Chapter 3: A Nighttime Reconciliation
April 10th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
I really should have expected this.
Victor sighed, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. Of course his insomnia would be worse than usual tonight. He never slept well in strange places (not that he slept much better in his own room most nights. . .). And it didn't help that his new bed felt just as uncomfortable as it looked. At least Miss Liddell doesn't have to put up with me snoring.
He got up and lit a candle, watching the shadows dance away from the tiny flame. Now, how to fill the hours until exhaustion finally conquered his mind? He could draw, he supposed, but he still didn't feel in the mood. There was the piano he'd spotted in the front foyer – music always managed to soothe him. But he doubted the other inhabitants of the house would appreciate him playing at two in the morning. Perhaps a cup of tea would help, he thought, putting on his dressing gown. That porridge we had for dinner was awfully thin. . . .
His stomach growled its agreement. Victor chuckled, then ventured out into the hall. Part of him felt a little exposed, wandering around the Home in his pajamas, but he felt safe in the knowledge that it was the middle of the night. Who else would be up?
He got his answer as he opened the kitchen door and found Alice Liddell there, preparing the kettle in what was unmistakably her nightgown. "Oh! Oh, I'm s-so sorry," he babbled, spinning around so he wouldn't see her in her state of undress. Having her in his room fully-clothed was one thing – seeing her in a public space like this was quite another! "I shouldn't – we s-shouldn't–"
"Oh, stop that," Alice said with a tired sigh. "You're acting like you caught me naked. I don't think we can see any more of each other than we could before, besides perhaps our feet."
"But – but we're in our n-night things!"
"And it's night. Your point?"
Victor frowned. "Do you respond to everything with sarcasm?"
"Yes. Helps me keep whatever sanity I have left." Well, Victor couldn't fault her for being honest. "Did you want a cup of tea?"
"Ah – w-well, yes," he admitted, peeking over his shoulder.
"Sit down, then. Or, better yet, search the cupboard and see if there's anything in there besides those horrible digestive biscuits."
Victor moved to obey, sneaking a glance at Alice as he did. She was right, he supposed – her nightgown resembled the dress she'd been wearing earlier, only with a longer skirt. The only parts of her that were exposed were her feet. He found himself staring at them for a moment. They seemed a bit larger than they ought to be for a girl her size. Then he became aware of the impropriety of what he was doing and quickly looked away, blushing.
"Afraid of my feet, Master Van Dort?" Alice said, and he swore he could hear her smirk. "I'm more astonished by yours. How do you stay balanced on ones so small?"
"I stay balanced?" Victor mumbled, recalling all the times he'd tripped or stumbled over thin air.
". . .Was that a joke?" Alice sounded genuinely surprised. "You don't seem the type."
"I'm not," Victor said, opening the cupboard door and taking a look inside. There wasn't much to see – a few bottles of condiments, some boxes of dry porridge mix, and the digestive biscuits Alice had mentioned. Though there seemed to be something on the topmost shelf, just above eye level. . . . He reached up and found a tin of chocolate-dipped biscuits. "Unless it's about myself. . .will these do?" he added, holding them up.
Alice turned her head. "Aha! I knew he had his own private box! He wouldn't eat the same swill we do unless he had to. Probably counted on me never finding it because I'm too short." She half-smiled at him. "You are good for something."
Hearing that reminded Victor of their earlier argument. He dropped his eyes to the floor. "Miss L-Liddell, I'm t-truly sorry for upsetting you earlier," he said, turning the tin round and round in his hands. "I didn't mean to, I p-promise. You were right in saying I wasn't thinking about how t-that might sound to – to others like yourself."
"It's all right," Alice told him, shaking her head. "I probably overreacted a little. I shouldn't have gone prying like I did, not when I was sure I wouldn't like the answer." She fiddled with her skirt. "It's just that – the death of my family still hurts quite a bit."
"I am so s-sorry," Victor reiterated. "For whatever reason, the fact that you were p-probably an orphan didn't occur to me until you said it."
"Well, you're new, and you only know me as the maid," Alice replied. "I should have remembered that. As it is, I'm sorry for shouting. You and your – 'adventures' – seem perfectly harmless."
"If only my parents believed that," Victor sighed, setting the tin down and leaning against the counter. "I do wish they'd just listened to Dr. Wilson and left me alone. . . ."
Alice, pouring the freshly-hot water into the teapot, paused. "Dr. Wilson?" she repeated. "Not – Dr. Hieronymous Wilson?"
Victor lifted his head, startled. "Yes! You know him?"
"In a sense. He was the head doctor at the–" She hesitated a moment, then plunged on. "– the asylum I was in."
"Asylum?!" Victor's jaw dropped. "What – why were – no, no, I s-shouldn't pry," he cut himself off. "It's your business, I d-don't want to upset you again–"
"What are you doing with your hands?"
Victor looked down to find he was attempting to throttle an invisible tie. "Sorry," he said for what felt like the hundredth time, putting his hands behind his back. "N-nervous habit. I sometimes grab my tie when – er. . . ."
"Whenever you have an attack of nerves," Alice filled in, smirking. "Which seems to be every five minutes."
Victor lowered his eyes again. "I – it's j-just – so much has happened, and I – maybe I s-should just go back to bed," he mumbled, turning around.
"No," Alice said, catching him by the sleeve. "I've already got tea on for two, and you could probably use a cup, so you're staying and having something to drink. And I'm not upset at you for asking about the asylum, if that's what's got you all in a tizzy. Knowing this place, you'll hear about my time at Rutledge from either me or the children – and it's much better if you hear it from me." She pointed at a chair. "Go sit, and bring the biscuits with you."
"Won't Dr. Bumby be mad if we eat from his private tin?" Victor asked.
"Maybe, but I'm willing to risk it. And he might make allowances if you tell him you were the one to eat some. Rich boy and all."
Victor hesitated, then sat himself at the table with the biscuits. "Do I come off as spoiled to you?" he asked, suddenly needing to know what she really thought of him.
"I wouldn't say so – though I haven't gotten to know you all that well yet," Alice said, getting a tray ready. "And if you do – well, you are, aren't you? No way around it."
Victor sighed. "I just – I don't want to upset people."
"Better they don't like you for being rich than not like you for being mad," Alice replied, bringing over the teapot, cups, and saucers. "When you're rich, you can pay people to be civil." A little searching on her part produced sugar and milk. "When you're mad, all you can do is ignore the funny looks." She poured tea, then looked up at him. "Though I suppose you can do that if you're rich too, and can afford not to care what others think."
Victor nodded. "That's what I had to do back in Burtonsville, after the – i-incident. Though I did care." He took his cup, poured in a generous amount of milk, then added three spoonfuls of sugar. "At least here most people won't know about that."
"Well, they won't know the specifics," Alice said, stealing the milk back from him. "They'll pick up that you live at Houndsditch. They'll give you funny looks just for that. More so if they realize who you are." She frowned as she tipped half a spoonful of sugar into her tea. "Incidentally, you'll want to keep a close eye on your wallet. This is not a nice part of the city."
"I know," Victor assured her. "Our carriage got some stares."
"Well, of course it did. Not only was it almost certainly the nicest carriage in the East End, it's also got a fish mounted on the top."
Victor shrugged. "Father likes to advertise." He sipped his tea as Alice opened the biscuit tin, wondering how to start what was sure to be an awkward conversation. "S-so – ah – you were in the a-asylum Dr. Wilson used to run?" he blurted.
"Ten long years," Alice confirmed, tracing patterns on the table with her fingernail. "They only released me last November."
"Ten years?" Victor repeated, puzzled. "But – you don't look any older than I am. How old are you?"
"Nineteen," Alice said with a little shrug.
"Nineteen?! So – wait – you were admitted to the asylum as – as a c-child?!" Victor gasped. "Who puts a child into one of those places?!"
Alice blinked and frowned at him. "Well – they had to, I think. I wasn't–" She stopped, then held up a hand. "Let me start at the beginning. When I was eight years old, my house burnt down. My parents and sister died in the blaze – I was the only one who made it out. The shock and horror of it was so great that I – I just shut down. I wouldn't react to anyone or anything. Catatonia, they called it. I spent a year in Littlemore Infirmary recovering from my burns, then they brought me to Rutledge. I don't think they knew what else to do with me."
"Didn't you have any other family?"
Alice shook her head. "My grandparents had all died, and I don't have any aunts or uncles. And my old nanny couldn't support me without a job. It was Rutledge or nothing." She swirled her tea. "I wasn't the only child there – there was a whole gaggle of them in my wing. Young children go mad all the time, it seems."
Victor grimaced, his stomach gurgling its displeasure with this news. "That's horrible. Children shouldn't be condemned to asylums. It's not right."
"Then what do you suppose we do with insane children? We can't just let them wander around and cause trouble."
"I – I don't know, but–" Victor made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. "It just doesn't seem fair."
"Life isn't fair," Alice replied, looking him dead in the eye. "You should know that – your parents dumped you here, didn't they?"
Victor winced. "Yes, but – I'm nineteen. The world should be fair for young children."
That got a nod. "If only, Master Van Dort, if only." Alice took a long drink from her cup, then snagged a biscuit from the tin. "I won't give you the details of my stay – they'd just make you ill. But after a decade of mental anguish, I finally managed to get myself back together. Well, back together enough," she corrected herself, scowling. "If you see me talking to something invisible, it means one of my hallucinations has decided to bother me again. Fair warning."
"Hallucinations?" Victor frowned, thinking back to his one pleasant psychiatric session. "Dr. Wilson said they'd released people from Rutledge who were in worse shape than me. . . ."
Alice snorted. "Yes, he probably meant me. You needn't worry too much – I almost always know they're not real. They're more frustrating than anything else. I just thought I'd better tell you before you had one of your 'I'm going to strangle myself' fits."
"I've never actually done that," Victor protested.
"Don't start. I don't want to come into your room and find you dead by tie. How would I write your obituary?" She took another sip of tea. "Anyway, I came here to Houndsditch because Dr. Bumby expressed an interest in helping me, and I really didn't have any other place to go."
"Do you like it here?" Victor asked, giving into temptation and trying a biscuit. It was miles better than any of the other food he'd had today – he had to resist the urge to devour it in one bite.
Alice shrugged. "The children can be bratty, and Dr. Bumby a bit of an arse at times, but it's much better than living on the street. Or being one of Jack Splatter's girls." She shuddered and bit a large chunk out of her biscuit. "Now you know the horrible truth. You've got a room next to a madwoman who spent ten years in an asylum. Ready to run screaming into the night?"
"The last time I fled somewhere into the night, I got pulled into the underworld," Victor said, then grimaced. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to–"
"What's it like?"
Victor blinked. Alice was watching him steadily, and she didn't look angry at all. More intrigued. "P-pardon?"
"What's this afterlife of yours like?" she repeated. "I may as well know if you've dreamed up something I wouldn't mind my parents and sister being in." She smirked. "Curiosity's always been my weakness."
Victor looked down into his tea, considering his words carefully. "Well then. . .it's – it's colorful. Like all the reds and greens and purples that are missing from our world have bled down into the World Below. Almost every place Above has some sort of counterpart Below, but it's – crooked. Off-kilter. Everything's slowly decaying away, but – it's – it's right, somehow. And the people. . .w-well, they're all rotting corpses – some of the ones I met were no more than skeletons. But they're still people. They talk and laugh and sing and – and clap you on the back and offer you a drink," he said, smiling at the memories. "It doesn't matter if you're a loved one or a stranger – they welcome you unconditionally. Everyone did their best to make me feel right at home after my accidental proposal." He chuckled. "You should have seen the wedding preparations they put up for Emily and me – the cake was the size of a small carriage."
Alice's eyes widened. "What did it taste like?" she asked, leaning forward eagerly.
"I never got a chance to taste it – and I don't think you would have liked it," Victor told her, amused. He would have never guessed she'd take such an interest in pastry. "One of the ingredients was a nose off one of the chefs."
Alice made a face. "That's simply awful! Why would they bake a nose into a cake?"
"They have different ideas of what's good food down there," Victor shrugged. "But it was still a lovely gesture. I know it was more for Emily than for me, but. . . ." He sighed wistfully. "You know what the best way to describe the Land of the Dead is? Fun. Nobody cares for propriety and things like that. They just want to be happy and have a good time – and to make sure everyone around them is doing the same."
What looked like the beginnings of a genuine smile tugged at Alice's lips. "It does sound nice," she admitted, finishing off her biscuit. "A bit like Wonderland."
"My childhood playland," Alice said, blushing a faint pink. "Some children have imaginary friends – I had an entire imaginary world."
"Really! I made do with my reflection in the mirror," Victor said, leaning forward. "What was it like, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Nonsensical," Alice said, this time with a fond, faraway look. "Talking flowers, cats that grinned, rabbits that were eternally late, living cards and chess pieces, drinks and cakes that made you shrink to the size of a mouse or grow to the size of a mountain. . .it was delightful." She sighed, her face dropping into sadness and regret. "If only it had stayed that way."
"What happened?" Victor couldn't help but ask. It was so strange – for a moment, Alice had almost looked cheerful.
"When I went mad, it – didn't weather the experience well," Alice said, not looking at him. "I did my best to fix things, but–" She shook her head. "I'm worried it won't stay fixed. That it can't stay fixed."
"I'm sorry," Victor said, for lack of anything better.
"You always say that," Alice said, but she didn't sound all that annoyed. "You needn't apologize for what's not your fault. But thank you just the same, I suppose." She drained the last of her tea, and got up. "I'm going back to bed. Can you put the biscuits away?"
"Of course." Victor closed the tin and put it back on its shelf as Alice washed the cups. "Thank you for – um – n-not staying angry at me," he added, fiddling with his fingers.
"Thank you for sitting up with me," Alice replied, wiping her hands dry on a rag. "It's not often I get decent conversation in this place." She smirked at him. "I'm not sure what to make of your afterlife yet, mind. But if you are mad, at least you have a much better form of madness than I have."
Victor shook his head. "You don't have to believe me – I've made my peace with the fact no one will."
"You didn't sound like you had before."
"I know, I'm sorry – if you'll excuse me saying that again. I was just so irritated with the children knowing and making fun of me. . . ." Victor's shoulders slumped. "I just hope I don't have to stay here long. I don't need therapy – it's not like I'd tell just any stranger on the street. I'd be perfectly happy keeping it all to myself from now on."
"Well then, let us hope Dr. Bumby quickly gets sick of you and insists on kicking you out," Alice said, folding her arms. "Which isn't likely, but the impossible sometimes happens."
Victor nodded with a chuckle. "Heh– when you've seen a young woman in a wedding dress claw her way out of the earth before you and declare you her husband, you know it can. Good night, Miss Liddell."
"Oh, call me Alice," Alice replied. "I haven't been called Miss Liddell in ages."
Victor nearly said something about how improper that was, but decided against it. He'd been calling two other women by their first names for some time now. What was a third? "All right – Alice," he said. "And you can call me Victor."
"I can, but will I?" Alice teased. "Then again, it's easier to say than Master Van Dort. So – good night, Victor."
"Good night, Alice." With a little wave, Victor exited the kitchen. Well – I think that was just what I needed, he thought, walking back to his room. It's good to know she really doesn't hate me. I just hope I can keep it that way. He stifled a yawn. Right now, though, I just hope I'll finally be able to get some sleep.