Hellfire at the Royal Chicago

By Marilee Dahlman

I’ve slurped up every drop of slimy water in Lake Michigan and spit it out again. At dawn, I sink to the lake’s bottom and scrape my fingernails through frozen mud. At night, I rise from the murky depths to go see my girl. This may seem like a rather grim routine, but I find it jolly enough. The dark current of events began the night I decided to burn down the Royal Chicago Hotel.

At the time, I knew it wasn’t a swell idea. I hid in the alley across the street and ground the side of my head into the brick wall. The bad idea rattled in my brain like a nail getting shook in a can. I wanted Miss Adeline Mulgrave. Saving her from a fire was one sure way to get her.

The act wouldn’t be entirely selfish. My boss, old man Mulgrave, wanted elevators just like in the new Palmer House and Drake’s Grand Pacific. “Seth, I built the old girl five years too early,” Mulgrave would often say, clamping a hand on my shoulder like a father. The great ’71 fire hadn’t hurt the Palmer House or Grand Pacific any. Sure, they’d burned flat. But the rich old men built those hotels back up grander than before. I knew that Mr. Mulgrave would build a new Royal Chicago—and next time, with elevators.

It was strange, the way things looked different once you went a little wicked. Before tonight, I’d always thought that the Royal Chicago was as pretty as a castle in a picture book. Mr. Mulgrave built it using pink and red Sioux pipestone that he stole from a prairie quarry. The local tribe warned that the stone was blood of the sacred earth and the Great Spirit would curse him for taking it. Mr. Mulgrave takes what he wants whether any spirit likes it or not. My bellboy uniform is salmon-colored with maroon piping, a proper match to the hotel.

Now, in the night, the hotel was a dark lump I’d never seen before. Its two yellow picture windows were eyes staring at me. Stone blocks glinting in the gaslight were flesh and blood. The Royal was a bleeding, crumpled creature, ready to take its last breath.

The moon hid behind a cloud. Michigan Avenue’s street lamps flickered. The snow stopped falling and the wind came up. A fine dark coach led by two dappled grays thundered down the avenue and halted at the hotel. Frank, the night doorman, rushed to meet it. With a terrible clatter, the horses reared and strained at the silver harness like they wanted to flee. The coachman stood and swore and held them back.

A moment later, I saw Miss Adeline climbing the wide stone steps to the hotel’s grand double doors. At the top of the steps, a gust of wind swept Frank’s cap clean off. Miss Adeline threw out her arms, spun around and tilted her head back like she wanted to eat up the icy cold. The wind grabbed at her dark hair and velvet cape. Her jewels sparkled. Her whole body seemed to float. It looked like the wind might toss Miss Adeline to a star and keep her forever.

Miss Adeline strolled inside. She didn’t bother to look at Frank as he held the door. You’re a swell girl, Miss Adeline! Soon I’d be able to say words like that to her directly.

I’d tried to make my case twice before. The first time, I’d put on a brown wool topcoat pinched from an attic trunk and followed Miss Adeline into Marshall Fields. I said, ‘Nice to see you again, miss. I’d like to ask you to a fancy dress ball.’ I raised my hand to formally take hers, as I’d seen done. She took a long look at my face and my hand and walked away without a touch.

I didn’t give up. Last week, the front desk clerk told me to fetch a water pitcher to the second floor tearoom. It’s a fancy ladies room, all gilt-edged mirrors, brocatelle upholstery and heavy gold curtains. Miss Adeline sat on a divan reading Harper’s Weekly. Sometimes she did that, before the theater. I said, ‘Miss, may I take you for a walk in Lincoln Park come springtime?’ Miss Adeline’s emerald eyes slowly locked on mine. She said, ‘I know you. You’re the one with dirty fingernails.’

I must say, my feelings toward Miss Adeline became more complex after that. How I wish we could have had a different beginning, Miss Adeline and me. Never mind! We could still have a very jolly middle, and a very jolly end.

Time to get on with it.

I went down the block, crossed the avenue, and snuck behind the mansions next to the hotel. I tramped along the edge of the treeless marsh that rolls all the way to Lake Michigan. The half-frozen mud sucked at each footstep like it wanted to hold me in place. Approaching the hotel from behind, I saw Miss Adeline’s third floor windows were dark. So, she was sleeping already. Nothing bad would happen to her. I’d make sure of that.

I put on my round bellboy cap and slipped through the Ladies Entrance at the side of the hotel. Only employees and ladies of the evening use that door anymore. I hustled down the back hall and passed by the employee doors to the barber’s and the Sioux Parlor, the members-only smoking room. The familiarity of the hotel calmed me down some. Iron gas pipes ran along the wall and a wet, threadbare carpet covered the floor. I slowed when I heard voices further down the hall, near the kitchen.

I turned onto the main promenade. It smelled of cigar smoke and loomed empty except for two scrub girls kneeling at the oak wood paneling. The door to the Sioux Parlor banged open and a silver-mustached Union veteran stumbled out. He staggered down the promenade and leered at the scrub girls. He spit tobacco juice at the wall they were cleaning. The girls grabbed their bucket and scurried into the back hall. The Union man winked at me and limped to the lobby.

Now I was alone. Sioux Parlor seemed quiet and dim. The handsome promenade carpet seemed dry enough. I struck a match. Orange flames grew out of the red and brown rug, but they were terribly small. Finally, tiny fingers of blue fire crept up the wood paneling. I counted a full minute to give it more time. Then I took a breath and ran full tilt into the lobby. A few guests and the Union vet sat near the fireplace. Porters and bellboys lounged near the luggage room. Frank at the door stopped picking his teeth and said to me, ‘where you been?’ or some such.

“Oh, lordy!” I tried to make my voice loud and scared. “Fire!”

The lobby chatter quieted. I tried to say ‘fire’ again but my throat felt closed up.

The guests stood, the boys yelled and Frank rushed past me into the promenade. I bounded up the main staircase to the balcony and took the side stairs to the third floor. It was cool and quiet there. I felt a bit foolish that I was about to make a ruckus.

I adjusted my cap and marched to the Rosebud Suite. Knocked nice and hard.

No answer. I heard shouts from downstairs. A blast somewhere. Something shattered.

I rattled the crystal doorknob. “It’s Seth!” I was scared and it wasn’t put on. Dear me, she had to wake up!

Across the hall, the door to the Silver Suite opened. Charlie Dellinger, the McVicker’s comedian who lived there, appeared in the doorway. He wore a white evening shirt, black pants with matching patent leather shoes, and gold rings on his fingers.

“What’s the racket?” Mr. Dellinger’s voice boomed loud.

“Fire,” I said. “I’m saving Miss Adeline.”

Mr. Dellinger’s eyes widened. He disappeared and quickly reemerged with Miss Adeline under his arm.

I felt like I just got cut in half. What was this?

Maybe she and Charlie Dellinger had just been having a laugh. Yes! Miss Adeline was wiggling away from Mr. Dellinger. Her eyes met mine for a second and I knew that she was a plant bud, all smooth and transparent yellow-white just before the leaf appears. She had to be protected. I straightened up and prepared to take over. Miss Adeline stuck a key in her lock.

“No, Adie,” Mr. Dellinger said. “We haven’t time.”

Oh, Miss Adeline’s not going to like being called that. I put a hand on her soft arm. It slid away so quickly I didn’t have time to squeeze it.

“We’re going.” Mr. Dellinger led Adeline into the stairwell. “Thank you, boy,” he said, just before the door closed.

Time stopped. Things banged and people screamed. Over a tiny fire in the dead of winter! It all seemed very far away. My hand tightened on the doorknob. I slid inside the Rosebud Suite and closed the door. I had every right to a real quick look-see, given how unfairly poor things had worked out.

Miss Adeline’s parlor was done up in faded rose wallpaper, swirly green and pink carpet and mismatched furniture. A teacup with a tiny silver spoon lay on the desk. A few milky drops still rested in the cup. My gaze rested on the pull for the mechanical bell-wire system. So, this was life on the other side of the bell. I hurried into her bedroom. I touched the tassels hanging down from the canopied bed. She’d left her wardrobe flung open. Petticoats, stockings and slippers spilled out. On the washstand, water had splashed out of the basin and onto the wood. Jewels, perfumes and hair combs crammed every space on her little vanity. The steam pipes clanked.

I went to the vanity. I wouldn’t take something so precious as jewelry. I picked up a bottle of perfume instead. It was pale green and delicate. My heart quickened a bit. Perhaps I could return it to Miss Adeline later. I grabbed another bottle, and another. I stuffed them in my pockets.

A sound creaked below. For a moment, I felt confused at what it could be. Then I remembered.

The floor caved in.

I fell, landed on something, and fell again. I slammed onto hard pink stone. Hooks of flame dragged at my shoulders, hands and feet. Through the fire I saw buffalo and antelope heads mounted high on the walls, oil paintings of tepees, hide shields and feathered spears, and old leather chairs. A wrecked glass cabinet, peace pipes, beaded leathers, silver and turquoise amulets and billiard balls lay scattered on the floor.

Sioux Parlor. And it was burning.

I tried to move but couldn’t. Old man Mulgrave stumbled into the room with his arms raised like an ogre and his white ringlet sideburns alight with fire. His eyes narrowed at me and his hands reached out. I tried to lift myself toward him. Mulgrave grabbed some turquoise trinkets off the floor and staggered out.

Hot smoke scalded my lungs. I felt pain and watched my blackening skin peel back. Alternating flashes of bright light and pure darkness cut into my brain. Violent thunder cracks and screams of wind sounded over the fire’s roar. Lightening flashed. Walls of dense thunderhead formed around me, all gray and black and wisps of purple. A shimmering figure formed out of dark vapor, too large to be human. He wore four golden feathers in his black hair. His bare chest was painted with a square. Red, black, yellow and white lines projected from each corner of the square.

The spirit knelt so his face was close to mine. He cupped his hands over my ears. He dug thumbs into my eyes. His mouth covered my nostrils and lips. He breathed into me.

A thunderclap split my skull. Cold raw rain lashed through my every last nerve and artery. A wild, twisting wind fused together pieces of my broken and degenerated being to create a new form, one as real as a reflection on water.

The spirit and the squall vanished. The fire’s destruction of me stopped. But I still felt the burning. I dragged myself out of a pool of my own boiling blood. I crawled through blue and white flames until I finally reached the marsh. Heat still coated my skin and filled my insides. Another feeling battled with the heat: a sense that I was totally alone. I felt tempted to return to the burning hotel, because at least I wasn’t forgotten there. The fire wanted to consume me. The spirit had touched me. But I couldn’t take the burning.

I learned to walk again, pressing each seared sole onto mud. I learned to see again, observing the frosty moonlit cattails. I learned to taste and smell again. This was most important. I followed the taste and smell of slimy coolness.

The lake took me in.

I inhaled cold, fishy water until it filled my belly and the weight of it sank me to the bottom. I stayed there and regurgitated liquid out my mouth and nose. I slurped and spewed over and over. The water logged my brain and the pressure pushed fluid out my ears. Every eely drop of Lake Michigan passed along my tongue, slipped down my gullet and funneled through my guts. In the back of my throat I tasted fish and algae and sweat of humans wading into the water at summertime. Consuming all of the water in the lake and heaving it out must have taken a fair bit of time. What mattered was that I eventually felt cool again.


Like a fish that migrates to where it was born, I had to return. Reeds and bushes clawed at me as I dragged myself out of the lake. They were warmer than water and I hated brushing against them. But the sight of the Royal Chicago pleased me. I paused in my plodding and counted. Now the hotel stood fifteen stories! New symmetrical wings spanned the block. Gargoyles of buffalo, antelope, bear, and fish heads stared down from the roof with gaping mouths. I tramped closer and touched my charred fingertips to flesh-colored pipestone. Some stone had survived the fire, like me.

I went to the front entrance. The warmth of gaslights and people tempted me to return to the lake. Drops of memory splattered into my thoughts and pooled into another temptation. I had to see her.

Frank still manned the door. I entered when he held the door for a guest. I stroked Frank’s temple and quickly withdrew my hand, disgusted by the throb of his pulse. I tread slowly through the lobby and took it in. A grand staircase still led up to a ballroom and second floor ladies parlors. A wider balcony allowed them to sit in their finery and watch goings-on in the lobby below. The tied-back, fringed draperies at the lobby’s picture windows and gold tracery on the pillars looked new. Several railway directors sat in plush chairs near the fire and talked about trout fishing and a new rail line into Montana. The night desk clerk gave orders to porters. A single word from the clerk—‘elevator’—captured my full attention.

I followed two porters lugging a trunk down a long corridor. The carpet had a serpentine green and midnight blue pattern that reminded me of the lake. The corridor opened to a wide room and there it was: a brand new elevator complete with wrought iron grill, glass doors and a copper frieze embossed with feathers. The porters stood to the side and let two gentlemen use the car first. I joined the gentlemen. A gas chandelier lit the car and upholstered seats stood at the sides. The ride was slow. The gentlemen were drummers and bragged about sales out East. One wore a flowery silk vest with mother-of-pearl buttons. I moved to look closer.

The man sneezed. “By George,” he said.

“A ladies fragrance, I’d say,” the other responded, rubbing his nose.

The gentlemen exited. I stayed on and kept riding up and down. I found the elevator’s twin in the other wing. I investigated the cellars and watched the steam-driven drums power the cars.

I wandered the hotel. A bar and billiards room called the Tomahawk Bar had replaced the Sioux Parlor. There was a new barber’s, a valet, a haberdashery, a huge new kitchen, two dining rooms, and a laundry. I discovered Mr. Mulgrave himself in a second floor parlor made into a little infirmary. Yellowed bandages covered most of him, including his face, and the skin that showed shed crisp, dark flakes with every wheezing, sleeping breath. I moved on. The new Ghost Dance Ballroom had gilt mirrors, a polished black walnut floor and a dozen silver chandeliers. I twirled a few times but stopped when I saw my reflection. My uniform was rather tattered and my scorched skin crawled with hard brown waterbugs and soft gray midges. I tried scraping them off but they stuck to my fingers. I left the ballroom and stood at the balcony overlooking the lobby.

When Frank sprang to attention I perked up some, too. The entrance door swung wide and Miss Adeline glided through, alone, dressed in a dark fur coat. The lobby gang of railway men, bellboys and porters quieted to watch her. She was as graceful as a pet cat. Her green eyes glittered like someone was about to feed her a fresh sardine.

I raced down and followed her into an elevator. Adeline sniffled the air and left at the tenth floor. The Rosebud Suite was at the end of the hall. We passed by the Silver Suite and continued to her rooms.

Her new parlor was enormous. A large painting of her father hung over the fireplace. Carved mahogany chairs matched the cabinetry. She had an ivory carpet, rose wallpaper and eight windows with lace curtains. Four windows looked out to the moonlit lake. I nodded in satisfaction. I felt responsible for Adeline’s improved circumstances. Adeline passed by a piano room and a private bath and into her bedroom. I stretched my lips into a smile. My own circumstances had improved, too.

There was a single chair at the bedroom window. Just for me. I sat to watch Adeline prepare for bed. I didn’t have to sit, of course. I couldn’t even feel the chair. But I felt that the position lent me a cultured air. I could never be a dandy because my pink bellboy uniform was sodden gray ash at the ends. But I did have a soul, and my soul had been scorched by hellfire and revived in the freezing depths of Lake Michigan. What dandy comedian could say that?

Adeline got into the bed.

I pressed my lips together and knew they were coldest part of me, at least on the outside. I wondered if there was any part of her that was cold. Or could be made cold. I imagined being fully submerged with Adeline in the lake, inhaling green water that had churned inside of her. I crept onto the bed and pressed my black thumbs over her paper-thin eyelids. I stuck my charred fingers into her soft ears. Her warm skin sickened me. I remembered the exact moment that Mulgrave had abandoned me to fire. I leaned close and exhaled my clammy sickness into Adeline’s small mouth.

I settled back to see the effect. Her nose wrinkled and her skin paled. She awakened, her face contorted, and she coughed. A single drop of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth. She quickly wiped it with the back of her hand, eyes squeezed shut, and left a messy streak on her cheek.

A wave of splendid power tore through my being. In life, I’d been a daring lad. I was more than that now. I was a cold and potent spirit, filled with malady and a purpose. I would enjoy these jolly evenings with Miss Adeline. As many as I desired, as many nights as there were drops in my lake! I rubbed the red mess on her face. Eventually, she would join me in the ooze. The icing on the cake: I was privileged to ride shiny, modern elevators whenever I wished, along with the other gentlemen.

Burning down the Royal Chicago turned out to be a swell idea after all.


Next Page