Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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I could just feel her fingers stroking my hair, smoothing the satin ribbon, a message that she was still awake but hadn’t energy for talk. I strained the small brocade stool tighter against the bed, pressed my head deeper into her lap — glad it had long been customary for us to sit this way, for it now allowed me to stare at the tall, lopsided mound of her feet beneath the covers, and not at her thin, wax-skinned face. Even with two thick coverlets over the blankets, her pelvic bone pressed like a wooden hanger against my cheek; I was sure it would leave a red mark. She had been eating for nearly two weeks now. How thin could she have been when she was first released?
I could see a drawing of Christabel Pankhurst tacked to the wall, one arm raised like Christ proclaiming. I closed my eyes. I had loved the suffragettes because Lady Con loved them, just as I loved Japanese flower arrangements and Dutch paintings, and even loved fat stalks of asparagus, passionately, because Lady Con loved them. But now I hated the suffragettes because they had almost taken Lady Con from me — and I prayed that she had stopped loving them too, for I did not want to love them again.
“ ‘Lady Constance Lytton’s Latest Freak’!” My mother had exclaimed, laughing her silvery laugh and snapping the wrinkles out of the Times. “How extraordinary, she’s been in prison again!”
“What?” My fork clanged against my plate.
“Lady Con — oh, Alice, honestly!” My mother yanked the cream pitcher out of the way as I reached across the table for the newspaper. Snatching it, raking my newly starched pinafore across the butter, I whirled away to the window where the light was better.
“Alice!” My father now. But I made myself deaf to their cries — to sit down, behave like a lady, finish my breakfast quietly for once, please — made myself blind to my brother’s smile of contempt, blind to all but my friend’s name, my friend’s bold headline. Lady Con . . . Latest Freak . . . suffragette hooliganism . . . I skimmed the words recklessly, rolling the greasy wad of pinafore tightly between my fingers. Why hadn’t she told me? She hadn’t said a word to me about putting herself up for arrest again. There was a picture beside the article, captioned Jane Warton — an old-maidish woman in an unfortunate droopy hat and bulky serge suit. In disguise, I read. Then I recognized Lady Con’s cool eyes, shrunk by spectacles to beady, schoolmistress size, nose magnified, ludicrous.
“It is Lady Con!” I choked back laughter, my eyes flying back to the article. “ ‘. . . leading a crowd of Liverpool women to rush the governor’s house, demanding the release of hunger strikers . . . arrested for throwing stones wrapped in handbills . . . no one suspected her identity. . . .’ No,” I went on, “I should think not! She was ten days at Walton Gaol under the name of Jane Warton, seamstress, and they only just figured out who she is!”
I whirled back to the table and thrust the picture in front of my mother, who nodded over her teacup, “To say the least.”
She had even cut her hair to chin length; it hung like badly gathered bunches of wheat, heavy, dragging her long face infinitely longer. Why such an outlandish disguise? To save her mother from worrying — from the disgrace of having a daughter in prison? She must truly be in a foul temper now, I thought; she hated publicity, hated seeing Lady Con’s name mentioned in connection with the militants.
My eyes traveled down the page again, too excited to rest on more than snatches of words. “ ‘. . . ten days . . . hunger strike . . . chronic loss of weight despite forcible feeding . . . released on medical grounds . . .’ ” I stopped, reread. “Forcible feeding. What do they mean?”
My father retired behind his mustache cup. My mother took the paper back, murmuring about the article above Lady Con’s.
“What is it, forcible feeding? And released on what medical grounds?” My mother busied herself slicing bacon, so I snatched the paper back, my fingers smudging the letters into gray swipes. “ ‘. . . she apparently did not tell the prison doctor of her heart trouble and so put herself at great risk. . . .’ ” I looked up at my parents, but they were gazing impassively at their breakfasts. My brother was still silently sniggering at me behind his napkin. I bent my head again over the words. “ ‘Lady Constance is now recovering at the London home of her sister Lady Emily Lutyens, in very weak condition, perhaps critical.’ ” I shut my eyes and thrust the paper onto the table, battering down a hundred sudden images of Lady Con lying limp in bed, blue lipped. I turned and flew up the stairs two at a time to fetch my coat and hat. Even before her general weakness had settled into heart trouble, I had always feared that Lady Con would . . . not die, necessarily, but simply disappear. I had been to Lady Emily’s home in Bloomsbury Square once before and thought I could remember the way from the train station.
“Absolutely out of the question,” my father called up the stairs.
“But I have to see her,” I called back from the landing. “She’s hurt.”
“Which is exactly why she doesn’t need a child hovering —”
“I’m not a child with her! And she does need —”
“Who, may I ask, is going to take you?”
“Father, on your way into town you could —”
I hung over the banister. “Mother?”
“Sorry, Alice.” My mother smiled up at me. “Mercy League day.”
“Rose is far too busy to —”
This time Rose intervened — imposing Rose in her perfectly starched apron, stepping quickly forward from the sideboard and speaking in the firm, polite voice she always used with my parents. I was used to the loud, caustic Rose of the afternoons when my parents were out.
“If you please, sir, madam, my sister is ill with toothache, and I’ve been wishing for a chance to go into the city and visit her. If I took Miss Alice, we could accomplish both — angels of mercy, like.” My brother sniggered again, but my parents were, as Rose knew, always on the lookout for acts of charity that might prove reformative to me. They began murmuring earnestly together. Gripping the banister, lightheaded, waiting, I knew of course that Rose hated London, that her sister was completely well, that her real motivation was simply the fact that my governess was in bed with influenza. Much as she hated trains and cities, Rose preferred them to sulking Alice with nothing to do but follow her through her chores all day fussing and complaining and worrying over Lady Con. So, I found myself in a fresh pinafore on a train to King’s Cross Station.
The hanger-shaped bone pressed against my cheek and released, pressed and released, in time with Lady Con’s breathing. It was like listening through a seashell, her breath vibrating against my ear, rasping, cottony sounding. I could feel her heartbeat, too, a smaller rhythm beneath the breathing, tickling my cheek. I listened to Lady Con’s heartbeat until my entire face seemed to vibrate.
The coverlet smelled of soap flakes, slightly acrid. I burrowed deeper into it, glad for the smell, glad for the rough noise of breathing, the hard sharpness of bones, her solid gravity, all proof that she was there, that she was real — which seemed as miraculous, as mystical, as on that first afternoon.
I had been six years old. My grandfather had died earlier that year, and my father, transferring to a civil service post in the Home Office, had moved us back from India to take over the family home. The Lyttons, long-time friends and neighbors of my grandparents, had invited us over for tea to welcome us home.
I barely noticed Lady Con during the meal, except as just another adult, a tall pale figure in a corner of the terrace, smiling politely. None of the Lytton nieces and nephews were there that day, and as my brother was for some unjust reason allowed to play croquet with the adults while I was not, I found myself quite alone after tea. It was a sunny day, and I began to amuse myself by running about the lawn, watching my white tulle dress float in the breeze, fascinated that its movements were so much slower and more graceful than the movements of my body. I became so absorbed that I did not realize I was stumbling into the middle of the adults’ croquet game, until sharp metal snatched at my ankle and I went flying over a wicket. I shut my eyes, prepared for the crash. It never came. Instead, I continued floating through the air, floating and arching upward, as if by some trick of levitation. I was afraid to open my eyes or breathe, lest I break the spell. But I became aware of hands gripping the waist of my dress, of arms closing round me. When I opened my eyes, I found myself high above the world, held tight against Lady Con, her cool hand pressing my face to her shoulder. I blinked, comforted that the wheat-colored lace at her neck seemed exactly like the latticework on our porch in India.
When I found my breath, it was sudden and shaky; I knew I was about to cry. I raised my head, gulping air, readying a loud wail. But then I saw Lady Con’s eyes: strange, bewildering eyes, so pale and clear they were almost the color of water. The only eyes I’d seen at such close range were the black eyes of my nanny in India. But it was not only the color that was strange; as I looked more closely, I realized that her eyes were a child’s eyes — untired, unshielded, surrounded by smooth circles of skin like a baby’s. As I leaned away from her, I saw that her entire face was a child’s face, her skin amazingly smooth. I reached up to touch her cheek. I was convinced that Lady Con was not really an adult, was not even a human — that she must be an angel. And then I began to cry.
Immediately, my mother took me home and put me to bed — her remedy for everything. I cried for hours, certain that Lady Con had returned to the realm of angels, that I would never see her again. So it seemed a miracle when, out for a drive with my nurse a couple of days later, I saw her, in the simple, earthly act of cutting flowers in her garden. Without a moment to think, I leapt off the pony trap, flying again. I ran to her, ignoring the sounds of my nurse struggling to turn the pony round. My rediscovered angel, not seeming to care that I had tumbled her marigolds in every direction, invited me in for tea; though she probably had little choice, I clung to her stubbornly. My nurse was glad to let me go; “an exhausting child,” she called me.
But it was Lady Con who was exhausting to me, so completely was I focused on her. My thin-voiced governess could begin a history lesson, and within minutes I would have torn holes in my blotter, scuffed the finish off my chair legs. Lady Con could launch into any story (for me, usually Kipling; she, too, had lived in India as a child), or start explaining one of her pet projects — such as why she felt the revival of Morris dancing and other folk arts would help cut the “monster of industrialism” down to size — and I would find I had been sitting quietly for hours. Even when she was not talking to me, when she was busy with other things, I seemed to absorb a sort of conversation just by being near her. As I was doing now — even as my body strained with worry, listening to her heart, even as I struggled to forget the dream I had had about her the night before. Somehow I could contain it all, could slow my own breathing simply by listening to hers.
But just then her breathing disappeared — returned in a great heave, and disappeared again. I jerked my head up, terrified it must be a heart seizure. But she was only asleep; she frowned, shifted her head back and forth on the pillow. I settled back into her lap, squeezing my hands to stop their tingling. She was practically asphyxiated each time, the prison doctor had told Lady Emily when she’d gone to fetch her.
It was Rose who had finally explained it to me on the train ride.
“They wheel it in on a metal tray,” she said darkly, holding her violet-scented handkerchief to her forehead. Still in a temper at having to go into the city, and claiming a headache at the train’s jostling, she was only too glad to tell me and not spare my feelings. “You can hear it rattling a mile off on those stone floors. After it’s once been done to you, what a terrible sound it is.”
I sat wide-eyed, as if she were telling me one of her ghost stories. “How many times did your sister have it done to her?”
Rose twirled the handkerchief, thinking. “Mm, maybe twenty times. The first time, though, they just poured milk and brandy down her throat from a cup, because she was unconscious and couldn’t resist them — fainted dead away at the very thought of that apparatus. She was one of the first, you see; none of them was prepared for it.”
“They were just coming in from their exercise, when two of the wardresses came in, half-carrying this prisoner between them — the oldest and feeblest of the lot, mind you, that’s who they picked for their example. She could barely walk, and she was moaning, looking like she’d nearly fainted. They’d been on their hunger strike for four days then, sure they’d be released if they kept it up a few more. The wardress who brought in the tray said, ‘You saw what happened to Burkitt’ — that was the old woman — ‘Well, if you don’t eat your supper now, that’s what’ll happen to you.’ And she held up this apparatus so they could all see it.”
“But what is it?”
“A long India rubber tube, my sister said, a thick, ugly orange color, with a little cup at the end. They say it isn’t even sterilized; you don’t know who they’ve been using it on before you — sick people, crazy people.”
“But what do they do with it?” I hunched forward on my seat, wanting, not wanting, to hear. “How does it work?”
Rose leaned forward too, lowering her voice to a stage whisper. “The wardress said — very dramatic, she was, too — holding it up, stretching it out to full length, she said, ‘It goes in your mouth and all the way down into your stomach — or it goes in your nose if you’re bad enough — and the food is poured through it.’ ”
“What?” I was sucking the last bit of a peppermint, my remedy for train sickness; the peppermint taste turned bitter, metallic.
“That’s when my sister fainted.”
“But . . . your nose? Does your nose go to your stomach?”
“Oh, of course it does, Alice.” Rose leaned back against the seat, taking a deep whiff of violet.
“Rose, you don’t mean they did that to Lady Con!” A few people turned round to look at me; my voice was dangerously high. But I couldn’t seem to lower it. “Every time she’s been in prison they’ve done that to her, and I never knew?”
“No, not her, not before now,” Rose said quickly, soothingly, glancing round. “That’s what the big fuss is about.” She took my hand, gentler now, and pulled me down into my seat again. “That feeding tube is supposed to be very dangerous for people with bad hearts. The prison doctors always made a great fuss over her heart, always released her before her sentence was up because of it. But there were people in worse condition than she that weren’t spared; so everyone said it wasn’t her heart at all, just that her brother’s an MP and an earl. That’s why she got herself up in that crazy disguise, to prove she was getting special treatment because of who she was. And she proved it all right; this time they didn’t even examine her heart before they got out the feeding tube. And they fed her eight times, that’s what it said in Votes for Women.”
I hunched over in my seat. All the sugar from the peppermint gathered into one large knot in my stomach.
Rose put her ample arm round me. “It’s all over now, isn’t it? Everyone’s very proud of her. They say it’ll be a great help in stopping forcible feeding. Especially now she’s out and writing about it, she will make them squirm. The Liberal party can’t bear to be accused of snobbishness; they’ll have to change their stand somehow.”
But I didn’t care about the Liberal party, or about the suffragettes still in prison, or about the vote. I cared only about finding Lady Con, solid and real and alive — though I knew I mustn’t rush in and throw my arms round her, not this time. Every time I went to visit Lady Con, I repeated the litany to myself all the way from my house to hers: I will not throw my arms round her, I will not throw my arms round her. But the moment I saw her, always smiling, laughing, always seeming so delighted to see me, I forgot, and ran across the room to her as desperately as if we had been apart for months — and then had to endure her mother’s clucking disapproval. “She does like you, she honestly does,” Lady Con had told me gently. “It’s just that you make her a bit nervous. You always come in with such energy; she fears for her best china. But you mustn’t think she doesn’t like you, darling, how could she help but like you?” Easily, I thought, just like every other grown-up.
But again I quite forgot myself and ran past Lady Emily’s maid, ran up the stairs and down the corridor where I knew the best guest room was. But Lady Emily rose immediately, fluttering, “Oh, Alice, no, she’s sleeping now, you really mustn’t. . . .” But before her strong hands pushed me out the door, I managed to catch a glimpse of Lady Con’s face. I froze in horror. It looked almost like a disembodied head, with the bedclothes tucked up round its chin; a death mask, white, distinguishable from the pillow only by the tangled shafts of hair springing from it like thistle leaves. And she was shivering, small sudden convulsions, her eyelids pressed tight into tiny wrinkles, jerking like trapped moths.
“Wait a few days, Alice.” Lady Emily shut the bedroom door behind her and pressed her hands down on my shoulders. “You were very sweet to come, she’ll be honestly so pleased when I tell her, but she really needs to rest now.”
I cried all the way home on the train, was ushered blindly upstairs by soft, warm Rose, was put to bed, was offered warm milk but couldn’t drink it, couldn’t without being sick at the very thought.
Three days, Lady Emily had finally decided, three days and I could come back to see her. Three days of my sickly, spindly-faced governess still lying in bed with influenza. Three days of being unable to eat, a hunger strike of my own. It was not intentional; my stomach still knotted fiercely at the thought of swallowing. Three days of sitting listless outside the study door, back pressed against its smooth polished wood, knees curled to my chin, listening to my brother’s tired voice reading day after day without inflection. “Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs/Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze/Far round illumined Hell; highly they raged/Against the Highest. . . .” And this punctuated by the hard voice of my brother’s tutor, firing out questions — Biblical references, historical parallels, word order, images, meter — then my brother’s mumbled reply, and the tutor roaring, “No!” Such ignorance would never be tolerated at Eton; if my brother had no better memory than that he would surely spend three-fourths of his years there being flogged. Then my brother’s voice again, reading, monotonous as before.
When we had lived in India, my brother and I had been playmates, but once we were in England and he began his studies, he ignored me, as if he were suddenly superior. Rajah, I began to taunt him, but he would only smile as if I were the child and he were an adult already, always looking as if he knew some secret I wasn’t allowed to know. But if these were the secrets that made him so superior he was welcome to them, I thought, as his voice scraped over me, as his tutor spoke ominously of accepted interpretations. Yet I hadn’t the energy to move, so I continued to listen. And all the time, Lady Con’s words from the copy of Votes for Women, stolen from Rose’s room and pressed between the pages of my sketchbook, words that I could read only in gulps, snatched quickly with a half-lifted fold of the sketchbook, began to fit themselves over my brother’s words, over his flat, unemotional voice: . . . infinitely more horrible and more painful than I had expected . . . I felt as if I were being killed . . . absolute suffocation . . . you think they will never finish pushing . . . finally, when the vomiting . . . as the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek . . . seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed. . . . Over and over, her words falling into the unchanging rhythm of his voice, like some terrible death chant of blank-faced druids, and his tutor the cantor, the leader. I rose to my feet, shaky, as the words seemed to grow louder, all jumbled.
. . . a hill not far, whose grisly top/Belched fire and rolling smoke . . . plied my teeth with the steel implement . . . a glossy scurf, undoubted sign/That in his womb was hid metallic ore . . . pressed down much too far . . . great pain in my side . . . and that is a reference to . . . an allegory for . . . no, no, that is not the accepted interpretation, you did not memorize what I told you . . . opened into the hill a spacious wound/And digged out ribs of gold . . . at Eton you would be beaten . . . if you do that again next time, I shall feed you twice. . . .
“Stop it!” I burst into the study, pushing the double doors with such power that they crashed against the wall and banged half-shut again behind me. “Stop it! Stop it!” The wide-eyed faces of my brother and his tutor wavered in front of me, thin and papery as flower petals. I shut my eyes. “You,” I shouted, “you’re nothing but — charlatans!” (I did not know, at the time, what the word meant — only that it was not a good thing to be — but liked the rolling sound of it.) “Both of you!” I repeated it again and again, letting it crescendo. “Charlatans, charlatans!”
Through my tears I could half-see my brother and his tutor, their chairs scraped back, standing helplessly as if on the point of running. But then I was enfolded in the thick softness of Rose’s body, my wet cheek wilting the stiffness of her apron. I was taken upstairs, and a cup of warm milk with brandy was held in front of me, and despite the knot in my stomach, despite my constricting throat, I swallowed; and finally the knot dissolved, and I slept and slept and slept.
The result of this, of course, was that I had to wait even longer to see Lady Con. I was kept under surveillance as if I, too, were an invalid — tended by a Rose not grumbling now but glad to be relieved of her downstairs duties, a Rose who had taken to collecting articles on Lady Con and was now as much her admirer as I was. But Rose had little emotional connection to the suffragettes, despite her sister; she was really only interested in them as in an exciting novel. She could only add to my nightmares with remarks like, “Damned men are enjoying it, supposedly doing what’s good for these silly irrational women who won’t eat — sitting on their chests, cranking their mouths open with that steel wedge, forcing that tube down, it’s pretty obvious what that’s like!”
“No,” I said. “What is it like, Rose?” But I did know. My nanny in India, who had never been able to refuse me anything, had always answered my questions, every curious question I was able to think up.
Her breathing changed again, jerking softly. I looked up and realized that she was shivering. Her arms were outside the covers. Very carefully, I reached across her, gathering up the thick edges of blankets and coverlets, but before I could pull them out from under her arms, she gave a violent shake, and woke with a cry. She blinked at me, rubbed her eyes.
“Oh, Alice, I’m sorry, did I drift off?” Then she smiled and touched my cheek.
I bit my lip. “It was a nightmare, wasn’t it?”
She shook her head, waving it away. “Just a tiny one. Alice?”
I was crying, just as I had promised Emily, promised myself, that I would not do.
“Alice.” She gave my sleeve a tug.
I realized I hadn’t yet told her I’d been reading about her.
She raised herself on her elbows, studied my face. She reached out and pulled my hands down. “Someone’s been talking to you.”
I squinted at her narrow face. It was still a child’s face, eyes larger, rounder than ever. “Mostly you’ve been talking, really.”
She blinked. “What, in my sleep?”
I shook my head. “In the newspaper.”
“Oh.” She closed her eyes and nodded, leaning back against the pillows. “I see. Which newspaper?”
“Votes for Women. I had to take Rose’s — my mother wouldn’t let me read your letter to the Times. She said it would be upsetting.”
“Was she right?”
She was watching me so carefully with those strange, clear eyes of hers that I felt a tight, sickish feeling at the back of my throat. I pushed forward, digging my heels into the stool. “Oh, Lady Con, you don’t love the suffragettes anymore, do you?”
She didn’t answer, only reached for my hand and took it to her cheek. I was sure that meant pity. I pulled away.
She smiled — the smile, I thought, of a governess trying to encourage a bad child by pretending it is a good child. “You don’t love them, I take it,” she said gently. Then she squeezed my hand. “I am sorry it’s been an upsetting business for you — but honestly, if I could have done anything to —”
“You could have told me!” I jumped at the sound of my voice. It suddenly had a life of its own, angry and bullying and accusing. I wondered if Lady Emily had heard it, if she would rush in and have me thrown out. I had never spoken to Lady Con that way. But my voice would not stop. “Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me? Ten days — and I was doing whatever I usually do, I was eating — jam and cakes and —”
“I didn’t tell anyone,” she said, struggling to sit up again. “I didn’t want anyone coming to rescue —”
“But that dreadful feeding tube!” It was unthinkable to speak to her this way, but it was like all my tantrums — as if I’d tumbled over a cliff and could not gain a toehold to stop my falling. By now, I was up on my knees on the stool, not sure how I’d gotten in that position. “It’s been going on for more than a year!” I cried. “And you never said a word to me!”
She shook her head, waving her hand helplessly. “I suppose, like your mother, I didn’t see any reason —”
“But I thought you weren’t like my mother — I thought you were my friend! Not like my parents, the way they turn into somebody else whenever they know I’m listening!”
“I don’t —” She began to cough. There were two red spots on her cheeks, like the painted cheeks of my china doll. I leapt off the stool and snatched the pitcher from her bed table, splashing water into the glass beside it and pressing it into her hands. She nodded her thanks, took a long drink. I saw again how thin she was, how pale and tired. The glass seemed big as a vase as she drank from it. I sat down, feeling exhausted, and sick with myself.
“I even ate chocolates,” I said. “Rose brought me chocolates when she did the shopping.”
She smiled. But the sickish, crying feeling was worse than ever, and I could not smile. “You are treating me like all adults treat me,” I said, looking away. “Did prison make you into an adult?”
“All right, darling.” She straightened out the bedclothes, taking a moment to lower herself onto the pillows again. “But grisly details want a proper occasion.”
“But you’ve always hated pretense,” I said, hunching closer to her. “Remember when you went to a shooting party once, and you said it made you wish for someone with revolutionary dispositions to throw explosives about and blow off everyone’s outer coat?”
She was seized with another coughing fit, this time bending her double. I rushed to fill her glass again.
“Oh, Lady Con,” I said miserably. “I’m sorry. I promised Emily I wouldn’t excite you, and now . . .”
She put up her hand, silencing me. “I do hope,” she said carefully, “that you don’t quote me to anyone else?”
“Rose.” She nodded. “This is why she gives me sidelong glances when I have tea with your mother — as if I might go mad at any moment and start tearing into the mohair?”
I giggled. “She doesn’t! Anyway, she likes you. She thinks you’re Sydney Carton.”
She laughed, as I knew she would. She loathed Dickens.
“Well,” I said softly, running my finger along the smooth handle of the pitcher, “now you’ve seen my temper. Haven’t you?”
She smiled. “I’ve seen a great many tempers. Emmy’s, for one.”
“Emmy!” I leaned across the table eagerly. “Did she have a tantrum?”
“Something like one. And Mother. ‘If you follow things through to their natural conclusion,’ she told me, ‘you will end up doing murder for the sake of the cause!’ ”
I giggled, imagining Lady Lytton, all flustered and fluttering hands.
Lady Con shook her head. “Poor Mother, though. That’s been the hardest sacrifice, really. Knowing how much hurt I’ve caused my family, my friends. . . .” She reached out and squeezed my hand. “My best friend.”
“Oh, Lady Con, don’t, you haven’t, I —” I was beginning to worry because she still seemed a bit breathless from coughing. But just then I noticed the title of the book propped up beside the water pitcher. I gave a shriek.
“What?” She pushed herself up on her elbows.
“You’re reading Milton?”
“But it’s horrible!”
“Who told you that?”
“My brother’s been studying him all week, and it’s awful. He has to memorize all sorts of things called accepted interpretation, and then his tutor shouts at him and says he’s going to spend three-fourths of his years at school being beaten!”
“Do your parents know this?”
“That’s why my parents hired him, because my brother doesn’t know literature well enough for Eton.”
She nodded grimly. “You see, this is exactly why I found ‘The Three Bears’ far more enlightening when I was your age. And it’s much worse for boys, of course.” She shook her head. “English education has a lot to answer for. But no, Milton, he’s — well, listen: ‘By small —’ I think I’ve got this right, anyway. ‘By small/Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak/Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise/By simply meek: that suffering for Truth’s sake/Is fortitude to highest victory. . . .’ ”
“ ‘Suffering for Truth’s sake’. . . .” I was again reminded of my dream. I pressed a hand to my mouth, pressed my lips against my teeth until they hurt. But Lady Con was smiling the distant smile she got when she quoted, and didn’t notice.
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, but I mean, you see, he’s not horrible at all — he would have made a quite good suffragette, don’t you think? Alice!” She sat straight up, her face stricken. “Darling, don’t cry — what’s the matter?”
“I had a dream.”
“What, just now? A vision? Fireballs and serpents and angels, that sort of thing? It’s all my fault, dropping you bang in the middle of Milton — it’s like plunging straight into the richest part of a sticky bun. You’ve got to nibble round the edge a bit first and let your body get used to it. Oh, dear, do you think some soda water —”
“Stop it!” I said, crying harder because I was laughing. “You’re making my nose run, and I haven’t got a handkerchief!”
“And now I’m being thoughtless, too!” She pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dressing gown and handed it to me.
“And stop rallying! You’ll probably kill yourself, and then your mother will serve me to my parents on toast, the way she’s always wanted to!”
Lady Con smiled. “All right.” She settled back against the pillows, then tugged on my sleeve until I lay my head in her lap again. “All right,” she said. “You had a bad dream?”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Last night. It was about you and me.”
“Then you’d better tell me,” she said, stroking my hair again, “hadn’t you?”
I stared at the drawing of Christabel. She had pale eyes, too. But not child’s eyes, not hers; Christabel’s glowed, possessed. I had been frightened of her when I’d met her. I looked away from the drawing and traced the smooth embroidered curves of C.L. on the handkerchief, letting the dream come back.
“We were on holiday,” I said. “At the seaside. You and me, in a sort of lodge for everyone to meet in — barny, sort of, all made of wood and bright maroon red.”
“It sounds lovely.”
“It wasn’t. There were all sorts of people there, and they were in two queues, one going up a ladder and one going up a staircase. I couldn’t see where either of them led. I knew you were there, I could feel you; but I couldn’t see where you were. I was in the queue going up the ladder. But when I got to the top, I was so frightened I shook the whole ladder — I thought I was going to make everyone fall off.” I traced the initials wider and wider, leaving a deep swirl in the coverlet. “I couldn’t make myself swing over the top — I wanted to so badly, but I just couldn’t. I had to ask everyone to make way for me so I could climb down. It was very embarrassing. Then I went over and joined the queue on the staircase. And then it was as if you were beside me, even though I couldn’t see you. I could tell how much you loved me, I could feel it all round me. It was wonderful. But I knew I was taking the easier way. And so I woke up feeling horrible.”
She shook her head. “Alice.”
I sat up, twisting the handkerchief into a knot. “I will never, ever go through anything even nearly like what you did.”
“I should hope not. I don’t suppose I ever told you the story of the locusts?” I shook my head. “Have you seen the locusts, how they cross a stream? First, one comes down to the water’s edge, and it is swept away — and then another comes and then another, and at last, with their bodies piled up, a bridge is built, and the rest pass over. Did you know that?” I shook my head. “And of those that come first, some are swept away — and are heard of no more; their bodies do not even build the bridge.” She reached down to unclench my fingers from round her handkerchief. “But what of that?” she said softly. “They make a track to the water’s edge.”
I looked up at her. “You’re building the bridge?”
She smiled. “I rather think I’ve been swept away. But perhaps I’ve helped make a track.”
I smoothed the handkerchief out, trying to stretch away the wrinkles I had made. “But,” I said after a moment, “I don’t want to be like my brother.”
“Heavens, no,” she said indignantly. “He’s exactly why women must have the vote. Men seem to think they should have everything, every single thing, explained for their minds. They’re absolutely terrified of their hearts! But women’s hearts are not suffocated by a need for rules and absolutes; women do not believe that answers exist only outside and not inside; women are not afraid of the self-shepherding instinct that truly does exist within the heart of every sheep. Until the world begins to see that both sides, both heart and mind, are essential, there will be nothing but blindness, nothing but blindness and Dark Age hysteria and —”
She looked at me, and we both began to laugh, as we usually did when she found herself in the middle of a speech.
“By the way, darling,” she said, when we had recovered, “did the stairs happen to be going in the same direction as the ladder?”
I thought back. “Yes . . . Yes!” I grasped her hand excitedly. “They were!”
But just then her hand jerked away from mine. She was coughing again.
Quickly, I pulled the coverlets over her. “What about your heart?” I said miserably, tucking the edges up round her chin. “Lady Con, you are coming home to Knebworth when you’re well enough to travel, aren’t you? You won’t spend weeks and weeks in London anymore — and you won’t go into prison again?”
She smiled, still breathless. “Not for a while, anyway.”
I let myself imagine how utterly alone I would be if she died. Then I pushed that away with another thought. “I’m often called a hoyden,” I said. “That’s sort of half-girl, half-boy?”
She smiled sleepily. “I suppose it is.”
“Well, maybe I can do something, then!”
She laughed. “Once that bridge is built, you’ll be the first to go charging across.” By now, her eyelids were drooping.
“Here.” I jumped up and dragged the volume of Milton down off the table and into my lap. “If you like, I can read to you until you fall asleep. Then I’ll go and let you rest.”
She smiled and reached out to squeeze my hand. “Thank you, darling. But you will come to see me again? Can Rose bring you?”
“Of course.” I looked down at her hand grasping mine, and was surprised to see how strong and muscular it seemed — not at all matching the rest of her. I pressed the hand to my cheek.
She drew in a long, contented breath, settled deep into the pillows. I cradled the book in my arms — heavy as a child, it was — and ran my finger over the embossed cover. It was a maze of reds, greens, golds, silvers — beautiful. Then, taking her hand again, I slid the book open and began to read — slowly, carefully, dragging my finger hard beneath each towerlike letter — really trying to understand.
Lady Con did, in fact, go into prison once more — unwisely, as it turned out. Not long after, she suffered a stroke that quite effectively kept her from serving the movement through anything but her writing — and even that was slow, as she had to learn to work with her left hand. She did not, as I had hoped, live long enough to see me vote; but she did live to see me, in true hoydenish fashion, cut off my hair, take up smoking, and take a flat in London and a job at a newspaper. My parents wanted me to marry and produce an heir, since my brother, having survived both Milton and the War, had died in the 1918 flu epidemic (my governess, amazingly, passed through it unscathed) — but I was well practiced at resisting their wishes.
I tried once, in my first year at the newspaper, to do an article on Lady Con, but made the mistake of giving her a draft to read. “You’ve got me all wrong!” she cried out, thrusting the pages in front of me. “I mean, look. You stretch me like an India rubber band between . . . Pallas Athena . . . and a sort of fragile, consumptive flower. One moment I’m hopelessly eloquent, pearls of wisdom at every turn — then I’m babbling a lot of absolute nonsense as if I were Harry Lauder! And in between all that,” she said, laughing, “I’m barely human — a sort of wordless, murmuring creature, very doelike.” (She might just as well have meant “doughlike,” now that I think about it.) “I’m none of those things.”
“But you are,” I protested. “You’re all of those things. I mean —” I stopped, confused. “You’re none of those things exactly, but —”
“Exactly. I’m not a piece of Scotch plaid.”
“That’s true,” I said, more sure of myself on this point. “You’re definitely more of a paisley.”
She laughed at that, told me I could, of course, do what I liked, then had me push her round the garden in her chair while we talked about “Life with a capital L,” as she called it. We got into a nicely heated argument over the value of books and reading. Still giddy at being governess-less and able to read what I liked when I liked, I was devouring as many as two books a day. Lady Con thought this entirely unwholesome.
“Aside from this unnatural paleness you’ve developed from staying so much indoors,” she told me, “you know I’ve always said knowledge acquired direct is best of all — books are only good shortcuts. No, darling.” Here, she made me stop pushing so she could pull me round to face her. “I’d far rather you seek out the nearest circus and hitch onto a gypsy cart.”
I laughed for a moment, then stopped, remembering how she had acquired her direct knowledge. She asked me to push her over to a corner of one of the hedgerows so she could show me her “adopted” nest of baby hedgehogs. She felt doubly responsible for them, she said, since it was one of the Lytton badger traps that had orphaned them. I watched how her eyes glowed, eager and unshielded as ever, as we uncovered the white, wriggling mass. The hedgehogs seemed all quivering noses and tiny transparent whiskers. I felt Lady Con’s hand brush against mine as we reached carefully down among them; then all was warm, leaping energy, and her touch became indistinguishable from the rest.