Storm and Silence

By: Robert Thier


Arrested for Good Manners


The young man’s reflection glared back at me out of the shop window, suspicion etched into his roundish face. He probably thought I was doubting whether he looked manly enough, and, to be honest, I was.

‘Come on,’ I muttered, morosely. ‘Manliness, manliness… give me some manliness!’

I turned sideways, and he turned with me, thrusting his chest out at the exact same moment I did. It looked flat as a board, betraying not a hint of femininity, so that, at least, was going to be no problem.

Farther down though… My eyes wandered to the young man’s behind, where my Uncle Bufford’s old trousers bulged in a distinctly un-manly way. Yes. The young man’s behind was definitely a bit too fa-

No.

Not the f-word. Generous. That was the word. It was just a bit too generous.

‘Hell’s whiskers!’

I made an impolite gesture at the young man in the window, which he duly reciprocated. Who was he trying to fool? He was no man. He was a girl. Which meant that, as much as I would have liked to pretend otherwise, so was I.

‘I don't like you,’ I informed my reflection in no uncertain terms. It scowled at me, not at all pleased about being spoken to so disrespectfully.

‘It’s your own fault.’ I scowled right back. ‘If you were skinnier, and didn’t have so much of this-’ I pointed to my derrière, ‘then you’d look a bit more convincing in this getup.’

Distastefully, I tugged at the tailcoat and trousers, which felt odd over the tight corset.

‘If we get caught, it’s your fault for looking so… so chubby! We’re trying to look manly here. Couldn’t you at least get hold of a false beard or a prominent, masculine jaw?’

A pedestrian walking by gave me an odd look.

I decided that if I wanted to appear more masculine, it was probably time to stop talking to my reflection in a shop window and be about my business.

Throwing a last, discontented look at the well upholstered, tanned young man in the shop window, I hurriedly stuffed my hair under the huge, heavy top hat that was part of my disguise from my uncle’s wardrobe. My hair wasn’t too long to be a man's, really, it only reached down to my shoulders. But not many young men had shoulder-length brown locks. Silently thanking my uncle for unknowingly providing such a monster of a hat, I turned to face my destination.

It was still some way away and concealed by the thick layer of mist that obscured most of London’s streets at this time of day, but I knew exactly where I was going. I had spied out the place days ago, in preparation for my secret mission.

Secret, solitary, and illegal.

I started down the street again and felt my throat go dry. The stop in front of the shop window had been a temporary one, a last chance to confirm that I looked the part I was trying to play. It had granted me a short reprieve, but now the time had come.

Blast! What if they recognize me? If they realize I’m a girl? Panicked thoughts shot through my head like bees in a beehive rattled by a hungry bear. What if they grab me and… God only knows what they might do!

Calm down, Lilly, I told myself. You are on a mission for all womankind. If you should fall, hundreds will follow in your footsteps.

Which didn’t exactly make me feel better, since that meant they would trample over my remains.

Suddenly, the mist before me parted, and there it was: the place I had come to infiltrate. The place I was forbidden, by law, to enter. White columns supported a wide, classical portico that overshadowed the steps leading up to the entrance. The door had two massive wings of oak, and a guard beside it. Over the door hung a dark red banner, proclaiming, in black letters the words ‘POLLING STATION’.

And I suppose that says it all. That explains why I was here, why I was wearing ridiculously baggy men’s clothes which I had pinched from my uncle and why I was so mad at my own reflection. That explains why I was afraid. That explains what was illegal about my plans. That explains everything.

No? It doesn't? Not to you, anyway?

Count yourself fortunate, then. You apparently live in a country which actually allows its female inhabitants the right to vote.

Not so the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, I thought, gritting my teeth in anger. Its politicians had thoroughly deliberated on the subject of women’s suffrage and come to the conclusion that women should never be allowed to vote, for the following reasons:

1. Women’s tiny brains had no capacity for logical thought. Their emotional nature made them incapable of understanding politics.

2. If women were to get involved in politics, they would be too busy to marry and have children, and the entire human race would die out, which would be very bad indeed.

3. If women got involved in politics, they would be on an equal footing with men, thus creating the appalling condition of equality of the sexes and putting an end to all need for male chivalry and gentlemanly behaviour, which would be even worse.

4. All government ultimately rested on brute force. Since the gentle nature of women made them incapable of that, they were simply not suited for politics.[1]

Would it surprise you to hear that all the politicians who put forward the reasons on that little list were men? I had taken the time to think very long and sincerely about their arguments, finally coming to the conclusion that said arguments were complete and utter poop. I really wished I could have a private meeting with the fellow who suggested that women were incapable of brute force. Just five minutes alone with him in a sound-proof room would do.

Not looking right or left, I marched down the street towards the polling station, trying to keep my heart from jumping out of my chest. Every minute, I expected someone to raise an accusing finger and start shouting, ‘A female! A female in men’s clothes! Grab the vile abomination!’

Nothing happened. Nobody even gave me a second glance.

That might, however, have had something to do with the thick fog that let one see clearly for only a few yards. Everything beyond that was just a hazy outline. As I walked on, the fog thickened even more, and for a moment, even the polling station at the other end of the street was consumed by it.

Yet even without the fog, there didn’t seem to be a great chance of my being recognized by passers-by. Only a few people were out on the streets, and they rushed past quickly. I hoped it would be the same inside the station. The only exception to the rule here, outside, was a large group standing half-way down the street. Although they were visible to me only as hazy silhouettes, I could tell that two of the men were in intense conversation.

‘… tell you, it is in perfect condition,’ the older of the two said. His double chin wobbled as he spoke and he made energetic gestures with his pudgy hands to underline his speech. ‘The best of all the houses I have.’

‘Indeed?’ The other man sounded curt and cool. I didn’t see his face since he stood with his back to me. All I could see was his lean black figure, erect as a rod of iron. ‘Interesting that you are willing to part with such a treasure.’

‘It is out of the goodness of my heart, Sir, out of the goodness of my heart!’ the fat man assured him. ‘Wilding Park is a treasure, and I hate to part with it, but I know that with you it will be in good hands.’

I hadn’t really paid attention to their conversation before, but the name caught my ear. Wilding Park? Surely not the Wilding Park?

‘Bah.’ The young man waved his hand depreciatively. ‘I have no time for this. Karim, pay the man and let’s be done with it.’ He raised a hand, pointing at the fat man. ‘However, you should remember: If you haven’t told the truth, I shall be very… displeased.’

Even through the fog I could see the double-chin of the fat fellow tremble.

‘Karim? The money.’ The young man snapped his fingers.

A gigantic fellow, one of the people surrounding the two, started forward but stopped and turned his head abruptly when I took a few steps in the direction of the group and cleared my throat.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! What was I doing? What was it to me if some rich chauvinist fellow got swindled and lost a few thousand quid? Nothing. But then, this might be a brilliant opportunity to test my disguise.

It was also a brilliant opportunity to procrastinate and put off my attack on the fortress of male political power for just a few moments more.

‘Excuse me, Sir?’ I wanted to tap the lean man on the shoulder, but the giant called Karim grabbed my arm before it even got near him and pulled me back, towering over me.

‘On your way, you lout!’ he growled in some thick, uneven accent I couldn’t identify. I looked up at him, eyes wide. Now that he was so close, with no mist obscuring his form, I could see he was a mountain of a man, with a face as dark as his long black beard, and a turban, yes, an actual turban on his head. What freak show had I wandered into? A turban? In the middle of London?

‘On your way, I said!’ he growled, twisting my arm painfully. ‘The Sahib has no time for beggars!’

Beggars? I was more than a little peeved, I had to say. I was dressed in my uncle’s Sunday best, after all. And all right, the clothes were three sizes too big for me and hadn’t been used or washed in years, but still.

At least he hadn’t said ‘The Sahib has no time for girls who dress up as men.’

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