The ladies standing at the main entrance swished the air in front of themselves with fans
As Emma entered the high-ceilinged foyer of the Palace of Fine Arts, a group of women in gauzy pastel pink and yellow tea dresses, showing the latest cut of Basque waists and butterfly collars, were teetering in high-buttoned dress pumps up the greenish-veined central marble staircase. A sign at the head of the stairs pointed a gilded arrow to the right. Missus Cooper's talk on the "Rights of Colored Women" had been assigned to the Chinese bronze room. Emma entered the hall from the back and looked for a seat. Ceiling fans whirred softly and skylights let natural daylight fall on the few spectators' partridge feather hats.
Emma started to take a seat near the back when she saw a familiar figure up front. Vina.
Vina Fields had turned around to straighten the lavender shawl she had draped over her seat. Emma darted up to the front row and took a chair a few seats to Vina's left. Emma waved as Vina turned around.
"Vina! It's me, Emma!" Emma grinned.
"Why, Honey, where you been?" Vina smiled briefly and then looked stern. "Your poor mama was half out her head. You gone to visit her at the new flat?"
Emma nodded, "I'm so sorry for all that trouble with Anton, Vina. He had no cause to take on so. I give Maminka money every week."
"Well, that's fine, Emma. You keep helping them," Vina looked Emma up and down. "How you been keeping yourself?"
"I've been living in the working girls' dorm at Hull House mostly, ma'am," Emma said. "And now I've got to interview Missus Cooper for this newspaper and I don't know if she'll let me near her. . ."
"What . . . Alicia?" Vina laughed. "We've known each other since we were both girls. She married a doctor up in New York state and I came here to Chicago, but we have never lost touch. I'll get her attention when she first comes in."
Emma nodded to a lovely coffee-colored girl seated next to Vina. "Good morning, Flossie." Flossie said a brief hello and went back to her crocheting.
"How are all the girls, Vina? I really miss them . . . "
Vina waved a hand in the air slowly back and forth. She closed her eyes and then looked up at the ceiling. "They're fine, I guess. I never get a complete night's sleep but for worry about what mischief they may get into if I don't keep things all squared away. Isn't that right, Flossie?"
"Yes'um," Flossie said flatly, without looking up, her mouth continued to work silently, as if she were counting stitches.
Emma's mind momentarily flashed back to her short stay with Vina at the bordello. Emma's family only did the kitchen work, but they could hardly miss those little framed signs Vina had hung in every room. Signs that read like the rules of a Sunday school. And now, because of the World's Fair, from forty girls Vina's house was up to eighty! For all her protests about the increased number of girls running her ragged, Vina looked well. Her gauze tea dress had a yoke shot through with diagonal lavender bands, just the color of her shawl. Vina's whole ensemble went beautifully with the tiny cloisonne earrings and the single band of gold with matching cloisonne beads around her neck. Vina looks healthy, Emma thought, noting that some people actually liked a lot of doings all the time to keep themselves busy.
Vina's eyes opened wide as a dark, husky figure mounted the platform where a piano had been set up.
"Why, look there! It's Harry T.!" Vina exclaimed and continued in a loud stage whisper. "Harry! Harry! Over here!"
Vina bounced on her chair like a young girl, though she was at least fifty.
The young man in gray flannels turned his stocky neck as Vina's greetings grew more persistent. He saw Vina and grinned at her, jumping down from the stage and rubbing his hands.
"Greetings, lady!" Harry T. bowed low in front of Vina. "What are you doing these days?"
"Same as always, Harry," Vina shrugged. "You coming back to Chicago any more? Some of the girls say that no one played those bouncy, ragged time tunes the way you did."
"I guess you haven't heard," Harry T. scratched his head. "Thought I wrote you about it. I got a big scholarship at the National Conservatory."
"Oh?" Vina brightened and smiled at her protegee's good fortune. "Where's that, Harry?
"Why New York City, ma'am! That's all. I have lessons in theory with Victor Herbert and lessons in composition from Dvorak himself."
Vina looked blank. "Divorce-shock who-self?"
A brief look of impatience passed over the young man's face. "Vina, Antonin Dvorak is that European composer that Missus Jeannette Thurber hired to help set up a national school of music."
"Well, isn't that fine!" Vina said, feeling that anything that benefitted the talented Harry T. was probably not-altogether-bad.
"I'll be talking about all of that in a minute. No need to repeat myself. Now you tell all the girls that I promise to come by while I'm here in town and play them some of those bouncy, raggedy tunes, spirituals from New Orleans and maybe some new things, too. I'm here to get out the folks from our community to hear how we have been using our music in symphonies."
"Harry T., you a liar, now I know you are!" Vina cocked her head. "Our music in symphonies?"
Harry put up a finger and
winked at Vina.
"Just listen! You'll find out. You know that Louis Gottschalk used to do that creole bambula music. Now I am trying to do some field chants."
He craned his neck and saw that the hall was rapidly filling. Prominent Negro society women had been given special invitations for Missus Cooper's talk. "I need to warm up this crowd, now. No pun intended. Whew!" Harry T. loosened his collar for air in the room's August heat.
Harry T. strode up to the piano and began by playing a piano sonata by Mozart. Notes chased each other over hills and valleys. For a change of mood, he then launched into a thunderous revolutionary etude by Chopin. Harry T. swung around on the bench after the last chord had barely died off. He stood up and explained that what he was doing in New York City was every bit as revolutionary as the etude they had just heard.
"Missus Thurber herself has guaranteed her personal fortune that no Negro musician of proven ability should be turned away. There are to be no quotas or restrictions. The national Conservatory was incorporated by an Act of Congress, Ladies and Gentlemen!" Burleigh stopped, allowing this news to ripple into the audience. There were murmurs that fanned towards the back of the hall.
"All the teachers there are exploring the untapped genius of Indian chant and Negro spirituals. Why—ladies, if you can believe this—they encourage us there to make use of the most humble products of our past, make them into something fine." Burleigh sat back down at the piano and closed his eyes as he spoke.
"I want you to imagine a field someplace in Virginia. On my travels to get material, I talked to one old auntie there and asked her if she knew where this song came from." Harry T. hunched his shoulders a bit and acted the role. " 'When Massa' Jesus he get tired and come sittin' at Jacob's Well, he left these here songs for His people,' she said. This was a morning field chant that I've taken as a starting place."
Harry loudly counted out time with his left foot for a few bars and then began some arpeggios and runs that didn't sound at all familiar to Vina. But then something started Vina's foot tapping. She heard a cat whisker of a melody from her granny. The tune flicked in and out and then came in a two-bar passage, so Vina knew what it was.
"In that Great Gettin'-up Mornin'. . ." she sang under her breath. "When my Lord says to his Fader. . .say Fader I'm tired of bearin', tired of bearin' for poor sinners. . ." Vina hummed and sang as Harry T. Chords ebbed and flowed around the old field chant melody like water flowing over and around stream bed rocks. The field chant began to echo and rebound upon itself. More heads were nodding, fingers were now tapping on knees, and more voices began softly sighing the words.
Emma realized that it must have taken a tremendous effort to get up every morning, knowing that the sun would rise, the sun would set, but all the people in the field would still be slaves. . .
"In that great gettin'-up mornin'. . .Fare you well, fare you well!" the piano sang and sighed and buzzed, as if with the sound of the many insects out in that field long ago. Emma felt moved by the strangely familiar tune.
Vina, sitting nearby, watched the suppressed anger working through Flossie's fingers and wondered what had changed, really. Her girls worked in woman's oldest profession for a largely white clientele. But the difference was, they worked for HER. And Lord knew she gave them a fair wage. Something had changed, maybe not by much, maybe not AS much as her girls would like, but Vina felt that change had come. All these things ran through Vina's mind as she dabbed at her eye with a scented lace handkerchief. That old song. Why that old song have to go affecting me so? Vina thought.
When Missus Cooper came in, she only had time to wave to Vina. Vina stage-whispered, "Well, I tried . . . maybe she'll have time after . . . "
But Emma made enough notes from the talk that she was able to compose a column. Missus Cooper explained to the women exactly how they had been given a few crumbs, in order to keep them quiet, when much of America had actually been built by the sweat of the brows of people of color.
"And did you know?" asked Missus Cooper. "The structure of a chain is only as strong as its weakest link! If one link in that chain be broken, the chain is broken! The colored woman feels that the cause of woman is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as accidents and not the substance of life, is woman's lesson taught and woman's cause won!"
The crowd of women stood to applaud at this point. Missus Cooper mopped her caramel skin and brushed an auburn wisp of hair from her cheek.
Emma wondered at Missus Cooper. Some people had tried—her newspaper's editors had tried—to split the white reforming women from the colored leadership. But here around Emma sat many of the Board of Lady Managers at the World's Fair, applauding with the rest. Bertha Palmer sat off near the right French doors, next to Fannie Barrier Williams, her secretary and head of the Colored People's Interest Section at the Fair.
Back home at Hull House, Emma sat at the roll-top desk in the library and drafted her column. She knew that it would not pass uncensored by the editor, but she hoped that at least some of what she wrote about the cooperation of women across lines of race and condition would make it into print.
Because she was helping her mother to buy little extras for Julka, Emma could not give up her job. The changes that Martinson felt free to make now with regularity to her columns caused Emma a great deal of pain, but she couldn't seem to call an end to the work for Yerkes.
So, she wasn't surprised that she was "called on the carpet" the next morning while Mister Martinson hockered chewing tobacco into the brass spitoon near the corner of his desk, grunted, wiped his brow, and sweated grimy rivulets down into his collar. . .
"No, I don't think you can go with that view that Bertha Palmer and her clique really care about the colored women," said Martinson. Ping! Another stream of brackish goop flew into the spitoon. "Here, now, I'll just redline that bit and we can leave most of the rest. You're really going to have to watch. . ."
Just then Yerkes swept in through the door.
"Mister Yerkes, I've told you that this girl has real problems sticking with the views of the Inter-Ocean!" Martinson snuffed and honked at his nose with a dirty red handkerchief. "Now she's gone and done it again! I have to go over every column and, in my view, her writing ain't worth it!"
"Emma, it seems that fate has decided that we are to have another chat. Please come in. This has to do with your brother, as well."
"My . . . brother?" Emma gasped. Yerkes knew that Anton was her brother. They went upstairs to Yerkes's office and Emma stood while Yerkes fiddled with some kinked tape in his ticker tape machine. He turned and told Emma to have a seat. Emma thought she saw a deep frown on Yerkes's face as he passed her by. She felt that this might be the end of her short-term newspaper job.
Yerkes went ahead and poured a tiny glass of claret for each of them. He chuckled.
"This claret may help to clarify things . . . I recall that you were no abstainer. Is that right?"
Emma nodded. She took a small sip and placed the goblet back on the desk in front of her. Being offered claret by Yerkes at such a moment might only be a ploy to make her tell something she ought not.
Yerkes held his glass up and peered at the sun's rays through the crystal facets. "You know, at my age, a man likes to know where he stands: in the community, at home, at work. Do you follow, my dear?"
Emma felt her throat dry up and found it painful to swallow as Yerkes drawled out a few more platitudes about being clear about things. What was he leading up to?
Yerkes smiled and loosened his beautiful silk cravat. He pulled it off and flung it carelessly over a side table. "There! Much too hot for such fripperies."
"Not to beat about the bull-rushes, I have had a bad report about your brother Anton, Emma." Yerkes laughed. "I didn't put the last name together at first, but now, judging by the behavior of both of you, I should have guessed!"
Emma tried to smile, since he seemed to be indulging her, but she was sure her expression looked strained.
Yerkes leaned forward. "Not a bit curious about what Anton did?"
"Yes, of course. Please tell me!" was all that Emma could think to say.
Yerkes smiled and beat his fingers together on the desk in front of himself, as he did when in a thoughtful mood. "Well, your Anton inspired a couple of the other masons to join him in caricaturing me on the lintel of my Observatory. In stone. Stone lasts a good long while and I don't fancy going down into history that way, you understand?" Yerkes paused. No answer. He prompted. "Do you?"
"Yes, I think that was. . .wrong of him."
"The director wanted to fire Anton and the other two on the spot, but I told him to just get them to chisel enough away to remove the resemblance while I made my final decision."
"That was generous, sir," Emma said, looking down at her hands.
"And so I walk in and find another mutiny afoot. You!"
Emma looked up suddenly and smiled in a semi-daffy way. This seemed to startle Yerkes, for he raised his eyebrows, then cleared his throat to go on.
"They put a bee on my nose in those little faces. The director made them take the bees off. . ."
"Why bees?" Emma blurted.
"I forget. Sometimes you don't know the American expressions. To put a bee on a fellow's nose is to gyp him out of money. Sting him. They thought that they were going to have their little joke and then walk away laughing!" Rage shot out of Yerkes eyes. He glared at Emma for a second, but then the impenetrable veil slipped back. Yerkes smiled deliberately. No. He was not upset. Nothing that some immigrant workman could do could possibly upset him. He got up from his chair, calmly walked behind Emma and began to slowly stroke her shoulders.
Emma felt suddenly on fire. Her fear led her almost to cry out. Tears rose in her eyes. She managed to say, "I'm sure he is sorry for his bad decision."
Yerkes began massaging Emma's shoulders a bit more vigorously. "He has his second chance, Emma. Do you want one as well?"
"I. . .ah. . .what do I have. . ."
Yerkes stopped his massage abruptly. He leaned down and put his face only a few inches from hers. "Life can be very easy in Chicago, Emma. Or life can be very unpleasant, indeed. To succeed, you need to choose your loyalties. What bothers me about you, Emma, is that you seem to have mixed loyalties. Do we think we can change that?" Yerkes nodded, his face looming large in front of her. Emma began to nod back.
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Waking the Dead
Copyright © 1997 Gloria McMillan and Fly Neleth Press. All rights reserved.