“Do hurry up, Charlotte,” said her mother hotly. “We’re going to be late.”
It was a hectic morning in the Fillmore household. Thirteen year old Charlotte was supposed to have already been dressed in her Sunday best, out waiting by the carriage to be taken to Lord Digory’s estate in order to have lunch with his son Bryan. But she was far from ready, instead having a lazy morning at the country manor, away from the smog of the industrialized cities and the busy streets of horse-hooves clattering, and she planned to keep it that way.
All this nonsense of Bryan as a romantic interest was too much to bear. Better off kissing a warty toad than a spoiled brat.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child, just as the good book says,” mumbled Ms. McDougal, the family maid, in her thick Scottish accent, as she dusted off the bookshelf.
“My dear Ms. McDougal,” replied Charlotte rather casually, with just a hint of flippancy, “do you not suppose that it’s possible to overbeat a child with a rod?”
“Aye,” Ms. McDougal was sweeping up the last bit of dust. “But in your case a few more lashings might do you some good.”
“Come now, sweet. You know your parents only have the best of intentions for you. Bryan Digory is a fine young man, but the both of you are only thirteen. They don’t expect you two to be sealed in holy matrimony for a few more years.”
Fine young man! There was a laugh! Digory was fine and dandy if you liked a simpering little boy in the body of a teenager. Needless to say, Charlotte did not.
“And until then am I to dread those years?”
“Dread? Of course not!” exclaimed her mother. “You put yourself in your own cage, Charlotte. There is a world of hills full of butterflies, of boating, and sipping tea by the Thames, but you live in a dungeon of your own making. The train will be leaving for London soon, and you aren’t even ready to take the carriage to Brighton Station.”
“Brighton is so far away,” said Charlotte. “I think it would be much better if I bide my time here. The countryside is positively lovely, and the air so fresh.”
It would have been counterproductive to put the hot flame of a candle against Charlotte’s flesh. Good luck burning her with that. Her mother, on the other hand, was a different story. Charlotte could feel the hot gaze of her mother’s eyes burning into her. Why couldn’t the old biddy just leave her alone? She wasn’t interested in a spoiled brat like Bryan. She could care less that the boy’s father was a successful merchant in the East India Company. Nor did she care that he had propitiated large sums of money. The Digorys were still dolts.
The memory of their first meeting was fresh in her mind. Charlotte’s mother had taken her to meet them over in Stratford-upon-Avon a couple years back at the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was all a façade concocted by Lord Digory to try and dupe the Fillmores into thinking that his family was of firm faith. But it didn’t take much to see past the pious masks into the reality of their pretentiousness just by the little ways they treated those around them. When they had gone to their household, Charlotte had been shocked to see how Bryan ordered the servants about. Sure, the Digorys were cordial to her and her family, but the Fillmore’s were well off. If you were of a noble class the Digorys would love you. If not they would despise you. They may have had her parents fooled, but not Charlotte.
What was even more intolerable than young Bryan was his father Lord Digory. For not only did he have stock in the East India Company, but he owned textile mills and other factories. That would be fine and jolly-well good, except that many of his employees were children, working to the bone to bring home a meager living to their parents. A few had even died in his factories. Of course, he never blamed himself. Far be it for he, a proper British gentleman, to think he committed any sin. After all, according to his magnanimous nature, he was giving the children income, keeping them off the streets, and teaching them all about thrift. It made Charlotte sick.
Charlotte tried to reason all of this with her parents, but they were never much for reason.
“Be that as it may, you simply cannot stay here, child,” said Mrs. Fillmore, proving Charlotte’s point. “Do you want to me to tell your father that you are being disobedient?”
Normally these words were enough to chill Charlotte. It wasn’t that her father was an unreasonable tyrant. On the contrary. Red-faced jovial and with a deep booming laugh, a salt of the earth, that was her father. Look in the dictionary under the word fair and there would be an engraving of him, but even he had his limits. Children being disobedient to their mothers was one of them. Yet, this time around Charlotte found herself not caring if she angered him or her mother.
“I hope we are late,” she retorted.
“Charlotte” gasped her mother. “Mind your manners. What would your father say if he were here?”
“He would more than likely send me to bed without supper,” sulked Charlotte. “You two are so unreasonable.”
“Young lady, your tongue wags too freely. Perhaps we should just leave you be and not bother you anymore.”
“I daresay sometime I wish you would. You’re like a crowing rooster, never giving me a moments rest. I wish I could just escape from this family forever.”
Next, it was Ms. McDougal’s turn to grow angry. A brick of a woman, one would think they were facing against a raging bull with her. Sadly for the maid, Charlotte was feeling like brick wall.
“Charlotte, your impertinence towards your own flesh and blood is unbecoming of a child.”
“Oh, I beg your forgiveness,” said Charlotte sarcastically. “Do tell, what sort of impertinence is becoming of a child?”
“Now you see here,” the maid towered above her.
“Oh, I see a lot. I see a washed up maid who is blocking my view of the window.”
“Charlotte!” exclaimed her mother.
“I will not be a pawn in you and father’s games. Though, I’m sure Ms. McDougal doesn’t mind. You might have to find a chess board to fit a lady of her girth on, I dare say.”
Shaming an older woman for her weight, particularly one who often acted like a grandma to Charlotte, was bad form, indeed. But Charlotte wasn’t concerned with form. She only wanted to be left alone.
On that note, her mother and the maid, equally shocked, left Charlotte to herself in the study. Not a word of ‘we’ll talk later, dear’ or ‘wait until your father hears of this.’ It was a silence worse than a parting word, a silence Charlotte tried not to let bother her.
Charlotte stretched across the couch, yawning, like a great big cat. It was nice to have some respite from all the needless nagging. Of course she was overreacting. This marriage was only arranged in words, not common law. She could marry whomever she wanted to when the time came. This wasn’t like the stories she had heard of about India in which arranged marriage was the status quo.
While lounging about, her eyes scanned the study past the bookshelves, the marble busts, past the grand piano with the ivory keys (those poor elephants), past the fireplace carved of marble (all the marble was overkill), until her eyes fell onto her favorite painting, and for good reason, too. It was painted with a godly touch. The field of grass slopped downward, dotted by oaks and elms, in which a dirt trail ran through it. A river cut through the trail with a quaint stone bridge arching over it. In the backdrop was a set of snowy mountains. By the side of the mountains was a town, and behind the town was the sea. In front of the town were some pastures teaming with cows. The painting had something magical about it, as though it was real.
“I wish I could walk into that painting,” Charlotte whispered to herself. “How I wish I could just escape this family and never come back! I would be positively chuffed if I could just leave this blooming world behind without my parents ever bothering me again, away from elitists like the Digorys, away from the factories in which children work until they die only because they aren’t rich. I want to forsake it all forever.”
Taking a closer look at the painting, she saw that the very water seemed to rush as branches from the trees bowed to the wind. Grass popped, trying to leave the confines of their frame. In a hypnotic sense of wonder, Charlotte slowly made her way to the painting, entranced by the strange magic it was working on her. Her senses wrapped in the moment, she breathed in the fresh air of a landscape never defiled by factories. A breeze rippled her hair.
She looked around her, amazed at what had happened. She was in the painting. Birds chirped in the trees around her. Taking off her sandals, she felt the grass beneath her feet. Over the bridge, across the river, the village beckoned to her. She was in a whole new territory. Who else could say that they had stepped into a painting?
Charlotte ran through the grass, and, as nice as that felt, she could only imagine sledding down the slopes of that pristine mountain. Crossing the stone bridge, she looked over it into the water to see fish swimming about.
Oh the sweet freedom! For the time being she was away from her demanding parents. Why, it was all so beautiful that Charlotte again wished never to leave. Factories? Not one! She wasn’t sure how she knew – it wasn’t like she had gone in the opposite directions to find out – but somehow she just knew. The worst smell was the sheep and cow pens nearby. Better yet, there was no child labor and no Digorys.
The smell of animal pens gave way, pushed aside by the smell of fresh bread baking from the ovens of the cottages. No sooner had she smelt the aroma had she stepped onto a paved road. Though the full-scope of the village was hard to grasp just by a painting alone, now that Charlotte was smack dab in the middle of it, she could see that it was comprised of comfortable little shops, quaint outdoor cafes with vines growing across the walls, small but elegant manors with vineyards and wineries, and white plaster cottages.
The townspeople looked at her. Charlotte wondered if she had food on her face leftover from breakfast. But then she laughed at herself. Obviously she was a stranger so they would stare.
“Top of the morning to you all,” said Charlotte cheerfully. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Charlotte Fillmore.”
Her greeting was reciprocated by whispers around her. Though she didn’t perceive any danger from anyone, it was understandably a bit unnerving.
“What are you doing here?” snapped an older woman. “Have you come to turn into a stink in our town?”
“A stink?” Charlotte was taken back.
“Yes, like the last stranger,” scoffed another.
“What is you want?” asked a child, equally hostile as the adults.
“I don’t want anything,” said Charlotte. “Except to see your town.”
“That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard,” proclaimed another.
Finally, a man of important character made his way towards her, took off his stove-top hat and bowed. “Good evening, Ms.” he said kindly. “My name is Joseph Walpole, the mayor of the town.” Behind his flabby face, his bulbous nose, and thick black mustache were kind eyes that put Charlotte at ease.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mayor,” said Charlotte. “I didn’t mean to alarm anyone.”
“Not at all. We just aren’t used to strangers. And please address me as Mayor.”
“Oh? Not many strangers come here?”
“Not often. That’s why people were nervous about you. We don’t want what happened before to happen again.”
“Why? What happened before?”
Walpole grew pale. “It’s nothing,” he quickly composed himself. “What’s wonderful is that another person, one of flesh and blood came here.”
“Flesh and blood?” Charlotte was confused. “I thought you were all painted by a brush.”
“Blimey! Is that where we came from?” jokingly quipped another man.
“You mean you don’t know?” asked Charlotte. “I take it none of you came from a woman?”
“Well, of course we came from a woman,” said an older woman. “Where else would we come from? We just don’t know who the first man and woman were.”
“Then however did you all come here?” It was a silly question. How else would have they come here except by a painter’s brush? Obviously they didn’t jump into the painting like she did. Or did they? Did they have no concept of God, or of Adam and Eve? It was a wonder, and what was the expression? Will wonders never cease?
“We don’t know,” said Walpole, “if you’re referring how we came to be here to begin with. Now where did you say you’re from?”
“I didn’t say. But I’m from England.”
“I came here through a painting.”
“A painting of us?” asked a slender lady, who looked about the Mayor’s age.
“Ah, allow me to introduce you to my wife,” beamed Walpole.
“A pleasure,” said Charlotte before continuing on. “In a sense, but not really. It was a painting of this ocean, this town, this mountain, this field. My eyes couldn’t detect any of you, though.”
“Did not someone else claim to come through a painting?” asked another resident.
“Yes, but suffice to say he’s no longer among us.”
“Why? What happened?” asked Charlotte, growing more curious as to who this person was.
“Now, young lady, be a dear and think nothing of it.” The Mayor turned to the crowd. “We have a guest with us. Let’s all make her feel welcome.”
“We would all feel a lot more welcome if we could make just make her go home,” said another resident.
The crowd began to grow more restless, and for a moment Charlotte wondered if she’d have a mob on her hands.
“That’s enough!” proclaimed the Mayor in a booming voice. “Tonight is a night of celebration, not condemnation.”
Celebration! The very words trickled out of the Mayor’s mouth. Little did Charlotte know, there was more magic, as well as terrors unforeseen terrors to come, but such is life.
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