Don’t Be Late
The trunk lid closed with a click.
She had taken from it only her most prized possessions – her journal, her mother’s locket, her favourite shawl – and two changes of dress. He had told her that she must pack light, and she had taken him at his word. Anything that did not fit in her bag she gladly left behind.
She pulled her cloak around her shoulders, and, clutching her hastily packed bag in one hand, she placed a letter to her mother on the table beside her bed.
“Mama,” it read. “I have eloped with Toby. He has promised that we will go to America and start a life there. There is nothing for me here if I cannot be with him, and Papa has made it clear that he will not consent to my marriage to Toby. I love you all, but I have no choice but to leave thus. I will write you when we are settled. With all my heart, Catherine.”
She felt tears stinging her eyes as she set the letter down. She wished things could be different … but, on the other hand, she was intrigued by the adventure of going to a new land across the ocean, and of being free from constraints. Toby had always encouraged her to discard conventional notions, and to speak out against those who would control her. She had never really noticed how little freedom she had in her world, until Toby began pointing it out to her, and telling her things about the war in the Colonies and about how different life could be in America.
He said that no one had even explored the whole of the Americas yet, and that they could go there and carve out whatever sort of life they wanted with no one to tell them otherwise.
“Meet me at Ludlow’s,” he had said that morning. Mr. Ludlow was Toby’s employer, and was a very wealthy man who, as Toby explained, never wanted to share any of his riches with the very workers who built his fortune for him. “I need to pick up something there before we go.” She had thought it rather unromantic for her to leave her house alone in the night, rather than waiting for him to sneak her away, but he had only smiled at her – his charming grin that matched twinkling eyes. His kind hands had gently cupped her face. “When we are making such a choice, my love, we cannot afford to be romantic.” He kissed her. “Ludlow’s,” he reminded her. “Eleven o’clock. Don’t be late.”
“I won’t,” she had promised. And now, twenty minutes before eleven o’clock, she crept as silently as she could down the back stairs, through the dark kitchens and outside. The night was particularly dark, she thought, and chillier than she had anticipated. She tightened her cloak around her and walked resolutely down the empty street toward Ludlow’s. From there they would go to the coast, and from the coast they would book passage on a ship going to America. Ludlow would help them, Toby had said; for all his selfishness and greed, of which Toby oft complained, Ludlow had a fondness for Toby, and would assist the young man to follow his dreams.
It seemed farther to Ludlow’s than she remembered, and she began to worry that she would indeed be late; it must surely be eleven by now. She walked as quickly as she could, feeling nervous for a moment when she heard the sounds of a carriage and horses, and of men shouting, but the sounds diminished – the men must have driven another way. She was relieved beyond words. Not only had she no wish to be seen by strangers in such a compromising position, but the men had also sounded rather angry and menacing.
She entered the street above Ludlow’s, and found the air filled with smoky haze. What on earth! she wondered, hurrying even faster. She could see Ludlow’s shop, and realized with horror that smoke rolled from it in great black waves. “Toby?” she murmured, the blood leaving her face. Where could he be?
A loud boom shook the ground just then, and where there had only been smoke was an immense blaze. Flames poured from Ludlow’s shop, and Catherine ran toward it, all her thoughts on Toby. Surely he could not be in there, trapped in the conflagration!
More booms sounded as the contents of the shop successively caught fire, and people, awakened by the noise, made their way out to the street. From the apartments above the shop came screams of alarm, and suddenly a door at the back burst open, and a family – Ludlow, his wife and three children – ran headlong down the steep, rickety stairs to the alleyway. Thank God! Catherine thought upon seeing them. But where is Toby?
She came as close to the shop as she could before the heat drove her back. “Toby!” she called. “Toby!”
“You!” Ludlow bellowed, and grabbed her by the arm. “All packed up for somethin’?” he asked angrily, eyeing her carrying case. “You and that no-good boy! You did this!”
Catherine goggled at him. “No!” she told him. “No!” She looked all around her, but saw only hostile, suspicious faces.
“I saw two men, Ludlow,” a bystander called out. “In a curricle. Just past eleven. I di’nt think nowt of it ‘til now. But they was in a big ‘urry, and yellin’. And they looked like they was comin’ from yer shop.” He shook his head. “It may’ve been Toby, Ludlow. It may’ve been.” He shook his head again. “I shoulda known they was up to somethin’.”
Ludlow scowled at Catherine. “I shoulda known,” he echoed. “That boy was trouble enough, an’ then you an’ ‘im always whisperin’ with yer ‘eads together!” He barked at a man standing nearby. “Find a constable!” He yanked Catherine closer to him. “This thing’ll have somethin’ to say to ‘im, I reckon!”
“No!” Catherine repeated, stricken. The truth sank slowly in, and she felt the weight of it breaking her heart. “No,” she whispered. She had been late, and Toby had left without her.
He had left without her.
She burst into tears, and watched helplessly as Ludlow’s shop burned to the ground.