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A note of explanation…It is 1920 as 78-year-old Jessica Radford reads her biography, as written by her daughter Emma. As she reads the horrible account of the 1871 Chicago Fire, she recalls how Devin Alcott, a gifted black musician, had eloped with her other daughter, Mitzi and is now attempting to escape the ravaging fire. Nellie (mentioned in this chapter,) is Jessica’s adopted black sister. The following scene occurs about halfway through the novel…
October 9, 1871 1:15 am (Chicago, Illinois)
Clutching his oboe with one hand while holding Mitzi with the other, Devin walks quickly toward the Washington Street entrance of the opera house. Mitzi shrieks at the eerie sight before them. Leaping, hungry flames spring across the horizon from the southwest. The glow from multiple fires gives an uncanny sense of daylight to a sky that ought to be black. A howling wind gusts and dust and ash sting their faces.
Mitzi coughs and gasps at the pungent smell of the grayish-black smoke. “I am frightened, Devin.”
“Do not be, my darling. We should be safe here. Both the stage and auditorium have steam-powered pumps that can flood this building with water.”
While he is reassuring her, men rush into the front office building carrying buckets of water. “Be sure to soak that roof,” one of the men orders.
“If they can keep that roof wet,” Devin explains, “it should prevent the fire from destroying this fine building.”
Two colorful banners, hanging from the top floor, one announcing “Crosby Opera House—Grand Opening” and the other “Theodore Thomas’ Unrivaled Orchestra,” flap violently in the driving wind. A small firebrand carried by the relentless gale lands near the entrance and a man quickly extinguishes it.
Devin and Mitzi enter the building and, along with several others, follow a man carrying a large lantern up the staircase. “When we get to the top floor,” the man explains, “you will be able to see the scope of the fire.”
Mitzi is out of breath when she reaches the upper floor. “I feel like an elephant climbing up a ladder,” she says, forcing herself to laugh.
“I’m sorry, darling,” he says as he peers through a window. Blazing tongues of red flame spread from the gasworks close to Monroe and Market to the Lakeside Publishing Company in the Clark and Adams area. The conflagration is a half-mile wide, shooting hundreds of feet of burning destruction into the air. The fire appears to advance slowly toward them, growing taller and gaining momentum like the ocean surf about to pounce on a sandy beach. The wind gusts and whirling embers ping against the windows. The bell continues to toll from the courthouse cupola. On the street below, crowds are gathering, many carrying bundles, some pushing their belongings onto horse-drawn wagons.
“I want to get out of here, Devin,” Mitzi cries, pulling on his sleeve. “Please!”
“Certainly, darling.” Devin, still holding his instrument, escorts her down the steps, and as he does so, he sees Albert Crosby and his cousin Uranus rushing through the art gallery taking paintings off the walls. Albert’s head turns and he briefly glares at Devin. He then orders someone to take some of the artwork down to the street.
Mitzi smiles weakly at Devin. “It appears Mr. Crosby is upset with you. Perhaps you will not be permitted to play.”
“I am not concerned about that. Besides, we will not be able to stay here. Come, I will find us another place of safety.”
The wind is fierce when they emerge and Mitzi covers the side of her face with her hand. Burning embers spin against the buildings. Two men, struggling with a large metal cash box, emerge from a bank. Four other men carry an expensive divan and parlor chairs from the Field, Leiter & Co. department store down the other side of Washington Street. They place their pieces of furniture in the street and rush back.
“They are undoubtedly trying to save their important merchandise,” Devin explains. “I suppose they will eventually load it all on a wagon.”
“Where shall we go to hide?” Mitzi says, her breathing getting heavier.
Devin hesitates, looking down both sides of the street. “I think we ought to head toward the river. The fire will certainly not travel that far.”
“If you think so,” Mitzi says, her voice shaking. She squeezes his fingers so tightly he winces in pain. Her eyes are now blue marbles of fright and her face contorts as if she is about to cry.
Devin escorts her up to the raised wooden sidewalk along Dearborn Street and feels her body tremble. He recalls having once read how, just three years ago, General Grant gave his nomination speech back there, at the original Crosby Opera House. But now it may soon be up in flames—as might also be true of the courthouse in the center of the square. That, too, is an important structure, Devin reminds himself. It is where the body of President Lincoln lay in state more than six years ago.
“Take me out of this terrible place!” Mitzi shouts.
“I will, darling. I will. Let’s go to Charlotte’s house. She lives on Canal Street north of here. As I say, the fire will most certainly not cross the river.”
“I don’t believe I can walk that far in my condition.”
“I will hire a conveyance.” Clutching his oboe as if he were choking it, he grips her hand as they gradually make their way into the street. An out-of-date steamer passes them by, then a hose cart. In the excitement, Devin releases her hand and almost trips over the metal track of a horse-drawn trolley. “I am all right,” he tells her, but he feels disoriented, as if he were aboard a boat about to capsize.
As he stands staring at his oboe, surprised he had not dropped it, he barely misses being struck by the powerful hooves of a galloping horse pulling a shay. Inside the chaise is a man dressed as if he were going out to a formal occasion. He curses at Devin and drives on. A young woman wearing a filthy petticoat and carrying an infant cries in anguish as she runs down the street.
“Please do not be concerned,” Devin says comfortingly to Mitzi, as he gently squeezes her hand. “We will find someone.” He spots a wagon being loaded with crates, food, and clothing while two horses nervously clip-clop their hooves on the brick street, anxious to depart.
A bearded, middle-aged man is hurriedly stacking into his wagon merchandise a woman is handing him. Surely, this man will help me, Devin thinks.
“I have a pregnant lady here,” Devin shouts at him. “I need to get to Canal Street across the river.”
“Sorry, I am not going there.”
“Then take us anywhere, but we have to leave.”
“I cannot do that, mister. The missus and me have got to leave right away. We cannot carry passengers. You need to get out of here. This entire area will soon become a tinderbox.”
Devin releases Mitzi’s hand and forces his way onto the man’s cart. The stranger rears back in surprise. Devin clutches the man’s collar. “You must take us!” he yells.
“John,” the woman next to the man says, “let them travel with us. We will just have to make room.”
“Well, then, it will cost you,” John growls at Devin.
“Fifty dollars? For that short distance? That is absurd!”
“Well, if you are not interested, then I shall be on my way.”
“No, wait!” Devin presents him with the oboe, now covered with soot. “Here, this is worth a lot more than fifty dollars.”
Dismay washes over Mitzi’s face. “No, Devin! That instrument means a lot to you.”
“Not as much as you, darling.” He turns an angry stare at the driver. “Well? Will you accept this as payment?”
The man grabs the oboe. “I will take you and your companion as far as Lake Street. I need to pick up my brother there and then Claire and I will be heading out to Wells and Hubbard across the river.”
“But that is in the direction we need to go also.”
“There won’t be any room. My brother has a wife and three children to take with him. Do you want this instrument back, sir?”
“No. We’ll go to Lake Street.”
“We are wasting precious time having this conversation.” The man helps Mitzi up to a forward position in the wagon. He laughs with a sneer as he turns to Devin. “Is that your colored baby in the white woman’s belly?”
Devin clenches his fist, but Mitzi grabs Devin’s arm and gives him a gentle squeeze. “It will be our first child,” Mitzi says in a happy voice as she tries to ease the tension.
Claire moves over to Mitzi and whispers to her. “Please forgive John. He’s in an awful state. His son is missing in the fire.”
“What are you murmuring about back there, woman?” John demands.
“Nothing,” Claire says, moving back to her original seat.
As the wagon makes its way north, Devin hears the terrifying sound of collapsing walls and ear-piercing screams from a rushing crowd. He turns around to see the courthouse ablaze while the bell continues to toll, as if sounding its own death knell. Plate glass windows crack and timbers snap like matchsticks as the fire guts the building. Just then, the courthouse cupola collapses and a huge boom resonates as the huge five-ton bell crashes to the ground. Burning pieces of board fly high overhead, setting more fires to the east.
The wagon driver cusses at the coaches, carts, and costermongers’ wagons blocking the street. He jumps out of the wagon and leads his horse around the clutter. Another man across the street waves a bottle of whisky. “Hell has finally come to earth!” he yells at no one in particular. He takes a swig from his bottle. Hot cinders are falling, thick and fast. The waist-length hair of a little girl catches fire. “I’ll put that out fer yah,” the drunk shouts, as she runs toward him. He pours the contents of his bottle on her. The girl screams as her hair turns into a blue flame.
“Stop!” Devin orders the driver. “Save that child!”
“If I stop,” the man replies as his horse gains speed, “we’ll all be dead.”
Devin is about to object further when he hears Mitzi utter a loud groan. Her eyes are wide with surprise and worry lines cross her forehead. “Oh my God!” she cries, a look of disbelief washing over her.
“What is it?”
She grasps his sleeve. “I think maybe it is time,” she says in an apologetic tone.
“Time? I don’t understand.”
Claire gestures to him to look down at the floor as a small pool of fluid forms on the floorboards.
“We will have to stop, John,” Claire says with concern. “This woman might be in labor.”
“No matter,” he answers, “we’re almost there anyway.”
John and Devin help Mitzi down from the wagon. Claire wrings her hands helplessly as John whips his horse to move faster. “You might have time yet, but you need to find a doctor if you can,” she calls out, trying to be heard above the din from the crowds and the crash of buildings in the distance.
Devin shakes his head in despair as he watches the wagon drive away, disappearing into a haze of dust and ash. “Of course I need a doctor,” he mutters. “But where do I find one?”
Jessica stopped reading as the Maxwell slowed and threaded its way past trolley cars, automobiles, and horse-drawn carriages. Emma found a space at a parking lot by City Hall near LaSalle and Washington. From there, it was about a three or four block walk to Dearborn. Jessica carried the manuscript with her and said nothing as Emma went on about the history of Chicago and how quickly it had rebuilt after the fire.
“One would never have known,” Jessica said, as she walked with Emma on Washington toward State Street, “that a majestic opera house once stood here. Now all we have in its place are monuments to business—stores and office buildings.”
Emma shrugged. She strolled a bit farther before adding, “Would you care to go with me to Marshall Field’s? I would like to see what they offer in women’s fashions.”
“No, I want to read what you’ve written about Mitzi in Chicago. Maybe I’ll stop at a restaurant and have a cup of coffee.”
“Okay, Mother. I’ll join you.”
“I’d rather be alone with this manuscript. Why don’t you shop and meet me here?”
“You don’t understand, Emma. I feel as if I were standing near the gravesite of my daughter. I need to be alone.”
After Emma departed, Jessica thanked the waitress for bringing her coffee. From the restaurant window, she watched Emma cross the street and head for the Marshall Field’s store. Jessica knew what the next events in the story should be. Even though the restaurant was comfortably warm, she nonetheless felt a chill. She opened the manuscript to 1871 Chicago, trying to ignore a feeling of dread that began to unfold before her eyes….
© 2012 by Tom Mach