Chapter 6: Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat
April 15th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Victor poked his head through the doorway of the front foyer and looked around. The room was in its usual messy state – bookshelves no more than half-full, fireplace cold and filled with soot, tables crowded with junk, tiny dolls and furniture lying abandoned around the dollhouse. . .and not a single living person in sight. Victor grinned and entered the room. It was just as he'd hoped – the Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth was completely empty of people. He'd seen Alice and Dr. Bumby leaving to take care of various errands earlier, and now he'd just confirmed that all the younger residents were playing outside, taking advantage of a rare sunny day. For a few precious moments, the Home was his and his alone. And, he thought, making a beeline for the piano tucked into the far corner, I know exactly how to spend them.
He ran his fingers over the keys, then played a quick scale to verify the instrument was in tune. It wasn't a particularly auspicious model – nothing like the Harryhausen the Everglots had owned. But the manufacturer wasn't all that important. What mattered was that it was a good, solid upright piano. And right now, it was all his.
The scale rang out through the empty room, every note clear and correct. Satisfied that everything was in good working order, he sat down upon the stool. There was some sheet music set up in a stand mounted above the keyboard, but Victor ignored it. He had no objections to playing music other people had written, of course – he'd whiled away many a hour with Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart – but right now. . .right now, there was a melody inside him, longing to escape. He could feel it pressing against his ribcage, sliding down his arms, tingling in his fingertips. Play, it whispered to him. Set me free. Let me fly. Let me tell the world everything you could never put into words. Play.
So he did.
Something sad and slow emerged from his fingers – something full of repression and seclusion and imprisonment. The theme of his life these past few months. Victor closed his eyes, letting the music fill him. Oh, he had missed this. How had he survived all this time without going near a piano? He'd done his finger exercises regularly on an invisible keyboard, just to keep from getting too out of practice, but that was nothing compared to actually hearing the notes outside of your own head, with his fingers tiptoeing over the keys, the rest of the world an insignificant memory. . .some deep hole inside him began filling up again. Despite the mournful tune, he smiled. For the first time in a month, he felt truly, wonderfully alive.
The music died in a terrified jangle of notes. Victor's eyes snapped open. "Oh!" He leapt to his feet, then heard a dangerous rocking behind him and whirled around, grabbing the stool before it could crash to the floor. "H-hello, Alice," he stammered, attempting to smile. "H-how are you?"
Alice frowned at him, eyebrows knitting together. "Did I scare you that much? I knew you were jumpy, but I didn't think that jumpy."
"Ah – um – I didn't think you were c-coming back until later," Victor said, busying himself with making sure the stool was properly settled. God, he felt so vulnerable, so exposed. . .he forced himself to straighten up and look at her. "H-how much did you–"
"A couple of minutes' worth," Alice said, rocking on her heels. "Things went quicker than I expected with the greengrocer. I didn't expect to come back to musical accompaniment." She gave him a small smile. "You play beautifully."
Victor experienced a curious sense of deja-vu. "Ah – d-do you play?" he asked on impulse, half-expecting her to come back with some malarkey about her mother declaring music "too passionate" for young ladies.
Alice smirked – her favorite expression, he'd noticed, after bland indifference and annoyance. "No, but not for lack of trying on my mother's and nanny's parts," she said, moving forward to run her fingers over the keys. "Lizzie and I were strongly encouraged to learn both French and music – it was what all 'proper young ladies' did, after all. Lizzie took to both much more than I did." Her face fell, as it always did whenever she talked about her family. "She had a real gift for the piano. I always enjoyed hearing her play."
Victor felt a stab of irrational guilt. "I'm sorry."
"For what? I walked in on you," Alice said, the sadness pushed away in favor of a frown. "And frankly, I enjoyed hearing you play. Though from the looks of it, you didn't enjoy me hearing you play." She tilted her head, watching him with curious eyes. "You are good, you know."
Victor nodded, sitting back down on the stool. "I know. It's just–" He clasped and unclasped his hands a few times, thinking hard. How to explain? "Music tends to be – very personal for me. When I play, it's – it's like – it's like the music comes from deep within my very s-soul," he tried, trying not to wince at his own phrasing. Why was it so impossible to put this into words without sounding incredibly cheesy? "Having an audience feels – intrusive."
"Like they've walked in on you naked?" Alice asked.
"Exactly," Victor nodded again, glad she understood. "Even when I'm playing things by other people, I hate having to perform for any sort of crowd. I managed it a few times, for Mother's sake, but even she realized how much I loathed it – she hasn't asked me to do so in years. I've only ever played with another person once – Emily, in fact – and that was special circumstances. Me trying to make up for a horrible mistake the only way I knew how. Usually, I just play for myself."
"I see." Alice fidgeted with her apron. "I'm sorry I interrupted, then."
"It's not your fault – you didn't know." Victor's fingers walked along the keyboard, idly pressing out a scale. "And you're hardly the first to walk in on me. In fact, that's how I first met Victoria – she came across me playing the piano in the Everglots' entrance hall almost exactly as you caught me just now. Scared me much the same way too," he added with a faint laugh.
"I'm not surprised," Alice said with another smirk. "You seemed a million miles away when I came in. Didn't you say something before about her family not approving of music, though? Why did they have a piano in the house if that was the case?"
Victor shrugged. "Search me, Alice. Victoria herself told me her mother considered music 'improper' for young ladies. Perhaps the instrument was just for show. That's why we got our piano, after all. Mother wanted one because it was 'high-class.'"
"At least yours got some use out of it," Alice said. "How did you come to play, then? From everything I heard as a child in Oxford from Father's undergraduates, learning to play an instrument was a feminine pursuit, despite what Lady Everglot may claim. It was supposed to make a lady appear more refined and more fit for marriage, if I remember correctly. The men at the university wouldn't have dreamed of touching a piano." She paused, then added, "I hope that didn't come out like an insult – I didn't mean it that way."
"Not at all," Victor assured her. "As for how I learned to play. . . ." He looked down at the instrument in front of him, letting his memories transform it into the one he'd played so often at home. "Ever since I was small, I've been fascinated by music – particularly piano music. Mother would often drag me off to parties with her and Father, and my favorite part was always the musical entertainment. The way people coaxed such gorgeous melodies out of that strange, imposing black beast – it was magical. I was six when we bought ours, and I just couldn't keep away from it. I wanted so much to capture that magic myself – to figure out how you tamed the instrument and brought such beautiful music to life." He stroked one of the black keys with a finger. "I taught myself a couple of simple pieces – 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' – to convince Mother I should learn. Fortunately, she had already decided it would be 'cultured' to have a son who knew music and hired me a teacher." He shrugged. "And – well – apparently I have a natural ear for it. I've been playing regularly ever since."
"I can believe it," Alice said, with a rare genuine smile. "You're certainly more musical than I am – for me, 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' has been 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat' ever since my first tea party at Hatter and Hare's."
"'Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat?'" Victor repeated, laughing a little. "How do bats twinkle?"
"Well, according to Hatter. . .
Twinkle, twinkle little bat,
How I wonder what you're at?
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky –
"And then I don't know the rest because the Dormouse started mumbling 'twinkle' over and over again until we silenced him with pinching," Alice admitted. "Perhaps Hatter was talking about some sort of shiny metallic bat – even back then, he had some interest in machinery. Got completely out of hand when I went mad, sadly. . . ."
Victor wasn't sure he wanted to know. "You have a lovely singing voice," he commented instead, determined to keep the conversation on a somewhat happy course.
"You are a flatterer, Master Van Dort," Alice said, grinning as she folded her arms. "I hardly know what to do with all these compliments."
"Accept them?" Victor suggested with a little grin of his own.
"I suppose I must. It won't do to leave them out to be picked up by any random woman on the street. Anyway, I may not have the same skill with an instrument as my dear sister or you, but I know what I like. And what you were just playing. . . Does it have a name?"
"No, it was just something that – that I needed to get out," Victor said, ducking his head as he felt a fresh attack of shyness hit him. "C-completely spur of the moment. I do that a lot."
"Well, I thought it was lovely. Even if no one else was supposed to hear it."
Victor lifted his head, smiling. "Thank you."
Alice nodded, then turned toward the front doors. Victor blinked, puzzled. "Where are you going?"
"To keep the children outside for a while – unless you're done because I ruined the mood," Alice said, glancing back at him.
Victor stared, mouth hanging open slightly. She was going to make sure he got his privacy? Let him play for a while longer? He hadn't expected that at all. The most he'd thought would happen would be her going about her own business in the Home while he went back to his room. "No, I w-would like to have a few more minutes. . .that would be very kind of you," he added, not wanting to seem ungrateful.
Alice smirked and wagged a finger at him. "Well, don't get used to it. There's only so much of those little ones I can take. So play fast."
Victor laughed. That was more like her. "I'll play at double speed just for you," he promised with a playful grin.
"You're too kind, Master Van Dort. Enjoy yourself." Alice gave him a wave, then disappeared back outside.
Victor looked after her for a moment before turning back to the piano. "I never expected her to be so nice," he murmured to himself. "Or to understand so much. . . ." He shook his head. "Well, I can't abandon her to the mercies of the children for too long. Something fast, something fast. . . ." He stretched out his hands and put them to the keys.
A lighter, happier, and obligingly quicker song emerged from his fingers this time – not quite the antithesis of what he'd been playing before, but with a definite sense of hope that the other tune had lacked. Victor closed his eyes once more, letting the music carry him along with a warm smile. Yes. . .it's not so bad here after all.