“Votes for women!” Above the jeering of the crowd, a suffragette waved her banner, her voice piercing the air high over the rumble of motorcars and rattle of carriages. “Support the cause! Votes for women!”
In one of those odd moments of silence that sometimes occur in a crowd, peace descended along my little stretch of the fence just long enough for the following to be heard with crystal clarity: “Bloody, buggery hell!”
Several heads swiveled in my direction. The suffragette nearest me stared, her eyes wide in shock. The steady stream of people passing us seemed to freeze for several seconds, the faces of the men and women headed inside the magnificent building behind me all reflecting the same astonishment.
There was nothing else to do. I turned and glared into the bushes, saying loudly, “Merciful heavens! What is the world coming to when people hide in shrubberies and yell out profanities?”
The suffragette looked suspicious as the people once again moved past.
“Is there a problem, sister?” she asked when I cleared my throat and shook the chain that was giving me so much grief.
“Problem? Me? Whatever gives you that idea?”
She pursed her lips and gestured to her right. All along the massive, wrought iron fence that bounded the grounds of Wentworth House, women were arranged with their backs pressed firmly against the cold metal railing, chains holding them into place.
“It’s just my chain,” I told my neighbor, shaking it at her. “It’s defective.”
“Your chain is defective?”
“Yes. It refuses to cooperate, and if there’s anything I demand in a chain, it’s cooperation. I don’t suppose you have an extra one?”
She gave me a look that by rights should have been accompanied by a thick clout upside the head. As it was I took a step or two back from her, relieved to see that her chain bound her firmly to the fence. “Chains are not defective. Why did you volunteer for this protest if you have no intention of participating fully?”
I ignored the rumbles of a particularly deep-voiced old gentlemen as he passed by, giving my chain a firm shake and making another attempt to wind it through the fence. “I am wholly devoted to the cause. But I fail to see how I am expected to make a stand when the equipment I am given simply will not function.”
“Are there problems?” One of the Women’s Suffrage Union officers moved down along the line, pausing when she got to me at the end of the fence.
“Yes, there are problems,” I muttered, catching my fingers painfully on the shrub that poked through the railing.
“She claims her chain is defective,” my tattle-tale neighbor said with irritating smugness.
I gave her a stern look. She returned it with narrowed eyes.
“Defective?” the officer asked, looking puzzled. “In what way?”
“It won’t go through the fence,” I explained. “I think there’s something wrong with it.”
“Or something wrong with you,” my neighbor murmured. Beyond her, two women giggled.
I glared over her head to them. They quickly averted their gazes and stared out defiantly at the passing crowd.
“Well…do the best you can,” the officer said, looking a bit peevish. I knew just how she felt. “We were promised coverage by the newspapers tonight, and it is vital that we present a unified front.”
“I think someone simply doesn’t wish to ruin her fancy gown,” my neighbor commented in a waspish voice.
“What you want to be wearing something like that to a protest?” the woman beyond her asked, craning her head to look at me.
Irritated, I jerked my coat closed, cursing the fact that I had forgotten to have Annie repair the buttons I’d torn off earlier while practicing chaining myself to a tree in the park. “I really don’t see that my choice of garment has anything to do with my devotion to the cause. One might just as well ask why she—” I pointed to my irksome neighbor. “—feels the need to cause dissention in the ranks.”
“Dissention! Me? You…you…”
I smiled and took a step toward her, just out of her reach. “A unified front, remember?”
She sputtered some words that were unknown to me, and I made a mental note to add them to my repertoire of oaths and profanities before taking my chain once again with a firm hand.
“You will behave,” I told it as I jabbed it through the fence, ignoring the pain of the shrub’s branches as it poked into my flesh.
“Ignore the crowds, sisters, and stand tall!” the officer cried as she faced the line of women. “Remember, you are fighting for a glorious cause!”
“It’ll all be for naught if we don’t show solidarity,” the woman next to me said with a glint in her eyes that I felt was most unwarranted.
The heads of women all down the fence turned to look at me.
“I am doing the best I can! But how I am expected to work with a defective chain is beyond me—” A shove at my back had me spinning around to confront my assailant. “Sir!”
“I’d apologize for bumping into you if you were a decent woman, but it’s clear that you’re not.” The rotund, top-hatted gentleman who had plowed into me scornfully considered the women on the fence before returning his attention to me. “Simply appalling! Such displays are most unwomanly! Ought to be stopped! Interfering besoms!”
I jerked my coat closed again. “You leave my bosom out of this!”
The man snorted and clutched the arm of a thin, pinched-faced woman, escorting her down the sidewalk to the gate. Due to the crush of carriages and motor cars inside the short drive, many people had opted to disembark from their vehicles down the block, and walk the rest of the way in to the charity ball. The change from light drizzle to rain had lessened their numbers, but a few brave souls ventured forth bearing large, glistening black umbrellas.
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” I snapped, so frustrated I could scream. “I’ll just stand here and pretend I’m chained to the fence.”
“I knew you would give up. You’re afraid of getting your pretty frock dirty.”
“If you keep using that nasty tone of voice, you’ll be stuck with it forever,” I answered with a sniff. “I assure you that it would take a lot more than a little rain to disconcert me. I do not frighten easily. I am all steadiness in the face of mice. I can watch animals copulate in the fields without the slightest hint of a blush. In fact, I find it all rather fascinating, and just as soon as I get myself set up properly, I shall emulate the animals and take a lover.”
The woman’s jaw sagged slightly.
“Yes,” I said, nodding, pleased that my dashing audacity had left her speechless. “I am a New Woman, you see. Such things do not bother me in the least. Any day now I will take up smoking cigarettes.”
A motorcar hooted its annoyance at a stoppage in traffic, part of the steady stream of carriages and automobiles stopped outside of the gates to Wentworth House. Shiny dark umbrellas bobbed by, their everyday appearance in sharp contrast to the finery displayed below them. Although the night was dark and damp, the parade of ladies in brilliant colors, flashing jewels, and exotic perfumes was almost overwhelming to the senses. Midnight blues, pigeon’s blood reds, and greens the color of the sea passed by. By contrast, our group was a somber gathering; I was clad in the sole exception to the dark dresses the suffrage workers wore. Each member had a swath of white across her bosom proclaiming Votes For Women. Pride filled me as I read the sashes. Pride that quickly crumbled to dust as I stared down at my sash-less coat.
“Damn. I forgot to get a sash. I don’t suppose…”
“No!” my neighbor snarled as I looked at hers.
“Charity begins at home,” I reminded her, but to no avail. “Fine. You keep your sash; I’ll do my part regardless.”
“You’re not even chained,” my unpleasant neighbor scoffed. “You have no sash, and you aren’t chained. No one will know you’re with us. Why don’t you just go home?”
I took a deep, calming breath. “If appearances are all that concern you, perhaps I will simply drape the chain over one shoulder…”
“There. This is the best I can do. How does it look?” I turned to my testy neighbor, one cold, damp length of chain hanging over my shoulder, wrapped around to the opposite hip, hopefully giving the appearance of binding me to the fence.
It was another voice that answered.
“You should be ashamed of yourself!” A very bulky shape rose up before me, her spiteful face thrust into mine. “Don’t you have any humility? What would your parents think of you now, Cassandra Jane Whitney? Making a fool of yourself in public!”
I identified the face as belonging to Eloise McGregor, one of my late mother’s oldest friends. She grabbed my arm and pulled me down the street a few yards.
“Eloise, what a surprise to see you. I’m afraid I’m a bit busy at the moment. Perhaps we can talk later?”
She jerked me down another few yards, ignoring my polite hint, puffing obnoxious peppermint-scented breath in my face as she blocked the entire sidewalk in order to chastise me. “What can you be thinking, girl? Have you no shame? No dignity? How can you stand there like a common trollop and make such a spectacle of yourself?”
A hasty glance down the fence confirmed my fear that the demonstration was proceeding without me. My neighbor chanted “Votes for women!” with a particularly obnoxious vigor, accompanied by frequent triumphant glances sent my way.
I ground my teeth.
“Your mother would be disgraced to see you here, as would all your family,” Eloise continued, snatching my chain off my shoulder and throwing it to the ground before taking my arm again. I winched at the strength of her grip. “Such folly! Such insolence! I shall be sure to inform your sister of your unwomanly conduct when she returns.”
“Damnation! You’re bruising me!”
“Profanity! Blasphemer!” Eloise’s voice carried extremely well over the noise of the crowd. A number of heads turned our way in what appeared to be hopeful interest. “Your presence here just goes to show how low into depravity you have sunk.”
Over her shoulder I could see a small clutch of people. As she berated me, a tall man with a pale woman on his arm scowled and tried to get Eloise’s attention, asking to pass. Dismay filled his companion’s face as she glanced at the stream of muddy water that flowed down the nearest edge of the pavement. Although the rain had slowed again, the gutters gurgled with the recent downfall.
Eloise ignored the man and continued to harangue me. “You always were a headstrong, obstinate girl. Obstinate and bad tempered! You’ll end up no better than you should, if you don’t take care. When I think of the pain your sainted mother went through. . . .”
I ignored Eloise’s rants and looked down the fence to where my sisters in suffrage attracted considerable attention, including that of the beat constable who was pleading with them to release themselves. The crowd shouted suggestions to the constable, many of them offering in unpleasant terms to help “take care of the troublemakers.”
“Madam, would you allow us to pass?”
“. . . let alone the fact that you never gave her a moment’s comfort. . . .”
“People wish to pass, Eloise. You really should go now.”
A deep male voice rose over that of the surrounding cacophony. “You are blocking the pavement, madam. Please allow us by.”
“You may think nothing of breaking your mother’s heart, but I will not fail her, my dearest friend! You will come with me at once.” She pulled hard on my arm, jerking me forward.
“I will not! Go away!” I struggled back to the fence. “I may not be chained, but by god, I will do my duty!”
Another policeman arrived, his whistle piercing the discord.
“Madam, please let us by!” the deep voice roared over the growing clamor. I turned my head just enough to witness the tall man behind Eloise try gently to move her aside. She tightened her grip on my arm in response, her fingers digging painfully into my flesh.
“As will I do my duty and save you from the depths of degradation with which you are so intent upon besmirching yourself!” She pulled me toward her.
I clutched the fence in desperation.
“Votes for women! Votes for women!” chanted the suffragettes.
More constables arrived, their whistles shrill over the calls of the crowd.
“. . . sinful and degraded. . . .”
“We wish to pass, blast you!”
“This is ridiculous—please go away!” I yelled at Eloise. “Leave me be!”
“…willful and proud…”
“This is a public street, madam! I insist you allow us to pass!”
Snarling to myself in aggravation, I used both hands to grip the fence.
“. . . nothing but grief, always thinking of yourself and never of your poor mother. . . .”
The bystanders were frenzied now, keyed up by the arrival of several policemen on horseback. To the left, a small cluster of partygoers was backed up, still blocked by Eloise, loudly expressing their desire to move by us. To the right, the demonstrators, all successfully chained to the fence save me, chanted and sang in unison.
“I will not let you ruin my demonstration!” I shouted over the noise to Eloise, just as she heaved her ample bulk and succeeded in prying me off the fence. At the same moment, the man behind her gave her a shove forward, sending me hurtling towards him, rather than her.
The force of my not-insubstantial weight thrown off balance and directly onto him resulted in our crashing to the pavement in an awkward display of petticoats, umbrellas, chain, and limbs.