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Joyce Carol Oates

web | The Sun Is but a Morning Star

Chapter One


"Do I doubt? - I do not. Does my hand shake? - it does not. Am I like other men? - I am not."

He smiles at his ruddy mirrored reflection, that paragon of manhood, a gentleman in the prime of life, deep-set mica-chip eyes sly with secrets, glowing with interior heat, he smiles and it is a smile, it satisfies him, though the flushed muscled cheeks would clench in rage to reveal too many strong wet white teeth. Too many strong wet white teeth.

"Am I to be trusted? I am. Am I a gentleman? I am."

He pauses in his robust lathering of his cheeks and jaws, he examines a three-quarters profile (the left, the truly striking side of his face), hums several bars of Mozart (Don Giovanni in the guise of Don Ottavio), examines the smile again, measured, perfectly calibrated, now a slight modest downturning of the eye, an inclination of the head as well, a gentleman who wears his power lightly, who does not insist, a gentleman-stallion (assuredly not a gelding) who exhibits his charms sparingly, the very essence of "A. Washburn Frelicht, Ph.D."

"Am I like other men? I am not."

He completes his toilet with a flourish and flings down the soapy towel, noting with admiration the light flush of the clean-shaven cheeks, the perpetual fever of the cheeks, noting with awe the hard, hard bones, his inheritance, that press against the flesh: his. Why, it is all his.

"Do I doubt? - I do not. Does my hand shake? - it does not. Am I eager for it all to begin? - yes, yes, a hundredfold yes."


This day of legend, or of infamy.

To be spoken of, written of, speculated upon, recalled with perennial controversy in the annals of American horse-racing (and gambling) circles well into the twenty-first century: Derby Day of 11 May 1909 at resplendent Chautauqua Downs, one of the first of the "playing fields of the rich."

At Chautauqua, at that time, speculation in the clubhouse centered as much on the mysterious gentleman gambler, the "astrological sportsman," one Frelicht, "Doctor" Frelicht as he and his associates insisted, as of which of two great horses, Stone Street or Xalapa, would win the cup.

Frelicht. A. Washburn Frelicht, Ph.D. A stranger to Chautauqua Falls, New York; but wasn't his name dimly notorious in racing circles back East: wasn't he, or an individual with a name very like his, the inventor of the "tipster sheet"?... beloved of gamblers and despised by honest horsemen, and just this past season outlawed from the Chautauqua track as from Belmont and Saratoga. Wasn't Mr. Frelicht in some ambiguous way associated with "Baron" Barraclough of Buffalo, the railroad speculator; and with the seemingly disgraced congressman Jasper Liges of Vanderpoel; hadn't he, or an individual with a name very like his, been involved in the secret selling of shares in the "newly discovered" estate of an heir of Napoleon, descended by way of an unclaimed illegitimate son?

These rumors, amounting in essence to character assassination, circulated freely in Chautauqua Falls in the days preceding the race. Many persons had opinions of A. Washburn Frelicht who had never set eyes upon him, including the very owner of the Chautauqua track, Colonel Jameson Fairlie, who dared to speak of him to the Warwicks (brother and sister, the elderly bachelor Edgar and the widow Seraphina, former wife of the Albany banker Isaac Dove), who were Frelicht's friends and staunch supporters. To Seraphina the Colonel spoke with his accustomed bluntness, warning her against involving herself in matters that might have been repugnant to poor Isaac, causing the widow to snap shut her black-lacquered Japanese fan, and fix her old friend with a glacial eye, and say, in a voice usually reserved for slow-witted servants: "Mr. Dove, being dead, is hardly `poor,' as he was hardly `poor' in life; and has no more stake in my current affairs, Colonel, than do you."

And this exchange, too, quickly entered the lore of that day of legend, or of infamy.


"Stone Street," and "Xalapa," and "Sweet Thing," and "Glengarry"; "Midnight Sun," and "Warlock," and "Jersey Belle," and "Meteor," and "Idle Hour"... nine handsome Thoroughbreds in descending order of presumed merit, competing in the Twenty-third Chautauqua Downs Derby; nine Negro jockeys in gaily colored silks armed with little whips and spurs and every manner of jockey trickery, the smallest of the riders weighing in at eighty-eight pounds and the heaviest at one hundred twelve. The public stakes are $6,000 ("The Highest Stakes in America") and a costly engraved silver trophy, to the winner; $1,000 to second place, and $700 to third. The serious money, however, is as usual in the betting, for what is any horse race, what is this prestigious horse race, without the exchange of cash? - and without clubhouse rumors of Glengarry's swollen knee, and Jersey Belle's colic, and Warlock who started so poorly at the Preakness, and Midnight Sun whose owner has been racing him too frequently, and the hairline crack in Meteor's left rear hoof or is it Xalapa's? And Sweet Thing is said to have been "coked to the gills" last month at Belmont or dosed with a mild painkiller for an ear infection; and there remains the bitter rivalry between the jockeys Parmelee (on Midnight Sun) and "Little Bo" Tenney (on Xalapa), and the strange flurries of betting, now Stone Street is the favorite, now Xalapa is the favorite, now Midnight Sun is up to 2-15, now Henley Farm's Idle Hour has dropped to 1-30.... If the Derby betting is too eccentric if there's suddenly a run on any but the two favorites the overseeing judge has the privilege of declaring all bets off, switching the jockeys around, and an hour set aside for the hasty remaking of book: which many a horseman and gambler prays will not occur. For, the vicissitudes of chance aside, a Thoroughbred is but a horse while a race is performed by jockeys.

(Yet the Colonel has satisfied himself that these jockeys, this Derby, will be absolutely honest.)

Is Washburn Frelicht, seated in the Warwicks' clubhouse box with his hosts, one of those gamblers who fret as the hour of the race approaches, and suck at their cigars, and consult their gold pocket watches another time, and make only a polite show of attending to the band's spirited "Blue Danube"? A neutral observer could not have said whether the handsome gentleman with the black satin eye patch over his left eye, and the meticulously trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee, and the jaunty straw hat, and the air of patrician confidence, was betraying now and then a just-perceptible apprehension, or whether, like numerous others, quite naturally in these heightened circumstances, he is merely anticipating the contest to come. A neutral observer would have guessed that so sporting a gentleman, with that steely-smiling gray gaze, those moist white teeth and ruddy lips, has placed a sizable bet; just possibly, on a "dark" horse; but could not have guessed that the gentleman has secretly made book with $44,000 of his and his clients' money on the rangy black colt Midnight Sun - whose odds are presently 9-1.

(That's to say: if Midnight Sun wins the Derby, as Dr. Frelicht believes he must, he, Frelicht, will collect an unprecedented $400,000 from a half dozen bookmakers and private parties, to be divided not quite equally among himself and the Warwicks; Frelicht's share being understandably disproportionate to his modest $1,000 stake. And if Midnight Sun betrays Dr. Frelicht's astrological prognosis, if the very Zodiac has misled him, then Frelicht will lose his $1,000 and the Warwicks will lose their $43,000... a prospect that doesn't bear contemplation; so Frelicht refuses to contemplate it.)

No, he betrays no sign of worry. Only the vulgarian worries in public.

A tumultuous day of brisk chill winds, and high, fast-scudding clouds like schooners, and a slate-blue sky far, far overhead! - and here below, on time-locked Earth, an amiable confusion of handsome carriages, and motorcars teaming with newness, and spectators afoot, crowding the narrow streets and lanes leading to the Colonel's racecourse. Here are splendidly dressed ladies and gentlemen in the clubhouse area terrace, lawn, shaded boxes white clapboard and dazzling white-painted stucco a lawn fine and clipped as a bowling green, edged with rhododendron shrubs and vivid red geraniums. In the grandstand, newly painted dark green, sits the noisy majority of citizens, while the "common-folk," quaintly so called, of both mingled races, settle themselves in the infield or on low roofs and hills abutting the track. For all are Thoroughbred fanciers on Derby Day in Chautauqua; no one so poor, or in debt, that he, or she, can't afford a bet of at least $1 on one of these fine racing horses; even children are caught up in the betting frenzy. For all who live humanly are wagerers as Dr. Frelicht is in the habit of murmuring, with that inscrutable expression to his strong-boned, ruddy face that some observers have described as philosophic and stoic, even melancholy, and others have described as childlike in yearning. And Americans are, of the Earth's population, the most wondrously human.

The band strikes up an exuberant polka, mule-drawn watering wagons make their slow, stately way around the track. By Colonel Fairlie's proud estimate some forty-five thousand persons are attending this Twenty-third Derby, having converged on Chautauqua Falls from such places as New York City, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, and of course Kentucky, as well as Texas, California and abroad; by highways, waterways, and rail. The Kentucky Derby having lapsed into a decline, the Chautauqua Cup has emerged as the most prestigious of American Thoroughbred races, for a record one hundred eighty-four horses were originally entered for the race, of which nine, from the finest stables in the country, are to start. Every hotel in town is filled, including the palatial Chautauqua Arms, where Lord Glencairn of Scotland (a racing enthusiast rumored to wish to purchase the beautiful chestnut Xalapa) has taken an entire floor; the Pendennis Club is given over to officers of the Eastern Association for the Improvement of Breeds of Stock, and their wives and companions; such famous sporting gentry as James Ben Ali Hagin of Kentucky, and Blackburn Shaw of Long Island, and Elias Shrikesdale of Philadelphia are here, having chartered private Pullman cars for themselves and their retinues. Every bookmaker is happily occupied (though the Colonel has raised their clubhouse fees to $140 for the occasion), as are the Pari-Mutuel betting machines; milling about in the half hour before the race are newspapermen, "amateur experts," owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, grooms, and veterinarians. Unattended young boys, both white and colored, run wild in the infield and beneath the grandstand, pursued by security guards. Though "tipster sheets" have been disallowed at respectable tracks, it seems that some persons have them, and that they are being surreptitiously sold; as are Derby Day cards, and frothy pink cotton candy, and lemonade in paper cups, and bright-colored ices. Beribboned parisols and sunshades, gentlemen's straw boater hats, shoes polished to a piercing high sheen, starched white snap-on collars, watch chains, walking sticks, gloves, ladies' veiled hats, gentlemen's white flannels... A. Washburn Frelicht, Dr. Frelicht as he prefers to be called, gazes upon the crowd with his single good eye. And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

Dr. Frelicht, keen-nerved as a stallion, would take a quick nip from the silver flask concealed inside his blazer but no he will have an English toffee instead, how kind of Mrs. Dove to pass the tin, with a smile; both Warwicks are fond of sweets, as indeed is Dr. Frelicht, but sweets do the teeth ill; wreck the smile. The hard bared grin of Teddy Roosevelt, a thousand times pictured, brought teeth, muscled cheeks, and impassioned fists into style among the populace, but so energetic a style displeases ladies and gentlemen. For is not Teddy R. something of a boy, a boy-man, and thus laughable, contemptible? Not a blunt bold baring of the teeth is desired, but a slow, measured smile of manly intelligence, thinks Dr. Frelicht. Like this.

The band's spirited playing of "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," the old Civil War favorite, is interrupted by the announcement that the race will not start at 4:30 P.M. as planned, but at 4:50.

And why? No explanation offered. A wave of disappointment, curiosity and apprehension washes over the racecourse.

Stroking the neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee to which he has only just recently become accustomed, dabbing lightly at the forehead with a fresh Irish linen handkerchief monogrammed AWF. The noble uplifted profile, the glint of the gold watch chain. Dr. Frelicht has not wished to cultivate a reputation for wit in these circles, where he is known as a mystic student of the Zodiac, but he sees no harm in saying, quickly, in a general voice, that others in the clubhouse seats might be amused as well as his hosts the Warwicks ah, the need of nerves, to perfectly express the mood of a moment "`If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.'"

And the ladies and gentlemen respond with delighted laughter at this clever allusion to "Shakespeare, yes? I believe it must be Hamlet?" Mrs. Dove cries, with the air of a giddily bright schoolgirl of stout middle age; for even the rich are touched by anxiety, when matters of chance and cash are at stake.


Not the wealthiest citizens of Chautauqua Falls but well-to-do, indeed, Edgar E. with his inherited fortune in asbestos, ink and sugarcane (Hawaiian), his sister Seraphina with a similar inheritance in addition to her deceased husband's portfolio. The gentleman, only sixty years of age but looking distinctly older, with a hairless skull, sunken eyes, squat nose and cavernous nostrils - the nostrils darkly alert as the eyes, lost in fatty ridges of flesh, are not; the lady, the widow, well corseted, flushed with health, yet possessed of a cold pale eye and very small pursed lips. Edgar E. Warwick is known for his Lutheran zeal (did he not lead a successful movement to defrock a Contracoeur minister in '88?), Seraphina Warwick Dove is known for her litigious zeal (did she not, only the previous June, bring suit against her own newly widowed daughter-in-law, to break her son's "disgraceful" will?)... How the parsimonious Warwicks became acquainted with A. Washburn Frelicht, a stranger to the Chautauqua Valley and a person of some ambiguity, no one in their social set knows; why they became disciples of a sort, fervent believers, eager to finance Dr. Frelicht in his astrological stratagems, is somewhat less mysterious: they scented profit, the greediest and most gratifying sort of profit. For it was Dr. Frelicht's artless contention that they could not lose. His method, which was a scientific one, could not lose. The Derby winner of '09 was as clearly inscribed in the Zodiac as were the Derby winners of past years, if one but knew how to read the celestial hieroglyphics. "For, in the heavens, `future' and `past' do not exist," as Frelicht explained enthusiastically, "but all is a single essence, a continuous flowing presence."

Edgar E. and Seraphina, hearing such words, exchanged a glance. A twitching of the lips meant to signify a smile. Brother-sisterly complicity. Since the Warwicks as a family strongly disapproved of gambling, they needed to be convinced that, in truth, this was not gambling; it was, however, a delicious opportunity to beat gamblers, as Dr. Frelicht said, at their own game. Could anything be more just - ?

Where the Warwicks went, in spring 1909, there the "astrological sportsman" must be invited as well. Else Seraphina in particular would have taken offense.

Colonel Fairlie, reluctantly giving way and including Frelicht in a clubhouse dinner honoring Lord Glencairn, complained that his nerves were rubbed raw by the man's very presence. Who was this Frelicht, what was his background, had he any decent occupation other than that of self-ordained gambler-mystic? Was he the fool he seemed? Was he simply very clever? Edgar E. and Seraphina teasingly pricked their acquaintances' curiosity by hinting at coups Frelicht had accomplished at other racetracks, but the details were scant, for the success of Frelicht's method depended upon its secrecy; and, being but human, brother and sister wanted to keep their find to themselves. Yet there were hints, elliptical and tantalizing, that he had once been a Shakespearean actor, perhaps a singer (hence the power and range of his voice), he had pursued a career in science (hence the Ph.D.); he might have been a seminarian in his youth; a musician; a tiller of the soil; a railroad agent; an explorer; a journalist. (Assuredly he had been a journalist. For, at Colonel Fairlie's dinner, when the gentlemen retired for brandy and cigars, Frelicht fell to talking confidentially with old Blackburn Shaw and told him, in a sudden rush of emotion, that he had lost his eye to the "Spanish enemy" in the Maine explosion.... The New York Journal had commissioned him to write a series of articles on the Cuban revolution, along lines sympathetic to American interests, and, as a special friend and advisor to Captain Charles Sigsbee, he had been aboard ship when the Maine anchored in infamous Havana Harbor. Only imagine, two hundred sixty-six American lives lost! To this day, Frelicht said, he feared for his own life since certain Spanish agents had vowed to kill him.)

Had he a wife? No. Not living.

Had he children? No. Not living.

And where, customarily, did he make his home?

"Where I am honored and respected," he said, looking his interlocutor full in the eye, "and where I can be of service."

A bower of tropical flowers, orchids, descending from the ceiling: purple, lavender, pearly-white, black. Linen-draped tables in a horseshoe pattern overlooking a pond in which small golden carp swam and cygnets, black and white, nervously paddled. A young woman harpist from Dublin; rose-tinted shades over candles set in antique candelabras; Negro waiters in red jackets with gold brocade, red fezzes with black tassels, immaculate white gloves, serving the Colonel's sixty-odd guests from seven until midnight.... Lord Glencairn and his Lady, the guests of honor; the beautiful Polish actress Alicja Zielinski and her gentleman companion; the L. H. Vanderbilts; the James Ben Ali Hagins; the Blackburn Shaws; Senator and Mrs. Gardner Simms; Elias Shrikesdale; the Cone-Pettys; Edgar Warwick and his sister Seraphina, the widow of Isaac Dove; and many another party including "A. Washburn Frelicht" in white tie and tails, who, to his credit, guessing himself not fully welcome in the Colonel's clubhouse (being the only gentleman present not a member of the Jockey Club - the only gentleman who did not sport a diamond stickpin in his lapel, a gift of the Colonel's), ate and drank sparingly, and inclined his handsome head to listen, rather than to speak. Did he, amid the numerous champagne toasts, amid courses of fresh clams, and vichyssoise, and salmon, and squab, and roast beef, and Virginia baked ham, and, at the very end, colored ices in such artful equestrian shapes (Stone Street, and Xalapa, and Sweet Thing, and Glengarry, and Midnight Sun, and Warlock, and Jersey Belle, and Meteor, and Idle Hour, ingeniously rendered at four inches in height) everyone lamented that they must be eaten did he sense how roundly he was being snubbed by the other sporting men? - how idle and mocking were the questions put to him of his "astrological science"?

Not at all. For here, in A. Washburn Frelicht, we have a gentleman. Charming. Amiable. Well informed. Imperturbable. A holder of moderate opinions, political and otherwise. No admirer of Taft - no admirer of a lowered tariff. No admirer, assuredly, of Senator La Follette - the insurgent Wisconsin warrior much vilified in the Republican press for his campaign against the railroads. Dr. Frelicht is well-spoken and witty with the ladies; cultivated, yet not so cultivated to offend; with the men, he is shrewdly deferential. Seeming to suspect no drollery, no scorn, no scarcely suppressed laughter behind his back. If the muscled shoulders tighten beneath the handsome fabric of his blazer, if the goateed underjaw extends itself as if to block an improvident word, if the single good eye emanates chill even as the ruddy cheeks burn with an impassioned fever, is there anyone in this company equipped to see?

The solitude of the pilgrim. Depend upon it, we are invisible in this world.

Gradually, at Colonel Fairlie's table, it becomes clear that Frelicht believes in his own betting stratagem - "In the infallibility of the Zodiac," as he several times, portentously, declares. The man is a fool - yet a gentleman. A mystic of sorts. The specific details surrounding his and the Warwicks' betting, the amount of cash involved, the horse to win, are naturally not revealed; but Frelicht speaks freely, even rhapsodically, of the Heavens, the astral plane, the "star-consciousness in which Past, Future and Present commingle like flame absorbing flame, or water, water." It is stirring to hear the man speak, his words are beautiful if purely nonsensical and self-delusory, yet so poetically expressed that many a lady (the Colonel's own Belinda, in truth) might well be swayed, for suddenly the company is hearing of the Great Nebula of Orion... the reign of the Pleiades ... how Andromeda inclines to Pisces and to the bright bold star of Aries... how the rings of Saturn quiver with electric charges... how the Moon exerts its secret tides upon the human psyche.

Frelicht concludes by saying with a deferential smile that he sympathizes with those who are doubtful of his beliefs, as, until very recently, he was a doubter himself; a kinsman of Shakespeare's Cassius, who so arrogantly claimed that man's fate lay not in the stars but in himself. "Now, however, it has been revealed to me that any man, or woman" - with a glance at the beaming Seraphina across the table from him - "sufficiently initiated into the science of the sky is at the same time initiated into the science of the Earth. `As above, so below' - this is but ancient wisdom."

Luckily, Colonel Fairlie changes the topic before one of the scowling gentlemen at the table can ask Frelicht a rude question, such as why the Heavens were to be interpreted through him, and risk insulting Seraphina.

* * *

Yet after dinner, when the gentlemen gather together in the Colonel's oak-panelled smoking room, over brandy snifters and Cuban cigars, things look up for Frelicht, indeed yes.

For there is ninety-year-old Blackburn Shaw, of the famous Shaw Farm, a patriarch of the racing world, revered by all, laying a proprietary hand on young Frelicht's arm, angrily lamenting the decline in Thoroughbred racing and breeding since the War, no horses like the great horses of his grandfather's day, Diomed, Arisides, Ten Broeck, Lexington, Hindoo ("Hindoo! - there was a horse! - did you know, Dr. Frelicht, that Stone Street is sired out of Hindoo, the greatest stallion of all?") now times are changed, even gentlemen are breeding horses not for sport and beauty but for the market, in fact there are fewer and fewer gentlemen remaining in America why, did Frelicht know that in the old days the highest qualities in a Thoroughbred were vigor, stamina, courage, sheer stubborn heart - if an animal couldn't do three four-mile heats in less than eight minutes, why sir he would be turned out to pasture and his trainer with him - but now since the War since the turn of the century now all that matters is "dash" and a race is no sooner started than it is over. In the early years of the sport, too, stallions were far more virile than they are now: Hindoo, for instance, put out to stud at the advanced age of twenty, was so unquenchable in his appetite, so fired with lust, he would gallop out of his stable as if at the starting post! serving all mares at his disposal with unflagging zeal, and siring one prizewinner after another. Whereas now, Shaw says pettishly, while his companion frowns in sympathetic disapproval, "Foals are half the time aborted in the womb, it seems; and stallions lose their virility almost as soon as they lose their racing legs."

Frelicht, stroking his goatee, murmurs sadly that he had not known, sir, things were at such a pass.

What is even worse, jockeys can no longer be trusted: those agile little colored boys who'd performed so well in the past! Nor could grooms be trusted, white or black. Nor trainers. It was common knowledge that races were being bought and sold every day horses, poor dumb innocent beasts, were being fed drugs to slow their heartbeat, or stimulate it any low trick to upset the "odds" as if "odds" were king! jockeys cunningly held their mounts back, the more skilled jockeys the more likely to pass off such trickery undetected or they set their mounts too cruel a pace threatened one another sometimes assaulted one another turned up at the stables drunk, or themselves coked to the gills. Worse yet (here the old man tugged at Frelicht's arm, whispered fiercely into his ear), owners could not be trusted, even those who prided themselves on being gentlemen "Even certain members `in good standing' of the Jockey Club."

At this charge, however, Frelicht respectfully demurred; though he wasn't a horseman himself, and not a member of this prestigious club, yet he could not allow himself to believe... (Speaking earnestly, quietly, with no sign that he guessed how most of the gentlemen in the room were listening. Stroking his goatee with meditative fingers.)

This, the deaf old patriarch chose not to hear; and continued for several minutes more, lamenting the passing of the old days, the stability of the Union, before the rabble-rouser Lincoln went to war, and men were confounded to be told, like it or not, that they were but descendants of apes! In the end, though, smoking the heavily fragrant cigar his host had given him, pleased by the avid attentiveness of A. Washburn Frelicht, Mr. Shaw pressed upon that young man one of his business cards, and extracted from him a promise that, when Frelicht's affairs next brought him to New York City, he would be a guest of Shaw's at his Long Island farm, to stay as long as he wished.

Thank you, Mr. Shaw, thank you very much, perhaps I will.




© Joyce Carol Oates
© E-publisher LiterNet, 11.10.2010
The Sun Is but a Morning Star. Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. Varna: LiterNet, 2008-2010