The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts





Week One:
in which Charlotte attends a most tedious carnival, with the even more tedious Mr. Porter.



Part I
Washington DC, 1880

It was during the early hours that Charlotte disposed of her corpses. She ended in the parlor where she had last seen her mother in the splendid coffin. Only the mustard painted walls, the floorboards, and the elaborate muted blue wainscoting of Number 14 K Street knew Charlotte Worthington wandered the fine row house like an immaterial specter. Each night before slipping into bed, she filled one sheet of creamy stationary with observations. She carefully crafted her words until they pleased her, the way she imagined parents must be pleased when their children perform. The next morning, she carried the fine page into the stirring daylight outside her room, walked it down the hall, the stairs, and paused in the chaotically beautiful moss green and eggshell tiled entryway while choosing a room in which to kill it. Each room had a lovely fireplace. Some were mantled in marble. Some in delicately carved wood. She chose a suitable altar, gazed at the page one last time, touched a lit match to the bottom left corner, and let the ink that had sunk deep into pressed cotton and linen curl and blacken into nothing. Sometimes she wept. But not often. She lay the last flaming corner gently to the metal grate and inhaled deeply of the smoke.

*

Carnivals were not Charlotte’s preferred entertainment. If she wanted to walk about observing the exploitation of humanity’s most irritating and humiliating errors while pretending to be amused and amazed, she would simply attend one of her father’s dinner parties. Mr. Porter had invited her to accompany him and she quickly enlisted her only friend, Mrs. Margaret Fellows, to join as chaperone. Mrs. Margaret Fellows was five years older, married, and was everything Charlotte’s father wished her to be.

Mrs. Fellows, bright and glittering as the morning itself, arrived at Number 14 K Street shortly before 9:00 and joined Charlotte in the parlor. She swept through the doorway in an icy cloud of heavy green linen and did not remove her blue velvet coat or gloves. “My dear!” she gasped. “It’s precisely your type of day—every soul on the street is huddled into himself, bracing against the cold with a grimace on his face and a swear word on his lips.” She smiled, pressing her rosy cheeks to Charlotte’s in greeting. 

An elegant black carriage sailed over the cobblestones, drawn by a fine brown standardbred and Mr. Jacob Porter arrived. His blue eyes twinkled merrily above a wide attractive smile and well-groomed brown beard, yet Charlotte saw only a slightly taller puppet version of her father.

“Ladies! What a morning.” He removed his hat with a flourish and took each of them briefly by the hand and then focused on Charlotte. “Shall we?”

Mrs. Fellows linked arms with Charlotte. “We shall. Get your coat, my dear.”

*

Charlotte’s voice was very high, making people coo and sigh over her as though she were a baby. Her father’s voice was even, indifferent, and vaguely despondent. He was tiresome, often speaking to Charlotte in the same voice he spoke to Ursula, the housekeeper. He was never cruel though, which had assured the child Charlotte of his affection for her. She had brought her tall father offerings: wilted flowers from the dilapidated garden on top of the house, wounded baby birds pink and ugly and rejected by their mothers, and drawings. Lots of drawings. She drew purple cliffs, mad purple oceans, and tall strangled trees with no leaves. They were winter trees, she would explain to her father, but he only thanked her coolly and piled papers under an iron paperweight shaped like a horse’s head on his oak desk. Once she had asked her father what the iron shape was, and he replied it was a knight. Child Charlotte had nodded, but the shape didn’t look like a soldier. Even now, adult Charlotte looked at the paperweight as she perused her father’s bookshelf or took a tour of the house while everyone slept. She knew about games and strategy, but even now she had no use for a warrior most valuable in the center of a crowd. A regular horse would have done her more good.

*

At the Watson and Standish Mesmeric Co. stage tent, Mr. Porter addressed both ladies, though directly at Charlotte, “I saw this company in Connecticut and you won’t believe it. I must warn you though,” he was suddenly very serious and looked intently into Charlotte’s eyes, “it may disturb you.” He took her hands gently. “Can you be brave, Miss Worthington?”

She set her jaw and resisted the instinct to pull her hands away. Glancing at Mrs. Fellows, she inhaled and said very seriously, “I’ll try.” Mrs. Fellows pressed her smile into the back of her gloved hand.

“Courageous girl, well done.” He reached behind her back, but she moved forward.

“I’ve seen advertisements about this,” Mrs. Fellows said. “Magnetism or some such? Used with moderate success on victims of paralysis and nervous afflictions? It sounds quite odd.” She smiled, “How exciting.”

Mr. Porter grinned. “And the practice of catalepsy, the human bridge, they call it—I hope they haven’t started yet.” He waited his turn to pay a rather grubby and surly man in a checkered cap for three tickets and then ushered them through the entrance booth. They found three seats toward the back, as the show had indeed begun.

“What on earth?” Mrs. Fellows gasped as two men stood on stage at either side of a woman lying horizontally between two chairs. An enormous stone, the length of the woman’s torso, lay on top of her. She seemed peacefully asleep.

Charlotte adjusted in the folding chair, her bustle forcing her forward. Mrs. Fellows gasped again as one of the men produced a sledgehammer from behind his back. “Oh heavens! Surely he’s not going to…”

The man on stage spoke, but the murmuring and expressions of astonishment from the back area muffled his voice. Charlotte sat up straighter and leaned further to the side to see more clearly. Mr. Porter, eyeing her with a mixture of mirth and curiosity, leaned close to say, “Don’t worry, Miss Worthington. All shall be well.”

She threw him an irritated look.

The sledgehammer came down to the outcry of the crowd, and the stone shattered over the woman’s body. Mrs. Fellows covered her mouth with one gloved hand and grabbed Charlotte’s arm with the other. All eyes watched the peacefully sleeping woman. The indiscernible collective voice of the audience drowned anything the men on stage said. One leaned down, spoke to the woman, waved his hand over her face, and then helped her sit up to the mad applause of the crowd.

“Simply splendid!” Mr. Porter said as he clapped. Charlotte nodded and clapped.

The next performances required volunteers from the audience, a prospect that terrified Charlotte. She scanned the crowd, trying to guess which would be next to go forward. In her perusal she recognized a sandy head, ramrod straight back, and chilly demeanor that had nothing to do with the month of the year. It was that man, Atchison. She had been introduced to him months ago at a gathering when he joined her father at the Bank of Columbia, and further subjected to his calculating glares at the Wilcox dinner party last month. He seemed intelligent and of some standing in the community, but considerably lacking in personality. A magic show was hardly the setting in which she expected to find his sort.

He reached into his vest pocket, and when an elegantly dressed middle aged man in the row before him leaned to say something to the woman to his left, Atchison very deftly dropped something into the man’s right overcoat pocket. The man laughed and raised his right hand in the air just as Atchison leaned back in his seat. Atchison crossed one leg over the other and folded his arms.

The elegantly dressed man was brought forward, drawn into a series of simple questions, and was soon clucking like a chicken to the guffaws of the crowd. Mr. Porter in particular found it hilarious. “My God! That’s William Harris of Chesterton’s!” he laughed. “Fantastic!”

Charlotte tried to smile but leaned to her other side and said to Mrs. Fellows, “Are you acquainted with that man, there? His name is Atchison” She indicated him with her jaw. Mrs. Fellows laughed heartily and only half inclined her head in response to Charlotte.

“Pardon, my dear? Who?” She tried to follow Charlotte’s direction. “Ah, I don’t know much about him other than– Oh! Hahaha!” The man on the stage snapped his fingers and Mr. William Harris, attorney at Chesterton and Phillips, found himself applauded and cheered as he returned in a pleased yet bewildered state to his seat.

“Go on,” Charlotte encouraged.

Mrs. Fellows, still laughing, turned to her. “All I know is his war record is something impressive and his work ethic and intelligence are excellent. That’s what Martin says, anyway.” She inclined her head and half smiled. “Why?”

“No reason. My father mentions him sometimes.” Her friend lifted her eyebrows. “It’s nothing.” Charlotte said.

“What’s nothing?” Mr. Porter injected. People rose from their chairs and exited the tent happily.

“Is the show over? Had we missed so much?” Mrs. Fellows pouted.

“I apologize for my lack of planning, ladies. But there’s plenty of amusement to be had, I assure you!” He rose and offered his hand to Charlotte.

She saw no option but to accept it and stood. As her face reached Mr. Porter’s shoulder her eyes met Atchison’s behind him. Unsure why, Charlotte was taken aback. Mr. Porter was talking. People and faces were everywhere. She was moved forward by Mrs. Fellows behind her and led forward by Mr. Porter before her. The man Atchison had no expression but watched her as he would a leaf blown down a path. Something light and insubstantial, not worth the effort or interest to pursue. Perhaps it was indignation at that blank face, but she felt herself the woman trapped under a large immovable stone, a bridge between two balance points.

*





Join us Wednesday of the Sixth, for Week Two:
in which Mr. Porter performs admirably in games of skill, and Mrs. Fellows is devilishly delicate.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burn, here.





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