Marta was walking only a few steps behind Mrs. Helen Sanborn and Mrs. Susan Mills, two of the most respected leaders of the suffrage movement in California. A few years ago, Marta would’ve been consigned to the river of white dresses following behind her, but when she married Byron Wagner after the earthquake and fire, her social status soared as quickly as Count Cunningham’s. Byron was still one of the wealthiest and most influential men in San Francisco, even after the conflagration that led to the destruction of his mansion and two-thirds of the city. As his wife, Marta was expected to walk at the front of the demonstration, not the back. She still had difficulty reconciling her new status with her personal views about San Francisco’s social elite. She had always considered the women of society to be peacocks, whose sole purpose in life was to dress in the latest fashions and to be seen in all the right settings, including balls, formal dinners and the race track. Marta’s views formed a mindset she shared with Lillie who, despite her wealth, had never cared for the formalities and playgrounds of the rich.
But where was that silly woman? The march had nearly reached the speakers’ platform erected in front of the Hall of Records, and there was still no sign of her. On top of Marta’s other concerns, she’d been asked to make a brief speech, and she squirmed with discomfort at the idea. It meant she was expected to stand in front of an audience of men and urge them to give away a significant portion of their power over women. Once women had the right to vote, they would no longer be subject to men’s priorities or politics. Corruption had long been an issue in San Francisco governance, for example, and women were openly expressing their intent to vote corrupt officials out of office. Marta had never spoken before a group, and she feared she would lose her voice. To make matters worse, she knew Mrs. Sanborn and Mrs. Mills were skeptical of her. She’d been asked to speak because her last name was Wagner, not because of her oratory skills. It didn’t help to know that Herbert Cunningham would be standing less than twenty feet away on the platform and staring at her. In order for the suffrage organization to get the permit needed to hold its public demonstration, it had been necessary to allow an apposing viewpoint, and no one was more opposed than Count Cunningham.
Marta took a deep breath and glanced up at the speaker’s stand. It looks like a gallows, she thought with trepidation. This must be what it’s like to face a hangman’s noose! She hesitated, but the throng of women pressing against her wouldn’t let her dilly-dally. The march’s leaders had already ascended the stairs and were waiting for her. Another deep breath gave Marta courage, and she mounted the steps. No sooner had she reached the top, than a commotion broke out behind her. Voices rose; hands clapped; women cheered. Marta looked around in time to see a figure in a flowing white gown riding bareback towards the speaker’s stand on an equally white horse whose mane flowed as freely as the woman’s dress. The staccato beat of the horse’s hooves echoed among the buildings with the sharp resonance of gun shots. Some murmured their disapproval when they realized that she was riding astride the horse like a man rather than sidesaddle, but most applauded her rebellious pose. She held a raised torch in her right hand and wore a spiked headdress and mask representing the Statue of Liberty. The getup hid her identity, but Marta knew instantly who she was and joined the women cheering her. Only Lillie Collins could make such an entrance!
The crowd parted to allow Lillie a pathway to the speaker’s stand, where she slid easily off the horse, tied the reins to a platform support, and hurried up the stairs to Marta.
“Darlin’, that was the most exhilarating ride of my life,” she exclaimed as she threw off the mask and headdress and hugged Marta. “I’ve always wanted to ride a horse down Market Street. I just never expected to do so in front of an audience like this.” She waved her hand towards the crowd of women and men who filled the street in front of the platform.
“Lillie, I’m so glad you’re here.” Marta took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her friend’s moist brow. She inhaled Lillie’s scent, a mixture of perfume and horse’s aroma, and marveled at her friend’s panache. “I was about to die from stage fright up here.”
“Where’s Byron?” Lillie looked around the stage for Marta‘s husband. When she spotted Herbert Cunningham, her face darkened. She leaned closer and spoke in a lowered voice. “And what’s he doing here?”
Marta frowned. “Byron had planned on being here today but was called to an unexpected meeting at the mayor’s office. We didn’t have time to discuss it. By the time I came downstairs after breakfast, he’d taken the car and was gone.” Marta had been mystified by Byron’s sudden departure. Something had happened. Not knowing what had worried her, but she’d managed to push her concerns aside. Now that Lillie had asked, her stomach flip-flopped just as it had when she experienced morning sickness. Something was amiss, but whatever it was, she couldn’t fret about it now. She had her own concerns, such as dueling with Count Cunningham, who stood with his chest puffed out, facing the audience.
“As for him,” Marta glanced towards her rival, “we had to agree on his presence. City politics.”
Marta noted several local politicians standing off to one side of the crowd. Two sat on the city council and were notorious for handing out favors to financial backers, such as work contracts that had been rigged without competitive bids. All were outspoken critics of the women’s suffrage movement and were undoubtedly there to support Cunningham’s speech.
Marta became conscious of the low, thrumming sound of voices that rose from the crowd as people jockeyed for position around the platform. The sound reminded her of a streetcar’s wheels rolling up Van Ness Avenue. Feet scuffed the pavement. People coughed and fanned themselves with leaflets while they milled restlessly about. Even Lillie’s horse neighed in expectation. There was an unmistakable energy in the crowd’s movements. Marta felt it swirling around her, and her chest tightened at the thought that she was about to address these men. She prayed that her voice wouldn’t freeze or stutter and leave her standing there looking like a fool.
Helen Sanborn abruptly stepped forward and raised the megaphone she was carrying. “Attention everyone,” she called out in a commanding voice. Helen had managed many events like this one throughout the state and had considerable speaking experience, something Marta lacked. She admired the woman’s self-assured manner and prayed she could project a similar image. Lillie took her hand and squeezed it. The simple gesture calmed Marta’s jittery nerves and gave her confidence.
The Origamist - Excerpt
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