Father Brennan has an answer for Charlotte.
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London – 1839
Halfway through a careful shuffle to the main reading table my trove of priceless books overbalanced and rained down on the floorboards.
I was in the midst of picking each up, giving them a quick once over and a dust off before restacking them when Mrs Stapleton came in. I froze. She looked at me like I was a child who’d been caught with a broken ornament. Crouched on the floor I stared up at her with the expression to match.
She wrinkled her nose. ‘There’s a young man here to see you. Will you change first?’
I looked down at my trousers, shirt and waistcoat. ‘No.’
She sighed then shut the door behind her.
A moment later Father Brennan came in. He was clad in a worn black suit not dissimilar from the worn black suits worn by men all over the city. The only oddity was the small wooden rosary wrapped around one wrist.
‘Oh my,’ he said looking about the library.
There were books of every size and shape bound in cloth or leather or wooden boards, thick books, thin books, scrolls, pamphlets, more copies of The Bible than were rational or reasonable, holy works from religions I didn’t know in languages I’d never heard of, fiction books, factual books, books on every subject, maybe books in every language. All methodically lining floor-to-ceiling dark shelves carved with leaves or stacked on matching tables, every room in the house ran along a similar theme. The library at Alexandria might’ve been hard pushed to match Bran’s collection.
‘He lets you read these?’ Brennan asked.
I picked up the books and placed them carefully on the nearest table. ‘Those I can.’
Brennan shook his head slowly. ‘Amazing. You never mentioned this.’
‘Does all the knowledge make up for the sinning?’ I asked.
He looked down at his shoes, perhaps remembering that Adam and Eve got in a lot of trouble eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge.
I lifted myself up to perch on the edge of the reading table. ‘It must be important to make you come to a house of sin.’ Of course, with Bran still being away Mrs Stapleton was going to be jumping to some unfortunate conclusions. I decided to grant Brennan the mercy of not pointing this out, he may have forgotten that without his priest’s vestments he was a mere mortal. In my experience a black uniform made little difference anyway.
‘You win,’ he said, raising his gaze to me and his Dublin accent became more pronounced, as it always did when he was vexed at me. ‘I’ll front this business of yours.’
‘What made you decide that?’
He gave a look.
‘Ah… Confessional secrets.’ I raised my hands. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t press, I have some respect.’ I hopped off the table and rubbed my hands together. ‘So, who do you want to start with?’
‘Norman Ellington,’ he replied without hesitation and pulled a piece of paper out of his inner jacket pocket and offered it to me.
I took it. It was a sheet of notes on Ellington. If you want to get into business it was generally best to learn the market so I knew of the man, he ran the biggest cotton mill in Brennan’s parish. On the back of the business notes was a list of injuries and deaths at the factory over the past year. It was long. Mostly children.
After the deaths came injuries. Lost hands and fingers and things that made even my stomach squeeze uncomfortably. Again, mostly children.
Perhaps that was why he hadn’t appreciated my question. Well, if you couldn’t save your own baby brothers and sisters, saving someone else’s children might balance the sin, I supposed.
I crossed to the fire and tossed the pages in, I didn’t need the pages to remember. I couldn’t forget.
The pages blackened and shrivelled, collapsing to dust before Brennan spoke again, ‘Most of them will never work again.’
‘I don’t need it explaining, Jimmy, I’m not a monster.’ I swung to face him.
He had the good grace to look ashamed. He was my confessor, he should know that. Bran knew that.
I was practical, very practical, it was a necessity to survive as long as I had. Some people would consider me monstrous, but I didn’t need the terribleness of maimed and dead children explaining to me. I’d seen more dead children in my time then he ever would.
‘Vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord,’ Brennan murmured to himself.
‘A little slow, I find.’
Brennan’s jaw worked, his fingers flexed and he stared hard at the polished floorboards.
‘Father?’ I asked.
‘I know it’s an ungodly thing I want… but… I want him to suffer.’
I smiled. ‘Oh, I can do suffering.’
He looked up. ‘What would you do?’
‘I wouldn’t be asking that,’ I replied and lifted one of the books off the pile. ‘Book?’
He gave me that annoyed look of his then turned and walked out.
It might be better to avoid the spot he’d been stuck too, all that burning disapproval might’ve weakened the floorboards. I tossed the book onto the table and headed up to my bedroom to find a suitable outfit. Ellington had three daughters and a new young wife. It was time Mrs O’Connor took to socialising with the other ladies her age.