The Capital; One Month Later (3)
Camilla eventually managed to get the children to lead her onto the kitchen.
Alois, meanwhile, was told to stay in the orphanage’s waiting room.
The waiting room was so neatly organized and well maintained that it didn’t fit Alois’ idea of what an orphanage looked like at all. The cream coloured white walls gave the room a bright yet soft impression. The large windows offered a sunswept view of the church next door. The chairs and tables were noticeably aged, but they looked in good condition. Everything he could see in the room spoke volumes about the orphanage’s wealth.
The only person in the waiting room alongside Alois was a single nun. If he had to make a guess at her age, perhaps she was nearing her fifties? As she guided him to the waiting room, the children had called her ‘miss’, so he assumed she must have been one of the staff here.
When the nun spoke to him, her voice was relaxed, the slight wrinkles either side of her lip stretching as she smiled.
“We sincerely welcome you here. I’ve heard everything from Lady Camilla. Lord Alois… would you prefer me to address you that way?”
“Yes, that would be fine, thank you… Sorry for suddenly intruding like this.”
Alois took off his hat as he spoke. Even when that glittering silver hair of his came into view, her gentle smile didn’t crack at all.
“You’re more than welcome. It’s always like this around here, after all. Please, sit, Diana will be here with a cup of tea shortly.”
Alois studied the nun once again once she said Diana’s name.
– They’re similar.
The energetic Diana and the sage-like nun. They gave off almost the exact opposite impression, but there was something distinctly similar about both of them…
When the nun noticed Alois gazing at her, he made a voice as he finally realized. Once Alois had taken a seat, she sat opposite him. Maybe it was Alois’ imagination, but it almost seemed like she had a slightly different air about her now that he had figured it out.
“My apologies for not introducing myself earlier. My name is Rita Hellner. Yes, as I imagine you’ve already deduced, Lord Alois… I am also in your debt, since I am Diana’s mother.”
Alois instinctively repeated that familiar name. Hellner, although occupying a low rung on the aristocratic ladder, should by all means still be a noble family.
“Oh my, Diana didn’t tell you?”
Rita tilted her head in surprise as Alois hook his head. He’d heard a few stories about Diana from Camilla, mostly from the time when she was young, but he’d never looked into Diana’s background. When he accepted her as a servant of the Montchat family, he’d dispensed with the usual requirement of a letter of introduction. Because, even though she was a servant of the Storm family who he had antagonized, he wanted to trust someone that Camilla herself placed so much faith in.
What’s more, Diana wasn’t exactly the type that talked about herself much. Really, the only certain things he knew about her was that she was a servant to the Storm family and Camilla’s long-time maid.
“That girl, always so troublesome,” Rita frowned as she said that with a sigh, resting her chin on her hand.
“Hellner is my husband’s family name. But, I’ve been cut off from that family now, so I don’t have anything to do with the current Baron Hellner.”
“Cut off…? I’m sorry if I’m prying, but what about your husband…?”
“He passed away. More than ten years ago now, it must be. That being said, we were cut off from the main family well before that. It’s been over twenty years since my husband and I eloped now.”
Alois almost gasped at how casually she said those words with that calm tone of hers. Becoming the lover of a nobleman’s son, eloping and being cut off. From that alone, he was able to glean the gist of their circumstances as mother and daughter.
“We became commoners overnight, and not affluent ones either. Of course, we never regretted eloping, but when we were at a loss as to what to do, it was Count Storm who helped us. Since he had my husband’s friend from childhood, he hired both of us together.”
Alois couldn’t hold back the frown when he heard the name Storm, being immediately reminded of Camilla’s parents who he himself had played a part in cutting away from their daughter.
At that time, he was determined to take Camilla’s hand and bring her along, severing the relationship between her and her parents. He still didn’t regret that spur of the moment decision he made, but he could never quite get rid of that worming doubt that burrowed its way into his heart.
“Even after my husband died and I left the employ of the Storm family, the Count still supports me. Despite the fact that we don’t have any sort of real relationship, he still gives large donations to this church regularly, perhaps as a way of helping the wife of his departed friend.”
“…That sort of thing is just that guy trying to show off how ‘virtuous’ he is to the other nobles.”
Just as the door was loudly banged open, Diana’s voice also carried into the room. As she stepped inside, she carried a tray with two cups of tea in her hand, not bothering to close the door behind her.
“I’ll never forget the attitude of those two. They always talked to dad a bunch, but they never even paid me or mum a glance. After my father died, they basically forced mum into a convent to get rid of a nuisance.”
“Yes, yes, tea.”
Without showing any reaction to Rita’s shout, Diana quickly sat the teacups in front of both of them. Although there didn’t seem to be any elegance in her angry looking movement, she didn’t spill a single drop of tea. Alois couldn’t help but admire whatever well-practiced technique she was using.
“The only reason he donates to the orphanage is for the sake of his image. ‘The Count of Storm is honouring his dearly departed friend by sending money to his commoner wife’, just by using some chump change he can spin such a nice little story. They’ve always been like that. It’s always just been about how they can make themselves look good. They just judge people based on who is useful and who isn’t. Whether that’s a commoner, a daughter of a commoner… or even their own kid, right?”
As she held the tray to her chest, Diana cast Alois a meaningful glance. ‘Their own kid’, it was clear she meant Camilla
“That’s why they sent you away, mum. But because I started to teach that girl how to cook and she got attached to me, I wasn’t.”
“Diana! Watch your tongue!”
“I’m not going to grovel at the feet of people like them. That goodness of theirs only runs skin deep. But, despite how hollow everything they do is, we’re still supposed to think of them as ‘good people’? If it wasn’t for Camilla, I’d have quit working at that house of theirs a long time ago.”
Diana still didn’t pay any mind to Rita’s increasingly annoyed voice. As she shook her head, she suddenly looked Rita’s way as if she had suddenly remembered something.
“Oh, speaking of which, Camilla was asking after something. There’s not enough charcoal to get a fire going.”
“Just changing the topic again as always… Charcoal, is it? I’ll go and get some, but be prepared for a tongue lashing later young lady!”
After glancing at Diana, Rita bowed to Alois before leaving the room, closing the door behind her.
Alois watched her leave silently.
The only thing he could think about was what Diana had said about the Storm family just before.
– Polishing their skin-deep reputation as ‘good people’. Only judging people on their value to them. No one realizing their true nature. Perhaps not even themselves…
On the day of the trial, he had seen Count and Countess Storm attempt to appeal to Camilla. He was furious. Using force, he had pulled Camilla away from them. Neither he nor they would ever forget that moment.
But, it wasn’t just anger that Alois held in his heart when he thought of them.
As much as he hated it, he also understood them on some level, perhaps even sympathized. Alois knew all too well just how they lived. Both he and they had lived lies, deceiving themselves and becoming wrapped up in fake personas just to keep going.
Until only recently, he had been just the same as them. It was because of that understanding that he couldn’t completely remove that pang of guilt.
Noticing how silent Alois had fallen, Diana called out to him. Not being able to stand those eyes staring at him any longer, Alois finally broke his silence.
“…I did it too.”
As he stared ahead at the wall, not being able to face her, Alois mumbled softly. He became all too aware suddenly of what kind of a place he was in. It reminded him too much of Grenze.
“I did it too, since I donated to an orphanage like this.”
“I wanted people to see me as a ‘good lord’… No, at the time, I don’t think I was even fully aware of just what I was doing myself.”
It wasn’t just the orphanage in Grenze. The way he originally treated Camilla smacked of the exact same hypocrisy of Count and Countess Storm. The real reason he had taken Camilla in was to appear benevolent, and ultimately he deeply hurt her as a result.
In truth, Alois thought, he had no right to hurl any blame at the Storm family. If he couldn’t forgive them, then just how could Alois forgive himself? But, because of his own selfishness, Alois had still torn Camilla away from her parents.
“…You’re so God damn uptight, you know that?”
A harsh voice rang out above Alois’ head. When he looked up in surprise, the only thing he could see was Diana frowning down at him, her arms crossed.
“Don’t think that people like you or them are some kind of rare breed. People can’t help but do things like that sometimes.”
“I hope I’m wrong, but is the reason you’ve been looking so worse for wear lately is that you’ve been feeling guilty towards Camilla? Wondering if you really had the right to stay with her or something?”
He couldn’t say anything to refute her. Alois found himself uncomfortable and speechless as Diana glared down at him thunderously.
“Lord Alois. You regret the things that you’ve done, right?”
Alois didn’t answer her. He didn’t know just how to answer that.
For the ten years that he was the Duke of Mohnton, Alois strived to become a good lord, but in reality, he often trampled on the feelings of others time and time again. He was almost calculating as he unintentionally tallied up the actions he should take to cultivate his image. He knew better than anyone just how horrendous a hypocrite he was.
But, could he really draw a line between himself and Camilla’s parents?
On that day, Alois had sought to throw down the Storm family as much as he could out of anger.
As Alois remained silent, Diana sat where Rita had been just before and shook her head. After she took a sip of the tea that she had brought herself, she spoke freely.
“…I hate to admit it, but I can’t deny that there are people who were saved by them.”
Diana sounded exceptionally bitter. He could tell just from her voice that even this damning praise was tough for her to say. She didn’t want to do it, but somehow she knew those were the words Alois needed to hear.
“My dad and mum got jobs and the orphanage also got donations. Money is money, and it’s how its used that’s important to the person receiving it. If it weren’t for those donations, this orphanage wouldn’t survive as is. So, I mean, for every one person like me who sees them for what they really are, there’ll be ten people who say ‘thank you’ and really mean it. Because, if that money lets them eat another day and see another sunrise, then it’s hard to see the person who gave it to them as anything but a benefactor.”
Diana, not being one of those people, took a sip of tea.
“No matter how hard you try, there are times when you just can’t dig yourself out of a hole. Camilla coming to the orphanage and interacting with the children was a much more heartfelt gesture than the donations from the Storm family, but in the end, it’s the latter that kept these kids fed and clothed. That’s why mum has always been grateful to the Storm family, as you could see for yourself.”
Diana shrugged nonchalantly as she looked at the door her mother had left through.
“The Storm family… both the Count and Countess. Even though she knows what that money really means. To her, they’re still the people who helped when she had nothing. So… even if everyone else came to hate the Storm family, I don’t think my mother ever could. If it weren’t for their donations, just who knows where’d she’d be right now, right?”
“…So that’s how it is?”
“That’s how it is. No matter how good you are, there’ll always be those who dislike you. But, even if that goodness is just a veil of hypocrisy, so long as the deeds are still ‘good’, it makes it hard to be truly disliked.”
Alois looked down. He stared at his own face that shimmered in his cup of tea for a while. Through his guilt, a thought rose to the surface.
The Count and Countess Storm have people who admire them. Likewise, as a Lord, Alois had people who looked up to him as well. Even if it was hypocritical, was it okay to accept it?
“Those people, and you too Lord Alois, you’re not villains. Thanks to what you’ve done, the truth is that people did end up getting saved, right? Then, you should be proud of what you’ve done. Just accept the praise, even if other people might hawk some spit at you.”
Alois breathed a sigh at Diana’s words. She really was blunt. The only way someone might be able to figure out who was master and servant in this conversation was the fact that Diana still called Alois ‘Lord’.
He wondered just how much Camilla’s sometimes sharp tongue was inherited from Diana. She really was a bad influence on Camilla from the very start, wasn’t she?
But, regardless, she was an important friend to her as well.
“In Camilla’s eyes, you’re her salvation, Lord Alois. So, it’s fine. You shouldn’t be so arrogant as to expect to wrap up everything neatly and tidily with a perfect bow.”
“That’s… right, huh?”
Alois grimaced as he raised his head. He didn’t think that he’d be able to deal with it as boldly as Diana was encouraging him to, but when it came to that pang in his chest, he felt as if perhaps he’d patched over the hole just a little bit.
He regretted the days he spent wearing the mask of a ‘good lord’, when he was still completely under the influence of his parents’ curse. But, it wasn’t as if it was all bad. He regretted everything he had done that hurt Camilla. But, it was because they moved past them together that Alois and Camilla could be the people they were now.
Alois was, in a way, a saviour to a lot of people. Likewise, if Count and Countess Storm cared to look, they would find a lot of people who earnestly believe in them with all their hearts.
“Well, even if I say all that, I still despise them.”
It was impossible to be universally liked, after all. There was no way to choose a path that would satisfy everyone. He would shoulder those regrets and accept the scorn, whilst continuing to still move forward. So long as he had his own saviour by his side.
Alois smiled wryly as he finally took a sip of that tea that held his reflection. It tasted different from the days where his tea was filled with sugar. It had a subtle and slightly bitter flavour, but it tasted much more authentic.
“Thank you very much.”
“Nah, it was nothing.”
With everything wrapped up, Diana’s mouth began to curve upwards…
But, as it did, the door flew open with the sound of children’s happy shouts.
As well as the wafting smell of freshly baked cookies.