Caroline no longer remembered when she fell asleep but for the first time in a little over a week, she woke and felt almost like herself. That did not mean that she felt well but she did feel like she was more in control of herself than she had been before. Cautiously, she extended her legs and unfurled from the fetal position that she’d curled into. Much to her relief, the wretched cramping had finally come to a stop and seemed to be ended for now. Slowly, she rolled on her side and felt the first pangs of pain in her head but it was faded from the night before. Testing the boundaries of her threshold for pain, Caroline allowed herself the minimum of movements as she reached beneath the bed and found the bottle there. She felt a glimmer of hope as she lifted it but that swell of optimism died when she saw that the wine was hovering at three quarters gone. She could still taste it on her lips and felt very anxious about the prospect of having to get more soon. This bottle, she’d promised herself, would last until she had done all of her chores. The worst were still to come and she knew that the wine would not last as long as it had to. Even now, she knew that it was likely that she would not have enough to carry her through the roughness of this part.
A part of her was no longer even resigned to this task. She felt as though the whole of the world was sitting at her vulnerably and broken feet, begging to be saved while she tried to tend to the pain it had caused. She did not know anymore what drove her to continue. Was it Papa? Was it her undying love for him that might carry her here, into this filthy room? Was it for her beloved home? A home they would stand to lose should she fail to bring Victor home? Was it for her siblings? The eldest now dead and the other girls married or awaiting proposals? Should that be her lot that she should see them off to better wealth than she could hope for? It was never for any of them. She knew this. She knew it on the ocean liner that took her from Europe’s safe waters to these new filthy mud puddles. She knew it when she pressed his letters to her heart, her weary soul guided to a greater chance at happiness, knowing that at the end, he would be there. But he was to be cooperative. He was to be the man of the Fevrier house. Not the child who builds his own castle and forsakes the world who made him. Not like this. How ugly this family could be. How hideous love could make everything seem.
Still, the alternative to consider was far less attractive. It was true, Caroline might yet forsake everything as her brother and even some of her sisters had. Give up everything and simply let it all rot. But where would that leave her? To the wolves of her conscience who howled so furiously already? To the jackals of the Kent family when they found her? To punish her for the chore left unfinished? No, it appeared that love was the only option to be had, disgusting as that was. She cursed the day she felt the first flutter of it in her heart, knowing then the bittersweet pain that it brought. The sweet had all but disappeared but the fond memories remained somewhere in her mind. It would have to do because there was nothing but bitter ahead. She would succeed because it was all that was left to do. She could not rebuild the Caroline she knew before. The one she once constructed to please Papa or Nanny. That Caroline could no longer be and the one that was left was spoiled. There was a point of hope buried deep in her that this might yet be the last breath of transformation. That perhaps there might yet be a new Caroline to emerge from the wreckage that she’d created in coming here. That hope, she had found in the last weeks, was getting dim as the light in the sky. She looked to the clouded sky and knew that chores must be done if she was to continue. Her heart heavy, she forced herself to move and dress.
Covering herself in heavy cosmetics that felt awkward on her skin, she felt like she was wearing a mask she could no longer remove. She barely recognized herself any longer and wondered if anyone else did. What might they think if she returned home like this now? Would they know her as herself? Caroline could see the redness of her eyes from either tears or from the drink that had been her only real companion. She saw the darkness of her hair making her face look wretchedly sallow and older. The powder helped but it only covered so much. The black liner made her look more dramatic and took some attention away from the red in her eyes but it was brought out by the rouge on her lips. It was tempting to go without but the way she dressed, it was improper to go without it. It would look as though she’d forgotten and as it was, she already felt so sorely out of place everywhere. When she felt like she’d adequately caked on enough makeup to make herself look entirely different, she grabbed her letter and her coat and walked out into the gloomy afternoon.
Dusk would soon be on its way and that was of great assistance in what she needed to do. Unfortunately, the first stop to be made was to the bank and she would have to conduct herself properly. Already, she knew she must behave as though she were an assistant to her former self. It made it easier to explain. There were many people at the bank and it was unlikely that she would be required to speak to the one that she’d brought the letters to. She need not speak to him at all, really. Caroline had no idea why she felt this stutter of fear in her heart as though everything was going to sink before her but she steeled herself as she walked cold, empty streets. She was thankful to be alone. As she came upon a post box, she remembered the letter that she’d put in her pocket. It had been an after thought, really. She had been wondering about it yesterday when she’d gotten that horrible headache but could not recall what she’d written or why. A part of her was still curious but it was likely already delayed in getting to its destination. She felt a slight tremble in her as she wondered if she was to have sent it with the others last week. Why, it could ruin her plans if it didn’t make it to its destination soon, if that was the case. Though her curiosity dug at her, Caroline chose not to investigate the letter and instead pushed it into the post box before continuing on. As it was, the bank would not wait should she dawdle too long.
The shadows were long by the time that she found her way to the doors of the bank and already, she could see the restless staff as she entered. Closing routines would begin shortly. She consoled herself that it was best this way. She would have fewer people around to speak about her, should they suspect anything was amiss. Less time to wait. She approached the teller with as much confidence as she could muster and requested statements on behalf of Mrs. Fevrier for their account and sum of money for her monthly allowance that had been agreed upon in the last meeting that she’d had. The teller disappeared for the information and the money and Caroline felt the cold wind of doubt settle on her again. She assured herself that all she needed to do was to state that she was the aunt of Mrs. Fevrier and that the poor dear was too sick with her pregnancy to attend to these matters herself. Any trouble and it would be explained that the money was to pay the chemist. She had settled upon this on the walk here. She knew what she would say and what tone that she might use.
The longer the teller took, the more she doubted and the more impatient she became. She became less convinced of her story and unable to think of how to act. This was taking entirely too long. She cursed internally that the silly girl they had working there would be so lazy. That must be it. It couldn’t be a problem with the money. She needed it, dammit. She needed it now. She needed to make this work now. It couldn’t be wrong because she couldn’t trap Victor if she couldn’t access the funds. Caroline was grateful that her face was a simple mask under this wretched makeup because she felt like the color was rising to her cheeks and ears in a most unbecoming way. She fought back the urge to scream for the girl to come back already. She clenched her fists in her pockets, trying to appear casual as she shifted from one foot to the next. Would it show that she was panicked? She twisted her gloved hands together, feeling the strain of the fabric against her skin to the point where it was causing her too much pain to wear them. She discreetly had to remove them and put her hands back in her pockets. The longer she stood, the more she struggled to control her breathing. Inside, she thought of that bottle. If she couldn’t access this store she’d set aside for herself, she would have to go to the reserves to get more. She needed it. She couldn’t let that man near her again when she was sober. Not like this. As the girl rounded the corner, Caroline forced herself not to glare at her.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said, clearly keeping her distance. “I checked the account number that you gave me but it does not exist.”
“That’s absurd,” Caroline said, in a frosty tone. “You go check again. Mrs. Fevrier needs the money for the chemist.”
“I have spoken with the manager,” the girl said, stepping back as though she were threatening to pull the man out. “He says that the account number does not exist and that there is no one here by the name of Mrs. Fevrier.”
“I see,” Caroline said, backing away. The bank manager would recognize her. Would know. Victor could have told him about her chore left undone. She swallowed her panic. “Most unfortunate mistake, I assume. I will check on this and return in a day or two.”
Before the girl could say another word, Caroline turned on her heel and huffed out the door as though she were incensed but truthfully, she was terrified. He must have found out. That vixen had done it! Caroline knew it. And to leave her with nothing! She couldn’t survive long on the money that Papa gave her. She had taken it and there would be nothing left for the children soon if she wasn’t careful. Once out into the street and away from the bank building, she picked up the pace until she was sprinting down the street as though she were trying to out run the twilight. Behind her, softly, called the young teller, calling to tell her that she’d dropped her glove.