Chapter 7: Remembering A Rehearsal In Ruins
April 24th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"Tell us a story!"
"Tell us a story anyway."
"I don't feel like it."
"Tell us a story anyway."
"What are you, a parrot? Or perhaps some mechanical thing with a stuck gear? Should I smack you on the head with this broom?"
"If it means you'll tell us a story."
Victor bit his lip as he stared at the pages in front of him, trying to repress a snigger. He knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but – he couldn't help himself. The way Alice and the children bickered and teased one another always seemed to make him smile. He peeped over the top of his book to see Alice frowning at her little crowd of hangers-on. "Must you always be such pests?" she demanded, hands on her hips.
"Yes," Elsie said with a nod. "It's either that or be bored."
Alice rolled her eyes. "Look, I just came out of a rather annoying session with Dr. Bumby–"
"All your sessions with Dr. Bumby are annoying," Abigail interrupted. "You're never going to get better. They should just send you back to the asylum."
That turned his smile upside-down. "Abigail, that's cruel," Victor scolded, setting the book aside. "You shouldn't say things like that to other people."
"You're only saying that because you're just as mad as she is," Abigail replied, making a face at him. "Still wishing you could find a good shovel?"
"He doesn't need a shovel," Alice said, sparing Victor the need to defend himself. "They dig themselves up, according to him." A sly grin suddenly crossed her face. "Why don't you go bother him for a story for a change? At least it'll be one you haven't heard before."
The children looked at each other. Then, as if by magic, the group had him surrounded, eager little faces beaming up at him. "Tell us all about your corpse bride!" Reggie demanded, hanging onto the side of his chair.
"Yeah, how'd you get married to a dead woman anyway?" Elsie added.
"Ah – um –" Victor snatched up his book, realizing too late it was upside-down. "I'm t-trying to read. . . ."
"Trying to read my foot – you were trying to keep from laughing as they annoyed me," Alice said, pointing at him with her broom. "Turnabout is fair play."
"Come on, we wanna hear all the details," Ollie said, pulling the book out of Victor's hands. "What was the wedding night like?"
Victor felt his entire head turn strawberry pink. Why was that always the first question asked in this horrible place?! "There was no w-wedding n-n-night! Despite what some people insist on thinking, I never – I would n-never – I never even got properly married to her in the first place!"
"Why not? What happened?" Elsie asked, resting her elbows on his knee.
Victor shot Alice a pleading look. She ignored him, keeping her gaze fixed on the end of her broom as she started sweeping again. He turned back to the children with a deep sigh. No way out of it. He might as well try to set the record straight. "Well," he began, leaning forward, "I was supposed to get married to someone else. . . ."
He explained to the children about his arranged marriage to Victoria, segueing into the rehearsal that would just not go right. They giggled as he talked about all the mistakes he'd made: mispronouncing words, mixing up the lines, nearly dumping the wine all over the table, and failing multiple times in getting his candle to take the flame. "I think you should have given up when your candle wouldn't light," Abigail said as he paused for breath. "Obviously God was telling you you weren't supposed to get married."
"Maybe," Victor said, shaking his head. "It would have spared poor Lady Everglot some grief."
"I ended the rehearsal by setting her skirt on fire."
Victor and his audience looked up to see Alice staring at him. "You set someone on fire?" she continued, eyes wide with shock – and not a little fright. "How could you?!"
Victor winced. Yes, go ahead and say that in front of someone who lost her family when her house burned down! "It was an a-accident, I swear!" he said quickly. "I dropped the ring, and it rolled under her s-skirt, and I was so focused on grabbing it without causing too much of a scene I left the candle on her dress! She wasn't hurt, I promise you – it was a v-very small fire, and the only damage was a tiny scorch mark on her hem – b-barely noticeable! Lord Barkis put it out with the wine from the goblet while the rest of us were p-panicking."
"Only one with a calm head," Alice said, frowning hard at him. "Why didn't you put the candle down before you went after the ring?"
"B-because I was already flustered and I wasn't thinking! I know it's not an excuse, but–" Victor put his face in his hands. Why had he brought that up? He didn't want a repeat of what had happened when Alice had first heard about his adventures in the afterlife. He'd grown to like talking to her. "I didn't want to set anyone on fire. Especially not my future m-mother-in-law."
There was a moment of silence. "From what I've heard, many men would welcome the chance to set their mothers-in-law on fire," Alice finally said, causing him to jerk his head up in surprise. She was making jokes? Did that mean she didn't hate him? "But I expect you to be more careful with the candles around here. You're not setting anyone else on fire, even by accident."
"I promise," Victor said, raising one hand as if swearing an oath. "It's only happened the once, I assure you. I'm usually far more careful around anything with an open flame. I was just–"
"Not thinking," Alice filled in. "That's a bad habit, you know."
"I know," Victor agreed, looking at his feet.
"Who's Lord Barkis?" Elsie asked, tilting her head.
"Lord Barkis Bittern – he was a newcomer to town who came to my and Victoria's rehearsal," Victor explained, glad to switch topics – even if it was to Barkis. "He's also the one responsible for my corpse bride being a corpse."
"He's the one who murdered her," Victor elaborated, voice going dark. Even now, months later, his fists still clenched with anger every time he thought of that man and what he'd done to Emily – and what he'd tried to do to Victoria. "Convinced her to elope with him, then killed her to steal the money he told her to bring."
"Oooooo," the children chorused, glancing at each other.
"Wait – if he killed your dead bride, what was he doing watching you get married to the live one?" Reggie asked, blinking. "Wouldn't he want to stay far away from someplace where he'd offed somebody? Don't make any sense!"
Victor frowned, considering that. "No, it doesn't, does it?" he admitted. "I never really thought about that before. He married Victoria when I went missing – he thought the Everglots were still rich – but if things had gone according to plan. . . ." He shrugged. "I don't know what foul scheme he had in mind – and it's not like I could ask him now."
"Maybe he thought he could steal that Victoria right out from underneath your nose," Abigail commented, looking thoughtful. "Or maybe he was looking to rob your family. You said you were the richest in the village."
"Maybe. . . ." Victor shook his head. "I don't know. It doesn't really matter what his original reason for being there was – what matters is that we were able to stop him from hurting anyone else."
"Oooooh, did you kill him?" Reggie asked, eyes shining.
Victor drew back, disturbed by the eager glee he saw on the boy's face. Why were these children so intrigued by pain and death? Then again, you could ask the same of some adults, couldn't you? he thought, remembering the copies of the "London Illustrated News" he'd seen lying about. That rag always had some sort of sensationalistic horror story to spread. And given that drawing I made for Alice, I'm not much better. . . . "No, I didn't," he said, fussing with his tie. "He killed himself. Drank poison. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. . . ."
"What are you doing?"
Victor looked up to see Dr. Bumby standing in the doorway. "Why are you discussing suicide with a group of impressionable young children?" the psychiatrist continued, frowning. "You're not planning anything, are you?"
"N-not at all!" Victor swore, holding up his hands. "I just – they asked for a story, and they wanted to know about the Land of the Dead–"
"I see." Dr. Bumby shook his head. "You lot shouldn't encourage his delusions," he told the children. "You'll just make it harder for me to cure him."
"What's the trouble with a little story?" Elsie sulked.
"It encourages him to think of his experiences as real, thus fixing them more firmly in his mind. And I don't want any of you getting the wrong ideas either. One cannot bring corpses back to life, and there is no such thing as the Land of the Dead."
"You don't know that for sure," Ollie said, folding his arms and jutting out his lower lip.
"I don't purport to be an expert in what comes after mortal life, no," Dr. Bumby allowed. "But I'm quite sure that the world Victor is describing could not possibly exist. Especially in the context of the story he told." He squinted at Victor over his glasses. "We'll be having an extra session tomorrow afternoon, Master Van Dort. Right after lunch."
Victor sighed, shoulders slumping. Wonderful – an extra opportunity for him and the doctor to fight about whether or not Emily actually existed. Just what he'd always wanted. "Yes, sir."
Dr. Bumby nodded. "Good. While we're on the subject – Reginald, I believe it's time for your session. The rest of you, find other ways to amuse yourselves."
Reggie groaned and followed Dr. Bumby out of the room, while the rest of the children grumpily dispersed. Even with his annoyance over having to suffer through a second session, Victor couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief at not having to entertain them anymore. "Did you really have to put me on the spot like that?" he asked as Alice passed by his chair with the broom.
"I'm sorry," she said, glancing up at him. "But I get tired sometimes of being forced to talk about how I murdered my way across my childhood dreamland. Having to recount the deaths of some people I considered friends is – shall we say, less than pleasant."
Victor averted his eyes. Right. He should have thought of that before complaining. "I see," he said, for lack of anything better.
"I didn't mean to get you another session with Dr. Bumby, though," she added, more sympathetically. "I hope you don't come out of that one with a headache."
"Me too," Victor agreed, picking up his book. "It's not all bad – the part at the beginning, with him asking me to relax, is rather nice. I just wish we could keep it to that, instead of the endless arguing that comes afterward."
"A quick nap on that couch probably would be more conducive to your well-being," Alice agreed. "I confess, though, I'm tempted to ask him to use tomorrow's session to make sure you never forget when you're holding a lit candle again."
"I swear I've only done that the once," Victor repeated, holding up his hand again. "Usually the only victims of my lack of thinking are myself, vases, and plates."
"Radcliffe would hate you then," Alice mumbled.
"My family's old solicitor," Alice clarified. "Also works as a Queen's Barrister. He's obsessed with China and Japan. Spends most of his money collecting fine porcelain and other art from the East."
"Oh." Victor wondered for a moment what his mother would make of the man. She'd never been a fan of the East, but she did like expensive things. . . . "He sounds – interesting."
"He's a useless annoyance," Alice snapped, rolling her eyes. "He's the one in charge of whatever inheritance I've got left, and he refuses to let me have it. Says I haven't proven myself 'competent' yet." She glared down at the dust on the floor. "I don't know why Papa employed him. He's not much of a lawyer."
"I'm sorry," Victor said, feeling another wave of sympathy for her. Was there no end to the indignities she'd suffered? She definitely lends perspective to what I'm going through. At least I still have a family, and money, and happy memories. I wish I could lend some of that to her.
"You need to find another way to express sympathy," Alice said, poking his arm with the broom handle. "I'm already tired of hearing 'I'm sorry' from you. It makes you sound like you think everything's your fault."
Victor bit back the automatic "I'm sorry" that came to his lips. "I – feel terrible about your unfortunate situation?" he tried.
"More like it." Alice gave him a rather tired-looking half-smile. "And I'll admit, it's nice having someone around who can say that genuinely. Most people just don't care."
"I care," Victor told her, frowning. Why was everyone in this city so thoughtless? "I know we haven't known each other all that long, but I want you to be happy. I like making people happy."
"Do you?" Alice gestured at his legs with the broom. "Well then, lift your feet so I can sweep under them."
Victor smiled and did so. "Anything else?"
"Just keep providing decent company." She smirked and patted him on the head. "Oh, and keep being hilarious when you're flustered. I like that."
Victor felt his face turning pink again. "I'm h-hilarious?"
"It was a compliment, I assure you." She turned and started chasing the dust away in another direction. "Speaking of which – your book is upside-down again."
"Oh – um – thank you." Victor flipped the text over and hid himself behind it. I'm hilarious? he repeated to himself, turning the phrase over and over in his mind. I don't find being flustered all that funny. . . . On the other hand, those nervous habits of mine don't seem likely to disappear anytime soon. And if I can bring a little happiness to someone's day. . .I suppose it's not so bad. He shook his head. Still – given a choice, I think I'd rather just draw her some more pictures of her Wonderland.