An Uncertain Dream
by Judith Miller
An Uncertain Dream
Friday, May 11, 1894
Angry shouts stopped Olivia Mott mid step. The brick and mortar walls of the Pullman Car Works muted the enraged voices outside the Administration Building. Certain something was amiss, Olivia cocked an ear toward the front door. Instinctively, she tightened her hold on the crystal vase cradled against her chest. The soles of her leather shoes clattered on the tile floor as she raced down the hallway and pushed open the heavy front door. The alarming sight of hundreds of men pushing and shoving their way toward the iron gates that surrounded the Pullman Car Works caused her to take a backward step.
The strike has begun! The thought ripped through her mind like a flash of lightning. In spite of the beautiful spring weather, beads of perspiration suddenly formed around the neckline of her white chef 's jacket.
"Lower rents and livable wages! Lower rents and livable wages!" Again and again, the men chanted the words inscribed on the cardboard placards they waved over their heads.
Olivia hesitated only a moment before she sidled out of the doorway and edged her way toward the sidewalk. Instantly she was swept into the frenzied sea of humanity now moving away from the car works like a giant tidal wave. Why hadn't she protected the glass vase before leaving the building? She silently condemned her oversight and yanked the toque from her head. Using the white hat as a protective wrapping, she encased the crystal vase that was to become the centerpiece on the main dining table at today's luncheon and pushed her way back toward the doorway.
Workers clad in dark jackets hurled insults in the direction of the Administration Building, no doubt hoping their discontent would be heard by someone in authority. Olivia saw that a few of the men carried their personal tools and lunch pails. If their anger further escalated, those items could become dangerous weapons. She shuddered.
"You work in there?" one of the men approaching her shouted.
His fusty breath assailed her, and she took a sideways step. "No. I'm on my way to the hotel." She pointed to her jacket.
He glanced at the Hotel Florence emblem stitched on her jacket. "Mr. Howard in there?"
Her mouth felt as though it had been stuffed with cotton, but she forced her words around the dryness. "I don't know. I didn't see him." She hoped her response would appease the man.
He grunted and stared at her a moment before turning to join the crowd and continuing the chants: "Down with George Pullman! Down with George Pullman and his cruel treatment!"
Olivia waited until a less frenzied group of workers approached and beckoned to one of them. "Do you know where I can locate Fred DeVault?"
"Check the park. That's where we're supposed to meet."
Unlike the boisterous men with signs and the worker who'd angrily questioned her, this man appeared numb. Olivia wanted to ask if he had been bullied into joining the strike, but she held her tongue. Her cousin Albert hadn't joined the union, and Olivia knew he had suffered the ire of his fellow workers. She wondered if he had walked out today with the strikers or if he'd remained behind to perform his duties.
Olivia joined the men, and quickly the momentum of the crowd moved her forward until she was again crushed in the throng of workers. A heavy boot unexpectedly came down on her foot. She squealed in pain, but her cry went unheeded in the din.
Still clutching the vase, Olivia pushed against the forward movement of the crowd, hoping somehow to remain out of harm's way. She edged her way toward the perimeter but soon lost her footing in the loose gravel surrounding the building. A beefy hand reached out to steady her.
"Thank you!" she hollered, but the man had already disappeared into the crush.
Inhaling a ragged breath, she moved to the far side of the building and rested against the wall. Her heart pumped at an alarming rate as the mass exodus continued. With each new surge of men, the call for fair treatment exploded into the late morning breeze. Still hoping to capture a glimpse of Fred, she stretched up on tiptoe and craned her neck. A quick look was enough to tell her she'd not have much luck. She should take the man's advice and seek Fred out in the park, but first she'd need to work her way through the horde and out the gates. If she waited a few minutes longer, perhaps the crowd would thin out. Olivia settled against the building. The coolness of the bricks seeped through her jacket as the workers continued their mass departure.
A wave of whoops and cheers rolled through the crowd as the men turned to look back toward the factory entrance. From her vantage point alongside the Administration Building, Olivia couldn't make out what had happened. After leaning forward for a better view, she clapped a hand to her mouth. The women from the Embroidery Department had filed out of their building. Not even Fred had believed the women would join the walkout. Riotous bellows of approval greeted the approaching women, many of whom waved their work aprons overhead like banners. Surprisingly, only a few appeared embarrassed by the attention.
The sight of the female workers was enough to move Olivia from her place of safety near the building. She wanted to know what had possessed the ladies to join the strike. These were the wives and mothers who had voiced deep concern when they'd first heard talk of a strike, fearing they'd be put out on the streets. Olivia noted that only some of the women joined in the chanting; others remained grim-faced and silent. The moment she spotted Lettie Meek, a woman she'd met in church, Olivia pushed her way through the group.
She grasped Lettie's arm. "What's happened?"
Lettie looked at Olivia as though she'd lost her senses. "It's a walkout—a strike."
"Yes, I understand, but I didn't think the women would ever agree to it."
Lettie shrugged her narrow shoulders. "We can't go on like this. The women took a vote this morning and decided they'd support the strike. Personally, I didn't vote to strike, but I'm going to support the majority. Maybe Mr. Pullman will come to his senses and lower our rent." She waved to her husband waiting near the iron fence. Her eyes shone with fear. "I'm scared we'll lose our housing, but our pleas to Mr. Pullman and the managers have gone unheeded. What else can we do? I pray this will get their attention and we'll return to work in a few days."
Swept forward in the surge of workers pushing toward the street, Olivia gasped for air. A group of young men shoved their way through the crowd, seeming to enjoy the upheaval. They jostled and pushed other workers aside while shouting boisterous, ugly remarks. She wondered if they truly worked in Pullman or had simply happened into town and joined the fracas.
One of the men grabbed Olivia's arm, and before she could say a word, the crystal vase crashed to the sidewalk and shattered. Her breath caught in her throat. While the crowd clamored around her, she knelt on the ground and stared at the shards of glass. Broken. Everything in Pullman seemed to be irretrievably broken on this beautiful spring day. Nothing would ever be the same—not the crystal vase, not the men and women who'd walked out on their jobs, and not the company that employed them. Olivia could feel it in her bones. Nothing would ever again be the same.
A man tripped over her stooped form and muttered an apology, but instead of offering to help, he stepped around her. The reverberating shouts continued with an intensity that forced Olivia back to her feet. She shook the shards of glass from her toque. No need to retrieve the broken pieces. She couldn't repair the vase. Now she could only hope that the vase wouldn't be foremost in Chef René's mind when she returned to the hotel kitchen. If so, she might be unemployed before morning.
Though she wanted to stay and find Fred, she dared not keep the chef waiting any longer. He would be looking for her to return and assist with today's luncheon. Most likely he was immersed in food preparation and oblivious to the day's happenings. But she must alert him that the strike had begun. Turning to the left, she skirted the crowd and raced along the path that led to the side of the hotel.
Breathless, she bounded up the steps and into the kitchen, causing a near collision with Chef René.
"Miss Mott! Where have you—"
"Come with me! Hurry!" She panted for breath while tugging him toward the door. "I don't think there will be any luncheon today."
He jerked away and stared at her, his dark eyes shining with anger. "Where is the vase, Miss Mott?"
She shook her head, and a dark curl escaped one of her hairpins. "You don't understand. The strike has begun! At least a thousand workers have walked out of the car works, and more continue to follow. I saw them with my own eyes. Please come!" Beneath her jacket, Olivia's heart pounded a ferocious beat.
"Non! Surely not," Chef René exclaimed, but he obviously sensed the urgency of her demand, for this time when she grasped his arm, he willingly followed. After they had circled the hotel and crossed the grassy expanse, he stared at the growing throng. "So this is why you were late."
"Yes. I was caught up in the crowd." Olivia watched for any sign of Fred as they wended their way through the gathering.
Chef René pointed toward a group of workers crossing the street. "I hope your Fred is not making a mistake with his union participation."
"My Fred, as you call him, made his decision to stand with the union long ago. I think he's prepared to go to almost any length to help the workers succeed." She waved toward the mass of workers. "Something must be done to help them."
"Have I not aided you in helping the workers through these past months? Unlike your Fred, one can lend assistance in a discreet manner." A group of men shoved their way through the crowd and inadvertently pushed the chef against a tree. "This chaos is not a good thing. I am better suited to the order I require in my kitchen."
She patted his arm. "Each of us is different. I've had to accept that Fred can no longer hide his union affiliation. When the men decided to join the American Railway Union in March, he prayed over his decision, just as I prayed over mine last November."
"Oui. But your decision permitted you to remain at my side in the kitchen. I fear that if your Fred is forced out of Pullman, he will take you along with him."
She shook her head while continuing to scan the sea of faces. "I think you're safe awhile longer. He's not yet declared his love."
"Then he is a fool!" The chef shouted to be heard over the deafening crowd. He bent close to her ear. "Stay and see if you can locate Fred and find out exactly what is happening." He gestured toward the hotel. "I am going back to the kitchen. Don't be gone too long. I may need your help."
"I promise." She sighed with relief, thankful he hadn't inquired further about the vase. A gust of wind whipped across the lawn and slapped at her skirts. Using her elbows when necessary, Olivia pushed her way through the mass of people. She stood on a nearby bench and finally spotted Fred near a large walnut tree, surrounded by a press of workers. Elbowing her way through the triumphant crowd, she stopped beside him.
His blue eyes flashed with jubilation. "Isn't this a magnificent sight? Except for a smattering of unskilled laborers, the men at the brickyards, and the members of management, all of the workers have pledged support." Fred scanned the crowd. "Nearly three thousand of us have walked out. More than enough proof to the company that we are serious about our need for higher wages and lower rents."
His enthusiasm was contagious; Olivia could feel her own excitement rising. "You've surely met with success. Has Mr. Pullman arrived to negotiate with you and the other local union delegates?"
Fred's wavy brown hair whipped in the breeze, and he brushed the errant strands from his forehead. "I don't expect it will go as easily as that, but we're hopeful he'll come and declare his intentions. We pray that he will agree to negotiate, but I doubt he'll do so."
The muscles of Fred's arm flexed beneath her fingers, providing a stark contrast to the softness of Chef René's arm as well as a reminder that she must return to the hotel kitchen. "Then I shall pray, also. We need to see an end to the inhumane conditions the workers and their families have been forced to endure."
Just then a nearby coal stoker raised his fist in the air and spewed out a curse. >From the fetid odor that permeated the air, it seemed he'd been wearing the stained and sweaty shirt for more than a week. He swaggered past them, jostling Olivia into Fred's arm as he passed by.
Fred grabbed Olivia in a protective embrace. "God knows we'll need every prayer that is uttered."
Her gaze traveled toward the tower clock. "I must return to the kitchen or Chef René will regret having allowed me to visit with you. Please say you'll come by this evening and tell me all that happens."
"Our local union is holding meetings this afternoon. If all goes well, I'll see you later."
Fearful trouble would erupt at any moment, she said, "Promise me you'll remain safe."
"There's not going to be any violence. All union members have taken a pledge." He squeezed her hand and then surprised her with a fleeting kiss on the cheek. Warmth crept up her neck, and she turned before he could see her blush. It had taken these past six months to regain Fred's trust, but she'd have it no other way. Olivia wanted him to recognize that she was now the woman he'd thought her to be when she arrived in Pullman two years ago.