Chapter 9: THREE Steps, Master Van Dort
May 16th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
The music filled his head, drowning out the everyday sounds of the world around him. Victor fancied he could almost see it, floating through the air as if it were alive. He studied the progression of the melody as it unfurled itself before his eyes. C-minor or D-minor? A half-note here or a quarter-note? You had to be careful – the slightest misstep could throw off the whole –
Victor stumbled backward, just barely avoiding crashing into the hallway endtable as the regular world reasserted itself on his senses. More specifically, as the doorframe in front of him reminded his face that yes, it existed, and no, he did not yet have the ability to walk through it. He rubbed his sore nose, feeling rather an idiot. Why did he never think to stop walking when he got into these moods?
"Did you really just walk into a wall, or was I hallucinating again?"
Victor turned around, this time actually hitting the endtable with his hip. Alice was at the other end of the hall, watching him with an expression of mixed amusement and concern. "I know you're not always the best at looking at where you're going, but usually you're aware when you're about to introduce your face to the architecture," she continued. "Is your nose all right?"
"Yes, fine," Victor said, looking away as his cheeks flushed. "I'm sorry, I was a bit distracted. . . ."
"Why are you apologizing to me? You should be apologizing to that poor, innocent doorframe," Alice joked. Victor smiled, despite his embarrassment. "Where was your head?"
"I was composing a new piece for the piano," Victor admitted, the remains of the melody swimming before his eyes for a moment. He tucked them away into a mental folder for later review. "I tend to forget the world around me when it comes to music."
"Oh yes, you proved that back in April," Alice nodded, leaning against the wall. "And I thought I was good at going off into my own little world. I suppose I should be grateful you haven't broken anything yet."
"Any parts of my body, or anything you'd have to clean up?" Victor had to ask.
"Both. We're quite fortunate Dr. Bumby doesn't have a taste for expensive china. And that you generally avoid serious injury when you walk around in a dream." Her expression turned curious. "Have you ever broken anything?"
Victor shook his head. "I've been extraordinarily lucky in that regard," he said, feeling a wave of gratefulness toward whatever power protected him during his moments of klutziness. "No broken bones, and almost nothing that's left a permanent mark."
Victor patted his left leg. "When I was – five, I think? – I fell into a rosebush. I had to fight my way out of the thorns, and while my clothes protected most of me, this leg got scratched badly enough to leave a few tiny scars." He chuckled. "I told everyone I'd had an argument with the roses, and that they'd won."
Alice snickered. "Roses are nasty like that," she agreed, nodding as her smile changed to a frown. "You're lucky to have avoided any that launched their thorns at you."
"Wonderland?" Victor guessed.
"Yes – fortunately a croquet ball to the bloom followed by a knife to the stem generally got them out of my hair." Alice made a face. "Still, I've never been quite as fond of roses as I used to be after that. Even if I do know the ones in this world don't have it in for me."
"No, just me," Victor joked, and was pleased to see her smile a little. "You're fortunate that whatever damage they did in Wonderland couldn't leave scars."
"Indeed – otherwise I'd be the ugliest woman in the world," Alice agreed. "The fire did enough damage to my skin."
Victor blinked, then looked her up and down, one eyebrow raised. "You – look perfectly well to me," he said slowly.
"Yes, and it's something I'm beyond grateful for," Alice replied, grimacing. "I've talked to the doctors who treated me at Littlemore Infirmary. They told me it was a miracle I healed as well as I did. One of them said he fully expected me to lose the use of my hands." She extended her arms straight out, spreading and flexing her fingers. "I was burnt to a crisp – and I was the lucky one who made it out before the roof caved in."
Victor's own fingers twitched as he pictured it. The very idea of not being able to use one's hands anymore. . .it made his insides turn to ice. He didn't know what he'd do if he couldn't play the piano or draw. "I'm v-very glad it didn't come to that," he said, fighting the urge to hug himself.
"So am I," Alice said. "But don't think I don't have scars. House fires are not known for their gentleness." She rubbed her left shoulder, looking through him into the middle distance. "They just devour. . .everything. . . ."
Victor got the feeling she was seeing her home burn all over again. A wave of sympathy washed over him. How horrible it must be, to be haunted for the rest of your life by the screams of your family, knowing there was nothing you could do to save them. . . . He started toward her, not sure what he was going to do but wanting somehow to help.
Right on cue, his leg hooked one of the endtable's, sending him crashing to the ground. At least that snapped her out of it, he thought as she blinked and looked down at him. "Ow."
Alice shook her head and offered him a hand up. "I think you'd better find a place to sit down," she told him. "Walking does not appear to be your forte today."
"I'd say that's true," Victor agreed, taking the offered appendage. His left ankle twinged as he got back to his feet, making him wince. "Ooh. . . ."
"Oh no, don't tell me you have broken something this time," Alice said, quickly moving to support him.
"No, no, I think I just twisted my ankle a little," Victor reassured her, taking a cautious step. The ankle bore his weight, though not without protest. "I've sprained it before, and I know that how much that hurts. I don't even want to think about how a break might feel."
"Oh? Did a rosebush attack you that time too?"
"No, it was a rock," Victor said, glad to tell the story if it would help keep Alice's mind off her own troubles. "I was playing with my dog Scraps in a field on the edges of town one day, and I stepped wrong on a stone and sprained my right ankle. It hurt too much to get up, so I sent Scraps off to get help from my governess and parents. Once he finally got their attention–"
"Wait, what?" Alice interrupted, frowning at him. "'Finally?' How long did it take them to find you?"
The sudden awkwardness was like a stone in his gut. "Um – it was o-only about a hour," he said weakly, rubbing the back of his head. "Father said Miss Horrocks – she was my governess at the time – and Mother were having a fight, and together they managed to drown out Scraps's barking. . . ."
"Only a hour," Alice echoed, staring at him like he'd lost his mind. "My parents and nanny would have noticed my absence and started searching in a quarter of that time. Especially if I'd somehow managed to convince Dinah – our cat – to get their attention. What sort of argument was so important as to ignore the fact you were lost?"
"I don't know. Father didn't say." Victor started to shift nervously from side to side, then winced again as his ankle reminded him that wasn't a good idea. "They were horrified when they found me, i-if that helps. Rushed me straight to the doctor." He decided not to mention he'd been sobbing by the time they arrived, half-convinced they were never coming and that he was going to rot in that field.
"As well they should have been," Alice said, scowling. "I hope you got an apology for being left out there so long!"
"Yes, I did," Victor assured her. "Everyone was appropriately contrite."
"Good." She huffed, then looked up at him. "Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, and I'm sure you're over it by now, but – just the thought annoys me. If it had been my family – well, if it had been my family, either Nanny or Lizzie would have been with me when I had the accident in the first place."
"Did you and your sister play together often?" Victor said, unable to help his curiosity. Being an only child, he'd never really known how siblings got on. Alice was a fascinating source of information when she was in the mood to talk.
"Not as much as I would have liked," Alice sighed. "She was older than me by ten years, after all. Her time was mainly spent reading or having lessons on etiquette, penmanship, music, French. . .everything that made one a 'proper lady.' By the time of – you know – she was starting to think about serious relationships." She smiled briefly. "Mostly about how much she didn't want one with the 'toadies' at the university. Sometimes I wonder who she would have married – if she married at all."
There was that sad look again. Victor touched her shoulder. "I'm so sorry for everything you've lost," he whispered.
"Thank you," Alice replied, just as quietly. "So am I." Looking back up at him, she added, "And I'm sorry your childhood wasn't as pleasant as mine."
"Oh, it was fine," Victor rushed to assure her. "Perhaps my parents weren't as – involved as yours, but I had Scraps, and plenty of ways to occupy my time." He chuckled as old memories of running around in the woods, Scraps barking at his heels, returned to his mind. "One of my favorite games was pretending I was a jungle explorer, looking for new species of butterflies in Africa or the Amazon."
Alice laughed. "You and your butterflies. I pretended I was a knight for a while."
"It was much more fun than being a damsel in distress." She grinned wickedly. "I once tried to hit Nanny with my hobby horse, pretending she was a giantess. I missed and nearly put a hole in the wall. Papa was furious."
Victor snickered. "Oh dear. Mother would have murdered me if I'd done that, I'm sure. It was bad enough seeing her angry looks every time I knocked something over."
"You know, in two months of knowing you, I have yet to hear you speak about your mother in a pleasant mood. Does she just hate everything?"
"No – she loves hats. And talking about how the nobility does things. And how she deserves to have better than a fish merchant's life."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Then why did she marry a fish merchant?"
"Father told me about it once. Apparently Mother marched up to him one day in the market and told him he'd do as a husband. I think she wanted to marry someone rich who could get her noticed by the upper classes. Father said he was all for 'upward mobility,' so he agreed to court her, and – um – that was that." Victor frowned at the wall. Truth be told, he'd always been troubled by how – businesslike that whole story sounded. His parents didn't seem bothered by it, so he supposed he shouldn't be either, but still. . . . "I suppose they love each other. Deep down."
Alice looked dubious. "My parents met at the marketplace too, but Mama approached Papa because she thought he was rather handsome and wanted to get to know him better. None of this 'you'll do' business."
Victor could only shrug. "Mother and Father are happy enough together. At least, I've never seen any evidence otherwise." He let out a tiny hiss of pain as he accidentally transferred more weight to his bad ankle. "And even if they weren't, neither of them would want the scandal of a divorce – if they could even get one."
"I'll have to take your word for it, seeing I've only ever seen them once." Alice frowned at his leg. "That's right, we were finding somewhere to sit. You should probably stay off that foot for a while."
"Probably," Victor agreed. He limped along with Alice into his bedroom, where she sat him firmly on the bed. "I – I sort of wish I'd known you when you were younger," he added on impulse.
"Why? Tired of knowing the sarcastic, broken me?" Alice said with a smirk. "No offense taken, I'm tired of knowing this me as well."
"No, no, I like you f-fine," Victor said hurriedly. "It's just – hearing about your childhood – I think it might have been fun to be your playmate. And I really do wish I could have met your family."
Alice gave him a rather melancholy smile. "I wish you could have too. I think they would have liked you, for what it's worth. Can't say about the rest of your family, but you – yes."
Victor felt a little surge of inner warmth. "I think I would have liked them as well."
Alice nodded. "Well, as nice as revisiting our more innocent days has been, I'm supposed to be going to the grocery to pick up a few things for dinner. You sit there and rest for now – and watch that ankle. And don't go bumping into any more innocent doorframes."
"I'll stay put," Victor promised. "Could you please hand me my sketchbook, though? So I have something to look at?"
Alice did so. "I'll check up on you later."
Victor smiled at her. "All right. Have a good trip."
"As opposed to your bad one?" Alice smirked. Victor laughed and nodded. "I'll try, although I'd prefer not to trip at all. Goodbye for now." She headed out the door.
Victor watched her go, then smiled to himself. She really is a nice girl, he thought, swinging his legs up onto the bed and carefully probing his ankle. A little sore, but no swelling – he should be fine by the end of the day. And although it would have been nice to know her when she was younger, I don't regret meeting her at this age one bit. Feeling quite good for someone who'd recently sustained multiple minor injuries, he opened his sketchbook and began to examine his old drawings.