The American Countess
Lady Kilnsey, the former India Elisabeth Petra de Vries Ledbetter of The Falls, Pisgah, North Carolina and Washington Square, New York City, stepped onto Deangate’s cobblestones and closed the shop door, setting its little bell tinkling. Placing a hand over her eyes, she looked toward York Minster. Its spires beckoned her to a place of peace and grace. Having just committed enormous sums for bathroom, kitchen, and central heating fittings for the entire castle, a moment’s quiet reflection seemed in order.
She glanced at Althea, her lady’s maid and friend, the only other American residing in Kilnsey Castle. “I fear these renovations may be far messier than getting the electricity installed. Two years later and the housemaids are still wiping plaster dust from odd corners.” Pointing toward the Minster, she continued, “Come. I want to light a candle in memory of Papa and for a little good luck for the renovations.”
Althea grinned and gave India “The Look” complete with raised brows. “When His Lordship sees the bill, you may need it.”
They were still several blocks from the cathedral when a roar arising from the end of the street caught India’s attention. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth became a thin line. Mounted policemen accompanied by others on foot waded into a crowd, the outer rings of which were made up of men with raised fists, some of them holding rocks or fruit. It was impossible to see what lay at the center of the commotion, but India had her suspicions.
She grabbed Althea’s arm. “Come on. I bet my bottom dollar they’re harassing our suffragists again.” Instead of turning away from the disturbance, she plunged toward it.
Althea yanked her arm from India’s grasp. “Oh no you don’t. We can’t get involved in that. His Lordship and the Dowager would be furious.”
India’s expression hardened. “I’m going to do what I can. Stay here if you must.” India winced inwardly at her tone. Mistress and servant was not the true nature of their relationship.
Althea grimaced, shook her head, but fell into step. India glanced from the corner of her eye. Althea was clearly irritated. Perhaps a reminder was in order.
“When he proposed, Charlie promised not to interfere with my interests.” India cast a mischievous grin at Althea. “Furthermore, my mother-in-law needs a little shaking up. She’s far too set in her ways.”
“So, just when are you planning on telling them about your donations and afternoons working in the office of the York Suffragists’ Union?”
“When I’m good and ready and not a minute before. A few pounds here and there and an occasional afternoon hardly warrant mentioning. Besides, what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
As they approached the crowd, India hiked her skirt and stepped up onto the base of a streetlamp for a better view. What she saw set her pulse racing. Women, whose only crime was asking for what should have been theirs long ago, were being taunted, threatened, and assaulted by the public. Their placards had been torn from their hands and were being trampled beneath the boots of a crowd of cretins. This simply would not do.
Jumping down from the lamp post, India marched into the gang of men surrounding the women. Jostling increased and objects began to fly.
She tapped a mounted policeman’s booted leg and shouted, “What is the meaning of this? Who are these women harming that they should be treated thus? I demand you disperse this crowd immediately.”
The policeman’s face turned as red as the rotten tomatoes splattered on some of the protesters. He tightened his mount’s reins and leaned down with his nose inches from India’s face. “Madam, unless you want to be arrested along with these other women, you will leave the area at once. We’ve had enough of these hussies and harlots.”
“Of all the nerve. These women are nothing of the sort. They are only asking for what is rightfully ours.”
“Oh, you’re one of them, are you?” He sat upright and motioned to a colleague on the ground. “Hey Tommie, this here one wants to join her sisters. Take her along with the others.”
“How dare you threaten me? I have done nothing but ask an honest question and demand that you do your job. Your job is to protect citizens, all of us, but it is a responsibility you seem determined to shirk. You, sir, are as lazy as you are stupid and insolent.”
Hands grabbed India’s upper arms from behind and propelled her over the cobbles. Around the opposite corner, they were greeted by the open door of a police van lurking out of sight of the protest.
India struggled against the policeman’s grip. “Let go of me, you stupid oaf. I am Lady Kilnsey, wife of the fifteenth Earl of Kilnsey.”
Before she could say more, the officer lifted her bodily from the ground and shoved her into the already packed vehicle. He slammed the door and frowned at her though the bars. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn if you’re the bloody Queen of Sheba, you’re going to the nick along with the rest of these blighters. No decent woman would be seen with such rabble.”
India glared down at her captor. “My husband will hear of this. Y’all are gonna be in big trouble.” India covered her mouth with her hand. Had she really just said y’all and gonna, vestiges of a childhood spent in America’s Appalachian Mountains?
The officer laughed then tugged the brim of his helmet, turned, and strolled back toward the now dispersing crowd.
Within the van, women of all ages and classes, some covered with the detritus of rotten fruit, others bleeding, huddled together on rough wooden benches. India squeezed into the spot made for her.
The women, all strangers, watched India with interest as though she might be some rare specimen pinned to a board in a science laboratory. India nodded in the direction of no one in particular, but the acknowledgement was not returned.
Finally, the woman directly opposite bestirred herself. “You are not English, are you?” Her enunciation and vowels indicated she was of the gentry or perhaps a well-educated middle-class matron.
India shook her head. “Not originally. Before my marriage, my home was in North Carolina. That’s in the southern United States. I lived in the mountains. They are very beautiful and sometimes I miss them very much.” Her words tumbled to a halt. Babbling, a habit she thought she had shed, had returned full force. Her nerves must be wound tighter than she wanted to admit.
“I see.” The woman eyed India in speculation. “One of these American heiresses come to save our poor old British aristocracy from ruin, I suppose?”
India’s lips thinned. She had no patience for the direction this conversation was taking. She leaned back against the wall and ignored her inquisitor. Within moments, the sound of reins slapping horses’ backsides followed by the rumble of the van’s wheels brought her upright again.
Gripping the door’s iron bars, she searched the road and sidewalks. Word must be gotten to Charlie. She found Althea at the forefront of a small crowd following the van.
“Go straight to the solicitor’s office. Tell him to come to the police station at once.”
The last thing she saw before the van rounded a corner was Althea’s horror-stricken face, her head bobbing up and down in frantic agreement.