Oubliette

David Kennedy

Oubliette

New York City had never seen such dreadful weather. The rain poured on Sunday with such ferocity as to relieve wavering worshippers from attending services, for it suggested that the heavenly deity would rather that they stay at home. No sooner had night fallen, however, than a bitter cold set in, first freezing the remnants of the day’s precipitation upon the streets, then turning the rain into heavy snow. By the time the city awoke on Monday morning, everything was covered under a blanket of white, while howling winds drove the accumulation into massive drifts.

Roscoe Conkling had braved the weather to get to probate court that morning, only to find that the judge had been unable to attend. He grumbled, resolved to use the time wisely at his offices on Wall Street, and spent the better part of the day at work. Had he simply known at the outset of the day that everyone would disappoint him, he might have stayed at his rooms, but of course, Conkling seethed, no one had given any thought to his inconvenience. He left his offices in the early afternoon to find that all effort to dig Wall Street out had been abandoned. He clasped his coat tightly to his chest and headed toward Broadway.

“Senator Conkling, sir!” A young man was already at the corner of Broadway. “I think I can find us a cab!”

“I should hope so!” Conkling was shouting into the wind. “They ought to put in a day of work just like anyone else.” He trudged to the corner, but it was much slower going than he expected. The precipitation clung to his ankles and shoes, and the wind ripped through his hair. Conkling disdained hats as unnecessary ornament in light of the crown that Nature bestowed upon him, a presumption that was inconvenient at times such as these. By the time he reached the young man at the corner, he was panting hard, and ice was forming in his beard.

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure?” Conkling said by way of greeting.

“Bill Sulzer, sir,” the young man said.

“Very well Sulzer, let’s see you obtain a cab.”

Sulzer began to wave frantically, for there was a carriage less than one block away. Conkling looked up and down Broadway, which was a howling vortex of arctic agitation, and could discern no other carriage. He began stamping his feet to warm them.

“I’m sorry gentlemen, I’m headed home,” the coachman said when he pulled up alongside the duo. “My horses won’t last long in this weather.”

“How far can you take us?” Sulzer demanded.

“I won’t go but two blocks north of Chambers.”

“That shall have to do!” Sulzer said. “Senator Conkling, please go in.”

“You have not inquired about the fare, young man,” Conkling admonished. “What is your fare?”

“Well, you’ve got the weather, and the strain upon the horses,” the coachman said. “I would say fifty dollars.”

“Fifty dollars!” Conkling shouted. “Why, that is robbery!”

“I am at liberty to set my own fare,” said the driver.

“And I am at liberty to refuse!” Conking cried.

“Do you know who this is?” Sulzer demanded.

“Can’t say I care,” the coachman replied, whipped his horses, and left. Sulzer turned to Conkling.

“It would be my honor to pay the fare,” he said. “We can still catch him.”

“I don’t know about you, young man,” said Conkling, “but I am old enough to walk.”

With that, he trudged up Broadway. Sulzer thought for a moment and, reflecting that abandoning one of New York’s most prominent politicians in a time of need might adversely affect his prospects, trudged after him.

The fabric of the city appeared to be unraveling around them. Electrical wires had fallen down at several locations, sending sparks quickly consumed by the snow. At Park Place, an entire telephone pole had fallen, the remaining wires holding up the pole like a man dangling from gallows, snapping and breaking. The wind carried all manner of strange objects — hats, newspapers, useless umbrellas, all whipping around in the torrent. It took considerable effort just to get to City Hall Park.

“Shall we try the Astor House?” Sulzer hollered.

“My rooms are at the New York Club,” Conkling hollered back.

“But that is forty more blocks!” Sulzer pleaded. “It has taken us nearly half an hour to walk just eight.”

Conkling grunted, and the two men headed to the Astor House, whose awning had been torn to shreds by the wind. Sulzer banged on the doors. An attendant poked out his head.

“No vacancies!”

“But sir — ”

“No vacancies!”

“We shall sleep anywhere!” Sulzer cried.

The attendant’s face softened as he regarded the two men. They were entirely covered in snow, and Conkling’s eyebrows and beard were frozen.

“You may sleep upon the billiard tables, I suppose,” the attendant said. “Come in.”

“We shall take it!” Sulzer said and leaped across the threshold. Conkling did not follow.

“I am not going to sleep upon a billiard table like some drunken Irishman,” Conkling said. “Good day, gentlemen!”

Conkling turned his back upon the Astor House and kept walking. The afternoon had by now lengthened into evening, and it was becoming harder to see, but Conkling consoled himself with the thought that he need only maintain a straight line up Broadway. At Chambers Street, a horse had collapsed from the cold and stress of clopping through the snow; a splatter of red upon the white, the driver having given up on relieving his steed, was fading as the snow piled. Conkling smirked, for it was entirely possible that the horse belonged to the coachman who tried to overcharge them. The thought consoled him for another few blocks of leaning into the wind and freezing snow.

The winds were particularly strong at Canal Street, that avenue being wider than most, and Conkling spied a young lady stumble and fall face down into a drift. By the time Conkling had hastened over, only the hoop of her skirt was still visible, the remainder of her body having sunk into the snow.

“Madam, Madam!” Conkling shouted. “You must stand up!” He frantically dug through the snow and sought to reach around her waist, but the snow kept falling and piling into every space that he made.

“Here, here!” A voice sounded in his ear, and Conkling turned to see a fireman with a thick moustache and bulky coat, iced from head to toe. “You seize one shoulder, and I shall seize the other.”

The two men lifted the lady to her feet. Her eyes were blank, and her lips were blue and trembling.

“I can take her to the station-house,” the fireman said. “It is but a block from here. You are welcome to accompany us, sir.”

“No thank you,” said Conkling. “My work here is done. Take good care of her!”

The fireman tipped his hat and carried the trembling lady down Canal Street, while Conkling proceeded north. The rescue had enlivened him, and he made good progress over the next hour, for he determined that there was indeed a path to be made, steering between the Scylla of snow drifts piling up against the buildings along the street and the Charybdis of the howling winds hurtling down Broadway. He had long ceased to feel his extremities but congratulated himself with the notion that all his physical exertions over the course of his life were now paying off most handsomely. He rarely saw another person, and none were making their way nearly as steadily as he.

Night had fallen in all its obscurity by the time Conkling reached the numbered streets. The white whirlwinds whipped him onward.

“I am a figure out of Tolstoy!” he muttered to himself. “Marching across the Siberian plains to fight in some forgotten war, with nothing but my wits to sustain me! I never believed those Russian tales, but I believe them now!”

He was nearly at Union Square, only ten blocks south of his club, when he saw what appeared to be a boy’s cap resting atop a snowdrift. Conkling gritted his teeth and marched against the wind and snow, using the cap as a beacon, but was horrified when a gust of wind blew the cap from its location, exposing a tuft of hair. Conkling exerted himself as much as he could, but it was too late — the boy, perhaps ten years of age, was frozen and lifeless. There was no point digging him out. He placed the cap back upon the dead boy’s head and kept going.

Union Square proved nearly impossible to navigate. Conkling had now been pressing through the elements for two hours, and his limbs were weary, and his breathing labored. He blundered though one drift after another, losing all sense of direction in the dark, and now his heart began to race. He turned what he thought would be north and walked into a wall of snow and ice that held him in its icy grasp. He could not move, and he slowly began to panic, for the little heat left from his breath was slightly melting the snow before him, only to drip into his beard and turn into ice. His mind raced, for the thought occurred to him that he might become like a mosquito preserved in amber for the benefit of naturalists, but the severity of the situation tamed his senses, and his audacious powers of logic were roused.

The primary necessity, he thought, was to make sure he could breathe. He wobbled his head back and forth to create a small amount of space around his head. Next, he applied a similar method to his shoulders and chest, inclining forwards, now back, now to each side, to widen an aperture in the snow. To push forward against the resistance of the drift was foolish; the surer route was to patiently create a space from which he could eventually extricate himself. The next hour proceeded in this manner, until Conkling had created a sizable hole. Now he could lift his feet, and with his elbows he tamped down the snow in what he hoped would be the right direction and lifted himself out with a cry of triumph. The drift had formed in the well of a staircase, and now Conkling had clear route out of the park. He turned back and laughed at his would-be oubliette, and, seizing the railing along the steps, lifted himself up and out.

He had chosen his direction well, for he could perceive the lamps of the New York Club a few hundred feet away. The evils of the evening having been conquered, he bounded over to the entrance of his club and rang the bell.

A servant opened the door and gaped at the sight before him. Conkling was entirely covered in snow, and virtually unrecognizable apart from his confident demeanor and lofty manner, familiar to every employee of the establishment.

“Good evening!” Conkling said. “I should like a hot bath and a good dinner!”

He walked into the hallway, stiffened, and fell flat upon his face.

 

Conkling awoke with a piercing headache and a sore throat. He rang a servant, ordered some hot lemon water and a newspaper, and gazed out the window. To his amazement, it was still snowing. The entire city appeared to be sleeping under a white blanket, and there was no visible activity of any kind. He could take the morning off, he supposed, and work in his rooms at the club. The tea arrived without the newspaper, the servant claiming that newspapers had not been delivered and could not be obtained, so Conkling simply sat straight in bed sipping his water slowly. Yet he still had not retained that robustness and clarity of mind with which he preferred to welcome the day. He ordered another hot water and lay down for a few minutes rest.

When next he awoke, there were two visitors in his bedroom.

“The impertinence!” he sputtered. “What are you doing here?”

“Begging your pardon, Mister Conkling,” the servant began.

“Senator,” Conkling corrected him. “I retain the title, after all.”

“Senator Conkling,” the servant blushed. “You have been asleep all day, moaning and groaning. I took the liberty of calling Dr. Barker here.”

“At your service.” The doctor took off his hat and bowed slightly.

“I have done nothing of the sort!” Conkling protested, but any further objection was cut short by the return of the ache in his chest, which now felt as if it reached into his lungs. As he rose upon his elbows, his headache returned with a renewed ferocity, and he was startled to realize that he was sweating heavily.

“D____d radiator!” he muttered.

“Would you mind if I took a look at you?” Dr. Barker inquired.

“You are already here.” Conkling scowled and endured the physician’s poking and prodding for several minutes.

“I would say, Senator,” the doctor said when he completed the examination, “that you appear to have a respiratory infection. The staff at the club has informed me that you were caught in the blizzard yesterday. Is that true?”

“Yes.”

“You might have exerted yourself unduly. I recommend that you rest for a few days to regain your strength.”

“Fine. I shall work from my bed.”

“Of course. But there is something else — an abscess in your ear canal. I believe we have caught it early and recommended that it be drained at once, before it increases in size.”

Conkling waved impatiently, although his display of insouciance was complicated by a round of coughing.

“This shall hurt for only a moment.” The doctor pulled away Conkling’s hair, inserted a scalpel into his ear, and made a sudden slash. A warm effusion of pus gushed from Conkling’s ear. Conkling winced.

“There we are,” Dr. Barker said, patting Conkling’s ear with gauze and applying a light amount of surgical tape to hold the padding. “That should take care of it.”

 

But Dr. Barker was summoned back to Conkling’s rooms after a few days.

“The cure failed to hold, doctor,” Conkling groused. “I can barely hear at all now.”

“Let’s have a look,” Dr. Barker said affably. He gingerly removed the covering from Conkling’s head and saw, to his dismay, that the abscess had returned, and the reddish swelling was even larger now, obstructing the entirety of Conkling’s canal.

“Well,” said Dr. Barker. “This is most unusual. I shall lance it again, of course, but I should like to consult with Dr. Agnew of Philadelphia, who is a specialist in such matters. How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” said Conkling, but Dr. Barker knew that to be untrue. Conkling’s head was hot to the touch, his face flushed, and he was glistening with sweat.

“Hold steady,” Dr. Barker said, and lanced the abscess again. This time the discharge of pus went all the way down Conkling’s neck.

 

The fourth day after the blizzard — or perhaps the fifth, Conkling could not be sure — his fever was nearly unbearable. He had consumed nothing but hot water with lemon and chicken broth since he had taken to his bed, and he could not keep his mind upon his work. He gazed out the window and saw with some satisfaction that Broadway had finally been plowed, and that carriages were now proceeding in both directions. He could go back to the office now, once he conquered this d_____d fever. Newspapers were finally being delivered again, so he rang for that day’s journal, but fell asleep before one could be brought to him.

 

“Senator Conkling, sir?”

The servant gently massaged Conkling’s shoulder, but he remained deep in slumber. It was now nearly two weeks after the infamous blizzard of ‘eighty-eight, and Conkling’s health had not improved. Now three doctors stood at the end of the bed — Dr. Barker had been joined by Dr. Agnew of Philadelphia, who in turn summoned a surgeon, Dr. Sands.

“When was the last time he spoke to you?” Dr. Agnew demanded.

“Perhaps three days ago.”

“What did you discuss?”

“He demanded his hot water with lemon, and the newspaper, as always, but he never reads them.”

“Have you been replacing the gauze every day?” asked Dr. Barker.

“Of course.”

Dr. Barker sat upon the bed and removed the application. “It seems to get worse every time I look. I have lanced the abscess nearly every day, but it keeps returning.”

“Let me see,” Dr. Agnew said. He leaned over Conkling’s head and peered at the area between Conkling’s ear and the nape of his neck. Conkling’s skin was so flushed that the redness of the abscess, scarred now by repeated lancing, was difficult to see clearly.

“Lance it,” he ordered. Dr. Barker complied, and Conkling’s ear erupted with pus and blood. Dr. Agnew stepped back to permit Dr. Sands to consider the patient.

“I suppose it might be an infection,” said Dr. Sands, “but this is plainly no mere abscess. It is possible that he has a tumor in the brain, given his condition and the swelling around the ear.”

“I recommend surgery,” said Dr. Agnew. “Do you concur?”

“I concur,” said Dr. Sands.

“Very well,” said Dr. Agnew. “Will you please telegraph Mrs. Conkling? It is possible that her husband shall not survive the surgery.”

At this suggestion the servant blushed. “But, Doctor — ”

“No buts,” said Dr. Agnew. “I told you to telegraph the poor man’s wife, and that is the end of the matter.”

The servant struggled to speak for a few moments, but then, feeling the stern eyes of the physicians upon him, took his leave and complied with the order.

 

The following day, Dr. Agnew and Dr. Sands returned to Conkling’s bedroom, to find that their patient had not improved.

“We have made the correct decision,” said Dr. Agnew. “Shall you need my assistance? I rather expected to observe.”

“No,” said Dr. Sands, “I have asked for a Negro orderly to assist.”

Dr. Sands knelt beside Conkling, retrieved a vial from his satchel, drenched a handkerchief with the contents of the vial, then placed the handkerchief over Conkling’s nose and mouth. After a few moments, Conkling’s breathing grew slower and deeper. There was a knock at the door, and Dr. Agnew opened it to behold a Negro man dressed all in white.

“Are you the orderly?”

“Yes, Doctor. Clarence Thomas, at your service.”

“Very well, Clarence. Dr. Sands has sedated the patient, so please prepare him.”

Clarence proceeded to the bed and raised Conkling’s head from the pillows. He placed a wooden bowl with a grooved opening under Conkling’s head, the groove accommodating the patient’s neck, drew out a razor, and began shaving Conkling’s head. The wooden bowl soon filled with greying reddish locks, and the famous curl that once dangled over the great man’s forehead was swept into the bowl, which Clarence then emptied. Clarence then wet a cloth and gently cleaned the bare scalp.

“He is under sedation, but may nevertheless resist the surgery,” Dr. Sands directed. “If you turn him over upon one side and hold him fast, I shall drill from the other side of the bed.”

Clarence maneuvered Conkling as instructed, while Dr. Sands withdrew a hand drill from his satchel.

“I would drill exactly here,” said Dr. Agnew, placing one finger directly above Conkling’s ear canal, “with a downward direction of approximately forty-five degrees.”

“My thinking exactly,” said Dr. Sands. “Hold him tightly, Clarence.”

The drill squeaked as it swiveled, digging a hole into the side of Conkling’s head. The area was instantaneously bloody, pooling into the wooden bowl, but Dr. Sands gritted his teeth, for he had not yet penetrated the skull. Conkling began to moan and convulse, but Clarence held him tightly. Finally, Dr. Sands felt a sudden give, and he removed the tip of the drill to permit an eruption of blood and pus, which splattered both physicians as well as Clarence.

“Very good, gentlemen!” Dr. Agnew exulted. “Now we are getting somewhere!”

 

Two women faced each other in the ladies’ parlor of the New York Club.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Conkling,” said Kate Chase, at length. It had not occurred to her that anyone in Conkling’s employ would have been so foolish, and she had not steeled herself in advance of this encounter. Kate had not seen Mrs. Conkling in many years, but she perceived that the wife of her good friend had aged poorly, growing greyer, plumper, and shorter.

“Good afternoon?” Mrs. Conkling scoffed. “Is that what you have to say to me? If you had even an ounce of shame, you should not have come.”

“Anyone with an ounce of decency would have come, so here I am. I would like to see and comfort my friend.”

“Decency?” Mrs. Conkling nearly spat. “Do you think that I never read the newspapers? Do you take me for a fool?”

“You cannot trust anything you read in the newspapers. And I would never reproach another woman in such a manner. I only want to see my friend and give him my best wishes for a speedy recovery.”

“What good do you think that will do?”

“It has been my personal experience that, in times of distress, to see one’s friends is a great comfort.”

“You are not prepared to see him the way he is now.”

“I assure you that I am.”

Mrs. Conkling laughed bitterly. “What? You think he is lying serenely underneath a coverlet, his face a model of gentle repose, his foppish waistcoats draped over a chair? No! His head is shaved, his beard is gone, his head covered in bloody bandages. There is blood and vomit all over the chamber. It reeks like a slaughter-house. Were I not a Christian woman, I would have you see him, just to watch your illusions fall to pieces. But even after all this, I pity you.”

Kate did not flinch.

“Excuse me,” Kate said curtly, and sought to proceed past Mrs. Conkling.

“Don’t excuse yourself to me,” said Mrs. Conkling, blocking the door, “unless you want to imbitter my shame!”

Kate paused.

“I regret that the newspapers exploited my friendship with your husband,” she said, “and that you feel ill-used on my account. But I must remind you that I am a woman of standing, and if I give direction to the servants of this house, they shall follow it.”

“What direction shall you give?” A strange look took hold in Mrs. Conkling’s eyes.

“To be escorted upstairs to see Senator Conkling, so that I might speak awhile with him.”

“No servant of this house has such power.”

“Don’t be absurd!”

Kate placed one hand upon Mrs. Conkling’s arm to shove her aside. Rather than resist, Mrs. Conkling spoke.

“Because he is dead.”

Kate, restrained by the whole strength of her pride, took a few steps back into the parlor.

“Dead?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Conkling, without a hint of grief. “My husband has been dead for four hours.”

Kate said nothing for several moments, observing that Mrs. Conkling’s countenance had come to assume an air of triumph.

“Why did you not tell me that when I arrived?”

“I would have missed your pretty words.”

“You have behaved in a cruel, unforgivable manner.”

“I hope you are not angry at me,” Mrs. Conkling said, with a smirk.

“I am not angry at you,” Kate said. “I’m angry at a world that persecutes an independent woman as it never does a man.”

“Do not be so lofty with me!” Mrs. Conkling snarled. “An independent woman? You are a strumpet!”

“Are you so debased? I am a daughter of a former Chief Justice of the United States. Together your husband and I orchestrated the affairs of the nation, stole the ear of Presidents, Senators, Justices.”

“The two of you engaged in nothing but a foolish dalliance.”

“He was the greatest man of his generation.” Kate grew furious. “His name shall ever be upon the lips of history! Schoolboys a century hence shall memorize and declaim his speeches! Senators shall invoke his name before embarking upon any glorious venture! Universities shall study his accomplishments! And every American, after learning how Grant won the war, shall learn how Conkling won the peace, and placed this nation upon the path to greatness.”

Mrs. Conkling stared at Kate a few moments, her lip curled.

“He was nothing but an arrogant little man.”

Kate startled, but perceived that remonstration was useless. She took her hat from the table in the parlor, placed it on her head with perfect dignity, and gathered her shawl and coat about her. After she had prepared herself, she lifted her chin and looked Mrs. Conkling straight in the eyes.

Neither woman said a word.

Kate turned, strode deliberately through the foyer, and opened the door herself. She stood atop the steps and breathed in the cold crystalline air. She turned back for a moment, perceived Mrs. Conkling still smoldering, and, with one last thought of her deceased gladiator, Kate grasped the knob and pulled the door shut.

She looked one way, then the other. The sun was shining, the snow was melting, and the streets again crowded with people going about their business. She descended the steps, joined the throng, and was soon lost amongst the masses.

Author's Note

This creative nonfiction account relies primarily upon the account of the last days of Roscoe Conkling’s life, as detailed in Donald Barr Chidsey, The Gentleman From New York: A Life of Roscoe Conkling, at 380-86 (Yale Univ. Press 1935); and David M. Jordan, Roscoe Conkling of New York: Voice in the Senate, at 427-30 (Cornell 1971). The astonishing coincidence that the nurse attending Conkling was named Clarence Thomas is recorded in Chidsey on Conkling, at 386. Kate Chase did try to see Conkling, but was prevented from seeing him by his friends; the conversation between Kate Chase and Julia Conkling is imagined. See John Oller, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, at 250 (Da Capo Press 2014).

For contemporaneous accounts of the blizzard, see “He Walked Down Town,” N.Y. Times, Mar. 13, 1888, at 2; “A Struggle to Answer a Fire-Alarm During the New York Blizzard,” Harper’s Weekly, Mar. 24, 1888, at cover; “Down-Town Sketches in New York During Monday’s Blizzard,” Harper’s Weekly, Mar. 24, 1888, at 217; “The Perils of Union Square in the Midst of the Blizzard,” Harper’s Weekly, Mar. 24, 1888, at 218.

While the dialogue is imagined, some of the language is paraphrased from literature of the time. “Don’t excuse yourself to me, unless you wish to imbitter my shame,” is paraphrased from William Dean Howells, Indian Summer (1886). “Kept back by the whole strength of her pride,” is paraphrased from William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882). And the line “I’m angry with the cruel world, which pursues an independent woman as it never does a man,” is paraphrased from Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age (1873).

About the Author

David Kennedy

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David J. Kennedy is a civil rights lawyer in New York City. Read more about his work at his website: The Gilded Cage.