Before the fires in Chicago and the north woods
Chicago, Illinois: Sunday evening, October 8, 1871
For an instant I thought I detected a flickering of light over the river. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but it was gone.
My thoughts turned back to Robert. He was always on my mind. We had never before been separated like this, unable to see each other, or to hear one another's voice, or to embrace in the intimate hours of night. But I knew I couldn't allow myself a spell of moodiness. I had a long evening yet ahead of me, with the sketch of Dr. Bain's model of language formation reflecting dully in the yellowish glow of my oil lamp. New ideas had come to me about demonstrating the originality of the scholarly articles written by Robert and me. The need to address the wrongdoing -- the injustice! -- of our exclusion from the conference was my continuing motivation. I paused occasionally to seek a cooling breath of air from the darkness beyond my window. My 12th Street boarding house afforded me one opening to the western expanse of the city. But there was no respite from the heat. Instead, as I leaned into the stifling onset of night, shimmering movements on the river's surface caught my eye, in a tantalizing way, as I imagined hundreds of horses and pigs sipping the foulish liquid to offset the interminable dryness that had plagued Chicago. Just an inch of rain in the past three months.
In the heavy stillness of the evening my thoughts returned to my Robert, living far to the north, some two-hundred-fifty miles from the urban landscape in front of me. He had departed for the north woods over a month ago, determined to secure our immediate future with a fortuitously acquired position in the headquarters of the lumberjack camp. Business was booming. Rumor had it that a single white pine could produce enough wood for two homes in the fast-developing bay area. Utilizing his computational skills as assistant to the business manager, Robert would make three times the wages of a typical Chicago laborer. He would be guaranteed steady work, unlike here, where hiring occurred in fits and starts and at times left men unemployed for days, partly because of the masses of Irish immigrants who were clamoring for jobs at the new stockyards site and for the loading of building materials for the western routes of the new transcontinental railroad. He hated the thought of leaving me, and I couldn't bear to see him part. But we had to be practical after the theft of our money. Even before that distressing incident my Chicago University stipend had barely served to support the two of us in an inexpensive boarding house. After losing our reserve funds we agreed that a six-week journey north would be needed to allow us to stay for the October conference. Robert would travel by train to Green Bay, then by steamship to the town of Peshtigo. We'd write letters, many of them. And so we had.
But in the past week I had received just a single letter from Robert, in which he assured me he’d soon be returning home. Mail service had apparently been interrupted by the flurry of fires in the north woods. I needed some reassurance of my husband’s safety. I picked up one of his week-old letters and began to read it, for the fifth or sixth time.
What I have to tell you will sound disturbing, but please keep in mind that I'm safe. My cabin is less than a mile from the river, and just five miles down to the harbor and the bay. Fires are commonplace around here. Especially in the last few months, with all the dry weather. The loggers tell me it's of no concern, that no one's going to be running away, that a good rain will return things to normal. But right now 'normal' is what I'm about to describe.
The fires have always been considered friendly to farmers, but recently that's changed. Despite what my co-workers say, some families have been moving out, up north to Marinette or Michigan, or down to Green Bay. Other families are digging cellars and wells and trenches, and clearing even more trees from around their houses. People are afraid.
It’s hard to even see the sky now, Liz. It’s brownish-yellow during the day, red at night. Around the office I hear of immigrants who were promised dewy-fresh forests and fertile farmland, only to choke on the rising dust and the everpresent wall of smoke that's been reshaped by the wind like an ugly life form waiting to erupt through its cadaverous skin. Unbelievably, my company’s still planning to erect blast furnaces for the factories. More jobs, management says. That’s one of my responsibilities, to help estimate production levels. But estimates will be useless if the fires don't stop.
But the good news is that the winds have shifted in the last day or two, and the worst may be over. Like I said, I feel pretty safe. Plus, the office manager likes my work, he's promised me a raise in pay, and if we're lucky I'll get it at the end of this week! And soon after I'll be home. It won't be long now, my love. I miss you so much.
I smiled at the glimmer of optimism that always shone through Robert's words. I knew he had been sparing my feelings: conditions were more severe than he dared tell me. Just a week earlier members of a farming family died in a fire. But I had to divert my thinking from matters I couldn't control. And toward happier times. With a mixture of melancholy and contentment I reflected on our two years together, in London as we pursued advanced degrees with a shared interest in the elusive mysteries of the mind, and in America, on our quixotic odyssey from a mid-west city on the verge of worldwide prominence to the majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Robert and I had rarely been apart, until just over a month ago. Now I found myself scanning the western horizon for a glimpse of the moon, in hopes that we might share a moment together in a faraway corner of the sky. But only the ashen gloom of retreating dusk appeared beyond my window.
It might have been ten o'clock when I again glanced up from my work and reconsidered the innocent-looking sparkle of light on the water. It was much brighter now, and redder, clearly a pattern of flame rather than a reflection of riverside activity. I watched the silent blushing glow with keen interest: it seemed to be surging sideways, to the north, and perhaps slightly east in my direction; but smoothly and complacently from a distance, as if all would be under control once the fire wagons arrived. I turned back to the drawings and the year-old documents in front of me. The jumble of neural pathways on the frayed pages seemed too complex for my tiring brain. Never mind my early morning plans for the university library. I would need to get a good night's sleep. But I couldn't yet sleep. I needed Robert, my lover and husband and best friend, and he was hundreds of miles away, preparing for another night away from me, unaware of the thoughts that were churning inside my mind.
Part II: London
I engage in university studies,
and become acquainted with Robert
Over two years earlier: May, 1869
At times I had the fleeting sensation of being in a dream, anticipating the disappointment of returning to consciousness from my enchanted state of mind. But it was all very real. I would be an anomaly in a traditional male domain, achieving an advanced degree in the neurobiology department of London University. All thanks to Dr. Alexander Bain, whose disdain for class distinctions seemed as impressive to me as his unparalleled intellectual accomplishments in philosophy and the natural sciences. I was now less than a month away from my master's defense. I was sitting in the university lounge, waiting for Robert, the newest member of Dr. Bain's graduate class, and, according to the office administrators, just the second candidate in the very new field of neurolinguistics. Together he and I would be studying the processes of language formation in the brain. To many observers, including myself on occasion, our mentor's radically new research into the workings of the brain bordered on chimera, a floating in the ether, an endeavor far removed from physical reality. But our distinguished professor was beginning to demonstrate to the world that parts of our consciousness could indeed be measured in the laboratory.