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.
With sudden realization, my head jerked up from where it rested on my knees and I snapped my fingers. That was it! Wasn't Leadenhall Street in the very heart of the banking district? Where all the largest banks and companies, even the East India Company and the Bank of England, had their offices? What was Mr Rikkard Ambrose doing there if, as I had assumed, he was a simple government official?
Maybe I had misjudged him. There apparently were a few things hidden under that cold, flinty exterior.
What would he say if I took him at his word and on Monday actually… no! Again, I instinctively shook my head, trying to chase the mad thought away. I had to forget about it. It had been a preposterous idea in the first place. He would kick me out of his office as soon as he caught sight of me, or get his goons to do it. Maybe that mountainous fellow Karim. He looked like he could kick you all the way from here to Hampshire. And that wasn’t considering what he could do with that pig sticker of his.
And still… still the possibility was tempting. My eyes glazed over as I considered the possibilities. My own job! My own money, earned with my own hands. Money to do with as I pleased. No longer would I be dependent on my miserly relatives, no longer would I have to dodge my aunt’s not-so-subtle attempts at marrying me off.
The mental image of a vulture-like little woman violently cut short my daydream of independence. Ah yes, my beloved aunt, Mrs Hester Mahulda Brank. Like most greedy people on this wonderful earth, she was most desirous of obtaining what she could not have. First and foremost among those desires was a craving for social status, which her nieces, as daughters of a gentleman, automatically had, and she, as the daughter of a pawnbroker and a lady of questionable honour, was incredibly jealous of.