He broke the news to him outside Ashbless’ home. His father had just passed and they were obliged to pay him their respects, but Doyle had reported that he was absolutely devastated and Charles and Bennett were pacing the pavement instead of getting inside. Ashbless was always difficult to deal with, and they were not eager to find out how he had reacted to this.
“He lives with you?” was Bennett’s response.
“Only temporarily”, Charles said defensively.
“But you don’t know him!” Bennett looked amazed and confused at the same time. “And you let him into your home?! How do you know you can trust him?”
“What would he do?”
“I don’t know, you’re married, what if he steals your wife?”
Charles scoffed. “Then I would forever be in his debt.”
“Fine, forget I said that”, Bennett said. “But I can be envious. This complete stranger lives with, but I’ve known you for years and when I asked to use the washroom I was banned from the house for a month.”
“But I did let you use the washroom first”, Charles muttered.
That was what he thought about when he and James turned the corner and he saw that his front door was open. He quieted in the middle of whatever sentence he was educating James with and stopped mid-step with his walking stick on the ground.
“What on earth…” He started moving again, and he walked faster now.
You don’t know him.
“Do you want me to go in first?” James suggested as he hurried on beside him. “To see that no one’s in there?”
Charles did not speak. He ran up the steps to the door.
How do you know you can trust him?
His home was empty. The entrance hall looked naked. Everything was gone. The chandelier, the paintings, the table, even the flower vase. There was only some dust on the ground from where they must have dropped the bust from the drawing room, but they had still brought it with them, broken as it surely was. They had broken his bust. Charles was stunned silent, slowly spinning around in a circle.
What if he steals your wife?
What if he steals something else?
Charles stopped and looked at James. He was stepping into the room with wide eyes and an open mouth.
“The door looked fine”, Charles said. “Either someone didn’t lock it – or they had a key.”
James slowly brought up his hands and covered his mouth. There was genuine horror in his eyes.
“I’m so sorry”, he said. “This is all – this is all my fault.”
How had he doubted him? Charles shook it off. There was no way he was responsible, not when he looked like that, not when his voice sounded so apologetic. Charles thought about his shy smiles and the time he had started crying about his father, he thought about how he looked in bed, when he kissed him, and how he kept touching the locket he always wore when he thought Charles was not watching, and he knew that James had had nothing to do with this.
“One of the servants must have told someone that no one was here tonight”, he said eventually.
“I was the one who told you to let them go”, James said quietly. “If I hadn’t…” He shook his head. “It’s my fault.”
Charles turned around. “Shut up, James.”
He spotted something on the floor just where the hallway begun, and rapidly started moving towards it. They had left something! He felt some of his hope return, maybe they had left something in the other rooms too then. They had left something! They had left – the painting of his wedding picture.
Charles looked at it in disappointment. Of all the things, that. He bent down and lifted it up.
“All I have left.” He looked at James. “Is it a metaphor?”
James shook his head slowly. “Charles…”
That very second she came in through the door, pulling off her gloves, with a big, glowing smile on her face. Charles did not have to do more than look at her to catch how it faded away in an instant. Her jaw dropped, her steps slowed down and stopped altogether.
“What’s happened?” she asked in stunned French.
“Chérie”, he said, “we’ve been robbed.”
Nicoline looked around the room in quiet disbelief, but she did not look very worried, just indifferently observing the emptiness left after her home. In fact, the most concerned person in the room appeared to be James. He had let his hands slowly drop and looked between the two others with compassion and guilt. But then Charles supposed he was the only one who did not know.
He took a deep breath and started planning. Life had to go on, and he had to be the one to keep it moving forward.
“I will start replacing things immediately tomorrow”, he said. “And Guerin – no, I suppose I have to send for the police. In the morning, so we don’t cause any inconvenience.”
She nodded. How strange that not even she would disagree with him now.
“Do you have any callers or guests this week?” She nodded again. “You will have to cancel them. And don’t plan any new ones before we have the situation under control again. Chérie, do you understand?”
“Yes”, Nicoline almost whispered, still looking around the room. “I understand.”
“It’s one hell of a position we’re in”, Charles continued. “But I-“
He stopped in the middle of the sentence and went a shade paler. How had he not thought about it earlier? He had been too shocked to think clearly, but now he had finally gotten there.
“Chérie.” He raised his voice and she looked at him. He switched back to English. “Check your jewellery.”
Her face dropped as she too made the realisation. She grabbed her skirts and rushed up the stairs without saying another word.
As they heard her running along the hallway on the upper floor, Charles leaned the painting against the wall and looked down at it.
“My god”, he said. “It is a metaphor.”
But it was not everything he had left, her and the painting, not yet. He still had James, who was walking towards him now, probably set on comforting him, and for the moment he still had the jewellery.
“Charles”, James said. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know…”
“I’ll have to fire someone.” His voice was robotic. “The problem is replacing them, because they all have to speak French. Do you know how difficult it is to find servants who speak French?”
James stopped a few steps away from him and did not reply.
“Workers don’t speak French”, Charles said. “Just like you.”
Nicoline reappeared upstairs, leaned against the railing as if she needed the support to stay upright. She looked ill, clasping it tightly.
“Is it gone?” His voice broke just as he finished.
He tried to steady his breathing. “All of it?”
She took a second, but he already knew that she would say another “Yes” that sounded just like the first.
He closed his eyes and sighed, his grip tightening around the walking stick. Now all really was lost.
“Everything in this house of any value”, he mumbled under his breath.
When he opened his eyes again James had furrowed his brows.
“What does that mean?” he asked. His voice sounded strange.
“James”, Charles said. “I need to tell you something.”
The library was mostly intact, whatever good that did. All the walls were covered with bookshelves that had clearly been too many to be emptied. There were some empty spots where the thicker volumes had been, but that was a minor problem. The Persian carpet had been rolled up and removed, the decorative plates were not on top of the fireplace and both tables that had been there were gone, but there was still a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and only one of the couches had been taken, meaning they had one to sit on.
And that was what they were doing, Charles reclined and James at the edge on the other side, looking as though he did not know what to expect.
Charles was trying to come up with a good way to start, the right amount of back-story, how he could make it sound better than it was.
“One of the most prominent memories I have of my childhood”, he said eventually, “was one time when I was woken up and told that my father wanted me in the drawing room. They were playing cards. He told me he was going to teach me.” He allowed himself a smile at the memory before he continued. “It was in the middle of the night, I was eight years old in my pyjamas, and the room was full of less than respectable men that were smoking, drinking and being very loud. But I sat there in his lap for hours, trying my hardest to remember and understand all the rules and learn the game.”
He grabbed his own knees and looked away from James’ scrutinizing eyes.
“When it was over he hugged me and said I was the best son he could ever have wished for. I was so proud, I felt so grown-up.” Charles bit his lip, formed into an amused smile. “It wasn’t until much later I learned that I hadn’t been there to learn the game, it was because I was in the pot.”
James frowned. “What?”
“You heard me.” Charles looked at him. “He had already put in everything else he owned, and he decided to play about me.”
It was quiet for a few seconds as James processed this.
“Whatever good it is”, he said sympathetically after a while, “I know how it’s like to have a father that doesn’t love you.”
“Really? I don’t.” Charles shook his head. “James, you misunderstand me. My father was a gambler, but he loved me very much. He had three daughters from a previous marriage and my mother died giving birth to me, at which point he was already of an age. I was his only son, and he adored me. We always had the best relationship possible, and the only time we ever fought was when I got married. He only accepted Nicoline because of possibility of grandchildren, and when that didn’t happen- Well, I quickly realised he had been right from the beginning.”
“Why did he put me in the pot? Why would you play about something you don’t love? Do you think any of the others would have accepted it if I was some ugly half-wit?” Charles nodded knowingly. “I was a very bright, handsome child with a lot of promise. He had convinced them all that I would become the prime minister some day. I was the most valuable thing he had, and that was why he played about me.” He scoffed. “Luckily, he won.”
He knew he was rambling now, and soon he would have to get to the point. But if he dragged out on it, maybe it would soften the blow. If he explained all aspects of it, perhaps he could make James understand.
“So when he died three years ago, I was of course devastated”, he continued. “My sisters all had wealthy husbands and a poor relationship with the old man, so I knew I would inherit everything. And with that knowledge, in my grief, I started spending money.” He sighed. “I redecorated the entire house because I needed change, I drank constantly because I couldn’t deal with life sober, I tried to win back my wife with jewellery, dresses and pretty things. But after a while, it was revealed that my dear father had not always been as lucky as the night he played about me.”
James was cleverer than he looked. Now he started to suspect where the story was going, and he leaned back into the couch with a hesitant expression on his face. Exactly the reaction Charles had expected.
“At the time of his death he was indebted to more than he owned”, he said. “It was not long until I had to start paying it out of my own pocket. To this day I’m still doing it.”
James let out a loud breath and looked as if the disappointment had been greater than for Charles himself.
“I have no money”, Charles clarified with an interruption. “I’m poorer than a beggar on the street. Everything in the house is – was – fake, nothing was worth anything.”
“Except the jewellery”, James said quietly.
There was some more calmness. He was waiting to be shouted at, he was half-expecting James to start crying again. But he just stared at him with a face that could not be read and eyes that would not blink; he did not move or make a sound.
Then he did the last thing Charles had expected – he started laughing. It increased gradually, until he leaned over and gasped for air as his face grew red, appearing unable to stop. This seemed to be the most amusing thing he had ever heard, and he just laughed and laughed and laughed.
“I don’t see what’s so funny”, Charles muttered, offended.
“Oh”, James pressed out. “It’s just so ironic.”
He looked up and shook his head, grinning like an idiot.
“What’s ironic?” Charles demanded.
James shook his head. “I’m just thinking of the robbers”, he said, interrupted by another fit of laughter. “They went through all this trouble, and they got nothing for it!”
“Except the jewellery”, Charles huffed.
James was laughing so hard he could not reply.