I play the piano at church on a Sunday and at the brothel during the week. The venues are different: one dark and draughty with echoing voices, the other dark and snug with a zoo of giggles and curses. The audiences are the same. We know each other and say nothing as we accept the body of Christ into our nervous mouths. For the first year of my work, I waited to be betrayed by a shocked gentleman, but now I am confident our own sins are at the tip of our tongues and we care little for those of others. Why should I mind if Mr. Richardson will be tormented by imps for his passion for young women? Why should I mind if Susan Carrington makes her living in this life and will frazzle for it in the next? I was a good Christian who tried to save the souls of the poor until I joined them in economic desperation. I no longer pray to the Good Lord at my bedtime, but I do revere the Virgin. She was a poor woman and a generous one, and I am certain she still loves me. Sometimes I can feel it, feel her holy light lift the darkness in which I make music.
When I was younger, I was a good Christian, yet I gave little thought to either the afterlife or to the Saints themselves. I was a woman who delivered charity to help keep young mothers out of the workhouse, and I taught my own maid to read the Good Book. I said Grace and I sang psalms in church, and I loved to play hymns for my older relatives. My husband's family felt their son was blessed. Yet it was all habit to me, or play, for what else but good works has a young married woman got to do? It is now as I am old and decaying, now as I work in a house of sin and worse, enjoy it, that I have given thought to my punishments and my rewards, and I have begun to scrutinize the Bible for the merciful God, not the jealous one.
My husband had children from a wife who died, and he did not care for more. My mother and my sisters and my aunts and my cousins and my one friend, they told me how lucky I was that I was unfettered by that type of wifely duty. He touched me in need only twice, and I suffered the brutality of it with dignity. He was silent throughout but gazed at me with curious contempt while I struggled not to weep beneath him. It was as if he was punishing me, conquering me. It is only now he is dead that I realize it was with hate he was taking me, not uncontrollable desire. My husband wanted to tame me, domesticated though I already was.
I work with the girls with the lost souls whom I once pitied. We do not talk much, me with them. They are sometimes coy around me as if I were their mother. I try not to look prim and worry them, but when I catch sight of my tight knotted hair flecked with grey, my set jaw, the high widow gown, I wonder that I do not put the customers off their business also. I used to pity these girls, but when I see myself now, it is me I pity.
How ludicrous I now think it that I, slave to one man, vehemently believed I must free these women. They are trapped by their own circumstances, certainly, yet so was I. And when they take the night off work to pretty themselves for a real sweetheart, glistening like religious statues, or when they come laughing home in the dead of night from mischief I am not meant to know of, I wish I had my youth again and had never submitted to marriage.
My husband was a merchant, fifteen years my senior, yet I cannot imagine I will outlive him many years. He was a merchant, but more importantly he was a gambler and a philanderer, and I knew of neither until he died. His mistress knew; she knew him much better than I ever did. He left us all, his three grown up children, his mistress, his wife, with nothing. She cried more than I at his funeral, and by then I knew why she wept so much over a second cousin. He left her nothing, and he left me the near empty shell of a house. He left me humiliated and alone with just my books for comfort. He took me when I was a bluestocking wife and left me a bluestocking widow.
This is two years past, and I can remember the circumstances but not the emotions. I am sure I believed I had loved him, dwelt on our thick discussions of literature and music and even affairs of state. He had found a companion in me and I in him, and the loss must have besieged me, overwhelmed me. When I think of me then, I see a woman older than I am now, hunched by the fire, staring into the dying embers. I must have been thinking of what I should do now, in my loneliness and my grief. I can see it on that woman's shoulders; she carries it like a cross. Her hair isn't grey yet, but she is beginning to die, a final gift from her erring husband.
And I remember a woman two years ago who was staring at the plates on the floor she had just smashed, pieces of china from her wedding day, and she looked horrified at the mess she had made, the anger she had shown. And now she is mouthing, silently mouthing: "I hope he is in hell." She makes no sound, for he has taken that voice from her. He has left her the house instead. She has somewhere to sleep and to take her meals in, and a fireplace to sit beside all alone.
That woman was me, and only those images can make sense of the transformation from the charitable sweet wife to the woman who plays dirty ditties on the piano and envies the whores their liberty. The woman that was, was visited by the Madam of this house and offered a little more life.
I came to call on Mrs. Lawling after hearing her in church. She was a sweet player, and I do so love her 'Ave Maria' that raises the voices of the sweet cherubs in the choir. I had been told by one of the more vicious girls—who I no longer keep—that Mrs. Lawling had befallen a common fate of middle class women who had much reading and little true knowledge of life. Her husband had visited our brothel many a time until we heard rumour he was infected. We keep a clean house here, and while it seems cruel to exclude through hearsay, it would have made the girls fret indeed to have him still visit. Beside, he was a polite enough gentleman on the stairway and in the lounge, but in the bedroom he was not a popular customer. The gentler girls called him uncaring or even heartless, although he never tried to harm them.
So I called on Mrs. Lawling, which might have seemed a reckless act, but I had met her as a younger woman and knew her kind enough. She had given me charity and attempted to save me from the fate I was determined to career toward regardless. She worked relentlessly with us fallen women, and I thought then she had a curious fascination toward us. She taught me to write my name and then, a little more education. I was ever grateful, as that helped me set up my own house rather than spend desperate older years on my back with less distinguished men.
Her home was a lot like a church. The musty scent of dead still clung to the timid furniture. I wondered it did not depress her, living all alone like this with her husband's smell haunting her, and when I saw how old she had become—and she not yet one and forty!—I felt sorry for her. I introduced myself, although not my purpose, and she let me in without a flicker of recognition. There was some element of the woman I had met before, but this woman seemed so weary, as if the young passionate Christian had been all used up.
She was appalled when I told her my labors as a Madam, and it was difficult to not laugh or to flee when I had to explain my reason for visiting her house. My front room was a mixed company parlour, and the authorities had yet to catch any saucier business under my roof. But I was always nervous it would happen soon and thought a pianist of her reputation would provide ample cover as well as entertainment for the customers and the girls.
"I have never heard such audacity in my life," she spat, as if come to life again, and for a moment I doubted I had made the right choice. Maybe she would report me and my house to the authorities herself!
"But Mrs. Lawling, you see, I know of your situation, and in your position, the scandal your husband left you in... I regret that I have upset you so, and I do hope you are given other choices, but please do not assume my offer such an appalling one."
It was as if both women I had met, the slumped over lifeless one and the horrified prudish one, both collapsed into one shaking body. She made noises like a kitten in a sack, little mews and fumbling breaths. She tried to stop herself and could not, and I felt like an awkward mother hen as I coaxed her arms around me and let her sobs fall on my shoulder.
I found some sherry in the house after she was calmer, and since then she has had quite a taste for it, relishes the tipple I pour her at the beginning of every visit to the house I keep. She accepted my offer, and we have both profited from it. My house is a livelier one, and the woman is a livelier one. She is upright again, her back ever so straight as she plays her tunes on the keys. I like to watch her, sometimes catch her smiling secretly when the girls sing rude choruses to her traditional songs. Above the piano I have positioned a lovely painting that Sylvia herself painted, here in the East End and especially for us.
I worry for Sylvia that her Mother Emmeline will disown her should she know about the company she keeps, befriending the very dirtiest women in society! But she laughs at me and says her Mother will disown her soon enough. She may laugh, but I can see the sadness in her. And then the shadow passes, and she will seize one of the militant girls and whisk her into the blackness of London at night. When the papers come in the morning, they are full of outrage that those Suffragettes have taken out another window or a golf course in the country, and the papers say, "No! Our Britain shall not give into terrorism!" And I shake my fist at the triumphant and tired whores I work so hard to keep. They are a disgrace, I say, don't they know it? And they shake their wayward heads and say they don't believe a word of it, know instead that I am proud of them. Sometimes our pianist lady hears our whispered gossipings, and I fear she will be shocked by their actions outside of the house. But it is almost as if she doesn't hear it; she makes no mention of suffrage, and nor does she tut when she glances at the headlines. It is curious that it is me, grown up fat on crime and decadence, that is the prude.
"Sylvia painted it." Ashley leans on my piano and blows smoke rings out of her nose. She is dressed as a man as she usually does, her hair cropped like a criminal. She said they did that to her when she was a little girl in prison, and she grew to like it so much, she kept it like that. Ashley frightened me for my first few months here. I would feel myself grow stiff and cold when I heard her manly tread in the hall and that raucous laugh, dense with tobacco smoke. The girls are divided, some quite oddly taken with her and others finding her an affront to themselves and the house. But she is the niece of the Madam herself and also arrives with coins or with gifts for the girls who like her. I dare not ask, but I presume her a sometimes customer, although what on earth the girls can do for her I cannot think. I once startled myself awake dreaming of her kissing poor little Eliza Brent as if she were a gentleman and Eliza her love. I have not cast my thoughts on it since though. I have not gone so far from God that I am seated with the Devil.
And yet now I am not afraid of Ashley, no matter how strange she is. She is dressed as a man and has a false eye, a different colour from her other. They say she was shot in it by the first man she robbed. The other girls whisper that she fell in love with him and he broke her heart, and that is why she is so strange. I have heard Ashley laugh that off as nonsense, declare she lost it in her years as a pirate, and then again that it was poked out when she tried to climb over the prison fence, and then again that a fairy cursed her. The girls adore her tales and pester her for more. The woman—if she can be called that—is so vain, she encourages them no end. Sometimes she persuades me to play a tune for her to sing a ballad to, and the girls cluster around her as if she were a handsome minstrel.
She is a strange fish, but she is the only one who talks to me without deference. She does make me feel shameful sometimes with her probing questions as to my other life, or my religious beliefs, or my husband. But I feel she does not mean it unkindly.
And here she is, leaning on my piano. It is early in the evening, and there is only one customer yet, and he is abed with Charlotte and such a young gallant handsome one, they say she will keep him a long time. How I have changed! I can scarcely believe I am here saying such things.
"I do not believe I am familiar with any women Artists," I respond, surprised to find myself ignorant next to this grown up street urchin.
She raises her brows. They are drawn on with a deep black kohl, although the rest of her face is unpainted. She glances at her hands, and I follow her gaze. Her hands are feminine, long, and tapered, although brutishly bitten. They do look like artists hands. Maybe she is one herself. She is surely more an artist than a muse.
"Sylvia Pankhurst. That Artist," she replies almost sullenly.
And I certainly know of Sylvia Pankhurst. She is the most uncouth of her family, driven with a harder desire than her mother or her sister, who are most ladylike next to her. And I realize that I have actually met her, the Sylvia who has stood in this parlour mocking the papers or drenched in rain in the early hours—what strange times to keep, and what strange company. She must be quite wealthy, and yet her frocks are as poor as mine. I never knew that it was the same Sylvia who spoke at rallies and meetings and fled for her life when stoned by angry mobs.
"And she is a friend of yours, too?" I enquire boldly. Ashley looks amused at my questioning, pleasantly surprised by it. The room is growing quieter, the more ordinary girls noticing the conversation between we two strange women.
"She is a friend to all of us," she answers aggressively. "She is not like the others who care just for their rich cronies. She doesn't even look upon us as a rabble of whores and criminals, but rather as women like her, women who want something different, who want more." Here she stumbles for the first time I have ever witnessed, a very emotional speech for this woman. She seems quite exhausted by the passion she feels and frustrated at her inability to find the vocabulary for it. Her whole face contorts with the battle of it, and eventually she turns from me as if ashamed of herself.
"Play that tune again, the one about the Cornish girl who loved that sailor boy. Go on," pleads Janet, herself once from the country. I am grateful for the mundane distraction and immediately take up the jaunty notes, my fingers light on the keys and my head heavy with a confusion I could not profess to explain. I feel both pained and joyous sitting here on the red padded stool, Sylvia Pankhurst's watercolour above the piano, the young Heathen women behind me humming along, and the doorbell chiming for attention almost unheeded—as if these women were here for their own pleasure, not at the beck and call of that ring.
It was morning when I met Suffragettes again, only one night before I was to play again at the whorehouse. I was tired from the play of the night before, had been driven home by the house's cab driver as usual, to find my cold bed small comfort. I slept badly, as I have since widowhood, but woke later than usual to hear a doorbell. At first I thought I had fallen asleep at the house, as nobody would call for me here. I lay there for some small moments imagining it was a gentleman caller for Fanny or Clara or the dark gypsy girl with the name I could not pronounce. But I was in my home and the bell was for me, and I leapt to my feet and ran to open it, throwing on a dressing robe as I did so. I was like a young and romantic fool expecting a beau. When I stood there in my indecent clothes, the door open to the roaring, stinking street and two portly, regal ladies like sentries at a palace, I felt ridiculous. Perhaps my illness had at last infected my brain. I was aging, growing mad.
I apologized stammeringly for my appearance, but they smiled in unison like trained nurses and said please not to worry. I invited them in if only so as not to stand on that doorstep myself any longer, and in they squeezed their wide frames. They followed me through into my dingy parlour, where my own rarely played piano stood neglected and dusty. There was a bottle of sherry on the shelf, which I noted to my horror. I begged them to sit and explained I had no maid at present, there having been familial difficulties...
"Oh please, Mrs. Lawling," one of the ladies insisted, "during this great struggle we can look beyond such insignificant matters."
And I thought, what after the struggle? What then?
But the women had grown further swollen with the mention of Suffrage. They sat on my raggedy couch as proud as overfed pugs. They told me of the sisters in prison on hunger strike, of the WSPU, of Emmeline Pankhurst and "dear Christabel," of the right for women with property—such as myself—to vote. Should criminals be allowed to vote and not us? In a Christian country?
And I sat and watched them as if I were not there. As if I had been possessed by the spirit of a radical woman. Of a reckless one, as if I were Sylvia herself or that peculiar Ashley, for I felt not as if I were like them, but as if I were different. I owned property that I was helpless with, I had education that I could do nothing with, like them. And yet I desired change with the Utopian urges of those that know nothing when I asked, "And what of the common women? The poor women?"
The woman who had been silent until now answered gently, as if I were insane and should not be roused to terrible behaviour: "They will be catered for. When women have the vote, we will look after our poor all the better."
"Yes, of course we will." I replied, calm, reassuring. I signed the petition and said, please, inform me of your meetings, I would so love to come along. The women, the genteel women, left. They handed me a paper that gave news of talks that women I had heard of were giving. None of them were the women I played piano for, the hasty, silly girls who crept into the night like an invisible army and came back as if they had been visited by Gabriel himself. And there was I in the middle of both strange worlds, the same proclaimed army, the same side. I thought of Ashley, cigarette in hand, strutting stridently. We are women who want more, and turning away because there are not the words. And suddenly, quite suddenly, yes, like an Angel visiting, I knew I wanted more, too, and more of what exactly, I could not find the words. But I was not frustrated by my findings. I was liberated, as if I had stumbled on a part of myself I had not even been looking for, only to discover it was the answer itself. I stayed in my night-gown all day, singing sweet ditties about milkmaids to myself, and blessed with my own pure thoughts of freedom.
It wasn't like me to be bashful, but I had no time to catch Mrs. Lawling alone, and I did not want to ask for favours in front of the girls. But she arrived always promptly, and there was our Madam with two sherries for both of them, as if they were maiden Aunts, not running an unruly house such as this. And then, at the end of the night, she did not tarry like some of the customers or the girls but would yawn and ask politely for a driver. She would sit straight on her stool and play anything requested. Even if her ears turned red at some of the lyrics, she would play on as jauntily as if she were born to this, not thrown into it like a Christian to the lions.
She used to dread me coming, and I tried to make it better by telling jokes and offering her cigarettes and lightening up the dark cloud she carried. But her big brown eyes would turn up at me as if I were Jezebel herself. She was so ladylike, I could not believe her arrived here, although we all have our own odd stories. I told many of mine, hoping she would smile at them or weep at my awful history, but there she sat with a straight spine and a chilling gaze at her music sheets.
But she softened eventually to me. I am a charming creature after all. It is my life's works—confidence tricks—and it was heartening to discover that not even she was beyond my approach. But with her I gave in, too. I did not wish to trick her. She had no money after all. I came to her as she to me, with nothing but truth to offer.
She asked for a driver and he was out and instead there was me. I have driven cabs many a time, and I love the shock on the ladies' faces when they knew me for one of their own. But Mrs. Lawling nodded sweetly, yes, that was fine, and I drove her home in the freeze of winter without payment at all, my gloves frosting onto the reins and she snug in the cab and silent. I did this all just to get her home, for a few rehearsed words at the door. How many times I had longed to ask and had not, and now we were there, her home only a little richer than my own.
"Mrs. Lawling," I said as I helped her out of the cab, offering my arm as if I were a gent. She indulged it all now, even fondly I thought.
"Thank you ever so, Ashley."
And she turned to go and my stomach churned and my words lurched forward like a desperate puppy.
"Please, Mrs. Lawling, I want to ask you something."
She turned, her aging face ghostly in the dull light.
"Mrs. Lawling, I want you to teach me to read. Not for nothing. I'll pay you, I will. And if you tell anyone, anyone at all, I'll..." I left the threat hanging in the hail.
"Ashley, my name is Jane, just Jane, and I will teach you to read and not tell a soul. And I don't want any of that dirty money you've robbed."
I split open my mouth to lie to her, and she hushed me. "I am happy just for your company. I am a lonely old woman. And I am dying."
And I had known that always. The girls had always said, and still I left her with my eyes watering and a belly that felt full of something good, although I had been hungry since I was born.
I went back to the whorehouse that night and drank port with Eliza, who I sat on my knee and cradled her head in my breast when she grew too drunk to talk. I put her to bed, but I did not stay with her as I often did. I went out with one of the other girls who is as militant as me. We planted an explosive in the letterbox that would mean no box when the postman arrived, but carefully—we wouldn't hurt a soul, not some poor young man doing his job. And the post-box exploded, and the pavements were painted with Votes For Women!, and in the morning newspaper there was the story alongside a picture of Emmeline Pankhurst, speaking out against ruthless campaigning as if we were the enemy, not they. And I wondered, at her there in the picture, and where she had been that night, cozy in her bed with comforting righteous dreams. And I was read a short report written by her of some time she had spent in prison, and I thought, it was so short, your hunger strike, but for some of us our hunger was not a strike at all but Fact and Circumstance and being a child with no food there at all, and I hated her then, and already I felt she would betray us, her with her grand speeches and her publicity all for herself.
All these women with such faith in their own sex, and as for me, I was sent to prison as a child, betrayed by my own Mother. It is not that I am suffering for it. I just understand, know a little more, have a little less blind faith. To see sharply is not such a terrible thing.
I was so dazed at Ashley's request that I became very friendly with it. She seemed, despite all her threats, such a vulnerable young thing, and yet an admirably strong one. I was more than happy, I was honoured to teach a young hooligan like her the great works. She stood in the evil hail at the bottom of my path and requested learning, her hand on her trousered hip, her face frowning as if expecting rejection. and I, still bathed in my new freedom, answered with nothing short of total truth, I was glad to be asked, and I was a sad and desperate woman. I even told her I was dying, although she asked no more. She did not thank me, just left, and although I waved her goodbye, she did not turn back to see me.
I slept well for the first time in widowhood then, had dreams that I forgot upon waking, and arose refreshed. Although Ashley and I had not made a time for her arrival, I had an instinct she would come today. I threw open the windows, letting an air in even if it were chilled, and then played a familiar harmony on my piano. I looked out my window, once, twice, and infinitely more, still she was not here, and I was unusually restless, fretful she would not find words enough from me.
Finally there she was, bounding up the path as if she were a late deliver boy. When I saw her, I rushed to meet her, to assure her that we had not set a time and I had all day, all day at last to be with a friend, not alone and unnecessary. But she was on the step, breathless in her trousers, her face flushed unbecomingly.
She greeted me with a firm handshake, uncertain I think, about how normal ladies meet. I liked her all the more for it, and called her behind me into the lounge where the two Suffragettes had once been. It was tidier now. She asked for water, and I fetched her it myself. I did not know quite where to begin, and then she said to me, "Tonight. Would you dare to come with us tonight?"
At first unmentionable, monstrous thoughts raced through my heart, as if from my fingers up my arms and past my collarbone. And then I quietened and knew she meant the things the girls do, the militant ones, the ones I read about and play piano for and never, ever talk to.
"What for?" I asked, my voice nearly as croaky as her own.
"Tonight, we are, many of us, taking to the streets." Her eyes were wild. She was possessed with her own self. I have never seen a woman more her own than this, and I was so taken by it, by her, I was agreeing to anything although I was, am a proper lady, surely.
I was infected by her brilliance, by her radiating power.
"Tell me." I insisted. I felt alive on this, quite, quite alive.
"There are hundreds of us tonight. Maybe thousands. We are going to damage London to such an extent they cannot, they will not, refuse us the vote any more, not any longer. It is economics, economical sense that will make them give way, and we will have the vote. At least."
"And is that enough, then?" I asked, dreamily, I, who had never fought for anything.
"It is not the winning it that will free our sex," the girl replied. "It is our battle for it."
Ashley tried to trick me into a nighttime outing that she and the girls were thrilled about. She said even Mrs. Lawling was coming along, even our uptight pianist, but I did not believe her, and come that night Mrs. Lawling declined after all. She arrived here so pasty looking that at first I feared consumption, and she hung guiltily in her widow's frock and said she was too weak to go, too afraid after all. The girls shrugged, not comprehending what it must mean to a woman like her. She and I stayed in and shut the brothel, as all of our hussies were out causing trouble on the streets with their stays well up.
I could not approve. I, too, wanted the vote, but through reasoned argument, surely, not through such terror tactics. I felt it did the cause no good to run hysterically in the roads, destroying property and frightening innocent people. The girls dismissed me, the careless youth they were, and it is true, I had never seen such high colour, such fervour on a healthy face as when these wenches returned from their wildness. They, paid for by men and giving themselves easily, found romance instead in this untrodden route.
And that night they were losing me money, and I had no patience with them then, but watched them dress to go out, pinching each other and hooting like lunatics, while Mrs. Lawling and I sipped tea. I had asked her to stay a while nonetheless, and she smiled a little polite smile and accepted.
We watched the girls together. Ashley pulling down their bonnets so they would not be recognized. She was like an older brother to them, except the too familiar kisses she rained on Eliza. She fussed over them as if proud of their beauty, she so masculine with hers. And I observed her raise her eyes twice to Mrs. Lawling, and Mrs. Lawling lower hers as if she were ashamed of something. I wondered at what had passed between them, thought that Ashley had embarrassed Mrs. Lawling in some way. I hoped she had not frightened her with her odd passions toward the gentle sex.
Finally they left, and at last we were quiet. We chatted a little of women artists. Mrs. Lawling had been reading about them, but I knew of none except our own Sylvia. And after our chat my guest rose and said she must be going now, and many thanks and she would pray for the safety of all the girls and especially Ashley, whom she feared would be more brave than warranted. She shivered, although it was not cold.
That dreadful night. If only I had persuaded Mrs. Lawling to stay longer, to stay the night, for I was spooked on my own in this house usually brimming with my ladies and their callers. But I let her go thinking nothing of it, and she was happy to walk as it was a warmer night than usual, and, after all, she did not live far away. Not two hours later I was wishing that I had forced a cab on her, called back our driver after dismissing him, or even walked her home myself. Or, at least, if I had warned her of what might happen, should she be seen to leave an establishment like this, or suspected, or indeed, simply been a woman on her own at night.
It felt like a short time for me before she returned, but for her it must have felt an age. I was heading up for bed, too sleepy to wait anymore for my erring ladies. I was a light sleeper, and their keen knocks would have woken me easily. But when I heard the sharp short rap on the door, it did not sound like them but more like the police, and I temporarily froze, so afraid of them that I am. I walked slowly, I wish now I had ran, and called "Who is it?" through the door, thinking to stall them and remove any improper items that may be adorning the house. It was a lucky time for a call, what with the girls all out and just an old dour lady like me left. But the answering voice was not that of a bobby.
"Please help me." It whispered, so weakened, so needy, I could not tell it was Jane Lawling.
I flung open the locks and drew back the door, wide awake now and engulfed in urgency. She tumbled into the room, throwing a petrified look behind her. She reminded me then of a young vixen I had attempted to rescue as a soft-hearted country girl. And even in the silence of the room, the hooves of the hunt were in her ears.
She was dishevelled, her whole body leaning askew, her gloved hands visibly shaking, her dry eyes blinking as if literally she could not believe it, as if she could shake whatever awful image she had from her vision. I was glad we were alone, the girls not pestering her and flocking around useless like pigeons fluttering down for the crumbs of crisis. I took her body and pushed her into the high backed seat. Her knees bent woodenly, and down she sat. I poured her a sherry and lifted it to her lips and then took a hefty swig myself. Her mouth barely opened, but down it trickled, and I noted by her pale throat that she did swallow the medicine.
I poured another, and then another, meaning unashamedly to get us both drunk. Gradually she loosened, took hold of the glass herself, and shoved me away from her as if disgusted by my care. She no longer shook. I wanted her to speak before the shrieking banshees returned. Perhaps I was a little harsh with my questioning.
"What happened, Jane?"
It was the first time I had called her Jane.
And she replied coolly, as if it were not her speaking, in so much detail it made me squirm. She had been picked up by two constables on "suspicion of prostitution." If I flinched at that comment, she soon reassured me it was not near here but right outside her home. They made no mention of this dwelling, only said she was a woman alone.
"I am," said Jane dreamily, "and I am a woman alone."
And I knew the rest even before she told me. It was the story of many, many women I knew. They walked her away from her own home and explained with relish that she was to be tested for syphilis, the compulsory tests on suspicious women—there had been outbreaks aboard Her Majesty's navy ships in vast numbers. It was a matter of national security, they told her. She grew more terrified. They had to control the outbreak, they explained.
After two hours of her pacing the dank cell, they dragged her into the testing room, strapped her down, although she did not fight back, did not think of it.
"And they stood watching while the nurse, a brute of a woman, abused me. I am bleeding from the onslaught. Even my husband could not hurt me like this. A test, just a test, if I am a clean woman, I have nothing to fear, they said, they said, but I am not a clean woman." She turned her face to me, and her eyes were glazed with intoxication, looked into mine and through me at the piano opposite. "I am infected." She lowered her voice so I could barely catch it. "And none of it is my fault. And now I am ruined, utterly and totally ruined. I was dying, and now I am as good as dead."
What words were there for me to say? We sat together in our silence, and I hope she took some comfort from me. We finished the rest of the bottle before the door banged again, and she gripped hold of me at the hammering, and I said, "Ssh, shh, my dear, it is only our girls." And she smiled, as if it truly were a pleasure to be with such senseless women.
They came roaring in with their untamed natures, and they threw themselves down or gripped and hugged each other or stormed to their bedrooms to find their secret sinful stores of substances. Caroline began to embroil me in the tale of their night, so different from mine, but Ashley shushed her and instead she turned to her friend and repeated their adventures to her. Ashley eyed me candidly even as she began to roll her foul smelling tobacco, and she beckoned to me, or I think she beckoned—her gesture was quite ambiguous—and I followed her into the hallway and then through a door I had never entered before. It was her bedroom, bare as a nun's cell. She poured me a port without asking while I stood silently. I drank the drink even though my head was clouded already, and she sipped hers with a nearly ladylike reserve.
"Sit down, Jane." She reminded me of a doctor just then, and I giggled to imagine it, of her, a lady doctor in her brash suit, prescribing nonsense as a cure for reason.
Little did I know how right I was.
"You are not well, Jane. What has happened to you?"
"Am I now wearing the horror of it for everyone to see?" I replied, slurring, I am ashamed to say. "I was stopped by our fine policemen on suspicion of... of whoring." How dishonest that I could work in this place and yet struggle to say the words.
Ashley nodded, lips tight. " Oh god, it is awful, I know, I know."
I was startled. "They did it to you, too?" I could not comprehend a woman like Ashley being subjected to such cruelty, and she now so fine, so lackadaisical.
"A couple of times, but for me it has been no terrible thing. Some of the girls, some it is dreadful for, and they have their spirits crushed like poor, innocent cockroaches. We are uncommon women in our very different ways. I hope you do not let it hurt you."
I was furious with her then, enraged. As if I could "allow" such hurts, as if they were mine to choose, eeney-meeny-miney-mo, as if anything in my life had truly been my decision and not that of the men around me, of my husband, my father, or the state, or the recent dirty grips of the police dragging me into humiliation. She in her ridiculous costumes like a walking pantomime, like the principal boy sauntering onto stage as if she wrote her own plays, and with her useless window-smashing and her cocksure speeches and her lies she fed the women to fatten their unhealthy passions, and I a widow, an infected widow, dying of syphilis, as soon, surely, all of London would know, and I launched all of this at her, in no reasonable order, words and words as if it were all her fault, and she sat and watched me immobile and stiff as if bracing herself, as if it mattered at all to her.
And when I was finished and had no words left, I leant into the back of the stiff chair and realized how tired, how utterly exhausted I was, and my head spun with my own misery. And I was sorry, too, that I had been so mean to Ashley, who was only another woman living her life, just a different one to me.
"I had syphilis, too, Jane. Not everyone dies from it. There are cures."
"What cure?" I barked, unbelieving.
"In Madagascar there is a woman I met, in one of the pirate colonies. She cured me."
I shook my head, I had never heard of such a place. More tedious fantasies deigned to make our lives richer.
"I don't believe you."
She came and leant over me, her square jaw close to my face. Her own face was fuzzy with my tiredness and my intoxication. But her eye seemed bright as if she were a night creature. And then, so slow it was unstoppable, she buried her mouth into mine, breathing sweet fumes into my breath, her soft lips swelling, her tongue in mutiny in my unromantic mouth, and the kiss, a short simple kiss, reached me everywhere, shocked my brain and my body with a potency even an opium den could not envision. She kissed me, and I was powerless and powerful, and I knew then it was not her stories that kept all the girls wide-eyed at her big feet.
I stared at her triumphant face.
"See, Jane, could you have believed that was possible?"
"I still don't." I sighed, smiling foolishly.
"I am offering you an enormous life, a long one. Come away with me. I know of a ship that leaves next week, and I am intending to ride on it. Come with me, and we will heal you, and you will believe everything you have secretly listened to in the parlour."
I blushed that she knew me. I was so confused by my racing heart that her voice seemed quite hypnotic, scoundrel that she was.
I said I did not know, I had to think, it was all too much, and she kissed my hand with flair and wished me goodnight, and left me there to sleep off my bewilderment in her room. I was afraid she would creep in and taunt me more, but when I fell into slumber, I could hear her booming voice in the parlour and the friendly rude laughter that followed each of her tales. And when I woke she was still there, quieter but still the laughter even though it was daylight now. I spoke to myself then, something I have never done. I said, "I am forty and three and I have never sat awake all night. Not yet. But I will."
And I tore myself out of the bed as fast as if it were a grave I had found myself in, and how happy I was to open the door not to my cold dark widow home but to drunk and immoral women draped like a scandalous painting around the room. Ashley was sitting with the gypsy girl at her feet, plaiting her hair, and I felt both jealous and joyous.
"It is sunday. You have slept in and missed church." Eliza teased.
And yet I did not mind, for God would be glad for me.
I did not set sail on a boat to any pirate colony with Ashley. She took the Spanish gypsy girl, who was more thrilled than I could have been, and she promised to return within the year with a potion to cure me. I believed her, as I believe in a lot more than just the church, now. I did not set sail, for I suffer terrible seasickness, I feel faint in the heat of foreign parts, and I am happy with my friends here in London. Besides, I am dressed in purple, not black, now, and I intend to win the vote. Ashley says it is worthless, but she is happy for me. And Sylvia, the artist, it is she I sat up with all night discussing it. I was not even tired as sun rose.
When it came time for the ship to depart, we waved Ashley and her companion off in the dead of night, a small gang of women at the illegal harbour. I met a woman pirate, and now I can believe the world is full of wonders.