Patsy kept shooting suspicious glances in my direction. Of our unofficial little secret society for women’s suffrage, she was certainly the most observant one, Eve being too hyper and Flora too shy to remark anything. Patsy noticed my altered behaviour: how I sometimes stared into the air without seeing anything, how I crossed my arms more often than usual as if about to confront an invisible enemy. I’m sure she would have said something if the other two hadn’t been there. So I made sure I was the first to leave, excusing myself on account of having to help my aunt with supper. If she wanted to find something out, Patsy could be determined as an Ascot race horse, and I didn’t want to get trampled underfoot.
I didn’t go home immediately, though. My beloved aunt wouldn’t appreciate any help in preparing a meal she considered far too simple for such a good family as hers. Instead, I went around the little clump of trees in Green Park to a small pond, and fed the ducks for a few minutes. They seemed to appreciate the pieces of dry bread I threw them very much, and it soothed my nerves. Although I felt miserable right now, it was good to know that at least I could make somebody else happy, even if it was only some silly, feathery little beast. The last piece of bread landed in the pond with a soft ‘plop’. I turned and started towards home.
The rest of the day flew by in a whirl of disjointed images. It seemed to take no time at all until I stared at the candle on my nightstand. Around the lone candle flame there was darkness. I was lying in my bed, listening to Ella’s steady breathing in the other bed across the room and staring into the flame so hard it almost hurt my eyes.
This is it, I thought. If I blow out this candle, the day will be over and there will be only one day left before Monday. One day before I have to face him or forget my dream of freedom.
What would I do?
More importantly: What would he do if I did the wrong thing?
He was no jolly fat bobby who would laugh the whole thing off. He might do anything, and a man with his position and power actually could do just about anything he wanted - to me and to my family. Getting me arrested for disturbing the King’s Peace, ruining my uncle’s business… the possibilities were chilling, and not unlikely to come to pass. I remembered every cold, hard line, of his face. Mr Ambrose definitely didn’t look like the kind of man who appreciated being made to look like a fool.
But this was my only chance! The only chance I would ever get to be free.
For the first time in my life I was afraid of the dark. But I screwed up all my courage, leant forward and blew out the candle.
The next day was even worse. In church, I didn’t hear above one word in ten of what the reverend was saying. I tried not to look at him too much because I knew of whom a tall black figure with a stern expression would remind me - only Reverend Dalton wasn’t half as good-looking as… he.
What did I do once I got home?
I honestly couldn’t say. Maybe I actually went through one of my aunt’s embroidering lessons for once. Ella was starting to look worried whenever she glanced my way. I would have liked to reassure her, tell her that everything was all right, but it would have been a more blatant lie than even I was capable of.
Evening came, and then the night. I lay in my bed again, staring at the candle and wondering whether to blow it out or not.
If I did, that was it. No more time to think or evade. It would be Monday, my first day at ‘work’. Or in prison, if he put his mind to it. What was he going to do to me?
I crossed my arms and rolled myself up into a tight, protective ball. Why oh why did things have to be so difficult? Why couldn’t I have a job and my independence without having to fear retribution from one of the most powerful men in the British Empire?
Maybe, if I didn’t blow out the candle, I wouldn’t fall asleep and tomorrow would never come. Yes, that sounded like a good plan!
I lay there, gazing up at my protection, the candle, and wishing fervently that tomorrow would never arrive.
Suddenly, a gust of wind from the open window ruffled the curtains and blew out the candle, plunging me into darkness.
I awoke and thought: Oh God, please don't let it be Monday.
Beside me, in the other bed, Ella yawned and stretched, looking first out of the open window, through which bright, golden sunlight streamed into the room, then turning to beam at me. ‘What a beautiful Monday morning!’
Thank you very much, God.
Faced by the inescapable fact that Judgement Day was upon me, I simply lay there for a while, contemplating my doom. Ella, however, didn’t seem to be aware of the fact that her sister was about to face a masculine monster from the pit. She was already up and dressing herself, humming a merry tune.
‘Come on, Lill,’ she said, calling me by my nickname she only used when nobody else was around. ‘Get out of bed. It’s already eight thirty.’
So what, I wanted to answer, but the words stuck in my throat. Eight thirty? In my mind I heard Mr Ambrose’s cool voice echoing: Be at my office, nine sharp Monday morning.
‘Eight thirty?’ I choked.
Not daring to waste time with an answer, I jumped out of bed, struggled out of my nightdress, and hurriedly started throwing on the dozens of petticoats that we poor females had to stuff under our dresses.
‘What’s the matter?’ cried Ella, alarmed.
‘I have to be somewhere at nine!’ My own voice was slightly muffled because I was trying to force my way through three petticoats at once.
‘Can’t tell you. But it’s frightfully important. Please, Ella, help me with these infernal things? I think I’m stuck!’
‘Here, let me.’ Ella, ever the helpful spirit, didn’t even think of questioning me. Instead she untangled the knotted mess of petticoats I had been trying to ram my head through, and then handed me my dress.
‘Not that one,’ I said, shaking my head at my favourite, simple, gown. ‘The other one.’
Now even Ella’s curiosity was roused. She handed me the fancier of my two dresses, the one with lace trimmings she knew I hated wearing. When I had slipped into it, I rushed to the mirror and started untangling my hair. ‘How do I look? Well? What do you think? Am I presentable?’
Ella stood behind me, watching something that was rarer than a volcano eruption in Chiswick: me, trying to make myself look stylish. In the mirror I could see her mouth open in a silent ‘Oh’ and a blush suffuse her cheeks.