Upon his return, Victor was calm, giving minimal orders to the staff of the house and the workers who toiled on the first staff house on the grounds. It was shortly after breakfast that he slipped away from everyone and wandered out to the garden that were to be laid soon, pausing as he strolled to look over the land that had already been developed. Outside of the house, he felt the stirring inside himself and he was free to be honest, even if it was only with the silent wind. For now, he was free of any distractions and now that his visitation was over, he could now relegate the memory of memère back to the widow that he preferred to think of her as when he was not being summoned. The crisp air of the morning was melancholy and Victor felt a kind of quickening of his heart when he listened to the rustling of the trees around him. He’d been in Courtland County only a year or so and spent last winter in lodgings closer to the widow, as per her request. He hadn’t had experience of the seasonal changes and their harshness until he moved here. As he wandered about the lands that were to be dug and planted, he thought of how different he felt about it this year. The way that his being had adjusted to the shift from where he was from to where he was now and how it now picked up on such subtle differences in the air. It was brisk now but the late summer was fading very quickly and autumn would be upon them soon enough. The splendor of the trees would dazzle him for a time but soon enough it would bring the chill on the wind and the snow to follow soon after.
Victor pondered this for a moment as he realized that it would be his first winter in his own home, along with a number of staff. Naturally there were those who lived within the house that he had under his employ but there would also, by the time of the first frost, be the child and her mother living on these grounds. He would see her fragile face every day of the season, her tear stained eyes a reminder of the day that she had wept to him to keep the roses for the garden. No, that was not quite it. She had begged him not to bring the roses to the widow. That no good would come of it. That the roses knew this too. During the long drive back to the house, Victor had been plagued by the sound of her cries. The memory of her sobbing and the stab in his heart when he knew that she would be beside herself when she knew what he had promised. If only there was a way to tell her that he had no choice.
The widow would never accept refusal of what she wanted and he had been trying diligently to rationalize to himself that these were only roses. He had resolved on the way home that he might simply buy new ones. Dozens of new rose bushes to cultivate so the child would not fret so. He knew before he’d pulled into the forest road that there would be no denying it. The child was no fool but neither was memère. If he dared try to cheat her, he would surely die in torment. There was no mistaking that and he would not chance it. With no other option for himself, he resolved, sadly, that he would have to live with the shame of knowing that he must break the child’s heart to please the widow. He would only hope that at some point, she would come to understand and forgive him.
Victor approached a small bush on the edges of the garden grounds. It was young and had been growing steadily since spring. It had surprised him that he’d seen blooms on it so soon. Echoing in his mind, he heard the child that was his informant telling him over and over again that the roses knew of the widow. The roses knew, she’d insisted. They were a danger though what that meant he may never know. A part of him wanted very badly to dash it away. Surely it was simply a case of the child being overburdened. It had happened before when she toiled too long on her chores and began to babble. Her mother, ever witless it would seem, had no kind words or even any sense of distress but it disturbed Victor to see the girl like this. She had been speaking as if being tormented inside. It pained him to see it and when he was truly alone with his thoughts, he allowed himself to admit that it frightened him to witness such things. Few people knew of his dealings with the widow and to know that her influence was based in such superstitions, as he might be tempted to call them in the daylight hours, one might accuse him of falling prey to madness. Perhaps he had but the widow knew how to cultivate his life the way he wished it to be and he had no choice but to believe that she was as generous and wicked as she seemed. She had gifted him with this life that he cherished the opportunity of. She was not so tame as to allow him to survive without payment for it. He had no doubt in his mind that she would be curious about the girl if she knew and he’d been careful to dash the memory of her from his mind while she sat across from him. Victor didn’t know what it was about the idea of the child in her hands but he had no desire to see how truly wretched she could be and he did not trust that she would be so generous with the girl. And yet it was the girl now who caused him such torment.
Victor cradled one of the blooms in his hand, looking at it as if to admire but truly he was evaluating it. The small, delicate petals against his palm felt so fragile and he was immediately reminded of plants that surrounded them in the atrium of the widow’s house. He had been touched by the plight of the plants in relation to his own feelings of being trapped. Strange that he had not felt this sensation of being caught by the widow before. Truly, while he had always preferred to think of her as the widow while he was in the house, he had been more diligent in his refusal to call her memère even as he pulled up to his door. There was, for the first time, a sense that she was a danger to his home and though it may have always been true, he felt a kind of inertia that he could not place. A kind of resistance that he could not ever remember feeling towards her. He was no less desperate to be free of his past than before, perhaps more so now that he’d had a chance at freedom and been given a reminder of his imprisonment through Caroline’s dreadful arrival. He looked at the soft petals and felt a kind of stiffening of his heart. He knew there would be consequences to giving her these blooms but he knew the dire consequence of not giving her what she desired. Still, it stung him remarkably to think of the soft pink of the petals trapped within the softly weeping room, their beauty reflected in the glass above for want of the stars.
“Sir, do the roses speak to you?” the child whispered behind him.
Victor turned, startled. He saw that though she had spoken softly she was across the cut land from him. He might have sworn that she was sitting next to his ear as she spoke.
“I’m afraid that I am still tired from my journey, child,” he sighed, holding his composure. “I will ask that you announce when you are here, however. I am not myself today and I start easily.”
“My apologies, sir,” the girl frowned. “The roses speak to you?”
“No, child,” he said, letting the bloom slip from his hand. “They are nothing more than flowers. The most harm they can do is with their thorns but even those cannot tell me anything.”
“They speak when it is quiet,” she sighed, her voice sounding far away as though she were lost. Her eyes seemed to lighten for a moment and Victor felt his heart quicken. “They say such dreadful things sometimes.”
“What manner of dreadful things?”
“They are so very envious,” she whispered. “So very possessive.”
“Child, you are not well,” Victor said, coming closer to her now. “You are ill. You must lie down and cease such talk.”
The girl took note of the change in his voice and looked fearful for a moment. Victor stopped before her, swallowing his tone. He did not realize he’d raised his voice.
“Child, you need rest,” he said, his voice softer by force. “Hide yourself in the staff quarters. I will pay for for a full day’s wage but you speak ill. If anyone disturbs you, pretend that you are tidying the unused rooms.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the girl said, hanging her head. “I have a message for you.”
“Very well but afterwards, go to the wing where you will not be found by the other staff,” he replied.
“You have a visitor. Your sister comes to call,” she said stepping back.
Victor swallowed his anger for fear of upsetting the girl. She was fearful already and with the way she had been speaking, he was certain that she would weep if he should lose his temper. He held his hands behind his back and balled his hands into fists as he forced himself to stand straight and speak slowly.
“Thank you, child,” he said, softer. “You’ve done well enough today. Please go as I tell you and if you should hear anything in the parlor, please ignore it. Get your rest and I shall call upon you tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, sir,” she nodded, leaving slowly. She paused at the door as though she wished to say more but quickly changed her mind and walked away.
Victor waited until the sound of her footsteps had faded away before entering the house. Once inside, he strode with a barely restrained violence towards the foyer where he saw an image that he at once felt his blood boil with rage. Turning to face him from the front window was not the flax haired woman he’d expect but a raven haired vixen he had long wished dead. At the sight of him, her dark eyes sparkled with delight and her crimson lips parted in a wide, ghastly smile that made his temper boil over.
“Charlotte,” he seethed, the word coming from his mouth like a sharpened dagger.