The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne presents
a serialization in 14 parts

Week Eight:
in which Charlotte refuses to respond otherwise than agreeably to Lt. Atchison’s impudence, until Lt. Atchison arrives.

It was after noon before she heard the carriages and the voices returning. Her face was set in what she baptized “agreeable blankness”. No one thought one way or another about what was going on behind it, so let them be pleased with a lovely void. She was settled in her chair in the parlor and almost looked forward to being disturbed.

“I’ll be in my study,” came her father’s voice to no one in particular. She set her jaw. His footsteps clipped past the doorway without a pause. There was something from Ursula about the sweeps coming again for the parlor and “post-party cleaning” at a special rate. Permission was given. Charlotte seethed. The chimney was more concerning than her absence.

More footsteps approached. She lifted her eyes to the window before her and could see his form reflected in the glass. She took a deep slow breath and pushed down the offenses with the flat of an imaginary hand. She would be blank. Would not respond beyond the politeness of social dictates. Ever again. She would not give him the satisfaction of knowing his effect.

“Good morning, Miss Worthington.” He still stood in the doorway to the room, voice low but dispassionate. “I hope you are feeling recovered.”

She was released from a cage.

Shooting up from her chair, she whirled on him, dropping her voice to a hiss, “Just who do you think you are? Giving me advice of any kind let alone how to conduct myself? Whether you find me foolish or not is of no concern to me regardless of what arrangement you may think you have with my father! That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? If he’s so enamored with you then he may marry you. I don’t care about that fortune or treasure or trophy or whatever it is or isn’t. All I ask is to not be treated as such a thing myself. And as for you— “

“You should marry someone you at least respect and at most like.” He interrupted easily, entering the room as though she had just invited him. “I think you feel neither of those things for the good doctor.” He sat down on the sofa and reached for the decanter on the table next to it. “Or for me.”

“Correct.” She was shaking and clasped her hands in front of her.

“Relax, Miss Worthington. Have a drink.”

“Go to hell.”

He smiled slightly and poured two glasses of port. He had barely raised the glass than she strode across the room and took it from him.

They each sipped from their glass and made a concentrated effort to avoid each other’s eyes. Charlotte sat down on the other end of the sofa and swung her elbow out to the side so that her empty glass was at Atchison’s shoulder. He laughed and refilled it. As he handed it back, she slid her eyes over to him.

“This doesn’t mean I forgive you.” She accepted the glass. “Only that I’ve found a use for you at present.”

He nodded solemnly. “Understood.” He refilled his own glass.

The house was quiet. She glanced at him again and sighed.

“Why do you write me notes?”

“Because you read them.”

“That’s not a good answer.”

“It’s the answer you get.”

She exhaled through her nose in what she hoped was an exasperated fashion.

He twisted the tiny stem of the glass between his thumb and forefinger. The cut crystal threw prisms over their feet.

“I think you’re a person who has many things to say,” he began, “but has no one acceptable to say them to.”

“I have nothing to say to that.”

“I don’t find many people acceptable either. I find it easier to write things I don’t like to say at the time.”

“You have a paper voice.” It came out as an insult.

“Being poetic and mean doesn’t make you strong,” he lectured.

“Being older and a man doesn’t make you wiser.”

He lifted a finger in protest. “Wrong. Being older absolutely makes me wiser.”

However much his being a man canceled that assertion she chose not to say.

He turned to better face her, leaning on one hand so that he was brought an inch closer. She moved back. “I’m surrounded by people I find ridiculous and deadly dull. I know exactly what they will say. Without fail.”

“You should take that gift on the road.”

“And I have wisely deduced that you may be interested in the same poetic questions. Resist this if you can:” She rolled her eyes. “Would you rather say something false and live loudly balanced on a thin bridge over a raging river—”

“I’d rather enjoy this drink in silence.”

“—or say something true but have no one hear it and be half drowning all your life?”

“Riddles irritate me.”

He diffused his own intensity with an exaggerated sigh. “You are… difficult.”

“I hate games.”

“You must have been a fascinating child.”

“I was smaller.”

“Exactly. I find the small and the overlooked fascinating. Preserving the small gives it power. A comment spoken is lost immediately. Changed into memory. Translated into something not itself. Write a small thing down and it stays itself forever. Whether or not you then destroy the page is up to you.”

“In that case your paper voice seems to make the small only more vulnerable. Why give power to only risk losing it? That’s cruel.” She motioned for the decanter. He moved it further back on the table. She narrowed her eyes.

Atchison palmed the air. “It’s chance. Possibility.”

“It’s heartless,” she all but spat.

“Hope is never heartless. Though it’s often…difficult.”

“Hope is easy. Trust without power is difficult.” She felt her words stretch their arms into the air before they vanished. “Faith is difficult.”

He smiled. “You should write that down.”

She digested the moment. Studied the situation in which she now found herself. Would she have a conversation like this with Mrs. Margaret Fellows? Probably not.

She lifted her glass, enjoying the warm fluid feeling of her arms for the second day in a row. She was turning degenerate. “But why notes of meaningless pleasantries and answers to questions you wouldn’t answer in the moment I asked them?”

“I write you meaningless notes because you read them. Of anyone in this place you make them mean something.”

She stopped. Lowering her glass to her lap she raised her eyes slowly. “That feels like a compliment.”

“I try not to say things I don’t mean.”

One of the many things Charlotte hated was being asked to open a gift in the presence of the giver. The expectation suffocated her and threatened to crush any joy she should feel even if she was pleased with the contents. It became her habit to hide herself away as soon as the parcel was pushed toward her, to slide a different face over her own, to reflect what was expected. Compliments were reflexes. Involuntary. Meaningless. Charlotte’s own reflex was to first resist saying “thank you” and then form the words deliberately. It was odd to feel her tongue between her teeth, the click of her throat, the push of her lips. It was odd to feel grateful.

Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth, for Week Nine:
in which Alice the chimneysweep girl lock-picks in her sleep, calling Charlotte’s attention to Lt. Atchison’s emptied wardrobe.

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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