The Bridge That Would Not Burn

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.


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