Learn more about some of my favorite secondary characters from Hope for Charity, my upcoming novel set in 18th century England, in this series, The Backstory.
by Sandy Kay Slawson
Darla left the tavern through the rear entrance lest the men who waited at the entrance spot her departure. The mess from the previous night might have been the worst yet, since she’d begun her employment as a maid a year before. Unable to leave at her usual time, well ahead of the first customer’s arrival, required extra vigilance. The agreement with her parents that she work at the tavern when no men were present remained intact, but this day she’d been far too close for comfort. Break that one rule, and this source of income would end.
The summer eventide, stale and hot, offered no respite from the putrid den of iniquity. Still, Darla wrapped the black knit shawl closer around her thin shoulders. Meager protection if caught in this part of London at sunset.
The threat of an unwanted encounter hurried Darla along the familiar path to her family’s tenement. Before complete darkness settled over the city, she ascended the three flights of stairs which led to their floor. When she entered the two-room apartment, Darla cringed at the sight of Mr. Felix, the spoiled youngest son of a baronet who seemed intent on making them destitute. However, her father deserved the brunt of the blame since, by his own free will, he played cards with the snake on a regular basis.
Darla shut the heavy oak door with a quiet click and prayed they hadn’t noticed her presence. Perhaps she'd hide in a dark corner until he left. Her father’s greeting dashed that small hope.
“Darla, come… come. Mr. Felix is ‘ere. Come greet the man like a good little lass.”
Darla kept shawl and white mobcap in place, for she remembered too well how the man tended to ogle. She moved next to her father and dipped in a slight curtsy. “Good eventide, Mr. Felix.”
“And to you, Miss Darla,” Mr. Felix said with an odd grin.
Darla heard Mum in her parents’ room and left the men to see her. The one lit candle in the room illuminated a residue of grief on thin cheeks, red-rimmed eyes, and a soggy handkerchief gripped in Mum’s lap.
She shut the door in haste and hurried to take a seat beside mum on the bed. “What’s the matter? Has father lost our bread money again?”
Mum clenched her lids tight, put the handkerchief to her pinched mouth, and shook her head.
“What then? Must be somethin’ terrible,” Darla said.
“I can’t speak of it. Your father wouldn’t want me to—”
“Please, Mum. I’ll find out soon enough.”
“Nay, I can’t tell you,” Mum said, then crumpled into Darla’s chest.
Darla held Mum close until the sobs subsided. Darla had ever been the one able to hide her emotions, but she’d never known her mother to be this… brokenhearted.
“‘Twill be a better life. I must believe that.”
“You speak in riddles. Must I guess--”
“I’ve said too much already. Go out now. I’ll be along to finish supper soon."
Darla stood to leave. She’d pry the truth from her father. Before she’d gone a step, mum grabbed her wrist with more strength than Darla might’ve expected.
“I love you. Never forget that. Promise me,” Mum said, then stood and pulled Darla into an embrace.
Confused by the unusual affection, Darla stepped out of her mum's hold and studied the older woman with perplexity. "And I love you. Don’t be sorrowful. Whatev’r father’s done, we’ll figure it out.” Darla removed the coins she’d earned at the tavern from her apron pocket and held them out for her mum.
“Nay. I’ll not take them this time. Keep it.” Mum went to her blanket chest. After a minute of digging through the contents, she pulled a pouch from the bottom. “Take this as well.”
The leather coin pouch mum held towards Darla appeared heavy enough to contain most of the wages she’d given over the last year. “Why? How? How have you paid for food and rent?”
“I’ve used more than I wanted from your money. But I found my own ways to make a farthing here and there. Every half-penny here belongs to you, child. Mayhap when your father’s belly is empty, he’ll spend his wage on better things than spirits and gambling. He’ll never change if you continue to pay what he owes.”
“I don’t care if he starves, but you—”
“Hush, daughter. Don’t speak such foolishness. Trust me. You’ve more reason to keep this than I.”
Darla held her palm out and accepted the heavy pouch with a heavier heart. Despite mum’s silence on the subject, Darla knew her father had done something awful.
“Come here, lass. Where is your mother? ‘Tis pastime for supper and we have a guest.” Father’s holler drew Darla from the bedchamber and into the kitchen. Mum’s despondency did not lend itself to the response her father may have expected, however. “Why is mum upset? Have you allowed this…” Darla flashed a glare at their so-called guest. “… blackguard to steal our rent money again? Our landlord warned us just last month—”
Father pushed himself from his chair but sank into it again when Mr. Felix waved him back into the seat. “Do not let your daughter’s misunderstanding about the ways of men disturb you. All shall be well when she learns the truth.”
“Enough. You’ll be told after supper and not before. Mind your manners and remember your place, daughter. Lest you find yourself strapped in front of our honored guest. If your mother is indisposed, you may serve us,” Father said.
The supper hour revealed naught else, except for her father’s lack of remorse displayed in his hearty appetite and laughter. Whatever he’d lost didn’t worry him overmuch. Perhaps the news wouldn’t be as dire as Mum thought. Then again, father had a knack for pretense in front of outsiders. When the door closed on Mr. Felix, they’d see his genuine sentiments.
In spite of the knot of anger which seethed in Darla’s belly, she ate her bowl of soup and hunk of bread in silence. She worked too hard for food and a home in which to eat it to skip the sustenance. Their honored guest appreciated not their humble meal, but pushed it away half-eaten. Another reason to dislike the man.
At last, with supper dishes removed, Father turned his attention onto Darla. The slightest glimmer of sadness hinted at his true state of mind. He pasted on a smile, clapped his hands, and rose from the table.
“My dear daughter, ‘tis with great gladness your mum and I shall send you out to be wed to Mr. Felix—”
“What?” Darla’s chair crashed behind her as she jumped from her place at the table. The goblet she’d held dropped from limp fingers and clattered to the floor.
“Calm yourself, lass—” Mr. Felix arose and reached toward her.
Darla swiped the offensive appendage away and addressed her father again. “What do you mean, wed? Married? To him?” With a shaky finger, Darla pointed at Mr. Felix with such force, he retreated a pace.
“You’ll pack your bag and go with him this night. He’s made the arrangements. There’s naught else to do, but say goodbye to your mum and me.”
“This is absurd. He’s a… Gentleman. Why would he want to marry me? I don’t trust him.”
“Well, I do. He won you fair and square in our last game.”
“You bet my life to this man? As much harm as you’ve done to our family, I nev’r would’ve believed you’d sink this low.” Darla’s words hit their mark and her father flinched.
“Think of it. Married to a bona fide Gentleman. You never could’ve made such a match on your own. You ought to thank me and the Good Lord above. He’s not even asked for a dowry,” Father said.
Darla stared at her father in disbelief. Thank him? Thank Him? “Why the hurry? Is there no time to plan a proper wedding where I might have my mum with me?” To give me time to get away before I'm forced to marry a toad?
“No. There is no time to wait because we set sail on a ship for the colonies in a week’s time and must prepare,” Mr. Felix said.
“The colonies? You’d send me across the ocean, Father? Far from my home, England… and Mum?”
“‘Tis not forever. Is it Mr. Felix? You’ll return next summer. Am I right?”
“Yes, we shall return in a year’s time. Then I shall bring you straight home to visit your father and mother.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” Darla spun around and went to her chest of belongings at the end of the cot where she’d slept since a child. Out of the chest, she removed an extra set of clothes, night shift, winter cloak, and gloves. At the bottom of the chest, she spotted her hornbook and lifted the wooden paddle from its place. With a gentle touch, she traced the alphabet and Lord’s Prayer written on the vellum paper attached. Some of the prayer, even though she'd not practiced it since girlhood, came to mind and she shivered.
“…And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”
To Be Continued...
Recently I went to St. Louis for an ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Conference. This was the third year to attend and it did not disappoint. The keynote speaker was #LizCurtisHiggs who is a funny, talented speaker and well loved author. Worship leader was #RachelHauck talented singer and author. The classes were taught by many awesome authors like: #JodyHedlund, #HalleeBridgeman, #CaraPutman, #PepperBasham.... too many to mention now. Take a look here if you want to see all the faculty. They were fabulous teachers and truly inspirational with concrete steps to help us students reach our goals of following in their footsteps. Meal times were spent with many of them talking about writing, research, and life in general. An amazing experience all around.
Truly thankful to the Lord for the opportunity to learn and grow as a writer. Also, thankful for my husband for making it happen and taking care of me and every detail through it all. Also, thankful for my son-in-law who took care of our hobby farm while we were away. Love and appreciate y'all!