The Bridge That Would Not Burn

March 28th, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






Week Fourteen:
in which there is acceptable proof of some aliveness at the threshold of a covered bridge, despite the exhaustion of wishing, “good morning.”

Atchison waited at the top of the cab for Charlotte to return from relieving herself. The cold had cut his legs from his body. He felt nothing. His heartbeat and visible breath in the blue air was acceptable proof he lived. He waited at the threshold of more than just the wooden bridge. Golden light poured slowly over other side of the riverbank as the sun rose higher above the mountains.
A splash to his left.
A sickening at his core.
Dark hair, woolen skirts, cream cuffs made a star. Open eyes watched the sky as the current sewed threads of blood down river.
A thin man in a checkered cap. A flashing blade.
A pistol in Atchison’s hand. Inexplicable musculature. Mesmerizing reflex.
The shot.

Atchison collapsed onto the driver’s seat. He couldn’t move his legs. He couldn’t go to her. The illusion of their escape still shimmered in the center of the bridge. From inside the cab he heard the child stir.
“It’s alright,” he heard himself say. He shifted to lean over the side and look through the window where she stretched carefully.
“Good morning, sir,” Alice yawned.
Though the road turned rocky and the clouds rolled in from the east, and though it exhausted every fiber of his being, he replied, “Good morning.”





You may enjoy the full story of The Bridge That Would Not Burn, here.
More Books from Defenestrationism.net

Keep surfing through for the inaugural
Defenestrationism.net Lengthy Poem Contest
posting daily April 5th.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

March 22nd, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






Week Thirteen:
in which there is a great deal of staircase awkwardness, and they make their dawn-light escape, but someone has a knife..




Charlotte rushed out to the staircase but Ursula was on her way up, wrapped in a shawl, hair unbound, and looking for all the world as thought she’d been ravaged by wolves. “Miss Worthington! What on earth! Lavinia says a man’s just fallen from the top floor!”

Charlotte arranged her face into a picture of horror. It was not difficult. “I was just going to check on Alice! Call for the police, Ursula, and hurry!” Charlotte turned back around and flew, shaking, into the guest room again, slamming the door behind her. “What do we do?!”

Atchison came to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let the police come.” He turned to Alice, now resting against the pillows in the bed. “We must all agree. A man came into your room in the dark. He attacked you. The lamp fell. All of this is true. In the panic of fire, he must have fallen out of the window when trying to escape. But Alice,” he released Charlotte and took up his cane to approach the bed, “You must say nothing of Miss Worthington or me being here. Do you understand?”

She looked at him with something of her usual self behind her eyes. “I understand, sir.” She sighed then and looked beyond him. “It will fall to me. The blame, I mean. Don’t worry.”

Atchison stepped nearer, lowered his voice, and lifted his cane with the quick light movement of a painter’s hand or a minister’s benediction, “No, Alice. I promise you, there will be no blame on you. You’ll be leaving this place soon.”         

*

Worthington’s cab approached his front door.  He was tired and perturbed. All efforts to disgrace that pretender Atchison had been for naught. He had the board in his pocket, somehow, which only fixed his guilt more firmly in Worthington’s mind. No records of war heroism, no evidence of wealth or value of any kind; he was ashamed and furious that he, Laurence Foster Worthington, had been duped by such a gold-digging fraud. He tipped his hat absently at a policeman on duty and thought perhaps the law enforcement of this city might better spend their time patrolling during the daylight hours when household staff apparently did their thieving. His cab pulled up to Number 14 K Street and he stepped down.

The woman’s scream that tore through the night did nothing to improve his mood.

The man in the checkered cap appearing from the alleyway and running straight across the street into the night startled him nearly to the point of heart failure.

Worthington swore. Remembering the policeman, he shouted, “POLICE!” He swore again and turned in a full circle, alone in the night on the front step of his fine house. At a loss. And fit to be tied.

Charlotte gripped Atchison’s arm as the front door slammed below them. He had the decency to look worried but patted her hand once before taking up his cane. “Go down and steer him to the study if possible. It’ll take me a time to get down the stairs. If I’m half way perhaps I can say I’m arriving…” He glanced down at himself. “In the night… With no overcoat…” They looked at each other. She took his scorched coat from the floor and folded it over his arm.

Several colorful remarks rose from below as poor Ursula greeted Mr. Worthington. Charlotte pressed her lips together. “I don’t see this going well. For any of us.” She looked at small, pale Alice who had curled into herself again. The room still smelled heavily of smoke and the damage to the floor, rug, linens, and soot-streaked walls was obvious.

What?! In my guest room?!”

Charlotte took a deep breath, palmed the paperweight and hoped it wasn’t visible down beside her skirts as she descended. “Father,” she began.

He set his jaw and closed his eyes before speaking. “The thief. A guest in my home! When I’d expressly forbidden any further association with the wretch! That’s more than enough,” he abandoned attempts at composure. “But I arrive to not only find my house a convalescing home for criminals but also apparently the scene of some gruesome defenestration of, God knows who, skulking about my house!” He gestured behind him at the entryway. “And then, then, I’m nearly trampled by some ruffian at my very doorstep,” he threw his arms up in exasperation before planting his hands on his hips. “Is there anything else I should prepare for? Any further assaults, shocks, or humiliations I’m to expect?”

Charlotte pressed her lips together. “There was a small fire.”

Worthington ran both his hands over his face. Ursula blanched.

“Come, Father,” Charlotte drew his arm into hers and moved them toward the study. “Let’s have a drink before the police arrive.”

He stopped. “The police! The police,” he spat. He allowed himself to be shown to his favorite chair and accepted a drink from Ursula, who then excused herself to answer the front door where the police waited.

Charlotte glided behind him to the desk and gently replaced the paperweight to its former non-homicidal position. “Father?”

He did little more than grunt, now fully engaged in his own torment and the generous glass of port.

“You said you were nearly trampled by a ruffian outside.”

“Tore out from the alley like a beast from Hell. Dashed into the night before I could catch my breath.” He drained the glass.

Ursula showed the police officer into the study. “This is Sergeant Collins, sir,” she managed to announce calmly.

The second officer said from the hall, “And who are you, sir?”

Atchison’s steady voice replied. “Thomas Atchison.”

Worthington shot out of his chair. “The devil?!” He blasted his daughter a furious look. “What’s he doing here?” He narrowed his eyes at her.

She had no time to reply before the man himself was shown into the room. “Sir,” Atchison nodded at Worthington. “Miss Worthington, Ma’am,” he nodded to the ladies in turn.

“What the devil are you doing in this house?” Worthington strode across the room to stand menacingly close to Atchison. “We are through! You may have the board in your filthy, deceitful pocket, but you are no longer welcome here! Get out!”

Sergeant Collins stepped forward. “Begging your pardon, sir, nobody is leaving as yet.”

“Shut up!” Worthington moved to escort Atchison out in an ungentlemanly manner.

“Now, sir. I understand you’ve had an eventful evening but I suggest you calm yourself before the night takes a different turn.”

Worthington went back to his chair to pour another glass of port. Atchison took up position near Charlotte and the desk. He gave the horse head a nearly imperceptible pat on the head before whispering, “I’ve thought of something to say.” She glanced at him out of the sides of her eyes. “Checkmate.” His mouth twitched, and Charlotte very nearly lost her composure. She coughed loudly into her hands.

“Now then, everyone,” began Sergeant Collins, “let’s start with who that girl is upstairs.”

*

The police left the house at midnight. Worthington, with self-proclaimed Herculean effort, had shown Atchison the door without sending him through it. Charlotte saw Alice comfortably installed in her own bed and spent the rest of the night dozing in the chair beside her. On leaving the Worthingtons’, Atchison did not return to his rooms. He hired a cab and used his key to enter the Bank of Columbia. Atchison returned to his cab and arrived at his rooms to pack.

*

Charlotte Worthington woke beside Alice at dawn after dreaming of avenging angels. She had nothing to burn and dressed quickly. The packed satchel waited by her door and she visualized the bread and cheese parcel hidden behind the canisters in the kitchen.

“Come, time to go.” She gently woke the girl and helped her dress, wrapping her in every shawl she had.

The plan was not deeply rooted.

Everyone was so exhausted by the night’s events Charlotte felt sure the stairs would not sound any alarm. Alice clung to her and they carefully stepped down. Food packet retrieved, they slipped out the back door and into the freezing darkness where Atchison’s cab waited outside the alley.

He helped Alice in, but did not expect Charlotte to push him aside and get in as well.

“Just to see her safe.” And because I want to go.

His whispered protests fell on deaf ears.

No one noticed the man with a checkered cap slink along the side of the building to his horse around the corner.

After three hours, the sun lit the mountainous horizon in orange flames. Atchison had cleared these roads of war debris once, and they had since become a series of wide trails through the forests. Even 15 years later, he recognized the smell of the trees and the bend of the choice in paths when the horse came to the fork in the road. There was a tree—a great black claw reaching out of the earth—where the two roads parted. “The Witch’s Tree” the locals had called it. He had seen it covered in leaves, then, and thought the name unfair to the lovely, however haphazard, white oak. But this morning it looked precisely like a gnarled and angry hand, scratching at the sky in either desperation or fury. A small wooden sign was carved simply, Pardonsburg 10 miles.

Atchison drew his coat closer and urged the horse on into the forest.

The soft trickle of river water over stones, a wooden bridge, and the fog lifting with the sun confirmed a good time to rest the horse and stretch their legs. Alice slept in the cab at last, as Charlotte stepped out onto the packed and thawing earth. The naked trees sparkled with frost, and remnants of a rejected mountain lay scattered like granite giant’s teeth. She crunched through the dampening leaves and around a rockface, ocher and blue in the changing light. No walls. Clean crisp air filtered through her lungs and ignited her limbs with energy. Someone painted the sky, and Charlotte liked it. The river bank was steep so she stepped to the left.

“I seen what you did to my brother,” a voice growled from the leaves. She had no time to freeze. Her ankles lifted up as a large branch swept her aside, cut her from her roots, and she floated for one magical moment. Levitated. Suspended. She lived between worlds, knowing she didn’t have long to farewell one before greeting the other.

Slamming to the earth on her back stole the air from her lungs. She couldn’t breathe let alone scream. A grimy face, a checkered cap, a rotten sneer. Jonas Tuckett had a knife.






Join us Sunday the 28th for final week:
in which there is acceptable proof of some aliveness at the threshold of a covered bridge, despite the exhaustion of wishing “good morning.”.


You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

March 14th, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






Week Twelve:
in which appear a portending grandfather clock and an overlarge chess-piece knight, a defenestration and a small fire, and as much scandal as Charlotte can gracefully handle— though much more than her father can.




Part IV

The back hall held vestiges of warmth, but the floorboards creaked and popped under her weight. Everything responsible for holding something else up groaned. She moved as silently as she could to the entry tiles and then the staircase. The walnut grandfather clock showed 9:35 and as suddenly weary as she was, she paused to let its metronome clicking order her thoughts.

Tick. Atchison didn’t propose.

Tock. A child lay beaten upstairs.

Tick. Atchison was dying.

Tock. Her father.

Tick. Danger.

Tock. Danger.

The hairs on her arms prickled; her heart quickened. She held her breath and stood frozen. Something wasn’t right in the house. The creaking and popping of floorboards now did so in a sinister accent. She felt a draft from her father’s study. Picking up the lamp from the hall table and swallowing again, she willed her breath to come slowly and stepped into the cold study. Her spine tingled warning, and she almost ran from the room like a child, but her eye found it. An opened window.

Atchison grimaced all the way down the ally and around the corner to his waiting cab. Nothing he said had gone as planned. The injured chimney girl threw his arrangement of emotions askew. And now pain was everywhere. He paused half way to the cab and turned back. He couldn’t leave it this way. What would he say then? Run away with me to be my nursemaid when my body fails, which will likely be soon?

He slowed to a pace more fitting a man with a cane. What a fool. What a desperately sad fool. His desperately sad legs continued on though, and he found himself at the alley entrance again. She would be upstairs by now. She would—Atchison drew up and gripped the handle of his cane tightly. The streetlight faintly showed a brown shoe pulling inside the first-floor window to the study. Possibilities flashed through his mind like a picture show. None of them satisfied or quelled the all too familiar nausea of impending hazard. He prayed Charlotte hadn’t locked the back door.

Charlotte looked around and grabbed the horsehead iron paperweight from her father’s desk. She held it up next to her lamp foolishly. And just what was she going to do? She moved out into the hall and up the creaking staircase. It was difficult to hold the lamp in one hand and the large chess piece paperweight plus a handful of skirts in the other. Briefly hopeful that she had imagined the entire scenario, she pushed the guest room door open, gently, and peered inside.

The room was dark. A wiry form bent over the bed and pressed something, a pillow, over Alice’s head. Charlotte’s heart pounded her chest to death, but she managed step into the room without collapsing. She did not, however, manage to step into the room without being betrayed by a creaking floorboard, which seemed magnified a thousand times. That, coupled with the lamp she was still holding stupidly, announced her presence more eloquently than Mrs. Fellows on the commencement of her debutante ball. The man whipped his head around and saw her. Alice’s weak thrashing was able to throw off the pillow once he let go at Charlotte’s arrival.

Her immediate problem of what to do now? came rushing full force, about the same time Mr. Elias Tuckett, Master Sweep, came rushing, physically, full force at her. It was clear she was going to be knocked down. She started to raise botharms as Tuckett grabbed her at the shoulders and threw her down; the lamp fell, the oil spilled, and a small trail of fire spread over the floorboards to the rug under terrified Alice’s bed. Charlotte told herself to scream, but was disappointed that pathetic whimpering was all she had. Tuckett said something, but she didn’t understand, as he was also clamping his hand over her face and pinning her to the floor. The fire trail spread quickly between her and the door and Alice frozen in her bed, still gasping for breath and cradling her arm. Charlotte’s attention suddenly came alive and she bucked and bit and made any noise she could with her voice though her mouth and nose were clamped shut by Tuckett’s hand.

Alice flickered between Charlotte, the fire, and Mr. Tuckett. She scooted, visibly pained, to the edge of the bed and swung her feet over the side opposite the fire, which was now feeding off of the rug fringe and becoming a real concern in the back of Charlotte’s mind. At the front of her mind was the very pressing issue of suffocation. Tuckett straddled her in an embarrassing fashion and leaned his forearm across her chest, pinning both her arms to the floor, and pressed his other hand over her mouth and nose. Quite hard. The back of her head hurt and no amount of struggling helped. She was afraid. Deeply afraid. Her vision blurred and she heard his voice directed viciously at Alice. Her chest burned. Her head ached.

There was a blessed weight lifted off her chest as Tuckett moved quickly away, removing his hand from her face as well. Briefly.

“Shut up!” he hissed.

Her vision came back into focus as she quickly pieced the moment together. Alice inched around the bed, eyeing them on the floor and the fire path with equal terror. Tuckett grabbed for Alice as she lowered painfully to try and pick up the cool end of the fallen lamp.

“You’re dead, girl,” he was saying carefully in a low voice. Alice’s eyes were wide, the flames flickering in her pupils. “You’re dead next. As soon as I finish snuffing this fine lady, I’m going to smother you. Like the dusty bit of nothing you are.”

Charlotte managed a ragged breath and coughed. She felt the horse head weight, smooth and solid in the palm of her left hand, down near her hip. Tuckett resumed his crushing of her face and chest, and as her eyelids fell, she saw Alice take that moment to dip to the floor and bob upright armed with the glass lamp base.

A crack of the lamp coming down on Mr. Elias Tuckett’s neck. Her own hand rising up from the floor, as his face turned in disbelief that a glass lamp would attack him. A curious crunching thud, as his jaw met her knighted palm with all the speed and force of his own rage.

His body on the floor beside her, cursing and holding his bloodied face.

Her arm rising, as she pulled herself up from the floor.

Her arm coming down.

The horse’s head finding Tuckett’s.

The flames climbing the bed. Smoke. Alice curled on the floor. Atchison coming through the door. Flames all around her.

*

Pulling up the bannister, leaning on the stick, Atchison grimaced but made progress. He had surprise and he had a stick. Little else.

His senses switched on. Smoke. Thudding. Murmuring. He prayed and went through the door.

Rising smoke, a girl folded into herself on the floor, a broken lamp nearby. Flames licked and crackled around the bed and across the floor halfway to the door. And Charlotte. He had seen her arm come down and heard the unmistakable sound of a skull being crushed. She knelt over Tuckett, hands outstretched and braced for him to get up. Atchison took off his overcoat and threw it over the small river of flames near his feet. Fire crept along the edge of the rug and caught the bedspread. Atchison scanned the room and found the basin of wash water on the side table. He limped around Alice and grabbed it, dousing the fire. He took the blanket at the foot of the bed and dropped gracelessly to the floor to smother the other fire trails. Crawling over to Alice, with one eye still on Charlotte, he touched her shoulder. “Alice?” She locked herself up further in a ball and whimpered. He moved on all fours to Charlotte.

She remained on her knees over Elias Tuckett’s body, the horsehead in her hand. The blood added another design on the Oriental rug.

“Are you alright?”

Charlotte blinked several times. She cocked her head slightly and narrowed her eyes at the form on the floor, trying to see more clearly.

Someone was saying her name. She turned toward the voice. The man looked like Atchison. But Atchison was not there. Why would Atchison be there?

“Charlotte, it’s alright. Can you hear me?”

She wanted to say yes but she was in a tunnel. In the dark. Hearing only her own breathing. And how difficult that was. Atchison searched her face and reached out to touch her shoulder.

Something in her shifted; she slid on her knees away from Tuckett and toward Atchison. “Hello.”

He smiled. “Hello. Are you alright?”

“I think so.” She touched her throat, then looked past him to Alice on the floor. Coming back to herself, she whipped her head around to Tuckett, down at the horsehead weight in her hand, and said, “He came for her! I went about it all wrong and…” She looked down at the weight with more scrutiny. “Did I kill him?” She interrogated Atchison with a quick accusing look before turning her full body toward Tuckett’s and crawling back over to him.

Atchison crawled over as well. He pressed his fingers to Tuckett’s neck. “He’s dead.” 

A small weak voice repeated from the corner near the side table, “Dead. Dead. You’re dead…”

Charlotte and Atchison looked at each other over Tuckett’s body, the smoke hanging above them like a sheet ready to float down.

Atchison braced himself on the bed and retrieved his cane from where it had dropped. He managed to stand and attempted to draw himself up in an impressively normal manner. Charlotte’s quizzical observation of this performance told him he did not quite succeed. He lifted one eyebrow. She averted her eyes.

“We’ve got to relocate this gentleman,” he gestured to Tuckett, in his blood before the fireplace. “I have a suggestion, but it’s not a pretty one.”

“It can’t possibly be more horrible than what I’ve already done.”

Atchison stared at her unnervingly.

“What on earth are you suggesting?” she said.

He inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. “I believe we must pitch this young bastard out of that window,” he indicated with his cane the window facing the back garden. Undaunted by her appalled expression he continued, “Are you able to carry him downstairs and out of the house? Because I’m not. It’s exceedingly unmanly and irritating to admit, but I’m not. And if he’s found here, his head caved in,” she blanched, “forgive me, deceased in this manner…” He took her hands, her left still containing the weight. “That’s quite a lot of publicity, scandal, and notoriety for a Worthington to endure gracefully.”

She sniffed. “I’m a very graceful person, sir.”

“I was referring to your father.”

Her face registered alarm. “My father! He’ll be home any moment, surely!” She stabbed the clock with her eyes. “It’s nearly 10:15!” She spun out of his grip and paced the burned room, smelling of smoke and fear, containing one corpse, one badly beaten and frightened child, and one uninvited male guest. What would Mrs. Margaret Fellows do in such a situation?

“I suppose a fall would justify the head wound…” She grimaced. “And perhaps it would seem he was merely an intruder who fell?” She said it as a question but it was clear that the wheels were already turning in her mind and the shock of having killed a man was now replaced with the shock of discovering the depths of her own criminal calculations. She looked up at Atchison, staring at her with interest. She looked to Alice curled on the smoldering floor and staring ahead blankly. Connecting her eyes to Atchison’s once more she swallowed. “Well then. Shall I take him under the arms or by the legs?”

“You see now why I could never live a quiet life with you.”

Charlotte went to the window and opened it wide. The chilly night air sucked much of the lingering smoke into the sky. It was an awkward variety of shuffling, dragging, and hoisting but Mr. Elias Tuckett was brought to the third story window ledge and draped half way out of it.

“This is a terrible, terrible thing to do!” Charlotte’s voice was as high as it ever had been and she could do nothing to lower it. “God, forgive us!” She looked desperately to panting and sweating Atchison beside her, mentally pleading for some sort of absolution, assurance that there really was no other action they could take. He glanced at her coolly and then leaned further out of the window to scan the area below.

“There are generous shrubberies to catch him,” he pronounced.

Charlotte sniffed, wiped a panicked tear from her cheek, and glared at him. “Generous shrubberies?” she whispered viciously. “We’re throwing a man out a window! That’s all you have to say?”

“What would you have me say?”

“I don’t know!” Charlotte threw her eyes to the heavens. “I only suppose we must feel something! Say something to justify ourselves!”

There was a sudden change in Atchison’s face which gratified Charlotte that she had made some small point. Tuckett’s legs then flipped up in the air and his body went end over end down to the awaiting shrubberies below. Both Charlotte and Atchison turned to the space between them and saw Alice.

“I’m only sorry it wasn’t me did the hard part, Miss.” The girl, wincing with much pain, turned slowly and picked her way back to the singed, damp bed covers, climbed into them, and gingerly laid herself down to rest just as a woman’s scream rose from below.




Join us Sunday the 21st for Week Thirteen:
in which there is a great deal of staircase awkwardness, and they make their dawn-light escape, but someone has a knife.


You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.


Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

March 8th, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






Week Eleven:
in which Alice the chimneysweep girl does not know if she is 12 years-old, Lt. Atchison does not propose, and Charlotte has now no longer never said a proper goodbye.






 

It was nearly an hour before Dr. Ridgeway stepped into the alleyway.

“Well done, Miss Worthington,” Dr. Ridgeway said without looking at her. His attention was wholly on the girl on the ground. She had made no movements other than to make one nearly imperceptible moan when Charlotte had tried to move her arm further under the blankets. “I do believe her collarbone may be broken, as is her nose. Help me sit her up gently,” he directed Lavinia nearby, while holding Alice’s arms close to her body where they had fallen. From there he easily lifted Alice in his arms. Charlotte gathered the blankets, collected the medical bag, and followed them into the house.

Safely installed in the guest room, Dr. Ridgeway untied the laces at Alice’s chest and examined her collarbone more thoroughly. “We’re quite fortunate it was cold; the swelling isn’t as bad as it could’ve been.” He pulled a length of fabric from his bag and fashioned a tight sling for her arm.

Alice groaned and her eyes fluttered. “Mmm sorry…” she whimpered and a tear leaked out of her swollen eye.

“Hush now, little lamb. We’re going to help you.” He turned to face Charlotte. “She may come to and cry out as I set her nose. Would you please hold that arm?” He indicated the one opposite where he stood. She nodded briskly and focused on Alice’s forehead. Her own heart was racing and she felt slightly queasy. Thinking it best thus to not get too clear a picture of what his hands were doing at the misshapen nose, Charlotte inhaled deeply and intensified her gaze on Alice’s hairline. From her blurred outer vision, she saw Dr. Ridgeway’s hands form a sort of “A” around the nose.

“Hold her steady as you can. It will only take a moment.”

She nodded to the forehead again and braced the arm. There was a quick soft crunch and a guttural moan from Alice, but then her body visibly relaxed and she seemed to drift off into an exhausted sleep. Dr. Ridgeway checked her pulse at her throat and wrist.

“Thank you, Miss Worthington.” He smiled widely and gestured for her to hold a wad of clean cloth at Alice’s bleeding nose. “I could not have asked for a more competent assistant.”

“Will she be alright?” Charlotte asked.

He looked at his patient, still crusty with dried blood, and now a nose fresh with it, swollen into a caricature of her usual self. “I think so. We must clean her up a bit, but I don’t believe there are any more significant injuries.” He sighed. “That said, I can’t know for sure until I check for internal injury bruising.” He inclined his head at her. “I must undress her. Would you assist me again?”

Charlotte felt her face go up in flames and looked down at the tiny, damaged creature lying in the large bed. “Of course,” she heard her voice say.

“I’m grateful.”

Together they gently removed her filthy apron and opened her overdress, which tied from the outside at her back. She groaned at the movement, but made no effort to speak. Not wanting to disturb the arm already bound, they rolled her onto her less injured side and lifted her shirt to see the skin of her back. “Poor girl,” Dr. Ridgeway breathed. Charlotte tried to glimpse from the opposite side. “Plenty of bruising, but not from today. Much older. And scarring as well.” He gently replaced her shirt and they rolled her back against the pillows. They checked her legs, as well, by rolling up the trousers she wore under the work dress. All seemed well enough, though also scarred from burns and cuts.

Dr. Ridgeway sighed heavily. “Let’s call for some hot water and sponge away some of the day’s horrors from her. I’ll leave a tincture for the evening and will call again in the morning. Let her rest for now. But don’t hesitate to send for me if there’s any change.” He paused in collection of his baggage and looked straight into Charlotte’s eyes. “Don’t ever hesitate to send for me, Miss Worthington. For whatever reason.” He smiled a little awkwardly.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so very much. Truly.”

He nodded slightly and then reached into his coat pocket to produce a small, pale blue folded page. No envelope. “This is for you,” he said simply extending it to her hand which was already reaching forward. “Mr. Atchison is recovering well. I saw him at his lodgings just today.” His fingertips brushed her palm as he deposited the missive. “He,” Dr. Ridgeway visibly changed tactics, “His condition is complicated. But there’s always hope.”

“Thank you.” Her voice failed her and it came out more a whisper than anything else.

He nodded, looked to Alice once more, and flicked his eyes back at Charlotte. “Good evening, then.” He made for the bedroom door and turned one last time and smiled tightly. She nodded.

She greedily unfolded the note. Please meet me in the alley at 9.

While waiting for Lavinia to bring the water, Charlotte loosened Alice’s shirt again and gently lifted it from her side. The skin was indeed pink and jagged with old scars in many places, and what white skin was left had not been washed well in quite some time. Her ribs were bruised slightly, but Charlotte’s unpracticed eye could not tell if it was faded from the past. The trousers the girl wore were thin, rough, homespun and filthy beyond anything Charlotte had seen. She undertook removing them, dragging them down over the scarecrow-like legs, bony, callused, and scarred at the knees. She threw them in a heap with the overdress on the floor.

“Here we are, Miss,” Lavinia entered through the door backwards with a large basin of steaming water and a cloth over her arm.

“Over here, please,” Charlotte indicated the clear nightstand near her. “And would you bring me one of my nightgowns and a shawl. Burn those.” She nodded at the pile of clothes on the floor.

Alice groaned. “Yes, Ma’am…”

Charlotte leaned close to her as Lavinia nodded and left. “It’s alright, Alice. You’re safe. I’m only going to wash you a bit. Try to rest. Everything’s alright now.” She dipped the cloth in the water, no longer steaming in the chilly air, but still warm and soothing. Pulling the blanket up to the girl’s waist and lifting the shirt gently up one side, the warm cloth sponged some of the grime away, gray and black swirled streams making their way down her skin. Charlotte was no student of medicine, but if this much soot and dust was beneath the girl’s clothing, how much had she taken inside her poor body during these years inside the pipes? As gingerly as she could, she dabbed the water and warmth over the neglect and watched the clean skin reveal itself. It was tricky to get around her ribs to her back, but the girl was so light that merely wedging the cloth between the mattress and her body enabled Charlotte to reach most of her.

The bound arm she declared off limits to ministrations, so moved to the other side of the bed to clean her right side. She assumed Alice was about 15, as children younger than 14 were no longer allowed to do her sort of work. When Charlotte herself was that age, her mother had died and her outlook had darkened considerably. She had navigated womanhood as best she could, with the distant and awkward assistance of Ursula and a governess’s hasty last words of advice. Corsets were such a nuisance to her that she never truly thought about the purpose they may serve for other women. Her own waist was small enough and her bosom nothing out of what she observed as the ordinary. Having only her own body to compare with, this girl she bathed was a fascination. Each of her ribs was visible beneath the thin skin. The sinews of her legs and arms revealed some strength. Charlotte could not fathom folding her own body and pushing her way up through darkness, raining suffocating dust and dirt onto her own head.

Deep in her own thoughts she did not hear Alice at first. “I’m so sorry. What was that?”

Alice tried to smile, “Only saying thank you, Miss. I’m so sorry for the trouble.”

“Not at all. I’m sorry this happened to you. So very sorry.”

“I should be going, Miss.”

Charlotte paused and replaced the shirt over her ribs, pulling the blanket up further to her chest. “And where would you go?” It came out harsher than she had planned and she winced at the look of fear flashed across Alice’s face.

“I,” she licked her cracked lips.

“You’re in no state to go anywhere yet. You’ll stay and rest and we’ll make plans later.” Charlotte walked to the foot of the bed, one eye on the clock. Almost 7:00. “Dr. Ridgeway will be back in the morning to complete his examination. And if you know who did this to you, tell me so that we can have the police take care of—“

Alice jolted as if to sit up, but ended up crumpling back in pain. “No!” she gasped. “Please don’t call the cops!”

“If you are worried about the, er, missing items, I’m not concerned about that now. But whoever attacked you–” Charlotte was interrupted again.

“They’ll send me back to the poorhouse and the others will suffer for it and then they’ll do more than Chicago me—they’ll surely kill me for busting the plans and ratting them out and I’ll never—“

Charlotte held up a hand and stopped her. “Just a moment. Calm down.” Coming around to her side again, she sat carefully on the bed next to her. “First of all, no one will kill you. We will see you safe. But, Alice, why would you go to the poorhouse? You’re past all that now, are you not? Perhaps I can help you secure a better job. Only a child with no help would—“

“We fibbed about my age, Miss. I’m twelve.” Alice looked down at her hands. “I think.” She looked up at a shocked Charlotte. “The Tucketts, they, well, we’re all underage. Cassy is only ten, though tall like me.” She said it with the first hint of pride that Charlotte had ever heard from her.

“The Tucketts, then,” Charlotte pressed, “Your master sweep and his wife?”

“No, Miss. His brother.” She sniffed gingerly, winced, and started breathing heavily. “Oh Miss, please! Don’t call the police! They’ll know it was me that squealed and I promise they’ll kill me! Already tried it the once and it nearly took, and that was just cuz he was salty about not finding the treasure!” She was crying out right now. Charlotte took her hand awkwardly and patted it.

“There now, I won’t call anyone. Please calm yourself.” Narrowing her eyes and softening her voice she said, “What about the treasure? What were the Tucketts trying to find?”

Alice took a deep breath and, grimacing at the swollen one, wiped at her eyes gently with the back of her unbound hand. “The gentleman who used to stay here, the one who doesn’t smile,” Charlotte could not suppress a small smile of her own, “Mr. Elias Tuckett thought he had a treasure, from the war or something. He and Mr. Jonas Tuckett are always having us take little things, Miss. I’m that sorry for it. We can’t help it sometimes, as Mr. Jonas Tuckett makes ussmoke some funny smelling cigarettes and then says his magic on us.” She looked up at Charlotte, went to touch her swollen nose lightly, and bit her lip. She leaned forward ever so slightly, careful and conscious of her arm in the sling, and whispered conspiringly, “Mr. Jonas works the carnivals. He knows all sort of mystifying things.”

Charlotte saw Alice with new eyes. The tininess of her frame. The oddness of her teeth. The awkwardness of her limbs. She was not only a small child-like girl using dirty tools confined and crushed in the dark. She was an actual child. No more than a tool herself, used and manipulated by the ones in authority over her. She took Alice’s unbound hand in her own.

“Let’s leave it for now. Lie back and try to rest. Lavinia will bring some broth in a short while and,” she looked behind her at the empty fireplace, “I’ll have her heat the room for you.”

“I wish you wouldn’t, Miss. Please.” Alice sank back into the pillows propping her up. “I get right nervous watching fires.” She started to yawn, but ended wincing, and went to touch her face again. “I’m sore regretful at giving you trouble, Miss. Truly…” Her eyes began to close and Charlotte patted her hand.

“Sleep now.”

*

Charlotte waited on the top step of the back-alley entrance. From around the corner came steps in rhythm with the tap of a cane on the brick walkway. Light snow began to fall as Atchison rounded the house.

“Hello.” It was a silly thing to say but it was out before she could change it.

He half smiled and tipped his hat. “Good evening, Miss Worthington. Thank you for meeting me in this very strange manner.” His nose was pink with cold. She imagined her own was as well.

“It’s a strange evening in general, sir.” She pulled her shawl more tightly together.

He cocked his head. “The chimney girl, Alice, was found right over here,” she gestured to the sad, chilly wall. “Beaten, broken, and left for dead.”

“Good Lord,” his face fell. “What happened?”

“It seems she’s been under threats from her masters to steal from the houses they work and…” She crossed her arms and looked past him to the alley entrance by reflex. “They had her searching for your treasure.” She searched his eyes. There was no sign of surprise or denial. He only analyzed her reaction.

He sighed heavily and tapped his stick. “It’s a lot of work being alive, isn’t it?” he murmured.

“Do you actually have a treasure?”

He raised his face to the night sky. It was a clear night, and the stars dotted the darkness with their far away burning. “A treasure to some. Silver cutlery, rings and broaches, engraved christening cups. When I read the inscription on one such silver cup, I knew I couldn’t keep or sell it. There are records of lost people, lost things. I’ve tried to return as much as I could.” He came back to the alley. “But the girl, is she alright?”

“She’s sure the Tucketts will kill her. And if they don’t, she’s sure she’ll end up in a work house.”

“No home, no family,” he muttered. The girl under the tree. The girl left in an alley. Atchison shifted his weight gingerly.

Looking pointedly at his cane, she said, “Are you well?”

“As I can expect to be.” He lifted the ivory handled cane briefly and shook off thoughts of girls in chimneys and under trees.

She pressed her lips together and waited. He glanced around their dark surroundings, lit only distantly by the street lamps behind him. “I,” he began and then clamped his mouth shut in concentration. “Your father and I agreed it best that I leave, as I have done, but I wanted,” he looked at her, “I felt I must tell you in person…” his brow furrowed. “That I’m leaving.”

“You said that in the note.”

“But also, that you’re the only thing I’ll miss.”

She inhaled and furrowed her own brow.

Stepping closer, he took her hand. “My life’s been spent discharging various debts, intending to disappear into the crowd of suits and board meetings and empty conversations, maybe find a bland and comfortable safety. My only other plan was to wait out life.” He smiled wide. “But then I found myself talking to you. I’ll miss talking to you.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not sure if I’m charmed or offended.”

He released her hand, closed the remaining distance between them, and reached for her temple, where her hair was loosening from the one pin she had placed, gliding his finger down to her earlobe where a single silver teardrop earring dangled. “It’s difficult to have an empty conversation or to feel bland safety in your company, Charlotte.”

Nearly deaf due to the blood pounding in her ears at his closeness, hearing her name spoken very nearly undid her. It was suddenly hard to look at his eyes. She glanced up and down again, quickly.

“There’s a small town, Pardonsburg, outside of Front Royal. I’ll be a banker or a postman or a shopkeeper. Anything uncomplicated.”

“You,” she set her expression carefully and steadied her voice, “are not here to propose.” She said it from behind a stone face she had built over the last few moments.

“No,” he whispered. He would have said something else, but she squared her shoulders and invoked every ounce of Worthington pride possible. She spoke slowly.

“But you’ll miss talking to me and you think I’ll accept this information as I would a weather report.” She was the shorter person but hoped she managed to look down her nose at him. “I believe I might slap you now.”

“The truth is, I’m probably dying. I’ve seen Dr. Ridgeway. The illness I first contracted in the caves all those years ago has left me prone to other infections, which have somehow affected the rest of my body. Particularly my legs. I have seen physicians these 15 years and none of them can answer my questions with any amount of certainty. I won’t ask a woman to bind herself to such a doomed future.”

He stopped to swallow and regroup. She felt as if she were the one slapped.

“Tonight, your father tried to discredit me before the board, but the families he wished to turn against me were those to whom I had recently returned precious heirlooms. They don’t think ill of me, but their opinion of your father has been damaged. He now blames me for, well, anything he can think of it seems.”

“My father,” she ventured, “will be home soon.”

He nodded. “My carriage is down the street. You should go inside. It’s cold.”

“Very cold,” she said. “This is good bye then.”

“It is.”

She realized she had never said a proper goodbye to anyone. She didn’t like the feeling.






Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth for Week Twelve:
in which appear a portending grandfather clock and an overlarge chess-piece knight, a defenestration and a small fire, and as much scandal as Charlotte can gracefully handle— though much more than her father can.


You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

February 28th, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






Week Ten:
in which Charlotte does not address Dr. Ridgeway as Daniel; Alice the chimneysweep girl is found bleeding in the alley behind Number 14 K Street; and Mrs. Fellows provides comfort with her green travel coat.






 “Miss Worthington?” A voice from beyond the crowd reached her. It was Dr. Ridgeway. He came down from his carriage and made his way through the people. “I’m a doctor, please stand aside.” The people parted, and he stood before her. His face was at once relieved to see her not the victim, and perplexed as to what state she was in.

Charlotte was not sure what etiquette would call for in this situation. Doubtlessly, pillowing a man’s head on her lap in the middle of a public street was frowned upon. Surely, having one suitor come to the aid of another suitor (if that is indeed what he was) was awkwardness itself. She had the nonsensical urge to laugh.

“Ridgeway,” the face on her lap said, “Forgive this display.” Atchison tried to raise himself. Dr. Ridgeway ignored him and dropped to his knees beside them.

“Can you move your legs, sir?” Dr. Ridgeway felt gently around the calves, knees, and ankles while taking the pulse at the neck and assessing the entirety of the patient with calculating and concerned eyes.

“Not quickly,” Atchison sighed. His mouth was a hard line. Charlotte knew he was beyond humiliated.

“Do you require any of these people, Dr. Ridgeway?” Charlotte asked very softly.

The doctor paused his evaluations at the sound of her voice. “Ah,” he turned his eyes up to hers and read all he needed to know in them. He gave her a small kind smile, then glanced around briefly. “You, sir,” he pointed directly at a well-built gentleman already on one knee beside them. “Would you be so kind as to assist me in getting Mr. Atchison into my carriage?”

“Of course, Doctor.”

“The rest of you, thank you for your concern, but we have things well in hand. You may go about your business.” Dr. Ridgeway had never been so commanding.

 The man gave Charlotte a questioning look and moved to take Atchison under the arm. Her face felt on fire and she gently removed herself as the two men took Atchison very gently and got him to his feet.

“I’m grateful, gentlemen.” Atchison, leaning heavily on the arms of both men turned to the side and gave Charlotte a sad half smile. “If you’ll excuse me, Miss Worthington?”

She lowered her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. They got him into the carriage and Dr. Ridgeway returned to her on the brick walkway. He removed his hat and smiled the small kindness again.

“I’ll take him to my clinic. Please don’t worry.” He paused awkwardly, then donned his hat and nodded to her. “Good day, Miss Worthington.”

“Doctor Ridgeway.”

He looked wounded but smiled.

*

Several evenings later, Charlotte went straight to her room. Little Alice accused of theft and turned out, Atchison dismissed under some shade of untrustworthy business practice before disturbingly public injury right before her eyes, and Margaret away to New York. She couldn’t identify what hopes had been dashed but she tasted their ashes. Her woolen shawl lay draped over her desk chair and she wrapped it around herself as she slid into the chair. She sat looking out of her window, through the panes. She did not write a word. She already burned.

*

Charlotte passed the next two weeks with inner dialogue which spiraled frequently into condemnation, freakishly romanticized notions of carnival life, and a daily bracing walk. Margaret’s return to the city was welcomed. She called on Charlotte and proposed a trip to Woodward and Lothrop for some shopping and a bit of lunch. Pennsylvania Avenue had been flooded again the week before and Margaret longed for a bit of Woodies’ distraction. Perhaps some new gloves. Did that not sound restorative?

Five floors of distraction later, and a light lunch consisting more of pastries than anything else, did find Charlotte’s spirits improved.

They returned to Number 14 K Street to find it in uproar. Mr. Worthington shouted, Ursula cried, Lavinia and the two kitchen girls stood at attention looking terrified.

“What on earth?” Margaret said as they walked down the entryway tiles to the scene at the back of the house.

“Absolutely not!” Mr. Worthington was shouting. “We will let the police handle this!”

“Father, what’s happened?” Charlotte asked. Ursula covered her mouth with her smooth olive hands.

“That chimney girl has been robbing us blind and got herself near killed in our alleyway.” Her father strode back up the hallway toward his study. Over his shoulder he shouted, “Ursula, ask for Sergeant Crane, he will be discreet. I have an engagement at 7:00 that I must prepare for and I want not a HINT of this hanging about!” He slammed his door.

Charlotte turned to Ursula. “Alice? Where is she?”

“She’s still out there, Miss!” Ursula sobbed. “It’s terrible! Terrible!” It moved Charlotte to see the woman so affected. “Her body’s out there for anyone to see as they pass! Mr. Worthington won’t let her be covered or moved until the police arrive! The scandal!” Ursula wailed. Charlotte pursed her lips and stepped back.

“Have you already called the police?”

Ursula shook her head. “We’ve only just discovered her!”

“Is anyone out there with her? Is she alright?”

Ursula covered her mouth with both hands again, and Lavinia lowered her eyes, while the girls bit their lips and stole glances at each other.

Charlotte pushed past them and hissed over her shoulder, “Mrs. Fellows, do NOT let them call the police! Send word to Dr. Ridgeway quickly! Lavinia, come with me!” The girl scurried after her and Margaret’s calming voice asked Ursula for a writing implement.

Alice’s little, crumpled shape lay against the back stonewall in the late afternoon light, slumped over on her side. Charlotte fell to the cold gravel by her and stifled a sob. The little face was already bruised and swollen, the cut above her eye clotted, but not before bleeding down to mix with the still wet blood from her clearly broken nose. Her matted hair was dark with clotted blood on the side above her left ear. Charlotte touched Alice’s cheek gently. “Alice? Can you hear me?” Her face was chilled. She had been here a long time. Alone. In the damp and cold. In an alley where the garbage was discarded and the dirty things were kept. Her chest rose and fell very slightly.

“How do we know she was stealing?”

“She had a small packet of spoons and a necklace chain in her hand, Miss.”

“Why would her attacker not have taken those?” she began to unbutton her own coat.

“I,” Lavinia stammered, “I don’t know, Miss.”

“What was she even doing here? I thought she’d been dismissed?” Charlotte lay her warm coat over Alice. “I’ll stay with her until the doctor arrives. Go prepare the guest room for her. She’s staying with us.”

“Miss? Your father…”

“Will be going out shortly.”

“Yes, Miss.” She returned to the house, and Mrs. Fellows came down the steps slowly and carefully.

“My dear,” she managed softly.

Charlotte turned around, still kneeling in the gravel with her hand on Alice’s bird-like chest. Margaret was an optical illusion: a fine cream dress, corseted and bustled, deep forest green travel coat with silver buttons at the sleeves, standing in the gray alleyway with a near corpse.

“She’s so small.” Charlotte took her hand off Alice’s chest. A rustling behind her and then the deep forest green travel coat fluttered down over her own shoulders.

“It could be a while before the doctor arrives,” Margaret said turning back towards the steps. “I’ll organize some tea and hot water for when he does.”






Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth, for Week Eleven:
in which Alice the chimneysweep girl does not know if she is 12 years-old, Lt. Atchison does not propose, and Charlotte has now no longer never said a proper goodbye.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

Announcing the Finalists for the inaugural Lengthy Poem Contest

February 27th, 2021


We have one binger of an inaugural Lengthy Poem Contest
coming up in April.

For this contest, and this contest alone,
we have a sleek, distinguished, new parchment scroll.
Be sure to check it
at Defenestrationism.net/lengthy-poem-contest/

But you need never have a fear, for
our retro navigation panel will not only remain for all previous content,
and return the day the Lengthy Poem Contest winner is announced,
but also continue throughout

Christian Rauh Fishburne’s “The Bridge That Would Not Burn”
as the novelette continues in serialization, every Sunday.
Catch up with Week Nine,
in which Alice the chimneysweep girl lock-picks in her sleep, calling Charlotte’s attention to Lt. Atchison’s emptied wardrobe.



The finalists, in order of publication:

Publishing daily in seven parts, April 5th- April 11th,
enjoy
“Napping Nathan” by Mark Henderson

Then, head down the rabbit hole with
“The summer house of the Old Ones” by Clarice Hare
publishing daily in nine parts, April 12th- April 20th

And explore
“begin with the stone” by EA Kane
live in its entirety April 21st.


FAN VOTING will open last Wednesday of April, which is the 28th,
lasting four days until the final moments of Saturday May 1st.
Winners will be announced Monday May 3rd.




View the Lengthy Poem Contest Guidelines.
Meet contest judge, Paul-Newell Reaves.


Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

February 21st, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






Week Nine:
in which Alice the chimneysweep girl lock-picks in her sleep, calling Charlotte’s attention to Lt. Atchison’s emptied wardrobe.





Part III

She had overslept. The dawn already stretched over the horizon, and Charlotte’s eyes opened to a clear aspect of the decorative plaster coving around the perimeter of her room. She always thought they looked like lettuce leaves. In the morning light they looked at first like shells, then feather fans. Turning on her side she made a point of staring at her door, the top corner, the glass knob. The floor beneath. The pale blue note was where she willed it to be, and as she was alone, she smiled.

It was cold enough to delay her retrieval of the page. She burrowed deeper into her bolster. When she could take it no longer, she dashed from her bed, swooped up the note, and dove back into the warmth before it disappeared. Which was unnecessary, as it turned out, because there was no returning to the shape she had made before leaping out.

I must go. Forgive me.

*

The night before, Atchison had stood in the entry hall. Mr. Worthington called out from the study, “Come in, my dear fellow, come in.” He motioned to a very inviting couch near the low burning fire. “Come, sit. A brandy?”

Atchison waved him off, “Thank you, no, sir.” He tried to smile, suddenly sure what he needed to do. “I’m glad you asked to see me, as there’s something I must tell you as well.”

Worthington looked pleased and gave the large iron paperweight shaped as a knight chess piece a pat on the head. “Splendid,” he poured himself a drink. “Devilish cold tonight,” he winked and sipped the brandy. “I’ll go first, if you permit me. I noticed you and my daughter tolerate each other’s company rather well.”

“Yes, sir.”

 Then at the same time the men spoke:

“I’d like to give you my blessing to marry.”

“I’d like to move away.”

There was a great silence. Worthington’s befuddled expression would have been comical, had his rage to follow not been so certain.

“The difference in age—” he began.

“Sir, please,” Atchison winced and lifted a hand, vaguely grateful he’d chosen to tolerate the discomfort of leaving his stick behind.

Worthington placed his glass on the side table gleaming in the firelight, “You’re concerned about propriety. I admire your decency, Atchison. However, I assure you that chaperones and all codes of modesty shall be observed from now on. There won’t be a hint of scandal so long as you’re under my roof.” Atchison stood and moved toward the center of the room.

“I’m grateful for your generosity in providing such hospitality and… accommodation. But, as I won’t be marrying Charlotte, it’s inappropriate for me to stay.”

One man remained impassive. It was not Mr. Worthington.

His face darkened. “May I ask why?”

“You may.” Atchison had the sudden urge to toy with him. “We aren’t well suited, in all honesty, sir.”

“In what way?”

“Charlotte is impeccable. It’s me that isn’t suited to marriage.”

“I suppose the prospect of being linked to such a well-connected, well-propertied family has no appeal to a man as fortunate as yourself.” Worthington stood and drained his glass.

“There is nothing fortunate about me, sir.”

“Isn’t there.”

Atchison watched him carefully behind an expressionless face. He had seen desperation in many forms. Starvation. Defense. Protection. Greed. This was new. This was a hunt.

“You’re fortunate indeed if you expect to leave this house having violated the modesty of my only daughter, enjoyed my hospitality these months, and plan to continue your esteemed position at the Bank of Columbia.” Worthington poured himself another brandy and sat down behind his large desk. A portrait of authority.

Atchison locked his eyes with Worthington’s. “I’ll be gone in the morning. Good night, sir.”

*

It was just passed five in the morning as Atchison moved gingerly across the entryway tiles with his case and walking stick, but he paused in the parlor doorway feeling an icy draft whip through his coat. Alice, the chimney girl, stood before the fireplace. Her back was to him so he could not see her face. The side window was half open, ushering in the unwelcome frosty breeze. He placed his case in the doorway. “Good morning, Alice, isn’t it?” The girl startled and whipped around.

“Yes, sir.” She folded her dirty hands and lowered her head with a quick backward glance at the window.

“Everything alright?” The open window drew him across the room toward the dark. He lifted it further and leaned outside finding only a dairy cart passing by and a man in a checkered cap crossing the street.

“I’m fine,” Alice chirped. “Just airing the room while the cinders are swept.” Her small body collapsed into an embryo as she began to shimmy her way up the chimney, back pressed the bricks, knees to her chin, feet and one small boned hand bracing against the sides, while holding the sweeper upright.

Atchison moved toward the fireplace, in awe of such a vanishing act, but there was only a stream of soot falling into a little pile. It was as though she had disappeared in a puff of smoke.

He retrieved his case, put on his hat, and left the house as silently as he had entered all those weeks before. Only now, he required the steadiness of a fine ivory handled cane on which to lean and the fur-lined collar of his coat to brace against the cold. Now he took his steps carefully, aware that every destination was a treacherous distance.

*

 Charlotte looked at the clock on her nightstand then down at the words in her hand. Her mind was blank. She wanted a match. She needed a flame.

Dressing quickly and barely registering the cold, she took the pale, blue farewell and folded it twice so that it filled her palm. She chose the morning room and strode to the fireplace. Reaching for a match from the small iron box on the corner of the mantle, she tightened the fist by her side. She felt cold now. And so very sad and silly. She sat on the rug before the fireplace and moved her closed fist to her lap.

Her eyes fell heavy on the grate where her offering would soon lie, but as she focused, a glimmer shone in the corner behind the blackened metal. For a moment she forgot her humiliation and found herself on all fours, note still clutched in her hand, reaching for the twinkle in the dust.

She plucked her very own silver bookmark from the powder. As with a surprise raindrop, Charlotte felt compelled to twist her face upwards, to the unending darkness of the chimney pipe. Confusion gave way to disappointed blame. Oh Alice… She uncurled her fist and looked at the crumpled paper. She placed it in her sleeve’s lace cuff, relishing the scratch against her wrist.

She heard the swishing and clanking of Alice at her work. Seized with a guilty sense of purpose, she hid herself and waited for Alice to venture somewhere unauthorized. The house was quiet. Charlotte bit her inner lip. The clock ticked.

The coughing stifled. The clanking ceased. Charlotte stilled. She swore she heard whispering. Would Alice be muttering to herself? She waited. Silence. Then the sliding of… a window? A chair across the rug? She pressed her back against the wallpapered alcove. Softly padding feet sounded out of the parlor. Steady feet. Purposeful. They floated up the stairs above Charlotte, all the way to the mid-level where her own room was. She knew she couldn’t be seen from above at that angle, so she stepped out and looked up.

Alice strode up the top staircase to the guest apartment. Atchison’s room. Charlotte followed.

Alice’s tiny form walked right up to Atchison’s door and reached for the porcelain knob. Charlotte paused at the top stair, keeping low, though Alice’s back was to her. Alice turned the knob and found it locked. Charlotte smiled faintly. Good. But then little Alice plunged her thin hand into her pocket and produced a pin or tool of some sort to pick the door lock. Charlotte smiled wide despite herself. Even better. As Alice stepped through the doorway, Charlotte gave one more look around the halls below.

Crossing Atchison’s threshold made her heart pound. The drapes were still drawn, keeping out the cold. It was dim, but with the door open to the corridor there was light enough to see Alice standing now in the middle of the room on the center of the oriental carpet blanketing the chilly floorboards. Charlotte said softly, “Alice?”

There was no response. Approaching the girl slowly, she said, “It’s alright. I won’t harm you. I’m not here to scold you.” She came around to face her. “It’s alright,” she began again, but froze. Alice’s face was expressionless. Charlotte had heard of sleepwalkers and immediately knew Alice was not at all aware of what was happening. But sleep lock-picking?

“Alice?” Charlotte reached to touch the girl’s shoulder, bending lower to see her face more clearly. She then remembered the carnival and hesitated. Bringing her hand before Alice’s face, Charlotte snapped her fingers.

Alice’s green eyes came to focus on Charlotte and the small dirty face fell into a pale, confused alarm. She licked her lips and averted her eyes but found nowhere to rest them. “It’s alright. Truly,” Charlotte said while holding both her hands out flat in front of the girl. She studied the small face and smiled at her.

“Miss,” Alice croaked. “I,” her quick breathing and twisting of her filthy apron made her soft dry voice even smaller, “I only came to,” she looked frantically around, assessing where in fact she was, “to be sure the fireplace was in order here, in…” Her poor face was such a picture of torture that Charlotte felt compelled to wrap her arms around her. But restrained herself.

“I’m sure Mr. Atchison appreciates your diligence.”

Alice nodded once and looked around more attentively. “Yes, Miss. It, ah, it looks right fine and serviceable, …” she trailed away. “Mr. Atchison moved on then?”

Charlotte snapped her head around to face where Alice was looking. The wardrobe in the corner was open. And empty.

*

Lieutenant Thomas Atchison closed the safety deposit box and spun the dial. In the weeks he lived at Number 14 K Street the resignation he had prepared to tender life remained locked as securely in his chest as the small bits of yet unreturned plunder lying behind that small metal door. The items he’d managed to stealthily return thus far lifted the burden ounce by ounce but his body continued to fail in baffling ways. No doctor could explain it, no priest could sanctify it. His limbs betrayed him. His lungs attacked him. He felt twice his age and was certain he looked it now that the walking stick was his newly required appendage. Drag-stepping out of the bank’s corridor into the wide exchange area he snorted in disbelief. Just as he had accepted the new, shorter road and ceased to feel regret at lost time: Charlotte. A strange thing he could neither explain nor sanctify.

Atchison saw Charlotte crossing the street with purpose. It had been two weeks since he’d seen her and there: a blue dress and matching coat, a black hat but hair flapping in windblown ribbons. Everything about her was a banner, a standard he suddenly wanted to fight behind and battle for. On the chance that she happened to turn back, or if she caught his image reflected in a window or passing streetcar, he left the stick inside the bank doorway. A terrible idea, he knew. She would not turn around, she would not see him, and even if she did, it would mean nothing to her.

He stepped out of the doorway on his own two legs. There was pain somewhere in his body, everywhere in his body. The streets were crowded and dusty. Shoulders squared, jaw set, he took several steps to the crosswalk before resting. He called it resting, but anyone noticing would have called it checking his pocket watch.  Expressionless, staring straight ahead, he stepped from the curb.

Charlotte lifted her skirts and stepped up the curb as she scolded herself. His eyes were something between green, brown, and gold. Not to be trusted. She strode down the walkway seeing nothing. It was absurd to have entertained the idea of marrying him. He had never asked. She had arranged it all in her mind just as her father had arranged a plan for her in his. She was no better than her father. Perhaps his blood ran through her after all. And now little Alice was a thief? She would lose more than her work if anyone were to find out. Would the disturbing reflections never stop?

From behind, she felt more than heard a calamity. Turning, she saw an omnibus stopped and a group of four or five people leaning over someone. A brown pant leg. A sandy head.

She found herself running.

“You’re a lucky man! Missing only a bit of cloth, not your leg!”

Atchison lay on the brick side walkway observing the faces above him. The woman speaking had the smallest mouth he had ever seen. Why that should matter, he didn’t know, but he suddenly wished to be alone in his blood on the road, to be allowed to feel his life leave him, to take comfort in permission given. But the faces remained. They lifted him at the shoulders; he propped himself up, braced with his hands.

The omnibus had clipped his pant leg and knocked him down, tearing the cloth and rendering him groundless. He covered his leg modestly, skin exposed almost to the thigh.

“I’m quite…” If he’d never spoken, perhaps everything would have been alright. But as it was, he had spoken. His legs felt in flames, stabbed, torn. The word “asunder” came to his mind. He started to fall back; his vision was closing as in a kaleidoscope. And then Charlotte’s figure was in the small circle. He heard her voice. She was saying his name—in an unfamiliar tone. A question.

“Lt. Atchison?”

He tried to raise his head, to find her voice, but he was still falling. Braced for the ground, he never met it. His head and shoulders sunk into softness. His face was brushed with wings of some sort. It was all very pleasant and almost distracted him from the legs being ripped from his body.

Charlotte had fallen to her knees behind Atchison, in time to pillow his head and shoulders in her lap. She swept her hair behind her, dragging it from across his face. 

“Lt. Atchison?” He was so pale! She felt along his arms and chest, not sure what she was looking for. “Someone, go for a doctor!”

“He’ll be all right, Miss—not a scratch, see,” a man gestured to Atchison’s exposed leg.

“You aren’t hurt,” she pronounced. He said nothing, but tried again to stand. He felt an icy dread and horror creep about his ribs and knew he could not rise.

“Lt. Atchison,” her voice was barely a whisper. Her white hand traced the top of his leg lightly, more curiosity than seduction, and stopped at his hip. He was hardly aware of pain for a moment; there was only drunken amazement that she would touch him—that he was lying in a heap on Mason Avenue, his clothing torn, certain he would never walk again, Charlotte’s brown eyes, Charlotte’s hand on his leg, Charlotte’s blue dress, Charlotte touching him—he began to panic.

His narrow golden eyes had her tangled in sticky nets. She was going to cry.

“I…” she didn’t know what to say. She moved her hand down his leg again. 

Atchison felt the panic rising to his throat, eyes—

She snapped her head up to face him. Tears?

“What is it, Atchison?” A frantic scream was building in her neck, clawing at the back of her throat. The crowd had grown to nine or ten people, all chattering—mostly to each other.

He shook his head, suddenly grabbing her arm wrapped across him.

“Charlotte, I don’t know!” he gasped.

A dam had broken.

As her chest cracked in two, the fissure made its way to the soft place between her eyes, and she felt her brow rise. The skin behind her ears flamed, dropped, and everything held together fell loose. What did he mean by falling to the ground, showing her this wound, making her love him, and then somehow telling her without words that he would die?






Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth, for Week Ten:
in which Charlotte does not address Dr. Ridgeway as Daniel; Alice the chimneysweep girl is found bleeding in the alley behind Number 14 K Street; and Mrs. Fellows provides comfort with her green travel coat.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
Bonafides/ home



Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

February 14th, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts





Week Eight:
in which Charlotte refuses to respond otherwise than agreeably to Lt. Atchison’s impudence, until Lt. Atchison arrives.




It was after noon before she heard the carriages and the voices returning. Her face was set in what she baptized “agreeable blankness”. No one thought one way or another about what was going on behind it, so let them be pleased with a lovely void. She was settled in her chair in the parlor and almost looked forward to being disturbed.

“I’ll be in my study,” came her father’s voice to no one in particular. She set her jaw. His footsteps clipped past the doorway without a pause. There was something from Ursula about the sweeps coming again for the parlor and “post-party cleaning” at a special rate. Permission was given. Charlotte seethed. The chimney was more concerning than her absence.

More footsteps approached. She lifted her eyes to the window before her and could see his form reflected in the glass. She took a deep slow breath and pushed down the offenses with the flat of an imaginary hand. She would be blank. Would not respond beyond the politeness of social dictates. Ever again. She would not give him the satisfaction of knowing his effect.

“Good morning, Miss Worthington.” He still stood in the doorway to the room, voice low but dispassionate. “I hope you are feeling recovered.”

She was released from a cage.

Shooting up from her chair, she whirled on him, dropping her voice to a hiss, “Just who do you think you are? Giving me advice of any kind let alone how to conduct myself? Whether you find me foolish or not is of no concern to me regardless of what arrangement you may think you have with my father! That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? If he’s so enamored with you then he may marry you. I don’t care about that fortune or treasure or trophy or whatever it is or isn’t. All I ask is to not be treated as such a thing myself. And as for you— “

“You should marry someone you at least respect and at most like.” He interrupted easily, entering the room as though she had just invited him. “I think you feel neither of those things for the good doctor.” He sat down on the sofa and reached for the decanter on the table next to it. “Or for me.”

“Correct.” She was shaking and clasped her hands in front of her.

“Relax, Miss Worthington. Have a drink.”

“Go to hell.”

He smiled slightly and poured two glasses of port. He had barely raised the glass than she strode across the room and took it from him.

They each sipped from their glass and made a concentrated effort to avoid each other’s eyes. Charlotte sat down on the other end of the sofa and swung her elbow out to the side so that her empty glass was at Atchison’s shoulder. He laughed and refilled it. As he handed it back, she slid her eyes over to him.

“This doesn’t mean I forgive you.” She accepted the glass. “Only that I’ve found a use for you at present.”

He nodded solemnly. “Understood.” He refilled his own glass.

The house was quiet. She glanced at him again and sighed.

“Why do you write me notes?”

“Because you read them.”

“That’s not a good answer.”

“It’s the answer you get.”

She exhaled through her nose in what she hoped was an exasperated fashion.

He twisted the tiny stem of the glass between his thumb and forefinger. The cut crystal threw prisms over their feet.

“I think you’re a person who has many things to say,” he began, “but has no one acceptable to say them to.”

“I have nothing to say to that.”

“I don’t find many people acceptable either. I find it easier to write things I don’t like to say at the time.”

“You have a paper voice.” It came out as an insult.

“Being poetic and mean doesn’t make you strong,” he lectured.

“Being older and a man doesn’t make you wiser.”

He lifted a finger in protest. “Wrong. Being older absolutely makes me wiser.”

However much his being a man canceled that assertion she chose not to say.

He turned to better face her, leaning on one hand so that he was brought an inch closer. She moved back. “I’m surrounded by people I find ridiculous and deadly dull. I know exactly what they will say. Without fail.”

“You should take that gift on the road.”

“And I have wisely deduced that you may be interested in the same poetic questions. Resist this if you can:” She rolled her eyes. “Would you rather say something false and live loudly balanced on a thin bridge over a raging river—”

“I’d rather enjoy this drink in silence.”

“—or say something true but have no one hear it and be half drowning all your life?”

“Riddles irritate me.”

He diffused his own intensity with an exaggerated sigh. “You are… difficult.”

“I hate games.”

“You must have been a fascinating child.”

“I was smaller.”

“Exactly. I find the small and the overlooked fascinating. Preserving the small gives it power. A comment spoken is lost immediately. Changed into memory. Translated into something not itself. Write a small thing down and it stays itself forever. Whether or not you then destroy the page is up to you.”

“In that case your paper voice seems to make the small only more vulnerable. Why give power to only risk losing it? That’s cruel.” She motioned for the decanter. He moved it further back on the table. She narrowed her eyes.

Atchison palmed the air. “It’s chance. Possibility.”

“It’s heartless,” she all but spat.

“Hope is never heartless. Though it’s often…difficult.”

“Hope is easy. Trust without power is difficult.” She felt her words stretch their arms into the air before they vanished. “Faith is difficult.”

He smiled. “You should write that down.”

She digested the moment. Studied the situation in which she now found herself. Would she have a conversation like this with Mrs. Margaret Fellows? Probably not.

She lifted her glass, enjoying the warm fluid feeling of her arms for the second day in a row. She was turning degenerate. “But why notes of meaningless pleasantries and answers to questions you wouldn’t answer in the moment I asked them?”

“I write you meaningless notes because you read them. Of anyone in this place you make them mean something.”

She stopped. Lowering her glass to her lap she raised her eyes slowly. “That feels like a compliment.”

“I try not to say things I don’t mean.”

One of the many things Charlotte hated was being asked to open a gift in the presence of the giver. The expectation suffocated her and threatened to crush any joy she should feel even if she was pleased with the contents. It became her habit to hide herself away as soon as the parcel was pushed toward her, to slide a different face over her own, to reflect what was expected. Compliments were reflexes. Involuntary. Meaningless. Charlotte’s own reflex was to first resist saying “thank you” and then form the words deliberately. It was odd to feel her tongue between her teeth, the click of her throat, the push of her lips. It was odd to feel grateful.






Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth, for Week Nine:
in which Alice the chimneysweep girl lock-picks in her sleep, calling Charlotte’s attention to Lt. Atchison’s emptied wardrobe.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
Bonafides/ home



Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

February 7th, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts





Week Seven
in which Charlotte contemplates the insolent humans with which she is forced to abide.




Charlotte drew her own baths, banishing Lavinia from the second level of the house once she had hauled the final bucket of hot water up the stairs. Charlotte, already naked beneath her dressing gown, retrieved the buckets from the other side of the bathroom door—careful to keep the dressing gown closed, even though not a soul was on the floor. As a child, she had found that by the time she was undressed, the filled tub would be cooled. It did not matter by how many degrees. Charlotte grieved any wasted warmth regardless how little she recognized the loss. For all the rebellious flames inside her, she could not abide that anyone see her body on the outside. She rarely wore a corset. She needed no assistance keeping herself inside, and required no help in freeing herself from clothes.

Steam curls floated up from the copper tub, lined with a white cotton sheet whose edges poured over the sides and pooled in lacey puddles at the floor.  Naked she stood in the center of the tub, the warm scented water reaching just below her knees. She eased down into the water and leaned against the slanted back, the cotton sheet steamed warm on her shoulders.  She did not close her eyes.

Mr. Porter would take her places.  Undoubtedly.  She could escape this house, this country even.  See things.  Go places.  Do whatever she liked—he would neither notice nor care.

Dr. Ridgeway would treat her like a queen.  He would love her.  Take care of her.  He would respect her, and likely fear her.  She could do whatever she liked with him as well, for he would not dare displease her.

Charlotte stared at the end of the tub until everything went out of focus. 

And Atchison.

Charlotte closed her eyes and slid further under the water.

*

            The next morning the house was alive earlier than usual for preparations to attend church in Georgetown. There was far more preparation made regarding attire, meal planning, and seating strategizing than any made concerning one’s spiritual condition. Charlotte liked the idea of church. One day she would have liked to go by herself, surrounded by nothing but her own curiosity and hunger for something true, but until then she attended surrounded by her father’s intentions to inspire curiosity.

            She rose slowly, swinging her feet over the side of her bed and relishing the icy kiss of the floor boards even under the oriental rug. Cold feet were better than any cup of coffee to brighten the senses. Coffee made her think of Atchison. Thinking of Atchison made her smile faintly. Smiling faintly made her think of smiling with her entire face and why she did not do so. Which made her frown.

            She saw the pale blue page, folded once, under her door and slipped out of bed. Pulling her dressing coat over her shoulders she sat back on her bed and opened it.

            Don’t be a fool.

            The words simply stood there. They were suddenly awkward; having completed their task, they waited for gratuity that would not be dispensed.

            She realized she had not taken a breath in a hundred years and gasped. Each time she read it she was a different person. A person insulted, confused, angry, delighted, and back to angry.

            She sent word through Lavinia that she was unwell and would not be attending services today. Then she dressed methodically and waited for everyone to leave so that should could tear around the house in a stifled rage before taking coffee and breakfast in contemplative silence as she planned how to ignore the insolent humans with which she was forced to abide.





Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth, for Week Eight:
in which Charlotte refuses to respond otherwise than agreeably to Lt. Atchison’s impudence, until Lt. Atchison arrives.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
Bonafides/ home


Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

The Bridge That Would Not Burn

February 2nd, 2021

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts





Week Six:
in which Dr. Ridgeway is unsure if the ladies wish to attend the exhibit he has already invited them to, and Charlotte finds it difficult to be bored in the parlor of Number 14 K Street.


Part II

Mrs. Margaret Fellows put on her gloves as she spoke.

“Now, my dear, we must do something about it. Your hat, at the very least, serves a practical purpose. It’s freezing outside and you’re no longer a child.” She took Charlotte’s purple felt hat and pinned it to her hair. “Lovely. And just in time. I hear the carriage.”

“Miss Worthington, Mrs. Fellows, so lovely to see you both.” Dr. Ridgeway took each hand gently as he was admitted through the front door. “Shall we?”

Charlotte squeezed out a polite looking smile and allowed him to tuck her arm in his as they stepped outside and down the steps. It was a crisp Saturday, and though she wore gloves she felt the warmth of his hand over hers. It was not unpleasant. “I think you’ll enjoy the exhibit,” he was saying. “It’s gotten nothing but praise. Of course, if you’d rather not attend, we can easily find some other diversion.” He helped each of them into the carriage and climbed in after them.

“I’m sure it will be lovely, sir.” Charlotte settled in the red velvet interior.

“Daniel, please.”

“Daniel.” It did feel good to be out of the house. She did indeed feel stronger when the effect of saying his name was so complete. She rewarded him with a smile and a direct look.

They were passing the drawing room window. Had she been in her favorite chair, she would have seen a couple smiling at each other in a carriage. The thought intrigued her as much as the sight of smoke curling up over a distant hill.

*

The walking stick was very fine. Smooth oak, solid and dependable, with a carved ivory handle perfectly fitted to his hand.

“It looks very elegant,” the shopkeeper said.

“Yes.”

“A splendid addition to your features,” the man went on.

“Yes.”

“You’ll find no finer article to accentuate your statements.”

“Yes.”

Atchison experimented various pressures as he left the shop. He weighed statement against hope.

*

There was to be a Christmas party at Number 14 K Street.

 On the menu so far was a clear flavorful soup; freshly baked rolls with sweet cream butter; before a delicately fried fish with lettuce salad; followed by a saddle of mutton served with red currant jelly and sea kale, carrots, beans, and potatoes; and finally a cranberry bread pudding with lemon-ginger sauce. A quartet had been hired, the mutton had been hanging in the smoke house for 10 days already, and Charlotte had decided on her gown. She knew as surely as her eyes were brown that the one item left conspicuously off the menu was herself. She had not been consulted in the guest list but the three names she heard casually mentioned most often by her suddenly very attentive father were: Dr. Daniel Ridgeway, Mr. Jacob Porter, and Lt. Thomas Atchison.

She was seated beside Mr. Porter. The first three courses were almost unbearable, but by the fourth, the mutton, she had seen her glass refilled three times and was feeling generous. She even asked a question or two about his life. Even feigned interest in his responses. But between his pomposity and Dr. Ridgeway’s constant sidelong glances at her from across the table, it was everything Charlotte could do to maintain polite poise. Her yearning to sigh heavily and discharge a jaw-cracking yawn in abject boredom was so compulsive that stifling it became her only mission.

She concentrated on the embroidery on her burgundy silk taffeta gown, the folds and gathers at the sides, the contrast of her dove gray gloves on her lap, the way her shoe slid up and down her heel as she raised it. She counted the candlesticks in the room: 36. She counted the faces at the table, 15, willing herself to ration each smile she gave and to alternate the pattern in which she gave them: “Yes, that must be quite fascinating.” Two ladies at the left, smile, smile. One gentleman on the right, across. “Oh, no. That was surely too disturbing for you!” One gentleman to the left across, smile. Two gentlemen at the right of Mr. Porter, smile.

Her father, at the head of the table, was jolly and pleased with himself. She imagined him tripping, or something being spilled on him. She did not realize she was smiling until Mr. Porter ventured to place his hand on her wrist where it rested at the edge of the table and said, “You are amused as well! It was a glorious moment and I’m sure those street urchins won’t soon forget their place.” She made a low noise in her throat and removed her hand from the table to the safely of her taffeta lap again, averting her eyes beyond him. Atchison was lowering his glass and caught her eyes. He lifted one eyebrow. She rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly and reached for her glass.

They finished the meal and adjourned to the parlor, whose sliding doors had been opened to extend the space and which had been repurposed as the dancing hall. It was all glittering candles and oil lamps, the fresh scent of pine and cinnamon hovered just below the warmth of so many jovial bodies, and the mantle, casements, and tops of the bookcases all stood proud and happy in their holiday decoration. The quartet was introduced and began. It was difficult to be bored in this room. With so many subjects to observe, so many fools to judge and moods to read, she could drift in and out of conversations as easily as she exchanged empty glasses for full ones. A marriage proposal for Miss LeFonte. A new grandchild for the Mathys. A large unmarked package delivered to Mr. Wilcox which turned out to be an heirloom bit of silver thought to be lost years and years ago…she would not have minded hearing more about that one, but the dancing had begun.

She danced with Dr. Ridgeway, and Mr. Porter, and two other gentlemen. She assumed her duty was finished and she would soon be able to join the ladies’ cluster of silks, bows, lace, and pleasantly meaningless conversation in which she was under no obligation to flatter anyone. She planned to be openly offensive. She was looking forward to it, if she was honest. She would not have refused another glass of wine either, if she was more honest… She turned to seek out Lavinia with the tray of glasses newly filled when he stopped her.

“Would you do me the honor?” Atchison held his hand out to her. His posture was disturbingly perfect. His eyes unsmiling. He was everything the opposite of comfortable as she looked at him.

“I’d be delighted,” she intoned, sounding anything but. He received the communication clearly; she was pleased to observe. She was prepared to trudge, graceless and humorless, around the floor with him if for no other reason than to make a point to her father who watched them openly from behind his glass of wine. She intended to give that same father a piercing glare before the dance began, but Atchison’s hand was around her waist and her hand was suddenly in his and extending out away from herself, and she found herself bodiless and floating despite the heaviness of her skirts. She had no sooner come to her senses than she became confused all over again. She looked up at this person holding her and found not, Lieutenant Thomas Atchison: Mysterious Irritant, but someone else. Someone who had shaved very carefully recently, who smelled of soap and the last sip of wine. Someone whose eyes were framed in very fine, pale lashes and were looking at her with a kindness and questioning that made her feel partly sad, almost sorry, and very nearly longing. 

She planned to say something, anything to pull herself back to the moment before when she had felt so sure of her own indignation, but as she opened her mouth, she saw him part his own.

“You’re a very good dancer, Miss Worthington.”

She watched his lips say the words and clamped her own mouth shut before looking up at his eyes again. He was not looking at her so much as detecting. “Yes. I am. Thank you.”

He smiled widely and could have been laughing. His teeth were a bit crooked on the bottom. She found it boyish and downright attractive. She was too occupied with willing her face to stop blushing and added, “I’m also excessively modest, you understand.”

He did laugh then. She smiled.

“I’m a good dancer as well. You’re allowed to say so.”

“You are surprisingly competent, yes.”

“I practice every evening,” he said.

“Really?”

“No, of course not.”

She laughed. “Well, clearly you’ve had some instruction.”

“Years ago. When I was young and unspoiled.”

“Now you are old and ruined, I suppose.” She thought to make a joke regarding his fine new walking stick. But the dance was nearly done. She was sorry for it, as surely this Atchison would end with it.

“Oh yes, quite ruined. No hope for me.” It was spoken with a smirk but she saw a shadow come over his face. “Much more dancing in your future than in mine, I believe.” He dropped his hands from her and began gently applauding with the rest at the end of the dance. “As it should be.”

He took her hand once more and raised it to his lips. She watched her gray silken glove touch his mouth and cursed it to hell for being a barrier between them. She could think of nothing to say as he assumed his overly straight-backed posture. She was watching someone disappear and was not quite sure what to do with the information. He moved through the crowd with biblical mystery, the hem of his garment touching no one in the cheerful airless space.

Confidence, however liquified, had been coursing through her along with no small amount of carelessness. Margaret had said jealousy was a useful tool and Charlotte had no need to build anything or necessarily repair anything, but she was a curious carpenter that evening. She constructed an attitude for herself. She selected a target. She called herself to arms. A rare smile to Dr. Ridgeway drew him toward her as surely as if she had cast her net into the sea. A flirtatious question and a flattering remark were magnifying droplets from a syringe: the doctor grew taller; the girl grew stronger. The effect was astounding. She was astounded. In flouncing away victorious, she caught a flashing Atchison eye from the corner where he stood ramrod straight and looking uncomfortable and martyred with his glass poised between three fingers—fingers that if the glass had been removed, the wrist rotated, would have been an illuminated blessing. Or warning. Astonishment disintegrated into sand and self-consciousness. She was nine years old and caught hiding the dead sparrow beneath the step.

*




Join us Sunday of the Seventh, for Week Seven:
in which Charlotte contemplates the insolent humans with which she is forced to abide.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
Bonafides/ home


Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather

Welcome to
defenestrationism reality.

Read full projects from our
retro navigation panel, left,
or start with What’s New.

Follow Us