In Which The Scene Is Set And Our Tale Begins
The bare facts of the Prostitute Rebellion are these. On the night of March 27th, 1812, a night of windblown luminous clouds, a toothy frost and a quarter moon, one Florence Cooper, prostitute, stabbed to death a man at Bow, London, leaving her victim to die slathered in his own gore in a manner we shiver to relate. 18 wounds to the victim’s throat and chest had done the work that twenty five years in service of the King’s army (not to mention the attentions of various Frenchmen, Turks and other mercenary elements) could not. Our murderess, thinking it fit to add what might be deemed insult to the injury already inflicted, then staved in the gentleman’s forehead with some manner of heavy object, before making her escape and leaving the gory spectacle to be discovered in the hours before dawn by none other than a soldier of the victim’s own company.
And this is not the worst of it. That same night a further three other members of the king’s soldiery were similarly assaulted. One, a corporal, was found with his throat cut in Hyde Park. A sergeant-at-arms died in Hackney, cut open from throat to groin. And at Wapping a private was drowned after his legs were tied with weights and he was thrown into the Thames by an assailant or assailants unknown. Of the four murders, only that committed by the criminal already identified above has since officially been solved, though this writer –and a number of others– continue to entertain the suspicion that our Miss Cooper may have been involved in more crimes than she has answered for. (If she is to answer further, however, it will be to the almighty alone, since on June 13th of the same year she was hanged.)
The horror, however, was not to end here. Over the next three nights, as the moon waxed, five more servicemen were set upon, two dying from their wounds before help could reach them, one more a month later despite the best medical attention, one surviving but in such a state of psychological distress that he was to take his own life (and that of his wife and three children) in the most bizarre of circumstances not three months later, and only one of the five escaping with his life (and sanity) intact.
Consider the effect of these outrageous crimes on the body of fighting men barracked in London during this period. As the news spread, so it was accompanied by an understandable fear of the local professional womanry –women who had until now relied upon the custom of London’s standing army for their income– with effect that for the next two weeks you would have been pressed to find one single soldier seeking out the services of a prostitute in all of London Town. In short, these crimes had unmanned the finest of men, filling them with terror and, worse, a morbid dread of the sexual act itself. The malaise was felt even in those soldiers married and with children – where before their wives had come to expect the manner of attentions that men long out on the battlefield are wont to give on their return from war, now they began to complain that their husbands had lost all interest in the act of congress, were prone to dark, melancholy moods, and started at the slightest touch from their spouses.
But furthermore, though this in itself is a horrible enough scenario to entertain, spare a thought for the working women of London, now deprived of their means of making a living, for it is with them that our story is concerned (and, in that he has a bearing on it, with a certain Captain Constant Smith, soon to be introduced). Some would argue that since it was one of their number who committed the first of these crimes, was probably involved in at least three or four of the others, and certainly served to inspire the murders that followed in quick succession, therefore the prostitute community entire must share a portion of the blame for the state of affairs that it subsequently found itself in. For consider the example set by our Miss Cooper who, even at the last, proclaimed “I have done no more than any woman would have done. Under the circumstances” and went to the gallows with her head held high. Might her words not inspire, say, a thirteen year old girl, already two years into the profession thrust on her by her background and the necessities of survival, forced to endure nightly indecencies upon her person (of the type soldiers are known to demand) in order simply to clothe and feed herself? Is it beyond imagining that one night a voice inside her cries “enough is enough!”, she whips the knife from her garter, a flash of cold iron on trembling thigh, and with a single motion slits the throat of the man in her charge?
Such, we conjecture, was the case in any number of these murders. But do we then hold all of London’s working women responsible? And are we then to be unconcerned when it is this self same girl’s professional associates who suffer the most from the effects of her crime, i.e. the resultant paucity of customers and concurrent driving down of the price of their services? Why, life was already harder and more difficult for these women than most of us would care to imagine. And yet now they are forced to undercut each other in their attempts to tempt their (understandably wary) customers to once again take up business with them. In any case, the result could only be discontent, stirrings and mutterings, and the breeding ground for actions of a most political nature.
And so it was that Anna Mable, twenty two years of age, dark eyed and with a touch of the Spaniard, delivered the first petition, though she was almost certainly nominated by others. Approaching a gentleman of the house of commons (The Hon. Mr. S–) who was about business or businesses unknown in St James’s Park on the night of April 6th, shortly after 10 o’clock, she pressed into his hand none other than the list of demands which has since gained such notoriety. It read thusly:
“That we, the undersigned, demand the following:
1.- Protection for both the girls of our trade and those who partake of our service by means of regular nightly patrols of a local ‘police force’, to be administrated in tandem by representatives from the local ‘police force’ and from our profession.
2.- That prices involved in our trade be fixed by a body made up representatives from the local business community and from our profession.
3.- That both such bodies recognise and encourage the full unionisation of our profession, and that membership of said union or unions shall not in anyway lead to discrimination against any member or members of said union or unions Etc.”
Written by an expert hand, the pamphlet was not. Yet its effect was felt in the very highest offices of the state. There were heated questions in the house. The foremost philosophical societies of the day retired for three days to discuss the issues raised by this inflammatory piece of paper. The Prime Minister himself, it was said, was thrown into apoplexy, taking to his bed for two days, despite the rather more pressing demands of the war, leaving the Home Secretary to take over the running of the country, a most unprecedented (and, some suggested, tyrannical) constitutional development.
And it is at this point that the aforementioned Captain Constant Smith now enters the action.
A Shorter Chapter In Which Captain Smith Is Introduced
The scene is a drawing room in Regent’s park, at four o’clock in the afternoon of April 12th, where three men wait in silence for the arrival of a fourth, tobacco smoke hanging in the stale air around their heads. Outside: white clouds like battleships seem to fill the sky all the way to the coast, the breeze is up, and our handsome hero steps down from his carriage wrapped in his military great coat (despite being retired from the action for six months now on account of the loss of so many of his internal organs to Napoleon’s troops), stops to taste the air of this particularly fine day, and then heads inside, where coffee is poured, more cigarettes rolled and lighted, and the conversation proceeds so.
“Sirs, things cannot be allowed to proceed in this fashion…”, says the first man, a representative of the Home Secretary himself, after clearing his throat.
“For we are all aware of the threat to the unrestricted operation of free businesses and etc. that is posed by these events…” adds the second who, we can relate, himself lost a leg at sea while defending just such business interests against the attentions of French.
“Sirs–” starts the third, before the esteemed Captain Constant Smith (for it is he), who has already had enough of this politician’s chat, leaps to his feet, sweeping open his coat to expose the hilt of his sabre which, his companions note, catches the dying light of the sun and flashes just so.
“Oh, balls to all that,” announces our Captain Smith, heroically. “Just tell me what you fellers want me to do.” And so it was that our fearless Captain came to be charged with putting down the incipient Prostitute Rebellion.
Now Cap. Constant Smith, unusually for a military man, was not used to dealings with prostitutes; truth is, he bore within him a deep and all consuming hatred of the company of women, their ways, wiles and attitudes, the result of his being abandoned at the age of six by his own mother who, after weighing up the choice between bringing up a child and a career in the theatre and deciding that the latter was infinitely preferable, left the infant Constant on the steps of the naval academy one day telling him that she would return shortly, and was never seen by the boy again. True, had this incident not taken place, our hero’s illustrious career might never had been, but this was small recompense to the man he was to become. So it is said that during his military career entire, Smith never once sought the arms and solace of a woman, even when the men around him could hardly keep themselves away from them. Whether he sought company of other kinds we are unable to relate. His was a world of manly action, tempered only by study of the arts of warfare, and darkened only by what he called ‘The Black Dog’ that he could feel sniffing around at his heels during moments of introspection. Latterly, landlocked in his career as a bookmaker, he had taken to shooting his customers over the most trivial arguments, which did little to help business.
Nevertheless our Mr Smith was a man both well liked and respected – a man, indeed, of whom none less than the Home Secretary of Britain himself has said “if t’were that we had more fellows of this mould, the war should have been over months since’, and this was not the least of the badges pinned to him for his heroic actions against the French. A spy, an excellent musket shot, a tactical genius without compare – the list of his achievements could take up the rest of this tale, were that our aim.
However, he was also a man fatally flawed, and it was this flaw that would lead –inexorably and after the Greek fashion – to his eventual fall from grace. And while it is in no way our intention to present what might be deemed ‘a psychological study’ of the aforementioned Mr Smith (in order, in the modern style, to gain a better insight into the nature of what follows by closely studying the character of the man at the heart of things), we would ask our readers to keep these things in mind, as we now get back to the action.
In Which Captain Smith Is Insulted
Captain Smith and his personal secretary, a certain Pip Thomas, at Hackney Marsh at dusk. They are to meet a contingent from ‘The People’s Prostitute Republic’, newly declared but two days before.
“Hand me that, that–” says Smith.
“‘Tis a pistol sir” says the boy.
“I knowed it. Give it to me” says Smith, not without anger. Then: “Better to be prepared, all things considered”
Smith checks the firearm and scans the horizon, perhaps looking for French sails. All he sees is the fires of London town, piling greasy smoke into the darkening sky. He hates this place, this unknown country.
“This’ll be them,” says Pip, indicating the small party of women that are even now approaching. There are perhaps ten of them, dressed as if for battle in, could it be, French uniforms? No, it’s merely another illusion, for they are just women after all, though their dress does indeed appear military and they are armed. They draw up before our two and halt. Their leader, one Genevieve ‘Hackney Jen’ Tully, steps forward, a handsome woman of thirty years or so, and holds out her hand to the surprised Captain.
“You won’t shake, sir?” She says, not taking her hand away.
“I will not” replies the Cap, and stuffs his hands inside his pockets. He wonders, is she teasing him? Give him a stand up fight any day, to perdition with this womanish diplomacy and so on and so on. “Let’s not pretty this business with false civility”
“As you say. And in that case: what do you want?”
Smith takes the document out of his jacket, breaks the seal, and reads it out.
“It being the will of the Home Secretary under powers given to him by the Emergency Act, your action is declared illegal. You are given two days to disband or face the consequences” He announces, then properly hands the document over to the party to whom it is addressed. She looks it over at length, then says:
“If t’were up to me”, says Smith, “I’d set the army on you.”
“Oh, I think we could handle them, hey girls?” Says Miss Tully, with a gummy smile, not taking her eyes off the Captain. Raucous laughter ensues among the women, causing Smith’s left eye to develop an alarming tic.
For the next three days, our heroic Captain Smith was possessed by a cold fury, unable to sleep or eat, and taken to long walks the length and breadth of London, talking to himself, and discharging his pistol at any stray dogs unfortunate enough to cross his path. No Frenchman had ever insulted him thus. Why, he had once cut off an enlisted man’s ears for interrupting one of his speeches on sea power. His physician prescribed him laudanum, but far from delivering him into blessed sleep, the medicine served only to fill him with waking nightmares, in which he saw his mother on every street corner, armed with a bloody stiletto with which she intended to set about her estranged son while abusing him with coarse phrases in the worst seaman’s French. The Home Office, Smith decided, was made up of fools and worse, who, unable to spare the necessary forces for a show of significant strength, dithered over what action to take next while new prostitute communes were springing up at a rate of five a day all over London. Shops were raided for supplies in Holborn. Barricades were going up in Whitechapel. Reader, to our Captain Smith this was anarchy of the worst, which is to say the continental, kind.
Smith in a Soho drinking house, his pistol on the bar in front of him. The landlord holding forth:
“All I say is you can’t deny a body the means of earning a living. That’s all these girls are after,” says the landlord.
Smith shoots him dead.
(Later newspaper reports would describe how the assassin’s bullet passed directly through the victim’s heart, killing him instantly and “shattering his shoulder almost to atoms” as it exited, though in all but the earliest editions the name of assassin himself was omitted, at the direct request of the Home Office. Eventually a Piedmontese tradesman, going by the name of Alberto Manzini, was charged with the horrendous crime and was executed at Charing Cross, much to the amusement of the local populace.)
Including The Incident Of The Montgolfier Balloon
Things now took what could be described as a turn for the worse, if we are to consider the situation from the point of view of our Captain and his employers, as on the night of April 25th a great commotion took place in Whitehall, the result of the most audacious action yet undertaken on the part of the fledgling Prostitute Republic. Eyewitnesses inform us that the first bombs fell shortly after nine o’clock, partially destroying the London clerical offices of the East India Company and two carriages which were unfortunate enough to have been parked outside, before the rain of destruction moved off toward the Houses of Parliament themselves, severely damaging gates and removing a number of roof tiles as it went. What, the reader might wonder, was the cause of this fire from the skies? It was none other than a Montgolfier Balloon, pressed into the service of a Prostitute brigade out of Southwark, South London, and piloted by two of their number –one Molly McCarthy, of Irish descent, and an unnamed companion, believed however to have been an American agitator– who had armed themselves with untold numbers of grenades, the spoils of a raid on the London Arsenal carried out a week previously. The crew of the Montgolfier were now hurling these weapons of destruction earthward, causing great consternation in the streets below, where even officers of the local police force were powerless to prevent the ingenious assault, despite their cries to their skyborne assailants to desist or be arrested (cries which, it must be admitted, were somewhat drowned out by the cheers of the crowd which had now gathered, most of them never having witnessed such a spectacle before). Imagine the mighty balloon, glorious in the moonlight, now turning so as to get a better angle of attack on its principle target – the very House itself, where still sat a number of his Majesty’s Honourable Members of Parliament who were debating late into the night some business of the war. A hush from the crowd as Molly McCarthy takes careful aim, yet pausing to wave at those gathered bellow, perhaps accompanying her action with a lascivious wink, as if to say “I’ll give these fellows a prick all right”, and at the same time police men running left and right, trying to clear the streets, and even some of the Honourable Members themselves now emerging from the building to get a better look at what’s causing all this noise and exclaiming “my lord, look at that!” and at that moment too a contingent of armed guardsmen arriving at double march up from the Thames…
The rule of law was saved that night only by the arrival of those guards and the quick thinking of their sergeant. Dropping on one knee to a man, the company let forth a tremendous round of shot in the direction of their foe, and their discharge found its mark. For a fraction of a second the crowd held its breath, then were as one aghast, as, with an ear shattering pop, the Balloon rent itself in two, turned inside out, and plummeted, basket, crew, arms and all, into the street below.
And then all was silence.
Smith that night, in the offices of the Home Secretary, standing by the window watching the street being cleared of the wreckage:
“One week Sir, and I’ll finish the lot of ‘em off,” says he, and “my word, this is a fine Brandy though.”
“French,” the Home Secretary tells him, “and don’t shoot any more publicans”, to which they both raise a silent toast. And so was war officially declared on the Prostitutes.
An Interlude In Which The Author Employs Dramatic Licence By Daring To Enter The Mind Of Woman
Accompany us now to the temporary headquarters of The People’s Prostitute Republic, Hackney Chapter, where a meeting is in place, including flags and banners and a considerable crowd, women all, some of them with young children in tow, some carrying babies, though still an atmosphere of steely intent prevails upon each one, not least the previously introduced Genevieve Tully, who is currently whipping the audience to a heady pitch with some choice invective.
“And who are we to blame for this ‘orrible state of affairs?” says she, referring to that day’s bloody battle in the streets of Islington between Smith’s hand picked rapid reaction force (though the Captain himself had been noticeable by his absence from the action) and a local prostitute brigade, the results of which were thirteen deaths, numerous arrests and the loss of a prostitute command bunker on Upper Street.
“The men!” cry large portions of the gathering.
“The government!” shout others.
“And what are we going to do about it?”
“Fight on, to the last woman!” is the general consensus.
A word about this Miss Tully. A woman of considerable intellect and wit, she was brought up entirely in the company of those to whose profession she now belongs, having been born in a bawdy house, the result (or so it was said) of a single night of passion between her mother (long since deceased) and an unnamed member of the Russian nobility (though how anyone could be sure of this –her mother being extremely successful in her trade– this writer cannot say). Embarking on her career on the streets at the age of twelve, she soon distinguished herself from her peers by falling under the regular employ of one Mr. R—-, a physician who, so taken with the girl, married her when she was seventeen, much to the sceptical amusement of his contemporaries. There followed three years in which she attempted to adapt to her new life in Knightsbridge, endeavouring to make a home for her spouse, provide him with a child (an endeavour which resulted in the birth of two girls, neither of whom, we must sadly report, lived to see their first birthday) and put away all thoughts of her previous existence, an enterprise tragically cut short when the good doctor was killed by a horse in Blackfriars, leaving behind a number of unpaid gambling debts and rendering our heroine once again destitute. So was Genevieve Tully once again forced on to the streets, though armed now with a knowledge of medicine which she soon put to good use in the service of her fellow prostitutes, the many ailments to which their profession is prey having been already detailed elsewhere. A woman of striking appearance, high cheeked and blessed with a spectacular bust, she was a natural leader – fierce in battle, canny in retreat, and loved by her men. Or rather women.
And so, as the business of the evening is attended to (the crowd voting as one “aye!” to the motion put forward to accept a special operations executive of French prostitutes, recently smuggled ashore at Greenwich, into their cause), we will follow Genevieve Tully as she steps into a back room off the main hall, where an oil lamp gutters and tea is brewing.
“I dunno Jen,” says Big Louise, putative general-in-charge of the Hackney forces, shifting the child she is nursing from one breast to another, “thirteen girls lost today, six yesterday, ten the day before that. I’m sending children out there against men who’ve been fighting the French for years.”
Genevieve sips her tea, smokes a cigarette. She is thinking, too, despite her fiery invective of just five minutes ago, of the terrible cost of all of this. Of what they might expect to gain. Some of her sisters will be satisfied with nothing short of turning the world upside down and supplanting man from his natural place at the summit of the chain of being. And what then? Would fancy young women about town merely find themselves aping men’s’ basest thoughts and desires, gathering in packs in bars that served light Italian snacks to get raucously drunk and shout obscenities to passing handsome young boys? It seems unimaginable, and would even that justify the lives of so many young girls, cut down on the barricades, all the same?
“I mean to say,” says Big Louise, “I’m not even considering surrender. But still…”
Which is just when PFC (Prostitute First Class) Emma Blackwood, 17 years old and only down from Norwich these past three months, enters, reports to her two superiors, and recounts the following tale:
Unbelievable as may seem, far from taking only a week to put down the prostitute rebellion, the bloody war of attrition embarked upon by Cap. Smith’s forces of law and order was now dragging into its second month, and despite the successes reported above (and the concerns of Genevieve and Big Louise), the end was still nowhere in sight. So it was, then, on the morning of what would turn out to be a very fine June day (or so Emma Blackwood has it), that our Captain had gathered before him five of his finest men in his rented rooms off the Strand.
It was shortly after dawn, and as his personally chosen heroes, professional and ruthless killers all, waited for his word, Smith stood at the window, hands behind his back, considering the blue of the sky. So this was to be his inheritance, after all his years of service? A city of thieves and women, and what of it? Was this even his country, after all?
“It has been said,” started Smith, without taking his eye off the masts he could see gathered downriver, along the isle of dogs, ready to lead their crews to who knows what distant shores, “it has been said that there are, in all of us, myriad possibilities, as various as the clouds in the sky. That each child is a blank slate, upon which teaching and experience will write the story of our characters. And yet…” – and here he turned to his men, lounging as they were on his furniture – “…and yet there are fundamentals of biology which are immutable.”
The men nodded, unsure of where their Captain was going with his train of thought but, it must be said, habituated to this discursive mode of address from their years of serving under him, from France to the Crimea.
“One such fundamental,” continued Smith, “is that every child is born either man or woman. There it is. A fact. Whether, gentlemen, we like it or not.” And at this he met, in turn, the eyes of each of his fellows, as if attempting to divine any trace of argument in each of them. There was, of course, none. This seemed to throw Smith, who paused for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts, before continuing.
“Nevertheless,” he said, “there are also, as we see now, times when these fundamentals are turned upside down. And at such times, as men of war in the service of our country, we may be called upon to undertake tasks which might at first seem utterly alien to our natures.”
It was at this point that young Pip, the Captain’s personal secretary, entered the room, carrying what appeared to be seven sets of women’s clothing. And as the full horror of what they were about to be asked to do dawned on Smith’s men, the Captain himself stood proudly before them, in full salute, his eyes blazing with a joy and fervour they had never witnessed before.
It was a fervour also noted by PFC Emma Blackwood, employed as a maid in that same rooming house, who was at that moment passing the still open door to the Captain’s rooms. And yes, as you have no doubt by now divined, this was indeed the same Emma Blackwood to whom we were introduced some minutes ago.
Further Action, And A Note From The Author Which The Casual Reader May Ignore
Better men than I have written tales of warfare – its heroism and intrigue, its political consequences and thrilling moments, the bloody battles, the whiff of gun smoke, the rending of limbs, the sunlight shining on burnished steel and such. And yet I wager no other author has been charged with such a task as I have undertaken here: the attempt to convince a reader of the truth of such a bizarre and plainly outrageous set of events as have been so far described. And this is far from the worst of it, for there are, I confess to the loyal student who has accompanied me so far on this strangest of journeys, even stranger things yet to come, among them incidents that even now I feel myself shying from, but which I will nevertheless endeavour to recount in due course and at the appropriate juncture in our narrative. I ask only this: that as you recoil in horror at what is yet to be told, forgive the messenger his awful task, for I am only a reporter of these dreadful events, my chief duty being to the truth.
The situation, then, was this: the intrepid Captain Smith, after long evenings of feverish contemplation of the various options, military and otherwise, open to him for what be might called ‘his next move’, had struck upon that least expected by his opponent. As the Chinese have it, he was preparing to engage the enemy with a borrowed sword. Infiltration, achieved by a feat of considerable audacity, was the name of this particular game.
Smith, then, to his men: “Put ‘em on lads, don’t be shy! And my, but don’t you look like a bunch of likely fellows! Or should I say: ladies!”
So it was that five of England’s finest heroes pulled on corset and bustle, wig and powder, joined by Smith himself and his secretary Pip, the latter adjusting his master’s raiment with an expert hand that suggested more than a passing familiarity with the act. Indeed, Smith’s men noted, the Captain seemed to take some considerable pride in his own act of camouflage, pausing before a full length mirror to admire the transformation for some minutes, positioning his flowing chestnut wig just so, rubbing rouge into his cheek with a practised hand, touching just that extra bit of colour to his lips, plumping up the artificial bust that had been created with hessian and horsehair and that now, it must be said, gave his figure an unmistakably womanly aspect. Smith’s dedication to the disguise inspired his troops likewise, and soon all were joshing and ribbing each other as each tried to walk in the tight slippers which Smith had had fashioned especially by some tailor or other. They took turns to walk up and down the room, putting a sway into their hips as women do, chests out, heads proudly held high, their voices lifted into a girlish register as they flirted and cajoled. As the most red blooded of men, they were their own best judges, for, as their Captain reminded them, only when each man could look upon the face of his fellow and see all traces of masculinity there extinguished –could, indeed, look upon a man with whom he had shared the shedding of foreign blood in a lifetime of war and feel instead nothing but the noble passion a man can only feel for a woman– only then would their disguise be complete.
And it was that night, under cover of an absolute darkness, that our magnificent seven slipped from the deck of that noble ship HMS Indomitable, anchored off the coast of Kent at the mouth of the Thames, and into a small rowing boat, so to begin their incredible and top secret mission amidst swells and sea spray and the rustle of the finest lace, with the silent, astonished faces of His Majesty’s Navy watching agog.
Within minutes the blackness had enveloped them, and the sight of seven strong women rowing against the current was lost to one and all.
What passed between those men over the next forty eight hours we shall never know – even Captain Smith’s own diary, that legendary tome from which most of this tale, via gossip and hearsay, has been reconstructed, is said to be missing any entry for those two fateful days, and this, remember, is the diary of a man who had noted down his thoughts during every single day of his service against the French. One scurrilous rumour has it that the pages relating to those two days are in fact entirely torn from the journal, either by the Captain himself or, at a later date, by the hand of one of his supporters. Certainly no details have emerged since, and whatever was revealed at the subsequent Court Martial proceedings will, we can confidently predict, remain forever untold outside those lofty corridors of power and intrigue. The players are all now either dead or insane, the government changed, the home secretary disgraced for his part in the scandal and long since fled to Panama. Indeed, all we can surmise for sure is that seven men in the disguise of women set out up the Thames by boat, and that two days later they landed at Greenwich where, as had been planned, they were met by a party from the aforementioned Prostitute Republic who believed them to be a contingent of their French sisterhood.
But surely, the reader will cry, ready now to fling this manuscript into the fire, his credulity stretched beyond its natural breaking point, surely even the best disguise, even were it effective enough to fool other men, would not be enough to fool these other women? For don’t our own sisters, our mothers and daughters, possess qualities and secrets recognisable and shared only between each other? What man could hope to keep up the charade in such original company? And furthermore, these men had been in an open boat for two days, and in bad weather, exposed to the very elements – what disguise could have lasted the travails of such a journey, and yet now be effective to the close scrutiny of the party that picked our men up? Well, stay your conclusion, for the answers are thus:
Remember first that the landing was made, as had been the embarking, under cover of a London night. Have we not all of us been, at one time or another –and even as the country now embarks on that grand experiments to light our night-time streets– aware of the dangers of travelling the city after nightfall, where we are sometimes unable to see even our hand before our face? And furthermore –and herein lies the brilliance of Smith’s plan– remember also that our heroes were disguised not as common English prostitutes, but as their French counterparts. What English or Irishwoman, during such a time of war as this was, had ever even seen a Frenchwoman? Was it not, after all, not long previously that no lesser a creature than a monkey was hanged by an angry mob in the town of Gateshead on suspicion of being a French spy?
How then, would these English prostitutes even know how a Frenchwoman might look? She might indeed be hairy of face, powerfully built, not able to walk with the natural grace of even the lowliest English girl. And wouldn’t Smith’s command of the French language –learned, you’ll remember, in his many years as a spy for his country– confound them further still?
Reader, it did, and within two hours Smith and co. were within the very heart of the enemy’s organisation, dried off, fed, watered, armed and stationed at a fighting woman’s barracks on the edge of Highbury Fields.
Concerned With The Continuing Adventures Of The Captain’s Men, And The High Drama Of Battle
For the next week, as Smith’s own forces battled the enemy in the streets of East London, little did the women they were fighting know that their foe was already among them. Despite their natural suspicions, they had taken their continental sisters to their bosom, sharing with them not only their precious provisions but the secrets, too, of the trade they believed they were all a party too. They were fascinated to hear of the peculiarities of the French prostitute business and, it must be said, Smith’s men, having among them considerable experience of the particular talents of French professional womanry, were able to furnish them with as much information as they could wish for. In turn, our heroes were forced to smile knowingly as their unwitting hosts recounted their own experiences of what they liked to call ‘the working life’, during which talky sessions, over coffee and biscuits, it was only the thick makeup worn by our boys that prevented their enemy from spying their furious blushes. Hardened men or no, they were nevertheless frequently shocked at the manner in which their supposed sisters would happily recount the shortcomings of their former clients (many of whom, mentioned by name, their audience would often secretly recall as friends, business associates or, in one case, a brother) to each other, and then laugh among themselves at the whole situation.
Only Cap. Smith, and perhaps for the first time ever in his career, seemed comfortable with the situation, expertly drawing his newly found female compatriots into tales of his supposed amorous adventures with men of the French middle and upper classes or, in one memorable vignette, the time he entertained an entire garrison of French soldiers until each man was exhausted and crying out for his mother. He requested that the English girls called him ‘Helene’, shared clothes and shoes with them (he had surprisingly small feet), and generally seemed entirely at ease, in his new guise, in their company. His fellows could only remark, among themselves and far out of earshot of the enemy, at the skill and dedication of the man in so thoroughly assuming his role. This, they surmised, was what had made him such a great spy throughout his esteemed career.
As the days went by, however, one matter of concern did make itself apparent to the men. When would they be called upon to expose their true selves, wrest power from their prostitute enemy, and put into action the second part of their mission? Try as they might, they could get no answer from their Captain.
“Never mind that now girls,” he would whisper to his men, late at night, as they gathered in secret, “what’s important is that our ruse is working, see? And why don’t you try another one of these biscuits? They do go straight to the hips tho’.” He would refer to himself as a ‘silly old girl’, giggle alarmingly, and then take himself off to his bed, insisting that he needed his ‘beauty sleep’.
What none of them knew, of course, was what we have already seen – that two days after their arrival, and after the meeting at which they were sworn into the prostitute war effort, their plan was discovered. As you will remember, it was Emma Blackwood’s testimony that had revealed Smith’s strategy to the Prostitute High Command, and, particularly, to our Captain’s nemesis – Genevieve Tully. The only thing that had saved our heroes thus far was the chaos of the times. Determined to fashion a new social order from within as well as without, the High Command had decreed that each Prostitute chapter be autonomous and independently run, and so it was that the Highbury chapter were able to accept their French sisters without so much as a by-your-leave from their superiors. With new girls joining the cause on a daily basis, a spy –or even a gang of spies– might easily lose himself in the ranks, and so it was with our Cap. Smith and his men. That the High Command suspected he was there, there is no doubt. They had, however, little idea of where ‘there’ might actually be.
Nevertheless, disaster was about to catch up with our boys
The Scene: Highbury Barn, London’s own dairy, for these last few weeks under the control of the Prostitute Republic. (And shouldn’t we wonder at the allegorical value of this – that the very same milk destined for the city’s numerous coffee shops, there to sweeten the brew which for so long now has served to lubricate social discourse and trade among the prosperous classes, was now being withheld by a gang of women, many themselves still with children at their own breasts, others of them wet nurses at one time or another. Certainly there is a metaphor there to be made, though one that is beyond this writer’s poetic talents.)
The Action: A Battle raging in the streets outside the dairy, where hand to hand fighting has been going on for some hours, the current standing being twenty five dead or injured prostitutes to three men of the King’s Own Rapid Reaction Force.
Cast of Characters: Our Miss Tully, the loyal Big Louise and various other girls, manning (if that, indeed, is the correct appellation under these circumstances) a gun post on the top floor of the dairy itself, from which vantage point they have been loosing musket fire down into the street below for the duration of the combat, the dead-eyed Hackney Jen herself having already caught one fellow square in the chest and nick’d another about the epaulettes.
Significant detail: A ship’s cannon is being wheeled up from behind the King’s lines.
“Where are my damned reinforcements?” shouts Genevieve Tully, reloading her musket with her back to the wall as gunfire from below explodes in the plaster around her. Behind her Big Louise grits her teeth as she ties a makeshift tourniquet around her own left thigh in an attempt to staunch the blood that flows freely from a shrapnel wound there. The face of each of the girls is a mask of determination and bravery, like those of a gang of mother wolves, teeth bared, snarling and willing to protect their cubs to the very last.
But suddenly there comes an explosion, the noise of which is heard all the way back in Westminster, some five miles away, and the very foundations of the building are shaken as the girls are flung as one to the floor. And as the dust clears to reveal a scene taken from Dante’s very inferno itself, accompanied by the low moaning of the dying, Miss Tully raises her head and quickly realises that her girls are gonners one and all. Even the tragic Big Louise, taking the full force of the incoming shell, has, in saving the life of her beloved leader, sacrificed her own.
Herself considerably bloodied and suspecting a broken left arm, Tully pauses only to kiss each of her fallen comrades before grabbing a couple of pistols and hightailing it down what is left of the staircase, out in to the street (where she picks off two of the enemy at close range by discharging both pistols at the same time, one in each hand, after the Italian fashion) and, unseating the rider with a single practised movement, onto one of the King’s own cavalry horses which she spurs into a furious gallop away across the fields, musket shot whizzing past her ears.
Scarce five minutes later, and with what seems like a regiment of the King’s men hot on her heels, she arrives at the Highbury Barracks, reins in her horse, and dashes inside, a heroine to the last, ready to tell whoever is left there to save themselves as best they can, for the day is lost, as is the Republic’s control of this theatre of operations. What she comes upon instead is the seven members of the ersatz French Special Operations Executive, poring over maps and plans of the campaign borrowed from their supposed sisters (or rather, the six of them poring while the seventh, our Cap. Smith himself, seems more intent on studying his own reflection in a silver hand mirror).
There occurs then a stand off, both parties momentarily struck dumb in a manner that might be considered almost comical in a context less serious than this. Are our men found out? Is the game up for Miss Tully? Can either side afford to reveal that it knows what the other knows, as it were? Having no intention to keep our audience in suspense for longer than is otherwise necessary, we ask merely that they proceed onto the next chapter, in which they will discover the outcome, and much more besides.
A Short Chapter Featuring A Most Extraordinary Turn of Events
For those readers who were hoping to learn more about the individual character and natures of the five heroes who made up Smith’s top secret infiltration force –not to mention the faithful and long suffering Pip– we regret that bitter disappointment is about to make your acquaintance, for, save for their appearance in this short chapter, those six fine fellows are to play no further part in our story and, indeed, are about to be cut down in a hail of musket fire. That information divulged, readers who wish to dwell no further on this tragic turn of events may skip the following, and rejoin the story at the next chapter, which opens on a much brighter note. Those of a sterner constitution may find some baser part of themselves entertained at the ironical nature of the demise of Smith’s men, their lives ended not in battle with the forces of the Prostitute Republic but at the hands of a regiment of their own compatriots who, mere seconds after the action described at the thrilling climax of the previous chapter, arrived at the Highbury Barracks in hot pursuit of their female quarry only to be greeted by the sight of what appeared to be six well built and heavily armed women bursting forth from the building. Carrying out their duty to King and Country they naturally opened fire, and it was only hours later, as the bodies were removed, that anyone realised the enormity of the mistake.
How had this most extraordinary turn of events come about? Well, allow me to return you to the scene that ended the preceding chapter –and the very moment that Genevieve Tully bursts in on Smith and his men– and I will venture an explanation.
It takes both parties –on the one side the brave but wounded Miss Tully, on the other Captain Smith’s men– less than three seconds to surmise the gravity of the situation, the heroine of the moment quickly realising that she has tumbled into a nest of vipers (aided no doubt by the fact that, save for Smith himself, her adversaries are conversing in fluent English as she enters), our heroes equally speedy in their realisation that they are discovered. In no time at all then, guns are drawn all around, Genevieve Tully’s two pistols facing off against the six rifles of her foe. And so our actors stand, eyes narrowed, awaiting the enemy’s next move. True, Miss Tully is mathematically outnumbered, but, the room being full of seasoned soldiers, all present are aware of the devastation that might be caused by the discharging of her two pistols, stuffed with shot, at close quarters, just as she is cognisant that should any off her opponents open fire, she is done for herself. In other words, we have reached what might be called a defining moment in our story, the juncture –so familiar to students throughout the ages– at which history can turn on the toss of a coin, or by the actions of a single finger taking pressure upon a trigger.
And turn it does, as Captain Smith announces to his men that they are to surrender.
Reader, take whatever degree of shock and surprise you feel at this development– the announcement coming, as it does, from a man who has never in his career backed down from a firefight (and one whose bravery, you will remember, has been noted by no less an institution that the House of Commons)– and even if you were to multiply your outrage onemillionfold, your vexation would not come close in intensity to that felt now by Smith’s noble band of brothers. As it is, our Cap Smith is forced to repeat himself in order to convince his boys that they have heard correctly.
Smith: “I say lay down your weapons! Now!”
His men, now, one by one raising their eyes from sighting down the barrels of their rifles at their female target, in much confusion, even as Genevieve Tully keeps her weapons trained on those ranged against her, somewhat curious herself as to what is happening here…
It’s at this moment that the Captain snatches the faithful Pip from behind, putting a knife to the boy’s neck.
Smith: “Drop ‘em lads, or I swear I’ll kill him.”
One by one, our stupefied heroes lay their weapons on the ground, the terrified Pip letting go of his own weapon without a word.
Smith nods now toward Miss Tully, who meets his eyes for the first time.
“There’s a fresh horse and trap out back” says he.
Tully, as confused as all by this unexpected turnabout, nevertheless begins to move toward the door, though not for a second lowering her guns. At the same time Smith begins to circle his way to the same exit, dragging his personal secretary-turned-hostage with him.
“The thing is, boys,” he says, not without an element of sadness in his voice, “I’m getting out. That’s all there is to it.”
Reaching the open doorway, he considers the faces of his men for the last time. All are a picture of shock and betrayal.
“I’m sorry it turned out this way lads” is all he says, before violently thrusting Pip back into the building, pulling the door closed and jumping into the waiting trap, where Genevieve Tully is already seated, her guns still out, watching her saviour curiously. With a “Hah!” Smith spurs the horse on, and our pair set out at all speed for the north. Five seconds later Smith’s men rush out into the street, there to meet their previously described doom.
So ends their part in our adventure, and so ends this shortest of chapters.
Captain Smith’s Confession
There have been times during the writing of the preceding pages, your humble storyteller must now admit, when I have despaired of making any sense whatsoever out of the confusion of plot, counterplot, character, time and place involved in this dreadful tale. And, fearing that such confusion might tire the reader as much as it has tired me, it gives me no small pleasure to announce that our history is almost at its shocking end, as we now follow our ill-star’d couple, the action having moved on a scant hour, to the pretty hill village of Hampstead, whose sleepy lanes, lined with pleasant thatched cottages, nevertheless offer us a spectacular view of the city below, where even now the smoke of battle can be seen rising into the summer sky from numerous locations.
It is this view, of bridges and spires, rooftops and, here and there, the silver Thames as it winds its way through the heart of the city towards the vast expanses of the sea that Captain Constant Smith and the wounded Genevieve Tully now consider, their horse and trap pulled up momentarily to let a flock of sheep be driven past them.
Both our players are silent, perhaps considering the capriciousness of the fates in bringing them to this juncture. Still, the air is sweet with birdsong, the sun on their necks up here that much truer than the light which usually filters down through the miasma of smoke that has been sitting over the city for months. Perhaps they wonder how much they have both, in their own ways, been landlocked in that stinking metropolis for too long. For the last hour they have been travelling North, lost in their own thoughts.
“I know who you are,” sez Miss Tully, finally
After a pause, in which he considers the flight of a butterfly from a nearby hedgerow, Smith sighs and nods, “aye”.
“And what do you plan to do about that?” Tully adds.
Again Smith is silent. Then he asks:
“Are you badly injured?”
Miss Tully considers her shattered left arm.
“I’ll live,” she says. Then: “Am I now your prisoner, or are you mine?”
Smith, as if remembering something long forgotten, draws his pistol from inside his blouse and considers it for a while, as a fisherman might consider an alien fish he has just landed, wondering whether or not to throw it back. He’s unable to remember a time when it hasn’t been at his side or close by, and yet, as he turns it in his hand, and yet…
He turns around to see his passenger’s own two pistols, steadily trained on him, as they have been for the last hour. He looks up to meet Miss Tully’s eyes, both suspicious and curious, but with no hint of fear.
“I believe we’ve both been prisoners for many years” says he.
Then, as the road ahead clears again, he turns back to the reigns and moves the horses on.
Some quarter of an hour later they arrive at their destination, a small cottage set some way back from the road, where Smith reigns the horses and helps his bemused companion down from the trap. Flourishing a brass key he unlocks the front door and leads the way into the cool darkness within.
The sight that meets Genevieve Tully’s eyes is that of a modest kitchen, decorated with a simple woman’s touch. They are embroidered pictures upon the wall and fresh flowers in many vases, and the scent of lavender fills the air. Here and there are baskets of laundry, and a brace of birds hangs above the wood stove, where Smith now lights a fire and puts a pot of water on to boil.
Miss Tully sits herself at the table and watches.
“Nobody knows about this place,” says Smith, gathering swabs and bandage with which to treat his guest’s injuries. “We all of us need somewhere to escape to, now and then, from the rigours of war, wouldn’t you say?”
He pulls up a chair by his patient and, when she nods her assent, takes her arm gently and begins to examine it.
“Does this hurt?”
“Hmm. Broken in two places. Very nice. If we were at sea I’d have to cut it off.”
“You have a wife?” Says Tully, gesturing at the decorations around them.
Smith shakes his head, continuing his examination. A light of understanding appears in Miss Tully’s eyes.
“My former husband once treated a fellow like you. I believe he was committed to an asylum for the insane. I thought that harsh. I always liked the lad myself,” she says, and then: “Florence Cooper didn’t kill those soldiers did she?”
“They would have found me out.”
Tully whistles softly in exclamation.
Taking a length of bandage, Smith gently binds the broken arm. When the job is done he gets up again and busies himself clearing things away.
“They’ll hang you for it, you know” sez she, admiring her new sling.
“Eventually, if the truth will out. And rightly so, perhaps. But there are others like me.”
“I have heard of it” nods Tully.
“They’ll hang you too, of course.”
“Of course. It’s a war we can’t win. We are but women, after all.”
“As you say: after all.”
Smith sits down at the table again.
“Still, ’tis a pretty dress you’ve got there tho’” smiles Tully, indicating Smith’s costume, causing the Captain to look down at himself, still dressed as he is in a women’s apparel. He wonders how long it has been since he last wore a military uniform, and finds that he can’t remember.
And so, as tea is poured and the afternoon wanes and in the city below the battle between the forces of the King and those of the Prostitute Republic rages still, our two unlikely comrades sit and consider each other awhile, not entirely unlike two old generals, each from different sides, who have found, for a short while at least, that they are perhaps not that different after all.
In Which Things Are, At Last, Wrap’d Up
That most estimable and respected of witnesses, Dame History herself, tells us that the Prostitute Rebellion was finally brought to an end on September 15th of the same year in which it began, and furthermore that it ended in a clearing in Epping Forest, amidst one of the fiercest rainstorms that any of the participants could remember having ever endured. On the one side stood a detachment of prostitutes out of Walthamstow, the majority of them either very young girls or much older women only recently called into active service as a result of the huge losses sustained among their sisters of more appropriate fighting age, their leader Captain Emma Blackwood herself having only just turned eighteen. On the other side, a company of The King’s Own Rapid Reaction Force under the command of some career soldier or other, promoted purely for the occasion of the surrender, his superiors being more busy just then with the conduct of the concurrent war against France.
It was, it must be said, a far from noble affair, both sides being considerably bedraggled by the unrelenting rain and mud, and the ceremony was a short one, involving the joint signing of a single protocol by which the remaining prostitute forces were to give up arms and unconditionally surrender themselves immediately to the forces of the King. That it was over within minutes was a relief to all concerned, meaning as it did that they could all get out of the rain and leave the more complicated business of peace and retribution to other authorities, and soon two trains of covered wagons, one carrying the King’s Men and the other the prostitute prisoners, could be seen heading back to London town.
Within weeks our great city was back to normality (normality having been, for some time now, a state of constant and unending war with The Continent), within months most of the events of that terrible summer had already passed into the mists of distant memory, and with them disappeared most of the characters we have met on this strange voyage. The enervating spectacle of a great victory parade through the mall by the vanquishers of the Prostitute Rebellion did much to repair the damaged imagination and appetites of London’s menfolk, and, following a period of tentative exploration, the city’s now somewhat reduced population of working girls soon found business booming once again. With demand far outstripping supply prices were consequently driven up, and the eventual result was that a number of girls found themselves able to retire from the prostitute life at a relatively young age (their income assured by wise investments) and become ladies of independent means, ironically freeing themselves from the shackles of their trade via the very forces of the free market that they had once threatened to overthrow.
And as the city recovered, those who had come closest to the whirlwind found it best to count their blessings and carry on as before. The few members of the government and the admiralty who were aware of the shameful fate of Captain Constant Smith’s secret incursion force were so anxious to forget the episode that no proper investigation was ever carried out, save for a brief court martial in absentia that dealt only with the (now missing, presumed dead) Captain himself. As a result, the five brave men (and one boy) who had set out with the Captain from the decks of the HMS Indomitable that dark night were interred in unmarked pauper’s graves, though the families of the five were nevertheless to receive their loved ones’ military pensions, having been informed that their sons, fathers or brothers had died on active duty in France, their bodies never recovered. The tragic Pip, an orphan, went unmourned.
So it was that life went on, with the principal actors in our play soon all but forgotten, as actors usually are. Certainly, the Captain’s diary of those turbulent days is still circulated, though it has been more or less dismissed as a forgery by those whose job it is to look into these things, and with the Captain’s closest confidant, none less than the Home Secretary himself, now banished to Central America, it would be safe to say that the matter is now officially closed.
And furthermore – what gossip, however scurrilous, could anyway bring back the lives of those who are lost, not least that of Florence Cooper, with whom our story began, hanged for a series of murders she may or may not have committed? Perhaps, then, we should ourselves, though we be curious readers of such tales as this, also leave the past alone?
Well, so we might, were it not for two facts, upon which we will make no comment save to draw them both to the reader’s attention. Either might disprove the other, certainly they cannot both be true, but it was their discovery by your writer that set him off on the investigation the result of which has been the awful story set before you. Our tale told as best we could tell it, we will leave the reader to draw what lessons they can.
The facts are as follows:
1.- That at the battle of Mile End, which was to prove the ultimate turning point in the war against The Prostitute Republic, fourteen prostitute girls managed to escape with their lives –despite all the odds– from a trap set for them in a grain warehouse by some hundred of the King’s Men, due to the intervention of two mysterious women, one of whom was reported as being ‘as tall as a man’. Each of those fourteen prostitutes, personally interviewed by the author, tells the same story: that their saviours, who appeared in the middle of the fray as if from nowhere, were two of the greatest fighting women they had ever seen. It was, I was told, that only by taking on the enemy in ferocious hand to hand combat in the very heart of the burning warehouse that these two furies bought their comrades time to escape. Alas, they are said to have paid for their fellow women’s lives with their own, burning to death in the conflagration when the roof of the building fell in. Their names, however, are still remembered by those who they saved. They introduced themselves to their fellows as one Genevieve Tully and her ‘cousin’, a certain Miss Constance Smith.
2.- That there exists, in the ships’ records of the East India Company, an entry for September 1st, 1812 (two weeks before the prostitute surrender), concerning the departure of The Evangeline for the islands of the Indian Ocean, the passenger manifest of which includes the names of two women.
A Miss Genevieve Tully and a Miss Constance Smith.
– END –