Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 19

Chapter 19

The room was scrubbed clean. Fresh sheets, new paper and ink in the secretary, as well as a handful of new candles. I’d soaped the windows and mopped the floor, and taken the Bible out of the bedside table and placed it neatly on top, with an unlit candle and a box of matches beside. It wasn’t often that I took the time to make up the rooms so nicely, but I was proud of my work. Any man who entered would look around and be glad to sink into these sheets.

Jasper had still not identified the tenant, which wasn’t entirely surprising as things sometimes slipped his mind. I had convinced myself it would be just fine; besides him, the men weren’t terrible customers, traitors as they were. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced Jasper could protect us from the onslaught we would face if our neighbors heard of Tories under our roof, it was unlikely they would. Not the case that these men walked about town announcing their loyalties, since they valued their own skin. Only if someone close to us, such as Betty or one of Jasper’s friends, decided to run their mouth would we be in danger, and both my husband and I were too careful to let such a thing happen.

I noticed a spot on the floor and grabbed the rag, sinking to my knees to scrub it clean. Behind me, a rustle, likely a guest roaming the hall to his room.

The voice was unexpected and sent a chill racing down my spine. “Do you come with the room?”

My first thought was not to move, as if that helped. As if he hadn’t already seen me.

He moved closer, inspecting the curtains, which had been freshly washed, and then he peered out the window. “Lovely view.” The view was of the clothesline and the shed out back; not much to see.

Slowly rising to my feet, I slipped my hand under my apron to caress the blade of the kitchen knife in my waist-pocket. Not that I intended to draw the knife, but I needed to know it was there, in easy reach.

“I should go,” I said, my neck craning towards the door, but he was in the way.

He did not move. His tall frame blocked my escape. “The spot is still there.” He indicated the spot on the floor, the one I had been trying to clean.

“Sometimes spots don’t come out,” I said. “You simply live with them.”

He stepped forward. I thought he might strike me. Instead, he pushed his boot toward the spot and smeared it. “I think this one will.”

I waited for him to step back so I could kneel, but he didn’t, and I realized he didn’t intend to. I would kneel, just beneath him, and scrub the spot.

I had never done a task so quickly in my life. I pressed the rag frantically into the floor, desperate but hoping he would not sense my fear, until there was nothing left of the mark and the floor was finally clean.

I was halfway out the door when he said, “Good to see you, Lucy.”

I was hyperventilating. I stepped into the hallway closet, pretending to put the rag away but in truth taking a moment to breathe, praying for my own safety, begging to be left alone. Should I march downstairs and tell Jasper I couldn’t clean that room anymore? How would I explain it to him?

I collected myself and descended the staircase to the night crowd, who lined the bar and dotted tables, laughing and drinking. Jasper was at the bar, deftly mixing drinks, while Robbie shyly went around the tables with a pitcher. There was soup cooking on the stove, and I headed there, intending to chop some potatoes and carrots to add to it. Soup every night, and I wished I could cook something more, but Jasper never complained and our guests were happy simply to be fed.

If Jasper noticed a difference in my mood, he did not remark upon it, and after wrestling the last few burly men out the door, we retired quietly to bed, my pulse still thrumming, my body still attuned to danger.

Almost as soon as we sank into bed, my husband was still as a rock, and his rhythmic snores thrummed through the night, easing me to sleep, too.

I woke up screaming. I did not remember the nightmare, but my forehead was drenched in sweat and the desperate sound had escaped my mouth before I could temper it. Jasper, who normally languished in bed well after the sun had risen, had shot upright in a moment, mumbling my name, groping for me.

“Jasper, I’m here,” I whispered, hoping it had been only a moment and he would fall asleep again without remembering the incident. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Suddenly, his hand found a spot on my shoulder, and he looked at me with hazy focus. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” I repeated, low. “I’m fine.”

His gaze flickered down. “Something’s wrong. Why won’t you tell me?” No longer was he panicked and desperate; simply curious. Or accusatory. Hard to tell.

I didn’t speak. Which was rude, perhaps, but it was late and hopefully he would forget in the morning and this had all been a cloudy mistake that we’d never again discuss.

“Lucy,” Jasper said, and gently he brought me down, down to the bed, down to sleep. His arms were tight around me, and I was trapped, but I knew I would offend him by untangling myself from his grasp, so I waited with short breath until he drifted off, then cautiously unwound myself from him like a thread from a spool, rolling back to the edge of the bed where the blankets were sparse and my toes were cold and I was alone. And I was sorry for it, certainly, but I didn’t regret it. I had no choice.