Chapter 2: A Less Than Quiet Morning
"WHERE IS THAT DRATTED SON OF MINE?!"
Victor jerked awake, yelping as he dropped off the side of the bed onto the floor. "He's in a lot of trouble!" Nell's voice continued, booming with rage. "How dare he run off with another woman the day of his wedding rehearsal!"
Victor winced, sitting up and rubbing his sore backside. Oh dear – this was going to be fun. Maybe I can just hide up here until Barry and the others explain. . .no, that's not fair. I'm the one who caused all this trouble. I need to be the one to fix it. I wonder what it says about me that I'd rather face Barkis with his sword again. . . . He brushed his hair back, straightened his tie, and slipped on his shoes, then took a deep, fortifying breath. All right, into the dragon's lair we go. . . .
His parents were in the front hall as he reached the downstairs, along with most of the servants. Nell was glaring at all and sundry, her dress hem muddied and her hat feather hanging limp. William, beside her, was hiding a yawn behind his hand. He looked even more disheveled – hat askew, remaining hair in a frizz, and even more mud splattered across his trousers. Barry, the butler, and Harland, one of the gardeners, were taking the brunt of their mistress's dirty looks – likely to save the poor contingent of maids behind them, who had huddled into a ball for safety. "I never would have guessed it of him!" Nell snarled, fan going a mile a minute. "Our Victor – no better than a common rake!"
"Please, dear, I'm sure there's just been some sort of misunderstanding," William said, touching her shoulder. "You heard the town crier – it can't be as bad as what he said."
"I certainly hope so! The alternative is too horrible for me to contemplate!" Nell spotted Victor standing to the side, fiddling with his tie. "You!" she snapped, jabbing her fan at him like a sword. "Where have you been? And who was that tart who tried to drag you away from an excellent marriage?"
"Tart?!" How dare – oh, but she doesn't know any better. . . .Victor swallowed. "It's – it's a rather long story, Mother, and q-quite a fantastic one at that."
"Fantastic? What's fantastic about you deciding a perfectly good viscountess was worth throwing over?" Nell demanded, arms crossed.
"Victor, the town crier was, well, crying about you eloping with a corpse earlier," William added, fiddling with the top of his cane. "There's not something we should, ah, know about you, is there son?"
Victor frowned at him, baffled. They'd already talked to the town crier? Shouldn't they know what had happened then? Granted, not even that loudmouth had all the details –
And then it clicked. Victor's eyes went wide with horror. "No! Oh God no, Father! It's n-not like that at all!"
"She must be an ugly one, if he mistook her for a corpse," Nell grumbled, fanning herself.
"She wasn't ugly," Victor replied, eyebrows lowering. "She was a corpse, Mother."
"But you just said–" William started.
"She just happened to be up and walking about at the time."
Both parents stared at him like he'd just said he was a chicken who laid chocolate eggs. "What?" Nell finally asked, arching an eyebrow.
"It's – I – it'll take some time to explain, and I'm famished. Could we perhaps discuss this over breakfast?" Victor pleaded, rubbing his growling stomach.
"No, we'll discuss it now!" Nell snapped, still eyeing him strangely. "What do you mean, she was a corpse who was up and walking? Such things just don't happen, Victor!"
"Not normally, but–" Victor put a hand on the nearby wall to steady himself. God, he felt weak. . .why didn't they have a nice soft chair out here for visitors? Well, the quicker he explained, the quicker he could have some eggs and bacon. "After Pastor Galswells s-sent me away, I wandered into the woods, looking for some privacy to practice my vows. After a few tries, I finally said them perfectly, and. . .well, I was using p-props, and there was this hand-shaped branch at the base of an old oak tree that seemed perfect for the ring, so I slipped it on. It turned out to be the skeletal hand of a murdered bride, who thought someone had at last come along to claim her in marriage. The next thing I knew, she'd clawed her way out of the ground and accepted my 'proposal.' I t-tried to run away, but she caught up and – and took me to the Land of the Dead."
His parents stared again. "The Land of the What?" William asked, blinking.
"The Land of the Dead. It's where people – and animals–" Victor added, remembering Scraps "–go when they die. It's rather like the Land of the Living, actually, only it's much more colorful and some of the people are skeletons." A smile spread across his face. "And everyone's as friendly as can be. They welcomed me into their 'family' as soon as they met me. It didn't even matter that I was still alive, or that I was – l-less than happy to be there." He winced as he thought about his behavior when he'd woken up in the Ball & Socket. It seemed abominably rude now – in particular, the way he'd treated both Emily and poor General Bonesaparte. At least they'd all understood that he'd been frightened out of his wits. And judging by Bonesaparte's casual attitude toward being grabbed, it hadn't been the first time he'd been wielded along with his sword. A sudden image of Bonesaparte being used as a weapon by his friend General Wellington popped into his head, forcing him to hide a giggle. If only Barkis had been that unlucky when he grabbed the sword!
"He's gone mad," Nell whispered, eyes wide over the top of her fan. "He's lost his mind."
"What?!" That wasn't the impression he'd meant to give at all! "No! I–"
"Victor, you're talking nonsense," William said in soothing tones. "There's no such thing as the Land of the Dead. There's Heaven, and then there's Hell."
"No, Father, it exists!" Victor insisted. "I saw it with my own eyes! Alfred Carter was down there – Mrs. Carter's husband! He's just a skeleton with a mustache and a suit now, but it was him! And Scraps was there too! Emily gave him to me as a wedding present!"
"Emily?" Nell said, voice sharp. "Is that your other woman?"
"That was the bride, yes," Victor snapped, starting to get a little irritated. "Emily – um – j-just Emily."
"You don't even know her last name?"
"She never told me," Victor confessed, blushing. "I guess she didn't feel the need. Maybe because she thought we were m-married, and thus her last name would have been Van Dort."
"Victor, really," William said, voice still gentle. "Your dog couldn't have been in the afterlife. Animals don't have souls."
"He was, Father," Victor replied with a frown. "I know he was. I saw him."
"So you're saying Pastor Galswells doesn't know what he's talking about when he says animals can't follow us beyond? And that there's no other afterlife besides Heaven and Hell?" William asked, turning from soothing to severe. "That's sacrilege, Victor."
Victor hesitated. Yes, it was indeed sacrilege – a contradiction of every tenant of religion he'd grown up believing. But as weird as it felt to deny the word of God as told by Galswells, it felt even worse to deny the evidence of his senses. Especially as it meant denying people he'd come to call friends. "Yes – he's wrong," he said, folding his arms and ignoring his stomach's nervous flip-flops. "Maybe Catholicism is the one that's got it anywhere near right with Purgatory. The Land of the Dead could be that. Or it could be something entirely different. I don't know. But I do know it exists."
"Victor!" William gasped.
"I went there, Father! I saw the land, I heard the people, I – um – s-smelled the decay," he added weakly, wrinkling his nose. "I'm not saying Heaven and Hell don't exist, I'm just saying there's something else as well."
"And your dog? I know you miss him, son, but–"
"It was Scraps, Father," Victor cut him off. "I know it sounds unbelievable, but it was! He's nothing more than a skeleton now, but he had the same bark, he knew all the same tricks – he even still had his collar! And the statue in the town square – Downstairs, it's a dead horse that still moves and whinnies! Pastor Galswells may say they don't have souls, but why would God not want us to have our pets in the hereafter?"
"Forget your stupid dog for the moment," Nell said, waving her hands. "Let's get back to this supposed 'bride' of yours. So you don't know her last name. What do you know about her?"
"That she was murdered by the man she meant to elope with," Victor replied quietly. "None other than Lord Barkis Bittern, in fact."
"Lord Barkis? That big-chinned fellow who showed up at the rehearsal?"
Victor nodded. "According to Emily's friend Bonejangles, he arrived in town a poor drifter, courted her, then convinced her to run away with him when her father didn't approve of the match. And then he – he k-killed her to steal the gold and jewels he told her to bring." He swore he could see the shadow play all over again on the far wall. Poor sweet Emily, all alone under the oak tree, waiting impatiently to begin a new life with the man she loved. . .and then, out of the darkness appears a monster wearing said man's face. . .and before she can do anything but scream, everything goes black. . . . His heart twisted as he wrapped his arms around himself. You deserved so much better. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to give you one last hug before you moved on. "After she died, she vowed to wait for her 'true love' to come and ask for her hand."
"And that was you, was it?" Nell asked, in such tones of derision Victor felt like he'd been slapped.
"I – I–" Victor pulled at the knot of his tie, trying to sort out his confused feelings. On the one hand, he'd spent the majority of his time with Emily running in the opposite direction. Even when she'd caught him and sat him down for a chat, the foremost thought on his mind had been How on earth do I explain this to Victoria?! He'd formulated his escape with barely a thought for how she might feel when confronted with his furious mother yelling that he was already engaged. (Had he really been planning on taking her to meet Nell Van Dort? He'd been more wicked than he'd thought.) Or, as it turned out, how she would react to finding him on the verge of kissing another woman. And it wasn't until he'd thought Victoria lost to him forever that he'd seriously considered taking Emily as his bride. Not exactly the actions of a man in love.
On the other hand. . .even with his mind so fixated on his living fiancee, he hadn't been able to tell Emily he was promised to another, for fear of breaking her heart. She'd torn him away from everything he'd ever known, ignored every sign that he didn't want to be Downstairs and had no clue who she was, and he'd never found in himself to hate her. The guilt he'd felt for deceiving and hurting her had been some of the worst of his life. Her dancing had mesmerized him, right in the middle of his escape attempt. And the duet they'd shared – it had been simply magical. He'd never seen such enthusiasm in a woman – in anyone – before. Not to mention it was the first time he'd ever shared his own gift with someone so intimately. . . . And when he'd said, "I would never marry you," every atom of his body had rebelled, had wanted to yank back the words – because they simply weren't true. Perhaps Emily wasn't a bride he would have chosen on his own – but then, he hadn't had any choice with Victoria either, and it taken him barely a minute to want to spend the rest of his life with her. Emily had been a harder sell to his heart, but by the time he'd seen her drop to her knees in Ms. Plum's kitchen, whispering how she could never ask him to give up his life for her happiness. . .he hadn't seen a corpse at all in that moment. Just a lonely young woman whom made him smile and loved the piano and dogs as much as he and – and who had given him the color he'd always felt lacking from his life. Even the knowledge that he would have to die to make it work hadn't made him hesitate then. Partly because he didn't want to live in a world where he had to watch Victoria on another man's arm, yes, but – also because he couldn't see death with Emily as being a bad thing. All throughout the wedding preparations, he'd been thinking about what his afterlife with his new wife might be like – spirited duets, walking Scraps through the cemetery, playing with the dead children and pretending they were their own – and it had all filled his heart with the same warmth as the scenarios he'd dreamed up right before his ill-fated rehearsal. If Victoria hadn't been in the church, if Emily hadn't seen her. . . .
But he had no idea how to explain all that to his mother without being called a "rake" again. "I don't know," he finally got out. "All I know is that I woke her up. For whatever reason, she was able to accept my proposal, a-accidental as it was."
"Hmph. So – if you're married to a dead girl, then where on earth is she?" Nell demanded, looking around. "Show us this mysteriously-walking corpse, Victor. Is she preparing breakfast? Making your bed? Or out in the garden having a lie-down in the dirt?"
"Mother, please!" Victor begged, clasping his hands before him. "Look, it's all terribly complicated – you know how a marriage is considered 'until death do you part?' Since Emily was already dead, that meant we weren't actually married."
"So why didn't you come straight back instead of letting the Everglots court that wealthy newcomer?"
"Because – well, first, I was still Downstairs, and didn't know the spell for returning, and second because Elder Gutknecht–"
"Oh, who now?" Nell groaned, fanning herself as she rolled her eyes.
"He's – he's like the mayor, I suppose – he didn't tell us about the problem until after I'd heard from Mayhew Vict-Miss Everglot was marrying another. You, ah, d-do know what happened to Mayhew, right?" he added, wondering if his parents were oblivious enough not to notice their faithful driver dying on them.
"Of course we do – found his body on the road while we were coming back," Nell replied, rather callously in Victor's opinion. "Your father had to take the reins and get us home. And he wasn't much good at it, either," she added, giving him a slit-eyed glance.
"I haven't had much experience with horses," William said, rubbing the back of his head. "Got us back here in one piece, though. And with Mayhew propped up in the back. Couldn't just leave the poor fellow there, after all. Have to make sure he gets a proper burial." He tilted his head at Victor. "But your mother's question still stands – if you weren't married to this corpse, why linger? Couldn't you ask this 'Gutknecht' to get you back home?"
"I – y-you see, without Victoria. . .I didn't think there was much left for me up here, and – poor Emily looked so sad and lonely, and we got on so well. . .I decided. . .w-we might as well get properly m-married," Victor confessed, fiddling with his tie.
"Wait, how? You just said–"
Something about his fidgeting must have made it click. William's jaw dropped. "You – decided to kill yourself?"
The pure shock in his father's voice gave Victor a start. Somehow, he'd convinced himself his parents didn't really care that much if he lived or died. It was warming, in a way, to know at least one of them would have been horrified – even as it caused fresh guilt to cascade down his insides. "I'm s-sorry, I just – like I said, Emily and I got on well, and the idea of h-having to live with seeing Victoria as Lady Bittern–"
"He was the wealthy newcomer?!" Nell shouted, waving her hands. "Victor, you've really gone and–"
"She's Widow Bittern now," Victor cut in, holding up his hands. "They ended up at the church when Emily and I were saying our vows again–"
"So now they visited this Land of the Dead?" Nell cut in, incredulous. "Can just anyone go down there whenever they like?"
"No, we came back up here – just a moment, let me get everything straight." Victor took a deep breath, settling his nerves slightly. "According to Elder Gutknecht, the only way for my marriage to Emily to be v-valid was for us to come back Upstairs and have me repeat my vows again – which, this time, would include p-poisoned wine. We came to the church, started the ceremony – and then Emily saw Victoria watching us and stopped me from finishing because she couldn't bear to break another bride's heart." His face darkened. "Then Lord Barkis barged in to reclaim Victoria as his bride, and Emily recognized him as her murderer. We fought a bit, Emily took a blow meant for me, and he decided to toast her mockingly – except he drank the same wine I was going to. He didn't last five minutes afterward."
"So – he's dead now?" Nell said, a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
"Yes," Victor nodded. "Dead and gone." And good riddance. I hope Mrs. Plum is using that fork to better effect than I did.
"All right. And this Emily person – let's humor you and say she's real. Is she still around? Are you engaged to any other girl except the one we picked for you right at this moment?"
"No," Victor said, shaking his head. "Emily's–" Butterflies against the moon, silver and blue, and a sense of peace so profound it soaked right into his soul "–moved on. And I assure you, I don't have any secret g-girlfriends about."
Nell stared hard at him. "None at all?"
"None. I promise, Mother."
"Good!" Nell snapped her fan shut. "That's all I wanted to know. We may be able to salvage this yet. We'll have to get on our knees and kiss their ar-feet, no doubt, and you'll probably have to wait a year for the girl, but I can live with that, I suppose." She turned toward the door. "Let's go see the Everglots and–"
"Please, Mother, I'm starving," Victor interrupted, about ready to go down on his knees right then and there. "I haven't had anything to eat for at least a day. May we please have breakfast first?"
"The Everglots are most likely having their morning meal now too," William told his wife. "We shouldn't interrupt. And I could do with a good cup of tea myself."
"Oh, all right," Nell said with a deep sigh. "But straight over afterward!"
Breakfast was a surprisingly quiet affair. Normally there was "entertainment" in the form of Nell monologuing about her to-do list ("I simply must write to Lady Dubbleton and see if they have room for three more at their next ball, and then the cook and I need to have a talk with the grocer about the dinner party on the 30th"), but today she seemed to realize the fastest way to get her husband and son out of the house was to let them get on with the business of eating. Victor inhaled his food, beyond grateful to have recognizable dishes like bacon and eggs and toast set before him. The residents of the Land of the Dead were some of the kindest, most generous people he'd ever known, but their culinary skills were – lacking, to say the least. He repressed a shudder as he remembered the giant wedding cake that had so tempted him on the way to Elder Gutknecht's, and Ms. Plum's comment about how it "Wasn't coming along well at all until Bob's nose got knocked in the batter!" How could they stand to eat like that? Perhaps I would have gotten used to it – after about fifty or so years.
Once he'd washed everything down with a cup of hot chocolate, Nell hurried him and his father to their carriage. Harland was already there, lugging poor Mayhew's body off the back. "Get him inside, then get back out here – you're our new driver," Nell informed the gardener. "Don't gawk, just do it!"
Victor almost suggested they just walk across the square if she was in such a hurry, but one look at her dark expression made him shut his mouth. Harland managed to get the corpse up the steps and into the house, then rushed back outside and hopped in the driver's seat. Victor and William gave Nell her usual boost inside, then climbed in themselves. The sound of her fan snapping open and shut ticked off the seconds as they rounded the statue and pulled up to the other great mansion. Oh dear – I certainly hope Victoria's talk with her parents went better than mine! If this doesn't go the way Mother wants. . . . Victor gulped. At least I know Victoria's on my side. That has to count for something.
They exited the carriage in a tense silence – even the horse seemed frightened to whinny, lest it set the dragon off. "I do hope they're still willing to consider you," Nell finally said as they ascended the front steps. "Do you always have to make such a mess of things, Victor?"
"I didn't mean to, Mother," Victor sighed, eyes on his feet. "Do you think I wanted to raise the dead?"
"Don't even start." Nell tugged the rope by the door, sending a sonorous "booom" into the morning air and scaring the cats at the fish stall nearby. "Ugh, we go to all this trouble to get you a good, society-approved bride, and you have to ruin it by running off with some silly woman who's already been jilted by another man."
Victor's hackles rose. "Emily was–"
"What did I just say about not starting?" Nell tapped her foot impatiently, then gave the bellpull another yank. "For – I know they can't be happy to see us, but the least they could do is send that butler of theirs out!"
"Maybe they're not in?" William said, leaning on his cane.
"Where would they be right after breakfast?" Frustrated, Nell rapped hard on the front door. "Now see here, we're not–"
Creaaakkk. . . .
Nell stopped dead, hand still raised in frozen shock, as the door fell open. For a long moment, the three of them just stood there, eyes fixed on the dark crack. Then Victor darted forward, pushing past his mother and throwing the door wide.
Chaos greeted them – a long table and chairs upturned in front of the dying fireplace, smashed plates and uneaten food littering the floor. He stepped closer and suddenly found himself off-balance as something went crack under his foot. Looking down, he saw the crushed remains of a tiny groom, his feet smeared with icing. The bride was a little ways away, half-stuck in a chunk of white cake nestled next to a chicken. Victoria's wedding breakfast. . .but where's Victoria?
"What in blazes happened here?" Nell asked, whipping her head around to take in everything at once. "William, do something!"
"Er – hello?" William called, anxiously tapping his cane on the floor. "Everything all right?"
Victor left his parents to dither and raced up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. They have to be here – she promised me – "Lord Everglot? Lady Everglot? Victoria?!"
Silence. Throwing propriety to the wind, Victor ran down the hall, ripping open every door he could find. Most of the rooms beyond looked like they hadn't been used in years – but the bedrooms were disaster areas, with wardrobes hanging open and leftover clothes lying abandoned on beds and floors. Paintings hung askew on the walls, and the remains of a vase littered the rug which dominated what was likely Lady Everglot's room. Victor continued on and finally came to Victoria's. "Victoria? Victoria, please!"
The bedroom looked almost like it had when he'd climbed in seeking help with Emily – a cozy little place well-suited for a kind-hearted woman. But now her various chests and drawers had all been ransacked, and her quilt lay in a sad little heap on the floor. Victor gathered it into his arms. It still smelled a bit of her. . .but of the lady herself, there was no sign. "Victoria?!" he cried again. "VICTORIA?!"
No answer. Just cold emptiness all around. Victor dropped the quilt and returned to the top of the stairs, where his parents were sorting through the rubble of the breakfast. ". . .they're gone."