Hurry and Wait; Women’s Rights.
Jack and I decided to travel together since we were heading to the same place. I was glad to be traveling with her again, and I was glad that she no longer had a grudge against me. I was glad to have the company and, though Jack could be dangerously impetuous, it was still safer than traveling alone.
She continued to dress as a Bowery Boy, and it was a good disguise. People this far north did not know what to make of this swaggering tough, but the notion that it was a girl was the farthest thing from their minds. Jack still carried her rucksack. It was fatter than usual, and I thought she may have had a few more costumes in there. Before we left Saratoga, I bought a simple outfit for traveling and another carpetbag for my good suit. I had no intention of dressing like the Bowery Boy, but I thought it might be too peculiar if he were traveling with a rich man.
We took the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad. It was my first time on a train, Jack’s as well. As a canaller, Jack had an extreme dislike of trains, the railroad being the natural competitor to the canal. She spent most of the trip pointing out the flaws in that form of transportation—the soot, the noise, the rocky ride—but she did enjoy watching the scenery rush past, she did enjoy the speed of it. We reached Schenectady, a distance of more than twenty miles, in less than an hour. Though she wasn’t fully converted, by the end, she was mightily impressed.
But in Schenectady, we learned the other side of train travel. The next train west was not scheduled for another two hours, and it was running late. All the time we had saved speeding to Schenectady we lost sitting in a waiting room waiting for the next train.
I know, dear reader, that at this point in the story you are less concerned with the merits and drawbacks of train travel than you are with the completeness of my reunion with Jack. By day we were once again a pair of carefree lads seeking adventure, were we also, once more, husband and wife when the sun went down? The answer, I can tell you, unequivocally, was no. I was on a mission now to rescue my sweet Mirabile. I had to stay pure; I thought of no one but her. For Jack, the nights she spent with Dugan had put her off any thoughts of fornication, at least for the time being. She also focused on her mission.
“I have a message from Ned Buntline to Thurlow Weed.” She told me again, as we sat in the Schenectady train depot. “It concerns the upcoming elections, both presidential and gubernatorial. With the Democrats in disarray, the Whigs seemed destined to win both. But Buntline and the Know-Nothings want to know if Hamilton Fish can be counted upon to represent our interests, and with no New Yorker in the presidential race, save the washed-up Van Buren, was there a chance to get Millard Fillmore on the ticket?
“Of course this is all just the show,” Jack went on, “just as a puppet show; there are many hands unseen that make the puppets dance. Cass and Buchanan and all others offered by the Democrats are controlled by the Freemasons. The question remains, who among the Whigs is sufficiently anti-mason? These questions are answered in secret rooms by men more powerful than politicians. The ebb and flow of power goes on outside of our vision, yet we are controlled nonetheless.”
These were not Jacks word. I knew she had been coached, but Jack was a quick study. Secret societies were just her latest hobbyhorse, replacing the apple business. It was best for all concerned to have Jack’s efforts concentrated on something, anything, and not flying free.
I tried to listen and pay attention, but each time I heard her explain, it made less sense. Even if it were true, that all the power in the world was a prize for warring societies that I could never join—that democracy was just a show to hide the true contest from the common man— what effect had that on me? I had nothing but the money in my pocket, and even that was not mine, why would I care if it was the Freemasons or the Papists or the Know-Nothings who were really in charge? None of it mattered to me.
It was much like the way I had come to view the Lord’s predestination of my soul. I had come to see quite clearly that I was among the damned, predestined for hell, but what of it? It was the Lord’s business, not mine. I could not sit back and wait for hell any more than I could rise up and gain heaven by my righteousness. All I could do was live my life and, as flawed as my judgment always was, just try to do what I thought was right.
When the train finally arrived, it was so crowded that we could barely find two seats together. Jack and I sat down across from a couple of women, well dressed and in their middle age, who seemed a bit put off by the prospect of sitting opposite a couple of ruffians for the extent of the train ride. I knew this type; they would come down to Five Points bent on reforming the drunks and whores. They would counsel those who came for shelter to the missions, then hurry back to Fifth Avenue to gossip about it. Jack especially hated them; she would be preached to by neither man nor woman and would rather starve than take a meal at the mission.
As the train departed from the depot, Jack began telling me about the Patriot Hunters, another secret society that was amassing an army to invade Canada. She spoke very softly because these were, after all, secrets. But the women across from us, who apparently were part of a larger group, began talking incessantly, not just to each other but to other members of their party in seats nearby. They all spoke at once which necessitated their speaking ever more loudly. I could not gather what they were saying, but one phrase kept occurring over and over— “women’s rights, women’s rights, women’s rights.” I could not fathom what that might mean and why it needed so much discussion. In any case, with Jack speaking so softly and the women speaking so loudly, I followed very little of her tale of the Patriot Hunters and had to keep asking her to repeat.
Jack finally said to the woman across from her, “Would you ladies mind speaking a bit softer? I am having trouble conversing with my friend.”
The lady looked down her nose and said, “We shall try.”
But they did not try very hard, and soon the chatter was just as loud as it had been before, and I knew Jack’s second request would not be as polite as her first.
“Will you please stop running your mouths so I can speak in peace?” Jack shouted, and the ladies all jerked back an inch or so as if an invisible wind had blown them.
I did not know what would come next, but I sought to defuse the situation by changing the subject.
“I overheard you ladies speaking of women’s rights a moment ago. I wonder if you might explain the meaning of that.” I said with due earnestness to the woman across from Jack.
This had the desired effect, as all were now focused upon me and my edification. They all spoke at once again but soon deferred to the woman across from Jack. As she began to speak, all the other women rose from their seats and gathered around to listen and watch our reactions.
“Women’s rights,” the lady began, now mounting her high horse, “is the philosophy and belief that a woman should have the same rights as a man. The right to own property, the right to an education, the right to choose her own occupation, these are what we mean by women’s rights. We are all on our way to a convention at Seneca Falls where many impassioned women and a few enlightened men will gather to chart the best course for achieving these rights.”
Though I had achieved my goal of preventing the imminent conflict between Jack and these women, I was already sorry that I had brought up the matter. These were all issues that Jack had had also confronted, and she had found her own unique solutions. I knew she would have no patience for the women’s rights ladies.
“Do you really think yer gonna get your rights by putting on your fine dresses and takin’ a train ride half-way ‘cross the state to talk about it?” Jack said, “If you want something from a man just stand up and take it from him. They’re not as tough as you think.”
“I’m afraid it is not that simple, sir.” The woman taking a superior tone—always a mistake with Jack. “A married woman is the chattel of her husband, and an unmarried woman has no protection at all. The laws are all in your favor and shall remain so until women have the right to vote.”
This was especially ironic because Jack had just finished telling me that voting was just another show to fool the common man into thinking he had power when, in fact, he had none. Jack thought her remark was funny.
“You want to vote? Hell, that’s nothin’,” said Jack, “I voted three times in the last election: twice for the Know-Nothings and once for Tammany, ‘cause they were payin’ more.”
“Oh, they must think you quite clever down in the Bowery, young man,” said our edifier, “but you have no idea of a woman’s lot in this country today.”
“No idea, you say?” Jack stood up and started to unbutton in her vest.
“Come on, Jack, let’s go have a smoke,” I said though I knew it was hopeless.
“You think I don’t know a woman’s lot?” Jack was unbuttoning her shirt now, and the women just stood there gawking, unable to look away.
“No, Jack, don’t,” I said.
She yanked up her chemise and revealed her breasts to the entire train car. Shaking them back and forth she said, “Here’s what I know about a woman’s lot: if you want to be treated like a man you can’t dress like a lady.”
For the smallest of instants, there was absolute calm aboard that train car as the women’s rights ladies, eyes wide, took in full horror of the scene. Then all chaos broke loose. The screaming of those women was deafening and would not stop until the conductor came and made Jack button her shirt. He signaled the engineer and the train braked to a complete stop.
And once again Jack and I were prematurely and unceremoniously escorted off of a vehicle of transportation.