Chapter 20

Blue Lights and Rockets


Yerkes got up and strode to the floor-to- ceiling French window. "You say that you can't have the polar axis working by next Wednesday?" He paused, shaking his head, his back to the two men from the observatory.

Ritchey, the instrument engineer, stammered, "In eff-ffect, that is what we have been s-saying. . . ."

George Hale cut in smoothly, "And that is why," he pulled on his long left sideburn, "—why science isn't like a game of cribbage with your Aunt Nettie. And from what I hear of you, Mister Yerkes, you like to be a plunger on the Board of Exchange. Risks! That's all astronomy is at this level, so. . . ."

"So, I can forget having that telescope working for Mister Weidensham from Philadelphia. He's not only a very rich man, a very important backer, he's an amateur astronomer." Yerkes surveyed the hedges at the edge of his grounds as he spoke. He flicked a speck off the glass in front of his eyes.

"No, I do not think we dare risk it until that polar axis adjustment has been made," said Hale, looking down at his trigly-tailored pant leg. "We can't have anyone going back east with stories that the world's biggest telescope does not perform well."

Yerkes smiled down at his topiary trees in the court below. Water splashed softly in the Italian marble fountain. "No, we can't have that. Scientia longa, vita brevis. . .or something."

"I am glad that you understand the importance of . . . ," Hale stole a glance over at Ritchey and winked, "everything contributing to the masterful unveiling of the world's largest telescope."

Yerkes chuckled. "Yes, I know what it is, but the world's largest bill came last week from the architects and construction company!" He turned to face Hale. Hale showed no emotion.

"First you wanted me to give a lens, then a telescope, now a building. Very clever. I am willing to do all that, for my love of . . . science, but this bill had better be the last." Yerkes turned back to the window, drew the forest green, damask drapery aside a bit further. Something caught his eye.

Hale wanted to wrap up the meeting while Yerkes was still able to make a show of his genial self-sufficiency, despite his let-down at not being able to show off his new "toy" to the backer from Philadelphia. Ritchey motioned towards the door and Hale nodded. The man had been terrified that Yerkes meant to sack him, because of the delay. Hale nodded and Ritchey let himself out while Yerkes gazed distractedly at something on his lawn.

"If you take the larger view," Hale spoke crisply, something Yerkes admired in a man in his mid-twenties, "these are all just bumps on hitching our carts to the stars!"

"The stars . . . " Yerkes repeated. "The stars are never troubled by all the goings on here. They are . . . "

"And all our work can only be done in sequence," Hale paused. "We'll let you know the moment that the axis is set. So, if there's nothing else I can do?" He took a step toward Yerkes and waited.

"Oh, certainly. You may . . . ah . . . carry on, then," said Yerkes, who now saw a movement by the hedge. "Tell them that I am most eager to come and see the first night's viewing!"

Hale said a brisk good-bye and darted for the door. Yerkes heard the door close quietly behind him. That young man was bound to go far. His poise was uncanny. Hale, it seemed to Yerkes, took it as part of his due that he was going to be director of the institution with the world's largest telescope at the age of twenty-five! Yerkes saw some of his own audacity in that boy. But there were aspects of this "plunger" that were on the dark side, a side that probably would remain undeveloped in young George. Yerkes awaited a delivery that would have put more than stars before the eyes of the young astronomer. Yerkes scanned the edge of his grounds for that young colored woman, Minnie, who had met with Yerkes's emissary that he wanted to buy the jeweled whip, no questions asked. Hale would never understand Yerkes's fascination for games of dominance.

If only she . . . , Yerkes thought. Where was she?

A dun-colored figure jiggled into view from the hedgerow momentarily, then pulled the hedge back together. Yerkes recognized that shabby tramp. Detective Wooldridge was always affecting this disguise when he was on a stake-out . . .. Stake-out! He had been discovered!

Yerkes ran over and cranked at the telephone box. He connected with the doorman. "Yes! Under no circumstances let her in! This delivery woman Minnie is to be turned away, you understand?" Yerkes gave a concise description of Minnie Moore. He slammed the receiver down, his heart throbbing in the veins of his neck. Yerkes closed his eyes. Shapes swam in his mind. One shimmery shape fluttered before Yerkes's mind's eye. A jellyfish. That's all there were: lobsters and jellyfish. Lobsters. Jellyfish.


"Hey! Don't stop her! Let her through!" Wooldridge stage-whispered to his assistants as one of them started to grab for Minnie's arm. She pulled her bag tighter against her chest. The idea . . . !

As Minnie walked across the broad, sunny expanse of lawn in front of Yerkes's limestone gothic mansion, she paused. Someone was watching her from above. She could feel, rather than see him. Well, thought Minnie, this is no peepshow. He had better be ready to ante up. But, then, what was she thinking. There was no money in this for her, not since they sent Matt Green, the fraud! She had been ready to fence that whip to Matt and they roped in to this. All for the honor of doing a few years less time in the Joliet women's penitentiary. Minnie sighed. Her luck had truly run out, this time. She should have listened to what her old granny—and then Vina Fields—were always telling her. Clear those shady spots out of your life, girl! Work hard. Eat vegetables. Early to bed, early to rise . . . and . . . Minnie shuddered. Maybe that penitentiary wouldn't be so bad. She could make friends with the head girls and tell their fortunes, a trick she had picked up from Madame Zodiac at the Williams's carnival. No, either way, life was no damn good. Either they put you in a cage or they tied you up with rules and manners. Minnie neared the door as she asked herself what she—Minnie—really wanted to do for the rest of her life. But that was easy. She wanted to light out for the open country of the West. Calamity Minnie . . . that would have to be her name now. Minnie the Kid? No. Now she would never get the chance to see what kind of a blazing trail she would . . . .

Minnie walked slowly up the great stone staircase. She rapped the oval door knocker shaped like a lion's face a few times and the door slowly swung open. Milton, Yerkes's doorman looked Minnie up and down.

She started to explain. "I am here on the most urgent of errands. Mister Yerkes said to tell you that he was to be notified immediately the minute that I . . . ."

Milton put out a white-gloved hand in front of Minnie's face. "No, he didn't and, no, he doesn't! My orders for you are strictly no admittance! Out—out!" And, with that, the door closed, faster this time.

"But he . . . but I! Well! Tell Mister Yerkes that I have discovered something even slimier than those rats at Mister Armour's packing house! It's him!" Minnie looked down at her parcel just as it dawned on her that her use to the stake-out might be less than before. How could he be walking out on this deal? Minnie turned and walked over to the hedge where Wooldridge was still half-covering himself. "Come on out! Deal is off!"

"Off?" Wooldridge sprang from his hide-out. "Off! Well, if that don't beat . . . !"

Minnie dropped the parcel and was running in an instant for the stone wall near the west side of Yerkes's place. Wooldridge stopped to scoop up the whip and then he called to his accomplices to run after Minnie, who made a hand-spring and was over the wall.

"Why can't people ever keep their word?" Wooldridge asked the pudgy Sargent puffing alongside him. "Well? I don't blame Minnie bein' so out of sorts. This Yerkes is a bad one . . . " Wooldridge huffed, puffed, and scaled the fence, pulling the Sargent over after himself.

The two men looked into the distance both ways, but Minnie had managed to run between some of the stables. If they caught her again now, it would be a miracle. The men fanned out and went scurrying in every direction. Wooldridge held the diamond-studded whip close to his chest. He wondered if this recovered art might change Mayor Harrison's opinion of his crime-fighting record.


Emma thought she saw some men running through the shrubbery at the edge of Mister Yerkes's grounds, but she couldn't be sure. She worried about how he would receive her article on Jane Addams's campaign meeting. And why should so important a man as Charles Yerkes want to take time to correct her grammar and writing? Would he fire her after this column? But she had written it in the most neutral way! She had neither sided with the Powers thugs nor had she sided with Jane's campaign. What she had done was to set the piece into a fantasy about what a visitor from a far-off country would make of this Chicago scene. She had created a visitor to the World's Fair from Borneo. The visitor from Borneo mainly couldn't make heads or tails of Jane and her rowdy audience, giving Emma a chance to joke about city life in general. She carefully distanced herself from Jane's campaign for garbage inspector, Yerkes violent opposition to that campaign, and played the role of humorous observer. How could Yerkes find fault with that? Was the Inter-Ocean not always looking for diversions for summer reading?

The door knocker was not encouraging. Yerkes had bought a gold- fitted lion's head about a foot in circumference to deck his front door. While nothing could have been more appropriate to the owner of The World's Largest Telescope, Emma did not like to look the beast in its golden eye. The lion seemed to snarl at her as she rapped the bar down firmly several times on his nose. The door swung open and a wizened and morose-looking man in livery asked Emma to state her business.

"I . . . I'm expected." Emma swallowed hard. "My name is Emma Klimova and I work at The Inter-Ocean for Mister Yerkes." These were the right words, because the door swung wide and the wizened man led Emma through a series of rooms and suites, each more lavish and exotic than the last. She caught a glimpse of the palm trees in the conservatory, but they turned at a tall Ming vase and went to the music room. Emma wished that she could have seen the rare flowers and trees more closely . . .

"The guest is here, sir," the morose doorman said and he quietly backed out the tall double doors.

Yerkes, still at the window and following the movements of Wooldridge and his buffoons, turned to greet Emma. He needn't worry. Minnie Moore had surely given them the slip, and with her went their entrapment. The way the men were criss-crossing the grounds had told Yerkes that much. He smiled broadly, his genial calm restored.

"Well, then, let's see it!" Yerkes ordered, attempting to sound schoolmasterish.

Emma fumbled in her cloth bag and pulled out her manuscript.

Yerkes put on his reading spectacles and took the sheets from Emma's shaking hand. He smiled. She was nervous.

Emma looked around at Yerkes's music room as he read through her column and made a few small marginal notes. Before she thought, she heard herself asking, "But what is that fantastic painting by the piano?"

Yerkes looked over at the Turner painting, then looked at Emma.

"You like it?" he gazed at the painting with the tenderness of a new mother at her first child. "That is 'Blue Lights and Rockets.' I had it moved from my office here just yesterday. Tell me, what does it suggest to you?" Yerkes watched the girl's head cock as she walked over and studied the painting's brushwork. He laughed. "You'll never get the gist of it from that distance. girlie."

Emma stepped backwards until she was thirty feet from the painting and the meld of Prussian blues, violets, and dun greens resolved with the points of gold, amber, and cerulean crimson. She gasped. "It really seems alive! More than the fireworks at the Fair. I don't know why, but it seems to hold a promise of some great thing . . . "

"Fascinating." Yerkes drummed his fingers on the green blotter. "You know, I had a few of our local aesthetes and businessmen here last night; they drank my claret and laughed at how I had been duped in London. Muddy thing. That's what one of those men said. Muddy thing!" Yerkes shook his head. "But they don't see it with my eyes, because. . .well, Emma, I saw—don't laugh—the spirit of mankind in it. Something grand and soaring, but at the same time always doomed to plummet back to earth. No matter how high. . .Anyway, they didn't understand. I am surprised that you . . . "

Surprised again that someone like me should have any feelings or sensitivity! Emma thought, but only smiled and replied gently, "My brother is an artist. He often talks about light and the way that planes can melt under the different . . . "

"Well, back to your article! I really have other things to attend to," Yerkes almost snapped. He suddenly recalled who her brother was, Tony Klima, the caricature sculptor. The less said about Mister Klima and his dull-witted impressions, the better. It would almost be easy to love a girl like this if her damn family affiliations didn't go round poking their heads in, like unwanted dinner companions over a tete-a-tete. "Still, I hold the true artist in my highest esteem." Yerkes made a careful distinction between the 'true' artist and such plodders as the Tony Klimas of this world. "He rises above the petty grapplings of today's world and gets a glimpse of something eternal."

Emma nodded in agreement, thinking mainly of her brother Tony.

"Come here, Emma." Yerkes motioned Emma to his side. "I see that you have a split infinitive here, and a comma there . . . " Yerkes put his finger on the spot, where you really need a colon. But otherwise . . . " Her hair fell down towards him in teasing waves like a Baroque cherub. "I should say that everything is in order this time. You did not advocate any of that woman's crazy reforms."

"No, sir," Emma sighed.

"And you didn't pick out any of our aldermen for undue satire.

That is an improvement." Yerkes placed his hand over Emma's. "I begin to see some potential in your work, after all."

"I'm so glad," Emma replied in a rush, "because I was up half the night, and when Florence called into me that we all needed to be in our beds, I thought my head would drop! Well, you know how it is." Emma stopped. Why, no, he didn't know how that was. Not at all.

"All I know, my dear," Yerkes ran his hand along Emma's arm slowly, tentatively, "is that your eyes are far too lustrous for midnight work."

"Thank you, sir," Emma said, not sure if this were a compliment that should go unnoticed. Yerkes stood up and Emma turned to face him.

"What kind of an art patron would I be if I failed to notice the color of your eyes. So green. . ." Emma scooped up her papers just as Yerkes put a hand up to stroke her hair.

"I think that if you've done with my column, I'd best be. . ."

"Off? But Emma, all I made was an innocent little remark about your eyes and you suspect me!" Yerkes mustache seemed to bristle with righteous indignation. "What do you think I am? Some foreman on the floor of Armour's packinghouse?"

"No! Of course not, I didn't think such a thing. . ." Emma said. Then, to herself, Boze muj. Co delam? Emma couldn't think with Yerkes hovering near her.

Go to the Top of this Page
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter
Table of Contents