Chapter 2: A Fine Mess
April 9th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Eventually, everything was worked out to everyone but Victor's satisfaction. Harland moved Victor's luggage into a room on the ground floor, ignoring Nell's barbs about how he was thumping them around and probably destroying Victor's belongings. William and Nell thanked Dr. Bumby again, gave him some money, and politely declined staying for lunch. (Well, William did – Nell just looked shocked Dr. Bumby would even consider asking them to eat there.) Nell ordered Victor to behave and let the doctor do his work, while William reassured his son that all would be well if he'd just cooperate. Then, with a final round of goodbyes and a brief pause to shove Nell into the carriage, the elder Van Dorts departed back to Burtonsville. Victor watched their carriage leave from the front steps. I am officially stuck here, he thought with a melancholy sigh. Well – nothing to do but try and make the best of it, I suppose.
He went and took a look around his new room. It was about as welcoming as the rest of the Home. The air had a stale, musty smell that made him sneeze. The wallpaper was a dingy green, and peeling in the corners. There were only three pieces of furniture – a metal-framed bed with a lumpy mattress, a linen press that suffered from woodworm, and a nightstand with a mysterious stain running down the side. And everything from ceiling to floor was coated with dust. Victor felt a pang for his room back in Burtonsville. How could anyone live like this?
Of course, it's not like Dr. Bumby can afford a legion of servants, he reminded himself, opening the first of his suitcases. I should be more surprised the rest of the house doesn't look this bad. Goodness, I am spoiled, aren't I? Hopefully it won't show too much.
He put his suits, shirts, and socks in the linen press, and his sketchbook, ink, and quills on the nightstand. He left the few books he'd brought with him in his trunk – he'd find a place for them later. Then he came to a problem. He'd carefully packed some of his favorite drawings to hang up around his new residence, in an effort to prevent homesickness. But now it occurred to him that he had no idea if Dr. Bumby allowed his patients to do such a thing. He looked at the walls, then at the drawing in his hands. Would Dr. Bumby really disapprove of him trying to make his room look a bit more cheerful? He didn't want to start off on the wrong foot with the man. . . .
"So we are neighbors."
Victor started, just barely avoiding crumpling his sketch of a Papilio machaon. The young lady he'd met before – Alice, that's right – was standing in his doorway, assessing him and his belongings with a rather bland look. "I thought we would be," she continued. "I do hope you don't snore – the walls here are thin."
"I, ah, I d-don't think I do. . . ." Goodness, she really did have the brightest green eyes he'd ever seen. Victor wished they'd stop distracting him. He'd already made himself look like a fool in front of her back in Dr. Bumby's office because he couldn't stop staring at them. But they were just so piercing. . .and quite pretty, if he was honest with himself. . . .
"Good," Alice said, pulling him out of his near-trance. "Lunch will be ready shortly, if you're hungry." She turned to go.
It came to Victor that she might be able to answer his question. "Wait! J-just a moment, please?"
Alice paused and looked back at him. Victor held up his sketch. "Would the doctor object if I hung things on my walls?"
"He's never objected to me hanging things on mine," Alice replied, turning to face him properly. "Would you like me to fetch you some pins?"
"Would you please?" Victor asked, trying to smile. "I h-hate to order you about–"
"Being ordered about is my job," Alice said, a faint smirk pulling at her lips. "Not to mention I was the one to offer. But I appreciate the sentiment, Master Van Dort, even if it is unwarranted. I'll be right back."
She left, leaving Victor feeling like an idiot all over again. "Uuuhh. . .I shouldn't even try to talk to girls," he mumbled, laying his sketches across his bed. "It never goes well."
Alice returned after a couple of minutes, carrying a small box of pins. Victor thanked her and began pressing his drawings against the walls, searching for the spots where they'd look best. Alice lingered nearby, her eyes traveling over the rows of paper waiting to be hung. "You seem to be fond of butterflies," she remarked, nodding at a picture of a Dingy Skipper sitting on a rose.
Victor blushed, but nodded himself. "I know it's not very m-manly of me, but I like them quite a bit," he said, pinning one of his favorite drawings – the sketch he'd made of the butterfly he'd caught right before meeting Emily – right above his bed. "I s-study them, in fact. As a hobby."
"An amateur lepidopterologist, hmm?"
Victor stopped and stared at her, surprised. "Why – yes! Do forgive me, I didn't think you knew the word. Most people don't."
There was that faint smirk again. "My father taught it to me," Alice explained. "He was the dean of Christ Church at the University of Oxford, so he knew all sorts of long, unusual words."
"Oh, I see." Victor pinned up the Dingy Skipper over a rip in the wallpaper. "I wanted to go to university when I was younger, but Father didn't think it necessary," he added, feeling he ought to try and make conversation. He'd be living right next to this young lady, after all. "Said I could get all the education I wanted from the cannery."
"Cannery?" Something seemed to click in Alice's mind. "That's why you had the fish on your carriage! You're the canned fish people!"
"That's us," Victor confirmed. "Be grateful Father didn't try to badger you into buying his product while he was here."
Alice hummed. "From what I understand, your family has more money than you know what to do with." She leaned against the wall and folded her arms. "Couldn't your parents afford to hire a better psychiatrist?"
"They did," Victor said, unable to help the bitterness leaking into his voice. "Dr. Bumby is more or less the last resort. I refused to talk to anyone else."
"Oh." Now Alice's smirk was anything but faint. "Don't believe you're mad?"
Victor frowned at her. "No, actually. Do you?"
"You must be," Alice informed him. "Or else you wouldn't have come here." For just a moment, she suddenly looked rather sad. Then she resumed her former expression of bland indifference, standing up straight. "I'll leave you to it. As I said, lunch will be served very soon."
"Thank you." Victor watched her as she left. He wasn't sure what to make of her yet. She was quite attractive (especially with those eyes), and obviously intelligent, but. . .she also seemed to be rather aloof. Not cruel, necessarily – just uncaring. Like she didn't want to get close to anyone. He wondered why.
It's none of my business, he told himself, turning back to the wall and pinning another sketch. I'm not the psychiatrist. Though it would be nice if we could be friends. . .if I can even be friends with a young lady without making a mess of things. A surprising thought struck him then – I've just had an unchaperoned, unrelated woman in my room! That's a first. Good thing Mother wasn't around to see that, she'd be furious. Then again – isn't Alice a servant of sorts? That's what dogsbody means, I believe. . . . Really, it doesn't matter much after my escapade with Victoria. If Mother had learned about that, I'd already be back in the Land of the Dead. He sighed, running a hand over his face. Of course, I'd rather be there than here. . .just let me avoid the local Gordon Tannens, and I'll be set. Hopefully.
He finished hanging his pictures, then went to join the others for lunch. The children were already all seated around the table – Victor recognized a few from the upstairs hopscotch game. For some reason, they gave him rather evil grins as he sat. "Hello," he greeted them, trying to smile.
"Hello," the boy next to him, the one with the number eight, said. "When are you gonna visit the local cemetery?"
Victor's jaw dropped. "What – how – w-why do you–"
"We was listening outside the door for a bit," the girl who'd been teasing him earlier said, smirking. "You like dead people, eh?"
"No! Not like that!" Victor protested, cheeks burning. Oh God – he'd been here a hour, two at the most, and already the mockery was starting. Had it been too much to hope that he could keep this between himself and Dr. Bumby?
"No? Then what was all that talk about you marrying a dead woman?" the girl replied, leaning forward with a horrible smile.
"It's – it's f-far more complicated than you t-think!"
"Oh, we don't think so at all," the girl said, playing with a pigtail as the others laughed. "Was it a nice honeymoon?"
To Victor's relief, Dr. Bumby chose that moment to come in with a large pot. "Now children," the psychiatrist scolded, frowning hard at the crowd, "it's wrong to eavesdrop. And you shouldn't make fun of Master Van Dort for his delusions." Alice came in behind him, carrying a basket of misshapen rolls. "After all, all of you have your own problems."
"Yeah, well, none of us is hoping the girl ain't breathing on our wedding night," the boy with the eight pointed out.
Alice stopped and stared at Victor. "Beg pardon?"
"He likes dead women!" the girl with the pigtails piped up before Victor could say a word. "Tried to propose to one!"
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Did he?"
"No! It was a-an accident! And I'm not – I n-never. . ." Great – now the one person he might have been able to actually talk to knew all about his supposed "appetites." Victor put his face in his hands as the children giggled around him. I wish I could just sink into the floor.
"Lunch is not the appropriate venue to discuss this," Dr. Bumby said firmly, putting down his pot in the center of the table. "I expect all of you to be polite to our new patient. You wouldn't like it if he made fun of you, would you?"
There were a few murmurs from the children along the lines of "suppose not." Dr. Bumby nodded. "Fine. Let us eat. Alice, if you would serve?"
Lunch turned out to be soup – chicken noodle, Victor supposed, by the yellow color and smell. Alice ladled it into bowls for everyone, then passed around the basket of rolls. Victor looked at his portion. It wasn't very appetizing – the soup had a greasy sheen on top, and there didn't seem to be much to it other than cloudy broth, limp noodles, minuscule shreds of carrot, and one or two lonely pieces of chicken. He tasted a spoonful – the flavor was more salt than poultry. The roll was hard as a rock, and there was no butter to go with it.
Still, it was food, and he was hungry. Victor finished the soup within minutes, then followed the example of his neighbors and used his roll to wipe up the last few drops of broth from the bowl. A long drink of water washed the salty taste from his mouth. He waited patiently as Alice cleared the table, but as the children started getting up, it dawned on him that there would be no other courses. "I'm afraid we won't be able to keep you in as much comfort as you're used to," Dr. Bumby apologized, getting to his feet. "Most of the money I earn has to go into keeping the orphanage in habitable condition. There's little left over for luxuries."
"I understand, sir," Victor said, fiddling with his fingers and not meeting the doctor's eyes. "I'll g-get used to it in time."
"I'm sure you will." Dr. Bumby patted Victor's shoulder. "As it is, you can have the rest of the day to explore and get yourself settled. We won't start your therapy until tomorrow."
That was a relief. Victor had no desire to dive straight into being told his memories of the Land of the Dead were "unproductive." "Thank you, Doctor," he said gratefully.
"You're welcome," Dr. Bumby nodded, smiling. "And don't worry so much. You're in very good hands, I assure you."
Victor unconsciously moved back. Was it just him, or was there something off about that smile? "I h-hope so."
Dr. Bumby patted his shoulder again, then left. Victor lingered at the table for a moment, trying to figure out what had disturbed him so about Bumby's grin. The man was being nothing but friendly. . .maybe it was just the stress of knowing that same man was determined to wipe Emily's memory from his mind. What I need is some time with my sketchbook, he decided. That should settle my nerves a bit – and help me ignore my stomach, he added as his belly growled. Later I'll have to see if any place around here sells something I can snack on between meals. This just won't do if I expect to keep what little weight I have.
Most of the children had vanished back upstairs by the time he reentered the hall, but a few lingered by the door to the toilet, chatting aimlessly. They snickered as he passed them. "We look forward to meeting the new missus!" one called with a sharp-toothed smile. "Get one that still has some flesh on her!"
Victor winced and bolted for his room, shutting the door hard behind him. They're just children, he told himself, plopping onto his bed. It's nothing to get upset over. They probably don't even know exactly what they're accusing you of.
Such thoughts didn't help. Even if they didn't know, he did, and it hurt. Sighing, he picked up his sketchbook and quill, picturing his favorite butterfly in his mind in an attempt to chase away the bad feelings.
A knock on the door interrupted him before he could even put pen to paper. Letting out a deep, frustrated sigh, he set his things aside. "Five minutes of privacy would be nice," he grumbled, getting up and opening the door.
Alice was standing there, frowning. "Is it true, what they're saying?" she asked immediately, arms folded. "You really tried to marry a dead woman?"
"Yes, but I – it's n-not what you think, I swear," Victor said, his hands going for his tie. "I never – the w-wedding n-n-nnnight never came up!"
"So what was the reason behind the proposal?"
Victor wondered if he should tell her or not. If anything would convince her that he was bonkers. . . . Then he realized that the children probably already knew that side of it as well, if they'd been eavesdropping. Better for her to hear it from him than them. "I didn't mean to actually propose. Emily, my c-corpse bride, misinterpreted what I was doing. You see, I was practicing my vows – my parents had arranged a marriage for me, and the rehearsal hadn't gone well – and I slipped the ring onto what I thought was a branch, and – she – well – she rose from her grave to accept."
Alice's eyes widened. "Rose from – wait, are you saying you brought someone back from the dead?" she whispered, her arms falling to her sides.
"By accident!" Victor said quickly, not wanting her to think he was the evil necromancer Pastor Galswells insisted he was either. "I certainly didn't expect to have some poor m-murdered bride dig herself out of the ground and proclaim us man and–"
"The dead can't get up and walk!" Alice snapped, her face turning red as her hands bunched into fists. "Dead's dead!"
Victor stepped backward, startled by her change in mood. "W-well, under normal circumstances, yes, of course," he tried to explain. "But Emily had made a vow to rise and c-claim anyone who proposed." Goodness, why is she getting so angry about this? Disgust I could understand, or confusion – but anger? "At least, I think that's how it worked. . . ."
"I'm sure," Alice said, sarcasm dripping off every syllable. She folded her arms again and glared at him through narrowed eyes. "Did you bring her back home to meet your parents? Or did she drag you off to the afterlife to meet hers, maggots and all?"
"Actually, something closer to the latter," Victor replied, feeling his own temper start to rise. Did she really have to mock him? "More to meet her friends – maggots and all."
"So now you're claiming to have seen what comes next as well?! You are mad! And incredibly rude to boot!"
"It's the truth!" Victor snapped. Some small part of him was horrified about getting so short with a lady, but after the morning he'd had, being called a liar yet again was wearing very thin on his nerves. "I don't care what anyone says – I know what happened to me! I've been to the afterlife – and to be honest, it's much nicer than this world!"
"That's not hard," Alice pointed out, teeth clenched. "How can you make such – such ludicrous claims? Raising the dead, visiting the afterlife – did you ever think that spreading around such lies might be hurtful to those of us who have lost our families?"
Victor's reply died on his tongue. Oh God, that was right – Father had told him this place was an orphanage. He was surrounded by people – children – who had lost the ones they loved the most. He hadn't even considered the effect his story might have on them. His anger cooled, replaced by horrified embarrassment. "I – I d-didn't–" he started, trying to find the right words to apologize.
"No, you probably don't think at all," Alice cut him off with an angry huff. "Good day, Master Van Dort." She spun on her heel and stalked away. A moment later, Victor heard her door slam.
The children at the end of the hall laughed again. "Ooooh, you're gonna get it now," a girl called. "She's gonna come after you with a spoon and gouge your eyes out!"
"She'll need a big spoon for that," a boy commented.
"Nah, it's Alice," a second boy said. "She could kill somebody with just a pencil."
Victor ignored them, pulling his own door closed and letting his forehead bang against it. "Ninny," he mumbled. "You've made a proper mess of it this time. She probably doesn't even want to look at you anymore. How could you be so thoughtless?"
Sighing, he turned around and looked back at his sketchbook. For a moment, he considered picking up his pen again. Surely drawing some butterflies would make him feel better? Then he shook his head and put it away. No – he wasn't in the mood anymore. He collapsed on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. Well – I wonder how much worse things can get from here?