A/N: As some of you may have already gathered, I am studying to be a historian, and besides that I am a big fan of Victorian literature. I started writing this fic for the fanon cliche challenge that kind of fizzled into nothingness at the Pipster community on LJ, and even though the challenge died I've decided to finish this as a vanity project. I'm not sure what kind of response this fic will get, but I'm very happy with it and I want to share it.
I've tried to keep everyone in character, but it is an AU set in a historical period (the late 19th century) so there are some pretty big differences between this and canon. I've made this as historically accurate as I'm able to with only casual research, so there are probably errors, and there's going to be content that is considered racist and sexist by modern standards. This should go without saying, but I want to make this perfectly clear: I don't condone the opinions of the characters I am representing. I'm just trying to accurately reflect the beliefs of a past era and I'm optimistic enough to think that most of these particular manifestations of racism and sexism have died out anyway.
Hope I haven't scared anyone off from the story, I hope you enjoy it, and as always, reviews will be greatly appreciated.
Osgood looked up from the novel he was reading as his son let out yet another protracted sigh. The boy was slouching in his seat, resting his elbow on his raised knee and his chin on the elbow, gazing out the window of their private rail car as though nothing on the earth would ever please him.
Sometimes Osgood thought that was true, though he never dared to say so. Hartley was able to turn the most innocuous small talk into a verbal battle, and as such, Osgood was sure to avoid any actual criticism unless he was in the mood to have it out.
However, the boy kept sighing, which made it difficult to focus on the novel. "Is everything alright Hartley?" Osgood finally asked, careful to keep his tone light.
"No," He sulked. "We've done a deplorable thing, and now we're running away to do it all over."
Oh not this rubbish again. "It's just business my boy. Stop fretting over it so much."
Hartley's eyes narrowed. "That's exactly the problem. You see this only as business, when it's affecting the livelihoods of real people! You're destroying lives!"
"No, I'm simply running an efficient, productive business. When you're older and you've started looking after things, you'll see that this is how everyone runs their mills. And if the workers don't like it-"
"Then they shouldn't have been born poor?" Hartley sneered.
Osgood stiffened. "No, then they can go work somewhere else."
"Well how can they do that if everyone runs their businesses as sinisterly as you do?" Hartley returned.
Osgood didn't want to talk about this. "Then they should learn trades," He snapped, before holding his book to his nose defensively. Scowling, Hartley went back to sighing at the window.
He might have reminded Hartley that the boy certainly enjoyed the spoils of the family business enough that he ought not to complain the way he did. The family money kept him fashionably clothed, well fed, entertained, and had most recently sent him abroad to study music and waste his time however else he saw fit without his parents keeping watch over him.
Osgood supposed this was his own fault. He and Rachel hadn't been particularly lucky where raising a family was concerned. Their only acknowledged child had always been sickly, and as a result they'd overindulged him out of sheer gratitude for his continued survival. There were many times throughout his childhood when the Rathaways were sure they were going to bury their poor little son, but he'd slowly recovered strength every time, even from the most calamitous illness that had stricken him deaf for almost a full year. That cursed sickness had begun his wasteful obsession with music and plagued Osgood's nerves to no end.
Then there was the little girl. Rachel had given birth during the summer, when they'd sent Hartley to live with his cousins on the coast for the improved air. It was clear even from infancy that she was simple, and when she'd gotten older and the doctors confirmed she was feeble, the Rathaways sent her to an asylum without ever telling her elder brother she existed.
Hartley was still rather pale and thin, a legacy of his childhood his father supposed. Still though, there was strength to his deportment and a fire to his eyes that made it clear the boy wasn't going to succumb to any wasting illnesses without a good fight. Osgood only hoped all the work they'd done improving Hartley's health wouldn't be undone by their move out West. The Rathaways had given up all hope that their son would ever be rosy or plump, but that didn't mean they intended him to waste any further than he had to.
Osgood peered at Hartley over the top of his book and took note of how sluggish and lethargic he looked. It might have had something to do with the lengthy train ride, but then it might not. He made up his mind to keep an eye on his son, and if it looked like the Missouri air didn't agree with him then he and Rachel would be put on the first train back to Boston, to depart immediately for the house in Andover from there.
Osgood read in peace for about a quarter of an hour before he noticed how unusually tranquil the atmosphere had become. He glanced up again and noticed that Hartley was far too distracted with a book of his own for wearisome sighs. Feeling some suspicion, Osgood peered at the title of Hartley's book and frowned. Well, there was nothing harmful in the moralizing tales of Sintram, which was why he didn't believe for a second that that was what Hartley was actually reading.
Osgood suddenly wrenched the book from Hartley's hands, much to his annoyance, and shook the leaves until the pamphlets tucked between them fell to the floor of the car. "A-ha! And what is this rubbish?"
Hartley crossed his arms over his chest and sourly went back to staring out the window, while Osgood collected the IWW* literature in preparation to put it in the trash where it belonged.
"I can't believe you'd undercut your own family and your basic well being by reading this filth."
"It's not filth," Hartley protested.
"It is, and I won't have you distributing it in Central City. It's your fault we've had to move out here, and don't you deny it. I know full well who wrote those quarrelsome meddlers in the IWW to organize that blasted strike. I hope you're satisfied! It's cost me a fortune to relocate the mills out here."
"Seems an awful lot of trouble, when you might've just paid your workers better wages, shortened the workday, and given the equipment regular checks to make sure it's functioning properly," Hartley returned. He'd first gotten on the bandwagon for all this worker's rights nonsense when one of the mill girls had gotten scalped by a machine (never mind that she was a clumsy cow; Hartley wouldn't hear a thing spoken against the filthy little beast).
"You obviously haven't the faintest clue how much all that would cost!"
"So it's really cheaper to move out to the middle of nowhere where the workers aren't striking?"
"Yes Hartley, it is! Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered doing it." Osgood inhaled deeply in an attempt to calm himself. "At least we'll be getting away from all those quarrelsome Irish and Italians. I could never understand a word that was spoken when I toured the mills. And I won't make the mistake of filling my mills with Italians again. I'm sure you found plenty of fellows willing to help you topple the business among those infernal anarchists."
"Not everyone from Italy is an anarchist father."
"Find me one that isn't and I'll give the workers a ten hour day," Osgood said with a laugh. Hartley scowled and turned back to the window for more sulking.
The trip to Missouri was going to be a long one.
"Quit stalling! You think it's a pretty trick now, do you? Just wait until I start jumping up and down on the wire while you're standing there shaking. That ought to make you move!"
"I'm trying Papa, but if the ground would kindly oblige me and stay still it'd be a whole lot easier," Giovanni mumbled. His stomach gave another lurch. He gently set a foot down on the high wire, but quickly brought it back to the relative safety of the platform. Every time he looked down and saw his foot resting on only a bit of wire with the ground so very far away, everything started to slide and spin and the edges of his vision began to go white…
"Little angel, don't look at the ground! Look at your Papa!" His mother shouted from the ladder. "He is waiting just on the other side, and he'll help you if you need it!"
"I ought to let you drop for all the trouble you've caused us, but I never have, have I?" Papa Giuseppe returned.
It's a good thing the look of loathing on Giovanni's face was aimed ground wards, so his parents couldn't see it. The whole reason he'd developed this blasted fear of heights was because of how often his easily distracted father dropped him, but if he gave utterance to his true sentiments he was sure to get his ears boxed, or worse.
Giovanni closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped out onto the wire. Really, he knew exactly how to do this, and with his eyes closed his body moved by instinct. He just had to forget about the ground and how far away it was. Keeping his balance was a cinch. 'Just don't think about down. Don't think about down.'
"Come on boy, open your eyes! You can't do the act with your eyes shut!"
"Why not?" Giovanni demanded.
And then his father shoved his shoulder. Giovanni lost his balance and let out a yelp of terror as he started the familiar, hated descent.
Once again, the taut, scratchy ropes of the net kept him from any serious injury, but it still smarted. His mother was already yelling at his father about how now their star would have big ugly bruises on his back and arms because of him.
"Couldn't Lorenzo be the star, just this once?" Giovanni asked, interrupting their squabble. Now that he was sitting almost leisurely on the net, some of his confidence had returned. The ground was much closer now.
Papa Giuseppe climbed down the ladder, walked over to Giovanni, and gave him a good box on the ears.
"Ouch! Well why can't he do it? He likes this stuff and he never falls like I do!"
"You already know what will happen, so don't talk anymore unless you have something sensible to say!" Papa Giuseppe yelled. "You know what happens! These Americans, they sneer, and they call us wops and guineas, but you, you look like one of them." He turned a suspicious look towards his wife, who pretended not to notice as she gracefully descended from the ladder. He turned back towards his son. "You have the light hair and the handsome features that they like, so you are our star. The pay is better that way."
"I think they like looking down on us though. Swearing oaths and laughing at the wops seems like another layer of entertainment to some of them. Did we really make less money when I twisted my ankle and Lorenzo had to fill in?" Lorenzo was Giovanni's older brother, and he was very like their father, which is to say he was heavy set and as dark as Giovanni was fair.
"We're not discussing this. We are getting ready for our big show. Now get back on the line and do it with your American blue eyes open this time!"
Grumbling some colorful oaths of his own under his breath, Giovanni did as told. The Giuseppes were preparing for the big Columbia Exposition in Chicago, which meant longer hours and shorter tempers, and incidentally, lots of bruising for their reluctant star. By the time his father let him stop, Giovanni had fallen a dozen more times and had rope burns to compliment his bruises, and the cheerful news that more of the same awaited him next day, only this time without the net.
They'd never performed a World's Fair before, but Giovanni had read about them. They were supposed to be large, splendid, even magnificent things, with throngs of peoples of all sorts. It was entirely possible he could lose himself in the crowd and never step on another tightrope in his life…
'But what would I do then?' Giovanni thought, like he always did whenever he dreamt of running away. Even though he didn't much care for it, he was able to walk a tightrope as long as he didn't look down. He wasn't a bad showman; he just didn't work well with his family. If he had some way to calm his nerves, some kind of reassurance, he could even be something spectacular.
'Maybe an even better set of performers will see our act at the Fair, and they'll invite me to tour with them,' Giovanni thought excitedly. He happened to own and cherish a particularly fine imagination, which almost made up for the other dear things he lacked. In his mind's eye he filled in this new group of performers, which would be much more satisfactory than the family he currently lived with. The best thing about this new group was that they never dropped him. Second best was that they never yelled, and third was that they never beat him.
Despite the wearisome day behind him and the wearisome days ahead, Giovanni fell asleep with a smile on his face. Things could very well change in Chicago.
Osgood proved himself vigilant enough to frustrate every attempt Hartley made to engage a worker in conversation. He was relentless in his quest to keep Hartley among only young people of his own station. The barrage of obligated parties, callers and dinners felt terribly smothering to the independent minded young man, especially when he considered that scant months earlier he'd been in Europe without either of his parents, completely at his liberty.
Hartley grew more sullen and bad tempered as the weeks wore on, which put Osgood at a loss. He wasn't sure what to do. Hartley couldn't be left to his favorite pursuit, riling the workers. But he didn't enjoy seeing his son so morose.
Then Rachel suggested getting apartments in Chicago for the Colombia Exposition. Osgood readily agreed. He made arrangements for his wife and child to leave as soon as was feasible. Hartley could have his cherished liberty once more and be of absolutely no danger to business. And in a few more weeks, once the new mills were in order, Osgood could join them and indulge his senses in the progress of his race.
The fair smelled. That was Giovanni's first and most persistent impression of the Chicago World's Fair. Of course, the city itself and the fair grounds probably smelled fine; it was likely the throngs of unwashed people crammed together, jostling their way from attraction to attraction, that supplied the odor.
The Flying Giuseppes, like all the other ethnic acts, had been relegated to the Midway section of the Fair. Giovanni lost himself in the crowd the first chance he got, and once he was sure his parents didn't care to find him, devoted himself to studying his new surroundings. The Midway was a hectic collection of shops, curiosities, exotic peoples, dancers and performers of the like even he had never seen, and oddly enough, ethnographic works. He'd figured that sort of 'progress of the race' claptrap would be up at the White City, the part of the Fair the classier people were attending, but apparently the rich folks would rather take an excursion down to see the poor devils on the bottom rungs of the evolutionary ladder than have them mixing amongst the highest achievements of society.
Giovanni considered sneaking away from his rehearsal to go see the White City for himself, but ultimately decided against it. He might be able to pick a few pockets, but really there wasn't much more attraction than that, and there were plenty of pockets to pick right where he was.
He took a stroll amongst the shops, pondering over his predicament. The family's first performance was scheduled for that very afternoon, and he still loathed the idea of stepping out on the high wire. There had to be some way to appease his traitorous nerves.
Then he passed an old woman selling miracle tonics, and an idea began to blossom in Giovanni's clever head.
"Alright then, this one here is supposed to be calming, and this one here is for vigor…and both of them have the bubbly stuff, so that's just a base…"
"Boy, what the devil are you doing now?" Papa Giuseppe complained. He'd been looking for Giovanni all morning. Now he'd finally discovered him, not practicing like he should have been, but playing with an elaborate assortment of bottles and liquids.
Well, it was better than his obsession with dime novels, at least.
"Where did you get all these concoctions? How did you pay for all this?" Papa Giuseppe demanded.
"With my money."
"You don't have any money!"
"I acquired some shortly before acquiring the equipment for my scientific studies. Now leave me be, I've just about got the gist of this."
Reluctant and cowardly though the boy may have been, he'd never once spoken to his father so disrespectfully before. Papa Giuseppe was taken aback. "You're supposed to be practicing!" He finally managed to bellow.
"Papa, if this works, then I'll be better at my act than ever I was before. I'm making a new miracle tonic," Giovanni said proudly, brandishing a glass bottle half full of bubbling brown liquid.
Papa Giuseppe eyed him suspiciously. "Have you cracked up?"
"No sir. As far as I can tell, this'll help me with my nerves. Trust me Papa: it's science."
Papa Giuseppe nodded, left the room, and left his son happily mixing chemicals. He went to find his wife. "Helen, I think you'd better see if Lorenzo can fill in for Giovanni this afternoon. The atmosphere of this place has touched his brain."
1 I'm actually setting this fic a little too early for the IWW to exist. They popped up around 1905, but I assume I'm the only person who's bothered by this. My story's set in 1893. The IWW was a socialist union, and after reading about their work on the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, I've been dying for an excuse to have Piper interact with them.