Chapter 17: Doubts And Fears
August 2nd, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"Is it just me, or has one of the children gone missing?"
"Missin – Oh! Yes, sort of," Alice said, looking up from her book. "Caroline was adopted yesterday – Dr. Bumby told me about it earlier. Said he'd found someone who loved her and just had to have her."
"Oh." Victor fiddled with his fingers. "I see."
Alice frowned. That wasn't the reaction she'd been expecting. "Are you all right?"
Victor nodded a little too quickly, forcing a smile. "I'm fine. I'm – I'm glad she's found a new family."
He was a poor liar. Alice stared at him for a long moment, then deliberately closed her book and set it off to one side before turning back and folding her arms. "Something's bothering you," she stated, hitting him with her most penetrating look. Hopefully he recognized the signs of "and I'm not leaving you alone until you tell me what."
She'd give him this much – he managed to keep up the pretense of cheerfulness for about a minute. Then he sighed, shoulders slumping as he nodded. "That news – I don't know why, Alice, but something about it doesn't feel right to me."
Alice arched an eyebrow, confused. "Doesn't feel right? What couldn't be right about it? Caroline got what all of these children want most in the world – a new home."
"I know, and that's wonderful, it's just–" Victor stopped, biting his lower lip as he folded and unfolded his hands in thought. "Who adopted her?"
"I don't know," Alice admitted, shrugging. "Dr. Bumby just said it was a man who'd always wanted a little girl."
"And you've never met him? Of course you haven't," Victor answered himself. "Neither have I. And that's just it – Alice, I never see any potential parents coming to the Home. The only regular visitor we get here is the mailman. How can these children be adopted if no one ever comes over to adopt them?"
"People come over," Alice countered. "It's just usually when we're out and about – in fact, that's the main reason Dr. Bumby sends us out and about, if you recall. I'm sure at least some of them are looking for a child." She flicked a bit of hair out of her eyes. "And there's also the trips he takes the children on to meet with various clients. He must get a lot of them adopted out that way."
"Perhaps," Victor allowed. "But – don't you think that's a little strange? I've never heard of any orphanage taking children to see potential parents. It's always been the hopeful couple that has to visit the children."
"I couldn't say – what I think is a little strange doesn't always line up with what other people think is a little strange," Alice reminded him with a smirk. "But think of it this way – remember how your parents reacted when they first saw the Home? If Dr. Bumby wants to get a child into a decent family, it's probably for the best that he keep such families as far away from Whitechapel as possible."
"Ah – I'll give you that," Victor said, a shudder rolling down his body. "I would be leery about coming out here if I didn't have to as well, even for so noble a reason as adoption. Not to mention I've seen the sort of men who like to skulk around here. The poor parents would be dead before they reached the front door."
"Ugh, yes, I know," Alice said, rolling her eyes as she thought about the loutish figures who sometimes lurked by the back door, calling her names and asking how much she charged. "Sometimes I think it would be worth confirming my reputation as a violent lunatic just to have a go at one of those beasts. At least Dr. Bumby knows how to deal with them. Disgusting wankers, if you'll pardon my language."
"This entire neighborhood is disgusting," Victor muttered, looking out the front window and glowering at the people passing by. He's got a surprisingly good glower, Alice noted. He might even manage 'scary' if you ever got him mad enough. Would explain how he fought off a skilled swordsman armed only with a fork. A glare from someone as unassuming as him would unsettle the most stable of minds. "No respect, no morals. . . ."
"Yes, but you can add 'no food' and 'no shelter' to that list as well," Alice pointed out. "These people are scraping around just trying to survive. Not everyone is lucky enough to have had a nice upper-middle-class upbringing like we did. Well – like you did and I sort of did," she amended as the flames leaped up in her mind, consuming her family with their hungry mouths.
Victor shot her a sympathetic look. Then his face hardened again. "I know, but – is it really so hard to hang on to a little human decency?"
"Human decency? Go into Rutledge Asylum and watch them strap a woman into an electric chair under the pretense of 'curing' her of impure thoughts," Alice replied, resisting the urge to clamp her hands onto the arms of her chair as the memories rushed back. "Or cover a man with leeches to remove 'bad blood.' Take a look at that and tell me human decency exists."
Victor opened his mouth to speak – then stopped, closing his eyes with a sigh. "I'd refute that, but – everyone who immediately came to mind, with one exception, was dead. Maybe people become nicer after they've been buried for a year or two." He looked back out onto the streets. "I guess I just – want to change things. I want to make people's lives happier – fuller. And I want said people to be better than just street rats scavenging the trash."
"You can't save the world," Alice told him, not without sympathy. "No matter how rich you are. And even if you were to give all these people a good home and a hot meal every day, some of them would still be monsters and maniacs. You've said yourself some of the nastiest people you've ever known were also some of the richest." Victor nodded reluctantly. "People like you are much fewer than they ought to be, Victor. I'd love to be able to change the world too – to make it so no one has to suffer again. But I've seen enough of reality – and fantasy, honestly–" she added, thinking of the wreck Wonderland had become "– to know that there's always going to be suffering. Always going to be villains lurking the streets. All you can do is look out for yourself, and perhaps try and make a little difference here and there." Knowing what would cheer him up, she added, "You managed to send someone to Heaven, or whatever passes for it. That has to count for something, right?"
Sure enough, Victor smiled. "I would hope so." Then his anxious expression returned as he fiddled some more with his fingers. "Still, speaking about how people treat others. . .maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I don't exactly approve of the way Dr. Bumby handles the children. Those paper placards are still a complete mystery to me."
"He's said that it's for identification purposes – that when he has to discuss the child with a colleague, he can give them a modicum of privacy," Alice said. "What's mysterious about that?"
"Fair enough, but. . .why make them wear numbers? That just seems so – dehumanizing. Surely some sort of fake name would be better? Or even letters?" Victor frowned, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Unless it has something to do with their ages. . .of course, when I ask most of them what theirs is, they don't seem to recall."
"It's not that they don't recall, it's that they don't know," Alice corrected. "Poor people don't usually keep track of that, I've found. There must be hundreds of people scattered throughout this city that have no idea when they were born. They just make a good guess and get on with their lives." She shrugged. "As for your question, I don't know – and does it really matter? The children themselves don't seem bothered by the plaques."
"I suppose not," Victor admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. "But I still don't like it. Plus there's that look he gives them sometimes. . .and I know what you're going to say," he added, holding up a hand before she could speak. "He gives everyone that 'I own you' stare at some point. I know he does. It doesn't make it any less creepy."
"Never said it did," Alice replied, looking away and squirming in her chair. Victor's complaints highlighted some unpleasant truths about the Home and its proprietor – truths she didn't like to think about too much. Dr. Bumby was an unpleasant, arrogant man, that she'd admit readily. She had more experience than she'd like with his tendency to run roughshod over a patient's desires in therapy, dismissing all complaints and protests with the unending refrain of "the psychiatrist knows best." But she'd been able to accept that as something common to all doctors – after all, they hadn't treated her any better in Rutledge. But – well. . .mere arrogance couldn't explain everything. She actually agreed with Victor about how the number system made the children sound less like people and more like a math problem, but the one time she'd brought it up, the doctor had told her it was none of her business. ("Unless you want a plaque of your own," he'd added, and then he'd given her a funny little smile. . . .) He did tend to treat the people under his care as things he owned – pets to be trained, perhaps, or clay to be molded and shaped. Perhaps that was just another trait common to men in his profession, but Bumby seemed to add his own distinct unsettling flair to it, whether it be with those possessive looks or the occasional lingering touch to a face or shoulder (not helped at all by his clammy hands – ugh).
And yet, he could also be very protective of his charges – even fatherly at times. He kept the children close by him whenever they went out together, sending dark scowls to those undesirables who dared look their way. He did his best to make everyone comfortable – when he'd found out about Victor's piano-playing, he'd said that music was wonderful therapy and even gotten the young man a tuning fork so he could keep the instrument in good condition. And whenever those louts at the back door started catcalling at her, he was always quick to send them away. He treated Alice, Victor, and the children as well as he was able, and she appreciated it, but – well, once, she'd caught him giving her a look after he'd sent the lurkers running. It had reminded her of a girl she'd known as a child, a greedy little brat who never shared any of her dolls unless her playmates were willing to pay her price. Bumby's look had made Alice feel like she was his doll, and those men had not yet earned the right to bother her. It was ridiculous, of course – she wasn't anyone's plaything, and certainly not Bumby's – but still. . . .
And if she were honest with herself, there were other things about Houndsditch that bugged her. Like those little trips Dr. Bumby brought the children on. He claimed that they were either therapeutic in nature or visits to new clients interested in adoption, but he refused to elaborate no matter how much she asked. The children themselves never talked about what happened while they were out, but they never looked particularly happy once they returned. (Then again, when did they ever look happy?) And then there were the ones whom Dr. Bumby paid special attention to, saying that they needed his therapy the most. The ones that were the most likely to vanish after being taken to see hopeful parents. Their behavior worried her at times. They were much more obedient than the average child at the orphanage, but. . .there seemed to be something missing from them. They'd play and talk and smile, but there was a sense they weren't really doing so of their own free wills. There was something – wind-up in the way they moved and spoke. And they often drifted off into their own little worlds, reciting snatches of poetry and staring at nothing for long whiles before coming back to themselves. It was disconcerting, to say the least. Of course, maybe that bothered her simply because it reminded her too much of herself. But still – it was enough to get her thinking sometimes, like Victor, that there was something a bit off about this whole business. Maybe – maybe she should look into it more, make a few extra inquiries. . . .
She shook her head. No, that would be silly. Bumby wasn't the nicest person in the world, but she had to believe he did care. Somewhere deep down. Deep, deep down. And he did get the children off the streets, didn't he? Gave them a better life than begging, stealing, and digging through garbage piles? Helped them forget the things that hurt them inside? Maybe he didn't always go about in the best way, but he was trying to help. He'd always said that every child had a purpose, and it was the responsibility of knowledgeable adults to find it for them. Wasn't that a good thing? Helping people find what they were best-suited for? (Even if he'd had a weird expression on his face when he'd said it, looking at her in a strange way, like he was seeing someone else. . . .)
No! Bad Alice! she scolded herself. Stop being paranoid that every doctor is out to get you! Dr. Wilson could be demanding and intrusive at times, and he wasn't exactly gentle with your treatment – I can still taste the camphor and prussic acid in his favorite concoction. But for all his pouring mysterious elixirs down your throat, chaining you up with leather straps, and sneaking your bunny away in the night, he genuinely was trying to help you. Can't you believe the same of Dr. Bumby, arse that he is? They wouldn't let him be a doctor if he didn't have the credentials. So what if he looks at you funny sometimes? Like Victor said, he gives everyone those off-putting stares. Hell, you don't even know if he's really looking at you like that – this dratted brain of yours does love making you see things that aren't there. He didn't have to take you in, you know. If not for him, you'd be stuck in a workhouse – or worse. Stop second-guessing his every move. You – and Victor – are worrying too much. "I agree that our doctor's mannerisms leave much to be desired. But he's helping these children find new families that love them, and that's the important thing," she concluded, voice firm as she turned back to Victor.
"Yes, all right, that's true," Victor conceded, dropping his hands back to his sides. "Even I think I'm probably working myself up over nothing. I just – I don't like him very much. If that weren't obvious."
"You and everyone else in this Home," Alice said. "And probably most of the people outside it, really." Something nudged her mind then – someone commenting on his bedside manner, or lack thereof. The thought slipped away before she could get a handle on the speaker. Well, it didn't matter exactly who'd said it – her point was true regardless. "But it doesn't matter in the long run. You can do good deeds despite having the personality of a Lava Snark."
Victor laughed. "Oh, dear, do you really think he's that bad?"
"Eh, probably not," Alice allowed, smirking. "He's more like a Fire Imp – harmless, but the way he pokes at you can really get on your nerves."
"That sounds about right," Victor agreed, rolling his eyes. "In fact, I think you just summed up how every one of our sessions together goes."
Alice got up and took his hand, interlacing their fingers. "Well, your parents will tire of sending him money with no results eventually," she reassured him. "Just hang on until then. And don't let him poke at you when he's not even in the room."
Victor gave her a rather tired-looking smile. "I'll do my best." He glanced over at her book. "Alice! Short Course of History? By Havilland Chepmell? Were you really that bored?"
"Yes," Alice groaned, making a face at the volume. "I recognized it from when Nanny used to read it to us for lessons. It's not any better now."
"My first governess used to read it to me all the time. I'd be shocked if it improved with age." Victor's eyes strayed toward the piano. "Instead of torturing yourself with an incredibly dull history of England, would you like to listen to me play something instead?" he offered. "While we've got a moment alone?"
Alice felt her lips curve into a real smile. She'd never be able to properly express her gratitude toward him for letting her be a part of that exclusive group of people he enjoyed sharing his music with. He had such a gift for the piano – everything he played seemed to reach deep into your heart and pull you along with it. Even less-than-musical her. It was truly the best present she could have received during the course of their friendship. "I'd be honored."
Victor grinned, giving her hand a quick squeeze before pulling away and sitting down at the instrument. A few moments later, a soft, dreamy melody filled the front room. Alice sat down again and closed her eyes, letting the notes wash over her. Adieu to worries and doubts, anxieties and misperceptions – at least for now, everything was just fine.