Victor finished dressing alone before he turned his attention to his gift. He had to admit that he felt awkward about the prospect of coming to the main floor to find that the house was preparing to celebrate a day that he had actually forgotten about. It had been about two years since he’d been forced to acknowledge his birthday in any way and even then, it had been more a formality that time than anything. Truly, the last time he was forced to endure any kind of celebration was back on the estate and that was when he had turned eighteen. His father had made a show of his becoming a man but it was just another way to make the illusion stick to other people around them. Keep those who were invested in the house happy with the progress to show that there would be a new man of the house to hang his debts on. The celebration, if he could ever have called it that, was a bitter one for him and only the secrets that he kept of his rare moments with his beloved hidden lover made for any reprieve from that rotten day and the year to follow. To be fair, however, it wasn’t as though it was this was anything other than the final terrible memory that he’d carried about this day. His birthday, after all, had never been anything other than a disaster when he was a child and as an adult, his only real defense was that he had learned to ignore it when he could. In the estate house, this had been an impossibility. When he’d been living in London, his world had been still too connected to his dreadful name to fully be allowed the luxury to ignore it but the significance faded slightly. Those around him were more keenly interested in his age and if he was someone they could fool into letting them get into his father’s supposed store of money. Since moving here, he’d been far more successful in letting the day pass without so much as a moment of anxiety about it.
That was until now. Dressed now to greet the house, he looked over the innocent gift and frowned. He knew that it was likely the child who had come up with the idea and even the careful wrapping looked as though it was her very meticulous work. He knew that whatever was in this package was something special that she had either made or saved for. He picked up the card and read the brief message. It was in the head housekeeper’s neat handwriting. He knew that she had a hand in this too and though he knew without opening it, the girl had been the instigator of this, his housekeeper had been the one to make sure it came to fruition.
It unsettled his heart to think of these things though not in a way that he wanted to stop. Rather, it was something that he himself had once wished for. He’d wanted this as a child of her age. He’d wished for a person, anyone at all, who might replace his missing mother or become someone who might shelter him from the oncoming nightmare of his adulthood and the promise that he would be forced to become the owner of such a massive house. A house of many horrible secrets, some of which he’d been made to pay witness to at such a young age that it still left him sick and shaking in the night. In some small way, it was like being a ghost of the person he used to be watching someone else go through it. Someone else who would be able to escape the nightmare. And better yet, he could assist. He had suffered through the fear that his father would find out about those people who had taken to being too kind to him or his sister, Charlotte. He’d feared for many years that the cook would be found out to be giving them food and, on rare occasions, treats that were usually reserved for company when his father strictly forbade them to come for dinner. There were maids who had offered him small secret gifts who were beaten or thrown out for it. As much as he cherished their mementos that would remind him of their kindness, he valued even more the little lights that they brought to the darkness of his life back then. The idea that he now had the power to not only bring light to the cracks of a difficult and often horrible young life but also to be able to banish that darkness for long enough that someone could feel the sun was strange and touching to him. He did not envy this girl’s position in life nor the fact that she had found kindness in his housekeeper and, if he had to begrudgingly admit it, himself. Rather, he found himself strangely comforted in a way that he could not describe. He enjoyed watching the happiness of his staff but he truly felt something akin to happiness in seeing the girl free of her own misery.
“Have I disturbed you, sir?” the girl said, breaking into his thoughts unexpectedly.
Victor looked up to see her confused. He blushed to see that she looked over him and saw that he had not yet opened his gift.
“Dear me, child, I fear my mind wandered away from me for a moment,” he sighed. He smiled and offered her a seat at the table with him. “And please don’t take my faux pas as a lack of appreciation. You and Paulette have been entirely too kind to me. I could not open it without at least one of you here to share this moment with.”
“It is very small,” the girl said, sheepishly. Victor shook his head.
“Nonsense, child,” he tutted. “A gift is a gift and when it is given with kindness, it is always a wonderful thing. The size of something doesn’t matter in such cases.”
“My mémère thought this too. She was not rich but she loved to give things to those she cared for. Before I came here, hers were the last gifts that I ever got. She loved to celebrate my birthday because she said it was the happiest day of her life.”
“When one is so loved, I can imagine that they must feel rich,” Victor mused.
“I always felt loved by her on my birthday,” the girl said with a smile. She sighed and looked at him seriously. “Why didn’t you tell anyone it was yours?”
“My birthday was something I spent many years wishing was a secret, chérie,” he said, gently. “It was a day that I came to dread because it meant that I was to behave or my father would become enraged with me or my sisters. We all feared what might befall us if I did not act according to his wishes. There were many years like this that were very sad and when I left, I feared this day still. I didn’t wish anyone to know for a long time.”
“And do you fear it now?” the girl asked, shrinking. Victor laughed warmly.
“Child, I have a home that is my own now,” he replied. “I have you and Paulette to care for me as I’ve been dreadfully ill. The staff here surround me with their kindness even as I’ve been tiresome and ill tempered. And yet you spoil me more with your generosity. A man would have to be a greater fool than even I to fear such things.”
“Will you open your gift now?” the girl asked, her eyes brightening.
“With pleasure,” Victor replied with a genuine smile.
Careful not to rip the delicate paper that had been folded with such care, he removed the wrapping and slowly opened the box. Within was what looked like a small vial that had been framed in brass filigree. It was attached to a small chain and when he lifted it out, he saw within was not a vial but a small glass enclosure that encased a tiny white rose bud that had been dried and preserved. Cradled in his hand, it looked so small and utterly delicate like it might shiver apart at any moment. The brilliance of the white bud was almost mesmerizing and he wondered what it might have looked like when it was still attached to the plant. The girl looked upon it over his shoulder with fondness.
“It is the last,” she sighed. “When mémère died, she took the white roses with her. This world grew darker after and none of the white flowers will bloom here. They all turn darker and some of them turn red. I have kept this since then.”
“This is too kind a gift, chérie,” Victor started but his objections were cut off when the girl put her arms around his neck and hugged him.
“There were only white flowers when mémère was here and I remember them because it was when I was happy,” she said, letting go. She smiled as she stood up. “Now, there can be white flowers here, even if there is only one because I am happy again. I want you to be happy too, sir.”
“If that is so, then it would make me happiest of all, if you would call me Victor now,” he said, standing. “Come, Rosemary. Let us see what manner of things Paulette has planned for us.”