DANGEROUS DESTINY: A Suffragette Mystery
Tuesday, 23rd June 1908
Victoria bent forward over the table, pretending to be busy.
‘You go on ahead,’ she said to Martha, who stood in the doorway. ‘They’ll be waiting for the news-sheets.’
The heap of papers in Martha’s arms slipped, and she clutched them with a firmer grasp.
‘I suppose I should. The crowds will be gathering, and Christabel will arrive soon.’
‘Go on,’ Victoria said. ‘I won’t be long.’
The door slammed. Victoria waited a few minutes to make sure Martha would be out of sight before she left the office. She couldn’t risk her finding out about the rendezvous to collect what she needed to carry out her plan.
Excitement rippled through her as she peered into the street before leaving, locking the door behind her. The sound of her footsteps on the pavement beat a staccato rhythm in time with her heartbeat, while her blue, green and gold sash, signifying the Women’s Freedom League, fluttered in the breeze. Soon, if her plan was successful, she would exchange it for a purple, white and green one. But she needed to prove her worth first, and that would depend on the success of what she had been working on. If it happened as she hoped, they would hail her as the suffragette who brought militancy to the streets of Dundee.
Barrack Street was quiet. She’d hoped to enter the Howff graveyard by that entrance, but she was out of luck; the gate was padlocked. The clank of a tram rattling along Meadowbank reminded her how close she was to Albert Square, where suffragettes were gathering to welcome Christabel Pankhurst. She hadn’t wanted to use the main entrance to the Howff – it was so close to the square it posed a risk someone would see her; she wanted to avoid any awkward questions. But it was too late to turn back now.
Despite an increase in the numbers walking along Meadowbank, no one paid her any attention apart from a group of boys who sniggered and pointed their fingers at her. All eyes were focused on the crowded square ahead and she joined the flow of people heading in that direction. When she came to the main entrance to the Howff, she slipped through the ornate, iron gates into the graveyard. Once inside, she followed the path to her left which led to a secluded area, populated by older gravestones. There was less chance of anyone tending a grave here.
He was there already, lounging on a flat-topped gravestone.
‘The preparations,’ she began, ‘did you get what I need?’
‘Everything you require is under here.’ He pointed to the hollow space beneath the stone and she bent to look.
It only took a moment for the blade to slice into her and for her to topple forward with the smallest of gasps.
* * *
Meanwhile, a short distance away, excitement mounted. The buzz of voices increased, rippling through the crowd gathered in front of a ribbon-bedecked cart. They had been gathering in Albert Square from early morning, jostling and pushing to find the best view; ladies in their finery rubbing shoulders with shop assistants and mill girls, along with a scattering of men, some of whom appeared embarrassed and some belligerent.
Martha Fairweather adjusted the sash across her body to make the words, Votes for Women, stand out against the background of blue, green and gold. She had opted out of her membership of the Women’s Social and Political Union when Emmeline Pankhurst demanded their motto, ‘Deeds not words’, meant members should use more violent tactics. But today, the WFL was out to support the cause alongside their more militant colleagues adorned in the purple, white and green of the WSPU.
Christabel Pankhurst’s visit to Dundee in September 1906 had resulted in many more women joining the movement; she would be expecting the same result today. Martha had to admit that, even though she had no great love for the woman, Christabel was a talented speaker and audiences loved her.
Martha stared out over the crowd from her vantage point on the steps of the Albert Institute. Where was Victoria? When Martha raced out of the office, clutching the news-sheets, Victoria had said she had something to finish and she would be right behind her. That was half an hour ago. She should have been here by this time. Martha tutted with annoyance.
She looked around the square, but the other WFL members were either busy or nowhere to be seen. It would be difficult to cover the whole area herself and she needed help to hand out the news-sheets.
‘Ethel,’ she called to one of the girls standing beside the cart. Most of the women hung back at the rear of the crowd, allowing the men to take up spaces nearer the front, but the working-class girls had no such inhibitions.
‘I’ve noticed your enthusiasm for women’s suffrage,’ she said as Ethel approached her, ‘and I wondered if you’d like to help, distributing our literature.’ She gestured to the stack of news-sheets.
The girl nodded, her cheeks pink with pleasure.
‘I’d love to help.’
Martha handed her a bundle of papers.
‘I’ll do this side of the square. You can start at that side.’ She nodded to the left. ‘That would really help, thank you.’
Ethel grasped the news-sheets. Her obvious delight charmed Martha, who wished other young working girls shared her enthusiasm.
Ever since she’d first met Ethel, the girl had attended meetings and even gone out chalking pavements one evening. With encouragement, maybe she could be used to generate interest in the cause among her fellow workers. It would add vigour to their campaign if they involved more of the working class.
Ethel turned to start her task, but Martha laid a hand on the girl’s arm before she walked away.
‘Some men might be rude to you but pay them no heed. Smile and pass on to the next person.’
‘Don’t you worry about me, Miss Fairweather. I get plenty of lip from the men in the mill. I know how to handle them.’
‘I’m sure you do.’ Martha watched the girl elbow through the gathering throng. Her enthusiasm showed in the way she held her head and smiled as she handed out the news-sheets.
The WFL could do with more younger girls like Ethel. But was she too young? Supporting the cause wasn’t an easy task. It came with many obstructions and difficulties, including letters like the one that nestled in her pocket. She hadn’t shown it to any of the other women who manned the Women’s Freedom League office because this one went beyond the usual bile and hatred – it contained a death threat aimed at all those who supported women’s suffrage. The crudity of the message alarmed her, and she wondered if she was doing the right thing by hiding it from the others. More than likely, they would have insisted she take it to the police. But what good would that do? As far as the police were concerned, the suffragettes were a nuisance, women who didn’t know their place in society. They would pat her on the head and tell her there was nothing for her to worry about.
A contingent of suffragettes arrived, heralding Christabel Pankhurst’s approach, breaking Martha’s train of thought. Two women from the WSPU climbed on to the cart and held their hands out in an attempt to calm the spectators. But it was only when Christabel’s entourage entered the square and she mounted the makeshift stage to speak that a hush descended. People strained to listen, afraid to miss a single word.
Martha’s eyes focused on Christabel’s upright form and she pushed the death threat to the back of her mind to focus on Christabel’s speech.