The Bridge That Would Not Burn

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.

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