The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts





Week Six:
in which Dr. Ridgeway is unsure if the ladies wish to attend the exhibit he has already invited them to, and Charlotte finds it difficult to be bored in the parlor of Number 14 K Street.


Part II

Mrs. Margaret Fellows put on her gloves as she spoke.

“Now, my dear, we must do something about it. Your hat, at the very least, serves a practical purpose. It’s freezing outside and you’re no longer a child.” She took Charlotte’s purple felt hat and pinned it to her hair. “Lovely. And just in time. I hear the carriage.”

“Miss Worthington, Mrs. Fellows, so lovely to see you both.” Dr. Ridgeway took each hand gently as he was admitted through the front door. “Shall we?”

Charlotte squeezed out a polite looking smile and allowed him to tuck her arm in his as they stepped outside and down the steps. It was a crisp Saturday, and though she wore gloves she felt the warmth of his hand over hers. It was not unpleasant. “I think you’ll enjoy the exhibit,” he was saying. “It’s gotten nothing but praise. Of course, if you’d rather not attend, we can easily find some other diversion.” He helped each of them into the carriage and climbed in after them.

“I’m sure it will be lovely, sir.” Charlotte settled in the red velvet interior.

“Daniel, please.”

“Daniel.” It did feel good to be out of the house. She did indeed feel stronger when the effect of saying his name was so complete. She rewarded him with a smile and a direct look.

They were passing the drawing room window. Had she been in her favorite chair, she would have seen a couple smiling at each other in a carriage. The thought intrigued her as much as the sight of smoke curling up over a distant hill.

*

The walking stick was very fine. Smooth oak, solid and dependable, with a carved ivory handle perfectly fitted to his hand.

“It looks very elegant,” the shopkeeper said.

“Yes.”

“A splendid addition to your features,” the man went on.

“Yes.”

“You’ll find no finer article to accentuate your statements.”

“Yes.”

Atchison experimented various pressures as he left the shop. He weighed statement against hope.

*

There was to be a Christmas party at Number 14 K Street.

 On the menu so far was a clear flavorful soup; freshly baked rolls with sweet cream butter; before a delicately fried fish with lettuce salad; followed by a saddle of mutton served with red currant jelly and sea kale, carrots, beans, and potatoes; and finally a cranberry bread pudding with lemon-ginger sauce. A quartet had been hired, the mutton had been hanging in the smoke house for 10 days already, and Charlotte had decided on her gown. She knew as surely as her eyes were brown that the one item left conspicuously off the menu was herself. She had not been consulted in the guest list but the three names she heard casually mentioned most often by her suddenly very attentive father were: Dr. Daniel Ridgeway, Mr. Jacob Porter, and Lt. Thomas Atchison.

She was seated beside Mr. Porter. The first three courses were almost unbearable, but by the fourth, the mutton, she had seen her glass refilled three times and was feeling generous. She even asked a question or two about his life. Even feigned interest in his responses. But between his pomposity and Dr. Ridgeway’s constant sidelong glances at her from across the table, it was everything Charlotte could do to maintain polite poise. Her yearning to sigh heavily and discharge a jaw-cracking yawn in abject boredom was so compulsive that stifling it became her only mission.

She concentrated on the embroidery on her burgundy silk taffeta gown, the folds and gathers at the sides, the contrast of her dove gray gloves on her lap, the way her shoe slid up and down her heel as she raised it. She counted the candlesticks in the room: 36. She counted the faces at the table, 15, willing herself to ration each smile she gave and to alternate the pattern in which she gave them: “Yes, that must be quite fascinating.” Two ladies at the left, smile, smile. One gentleman on the right, across. “Oh, no. That was surely too disturbing for you!” One gentleman to the left across, smile. Two gentlemen at the right of Mr. Porter, smile.

Her father, at the head of the table, was jolly and pleased with himself. She imagined him tripping, or something being spilled on him. She did not realize she was smiling until Mr. Porter ventured to place his hand on her wrist where it rested at the edge of the table and said, “You are amused as well! It was a glorious moment and I’m sure those street urchins won’t soon forget their place.” She made a low noise in her throat and removed her hand from the table to the safely of her taffeta lap again, averting her eyes beyond him. Atchison was lowering his glass and caught her eyes. He lifted one eyebrow. She rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly and reached for her glass.

They finished the meal and adjourned to the parlor, whose sliding doors had been opened to extend the space and which had been repurposed as the dancing hall. It was all glittering candles and oil lamps, the fresh scent of pine and cinnamon hovered just below the warmth of so many jovial bodies, and the mantle, casements, and tops of the bookcases all stood proud and happy in their holiday decoration. The quartet was introduced and began. It was difficult to be bored in this room. With so many subjects to observe, so many fools to judge and moods to read, she could drift in and out of conversations as easily as she exchanged empty glasses for full ones. A marriage proposal for Miss LeFonte. A new grandchild for the Mathys. A large unmarked package delivered to Mr. Wilcox which turned out to be an heirloom bit of silver thought to be lost years and years ago…she would not have minded hearing more about that one, but the dancing had begun.

She danced with Dr. Ridgeway, and Mr. Porter, and two other gentlemen. She assumed her duty was finished and she would soon be able to join the ladies’ cluster of silks, bows, lace, and pleasantly meaningless conversation in which she was under no obligation to flatter anyone. She planned to be openly offensive. She was looking forward to it, if she was honest. She would not have refused another glass of wine either, if she was more honest… She turned to seek out Lavinia with the tray of glasses newly filled when he stopped her.

“Would you do me the honor?” Atchison held his hand out to her. His posture was disturbingly perfect. His eyes unsmiling. He was everything the opposite of comfortable as she looked at him.

“I’d be delighted,” she intoned, sounding anything but. He received the communication clearly; she was pleased to observe. She was prepared to trudge, graceless and humorless, around the floor with him if for no other reason than to make a point to her father who watched them openly from behind his glass of wine. She intended to give that same father a piercing glare before the dance began, but Atchison’s hand was around her waist and her hand was suddenly in his and extending out away from herself, and she found herself bodiless and floating despite the heaviness of her skirts. She had no sooner come to her senses than she became confused all over again. She looked up at this person holding her and found not, Lieutenant Thomas Atchison: Mysterious Irritant, but someone else. Someone who had shaved very carefully recently, who smelled of soap and the last sip of wine. Someone whose eyes were framed in very fine, pale lashes and were looking at her with a kindness and questioning that made her feel partly sad, almost sorry, and very nearly longing. 

She planned to say something, anything to pull herself back to the moment before when she had felt so sure of her own indignation, but as she opened her mouth, she saw him part his own.

“You’re a very good dancer, Miss Worthington.”

She watched his lips say the words and clamped her own mouth shut before looking up at his eyes again. He was not looking at her so much as detecting. “Yes. I am. Thank you.”

He smiled widely and could have been laughing. His teeth were a bit crooked on the bottom. She found it boyish and downright attractive. She was too occupied with willing her face to stop blushing and added, “I’m also excessively modest, you understand.”

He did laugh then. She smiled.

“I’m a good dancer as well. You’re allowed to say so.”

“You are surprisingly competent, yes.”

“I practice every evening,” he said.

“Really?”

“No, of course not.”

She laughed. “Well, clearly you’ve had some instruction.”

“Years ago. When I was young and unspoiled.”

“Now you are old and ruined, I suppose.” She thought to make a joke regarding his fine new walking stick. But the dance was nearly done. She was sorry for it, as surely this Atchison would end with it.

“Oh yes, quite ruined. No hope for me.” It was spoken with a smirk but she saw a shadow come over his face. “Much more dancing in your future than in mine, I believe.” He dropped his hands from her and began gently applauding with the rest at the end of the dance. “As it should be.”

He took her hand once more and raised it to his lips. She watched her gray silken glove touch his mouth and cursed it to hell for being a barrier between them. She could think of nothing to say as he assumed his overly straight-backed posture. She was watching someone disappear and was not quite sure what to do with the information. He moved through the crowd with biblical mystery, the hem of his garment touching no one in the cheerful airless space.

Confidence, however liquified, had been coursing through her along with no small amount of carelessness. Margaret had said jealousy was a useful tool and Charlotte had no need to build anything or necessarily repair anything, but she was a curious carpenter that evening. She constructed an attitude for herself. She selected a target. She called herself to arms. A rare smile to Dr. Ridgeway drew him toward her as surely as if she had cast her net into the sea. A flirtatious question and a flattering remark were magnifying droplets from a syringe: the doctor grew taller; the girl grew stronger. The effect was astounding. She was astounded. In flouncing away victorious, she caught a flashing Atchison eye from the corner where he stood ramrod straight and looking uncomfortable and martyred with his glass poised between three fingers—fingers that if the glass had been removed, the wrist rotated, would have been an illuminated blessing. Or warning. Astonishment disintegrated into sand and self-consciousness. She was nine years old and caught hiding the dead sparrow beneath the step.

*




Join us Sunday of the Seventh, for Week Seven:
in which Charlotte contemplates the insolent humans with which she is forced to abide.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
Bonafides/ home


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