The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts






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





Part III

She had overslept. The dawn already stretched over the horizon, and Charlotte’s eyes opened to a clear aspect of the decorative plaster coving around the perimeter of her room. She always thought they looked like lettuce leaves. In the morning light they looked at first like shells, then feather fans. Turning on her side she made a point of staring at her door, the top corner, the glass knob. The floor beneath. The pale blue note was where she willed it to be, and as she was alone, she smiled.

It was cold enough to delay her retrieval of the page. She burrowed deeper into her bolster. When she could take it no longer, she dashed from her bed, swooped up the note, and dove back into the warmth before it disappeared. Which was unnecessary, as it turned out, because there was no returning to the shape she had made before leaping out.

I must go. Forgive me.

*

The night before, Atchison had stood in the entry hall. Mr. Worthington called out from the study, “Come in, my dear fellow, come in.” He motioned to a very inviting couch near the low burning fire. “Come, sit. A brandy?”

Atchison waved him off, “Thank you, no, sir.” He tried to smile, suddenly sure what he needed to do. “I’m glad you asked to see me, as there’s something I must tell you as well.”

Worthington looked pleased and gave the large iron paperweight shaped as a knight chess piece a pat on the head. “Splendid,” he poured himself a drink. “Devilish cold tonight,” he winked and sipped the brandy. “I’ll go first, if you permit me. I noticed you and my daughter tolerate each other’s company rather well.”

“Yes, sir.”

 Then at the same time the men spoke:

“I’d like to give you my blessing to marry.”

“I’d like to move away.”

There was a great silence. Worthington’s befuddled expression would have been comical, had his rage to follow not been so certain.

“The difference in age—” he began.

“Sir, please,” Atchison winced and lifted a hand, vaguely grateful he’d chosen to tolerate the discomfort of leaving his stick behind.

Worthington placed his glass on the side table gleaming in the firelight, “You’re concerned about propriety. I admire your decency, Atchison. However, I assure you that chaperones and all codes of modesty shall be observed from now on. There won’t be a hint of scandal so long as you’re under my roof.” Atchison stood and moved toward the center of the room.

“I’m grateful for your generosity in providing such hospitality and… accommodation. But, as I won’t be marrying Charlotte, it’s inappropriate for me to stay.”

One man remained impassive. It was not Mr. Worthington.

His face darkened. “May I ask why?”

“You may.” Atchison had the sudden urge to toy with him. “We aren’t well suited, in all honesty, sir.”

“In what way?”

“Charlotte is impeccable. It’s me that isn’t suited to marriage.”

“I suppose the prospect of being linked to such a well-connected, well-propertied family has no appeal to a man as fortunate as yourself.” Worthington stood and drained his glass.

“There is nothing fortunate about me, sir.”

“Isn’t there.”

Atchison watched him carefully behind an expressionless face. He had seen desperation in many forms. Starvation. Defense. Protection. Greed. This was new. This was a hunt.

“You’re fortunate indeed if you expect to leave this house having violated the modesty of my only daughter, enjoyed my hospitality these months, and plan to continue your esteemed position at the Bank of Columbia.” Worthington poured himself another brandy and sat down behind his large desk. A portrait of authority.

Atchison locked his eyes with Worthington’s. “I’ll be gone in the morning. Good night, sir.”

*

It was just passed five in the morning as Atchison moved gingerly across the entryway tiles with his case and walking stick, but he paused in the parlor doorway feeling an icy draft whip through his coat. Alice, the chimney girl, stood before the fireplace. Her back was to him so he could not see her face. The side window was half open, ushering in the unwelcome frosty breeze. He placed his case in the doorway. “Good morning, Alice, isn’t it?” The girl startled and whipped around.

“Yes, sir.” She folded her dirty hands and lowered her head with a quick backward glance at the window.

“Everything alright?” The open window drew him across the room toward the dark. He lifted it further and leaned outside finding only a dairy cart passing by and a man in a checkered cap crossing the street.

“I’m fine,” Alice chirped. “Just airing the room while the cinders are swept.” Her small body collapsed into an embryo as she began to shimmy her way up the chimney, back pressed the bricks, knees to her chin, feet and one small boned hand bracing against the sides, while holding the sweeper upright.

Atchison moved toward the fireplace, in awe of such a vanishing act, but there was only a stream of soot falling into a little pile. It was as though she had disappeared in a puff of smoke.

He retrieved his case, put on his hat, and left the house as silently as he had entered all those weeks before. Only now, he required the steadiness of a fine ivory handled cane on which to lean and the fur-lined collar of his coat to brace against the cold. Now he took his steps carefully, aware that every destination was a treacherous distance.

*

 Charlotte looked at the clock on her nightstand then down at the words in her hand. Her mind was blank. She wanted a match. She needed a flame.

Dressing quickly and barely registering the cold, she took the pale, blue farewell and folded it twice so that it filled her palm. She chose the morning room and strode to the fireplace. Reaching for a match from the small iron box on the corner of the mantle, she tightened the fist by her side. She felt cold now. And so very sad and silly. She sat on the rug before the fireplace and moved her closed fist to her lap.

Her eyes fell heavy on the grate where her offering would soon lie, but as she focused, a glimmer shone in the corner behind the blackened metal. For a moment she forgot her humiliation and found herself on all fours, note still clutched in her hand, reaching for the twinkle in the dust.

She plucked her very own silver bookmark from the powder. As with a surprise raindrop, Charlotte felt compelled to twist her face upwards, to the unending darkness of the chimney pipe. Confusion gave way to disappointed blame. Oh Alice… She uncurled her fist and looked at the crumpled paper. She placed it in her sleeve’s lace cuff, relishing the scratch against her wrist.

She heard the swishing and clanking of Alice at her work. Seized with a guilty sense of purpose, she hid herself and waited for Alice to venture somewhere unauthorized. The house was quiet. Charlotte bit her inner lip. The clock ticked.

The coughing stifled. The clanking ceased. Charlotte stilled. She swore she heard whispering. Would Alice be muttering to herself? She waited. Silence. Then the sliding of… a window? A chair across the rug? She pressed her back against the wallpapered alcove. Softly padding feet sounded out of the parlor. Steady feet. Purposeful. They floated up the stairs above Charlotte, all the way to the mid-level where her own room was. She knew she couldn’t be seen from above at that angle, so she stepped out and looked up.

Alice strode up the top staircase to the guest apartment. Atchison’s room. Charlotte followed.

Alice’s tiny form walked right up to Atchison’s door and reached for the porcelain knob. Charlotte paused at the top stair, keeping low, though Alice’s back was to her. Alice turned the knob and found it locked. Charlotte smiled faintly. Good. But then little Alice plunged her thin hand into her pocket and produced a pin or tool of some sort to pick the door lock. Charlotte smiled wide despite herself. Even better. As Alice stepped through the doorway, Charlotte gave one more look around the halls below.

Crossing Atchison’s threshold made her heart pound. The drapes were still drawn, keeping out the cold. It was dim, but with the door open to the corridor there was light enough to see Alice standing now in the middle of the room on the center of the oriental carpet blanketing the chilly floorboards. Charlotte said softly, “Alice?”

There was no response. Approaching the girl slowly, she said, “It’s alright. I won’t harm you. I’m not here to scold you.” She came around to face her. “It’s alright,” she began again, but froze. Alice’s face was expressionless. Charlotte had heard of sleepwalkers and immediately knew Alice was not at all aware of what was happening. But sleep lock-picking?

“Alice?” Charlotte reached to touch the girl’s shoulder, bending lower to see her face more clearly. She then remembered the carnival and hesitated. Bringing her hand before Alice’s face, Charlotte snapped her fingers.

Alice’s green eyes came to focus on Charlotte and the small dirty face fell into a pale, confused alarm. She licked her lips and averted her eyes but found nowhere to rest them. “It’s alright. Truly,” Charlotte said while holding both her hands out flat in front of the girl. She studied the small face and smiled at her.

“Miss,” Alice croaked. “I,” her quick breathing and twisting of her filthy apron made her soft dry voice even smaller, “I only came to,” she looked frantically around, assessing where in fact she was, “to be sure the fireplace was in order here, in…” Her poor face was such a picture of torture that Charlotte felt compelled to wrap her arms around her. But restrained herself.

“I’m sure Mr. Atchison appreciates your diligence.”

Alice nodded once and looked around more attentively. “Yes, Miss. It, ah, it looks right fine and serviceable, …” she trailed away. “Mr. Atchison moved on then?”

Charlotte snapped her head around to face where Alice was looking. The wardrobe in the corner was open. And empty.

*

Lieutenant Thomas Atchison closed the safety deposit box and spun the dial. In the weeks he lived at Number 14 K Street the resignation he had prepared to tender life remained locked as securely in his chest as the small bits of yet unreturned plunder lying behind that small metal door. The items he’d managed to stealthily return thus far lifted the burden ounce by ounce but his body continued to fail in baffling ways. No doctor could explain it, no priest could sanctify it. His limbs betrayed him. His lungs attacked him. He felt twice his age and was certain he looked it now that the walking stick was his newly required appendage. Drag-stepping out of the bank’s corridor into the wide exchange area he snorted in disbelief. Just as he had accepted the new, shorter road and ceased to feel regret at lost time: Charlotte. A strange thing he could neither explain nor sanctify.

Atchison saw Charlotte crossing the street with purpose. It had been two weeks since he’d seen her and there: a blue dress and matching coat, a black hat but hair flapping in windblown ribbons. Everything about her was a banner, a standard he suddenly wanted to fight behind and battle for. On the chance that she happened to turn back, or if she caught his image reflected in a window or passing streetcar, he left the stick inside the bank doorway. A terrible idea, he knew. She would not turn around, she would not see him, and even if she did, it would mean nothing to her.

He stepped out of the doorway on his own two legs. There was pain somewhere in his body, everywhere in his body. The streets were crowded and dusty. Shoulders squared, jaw set, he took several steps to the crosswalk before resting. He called it resting, but anyone noticing would have called it checking his pocket watch.  Expressionless, staring straight ahead, he stepped from the curb.

Charlotte lifted her skirts and stepped up the curb as she scolded herself. His eyes were something between green, brown, and gold. Not to be trusted. She strode down the walkway seeing nothing. It was absurd to have entertained the idea of marrying him. He had never asked. She had arranged it all in her mind just as her father had arranged a plan for her in his. She was no better than her father. Perhaps his blood ran through her after all. And now little Alice was a thief? She would lose more than her work if anyone were to find out. Would the disturbing reflections never stop?

From behind, she felt more than heard a calamity. Turning, she saw an omnibus stopped and a group of four or five people leaning over someone. A brown pant leg. A sandy head.

She found herself running.

“You’re a lucky man! Missing only a bit of cloth, not your leg!”

Atchison lay on the brick side walkway observing the faces above him. The woman speaking had the smallest mouth he had ever seen. Why that should matter, he didn’t know, but he suddenly wished to be alone in his blood on the road, to be allowed to feel his life leave him, to take comfort in permission given. But the faces remained. They lifted him at the shoulders; he propped himself up, braced with his hands.

The omnibus had clipped his pant leg and knocked him down, tearing the cloth and rendering him groundless. He covered his leg modestly, skin exposed almost to the thigh.

“I’m quite…” If he’d never spoken, perhaps everything would have been alright. But as it was, he had spoken. His legs felt in flames, stabbed, torn. The word “asunder” came to his mind. He started to fall back; his vision was closing as in a kaleidoscope. And then Charlotte’s figure was in the small circle. He heard her voice. She was saying his name—in an unfamiliar tone. A question.

“Lt. Atchison?”

He tried to raise his head, to find her voice, but he was still falling. Braced for the ground, he never met it. His head and shoulders sunk into softness. His face was brushed with wings of some sort. It was all very pleasant and almost distracted him from the legs being ripped from his body.

Charlotte had fallen to her knees behind Atchison, in time to pillow his head and shoulders in her lap. She swept her hair behind her, dragging it from across his face. 

“Lt. Atchison?” He was so pale! She felt along his arms and chest, not sure what she was looking for. “Someone, go for a doctor!”

“He’ll be all right, Miss—not a scratch, see,” a man gestured to Atchison’s exposed leg.

“You aren’t hurt,” she pronounced. He said nothing, but tried again to stand. He felt an icy dread and horror creep about his ribs and knew he could not rise.

“Lt. Atchison,” her voice was barely a whisper. Her white hand traced the top of his leg lightly, more curiosity than seduction, and stopped at his hip. He was hardly aware of pain for a moment; there was only drunken amazement that she would touch him—that he was lying in a heap on Mason Avenue, his clothing torn, certain he would never walk again, Charlotte’s brown eyes, Charlotte’s hand on his leg, Charlotte’s blue dress, Charlotte touching him—he began to panic.

His narrow golden eyes had her tangled in sticky nets. She was going to cry.

“I…” she didn’t know what to say. She moved her hand down his leg again. 

Atchison felt the panic rising to his throat, eyes—

She snapped her head up to face him. Tears?

“What is it, Atchison?” A frantic scream was building in her neck, clawing at the back of her throat. The crowd had grown to nine or ten people, all chattering—mostly to each other.

He shook his head, suddenly grabbing her arm wrapped across him.

“Charlotte, I don’t know!” he gasped.

A dam had broken.

As her chest cracked in two, the fissure made its way to the soft place between her eyes, and she felt her brow rise. The skin behind her ears flamed, dropped, and everything held together fell loose. What did he mean by falling to the ground, showing her this wound, making her love him, and then somehow telling her without words that he would die?






Join us Sunday of the Fourteenth, for Week Ten:
in which Charlotte does not address Dr. Ridgeway as Daniel; Alice is found bleeding in the alley behind Number 14 K Street; and Mrs. Fellows provides comfort with her green travel coat.

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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