7. Suitor

London, England
May, 1667

The smithy reeked of cinder and ore, and Carlisle could see several new axe-heads cooling on sawhorses. The heat from the stoves was oppressive, and sweat began to roll down his nose at once when he entered.

“Thomas?” he called. There came no answer, but a moment later his friend appeared. His cheeks were streaked with black from the burning charcoal, and iron filings flecked his hair and skin.

A wide grin broke out on the sooty face when Thomas realized who it was.

“Cullen! How goes it?”

Carlisle nodded, looking down at the floor at once. He knew exactly why he’d come to see Thomas. The entire walk to the shop, he’d rehearsed the questions he wanted to ask, played the answers he thought Thomas might give, and explored the responses he might offer in return. But now that he stood here before his friend, he found his mouth had gone dry.

“I’ve not seen thee in weeks, it seems,” Thomas continued, “but then I’ve not been quite free, myself.” He gestured to the anvils behind him and the stoked fires. “Planting season—everyone needs new implements.” Studying Carlisle a moment, he added, “You’ve been to a barber.”

Carlisle’s hand drifted to his newly-cropped hair. It was not as close a cut as his father’s and nowhere near as short as the roundheads’ (whom, he guessed, his father would have preferred he look like), but it was still uncomfortable. The fashion was for men to wear their hair longer; his shorter cut now marked him as a Dissenter.

“My father gave me the deadline of Pentecost,” he muttered. “He says the Holy Ghost must know me for a man.”

Thomas let out his barking laugh. “Know thee for a man? Is Holy Ghost that easily confused? Perhaps it ought to ask you to take down your breeches instead.” Taking a step backward, he added mischievously, “Then again, it might have difficulty seeing what’s there…”

Carlisle tried to give Thomas a shove, but found his arm would no longer reach. “May the Lord grant forgiveness for thy jealousy,” he answered coolly instead. “It is only human nature to want the…gifts…that have been given to others.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “What have I to be jealous of? Anne certainly has no complaints.”

Carlisle’s eyebrows shot up. Thomas had been courting Anne Nesbit from their parish for over a year. But as far as Carlisle had known, it had been a chaste courting. The furthest Thomas had managed, according to what he’d told Carlisle, was to kiss open-mouthed, which he had described to Carlisle as being a little like having a small live fish in one’s mouth, except more pleasurable. Still, Carlisle felt a little twinge of jealousy every time he saw Thomas go out, even chaperoned, with Anne; and these feelings had become all the more acute in the week since he had met with Elizabeth Bradshawe in the raucous surrounds of Tyburn.

Still, this was a new development.

“Anne has…become more familiar with thee?”

Thomas grinned broadly. “One could say that.”

“You are contracted?”

“In so many words. We’ve agreed on a marriage but our parents have not yet blessed it.”

“And so you’ve…”

This time, it was Thomas who looked down shyly. “Well, she’s seen it at least. And I’ve seen hers. We’ve not done all of it yet, but we will.”

This was fascinating. There was a brothel not far from Carlisle’s home, at which his father growled angrily whenever they made their way through the neighborhood. William would be plenty angry enough if he took up with a woman even from an upstanding family like the Bradshawes before he was married to her.

Which wasn’t to say he didn’t think about it. When he’d been a younger boy, he had been a little faster to ogle the revealed swell of a breast, or a beautiful form displayed by the perfect dress. His father had caught him in a wide-mouthed stare one afternoon when he’d been approximately fifteen—the resulting slap to his face had nearly knocked out a tooth. Since then, he’d learned to be a bit more clandestine in any displays of attraction, and when it was necessary, he pleasured himself on his stomach so that he could stifle any noise into the bed linen. This was of course not to mention that even without a father like William Cullen, there were very practical reasons to stay chaste.

“Are you not afraid that you’ll get her with child?”

His friend shrugged. “‘Tis not an impossible thing to control. And if I do not come out in time—well, who could blame me for wanting the love of such a wonderful woman a little early?” That wide, boyish grin again.

Certainly not I. The very thought sent a flush of warmth through Carlisle’s body. Two mornings earlier he had awoken with a dream-memory of Elizabeth’s full hair that had been entirely faint—and an erection that had been entirely not. This was why he had come to see Thomas in the first place.

Biting his lip, Carlisle looked down at the stone floor. Like everything, it was flecked with soot and iron filings, and he studied these to avoid meeting Thomas’s eyes. “Well, congratulations are in order,” he mumbled.

His friend guffawed. “Why, thank you, Sexton.” Eyeing his friend, Thomas leaned casually against one of the sawhorses, his legs crossing at the calf as he redistributed his weight.

Carlisle had a thousand questions he wished to ask. What did it feel like? Would Thomas tell him when it actually happened? But instead of questioning, he settled for staring at the dusty floor and slowly scuffing his foot back and forth. His father would disapprove; shoes were not inexpensive and although the tithes kept them clothed, the Cullens weren’t wealthy men.

Thomas noticed the avoidance at once. “But surely you came not to talk about Anne.”

Blood flooded Carlisle’s face at once, making his cheeks warm.

“Or perhaps that is exactly why you come,” Thomas said slowly, a grin spreading further across his face as Carlisle blushed even more. “Oh, my friend. A woman?”

“Christopher Bradshawe’s sister,” he mumbled in reply, and his friend’s eyebrows shot up.

“Bradshawe’s sister? Does he know of this?”

Carlisle shook his head. Despite Elizabeth’s invitation, he had not yet made any overt questions to Christopher. Elizabeth’s father had fallen to the plague, as had two of her younger siblings. With their father deceased, Christopher would be the one through whom Carlisle would need to proceed if he were to curry any favor from Elizabeth.

He was beginning to regret his love of heated debate. If only he’d agreed with the man a little more often…

Leaning back even more, Thomas smirked. “This shall be quite interesting, then, I think.”

Carlisle frowned. “You mock me?”

“Of course I mock you. The idea of you being interested in a woman is quite possibly the height of comedy.” Thomas’s smirk dissolved into something that sounded more like a girl’s giggle than the laughter of a man. “How did this happen, Carlisle? The last we discussed the matter, you thought she was his wife.”

Moving over to one of the anvils, Carlisle sat down. Wringing his hands nervously, he detailed his encounter with Elizabeth at Tyburn—the way his father had left him alone, the way she had sought him in the crowd as though she’d always meant to. He had realized later, of course, that this was accurate—from her side, there had undoubtedly been far less coincidence involved in their meeting than there had been from his.

When he finished speaking, he continued to stare at his hands, until Thomas let out a low whistle.

“You are finished, Carlisle,” he said, but he was grinning. “And here your father worries he will die with you still a bachelor.”

This was news to Carlisle. He wondered where Thomas had possibly heard such a thing.

“How—”

“How do you court her?” The smirk turned into a grin. “Well, the first problem is going to be talking to Christopher, now, yes?”

Which was how, no more than two hours later, Carlisle found himself walking toward the Bradshawe’s, with a letter he and Thomas had spent two hours crafting. The small family lived west, in an area which had been touched more heavily by the fire. The smell of cinder still hung in the air, even so many months later; the winter snows had done little to wipe the city clean of the devastation.

He fingered the carefully-folded paper in his breast pocket. Its backside read Mr. Christopher Bradshawe and after much debate, the signature had been penned asMr. William Carlisle Cullen. He wished to use his formal name, for it was a formal letter, and yet the fact that Elizabeth knew him as Carlisle—well, that was important, too. So he had used both.

The letter was simple in its content. A reference to Carlisle and Elizabeth’s meetings, another reaffirming that Christopher was valued as a debate partner, and then the request that, as his sister’s guardian, might he consider allowing Carlisle to visit upon Elizabeth with a chaperone? Carlisle didn’t much like the idea of having Christopher around, but he would put up with it if it turned out to be necessary. He hoped, however, that Elizabeth’s mother might be tasked with the job.

His heart fluttered thinking about it. Elizabeth’s mother was Katherine’s sister. He had never bothered to learn much about his nurse’s family, and until the meeting with Elizabeth at Tyburn, he had never even known she’d had a sister, much less one who lived so nearby. Had Katherine talked about him with Mrs. Bradshawe, he wondered. Had she visited her sister while nursing him? Had Christopher perhaps been his playmate when they had both been infants? Might Elizabeth’s mother look on him as a nephew of sorts? And if she did, would that be a good thing or bad?

Carlisle was so busy thinking about these things that he nearly missed the turn down the narrow street. Like his neighborhood in the East End, this part of London had homes practically atop one another, a building practice over which there had been much outcry since the fire. But the truth was, there was no other way for a city this size to accommodate so many, except to keep them literally within arms’ reach of one another—the homes were squeezed so closely together that neighbors could shake hands through second-story windows.

The Bradshawe’s home was three stories tall, and he felt a twinge of intimidation as he lifted the doorknocker. His own was far more austere; although the previous pastor of the parish had been father to several children, the rectory had only two floors. Carlisle and his father shared a bedroom on the second floor, the other was reserved for holier and more scholarly work. This had always seemed a fine arrangement, but now that he thought on it, perhaps the privacy granted by his own space would not be a terrible idea.

A creak sounded as the door opened, and he tensed for the second it took before a woman’s face appeared.

She was older than Elizabeth, but had the same high nose and dark hair. This was pulled away from her face, making her look severe and lovely at the same time. She frowned at him as she appraised him on her door step.

“Missus Bradshawe?” he asked timidly.

The woman nodded curtly. “Yes?”

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Carlisle Cullen; my father is William Cullen, rector of St. James Aldgate. I am acquaintances with your son Christopher; we meet on occasion at the coffee house.” To use “acquaintances” was probably stretching the truth to breaking, but to say they engaged in heated debates and got quite under each other’s collars would probably not serve Carlisle very well at the moment.

The frown slackened a little, but the woman still looked wary, and the door did not open fully. Then Carlisle heard a confident and joyful voice pipe up from behind the door.

“Oh the Heavens. Mum. Carlisle was Aunt Katie’s charge. He is just too polite to mention her.”

At this, the woman’s expression softened, and a smile appeared on her face. “Of course,” she said quietly. “I had the oddest feeling I had met you before. You were somewhat smaller, however. And quite a bit less steady on your feet.” She laughed, and the door swung wide. “What brings you today, Mister Cullen?”

He ducked his head apologetically, but he found a smile crept onto his face also. “Your sister was my nursemaid. Please, call me Carlisle.” He allowed himself to be ushered into the small, but tidy entryway. Elizabeth was standing there, in a simple dress and apron, her hair tumbling over one shoulder.

Carlisle averted his gaze, but of course this meant he was largely staring at the stone floor. He felt a bit foolish not looking either woman in the eye. “I’ve brought a letter for Christopher,” he mumbled quickly. “I presume he is not at home?”

Mrs. Bradshawe shook her head.

He had figured as much. “Well, then, I shall not intrude on your time. Perhaps you might give it to Christopher with my warmest regards.” He reached into his pocket for the letter and was proffering it to Elizabeth’s mother when Elizabeth let out a peal of laughter.

“You are so shy, Mister Cullen.” She danced forward and took the paper out of her mother’s hands. “This, I believe, is Carlisle’s request for permission to court me. Is it not?”

Dumbstruck, he nodded.

“To court?” Her mother’s eyes went from Carlisle to Elizabeth and back again, having regained a bit of the wary look. “When did you meet?”

He was almost ready to say “At Tyburn” when Elizabeth said, “On Fleet Street. You know how Christopher likes to take me there.”

Carlisle gulped. That was right; she’d mentioned that her mother didn’t know about Christopher’s affinity for the gallows days. He’d nearly compromised her.

Her mother shook her head, a dismayed expression on her face. “It’s not a place for a woman. All those alehouses.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. But I’m certain Carlisle would have ideas of more appropriate places he ought to take me.” She winked.

“With a chaperone, of course,” he added quickly.

Mrs. Bradshawe’s eyes slid from one to the other again, but there was the slightest smirk on her face. “Christopher is the man of the house,” she said. “It will be his decision.”

“Of course, of course,” Carlisle stammered. “I would think of nothing else.” He drew a deep breath, and allowed himself to glance at Elizabeth once more. She was beaming. “I- I should leave you to your business.” He was starting to retreat toward the door when Mrs. Bradshawe spoke again.

“Mister Cullen?”

“Yes?”

“Christopher is a good son. He usually listens to his mother.” She smiled. “It was a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure is mine,” he mumbled, bowing his head slightly, and barely managing to keep himself in a straight line as he went out the door. When it closed behind him, he let out a sigh of relief.

His hands shook as he turned away from the house. Elizabeth’s laughter rang through the thin window, reaching him in the narrow street as he retreated. The sound at once filled him with an indescribable excitement. He stopped, closed his eyes, and prayed fervently that Christopher Bradshawe was the kind of man who listened to his mother.

~||x||~

Ratcliffe Street was aptly named, William thought, although it was true that it was named for the red cliffs nearby rather than for the rodents which could be seen scurrying across it. It was nearly dusk, and the sun shone orange over the water and the ships as William made his way toward the docklands.

“Hello, me love,” a voice called to him, and his head jerked toward the sound. A woman beckoned from the doorway of a building, where she leaned seductively. She looked unhealthy; her cheeks were rouged but beneath the color they were pallid and bony. A black crescent moon was painted upon on her cheek as well, a fashion which looked appropriate on the women in town, but which on this woman only served to accentuate how scrawny she was. A hiked underskirt revealed thin legs.

“A penny?” she said, and the skirt went a little higher.

William shook his head and averted his eyes from her. From the harbor came the low clang of the bells on empty ships, their decks creaking as the evening winds took out the tide. The cacophonous melody of sailors singing in the taverns filled the street; tankards clanked against counters and stone road.

The unhealthy woman would not lack for customers.

It was vile, this part of England. Fallen women, drunken sailors, souls in need of salvation that was never coming. William hated coming here, but it was important—this business could not be conducted in Aldgate.

He slid his way along the street to a home not terribly far from the docks. As he knocked, he listened to the steady slap of the waves lapping against the sides of the moored boats.

The door swung open and a wizened face appeared. He smiled slightly and beckoned William inside.

The house was simple, with only a handful of features at all—a table on which sat a few of the barber-surgeon’s implements, a bed for his patients, a barber chair. The man lived in the back of the home, and there was often the faintest odor of slightly burned food wafting forward from the kitchen.

As a rule, the two men didn’t talk much. William was more than a little embarrassed to have sought help to begin with; this was part of the reason he came down to the docklands where ship surgeons were plenty and his parishioners were not. He walked here once a fortnight, and when he could sneak the tithes out from under his son’s careful bookkeeping, he would hire a hackney carriage to take himself home.

The younger Cullen assumed his father was out searching for evil. William had noticed the way the young man deliberately managed to duck coming with him of late—he seemed to continually find an errand that needed running, a repair that needed doing, or simply made a strategic exit to the alehouse or coffee house at dusk. He avoided the things that were most distasteful to him, which to William was a sign that his son was not yet the grown man he needed to be.

William had left the boy up to his own devices at the last hanging day a few weeks before. It had been his hope that his son would follow him to the gallows as he always did; that he would realize that it was his place to face the accused. One day, it would be his son who would need to make the accusations, and for almost six years, William had been trying to prepare him, only to be met with resistance.

He would need to learn, William thought. And quickly.

The barber gestured to the chair. His name was Frederick, and his usual clientele were the sailors coming in to port, which was why his shop was in such an otherwise unsavory location. Yet the secrecy worked in William’s favor. A pastor was supposed to be strong, to lead his flock decisively and without sign of weakness or pain. Coming to Ratcliffe kept that image as it needed to be.

As the barber tied the tourniquet around his upper arm and slid the wooden dowel into his hand, William closed his eyes. A moment later he felt the sting of the lancet moving swiftly through his skin. Part pain. Part pleasure. He let out a little involuntary sigh.

“The tremors?” Frederick asked as he pulled the pewter bowl closer to catch the seeping blood.

William shook his head. “Still here. Lessened a bit, but perhaps we should take more this time.”

The other man shook his head. “You barely walked from here last time, Reverend.”

His jaw tightened. “I wish this ailment gone. If it is excess humor, we will remove it.” As though to prove that he would control such matters, William squeezed his hand even more tightly. His muscle bulged, and the blood pinged into the cup.

Fredrick’s expression was a mixture of contempt and confusion, but he did not move to stem the flow. Sometime later—ten minutes? Twenty?—the room began to swim and William closed his eyes and fought to keep upright. If he slumped, the other man would take too much care, would remove the lancet before he was ready.

Soon enough he felt exactly that, the slide of metal against skin, a stronger hand coming to his shoulder.

“No,” he mumbled. “They…must…stop.”

“No, I must stop,” the other man said.

A surge of heat flushed through William’s body. This was the only solution; the way to keep him healthy in the midst of whatever this was that weakened him. He was not weak, and he would not be treated as though he were.

He tightened his fist once more. The lancet slid, and sticky dark red gushed down his forearm, a tiny river branching quickly off into tributaries which trickled across his wrist bone. His head filled with sounds—the pinging of the blood into the little pewter bowl, the tavern singing, the ship bells still clanging at the dock. They surged around him, through him, and the room spun and went dark.

An hour later, William arrived to a darkened and quiet house. The hackney carriage had cost five pennies; an exorbitant sum but one which the barber insisted he pay, even offering him a discount on his next service so that he might afford it. It was usual for a patient to become faint; that was the sign that enough humor had been removed from the body and the signal to stop. But after his stubborn outburst this evening, William had remained unconscious for several minutes.

He was exhausted now. There was a cup of beer waiting for him in the kitchen, no doubt left for him by his son, and he sipped it gratefully with steady hands before retreating to his bedroom and stripping for bed. He had always been modest and encouraged Young William to be modest as well; the two men did not often change clothes in each other’s company. This, coupled with his long shirts and coats, meant that his son never saw the marks of the lancet.

The younger Cullen was already fast asleep on his trundle, his breath heavy and even. He lay turned on his stomach, one arm flung over his head and the other trapped beneath his body so that his hips twisted backward at an odd angle. It appeared uncomfortable.

When William himself was prepared for bed, he knelt and gently pushed his son’s hip, flipping him upward and releasing his arm. At once, the other man rolled so that he lay fully on his side. There came a shuddering sigh, and a moment later his son curled into the position he had always slept in as a boy.

The boy was at least a dozen stone heavier now, and several feet taller, but in the peaceful lines of his face, one could still see the remnants of the child who had once inhabited this body. After rearranging the aging quilt, William stood over the bed for a moment, watching the broad chest rise and fall in the moonlight.

At last he climbed into his own bed, absently scratching at the single horsehair which closed the wound left by tonight’s bleeding. Through weakness, he would gain strength. And he would last to see his son succeed hm.

Lord, please let it be so, he prayed to the darkness before he was overtaken by sleep.

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§ 4 Responses to 7. Suitor"

  • Tina says:

    I really enjoy seeing Carlisle as a human – his shyness, his individuality in the face of his father’s strict behavior. I ache for him because he never gets to explore the relationship with Elizabeth.

    William hiding his illness is an interesting aspect of this story. He won’t abide flaws in his son, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that he won’t abide them in himself.

    I think the thing that I love most about this story is the way it points out Carlisle’s strengths as a ‘father’. He is not afraid to tell his adopted children what they mean to him. I wonder how often he pondered his father’s behavior – and the effect his musings would have had.

  • Malianani says:

    Tina, I have wondered that, myself. The few (related) questions I didn’t ask in the review I sent earlier were:

    How much of William does Carlisle remember by the time he meets Edward? (What of William “sticks” with him over the centuries?)

    Does Edward ever remind Carlisle of William (especially in his stubborn, “black and white” understanding of the world)?

    How does this (or does it at all) affect his relationship with Edward?

    • giselle says:

      You always ask the best questions.
      I don’t always have good answers. But trying to figure out the answers makes for stronger writing.

  • jenny says:

    oh lord.
    this chapter is so stunningly perfect.
    i can’t even.
    my chest is heaving.
    the church burnt after Carlisle was turned because his father’s unsteady hands and the altar candles were a bad mix.
    elizabeth will take Carlisle’s death badly.
    i like Thomas.

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