Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus

By Jarnot, Lisa | Chicago Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus


Jarnot, Lisa, Chicago Review


I. The Antediluvian World

I would shake the Mahjong table, and the palace of many gardens and courts, the majestic halls and ramparts, constructed by giant hands from another world, the corridor where the Queen walked in the evening to meet the King, would fall. It seemed as if distant almost real shouts of anguish rose among the tottering ivory walls, and, making my play of earthquake - for I was the genius of the scene - I almost heard the confusion of delicious dismay, grief and fear, echoed in my heart as if bonds of human sympathy united me with the inhabitants of this world I created to destroy again and again.

- Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book

On April 18, 1906, one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history struck the city of San Francisco. Through the damp morning air, punctuated by the smell of eucalyptus leaves, came what sounded like the engine of a locomotive and then the ground began to shake. It was just after five A.M. when that first tremor struck, a foreshock through which few in the city slept. In a boarding house on Folsom Street, nineteen-year-old Minnehaha Harris tumbled out of bed, and stepping toward the window, swept strands of long dark hair out of her face. The sky was a pale blue-black, and behind the clouds, barely visible, the last of the morning stars were fading into the dawn. From out on the street came an unusual early morning cacophony - the song of sparrows, the distant barking of a dog, and the ongoing rumble. Suddenly the building leapt as if a wrecking ball had been driven into its side. The girl turned and called out for her mother in an adjacent room. What echoed against her own voice was a sound unfamiliar to her - the wail of wood grinding against wood, an eerie chores rising through the hallways of the tenement. Within seconds of the first temblor that had pulled her from her bed, the great earthquake of 1906 roared along the San Andreas Fault.

Several miles to the north, in a small house in East Oakland, a twenty-three-year-old housewife named Marguerite Duncan woke with a start. The windows were rattling and her two-year-old son George was crying in his bedroom. As she stood up, the building shifted beneath her feet - first to the left and then to the right, twisting from side to side as if the entire house were being slowly pushed down an embankment of sand, gathering momentum until the furniture danced spastically upon the hardwood floors. Marguerite lifted George and his sister Edna from their beds, carrying them down the stairwell and toward the front porch. Glass was breaking everywhere, and some blocks away in downtown Oakland the facades of the new granite buildings on Broadway were plummeting to the sidewalk. For those who witnessed it from the street, the scene was nearly indescribable. Overhead trolley wires whipped through the air and snapped. Lamp posts were bent from side to side like saplings in a wind storm. It would be another twenty-six minutes before the ground was completely still.

In San Francisco the fires erupted almost immediately. At the post office on Seventh Street and Mission, the walls caved in, slabs of marble cracked open, and chandeliers crashed to the floor, sending shards of glass into the air like sparks from a welder's torch. On Howard Street, the walls of the American Hotel collapsed onto an adjacent fire station. A blaze that had started at the corner of Hayes and Gough was creeping across the Western Addition toward City Hall. Another fire was reported in Chinatown, and another at the Hearst Building on Third and Market. A few blocks away a man lay pinned beneath a steel beam. While he cried out for help a small group of onlookers gathered around. The flames were approaching, and two of the bystanders tried to pull him free without success. Finally a lone figure stepped from the crowd, kneeled down before the trapped man, and drawing a revolver, put a bullet through his head. The crowd dispersed and the mangled corpse was consumed in a sheet of fire that swept across the intersection. …

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