Chapter 4: The Drunkard Gets Her Due
September 7th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Where on earth could she be?
Victor glanced up at the sign as he turned the corner – Goring Street. How pleasant. Sounds like a place you'd find Downstairs, actually, he thought, scanning the meandering crowds for any sign of Alice as he made his way down the sidewalk. I wouldn't be surprised if they named their lanes and avenues after manners of death. But would Goring or Gored be better?
"I'm sure they'd prefer whichever name was more gruesome, given what you've told me about how they enjoy eating each other's noses," went through his head, making him smile. Yes, I'm sure that's just how she'd put it too. He sighed, his face dropping. I wish I was actually talking to her about this instead of just myself. . . .
He'd been through most of the major streets of Whitechapel by this point, searching every lane and byway that he and Alice had once walked together. So far, all he'd turned up was a bunch of street salesmen looking for a quick pound. He was doing his level best to remain calm and composed – taking slow, even breaths, walking at a reasonable pace, and generally attempting to project an air of unconcernedness. Only the fact that his hands never stopped moving – folding together, twisting his tie, rubbing the back of his neck – betrayed just how worried, how frightened, he really was. I mustn't panic, he told himself, dodging around someone's toddler running wild across the cobbles. The mother came racing along soon after, bumping his hip. I cannot panic. Bad things happen when I panic. I cannot afford for anything bad to happen. Not when Alice is missing and has been for a few hours oh God what if she's hurt or lost or – no! Stay calm!
That was easier said than done, of course. The instant the chemist had informed him that he hadn't seen Alice at all this afternoon, Victor's mind had decided that the best thing to do was start obsessing over the image of her lying unconscious and bleeding in some distant alleyway. Even now he was struggling to fight off all the worst fantasies his mind could conjure up – which was turning out to be quite a few. Her body broken and tossed into some forgotten ditch; her skull smashed by an overexcited horse; her last few fragments of innocence torn away by cruel groping hands –
Victor stopped and closed his eyes, squeezing his hands as he sucked in a breath. No – he couldn't let himself be distracted by his own overactive imagination. He had to focus on finding Alice. All he was doing now was upsetting himself with random conjecture that probably had no basis in reality –
Who am I kidding, I live in Whitechapel! his inner voice screamed. She's probably in terrible danger and by the time I find her she's going to be dead and while that means a happy reunion with her parents and sister it also means she'll never get to have a proper life and I'll never see her again and please God I can't lose someone else –
"Hello, sir! Might a feeble old lady trouble you for a pound or two?"
Victor nearly leapt right out of his skin. Clutching his chest, he turned to see a rather old woman with one of the biggest, most bulbous noses he'd ever come across (and he'd come across a fair number around here) regarding him with wary eyes. "Dear me, I thought for sure you were going to fall down dead right in the middle of the street," she commented. "Jumpy, aren't you?"
Victor swallowed, fighting off a blush. Well, that's what he got for letting his brain run away with him like that. "Do forgive me," he said as his heart slowly stopped thudding against his ribcage. "I was thinking of something else, and you s-startled me."
"That much was obvious, dear." The woman gave him an ingratiating smile. "I am sorry for disturbing you, but I'm afraid I haven't got much in the way of coin today. Could you favor me with–"
She stopped abruptly, frowning. "Wait. . . ." She squinted, peering hard at him through the tiny glasses clamped onto the bridge of her nose. "I think I've seen you about before. You're Victor Van Dort, aren't you?"
"Ah – yes, that's me," Victor said, biting his lip. Oh dear, this was just what he needed – someone else who knew about him from all those damn rumors. Please don't call me a necrophiliac please don't call me a necrophiliac –
"I thought so!" the woman cried. "You're that fellow who's staying at the Houndsditch Home with Alice! I've seen you out walking with her sometimes." She stuck out a frail hand. "Nurse Priscilla Witless. I used to work in Rutledge Asylum."
Victor blinked. "You – you did?" he said, shaking her hand almost on automatic. "Alice never mentioned you. Of course, she doesn't usually like to talk about her time in the a-asylum. . . ." And Victor didn't blame her. The few times she'd let something slip, he'd been horrified beyond belief. He'd already known that the last place he wanted to end up was inside a mental hospital, but hearing about the experiences of someone who'd already been trapped in the bowels of a place like Rutledge – well, it was a wonder she didn't suffer more nightmares than she already did. Being shocked in an electric chair, having leeches drain your blood, nearly getting a drill shoved through your head – how could such torture be called medicine?
"I imagine she doesn't," Nurse Witless nodded. "It was a terrible time for us all. If she wasn't lying there still as a statue, she was screaming her head off. Mad as a hatter, poor dearie." She shook her head and tched. "I never thought she'd walk out of there on her own two feet."
"I'm glad she proved you wrong," Victor said, smiling as he pictured Alice confidently striding out of the asylum gates, suitcase in hand, ready to take on the world. Oh, if only he could see that look on her now, instead of the fear and exhaustion that so often haunted her eyes these days. . . .
"Oh, I don't know about that, Master Van Dort," Nurse Witless said, just a bit too casually. "She seems to be backsliding, I'm afraid."
Victor stared at the nurse, a little cold spot forming in his gut. "What?"
Nurse Witless grinned – a most inappropriate expression for delivering such news, in Victor's opinion. "I met her earlier a street or two away from the Flaming Stallion. Poor dear seemed in a bad way – kept looking around her like she was expecting something to jump from the shadows and eat her up in one bite! Twas clear to me that she was seeing things again. So I took her up to visit my pigeon coops – such pretty birds they are. They always calm her right down. But today–" Witless shook her head, sticking out her lower lip in a pout. "Well, I was having a pleasant chat with the girl, when out of nowhere she gasps and starts staring at me like I was no less than the Prince of Darkness himself. I tried to ask her what was wrong, but she wouldn't answer. Just kept backing away from me, seeming right on the edge of a scream. Then she collapsed in a dead faint. I thought she'd given herself a heart attack for a moment."
Victor's heart didn't know whether to leap or sink. On the one hand, the news that Alice was indeed seeing monsters on the street was about the worst he could get – particularly in light of his tortured imaginings. On the other. . . . "I've been looking for her for at least a hour," he told the nurse, wringing his hands. "Is she all right?"
"I don't know, sorry to say," Nurse Witless replied, not sounding sorry in the slightest. "I managed to bring her down to my room, but while I was looking for the smelling salts, she woke up, babbled something about a cat, and then raced out into the hall. I tried to follow her, but she was leaping down the stairs like – well, a madwoman. By the time I reached the streets, she was long gone."
Sinking it was, then. Victor put his face in his hands. "Oh no," he groaned. "I hope she hasn't gotten hurt. . . ."
"I'd be more worried about whoever's unlucky enough to be around her getting hurt," Nurse Witless said, edging closer to him. "You don't know what she was like in Rutledge, do you? Nearly clawed some poor woman's face off when she tried to give the girl a bath."
Victor looked back up. "Really?"
"Really," Nurse Witless confirmed with a nod. "Seemed to think the nurse was some noblewoman she wasn't fond of. And then there was the incident with the orderlies and the spoon. Permanently scarred one of the boys! We were all terrified to enter her cell. She didn't wake up often in that place, but when she did – watch out!"
Victor frowned. Witless's face was the picture of seriousness – but he'd swear there was a spark of glee in the nurse's eyes. Was telling him all these horror stories about how Alice had suffered truly that entertaining? "She wasn't w-well at the time. . .I'm sure she's sorry," he said, feeling the need to defend his best friend's honor. Frown deepening, he added, "You know, she's told me about the spoon – and about how those orderlies made it their business to taunt and torment her every chance they got. As for the former. . .was that one of those saltwater baths she mentioned? The kind where the water is colder than ice?"
The glee vanished, replaced by grumpiness. "Could have been," Witless said vaguely, not meeting his eyes. Then a sly little smile appeared on her lips. "But I think there was something off about the girl even before she entered Rutledge. Do you know what I heard her say one night not long after she came to us?"
"What?" Victor asked, eying her.
"'All died on my account, I couldn't save you,'" Witless declared, face triumphant. "Sounds to me like she had more to do with that fire than she likes to let on. Don't you think that's suspicious?" She shook her head again, now all compassion and sympathy. "Poor thing must be eaten up with guilt. . . ."
Victor gaped at the former nurse. Was she – was she really – and she expected him to – "How – how dare you?!"
Judging by Witless's baffled expression, that wasn't what he was supposed to say. "How dare I what?" she replied, blinking.
"How dare you tell me those things to try and poison my mind against Alice! How dare you imply that she was the one to kill her family?!" Victor snarled, fists clenched. "And with something as – as silly as that! Any child would probably say such a thing after suffering such tragedy! It means nothing! And yet you – and you were a nurse?!"
"And a damn good one!" Witless snapped, glaring. "And it certainly means something to Alice, otherwise she wouldn't keep pay–"
She stopped short, eyes darting from side to side. The wheels ground to life in Victor's brain. Alice got a decent wage from Dr. Bumby. . .and she didn't buy much beyond the groceries, which were paid for out of Bumby's pocket. . .yet she never seemed to have any money. . . . "You've been blackmailing her?"
"An old woman has got to eat!" Witless cried, giving up all pretense of civility. "You swell, you've never known what it's like to be hungry and thirsty! I need my drink! It doesn't matter to me how I get the money!"
"Obviously," Victor hissed between gritted teeth. "I take a very dim view of people who manipulate and hurt others just for money, Nurse Witless."
"Do you now? Spoken like someone who's never suffered an empty purse," Witless shot back, eyes narrowed. "Besides, if it weren't for me bringing her to the attention of Dr. Bumby, Alice would be like every other girl here without a penny to her name – selling her backside for her dinner! Don't I deserve consideration for that?"
"Consideration does not mean sucking every last pound away from an already-struggling young lady!" Victor snapped. Even as he said it, though, he knew it wouldn't do any good. Witless was just like every other person in the East End, caring only about herself. If she even knew the definition of 'empathy,' she'd consider it a dirty word. But he was just so disgusted. Was it really so hard to keep hold of a few morals in this horrible city? To at least not make life any worse for your fellow citizens?
"Oh yes, like she'd spend them on anything important," Witless said, rolling her eyes. "Girl's been mad as a March hare for years. Did you know, back in June she was actually going to waste her money buying you a birthday present? Your family could buy every shop in this neighborhood! It was much better served being spent at the Stallion."
"Buying me. . . ." Victor abruptly flashed back to the day before his birthday, when he'd caught Alice coming back from some sort of trip. She'd rushed past him with an absolutely heartbroken look on her face, refusing to talk about it. While everything seemed to have been settled by the time she gave him his present the next day, he'd never found out the why behind her distress. . . . His fingernails bit into his palms as he struggled to contain his rapidly-swelling ire. Who knew he could get so angry over something so far in the past? "That was because of you?! Do you know how upset you made her?"
"Do you care that much about getting a present?" Witless spat. "Typical rich brat. How you've not been nailed for your wallet by even the worst gonoph is–"
"I don't give a damn about you robbing me of a gift!" Victor snapped, flinging his arms out to the sides. "I care about how much you hurt my best friend! When she came home that day, I thought for sure she was going to start crying! I worried about her all night!"
Now it was Witless's turn to gape at him. "Wait – you – you don't actually care for the girl, do you?" she asked, astonished.
"Of course I do!" Victor shouted, not even caring that a few people were giving him funny looks now. "Alice is the only reason I've been able to tolerate living in this wretched neighborhood! She's kind, compassionate, funny, beautiful–"
"Beautiful?! Bloody hell, you're acting like you want to marry her!"
Victor hesitated a moment. Then he leaned forward, hitting Witless with a steely glare. "And what if I do?"
The old woman's eyes went wide. "You – you and – can't be – you're lying!"
"Not about this," Victor said quietly, keeping his eyes fixed on hers. "Never about this."
Witless's jaw seemed about ready to detach itself. "You – you actually – I would have never. . . ." The ingratiating smile made an abrupt reappearance. "Er – you know, I never meant dear Alice any harm, it's just – an old woman has such trouble getting along in the world. . . ." she babbled, backing away a step.
"I'm sure you do, you rotten lushington," Victor replied, voice like ice. "And I suspect things are about to get much worse." He straightened up to his full six feet three inches, glowering at Witless down the length of his nose. It was a first-time effort, but he felt he pulled it off surprisingly well. "I'm going off to find Alice. And when I do, I'm going to take her home, and I'm going to make sure she's never bothered by the likes of you again. I don't want you within ten feet of Houndsditch or her. I'll tell Dr. Bumby so he knows to drive you off if he sees you. And if, later, I discover that you've ignored my instructions and continued blackmailing her, making her life more miserable than it already is. . . ."
He actually wasn't sure what he'd do, but trailing off like that seemed to encourage Witless's imagination to fill in the blanks. She nodded rapidly. "Yes, of course, Master Van Dort. You'll see neither hide or hair of me in the neighborhood again." She swiped her hand in an X over her heart. "Promise."
"Good." He gave her a curt nod. "Then our business is settled. Good day to you, Nurse Witless." With that, Victor turned on his heel and marched away, leaving the old woman to wring her hands behind him.
He made it about halfway down the street before the guilt began to set in. Had he really just threatened an elderly lady? One who was clearly poor and struggling to make a living? How could he have done such a thing? Didn't that make him no better than the rest of the thugs who roamed these ugly streets? He ought to turn around and apologize.
Then the image of Alice's stricken face swam before his eyes, sending him back to seething. How could that old witch have done that to Alice? How could she? His friend had so little already. . . . Was dumping beer and gin down her throat that important to Witless?
Yes, of course it is, he thought bitterly, rolling his eyes. Anyone who lives here has turned their heart into a lump of coal so it won't get in the way of what they want. Victor shook his head, growling under his breath. Disgusting neighborhood. . . . If only I could go back to Burtonsville. Or – or anywhere, really. I feel like the longer I stay here in Whitechapel, the closer I get to losing everything good and decent about myself.
He stopped at the corner, letting his shoulders slump. The worst part was, he was no closer to finding Alice. And if Nurse Witless's information was correct (which he was starting to doubt – the old hag would probably say just about anything if she thought it would help turn him against his lo-friend), she was hallucinating even worse than usual, running around the city in a daze. Which meant she could be just about anywhere. Again the image of her lying battered and bruised in some ditch assaulted Victor's mind. Was that really destined to be his belov – his best friend's ultimate fate?
She got out of Rutledge on her own two feet, despite what everyone thought, he reminded himself, rubbing between his eyebrows. She can get past this. Calm down and think this through logically before you work yourself into an early grave. So there's the strong possibility Alice is seeing things again while she wanders – what exactly does that mean for her? Witless mentioned her talking about a cat – the Cheshire Cat? Does that mean she's back in Wonderland? On the one hand, fighting off monsters from her subconscious has seemed to help her claw back her sanity in the past. On the other. . .doing so out in public, with no knowledge of the real world, means she could very well be a danger to herself. And quite possibly others, he allowed, wincing as he thought of Alice slashing and biting at someone in a deluded haze. Oh dear, poor Alice. . . . He started walking again, alight with fresh purpose. I've got to find her, and soon. I just wish I knew where to start looking!