A New Deal

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high

And the dreams that you dream of

once in a lullaby

Emma had set her Pandora on one of her own stations and sang along with Iz and his ukulele as he fractured the lyrics of the old classic song.

Before leaving, Jefferson and Leroy had both hugged her and let her know that if she wanted to talk more, they were just down the hall. She calmed herself down and had managed to get herself ready for bed, washing her face, slipping into some sleep pants and a tank top. No longer quite as upset, she had decided that the diary was too good to pass up. Just the distraction she needed.

She put on a pair of the refinishing gloves she had gotten, not wanting to expose the book to any of the oils in her hand.

She gently opened it and began reading.

Apparently it was the recordings, the musings, the thoughts of a young woman, Belle French, writing down the daily events of her life, which Miss French had felt were very ordinary. Emma quickly grasped some family dynamics. Dad was a widower. There were two older sisters, possibly, probably, step-sisters. Sniping bitches if Emma was reading between the lines accurately. Belle, the youngest, seemed to be the most responsible of course it was her diary, so other people were more likely to have shortcomings than the authoress. Belle helped her father in his printer’s shop. She was able to set type and work the press. She also managed her dad’s financial books.

She chaffed against the restrictions put on her because she was female.

She yearned for adventure and excitement.

Emma could tell that Belle was worried that daddy’s business was in trouble. Oh, he was doing plenty of business, but many of his clients did not pay, apparently taking advantage of the man’s good nature. Daddy also seemed to owe money to a lot of people, especially his landlord who seemed to be an intimidating, unforgiving figure.

Along with helping in the print shop and keeping her father’s financial books, Belle seemed to be responsible for helping around the house with a never ending chore list of clothes washing and clothes mending, vegetable gardening, cooking, preserving. And there was the spinning and weaving and fine sewing Belle was particularly proud of her embroidery skills. And candle and soap making. And. And. And.

Nary a moment to update your Facebook status, thought Emma.

Ah, Emma thought, here it begins. The landlord was coming to collect the rent.

And the family did not have it.

“No, no Belle, I will not have you here while I deal with Master Goldark. He has a most unpleasant reputation which is well deserved, I promise you.”

“Now father, you know those rumors that the man has made a deal with the devil are untrue. Those are coming from silly, superstitious, jealous people,” Belle gently admonished her father.

“Well, I wouldn’t say he’s made a deal with the devil, but the man certainly has an aura of wickedness about him. I’d prefer you have no contact with him.” Maurice French turned to his youngest daughter, “Please Belle, you need to stay in your room.” Mr. French was not being unkind. He was genuinely concerned about the welfare of his youngest very pretty daughter.

“But papa,” Belle began, ever persistent, “I can offer Master Goldark a reasonable payment plan that he may be willing to accept. I’ve worked it all out and have the figures for him to see.”

“He’s not a reasonable man,” Mr. French told his daughter. “He’s a beast who lies in wait for the weak and who will try to take away everything I have worked for. Our only hope is if I can get him to give us some extra time. I just need him to give us two months and then I'll be able to pay back everything and then some,” Maurice French went on.

Belle knew her father had made a deal with the emerging government of the United States. But as much as the family had supported the efforts of the patriots, the young government was slow to pay its bills and was not particularly dependable. Belle knew that it wasn’t wise to count on this money coming in, certainly not wise to bet the business on it.

But they did have other accounts due. And Belle had talked with these people and they had promised to pay her some portion of their bill within the next two weeks. Belle had been able to get money from these clients before and was pretty sure that most of them would come through for her. It would be a meager time for herself and her father, but Belle could make good soup from poor ingredients and they should be able to manage.

“But papa,” Belle began again.

“No, no Belle. I don’t want you here when I meet with him. The man’s dangerous.”

Belle finally nodded. She was a good, obedient daughter and she wanted what was best for her papa, just as she knew he wanted the best for her.

Papa French had supported her decisions to turn down offers from her various suitors, who seemed more interested in the printing press business than in her. He knew she wanted to marry for love and, as he had married her mother for love, he understood.

After Belle’s mother’s death, he’d married a widow with two older daughters, marrying not for love but to give Belle a mother and to have someone to run his household. This had not worked out well and he had soon regretted it. He had felt guilty when his second wife died from the grippe and he had continued to try to care for his step-daughters, but they were vain and selfish . . . and lazy.

Papa French had also encouraged Belle’s reading and studying and didn’t seem to mind that many of the townspeople thought of her as ‘peculiar.’ He’d always had a sense of pride that she could hold her own in discussions with some of his older prestigious acquaintances, including the notable Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Franklin had taught her how to play chess and regularly corresponded with his daughter, particularly on some of his scientific experiments, apparently enjoying the comments and insights from the intelligent girl. Mr. Franklin would sometimes send her books that he thought she might enjoy reading.

Belle waited, not in her own bedroom, but in the room where the family would gather to eat, next to the main room of the house where she would be able to hear everything that went on. She heard the knock.

Her father was waiting and immediately opened the door.

“Come in, come in, Master Goldark.”

Belle could hear the measured walk of the landlord: step, click, step, click, step, click. She knew the man walked with a cane. It was not an affectation; it was something he depended on.

“You seem unusually happy to see me, French. I’m assuming you have my money.” There was a definite brogue, not unpleasant to her ear.

“Well, actually. . . ” began her father.

“Perdition! You don’t have the money, do you?” Goldark was quick.

“Well. . .” her father began.

Oh, he was not going to have the chance to give his proposal to Master Goldark! Her father, who had never managed confrontation well, was already stammering and hesitating. Master Goldark would soon enough be done with him. . . and her. . . and throw them out of their home and take away their business!

“I told you what would happen if I came again and you were short!”

“But sir,” her father was still trying to explain.

“What is there to explain? How long has it been now? How many extensions and how much extra time have I already given you? You were told to have the money this time! You don’t have the money!”

“Sir,” Belle came out of the dining area. She had to do something.

The landlord turned to look at her. Her father’s face was aghast.

Belle stood still a moment looking the man over and allowing him to look her over. He didn’t look like a beast. He was shorter than her father, a slender man, but he exuded power and control. Not exactly handsome, but not unpleasant to look upon either. Brown hair with a touch of grey. His eyes, soft brown ones, in particular housed a cunning intelligence and . . . and . . . something else.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“I’m Belle French. I keep my father’s books. . . “ she began.

“Pah!” he nearly turned away from her. “You have a woman managing your money! No wonder you are in arrears! Idiot!”

“I have a deal to offer you,” she said firmly, mustering her courage.

He turned back to her, a smirk on his face. “You do?” He walked over to her, looking down at her, looking her over, scrutinizing her. Standing so close to him, Belle had to brace herself, stop herself from cringing away. “You have a deal? Something that will allow your father to keep the shop and the house and still allow me to get my money?” His tone was disbelieving.

“I do, sir,” Belle took a deep breath. Do the brave thing and bravery will follow. “Please, if you will,” she led him over to her work desk. “These are the accounts that will be paid shortly and those that are due later.” She showed him her ledger. “If you would agree to take a small sum now, in two weeks we should be able to pay you additional money and then again in another two weeks, we should be able to make another payment. Small payments, to be sure, but frequent ones.”

She paused a moment before diving into the rest of her plan. “Now, if you would be willing to accept non-cash payments, we would be able to offer you flour, corn, eggs and even some game turkeys and fish that have been used to make payment to us for the services we render and we would be able to settle our account much sooner.”

The man was looking at her, his eyes narrowed, his face implacable. He hadn’t told her to be quiet, so she continued on. “Also we would be willing to offer you free printing services. . . should this ever be needed. . . as a way of defraying some of our debt. . .” she trailed off.

The man was now looking at her with amusement.

Goldark took the ledger from her hands, sat down in her desk chair and began looking over her figures. “These are your calculations?” he asked, carefully examining the tidy columns of numbers written with painstaking precision. He was carefully going through the pages, examining her notations and spot-checking her math.

“Yes sir,” she answered him deferentially.

He sat back in the chair and, for a long moment he just regarded her. “Tell me, dearie, do you also read?”

“And write, yes sir,” she answered him.

Her father started to speak, but Goldark waved him off. “You help your father with the printing press?”

“Yes sir,” Belle wasn’t sure why he was asking these questions but she felt confident of her answers.

“You manage his correspondence?”

“I do,” she answered.

He sat still, looking at her, considering. Abruptly he turned to her father, “I have an alternate deal.”

“Of course, Master Goldark. Whatever you think.” Her father had breathed a sigh of relief. Master Goldark was going to offer a deal.

“I have a large estate and many financial considerations. I have had difficulties keeping a clerk. Your daughter seems eminently qualified for the position. She will work for me, until you have paid your debts to me. Are you agreed?”

“What?!” Maurice French was appalled. His sweet, innocent daughter, going with Master Goldark as a. . .as a clerk. Who’d ever heard of such a thing?! “No, no, I won’t allow my daughter to work for you.” Clerking was not a job for a female! It would be a scandal!

Goldark shrugged, “Then I shall be stopping by the sheriff and you shall be asked to leave these premises.” He rose and started towards the door.

There was a moment of sheer panic.

“No, I will go with you!” Belle told him suddenly, speaking without thinking.

“No, Belle, I can’t let you do this,” her father told her. “We’ll manage somehow. We have friends. Gaston’s family will let us have a room.”

“I decide my fate, papa. I won’t have us thrown out of our home. You follow my plan and you will be able to get the money together. Then, I shall be able to return here with you soon enough,” Belle reassured her father. “It will only need to be for a couple of weeks, especially if that big payment comes in.”

Goldark held his arm out to her. Belle curtsied to him and they went out the door together. He was pulling her along so quickly that she didn’t have time to remove her apron and was just barely able to grab her thin cloth coat to give her some protection against the cold wind.

“No Belle, don’t go!” she heard her father call after her.

“Papa, I’ll be all right,” she called back assuring him, assuring herself.

As she accompanied the dark lord to his fine black carriage, he leaned over to her, “Are you so sure, dearie? I have a dangerous reputation, I’m told.”

Belle couldn’t be sure, but in the twilight, she thought she caught a hint of a genuine smile.

“I’ve not heard that you’re given to debauching innocent maidens, sir,” she spoke up boldly.

“Hmm,” she heard him. “Just murder and extortion,” he murmured. He guided her into his carriage.

Belle alighted and settled in across from the man. It was late in the afternoon, already bitterly cold and her simple cloth coat gave her minimal protection, even though the carriage was a closed vehicle. She pulled her feet up and huddled against the wall of the carriage. He gave directions to his driver, a handsome dark-skinned man, regarding his next stop. He then settled in across from her but gave her little attention, attending to a small book that he wrote notations in as they rode along.

They stopped several times and always Master Goldark left her alone in the carriage while he went into buildings and houses to do business. By the time they had finished, it was quite dark. The carriage had turned around and Belle realized they were heading back to Master Goldark’s home out near the coast. She’d had nothing to eat since her breakfast and, in the biting cold, was shivering uncontrollably, her fingers and toes long past numb.

They had been riding for some time, when. . .

“Is that you making that noise?” she heard him ask her suddenly. He did not seem pleased.

“Yes sir, I. . .I. . .I’m sorry, but I’m rather cold. I guess. . . I guess my teeth were chattering. I’m sorry,” she apologized.

She could see his eyes glinting in the moonlight that came through the carriage windows. He was wearing heavy boots, wool pants, a shirt, a vest, a jacket and an overcoat, along with fine leather gloves and a soft woven scarf. She had only her thin dress bolstered by her scanty threadbare undergarments and topped with her cloth coat with not even her ugly, but serviceable pullover sweater that she had knitted from cast-off wool that some of the townswomen had passed onto her. On her feet she wore her simple knitted socks one of which she knew had a hole in it and her shoes which had far too many worn places. She had no gloves, no scarf, and by now the cold had painfully and insidiously seeped in around her and through her.

He sighed and with the carriage moving, he stood and lifted up his seat to pull out a blanket. He tossed it over to her, “Here,” he said brusquely.

She gratefully took the coarsely woven blanket, thanking the man. It was little better than a burlap bag and she suspected it was more often used for the horses than with passengers, but it was better than nothing. She folded it and wrapped it around herself pulling her legs up under her. She rested her head against the carriage wall and tried to quit shivering.

“Wake up!”

She stirred. She must have fallen asleep. She tried to stretch out her chilled limbs. She felt his hand on her arm pulling her up. She rose but her legs gave out from under her and, in the closeness of the carriage, she stumbled into him, falling into his arms, relishing the heat his body generated and feeling the warmth and comfort his sturdy frame fed into her. She leaned into him feeling his arms supporting her, his hands settling around her waist. He allowed her to snuggle against him, not pushing her away.

It was Belle who, as her body thawed, realized that she was in a most compromising position. The entire length of her body was pressed against his lean, hard strength. She had never been this close to a man in her entire life. She could have been in a lover’s embrace. He was warm, yes, of course she had noticed that instantly, but he was also strong and comforting. She realized his hands were still on her waist and the tops of his thumbs were just under her breasts. The man would have no problem determining that she lacked proper undergarments, that at most there was only a chemise under her dress.

She pulled back, struggling but managing to stand on her own two feet. She knew that she must have been blushing.

“Come along,” he ordered, releasing her¸ “I’ll show you your bedroom. Tomorrow I will explain your duties and, in the afternoon, I shall introduce you to Madame Goldark.”

“Yes sir,” Belle answered, keeping the coarse blanket wrapped around herself as she lurched from the carriage and then scampered behind the man as he went into the grand house.

“The lady of the house is likely engaged or retired,” he explained and he led her through the beautiful house and then through a door, down some stairs. It was quite dark and Belle could barely see where she was going. She nearly bumped into the new master when he stopped before one of the rooms, to open the door and usher her in.

“This is my bedroom?” she asked.

“Well, that does sound better than ‘dungeon’,” he answered and pushing her in, he shut the door behind her. She heard the door lock.

Belle looked around the room. It appeared more like a jail cell to her. A small room with stone walls, stone floors, and a heavy wooden door with large dark metal hinges. In the door, there was a small window with bars. There was another window high in the wall.

He didn’t have to lock her in! Did he think she was going to slit their throats, lift the family silver, steal a horse, and run away in the night!?

There was a low cot with rough sheets and a single blanket. There was a basket which she guessed might be for clothing and other personal items, a privy pot and a small table with a plain wash basin. The moonlight streamed in the high window and she could see that there was also a single candle on the table but there was no way to light it.

Belle was still shivering as she stood in the room. Without any alternatives, she sat on the bed and removed her shoes. She realized her journal was, as always, still in her apron pocket and she removed it, setting it on the table. Keeping on her other clothes, including her simple cloth coat and her knitted socks, she settled the rough burlap blanket over the other blanket and then slipped between the ice cold sheets. Curled into a ball on the hard mattress, she tried to doze.

She was miserable.

Hungry, overwhelmed with anxiety regarding her rash decision to try to save her home and her father, the enormity of what she had done began to settle in. She had put herself into the power of this stern, shadowy man. What had she been thinking? Who knew if he would try to compromise her virtue, beat her, sell her off to another master or any number of unsavory acts.

She felt herself begin to cry. Her tears streamed down her face and she heard herself as she sobbed into her pillow.

Emma looked at the time. It was after eleven. She would be getting up early in the morning and needed to get onto bed.

Damn. The diary was fascinating. Emma already liked this girl, so brave and so smart, willing to sell herself, indenture herself into the power of this dark man, to do what she had to do to save her family. Apparently when she had been taken from her home, the only personal possession she had on her were the clothes on her back and this diary which she must have had in her apron pocket. After her first difficult night, she was able to obtain a pen and ink and had began recounting her story.

Emma put the diary aside and then, reluctantly, took one of the pills her doctor had prescribed.

Sleep disorder. Chronic insomnia. She had been diagnosed when she was still a teenager. Had gone through therapy, for a while had avoided caffeine (it hadn’t helped), had gotten medication for depression and anxiety, nothing had helped.

Her physician had finally convinced her to try one of the new drugs for the problem. Emma was able to sleep with the drug but didn’t like the odd dreams it gave her. But the drug did keep away the other monsters, the real ones that would come and stand at the foot of her bed, waiting. . .

Probably not the best idea to mix the sleeping pill with the wine.

As she snuggled down in the bed her thoughts returned to Belle, left in a cold, dark cell with only a couple of inadequate blankets to keep her warm. I’m going to have to put central heating in my Gratitude Journal, thought Emma as the drug began to shut down her conscious thought processes.

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