Charlotte by Kari Trumbo

 

Chapter 1

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

“Honesty Prevails.” Charlotte Warren stood before the chamber door to the most secret society she had ever heard of. Within, many female voices hushed each other, and a small square box window opened just above Charlotte’s head. Her friend Catia’s deep green eyes appeared in the space.

“But only when good women fight,” she replied.

She winced before she could hold it back. Would simply meeting with other women to talk about books really lead to fighting? “I’ll die for the cause,” Charlotte mumbled as she pulled her silken wrapper from her neck.

Catia’s face disappeared, the little peep door closed with a clack, and a few moments later, the door opened just enough for Charlotte to slide inside. The room was warm with a large roaring fireplace, plush carpets, and chairs that only the wealthy could own or enjoy.

She’d never been to Helga Garretson’s secret room, but she knew everyone there. Catia took her hand and led her over to a chair with a mountain of cloaks on it. “I’m so glad you could make it. Helga was worried when you hadn’t come for a full month.”

So much had happened. Where to even begin? “Father has found a husband for me. To curb my…waywardness.” The word sounded so much more foul than how she felt. Was reading and discussing literature and current events really so horrible? Her father was certain that if women continued to discuss matters that didn’t pertain to them, they would want their voices heard next.

“A husband? Who?” Catia froze, holding the coat to her chest.

“Maurice Holdingford.” She could barely say the name. The man was almost triple her age.

Catia gasped and let Charlotte’s coat drop to the floor. “You jest!”

Her raised voice attracted the attention of all the others in the room. “Charlotte? Why don’t you come out of the corner and tell all of us?” LeAnne laid her book face down in her lap. Her golden dress with white fichu made her look much older than her five and twenty years.

Charlotte took a deep breath, picked her coat up off the floor and laid it among the others then found a padded chair amidst her acquaintances.

“Firstly, let me be clear that my father does not know of this group. I would never tell anyone of its existence.” That was a prerequisite, but since her story might make those in the room wonder, the fact had to be stated.

“Go on.” LeAnne prodded. Though she wasn’t the true leader of the group of Bluestockings, she often acted as such.

“My father found the book Catia gifted to me for my birthday last month, the one on the principle of governing.”

It hadn’t even been all that interesting. If she’d only hidden it better! “He was furious, to put it mildly and put the book somewhere in his own collection, which I’m not allowed to read.” He’d been so cruel as to lock her from his study when she’d turned ten, as if suddenly a love of books would hurt her mind instead of enrich it.

“And his choice of husband?” LeAnne’s attention waned and she already held an air of boredom.

“He did not find my other books, but that one was enough for him to decide I was in the wrong. I shouldn’t be seeking out such things. He sent a message to his dear friend, the widower three times over, Maurice Holdingford.”

Everyone in the room exchanged worried glances. “Two of his three wives were part of this very group,” Catia chimed in before anyone else could point out the obvious.

“I’m aware.” Charlotte swallowed hard to keep her fear from rising up. She wasn’t made for battle despite the promise she made every time she entered the group’s presence.

LeAnne frowned. “This is quite disturbing.”

A sound in the hall silenced all of them and guarded glances traveled the room. There was a brief knock and a man’s voice penetrated through the thick wood, “Open says I.”

Charlotte gripped her chair and held her breath. How had her father found her? She’d been so careful when she’d come. She’d made certain no one followed, and she’d told her father she was going to the market, which was in the same direction from their home.

The slight knock turned to an urgent pounding. “I know you’re in there, girl. I may not know what you’re doing but I’ll find out.”

All the women knew not to gasp, move, or make a noise. If the room was silent, no one could know they were there. A moment later, someone else whose voice Charlotte did not recognize came to the door. “Sir, there’s no one in that room. May I get Mr. Garretson for you?”

“Just never you mind.” Loud footfalls marked the exit of Mr. Adolphus Warren.

All the women waited until the butler rapped a special knock on the door and they all took a full breath and let it out.

“That was far too close. He could’ve heard us speaking as he approached. How did he find the house and how did he get inside without Rochester knowing?”

Helga narrowed her eyes at Charlotte, but she felt no malice, only contemplation. “Your father thinks he knows what’s best for you. I’m tired of losing members of my society to men who think they know better. Charlotte, today you disappear.”

She blinked rapidly, recalling all the other friends she had who didn’t know of her secret fascination with books. Those friends wouldn’t understand why her father had chosen a man so old or why the marriage was set to happen so quickly. She nodded her agreement. “What will I bring with me?”

Helga managed a soft smile that lifted the tension in the room. “I’m sure I can manage a trunk with a few gowns, a few baubles, some toiletries…and the most important thing of all, some books.”

Without a wife,Christmas would be almost impossible. Jacob glanced across the table at his ten-year-old son where he sat scooping up porridge. The lumpy excuse for food was about all Jacob knew how to make and he counted it a blessing Mitchel never complained.

“Six weeks to Christmas, Pa. Think Santa will fill our stockings?” The eager boy glanced over at the fireplace. Jacob hadn’t allowed him to hang the socks until the night before for fear of them catching fire, but Mitchel had laid them on the mantel at the ready. More than a full month early. “I know what I’m asking for!”

Other boys his age asked for sleds or candy. Mitchel would ask for what he did every year, a new mother. And every year he tried not to look disappointed when one didn’t appear. How Santa was supposed to manage putting a woman in a stocking wasn’t really fit to consider, but the wish had taken up a good piece of Jacob’s mind for pert-near a month.

“What do you think I should ask for?” He’d never told his son his wishes, nor had he bothered to share the truth of Santa just yet. Ten was still tender, especially without a mother. Let him believe for another year.

The boy screwed up his face as if thinking were about the most difficult chore in the whole world, then his face lit up. “Well, Pa. I know you’re usually happy with the peppermint stick that you get in your stocking. But maybe…just this year…we could wish for the same thing? Maybe then Santa would think such a big request was worth it.”

So many of his friends had sent off for brides. He’d hoped to avoid that necessity, but neither Santa nor his mother—and her insistence a good woman would ‘wind up just where she was supposed to be’—kept him from being alone. And with a poor harvest this year, his budget for Santa was down to about a peppermint stick for each of them.

Ma bustled into the house without so much as a warning knock and laid a loud kiss on Mitchel’s head. “Good morning, my men!” His pa was also one of her men, but he wasn’t there to enjoy the greeting. “Preacher tells me this is going to be a fine season indeed.”

Jacob inspected his porridge and tried to ignore his mother’s hints. She loved Christmas in Angel Creek. Weddings happened at Christmas in Angel Creek. Not just any weddings, but the ones that lasted. That was part of the reason Mitchel wanted a mama at Christmastime. That meant she would stay.

“I’m far enough out of town I don’t get to the parties and such.” And he wasn’t about to start going either.

“Mitchel, your grandfather is waiting outside. He’ll give you a ride to school today. I need to talk with your father.”

His resilient son jumped from his seat, slid his empty bowl in the wash pail, grabbed his coat and his books with one hand and raced out the door. “Bye Pa!” His words were almost drowned out as he slammed the door behind him.

Since he didn’t have to make a good example, he scraped the rest of his breakfast into the slop pail for the pig and put his bowl in the water alongside his son’s. “What is it, Ma?”

“I’ve done something you won’t like.”

She stood across the room and though he didn’t face her, her tone said she was actually contrite, which wasn’t common for his somewhat nosey mother. He squared his shoulders and prepared for the worst. What could she possibly have done that she would have to confess?

“I’ve ordered you a bride. For Christmas. Just like so many men in town. It’s your turn to be happy, son. Sonia has been gone for eight years. Mitchel doesn’t even remember her…”

“Stop.” He wanted his son to remember her. There were so few people who would recollect his sweet Sonja. “I know you mean well, but I was already planning to order one. I’d like to make sure I order someone who knows… Who will understand… I don’t want…” His voice abandoned him completely. Ma had been married for over thirty years. She wouldn’t understand his loss. How he still felt it, even with such a space of time between.

“It can’t be undone. I’ve already sent for her and she’s on her way. You can tell her what you expect when she gets here. Her name is Helga and she sounds like a very sturdy woman. Not sickly or weak. She has a good, strong name.”

Helga? He was going to marry a woman named Helga? “And did you make sure she would be a good mother to Mitchel when you placed your order for my wife?” He had considered selling one of his cows to afford a bride. Now he could never say anything if he wasn’t happy because his bride would be a gift.

“Really, Jacob. Can she be any worse than what Mitchel is living now? I saw what you just made for him. You make it every day. Just having someone here to cook good meals for you both is worth it, don’t you think? I will not live forever. I can’t come here and help you every day. I waited eight years to do what my heart told me to do. I know you’ll be happy.”

He grabbed the slop pail and headed for the door, ignoring the cold as it bit into his fingers. The metal handle of the bucket would soon attach to his skin if he weren’t careful, but he hadn’t wanted to take the extra minute to grab his coat and gloves. Ma had ordered him a bride.

Would he have ordered a sturdy woman? Sonja hadn’t been, at least, not completely. She’d been soft and feminine, filling his home with lace pillows and curtains. She’d taught him to dance and she’d given him a son. Then…she’d left him to raise that son alone, and he didn’t dance anymore.