The Gilded Cage – Excerpt 2

You can download this excerpt as a .docx file

* * *

“You upset about Little Egypt?” Carter Harrison edged cautiously into Cissy Palmer’s office. He found her sitting at her desk with a murderous expression on her face, and, for a long moment, he thought she wasn’t going to speak to him. She simply stared, anger in her eyes.

“I said, are you upset about Little Egypt?”

“Why not?” she replied, her voice deadly quiet. “I’m upset about everything else. You might as well add Little Egypt to it.”

He began to fumble in words. “Well, I mean, the commissioners’ statement . . . .”

“Have you read this?” She thrust a newspaper toward him.

The offending passage had been underlined in red, no doubt by Cissy herself. “The building,” Carter read, “is practically a white elephant.” The statement was from Secretary Hovey of the commission, and the article went on to quote Secretary Hovey’s opinion that women artists of the highest rank had refused to have anything to do with the Woman’s Building. “I think we should turn the building into a large kindergarten,” he concluded.

“Do you wonder I’m not upset over continued performances at Little Egypt?” she asked as he raised his eyes from the article. “They don’t care that we exist, let alone that an exhibit on the Midway is offensive to us.” Then, after a moment, she said, “I suspect Phoebe Couzins . . . or one of her cohorts . . . got to him. I will never be free of that woman!”

“And St. Gaudens’ ‘Diana’ on our building—now I’m hearing that women are offended by its so-called immodesty. Good heavens, Carter, we get a renowned sculptor like St. Gaudens practically to contribute a magnificent work of art, and women quibble because of its drapery!” She threw her hands in the air in impatience.

He could, he knew, placate her, point out the success of the building, the prestigious works it housed, the crowds who had poured through it in the first week. But she would counter that Ellen Richards had kept her Rumsford Kitchen out of the building, putting it in the liberal arts building. Throughout the fair, women were exhibiting in other categories, so that Cissy’s dream—a building where visitors could see the produce of women all in one place—was shattered. And she would counter, rightfully so, that no matter what she did, she was criticized.

“Get your hat,” he said quietly but with determination.

“Pardon me?” She had expected him to argue against her anger, persuade her of the importance of her work and the building, cajole her out of her mood. She had not expected to be ordered about.

“Get your hat,” he repeated, “and your purse, unless you feel comfortable leaving it here.”

“Where are we going?”

The first hint of a smile crossed his face. “Never mind. Just do as I say.” Then, as an afterthought, “It’s past noon. Are you hungry?”

She’d been too angry to think about food, but now that he asked, she admitted, “Maybe. A little.”

“Good,” he said, holding out his arm, “I wasn’t planning to feed you one of those fancy twelve-course meals you’re used to.”

With her arm safely tucked in his—he put his big hand over her smaller one, so that she could not gracefully escape when she saw where they were headed—Carter Harrison escorted Cissy Palmer from the Woman’s Building. Once outside, he turned directly west, toward the Midway.

She hesitated. “Carter . . . .”

“I won’t listen,” he said. “I’ll drag you if I have to.”

She looked to see a smile on his face, but he seemed deadly earnest, staring straight ahead.

They paraded past most of the concessions—the Algerian Village, the ring where John L. Corbett challenged any and all comers to a boxing match, even the infamous Little Egypt. Cissy, now feeling incapable of rebelling, kept her eyes straight ahead.

They stopped in front of the Ferris wheel.

“Two,” Harrison said to the ticket-taker, who smiled and said, “No tickets for you, Mr. Harrison. You and your friend go right ahead on. Boss’ orders.”

Cissy tried to pull her hand away. “No. I won’t set foot in that thing.”

Looking at her, Carter saw the slightest sign of fear, an emotion that Cissy Palmer would never publicly admit.

“It’s perfectly safe, Cissy. Thousands of people have ridden it already.”

Something—her fear, perhaps?—loosened her tongue. “That only means it’s about to crash,” she said, her anxiety totally uncharacteristic of the controlled woman he knew. “I’ve heard people talking . . . predicting a horrible accident from this monstrosity.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “They had a problem at first with the brakes—not strong enough to stop it once it got going—but they’ve got air-powered brakes now, and they’ve not had one problem. Come on,” and he walked determinedly into the cage, which sat at ground level.

Cissy’s choices were to accompany him or create a scene, and she was too much the lady to do the latter, no matter how horrendous the situation.

She was astonished at the size of the cage they entered. Made of wood and iron, it had swivel seats to hold forty people—Cissy did a quick rough count—and along one end was a counter where food and drink could be purchased.

Carter saw that she was seated in a chair near the counter—he did not exactly shove her, but his touch was firm as he helped her into a chair. “Stay here,” he said.

She nodded.

He returned in a moment with two plates of cold chicken, fresh fruit, and glasses of champagne.

She ate more hungrily than she had expected, and she felt the tension ease away from her as she sipped her champagne. But as the wheel began to move again and the car lurched with movement, she grabbed the sides of her chair convulsively.

Carter stared at her. “Cissy? You’re afraid of height, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she managed to say. “I’ve never been higher than the third floor of our house.”

“You lived on top of the Palmer House,” he reminded her.

“Oh, but that was inside, different,” she said.

He reached out and took one of her hands in his. “You’ll be fine,” he said, “and you’ll love the view.”

At first she wouldn’t look, but as the car climbed higher—with frequent stops while other cars, below, were loaded with passengers—she began to steal glimpses straight ahead. Then she would look to one side and the other, and finally she stood to get a better view.

“Better sit back down,” he said. “It’s safer.”

“But look, you can almost see our house.”

He followed her pointing finger and thought he saw the absurd turrets of the Palmer mansion, miles away on North Lakeshore Drive. Between them and the mansion lay the city, spread out like a relief map. They began to point out this place and that to each other—”Look, there’s State Street” and “Isn’t that Prairie Avenue?”—until they were giggling like schoolchildren.

To the east, the lake glistened and shimmered. “I can see clear to Michigan,” she told Carter, who smiled and shaded his eyes as though to see farther.

Cissy grew silent, and he watched her surreptitiously. But the look on her face was one of rapture as she gazed out at her city and her lake, spread out before her in a way that, previously, only birds had seen them.

“Carter,” she said, turning to him with such enthusiasm that she, without thinking, took his hand in hers, “It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen! And to think I’d have missed it if you hadn’t bullied me into going.”

“I didn’t bully you,” he protested, but he never moved his hand.

When their cage began its descent, Cissy complained, “I can’t see as far.” And when it reached ground, she sat unmovable for a moment.

“You want to go again?” he asked.

“No,” she said, laughing, “not now. But later, yes.”

“You liked it?” He beamed with pleasure.

“Yes, Carter, I loved it.” Her mood, she realized, was lighter than it had been since before the controversy over who would ride with the Duchess of Veruga had put her in a frenzy. But even as she spoke, she remembered that Potter had said he was going to ride the wheel days ago . . . and she had never asked if he did, nor with whom.

Sol Bloom met them as they disembarked from their cage. “I heard Mrs. Palmer was on the Midway,” he said, “and I didn’t want to miss a chance to be of service. What else may I show you, madam? Little Egypt?”

Cissy didn’t know if the man did that deliberately or if he were truly ignorant of the minor row she had caused over the “Danse du Ventre.” But her mood shattered. “No thank you,” she said. “I must get back to my office.”

Harrison threw Bloom a black look, then offered his arm to Cissy, and they began their promenade from the far end of the Midway back to the Woman’s Building. Before they got very far at all, a deeply masculine voice called, “Harrison! Harrison!”

Cissy and Carter both turned to see an older gentlemen, tall and thin, with long hair and a pointed white beard, dressed all in white, except for his cowboy boots. While Cissy looked with a question in her eyes, Harrison said, “Cody! How’s the Wild West business?”

So this, Cissy thought, is Buffalo Bill. Other than his outlandish outfit and the trim of his beard, he looked an ordinary man.

As the men shook hands, Harrison said, “Mrs. Palmer, I want you to know Colonel William F. Cody.”

Cissy somehow had never imagined herself shaking hands with Buffalo Bill, and she’d never expected to hear him called “Colonel.” She extended her hand but was uncertain what to say and settled for nothing.

“You been to my show?” he demanded.

She shook her head in the negative.

“Well, Harrison, you bring this lady on over and let us show her what the Wild West was really like.” In an almost automatic gesture, he reached into the breast pocket of his coat and withdrew two tickets.

“She’s got sons,” Harrison said, “and a husband. I suspect they’d all like to see your show.”

Before Cissy could protest, more tickets were thrust into her hand.

“Bring friends,” he said, “bring anybody you want.”

“I . . . I thought you were not on the Midway,” Cissy said, having recovered her wits to a slight extent.

“I’m not,” Cody said, without a trace of anger. “Said my show wasn’t good enough. But I set up just outside the fairgrounds, and I expect I get more folks than all the other shows here put together, more even than that Little Egypt everyone’s talking about.”

Cissy forced a smile. Was Little Egypt going to haunt her all summer? She and Harrison thanked the Colonel for his generosity and started to move on.

“Harrison,” Cody said, “I do have one problem. My Indians—they’re getting so drunk they can’t stay on their horses during the performances. I think they’re getting liquor here on the Midway.”

“Probably so,” Harrison said. “Talk to Bloom. Tell him next time the Indians get drunk, all the Algerians go to jail. He’ll make it work out.”

“Thanks,” Cody said.

“Will you use those tickets?” Carter asked her as they walked away.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I could bring Crystal, and you could bring your family, and we’d all go together,” he said.

To Cissy, that sounded like an unmitigated disaster, but she smiled and said, “Maybe we can arrange that.”

They parted at the Woman’s Building, and Cissy was sincere in her thanks. “I’m not going to throw darts at anyone now,” she said with a smile.

“Good, and I’m going back to the affairs of the city with a lighter heart.”

But, watching him walk away, Cissy’s heart was anything but light.