Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 18

Chapter 18

A clip pinched my fingers, and I winced in pain as I struggled to replace it. The clothesline was along the back alley, which meant sometimes I had to step over the contents of emptied chamber pots, although mostly those were discarded in the alley that squeezed between The Red Pearl and its neighbor, rather than here in the back, near the shed where we kept the firewood.

Here, between The Red Pearl and the shed, was where I had been ambushed in darkness. I tried not to think about it; it was a different place under the light of the sun, a different place entirely.

A gentle breeze flitted past, and with it came Jasper, who always came gently, even when he was preparing to strike. “You’ve been out here awhile,” he said.

I sensed he did not mean it as an accusation. “Yes, I’m afraid I put off the week’s laundry and now it’s caught up with me.”

“You don’t need to do laundry every week, you know.”

I smiled gently. “Sure. But don’t we want our guests to have clean sheets?”

He shrugged. As long as they had cold drinks, nothing else mattered much. “A few of the rooms have become empty.”

“Oh? That fellow with all the needles is finally gone?”

“No, he’s still here. And he’s not crazy. I think he’s a doctor.”

I’d seen doctors before, and that man wasn’t one. He had a look in his eyes like a few screws were loose. But he hadn’t made trouble so far, so we didn’t address the needles. “He’s as much a doctor as my left palm,” I replied evenly. “But thank-you for informing me about the rooms.”

Was that the only reason he had come out here - to inform me of the vacation of a few rooms? He could have discussed it with me when I was inside - certainly it wasn’t urgent. But no unspoken words seemed to tick beneath his calm demeanor.

Jasper cleared his throat. “One of our regulars is interested in staying with us long-term. Says his rent is too expensive, so I offered him a better deal.”

“Did you?” I was racking my brain for which of our regulars I would enjoy keeping around as a guest. Perhaps Nathan Brown, a milliner, whose wife had perished the same winter my mother took ill and spent his nights at The Red Pearl trying to forget about it. Yes, maybe he was finally looking for somewhere smaller to live now that he was alone. A place, like ours, where he could find drink and food and a little company, if he wished. “You know, it might be good to move towards taking long-term tenants rather than overnight guests. More consistent money.”

“That’s what I was thinking, actually. My father never wanted to become a landlord - thought they were too tyrannical and liked having new faces come in and out - but there’s more risk there. Rooms staying empty, untrustworthy people causing trouble, and so on. We did have a few long-term stays, well before you came, and most of them worked out quite well. I think having this fellow under our roof for awhile will be a good thing.”

“Good, then. Who is he?”

“One of the late-night men. Forgot his name, but you’ll become acquainted with him, I’m sure. Drinks stone fence.”

I smirked. Oftentimes we identified our regulars, who did not always reveal their names, by their drinks, but all of the late-night men drank stone fence, so that didn’t help much. It was a little unsettling, though, that one of those men would be staying with us. What if they all really did know what had happened to me? What if this fellow had been part of it, laughing along with my attacker as the story was relayed, grinning wickedly behind my back whenever I was near, knowing that I was as helpless as a lamb?

So I remained still. “Jasper, you know it’s risky hosting those men as is, but taking one as a tenant? What if someone else in the town discovered their loyalties?” Everyone in Boston disdained Tories, and the feeling was not passive; it was not whispering behind backs and shunning them from social circles but rather dragging them out of their homes and burning shops down.

Jasper crossed his arms, and I stared at the buckles on his shoes, unwilling to meet his gaze. “We’ll be fine,” he said firmly. “I won’t let anything happen to us.”

Lies. It was an involuntary thought. It was instinct. Betty would tell me that this all could be avoided if I just told him what had happened, and perhaps she was right. Perhaps I should have told him the moment it happened, but I hadn’t, and it was too late now.

I fixed one of the pins on the clothesline. “When does he move in?”

“Next week,” Jasper said. “The room closest to the stairs. We should make sure his sheets are fresh and the secretary has ink and paper.”

“Of course. I’ll make sure of it.”

He nudged me softly. “I must get back. Are you almost finished out here?”

I looked at the sky, which was quickly turning deep blue, and down at the shallow basket of sheets to be hung up. “Yes,” I said, “just a few more minutes.”

When he left me, I was still thinking about the new tenant. Of the late-night men, there were perhaps one or two that kept quiet and didn’t stir much trouble; with luck, it was one of them, but God was not always so generous. I shivered and went back to work.