The Bridge That Would Not Burn

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.

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