Chapter 19: Dinghys And Dodos
August 24th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Bloody children and their bloody thieving ways. . .yes, I know, come play and you'll give my art skills back, but I don't have the time! I've already got a surfeit of children in the real world to deal with, you know. You lot go play with the White Rabbit, see if you're any better at catching him than I am. Alice sighed as she gazed down at her scribbles. Well, at least this one actually looks something like a dodo. More than I can say for my last –
Alice lifted her head from the mangled sketch, eyebrows furrowed. Drifting in through her half-open door were the soft strains of – Beethoven? Bach? Brahms? One of them. That in itself wasn't particularly strange. The fact that they clearly weren't the result of Victor at the piano? That was. These notes had a strange, tinny sound to them – like someone was playing them on a metal comb. Curious, she abandoned her feeble attempts at drawing and followed the music into the front foyer. There, she found Reggie, Charlie, Elsie, and Abigail, all crowded around Victor and – "A music box?"
Charlie grinned at her. "Reggie and I found it in the garbage! Victor said he might be able to get it working again, and he did!"
"There wasn't much wrong with it," Victor said modestly. "The cylinder was out of alignment, and a couple of teeth were bent. Rather easy to fix."
"I see." Alice stepped forward for a closer look. The box was mahogany, stained dark red, with fancy curlicues etched into the sides and lid. Its time in the junk heaps had not been kind – there were deep gouges and chips in the wood, and whatever had been inlaid in its patterns had either fallen out or been forcibly extracted. But the mechanics moved smooth and true, and the tune it played was a pretty one. "It must have cost someone a pretty penny when it was new," she commented, touching a tarnished hinge.
"They must be really rich if they just tossed it into the garbage," Elsie said, looking quite envious of this hypothetical person.
"And very wasteful," Alice agreed with a deep frown. "Especially if all it needed were a few minor adjustments."
Victor shrugged. "Some people are like that – preferring to buy something new rather than get anything fixed. Mother might have done the same if she'd been the owner."
"Oh, I've no doubt." After all, the miserable old cow tossed you aside after you got "broken," she added in her head. Perhaps it was wrong to hate someone you'd barely been introduced to, but Alice couldn't help it. Victor's stories about his mother always got under her skin. Largely because the image of the distant, uncaring Nell contrasted so sharply with her memories of her own warm, loving mother. Why is it people like my parents end up dying rather young through no fault of their own, and people like Victor's are allowed to go around making nuisances of themselves with no consequences? she wondered bitterly. Not that I'm wishing a house fire on anyone, but really. . . .
She dismissed such depressing thoughts from her mind and returned her attention to the music box. "Well, their loss is our gain. I think we could use a little more music around here." As a joke, she added, "Perhaps we could convince Dr. Bumby to hire a dancing instructor to teach you all. I wouldn't bet my life on it, but this sounds like a waltz."
"How would you know?" Reggie asked, frowning at her.
"Well, I've had a couple of dance lessons myself, and the tune–"
"No you haven't," Abigail interrupted, apparently in a contrary mood. "I bet you can't dance at all."
"I can so," Alice retorted, folding her arms. "I learned with Lizzie. Right before–" She stopped as ghosts of smoke and echoes of screams threatened to pull her away from the real world. "Well." She shook her head, clearing the phantoms from her skull. "Mama hired a man to teach her, and I was allowed to sit in and observe, and to do a turn myself if I was good."
"But that was ages ago," Abigail persisted. "You're old now. I bet you've forgotten everything."
"You know how much trouble I have with forgetting. Something's sure to have stuck."
"Prove it then," Abigail challenged. "Show us."
"How? I don't have a part–"
Wait a minute. What was she saying? She was standing right next to someone who'd spent most of his life being prepared to mingle with the upper classes. She turned and looked up at Victor. "Well? Have you had dance lessons?"
Victor stared at her a moment, obviously taken by surprise. Then he stepped back, playing a little with his tie. "Yes, but – you don't want me as your dance partner," he said, shaking his head.
Victor raised an eyebrow. "You ask that after seeing me walk into doors at least once a fortnight, bump into the same endtable three times in less than a hour, and trip over my own feet on countless occasions?" He sighed and looked away. "I'm no good at it, Alice. All I'd do is knock you over and tear your dress."
"Yes, because this old thing getting ripped would be the end of the world," Alice muttered, scowling down at the dull olive-green dress currently adorning her body. Ugh, she despised it with its horrid color and itchy fabric, but with only two dresses to choose from and the black-and-white one needing a wash, she was stuck with it. "Really, Victor, you'd be doing me a favor by destroying it."
Victor ignored her comment. "No young lady's ever wanted to dance with me before, and I don't blame them," he continued. "I can barely walk upright some days. You deserve a better partner."
Alice put her hands on her hips. "And where, pray tell, am I going to find this better partner?"
Victor fell silent, unable to answer that one. Alice held out a hand, putting on her best pleading look. "Please. If you don't help me prove them wrong, they'll tease me about this along with everything else."
"And besides, now we want to see how bad you are," Elsie added, grinning evilly. The other children nodded in agreement, eyes bright with hopeful schadenfreude.
Victor hesitated a moment more. Then, slowly, he took Alice's hand. "All right. . .but watch your toes," he warned.
"I'll do my best," Alice promised, giving him a grin. "Charlie, wind the box up again, will you?"
Charlie nodded and picked up the box. There was a few seconds of clicking and ticking, then the music started over from the beginning. Victor pulled Alice close, then reached for her waist. His hand stopped a few inches from actually touching, hovering like a moth skirting the edges of a candle flame. Alice gave him a flat look, then pressed it against her side. Honestly, didn't he know by now that she didn't mind him touching? Then again, maybe he was just nervous. She slid her own hand as far up his arm as she could reach, pushing their still-joined pair out to the side. For a moment, they were still, just watching each other. Then Victor took the first step, and they began to dance.
Despite what she'd said to Abigail, Alice's memories of her and Lizzie's dance lessons were rather faded. Fortunately, despite all his protests to the contrary, Victor appeared to know what he was doing. Alice just hung on and followed his lead as best she could. Their waltz was glacially slow, and marked by numerous stops and starts, but she didn't care. All that mattered was that it was a waltz. After all, she thought as they turned round and round in their little square of floor, I only said I could dance. I never claimed that I could dance well.
She noticed Victor's eyes flicking down to their feet. "Are you that terrified of stepping on my toes?" she had to ask. "Victor, your feet are tiny. They're not coming anywhere near mine."
"I'm sorry," Victor said, a faint blush suffusing his cheeks. "But I have stepped on people's feet before. And their dresses," he added with a wince. "I tore one young lady's during a ball once. I spent the rest of the evening in the corner nursing a bruise."
Ah – that explained a lot. "Well, you're in no danger of tearing my dress," Alice assured him. "And I forgive you in advance if you step on my feet." She patted his arm. "Try to relax. It's just a silly little dance in front of silly little children."
"I'm not little!" Abigail protested.
Victor gave her a weak smile. "Perhaps, but – after so many nights of disappointing partners, I – I want to get this one right." His eyes dropped down again. "And not cause you any injury, no matter how minor."
A vague snippet of memory entered Alice's mind – the instructor leading an anxious Lizzie around the room, ordering her to stop staring at her feet so much. "It may sound odd, but it's true – you concentrate too much on your footwork, and you're more liable to make a mistake. Just let the body flow, Miss Liddell. You'll be able to rely on your partner to keep you right." Good advice (even if it wasn't from a Caterpillar). She let go of Victor's arm and tilted his head up. "You're just making it more likely you're going to run either yourself or me into something, staring at the floor like that," she told him. "You need a new distraction – stare at my eyes for a while."
Victor let out an embarrassed laugh. "I thought I'd gotten out of that habit."
"Well, go ahead and get back into it. I'd rather have you looking at my face." She adopted a mock-hurt expression as she fluttered her eyelashes. "Unless you don't think my eyes are the most gorgeous you've ever seen anymore?"
"Oh, no – I mean y-yes – I mean–" Alice bit back a giggle as Victor struggled to come up with the right answer. "They're still gorgeous," he managed at last. Then, in a softer voice, he added, "You're still gorgeous."
The laughter died as she felt her cheeks heat up. Why did he always have to sound so sweet when he said things like that? She still didn't know how to deal with sweet. "Well – you're quite handsome," she replied, figuring the best thing to do was repay the compliment.
Victor averted his eyes, looking shy. "Oh, no, I'm not–"
"You are so," Alice cut him off, not wanting to hear him put himself down again. God, he desperately needed some more self-esteem. Damn that Nell! And all those girls who had rejected him too. "You cut a very fine figure in your suits."
"That's because I'm a swell, remember?" Victor returned, tone sarcastic, but with just a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
"I like swells," Alice informed him, smirking. "Besides, it's rude to contradict a lady. A swell should know that."
"I have had that pounded into my head by my mother," Victor allowed, now smiling in earnest. "So – if you insist. . . ."
"I do indeed, Master Van Dort," Alice said, putting on her best "haughty" voice and trying not to ruin it with a grin. "I do indeed."
They continued dancing, their movements gradually becoming more fluid as they fell into a rhythm. Alice overheard Charlie whispering to Reggie about how "there's no music no more" as she and Victor passed them, but she paid it no heed. She had the music in her head now – and she was willing to bet Victor did too. Their banter seemed to have loosened up him quite a bit – he was moving with a lot more confidence. And a lot more grace, which surprised her. She had to admit, she had expected him to have tripped at least once by now. I guess Lizzie's old instructor was right, she mused as they turned again. The less you concentrate on your feet, the easier it'll be.
Victor suddenly stepped back, pulling his hand from her waist. For a moment, Alice thought he wanted to end the dance – then he lifted her arm above her head, and she realized he meant for her to twirl. She spun as lightly as she could on her toes, unable to help a little laugh escaping her. This was a lot more fun than she'd thought it would be. Victor beamed as he pulled her back toward him. "You dance very well," he complimented her. "Especially for someone who hasn't had any lessons for over ten years."
"I guess I learn fast," Alice said, directing a triumphant smirk Abigail's way.
Abigail stuck her tongue out at her. "Yes, yes, the amazing Alice can do anything. The music stopped two minutes ago, you know. Unless you're hallucinating you're in a ballroom now?"
"Or Victor's Ball & Socket?" Charlie piped up.
Victor chuckled. "Oh no, a dance in the Ball & Socket would be rather more – energetic – than this. I'd never be able to manage one of those. You should have seen me the first time I attempted a fast-paced quadrille – I nearly crashed into the buffet table."
Alice blinked at that. Quadrille? There was something about that word that poked at her mind. . .something about seafood. . .lobsters? And throwing them out to sea. . .will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance? Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance? Of course, the Lobster Quadrille! Sung by the Mock Turtle and – and – Gryphon! Bloody hell, how had Gryphon slipped her mind?! He was one of her dearest friends – and one of the few creatures to help her on her last trip to Wonderland! Her brow furrowed. Bumby didn't like Gryphon for some reason. . .he'd spent the bulk of one session telling her that wasting thought on "silly mythical beasts" was a poor use of her time. . . .
Her foot landed wrong on a crooked floorboard, and she felt herself falling backward, yanking her back into the present. Fortunately, Victor still had a firm grip on her waist and managed to turn her trip unto an unplanned dunk. She bit her lip as she looked up at him, feeling quite silly. What a time to let her mind wander. "Well," she said, trying to diffuse the situation with humor, "it appears that since you didn't take a tumble, I must."
"I'd rather you didn't," Victor said, frowning. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," Alice assured him, meeting his eyes.
And then, for no reason she could name, her heart skipped a beat. There seemed to be something else in his deep brown gaze besides concern. Something. . .warm. Warm and cozy, like she'd suddenly been wrapped in a big soft blanket. It was a very pleasant sensation, but. . . where was it coming from? Sure, Victor often made her feel nice, but there was something different about this, something that seemed to have little fluttery wings on it. . .he really was handsome, she had to say. Not in the classic sense, of course, but there was something undeniably sweet about those big eyes and straight nose and delicate lips – and was it just her, or were those lips inching closer –
"What. Are you two. Doing."
Alice jerked her head around, breaking the spell. Dr. Bumby was standing in the doorway, arms folded, a piece of paper in his hand. His eyes were narrowed almost to slits behind his glasses, and his mouth was a thin, severe line. Victor hastily pulled Alice upright, one hand going for his tie. "Oh, Dr. Bumby! We – w-we were just–"
"Dancing," Alice finished for him.
"Why?" Dr. Bumby asked, expression not changing.
For God's sake, it was like he'd caught them performing indecent acts in his foyer instead of having a friendly waltz. "Because it's fun. And because I wanted to prove a point to an obstinate little girl," Alice added, throwing a look toward Abigail. Abigail just rolled her eyes.
"I don't let you stay here so you can have fun, Miss Liddell," Dr. Bumby said, voice like ice. "Nor you, Master Van Dort. You are here to receive therapy. And in your case, Miss Liddell, to work."
Victor shifted from foot to foot. "It was only a dance," he murmured, not meeting Dr. Bumby's hard stare. "J-just a bit of amusement. . . ."
"It is most improper for you two to be dancing in my front room," Dr. Bumby snapped. "I don't want to see it happen again. You are supposed to be taking your time here seriously, not making a mockery of things by pretending you still live in a rich neighborhood." His eyebrows lowered. "And for God's sake, stop fiddling with your tie! Don't you understand how irritating that is?"
Victor's hands jumped away from the cloth. "S-sorry," he mumbled.
Alice frowned and folded her arms. "Now really, Dr. Bumby–"
"I'm entitled to run my home however I like, Miss Liddell," Dr. Bumby cut her off. "And I pay your salary, so you will do as I say." He pointed at the front door. "You have something to pick up at the High Street chemist. A new potion I think will be beneficial to one of the children. Go now or I'll dock you half a day's pay."
With that, he turned and stormed away. Victor finally dared to lift his head. "Goodness, what has him in such a mood?"
"I don't know," Alice said, arching an eyebrow. "Maybe he just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Happens to the best of us – and the worst." She sighed, glancing at the door. "I'd better be off. Losing half a day's pay is nothing to sneeze at." Pris takes enough of my wages as it is.
"Of course – I wouldn't think of keeping you," Victor said, all politeness. "Safe trip."
"Thank you." She smiled at him. "And thank you for a lovely dance. Even if he had to ruin it."
Victor smiled back. "The pleasure was all mine."
There it was again – that odd something in his look, which prompted that equally odd fluttery feeling in her chest. Alice still couldn't figure out what it was. All she knew is that it made her blood run a little warmer, her heart beat a little faster, her arms suddenly long to embrace him. . . .
But the longer she lingered trying to puzzle it out, the more likely it was she'd end the month with less money than usual. So she just gave him a quick nod before heading out onto the street. Why is he making me feel so peculiar all of a sudden? she wondered as she walked along the path to the chemist's, frowning to herself. I don't think anything's changed between us. He's as good a friend as ever. So why. . . ?
"Making more mysteries for yourself, Alice?"
Alice turned her frown on the skeletally-thin blue cat padding by her side. "I don't need any of your riddles complicating things further," she informed him. "Frankly, I don't need these mystery feelings complicating things either. All I want to do is enjoy whatever time I have with Victor. I don't want to worry him by acting strange."
"I don't think you'd worry him a bit – but perhaps you're right, and now isn't the best time to consider the way your heart beats," Cheshire said, cryptic as ever. "You've gotten yourself in quite a lot of trouble with your doctor, and all of us are certain it will lead to no good end. Brace yourself, Alice. The night can be its darkest right before dawn, and with your dislike of lamps and candles, you're at a disadvantage at navigating it."
"I'll get Victor to hold the lamp for me then. If he promises not to drop it," she added, grimacing as she thought of scorch marks on a certain Lady Everglot's dress.
"A wise move – he's admirably canine in his loyalty. But he can't follow you everywhere. . . ."
The Cat vanished, leaving Alice to sigh and shake her head. "At least I know he'll make every effort to, unlike some companions I could name." She frowned again. Though he has a point about Bumby – what did crawl up his arse and die? He can be a bastard sometimes, but never quite like that. She rolled her eyes. Hopefully he'll be in a better mood by the time I get back. Dock me half a day's pay just for having a bit of fun indeed. . . .
Bumby stormed back into his office, the letter he'd been reading forgotten in his hand. How could they – how dare they? Dancing with each other, smiling at each other – he'd never seen either of them smile like that before. Alice had been glowing, more beautiful than he'd ever seen her, and Victor. . .the expression on his face, the way he'd been looking at Alice. . . . Even with jealousy welling up within him, Bumby couldn't fault the boy for acting like she was the only thing that mattered. For one shining moment, they'd been – perfect.
Then they'd sprung apart, and Alice had given him that frown, and suddenly all he'd been able to see was Elizabeth glaring at him, telling him to go away. . .but worse still was Victor, stammering, eyes on the floor, playing with his tie, looking so vulnerable and afraid and –
Bumby closed his eyes, shook his head, but the image remained. Victor looking so worried, so desperate to please. . .but he wasn't desperate to please, was he? No, he'd give you that look and then turn around and refuse you access to his mind, his deepest self. . .he'd smile at Alice, and Alice would smile at him, but neither of them would smile at you. . .he'd bend over and give you a perfect view of his arse, and then act like you were the strange one for staring. . . . He was – he was –
Bumby knew he had some – less than Godly urges toward people of his own sex. Not often – he still preferred women most of all. (Particularly women like Alice, with her dark hair and pale skin – why couldn't she have blue eyes, Elizabeth had had such gorgeous blue eyes. . . .) But every so often, a man would come along who would make his dick stiffen just a little. Victor Van Dort was one of those, with his raven hair and wide brown eyes and perfect lips. Still, Bumby had been certain he could resist the boy's charms.
Until he became a tease, a wretched tease, mocking him, taunting him –
He'd have them both. He'd have them both, and punish them for their crimes – Alice for surviving the fire, surviving insanity, coming here and reminding him of Elizabeth (horrid girl!), trying to find out the truth; Victor for being so bloody handsome, caring about Alice, fighting his therapy, flaunting himself and then saying "you can't have me," just like Alice did every moment of the goddamned day –
Teases! How dare they deny him! He'd take them, and he'd break them down! Alice would be his high-class prostitute, his finest specimen, who would cost a pretty penny when he wasn't using her himself, and Victor would be his personal assistant, his lackey, his hole when he felt the urge. They would obey him, love him, be his and his alone! Bumby crumpled the paper in his fist, snarling.
God damn it, but he couldn't stand teases.