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Jane Austen’s Reading Salon is the board where we freely showcase our writing: short stories, excerpts, deleted scenes, poetry, and other assorted samples, both Austenesque and beyond Austen’s world. This is a “read-only” board. Read to your heart’s content and check back periodically for new posts.A A A
February 10, 2017
Kitty sat alone in the icy garret room. Even in her diminished state, her primal brain would not allow her to give up her tenuous grasp on life. So, she snuggled deeper under the quilts Maggie had tossed atop her before she went below stairs to find food.
Peering out between the folds of dusty, worn cloth, Kitty had gazed over at the frost creeping down the tattered wallpaper that had been new when Napoleon III ruled. Her world had become so small, circumscribed by the walls of this tiny icebox. She could not find the energy to shift from the chair. Even if she did, where would she go? Her life was already defined by the tiny circuit of bed to commode to table to chair and back again. No variation could be found that could relieve the boredom.
Heavy steps…not Maggie’s…sounded in the stairwell leading to her aerie. The sound was one she had not heard in months—the crumble as soles ground grit into the worn wooden treads coupled with the dull thud as boots misguided by drink numbed senses stubbed against the stairs. Cold fear watered her bowels as she awaited the inevitable appearance of her most hated memory.
The door hung open on its weary hinges. Winters swung through the opening and scanned the room, his bloodshot eyes settling on Kitty shivering—am I freezing or frightened—in the old armchair. Planting his hands on his hips, a sneer distorting his features, he stared down upon his victim. Them in a decisive move he flew across the room and grabbed Kitty’s arm, pulling her from the chair and throwing her across the room to the bed.
Her body had barely stopped moving before he pinned her to the mattress. Kitty gagged as his sickly sweet smell combined with body odor overpowered her. Bile rose in her throat and she retched, casting up what little she had in her belly, the yellow-green liquid splashing on Winters before he could lurch away.
White fury blinded him as he grabbed her from the bed, picking her up so her feet dangled above the floor.
He shook her and roared, “Puke on me, you bitch? Ruin my last set of decent clothes? Thanks to your meddling Lord Henry and Sherlock Holmes, god damn his eternal soul, I am down to my last few pounds with no more in sight.”
Making a disgusted sound, Winters threw her back on the bed with a teeth chattering impact that shook her to her core.
Calming slightly, he continued in a more menacing tone, “And now the ancient whore mistress wants you out of her life. She insisted that I take you away today. But, from the looks of you, you would probably relieve her of her burden yourself in a few days.”
His eyes assumed a faraway look and he muttered to himself.
“There has to be a way for me to turn this to my advantage. If only I could get my hands on your money. Word is that you are worth well over £200,000. I wonder who could pry that money away from those tight-fisted bastards at the Trust.
“No way I could ever show my face in London without some sort of legalities out of the way.”
Winters continued to loom over the cowering woman, mumbling as he sorted his thoughts through a wine hued prism. Then, a dreadful resolve cleared his mind.
“There is one way…and only one way…I could be accorded my due for all the trouble Holmes, you, and your family has given me.”
He spun on his heel and marched out of the room.
Maggie finally managed to tear herself away from an impatient Madame who had dragged her into her private sitting room to serve Maggie notice that her finicky ways had become intolerable. As the East Ender stepped outside and softly closed the door, she overheard two men talking in the back stairwell. The commanding voice stunned her and she made herself tiny as she squeezed into a space behind some cloaks.
That voice—she knew it was Winters—was giving instructions to one of his two remaining retainers who still haunted the building.
“Tonight. You must get rid of her tonight. Knock her over the head and toss her in the river. I saved her handbag from when we snatched her. Leave her shoes and the bag on the pavement by the water. That will be enough for the gendarmes. All sorts of people end up in the river when the weather gets cold, but their bodies never turn up until spring.
“The idiots will assume that she was so ashamed of herself for marrying against her family’s wishes that she ended it all.”
Maggie could not hear the muscle man’s reply, but she was able to understand his concern by Winters’ retort.
“You fool. If the other one bothers you, do her, too!
“Finish the job and then meet me at the usual place. I’ll settle up with you then.”
Then he stormed off.
A terrified Maggie raced up the stairs to the garret room. The sight she saw frightened her more than anything Winters had said.
Kitty writhed atop the faded quilts alternately curling into a ball and then arching her back. Her moans began low and ascended the scale of pitch and volume to culminate in a near scream…and then began again in the low register. Her eyes were screwed shut in her sweat-drenched face. Her arms were wrapped around her middle. Her skirts were stained with serum red.
Maggie flew to her side, gathering the tortured woman into her arms.
“Oh Kate…Oh Kate…” Maggie crooned trying to relieve Kitty’s agony.
Calming a bit, Kate bit her lower lip, sucking in a deep breath around her teeth. She opened her eyes and stared up at Maggie for a time before she said under duress, “Hunhhh…it hurts so much, Mags…Winters…here. You…need…to run. He is out…of…his…mind. Hurt…me. The baby…coming, I…think…” An agonized moan cut off any further speech.
Maggie had been around pregnant women in extremis for years. There was no great secret to what was going on. Kate was losing the child. The problem was not so much the miscarriage, although that was dangerous enough, but rather that the process was never immediate. It could take anywhere from hours to days, neither of which, as Maggie well knew, young Kate Bennet had.
Quickly glancing toward the window, she could sense the panes darkening with a dusk which, if Winters’ man had his way, would be the last of Kate’s life. There was no question that they had to get out of the house immediately, miscarriage or no.
Safety first, doctor later.
Maggie soothed the younger woman as much as she could with as little information as possible, “Listen my darlin’ Kate, we are going to have to make our break from here in the next few minutes. No tellin’ when Winters’ll come back. And, no tellin’ what he’ll do.
“But, you’re in no shape hurtin’ like you are. So I’m goin’ to get some of Lisette’s medicine. A few drops of that will put you up right. Won’t give you too much or you’ll start cravin’ it.”
In spite of herself, Kitty Bennet grimaced a smile and gasped out, “Maggie, only…you…could…remind me…of my Mama…at a time like…this. Yes…just as Mrs. Hill…took care of Mama’s…nerves, I…would…cherish a…tonic…that would relieve…this insufferable…pain.”
Maggie made sure Kate was settled and then charged out in search of her friend to beg, borrow or buy a few drops of surcease.
Jacques Robard was freezing. No matter how deeply he huddled into his old woolen overcoat, the wind cut through him and froze his breath as it left his nose, the vapor leaving a rime on his coal black moustache. He pulled a doubled over blanket tighter around his waist to shield his rapidly numbing legs. Robard sat hunched over on the bench seat of his empty hay wagon so as to present the smallest possible target for the fierce wind roaring out of the Ardennes, Jacques’ homeland now in German hands these past twenty years. His gelded draft horse suffered as well, shaggy head dropped low into the blasts, lugging into his collar making clopping steps to slowly moving the conveyance away from the great market at Les Halles in la Deuxieme Arrondisement.
With the last of the sun vanishing from the sky well before dinnertime, snow-laden clouds had been chased south by those vicious gusts. The precipitation was nearer ice than snow, stringing exposed skin and dancing in tiny whirlwinds spinning down dim and deserted streets.
Hein, mon vieux Porthos, this weather may undo us yet, no? Still a long way to go to St. Denis. If le patron had not insisted we make that delivery down to Les Halles, you’d be in the stables, and I would be warming up little Odette with a bottle of vin ordinarie.
Jacques Robard was a typical example of the classic French paysan…square built with powerful shoulders built from years of lifting and hauling. His shock of coarse black hair was well hidden under three ragged scarves. He would never be called handsome with his face a map of hard work and hard living. But, he would not frighten small children either. Robard was quite pragmatic about his life, as befit his station, knowing that the aristos and bourgeoisie would allow him to exist on the margins as long as he knew his place and kept to it.
And, truth be told, he found that knowledge to be comforting.
He had been born in the now-lost province of Lorraine, in Bar-le-Duc, just two years after the politician Poincaré. Now 29, Jacques had bounced around northern France, first with his parents after they fled the Prussians in 1870 and then, after his two years of compulsory service in the Army, on his own. He had considered doing another two as a rich boy’s remplacement, but he had thought better of it. Instead, he had chopped coal and iron in the Northwest near Nancy. He had worked barges running up the Meuse through Belgium into Antwerp. Gradually the great magnet of Paris had drawn him like iron filings to a lodestone. He had spent the last two years as a teamster guiding Porthos in from the hay market in St. Denis to the massive terminal at Les Halles where Paris came to shop.
But, the road from St. Denis though the Madeline was beginning to wear on him. There was little variety with the exception of new construction as the city stretched itself with the provinces draining excess labor into its center. He was not sure what he wanted to do with himself, but he was certain that he was nearly done staring at Porthos’ hindquarters day in and day out. Maybe a small farm with a good woman and a crowd of les petits.
Those dreams had to hold, however, until he had returned Porthos and the wagon to M. Laurent’s lot. However, Robard was beginning to doubt the successful outcome of his passage from the city; the air held a promise that the Paris would be buried under several inches of snow and ice before dawn lightened the rooftops. If they had been outside of the city, he could have guided Porthos off the road and into the woods where the trees could have shielded man and beast from the worst of the storm.
But, he had several miles to go before that form of relief could even be considered.
Tonight is no night to be caught outside. I’m going to have to keep my eyes open for a stable and just hope that I can presume on the good nature of the hostler.
Maggie was sure that both she and Kate had seen their last sunset. Moving down the long stretch of the deserted Rue Vignon had taken what had seemed like hours. She had been half dragging, half carrying the weakening woman as the miscarriage, the drug, and the infernal cold sapped the lady’s remaining strength.
The first part of their flight had gone without interruption by anyone. The girls had all taken to their rooms knowing that there would be no customers on such a miserable night. Madame Flournoy had stationed herself and a bottle of cognac in front of a cheerful coal fire snapping away in the grate of her sitting room. Winters’ man was nowhere to be seen.
Maggie had stripped the sorry bed of its quilt and cover, reconciling herself that Madame had been well compensated for the use of the garret room and its furnishings. After slowly clumping down the stairs to the back of the house, Maggie scoured the “lost and found—but never returned” closet. Holding a failing Kate against a wall by the kitchen, Maggie had first wrapped her in the bedclothes and then draped a cape over everything. She had discovered an old pair of felt workman’s boots that she tied to her friend’s lower legs with strips of torn sheeting. Rifling through the rag bin again, Maggie then appropriated for herself a man’s greatcoat, left behind by a customer seeking to flee without paying for his pleasure.
Ears and faces protected by some drapes that had finally been deemed too decrepit to grace even a whore’s boudoir, the two had struck out from the house.
In the garret room, while Kitty still had had her wits about her, she had dug her treasures out from their hiding place behind the commode cabinet. Somehow she knew there was only one place in Paris where they would find safety. She thrust them into Maggie’s hands, saying only, “Sacre Coeur…Montmartre. Safe there.”
Now with their felt boots clogged with ice, the idea that two women—one terribly ill, the other having taken most of her exercise either running up stairs to the garret room or on her back in her own—could slog over two miles in an early blizzard was proving to be ruinously optimistic. Leaning Kitty against the post of another unlit streetlamp, Maggie looked back upon their path and was both pleased and horrified to see that their footprints were nearly filled in. She could not see more than one hundred yards ahead. In her heart, Maggie knew that they were on a fool’s errand…that they would never get to Montmartre.
But, try they would.
Porthos dragged one tired hoof in front of the other as Jacques turned the wagon onto the Rue Vignon, finally pointing toward St. Denis. The surrounding buildings cast the street into a gloom that was enhanced by the lack of any streetlights.
Hmmmf…even the lamplighters have gone to ground.
Rue Vignon was usually inaccessible to Robard as the gendarmes would have chased him off the residential thoroughfare. He would have had to keep to the alleys or take the long way around. Tonight, though, he could drive down the middle of the street without fear of reprisal. There was neither a soul to slow him nor an omnibus to compete with his tired horse.
Nearing the intersection with the Rue Tronchet, he noticed someone struggling to make way toward the north. He had plenty of time to realize that the form was actually two people, one clearly helping the other. They were struggling.
Never one to hold himself immune to another’s misery, Jacques urged Porthos along with a quick flick of the reins. Pulling up alongside the pair who were slowly weaving along, Jacques shouted to make himself heard over the weather.
“Hien…puis-je vous aider?”[i]
Robard’s world stopped and would never again spin the same. The taller of the pair quickly turned toward him. A gust of wind whipped down the canyon between the apartment blocks and lifted the wrappings off of the greatest present the Frenchman had ever received…a vision of a cloud of auburn hair and brilliant green eyes set in the palest of skin.
Maggie held out a sagging Kate to Jacques who had leapt from his seat. Settling her birdlike weight on the wagon’s bed, he scraped the few remaining pieces of hay left behind on the warped floorboards around her body for the tiniest bit of extra insulation. As he helped Maggie up to lay her beside Miss Bennet, a frisson jolted through him when he grasped her forearms, even though she was wrapped in layers of coat…and he wore massive worker’s gauntlets.
Regaining his composure, he asked a simple question.
Without a word, Miss Small, late of Poplar, handed him a dog-eared carte de visite, a hand painted rose gracing the reverse side.
[i] “Eh…can I help you?”
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