In The Land of the Dead
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
"Oh shut it, Darcy – has she not made it clear she loathes you?"
Apparently not, as the novel persisted in continuing after that sentence. Lizzie sighed and closed the book, marking her place with a finger. I probably should have brought something other than Pride and Prejudice out with me. . .but Vanity Fair is no longer the slightest bit appealing, and I've already read Oliver Twist twice, she thought, shaking her head. Along with everything else on my shelves. Time for another trip to the library, I think. . .so long as Jefferson isn't there. 'Hey good-lookin', what's cooking?' indeed – hopefully that Oxford dictionary in the face taught him a lesson! God, twelve years dead and –
Has it really been twelve years?
Lizzie stared off into the middle distance, struck by the enormity of the number. Twelve. Double digits. Slowly but surely coming up on being dead longer than alive. Could it really be so? By our calendar it's 1875. . .and the last time I looked at it, Father had just turned it to July. . .about four months short of twelve, then. If our timekeeping is right. . .but there's no snow, and the trees look as perky as they ever do, so it must be summer, at least. Rather hard to call it that without any heat, though. . .look at me. I used to hate the heat, and now I miss it. She looked down at her hands, withered but still retaining their flesh thanks to the power of No-Rot. I miss a lot of things.
She couldn't say she was unhappy here in the Land of the Dead. She and her parents had settled into a pretty solid routine. Arthur had taken back up his photography hobby (though now he conducted all his experiments with film outside in a special shed he'd built for the purpose) and offered tutoring to the young ones who landed Downstairs, and Lorina sewed blankets and made calls and helped Mr. Prince with his paper. Oftentimes Lizzie wouldn't see them until a desire for food brought them to the table for a family meal. But they were happy keeping so busy, and she enjoyed hearing about their activities. And as for herself, she – she –
Well, she read a lot. And embroidered samplers. And occasionally painted, if the mood struck her. But mostly her world was that of books. She liked books. Books were – safe. With novels, you knew where you stood. Your plucky heroes and heroines could and would suffer, yes, but justice would triumph in the end, and the wicked be punished. Evil might delay its inevitable downfall by a few years, but sooner or later they would be impaled on the sword or locked in a cell. There were no murderers who got away with it completely scot-free, no innocents left to molder away in poorhouses and orphanages for all their lives. And if you didn't like what was happening, you could throw it against the wall and see how big a dent you could make. Yes, books were a distinct improvement on real life. Particularly hers. If only Dr. Bumby could meet his end by lightning or falling off a cliff, she thought viciously, grinding her teeth. Or better yet, have everything he's ever loved and cherished taken away from him in one fell swoop. Preferably with all his ill-gotten riches going to Alice –
The thought of her sister brought her up short, as it always did. Lizzie petted the cover of the book, chewing her already-tattered lip. I wonder how she is these days. The Illustrated has more or less forgotten about her, and there hasn't been any news from Rutledge since Ariel came here to tell us that yes, according to the latest, she was still mostly catatonic with occasional screaming fits. Has she finally recovered? Made a new life for herself? Or is she still stuck behind those dreadful walls with the leeches – and the likes of Earl? She rubbed her forehead, shoving back the image of that bloated face grinning at her. Ugh, it's enough to drive you mad yourself. . .if only more papers would end up down here! Or, at least, less of them arrive with their ink all smeared from having wrapped up something wet. . . .
And then another shocking realization hit her head on. I've been dead longer than Alice was alive when we parted.
She slumped against the back of the bench, one hand pressed against her mouth. She's twenty years old now. She's been an orphan longer than a little girl with a loving family. How well does she even remember us, after the fire and Littlemore and Rutledge? Does she still think about me – still miss our conversations, our playtimes together, however brief? Or am I just a faded figure in the back of her mind? Wetness welled up in her eyes. Or is she still strapped to a bed, screaming about how she should have been the one who died?
No – she couldn't linger on that image of Alice. She was depressed enough already. Forcibly she wrenched her mind away from the subject, sat up straight again, and snapped open her book. Mr. Darcy was still making an ass of himself in proposing, and Lizzie relished reading her name-twin's no-nonsense reply. "In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot – I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly."
"Hey, mind if I sit here?"
Lizzie jumped, just managing to keep hold of the novel. For a split second, she wondered if Mr. Darcy had somehow managed to escape the covers. Then she shook herself back to reality and looked up.
A skeleton was standing over her, waiting patiently for her reply. He (that was obvious from the voice) didn't appear to be a native Oxford resident – even if she didn't get out that much, Lizzie was quite certain she'd remember that enormous chin. A bowler hat was perched on his skull, shadowing a single eyeball peering out of his left socket. The rest of him was bare, either of clothes or flesh. Long-dead then – or an unfortunate who'd never heard of No-Rot – and feeling like he had nothing to hide. Which he didn't, of course, unless you considered the pelvis obscene.
But still male, a little imp hissed inside her brain. Still capable of looking at you. Still capable of touching you. Still capable of grinning at you.
Well, of course, he's not capable of doing anything else, Lizzie replied, rolling her eyes slightly. And you should be long gone after twelve years. Haven't I taken every precaution to make sure that – that what happened can never happen again? It's not like any man in this city could manage it anymore anyway!
And yet someone still tried to chat you up last month, the imp giggled. It never stops, Elizabeth. They'll find a way. He did, after all. This is what you get for going outside.
I like this bench, and I don't like you, Lizzie thought, furious with herself. I'm not having this argument today! She shrugged and turned slightly, bringing her book back up to her face. "It's a free country. Last I checked anyway." Flippant, perhaps, but it was the best way to speak to him without giving ground to her fears. They are not all out to get you, Elizabeth Lorina Liddell, she scolded herself for what had to be the millionth time. Especially not some large-jawed skeleton who's only said six words to you.
"Supposin' that's a yes," the skeleton said, bringing the total up to ten. He settled himself on the opposite side of the bench, leaning against the arm. Lizzie tried to return to Elizabeth Bennet's evisceration of Fitzwilliam Darcy, but she couldn't stop sneaking furtive little glances at him after every third or fourth word. She pretended she was just trying to figure out how anyone could have a chin that size and still be able to chew their food. He must have had a hard time of it when he was alive. . .I wonder what he wants here. He's no scholar, I can tell that just by the voice. Just passing through? Then why pick my bench to sit on. . . .
The skeleton caught her eye. "Boring book?" he asked, leaning on one hand.
"I'm just not much in the mood for reading," Lizzie admitted, dismissing Elizabeth and Darcy for the moment. "I haven't seen you around before," she added, supposing she might as well make conversation. It was the polite thing to do – and if he proved to be a scoundrel, she'd prefer to know to run sooner rather than later.
"My boys and I just blew in," the skeleton replied, tilting his head. His eye rolled into the opposite socket as he did. "We're doing a tour of the country." He held out a large, long-fingered hand. "Name's Bonejangles."
Lizzie raised an eyebrow. "Bonejangles?"
"Wasn't born with it, but it's what everybody calls me," Bonejangles said, grinning at her. Well, he couldn't help grinning at her, but Lizzie had gotten skilled enough in interpreting bodily tics and vocal inflections to tell what expression a skeleton actually wanted to have. "Bonejangles of the Bone Boys. We went by the Skeletones for a bit, but it just never sounded right."
Lizzie nodded. "I see. Elizabeth Liddell," she added, pushing past the protests of the imp in her head to shake his hand. "I take it you're a musician, then?"
"The musician," Bonejangles returned, chin tilted upward to give him a rakish smirk. "One of the best, alive or dead."
Ugh, what was it about her that attracted men completely full of themselves? And was it possible she could convince another maggot companion to chew it away? She nailed him with her best deadpan stare. "Is that so? Where's your proof?"
"Six sold-out shows behind us, and another one tomorrow at the Hip Joint," Bonejangles said, unruffled. He snapped his fingers. "Come on over 'round eight – you're sure to have a good time."
"If that's a guarantee, I want it in writing," Lizzie responded, folding her arms.
"Give you a poster, but I just hung the last one up." He pointed at a nearby lamppost, where his overly-large chin threatened to impale passerby. "Come on, you ain't one of those girls who only likes Bach or Beethoven or them lot, are you? Classical's fine and all, but you gotta have something you can dance to!"
"I suppose it's no surprise that a man of your ilk doesn't know what a waltz is," Lizzie said, looking away with her nose in the air. "And yes, I do happen to enjoy the classical masters. What I don't enjoy are braggarts."
"Sheesh – excuse me for thinkin' I have some talent," Bonejangles muttered, pushing his hat back. "You really oughta come see before you throw me to the wolves." He pointed at the cover of her book. "Ain't that novel all about not judgin' somebody before you know 'em?"
That caught Lizzie by surprise. "You've read it?"
"About half," Bonejangles replied, rolling his eye back the other way. "Picked it up in a bookshop just outside London when I was living and on the road. Mum was always on me to try some culture. Died before I could finish it, though." He snorted. "Guess if it ends with Darcy and Elizabeth still hating each other, I kinda looked like an idiot just now."
"No, you're safe from that charge just yet," Lizzie said, regarding him with cautious intrigue. A novel-reader with that accent. Who would have thought? Perhaps she had been a little hasty in judging him.
Or perhaps he's lulling you into a false sense of security, the imp whispered. You can tell the book involves prejudice from the title!
Yes, but he sounds as if he knows it – and it's not my place to quiz him on his knowledge. "As for your show, I suppose you're right," she added, absently thumbing the book's spine. "But I'll have to see if my parents want to go with me before attending. It wouldn't be proper for a young lady to attend alone." Particularly if he was the sort to favor bawdy songs with lyrics just this side of obscene. The living Lizzie might have risked it, but the dead one. . .it was better for her to have someone to keep her from throwing things at the stage.
"Parents? Your whole family's down here?" Bonejangles said, sitting up straight and popping his hat forward. "What happened?"
"House fire," Lizzie replied, the words falling easily from her lips now. "My parents and I perished from the smoke – my little sister made it out just in time."
"Aw jeez." Bonejangles scratched his skull, voice nothing but sympathy. "Here's me thinking going from the elements was bad."
"Elements? Were you caught outside in a storm?" Lizzie asked, unable to help herself. Asking how someone had died was more or less part of their formal introduction down here anyway.
"Sort of – more did something stupid and decided to ride through a thunderstorm for home 'stead of stopping someplace," Bonejangles replied, slouching back again. "Lightning struck a tree by the edge of the road, my horse got spooked, and he threw me off and trampled me but good." He lifted his right leg and tapped a badly-healed break in the shin bone. "Was beat up too bad to move, and stuck on a road nobody much used. Screamed my best, but – well, I don't know how long it was, but finally my voice gave out, and the rest of me with it."
Lizzie tried to imagine what it was like, lying broken and alone in the middle of some wood, hunger and thirst tearing at your throat until you were nearly mad. She winced. A wretched fate she wouldn't wish on anybody – except maybe Angus Bumby. And then only if she could watch. "That is a horrible way to die. I'm sorry."
"Eh, it's been years now," Bonejangles reassured her with a wave of his hand. "Barely remember how it felt. And when I woke up here, all I had to do was pick myself up and start on again. Shame not seeing my mother and sisters one last time, but at least I made my next gig, right?"
Lizzie found herself smiling. It was hard not to – the man had a surprisingly infectious cheer to him. "Best to look on the bright side, yes."
"Exactly. And when I found my boys, things got even brighter." He tipped his hat to the right a little, his smile somehow seeming to widen. "Amazin' how creative you can get without everybody breathin' all over ya about the rules."
"What exactly is your musical style then?" Lizzie asked, half-intrigued, half-wondering if she was going to have to listen to another round of something like "The Hedgehog Song" the Ogg woman down the lane favored when she was drunk.
"Eh – well – it's hard to give it a name," Bonejangles confessed, tilting his head down to make his grin turn sheepish. "Ain't nothing like you've ever heard, I bet. Faster, more beats, lots of improv. Gotten to where I feel weird if I have to write the lyrics down." He snapped his fingers quickly a few times. "Lemme put it this way – you couldn't waltz to it."
"How about a fast quadrille?" Lizzie asked. Will you walk a little faster, said a whiting to a snail – no, Lizzie, you're trying not to upset yourself.
"Maybe? If The Hip Joint's got room, you're welcome to try," Bonejangles chuckled. "It's happy stuff, lemme put it that way. I can't get into gloomy music. Most of us been through too much shit already. Now's the time to kick back and have some fun."
Wonder what he thinks is fun, the imp muttered.
Shush – he's been nothing but friendly. I can grant him the same courtesy in return. "A sentiment I can agree with," Lizzie nodded. "Eight tomorrow at that club then?"
"Yup – over on Bruised Boulevard. Think there's a fee, but it ain't high." He pushed his hat back again. "Never understood that down here, to be honest. Back home, the Ball & Socket don't charge nothin'. Then again, I half-own it, so. . . ."
"You own your own club?"
"Yeah, nothing major, just a little bar out in the middle of nowhere, hole-in-the-wall type. But it's home, and that's what's important." He grinned again, teeth shining bright in the dim light as he held up his index finger and thumb in an O, the rest of his hand fanned wide. "And the way the walls bounce the sound? Just perfect."
"I guess we'll have to see if The Hip Joint is as accommodating," Lizzie commented, leaning on her hand. "As I said, I'll have to see what my parents think of the idea, but. . . ." But she had to admit, it sounded more fun than she'd originally thought. A night out on the town, with music and perhaps a little dancing?
And drunk men in a pub, the imp reminded her, nipping sharply on her ear. Any of which could follow you home.
But Papa and Mama will be there. And I've long since abandoned that stupid idea of mine regarding locked doors and cages. Not – not that it would have helped me with him, he would have just stolen the key. . .and most of the men around here know by now I do not like to be bothered.
The one in front of you doesn't. They're all alike, right down to the bones. Why are you even considering this stupid idea?
Because I'm bored, a frustrated Lizzie thought. All I do anymore is read. Time was that I wanted to go traveling – to see France and Spain and India and America. To dive off the cliffs of Dover and go treasure hunting in the Caribbean islands. I wanted some adventure. And now – now it's a rare day where I go to the coffee shop alone! Even this little trip out to the park took a week's convincing of myself! Yes, maybe there will be rotten people there, but I think I've proven quite a few times over by now that I can take care of myself. Which would you rather do – take a chance on having a pleasant evening out, or rot away surrounded by the same four walls?
That finally seemed to shut the little bastard up. Lizzie gave herself a little shake and nodded at her new acquaintance. "We should be there. And even if we can't make it, I do wish you all the best with the performance."
Bonejangles tipped his hat. "Much obliged, Miss Liddell."
Lizzie and Bonejangles both jerked their heads up. Standing at the edge of the park was another strange skeleton, tapping his foot impatiently as he glared at them with eyeless sockets. "Stop chatting up the local girls – we got practice!" He waved Bonejangles forward. "Come on!"
"Guy can't stop for a bit of conversation, Chauncey? God, you're just like my mother!" Bonejangles yelled back. He unfolded himself from the bench. "Nice meeting ya, Miss Liddell. Thanks for the company. Hope to see you at the show!"
"It was good to meet you as well," Lizzie said, inclining her head. "And good luck with practice."
"Jangles! You know we got a new song!"
"Hey, just because you ain't smart enough to remember your part. . .thanks, I'll need it with the way he's fussin'." Bonejangles rolled his eye. "I'm coming, Chauncey, keep your shirt on!"
Lizzie stifled a few giggles as the two men headed off, arguing all the way down the street. Well – that was an interesting encounter, she thought, finally reopening her book. That must have been the longest conversation I've had with a male stranger in years. Mama and Papa will be proud, I'm sure. I'm rather proud of me myself.
You let him get awfully familiar, the imp grumbled, finding its voice again.
I didn't let him do anything beyond sit next to me. And he was actually a – well, no, the phrase "perfect gentleman" would never apply to him, but he kept to his own side and didn't attempt to take any liberties. It was like he saw me as just one of the boys. That – that's kind of nice.
So you wouldn't mind seeing him again?
No, I don't think I would, Lizzie decided with a little nod. At the very least, I wouldn't mind attending his performance. With Mama and Papa there, of course, just in case. She relocated her place, settling in to finish Elizabeth Bennett's takedown of Darcy. And you have to give him this – whoever he is, he is definitely the opposite of an Oxford toady!