Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Act II

It was late on a Wednesday afternoon when Mike hired a horse-drawn hansom to take him to Fifth Avenue and Forty-Ninth Street, at the last minute asking the driver to drop him off a couple of blocks shy of his destination. He needed a few minutes to think. A short walk and a touch of air, cooler now that it was near the end of September, should help to clear his head. And afford one final opportunity to change his mind.

He had learned where May lived from Mrs. Wellington. It hadn’t been difficult. He merely told her that he’d run into his former student at the charity concert last April. Mr. and Mrs. Livingstone, he said, were in the process of redesigning their music room, and Mrs. Livingstone had asked whether he might be willing to consult with them on the particulars. Though it was not his usual line of work, he consented to help but then promptly misplaced Mrs. Livingstone’s card. He felt terrible, he said, for waiting five months to get in touch.

That part, at least, was true.

Ever since the night he and May saw each other at Mrs. Wellington’s, he’d been unable to put her out of his mind. Funny how, lately, he could remember only the good. How, from the beginning, May had a knack for making him feel important. Making him imagine himself better than he was. How she had given herself to him in a way no one else ever had—completely, without reservation. Thinking about it after all this time he had come to the conclusion that, in her naïve way, May had genuinely loved him. What astonished him most was that she loved him then—when he was nothing, nobody.

He had wanted to love her in return. Or he thought so now. But when it came to the important people in his life, there had always been an uncomfortable disparity between what he wanted to feel and what he actually felt—which often seemed like not enough. Sometimes he wondered if he simply had no capacity for love. Maybe there was something missing, some basic component of a human being that he was born without. Or maybe it was simply that there could be no room in his life for any love but music, an explanation he found far easier to accept.

He asked himself whether it was possible he really had loved her? It was too late, of course, to matter. But wouldn’t it be better if he knew?

Before he felt entirely ready, he found himself in front of the massive limestone mansion where May and Teddy lived, a residence almost as palatial as the home in which May had grown up, where he used to give the Convery daughters their piano lessons. His self-confidence took a precipitous dive. Seen through the eyes of people like the Converys and the Livingstones, his accomplishments must seem little more than child’s play. What did they understand about musicianship and what it takes to become great? The talent, the dedication, the inspiration. To them, it was all small time, and he would never be anything more than a cheap music-hall entertainer.

He hesitated at the edge of the driveway, pulling his hat low over his eyes. He had done fine without May’s forgiveness up to now. Why was he suddenly so in need of it? Could it be, despite his success, that he really hadn’t changed? That he still felt as insecure, as unworthy, as before?

But that was ridiculous. Everything had changed, especially him. He was the Ragtime King of the World. The one nobody could beat.


Excerpt from Act III

The women making their way down the avenue, cheeks glowing from the cold, eyes burning with conviction, came from every stratum of society, the wealthiest to the poorest. This was no picket line, no stubborn demonstration by a handful of militants hoping for a small headline in the morning paper. This was a force to be reckoned with, a force to which the politicians in Washington would have to answer, sooner or later. These women were betting on the numbers; there were too many of them to ignore.

But despite the impressive turnout, the suffragettes were clearly outnumbered. The street was lined with tens of thousands of onlookers, some only curious but others intent on undermining the women’s morale. They included men of all descriptions, from common laborers in canvas and khaki to office types in overcoats and gray bowlers. Men presumably with loving mothers and sisters, devoted wives, obedient daughters. Men who no doubt considered themselves inarguably civilized but, in the blink of an eye, had changed into quite the opposite. Their relentless heckling was predictably rude, shockingly hateful.

The arrogance of these ill-mannered naysayers only served to harden May’s resolve. But their voraciousness made her nervous. The policemen stationed along the parade route didn’t seem to be taking their assignment too seriously. Rather than pushing back on the crowd, they appeared perfectly happy to let the worst of the rabble-rousers do whatever they wished. Already a few had crossed the line that separated spectators from protesters, the authorities either unaware or simply choosing to do nothing.

As she headed down the parade route, trying not to let her uneasiness get the best of her, May thought of what Rosamond told her on the night they met, as they sat at her kitchen table sharing a fine bottle of Madeira. Freedom isn’t yours until you make it yours, not until you decide there’s simply no other way to live. Back then, she had only the vaguest notion of what he meant. She was too caught up in her self-inflicted misery; the only way she knew to express herself was through suffering. Her headaches had nearly driven her mad. But she had stopped seeing Dr. Adams long ago. Her need for him disappeared once she resolved to channel her anger and frustration in more productive directions—her poetry and the suffrage movement, work as vital to her now as the air she breathed.

There were some who argued that today’s parade, with its theatrical flag-waving, mounted brigades, marching bands, and floats, would only engender hostility. It would end up setting the movement back, they said, not moving it forward. May had sided with those who believed the time had come to stop begging and start demanding, and she felt honored to be among those selected to ride on horseback near the front of the parade. Granted, over the years, proceeds from sales of her books had provided substantial support to the cause. But she preferred to think she was singled out because of the voice she had given to the movement through her poetry, which had achieved a popularity far exceeding her expectations.

Still, in the midst of all the praise and notoriety, at times she couldn’t help feeling like an imposter, the kind of person who preaches one kind of life while living another. After all, her marriage was, and always had been, a hoax. It had become even more unbearable since her father’s death. Not surprisingly, Teddy seemed to believe that the passing of George Convery gave him license to treat her however he pleased. His disdain for her appeared no longer to have boundaries.

“Help! Somebody help!”

The screams came from behind her. Twisting in the saddle, she saw that a small group of men had stormed the procession. She watched in disbelief and horror as several of them began ripping signs and banners of protest from the suffragettes’ hands, snatching the women’s hats from their heads, pushing them to the ground, or grabbing them by the arms and attempting to drag them off the street.

Dear God, how could this be happening? Where were the police? The parade organizers had been assured by DC officials that crowds would be contained, the marchers would be protected. Why was no one in authority lifting a finger?

May signaled to the several other women on horseback who were close by, all of them now aware of the unfolding chaos. Without having to utter a word, everyone seemed to understand what must be done. May was the first to turn her horse around. She had never been more terrified; the last thing she had planned on was becoming a vigilante. But how could she simply stand by as her sisters were spit upon, brutalized, and literally kidnapped off the street?

She took a tremulous breath, then dug her heels into the animal’s side.