Suffragette in the City, Page 2Katie MacAlister
“Despite what?” he asked.
“It’s not important. I do apologize.”
“I accept your apology. What is not important?”
He had amber eyes, very disconcerting amber eyes. So disconcerting, I spoke without thinking. “It’s just that I should take such things as falling on a strange man in stride. Naturally, common good manners make me regret the damage to your clothing, but for the rest...well, I am a New Woman, you see. Falling on men is nothing to us. In fact, I am shortly to take a lover, and smoke cigarettes.”
His lips twitched. “At the same time?”
“Of course not. That would be unhygienic.” I paused, considering what he suggested. “I don’t believe it would be possible, either, but that really is neither here nor there.”
“No, it isn’t. Are you all right?”
As I nodded, a thin woman in a dress that was a bilious shade of green brushed his arm and said, “Come, Griffin, we’re late. You can repair the damage this creature did to you inside.” She paused to toss a hateful stare at me before taking the arm of the sputtering bald man, the pair of them moving down the sidewalk with stately arrogance.
The tall man named Griffin muttered a few words to the other woman, who quickly followed the first pair.
“Despite my New Womanhood, I feel terrible. I wish I could make Eloise apologize as well, but as you may have noticed, she’s quite deranged.”
He gazed at me for a moment then unexpectedly tipped his head back and laughed. “Don’t look so distressed. I didn’t particularly wish to attend this ball. In fact, I’m grateful to you for offering me an excuse to avoid it, although,” he looked at his shirt front ruefully, “I wish you could have managed it in some other fashion.”
I dabbed unhappily at the mud on his arm, removing a wet leaf from his lapel. “I fear your companions are less understanding. I can’t blame them for being angry at the unfortunate accident.”
He turned and waved at someone behind him. “My brother and his wife find these functions enjoyable; I do not.”
“But the lady with you, surely—” I indicated the distant figures of his party and covertly picked off a small snail making its way up his shoulder when he glanced the other way.
“My sister. She will have no difficulty enjoying herself without me.”
He handed me the bag and umbrella that had been knocked from my hands earlier. Looking at it rather curiously, he picked up the chain in his ungloved hand. As I reached out to take it, a fawn-colored motor car pulled up alongside him. The driver leaped out and opened the door.
“Will you be going inside,” Griffin nodded toward the ball, “or can I offer you a ride somewhere else?”
I looked right to where street children, passing citizens, partygoers, and now a sizable number of constables surrounded the women protestors. The noise was almost deafening. My heart sank as I nodded at the nearest suffragette. “I am with them. At least, I was supposed to be with them. I have a defective chain, however.”
His eyebrows rose.
“Why does everyone act like it’s impossible for a chain to cease working?” I told his eyebrows. “I defy you to bind yourself to the rail using that chain.”
The eyebrows lowered again, and once more, the corners of his mouth twitched. It had the unfortunate result of making me stare at his mouth, an act that had me thinking of the animals in the field, and my determination to take a lover.
“I see. If it’s defective, then you won’t be wanting it back.” He held up the chain, making no move to return it to me.
“Not particularly. I will admit that at this moment, I feel nothing but animosity for the horrid thing.” Why was his mouth holding such fascination for me? Was he married? Did he like tall women of overly abundant upper quarters, and red hair?
“A just feeling, I suspect.” A frown creased his forehead as he considered me, his eyes narrowing into two amber slits as they raked me from head to foot. “Why would a woman like yourself want to be a part of such a spectacle?”
A sudden jarring note interrupted the pleasant contemplation of what his bare derriere might look like. I frowned in turn. “Spectacle?”
“Spectacle,” he said firmly. “A display of bad behavior.”
“I know what the word means!”
“Surely a woman like you should be inside waltzing with a suitor rather than chaining yourself to a fence in a manner that does nothing but amuse the general population.”
Those fascinating amber eyes flashed in the night, but they were no match for mine. My tendency to plumpness I inherited from my mother, my temper from my father. Anger and my chin rose in response to his arrogant and condescending attitude. “You are very opinionated on the subject for someone who does not have a uterus!”
Surprise flickered in his eyes. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“You are a man,” I pointed out, waving toward his groin. I had the worst urge to walk around behind him to see if his wet trousers were plastered to his rear parts, but managed to squelch that desire and focus on what was important. “You do not understand at all what it is to be a woman.”
“I assure you, madam, that one does not need a uterus to think,” he retorted.
“No, but it helps,” I answered, smiling a little to myself as the barb drove home. “As for your accusation, I do not consider the pursuit of emancipation a spectacle. Quite the contrary! I consider it my Christian duty to chain myself to this fence in order to strike a blow for the rights of women everywhere. And I would do so if I wasn’t cursed with a chain that was clearly forged in hell.”
He eyed my low décolletage speculatively. “You certainly are dressed for the event.”
“Why is everyone obsessed with my gown? I had a dinner engagement! I could hardly dress in something more suited for gardening!” I clutched my button-less coat tight across my bosom.
“Dinner with one of your lovers?”
“I don’t have any yet, not that it is any of your business. My dinner engagement was with a man I was considering for the position, but he dribbled soup, and one cannot have a lover who dribbles soup.”
He stared at my breasts, now hidden beneath my coat. “Give the amount of cleavage you were showing, I’m surprised soup is all he dribbled.”
“My dress is the very latest fashion!” I snapped. “And it is not any concern of yours.”
“Except when I find it lying on top of me in the mud,” he said quickly, suddenly grinning.
My legs felt suddenly wobbly under the influence of that grin. I stiffened them. “I have apologized for the unfortunate accident. If you are not gracious enough to accept that apology, perhaps you will allow me to get on with my business.”
“By all means. Would you like me to round up a few men so you might consider them for the position?”
“I do not need your help to find a lover!”
Given the cacophony of sound generated by the demonstration to my right, I had felt it necessary to raise my voice to a volume at which I could be heard without undue strain, but once again, a strange hush fell over the crowd, creating the perfect setting for my words to echo off the buildings that lined the street. For the third time that night, heads swiveled in unison to look in my direction.
Griffin leaned back against his motor and folded his arms across his chest. “Temper, Cassandra Whitney. First swearing and now bellowing like a stevedore—you wouldn’t want people to think that your disposition is as fiery as your hair.”
Momentarily confused by his use of my name, I remembered Eloise’s mean, and regrettably public, comments earlier. I was in the middle of formulating an exceedingly clever and biting retort when a great cheer from the crowd distracted me. Several police vans had arrived with reinforcements. A large number of constables emerged and swarmed along the protest line, arguing with the bound women and trying to forcibly remove the chains. “Bloody hell!”
“I beg your pardon?”
I glared at the irritatin
g man opposite me. He was laughing at me, his eyes all but mocking me. “My first demonstration for the rights of women, and I am going to miss everything!”
“And what a tragedy that would be.”
“You who do not have uteruses…uteri…collectively more than one uterus may think so, but I assure you that we brave New Women will win out the day!” I snatched the chain from his hand and ran back to the fence, muttering under my breath that I would not allow myself to be distracted by such an infuriating, if incredibly charismatic, and very well built man.
“Do you need help with your defective chain?” his bemused voice followed me. “I would be happy to assist if you find you can’t manage such a highly technical feat by yourself.”
A visit to the dentist was going to be in order if I continued to grind my teeth as I had wont to do several times that evening. “I do not need your help. I think you will find that women can do most anything without the assistance of a man.”
“Surely not everything,” he drawled. “Else you would have no need for a lover.”
I struggled for a few minutes with the uncooperative chain, then flung it down in a pique. Biting back an oath, I glared again at Griffin. Still smiling, he politely tipped his muddied hat, and got into the motor car.
“Of all the insolent, infuriating, rude—” I grumbled to myself, watching his motor drive off. “And I didn’t even get a good look at his derriere. Damn.”
Screams, jeers, yells, and a variety of oaths washed out into the damp night as several newly arrived constables pushed past me and began yanking at the nearby protesters, forcibly dragging my sisters in suffrage from their positions.
I didn’t hesitate in the least in making my presence known.
“Stop that immediately,” I yelled over the noise, hitting the nearest constable on the head with my umbrella as he struggled with my unpleasant neighbor. “She may be annoying, but she is devoted to the cause. Leave her alone!”
Without looking, he shoved me back into the gathering crowd, which closed tightly around me. Crushed by the mass of people surrounding me, I was unable to move forward as the constable tried to squeeze the suffragette out of the chains that bound her.
Hastily I apologized for my rudeness to the gentleman upon whose toes I had inadvertently trod, and found myself gently but persistently pushed to the back of the crowd. “No, you don’t understand, I’m with them! Please allow me forward, I am one of them.”
Struggling, I tried to force my way to the front of the sizable group with every intention of doing what I could to help the women, but I was impeded from behind, and just then the crowd swelled backwards. I was flung up against a man behind me. I righted myself with an apology.
“No harm done, miss.” A gold tooth winked as he gave me an amiable smile, then he touched his bowler and melted into the crowd.
A horrible noise rent the air. The crowd’s mood had changed abruptly from that content with simple jeers and verbal abuses, to an active participation in removing the women from their chains. Horror crawled up my spine two constables held my recent neighbor while a third man cut off the chains with a heavy bolt cutter. As the woman was freed, the constables seized her and dragged her off to the Black Mariah, much to the delight of the crowd. Cheers rose over the noise as one by one, the constables swarmed the struggling women, cutting them from the fence.
“Damnation!” I swore again, utterly defeated. My chain hung limply from the fence, abandoned and ignored as the last of the protesters were bundled into the Black Marias. I had failed my sisters in suffrage, failed my cause, and failed myself.
The police quickly disbanded the crowd of bystanders, waved off the urchins, and broke up the groups of onlookers. In a short amount of time there were no protesters left other than me. I stood alone, disheveled and damp on a wet, empty pavement. A sudden gust of wind caused an object to flutter across my feet. I reached down to pick up a torn Votes For Women sash and stared at it.
“Maybe Eloise is right. What am I doing here?” I asked the sash. “Why did I think I could help?”
I could almost hear my father’s voice sneering at me. What gentleman would want me, with my runaway tongue, my odd interests, and an wholly unconventional nature? My actions this evening had left me open to contempt and ridicule of my friends and family—worse than that, the experience was all for nothing. I had failed to complete my one assigned task, fulfilling my father’s dying curse.
“No. I will not fail this,” I swore to myself, then raised my fist and shook it at the ghost of my father. “I will not let you win! I have chosen my path, and I will see it out come what may! Think about that while you roast in hell for an eternity!”
There was no answer on the wind but a sudden chill that left me shivering. I looked about for a hansom cab, but none were in sight. Mentally shrugging my shoulders, I gathered up my accessories, chain included, and made my way home.
“Women’s Suffrage Union Members Arrested. Several women were arrested last evening for causing an obstruction outside Wentworth House in Holland Park, where Their Royal Highnesses, the Prince and Princess of Wales, attended the annual charity Hospital Ball,” Freddy read aloud from a fainting couch, his booted feet resting carelessly on several lovely tapestry pillows. The mauve shawl draped across one end would no doubt be irrevocably stained with his hair oil. “Good Lord, Cassandra, don’t tell me you were mixed up with that crowd?”
“Freddy, read to yourself. Aunt Caroline is not interested.” I turned back to my aunt and accepted the cup she held out. “I hope you don’t mind Emma taking tea with us. She’s been such a dear friend to me, but I don’t think she knows a great many people in town.”
“I don’t mind you bringing her at all,” my aunt replied in her usual dulcet tones. A faint frown wrinkled her brow. “However, I feel that I owe it to your dear mama to mention…well, you know.”
I frowned over the cup of tea. “No, I don’t know.”
“It says here that several women were fined half a guinea for assaulting police officers,” Freddy continued. “Dearest cousin, I must protest. I understand your desire to take part in this ridiculous cause—”
My gaze narrowed upon him.
“—at what is no doubt a very worthy cause, but surely you can appreciate that those of us who love you are concerned when the organization you have bound yourself to is involved in such escapades.”
I looked away from Freddy’s pale blue eyes to consider my aunt, avoiding, as best I could, the result of her latest redecorating scheme. Deep mauve walls filled the room with a heated glow, while fine lace hung at the windows, shaded on either side by heavy wine-colored draperies. It was an altogether ghastly combination.
“It is so difficult to explain,” Caroline said faintly, glancing toward the door. Emma, my oldest friend, had excused herself to use the water closet. “You do know, of course, that she has…leanings.”
“Leanings? What do you mean?”
She glanced toward Freddy, who was watching us over the top of the newspaper. He choked and quickly hid behind it.
“Leanings,” Caroline repeated, her hand making a vague gesture that confused me even more. She appeared to think for a moment before saying, “You have heard of Sappho, have you not?”
I searched the rather dusty hallways of my memory. “A poet? A woman poet? Greek, I think?”
“Yes, she was, amongst other things, a poet.” Caroline smiled gently at me. “Your friend is a follower, I believe.”
“Oh, I have no doubt about that,” I said, sitting back. At last it had dawned on me what Caroline was so carefully alluding to. “You need not fear that I am offended by that.”
“You’re not?” Her eyebrows rose a smidgen.
“No, not in the least.”
“You’re not…like her, are you?” Freddy asked, still peering over the newspaper.
“You know full well I’m not,” I answered.
His eyes widened, and I could swear
he blushed as he stammered a protestation to our aunt. “I know nothing of the sort!”
“Yes, you do. I’ve never been to university, while Emma spent several years there. Frankly, given Father’s opinion on education for women, I’m lucky I can read and write. I will never be a great scholar as she is.”
“Who is a great scholar?” the woman in question asked as she reentered the room and accepted a cup of tea.
“You are,” I answered.
Emma Debenham, whom I had known for some twenty years, looked surprised by the word, but made no comment.
“I was explaining that you are my oldest friend,” I added.
“It has been many a year since I saw the little red-headed girl peeping out at me from behind the hedgerow. I used to see Cassandra when I walked to the village,” she told my aunt.
“Emma was the only one who defied Father’s order that no one speak to me,” I said, a lump in my throat when I thought of all she had gone through to befriend me. “I believed that earned her more than one whipping from her father.”
She shrugged. “I was forever getting into trouble because of one interest or another. I wasn’t about to let your despotic father rule my life, as well. Besides,” she touched my hair with a gentle hand. “I’ve always had a weakness for redheads. There’s no way I could resist you.”
Freddy choked on the sip of tea he’d taken, spewing it all over the newspaper.
“Freddy, really!” I gave him a stern look. “If you’re going to behave like an animal, you may take your tea outside!”
He coughed in an attempt to get the tea out of his lungs, glaring first at me, then at Emma.
“I just wish I could convince you to stay with me while you’re in London, Emma.”
“You know how much I appreciate that offer, but I am quite comfortable in my rooms, I assure you.”
“I’ve sworn that I wouldn’t interfere in your studies. Emma has recently taken up sketching,” I told my aunt. “Right now she’s focusing on the human form.”