Chapter 1: New Arrival
April 9th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"Look at that carriage!"
"Wow – a real swell must own that!"
"So why's it stopping outside our place?"
Alice Liddell, rounding the hall corner after dusting Dr. Bumby's office, paused and frowned. Judging by the crowd in front of her, almost every child in the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth had decided that a certain upstairs window was the most fascinating thing in the world. "What's going on?" she asked, approaching them.
One of her charges, a young boy named Charlie, looked up. "There's somebody parked outside!" he reported.
"Somebody rich!" a girl, Abigail, added.
Curious, Alice peered over the children's heads. There was indeed a rather fancy-looking carriage parked outside the front gates of Houndsditch, made of dark wood and shaped with elegant curves – although the effect was rather spoilt by the baffling false fish mounted on the top. As she watched, the side door opened, and out came a balding man wearing an absurdly thin top hat, a thick mustache, and an impressive set of curled whiskers. After speaking briefly to the driver, he turned to help a rather plump woman through the door – a task that proved harder than first expected. "Cor, look at her!" a boy called Reggie laughed. "She's stuck!"
Indeed she was – the woman's body appeared to be just too wide to fit through the doorframe. A wave of giggles swept through the crowd of children as they watched the man and his driver tug on the woman, who was yelling something about it being her dress that was caught. Alice rolled her eyes as the woman nearly whacked her driver in the head with her fan. Yes, of course it's your dress that's causing all the trouble. Oh, to be able to afford enough food to be that fat. . . .
After a solid two minutes of pulling, the woman at last popped free, with much complaining on her part. She promptly took over the operation, ordering the driver around like a drill sergeant while a third figure emerged from the other side of the carriage. This one was a young man, tall and thin, with the whitest skin Alice had ever seen. "What did he do, walk out of a tintype?" she mumbled to herself.
Upon seeing the young man, the woman turned her ire on him, fussing with his suit and poking him in the stomach with her fan to stop him slouching. This left the driver free to unload a trunk and a pair of suitcases off the back of the carriage. "What – is they staying here?" Reggie asked, frowning.
"'Are they,'" Alice corrected. "And they can't be – this isn't a hotel. You'd have to be very confused to mistake it for such."
"What are you all looking at?"
Dr. Angus Bumby, proprietor of the Home, came up behind them with a frown. "What's all the fuss about? Some of you have chores, I'm sure," he added with a significant look at Alice.
"We've got people outside," Abigail informed him.
"With luggage,"Alice added. "You haven't invited anyone to stay, have you?"
"Luggage?" Dr. Bumby looked out the window. "Oh, the Van Dorts! Their son's a new patient," he explained. He straightened his tie and headed for the stairs. "I'd better go and greet them. Stop gawking and make yourselves useful – or at least get out of the way."
With that, he disappeared. The children stared at each other. "New patient?" Charlie repeated, looking puzzled. "But he's got parents!"
"Don't mean you can't be sick in the head," Abigail pointed out with a shrug.
"Looks like he'd break in a stiff breeze," another girl named Elsie said, pressing her face against the glass.
"Do you think we'll have to share a room with him?" Reggie asked his friend Ollie. "Crowded enough with just us in there!"
"We'll just have to wait and see," Alice said. "Now do as the doctor says and shoo. And thank you ever so much for the opportunity to clean this window."
"He could have warned us the dratted place was in the East End!"
Nell Van Dort gazed disdainfully upon the brown brick bulk that was the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth. "Not a high class place at all," she mumbled. "What's a doctor as good as he is doing in the worst part of town?"
"Well, he does specialize in orphans and disadvantaged children," William pointed out. "Maybe it's easier from him to have his headquarters here."
"Hmph. If I were him, I would have a proper hospital in the West End. At the very least, something with a decent coat of paint."
Victor looked up at the house as his parents argued, his stomach twisting into knots. This was where he would have to stay? It didn't look welcoming in the slightest. More foreboding. Mother was right, for a change – what was this miracle-worker doing living and working in the heart of Whitechapel?
Of course, he could just be a quack hoping to get a few pounds off my parents, he thought as they made their way up the front steps. It was the most likely option in his mind, anyway. Not for the first time Victor wished he could run away – just bolt right now and hide somewhere in the city. But his parents had been adamant about bringing him here to be treated for his "illness," and he knew better than to defy their wishes. Not to mention, in this neighborhood, running away would probably be the last thing he ever did in the Land of the Living. Maybe, just maybe, if he fails, they'll finally leave me alone.
Nell searched for a doorbell and scowled when she didn't find one. "The way some people live," she mumbled, settling for rapping hard on the door with her knuckles. "This reminds me of my childhood. I was supposed to have left all of that lower class nonsense behind."
"Give him a chance, Nell," William said, leaning on his cane. "He's reputed to be one of the best, after all."
"I know – and I suppose we've got to make sacrifices to get our boy cured," she added, shooting Victor a nasty look. Victor did his best to ignore it. "More than we've already made, anyway."
The door opened, revealing a man who appeared to be in his early forties, with a dark brown mustache and beard. He was tall, falling just short of Victor's six feet three inches, and rather bony, with sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes. He regarded them for a moment through his spectacles, then smiled. "Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, correct?"
"That's us," William replied, smiling back. "And you are?"
"Dr. Angus Bumby," the man said, clearing the doorway. "I've been expecting you. I trust you had a pleasant trip?"
"It could have been better," Nell said, bustling in and taking in the messy front foyer with a frown. "Rather rough road in spots, and our driver's still new." She glared at Harland, bringing up the rear with Victor's luggage. "Mayhew may have always been coughing, but he knew something about how to drive with a lady on board."
"Now now, Nell, don't get all aflutter," William said, patting her arm. "As you said, Harland's new. And he can't really be blamed for the condition of the roads."
"Indeed," Dr. Bumby agreed. "If the city would send some more industrious men to work on Moorgate Station, you could have taken the Underground practically to our door."
"That would have been nice," Nell nodded, fanning herself. "But why do you have your Home in the worst part of the city? Shouldn't a doctor like you have everything he wants in the West End?"
Dr. Bumby smiled genially at her. "I find it easiest to work where the troubles are. That way we don't have to add the trauma of a move to whatever other miseries these children are suffering. Rest assured, no harm shall come to my latest patient." Looking over at Victor, he added, "Speaking of which, this must be your son." He held out a hand. "Very nice to meet you, Master Van Dort."
Victor shook it. "L-likewise, Dr. Bumby," he said, trying to keep an expression of mild disgust off his face. Dr. Bumby was one of that unfortunate breed of men cursed with naturally clammy palms. Victor felt like he was holding a fish from the cannery. "I must confess, I'm rather n-nervous. . . ."
Dr. Bumby dropped his hand, still smiling. "Don't worry. We'll have your mind cleared of unpleasant memories soon enough. I am very good at what I do." He turned back to William and Nell. "Let's discuss this more in my office. If you could just follow me. . . ."
Bumby's office proved to be on the second floor of the Home. As they walked down the upstairs hall, Victor saw a group of children playing hopscotch on a makeshift board chalked on the floor. They gave him curious looks as he passed. "You're a bit old to be living here, ain't ya?" one girl said, pigtails wagging.
"I'm only nineteen," Victor replied, feeling instantly awkward.
"Cor, you're ancient," a boy said, sniggering. "I'm only–" He paused, staring at his shoes as his mouth formed soundless words. "Ten! That's right."
Victor frowned, wondering how anyone could forget their own age – then was distracted from the question by a paper placard hung around the boy's neck, marked with a black number eight. "What's that for?" he asked, crouching to get a better look.
The boy touched the paper, making it crinkle. "Dr. Bumby gives 'em out," he said with a shrug. "We just wear 'em. Don't make no matter to us."
"Will I get one?"
"Alice doesn't have one," another boy said, looking thoughtful. "Maybe the older ones don't get numbers."
"You look half dead," the girl who'd spoken first continued, making a face at Victor. "You must be really sick in the head if the doctor wants you."
"Victor!" Victor jerked his head up to see his mother frowning at him from around the bend. "Don't dawdle."
"That your mum?" the first boy asked as Victor moved to obey.
"Yes. . . ?"
Victor wondered if he was obligated to protest. He decided he wasn't and nodded his agreement, getting a few giggles from the children and a look from his mother. "Are they all so young here?" he asked Dr. Bumby once he'd caught up, hoping to distract her from a potential lecture.
"Almost," Dr. Bumby said. "I don't usually take anyone over the age of twelve – you're one of two exceptions I've made. But don't worry – old or young, I can cure anyone." He chuckled at his near-rhyme. "Now then, take a seat, all of you."
Victor looked around. There weren't many places to sit in the office – just a fainting couch and an armchair. He took the chair, leaving his parents to settle themselves on the couch. Bumby leaned against his desk. "Now then," he began. "Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, you said you worried your son suffered from necrophilia?"
Nell nodded, fanning herself. "At the very least, he's got an improper interest in corpses. Claims he almost married a dead bride. The worst part is, he believes she was up and walking about, like a normal person."
"I see." Dr. Bumby turned to Victor. "You believe corpses can rise from their graves?"
"It was special circumstances," Victor mumbled, not meeting the doctor's gaze. He was sick of having to explain this over and over. Especially when all it got him was a pitying look. "I woke her up with an accidental proposal. But I never – we never – it's not l-like that," he added, looking up at Dr. Bumby with pleading eyes.
Dr. Bumby regarded him impassively. "Hmm. Your parents also mentioned you said you'd seen the afterlife."
Victor nodded. "Part of it, at least. The Land of the Dead."
"Could you describe it to me?"
Victor wasn't sure he wanted to, but one look at his mother's scowling face was enough to get him talking. "Well. . .it's rather like our world, only more colorful. Everything feels a little – off kilter," he said, waggling his hand for emphasis. "But in a g-good way. And the people there are all corpses – some half rotted, some mere skeletons. All very friendly, though – at least the ones I met."
"And your corpse bride?"
"Emily," Victor said, voice softening as he pictured her face. "Her name was Emily. And she was a sweet young woman who only wanted someone to help realize her dream of being married. She frightened me at first, but once I got to know her. . . ."
"Hmmm." Dr. Bumby turned to Nell and William. "It's a very vivid fantasy world your son's created for himself. Sounds like he was trying to rid of himself of a fear of death. And a fear of marriage." He laughed quietly. "Death of his life as a carefree bachelor, perhaps?"
"I'd hardly call him that – he stays in his room all the time, drawing or reading," Nell said, snapping her fan shut with a disgusted sigh. "The only time he comes out is to play the piano or chase after butterflies. He never had any friends – any that were the proper sort, at least. And taking him to a party was just asking for trouble."
"Ah – an interior child." Dr. Bumby smiled at Victor. "Maybe we can work on that too."
Nell's eyes nearly popped right out of her head. "What – you mean – make him more of a society boy?" she asked, sitting up straight. "If you could do that, it would be a miracle!"
"Hardly – just my own unique brand of psychotherapy," Dr. Bumby said, with what Victor felt was a rather arrogant smirk. "I'm quite skilled in using hypnosis to restructure the mind."
"Hypnosis?" William said, frowning. "I thought that was just a parlor trick. Entertainment."
A flash of irritation crossed Dr. Bumby's face. "Oh no, Mr. Van Dort," he said, keeping his voice level. "It's been scientifically proven to be good for more than just stage shows. I have had great success in using it to alter personalities and remove unwanted memories." He smiled again. "Why, when the children leave this home, they're practically new people."
This was about the least comforting thing Victor could have heard. He grabbed his tie, twisting it in his hands. "B-but I don't want to be a n-new person!" he protested. "I'm me!"
Nell frowned at him, then turned back to Dr. Bumby. "I don't suppose you could make him stop doing that as well, could you?" she said, pointing at Victor's tie with her fan.
"I will do my best, Mrs. Van Dort," Dr. Bumby nodded. "Your son is in good hands."
Victor released his tie and slumped back in his chair as his parents and Dr. Bumby started discussing his new living arrangements. This was terrible. Not only did his parents want him to forget Emily, now they wanted to completely remold his personality. Victor had never been fond of his nervous habits before, but now he felt a compulsion to cling to them, just because they were his. I don't want to have my mind 'restructured,' he thought, sighing. I don't want to be here at all! Is it really so horrible that I want to honor Emily's memory – to remember her in the first place? If only they'd been there, and seen everything with their own two eyes – then maybe they'd understand. He shook his head. If only there was someone here my own age – someone I could talk to. . . .
"Mrs. Hollows? I thought you weren't coming until Monday."
The washerwoman grinned at Alice. "My eldest is getting married on Monday – I can't miss that, now can I?" she replied, rubbing her hands together. "Not to mention I've got to get all her linens washed and ready. So I thought I'd come around early and do a quick load."
Alice nodded. "I see – congratulations," she said, offering a brief smile. "You can certainly do the children's bedclothes – let me just see if Dr. Bumby needs anything washed." She left the woman inside the back entrance, heading upstairs to the doctor's office. I wonder if he's done with those Van Dort people, she thought. Feels odd to be hosting not only someone who has parents, but someone who's the same age as me. Shouldn't a nineteen-year-old man be out on his own? She shrugged. Well, so long as he isn't as much of a brat as most of the children here. . . .
Dr. Bumby wasn't done with the family, it appeared – she could hear Mrs. Van Dort's voice as she approached the office. "He won't have to share a room with any of these children, will he?"
"Of course not, Mrs. Van Dort. Your son will have a space all to himself. Only the best for such a highly valued client."
Alice rolled her eyes. Such a lickspittle. Well, Reggie and Ollie will be pleased. Though that means this fellow will almost certainly end up my neighbor – that's the only room that's free. I hope he doesn't enjoy noisy hobbies. She knocked on the half-opened door. "Excuse me, Dr. Bumby?"
All eyes turned to her. "Oh, Alice," Dr. Bumby said. "Mr., Mrs., and Master Van Dort, this is Alice Liddell – she's another one of my patients, and a sort of general dogsbody for the Home. Alice, these are the Van Dorts. Victor here will be staying with us for a while." Victor stood when Dr. Bumby said his name – maybe he thought it was polite.
Alice nodded, twitching up her skirts in a vague approximation of a curtsy. She didn't feel like doing a proper one. "How do you do?" she asked, looking at Victor.
Victor didn't reply for a moment – just stared at her. Alice couldn't understand why. Hadn't he ever seen a girl before? Maybe he was simple on top of being mad. She took the opportunity to give him a thorough look-over. Up close, it was easy to see just how tall he really was – about a foot taller than her, she'd wager. And almost absurdly thin – Elsie had been right to say he looked like he'd snap in a stiff wind. He was also near-monochrome – white skin, black hair, and wide eyes that were so dark brown as to be almost black themselves. The effect wasn't helped by the dark grey suit he wore. What little color he had with his red vest and blue tie was all washed out. He must have walked out of a tintype, Alice decided. No normal human being could be so utterly colorless. "Hello?" she prompted him.
Victor swallowed and found his tongue. "I'm well, and y-you?" he stammered. His voice was quite soft, as if he was unused to speaking.
He probably is, Alice thought, glancing over at Mrs. Van Dort and remembering the scene outside. I'm surprised she lets anyone else talk ever. "Well enough," she answered him. She tilted her head. For all his lack of color, he wasn't bad-looking. Not classically handsome, but certainly nicer to look at than Bumby or the children. And he seemed harmless enough. "You're a new patient then?"
Victor nodded, looking down at the ground. "Yes. I'm here because – um – it's q-quite complicated."
"I'll hear about it later, I'm sure," Alice said, deciding not to torture him by forcing him to recount his troubles. He'd probably had enough of that already. "I just needed to ask Dr. Bumby if he needed anything washed," she continued, turning back to the doctor. "The laundress has come around to do a load."
"Not at the moment," Dr. Bumby said, waving a hand. "Go help her with the children's linens."
"Very good, Doctor." Alice turned to leave, then paused and looked back at Victor. He was still staring at the floor, fiddling with his fingers and looking terribly nervous and shy. This is probably one of the worst days of his life, she thought with a little sigh. I suppose I should at least try to be friendly. She offered him just the faintest hint of a smile. "Welcome to Houndsditch, Master Van Dort."
Victor looked up, brightening just a tad. "Thank you," he replied with a half-smile of his own.
Alice nodded and went on her way. All right – that's my good deed for the day, she decided. Now to strip those beds. Ollie better not have wet his again.