"You know what I'd like to do?" I said to Kitty.
We were set to go home from Miss Trevelyan's for Christmas in the morning. I had already packed my trunk, but Kitty was still filling hers, the arrangement of its contents growing increasingly haphazard. From my vantage on the bed, I could see her best sash and her commonplace book bobbing on top of a sea of scarves and crumpled embroidery that I suppose she meant for Christmas presents. "What's that?" Kitty asked, picking up a stray stocking and inspecting it closely.
"I'd like to dress as a man." I closed my eyes to better imagine it: visiting the bookseller unencumbered by my brother (or, God help me, Aunt Louisa), moving freely through the London crowds. They say the world is perilous for a woman on her own, but it seems to me that half the danger is petticoats and stays.
"Oh, that would be a scrape," Kitty said in her most mischievous voice. She was further along in this plan than I, it seemed. "We'd have to do it in Town, we could hardly get away with it here. Maybe we could steal Richard's clothes, or James's. You'd have to steal James's, you're so reedy."
"I could steal David's." I turned my head to squint at Kitty. She was caught up in her scheming, face rapturous, hands still. Her best sash was slipping over the side of the trunk; I couldn't see what she'd done with the stocking.
"No, you won't, he's a snake and he'll rat us out to Aunt Louisa if he catches on." Kitty pursed her lips. "I'm too small for their things, I'd have to get my kit somewhere else. Brian, maybe, or Henry."
"Talk about tattling." Brian couldn't keep his mouth shut, and Henry was barely in trousers. "No, we'd have to bring someone in. Richard, maybe?"
"Aunt Louisa," Kitty groaned.
"James would laugh," I said sourly.
"Well, that's a pickle." With a sigh, Kitty shoved her sash back in and shut her trunk. It didn't quite close. "Come sit on this, will you? I can't get the catch."
I did steal James's clothes, but not until later. The trousers fit about as well as I expected, which was to say, too slim about the hips and too loose at the waist. After my bosom was bound, his shirt fit well enough. My own was ruined, and I'd gotten blood on my trousers, too. There wasn't time to try to get it out, so I bundled everything up and shoved it in my pack. Best not to leave evidence behind.
"You can turn around now," I said. "I'm decent."
James stayed where he was, one hand over his eyes, facing the wall. "Decent's one word for it," he said.
There was a little mirror over the washstand, the glass cheap and cloudy, but it served. "My hair needs a trim, but I'd rather not rely on the confidentiality and good humor of a barber just now." I combed it smooth again. The movement tugged at the graze on my side and sore ribs, but it was bearable. James had put a healthy slug of whisky in my tea.
"Who are you now?" he asked. "Stephen Vaughn again?"
"Do you think?" I said. "They must know his name by now."
"It hardly matters," James said.
I went and sat down beside him on the bed. "Once we're in Manchester, I can let Stephen rest for a while. Is it still so odd?"
James glanced at me with a queer smile. "You in my clothes, Susan?"
"The fit leaves something to be desired," I agreed. Now that I was sitting, his trousers were straining at the hip, wrinkling at the thigh. When Kitty and I had mused about dressing as men, it had been as a lark, stealing my cousins' clothes and putting them back when our adventure was done. I thought I'd feel the same way when I bought my own rig, altering it myself with those neat stitches that were drilled into us at Miss Trevelyan's, but my trousers are no costume: they are my own.
"I suppose," James said. He got to his feet and offered me his hand.
I shook my head and stood on my own. "You know better than that," I scolded him. "Let's be off, then."