PUT TO THE TEST

Excerpt from A Fond Hope by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2022)

From Chapter Seventeen

November 25, 1864

As they neared the exhibit’s exit, she spotted Phineas Barnum, the museum’s proprietor. Pauline had introduced them, and Hattie recognized him easily by his wide nose and slightly disheveled hair.

“I’ll be right back,” she told Alice.

Mesmerized by a tank of sea horses, Alice nodded. “I’ll be here.”

Hattie hurried after Barnum as he left the exhibit. Catching up with him in an empty hallway, she plucked his sleeve. “Mr. Barnum,” she said.

He turned to gaze at her, his expression stern. “Are we acquainted, ma’am?”

“Hattie Logan,” she said. “I’m a friend of Pauline Carlton. We were traveling together before she signed on with your show.”

His face relaxed. “Ah, yes. I remember you now.”

“I haven’t heard from Pauline in a while. Is she well?”

“Quite,” Barnum said. “Folks in the western states love her. Next week, her show opens in San Francisco.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Hattie said. “When you see her next, please let her know I asked after her.”

“I shall.” He dipped his head slightly. “A pleasure to see you again, Miss Logan. I hope you’ll be staying on for tonight’s lecture. It promises to be truly spectacular. A renowned man of science.”

“I intend to be there,” Hattie said.

They said their goodbyes. Returning to the sea horses, Hattie found Alice just as she’d left her. With some prodding, she got her to come along to the lecture hall. Tonight’s speaker was renowned Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, who according to the advertisements would enlighten them on the wonders of the natural world.

But just as they settled into their seats, an alarm was raised. “Fire!” yelled one of Barnum’s employees.

Taking Alice by the hand, Hattie leaped to her feet. Smoke poured from a lower corner of the auditorium. Heart pounding, she pointed to a nearby exit. “That way,” she said.

Stepping toward the aisle, they found their way blocked by a screaming woman. The man beside her was urging her forward, but she seemed frozen in place.

“Move along!” a man yelled, but the woman screamed louder still.

From behind, someone shoved Alice. She stumbled but caught herself.

“Order! Order!” one of Barnum’s ushers called out.

Letting go of Alice, Hattie gripped the screaming woman firmly by the arm.

The screaming ceased. “Let me go!” The woman tried to pull herself from Hattie’s grasp. “I won’t be accosted by a stranger.”

“You must vacate the premises,” Hattie said. “In a calm and orderly fashion. Mr. Barnum insists.”

The woman’s expression softened. “Mr. Barnum sent you?”

“In a fashion. Come along now.”

Alice took the woman’s other arm, and she and Hattie escorted her toward the aisle, releasing the bottleneck behind them. In the acrid air, Hattie’s eyes burned.

“The flames!” The woman coughed. “And the smoke! We shall all die.”

“We shall not.” Hattie nodded toward a line of ushers moving up the aisle toward the blaze. “Mr. Barnum’s men are carrying water.”

“Thank heavens,” the woman said.

But Hattie knew the water would have little effect. Not if this was Greek fire. She plucked a man from the bucket brigade by the sleeve as he passed.

“Sand,” she said. “Not water. Smother it.”

He looked at her curiously, then continued on. She could only hope he and the others would act on her advice

“What did you say to that man?” the woman demanded.

“I told him his efforts are appreciated,” Hattie said.

They reached the stairwell. In the narrow confines, the sense of panic was palpable.

“Watch your step,” Alice said.

Squeezed between her and Hattie, the woman looked for a moment as if she might resume her screaming. But in her gown, negotiating the stairs did require concentration, and she only muttered her discontent as they descended.

Outside, the clanging of fire alarms disrupted what would otherwise have been a calm, clear evening. A growing crowd milled about in front of the museum, passersby joining with those who’d escaped the fire.

Releasing the woman to her companion, Hattie looked up and down Broadway. “It’s not just Barnum’s,” she said. “Flames are coming out of the hotel across the street.”

“And Wallack’s Theatre,” Alice said, her forehead creased with worry “It’s on fire too.”

“The conspirators didn’t give up after all,” Hattie said, a hollow feeling spreading through her chest. “They were only waiting for an opportunity to strike.”

 

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