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Authors: Dominic Smith

Bright and Distant Shores

BOOK: Bright and Distant Shores
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Prologue Summer 1897

Part I: OWEN

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3


Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8


Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13


Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19


Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26


Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32


Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42


Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45


For the original clan, with love and gratitude—
Fran, Lanny, Tamara, Nicole, and Natasha.



Summer 1897

hey were showing the savages on the rooftop—that was the word at the curbstone. The brickwork canyon of La Salle Street ebbed with clerks and stenographers, messenger boys astride their Monarch bicycles, wheat brokers up from the pit at the Board of Trade. Typists in gingham dresses stood behind mullioned windows, gazing down at the tidal crowd. Insurance men huddled together in islands of billycock hats and brown woolen suits, their necks craned, wetted handkerchiefs at the nape. The swelter hung in the air like a stench. All summer long the signal station had issued warnings and proclamations. Water-carriers at construction sites fainted from heatstroke and were carried off on stretchers. Coal and lumberyard workers could be seen at noon, shirtless, wading into the oceanic blue of Lake Michigan. People spread rugs on their stoops to eat supper in the open air, watching, with something that approached religious awe, the horse-drawn ice wagons pull along the streets.

Despite the heat wave, the Chicago First Equitable was opening on schedule. Destined to be the world's tallest skyscraper for a little over a year, it jutted above the noonday tumult, twenty-eight stories of Bessemer steel, terracotta, and glass. For months, welders and riveters had worked by night to meet the deadline, tethered to the steel frame by lengths of hemp rope, laboring in the haloes of sodium lamps. Laden barges hauled along the roily dark of the Chicago River. They came from a bridgeworks on the Mississippi, pulling loads of rivet-punched girders and spandrel
beams. By late spring the glaziers and carpenters had taken over, finishing out, thirty men to a floor. The clock tower was calibrated and set in motion, each hand as broad as a man. In the final stages the
reported a death a week: pipefitters down the elevator shaft, electricians over the brink. But, as the glass-paneled walls began to hang from the girded floors like drawn curtains, not bearing weight so much as channeling light, the newspapermen turned their ink to the soaring itself. They stopped writing about the insurance company's grandfathered building permit, the backroom deals that trumped the city's height limit, and instead wrote about the effects of altitude on business acumen, about the hawks and falcons that roosted above the high cornices and gargoyles. By mid-morning, they wrote, with the sun up over Michigan Avenue and the shadows shortening inside the Loop, the juggernaut is nothing but a wall of lake-hued light.

Owen Graves stood among the crowd waiting to enter the mahogany cool of the building's lobby. The company would conduct tours by hydraulic elevator but only VIPs—insurance executives and their wives, journalists, councilmen—were invited for the topside exhibition. Owen was one of the rooftop invitees and he stood a few feet from the bloodred mayoral ribbon, staring down at the elegant shoes of his fellow skyscraper travelers, squinting through the brassy aura of a noonday hangover. He was wearing a pair of stovepipe boots, scuffed at the toe and split along one seam. Perhaps there had been a mistake. Ever since returning from a Pacific trading voyage two years earlier, he had been dodging the letters of his creditors so that he'd opened the company envelope with dread. Arriving as it had by private messenger, he'd thought it was surely a summons for failure to pay. But the elegant lettering inexplicably requested his presence at the opening and suggested he would have a private meeting with the company president at the conclusion of the event.

The city teemed at his back. A concession wagon made a slow orbit through the welter of derby hats and bicycles, selling tripe
to famished telegraph boys. Herdics and hansoms rode up to the human wall and fell back, their passengers alighting in the side streets and alleyways. The wind was scorched with smoking lard as it whipped through the financial canyon and he could smell the dredge of the cess-filled river. Owen Graves did not like crowds. There was no happier place for him than on the foredeck of a sloop or clipper, alone and keeping watch in the spectral hours before dawn at sea. He missed the ocean and the rituals of sailing. He raised his eyes—tender as peeled fruit—to see a clutch of policemen escort the mayor and company president toward the building entrance. A wave of applause lapped through the crowd, echoing off the windowpanes and masonry, punctuated here and there with a stadium whistle and an alley whoop. The recently elected Carter Harrison, Jr., edged forward in a bowler and double-breasted, his epic mustache riding above a grin. Hale Gray, insurance magnate and company president, trotted at his side, doffing his hat to the ladies. Bearded in the manner of frontier explorers, Hale brought to Owen's mind an Irish wolfhound—there was something woolly and quietly menacing about him.

The mayor and company president floated pithy speeches about progress and the insurability of the common man. Above the foot shuffling and the iron-rail whinny of the cable cars, Hale said, “Chicago is a city of country people with values that bear those origins.” The man beside Owen—a cheerless, onion-breathed fellow who'd been sent by God to avenge insobriety— tugged at his own shirtsleeves and said, “I'm dying out here in this oven. Could they show a fella some mercy?” The rest of the speech was clipped by the wind before the great clock sounded—a C-pitched freighter calling through a high fog. The mayor turned to the ribbon with purpose. The outsized scissors sliced through in one motion and a collective sigh, then cheering, passed through the multitude. Chicago was now ahead of New York by two floors. Two doormen opened the hand-carved doors and the official party, wives first, stepped inside. The lobby gave out a breath
of cool, sanctified air and Owen felt the draft on his face as he moved forward: the first reprieve in the halting crush of daylight.

The lobby warrened away into alcoves and cloistered nooks, a tobacconist, a barbershop, a telegraph office, each in a recess of cherrywood paneling and rubbed bronze. A stained glass dome lit from above the bust of Hale Gray's grandfather. Elisha Edmond Gray, merchant underwriter, had amassed a fortune on the calculus of loss and yield. Life insurance has never had its Plato or Aristotle, Hale was saying now in a pulpit voice, there were no poetics or treatises, just the burial clubs of Rome and a fraternity of prudent Britons. Practical men with shipping charts on their walls, actuarial tables mounted like maps of the Atlantic. Owen was aware of his frayed collar and his nicotined fingers as he sidled toward the grillwork of the elevators. The operators stood at attention: dough-faced pallbearers in brass buttons and epaulets. Somebody mentioned a cocktail table waiting roof-side and Owen brightened. He filed into one of the waiting cars, its interior hushed with velvet. The operator fashioned a congenial smile for his passengers—a few executives and their wives, and Owen, backed into a corner—before closing the doors and setting to his controls. A lever was moved into place before the car rocked then began to rise. Owen felt his stomach drop away as they lurched skyward. One of the ladies rested a nervous hand against the crushed velvet siding, steadying herself. Easy now, the husband admonished, as if to a skittish mare, and Owen wondered if he was speaking to his wife or the elevator itself.

Hale Gray was the tour guide and he marshaled the group from floor to floor. In the document repository—a wooden metropolis of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets—Owen imagined thousands of policies neatly filed, men's lives tallied and reduced to a few pages between cardstock. Next, they moved into the adjacent typing pool, where Hale gestured to the rows of desks, each with a Remington No. 2 museumed in a cone of lamplight. For several minutes, he sermonized on the benevolence of the company's
stance toward its employees. His army of policy clerks and typists would enjoy free lunches in the cafeteria, subsidized visits to the doctor's suite, affordable haircuts in the lobby barbershop. There was no reason to leave the building during business hours. Turning solemn, Hale said, “Think of this skyscraper as contributing to the elevation of the species.”

BOOK: Bright and Distant Shores
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