Where the Bloom and the Laughter Goes - First Place Winner of the 2020 First Chapter Contest

By Janet Souter

Chicago, March, 1906

The Chicago and Northwestern locomotive shuddered as it settled to a stop, releasing giant clouds of steam—a massive dragon exhausted from battle. Doors to the passenger cars had barely opened before crowds of travelers hurried out onto the platform and headed toward the stairway leading to the terminal lobby. No one paid attention to the young woman with bright blue eyes and blond curls, wearing a wide-brimmed red hat. She carried a small valise and tried not to bump into others as she hurried up the steps.

When she reached the top of the stairs, she stopped to take in her surroundings. Giant glass windows sent beams of light over the marble floor. Aromas of coffee, baking pastries and roasting meats came from a café near the entrance. A newsstand displayed newspapers blaring headlines in several languages. A booming voice called out arrivals and departures. She gazed around at the others in the terminal—women admonishing restless children, older couples struggling with worn suitcases, boys in knickers hawking gum and candy, and young girls like her. Well, not quite like her. They appeared lost and unsure of themselves in their worn jackets, woolen skirts and heavy boots. She congratulated herself on having the foresight to buy a new hat and smart taffeta shirtwaist for her move to the city. This was where she belonged.

Only one concern: Make certain to watch for the men Uncle Nels had cautioned her about. “They may look handsome and well turned-out, and promise you well-paying jobs,” he had said. “But, Dagny, mark my words, they are liars. They will have their way with you and after that, sell you. Yes, sell you to those bawdy houses.”

Dagny thought it funny now, that she was not searching for people to meet—she was searching for people to avoid. The lone men in the terminal who looked to be “well turned out,” (which she took to mean gentlemen in suits, polished shoes and perfectly shaped bowler hats) seemed to have no interest in her as they gazed at timetables or rushed down the stairs toward waiting trains.

Satisfied that she was free from any unsavory gentlemen, she set her valise on the floor, bent down and undid the clasp. Near the top of a mass of white lace underthings, blouses and stockings—and her Swedish-American cookbook—she found the piece of paper Uncle Nels had given her. In his carefully scripted handwriting he had written the name and address of a woman who helped Swedish girls find servant jobs that paid well. In her camisole, she had hidden enough money for a taxi to a women’s hotel where she planned to spend the night.

As she closed the valise and stood up, she felt a bump against her shoulder and turned to see a man and woman who appeared to be around thirty years old. He was slightly built, with reddish brown hair, a large moustache and deep blue eyes. The woman had dark hair and a thin face with high cheekbones. Several strands of pearls hung around her neck, draped nearly to the waistline of her embroidered jacket.

“Excuse us,” the woman said. She spoke slowly as though she wanted to be sure she had chosen her words carefully. “I wonder if you could recall…”

“We’re looking for a woman who we think was on the train that just came in,” the man interrupted.

The woman cut in. “She had brown hair…”

The man glanced quickly toward the station entrance. “Dark brown hair. That’s what she told us. Look for a woman with dark brown hair and a green coat.”

“Did you see anyone like that?” the woman asked. “She was supposed to come work for us. As a governess for our two children.” She looked over at her companion, who nodded.

Dagny thought for a few seconds. She had slept during most of the trip and only distinctly recalled a family with five rambunctious children, an elderly couple and some other middle-aged men and women. She shook her head and wished these two would leave her alone. It was already mid-afternoon and she needed to find a ladies room so she could take out the dollars wedged inside her camisole. And find a taxi to the women’s hotel before dark.

“No, I saw no lady who look like that.” She started to move away.

“Oh, dear!” The woman put her hand on her cheek. “I wonder if the lady changed her mind. Maybe…maybe, she’s not coming after all. Our children will be so disappointed.”

“I hope you find her,” Dagny said. “I am sorry I cannot help.” She took another step back.

The woman reached for Dagny’s arm. “You look like a nice girl. If you don’t have a job, maybe you could work for us. We really need someone immediately.”

“Unless you have other plans,” the man said. “Family? Do you have family here?”

Dagny shrugged. “No. I work in a boarding house in Wisconsin and before that, I come from Sweden. I do housekeeping there. But I have not ever take care of children.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Our children are very well behaved,” the woman said. “Our boy is six. And our daughter is eight. And we’d pay you plenty. You’ll have your own room and meals. We’ll treat you well, you’ll see.”

They seemed pleasant enough, but minding children wasn’t the sort of work she had in mind. In truth, she didn’t see herself as a servant girl either. She wanted to work in a fancy store in the city, where rich men shopped. What if these children laughed at her English? People did, sometimes, even though she had learned most of the language quickly in the last year. Still, she did have problems with some words. Even at this moment, she felt the struggle.

The man’s eyes softened. “Yes, we pay very well. By the way, how old are you?”

“Oh, I am nineteen.” Maybe they would think her too young.

The man smiled. “Well, then. I think you’d do just fine. How about it?”

Dagny hesitated, fighting the urge to walk away. Her own room. And meals. She wouldn’t need to stay in the women’s hotel tonight. Or search for a job tomorrow. Where was the harm? Uncle Nels had warned her about dangerous men, but this was a nice couple with a family. They needed a governess. She needed work now. She could do it for a short time, at least. Not exactly what she had hoped for, but she would make do until something better came along. She was truly lucky to find a position so soon, with people such as this. The city wasn’t nearly as bad as Uncle Nels said it was. And wouldn’t he be pleased at her good fortune!  “Yes. Yes, I can be governess.”

The man held out his hand. “Well, that’s just perfect. I guess we should introduce ourselves. I’m Harry Callaway, and this is my wife…”

The woman extended her hand. “Muriel. Muriel and Harry.”

“I’m Dagny Bergstrom.” The girl shook both their hands.

Muriel said, “You must be exhausted from your trip.” She took Dagny by the arm. “Let’s buy you a cup of tea.”

They took her to a restaurant next to the lobby, a place with white tablecloths and crystal goblets. The lingering smells of coffee and sweets reminded her that it had been hours since she’d last eaten. Harry ordered a pot of tea and little sandwiches—cucumber, ham and chicken salad. Muriel suggested that they visit the ladies room to freshen up while they waited for their order.

In the washroom, as Dagny re-pinned stray curls of hair and brushed soot from her jacket, she answered Muriel’s questions about her life in Wisconsin and how happy she was to be in Chicago.

“Well, that’s swell,” Muriel said. “I promise, you will have a great time here. Too bad you don’t have family nearby. You did say that, right?”

“My uncle in Wisconsin,” Dagny replied. “But he buy a farm in a place—North Dakota, I think. So now he move and want me to come to his place. But I say no. I go to Chicago.”

“Why Chicago?” Muriel asked.

Chicago is more fun than Wisconsin. I want to meet a rich man to marry. No, best not to say that, no matter how true.  “They tell me I earn good wages here,” she said.  That was what the salesmen who stayed at the boarding house told her. Some had offered to take her with them. She’d always refused. Even without Uncle Nels’ guardianship, their brash mannerisms told her it was not a good idea.

Muriel put her arm around Dagny’s shoulder. “Yes. And now you have a home with us.”

By the time they returned to the table, the tea had arrived and Harry had finished pouring. He gazed at Dagny, his blue eyes warm. “Well, Dagny, tell us about yourself. You seem to be all alone in the world.”

Dagny giggled. “Ja, yes, I mean. I come to America, one year and one half past.”

“She has an uncle in North Dakota,” Muriel broke in, her eyes fixed on her husband’s. “And that’s all.”

“Your English is good,” Harry said. “Our…uh…People here like it when foreigners speak English.”

Muriel glared at her husband. “Harry, give the girl a chance to”—she lowered her voice, adding a measure of insistence—“drink her tea.”

The tea was the best Dagny had ever tasted, sweet, and with little lemon slices. The sandwiches were cut in perfect triangles with olives on top. The chicken salad had just the right blend of mayonnaise, celery and tender chicken pieces. She tried not to gulp her tea or chew too fast, but the Callaways didn’t seem to mind. In fact, as if they realized how hungry and thirsty she was, encouraged her to “eat and drink as much as you want.”

“You are so nice to me,” Dagny said. “My uncle say Chicago is city of sin. But I see that is not so.”

“Did you have a gentleman friend in Wisconsin?” Muriel asked.

Dagny shook her head. “Oh, no, but I go to many dances.” She decided to stop there. It might be best not to mention the farm boys at the Lutheran Church dances who took her out to the cornfields to “spoon” as they called it. They also took pleasure in teaching her English. She soon learned that the English they taught needed to be unlearned when she repeated words to her uncle. Instinct told her that giving in or being a sport was not nearly as amusing as hinting that someday she’d let a man have his way. She sensed that each one thought sooner or later he’d be the one she’d choose. For now, she wanted the Callaways to know that she was a “good girl.”

“Well, I imagine you were the prettiest girl there,” Harry said. He had a habit of twitching his mouth upward as though he were about to wink.

Dagny blushed. “Oh, I don’t know.” Yes, I was.

Harry rose and threw a handful of bills on the table. “Time to go. Cab’s waiting.”

Outside, he walked up to a hansom cab and shouted to the driver. “Hi, Eddie,” he said. “Let’s be on our way. And hurry.”

            Dagny sat next to Muriel, across from Harry, who kept rubbing his hands over his knees as he stared out the window. The taxi moved slowly toward Randolph Street, turned left and when it reached Michigan Avenue, swung around the corner, heading south.

Muriel appeared to have more authority than her husband, and during the ride, she often yelled at the driver to move faster.

“Eddie! Put a whip to the nag goddammit,” she shouted as the carriage shuffled along.

Dagny did not find the language shocking—some women in Wisconsin swore occasionally—although it seemed unusual for a woman like Muriel. In the train station and the restaurant the couple had impressed her as much classier. But maybe in Chicago people had two faces—one a social face and another when dealing with those they considered beneath them.

Inside the carriage, a heavy silence seemed as though it were another object, like the faded upholstery on the benches, the smeared isinglass windows and the little vases on either side, each containing a dusty artificial rose. An odor of tobacco and what Dagny thought might be onions gave her a feeling of nausea.

Dagny sneezed, but neither of the Callaways noticed, saying nothing after she excused herself. Even though she never had a problem speaking to people, whether strangers or otherwise, she worried now that whatever came out of her mouth would sound wrong, or give the impression that she was not very bright. Still, it might not hurt to try. These were her new employers. She had a right to know about her duties and what was expected of her.

“Tell me about your children,” she said, once the horse had picked up enough speed to satisfy Muriel. “Do they go to school?”

Muriel continued to stare out the window. “School? Yeah, sure. School.”

“I will try to help them with their lessons,” Dagny said. “And take them to the park. Is a park nearby?”

Harry put his hand to his mouth and gave a little grunt. “A park?” The grunt turned into a chuckle. “Yeah, there’s a park all right.”

Dagny wasn’t sure why their sudden change in attitude. Had she said something wrong? They had seemed so friendly earlier. She didn’t really feel much like talking anyway. The effort to form sentences—whether in English or Swedish—felt not only too difficult but even tiresome. She yawned. Plenty of time for conversation later. She must save her energy for the moment when she met the two children—well-behaved children.

As the carriage moved up the street, Dagny could make out row after row of granite and brick buildings, but it was hard to tell whether the buildings were homes or offices. At one point the taxi rolled past a massive building with two lions in front, one on either side of a wide stairway leading to the entrance. How elegant. Mr. and Mrs. Callaway must live in a very wealthy neighborhood.

The carriage turned once to the right and a few blocks later to the left. Outside, the buildings had shrunk to one-and two story clapboard houses or walkup apartment homes with dingy windows and trash littering the streets. Too bad they had to drive through this neighborhood to get to Mr. and Mrs. Callaway’s house. How nice it would be to take a nap soon.

Unlike the people downtown, who had seemed to be in such a hurry, here men stood in doorways, against walls and lampposts, smoking and talking among themselves. Dagny wondered if she should have asked for coffee instead of following the Callaways’ offer of tea. Her eyelids felt heavy. Must be the long journey, she thought. She had been too excited to sleep the night before.

She glanced out Muriel’s side of the carriage and noticed a woman leaning out of the first floor window of a gray brick building. Steps led up to a faded wooden doorway. The woman’s hair fell to her shoulders, her face covered in rouge and eye shadow. Her breasts, resembling white pillows, rested against the windowsill. She shouted to men on the sidewalk. They called back, making gestures toward their crotches. Dagny leaned her head against the side of the carriage, too weary to dredge up feelings of shock or disgust. She’d shut her eyes for a few minutes, just until the taxi moved down the street and into a better neighborhood.

Muriel’s voice seemed to come from a long distance. “I think it’s working.”

“About time,” Harry said.

The horse slowed and came to a halt in front of the building. Strange that the taxi didn’t continue down the street. There was no traffic.

Dagny opened her eyes and tried to ask why the taxi was stopping here, but her head kept mixing up the words, unable to form a sentence.

Harry Callaway stepped out and walked around to Dagny’s side of the cab. He opened the door, reached behind Dagny’s back and under her knees and began to lift. She wanted to protest that she could certainly walk. But they were at the wrong place, weren’t they? This didn’t look like a house. Where were the children? She shut her eyes again. Oh, but it felt so sweet to be carried. Harry must be taking her to a bed. How nice to sleep. She would figure it all out later.

Then, like a beacon penetrating a fog, the sudden fear hit her. Too late.