Delicate as if walking on eggs, the riverboat Augustus Caesar eased in alongside the quay at New Orleans. Colored roustabouts, bare to the waist, caught lines from the boat and made her fast. The steam whistle blew several long, happy blasts, telling the world the sternwheeler had arrived. Then black smoke stopped belching from the stacks as the crew shut down the engines.
The deck stopped quivering beneath John Audubon’s feet. He breathed a silent sigh of relief; for all the time he’d spent aboard boats and ships, he was not a good sailor, and knew he never would be. Any motion, no matter how slight, could make his stomach betray him. He sigheda long sea voyage still lay ahead of him.
Edward Harris came up and stood alongside him. “Well, my friend, we’re on our way,” he said.
“It’s truewe are. And we shall do that which has not been done, while it may yet be done.” As Audubon always did, he gathered enthusiasm when he thought about the goal and not the means by which he had to accomplish it. His English was fluent, but heavily flavored by the French that was his birthspeech. He was a good-sized manabout five feet tenwith shoulder- length gray hair combed straight back from his forehead and with bushy gray side whiskers that framed a long, strong-nosed face. Even without an accent, he would have spoken more mushily than he liked; he was nearer sixty than fifty, and had only a few teeth left. “Before long, Ed, either the great honkers will be gone from this world or I will.”
He waited impatiently till the gangplank thudded into place, then hurried off the Augustus Caesar onto dry land, or something as close to dry land as New Orleans offered.
Men and women of every color, wearing everything from rags to frock coats and great hoop skirts, thronged the muddy, puddled street. Chatter, jokes, and curses crackled in Spanish, French, and English, and in every possible mixture and corruption of those tongues. Audubon heard far more English than he had when he first came to New Orleans half a lifetime earlier. It was a French town then, with the Spanish dons hanging on where and as they could. Times changed, though. He knew that too well.
Not far from the Cabildo stood the brick building that housed the Bartlett Line. Edward Harris following in his wake, Audubon went inside. A clerk nodded to them. “Good day, gentlemen,” he said in English. A generation earlier, the greeting would surely have come in French. “How may I be of service to you today?”
“I wish to purchase passage to Atlantis for the two of us,” Audubon replied.
“Certainly, sir.” The clerk didn’t bat an eye. “The Maid of Orleans sails for New Marseille and Avalon on the west coast in . . . let me see . . . five days. If you would rather wait another week, you can book places on the Sea Queen for the east. She puts in at St. Augustine, St. Denis, and Hanover, then continues on to London.”
“We can reach the interior as easily from either coast,” Harris said.
“Just so.” Audubon nodded. “We would have to wait longer to leave for the east, the journey would be longer, and I would not care to set out from Hanover in any case. I have too many friends in the capital. With the kindest intentions in the world, they would sweep us up in their social whirl, and we should be weeks getting free of it. The Maid of Orleans it shall be.”
“You won’t be sorry, sir. She’s a fine ship.” The clerk spoke with professional enthusiasm. He took out a book of ticket forms and inked his pen. “In whose names shall I make these out?”
“I am John James Audubon,” Audubon replied. “With me travels my friend and colleague, Mr. Edward Harris.”
“Audubon?” The clerk started to write, then looked up, his face aglow. “The Audubon? The artist? The naturalist?”
Audubon exchanged a secret smile with Edward Harris. Being recognized never failed to gratify him: he loved himself well enough to crave reminding that others loved him, too. When he swung back toward the clerk, he tried to make the smile modest. “I have the honor to be he, yes.”
The clerk thrust out his hand. As Audubon shook it, the young man said, “I cannot tell you how pleased I am to make your acquaintance, sir. Mr. Hiram Bartlett, the chairman of the shipping line, is a subscriber to your Birds and Viviparous Quadrupeds of Northern Terranova and Atlantisthe double elephant folio edition. He sometimes brings in one volume or another for the edification of his staff. I admire your art and your text in almost equal measure, and that is the truth.”
“You do me too much credit,” Audubon said, in lieu of strutting and preening like a courting passenger pigeon. He was also glad to learn how prosperous Bartlett was. No one but a rich man could afford the volumes of the double elephant folio. They were big enough to show almost every bird and most beasts at life size, even if he had twisted poses and bent necks almost unnaturally here and there to fit creatures onto the pages’ Procrustean bed.
“Are you traveling to Atlantis to continue your researches?” the clerk asked eagerly.
“If fate is kind, yes,” Audubon replied. “Some of the creatures I hope to see are less readily found than they were in years gone by, while I”he sighed“I fear I am less well able to find them than I was in years gone by. Yet a man can do only what it is given to him to do, and I intend to try.”
“If they’re there, John, you’ll find them,” Harris said.
“God grant it be so,” Audubon said. “What is the fare aboard the Maid of Orleans?”
“A first-class cabin for two, sir, is a hundred twenty livres,” the clerk said. “A second-class cabin is eighty livres, while one in steerage is a mere thirty-five livres. But I fear I cannot recommend steerage for gentlemen of your quality. It lacks the comforts to which you will have become accustomed.”
“I’ve lived rough. Once I get to Atlantis, I expect I shall live rough again,” Audubon said. “But, unlike some gentlemen of the Protestant persuasion”he fondly nudged Edward Harris“I don’t make the mistake of believing comfort is sinful. Let us travel first class.”
“I don’t believe comfort is sinful, and you know it,” Harris said. “We want to get you where you’re going and keep you as healthy and happy as we can while we’re doing it. First class, by all means.”
“First class it shall be, then.” The clerk wrote up the tickets.
Audubon boarded the Maid of Orleans with a curious blend of anticipation and dread. The sidewheeler was as modern a steamship as any, but she was still a ship, one that would soon put to sea. Even going up the gangplank, his stomach gave a premonitory lurch.
He laughed and tried to make light of it, both to Harris and to himself. “When I think how many times I’ve put to sea in a sailing ship, at the mercy of wind and wave, I know how foolish I am to fret about a voyage like this,” he said.
“You said it to the clerk last week: you can only do what you can do.” Harris was blessed with both a calm stomach and a calm disposition. If opposites attracted, he and Audubon made a natural pair.
The purser strode up to them. Brass buttons gleamed on his blue wool coat; sweat gleamed on his face. “You gentlemen are traveling together?” he said. “If you would be kind enough to show me your tickets . . . ?”
“But of course,” Audubon said. He and Harris produced them.
“I thank you.” The purser checked them against a list he carried in one of his jacket’s many pockets. “Mr. Audubon and Mr. Harris, is it? Very good. We have you in Cabin 12, the main deck on the starboard side. That’s on the right as you look forward, if you haven’t gone to sea before.”
“I’m afraid I have,” Audubon said. The purser took off his cap and scratched his balding crown, but Audubon meant it exactly as he’d phrased it. He nodded to Harris and to the free Negro pushing a wheeled cart that held their baggage. “Let’s see what we’ve got, then.”
They had a cabin with two beds, a chest of drawers, and a basin and pitcher on top of it: about what they would have had in an inn of reasonable quality, though smaller. In an inn, though, I’m not likely to drown, Audubon thought. He didn’t suppose he was likely to drown on the Maid of Orleans, but if the seas got rough he would wish he were dead.
He gave the Negro half a livre, for the luggage, once unloaded from the cart, filled the cabin almost to the bursting point. Neither Audubon nor Harris was a dandy; they had no extraordinary amount of clothes. But Audubon’s watercolors and paper filled up a couple of trunks, and the jars and the raw spirits they would use to preserve specimens took up a couple of more. And each of them had a shotgun for gathering specimens and a newfangled revolver for self-protection.
“Leave enough room so you’ll be able to get out and come to the galley when you’re hungry,” the purser said helpfully.
“Thank you so much.” Audubon hoped his sarcasm would freeze the man, but the purser, quite unfrozen, tipped his cap and left the cabin. Audubon muttered in pungent French.
“Never mind, John,” Harris said. “We’re here, and we’ll weigh anchor soon. After that, no worries till we get to Avalon.”
No worries for you. But Audubon kept that to himself. Harris couldn’t help having a tranquil stomach, any more than the artist could help having a nervous one. Audubon only wished his were calm.
He also wished the Maid of Orleans sailed at the appointed hour, or even on the appointed day. Thursday, the 6th day of April, 1843, at half past 10 in the morning, the clerk had written on each ticket in a fine round hand. Audubon and Harris were aboard in good time. But half past ten came and went without departure. All of Thursday came and went. Passengers kept right on boarding. Stevedores kept on carrying sacks of sugar and rice into the ship’s hold. Only the stuffed quail and artichokes and asparagus and the really excellent champagne in the first-class galley went some little way toward reconciling Audubon to being stuck on the steamship an extra day.
Finally, on Friday afternoon, the Maid of Orleans’ engine rumbled to life. Its engine had a deeper, stronger note than the one that had propelled the Augustus Caesar down the Big Muddy. The deck thrummed under Audubon’s shoes.
Officers bawled commands as smoke belched from the steamship’s stacks. Sailors took in the lines that secured the ship to the quay. Others, grunting with effort, manned the capstan. One link at a time, they brought up the heavy chain and anchor that had held the sidewheeler in place.
Watching them, Harris said, “One of these days, steam will power the capstan as well as the paddlewheels.”
“You could be right,” Audubon replied. “The sailors must hope you are.”
“Steam is the coming thing. You mark my words,” Harris said. “Steamships, railroads, factorieswho knows what else?”
“So long as they don’t make a steam-powered painter, I’ll do well enough,” Audubon said.
“A steam-powered painter? You come up with the maddest notions, John.” Edward Harris laughed. Slowly, though, the mirth faded from his face. “With a mechanical pantograph, your notion might almost come true.”
“I wasn’t thinking of that so much,” Audubon told him. “I was thinking of this new trick of light-writing people have started using the last few years. If it gave pictures in color, not shades of gray, and if you could makeno, they say takea light-writing picture fast enough to capture motion . . . Well, if you could, painters would fall on thin times, I fear.”
“Those are hefty ifs. It won’t happen soon, if it ever does,” Harris said.
“Oh, yes. I know.” Audubon nodded. “I doubt I’ll have to carry a hod in my fading years. My son will likely make a living as a painter, too. But you were talking about days to come. May I not think of them as well?”
The steamship’s whistle screamed twice, warning that she was about to move away from the quay. Her paddlewheels spun slowly in reverse, backing her out into the Big Muddy. Then one wheel stopped while the other continued to revolve. Along with the rudder, that swung the Maid of Orleans’ bow downstream. Another blast from the whistlea triumphant oneand more smoke pouring from her stacks, she started down the great river toward the Bay of Mexico. Though she hadn’t yet reached the sea, Audubon’s stomach flinched.
The Big Muddy’s delta stretched far out into the Bay of Mexico. As soon as the Maid of Orleans left the river and got out into the bay, her motion changed. Her pitch and roll were nothing to speak of, not to the crew and not to most of the passengers. But they were enough to send Audubon and a few other unfortunates running for the rail. After a couple of minutes that seemed like forever, he wearily straightened, mouth foul and burning, eyes streaming with tears. He was rid of what ailed him, at least for the moment.
A steward with a tray of glasses nodded deferentially. “Some punch, sir, to help take the taste away?”
“Merci. Mon Dieu, merci beaucoup,” Audubon said, tormented out of English.
“Pas de quoi,” the steward replied. Any man on a ship sailing from New Orleans and touching in the southern parts of Atlantis had to speak some French.
Audubon sipped and let rum and sweetened lemon juice clean his mouth. When he swallowed, he feared he would have another spasm, but the punch stayed down. Reassuring warmth spread from his middle. Two more gulps emptied the glass. “God bless you!” he said.
“My pleasure, sir. We see some every time out.” The steward offered restoratives to Audubon’s fellow sufferers. They fell on him with glad cries. He even got a kiss from a nice-looking young womanbut only after she’d taken a good swig from her glass of punch.
Feeling human in a mournful way, Audubon walked up toward the bow. The breeze of the ship’s passage helped him forget about his unhappy innards . . . for now. Gulls screeched overhead. A common tern dove into the sea, and came up with a fish in its beak. It didn’t get to enjoy the meal. A herring gull flapped after it and made it spit out the fish before it could swallow. The gull got the dainty; the robbed tern flew off to try its luck somewhere else.
On the southern horizon lay the island of Nueva Galicia, about forty miles southeast of the delta. Only a little steam rose above Mount Isabella, near the center of the island. Audubon had been a young man the last time the volcano erupted. He remembered ash raining down on New Orleans.
He looked east toward Mount Pensacola at the mouth of the bay. Pensacola had blown its stack more recentlyonly about ten years earlier, in fact. For now, though, no ominous plume of black rose in that direction. Audubon nodded to himself. He wouldn’t have to worry about making the passage east during an eruption. When Mount Pensacola burst into flame, rivers of molten rock ran steaming into the sea, pushing the Terranovan coastline a little farther south and east. Ships couldn’t come too close to observe the awe-inspiring spectacle, for the volcano threw stones to a distance coast artillery only dreamt of. Most splashed into the Bay of Mexico, of course, but who would ever forget the Black Prince, holed and sunk by a flying boulder the size of a cow back in ‘93?
The Maid of Orleans steamed sedately eastward. The waves weren’t too bad; Audubon found that repeated doses of rum punch worked something not far from a miracle when it came to settling his stomach. If it did twinge now and again, the rum kept him from caring. And the lemon juice, he told himself, held scurvy at bay.
Mount Pensacola was smoking when the sidewheeler passed it near sunset. But the cloud of steam rising from the conical peak, like that above Mount Isabella, was thin and pale, not broad and black and threatening.
Edward Harris came up alongside Audubon by the port rail. “A pretty view,” Harris remarked.
“It is indeed,” Audubon said.
“I’m surprised not to find you sketching,” Harris told him. “Sunset tinging the cloud above the mountain with pink against the deepening blue . . . What could be more picturesque?”
“Nothing, probably.” Audubon laughed in some embarrassment. “But I’ve drunk enough of that splendid rum punch to make my right hand forget its cunning.”
“I don’t suppose I can blame you, not when mal de mer torments you so,” Harris said. “I hope the sea will be calmer the next time you come this way.”
“So do Iif there is a next time,” Audubon said. “I am not young, Edward, and I grow no younger. I’m bound for Atlantis to do things and see things while I still may. The land changes year by year, and so do I. Neither of us will be again what we were.”
Harriscalm, steady, dependable Harrissmiled and set a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You’ve drunk yourself sad, that’s what you’ve done. There’s more to you than to many a man half your age.”
“Good of you to say so, though we both know it’s not so, not any more. As for the rum . . .” Audubon shook his head. “I knew this might be my last voyage when I got on the Augustus Caesar in St. Louis. Growing up is a time of firsts, of beginnings.”
“Oh, yes.” Harris’ smile grew broader. Audubon had a good idea which first he was remembering.
But the painter wasn’t finished. “Growing up is a time for firsts, yes,” he repeated. “Growing old . . . Growing old is a time for endings, for lasts. And I do fear this will be my last long voyage.”
“Well, make the most of it if it is,” Harris said. “Shall we repair to the galley? Turtle soup tonight, with a saddle of mutton to follow.” He smacked his lips.
Harris certainly made the most of the supper. Despite his ballasting of rum, Audubon didn’t. A few spoonfuls of soup, a halfhearted attack on the mutton and the roast potatoes accompanying it, and he felt full to the danger point. “We might as well have traveled second class, or even steerage,” he said sadly. “The difference in cost lies mostly in the victuals, and I’ll never get my money’s worth at a table that rolls.”
“I’ll just have to do it for both of us, then.” Harris poured brandy-spiked gravy over a second helping of mutton. His campaign with fork and knife was serious and methodical, and soon reduced the mutton to nothing. He looked around hopefully. “I wonder what the sweet course is.”
It was a cake baked in the shape of the Maid of Orleans and stuffed with nuts, candied fruit, and almond paste. Harris indulged immoderately. Audubon watched with a strange smile, half jealous, half wistful.
He went to bed not long after supper. The first day of a sea voyage always told on him, more than ever as he got older. The mattress was as comfortable as the one in the inn back in New Orleans. It might have been softer than the one he slept on at home. But it was unfamiliar, and so he tossed and turned for a while, trying to find the most comfortable position. Even as he tossed, he laughed at himself. Before long, he’d sleep wrapped in a blanket on bare ground in Atlantis. Would he twist and turn there, too? He nodded. Of course he would. Nodding still, he dozed off.
He hadn’t been asleep long before Harris came in. His friend was humming “Pretty Black Eyes,” a song popular in New Orleans as they set out. Audubon didn’t think the other man even knew he was doing it. Harris got into his nightshirt, pissed in the chamber pot under his bed, blew out the oil lamp Audubon had left burning, and lay down. He was snoring in short order. Harris always denied that he snoredand why not? He never heard himself.
Audubon laughed once more. He tossed and twisted and yawned. Pretty soon, he was snoring again himself.
When he went out on deck the next morning, the Maid of Orleans might have been the only thing God ever made besides the sea. Terranova had vanished behind her; Atlantis still lay a thousand miles ahead. The steamship had entered the Hesperian Gulf, the wide arm of the North Atlantic that separated the enormous island and its smaller attendants from the continent to the west.
Audubon looked south and east. He’d been born on Santo Tomás, one of those lesser isles. He was brought to France three years later, and so escaped the convulsions that wracked the island when its colored slaves rose up against their masters in a war where neither side asked for quarter or gave it. Blacks ruled Santo Tomás to this day. Not many whites were left on the island. Audubon had only a few faded childhood memories of his first home. He’d never cared to go back, even if he could have without taking his life in his hands.
Edward Harris strolled out on deck. “Good morning,” he said. “I hope you slept well?”
“Well enough, thanks,” Audubon answered. I would have done better without “Pretty Black Eyes,” but such is life. “Yourself?”
“Not bad, not bad.” Harris eyed him. “You look . . . less greenish than you did yesterday. The bracing salt air, I suppose?”
“It could be. Or maybe I’m getting used to the motion.” As soon as Audubon said that, as soon as he thought about his stomach, he gulped. He pointed an accusing finger at his friend. “Thereyou see? Just asking was enough to jinx me.”
“Well, come have some breakfast, then. Nothing like a good mess of ham and eggs or something like that to get you ready for . . . Are you all right?”
“No,” Audubon gasped, leaning out over the rail.
He breakfasted lightly, on toasted ship’s biscuit and coffee and rum punch. He didn’t usually start the day with strong spirits, but he didn’t usually start the day with a bout of seasickness, either. A good thing, too, or I’d have died years ago, he thought. I hope I would, anyhow.
Beside him in the galley, Harris worked his way through fried eggs and ham and sausage and bacon and maizemeal mush. Blotting his lips with a snowy linen napkin, he said, “That was monstrous fine.” He patted his pot belly.
“So glad you enjoyed it,” Audubon said tonelessly.
Once or twice over the next three days, the Maid of Orleans came close enough to another ship to make out her sails or the smoke rising from her stack. A pod of whales came up to blow nearby before sounding again. Most of the time, though, the sidewheeler might have been alone on the ocean.
Audubon was on deck again the third afternoon, when the seasuddenly, as those things wentchanged from greenish gray to a deeper, richer blue. He looked around for Harris, and spotted him not far away, drinking rum punch and chatting with a personable young woman whose curls were the color of fire.
“Edward!” Audubon said. “We’ve entered the Bay Stream!”
“Have we?” The news didn’t seem to have the effect on Harris that Audubon wanted. His friend turned back to the redheaded womanwho also held a glass of punchand said, “John is wild for nature in every way you can imagine.” Spoken in a different tone of voice, it would have been a compliment. Maybe it still was. Audubon hoped he only imagined Harris’ faintly condescending note.
“Is he?” The woman didn’t seem much interested in Audubon one way or the other. “What about you, Eddie?”
Eddie? Audubon had trouble believing his ears. No one had ever called Harris such a thing in his hearing before. And Harris . . . smiled. “Well, Beth, I’ll tell youI am, too. But some parts of nature interest me more than others.” He set his free hand on her arm. She smiled, too.
He was a widower. He could chase if that suited his fancy, not that Beth seemed to need much chasing. Audubon admired a pretty lady as much as anyonemore than most, for with his painter’s eye he saw more than mostbut was a thoroughly married man, and didn’t slide from admiration to pursuit. He hoped Lucy was well.
Finding Harris temporarily distracted, Audubon went back to the rail himself. By then, the Maid of Orleans had left the cooler waters by the east coast of Terranova behind and fully entered the warm current coming up from the Bay of Mexico. Even the bits of seaweed floating in the ocean looked different now. Audubon’s main zoological interests did center on birds and viviparous quadrupeds. All the same, he wished he would have thought to net up some of the floating algae in the cool water and then some of these so he could properly compare them.
He turned around to say as much to Harris, only to discover that his friend and Beth were no longer on deck. Had Harris gone off to pursue his own zoological interests? Well, more power to him if he had. Audubon looked back into the ocean, and was rewarded with the sight of a young sea turtle, not much bigger than the palm of his hand, delicately nibbling a strand of the new seaweed. Next to the rewards Harris might be finding, it didn’t seem like much, but it was definitely better than nothing.
Like the Sun, Atlantis, for Audubon, rose in the east. That blur on the horizonfor a little while, you could wonder if it was a distant cloudbank, but only for a little while. Before long, it took on the unmistakable solidity of land. To the Breton and Galician fishermen who’d found it first, almost four hundred years before, it would have sent the setting sun to bed early.
“Next port of call is New Marseille, sir,” the purser said, tipping his cap to Audubon as he went by.
“Yes, of course,” the artist replied, “but I’m bound for Avalon.”
“Even so, sir, you’ll have to clear customs at the first port of call in Atlantis,” the other man reminded him. “The States are fussy about these things. If you don’t have a New Marseille customs stamp on your passport, they won’t let you off the ship in Avalon.”
“It’s a nuisance, to open all my trunks for the sake of a stamp,” Audubon said. The purser shrugged the shrug of a man with right, or at least regulations, on his side. And he told the truth: the United States of Atlantis were fussy about who visited them. Do as we do, they might have said, or stay away.
Not that coming ashore at New Marseille was a hardship. On the contrary. Warmed by the Bay Stream, the city basked in an almost unending May. Farther north, in Avalon, it seemed to be April most of the time. And then the Bay Stream curled north and east around the top of Atlantis and delivered the rest of its warmth to the north of France, to the British Isles, and to Scandinavia. The east coast of Atlantis, where the winds swept across several hundred miles of mountains and lowlands before they finally arrived, was an altogether darker, harsher place.
But Audubon was in New Marseille, and if it wasn’t veritably May, it was the middle of April, which came close enough. A glance as he and Harris carted their cases to the customs shed sufficed to tell him he’d left Terranova behind. Oh, the magnolias that shaded some nearby streets weren’t much different from the ones he could have found near New Orleans. But the ginkgoes on other thoroughfares . . . Only one other variety of ginkgo grew anyplace else in the world: in China. And the profusion of squat cycads with tufts of leaves sprouting from the tops of squat trunks also had few counterparts anywhere in the temperate zone.
The customs official, by contrast, seemed much like customs officials in every other kingdom and republic Audubon had ever visited. He frowned as he examined their declaration, and frowned even more as he opened up their baggage to confirm it. “You have a considerable quantity of spirits here,” he said. “A dutiable quantity, in fact.”
“They aren’t intended for drinking or for resale, sir,” Audubon said, “but for the preservation of scientific specimens.”
“John Audubon’s name and artistry are known throughout the civilized world,” Edward Harris said.
“I’ve heard of the gentleman myself. I admire his work, what I’ve seen of it,” the official replied. “But the law does not consider intent. It considers quantity. You will not tell me these strong spirits cannot be drunk?”
“No,” Audubon admitted reluctantly.
“Well, then,” the customs man said. “You owe the fisc of Atlantis . . . Let me see . . .” He checked a table thumbtacked to the wall behind him. “You owe twenty-two eagles and, ah, fourteen cents.”
Fuming, Audubon paid. The customs official gave him a receipt, which he didn’t want, and the requisite stamp in his passport, which he did. As he and Harris trundled their chattels back to the Maid of Orleans, a small bird flew past them. “Look, John!” Harris said. “Wasn’t that a gray-throated green?”
Not even the sight of the Atlantean warbler could cheer Audubon. “Well, what if it was?” he said, still mourning the money he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to spend.
His friend knew what ailed him. “When we get to Avalon, paint a portrait or two,” Harris suggested. “You’ll make it up, and more besides.”
Audubon shook his head. “I don’t want to do that, dammit.” When thwarted, he could act petulant as a child. “I grudge the time I’d have to spend. Every moment counts. I have not so many days left myself, and the upland honkers. . . . Well, who can say if they have any left at all?”
“They’ll be there.” As usual, Harris radiated confidence.
“Will they?” Audubon, by contrast, careened from optimism to the slough of despond on no known schedule. At the moment, not least because of the customs man, he was mired in gloom. “When fishermen first found this land, a dozen species of honkers filled it: filled it as buffalo fill the plains of Terranova. Now . . . Now a few may be left in the wildest parts of Atlantis. Or, even as we speak, the last ones may be dyingmay already have died!under an eagle’s claws or the jaws of a pack of wild dogs or to some rude trapper’s shotgun.”
“The buffalo are starting to go, too,” Harris remarked.
That only agitated Audubon more. “I must hurry! Hurry, do you hear me?”
“Well, you can’t go anywhere till the Maid of Orleans sails,” Harris said reasonably.
“One day soon, a railroad will run from New Marseille to Avalon,” Audubon said. Atlantis was building railroads almost as fast as England: faster than France, faster than any of the new Terranovan republics. But soon was not yet, and he did have to wait for the steamship to head north.
Passengers left the Maid of Orleans. Beth got off, which made Harris glum. Others came aboard. Longshoremen carried crates and boxes and barrels and bags ashore. Others brought fresh cargo onto the ship. Passengers and longshoremen alike moved too slowly to suit Audubon. Again, he could only fume and pace the mercifully motionless deck. At last, late the next afternoon, the Maid of Orleans steamed towards Avalon.
She stayed close to shore on the two-and-a-half-day journey. It was one of the most beautiful routes anywhere in the world. Titanic redwoods and sequoias grew almost down to the shore. They rose so tall and straight, they might almost have been the columns of a colossal outdoor cathedral.
But that cathedral could have been dedicated to puzzlement and confusion. The only trees like the enormous evergreens of Atlantis were those on the Pacific coast of Terranova, far, far away. Why did they thrive here, survive there, and exist nowhere else? Audubon had no more answer than any other naturalist, though he dearly wished for one. That would crown a career! He feared it was a crown he was unlikely to wear.
The Maid of Orleans passed a small fishing town called Newquay without stopping. Having identified the place on his map, Audubon was pleased when the purser confirmed he’d done it right. “If anything happens to the navigator, sir, I’m sure we’d be in good hands with you,” the man said, and winked to show he didn’t aim to be taken too seriously.
Audubon gave him a dutiful smile and went back to eyeing the map. Atlantis’ west coast and the east coast of North Terranova a thousand miles away put him in mind of two pieces of a world-sized jigsaw puzzle: their outlines almost fit together. The same was true for the bulge of Brazil in South Terranova and the indentation in West Africa’s coastline on the other side of the Atlantic. And the shape of Atlantis’ eastern coast corresponded to that of western Europe in a more general way.
What did that mean? Audubon knew he was far from the first to wonder. How could anyone who looked at a map help but wonder? Had Atlantis and Terranova been joined once upon a time? Had Africa and Brazil? How could they have been, with so much sea between? He saw no way it could be possible. Neither did anyone else. But when you looked at the map . . .
“Coincidence,” Harris said when he mentioned it at supper.
“Maybe so.” Audubon cut meat from a goose drumstick. His stomach was behaving better these daysand the seas stayed mild. “But if it is a coincidence, don’t you think it’s a large one?”
“World’s a large place.” Harris paused to take a sip of wine. “It has room in it for a large coincidence or three, don’t you think?”
“Maybe so,” Audubon said again, “but when you look at the maps, it seems as if those matches ought to spring from reason, not happenstance.”
“Tell me how the ocean got in between them, then.” Harris aimed a finger at him like a pistol barrel. “And if you say it was Noah’s flood, I’ll pick up that bottle of fine Bordeaux and clout you over the head with it.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort,” Audubon replied. “Noah’s flood may have washed over these lands, but I can’t see how it could have washed them apart while still leaving their coastlines so much like each other.”
“So it must be coincidence, then.”
“I don’t believe it must be anything, mon vieux,” Audubon said. “I believe we don’t know what it isor, I admit, if it’s anything at all. Maybe they will one day, but not now. For now, it’s a puzzlement. We need puzzlements, don’t you think?”
“For now, John, I need the gravy,” Harris said. “Would you kindly pass it to me? Goes mighty well with the goose.”
It did, too. Audubon poured some over the moist, dark meat on his plate before handing his friend the gravy boat. Harris wanted to ignore puzzlements when he could. Not Audubon. They reminded him not only of how much heand everyone elsedidn’t know yet, but also of how much hein particularmight still find out.
As much as I have time for, he thought, and took another bite of goose.
Avalon rose on six hills. The city fathers kept scouting for a seventh so they could compare their town to Rome, but there wasn’t another bump to be found for miles around. The west-facing Bay of Avalon gave the city that bore its name perhaps the finest harbor in Atlantis. A century and a half before, the bay was a pirates’ roost. The buccaneers swept out to plunder the Hesperian Gulf for most of a lifetime, till a British and Dutch fleet drove them back to their nest and then smoked them out of it.
City streets still remembered the swashbuckling past: Goldbeard Way, Valjean Avenue, Cutpurse Charlie Lane. But two Atlantean steam frigates patrolled the harbor. Fishing boats, bigger merchantmensome steamers, other sailing shipsand liners like the Maid of Orleans moved in and out. The pirates might be remembered, but they were gone.
May it not be so with the honkers, Audubon thought as the Maid of Orleans tied up at a pier. Please, God, let it not be so. He crossed himself. He didn’t know if the prayer would help, but it couldn’t hurt, so he sent it up for whatever it might be worth.
Harris pointed to a man coming up the pier. “Isn’t that Gordon Coates?”
“It certainly is.” Audubon waved to the man who published his work in Atlantis. Coates, a short, round fellow with side whiskers even bushier than Audubon’s, waved back. His suit was of shiny silk; a stovepipe hat sat at a jaunty angle on his head. Audubon cupped his hands in front of his mouth. “How are you, Gordon?”
“Oh, tolerable. Maybe a bit better than tolerable,” Coates replied. “So you’re haring off into the wilderness again, are you?” He was a city man to the tips of his manicured fingers. The only time he went out to the countryside was to take in a horse race. He knew his ponies, too. When he bet, he won . . . more often than not, anyhow.
He had a couple of servants waiting with carts to take charge of the travelers’ baggage. He and Audubon and Harris clasped hands and clapped one another on the back when the gangplank went down and passengers could disembark. “Where are you putting us up?” asked Harris, who always thought about things like where he would be put up. Thanks to his thoughts about such things, Audubon had stayed in some places more comfortable than those where he might have if he made his own arrangements.
“How does the Hesperian Queen sound?” Coates answered.
“Like a pirate’s kept woman,” Audubon answered, and the publisher sent up gales of laughter. Audubon went on, “Is it near a livery stable or a horse market? I’ll want to get my animals as soon as I can.” Harris let out a sigh. Audubon pretended not to hear it.
“Not too far, not too far,” Coates said. Then he pointed up into the sky. “Lookan eagle! There’s an omen for you, if you like.”
The large, white-headed bird sailed off toward the south. Audubon knew it was likely bound for the city dump, to scavenge there. White-headed eagles had thrived since men came to Atlantis. Seeing this one secretly disappointed Audubon. He wished it were a red-crested eagle, the Atlantean national bird. But the mighty raptorsby all accounts, the largest in the worldhad fallen into a steep decline along with the honkers, which were their principal prey.
“Well,” he said, “the Hesperian Queen.”
The last time he was in Avalon, the hotel had had another name and another owner. It had come up in the world since. So had Avalon, which was visibly bigger and visibly richer than it had been ten yearsor was it twelve now?before.
Harris noticed, too. Harris generally noticed things like that. “You do well for yourselves here,” he told Gordon Coates over beefsteaks at supper.
“Not too bad, not too bad,” the publisher said. “I’m about to put out a book by a chap who thinks he’s written the great Atlantean novel, and he lives right here in town. I hope he’s right. You never can tell.”
“You don’t believe it, though,” Audubon said.
“Well, no,” Coates admitted. “Everybody always thinks he’s written the great Atlantean novelunless he comes from Terranova or England. Sometimes even then. Mr. Hawthorne has a better chance than somea better chance than most, I daresaybut not that much better.”
“What’s it called?” Harris asked.
“The Crimson Brand,” Coates said. “Not a bad title, if I say so myselfand I do, because it’s mine. He wanted to name it The Shores of a Different Sea.” He yawned, as if to say authors were hopeless with titles. Then, pointing at Audubon, he did say it: “I’d have called your books something else, too, if they weren’t also coming out in England and Terranova. Birds and Critters, maybe. Who remembers what a quadruped is, let alone a viviparous one?”
“They’ve done well enough with the name I gave them,” Audubon said.
“Well enough, sure, but they might’ve done better. I could’ve made you big.” Coates was a man with an eye for the main chance. Making Audubon bighe lingered lovingly over the wordwould have made him money.
“I know why folks here don’t know quadrupeds from a hole in the ground,” Harris said. “Atlantis hardly had any before it got discovered. No snakes in Ireland, no . . . critters”he grinned“here, not then.”
“No viviparous quadrupeds.” Audubon had drunk enough wine to make him most precisebut not too much to keep him from pronouncing viviparous. “A very great plenty of lizards and turtles and frogs and toads and salamandersand snakes, of course, though snakes lack four legs of quadrupedality.” He was proud of himself for that.
“Sure enough, snakes haven’t got a leg to stand on.” Harris guffawed.
“Well, we have critters enough now, by God,” Coates said. “Everything from mice on up to elk. Some of ’em we wanted, some we got anyway. Try and keep rats and mice from coming aboard ship. Yeah, go ahead and try. Good luckyou’ll need it.”
“How many indigenous Atlantean creatures are no more because of them?” Audubon said.
“Beats me,” Coates answered. “Little too late to worry about it now, anyway, don’t you think?”
“I hope not,” Audubon said. “I hope it’s not too late for them. I hope it’s not too late for me.” He took another sip of wine. “And I know the viviparous creature responsible for the greatest number of those sad demises here.”
“Rats?” Coates asked.
“Weasels, I bet,” Harris said.
Audubon shook his head at each of them in turn. He pointed an index finger at his own chest. “Man,” he said.
He rode out of Avalon three days later. Part of the time he spent buying horses and tackle for them; that, he didn’t begrudge. The rest he spent with Gordon Coates, meeting with subscribers and potential subscribers for his books; that, he did. He was a better businessman than most of his fellow artists, and normally wouldn’t have resented keeping customers happy and trolling for new ones. If nobody bought your art, you had a devil of a time making more of it. As a younger man, he’d worked at several other trades, hated them all, and done well at none. He knew how lucky he was to make a living doing what he loved, and how much work went into what others called luck.
To his relief, he did escape without painting portraits. Even before he set out from New Orleans, he’d felt time’s hot breath at his heels. He felt himself aging, getting weaker, getting feebler. In another few years, maybe even in another year or two, he would lack the strength and stamina for a journey into the wilds of central Atlantis. And even if he had it, he might not find any honkers left to paint.
I may not find any now, he thought. That ate at him like vitriol. He kept seeing a hunter or a lumberjack with a shotgun. . . .
Setting out from Avalon, Audubon might almost have traveled through the French or English countryside. Oh, the farms here were larger than they were in Europe, with more meadow between them. This was newly settled land; it hadn’t been cultivated for centuries, sometimes for millennia. But the cropswheat, barley, maize, potatoeswere either European or were Terranovan imports long familiar in the Old World. The fruit trees came from Europe; the nuts, again, from Europe and Terranova. Only a few stands of redwoods and Atlantean pines declared that the Hesperian Gulf lay just a few miles to the west.
It was the same with the animals. Dogs yapped outside of farmhouses. Chickens scratched. Cats prowled, hoping for either micealso immigrantsor unwary chicks. Ducks and geeseordinary domestic geesepaddled in ponds. Pigs rooted and wallowed. In the fields, cattle and sheep and horses grazed.
Most people probably wouldn’t have noticed the ferns that sprouted here and there or the birds on the ground, in the trees, and on the wing. Some of those birds, like ravens, ranged all over the world. Others, such as the white-headed eagle Audubon had seen in Avalon, were common in both Atlantis and Terranova (on Atlantis’ eastern coast, the white-tailed eagle sometimes visited from its more usual haunts in Europe and Iceland). Still othersno one knew how manywere unique to the great island.
No one but a specialist knew or cared how Atlantean gray-faced swifts differed from the chimney swifts of Terranova or little swifts from Europe. Many Atlantean thrushes were plainly the same sorts of birds as their equivalents to the west and to the east. They belonged to different species, but their plumages and habits were similar to those of the rest. The same held true for island warblers, which flitted through the trees after insects like their counterparts on the far side of the Hesperian Gulf. Yes, there were many similarities. But . . .
“I wonder how soon we’ll start seeing oil thrushes,” Audubon said.
“Not this close to Avalon,” Harris said. “Not with so many dogs and cats and pigs running around.”
“I suppose not,” Audubon said. “They’re trusting things, and they haven’t much chance of getting away.”
Laughing, Harris mimed flapping his fingertips. Oil thrushes’ wings were bigger than that, but not by muchthey couldn’t fly. The birds themselves were bigger than chickens. They used their long, pointed beaks to probe the ground for worms at depths ordinary thrushes, flying thrushes, couldn’t hope to reach. When the hunting was good, they laid up fat against a rainy day.
But they were all but helpless against men and the beasts men had brought to Atlantis. It wasn’t just that they were good eating, or that their fat, rendered down made a fine lamp oil. The real trouble was, they didn’t seem to know enough to run away when a dog or a fox came after them. They weren’t used to being hunted by animals that lived on the ground; the only viviparous quadrupeds on Atlantis before men arrived were bats.
“Even the bats here are peculiar,” Audubon muttered.
“Well, so they are, but why do you say so?” Harris asked.
Audubon explained his train of thought. “Where else in the world do you have bats that spend more of their time scurrying around on the ground than flying?” he went on.
He thought that was a rhetorical question, but Harris said, “Aren’t there also some in New Zealand?”
“Are there?” Audubon said in surprise. His friend nodded. The painter scratched at his side whiskers. “Well, well. Both lands far from any others, out in the middle of the sea . . .”
“New Zealand had its own honkers, too, or something like them,” Harris said. “What the devil were they called?”
“Moas,” Audubon said. “I do remember that. Didn’t I show you the marvelous illustrations of their remains Professor Owen did recently? The draftsmanship is astonishing. Astonishing!” The way he kissed his bunched fingertips proved him a Frenchman at heart.
Edward Harris gave him a sly smile. “Surely you could do better?”
“I doubt it,” Audubon said. “Each man to his own bent. Making a specimen look as if it were alive on the canvasthat I can do. My talent lies there, and I’ve spent almost forty years now learning the tricks and turns that go with it. Showing every detail of dead boneI’m not in the least ashamed to yield the palm to the good professor there.”
“If only you were a little less modest, you’d be perfect,” Harris said.
“It could be,” Audubon said complacently, and they rode on.
The slow, deep drumming came from thirty feet up a dying pine. Harris pointed. “There he is, John! D’you see him?”
“I’m not likely to miss him, not when he’s the size of a raven,” Audubon answered. Intent on grubs under the bark, the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker went on drumming. It was a male, which meant its crest was also scarlet. A female’s crest would have been black, with a forward curl the male’s lacked. That also held true for its close relatives on the Terranovan mainland, the ivory-bill and the imperial woodpecker of Mexico.
Audubon dismounted, loaded his shotgun, and approached the bird. He could get closer to the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker than he could have to one of its Terranovan cousins. Like the oil thrush, like so many other Atlantean birds, the woodpecker had trouble understanding that something walking along on the ground could endanger it. Ivory-bills and imperial woodpeckers were less naive.
The woodpecker raised its head and called. The sound was high and shrill, like a false note on a clarinet. Audubon paused with the gun on his shoulder, waiting to see if another bird would answer. When none did, he squeezed the trigger. The shotgun boomed, belching fireworks-smelling smoke.
With a startled squawk, the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker tumbled out of the pine. It thrashed on the ground for a couple of minutes, then lay still. “Nice shot,” Harris said.
“Merci,” Audubon answered absently.
He picked up the woodpecker. It was still warm in his hands, and still crawling with mites and bird lice. No one who didn’t handle wild birds freshly dead thought of such things. He brushed his palm against his trouser leg to get rid of some of the vagrants. They didn’t usually trouble people, who weren’t to their taste, but every once in a while. . . .
A new thought struck him. He stared at the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker. “I wonder if the parasites on Atlantean birds are as different as the birds themselves, or if they share them with the birds of Terranova.”
“I don’t know,” Harris said. “Do you want to pop some into spirits and see?”
After a moment, Audubon shook his head. “No, better to let someone who truly cares about such things take care of it. I’m after honkers, by God, not lice!”
“Nice specimen you took there, though,” his friend said. “Scarlet-cheeks are getting scarce, too.”
“Not so much forest for them to hunt in as there once was,” Audubon said with a sigh. “Not so much of anything in Atlantis as there once wasexcept men and farms and sheeps.” He knew that was wrong as soon as it came out of his mouth, but let it go. “If we don’t show what it was, soon it will be no more, and then it will be too late to show. Too late already for too much of it.” Too late for me? he wondered. Please, let it not be so!
“You going to sketch now?” Harris asked.
“If you don’t mind. Birds are much easier to pose before they start to stiffen.”
“Go ahead, go ahead.” Harris slid down from his horse. “I’ll smoke a pipe or two and wander around a bit with my shotgun. Maybe I’ll bag something else you can paint, or maybe I’ll shoot supper instead. Maybe bothwho knows? If I remember right, these Atlantean ducks and geese eat as well as any other kind, except canvasbacks.” He was convinced canvasback ducks, properly roasted and served with loaf sugar, were the finest fowl in the world. Audubon wasn’t so sure he was wrong.
As Harris ambled away, Audubon set the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker on the grass and walked over to one of the pack horses. He knew which sack held his artistic supplies: his posing board and his wires, his charcoal sticks and precious paper.
He remembered how, as a boy, he’d despaired of ever portraying birds in realistic poses. A bird in the hand was all very well, but a dead bird looked like nothing but a dead bird. It drooped, it sagged, it cried its lifelessness to the eye.
When he studied painting with David in France, he sometimes did figure drawings from a mannequin. His cheeks heated when he recalled the articulated bird model he’d tried to make from wood and cork and wire. After endless effort, he produced something that might have done duty for a spavined dodo. His friends laughed at it. How could he get angry at them when he wanted to laugh at it, too? He ended up kicking the horrible thing to pieces.
If he hadn’t thought of wires . . . He didn’t know what he would have done then. Wires let him position his birds as if they were still alive. The first kingfisher he’d posedhe knew he was on to something even before he finished. As he set up the posing board now, a shadow of that old excitement glided through him again. Even the bird’s eyes had seemed to take on life again once he posed it the way he wanted.
As he worked with wires now to position the woodpecker as it had clung to the tree trunk, he wished he could summon more than a shadow of the old thrill. But he’d done the same sort of thing too many times. Routine fought against art. He wasn’t discovering a miracle now. He was . . . working.
Well, if you’re working, work the best you can, he told himself. And practice did pay. His hands knew almost without conscious thought how best to set the wires, to pose the bird. When his hands thought he was finished, he eyed the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker. Then he moved a wire to adjust its tail’s position. It used those long, stiff feathers to brace itself against the bark, almost as if it had hind legs back there.
He began to sketch. He remembered the agonies of effort that went into his first tries, and how bad they were despite those agonies. He knew others who’d tried to paint, and who gave up when their earlier pieces failed to match what they wanted, what they expected. Some of them, from what he’d seen, had a real gift. But having it and honing it . . . Ah, what a difference! Not many were stubborn enough to keep doing the thing they wanted to do even when they couldn’t do it very well. Audubon didn’t know how many times he’d almost given up in despair. But when stubbornness met talent, great things could happen.
The charcoal seemed to have a life of its own as it moved across the page. Audubon nodded to himself. His line remained as strong and fluid as ever. He didn’t have the tremors and shakes that marked so many men’s descent into agenot yet. Yet how far away from them was he? Every time the Sun rose, he came one day closer. He sketched fast, racing against his own decay.
Harris’ shotgun bellowed. Audubon’s hand did jump then. Whose wouldn’t, at the unexpected report? But that jerky line was easily rubbed out. He went on, quick and confident, and had the sketch very much the way he wanted it by the time Harris came back carrying a large dead bird by the feet.
“A turkey?” Audubon exclaimed.
His friend nodded, face wreathed in smiles. “Good eating tonight!”
“Well, yes,” Audubon said. “But who would have thought the birds could spread so fast? They were introduced in the south . . . It can’t be more than thirty years ago, can it? And now you shoot one here.”
“They give better sport than oil thrushes and the like,” Harris said. “At least they have the sense to get away if they see trouble coming. The sense God gave a goose, you might sayexcept He didn’t give it to all the geese here, either.”
“No,” Audubon said. Some of Atlantis’ geese flew to other lands as well, and were properly wary. Some stayed on the great island the whole year round. Those birds weren’t. Some of them flew poorly. Some couldn’t fly at all, having wings as small and useless as those of the oil thrush.
Honkers looked uncommonly like outsized geese with even more outsized legs. Some species even had black necks and white chin patches reminiscent of Canada geese. That frankly puzzled Audubon: it was as if God were repeating Himself in the Creation, but why? Honkers’ feet had vestigial webs, too, while their bills, though laterally compressed, otherwise resembled the broad, flat beaks of ordinary geese.
Audubon had seen the specimens preserved in the museum in Hanover: skeletons, a few hides, enormous greenish eggs. The most recent hide was dated 1803. He wished he hadn’t remembered that. If this was a wild goose chase, a wild honker chase . . . Then it was, that was all. He was doing all he could. He only wished he could have done it sooner. He’d tried. He’d failed. He only hoped some possibility of success remained.
Harris cleaned the turkey and got a fire going. Audubon finished the sketch. “That’s a good one,” Harris said, glancing over at it.
“Not bad,” Audubon allowedhe had caught the pose he wanted. He gutted the scarlet-cheeked woodpecker so he could preserve it. Not surprisingly, the bird’s stomach was full of beetle larvae. The very name of its genus, Campephilus, meant grub-loving. He made a note in his diary and put the bird in strong spirits.
“Better than that,” Harris said. He cut up the turkey and skewered drumsticks on twigs.
“Well, maybe,” Audubon said as he took one of the skewers from his friend and started roasting the leg. He wasn’t shy of praiseno, indeed. All the same, he went on, “I didn’t come here for scarlet-cheeked woodpeckers. I came for honkers, by God.”
“You take what you get.” Harris turned his twig so the drumstick cooked evenly. “You take what you get, and you hope what you get is what you came for.”
“Well, maybe,” Audubon said again. He looked east, toward the still poorly explored heart of Atlantis. “But the harder you work, the likelier you are to get what you want. I hope I can still work hard enough. And”he looked east once more“I hope what I want is still there to get.”…