Coming to town was possibly the best idea that she had come up with since leaving France. Seated in the back of the hired car, she rested and wistfully looked out at the dreary entanglement of trees that lined either side of the narrow road leading into the forest. Caroline would have preferred to come with her brother but Victor had been enamored with his garden of late and she could not seem to make him speak throughout the day. His temperament seemed to improve once he’d been working with the landscapers so it was to her benefit in the end, she reconciled. Still, however, she found it a lonesome activity and wished that she could yet convince her brother to take part in more social engagements. As it was, he was so secretive and his whole life surrounded the continual building of his house and the business engagements that he had. He spoke little of anything except his plans for the future but was cautious about mentioning anything further.
Caroline need not even ask if he was harboring interest in fast women as her family had assumed. In the early days when he first left, she had been convinced that he’d been lured by the madness that was Paris at the start of the decade. These crazy years that had swept through the world since the war had brought out a spirit in nearly everyone and she once had true fears of her brother falling into the arms of these indignant young girls who wore their hair so short and their eyes lined with such heavy cosmetics. She had worried but also once hoped they might drive him back to the safety of the country estate. Caroline had come all this way in the vain hopes that perhaps he was yearning for a return to their home and the family that wished for him to come back. How terribly disappointing to find that he’d made himself a fortune and was nowhere near the ragged beggar they had assumed he should become. She had secretly wished for his tender affection to have turned since he left and thought of how this reunion might have been had he been this way. It was this hope that had been her guiding light all the way to America and she had clung to it as she was taken up the treacherous drive to the house. She had hoped dearly for this to be the case but it appeared as though Victor was much too in love with his loneliness. Too utterly entranced by his wishes to cloister himself away from the whole of the world. It would be heartbreaking but Caroline could almost sense that there was a joy that her brother took in keeping himself locked away from his family. There was a kind of cruelty to it that he seemed to relish in.
She scolded herself at this thought. She knew that he loved them, deep down. It was simply the house that had gotten to her. The chill in the air and the gloom of her bed chamber had made her think strangely. She resolved to put it out of mind as she focused on the rush of scenery outside of the car. Still, the chill in the air seemed too persistent and she felt like the road would never reappear. The world felt so very odd here and she would be very happy to return back to their estate where everything made sense. She cast aside any thoughts of the heavy burden that she would carry with her if she had to confront them. Caroline was so relieved when the car finally met the road and she felt like she could breathe again.
As the car seemed to sail along the roads by comparison to the terrible path from the house, Caroline reclined back into the seat and looked out as forest loosened its grip and the scenery opened up on the wider landscape. A sense of renewed hope flourished in her as she felt the burden lessen on her shoulders. She thought of her dear brother and the man he had become but there were such glimpses to tell of the man he could be. Maybe after a few more days, he would return to the sweet boy that she once knew and loved. As if by instinct, she turned to look out the back window of the car to see the cruel scene of the forest and the house sitting among its darkened grasp. She felt her heart sink again but not to the depths it had been. Caroline turned her back to the forest and the spires of his house that jutted out from the treeline. She kept her head bowed as they continued to drive, her thoughts circling but she refused to allow them to come back to anything about Victor. She was finally able to take comfort in the view as the car slowed upon entering town.
For as much as she was not accustomed to the ways outside of the French countryside as Victor obviously was, Caroline found that the township here was quite charming. The new world, as her father had insisted on calling it with some air of disdain, was a flourish of strange things and her family had quite insisted that such debauchery would be the downfall of Europe if they were not careful. Caroline herself had little use for such extravagance as she’d seen but found herself, nevertheless, enthralled by the beauty of it here. Of course, this small town was different than the bright lights of Paris. Courtland County was remote but still boasted modern movie houses and elegant buildings that stood tall like palaces along the streets. The roar of the large vehicles that roamed the streets filled the town with life in the middle of the day and the street cars that toddled along made her feel like she might have been mistakenly dropped off in one of the dramas that she’d seen in one of those palatial movie houses. Within the town itself, the small shops that lined the main street were something to see and she found herself enchanted by the clothing stores, the cafes, the apothecary that sold such sweet things and the trinket shops. The windows that lined the streets had brilliant displays that dazzled her and set her imagination aflutter.
The hope that she’d had first felt in the car felt buoyed by the noise and the beauty of the town. The buildings here were the height of modernity and for a moment, she felt as though she too could fall in love with such a place. It was true that these new dance halls that had swept through her homeland felt far too hedonistic for her but standing before these elegant buildings that all boasted the beauty of the new movement whether they were banks, churches or hotels, she felt that she could get bewitched by this modern age after all. If there was a way that she might yet convince her brother to marry, there might be a hope that he would relent if he was allowed to do it here. Caroline allowed herself to enjoy such ideas as she walked from one shop to the next. Drifting into one of the shops, lured by the many lovely trinkets and toys, she was entranced. There were so many interesting things to see here and she found herself lost in her fantasies as she wandered from one delight to the next. She felt giddy like a school girl as she wandered around looking at each handcrafted toy or doll, imagining what it would be like to have Victor’s children opening them on Christmas morning. How delightful it would be for him and his wife to stroll along these streets, him proper like Papa used to be before he’d taken ill. And his beloved wife would be at his side, dressed so beautifully as he would see to it that she was. None of this bobbed hair and boyish figures hidden under dresses that climbed to the knees but rather dressed as a proper lady ought to be. They would look spectacular together as they wandered with their children. Yes, that was all that old house needed. A family would suit it just fine.
“You’ve returned again?” a stilted voice said behind her.
Caroline had been so caught in her fantasies in searching for Christmas gifts for phantom children that she felt flushed with embarrassment when she realized how she much have looked. Her back straightened and she resolved to continue looking as though she were shopping. Thankfully, the man behind her was pre-occupied with a lady customer and seemed to ignore her otherwise. Caroline noticed that this woman was not the least bit like the disdainful ones that courted the modern look but rather a more mature woman. There was an air about her that seemed familiar from her stance and to her shame, she found herself trying to glimpse her face reflected in the glass cabinets she was pretending to look at.
“I should think when I have paid the money that we’ve put out for this venture, the least you could do is produce something half the quality you promised,” the woman said, coldly.
“I have told you that the pieces are absolutely original and handcrafted with only the finest materials available.”
“Truly then, whatever materials you have available to you must be such that even the servants wouldn’t use them because the pieces are garbage. I demand the pieces that you have sent be replaced immediately.”
Caroline felt a shiver run through her body and bit her lip to keep from making any noise at all. She shifted soundlessly on the tiled floor of the shop, hoping to see someone else reflected in the glass cases before her. Someone who was not the owner of that voice but Caroline knew that she could not delude herself. There was no denying who that voice belonged to and when Victor knew of this, he would be livid.