Every week in Friday Free Web Fiction I post a first draft scene from my work in progress (WIP), or a short story, or an excerpt from one of my books. Today’s offering is from my Prunella Smith WIP, The Lock Smith’s Secret. One strand of this book is a steampunk novel that Ella is writing. The protagonist in it is Nell.Copyright Tahlia Newland
Nell leaned back in her chair and twisted her mouth into several different positions before settling on a grin with her lips pressed together and a knowing shake of her head. The solution was simple, Bert could publish a short piece to counteract the smear on her name Lord Burnett had written in his latest column in the Burnett Weekly. Her boss would do that for her, wouldn’t he?
She stood and smoothed her hands down her leather corset. Like all modern-thinking women, she wore something more practical than the huge skirts favoured by the older women and those of traditional mind sets. Nell giggled, who would have thought, just a few years ago, that women would be wearing bloomers on the outside? Mind you, these were burgundy velvet, not white cotton or silk as most undergarments were. She ran her hand across the soft fabric and took a deep breath. Surely everyone would see that snotty Burnett only said those things about her because she was a woman.
Nell paced the polished floorboards of her office. Who is he to put her down? She thought. She had a job, a good job: Senior editor of the Annandale Voice. She had economic independence and soon she would have the right to vote. Then she and all the other women could vote misogynists like Burnett out of parliament. She hoped. Not everyone wore their bloomers on the outside. And her mother probably wouldn’t vote even if she were allowed. She chuckled at the memory of her mother’s reaction to her velvet bloomers. She hadn’t realised at first that her shock was largely due to her assumption that Nell wore no underwear beneath her bloomers. She’d pulled those bloomers down, right there in the parlour and shown off her new smalls. And they were—small—compared to the bloomers her mother wore.
‘Stop it!’ Mother had said, her voice shrill with horror. ‘You only do this to shock people.’ Then she’d frowned and peered at the fabric of the garment that allowed new clothing options for women. “What on earth are they made of?’
‘Cotton jersey. The latest steam-powered looms can weave cotton a whole different way. They stretch a little. See.’ She’d pulled the fabric out to show her.
Mother had shaken her head and sighed. ‘Please pull your … outer bloomers back up, dear. What if the servants come in?’
‘Oh come on, Mother. They won’t mind,’ Nell had said as she’d pulled the offending garment back up. “They’ve been working women for years. Bessy is smart too.”
‘It’s not about whether you’re working or not—though God forbid that you feel you have to—it about decorum.’ Her mother had pressed her lips together and set her face in her ‘no more nonsense’ look.
‘How many times do I have to tell you,’ her voice had risen in frustration causing a further tightening of her mother’s mouth. ‘I don’t feel I have to, it’s because I want to. Needlepoint is boring and machines can do it all so quickly now—and neater than I—so there’s no point.’ She’d grinned then and added in a mumble, ‘no point in needle point.’
“It would have been different if you’d cultivated a bit more patience.”
Nell had grimaced and wondered if she should save her breath, but had slumped onto the two-seater with a sigh, resigned to trying to explain again. “I enjoy my job, Mother. I get to make a difference. It’s much more exciting than anything you do—all those things you’d have me do to pass my time until someone marries me.”
“Do sit up straight, dear. I didn’t raise you to be slovenly.”
Nell grabbed this week’s competition off her polished wood desk and stormed from the room. If she wrote a rebuttal, she could end up with a war of words in her hands. The image of two hands full of blood-smeared sharp letters filled her imagination. She didn’t want that. But her boss could point out the real basis of Barnett’s abuse—prejudice not truth—and say how his stupid magazine’s position as supporter of the old status quo would soon make it irrelevant.
Heads turned as she stormed through the outer office—had they seen her pacing?—but she ignored them, even Kathryn, despite her warm smile. Why did publishers’ offices have glass walls anyway? She stopped outside Bert’s office. He looked up and waved her in. Oh yeah, that’s why? It saved her having to knock and wait.
She opened the door and walked in, curbing the length and weight of her stride—her heels sounded just a little strident on the bare floor. Her boss—a near-sighted forty-year-old with a paunch and four children—didn’t get up. He didn’t do it for men, so he didn’t do it for the women either—not in the office. He looked at her through his spectacles with a what’s-up-now expression and followed the arc of the Burnett Weekly as it flew from her hand and landed with a whump on his desk.
‘Have you seen this?’ she asked.
He gave a half smile and nodded. ‘Kathryn showed me the inflammatory piece.’
‘Can you write something in response? Something scathing that exposes the fact that he’s nothing more than a bitter misogynist.’
Bert chuckled, his straight brown hair flopping over his face with the movement. ‘Oh no, my dear. It will be much more entertaining if you do it.’ He brushed the wayward hair off his face.
Nell blinked and closed her mouth. Her jaw had gone slack—not an attractive look. ‘If it was up to me, I’d stomp on his foot with my stiletto.’
Bert looked around his large, solid desk strewn with papers and smiled at her calf high boots—perfectly coloured a reddish brown and buttoned with brass to match her waistcoat. ‘They’re a mean weapon, all right.’ He looked up, the smile lines around his eyes deepening with his cheeky grin. Didn’t he take this seriously? ‘But your words are more powerful in the long run.’
She swallowed. ‘It’ll be war.’
‘And one that needs to be had. You’ll be speaking for all woman, a direct response to those who think you should stay in the parlour. Isn’t that what you wanted from this job? A chance to make a difference?’
‘But this is personal. It’s not … decent.’
Bert laughed a great big belly laugh. ‘You gave up claims to decency when you decided to wear your bloomers on the outside.’
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