The Royal Victoria Tennis team. McGill website. Lawn tennis was the first group set up by women at McGill. Dr. Grace Ritchie England, in the first graduating class in 1888, mentioned it in her valedictory speech. She also demanded that women be allowed into McGill Med School, defying President Dawson.
Scene 2: The Jenkins Home. A lower duplex in lower Westmount. It is a ten room flat with a long narrow hall leading to a well-equipped kitchen, with a tiny postage stamp of a maid’s quarters off the kitchen, and a back door leading out into a very large backyard where even today, in the dead of winter, assorted white-wear hangs stiffly from a clothesline.
Mathilda and Penelope are in the only parlour in the place, at the other end of the house, staring at the street through a picture window and watching the snowflakes fall.
Matilda: We are all alone, I am afraid. The flu knows no holidays. My father says this is the worst season in years. He is out making deliveries, my brother is filling prescriptions, and my mother is working the cash at the pharmacy.
Penelope: All dressed up and nowhere to go. Shouldn’t it be the other way around with your brother making deliveries and your father filling prescriptions?
Mathilda: My father likes visiting his clients; he thinks they appreciate it. They are impressed with his new Dailmer automobile. They wouldn’t like it so much if they knew my mother often filled the prescriptions herself. She has been well taught by my father.
Penelope: I get it. So we are left to watch the snow fall. What should we do?
Mathilda: Well, would you like to see the pharmacy? It’s not a long walk.
“Sure,” says Penelope, reflexively. To be very poor is to be very bored, is what she is really thinking.
And yet when she gets to the Jenkins pharmacy, after slip-sliding down the hill towards St. Henri arm-in-arm with Mathilda, she finds it a very pleasant and interesting place to be.
There’s a long polished counter with a silver soda fountain machine; shiny maple cabinets lining three of the walls with waist-high displays of tonics and medicines set out like curiosities in a museum: essence of pepsin for indigestion; spirits of turpentine for the kidney; and even some feminine toiletries, witch hazel, rose water and other products, and over top of these counters, many glass-fronted cupboards stacked with large, brown leather-bound volumes.
The store gleams from all angles.
“Here’s one for you,” Penelope says to Mathilda leaning over a display cabinet. “Dr. Barker's Malt Extract. Puts Flesh on Thin People.”
“Well, here's one for you,” replies Mathilda. “Dr. Hammond's Nerve and Brain Tablets.”
The aroma in the room is over all sweet, cherry-scented, with something else more bitter mixing in, a smell Penelope can’t identify. She stops in her tracks and takes a long, conspicuous sniff.
“Sulphur!” says Mathilda, guessing her dilemma.
Mathilda’s brother, James, is tall like his younger sister, with the same high cheek bones and hazel eyes, but on the browner side. He is busy behind the counter, looking important in a shiny white coat.
Penelope has met him in passing only a few times and eaten only one meal in his presence, Christmas dinner, with fifteen people around the table and James on the opposite side of it to her, so she never got to talk to him, not once.
Was he avoiding her? She had been wondering.
On this occasion, James, who is alone in the store, hardly acknowledges the girls as they take a leisurely tour of the shop. In fact he brushes by Penelope rather rudely on an important mission to shelve a large box of tongue depressors.
Mathilda sees that her brother is being rude (or something else) and says in a loud stage voice “Rouge de theatre. I didn’t know we stocked this. Do you think Mrs. Pankhurst would approve?’
Penelope answers, “I suppose. Why not? She seems a very pretty and fashionable woman and also a friend of the lower classes.”
“Mrs. Pankhurst?” Mathilda’s brother blurts out.
“Yes, we heard her speak in January. We went with the citizenship class at the College,” answers his sister.
“Subversive, I would say. So my little sister is keeping secrets from me.”
“I’m not keeping any secrets.”
Then Penelope asks, “What’s subversive about Mrs. Pankhurst? She is in the spirit of true democracy.” It is meant as a direct attack.
“Setting fire to post boxes? Breaking windows?” James bellows.
“The WSPU has been driven to such acts,” Penelope shouts back.
“They were put in jail for peaceful demonstrations so they might as well get put in jail for genuine offenses.”
Penelope can hardly believe she is saying these words because these are Mrs. Pankhurst’s words, from her December speech. She didn’t realize how well she had been listening.
But what a joy to get a rise out of that rude, indifferent boy.
“And now they are torturing them with Russian treatment,” she adds for good measure. “Force feeding them.”
James, his colour rising, speeds around the corner towards the two girls, still holding a jar of navy blue liver pills. He is roused. “They should be tortured,” he says. “They are anarchists and criminals and socialists.”
“They are political prisoners, fighting for freedom,” Mathilda says. “That awful man Winston Churchill promised that they would be treated as such, but it was a lie.”
“Yes, political prisoners.” Penelope can feel the blood rising to her cheeks, and not in all in bashfulness. “And he lied,” she repeats for emphasis.
It feels good to Penelope to argue so and James’ strong reaction, instead of making her cower, makes her feel very powerful.
Right then an old grey-haired couple ambles in and asks James for a bottle of the best tonic available for rheumatism.
The young pharmacist walks over to a cabinet and points them to Chamberlain’s Pain Balm.
Mathilda, just a bit befuddled, glances back and forth between the two hot-and-bothered young people in the room and then says to her fired-up friend, “Now don’t you have an excellent memory! I thought you were asleep the whole time that evening, us sitting way in the back of Windsor Hall to hear Mrs. Pankhurst. You seemed so indifferent about it all afterwards.”
“There’s more to me than meets the eye, Mademoiselle Jenkins,” replies Penelope. “But I guess I do have a good memory. It’s the only reason I pass at school, really. I don’t work very hard, or haven’t you noticed.”
The old couple ambles out still arm-in-arm, without buying the medicine.
James says to his sister “Poor dears. I don’t think they have the money. But I don’t think this medicine works either, so no loss to them.”
Penelope inspects Mathilda’s older brother closely, somewhat surprised to see that he is both compassionate and funny. This bold stare makes him turn away shyly. He glides back behind the counter and gets busy with his hands once again.
The girls prepare to leave. They wrap their scarves around their necks and point themselves toward the door.
On the way out, brushing against a display of fancy bow-ties, Mathilda tosses James, over her shoulder, a sly, subtle smile. He pretends not to notice.
Furies Cross the Mersey is available on Amazon.com Kindle. In a final chapter, the girls meet up with Caroline Kenney, a real British Suffragette who came to Canada in 1912 on the Virginian and then they get into big trouble...