Chapter 13: A Dreadful Letter
June 17th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Victor looked up from his sketchbook, pen hovering over the page. Alice held out the envelope she'd just gotten from the mailman. "Letter for you."
"Oh – thank you," Victor said, sticking his pen back in the inkwell. Alice watched as he opened the letter, extracting several banknotes in the process. A tiny twinge of jealousy went through her. He doesn't have to do a single thing to earn that beyond exist, she thought with a frown. Why can't I get an allowance? The few shillings I get from Dr. Bumby wouldn't cover the rent on a flat for more than a week, and every time I save up a couple of pounds, Witless appears and takes them away. Damn Radcliffe and his insistence on "looking after" my inheritance! Bastard's probably spent the lot on Oriental artifacts and is too embarrassed to tell me. Or too afraid I'll find a better use for those supposedly "ornamental" katanas. . . .
She lingered in the doorway as Victor skimmed through the letter, vaguely curious as to its contents. "Any interesting news from home?"
"Not really," Victor replied, shaking his head. "There's some belated birthday greetings. . .Father telling me about the latest deal he's made to expand the cannery's operations. . .Mother writing about wrangling an invitation to some important party. . .and – oh no!"
Alice, who'd just been about to make her goodbyes, froze halfway out the door, instantly concerned. "What? What's happened?" she demanded, whipping back around.
Victor stopped abruptly, his upset expression changing to an embarrassed one. "Ah, n-nothing," he said, blushing and looking away. "Something silly, really. . .hardly worth my getting upset about. . . ."
Alice folded her arms and hit him with a steely look. "You said the same thing about that dream of yours, and I didn't think it was silly in the slightest, did I?" she reminded him. "Let me be the judge of whether or not you're getting worked up over nothing. Come on, out with it."
Victor looked back at her, cheeks still tinged with pink. "It really is silly this time," he insisted. "The maids were cleaning my room, and they stumbled upon my–" he drummed his fingers against each other "– my collection of penny dreadfuls."
Alice blinked. "Penny dreadfuls?" Okay, maybe he had a point. That did seem a silly thing to get worked up over. "Never took you as one for the dreadfuls – then again, I never took you as one to sneak into a lady's bedroom, and that's a far worse crime against propriety. What's so horrible about the maids finding them?"
Victor sighed and turned back to his letter. "'How could you, Victor?'" he read, mimicking his mother's voice. "'Don't you know only the worst of the lower classes read such garbage? Do you think you're a common laborer's son? Just because your father started out as a mere fish merchant does not give you the right to act as if we're nothing more than tradesmen! I'm surprised you haven't turned into a thief or a full-on rake. It was that one about vampires that got you started down the wrong path, wasn't it? Filled your head with those ludicrous ideas about corpses coming to life and being marriageable material. You're going to give me a heart attack with such behavior, Victor Fitzwilliam Van Dort! You've already brought enough shame on this family. Why must you always disappoint us so?'"
Oh. That's what was so horrible. Alice shook her head as he stopped. "Victor, your mother – I don't even have the words. She's reduced me to incoherence."
"She does that to a lot of people," Victor mumbled, head bowed.
"I'm not surprised," Alice muttered, disgusted. How could anyone go on like that to their own child over something as inconsequential as penny dreadfuls? "Excuse me for being blunt, but sometimes I wonder if she cares more about status than she does about you!"
". . .I wonder that a lot myself."
Alice froze, the next bit of her rant dying on her lips. "She's always on about how I'm disappointing her, or how I've made us look bad in front of so-and-so," Victor continued, staring down at the floor. "You should have seen how furious she was when the Everglots broke my engagement to Victoria. Apparently being related to grand dukes sometime in the past made them the cream of the social crop – never mind that the only reason I even got a chance at Victoria was because they'd lost all their money. And that was only the latest in a long line of speeches about – about how I'm a c-complete failure because I'm not the perfect, charming, society-conscious son she wanted." He closed his eyes tight, as if fighting off a sudden bout of tears. "Sometimes I think the real reason I'm here is because they wanted to get r-rid of me. They don't actually care about 'curing' me, they just want me somewhere where I can't cause them any more trouble. Maybe dumping me on Dr. Bumby is less scandalous than disowning me." He snorted humorlessly. "Or maybe they're hoping that, by the time he's done with me, my entire personality will be rewritten. Mother more or less asked the doctor to do just that during our first interview."
Alice gaped at Victor, well and truly struck dumb. Her mind could barely process what he'd just confessed. His parents considered him a failure? Didn't want him? But – but even the children here had memories of at least one good parent. Charlie spoke fondly of his father, who'd lost his life after saving his son from the drunken lout who'd birthed him, and Abigail still cried out in the night for her lost mummy and daddy sometimes. Her own Mama and Papa had told her regularly how much they loved her, and how happy they were to have her in their lives – their miracle child, they'd called her. Her girlhood had been filled with hugs and story times and whispered words of comfort. To hear Victor talking about a childhood that was nothing but recrimination and rejection and being left in fields for a hour because his mother was too dim to realize her only child was missing. . . . The list of people that Alice loathed was fairly long, but she was pretty sure she could fit "William and Nell Van Dort" on there. They deserved one of the top spots after this stunt. She shifted from foot to foot, trying to lessen the uncomfortable weight that had settled in her chest. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't mean to–"
"No, no, I'm sorry," Victor said, pressing his fingers against his forehead. "I shouldn't have said all that. It's partly my own fault – I let them push me around. After all this time, it just became easier to let them make all the decisions. I should have done what some of my peers did and left home when I turned eighteen."
"Would they have let you?" Alice asked.
". . .No," Victor admitted, sighing. "I told you my first day here that I wanted to go to university. Father nixed those plans the moment I brought them up. He said that it was a waste of money and that I'd learn everything I need to know about running the business under him. And Mother. . .oh, if I'd refused that arranged marriage. . .it would have been worse than the day she screamed at me in full view of everyone in the square." He glared at the money now resting on the nightstand. "And now I'm stuck here because I'm dependent on whatever allowance they give me! Which is always just enough to cover whatever expenses I may have and nothing else. I don't suppose Dr. Bumby wouldn't like a second dogsbody to run errands?" he added, looking over at Alice with hopeful eyes.
"I don't think he'd take you on – he says he has enough trouble paying me some days," Alice said, shaking her head. "Not to mention he's technically not supposed to employ his patients. Although, on that note, have you ever thought about talking to him about any of this? Seems the sort of thing to tell a psychiatrist."
"Do you really think he'd listen?" Victor replied, leaning his head on his hand. "His job is forcing me to forget Emily, not listening to me complain about the people paying his salary."
That was a point. Alice sighed. "Well – if it makes you feel any better, I don't care how much of a fool you make of yourself in front of the upper classes. I like you."
"Good, because I've done it rather a lot," Victor said, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. "And I'll probably keep doing it. In front of everybody, not just the upper crust."
Argh, why couldn't she be better at this "comforting" business? "I meant that, no matter what your parents think of you, you're not a failure in my eyes," she tried again, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You're a wonderful, sweet young man who's turned out shockingly well-adjusted after everything they've put you through. And if they can't see that – if they're too caught up in 'important' parties and business deals – then maybe it's for the better that you're away from them." Her eyes hardened. "After you finally get out of here, you should go off on your own. Tell your father his cannery can sink to the bottom of the Thames for all you care."
"Alice, they'd kill me if I said anything like that," Victor protested. "Besides, where would I go? I don't have any marketable skills."
"So? You learn some. You were willing to run errands for Bumby not five minutes ago." She gave his shoulder a squeeze. "You're better than you give yourself credit for. And much, much better than your parents give you credit for."
A hint of a smile finally appeared on Victor's lips. "Thank you, Alice. I really needed that." With a sigh, he turned back to the letter. "At least I won't be able to disappoint them by reading the dreadfuls anymore. Mother says they're going to burn the lot. I spent years building up that collection. . . ."
"A terrible waste," Alice agreed, then smirked. "However – I know a store just a couple of streets away that sells penny dreadfuls. Unless you're already aware?"
Victor blinked a few times. "No, I – I'd sort of given them up. I've been too distracted with everything else here, and– " He glanced up at her. "Well, they're really meant for young boys, aren't they?"
"Perhaps, but I still enjoy reading children's literature," Alice replied with a shrug. "And I've seen grown men leafing through them on the street." She nudged her friend. "And how much do you think it would gall your mother to know that she'd sent you to the perfect spot to rebuild that collection of yours?"
Victor arched an eyebrow at her, frowning. "Are you suggesting I go buy some dreadfuls purely out of spite?"
"Yes," Alice admitted with an easy grin. "You're allowed. You're an adult."
A rebellious smile spread over Victor's face. "That's right, I am," he agreed, standing. "What could they do to me here if they found out? Besides, if I'm already in trouble. . ."
"That's the spirit," Alice grinned. "We'll make a scoundrel out of you yet." She grabbed his hand. "Come on, I've got nothing better to do. How did you get introduced to the dreadfuls in the first place, though?"
"Mayhew's nephew Tim," Victor said, setting aside the letter and slipping the money into his pocket. "I caught him by the stables with one a few years ago and asked to read it. By the end of the chapter, I was practically begging him to tell me where I could buy my own." He smiled in his self-deprecating way. "I know they're nothing but trash, but – I can't help myself. They tended to be a lot more interesting than the history books and sport magazines my mother insisted I read."
"So long as someone who can spell is writing," Alice nodded, pulling him along. "Oh, and you have a decent illustrator. I've always believed in books with pictures."
"I've noticed," Victor chuckled. "You've read some yourself, hmm? Do you have a favorite?"
"Not really," Alice said. "I just page through whatever's available. Do you?"
"I'm rather fond of 'Varney the Vampire.' The one Mother accused of planting 'ludicrous ideas' in my head," Victor told her. "Most of it's ridiculous, like that part with him hurling himself into a volcano, but every so often there's a moment that sends a real chill up my spine. I liked 'The String of Pearls' as well – though that had a rather – n-nauseating ending," he added, shuddering.
"Oh, yes, I remember picking up a print of that," Alice said, making a face. "Turned me off meat pies for a fortnight. Not that I can usually afford those anyway, and what actually goes into them is probably worse than human flesh. . . ."
"Don't tell me," Victor pleaded, grimacing. "I am perfectly happy in my ignorance."
"This from someone who once had nose cake."
"I didn't actually eat any of that, you know. I'm not sure I could have even if I were dead. I don't know how they manage to eat each other's body parts. Wouldn't it get awkward?"
"Search me. I've never met a dead person." Alice gave him another playful nudge. "Lovett and Todd should have set up their pie shop Downstairs. They would have never been lacking for customers even after the news was broken about their favored meat."
"I guess not – the Dead are welcome to them," Victor said, chuckling. "So, where is this store that sells such 'horrific publications,' as my mother would say?"
"Just follow me," Alice said, leading him through the front foyer. "Although I have one more question for you before we go."
Alice looked back at him with mischievous eyes. "Fitzwilliam?"
Victor groaned. "It's 'aristocratic,'" he said, putting on his mother's voice again. "Mother actually wanted my middle name to be Fitzgerald, but in Father's family, it's tradition to give a son his father's name as the middle. 'Fitzwilliam' was Mother's idea of a compromise."
"Ahhh. And the fact that one of literature's favorite leading men would rather go by his last name even with his beloved than let anyone use his first didn't clue her in that it was a bit embarrassing?"
"Alice, this is the same woman who's talked about me wetting my combinations to total strangers."
"And she accuses you of being the embarrassment? Oh, but I shouldn't make such fun of her naming abilities – my own middle name is Pleasance," she confessed in a whisper. "Mama said it was in honor of how pleasant my day of birth was. How she noticed through being in labor with me. . . ."
Victor laughed. "Well, it's still better than Fitzwilliam," he said. "May we go now?"
"Yes, let's go," Alice said, opening the door. And Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, you and your high society leanings can go straight to Hell, she added as they proceeded down the steps. I might just tell you that in person if I ever have the displeasure of seeing you again. How anyone could act as if their own child was just a commodity. . . .
Well, she couldn't do anything about the elder Van Dorts at the moment, so there was no use worrying about it. Right now, she had some trash to buy and enjoy with her friend. Fingers crossed we find some Varney.