Mrs Brank was determined, as recompense for all her expense in feeding and clothing us girls for all those years, to squeeze as much social advancement out of us as humanly possible, and would have happily auctioned us off to the highest bidder if by so doing she could have gained an invitation to a duchess’s tea party. The sale of relatives, however, unfortunately being illegal in England, she was confined to trying to marry each of us off to as rich and noble a bridegroom as possible, thus killing two birds with one stroke: not only would she be ridding herself of expensive mouths to feed, but she also would be gaining entrance into higher society through her nephews-in-law. In this way, the six bothersome girls who had infested Mrs Brank’s home for years would finally be turned from unremunerative properties into valuable investments.
Hitherto, this brilliant scheme had met with little success. All six of us were still unmarried, and if I had my way, things were certainly going to stay that way, at least in my own case.
My dear aunt, with the natural instinct of the born financier, sensed this reluctance on the part of her property - i.e. me - to be dispensed with at a good profit, and was not very pleased about it. She had pointed out more than once that we would not always be able to count on her and her husband’s generosity, and that after their death, nobody would provide for us if we were not married.
‘And what if I want to provide for myself?’ I had asked her once when the subject had come up.
She had stared at me as if I had been speaking a foreign language, and then given me a sour grimace which was probably supposed to have been a smile. She had thought I was joking.
Well, here and now was a chance to provide for myself. A real chance. Thoughtfully, I stared at the card again. Money. Money to earn for myself. A way to freedom.
If I didn’t take it… then it would be the street for me. Or worse, the workhouse.
I looked around. Not that I had ever seen a workhouse, myself - but I had heard the stories whispered all around London. This charming little cell might actually give a good indication of what life in such a pigsty of humanity would be like. Criminals and poor people were about the same thing in this glorious metropole of the British Empire, and their accommodations were probably similar. Of course, as a poor workhouse inmate, I wouldn’t have the luxury of a cell to myself, and the food would probably be scarcer, because, unlike criminals, poor people don’t generate paperwork when they die of hunger. But it was only to be expected that criminals would get better treatment. After all, thieves and murderers were of some interest to the general public: they were the subject of heroic ballades and gripping newspaper articles. They had to be kept alive until they could be hanged to the cheers of the crowd. Poor people, on the other hand, were just dirty and dull. Who would want to waste food and living space on them?
And that was the bright future that awaited me. Unless… Unless Mr Ambrose…
Suddenly, I heard a faint noise. Was it really what I thought? Yes! The jingle of keys. Someone was coming. Quickly, I tucked the card away and looked up. Startled by the sudden bright glow, I blinked and shielded my eyes with my hand. I had been so deep in thought that I hadn’t noticed how the time had flown by. Now I saw a faint orange glow falling through the window into the cell. The sun was rising. The jingling from outside the cell grew louder and was joined by the sound of heavy footsteps.
I watched the cell door apprehensively. After a few more moments, a thick-set bobby appeared from around the corner. I could see him approach through the iron bars of the door. He unlocked it with a rusty key and pulled it open, gesturing for me to exit.
‘What now?’ I asked, not managing to keep apprehension from creeping into my voice.
The portly constable frowned. ‘What do ye mean, “what now”, Miss?’
‘What will happen to me? How will I be punished?’
He blinked like a little piggy. Then, he opened his mouth and started to laugh. He continued to laugh for some time, holding his belly all the while. The keys jingled in the rhythm of his merriment.
‘Oh my God, Miss,’ he gasped, still holding his belly. ‘We ain’t gonna punish people for things like that! A woman trying to vote? We might as well punish every nutter running around in the streets, and then we’d be busy till kingdom come. Why, only the other day I met a man in a pub who told me that we’re all descendants of apes!Clearly off his rocker, the chap. And I didn’t even reprimand him.’ He chuckled once more. ‘Now come on, Miss. It’s time for ye to go.’
‘I’m not going to be thrown into prison?’ I demanded, actually sounding a little offended. I had expected some horrendous punishment. After all, I had bravely defied the chauvinist establishment. That deserved some recognition, at the very least, didn’t it? A few years ago, at the Peterloo massacre, the authorities had come down hard on a crowd of working-class men demonstrating for their right to vote, resulting in twelve dead and three-hundred injured. And now they were simply going to let me go, just because I was a woman? There was no justice in this world! ‘That’s not fair! They’re not even going to put me on trial?’
The bobby shook his head.
‘Nay. We wouldn’t want to bother a judge with this, he’d fine us for wasting his time. Now come on, Miss.’
For a moment, I considered whether I should insist on my right to go to prison. But at heart I was a practical person, and I really didn’t want to spend another night on that bunk bed. So, grudgingly, I rose and followed the constable out of the cell to the small office of the police station, which smelled faintly of spit tobacco and bacon.
‘Just wait a moment, Miss, while I get your things,’ the still-smiling bobby said and waddled off to a cupboard in the corner. Opening the cupboard door, he rummaged around inside and came back with something big and black in his hand. ‘There ye go, Miss,’ he said in a stern and annoyingly fatherly manner, handing me all my personal belongings, contained in the top hat I had worn when I first set out on my little adventure. ‘I really hope this will be a lesson to ye.’
‘Yes it will,’ I assured him, adding to myself, too quietly for him to hear: ‘I’ll make sure not to curtsy next time.’
Yes, next time I wouldn’t get caught. Next time, I would succeed, because now I knew how hazardous good manners could be. I had never entirely agreed with my aunt, who had always thought them of such great importance, and now I finally knew I had been right all along. They were superfluous and dangerous - they could get you thrown into prison!