Halfway House was located half way between the capital and the port. Along this ancient thoroughfare had passed thousands of pilgrims seeking miracles, merchants seeking shillings and wenches seeking wooing. In previous years it had served as a tavern and inn for weary wind-beaten travelers. But after the place was taken over by the Methodist Richard Forrester, alcohol – “the spirit of satan” – was prohibited. The house was converted into a tea room which closed strictly at sundown to keep out rowdy troublemakers.
The former lodgings upstairs had been converted into a spacious accommodation for the sideburned man’s family.
For it was a big family he had. Judith had died while birthing their sixth child and he was left to raise his offspring. The call of the cockrell at dawn would take him from his pleasant dream into the cold flinching reality. He would light a candle and walk across the creaking floorboards to the kitchen. He would toss some logs into the smouldering fireplace, wander to the well to fetch a bucket to fill the copper kettle, then return to hang it above the flames. The baker and his cart would ratatat-tat on the door shortly afterwards. Forrester got the first pickings before the village.
The doughy loafs would sit on the aged oak table. While he prepared his tea leaves – there would normally be another knock on the door. The butcher would lift a cloth showing yesterday’s animals in pieces. This was followed by the grocery man’s horse and cart – offering flour, fresh vegetables from the continent and an array of jams and confectionery. The milkman would trundle up last and usually late for some reason, but a big smile made everyone forget about their frustration with him.
Richard would stoke up the fire substantially as he enjoyed a quiet cup of tea, for a few minutes of solitude with the birds singing, cockerel tooting and flames crackling. After this he’d dash in and out from the well with buckets and buckets of water to pour into the tin bath. He’d push the tub as close to the fire as it would go. Then he would cook some fresh bacon above the flames, slice up a new loaf and spread a thin crust of butter.
He found this was the easiest way to pull the children out of bed. No matter how cold and dark and grim the morning was, the juicy, greasy salty smell would drift into the bedrooms and perk them up. They would race down the hall and find chipped plates with the most fantastic treasure. A bacon sandwich.
Elizabeth was the eldest. A buxom young woman of 16, she was an excellent workhorse around the business. After eating, she’d jump through the bath, scrubbing herself with the bristley brush and soap. From there she’d dress herself modestly taking extra care to conceal her ankles with the trousers that were too small. She’d then look for any problems downstairs. She’d sweep and scrub the floorboards. She’d crumble the stale bread and put it outside for the hens. She’d collect their eggs and then start preparing food for the day with what her father had picked that morning from the passing tradesmen. It would be a great loss when she left, her father thought. When any customer was casting an eye upon her figure, her father would raise an eyebrow at the gentleman unless he approved of him.
Edward was 13 and extremely bright. He had stayed at the village school until he was 11 and then was offered a place at the local grammar school. He walked four miles down the straight road each morning, and returned four miles back each night. He could read and write, which his father couldn’t. He would probably go to university and probably onto London with a good job doing something his father didn’t understand. He would keep his old man in his old age, his father hoped.
Jack was good at making things. He made things out of wood before he could talk. He was 12 and was an apprentice to the village’s blacksmith. With all the horses trotting through, covering endless miles along the countryside, their shoes were ground to mere plates. He was learning a craft and on his apprentice wage he could sneak a half pint of ale in the public house at lunch, enough time to sober up without his Dad finding out.
Then there were the twins Jill and Christopher. They were both 7 and still at school. They didn’t seem to like it very much but when they came home in the afternoon they would play in the garden a lot with each other. They were not hard work.
Finally there was Emmanuel who was 4. He was a very nice little boy. He’d make a lot of noise when he wasn’t happy with something. He needed a lot of attention and Elizabeth tended to look after him while her father was serving the punters.
When the children were all plunked through the bathtub – the schoolbound and work-bound ones were sent on their way. At which point the tea room would open. All the passing humanity would notice the creaky roadside sign of a house between the city and sea. Those on foot would come through the front. Those with wagons would park in the stables at the side. In summer they would be sweaty. In winter they would be sodden and cold. The tea, Elizabeth’s cake, the roaring fire and steamed up windows was the respite the travelers desperately needed.
Here one earthy spring morning a man on horseback galloped to the front and dismounted. He was young, had curly black hair and skin freckled brown by the summers. He came to the counter and gave an envelope with a green wax seal.
“Hand this on to the man who asks for it” he said and left abruptly.
This was unusual, but Richard took the letter upstairs for safekeeping. The script on the brown parchment was lacey and definitely a woman’s handwriting. A mistress calling upon her gentleman friend perhaps? Who else could afford to send a messenger from the port? It was also French, yes definitely French. English ladies were definitely less flowery with their handwriting.
Two days passed and Forrester began to wonder if the letter would be collected at all. But when a well-dressed man with a large curly wig arrived in a carriage, he suspected this would be the recipient. He had the look of a man of law. The way he held himself with power and presence, the way he commanded his order and the way he looked at the other motley travelers, all confirmed Forrester’s suspicions. He requested the best lunch the establishment could offer for him and his horse-driver, and the letter.
After fetching the prized object, some leek and potato soup and crusty bread – Richard observed from behind the counter. He washed plates and toweled glasses dry when the mouth of the man formed a large O. The letter obviously revealed something of great shock. The wooden wheels of the lawyers’s mind were rolling at a ferocious pace. His mind was galloping through the pastures of possibilities. The man tilted his head one way, considering one hypothesis then shook it again obviously dismissing it. He chewed his lip to consider something else, but threw that away as well. He eyes tilted down to the bottom left, taking into account something he saw before. Then his mental carriage had stopped with a sudden jolt.
“We must see her… come on James, I’ll pay for this lot and I’ll meet you outside.”
The two of them had barely stayed for five minutes, and had only taken a spoonful of soup. He threw a few coins on the table and stormed out in such haste that he left the letter behind.
What could be so urgent that they would avoid eating, Forrester pondered as he cleared the table. The nag was neighing outside and clopping of its footsteps was dissipating as they headed up the hill. He put the letter in his pocket. When Edward came home that night he asked the boy to read it for him.
It is late and I am unwell. It is not a malady of the head or the body, but a malady of the heart. I am sick with worry of my husband. He hasn’t looked at me with any love or passion for many months. He arrives home drunk and aggressive in the darkest hours. At first I thought it was another woman, all roses decay and I’m ready to accept it graciously. But I have discovered he has found another love, a love much more dangerous than I had feared.
She spins around and around with the allure of a great hypnotist. She satiates his greed and his passion beyond anything I could ever offer him. The thought of her crazes him with her unpredictability and power. Of course, I am talking about La Roulette.
Many men have succumbed to her charm and a few francs won and lost are nothing to worry about. But when the stakes become higher and higher tempting ultimate destruction – one lives in fear. One cannot sleep. I took a meeting with the bank manager discretment of course, and after many strong words I discover the house and lands are mortgaged to the hilt. How can one sleep when the bed that one occupies could be pulled away in the morning?
I’ve tried to make him see sense but he avoids me, shouts and blames me. Every morning he pummels the casino’s doors, to let him enter her with his fortune… our fortune. Then every night she spits him out in a state of drunken ruin.
I am a damsel in distress. He simply will not listen to me and he is quite insane. Please rescue me dearest Guillaume. Every night I dream of our nights on the Riviera, under the palm trees, mere kittens in love. Then I awake with the horror of our servant bringing breakfast. Fine Bernaud has been very loyal and I dread the day that I must release him from our house because of the misdeeds of my useless husband.
Take me Guilliame, mon amour, from this house of misery before I am made a vagabond.
“We do get some interesting people coming through here” said Richard to his son.
“I want to know how this ends.”