‘How wealthy?’ Maria scoffed. ‘Why, he is only rumoured to be one of the richest men in the entire British Empire. That is all.’
‘Lilly?’ Ella asked suddenly, her voice sounding concerned. ‘Are you not all right?’
I clutched the edge of the table with both hands, not knowing how to answer. I wasn’t sure myself. What had I gotten myself into? ‘I… I feel a little faint,’ I finally mumbled. ‘That’s all.’
But that wasn’t all. Definitely not.
The rest of the meal passed in a blur. I couldn’t force another bite down. I could hardly force myself to remain in my seat. As soon as the others put down their forks and knives, I sprang up and rushed out the door.
‘Lillian,’ I heard my aunt call after me. ‘Lillian, stay here! You can’t go! It is time for your embroidering lesson.’
I didn’t listen. The only thing I ever managed to do at embroidering was perforate my fingers, anyway.
Bounding down the hall, I rushed out through the back door and into the little garden. The small green space welcomed me, its high walls shielding me from all that lay beyond - the bustle and noise of the city, the stench of smoke drifting over from distant factories, and of course… him.
Quickly, I crawled into a little shady space behind a few bushes and hid. It was a favourite place of mine whenever I wanted to be away from my aunt or be alone with my thoughts. With the gently swaying green brush around me, almost hugging me close, I felt safe and protected from the world for a change. A world that seemed determined to turn me into something I was not and would never be.
And when I attempt to break free, I thought, this has to happen.
One of the richest men in the British Empire. Yesterday, I had met, ridiculed and insulted one of the richest men in the British Empire. What was I to do?
Stay here, said a little frightened voice in the back of my mind. A voice that sounded a bit like Ella. He doesn't know who you are yet. He’s only seen your face. If you don't go to meet him, he’ll never find you, and that will be the end of it.
I bit down on my lip. Exactly. That would be the end of it. The end of my only chance for freedom ever. And I wanted freedom. I wanted the chance to go where I pleased, do what I wished, and not to have to answer to any man for my actions.
So what was I to do now?
A lazy morning spent lying on my back and staring at the clouds drifting by hadn’t helped to find an answer to that question. After two hours or so, when my back, still not recovered from being tortured by the police station bunk, began to protest at its treatment from the hard ground, I made myself get up. This wasn’t helping.
Scrambling out from behind my bushes, I slipped through the little garden gate and set out towards Green Park. I felt as tense as a taut wire, and only relaxed a little when I reached the edge of the park. What I needed now was to get a breather, to clear my head of any thoughts about heavy life-altering decisions by means of good company. Which meant, of course, female company. I could only hope they were where I thought they would be…
Quickly, I turned towards the voice I had been hoping for.
That deep bellow was unmistakable! Unlike you would suspect on first hearing it, it didn’t belong to a big, beefy bulldog, but to my best friend Patsy. She and the others already awaited me on the wrought iron park bench under the big oak, the usual meeting place of our little band of wrongdoers.
‘Hello! Here we are!’
Passing gentlemen looked askance at Patsy, clearly indicating by their looks that ladies weren’t supposed to bellow. They forbore however from making any disapproving remarks, probably because Patsy, with a figure like that of a boxing champion and a face like a horse, cut a pretty impressive figure, even for a girl in a hoop skirt. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to come to blows with her.
She picked up her parasol and waved it like a victory flag. ‘Where have you been, Lilly? Get your behind over here!’
The other two turned around and spotted me, too. Flora smiled shyly, and Eve raised her tiny pink parasol, waving it so energetically one could have mistaken it for a fluttering hummingbird’s wing.
‘Patsy is holding a speech,’ she yelled across the remaining distance. I quickened my step, already feeling better. This would take my mind off other things. ‘She’s telling us how she will convince all the stinking rich people of London to give up their money for her latest charity.’
‘You could threaten to impale them on your parasol,’ I suggested, settling down on the only free place on the bench and grinning from ear to ear. It was good to see my friends.
Patsy snorted. ‘That might be the only way to actually get it done. You wouldn’t believe how tightly some people hold on to their money. Oh wait, I forgot about your uncle. You would believe.’
‘I would,’ I concurred. ‘So, what is this charity event you’re organizing?’
Patsy rolled her eyes. ‘Ask rather how many dozen I’m organizing. One in favour of the workhouses, one in favour of St. Vincent’s Orphanage, one in favour of everything you can think of, and I’ll be lucky if I get more than a few pennies for any of them. But it’s the event in favour of women’s suffrage that has me really worried.’
‘Why?’ I wanted to know. ‘Aren’t any of the guests likely to give money?’
A scowl appeared on Patsy’s face, and for a moment she really did look like a Rottweiler. ‘Hardly. The problem is that there likely won’t be any guests. So far, nobody has accepted my invitation.’
‘Honestly. I even got a note back from Lady Metcalf, saying that… how did she put it again? Ah yes, saying “how scandalous” it is that I am “trying to erode the pillars of civilization by destroying woman’s natural role in life”.’
I patted her hand.
‘That’s horrible! And after you gave yourself so much trouble in organizing everything. I’m so sorry for you.’
‘Don’t be.’ The scowl on Patsy’s face was replaced by a look of grim satisfaction. ‘Be sorry for Lady Metcalf. You don't know what I said in my answering note.’
I couldn’t prevent a grin from spreading over my face. No, I didn’t know. But I knew Patsy, and could imagine.
‘By the way,’ I asked, ‘how did the election go? I didn’t catch the results.’