoon, but it was not the one that Edward hoped. I saw that I was not a wife or a mother, and it would take more than a Sunday afternoon picnic to change that. Still, I was drawn to this man with a feeling that may have been what people call love. I did not release my hand from his.
Edward indeed had the makings of a mayor, judge, or even a governor. My heart sank as I realized that I would be an impediment to the future he was envisioning. I longed to ignore his words and simply lean into him! But he kept talking.
He saw me as a woman wronged by fate, a soiled dove in need of rescue. He would never have believed the truth of the matter—that I had chosen my life of my own free will. The man was a dreamer. But I was not.
I could not bear to break his heart. I would have to make him think he was refusing me, rather than the other way around. At that moment, I had no idea what to do. Pleading a headache caused by the glare of the sun, I managed to get us off the hillside and headed back to town.
As we rode toward the livery stable, the disapproving glances of the bonneted women coming out of Sunday services confirmed my resolve. Then the idea came to me. I knew the one person who could help me put an end to this doomed relationship without hurting Edward.
On the ride back to town, I was dispirited. My description of our future had not produced the desired result. Eleanor's grim expression may have come from the headache she was suffering. Such things seem to be common among women. But she gave no sign that she was enchanted with the idyll I envisioned for us.
Very well. If Eleanor Dumont would not come into my life, I would make a place for myself in hers. I was reasonably intelligent. I would learn the gambling business. I would show that I could do more for her operation than print up handbills. My lack of skill at cards belied that argument, but I could learn. I had seen her sudden smile each time I entered her establishment. And I knew the one person who could help me find a place in her business—and in her heart.
If Lydia Townsend was surprised to find me on her doorstep on Monday morning, she gave no sign. She wiped her hands on her apron and held open the door of the small clapboard house that served as her home as well as her place of business.
"How can I help you Miss Dumont?"
"You know who I am."
"Certainly. Everyone in Nevada knows the owner of the gaming establishment. Please. Come in."
I stepped into the tiny, well-kept room and looked around me. I noticed fresh flowers on a sideboard, a lithographed seascape on one wall, a rag rug in front of the fireplace. It seemed neat and cozy. She did not invite me to take a seat, but stood silent, waiting.
I began, "One of my employees has a birthday on Thursday. You can provide a cake for the occasion?"
She went to a small table and picked up a notepad and pencil. "Yes. I have currants and raisins. How many people will you serve?"
"There are eight people in my employ, counting myself."
"Do you wish rosettes of frosting?"
"Whatever you think. You are the expert in this matter."
"Do you want to know the price?"
I waved my hand. "It is of no matter. I am sure you will be fair. My man will pay you when he arrives to pick it up."
She put down her notepad and folded her arms with businesslike impatience. "Very well, then. Is there anything else?"
I took a deep breath and began, "Yes, Miss Townsend. There is another matter I have wished to discuss with you."
She motioned me to a wooden chair by the fireplace and took the one opposite, frowning. "What is it?"
"I have learned that for some time you have been friends with Edward Waite." She merely nodded, so I forged ahead.
"I believe that your friendship has reached a further stage of development. Am I right?"
She flushed, but did not speak.
"I myself have some acquaintance with Edward . . . "
This remark seemed to open the floodgates of her emotions. She jumped to her feet, and words came tumbling out. "Acquaintance! You, Miss Dumont, are ruining his life! I am well aware of the evenings he spends in your gambling den. I know that he has been caught in your web, and . . . " She recovered herself and sank back into her chair, as if determined to say no more.
"Miss Townsend, I have come to ask your help."
She nodded. "You want to take everything from me, and you have the audacity to ask me to help you do it. You are a bold woman, Miss Dumont."
"I have no wish to take anything from you—least of all Edward. I have come to ask you to help turn him away from me. I will refuse his proposal, but must not cause him pain or embarrassment. Only you can help me do that."
"Proposal? Edward has proposed marriage to you?" Tears welled up in her eyes.
"It is nothing, an infatuation. It will pass as quickly as it began if you are willing to help me."
She frowned with suspicion. "Why should I trust you?"
"Because you and I share the same goal—to return Edward to your arms, where he belongs."
"How can it be that you do not want him? He is a wonderful man."
"He is indeed. But, as you have pointed out, I am not a wonderful woman."
At the 21 the next afternoon, Dave Tobin laughed out loud when I suggested that he teach me to be a better gambler. Wiping tears from his eyes, he said, "Oh, Professor! Do you even know how much money you have lost in this place?"
"Well, I haven't kept a running total, but . . . "
"Exactly. A real gambler would do just that." He indicated a chair at one of the tables and turned over another for himself.
"If you had the gambling instinct, you would know exactly what you have lost and why you have lost it. You would realize that there is a method to it. You do understand that the house always wins?"
"Actually, I do not understand that. Miss Dumont says that each turn of the cards is as fair for one as the other. How is it that she wins so much of the time? Does she cheat?"
Dave frowned and shook his head. "You, my dear newspaperman, are a babe in the woods. Cheating is a risky business with guns in the room, and there is no need. She has a natural advantage for the simple reason that she makes her play after you have made yours. She can base her decision on what she sees; you are relying on pure chance. That slight advantage is all she needs.
"In a typical hour of playing 21, for example, there will be 60 rounds. If you play without error, extremely unlikely in your case, she will win 29 games. You will win 26, and there will be five ties. That's if you make all the right decisions.
"The house needs to keep 20% of all wagers to meet our expenses. That means that players must lose 20% of the money they come in with each night. Players like you, who lose it all, make things more lucrative for us. We make a reasonable profit from intelligent players and an exorbitant profit from—excuse the term—suckers like you.
Dave shrugged. "Players who use no strategy other than their superstitions or desires lose all of their stake every time they come in the door. And that is a large portion of our clientele."
I was stung, but I was determined to see this painful conversation through. "Why do players keep coming back, if there is no way to win?"
Dave shook his head. "You do not understand. Everyone wins some of the time. The possibility of a win is always before you. And the more money you start with, the greater the odds that you will win.
"A player who has a big enough stake to play for several hours has a better return than a player who starts with less. In fact, a player with $500 for the evening has only a 10% chance of losing his whole stake that night. A player with $200 has a 40% chance that it will all be gone by closing time. But a player who comes in with only $50 is likely to lose it all, as you so often do, in very short order."
I was dazed. "And Eleanor understands all this?"
"But she is . . . "
"Stop right there. If you are preparing to say she is only a woman, you will be showing yourself a bigger fool than you already are."
"So while she is flirting and joking, she is also calculating?'
Dave Tobin nodded. "Exactly. And no one is better at playing the probabilities than she. The woman has nerves of steel, unflustered when big money is on the table, cheerful when she loses, prompt in paying out, all the while distracting players with banter. She has a gift, and she never makes a mistake."
I shook my head. "I'm beginning to believe that I am the one making a mistake."
He shrugged. "It's entirely possible, Professor. The odds are not in your favor."
I could see by her doubting frown that Lydia did not trust me, but she was desperate to keep her hold on Edward—desperate enough to take a chance on my plan. She paced, but at last stopped and said, "What would I have to do?" She sounded wary, but curious.
"May I see your wardrobe?"
She frowned. "What does my clothing have to do with this situation?"
"Men, you must realize, are visual creatures. Like magpies, their eyes are caught by shiny things, and they appreciate beauty. You, Miss Townsend, are a lovely woman. But you could use some embellishment."
"I hope you are not talking about paint."
"I am talking about paint. And jewelry, lace, and ruffles—the whole arsenal of female accoutrements."
"I refuse to trick myself out like some common . . . " She stopped herself at this point, so I helped her.
"You will not look like a tart, I promise. Just a little beeswax on your lashes, rice powder on your skin and hands, and the charcoal from a burned match to darken your brows and line your eyes. I promise you will not resemble a painted doll—only a better version of yourself."
Lydia crossed the room and looked into the tiny mirror hanging above the sideboard, turning her head from side to side, considering her face from various angles, frowning.
She did not speak, so after a moment I continued. "Once you are as attractive as we can make you, you must turn away from Edward. The next time he calls on you, he will find another man seated in your porch swing—preferably with a slice of apple pie in his hand. Do you have such a man?"
She grimaced and said. "Henry Abbott asks me to marry him at least once a week. I am sure he would not refuse an invitation. But I am confused. Why would I turn away from Edward if my goal is to bring him to me?"
"My dear Miss Townsend, men are predatory animals. They wish to be hunters. You will take the part of the most desirable prey that we can make you out to be. You must be alluring and difficult to obtain.
"Meantime, I must change his view of me. I will become a grasping social climber. I will brag about him in the post office, stroll boldly through town, embarrassing him."
"It sounds risky to me. What if he is so blinded that he still prefers you?"
"In that event, we will do what in my business is called surrender. I will refuse him, you will comfort him, and the two of you will still be together at the end of the story."
It all went off as Eleanor planned. Edward arrived the next evening and found Henry on my porch swing, drinking lemonade. Edward's eyes widened and he stumbled on the top step. I turned my head so Eleanor's diamond earrings would catch the light. "Was there something you wanted, Edward?"
"No, no. I just came by to thank you once again for that delicious meat pie."
"Glad you enjoyed it. You know Henry, I believe?"
"Of course. Nice to see you, Henry." Edward tipped his hat, backed down the step, and was gone.
The evening with Henry seemed interminable. We were having a lively discussion about his mother's rheumatism when I finally yawned and said that I had to start baking early. The visit was certainly unfair to poor Henry, but it had the desired effect.
Lydia Townsend Waite — 1879
Almost thirty years later, our house on the hill was usually quiet. But this spring we had a houseful. Our son had brought his family from back East for a visit, and we were enjoying every moment. I was putting our granddaughter, Clarissa, to bed when Edward called me from the parlor.
"Lydia, dear, listen to this. Eleanor Dumont is in the news again."
Since Eleanor had closed the Dumont Palace and left town, we heard from time to time about some misadventure of hers. She seemed to turn up in every mining town from Virginia City to Tombstone. It made newspapers throughout the west when a would-be robber accosted her one night. She pulled out a derringer and killed him.
I called back, coming down the stairs, "Who has she shot this time?"
"She won't be killing anyone ever again. She has died."
I ran into the room. "Where? How?" It was all I could do not to grab the Sacramento Union from his hands and read it for myself.
He read slowly, frowning over the words. "Eleanor Dumont, the famous belle of many a gambling establishment, has died by her own hand. A note found by her side stated that she was 'tired or life.'"
The article said Eleanor had borrowed $300 one night to set up a gaming table in a boom town called Bodie. When she lost that money, she wandered into the night and took a drink laced with morphine.
Bodie had a separate graveyard outside of town for fallen women, but Eleanor's death created an uproar. The miners refused to bury her there in spite of the church people.
Edward went on, "It seems that the men of Bodie did not consider Eleanor a fallen woman. And they were not alone. Listen to this: 'Mourners came in carriages from Reno, Carson City, and Sacramento to give her by far the grandest funeral in the town's history!' That just shows the depths to which such places have sunk." He folded the paper and tossed it into the fire.
I was too stunned to speak. My mind struggled to accept the idea of Eleanor's death.
Edward reached to take my hand. "I was blinded for a time by that woman. Mercifully, you brought me to my senses before real damage was done. I owe all of this to you—our home, our children, my election as Justice of the Peace—everything I have."
I looked at my dear, innocent husband. This was the moment to say, "There's something you should understand about Eleanor Dumont."
But I simply kissed his forehead, and thought, "Thank you, Eleanor—wherever you are."