Free Fiction: “Descent of the Wayward Sister” by Gabrielle Harbowy

It was an unfortunate and shameful predicament that led me to seek lodging with my estranged older brother. We were strangers raised by the same parents with more than a decade between us, like serial lodgers with only a house and a pair of kindly if distant landlords in common. I knew nothing of his secrets, nor he of mine.

His was a stately row house on a venerated downtown block. It was the sort of street along which young businessmen walk with ambitious longing, and ladies make a show of disembarking from their carriages so that other ladies might see them welcomed inside. I came to his doorstep in the evening, in the rain, with the glow of the streetlight forming a halo behind my bedraggled, dripping hair. My brother was a stern-looking man, but I was accustomed to charming my way into the hearts of stern-looking men. The words spilled past my lips: I confessed to him that a grave misunderstanding with a young gentleman had ruined my station, and that I had nowhere else to go. Upon my repeated apologies, sobbed between solemn assertions that I would not inconvenience him and only needed a safe place for my reputation to convalesce in privacy, he took me in with a nod and a long-suffering sigh.

At once, he arranged for me the sorts of diversions appropriate for a lady: music lessons, and embroidery, and dancing. It was an unexpected kindness, perhaps evidence of how deeply he had been moved my plea. Or perhaps to keep me occupied while he was away all day, toiling at whatever labor provided him the financial resources for such a well-situated home. He did not discuss his work with me, and I did not ask. When he returned home in the evening, we dined in formal silence at opposite ends of a long, impersonal table. After coffee, he received callers and retreated to his study, leaving me once again on my own.

I rarely saw him. Still, hints of his secrets soon began to make themselves apparent. The servants – for he had several – were not at sufficient ease with me to treat me as one of their number, as I would have preferred. However, they were unaccustomed to another presence pacing the halls by day, and forgot to guard their tongues. They whispered about him, about the house, about the visitors, about the need to keep a vigilant eye on me to prevent me from wandering where I shouldn’t. There were doors, I learned, that were perpetually locked. To these rooms the house servants were forbidden entry, and strict punishment might befall any well-meaning girl who rearranged his books, or so much as shifted his papers.

A locked door, however, had never been a match for my curiosity. Indeed, I had made my livelihood upon the riches and secrets they shielded. Willpower and gratitude held me back for a full two days, but on my third day in residence I claimed headache in the middle of my piano lesson and sent the tutor away. It was, I thought, something a spoiled lady might often do, and indeed the nice gentleman seemed willing enough to escape my dreadful playing while presumably keeping his full afternoon’s fee. With the servants distracted by the afternoon bustle as they prepared for their master’s return, my slender lock picks and I crept into every room on the upstairs floor, in search of a bit more background on my closest blood-relation.

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