Emma carefully put her head out of the small gap in the door of the Hansom cab. “Are we there?” Knowing full well that they were not, knowing that they were a walk away from the Victoria Club yet, Emma’s heart jumped a little – what arduous issue was rearing up now? Why was nothing ever simple anymore? She wondered if it ever had been.
“Not exactly, Miss.” The driver, John McDonald, shuffled from one foot to the other, turning his cap in his hands. “It’s just… There’s a bit of a commotion up ahead, and the horse won’t like waiting. I know it’s a liberty, Miss, but if the horse gets afeared and bolts I could lose my carriage. And there’s ever such a long line of cabs ahead of us.”
“A commotion?” Emma was curious, so much so that she forgot to be annoyed at the delay. She could hear, now that she had been informed of it, a strange kind of chanting coming from further up the road. “What is it? What is everyone waiting for?” Chanting reminded her of her time in Africa, among the tribes in the wilderness, but this was not the same. This was not the comforting charm of old traditions. This was angry. This was scared.
“Oh, nothing much, I wouldn’t have thought. But whatever it is is in the road.” The man clearly wanted to say something more; his mouth was opening slightly and then clicking closed before any words that he might regret could escape.
Emma chose not to watch his discomfort any longer, even though it did amuse her. And she thought she knew what he was trying to say. “If you cannot take your animal any further, then perhaps you might escort me to the door of the club? I would appreciate it very much.”
The smile that broke across the scruffy man’s face told Emma that yes, she had guessed correctly. She stepped from the carriage, being careful not to tread on the freshly stitched hem of her newly made dress, and took the driver’s arm, linking it with hers. “Shall we?” she said, indicating the Victoria Club, the red brick work and creamy corner stones that Emma could see a little way ahead of them. She could also see a gathering of people standing outside, and was that… could she see placards waving in the air?
“If you would rather, Miss, I could take you home again.”
Emma shook her head before she had considered the driver’s offer. She shook her head again, more slowly, when she had had time to digest it. “No, no, I shan’t do that.” She looked at the man and smiled. “I have been looking forward to this ball for some time.” She winked, and, flustered, John McDonald stepped forward, taking Emma with him, almost making her stumble with the sudden force of the movement.
As the pair drew closer to the Victoria Club they could make out the building bedecked with lanterns and baubles, fluttering flags and streaming ribbon decorations in various shades of gold and black. It looked as expensive as the invitation had. It looked rich. It looked, in other words, like Cedric Greet.
But the crowd gathered outside was not the usual group of curious spectators, wanting to see who was attending, wanting to stare in awe at the dresses, at the glamour, at those luckier than they were. Emma knew those people. She had, in her youth, been one of them. Before she realised that it was better to be watched than to be watching.
This crowd was loud. It was moving. It was stamping its feet and waving large wooden signs. It was not happy.
Emma squeezed the driver’s arm, stopping him before they were noticed. “I should put my mask on,” she explained. “The invitation states that it must be worn upon arrival, worn until Sir Cedric makes his speech and we are told that it can be removed.” She slipped the mask over her face, instantly feeling strangely anonymous, even though half of her face was still on show, and most likely recognisable. To some, at least. To a number, she imagined. To everyone if they could see her scar.
As they approached the crowd they could see now that it was marching, in a circle, out across the Broadway, the road in front of the Victoria Club, thus preventing traffic from passing in either direction. Impatient carriage drivers shook their heads, shouted, cursed, as even more impatient horses stamped their hooves on the cobbles, snorting exhalations of furious breath.
But more impatient than all of these were the men and woman within the carriages. Dressed up, masked, excited, invitations clutched in expectation – and hope – of showing them to someone, anyone. Emma craned her neck as she passed the ones on her side of the blockade and discovered that she knew the names of some of the people within. “Mrs Jones!” she called out, “Miss Baker! Pay your drivers and follow me! Take to the streets, the walk is not far and whatever these people are protesting against surely won’t affect us!”
But no one exited their carriages. No one dared.
And as Emma and her driver drew up to the circling protesters she could see why she was the only one. The anti–masquerade brigade had found Sheerness, preaching about the evils of a masked ball, and handing out crudely printed pamphlets, detailing exactly what they knew to happen at these wicked celebrations, with illustrations, to anyone who happened to pass by. Their placards, raised high in the air and bobbing up and down were brief and damning; Ban this Foreign Influence! Masks are Immoral! We are Civilised in England!