Chapter 9: Prison

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Charlotte was not at Lamerton when Father Simmons arrived at the manor. She had already been taken by the Constable on horseback to the makeshift gaol near the Lincolnshire courthouse. In a state of total shock, all she could do was repeat over and over, "no, no", silence, then "no, no", again and again, until the Constable had had to halt his horse and slap her out of her stupor.

When Father Simmons arrived at Lamerton Hall, he was ushered into the kitchen by Josey, the scullery maid. Although he had tried to gather information regarding the reason for his having been called so urgently out to the manor, he could deduce nothing that made sense from the hysterical girl. Striding toward the kitchen workbench, he found a dejected Mrs Brand, her face reddened and mostly covered by her large, work-coarsened hands. "Mrs Brand?" Father Simmons' concerned voice echoed in the strange stillness of the tiled room.

Mary Brand looked up quickly and stared disconsolately at the priest. "Why did you bring her here?" she accused exhaustedly.

"Mrs Brand, what's the matter? Has something happened to Charlotte?"

At her name, Mrs Brand's face flickered back into angry life, exhaustion forgotten. "That girl. That girl has brought this house down. She has." Mrs Brand's head nodded and kept nodding, but no further sound came from her mouth. It was as if the statement she had made was definitive and no further words could or should be uttered to detract from the weight of them.

Finally, Father Simmons spoke - gently. "What do you mean Mary?"

"She stole the Mistress' ruby necklace. Planned to take it with her when she went with the Master and his gentleman friend to London. The Constable found it in her trunk. But the shock of it all . . . " - here her voice faltered, breaking on a wave of sobbing tears. Father Simmons took her rough hand in his and pressed it warmly. With his other hand, he removed his handkerchief and wiped the tears from the old housekeeper's face. Mrs Brand gazed into the concerned eyes of her priest and heaved a deep breath before continuing, "The shock of it all caused the Master to have a, have a . . . . a heart attack!"

At these words, Father Simmons' whole body tensed. "Do you mean Sir Benjamin Watts is dead, Mary?"

"No!" she shouted. "Please God, no!" Both Josey and Mrs Brand descended into hysterical weeping once more. "The Doctor come and took him into the parlour. He's still alive, but very weak. He's conscious Father. Doctor d'aint know whether he'll live or die. The Mistress was so beside herself, the Doctor had to put her to sleep. She's upstairs in her chambers. The Reverend sent his wife home, but stayed with the Master in case, in case . . . . ."

Father Simmons very calmly took both Mrs Brand's hands in his and knelt before her on the floor. "Mary, you must look at me now."

Mrs Brand's rheumy, bloodshot eyes continued staring at the same spot. With great effort she turned her gaze toward the priest, her face raw from scrubbing with her hands, her eyes reduced to the size of small currants, the skin around them puffed and swollen.

Now that he could be sure of her attention, if not her sanity, the priest continued: "Where is Charlotte?"

Mrs Brand's face became suddenly transformed from beaten and defeated, to virulent and warrior like. Father Simmons actually thought the housekeeper would kick him there, where he knelt. Instead, she spat on the kitchen floor beside him. Even in her grief, Josey inhaled sharply. For Mrs Brand to spit on the floor of her own kitchen was as unlikely as Father Simmons going to the toilet on the altar. It was as sacrilegious an event as Josey was ever, she hoped, likely to see in her lifetime.

"Don't speak to me of that creature! I hope I never lays eyes on her again. For her sake, I'd better not."

Father Simmons could see immediately that there was no use pursuing the conversation. The housekeeper blamed the girl for everything. That was clear enough. But how to piece together what had happened? He looked over to young Josey, too traumatised to raise her eyes off the floor in roughly the same spot as Mrs Brand had spat. He walked over to Josey and put his arm around her gently. He guided her beyond the door and into the kitchen garden courtyard.

"Now Josey, where is Charlotte?"

Josey had to swallow to wet her tongue before she could speak. "Charlotte was taken away Father - by the Constable. I don't think she done it Father. I don't think she done it, but now the Master might die and the Mistress has gone mad. What will happen to us Father? What will become of us?"

The priest patted the young girl's shoulder. "There, there Josey. Let's sit in the sunshine for a moment." He motioned to the bench seat beside the vegetable patch. "Now, there's so much that's happened in a morning isn't there? It must seem like the world has turned upside down in the space of a few hours, you poor girl. But feel the warmth of the sun on your skin Josey? The same sun that greeted you this morning when you opened your eyes, is still shining now. The same God that has cared for ya all these years, will continue taking care of you. The road's bumpy right now and that's the truth. You can't see the way ahead, but Josey, look at me lass." His hand tilted the chin of her child-like face to gaze into the kind eyes of his own. It seemed to Josey that a halo of light emblazoned his hair with a shining, bronze crown. So strong was the sunlight reflecting off Father's head, that Josey was forced to look to his crinkle-edged eyes - and into the softer and safer grey of them, she lost herself for a moment.

"All will be well. We know this because God tells us so. Do you believe it Josey?"

At his question, Josey found her voice and replied immediately, "I believe YOU Father".

He laughed into the shining beauty of the morning. "Oh Josey lass, glory be to God, you don't have to believe just because of me; believe the God who made you, knows you and loves you child, just as you are! Believe the birds singing of it. Believe the wind breathing it. Believe the trees and flowers growing it. Believe the people who love by living it and live by loving it."

The sound of laughter drew Mrs Brand out to the sunny courtyard and she scowled at the smiling priest. "It's a sad day when a poor woman has to tell a priest the proper way to behave in a house of sadness", she intoned.

"And it would be a sadder day Mary, the day a priest cannot speak the truth in the midst of God's own creative glory! Which should the priest obey Mary, the laws of men or the law of God?"

Mrs Brand scowled once again at the priest but returned no answer. Josey turned, surprised and whispered to the priest beside her, "I've never seen Mrs Brand lost for words before Father!"

"Ah lass, it's a good sign that your old housekeeper has found something to work up her Yorkish ire about. See, things are getting back to normal already!"

Father Simmons alighted from the bench and strode from the courtyard and beyond to the pathway around the manor and from there, to the road to Lincolnshire village. So quickly did he move that he had almost reached the bend of the path that would take him outside the field of Josey's sight, before she called out, "Father, where are you going?"

"I'm going to Lincolnshire prison to see Charlotte!"

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