Vanquished, page 2
The next morning, bathed, fed to bursting, and wearing scrupulously clean if ill-fitting clothes, he stood on the train platform at Victoria Station, a coach-class ticket to Kent clenched in his fist for fear he might otherwise lose it.
"The Almighty loves the sinner as well as the saint," William told him just before he boarded. "Be a good lad, work hard, love the Lord and you will surely prosper."
In later years when Harry would recall his first and only meeting with William Ewart Gladstone, then Britain's prime minister, it would be with a mixture of amusement and awe. For it was in that unlikely encounter on a bitter winter night with the man known as the People's William that Harry Stone had begun to die . . . so that Hadrian St. Claire could be born.
"Your denial of my citizen's right to vote, is the denial of my right of consent as one of the governed, the denial of my right of representation as one of the taxed, the denial of my right to a trial by a jury of my peers as an offender against the law; therefore the denial of my sacred right to life, liberty, property . . ."
--SUSAN B. ANTHONY, United States of America
v. Susan B. Anthony, 1873
Votes for women now. Votes for women NOW!" The protestors' voices pitched higher still, shriller still, or so it seemed to Hadrian as he hurried across Westminster Bridge, the wind tearing at his greatcoat and scarf and threatening to rip the bowler from his head. Stepping out onto the crowded street, he tightened his grip on his camera, a German-made Anschutz with a shutter mechanism capable of arresting motion to one-thousandth of a second. He'd put the equipment to good test that afternoon at St. Thomas Hospital photographing a newly discovered medical anomaly. The poor bastard had been born with an enormous scrotum, tumor-mottled skin, and a chronic palsy that would have rendered traditional photographs little better than a blur. Even so, using his talent to turn a fellow human being into little better than a circus freak hadn't sat well with Hadrian, and the subject's sad-eyed patience in holding any number of humiliating poses had made him feel like the lowest of beasts. Now frozen, footsore, and famished, he couldn't reach his studio soon enough.
But to do so he first had to run the gauntlet of suffragists who'd overtaken Parliament Square. They'd camped out for coming on two days now, creating a bloody nuisance for pedestrians and conveyances alike. Dressed in somber grays and serious blacks, the fifty-odd females picketing beneath the gray wash of winter sky might just as easily pass for a funeral procession as a political rally were it not for the placards the women held aloft and the noise they emitted-- especially the noise.
"Miss Caledonia Rivers to speak on the subject of female emancipation . . . Caxton Hall in Westminster . . . tomorrow evening . . . seven o'clock sharp."
Dodging traffic to cross to the sidewalk, Hadrian could only shake his head. That any woman fortunate enough to possess a roof and four walls would march about in the bitter air struck him as a sort of perverse self-indulgence, a foolishness on par with going slumming in the stews or touring prison yards to observe the convicts picking oakum. He had no patience for it, none at all and when one bug-eyed female had the audacity to try and stuff a pamphlet in his already full hands, he swallowed an oath worthy of his Covent Garden days and darted inside the square's gated entrance.
He realized his mistake at once. Apparently not content with clogging the sidewalks, the damnable females had made camp within the park proper. A platform had been erected in the center of the green and several more dark-clad women busied themselves lighting the torches set about its perimeter. Giving them broad berth, he kept his head down and his sights trained on the opposite end of the wrought-iron gate.
The blare of a bobby's whistle from outside the park walls instinctively sent him swinging around--and barreling into a female's soft body. "Oof!"
Hadrian stared down in horror. The woman he'd knocked off her feet now sprawled at his, feathered hat askew and skirts bunched. On the frost-parched grass beside her, a leather briefcase crammed with papers stretched wide open.
He went down on his knees beside her. "Madam, are you all right?" Unleashing his grip on the camera, he slid an arm beneath her shoulders.
She jerked at his touch. Obscured by a netted hat veil and framed by wire-rimmed spectacles, her green eyes flashed fire. "It's 'miss,' actually." She elbowed her way upright and yanked down her skirts--but not before Hadrian caught sight of a pair of appealingly trim ankles. "And I would be in fine fettle, indeed, had you seen fit to mind where you were going." Broken ostrich feather dangling, she got to her knees and began collecting her papers.
Courtesy toward women was deeply ingrained, one of the few values Hadrian possessed, and the only claim he could make to being a gentleman by deed if not by birth. And so, rather than point out that she had bumped into him as well, he held out his hand to help her to her feet. "Allow me."
Beneath the weight of that atrocious hat, her head snapped up. "I believe I have had quite enough of your help for one day."
She'd barely got the declaration out when the demon wind kicked up, scattering vellum sheets to the four winds.
She leapt to her feet. "My papers!" Hiking up her skirts, she gave chase across the park. Over her shoulder, she shouted, "Well, don't just stand there. Do something!"
With a muttered prayer that his camera would still be there on his return, Hadrian abandoned it to run after her. Hell-bent on cheating the wrangling wind, he plucked one sheet from its skewer of wrought-iron fencepost and another from the foot of the statue of the late Benjamin Disraeli. At the lady's insistence, he retrieved two more from the upper branches of one very tall, very scratchy oak tree. Breathless, bruised, and sporting a tear in his coat, he shoved the last of the papers in his pocket and climbed down. Dropping to the hard-packed ground, he scanned the square for signs of his erstwhile victim, but she appeared to have vanished.
He was on the verge of giving up and going on his way when he spotted her, down on all fours and buried shoulder-deep in the boxwood hedge. Coming up behind her, he tapped her smartly on the back. "What the devil do you think you're about?"
From beneath the branches, her muffled voice answered, "Collecting my papers naturally." She crawled out, feathers hanging at half-mast and a clutch of vellum in one grubby glove.
This time she accepted his hand up without argument. Standing face to face, he saw she was tall, though no match for his six-foot-four frame. The novelty of looking a woman more or less in the eye had him peering beyond the blur of veil for a closer study. No great beauty, he decided, nor was she any green girl. If he had to make a stab at guessing, he'd peg her at thirty-odd, perhaps a year or two older than himself, and a spinster judging by the "miss" as well as the dreary clothing. And yet the sage-colored eyes beneath the slash of dark brows were both expressive and arresting, and the full mouth and softly squared jaw completed a pleasing enough picture.
Caught up, it took her discreet cough to remind him of the papers bulging from his pocket. Handing them over, he said, "I think this is the lot."
"Thank you." She took them from him, her gloved fingertips brushing his, and improbably he felt the warm tingle of her touch shoot straight to his groin. Stuffing the papers inside her case, she spotted the mud and dried leaves festooning the front of her coat. "Oh dear, I'm a mess" she said, swiping at the muck with her soiled glove. "I never can seem to manage the trick of remembering a handkerchief."
He fumbled in his pocket. "Here, have mine." He pressed the square into her palm, again experiencing that peculiar surge of heat.
She accepted with a grateful smile and bent to brush away the dirt. "Thank you--again." Straightening to her full, glorious height, she handed back his handkerchief.
Feeling in better spirits, he shook his head. "Keep it. Really, it's the least I can do after mowing you down like so much lawn grass."
She laughed then, a soft airy tinkling that made him think of the wind chimes
"My papers? Oh . . . quite."
Good God, he'd left his best camera out in the open and, worse yet, had been on the verge of forgetting it entirely. What the devil was the matter with him? Jogging over to retrieve it, he thought of his flat, empty save for his cat, and realized he was no longer so very eager to reach it--at least not alone.
"I'm not always such an oaf, you know," he called back, wracking his brain for something clever to say, some pretense to hold her.
From a few feet away, she cupped a hand to her ear. "Sorry?"
"I said I'm not always such an oaf."
"Oh." She paused in mid-step, appearing to consider that. "Well, I'm not usually such a harridan, either, except when I'm nervous--or in this case, late."
"I don't think you're a harridan." Camera in hand, he closed the space separating them in three ridiculously long strides. "It's these protestors, taking up the whole bloody square as if they own every brick and statue, spewing their rubbish at all hours that have everyone on edge. I only cut through the park to avoid them."
Mouth lifting into a pretty smile of full pink lips and straight white teeth, she nodded to the park beyond them. "It would seem you've rather failed in that regard."
"Yes, I suppose I have." Looking back over his shoulder, he saw they were the object of a good many whispers and gawking stares. Their mad dash must have made an amusing spectacle indeed. Ordinarily that realization would have set him fuming but rather than care, he found himself saying, "There's a tea shop just around the corner. Allow me to make amends by buying you a cup?"
She shook her head, looking adorably shy and far younger than she had at first when she'd still been tight-lipped and cross. "That isn't necessary. And I've an . . . engagement to keep."
Ah yes, presumably the engagement for which he had made her late already. A decent fellow would accept defeat and send her on her way. Yet the mental image of how splendid she would look freed from all those ghastly clothes and wearing only his bedsheet prompted him to press, "As you're late already, why not postpone it altogether, at least until you've thawed?"
She shook her head, causing the broken hat feathers to careen like a torn sail. "I can't. I really must be going." The firming of her mouth told him he'd been too forward, that this time she really did mean to go.
"Ah well, perhaps we'll bump into one another again sometime." He fished inside his coat pocket for one of his business cards as a pretense to asking her name.
"Yes, perhaps we shall," she allowed but there was no hope of it in her eyes. She turned to go and Hadrian knew there would be no more keeping her, that this really was goodbye.
Before she could take a step, a squat woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a man's plaid muffler wrapped about her short neck rushed up to intercept her. "Good Lord, Callie, are you all right? I was outside the gate and only just heard what happened."
Beneath her veil, the woman--Callie--flushed bright crimson. "Calm yourself, Harriet. I am perfectly fine. I took a bit of a tumble, and my briefcase spilled." Her shy-eyed gaze shifted to Hadrian. "This gentleman was kind enough to help me."
From behind horn-rimmed spectacles, Harriet's beady eyes dropped to the camera case in Hadrian's hand. "I don't know what rag of a newspaper you're with, sir, but if your scheme is to scare up scandal and rubbish by waylaying Miss Rivers and photographing her in disarray, then you'd best think again."
Taken off-guard, Hadrian demurred when from the vicinity of the stage someone with a bullhorn belted out, "Miss Caledonia Rivers to make her address. Five minutes, ladies. Five minutes . . ."
Callie Rivers. Caledonia Rivers. It was then that the fog inside Hadrian's head lifted. His mystery woman was one of them, a suffragette! And not just any suffragette, but their leader! Seeing her through new eyes, he took in the spinsterish coat, the awful hat, and the leather case containing the oh-so-important papers, and asked himself how a piquant smile and a pair of pretty ankles had turned him into such an absolute idiot.
He stared at her, feeling like a Biblical figure from whose eyes the scales had just fallen. "Your pressing engagement, I take it?"
She answered with a brusque nod, at once prim and proper and utterly businesslike. "Quite."
Now that his initial shock was fading, he could at least appreciate the irony of the situation. The first woman to pique his interest in years was the celebrated champion of a cause he'd come to loathe.
"Lest we part as strangers, my name is St. Claire. Hadrian St. Claire." By this time, he had the sought-after business card in hand and his shock firmly in check. Handing her the card, he said, "I'm not a reporter. I'm a photographer. I have a studio not far from here on Great George. Portraiture is my specialty."
She tucked his card into her pocket with nary a glance. "I'm afraid I'm not terribly fond of having my photograph taken."
"Pity. You'd make for a most intriguing subject." And because he had absolutely nothing to lose--now that he knew who and what she was, what possible interest in her could he have--he looked directly into Caledonia Rivers's beautiful, mortified eyes and added, "I should have recognized you from the newspaper etchings, but they hardly did you justice. You're far prettier, and far younger, than I would have supposed."
Beneath the veil, the stain on her cheeks darkened from pale pink to dusky rose but, to her credit, she didn't look away. "I think you mock me, sir."
"On the contrary, miss, if either of us is the subject of mockery, I rather think it is me." He nodded toward a clutch of young women watching them and giggling behind their gloves.
Harriet skewered him with a sharp look before giving him her back. "Callie, we really must be on our way." She hooked her plump arm through her friend's and began leading her away.
"Ladies." He tipped his bowler to them both, but it was Caledonia Rivers whom he followed with his eyes as she hurried toward the platform, creased and muddied skirts trailing the pavement, broken hat feathers caught up in the fingers of the wind.
So that was Caledonia Rivers, the celebrated suffragette spokeswoman making headlines in all the newspapers. What was it the press was calling her these days? Ah yes, The Maid of Mayfair. Unlike so many of her suffragette sisters whose reputations skirted the fringe of respectability, Caledonia Rivers was said to be so very good and virtuous--and yet not too good or too virtuous to indulge in a bit of a flirt in a public park, the little hypocrite.
He'd only paid her the compliment to torture her, and yet in his roundabout way he'd spoken nothing but the truth. The flesh-and-blood woman with whom he'd passed the last delightful few minutes scarcely resembled the stern-faced amazon the newspapers made her out to be.
As for the "maid" part, he was deucedly sorry he wouldn't have the opportunity to test that out for himself.
"Harriet, you've missed your calling entirely. Why, you should have been a detective," Callie teased after they'd mounted the platform, her crumpled speech clutched in one hand. "I just supposed that case of his held business papers."
Harriet shrugged. "I know a thing or two about cameras is all, but if I'd been thinking straight, I would have known that fancy German model would be beyond the touch of the Fleet Street boys."
By now Callie was well acquainted with most of the press photographers by face if not by name. She was quite confident she'd never seen Mr. St. Claire before today. No, him she would have remembered most particularly.
"I still don't trust him," Harriet went on, face screwed into a frown. "He had lecherous eyes."
Remembering how that blue-eyed gaze had seemed to peel away her layers of clothing to expose the curves she took such pains to harness and hide, Callie dropped her eyes to the papers she was supposed to be collating. "Really, and I thought him a rather pleasant young man."
She would not, must not, let them down.
Yet it had been a long time since someone, a man, had told her she was pretty.
Humming a dance hall tune beneath his breath, Hadrian walked westward to where Bridge Street became Great George. Preoccupied with mentally fleshing out the details of Caledonia Rivers's veil-blurred visage, he took his customary shortcut through the alley behind his studio. By the time the sound of two sets of heavy footfalls reached his ears, it was too late. He looked back over his shoulder to the pair of familiar hulking figures closing in and felt his mouth go dry. Sam Sykes and his fellow debt collector, Jimmie Deans. Damn!
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