Chapter 6: Awkward Conversation Quota Fulfilled
Knock knock knock knock – Victor forced himself to stop, lest he bruise his knuckles against the door. His jittery hands automatically went for his tie – he locked them together behind his back and bounced on his heels instead. Answer the door please answer the door hurry up hurry up –
The door opened, and a young man with sandy brown hair and the traditional valet's outfit appeared. "Hello, sir," he said, all politeness. "May I help you?"
"Yes," Victor replied, stopping his bouncing with an effort. "I need to see Vic – I – I was hoping to call on M-Mr. and Mrs. White. I've got a card – well, it's my f-father's card. . . ." He fumbled in his pocket for the bit of card stock. "M-may I come in?"
"Mr. and Mrs. White are accepting visitors at the moment," the young man said, stepping aside. Victor stumbled as he crossed the threshold. "Careful. . .if you could wait here while I–"
"Ah, Alan! Who's this?"
Victor turned, to be greeted by a droopy gray mustache and a frizz of curly gray hair, both attached to a face that had clearly seen a couple more decades than his. The dark brown eyes were warm, though, and the smile under the mustache perfectly friendly. "Christopher White at your service, my good man," the newcomer said, extending a hand.
"The card says Mr. William Van Dort, sir," Alan reported as Victor accepted the handshake. "But you said that was your father, correct?"
"Yes," Victor nodded. "I'm – well, I'm – Victor."
Mr. White froze mid-shake. "You – you're–" He looked the young man up and down. "But you're – how?"
"My parents tracked Vic – M-Mrs. White's parents down, and they told us – I know you must not have been expecting to see me, but–" Victor swallowed, finally succumbing to the urge to play with his tie. "Once I heard about your – your m-m-marriage, I had to–"
"You're here to see Victoria," Mr. White said, tone surprisingly understanding for someone who'd just realized he was playing host to his wife's former fiancé. He clapped his hands together. "Well then – Alan, take our guest to the sitting room while I get my wife. And ask Bridget to make some tea, will you? I think we'll need it."
"Very good, sir," Alan jerked his head at Victor. "If you could follow me. . . ."
A few steps down the main hall later, Victor found himself fidgeting beside a large armchair as Alan made his way to the kitchen. He gripped his tie tight in both hands, stomach twisting itself into a pretzel. Oh God, what was he doing here? Why was he putting himself through this torture? Wouldn't it be easier just to leave – run out the front door and pretend none of this had ever happened?
No, it wouldn't. Despite everything, he needed to see Victoria again. He needed to hear the story from her lips. And he needed to be certain she was all right. That she was happy with the life she now led. Just from first impressions, Mr. White seemed ten times better a husband for her than Lord Barkis, but – he wouldn't be truly satisfied until he'd seen her in person.
The wait seemed to last several lifetimes, each longer and more unpleasant than the last. Finally, Alan reappeared, fully-loaded tea tray in hand. And trailing behind him was Victoria, open-mouthed and wide-eyed in a cheerful yellow-striped dress. She gaped at her old fiance, one hand pressed over her lips. "Victor?"
"Hello, Victoria – ah, M-Mrs. White," Victor corrected himself. Damn it, why did he keep making that mistake. . . .
"It's fine, Victoria's – fine." She approached him slowly, eyes traveling up and down his form. "You're fine. . .oh Victor, I – I never thought I'd see you again. . . ."
"That's obvious," Victor said, then winced. "Oh, d-do forgive me, I didn't mean – it's been a distressing day, and I'm not–"
"You're forgiven," Victoria told him. "I know that my being Mrs. White must. . .when did you get here? Oh, do sit down, I shouldn't keep you standing. . . ."
"Just today," Victor explained, lowering himself into the chair as Victoria took a seat on the sofa. "My parents have been looking for yours ever since you – disappeared. We finally found them here, and they told us that y-you. . . ." He looked around as Alan set out plates and cups. "Where's your h-husband?"
"He didn't think he should join us," Victoria said, hands twisting together in her lap. "He thought it might be too – awkward for you."
"Oh." Well, it would be awkward, there was no denying that, but. . . . "I – I'd rather like to meet him, actually. See w-what sort of man he is."
Victoria nodded. "Alan, tell Christopher he's welcome to tea." As Alan left to deliver the message, she picked up the teapot. "Would you like a cup?"
"Yes, thank you." Victor watched her pour. "This is a nice house you have here," he added, feeling he ought to attempt pleasant conversation.
Victoria gave him a weak smile. "It's not as big as I'm used to, but I don't mind. It's much cozier than my old home." She handed him a teacup. "You'll have to add the cream and sugar yourself, I'm afraid. I don't know how you take it."
"That's fine." Victor stared down into the brown murky depths, wondering how he wanted to begin. "Victoria–"
His thought was cut off by the arrival of Mr. White, with a spare cup and saucer. "I heard I was wanted," he said, sitting next to Victoria. He frowned at Victor. "You're sure you're all right with me being here?"
Victor looked up at him. There seemed to be nothing but genuine concern in those dark eyes. "I am – I wanted to meet you," he told him. "You can tell me your side of the story. . .why you and V-Victoria. . . ." He turned his gaze back to his cup, suddenly unable to look at them sitting together. "Victoria, why – why?"
Victoria took a deep breath. "Victor – I thought you were dead."
Victor's head jerked up. "Dead?" he repeated, baffled. "Why–"
"When we last got news from Burtonsville, it was all about Pastor Galswells saying you were – damned," Victoria said, wringing her hands. "We didn't realize he meant while you were still alive."
". . .you're looking – well, Master Van Dort. . ." "You were supposed to be gone forever!" "But you're – how?" Victor had assumed the reason everyone was so shocked to see him was because they couldn't believe the Van Dorts had actually found them, but now. . . . "You – you thought I'd k-killed myself?" It was probably the height of gauche behavior to mention that at tea, but he had to get it out in the open.
Victoria nodded. "I thought you'd gone after Emily."
"You did? But–"
Victoria sighed and picked up the teapot again. "Let me start at the beginning," she said, pouring tea for her husband. "When I left you that night to talk to my parents, I was expecting them to be frightened. I was not expecting them to be throwing all their things in suitcases. Mother grabbed me the moment I walked in her bedroom door and told me to pack as they were leaving this 'gateway to Hell.' I tried to calm them down, but they were too frantic to listen. In the end it was more or less grab my clothes and go with them, or be knocked unconscious and dragged into the carriage."
"They wou–" Oh, but these were the same people who'd engaged their daughter to a murderer. And the same lord Victor had once seen shoot an already-downed deer twice in the head. "Victoria, I'm so sorry. I was – somehow I slept through that. I would have stopped them if I'd known."
"Oh, nothing was stopping them at that point – Father would have gladly run you down or shot you if you'd been in his path," Victoria said, shuddering. "Mother stood guard over me and Hildegarde while Father went off to find Emil and convince him to join our flight. Then, not an hour later, we were off, before I could think of any way to escape. We came here because our family hasn't been to this estate in ages – they thought it would be a good place to hide."
"It was," Victor said. "We passed the house over once before, but then one of the men we hired thought it was worth a second look, and. . . ." He shrugged.
"Mother and Father won't be happy about that," Victoria muttered. "They did everything they could with what little they had to make sure your family couldn't find us. They were determined that we have nothing more to do with Van Dorts. Almost before we were settled in, they started searching for another husband for me." Victoria laughed hollowly. "I ended up being the one to argue that I needed to mourn Lord Barkis's death. My parents correctly suspected I was just trying to buy time and told me that, since his death occurred the same day as our wedding and I obviously hadn't wanted to marry him in the first place, they'd ignore propriety just this once. I don't think anyone here besides Christopher knows I was Lady Bittern for an afternoon, and they told him the marriage had been hastily annulled."
"I see. . . ." Well, that did make sense for the status-conscious Everglots. But. . . . "So, um, h-how did you two meet? Was he one of the s-suitors they brought over?"
"Er, actually – I first encountered her when she was trying to get back to you," Mr. White admitted, with a very awkward chuckle.
"I must have made five escape attempts in our first week here," Victoria explained, turning faintly pink. "Mother threatened to lock me in the attic if I kept carrying on, but I didn't care. I knew you had to be looking for me, and I was so desperate to return to Burtonsville. . .the day I met Christopher was ironically the farthest I'd ever gotten."
"I found her struggling along the road in the pouring rain – poor dear looked like a drowned kitten," Mr. White said. "I stopped to offer her a lift, and she asked me if I was heading to Burtonsville. I told her I wasn't, and that it would be five days' ride even if I was – I couldn't take her that far without a chaperone. She started crying, and I couldn't help getting out to comfort her."
"He was so kind to me," Victoria said, giving Mr. White a look of quiet affection. Seeing her direct that smile at someone else was like a knife straight in his chest. Mr. White returning it was a second one in his back. "When I explained my situation, he didn't hesitate a moment to offer his help. It felt like he was the only one, after Hildegarde, who actually listened to me."
"Yes, shame that butler of your parents' showed up to ruin the moment," Mr. White said, rolling his eyes. "That man has the unique ability to look down his nose at anyone, regardless of their station."
Victor had to agree. "So – you became friends, then?"
Victoria nodded. "And he a potential suitor, at least in my parents' eyes. While Mother lectured me for trying to run away yet again, Father asked him about his prospects. I think bringing him home was the only reason I wasn't chained in my room."
"I told him about them mostly to be polite," Mr. White said. "I didn't expect our acquaintance to go anywhere. After all, I thought I would be helping her get back to Burtonsville and you." He sipped his tea. "I won't lie to you though, Master Van Dort – even then, I had some interest in her. I've met many women in my time, but none nearly as brave and clever. The way she refused to give up, despite the raging storm. . . ." He gave her another tender smile, digging the blade deeper into Victor's flesh. "And even in the mud and rain, she was remarkably pretty. If I hadn't also seen how determined she was to find you, I probably would have asked her parents for permission to court her for real." He sighed. "I know it must hurt to hear that, but – I feel you deserve to know the entire truth."
Part of Victor would have preferred a lie or two to spare his feelings, but most of him appreciated the gesture. It was good to know that Victoria had married someone who truly cared for her. And who seemed so kind and amiable – it made Victor wonder if they could have been friends, under different circumstances. Perhaps this is what I get for wondering the same about Victoria and Emily. "So when did things take a – d-different turn?"
"February 13th," Victoria said. "I don't think I'll ever forget it. Christopher had invited us all to dinner, and right in the middle of the soup course Emil came in, leaned over Father, and whispered in his ear. Father promptly beamed and announced that we no longer had to worry about those 'wretched fishmongers,' as you'd – you'd 'joined the company of the damned.'" She twisted her hands together in her lap. "I demanded to know who'd said that about you, and Emil said it had come straight from the lips of Pastor Galswells. I'd never known the pastor to lie, and the way he'd put it. . .I couldn't eat another bite. I spent the rest of the meal staring at my plate, and when we got home, I cried myself to sleep."
The image of Victoria weeping into her pillow, utterly distraught, popped into his head. Victor blinked his eyes to clear a growing mist. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Victoria told him. "I should have remembered Pastor Galswells has a flair for the dramatic. But Mother and Father weren't about to question our 'good fortune,' and I. . .I suppose I was just exhausted from everything that had happened. It was too easy to believe at the time."
Victor could sympathize – that was exactly how he'd felt when he'd heard Victoria was marrying Lord Barkis. "So – ah – Mr. White became your knight in shining armor?" he weakly joked, trying to lighten the mood a tad.
Victoria giggled. "You're more right than you know. Christopher was in the army when he was younger."
"Fought in the Crimean War," Mr. White confirmed. "I could tell you enough stories about those blasted Ruskies to give you nightmares the rest of your life. . .also spent a bit of time in India, and let me tell you, I'm surprised we've kept the place as long as we have. But I'm out of it now, with a healthy pension from the Crown and my own small estate which brings in an extra hundred or so a year. Nothing close to what your father makes with his canned fish, I'm sure, but it was enough for the lord and lady to give their blessing when I proposed." He smirked. "Helping them get that roof repaired couldn't have hurt either."
"Mmmm. . . ." Victoria leaned her head against Mr. White's shoulder. "I'm glad they picked you over that Rust fellow who came around a few times. He was quite the pompous boor."
"Don't I know it. Man was insufferable in Jhansi. Surprised he wasn't shot by his own troops."
Victoria snorted softly. Victor did his best to hide the twinge seeing them be so familiar caused. "S-seems like you're a very good match," he murmured into his tea.
Victoria's face immediately changed from amused to shamed. "Oh Victor. . .I – I know it must look like I didn't mourn you at all, but believe me, I did," she said, sitting up straight again. "I couldn't bear any company at all beyond Hildegarde and Christopher. They were the only ones who actually comforted me in my distress."
"She was terribly broken up about it all," Mr. White confirmed, expression serious. "Those first few days, I was certain she was going to spend the rest of her life as a spinster in memory of you. But. . .well. . . ."
"He kept coming around," Victoria picked up, picking at her skirt. "And we kept talking, and he was always so kind and gentle. . .listened to my opinions, talked to me rather than at me like Rust and the others Mother suggested. . .and–"
"And he was easy to like, made you happy, and even if he wasn't your first choice, he was such a good second one saying 'yes' felt right?"
Victoria looked surprised for a minute – then her face melted into a sad smile. "I knew you'd understand. Yes, that's exactly how it happened. By the end of February we both knew that what we felt for each other was more than mere friendship. He proposed the 27th, and we wed three days later. In fact, we only just got back from our honeymoon about a week ago."
"Really?" Well – the only way his timing could have been worse was if he'd walked in the door the same time they did. "I – I didn't know–"
"Of course you didn't. Please don't feel guilty, Victor," Victoria begged, leaning forward. "This isn't your fault. I wanted to marry you, I really did. But I thought you were gone – lost to me forever. And Christopher. . .he and I. . .we can talk, we can laugh. . .he's my dearest friend on top of being my husband. I can't wish this undone. But I never meant to hurt you."
"I know," Victor assured her, reaching out a hand but stopping just short of touching her. "I can't fault you for wanting to move on, not after. . . ." He swallowed. "You r-really thought I preferred Emily?"
"Like I said, I was worn out from suitors and attempts to escape. . .but Victor – you loved her," Victoria added, tone as matter-of-fact as if she was stating the sun rose in the morning. "I knew it from the moment I saw you in the church. The way you smiled at her, the way you stood so straight and proud, the way you said her vows without a single mistake. It couldn't be anything but love." She fixed the wrinkles she'd made in her skirt. "Have you ever wondered why I didn't say anything when you were about to drink that wine? Why it was Emily who ended up speaking out against the wedding? Because I saw the look in your eyes, heard the warmth in your voice. You were happy, Victor. Everyone could tell. Even if it meant your death, I couldn't bear to interrupt if she was the one you truly wanted. If she was the one who made you happy."
"I – you would have made me happy too," Victor said, adrift in a sea of emotion. Does she think I never cared for her at all? Why wouldn't she, I nearly drank the poison anyway when Emily hesitated. . .but surely she knows – argh, this would be so much easier if she was upset, when did she learn to be so calm about all this. . . . "But I thought – I thought I'd lost you, and I couldn't – without you – and she was so kind and enthusiastic and–"
"And saying 'yes' felt right," Victoria echoed back to him, nodding. "I never doubted that you loved me, Victor. The moment you came to my bedroom door and told me our wedding could not come soon enough, I knew. But. . .it was easy to doubt if you loved me more than her. Especially since I'd vanished on you this time, so soon after marrying another." Her hands worked themselves back into a knot. "After all, you were prepared to keep your promise to her even after we had been reunited."
Guilt jabbed at his stomach, making it twist and turn – Victor put down his tea, certain the slightest sip would make him sick. "She'd lost everything in her life," he whispered. "I just – I wanted her to know I wouldn't abandon her too."
"Fair enough," Victoria said. "And I was so grateful that she was willing to let you go – but I was also prepared to give you up if that was what you both wanted. I loved you, and I wanted you to be happy. Even with another woman."
Why did her being understanding hurt so much? He'd prepared for a Victoria who was jealous or angry – but then again, he'd also prepared for a Victoria who was still single. "Maybe it wouldn't have worked out anyway," he mumbled, unable to look at her. "Maybe – maybe Emily would have eventually driven a wedge between us."
"I don't think so," Victoria said, shaking her head. "I wouldn't have tried to get back to you so many times if I didn't think we could have been happy. But. . . ." She dropped her eyes again. "But I'm happy with Christopher too. I can't say I'm sorry to have married him."
"I wouldn't want you to," Victor replied, looking back up. "Victoria, I feel the same – I love you, and I want you to be happy. Even with another man." He managed a smile for Mr. White. "One who is about the opposite of Lord Barkis in every way."
"Not a tall order," Mr. White said with a disgusted snort. "It's easy to be the opposite of a thieving murderer."
"True, but. . .you really do love her, don't you?"
Mr. White gave Victoria another one of those affectionate smiles, taking her hand in his. "I do," he said. "She's a remarkable young woman. Well bred, intelligent, and willing to speak her mind and do what's right. Very hard not to fall in love with someone like that." He turned back to Victor with an apologetic grimace. "I never meant to steal her from you, though. I swear, if I'd had the slightest inkling you were alive. . . ."
"I believe you," Victor said. "And it's hardly stealing if the other party thinks I'm d-dead, right?"
"Please don't. I – it's n-not exactly what I wanted, but so long as you two are happy with each other. . .I can be content." Victor sighed deeply. What a day. . .his entire body felt weak and squeezed, like he was a sponge that had been wrung completely dry. "I should go. I'm imposing on you, I'm sure."
"Hardly," Victoria told him. "I'm sorry for putting you through this. It's such a betrayal, I know. . . ." She trailed off, staring at her hands. "I wish this could end happily for all of us."
Victor tried another smile. "It might still. Plenty of fish in the sea, as my father might say. And it's easier knowing you got your happy ending. Don't let this ruin what you found, Victoria. You deserve it after – everything." He pushed himself to his feet. "Do forgive me for dropping in so unexpectedly."
"Not at all," Victoria said, standing as well. "I'm glad to see you alive and well. Even if it is under such awkward circumstances." She extended her hand. "If you ever need someone to talk to, please don't hesitate to write."
Victor wasn't sure how comfortable he'd feel exchanging letters with his now-married ex-fiancee, but he was glad of the offer nonetheless. At least if I talk with her about Emily and the Land of the Dead, I'm guaranteed to be believed. "Thank you," he said, accepting the handshake (and trying not to focus on how her skin still felt so nice against his). "I wish you both every happiness."
"And we wish you the best of luck," Mr. White replied, standing and shaking Victor's hand as well. "I'll treat her right, Master Van Dort. You can be sure of that."
"I am. Thank you." Victor looked between them. "Well then – I'll b-be on my way."
"Shall I call Alan to show you out?" Victoria asked.
"I can find my own way, thank you. Good day."
With that, Victor turned and left the room. Well – that should fulfill my awkward conversation quota for the rest of the year, he thought, trudging his way back to the front door. I can't believe. . .no, I can believe it. I was willing to marry someone else – why shouldn't she be? And they do look happy together. That's what I want most of all, right? For her to be happy? He sighed again. Well, what I wanted most of all was her to be happy with me, but . . .
"Sir?" Victor looked up to see Alan standing nearby, frowning at him. "Are you all right?"
Victor considered the question. On the one hand, the woman he loved was no longer his. On the other. . .he thought about how comfortable she and Mr. White had looked together. How easily they fit. And then he pictured Lord Barkis again, that sword to Victoria's throat. "I could be a lot worse," he decided on. "Have a good day, Alan."
Alan smiled and nodded. "Thank you. You as well, Master Van Dort."
Victor's thoughts turned toward the Everglot summer home, and his furious parents waiting inside. He grimaced as he pushed open the door. "I'm not sure that's possible, but thank you just the same."