The Proven Navigator
Julia Wallingford didn’t flinch when the first rotten egg struck the podium. Instead, she took a perfumed lace handkerchief from her reticule, picked up the jagged pieces of egg shell, stored them in her reticule, and continued to speak. Behind her she heard a gasp and a whirr as Sebastian, her robot servant moved in to protect her. She waved him away with a flick of her wrist and moved on to paragraph two of the speech she was making at the women’s suffrage rally in Brooklyn on this balmy fall evening in 1890.
A gentleman wearing a bowler hat and carrying a lion’s head cane tapped the edge of the platform. “Tottering”! he yelled, pointing at Julia’s white hair. “Tottering!”
Julia unpinned the stop watch that she had fastened to waistband of the skirt that reached just below her knees. She felt the gentle swish of her bloomers that extended from her knees to her ankles as she walked to the edge of the platform and positioned herself directly in front of the gentleman in the bowler hat. Julia dangled her watch in front of the gentleman’s nose and pointed at it.. “Ticking! Ticking! Your rule is ticking away!” she shouted.
Then she turned and quickly walked back to the podium. “You will note that I did not totter, hobble, stumble, or creep to the podium and back,” she said. “My bloomers allow me the same freedom of movement that I practice with my intellect and my thoughts. I would remind you that the clock is ticking for those who would chain women to their kitchen stoves, their maids, their afternoon teas, and to antiquated laws made by men in favor of men.”
“Barking! Barking!” This time the shout came from her left, but a tomato didn’t accompany the shout. “Go back to tending your fireside.” She felt the waves of hatred and scorn in the voice crashing over her, but she wouldn’t let them drown her. She projected her voice in the direction of the shout. “I helped form the bricks and mortar of my fireside and since I am now the only one who tends it, I have the right to tend it the way I see fit. I have the right to freedom of mind, dress, equality under the law, and the right to vote. I claim no superiority to men, but I do claim equality!”
This time the roar from hundreds of masculine throats enveloped her, although Julia noticed that there were some ladies in the audience who drew back in fastidious disgust when she looked their way. One society matron in a gray polonaise and a brown parasol swept out on the arm of a gentleman in a black tail coat, a white shirt with a wing tip collar, and white gloves.
“Enjoy your dinner party and remember the poor people working the land at the poorhouse next door. Most of them are women. Can you imagine what they would do if they had the vote?” Julia mocked the crowd.
“Can you imagine how you would appear properly dressed for a woman of your age?” The haughty society matron had come up to the edge of the platform.
“I am properly dressed for a woman of my beliefs. Julia twirled around and snapped the ankles of her bloomers at the matron, who puffed up like one of the new fangled hot air balloons. “This is my American dress,” Julia said.
“There is nothing American about a woman wearing trousers.” The gentleman fixed his bowler hat more firmly on his head and bowed to the society matron. “Come along my dear.”
“Reform your custom to match my Reform Costume,” Julia shouted after the society matron, but the roar of the crowd drowned out her voice.
The disapproving crowd continued to roar and press close to the platform. A young man with a brown, bushy beard shoved his way up to the platform and helped a pretty young woman with dark hair and wearing a polonaise trimmed in fox fur up the stairs. “I am an anti-Suffragette and I will give you the reasons women should not be given the vote,” she said. “Without my gentleman companion I could not have pushed my way through this crowd of men to speak to you. Pushing my way through a crowd of men to vote would be worse. We women are fragile and weak and if we have the vote, unscrupulous men will take advantage of us.”
The crowd cheered loudly and the young woman stepped back.
The young man with the brown bushy beard stepped forward. “If women voted, the United States would fall into foreign aggression and war. Winning the vote would reinforce women in their willful behavior. Eve got what she wanted when she wanted and we’ve had trouble since!”
The crowd clapped and cheered and the young man with the bushy brown beard spoke again.”Women would vote more than once!” He gently took hold of the young woman’s arm and held it up so that everyone could see her large sleeves. “A woman could hide a number of ballots in her sleeve!”
The crowd cheered and cheered until the young woman and the young man climbed down from the platform and disappeared into the crowd. People continued to press up against Julia and a low, murmuring undercurrent like a dog growling a threat surrounded her. Julia wasn’t afraid, but she wished she had her Kybernetes, her steam powered bicycle, closer. Kybernetes, according to the Greeks, a navigator, had been her touchstone and she had proven she was a navigator. She intended to use her Kybernetes for more exploration and adventure
In answer to her wish, Sebastian appeared, wheeling in Julia’s Kybernetes with the miniature steam engine attached to the high seat. He lifted the Kybernetes onto the platform and elbowed several young banner carrying anti-Suffragettes out of the way. He eased the Kybernetes behind Julia’s short skirts and she sat down with a thump, her bloomers flapping.
“It’s time to go, Madame.” Sebastian didn’t raise his metallic voice, but Julia well knew his impersonal, implacable will. Now was not the time to enter a stubborn contest of wills with Sebastian!
“I’m ready to go home now, “Julia said, pressing the button on the side of the steam engine just as a tomato hit her and splattered on her Kybernetes and her bloomers!
The Kybernetes quickly transported them to the mansion on Bascomb Street.
In truth, the mansion on Bascomb Street had at first belonged to Wilfred, but Julia had paid it off before his timely death. Wilfred’s death was timely, because if he hadn’t died when he died, he would have continued his propaganda. She could have been one of the white haired ladies dusting furniture in the poorhouse or grubbing radishes in its vegetable gardens.
But despite her best intentions and her freedom, Julia missed Wilfred. As she swept through the empty parlor with Sebastian hurrying along behind her, she paused in front of Wilfred’s empty arm chair languishing in front of the fireplace and blew him a kiss. That was the least she could do after 39, almost forty years of marriage.
Sebastian stopped so short behind her that she felt the coolness of his bronze knees against her bloomers. Wilfred had wanted to make Sebastian out of pure copper, but Julia had convinced him that a bronze robot would be less expensive and more practical around the house. By then she had read enough of Wilfred’s scientific journals to know that bronze was an alloy of tin and copper and that alloys often worked better than the pure metals used to create them.
“I work better than the pure sexist society that created me,” she told Sebastian who she knew had been reading her thoughts like she read She by H. Ridder Haggard. “Wilfred thought that I, a society- nurtured dependent creature, needed him, but I combined my strength with his weaknesses and created an alloy, a hybrid person that will change the world order. I am a Suffragette alloy who will force the world to acknowledge the equality of women. Women are already born with her rights! I, the woman they call unsexed, will unsexist the sexist society! We are both alloys, Sebastian, but I will be the victorious alloy!”
Julia moved quickly into the dining room, propelled by the surety of victory as strongly and swiftly as her miniature steam engine, the one that she had invented to propel her wooden Kybernetes.
Clearing his throat with a metallic cough, Sebastian pulled out the dining room chair. “Yes, Madame,” he said, signaling for Luellabella to bring in the potato soup, the first dinner course.
“You weren’t here this afternoon to give Luellabella the menu, so I took the liberty of doing so,” Sebastian said.
Julia laughed at him. “Wilfred programmed you to keep me on the domestic woman track. It’s not going to work, Sebastian. I’m going to keep inventing things. Once I got into Wilfred’s laboratory and discovered all of his wonderful experiments, there was no stopping me. There IS no stopping me.”
“Society will stop you. Custom and costume will stop you. Biology will stop you.” Sebastian removed the tomato soup and set the second course, roasted turkey in front of Julia. She grabbed the plate out of his hands and jumped up from the table so quickly that she overturned her chair. “Sebastian, bring me my Kybernetes!”
“Madam, you must finish your dinner. You must keep up your strength.”
“Sebastian, I order you to bring me my Kybernetes. You are still my servant for all that Wilfred programmed you to program me.”
Sebastian bowed. “Yes, Madam.”
Julia sniffed. “You know full well that I would fetch my Kybernetes myself if need be. Now fetch it for me, please, and be quick about it.”
Nibbling on a turkey leg, Julia visualized flying with her Kybernetes. She reserved a fond place for it in her heart because it was the only invention that she and Wilfred had worked on together. In a dusty corner of Wilfred’s laboratory curtained by cobwebs, she had found a tangle of metal parts fitted inside of a box that reminded her of a tortoise shell. Wilfred had brushed it aside as she brushed aside the cobwebs. “It is of little consequence, an idea I had that doesn’t work. Image a bicycle powered by a miniature steam engine!”
Julia imaged such a bicycle!. She saw herself pedaling over the rooftops of Brooklyn, pedaling across the country, touching down at women’s suffrage meetings, speaking, and then pedaling home. She dusted off the cobwebs and convinced Wilfred that it could work.
She studied charts of the inner workings of the steam engine until she understood them. Eventually she understood steam engines so well that despite Wilfred’s jeering, she modified the miniature steam engine and attached it to her bicycle. She expanded Wilfred’s single engine bicycle design into a twin cylinder steam engine similar to factory steam engines and she attached the engine to a velocipede frame made of iron and hickory. The bicycle ran on wooden wheels with iron coverings and despite Wilfred’s laughter, she expanded the wheelbase to 49 inches.
“How are you going to attach a monstrosity like that engine to the bicycle?” he had challenged her.
“It’s as simple as sewing a seam,” she told him. And she showed him how. She attached the engine to the frame behind the seat and connected the piston rods to the rear wheel axle.
“The wheels are solid and the ride will feel like a washboard,” Wilfred said.
“Mobility is worth sacrifice,” Julia said, continuing her work. From a frame under the wheels, she suspended a firebox and boiler on springs, piston valves and a feed water pump. She installed tubing to carry the exhaust steam to the base of the chimney which was projected up from behind the saddle.
“But where will you get the steam?” Wilfred asked condescendingly, she thought.
“By heating charcoal,” she said. “And I will get my water from a built in reservoir in the seat. There is a pump there to feed the water that is operated by the left cylinder crank.”
She called her steam engine powered bicycle Kybernetes and since Wilfred had invented the magnesium lamp for Kybernetes she called the lamp the Wilfred Lamp.
After she returned from her first trip around the house with Kybernetes, Wilfred helped her fine tune its features. With the correct application of charcoal and water control, they managed to achieve a speed of 40 miles an hour, but Kybernetes also had its drawbacks. Every horse in the neighborhood spooked and ran when they heard Kybernetes approaching and people tended to have the same reaction. But Julia thrilled to the speed and power of locomotion that Kybernetes afforded her and one night when they had taken Kybernetes to an isolated part of Prospect Park for a practice run, she heard Wilfred cheering the bicycle along as Julia pedaled furiously.
She had tried to visit the capitalist moguls to sell their invention, the Kybernetes and the Wilfred Lamp, by herself. A few of the moguls admitted her to their offices because her white hair reminded them of their “venerable mothers.” Others laughed at her to reinforce their masculine superiority. None of them offered her any money or backing until Wilfred went with her. She had invested the money that they made with the magnesium lamp and on the plans for the Kybernetes and they lived comfortably.
As time went on, Wilfred began to pedal Kybernetes himself and one day during another practice run in Prospect Park, Wilfred had fallen off Kybernetes and had not gotten to his feet again. At first Julia and the doctors thought that he had died because of something that Kybernetes had caused, but after the doctors examined him, they told Julia that a heart attack, possibly brought on from the exertion of pedaling Kybernetes, had caused Wilfred’s death.
“That is fitting and would be the same for me,” Julia said and continued her relationship with Kybernetes, despite Sebastian’s disapproval.
Sebastian wheeled in the Kybernetes, holding it at arm’s length to signal his disapproval. “What is your destination, Madam?” he asked.
Julia fancied that if Sebastian had eyebrows, they would be raised as high as Mt. Everest in disapproval. “I am going to a meeting in Wyoming. Wyoming has applied for statehood and the anti-suffrage Congress wants to take away women’s suffrage in Wyoming. It’s been in place since 1869, you know.”
“I know,” Sebastian said. “I heard your Elizabeth Cady Stanton and your Susan B. Anthony advise you and your friends to make a mass migration west.”
“New York will always be my home, but I’m going to leave for Wyoming tonight. Miss Cordelia Munson asked me to make a speech in favor of suffrage and I need to add my voice. The legacy that we leave women of future generations is important.”
Sebastian firmly gripped the Kybernetes’s handle bars. “The future generations will make their own legacy. They might reject the one you leave them. And Madam, you must have your rest. The hour is late and your hair is still white.”
“The hour is late, indeed.” Julia tugged the handle bars from Sebastian’s grasp. “Don’t wait up for me, Sebastian. I won’t be back until next month or perhaps the month after. I will return in April or May.”
“I will draw Madam’s bath and turn down her bed covers just as Master instructed.” Sebastian turned and glided out of the room. Julia pulled on her wool cape and Sherlock Holmes hat with the warm earflaps and wheeled the Kybernetes through the French doors and out onto the balcony. She snapped on her transparent goggles, hopped onto the seat, and pushed the button on the engine. The Kybernetes immediately rose into the air and soon Julia soared above the clouds, peering at the earth far below through her goggles.
Since all she could see was gas lit darkness below her, Julia concentrated on the starlight shining above and around her. She dreamed that someday she or other women like her would lead expeditions to the stars, each pedaling their individual Kybernetes. She dozed and thought about her upcoming speech. She stopped every evening to eat and sleep at inns and private rooms and met several interesting people. She argued suffrage all of the way to Wyoming and she didn’t look at the Roadometer attached to her handle bars until it had registered 1, 917.2 miles which told her that she had arrived in Wyoming Territory. She followed the map that Miss Munson had sent her and soon she stood behind a podium, facing another audience.
To Julia’s surprise, the Wyoming audience proved to be more friendly than her last New York audience. There were just scattered boos, and only two rotten eggs. Julia picked up the shell of one of them that hit the podium and stored it in the burlap saddle bag on the back of Kybernetes. It nested snugly against the one from the crowd in New York.
No one in Wyoming Territory ridiculed Julia’s gender or her white hair. They calmly accepted her assertions that women were hard working people with the inalienable right to life, liberty, wifehood and motherhood or not, and the right to vote. The people of Wyoming Territory told Congress they would stay a territory for one hundred years rather than give up women’s suffrage. Julia knew that Wyoming would shortly become a state.
Miss Munson invited Julia to stay for a fortnight of celebration, but Julia declined. Despite the fact that she was a strong liberated women agitating for the vote, she wanted to get home and rest. Julia was satisfied that the next generations would carry on the fight without interruption, but she still felt uneasy. Instead of comforting darkness with rivers and fireflies of gaslight flowing through the night, Julia had visions all of the way home, visions that caused her to peddle her Kybernetes so slowly that it almost stalled twice over the choppy waters of Lake Erie and once over the Pennsylvania mountains.
Women dominated Julia’s visions, but men populated them as well.. She saw a woman with white hair the same shade as hers standing in a doorway facing down a soldier while terrified children huddled behind her shirts. She saw a woman in a white laboratory coat conducting scientific experiments and she saw a woman stirring a pot of stew on a kitchen stove. She saw a woman’s smooth hand rocking a cradle and she saw a women’s rough hand operating a loom. She saw a male fist striking a woman and a male hand placing a wedding ring on a female finger.
“It is an unwieldy legacy,” Julia said thoughtfully, a few months later as she neared the end ofher journey. The sun colored the sky with kaleidoscopic dawn fingers as she landed the Kybernetes on her balcony and parked it. She took off her cap and goggles and shivering and exhausted, she opened the door to her warm, safe, house.
Sebastian stood directly inside the French doors, holding out a cup of tea with a dollop of milk and two teaspoons of sugar, just the way she liked it. A plate of cinnamon toast wedges and biscuits waited on the sideboard.
“Did Madam have a comfortable trip?” Sebastian asked. Julia noted the sarcasm in his question.
“I had a profitable trip, Sebastian, and I’ll always travel to safeguard my legacy.”
“I know Wyoming will do the right thing,” Sebastian said, but what of the other politicians and states who won’t?
“I’ll convince them.
“You will forgo many of the comforts of home,” Sebastian prophesied.
Julia hugged the warmth of her teacup and sank down onto the sofa. “I’ll appreciate them more.”
“Your work will often be tedious and discouraging and unappreciated,” Sebastian predicted.
“My next invention will be a steamer that can steam five eggs at a time,” Julia predicted.”I might even age them and throw them back at the people who persist in hurling them at me.”
“You would still fare better if you worked at home and allowed Luellabella and me to take care of you,” Sebastian insisted.
“I know, but I have my Kybernetes and I am a proven navigator,” Julia said, defiantly sipping her tea and throwing one of her souvenir rotten egg shells at Sebastian.