Authors: Deeanne Gist
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f all the exhibits the Chicago World’s Fair had to offer, how had he ended up being assigned to the Woman’s Building? The
Building. Why couldn’t he have been put in the Government Building, where there were guns and cannons and a Civil War musket? Or an assignment to the secret service part of the command would have been good. As a Texas Ranger, he was certainly qualified.
But Colonel Rice gave no explanation for the jobs he issued, nor did Hunter question the man. Instead, he accepted his duty with as much dignity as he could muster, then took up a position in front of a building that had been designed by women, stocked by women, and run by women. They’d even wanted to plaster its exterior all by themselves, but the National Commission had put its foot down. Manual labor would be done by men, as well it should be.
He tried to imagine a woman on a scaffold, her voluminous skirts whipped by the wind as she tried to man a plasterer’s trowel. Impossible. One did not
a plasterer’s trowel.
Still, after all the trouble the colonel had gone to in recruiting him, Hunter had expected something a bit more hazardous. The boys in Company A back home would have a hearty laugh if they discovered he’d taken leave from chasing desperadoes in order to guard a bunch of lace and embroidery.
A frail woman with a cane approached the wide, marble-like steps leading to the building’s entrance. The brim of her somber bonnet framed a face as wrinkled as a burned boot.
Jumping forward, he offered his arm, and caught a whiff of camphor rising from her black gown.
“Thank you.” Her drooping eyes examined the pompon on his blue fatigue cap, the whistle pinned to his left breast, the five rows of black braid cutting across his blue jacket like railroad ties, and the strip of red running down the seams of his matching trousers.
Straightening, he wished for the umpteenth time he’d been allowed to wear his Stetson and guns. But they insisted on the military cap, and the most they’d let him carry was a small sword that was about as useless as a knot in a stake rope.
“You have on cowpuncher boots.” Her voice was gravelly, as if she gargled with pebbles. “Reminds me of my William. He was the third husband I buried, you know. And my, did he love his boots. He wasn’t as handsome as you, though he made up for it with charm. The next three didn’t hold a candle to him.”
Next three what?
he wondered. Husbands? She’d had six husbands?
“What do they call you?” she asked.
“Scott, ma’am. Hunter Scott, of Houston, Texas.” He touched the brim of his cap. “And you?”
“Mrs. Garnett-Frerking-Duke-Rowland-Roebuck-Hachenburg of Denver.”
He lifted a side of his mouth. “Which one of them was your favorite?”
She placed a crooked hand against his arm, her grip surprisingly strong. “Mr. Duke. The one with the boots.”
“Mrs. Duke it is, then.” He took his time, allowing her to place both feet on each step before attempting the next.
“Can you tell what that’s supposed to be?” She pointed to the frieze above the entrance. “It hurts my neck to crank it back that far.”
He gave it a quick glance. “It has a bunch of sculptured gals on it. Each one’s supposed to represent different women’s occupations, but I haven’t been able to figure what those are, exactly.”
She shook her head. “Only one occupation is suitable for a lady. Those women belonging to suffrage leagues are going to get more than they bargained for if they aren’t careful.”
“Amen to that,” he mumbled.
At the landing, he pulled open the heavy wooden door. “You have a nice day now, ma’am.”
Mrs. Duke had barely shuffled in when a young nurse in a white gown hurried up the entrance steps. The ornaments of her occupation dangled from her chatelaine, swinging and clanking with each hop. Between her lips, she clamped two long, sharp hat pins.
“You might want to slow down, miss,” he said, raising his voice and holding his palm up in a signal to stop. “I’d hate for you to fall with those things in your mouth.”
She ignored him completely, one hand holding a tiny white hat on her head, the other pulling one of the pins from her mouth. “I’m late.”
He squinted. “Better late than becoming a patient in the infirmary you’re headed to.”
Jabbing the pin into her hat, she nodded. “I’ll be careful.”
He allowed the door to close and stepped in front of it, blocking her way. “All the same, I insist you finish what you’re doing.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She joined him on the landing, arms raised high, chin tucked down as she poked the back of her hat, trying to find a good spot to insert the pin.
Her downcast eyes gave him an opportunity to take a quick survey of her dress. Sleeves hugged her like evening gloves until they reached the upper arm, at which point they poofed out like lacy balloons. Her position put stress on a passel of pearly buttons marching down her bodice. A white belt cinched her delicate waist, the chatelaine hooked over its lip. The thermometer case and nurse’s wallet hanging from it gave him a quick shudder.
The only things worse than the instruments inside that wallet were doctors. He hated doctors. He’d seen too many men suffer at their hands. He much preferred to dig out his own bullets than let one of those quacks near him.
Lowering her arms, she looked up, her lips tight. “Does that meet with your approval?”
Blond hair with a hint of strawberry had escaped its bun in her haste to repair herself. The eyes that held his were none too happy, but it was their color he noticed most—a light brown, like coffee with way too much cream.
He touched his brim. “Yes, ma’am. It most surely does.”
A brow the same color as her eyes lifted. “Then make way. I’m needed inside.”
Needed inside. He scoffed. He’d bet she was just the kind of female Mrs. Duke had been talking about. Stepping aside, he reached for the door, but she beat him to it, using every bit of strength she had to swing it open.
He raised his hands to either side of him. If she wanted to pretend she was a man, he was happy to oblige. But with a shape like hers, he’d have to be blind as a post hole to mistake her for anything other than what God intended her to be.
Catching the door before it closed, he followed her progress as she cut across the vestibule and hurried through a side door. Above it, a discreet sign identified it as the Bureau of Public Comfort. He shook his head. Doctors’ offices and comfort ought not be linked together.
As long as he was inside, he figured he’d make his rounds. He paused just inside a giant rectangular room, its hushed silence reminding him of a library. Beams of sunshine slanted through its immense arched skylight, which roofed the entire structure and provided ample light for the wall-to-wall artwork composed by women. Mrs. Duke shuffled along rows of glazed cases that contained women’s work of all sorts.
He shook his head. Not one single exhibit in the whole building had been made by the hand of a man. It was a wonder they hadn’t insisted on a woman guard, as if there were such a thing.
A second-story gallery ran along the perimeter of the atrium. Visitors glided along it, some looking over the railing, others moving in and out of upstairs exhibits.
Two ladies on the south end of the ground floor examined cases holding a manuscript written by some Jane Hausten-or-other. A mousy woman in a navy suit approached them, the string of pearls around her neck similar to the one his mother used to wear on Christmas.
He wondered if she was a member of the Board of Lady Managers. They’d given the Commission plenty of trouble, insisting there be no nude art at the Fair. No lascivious dances. No alcohol. And no lurid spectacles.
But Chicago’s directors had fought back and won. Directly behind the Woman’s Building was the mile-long Midway Plaisance. Its entertainments included exotic dancing, questionable artwork, and beer by the cartload.
“We were hoping to see the tablecloth President Lincoln used at his wedding supper,” one of the ladies said, her voice boomeranging through the atrium.
“Don’t forget the silk dress,” her companion added. “We heard you have the gown Mrs. Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre the night her husband was assassinated.”
The navy-suited volunteer folded her hands. “Both of those items, along with many more Lincoln artifacts, are in the Illinois Building. Here, however, we have the inaugural gown worn by President Benjamin Harrison’s first lady, a court dress owned by a Russian Empress, and a boudoir once belonging to the wives of an ancient feudal lord. All their articles of toilet have been especially prepared for viewing.”
The women looked at each other with rapt expressions. “Do tell.”
“Certainly.” Too genteel to point, the guide nodded first in one direction and then in the other. “Our stairs are in the corridors at either end, just beyond the
Hunter glanced at a mural at one end of the hall high above the gallery. Women in white togas balanced large water vessels on their heads. In a more colorful mural at the other end, modern women cavorted about in gardens, playing instruments and gathering fruit.
The touring ladies hurried toward the
fresco while peeking into the apartments that lined the first floor.
Heading in the other direction, he nodded to Mrs. Duke, then slowed as an unsettling sensation in his stomach made it cramp up.
he thought. As he’d done for the past two weeks, he held his breath until it passed. But each day his discomfort had grown exponentially.
Continuing along an open arcade, he scanned the various parlors, exhibition rooms, and assembly chambers along this floor. The needlework, dressmakers’ exhibits, and doll costumes were in no imminent danger that he could see.
“Look, George.” A young woman led her gentleman companion into an apartment. “An entire room displaying the inventions and patents of women.”
Inventions and patents. He’d bet there wasn’t a one of them worth a barrel of shucks.
After circling the ground floor, he made his way up a flight of steps. Another cramp seized him. He grabbed the stair railing, the contraction so strong it made his head spin.
A couple descending the stairs smiled at him.
Nodding, he pretended to examine a curtain fluttering against the wall. His vision blurred the embroidered battling dragons to the point where he couldn’t tell where one dragon ended and the other began.
Finally, the couple passed, and the tension in his abdomen eased, but not by much. He refused to succumb to it, though. He had a reputation for being the toughest man west of anyplace east. He wasn’t about to let some puny ol’ stomachache get the best of him.
Still, he took his time patrolling the second floor. The ladies who’d asked about Lincoln came out of the Japanese Room talking nineteen to the dozen. He peeked inside.
A small table barely six inches off the floor held jars of paints and creams, mirrors and combs. In front of it was a square mat. Strewn across a sawhorse-like thing were embroidered dresses of shiny fabric.
An Oriental woman in one such dress balanced on high clogs and gave him a bow. She’d piled stacks of midnight-black hair on top of her head and stuck a bunch of chopstick-looking things through it.
He tugged on his cap. “Everything all right in here, ma’am?”
The woman bowed again but didn’t respond. Either she didn’t speak English or she didn’t fraternize with men. Either way, all looked well.
Another cramp began to make inroads. With a tight smile, he stepped back into the passageway and forced himself to continue to the next room, giving the spasm no quarter.
Inside the room, a Syrian woman with dark hair and big eyes spoke to a pretty little gal in her Sunday best.
“Men ask me many silly questions,” she said. “It far better that girls and men not mix, like in my country. You think so, too?”
The girl’s lips parted. “Certainly not.”
Hunter’s pain intensified. His vision doubled. The ladies superimposed themselves over each other. Clenching a fist, he pulled in a deep breath.