The girl turned to excuse herself but Victor held up his hand. The girl looked down with a heavy sigh.
“I know I’m abysmal company, dear girl, but I do so hate to dine alone,” he said. “And I do find myself put out by your fears. Please join me for now and let us talk about what troubles you. Surely a headline is not the cause for your upset. There is talk. I assume that much but given what you know already, that cannot be the source of your anxiety.”
“There is talk,” the girl agreed, pulling up a nearby chair. She looked down. “The women here speak of what is to become of them after you’re gone.”
“And we both know that this is not of any real concern, right?” Victor said. The girl nodded. “If that is indeed the case, and I believe it to be, where has this swell of fear in you come from. You know that nothing short of my death would make you leave these grounds and even then, I assure you that it would not be that easy to evict you. You’re too young to know the horrors of what one must go through to secure lawyers for every facet of your life but you can rest assured that my estate is well handled and there will be no shortage of men who will delay any attempt to get to this house or land for many years. Your home is as good as secure, child.”
“I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, no,” the girl said, quickly. She looked at him, her eyes both sad but more pitying. “And the talk is not simply over your health, sir. A great many of the staff here are anxious and they are happier to see you getting well. It eliminates the need to worry about the options that they may be facing. I fear, however, that the option may be paying more attention now after seeing the news in the papers.”
“You fear the others here will leave?”
“No, never!” the girl insisted. “We fear the option will come to the door to find some of us. To reclaim some of what they once lost.”
Victor sighed and watched as the girl before him sat in silence, the heaviness of her confession of what she’d heard hanging on her like a weight that though unseen, he could practically feel the density of it. It was not as though he needed her to tell him that there were those among them who dreaded the idea of him being lost. He was no fool when it came to his staff and though he often sought her insight for what she was able to find and hear, especially now, he needed no one to tell him these fears had circulated. He also knew, without too much information, that his was not the only stable employ in town. There would be places in the forest on the opposite side of town. There were families scattered there on the outskirts of this wretched town who would take in a cook or a scullery maid or a laundry woman. It was true, he paid better than most, if only to enjoy the quiet of knowing that loyalty was easier to attain for a cost. He knew of others, however, who had similar policies. Those others were not of the concern of his staff and he knew who was. He knew who they feared and why. He had not needed even Mr. Gray’s terse letter to tell him such things.
“Shall I guess to whom you’re referring?” he asked. “This option, you speak of, doesn’t happen to dwell outside of the limits of the township, does it?”
“They do,” she shivered.
“And even you believe that they would find this place? That they have the means to come up these horrid roads for something that may be here?”
“They have the means,” the girl said, excitedly and then quieted. She looked at the floor. “I’m sorry.”
“The sound of your panic only confirms what I suspect,” Victor replied, evenly. “You fear Master Kent will arrive any time now to claim the staff of a man he believes is dead.”
“He is a monster,” the girl blurted out in a fashion that he had never seen before. The child shivered as she recoiled. “He will come.”
“Perhaps,” Victor frowned with a sigh. He looked towards the window as though he anticipated the fiend any moment. “I suppose that it could be true that it was only a matter of time before they were allowed to see what lurked in the shadows. He has been ignorant of it for a while. They knew, of course. Not a word of gossip does not get back to his ears or mine. It’s possible he doesn’t know yet but I should not believe that he is that much a fool.”
“And if he does come, what will become of us?” the girl said, her voice wavering. He closed his eyes, unable to see her shake in that familiar fear he knew too well. Had seen in himself and in the one he so loved once. “He is one who means to destroy inside of us and then out. He ruins all he touches and he means to come here when he finds out. If he knows that some of us are here. If he knows that I am here, he will come.”
“A remaining chain from your last name, I presume?” Victor said.
“Yes,” she said, hanging her head with a sorrow that seemed to threaten to take her to the floor.
“Come now, raise your eyes, child,” Victor said, calmly. She looked at him cautiously but there was nothing but terror reflecting back at him. “This world is full of monsters, I’m sorry to say. Full of men like Master Kent who do things like he does. Things worse than this. My sister has a habit of marrying them. My father was one of them. I know well these monsters you fear. I have stood where you are now, wishing for shelter but finding it nowhere. I know of these horrible people you speak but I no longer fear them. I will tell you now, to the depths of my being, I can promise that there are monsters but they will not be frightening forever.
“There will come a day when this will pass. These times will end for all of us, these crazy days. When that time comes, you will no longer need this fear you cling to. You will not suffer at the hands of anyone. You can choose, for your own sake, what is best for you to do. You may yet become like my insufferable sister, Charlotte. She finds men to prey upon as they have done to her and finds their weaknesses. Perhaps you’ll find no comfort in the world of men and leave us all behind. Or perhaps you can find a new way. Something better.”
“And have you found something better?” she asked, her voice small.
“No, I decided to leave the world to the monsters,” he sighed, looking back towards the window. “I decided that the best I could do was to refuse to become one.”
“Is that not better than where you were, though? Does that not make things better, even in a small way?”
“I suppose it does,” Victor replied, smiling in spite of himself. He looked back at her. “There are those who have found happier fates than this, though. You need not choose to be in this mire with us. The monsters will always exist and perhaps that is sad and it is frightening. It’s also true and if you know this now, you will always be able to see these horrible creatures for what they really are. You need not suffer the delusion that you can change them or that they don’t exist. If you know something to be true, you can make better decisions about it. Once you know the truth, it won’t scare you any longer. What you do with that knowledge can lead you to madness or it can lead you to find something more. As you get older, you will face this choice again and again. For your sake, do your best to choose wisely.”
The girl seemed to ponder this for a moment. She seemed like the words themselves were slowly seeping into her and becoming a part of a girl that seemed to mature before his eyes. A young girl still and would remain so but she had eyes that seemed to understand well before her time. She had a kind of intellect that was absorbing all that he said and for that moment, he truly believed that she would one day become the kind of woman who would find something better. She would grow up to be neither the simpering victim Caroline was nor would she become the scheming viper that Charlotte had learned to be. She would be something wholly different and in that moment, he felt something akin to hope. He may never see what kind of woman she would become but he knew in that instant that he wanted very much to make sure that she would get the chance to find out.
“Do you believe that the monster will come here?” she asked evenly. For the first time he could remember, she did not sound as though she might fall apart.
“I am not sure but I know that I can no longer avoid his gaze,” Victor sighed. “When the time comes, when this monster comes to call be it here or in his own parlor, I want you to know that what you see is true. I know it as well as you. I may not succeed in fighting him but I will never allow him to make me like him any more than my father could. I will not allow him to turn my home into a cemetery.”
The girl nodded with a kind of acceptance though it seemed as though she may have agreed with someone else for how far away she looked. She looked him in the eyes and bowed her head before digging into her pocket.
“You will fight and I believe that you can face any monster,” the girl said. She pulled out a small, badly tarnished key that fit neatly in the palm of her tiny hand. “If you mean to fight, sometimes you need better tools. These are all I can offer but I believe in you. If you promise to use this when it is time, I will be brave with you.”
She handed the key to Victor who turned it over, curiously. Letting it settle in his palm, it looked like it should belong to a doll. It may fit a tiny locket or something like a trinket box. He looked at her.
“Where did you find this? What lock does it fit?”
“I have had it for as long as I can remember,” the girl replied as she rose from her seat. “The lock is one that you will have no difficulty finding. It is here and when the time comes, I promise you will find it. You’ll know.”
She closed his hand over the key and patted his fingers before quickly making her way out the door, leaving him with many questions and a lingering sense of the weight that this key may have buried in it.