Meet Me At St Louis
Cause and effect - Louise Duchamp prologue
St Louis, 1919
‘Votes for women! Rights for women! Votes for women! Rights for women!’
As I stand in front of the St Louis town hall, holding my placard and chanting along with my fellow fighters for justice, I don’t immediately notice the policemen approach. Before long, however, their presence is all too obvious. They are armed and their expressions are grim. They aren’t the only ones who are approaching us; a group of rough looking men is striding towards us, their expressions grim. Come to put us little women in our place back at the kitchen sink where they think we belong, I expect.
I chant louder, determined that this all too apparent symbol of oppression should not interrupt our fight. For too long, there has been injustice in this land; the unequal treatment of women, the similar treatment of people of colour, and of the native Americans, both of us regarded as less than the white men that rule this land. That prevent us women from having the freedom to vote, to marry or divorce who we wish, to influence our own lives; that prevents non-whites from so many things in the name of a superiority that has no basis in biology, history or theology as I can see it.
And then the men arrive, barging into the crowd, starting to pull roughly at my fellow women. The police stand by, doing nothing, and I notice a dark-haired heavy set policeman start to laugh and point. A burst of rapid-fire Italian follows as a youngish man, obviously of superior rank seems to be chewing the man out. Then I feel the hands on my shoulders roughly pulling at my clothes, groping at my breasts. Eyes flashing angrily, I knee the ruffian hard in the groin then slap him hard around the face, a slight smile of satisfaction on my face as he goes down.
I then feel hands on my shoulders, their grip firm but not aggressive. The anger back in my eyes, I look round to see the face of the officer that had been speaking Italian earlier. I try to pull away, to struggle but his grip is strong and another man that I can’t see then grabs me from the back. ‘Inspector Salvatore de Luca. And you’re under arrest for a breach of the peace. Take her away.’ It’s some small consolation that the man who had groped me is being led off by another policeman, still clutching his groin.
St Louis, 1920: just over a year later
I didn’t have to spend long in jail – only a matter of weeks until my parents paid someone to facilitate my release, then made it clear that I had shamed the family, that I had ruined my chance of a suitable match. It was hard not to laugh at that point, after all part of the whole point of my campaigning was to ensure that in future women did not have to be at the whims of their family to marry some man they did not love. I think my parents assumed I was of the Sapphic persuasion simply because I believe that women are equal to men; in fact I can appreciate the male form as much as any woman, I simply do not believe that they are innately superior because they possess a few extra appendages. Not all men are ruffians; I read in the newspaper that the police officer that arrested me, De Luca, had been awarded a medal for gallantry following a shoot out after which he retired from the force. I suppose when he arrested me he was only trying to do his job, given that the man who attacked me was also unceremoniously carted off.
It could have been a lot worse; they could have cut me off without a penny, or married me off to some social undesirable as a punishment. Instead, they made a financial settlement for me which allowed me to acquire some modest accommodations. But they made it clear that until I came to my senses – stopped my involvement with the womens’ rights movement, and my association with activists for other causes (for which the unsaid message was consorting with people of African descent) they wished nothing more to do with me. Frankly, that suited me fine. My group stepped up its activism, we wrote pamphlets, we continued to protest. And now – the year of our lord 1920 – success! The bill was passed which will allow women the vote. I’m sure that the celebrations would have been exceptional, save that prohibition had also just come in, and champagne was definitely not on the menu. A victory nonetheless, though there was still so much to be done.
And then came the meeting.
Cassius Morgan wanted to meet me, my contact said. Cassius Morgan! A legend in fighting for equal rights. I could hardly say no, not that it would have occurred to me to do so. A very private individual, he is seen little, yet directs so much from behind the scenes. I walk into the speakeasy, and the atmosphere is heady with cigarette smoke; a blues singer on the stage, singing of love and loss in a deep alto voice.
I am ushered into the back room of the club. Mr Morgan wants to meet me in private, a waiter says. I walk slowly into the back room; the light is dim, very dim in fact and I can barely see the man who sits in a chair, a low table in front of him which has an ashtray and two glasses filled with a dark red liquid that I assume is bootlegged wine. An arm gestures for me to sit, and then to take a drink, then a deep bass voice rumbles from the shadows. ‘Please, if you wish to do so, feel free to smoke.’ I take a sip of the wine, it is rough as one might expect, but warming, and light my cigarette. A candle is then lit, followed by several others, and I look at my host properly for the first time.
He is tall; he is wearing a light grey suit which appears to be expensive, a white shirt and a deep red cravat at his neck. His face appears almost as if carved from ebony; his features are strong, eyes dark and intense, his hair cut close almost to the scalp. I can’t place his age, at a guess I would say late thirties, yet for some reason he seems almost ageless. His accent isn’t local, which surprises me, and again I can’t quite place it; perhaps it has a touch of African, but if it does then it is the faintest, almost as if he has tried to lose it over time. He looks at me very directly and his eyes seem to bore straight into me.
‘Miss Duchamp, delighted to make your acquaintance.’ I nod. ‘And I yours. It is an honour to meet you.’ He looks at me and steeples his fingers. ‘We have been watching you for a long time, Miss Duchamp. Indeed, you may have wondered why the funding of your group had swelled recently. Those anonymous donations? They came from me, and the people that I work with. We believe your cause has merit.’ He pauses, and then refills my wine. ‘However, we believe that you will not reach your full potential with your group. Your passion and commitment to your cause has been noted and we believe you deserving of joining our ranks. My group campaigns for many deserving causes, on a wider basis than simply here in St Louis. I believe there is a place for you in it. But first, you must convince me of the passion and sincerity that my associates report you have.’
I stand and start speaking. I don’t know where the words come from, only that they are delivered with passion; that I speak to him of injustices, of the treatment of his people long after the abolition of slavery; of the plight of the red man; of the treatment of the poor, as well as my own cause of justice for women. I don’t know how long I talk for, he remains impassive as I speak, the words coming from my heart. Finally I am done, and he gestures for me to sit, again refilling my glass. I drink from it again, and am conscious the wine is affecting me; I take a long draw on my cigarette, and he lights one of his own; it is only some time later that I recall he never actually takes a draw from it, merely raises it to his mouth. I look at him directly. ‘Did I pass?’
He stands up and in that moment the atmosphere in the room changes. His voice is deep and dark and for the first time I feel a touch of fear. ‘Yes, Miss Duchamp. You most certainly did.’ Then in a blur of motion he is beside me and his arms wrap round me. There is a flash of white against his dark face as fangs extend from his mouth. For an instant there is pain – terrible pain – as his fangs penetrate my neck then pleasure – a terrible type of pleasure – as I sink down into the darkness, and a future which will be far different from anything I could ever have imagined.