Chapter 16: Of Beatings, Bunters, and Lord Barkis
July 29th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"There must be something green around here. The East End can't be completely devoid of grass."
"We haven't discovered any on our other walks through this wretched neighborhood," Alice said, shaking her head. "I don't hold out high hopes."
"Neither do I, but I don't want to stop hoping altogether either," Victor replied, lips set in a determined line.
"You're being shockingly optimistic for someone who's spent almost four months living in the East End."
Victor smirked. "Oh Alice – I'm being shockingly optimistic for me in general."
Alice laughed and nudged him. "You said it, not me."
Victor nudged her back, prompting another giggle from her. Well, even if they hadn't found any greenery, she was enjoying her walk with Victor nonetheless. She'd never counted wandering through Whitechapel and the surrounding neighborhoods as one of her favorite activities before, but having someone to talk to made all the difference. She hadn't realized just how much she'd been lacking in proper conversation until Victor came along. She felt like she could share anything with him – even stories from her childhood. She hated when others tried to drag those memories out of her, but Victor. . .Victor was different. He never pushed or pried, like the doctors she'd known. He just – listened. He laughed at the funny parts, comforted her during the sad ones, and came back with stories about his own boyhood. He understood her. And being understood was an incredibly nice feeling. I never could have guessed just how much I really wanted a friend.
They continued their way through the twisting streets of the East End, taking the slow route back to Houndsditch. Dr. Bumby had sent them (well, her – Victor had just offered to tag along) out to pick up a few small items, and had told them they could take their time about it: "I've got an important friend coming over, and I don't want to be disturbed." As neither of them cared about meeting said "important friend," they took advantage of the opportunity to go exploring and see if there was anything that could count as a plant in their particular half of the city. So far, all they'd found were some brave weeds, breaking through the cobblestones. And even those had been tinted brown from all the air pollution.
Still, the day hadn't been a total bust. They'd found everything they'd needed to get in record time – Alice suspected that the sight of a swell had spurred the shopkeepers into speedier service. They'd even had a moment to stop at a sweet shop, where Victor had insisted on buying a chocolate bar for them to split. Alice wasn't usually one for candy – her true love was always going to be pastry – but Victor could afford the brands worth eating. She could still taste the remains of her half on her tongue. Even if the Jabberwock pops out before me now, snarling about how I murdered my family, she thought, glancing fondly over at her friend, today has been a good day.
A sudden cry of pain cut through her thoughts. Victor jumped. "What the – did that sound like a woman to you?" he asked, looking around for the source of the noise.
"Probably a prostitute who's angered the wrong customer," Alice said, grimacing.
"Oh, I see." Victor glared in the general direction of the sound. "Have I mentioned lately I hate it here?"
"No, actually, you haven't."
"Really? I don't know what's wrong with me. My loathing for this city grows daily." There was another cry, making Victor wince. "Especially when I hear things like that. It's not right!"
"I thought you didn't even like the prostitutes," Alice said, eying him. Uh-oh. He's in a mood. And when Victor got in a mood, he tended to forget to think before he acted. "Given the way they keep throwing themselves at you, desperate for a glimpse of your wallet."
"I don't, but it's still–" His fists clenched briefly, then relaxed. "Someone ought to say something!"
"Who?" Alice started – then stopped as Victor rushed off, following the wails of pain. "Oh – Victor! Don't do anything stupid!" she yelled, running after him.
The source of the noise wasn't far away, and it was one that didn't surprise Alice at all. Jack Splatter, the most infamous of the local pimps, had one of his girls up against a wall, glaring at her as she cowered before him. "And next time you try to sneak something that's mine, you'll get worse!" he snapped, giving her a final slap.
Alice's stomach twisted as she watched the scene. She loathed Jack Splatter – he was nothing more than a leech in her eyes, a twisted waste of flesh who made his living sucking the lifeblood of others. If she ran the world, he'd be rotting in the deepest, darkest, dankest jail cell she could find. But she didn't run the world, and she had no way to take the bastard on – all her skills in combat were confined to Wonderland. Not to mention the vile cur seemed to have some sort of business relationship (at least, she hoped it was merely business) with her old nanny, now the madam of the Mangled Mermaid. She didn't want Nanny to get upset with her if she riled the man – or worse, for the woman to suffer for her sins. She wanted nothing more than to turn around, walk away, and forget she'd ever heard anything.
Victor, however, seemed determined to make an idiot of himself. "Will you stop that?" he snapped, glaring at Jack's back. "Whatever she's done, it can't have been that horrible!"
Jack turned around, blinking. "What? Oh!" He pulled away from the woman, looking – slightly embarrassed? Alice arched an eyebrow. That wasn't what she had been expecting at all. "Didn't mean to do that in front of a customer," Jack continued, dusting off his hands. "But the bunter here was holding out on giving me my rightful share of the profits." He smiled at Victor and held out a hand. "Still, she's an athanasian wench, for the right price."
"Don't bother, Jack – he never samples the goods," the whore said, rubbing a bruise on her face. "One would think he's a mandrake."
"I like women!" Victor snapped, a faint blush suffusing his cheeks. "Goodness, can a man just not be interested? I'm getting to the point where I'm going to throw money at you lot just to get you to leave me alone!"
Jack frowned at him. "Well, if you're not a customer, what the hell do you care what I do with my birds?" he demanded.
"What crime could possibly be worthy of being beaten like that?" Victor shot back, straightening to his full height. "I know I can't expect much out of people like you, but – really, making her scream like she was simply for money?"
"Like you've ever been wanting the stuff," Jack said, looking him up and down with a sneer. "You are far from home, aren't you swell? How long you been here, five minutes?"
"Cynthia says he's been here since April," the whore said with a snigger. "Doesn't learn fast, does he? Then again, he's almost always out with her." She pointed to Alice. "And she sees things, don't you know. Must be catching." She leered at him. "What's the world look like to you, swell? All lollipops and sunshine?"
"I only wish," Victor muttered, some of the fire going out of him. "At least the streets would have something to recommend themselves then."
Alice watched from the sidelines, wondering if was about time she intervened. Jack seemed in a decent mood, but that could change quickly. And Victor. . .well, from what she'd gathered, he was very good at dodging, but she didn't put much faith in his ability to actually fight. Even if he had successfully defended himself from an enraged swordsman using only a barbeque fork. She didn't want to have to drag Victor off to the doctor for stitches before they returned to the Home. "Victor, come on, let's go. We've no interest in their business."
"He seemed awfully interested when I was teaching this little woman a lesson," Jack insisted, giving Victor a wicked grin. "What do you say, swell? Shall I nobble you? Teach you a lesson about keeping your nose out of other people's business?"
Victor was silent for a long moment, hands clenching and unclenching. Then he let out a long, frustrated sigh and turned away. "You try to help, and all it gets you is a punch in the teeth," he muttered.
"Oh, don't pretend you care," the whore said, rolling her eyes. "You ain't a customer. Anyone who hangs about with that chicken-breasted girl doesn't know how to dock anyway!"
Victor whirled around, fresh anger lighting up his eyes. "Make fun of me all you want, but leave Alice out of it!"
Damn it, he'd just been about to leave! "Victor, stop! I don't care!" Alice said, grabbing his arm. "May we go? You've said your piece, and somehow managed to avoid being knifed for it!"
"Eh, I wouldn't bother dirtying my blade with Rothschild blood like his," Jack smirked. "Be surprised if he had any, with how pale he is." He waved a hand carelessly. "Go on, get out of here and let the real men do their business. Just don't let me see you around here again, you glocky toff."
Victor didn't reply, just turned and walked away back down the street they'd come. Alice followed, giving him her best 'what in God's name were you thinking?' look. "Victor–"
"I know!" he snapped, shooting a glare back at her. Then his shoulders slumped, and his gaze fell to his feet. "I know," he repeated, softer. "It's no different than the police beating a suspect, or two men getting into a brawl. Not that the former doesn't make me a little sick too. . . . She clearly didn't want my help, and I was just. . . ."
"So why did you do it?" Alice demanded. "You know that's all you can expect from the people who live around here! Violence and sex are the two main draws of living in the East End! And don't tell me you've never heard those sounds before. Hardly a day goes by where I don't see some tart with a black eye or purple cheek."
"I have, and I've done my best to ignore them, but this time. . . ." He raised his head, staring off into the middle distance. "It was all building up inside of me, and I thought, 'If you don't say anything this time – you're no better than Lord Barkis.'"
Oooooh. That explained a lot. Alice felt like a right prat for not understanding earlier. Of course Victor would take this sort of thing more personally than most – he'd had to deal with someone who was even worse than Splatter when it came to hurting women for money. And if he'd just let it pile up inside of him like that, churning his stomach and sharpening his nerves. . .well, Alice had plenty of personal experience in knowing how it all eventually exploded out of you. For a moment, the world around her morphed, changed into her cell at Rutledge, and she was hurling the teapot at Dr. Wilson's head, frustrated beyond belief with his useless questions and disgusting potions and having to fight wave after wave of those wretched Automatons – "How many times must I tell you? I only take tea with friends!"
She shook off the memory and gave Victor's hand a squeeze. "You could never be anything like that beast of a man," she told him. "From everything you've told me about him, he'd had his heart surgically removed well in his youth. Your problem is, yours is too big for its own good."
"Probably," Victor admitted, still staring straight ahead. How Alice wished she could wipe that defeated look off his face. "That woman had a point – here since April, and I'm still not quite used to how awful Whitechapel is. I suppose nineteen years of growing up well-off is impossible to erase in a little under four months, but. . . ."
"You don't need me to translate the local slang anymore," Alice pointed out. "That's progress, isn't it?"
"Yes – me learning six different ways to tell someone I want to do something unmentionable to them is progress," Victor said, sarcasm oozing out of his voice. "I'm sure my parents will be thrilled with my new vocabulary once I get home. If I get home," he added, closing his eyes for a moment. "Some days I really do think they've just left me here to rot."
Alice really wanted to say, "They're your parents – they would never," but the words stuck in her throat. She knew what sort of letters they sent him – all lecturing and complaining and bemoaning their fates as insanely rich upper-middle-class fish merchants. Not a positive word in them for their son. And all the rest of the world seemed turned against him too, even those who didn't think he had – unusual appetites. It was like the only happy time in his life had been those brief hours he'd spent –
Suddenly seized with a fit of anxiety, Alice grabbed Victor's hand a little tighter. "Tell me you're not going to leave," she demanded, trying to hide the shake in her voice. Oh God, now she was being as stupid as he'd been five minutes ago, but – she needed to hear it from him.
Victor glanced at her, puzzled. "Leave? Alice, I've told you – if I knew where on earth I could go, I would have left Whitechapel the moment I'd come."
Alice shook her head. "No, Victor. Tell me you're not going to leave," she repeated, pointing downward with her free hand.
Victor frowned in confusion a moment more – then it clicked. His eyes went wide. "Alice. . . ." He circled around her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "I would never."
"Wouldn't you?" Alice replied, feeling sick. "You told me you practically had that poison at your lips."
A flash of shame went across Victor's face. "That was different," he said firmly. "That time, I thought I had nothing left to live for, and everything to die for. Now. . . ." His fingers lightly squeezed her shoulders. "Now I do have something to live for."
Damn him, why did he have to say things like that? She had gone weeks without blushing. "I'm a pretty poor reason to live," she retorted, folding her arms.
"Don't talk like that," Victor replied. "You've made this stay in hell of mine bearable. Pleasant, even, at times. I never had a friend like you before, and I don't want to give that up." Looking around, he added, "Besides – even with all the horrible things in this world, I know everyone Downstairs who didn't die of old age – and perhaps even some of the ones who did – would have liked to have stayed up here longer. It's wonderful down there, I won't ever say it isn't, but – I think I would have ended up missing being able to feel my heart beat, to see plants grow, to study insects that hadn't been crushed or poisoned. . . ." He looked down at the ground again. "Not that I can do the last two here anyway."
"You're not going to stay here forever," Alice told him. "Either Dr. Bumby will get tired of you, or your parents will finally send you enough money for a train ticket and you can disappear into the night. If they ever finish Moorgate Station, that is."
"I still have no idea where I'd go," Victor muttered.
"You'll figure something out. Either way, you're not as trapped as you think you are." Even if sometimes I wish you were, she added to herself, feeling a pang of guilt over her selfishness. Of course she wanted him to escape the Home and build a better life for himself, but. . .she'd miss him. Terribly. Sure, they could write to each other, but letters weren't the same thing as actual conversation. What was she going to do without him?
I don't know – so I should enjoy every moment with him while he's here, she decided. "Come on, let's go back to searching for parkland," she said, taking his hand. "It might cheer you up."
Victor looked at her, eyes dull. "Do you really think we'll find any in this horrible city?"
"Now now, who was just telling me not to give up hope?" Alice poked him in the chest. "Don't make me be the optimistic one now. You may think you're not suited for it, but you're much better than me for the role, that's for sure."
It took a moment, but finally, he smiled. "All right. Let's keep looking."
Alice smiled back. "That's the spirit." She led them down another alley, fingers tightly intertwined with his. Well – that had been an unpleasant interlude, but it was over now. Let the scum of London do their worst – this had started out as a good day, and she was determined it end the same.
If only to keep that smile on Victor's face.