Bertha Palmer put down her newspaper with a sigh. She usually enjoyed the humor in the column dealing with the comings and goings of Mister Dooley, but not this morning. Mollie, one of the regular characters, was objecting to being given in marriage to some clown and to being made dependent on his every whim. And so on. Bertha could not imagine her husband Potter as some clown. Potter was. . .well. . .Potter. Unfortunately, he had gone off to his hotel at the crack of dawn as was usual. Bertha was depressed and this was not usual. She had wanted a bit of consolation about the Infanta's reception, but the man was always so preoccupied. And now this silly column. Bertha simply did not enjoy this columnist's depiction of women. What did Peter Finley Dunne know about New Women? Bertha had seen enough of ineffectual bumbling in her Board of Lady Managers to last a lifetime. And every one of those women considered herself new. Not to mention the Infanta's reception. More new women and their bizarre antics. . .One could be confused by it all.
But Bertha was never confused. It was only an annoyance. She stirred her tepid poached egg with a tiny spoon. The facets of the pumpkin-shaped teapot reflected a lock of her hair. Not in place, that lock. She patted it down. One should not lump the two things together, Bertha told the image of herself in the teapot. New Women and their bizarre antics were one thing. Women's problems were another. Women were having a terrible time of it and not only in backward places such as China, Bosnia and the Congo, either. Women were having a time of it right here in Chicago! Bertha paused in her musings to realize that her face in the teapot was beginning to show lines at the corners of the mouth. Not deep lines. Fine lines. The New Women were by and large such young ones. If only they did not tend toward clownish behavior. Bertha felt the tug of her innate sense of proper behavior warring with her feelings about justice for women. She sat for several minutes just staring at the woman in the teapot and feeling a malaise.
"Mister Stead is here to see you, Ma'am," said the maid. The maid had come in so silently that Bertha felt her thoughts intruded upon. But she welcomed a change of pace. This Stead fellow was a vortex of energy and Bertha felt the need of some energy at the moment. She looked down to check her morning costume and braced up within her tight corset. Her collar pearls held her head erect, so that no one, not even the piercing eyes of a journalist like Stead, could tell that she was depressed. Stead could be quite in his own world at times. When on the trail of a cause, the man was a verbal torrent. This took some getting used to. She got up and put her napkin down on the plate, being careful to rumple it up thoroughly. She walked into her day room and saw that there was someone with Mister Stead. The handsome young woman said her name was Alzina Stevens. She motioned them both to take chairs opposite her, smiling in a leisurely fashion. She settled into her favorite wing back chair, put her feet up on the ottoman and waited.
"A great opportunity has come with the World's Columbian Exposition," Stead opened, pacing around the room like a caged tiger. "A most unusual chance has come to show the world what Chicago can and will do," he proclaimed as if he had discovered the idea. Bertha's eyebrows shot up, but she held her peace. Stead continued, describing the conjunction of great minds and talents all here in this one fair metropolis. Were not preparations underway this very week for the opening of the World Parliament of Religions? Bertha nodded, though it was a rhetorical question.
"Surely, Madame, this proves as nothing else can that the seeds are being sown for more than a grim and mechanistic materialism. We hold in our hands the future of the spirit! The quarreling sects may become a thing of the past, but the building of community must go apace, Madame. The forgotten children of God, Madame, exist not far from the gates of the Fair!" Stead gave a piercing look at Bertha to see if she were dosing. She was not.
"Our own Charles Dickens has aptly summed up the want of charitable spirit in his novel Hard Times. Have you read it, Madame?" Bertha was going to say something about being Madamed half to death, but she only sighed. No, she had not read the book. "You would be amazed," said Stead. There is a character called Mister Gradgrind in Hard Times who would reduce all human feeling and sympathy to a matter of the counting house! I see his like every day on the streets of Chicago. And such miserable apathy. Nowhere but in Russia after the Czar was slain and the reaction come in with force have I seen eyes with the want of hope that I have seen here!" Stead tugged at his unruly reddish hair as he spoke. A most annoying habit of his, Bertha thought.
"Mister Stead. . ." Bertha smiled and tried to get in a word about the value of a calm and sane presentation of the facts. Stead stared at her as if he were not on the same planet and went on speaking in a rush. The next meeting at Central Music Hall would be in two days. Stead had titled the meeting "If Christ Came to Chicago!" He waited for Bertha's response to the title.
"You have a flair for the dramatic, Mister Stead," she finally said, slightly pursing her lips. Stead nodded and went on. Over in England Stead had had the backing of Lady Windemere and this had given the biggest boost to the cause of abolition of white slavery.
"Surely the lady must understand the importance of these appearances of support," Stead went on, staring intently at Bertha. Bertha nodded her head slowly. "People of means can be a civilizing force in society, Ma'am."
Bertha wanted to say a few words in own defense. After all, Stead had just blown in from London. It was Bertha Palmer and such ethical people as she could rouse who had opposed the gray wolves at every turn. The brothel owners and the saloon owners and such men as Charles Tyson Yerkes. Bertha's deeply luminous brown eyes bore into Stead's. You are an outsider, Mister Stead, she wanted to tell him. How can you possibly understand the force behind a man like Yerkes? He has two fabulously rich Philadelphia traction magnates behind his every move, his every cannibalistic stock deal and his every false corporation. It does not matter what Chicago thinks, Mister Stead, Bertha thought, but held her tongue. She decided not to rub being an outsider in to Stead and it would be better if she did not voice her feelings about Yerkes. The newspapers were roasting him well enough. So she merely alluded to the obvious.
"There are men who have very little regard for what is right and for what God may think of their actions, Mister Stead. If you understand my meaning, men who do not quake at the wrath of God's judgment do not find me so terrifying."
Alzina had to giggle. She had found Bertha Palmer terrifying enough. She looked down at her gloved hands as Bertha turned to look at her. "If you only knew. . ." Bertha stopped short. She wanted to tell this chit of a girl what it was like to live through the carnage of the Chicago Fire. The people screaming and running on fire into the lake. Pigeons flying into the air and coming to earth singed. Everything gone and destroyed. The terrible scraps of paper put up on charred poles. . .Johnny Schneider, 4 yrs. old. LOST. Last seen wearing a white Poland jacket. . .Bertha always wondered what had become of that child. Her little son Honore was the same age. Bertha knew what this girl thought of her. The press had created her image. She was domineering and cold. They all thought this.
"One may have feelings that one cannot express, my dear girl," said Bertha, looking pointedly at Alzina. "One is treated as an icon in the press and that is not the way one is or wishes. . .Let me say this much. The women I have seen from all over the world have convinced me to act on their behalf. What do you wish me to do?"
"Go with us and see them where they live!" Stead ran up to Bertha and took her hand. She gasped, since this was unusual. "I must speak of these things at the Central Music Hall and you shall see them as well. Your great American poet James Russell Lowell has said of these fellow creatures,
These set He in the midst of them
And as they drew back their garments-hem,
For fear of defilement, 'Lo here,' said He,
'The images you have made of Me.'"
Stead stopped, his eyes were glowing in an unearthly fashion as he stared away from Bertha and out the window. Bertha sucked in a breath and shuddered. She was unused to the company of fanatics. She closed her eyes a second before speaking. "I take it that you like Mister Lowell's poems, then."
Stead nodded and exclaimed that Lowell's poems had changed his life many, many years before in England. He had read them as a boy in the manse. Bertha asked about the manse. It turned out that Stead's father was, predictably, a minister. Even more predictably a Nonconformist minister. Not high church. Not even close. Bertha did not know much about the Nonconformist or Congregational religion that Mister Stead had grown up in, but his sincerity was undeniable.
Since coming to Chicago Mister Stead had been subjected to death threats, he said. "But. . ." He made a homely allusion to his boyhood. "I was small but they only got the better of me once. . .and that time it took three boys with cricket bats." Stead smiled broadly, showing his little white teeth. Yes, he was fearless. That impressed Bertha. Stead set the time for early morning two days' hence. They would meet at the gate of Hull House. And then Bertha would see, she would really see, promised Stead, pumping her hand.
Feeling like the village well, Bertha smiled and withdrew her hand. "Yes, Mister Stead, that will be lovely. We shall be ever so much better informed. All of us," said Bertha, for the blonde girl's benefit. This girl with Stead looked vaguely familiar to Bertha, so she asked whether they had met.
Alzina, just released from the Harrison Street Station, didn't know what to say. She smiled and said that it was quite possible that they had met. And then she giggled.
Silly girl, thought Bertha.
Bertha, Stead and Alzina started out from their meeting place at Hull House at ten on the appointed day. The public meeting Stead had planned would be the same evening and Bertha was eager to have the conditions of the poor fresh in her mind when he spoke. The first stop on the tour of Packingtown was the Klimova flat. Stead thought that, perhaps, Bertha herself might be able to influence Mister Field about the clothing that Alzina had destroyed.
But as Stead, Alzina, and Bertha Palmer reached the top of the staircase to the Klimova apartment, they could see that the apartment was bare. The flimsy door stood ajar. The three walked in and smelled the dry, musty smell. Very little spoke of recent human habitation. A rickety table with a matchbox under one leg. A few sheets of newspaper in a corner and some wisps of sewing thread, black, blowing about the dusty wooden floor. Stead turned to Alzina and guessed the cause of the Klimovas' hasty departure. Field's agents must have come calling for their goods. He wondered whether the family had managed to take anything with them or whether the furniture had been confiscated.
The only person around at this morning hour was old Missus Hlavaty downstairs. Alzina knocked on her door. The door opened a crack and the old woman jumped at the sight of Bertha Palmer. Bertha had toned down her elegance to what she considered incognito, but not too many neighborhood women wore Battenberg lace collars almost a foot wide and vermilion silk capes. Missus Hlavaty was struck speechless. Alzina remembered not to say Missus Hlavaty's name, so the conversation had a chance of going somewhere. The smell of bird coming from Missus Hlavaty's apartment was overpowering. A chorus of chirping competed with what the old woman's raspy voice. Alzina asked her if she had seen the Klimovas move out. Yes, she had. Did she have any idea of where they might be found? No, the old woman didn't. There was a son, Anton. They went with him two days before, said Missus Hlavaty. She couldn't control her curiosity anymore and actually stepped beyond the doorway to squint at Bertha and her lace. Missus Palmer introduced herself and asked politely to whom she was speaking before Alzina could stop her.
"Nobody say my name!" shouted Missus Hlavaty, and slammed the door in their faces. Alzina said that she should have mentioned about Missus Hlavaty, how she considered herself dead and so there was no need of calling her by name. Bertha said authoritatively to Mister Stead that this must be one of those truly sad cases of demoralization dear Jane Addams had been describing. Stead and Alzina nodded and they walked on.
There were several other families to visit. Luckily, some of these others were still in residence and Bertha got an eye full. Despite the poverty and filth in every tenement, some of the other families had fat, jolly children. One father sang some nasal songs in Italian and played on a wheezy concertina for them while the little ones hopped around the room. While they visited flat after flat, Alzina's mind kept wandering to the Klimova women. Where had they gone?
Where, indeed. Anton had gotten the job as bouncer at Vina Fields' sporting house. He had whisked his mother and sisters out of certain danger of arrest and old, soft-hearted Vina had taken them in. That is, she gave the women some temporary jobs while they relocated themselves. Vina's house of prostitution was a landmark in the Levee. It was the big house which catered to gentlemen who liked light-toned colored girls. All the clients were white. Vina herself was very dark, but she had worked her way up. And she was sharp as a tack, though she had principles. Anton told of his family's distress and Vina listened. She took only a few seconds to figure out how she would fit this Bohemian mother and daughters combo into her menage.
"Can you cook?" Vina asked the broad-cheeked, older woman. Maminka blinked in response and Anton translated. Vina needed a temporary cook while Daisy was down in Memphis, helping her sister. Vina guessed Daisy would have to be gone for at least two months, so she was, in fact, short handed. "What are your mother's specialties?" Vina asked. Anton piped up that his mother made the best kolache in Chicago. Knedlicky, svickova, schnitzel. . .she covered the waterfront in cooking when they could afford the ingredients.
"Maybe I didn't put that quite right," Vina said thoughtfully, and she furrowed her smooth, ebony brow. "Can she cook Southern?"
Maminka asked for a translation. Anton explained about the yams and collard greens and salt pork. "Maminka can do wonders with ham hock," volunteered Anton. Maminka, smiling brightly now, tapped Anton's arm and said several words. She wants to know if you like brains with eggs. Vina swallowed hard and said that she would forgo that pleasure. Maminka said the words "zelne karbenatky" several times and made patty cake motions with her hands.
"Ma'am," Anton went on, "She wants you to know that she can make cabbage patties. . .all kinds of cabbage. . .she knows many ways to cook cabbage!"
Vina shook her head firmly. "No, cabbage gives girls the wind. We can't have that, you see. Tell your mother that she has a job here for a hile, but she must avoid things like cabbage." Anton translated and his mother nodded her head meekly, crestfallen at not being able to show off her cabbage repertoire.
As luck would have it, Vina Fields' was not the worst place that the Klimovas could have ended up. Nothing like Madame Hastings's house, where the girls were so exploited and brutalized that they usually died before the age of thirty. There was no other place comparable to Vina's.
Vina was the child of slaves. She ran a strict house with rules like a Sunday school pasted up in every room. She had the girls all sit before her on Sunday nights and any girl who swore was fined. If caught stealing the girl was turned out of the house. No one drank much. Drugs were out. Many of Vina's girls were from the South and were supporting husbands or whole families back home. She gave the girls more of their income than any other madam in Chicago and they knew it. Even the police left her alone. She had never been pulled, the word madams used for being hauled into the Harrison Street Station. Vina knew Alzina's friend, Mister Stead. He later wrote of her that, strange though it may have appeared, she had won the respect of nearly all who knew her. Stead wrote of her generous terms with the girls and noted that every day during the last winter she had fed a hungry, ragged army of out-of-works. One cold and windy night, Vina had fed two hundred. So, Maminka would be busy.
Vina led the Klimas behind the pantry and gave the women a little storage room off the kitchen where little Julka wouldn't have to be in on all the details of the trade. Vina's own daughter was in a convent school and Vina was very keen on proprieties. Maminka and the girls began preparing Afro-Bohemian cuisine to the best of their abilities. The knedliky with collards and ham hocks was the dish that won the girls' hearts. From that effort, Maminka branched out to chitt'lins paprikash with knedliky. Everybody thought those biscuits were pretty near to Alabama in quality. By the time William Stead showed up to ask Vina to come to his next meeting, the girls were all fat, sassy, and speaking a few words of Bohemian. He was pleased to tell Miss Alzina Stevens that despite her bumbling efforts, it would seem that the Klimovas were surviving quite well.
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Waking the Dead
Copyright © 1996 Gloria McMillan and Fly Neleth Press. All rights reserved.