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Excerpt from
One Room at the Inn
Chapter 1

Through all her travails Charlotte Hale had managed to never cry in front of her children. But today, as she slipped the gold wedding ring from her finger and handed it to the aged jeweler for the insignificant sum of three guineas, she was incapable of staunching the tears that had pent up inside of her since her husband’s death the previous year.

The jeweler’s craggy face collapsed in empathy, and he spoke in a gentle voice. “I cannot take your ring if it distresses you so, madam.”

“No please,” she said, panicked. Her tears abruptly ceased. She was in no position to be sentimental. She had to be strong for Susan and Eddie.  “My husband would have been happy that the ring he gave with love will help feed our children.” Sniff. Sniff.

Charlotte tossed a glance to the back of the shop where her wide-eyed young daughter was ogling the locked cases of brilliant jewels. The child was so mesmerized by an emerald and diamond necklace lying in a bed of ivory satin, she was not aware of her mother’s sorrow. Relief rushed over the mother. She could not have borne it if her children shared their mother’s melancholy.

“Then I’ll just put your guineas in a little pouch for you,” the jeweler said, turning his back as he unlocked a drawer. This was followed by the clanging of coins. He spun around, smiling, and handed her a small, well-worn leather bag the size of a man’s fist. “God bless you, Missus,” he said as he handed Charlotte the pouch.

She smiled back, then turned to Susan. “Come, my darling. We must get home to your brother by dark.”

“Bundle yerselves up,” the kindly man said. “They say it’s the coldest December in memory.”

“It certainly is,” she agreed.

As Charlotte and her daughter walked hand-in-hand along the busy Strand, Charlotte merely nodded as Susan rattled on and on about the lovely necklaces and bracelets she had seen. The widow’s thoughts were on far more grave affairs.  How would she spend the three guineas? It wasn’t nearly enough to pay Mrs. Waddingham the half year she was behind in rents. Could she offer the landlady one guinea for now with a promise for the full amount when her modest widow’s pension came? At least she was assured she’d be able to feed the children for the next few weeks.

“Lookey, Mama! A uniform shop that also sells ones for little boys! Can we get one for Eddie? Then he could be an off-ser like Papa!”

Charlotte’s step slowed as she looked into the candlelit shop. It even offered thick woolen greatcoats for very young lads. How she wished she could purchase a little Guards uniform so Eddie could emulate his father, but it might as well have been the king’s own crown for its accessibility.

How grateful she was that children were oblivious to hardships—the missing father, the dwindling food, the wet chill seeping into their very bones. Just so long as their minds were occupied and the deprivation not complete, the little darlings never dwelt on grievances.

As they neared a printer’s shop where men gathered to peer at Mr. Rowlandson’s lewd caricatures, her grip on Susan’s hand tightened. “Oh, look at the lovely white horse,” she said to distract her daughter from the offensive pictures in the shop’s window. “Wouldn’t Eddie love it?”

“My bwother is mad for any horse of any colour.”

“Indeed he is.” It saddened Charlotte that her son was deprived of a father who would have taught him to ride. Edward had promised to buy the lad a pony when he was old enough.

But all Edward’s promises vanished when he’d been killed on a Spanish battlefield.

As they approached the corner and lost the buildings’ shelter, she feared the icy wind that sliced through them would carry away her small daughter. She scooped Susan’s tiny body into her arms as a large cart laden with coal swept past and sprayed them with freezing slush from the filthy streets.

Just as sheets of rain fell from the blackening skies.

Her half boots pounding in and out of conveyances to cross the busy street, Charlotte hurried home as quickly as she dared on the icy pavement. She must get home as soon as she could. Eddie did not always have the sense to get out of the rain, and Oliver’s elderly grandfather, in whose care she’d left her lad, was often not mindful of the weather.

When she reached Chappell Street where Mrs. Waddingham’s lodgings were located, merrily drenched Eddie and Oliver were running around the little triangular park that fronted their property. She didn’t know which emotion was strongest: anger with Oliver’s grandfather or worry that Eddie would take lung fever. Definitely the latter, she decided.

Then she saw that her son was not wearing his coat. The coldest December in memory. Certainly the coldest December in her four and twenty years. She thrust hand to hips and glared at her son. “Edward Thomas Hale, where is your coat?”

Her fair-haired son stopped in mid stride and smiled up at her in a most boastful fashion. The gaslight’s glow revealed a lad whose cheeks were now exceptionally red and whose hair was exceedingly wet.  “I gave it to the urchin.”

Urchin? “I beg that you explain yourself.”

“You always said to be kind and gen-rus to the poor urchins, so when the lad said he wished as he had a warm coat like mine, I gave mine to him.”

Tears welled in her eyes. What was she to do? “Come, love. We must get you warm.” Still holding Susan, she took Eddie’s hand, walked to their house, and began to mount the stairs to their chambers on the second floor. As she approached their rooms, her heart began to drum. A padlock had been put on the door, as well as a sign that read EVICTED.

Thank God my children cannot read.

“Oh, darlings, I’ve just thought of something. I shall have to leave you with Oliver’s grandfather for a few minutes while I go on an errand. You mustn’t get out in this freezing rain again.”

“I don’t want to get out in that rain again,” Susan said. “Can’t I get Augusta?”

“Later. It won’t hurt you to do without your doll for a few minutes.”

Charlotte left her children in Mr. Leeming’s single garret room and went to the ground floor and knocked on Mrs. Waddingham’s door. The landlady’s maid answered.

“I must speak to Mrs. Waddingham.”

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“You know very well I’m Mrs. Hale.”

The maid closed the door in Charlotte’s face.

A moment later she returned. “Come this way.”

The plump matron whose red hair was threaded with gray sat on a faded green silk sofa as Charlotte entered the drawing room. “Have you come to pay your rent, Mrs. Hale?” the matron asked.

“I have come to pay a guinea. For now,” Charlotte added hopefully.

“I’m sorry, but I shall have to have the entire sum.”

“I can’t pay you the entire sum at this time.”

“There’s a large demand for your rooms. I have to turn away paying tenants every month. I need the money.”

How could the woman possibly understand what it was to need money? She was well fed, well clothed, and owned a fine home in a well-situated location. “Please. This is the coldest day of the year. We have nowhere else to go.” Charlotte indicated her wet clothes. “Even our dry clothing is locked in our chambers.”

“I’m sorry, but whatever is locked within those chambers is now my property. After all, you now owe me nearly thirty guineas.”

“Is there nothing I can do to soften your unyielding stance?”

Mrs. Waddingham rang the bell for her servant. “I do not run a charity, Mrs. Hale. Good night.”

* * *

If her family was going to be forced to the streets, it was imperative that Eddie have a warm coat. She returned to the military shop on the Strand. The lone shopkeeper, a woman a decade older than Charlotte, was assisting a solidly built officer of middle age. Charlotte went straight to the woolen great coat, a Guards replica which appeared to be designed for a lad of about four—a little large for Eddie, but he would grow into it. In fact, it should keep him warm for at least the next two years.

Its workmanship was superior, and the wool’s heft of high quality, as were the brass buttons. She examined every inch of the garment but could not determine the price. Finally she turned to the shopkeeper. “What is the cost of this item?”

“That’s a bargain for only twenty guineas.”

Charlotte’s heart fell. A king’s ransom.

She paced the shop’s entire children’s section, pondering her next move. There was only one clear choice. Desperation breeds corruption. She waited until the shopkeeper’s back was turned, then she took the coat and fled.

“Hey! Come back! Thief!”

Charlotte started to run.

As the distance between her and the shop grew, she heard someone call out, “Mrs. Hale!”

She’d been recognized. Her heartbeat pounded. Her pace quickened. She mustn’t let them catch her.


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