Storm and Silence(4)By: Robert Thier
The sergeant turned, and paled as he saw the visage of the much younger man. He took one hand off my arm to salute. My, my. Mr Rikkard Ambrose had to be someone of importance to elicit that kind of reaction from one of London’s stoic defenders of the law.
I tried to use the opportunity to wrestle free, but immediately the sergeant stopped saluting and clapped his hand around my arm again.
‘Good morning, Mr Ambrose, Sir!’ he said, trying to stand at attention while not loosening his grip on yours truly. ‘Um… Sir, if I may ask, what young man are you speaking of?’
With a sharp jerk of his hand, Mr Ambrose pointed at me.
‘That one, of course. Are you blind? What are you doing with him?’
‘Not him, Sir.’ Reaching up, the sergeant gripped my top hat and pulled it off, so my chestnut bob cut was freed and tumbled downwards. ‘Her. That’s a girl, Mr Ambrose, Sir.’
The expression on the face of Mr Rikkard Ambrose at that moment was quite possibly the funniest thing I had ever seen in my life. His stone face slackened and he gaped at me like he hadn’t seen a single female before in his entire life.
‘Something wrong, Sir?’ the sergeant inquired, dutifully. When no answer was forthcoming from the stupefied Mr Ambrose, the sergeant shrugged, and made an awkward little bow. ‘Well, if you’d excuse us, Sir, we have to take this one,’ he nodded at me like he would at a rabid horse, ‘away to where she belongs. Maybe a night in the cells will teach her not to do what’s only for men.’
‘Aye,’ one of the constables chuckled. ‘Women voting? Who ever heard of something like that? Next thing we know they’ll want decent jobs!’
His colleagues laughed at his joke and started dragging me to a police coach standing not twenty yards away.
In that moment, I made a decision.
I turned my head around to look back. Mr Rikkard Ambrose still stood there, pale and unmoving as a block of ice. Even though he was already a dozen yards away, and the Bobbies dragged me further and further, I could see his stone face very clearly. I could see his dark eyes starting to burn with cold anger. A grin spreading across my face, I yelled:
‘Looking forward to seeing you at work on Monday, Sir!’
By the next morning I didn’t feel quite so cocky anymore. That might have had something to do with spending the night in a prison cell, or with the fact that I had made a total mess of my plan, or with the fact that I hadn’t been able to get myself calmed down enough to sleep until midnight.
And when I finally did fall asleep on the hard, uneven bunk bed in the prison cell, I dreamed of a dozen Bobbies, reinforced by a whole platoon of Ancient Greek statues, chasing me through the dark streets of London all night, shouting: ‘Stop her! Stop the feminist! She has to be at work on Monday! At nine sharp! Catch her!’ I’m not sure which was more disturbing, the horrifying chase or the fact that the stone statues on my tail looked suspiciously like Mr Rikkard Ambrose.
I awoke sometime around three am, my heart hammering so fast I knew I would never be able to go to sleep again.
Instead, I surveyed the luxurious hotel suite the nice policemen had put me in for the night: six square feet of the best of what London’s police stations had to offer. The walls of my temporary home were decorated in an intricate pattern of mould and graffiti. The panorama window - about two square feet covered with a beautiful set of iron bars - offered a spectacular view over the gutter of one of London’s finest dingy alleyways. The door, of course, was designed to fit the standards of the window and was similarly crafted from highly decorative iron bars. The bed, as my back could attest, was also made to fit the highest standards, and was able to reduce your back muscles to a tangle of aching knots within five minutes. All in all, it was a breath-taking place with a charming atmosphere. The previous tenant had even left me a little present in the form of a puddle of well-matured goo in the corner. It emitted the most delicious, stomach-turning odour and completed the whole ambience to misery in perfection. The pale light of the moon which filtered in through the small window didn’t make the scene any cheerier.
At least there was no one else in the cell with me. The policemen had put me in solitary confinement. I would have liked to think that was for my protection, but truth be told, they probably thought it was safer for the other prisoners. After all, they couldn’t want those poor misunderstood thieves, burglars and murderers in the same cell as a raving madwoman who had dressed up as a man and thus had given proof of the fact that she had absolutely no morals whatsoever, could they?
Groaning, I shuffled until I was sitting on the bunk, my chin resting in my open palm. A truly philosophical position, ideally suited for pondering my fate. What would be my punishment for my little subterfuge? Would I be sent to prison for daring to defy the laws of England? Or put in the stocks? Or transported to the colonies like a common thief? That last thought cheered me up considerably. I had heard that some of the colonies were much more civilized and advanced when it came to the independence of women than our dear mother country. Plus, my aunt and uncle would then be a few thousand miles away from me.
But then I thought of my friends and of my little sister, Ella, and immediately regretted my selfish desire to be shipped off to a criminal colony. I couldn’t leave. And even if I could get out of England, I knew I would rather stay and fight for my rights. Running from my problems had never been my style. Grabbing them by the throat and shaking them until they capitulated, that was more my way of dealing with things.
Not that this particular strategy had proven very helpful to me recently. After all, I had tried to grab political freedom for women by the throat, and it had just slipped through my fingers. Would it be like that with every other kind of freedom? Yes, it probably would. It wasn’t just voting that ladies weren’t allowed to do. I was well aware that there were other, even more essential, freedoms.
Shifting uncomfortably, I could feel Mr Ambrose’s card pressing against my skin where I had stuffed it into my sleeve to conceal it from the Bobby who had taken my personal effects. Yes, a lady definitely lacked certain freedoms. Such as the right to work for a living, for instance.
You are not seriously thinking about going to his office on Monday morning, are you? I heard a nagging little voice from the back of my mind. Forget it! Forget about him. Forget he ever existed, or that you met, or that he offered you a job. He won’t give it to you now, knowing who you really are.
He wouldn’t, would he?
No, certainly not.
But if there was a chance, even a tiny chance, that he might still hire me, shouldn’t I take it? This wasn’t just about demonstrating my will to be free to the oppressors of womanhood. This was more serious. Often enough had I wondered about what would happen with me if my uncle, the one who took me and my siblings in after our parent’s death, were suddenly to die. Deep inside, I knew the answer. There was no one to take care of us. We would be out on the streets faster than you could say Jack Robinson. We would be reduced to begging or seeking charity. And there were already plenty of people in line for that.
What could a young lady like me do, really do, to earn money? Would they even let me into a factory? There were tens of thousands of working-class men, women and children available for those jobs, and I suspected they were ten times better at spinning and weaving cotton than I would be. For one thing, they’d had a few decades of practise.
Besides, these jobs were bone-breaking work for little money. I had taken the time once to calculate whether I could survive on my own out there if I were able to get such a job. A factory worker earned about 1s 3d per day. That made about 400s per year, or in other words, £20. The average rent for a nice, comfortable home was about £100. So, if I took up factory work, I would be able to rent one fifth of a house, provided I managed to live without food, water or clothes for an entire year. I really wasn’t that keen on intense fasting or full-time nudity.
Sometimes I wondered how those working-class people managed to live at all. But I soon stopped wondering, because I had enough problems of my own.
Once again I thought of the card in my sleeve. Yes, factory work was out of the question. This kind of work, however… Mr Ambrose had offered me a job as a private secretary. That was a prestigious post, and well-paid. It could be the way to my freedom, the opportunity I had hoped for all my life. What if I just tried to go there and…?
I shook my head. But the card in my sleeve didn’t seem to think much of my denial. It pressed into my skin in an ever nastier manner, proving itself to have quite sharp and annoying edges. Well… I looked around. There was nobody here but me. Nobody would see. It couldn’t hurt to just take out the card and look at it again, could it?
Quickly, I fished it out and held it up into the moonlight filtering in through my panorama gutter-window.
322 Leadenhall Street
Hm. It still appeared strange to me that it didn’t say anything about his titles or occupation - as if the man expected everybody to know who he was. And maybe, just maybe, he might be right to assume so. Leadenhall Street… the name rang a bell somewhere.