Storm and Silence(3)By: Robert Thier
Then I remembered he was probably not there for the women, but for the millions of men who still weren’t allowed to vote either, because they didn’t have a penny in their pocket. Women were probably not even important enough to be taken into consideration. Well, I would show them!
As I walked up the steps to the front door, the bobby took off his hat respectfully. ‘Good day, Sir.’
Oh God! He’d lifted his hat in greeting. Why hadn’t I thought of this? What should I do? Take off my hat in return? I couldn’t do that, considering the mass of hair that was piled up underneath it like a haystack crammed into a shopping bag. So I just nodded silently. Better to be thought rude than to be polite and subsequently arrested.
Quickly I pushed past the bobby and threw open the door to the polling station. A thick stench of cigars and sweat wafted towards me out of the darkness.
My hands clenched into tight fists, and I stood there, immobile. Could I do this? Was I brave enough? Would I get caught? Would I get lynched by an outraged male mob?
Before I could think better of it, I plunged forward, into the darkness, towards my goal.
For a moment, I stood still while my eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom. Slowly, shapes appeared out of the dark, and I could distinguish a sort of counter at the other end of the room, where an official sat with several lists and thick books. Men formed a line in front of the counter. They scribbled something in the books with a fountain pen, then bowed to the official and departed.
Was I supposed to write in there, too? I had no idea how this ‘voting’-thing actually worked. Oh heavens, I should never have tried this…
Come on, I chastised myself. Do it! Do it for your friends, Patsy, Flora and all the rest! Do it for the oppressed masses of women who are too lazy to protest themselves! Do it against all those arrogant male chauvinists who think the brains of a woman wouldn’t fill a tea spoon!
Unfortunately, this last thought brought a certain image to my mind: the image of Mr Rikkard Ambrose as he disdainfully handed his card to his new ‘secretary’.
Was I really so ugly that a man like him would not even recognize me as a girl? I refused to believe so! Admittedly, my skin was rather tanned, and my face was rather round with a perky chin, not at all demure and ladylike. But still, not even to recognize me as a girl…?
Forget about him. He’s not important. You have a job to do! I repeated over and over in my mind. Still, the image of Rikkard Ambrose persisted in front of my inner eye as I approached the line of men at the counter.
Just before I could get into line, a thin little man in a bright yellow waistcoat stopped me. Or maybe he was a woman in disguise, too? How should I know, after all?
‘Excuse me, Sir,’ he said in a voice high enough to make the theory at least possible. ‘You will have to show me your passport.’
Ah! I breathed a sigh of relief. At least this was one eventuality I had provided for. At a dinner party, I had heard the gentlemen once talking about the government introducing this measure: you had to show your passport when you voted, to prove who you were.
So how could I try and vote, you may ask yourself?
Well, I had pinched my uncle’s passport.
Why not? I had already taken his trousers, jacket, waistcoat and top hat. And it wasn’t like he was going to vote. He never left his room except to work or complain about things.
‘Um… of course. Here.
With fluttering fingers I removed the rectangular piece of paper from my pocket and unfolded it. The little man took it and looked at it without really paying attention.
‘In his Majesty’s name… Passport for the person of the name Bufford Jefferson Brank… signed by… and so on and so on… yes, all appears to be in order.’ He handed the document back to me, and I quickly tugged it back into my pocket. ‘Please continue, Mr Brank,’ he said, gesturing towards the line of waiting men and already looking somewhere else, having lost all interest in yours truly.
That was fine by me.
Hurriedly, I placed myself behind the last man in the line, thanking the Lord that the British government hadn’t yet adopted the practice of putting pictures of people in passports. I might be able to pass for a man by putting on a pair of trousers and a top hat, but I doubted I would be able to pass for a grumpy sixty-year-old by availing myself of a false white beard and pretending to limp.
‘Next, please,’ the man at the counter called in a bored voice. The line moved forward, and I moved along with it, step by step, voter by voter. In that way, I slowly approached the counter, getting more nervous with every passing minute. How exactly did you 'cast a vote'? Did you actually have to throw something? I presumed it was only a figure of speech, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
The men before me didn’t seem to be throwing things around, though. They just bent as if to write something down, and then went away. That didn’t look so bad.
Suddenly, the last man in front of me stepped aside and I was facing the official behind the counter. He held out a piece of paper, on which the names of two candidates were printed with little circles beside them.
‘Cast your vote, please,’ he said, his voice still dripping boredom.
‘What?’ I stared at the man, surprised. ‘Do you mean anyone will be able to see who I voted for?’
He looked at me as if I had just asked whether the sea was really made out of water. ‘Of course. If you’re ashamed of your political affiliations, you shouldn’t be here. Haven’t you voted before?’
Trying desperately not to let my nerves show, I shook my head. ‘No. First time.’
‘Oh, well, that explains it.’ His expression changed from bored to superior, and he pointed to a place on the paper. ‘We vote publicly here, young man. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You’ll get none of those absurd new political ideas the Chartists are proposing in my polling station. Did you know those fools don't just want to have secret ballots, they actually demand universal suffrage?’
‘Just what I said! This is a decent, British polling station, young man. Everybody who comes here to vote is a gentleman with a residence in town and a good income, and everybody sees who everybody else votes for.’
He paused, and I, as was obviously expected, nodded my agreement to his political wisdom. The official seemed pleased. He tapped on the paper in front of me.
‘Just make your mark there, or there, young Sir, depending on which candidate you wish to vote for.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’ I grabbed the fountain pen and immediately made my mark for the Whig candidate.
‘The Whigs, hmm?’
The official’s face soured, and he glanced at me disapprovingly. ‘Didn’t you hear what I was just saying? The Whigs actually support those Chartist extremists and rebels who want votes for the common people. Do you really know what you are doing, young man? Those infernal reformers will be the death of our great country, some day!’
‘Well, we'll just have to see, won’t we, Sir,’ I said with a smile and curtsied.
The entire room went suddenly deadly quiet as everybody turned to stare at me. The voters, the officials, even a fellow in the corner who looked like he had just come in to warm himself up a bit - they all stared at me with open mouths.
What was the matter with them?
Then I realized. Oh, blast! I curtsied! I didn’t bow, I curtsied!
They needed to call a second police officer to ‘restrain the madwoman in the polling station’ as the government official put it to the messenger boy who was sent to the police. The boy was obviously impressed with my performance, because he returned not with one, but with three additional Bobbies, truncheons in hand.
Now don't get me wrong, I didn’t try to strangle anybody. Far from it. I simply had decided that since I was discovered anyway, I might as well use the opportunity and set up an impromptu demonstration for women’s rights in the polling station. The government officials in charge of the place didn’t seem to take kindly to the idea.
Thus it was that at 9:30 am on 22 August 1839 I was dragged out of an inconsequential polling station in the middle of London, with the firm assistance of four protectors of the people. Two of the officers held my arms, while another two marched ahead to warn any passers-by of the dangerous madwoman.
‘Chauvinists!’ I yelled. ‘Oppressors of womanhood!’
One of the Bobbies winced, covering his ears.
‘Can we gag her?’ he asked his sergeant.
‘No, lad, that’s against regulations,’ the older man grunted.
‘What about a straitjacket?’
‘We ain’t got one of those, more’s the pity.’
Digging my heels into the ground, I continued to express my opinion of the oppressors of womanhood in no uncertain terms. To my considerable satisfaction they had a great deal of trouble moving me five inches, let alone down the steps from the doors of the polling station.
We had just reached the last porch step when out of the bank on the opposite side of the misty street stepped a figure I remembered all too well: Rikkard Ambrose, his classical features as hard as ever, his black cloak wrapped tightly around him. When he caught sight of me being dragged away, he stopped in his tracks.
‘Officer!’ In three long strides he was in front of us. His face was just as unmoving as before, but there was a steely glint in his dark eyes. ‘Officer, what are you doing with this young man, may I ask?’