Excerpt from JANE: The Women Who Loved Tarzan By Robin Maxwell
08/01/2012 06:13PM ● Published by Denise Brown
There is no Tarzan without Jane.” John R. Burroughs
An excerpt from JANE: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan
Chicago, April 1912
Good lord she was magnificent! Edgar thought. Infuriatingly bold. He had many times fantasized about women such as this Jane Porter, but he honestly believed they existed only in his imagination. The vicious heckling she had endured for the past hour in the darkened room would have broken the strongest of men, yet there she stood at the podium casting a shadow on the startling image projected by the whir- ring episcope on the screen behind her, back straight as a rod, head high, trying to bring order back into the hall.
Her age was indeterminate—somewhere approaching thirty, but her presence was one of striking vitality and self- assurance. She was tall and slender beneath the knee-length suit coat of fine brown wool. Her honey-colored hair was tucked up beneath a simple toque of black felt, not one of those large frivolous feathered creations that these days hung perilously cantilevered over a woman’s face. Emma wished desperately for one of those freakish hats, and Edgar was secretly glad they were still too poor to afford it.
“These claims are preposterous!” cried a man seated halfway back in the crowded room. He had the look of an academic, Edgar thought.
“These are not claims, sir. They are the facts as I know them, and physical evidence, here, right before your eyes.” There were hoots of derision at that, and catcalls, and Jane Porter’s chin jutted an inch higher.
“This is clearly a hoax,” announced a portly bearded man who brazenly walked to the table in front of the podium and swept his hand above the massive skeleton displayed on the table before it. “And a bad hoax at that. Why, you haven’t even tried to make the bones look old.”
The audience erupted in laughter, but the woman spoke over the commotion with more equanimity than Edgar thought humanly possible.
“That is because they are not old. I thought I made it clear that the bones came from a recently dead specimen.”
“From a living missing link species,” called out another skeptic. The words as they were spoken were meant to sound ridiculous.
“All you’ve made clear to us today, Miss Porter, is that you should be locked up!”
“Can we have the next image please?” the woman called to the episcope operator.
“I’ve had enough of this claptrap,” muttered the man sitting just in front of Edgar. He took the arm of his female companion who herself was shaking her head indignantly and they rose from their seats, pushing down the row to the side aisle.
This first defection was all it took for others to follow suit. Within moments a mass exodus was underway, a loud and boisterous one with rude epithets shouted out as hundreds of backs were turned on the stoic presenter.
Edgar remained seated. When someone threw on the electric lights he could see the episcope operator up front in the center aisle was wordlessly packing up the mechanism of prisms, mirrors and lenses that threw opaque images up on the screen as the speaker began her own packing up.
Finally Edgar stood and moved down the side aisle to the front of the meeting hall. He rolled the brim of his hat around in his hands as he approached Jane Porter. Now he could see how pretty she was. Not flamboyantly so, but lovely, with an arrangement of features – some perfect, like her warm brown almond eyes and plump upward-bowed lips, and some less so, like her nose, just a tad too long with a small bump in it – that made her utterly unique.
She was handling the bones as if they were made of Venetian glass, taking up the skull, shoulders, arms and spine and laying them carefully into a perfectly molded satin receptacle in a long leather case.
She looked up once and gave him a friendly, close-lipped smile, but when he did not speak she went back wordlessly to her task. Now it was the lower extremities that she tucked lovingly away, using special care to push the strange big-toe digits into narrow depressions perpendicular to the feet.
Edgar felt unaccountably shy. “Can I give you a hand?”
“No thank you. They all fit just so, and I’ve had quite a lot of practice. London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin.”
“I have to tell you that I was completely enthralled by your presentation.”
She looked at Edgar with surprised amusement. “You don’t think I should be locked up?”
“No, quite the contrary.”“Then you cannot possibly be a scientist.”“No, no, I’m a writer.” He found himself sticking out his hand to her as though she were a man. “The name’s Ed Burroughs. “
She took it and gave him a firm shake. He noticed her fingernails were pink and clean, but altogether unmanicured, bearing no colorful Cutex “nail polish,” the newest rage that Emma and all her friends had taken to wearing. These were not the hands of a lady, but there was something unmistakably ladylike about her.
“What do you write, Mr. Burroughs?”
He felt himself blushing a bit as he pulled the rolled up magazine from his jacket pocket. He spread it out on the table for her to see. “My literary debut of two months ago,” he said, unsure if he was proud or mortified.
“All Story Magazine?”
“Pulp fiction.” He flipped through the pages. “This is the first installment in the series I wrote. There was a second in March. My pen name’s Norman Bean. It’s called `Under the Moons of Mars.’ About a Confederate gentleman, John Carter, who falls asleep in an Arizona cave and wakes up on Mars. There he finds four-armed green warriors who’ve kid- napped `the Princess of Helium,’ Dejah Thoris. He rescues her, of course.”
She studied the simple illustration the publisher had had drawn for the story, something that’d pleased Edgar very much.
“It really is fiction,” she observed.
“Fiction, fantasy....” He sensed that the woman took him seriously, and he felt suddenly at ease. It was as if he had always known her, or should have known her. She exuded something raw and yet something exceedingly elegant.
“When I was ten I came home from school one day and told my father I’d seen a cow up a tree,” Edgar said, startling himself with his candor with a complete stranger. “I think I said it was a purple cow. I was punished quite severely for lying, but nothing stops a compulsion, does it?” When she shook her head knowingly, he felt encouraged. “A few years later I moved to my brother’s ranch in Idaho and stayed for the sum- mer. By the time I was enrolled at Phillip’s Academy I could spin a pretty good yarn about all the range wars I’d fought in, the horse thieves, murderers and bad men that I’d had run-ins with. It was a good thing my father never heard about them.”
A slow smile spread across Jane Porter’s features. “Well, you’ve shown him now, haven’t you. A published author.”
“I’m afraid my old man has yet to be convinced of my myriad talents.”
She snapped both cases closed and took one in each hand. “Here, let me help you with those.”“No thank you. Having the two of them balances me out.” “I was hoping you’d let me take you out to dinner. Uh, I’d like very much to hear more about your Ape-Man.”She stopped and looked at him. “Honestly?”“Yes.”“You must pardon my suspiciousness. I have been boo’d and hissed out of almost every hallowed hall of learning in the world. This is the last. I tried to have my paper heard at the Northwestern and Chicago universities, but I’m afraid my reputation preceded me and they said absolutely not. That’s why you had to listen to my presentation at a meeting room at the McCormick Building.”
“So will you come out with me?”
The woman thought about it for a very long moment. She set down her cases and walked to the man at the episcope, qui- etly conferring with him and returned. “It’s really not a good idea for us to talk in public, but my hotel is nearby. You and I can go up to my room.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Edgar said. “Chicago police keep an eye on even the nicest hotels. They might arrest you for soliciting. But my apartment’s not too far. The wife and kids have gone to her mother’s for the weekend. I mean.... sorry, that sounds...”
“Mr. Burroughs, you’re apartment’s a fine idea. I’m not afraid of you. But don’t you care about the neighbors?”
He eyed the woman’s bulky luggage. “I’ll tell them you’re selling vacuum cleaners.”
She smiled broadly. “That will do.”
They were largely silent on the taxi ride across town to his Harris street walk-up, except for the exchange of pleasantries about the lovely spring weather they were having, and how April was almost always horrible in England.
It was just Edgar’s rotten luck that the only neighbor that saw them come in was the landlord – a true shit of a man who was looking for the rent, now more than a week late. He was relieved to get Jane Porter up the three flights and inside, shutting the door behind them, but he cringed to see the empty cereal bowl and box of Grape Nuts that he’d left on his writing desk. There was a pile of typewritten pages on letterhead lifted from the supply closet of the pencil sharpener company he worked for, a mass of cross-outs and arrows from here to there, scribbled notes to himself in both margins.
“It’s a novel I’m writing, or should say re-writing...for the third time. I call it Outlaw of Torn.” Edgar grabbed the bowl and cereal box and started for the kitchen. “I turn into a bit of a bachelor when my wife is away. By that I don’t mean...”
“It’s all right,” she called after him. “You have children?”
“A boy and girl, two and three. Why don’t you sit down? Can I get you something to drink? Tea? A glass of sherry?”
“Yes, thank you. I’ll have a cup of water. Cool, please.”
When Edgar returned from the kitchen his guest was sit- ting at the end of the divan in an easy pose, her back against the rounded arm, her head leaning lazily on her hand. She had taken off her suit coat and now he could see she wore no stiff stays under the white silk blouse, those torturous undergarments that mutilated a woman’s natural curves. She wore no jewelry save a filigreed gold locket hanging between shapely breasts, and it was only when she was opening the second of the two cases holding APorter Pithecanthropus that he saw she wore a simple gold wedding band. He could see now where she had meticulously pieced together the shattered bones of the apelike face.
He set the water down and sat across from her. Now she sighed deeply.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Edgar asked, praying silently that she did.
“Well, I’ve never told this in its entirety. The academics don’t wish to hear it. But perhaps your `pulp fiction’ readers will. I can tell you it’s a story of our world – a true story, one that will rival your John Carter of Mars.”
“Is it about you?”“A good part of it is.”“Does what happened to you in the story explain your fearlessness?”“I told you, I’m not frightened of you. I...”“I don’t mean me. You took an awful lot of punishment this afternoon...and in public, too. You’re a better man than I.” She found Edgar’s remark humorous, but grew serious as she contemplated his question. “I suppose it did toughen me up, my experiences.” She stared down at her controversial find, and he saw her eyes soften as though images were coming into focus there.“Where does it begin?” he asked.
“Well, that depends upon when I begin. As I’ve said, I’ve never told it before, all of it.” She did some figuring in her head. “Let me start in West Central Africa, seven years ago.”
“Africa!” Edgar liked this story already. Nowhere on earth was a darker, more violent or mysterious place. There were to be found cannibals, swarthy Arab slave traders, and a mad European king who had slaughtered millions of natives.
“It just as well could start in England, at Cambridge half a year before that.” She smiled at Edgar. “But I can see you like the sound of Africa. So, if you don’t mind me jumping round a bit...”
“Any way you like it,” Edgar said. “But I know what you mean. It’s not easy figuring out how to begin a story. I think it’s the hardest part.”
“Well then... picture if you will a forest of colossal trees. High in the fork of a fig a great nest has been built. In it lies a young woman moaning and delirious. Her body is badly bruised and torn.”
“Is it you?” Edgar asked.Jane Porter nodded.“I have it in my mind. I can see it very well.” Edgar could feel his heart thumping with anticipation. He allowed his eyes to close. “Please Miss Porter...” there was a hint of begging in his voice. “Will you go on?”