Once composed, Victor knew that he could not present himself to his sibling without the evidence to prove to her what he knew. His sister, while far better at him than holding her temper, was known to be particularly difficult once she had managed to hit her limit for patience. He knew from the tear stains on the paper that this had affected her to her core and no one could elicit that kind of emotion from his sibling without paying the price. Time was of the essence and he would need something strong enough to hold her attention to keep her from doing something drastic. Charlotte had been a wreck and if she hadn’t already committed some offense that he would prefer to know nothing more about, she would probably be well on her way to planning something of such a nature. That was her way, as it had always been. She insisted that this was the way Mother had been though Victor would never know for certain. He knew that his mother was a born leader and she was the type to command rather than ask but it was hard to know whether or not that streak of cruelty had been passed down or if it had been all of her own design. Either way, it would prove to be extremely costly to him to know that he was harboring a fugitive should it come to that. Victor was already a holder of so many secrets in his life, this was not one he felt the need to be taxed with.
His study had been an ill-used room in his house since he had first built it. Left in the opposite wing to where the drawing room was, he had found even fewer opportunities than was normal to come in this room since Caroline’s arrival. He’d envisioned this space as a place to work and research and thus, it was outfitted comfortably enough. The ongoing construction of his own home and the staff quarters, however, left him with little interest in trying to read amid the flurry of noise that seemed a constant companion there. He had also found that the constant distractions from his business contacts were almost always of the urgent variety and while letter writing seemed more thorough for business endeavors, he was almost always calling others first. Victor had written scant few letters for business or pleasure here recently but he knew for certain that the ones that he had received had been stashed in the large oak desk that was tucked in the corner of the room amid the great bookshelves.
It was Sunday morning and his staff had all retired into their normal chores for the day. Victor had used the excuse that he had wanted to be left alone to work in his study to ensure that he would not be disturbed. Coming to this room today felt like it deserved a reverence, though he was not sure what might have prompted this sombre feeling. When he stood at the window of the drawing room yesterday, watching the dying light of day and seeing the fog, he had seen, in his mind’s eye, the true phantom that had fooled him. The twist of the letters and the way that they had been spelled. He knew their familiarity. The tone that might have fooled him before and yet now, he was awakened to it. And yet he could barely bring himself to look at it.
Victor knew that the swindler that he’d known and once loved as a family friend, had died. How he had was still a mystery but there were no criminals in London that didn’t know the name of Maurice Roche. The man himself must have known that he was on borrowed time and he could never have been so foolish to believe that he might be able to fool Victor after all that he’d done to rob their father. Not with Victor set to become the heir back then, or even now. A man, no matter how desperate, could never be that stupid and still survive the vultures circling him. No, he was dead and it had been obvious to him as soon as he’d seen the letter’s true character bleeding through. That truth, however, meant that the canker within their midst may be more clever than he’d thought and may have used her bag of tricks more than once. Victor knew this had to be the case. He knew that there must have been something to draw him into the spider’s web, though she had never seemed a predator to him before. He’d stayed up late into the night, his moods violently swinging from rage to fear for what he knew was locked in the room he stood before now. With a steady but unsure hand, he forced himself to unlock the door and stepped into the darkened study.
The funerary dust covers on the furniture seemed appropriate as he stood up straight and closed the door behind him. He locked it on the chance that the child might come to disturb him during this moment. A moment that he dreaded and knew would be a black one should his memory prove correct. He wished all night that a moment of clarity would arrive to save him from this chore. From this discovery. He breathed in the dust and felt the pain of nostalgia aching within his heart. So very like so many rooms he’d seen before, this one was. Forgotten and left to allow the rags laying about to become moth eaten and ghastly. Like phantoms flowing around in the breeze of drafty corners of his old home. Old lives left to rot along with the ones who used to live with them. Their mother. Their grandparents. So many who were marked with these same manner of epitaphs that were left collected in forbidden rooms and attics in their old house. A house full of secrets that he’d tried to escape. Tried to leave behind himself. Here he was years later and he’d still managed to find the phantoms of those relentless memories still. This one, however, was for one whose body would never be remembered in their house in France. For their sins and the things that might have been. Victor felt the pull of his heart when he pulled open the heavy black curtains and let the dull light of morning fall upon the near perfect and almost completely untouched floor. The small pools of dust swirled about lazily as he slowly made his way towards the largest item covered with a cloth. A great desk that he’d had brought from England lurked beneath. Within its drawers lay the reinforcement of his pain. Of his memories and his troubles.
As Victor moved out of the light cast by the large window, he saw an unfamiliar shape standing near the desk’s cover. As he approached, cautiously, he tried to figure out where he had seen this shape before. He could not place it. His memory could not catalogue anything that might have been placed in the study that he could not identify at the ready. There were chairs and small couches to allow him to read. The desk for writing letters. Small decorative tables. What more could be hiding beneath that cover? Where might he have come across this item that loomed in the corner? Why, he could not recall having a gap in that corner before. It had been all shelves for his books and nothing more. Yet here it stood before him, real as anything he might lay a hand on in the room. Victor felt a tremor of fear in his chest as he pulled at the sheet covering it and watched the white fabric cascade down off the large, peaked top of the mystery item. His breath was caught when he saw before him a large, dark clock. A clock he’d seen once before. The very same clock he’d seen when the widow gave him the dire warning when last he’d seen her.
The sheet fell from Victor’s hands and when he looked again, the clock had been replaced by rows of books upon a dusty shelf. He looked about himself and realized that there was no sign that it had ever been there. He looked to the fallen sheet that he’d pulled from the large, dark sinister object only to find that it had been the one sitting upon the desk. He looked one last time at the corner as he carefully made his way to the seat behind the desk. The clock was gone.
The trick played by his mind had given him a few precious moments of courage as he unlocked the top drawer of his desk and found the papers that he knew would be there. His heart jumped in furious beats as he sifted through the pages in his hand. Going back through the correspondences that he had. Business contracts for buildings that were to go up. Messages from people who preferred not to be named in their letters and had to be identified by their specific shorthand. The occasional contact from Europe who had been dealing with his affairs in France and London. Finally, buried near the bottom, he found the yellowed pages that he sought. One look at the hand that it was written in and he felt his heart seize with both anger and overwhelming grief. A hand that he thought never to see again. Her hand, disguised, naturally. Close enough to the original to spark his fondest memories and yet written in the tone of a mothering sibling. One that had written words so carefully chosen, he might yet confuse her with someone who had missed him. Someone who had been ever so concerned for his safety and well-being. The words of the best memories of Caroline written in a hand close enough to resemble Annabelle’s.