The Bridge That Would Not Burn

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.

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