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.
Darla: Strength/Part 2
by Sandy Kay Slawson
Darla scooted to the farthest edge of the carriage seat, as far from Mr. Felix as possible. With the packed flour sack clutched on her lap, Darla straightened her spine with stoic determination not to show the fiend the emotional turmoil he’d caused. Mind and heart clung to the vision of Mum’s form bent with grief in the backlit doorway and the way she shied from her father’s attempted consolation. Darla pushed the memory, seared for eternity in a locked corner of her brain, to mourn at a later date. When the current reality broke through those contemplations, she realized Mr. Felix had driven them beyond the familiar part of London.
“Where does this preacher live?” Darla’s voice, thick and subdued with melancholia, sounded unrecognizable to her own ears. Do not let him see or hear your weakness. Though you are here at his command, you have not lost yet.
Mr. Felix switched his attention from the road to her. The man’s smirk and sly, hooded perusal impressed her not as a jolly groom but as a brigand who surveys his stolen goods. The distrust claimed from the start warned her to be vigilant and prepared.
“Where does he live?” This time Darla sounded naught like a scared mouse, but a cat with claws bared.
“Such a feisty wench. I’ll enjoy seeing you tamed,” Mr. Felix said.
“Tamed? You’re to be one of those husbands then, eh?”
Mr. Felix’s response, a chuckle, worried Darla. What did he gain from the secrecy? Did he wish to keep her in the dark and prevent an escape?
Darla didn’t communicate with him anymore but paid heed to the landscape. Despite the darkness, moonlight and the occasional street lamp illuminated the scenery.
“Covent Garden Market… why are we here? It cannot be open this time of night, and why would you meet a preacher in such a place?”
“You ask too many questions. I must speak with a friend of mine before we see the minister…. about a… new wardrobe for you.”
Mr. Felix pulled to the side of the road, locked the brake, and disembarked. He leaned through the open door and grasped Darla’s knee.
“Do not leave this carriage. Your safety depends on your obedience. I shall return in a matter of minutes.”Darla cracked his knuckles with her own.
“Ouch—” Mr. Felix released her knee and shook his hand.
“We’re not married yet, Mr. Felix. I’ll thank you to keep your paws to yourself.”
“Why, you little…” Mr. Felix pinched his lips together and rubbed his forehead. After a few seconds of silence, he snickered. “I ought to have expected such a response from you. As you wish, I’ll let you retain your purity a while longer.”
Without a doubt, Darla believed Mr. Felix attempted to deceive her, at least to some extent, but she daren't show it. “Tell me, who is this friend? I hope she’s a talented seamstress. If not, I’ll sew my clothes.”
“Eliza Dennison, she is… quite talented in her line of work.”
Mr. Felix coughed, but Darla saw the hidden laugh behind his fist. As he left Darla in the near dark, the seamstress's name brought a vague remembrance of a conversation between her father and Mr. Felix some months ago. What had they said…?
A man exited the building Mr. Felix entered. A woman stood in the doorway and moved to close the door. The man spun around on the bottom step and wavered but caught himself on the rail. His slurred words to the woman rang out in the quiet night.
“Tell Madam Dennison to save ye for me Friday night, too. My wife shall be at her sister’s for a day or two,” the man said.
The woman, who Darla recognized as a prostitute by her dress, nodded and closed the door. Darla sank into the shadows created by the carriage hood as the man stumbled past and whistled a tune.
The memory of her father’s and Mr. Felix’s conversation returned. Passionate indignation roared straight through to Darla’s bones. They hadn’t known she heard them when they stood outside the window and discussed the high-class brothel in Covent Garden run by a Madam Eliza Dennison. Bile rose into her mouth, and Darla felt sick as Mr. Felix’s intentions became clear.
With no consideration for where she’d go, Darla gripped the flour sack tighter, checked for any witnesses, then fled into the darkness. Whatever dangers or uncertainties arose as she left the carriage behind were insignificant. Darla would die before she let that snake give her or sell her to a Covent Garden Abbess.
Darla raced from shadowed doorway to shadowed doorway. When she reached Fisher’s Alley, she heard Mr. Felix call her name. With a yelp, Darla darted into that passageway, then another, and another. Upstairs, downstairs, under arches, through alleys, past building after building, until she no longer heard his voice.
Exhausted, a low brick wall hidden with hedges lured her to flop upon it and rest. She could not resist. Lungs burned, and ribs ached with the lack of oxygen and exertion. When her breaths became normal, and her heartbeat settled, Darla gave thought to her next steps. Where shall I go? How am I supposed to get there? I can’t go home. Father would give me right back to the liar. If he knew the truth, mayhap he wouldn’t. How could he not? He lost me in a bet.
A door opened nearby. Darla froze. They’d not be able to see her behind the bushes, but she didn’t want to be heard either.
“Stay a bit longer, Roland. The night is still young,” one man said.
“Pshaw, ’tis past 9 o’clock. My father is buried and mourned, and my reunion with family and friends must end. I’m determined to make it a few hours closer to Leeds. My wife is confined. I don’t want to miss the birth of me fourth babe. With Leeds a good three days ride with me old nags, I don’t want to wait for a second more,” Roland said.
“Sure. I understand. God bless your wife and babe. Nice to see you again after these many years, even on such a somber occasion. Have a safe trip home.”
“And God bless you and yours, come see us in West Yorkshire anytime,” Roland said.
Darla waited until the other man returned inside before she approached Roland. After the overheard conversation, she deemed this the best opportunity to escape London and find a place far enough to be safe.
Roland stopped, then gave Darla a wary inspection. “Aye?”
“I apologize, but I-I-” How to phrase it? “You see, I happened to be there—” Darla pointed toward the bushes. “—when I heard the conversation you had with that other fellow.”
“‘Tis not polite to—”
“So sorry, but I couldn't help it. Anyway, you mentioned you are traveling to Leeds. If you take me along, I’ll pay you a fair price,” Darla said.
“That’d nay be proper, Miss.”
“If you are in a wagon, I’ll stay in the back. If you are in a carriage, I’ll stay in the boot. When we stop for the night, I’ll make my arrangements, and I’ll buy my food and drink. I’ll be naught but a passenger along for the ride as if you drove a stagecoach. Please, sir. ‘Tis of the utmost importance that I leave this night.”
“Where is your family?”
“I have no one.”
Roland rubbed his scruffy neck, then scratched his head under the linen toque. Darla waited with anxious restlessness, for who knew what wrath Mr. Felix might bestow should he catch her?
“As a Christian man, I can’t leave a lass to fend for herself in this disreputable part of town. I warn ye, howbeit, me wagon is nay covered. If it rains, we’ll both get wet, but thank the Good Lord ‘tis summer, and we’ll not freeze to death. Where are your things?”
Darla held her flour sack aloft. “This is it.”
“Poor lass. I suppose you’ll have more chance of a decent life in Leeds than here. Come on. We’ll travel until I can’t stay awake.”
“Thank you, sir. You’ve saved me.”
Roland’s speculation made Darla wish she hadn’t blurted out those last words, but he didn’t question the odd statement. Instead, he spun on his heel and led the way to the wagon parked alongside the street below.
“How much shall I pay you, sir?”
“If you buy your lodging and meals, ‘tis enough. Your presence on the ride costs me naught.”
“I am in your debt. Once we are in Leeds, perhaps I might help your wife after your babe is born and she recovers from childbirth. I’ll have to find a job and place to live, but beyond those necessities, I’ll be glad to lend my assistance,” Darla said.
“A kind offer, I shall convey to me wife. Let us be off before more time is lost,” Roland said.
After a hurried scan for any sign of Mr. Felix, Darla allowed Mr. Roland to help her into the wagon bed. When he took his seat on the bench in front, she laid on the hard wooden planks with the sack under her head and used a large square of canvas to hide from view.
It took great self-control not to peak until the noise of London grew faint in the distance. At last, she freed herself from the heavy, hot, oiled cloth and sat upright. The lights of the city faded away as she watched. For the first time since her father’s unwelcome announcement, Darla relaxed.
“Good riddance, Mr. Felix. Goodbye, Mum.” Darla dabbed at the mix of relief and sorrow on her lashes with her sleeve's cuff, then spun to see the road ahead. After a while, she whispered, “Farewell, London. My home lay in Leeds. I hope she’ll be kind to me.”
Hope you enjoyed the story! I'm thankful for you and so glad you came!