The Shadow Palace
“Are we in Chicago yet?”
“Not quite. Go back to sleep.”
I sounded breathless, for good reason. The train had jolted and swayed alarmingly—as it had several times that morning, to be sure—but I hadn’t been asleep and dreaming about the snow before. This time the sudden movement sent prickles of fear into my fingertips as I opened my eyes in panic. It was here—it—what had it been? Some terrible fate, looming out of a white blizzard.
“Ridiculous, Nell,” I whispered. What I’d thought were snowflakes tickling my face must have been Sarah’s wiry, copper-colored hair, already escaping from its braids. She had curled into a ball on my lap, her bony posterior and her boots making dents in my traveling dress, her head hot and heavy.
“Nasty, smelly train.” Sarah delivered her pronouncement with conviction, but her eyes didn’t open, and she only butted her head harder into the softer part of me just above the boning of my corset.
I swallowed hard, willing the anxiety coursing through me to subside. The other passengers were quiet. Only the preacher’s wife was still reading, in the lowest of murmurs, from a seemingly endless book of sermons. Her husband had fixed a half smile of encouragement on his face, but his eyelids were drooping. We had all boarded the train, the last leg of our journey to Chicago, very early in the morning.
Across from me, Tess stirred and lifted her head, pushing her spectacles back up her nose.
“We must be almost there,” I said. “We’ve already stopped at Joliet to let some passengers off. When we get to the Palmer House Hotel, we can drink tea and eat cakes to our hearts’ content.”
Tess licked her lips and smiled, settling back into her half-asleep contemplation of the rain-drenched, partially frozen landscape through which we rattled. Beneath the gray, cloud-laden sky, a repeating series of views passed before us—yellowed prairie, the thick brown clay of fields bristling with last year’s corn stalks, and gray-brown trees gathered together in spindly, desolate clumps. Behind us in Kansas, the first green shoots were showing, but the only color in Chicago’s hinterland was the occasional red-painted barn or whitewashed farmhouse.
Chicago. No doubt my fear that we were on a collision course with disaster had given rise to my dream of stumbling through the snow toward an unknown doom. Ever since we’d clambered aboard the cart that had taken us away from the Eternal Life Seminary, the dread that I’d made a horrible mistake had settled over my shoulders like a cold blanket.
I blamed Martin, of course. Well, to be fair, I was at fault too for giving in to his insistence that we come to Chicago. But wasn’t it typical of him, that assumption that he could steer my life? The more so now that I knew—and he knew—I’d fallen in love with him. Perhaps women really were as weak as Judah Poulton had said.
Something inside me twanged like a harp string as the memory of Judah’s broken body and his blood seeping into the snow intruded on my thoughts. I stiffened and Sarah stirred, making a sound between a snort and a moan. Two of the traveling salesmen who had boarded the train at Bloomington were moving through the carriage, and hearing the sound, they nodded an apology and trod more carefully. Their scents of pomade, sweat, and cigars lingered in the air after they passed, adding to the carriage’s general mustiness.
“Drat Judah.” I gritted my teeth. He was dead, after all, and no longer a threat to us. But he’d been right about one thing. I felt myself drawn to Martin like a moth to a flame, in danger of burning. Was that what Martin wanted after all? That I should become his mistress? He’d explained to me so carefully that as much as he wanted to divorce his wife, he couldn’t do so without the risk of dragging my name, and Sarah’s, in the mud. He had left me with little hope that he’d make the attempt.
“Leaves me in a pretty position, doesn’t it, Martin?” I whispered in the direction of the window. The little farmhouses and sturdy barns were more frequent now. It was the landscape of my youth—we must be nearing Chicago. I imagined Martin climbing into his carriage with his glittering, faithless Lucetta while I stood at a distance, watching from the outer edge of his world.
Did he still entertain a spark of love for her? That question had pounded in my head to the rhythm of the train’s progress. Martin had told me he was living in a hotel—did that mean he never saw her? Or did they appear together in society when the occasion demanded? Could I—we—even aspire to the sort of society Lucetta and Martin moved in?
“Is the Palmer House awful grand, Nell?” Tess’s question was an odd echo of my own swirling thoughts. I realized she was gazing at me, her almond-shaped eyes magnified behind her spectacles.
“I think it is.” I bit my lip but then straightened my shoulders. “We can afford it, Tess. We won’t be out of place there.”
“You won’t.” Tess looked doubtful.
“Neither will you. I promise.” I smiled at Tess, finding my own courage in the effort to strengthen hers. I understood her fears. She’d led a retired life in Kansas while I’d at least had my dressmaking clients. I had attended many dinners and social events from which she'd been excluded. In Chicago, she would be under the scrutiny of many people, and I knew that daunted her. When I looked at Tess, I saw the sister of my heart; but we were both aware that strangers who saw her would have the word “imbecile” in their minds, and perhaps on their lips.
“Wouldn’t it be nicer to have a little house of our own? You said we could afford one.” The expression on Tess’s face was almost pleading.
“I’d like nothing more.” I sighed. “But it all depends on whether we can stay in Chicago.”
“Why can’t we? Martin’s there.”
I set my mouth into its most stubborn expression, hoping that might deter Tess from further remarks about Martin. She still wished that I might marry Martin despite the inconvenient existence of his wife. She never could see why the biblical patriarchs could have more than one wife and Martin couldn’t. Intensely moral as she was, the idea of my being even remotely tempted to become Martin’s mistress had never entered her head.
“And I’m from Chicago,” Tess continued. “At least, that’s where we lived when Ma and Da let the charity lady take me to the Poor Farm.” Her mouth turned down at the corners. “I don’t suppose they’d want to see me though.”
“Oh, Tess.” I felt the prickling of tears and wished I could hug her, but I couldn’t move an inch without disturbing Sarah. “You’ll always have a home with Sarah and me, whatever happens. Just give me a little time to look around and see what work I can do.”
“But you’re rich, Nell, and you’re a lady. Rich ladies don’t work. Except for being charity ladies and making sure that poor people behave themselves.”
“I want to work. Real work, not committees.” I kept my voice low—the preacher’s wife’s reading was faltering as she eavesdropped on our conversation. “I want to make beautiful dresses, like Martin’s couturières.”
And that was another thing. The one place in Chicago where I ached to work was permanently barred to me. I’d be a fool to put myself in temptation’s way. I was a shareholder in Martin’s store, but I could never truly become part of it. In some ways, the longing to do so was almost as strong as my longing for Martin himself.
Sarah’s weight against my chest prevented a huge sigh from forcing its way out. There was no prospect of reconciling my conflicting desires, which all seemed to center on Chicago. I wanted my independence, I wanted Martin, and I wanted Tess and Sarah to be happy. I could neither marry Martin—which would have robbed me of my independence in any event—nor give in to my desires and condemn the three of us to a life of lies and potential disgrace.
“Hotel tickets, Madam?”
I’d been so preoccupied I hadn’t seen the uniformed man approaching, but Sarah was awake in an instant.
“Are we in Chicago, Momma?”
“Very soon, I think. Could you move off my lap so I can look in my reticule?” I knew exactly where it was—the coins it contained had been pressing most uncomfortably into my hip for the last three hours. I gestured to the Parmalee agent to wait a moment.
“We’re staying at the Palmer House.” I fished out the slip of paper with one hand, steadying Sarah with the other.
The man jerked his chin toward the back of the carriage. “The Palmer House has its own carriage. The agent will be along in a minute.”
Sarah giggled—every word the man spoke caused his abundant mustache to blow outward. I tightened my grip on her torso as a signal not to laugh, but after all she was only five years old. “Thank you,” I said to the Parmalee agent.
“Don’t forget the paper with the numbers of your trunks.” The man moved on, his gait steady despite the train’s rocking.
Sarah, clearly well rested, scrambled up onto the seat and pressed her hands and nose against the carriage window.
“Sarah, it’s dirty. Don’t do that.” I tried to pull her away, but she resisted.
“Look—see that cart? It’s coming toward us and going backward at the same time.”
We’d been sitting with our backs to the engine, allowing Tess to face the direction of travel so she wouldn’t get sick. We were passing through yet another small town clinging to the prairie with more stubbornness than sense, and Sarah was right. The bright yellow cart moving in the same direction was receding into the distance as the train’s greater speed pulled us forward.
Just like my life, I reflected as I steeled myself for the task of getting my small family ready to disembark. We were moving forward all right, but my doubts and fears trailed me and would catch up with me as soon as I stood still. Worse, I was heading toward Martin, but every inch I moved in his direction seemed to increase the distance between us.
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