Chapter 3: Things Get Worse
"EVERGLOTS FLEE TOWN! LOCAL NOBLES DISAPPEAR IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT! VAN DORTS IN A TIZZY OVER FAILED ENGAGEMENT!"
At least someone's having fun with what's happened, Victor thought, glaring out his window at the crier before resuming his pacing. He'll have headlines for days because of this. He must feel like Christmas has come early.
Victor himself was worried half to death. The sudden disappearance of the Everglots had shaken him to his core. His mind kept going round in circles, asking itself the same questions. Where were they? Why had they run? Was Victoria all right? Had she gone willingly with her parents, or been taken by force? Most importantly, how was he supposed to find her? He rubbed his hands together, remembering the feel of her skin against his. A single moment's touch – but it might be his last memory of her. If only I'd gone in with her. . .this isn't right, he thought, scowling at the ceiling. After all that's happened, all that we've had to endure, we should be together. It was practically Emily's last request! That poor woman sacrificed her happiness for Victoria's – the least You could do is make that sacrifice worthwhile!
A booong, creak, and thump from downstairs alerted him to the fact that his parents were home again. He hurried to meet them, skidding into the hallway and just barely avoiding crashing into either the startled Barry or the wall. "Any news?"
William huffed, drumming his fingers on his cane. "None. We went to every house in the village – not one person saw them leave. They must have fled after everyone else fell asleep. No one has any idea where they might have gone, either."
"They can't have vanished into thin air!" Nell snapped, stabbing the air with her fan. "Don't they have land? Other houses?"
"Yes, but they're pretty far out in the country – and given their situation, probably in terrible disrepair," William replied. "If it were me, I'd just stay in a hotel. Not that there's many of those around either. . . ."
"Which means we should already be talking to them instead of babbling on here!" Nell jabbed William in the side. "You're going to find them if it's the last thing you do! I am not letting our best opportunity to become important slip through our fingers!"
"Now, now, dear, do you think I want that?" William assured her, stepping out of range of her weapon. "We'll figure it out. A good private detective should get it all sorted in less than a fortnight."
"Hire two and make it a week!" Nell glared at Victor, turning the fan on him. "You and your other woman! If you hadn't decided to sow your wild oats at the last possible moment–"
"I wasn't s-sowing any oats! I woke Emily up by accident!" Victor said, gripping his tie like a lifeline.
Nell groaned. "You're still sticking to that ridiculous 'corpse bride' story? Just own up, Victor! God, she must be from a terribly poor family if you think we'd prefer it if she were the walking dead."
"She – Mother, Father, didn't you ask anyone about what happened last night?" Victor asked, fighting back a fresh surge of irritation.
"Only if they knew where the Everglots had gone," William replied. "Though, admittedly, we couldn't get in at Mrs. Carter's because she's laid up. Maid said she'd had too much excitement the night before."
"Really? Oh, dear, I'm sorry," Victor said, anger immediately giving way to worry. "I wonder if it was the sword fight. . .I thought she was one of the ones who stayed. . . ."
"Sword fight?" Nell echoed. "Between who?"
"Lord Barkis and me. Except I – Ms. Plum m-meant to throw me a knife, I'm sure, but I – e-ended up with a fork." He smiled awkwardly. "I did manage to stick him three times before he cornered me."
Nell exchanged a look with William. "Our Victor. . .he wonders why we don't believe him," she muttered sotto voce.
"I did," Victor said, ire rising again. "And if you'd actually bothered to speak to anyone for five minutes, you'd know it was the truth. The entire village turned out to see my wedding to Emily – dead and alive. You really heard nothing about it?"
"Little Lucas Pemberley was going on about his grandfather having a visit. . .but Victor, he's been saying that for months now," William added. "Poor child can't accept Old John's really gone."
"We didn't linger because of fairytales," Nell snapped. "We've got a crisis on our hands. Ugh. . .you know, I shouldn't be surprised that you ruined everything. We should have skipped the rehearsal and just gone straight to the wedding."
"Without Victor knowing his vows?" William asked, frowning at her.
"Even him making a fool of himself in the church would have been better than this!"
RAP RAP RAP!
All heads turned toward the door, blinking. "Now who could that be?" Nell asked, before glaring at Barry in his corner. "Answer it, will you?"
"My apologies, madam," Barry said, springing into action. He opened the door and leaned out. "May I have your card, sir?"
"Since when does the shepherd of lost souls need a card to be admitted?"
"Pastor Galswells!" For the first time in his life, Victor was glad to see that glowering face. While he didn't really like the local churchman much, he'd been worried that the chaos last night had caused the man to have a heart attack. "How are you?"
"Good to see you, Pastor," William said with a smile as Barry stepped back to let Galswells in. "Didn't find you at the church earlier! Care for some refreshment?"
"I'm not here on a social call, Mr. Van Dort," Pastor Galswells intoned, eyes fixed on Victor. "I am here about a most grave matter indeed."
Galswells pointed his holy staff straight at Victor's chest. "Your son, Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort. Your son, who has been consorting with the Devil himself!"
"He what?!" Nell cried, dropping her fan.
"I what?!" Victor echoed, baffled. "What are you talking about?"
"Don't play dumb with me, Master Van Dort! I saw your true self the other night! Gallivanting with demons and monsters! Making unholy alliances with the unclean dead! You have sworn your soul to Satan!"
Oh God. "P-Pastor Galswells, you can't be t-that upset about one man telling you to keep it down in your c-church," Victor said, trying to defuse the situation.
"Man? You call that creature who spoke to me a man?!" The stick jerked forward, jabbing Victor in the gut. "Deranged as well as damned! Your son's soul is tainted, Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort! He is one of the fallen!"
Victor rubbed his aching belly. "Pastor Galswells, please–"
"What is this?" William cut in, jaw hanging open. "Our Victor? Damned? I know he made a bit of a fool of himself last night, but – isn't that going a smidge far?"
"You did not see what happened at the church!" Galswells boomed, eyes like fire. "That boy of yours called upon the powers of darkness to help unite him with a dead woman!"
Now Nell's jaw dropped. "She was a corpse?!"
"Yes! They all were! Horrific visions of rotting flesh and crumbling bones! And your son dared to make profane the sacrament of marriage with one!"
"Victor!" Nell whipped around to face him, horrified. "How could you?! A corpse? In a church?! Did everyone see this?"
"The whole village," Pastor Galswells said, lip curled in disgust. "He put them under a spell, so that they walked in with the devils arm in arm!"
"It wasn't a spell!" Victor shouted, anxiety giving way to anger. How dare Galswells accuse his friends of being evil? "They just recognized that the dead meant them no harm! They were our friends and loved ones! Didn't you see anyone you knew in life?"
"All I saw were the legions of Hell invading my church at your command!" Pastor Galswells yelled back.
"They were not the legions of Hell! Pastor Galswells, please, you've got to understand–"
"If they were not of Satan's loins, then why did I find the corpse of Lord Bittern sprawled across my floor?"
Victor blinked. "Wait – that's still up here?" he blurted, then realized just how awful that sounded. "I mean – he – I thought they–"
"You really believe our Victor killed Lord Barkis?" William asked, arching an eyebrow.
"He said something about poisoned wine," Nell added, retrieving her fan to use as a pointer. "And the fellow drinking it during his – wedding."
"That may be so," Pastor Galswells replied, his gaze driving spikes into Victor. "I did not see what happened – I did not dare venture into my own church until the monsters had departed and I could cleanse it with smoke and holy water. But if you'd seen the twisted expression of horror on Lord Bittern's, may his soul rest in peace, face. . . ."
"He was a murderer!" Victor cried, fists clenching. "He killed Emily and put a sword to Victoria's throat! And that's only the two we know about! A man like him – who knows how many others there were!" His stomach knotted as he pictured a parade of Emilys, blonde and brunette and ginger, all kitted out in their wedding best and carrying gold and jewels, only to have their heads broken or their bellies split or their necks squeezed until the life finally faded from their eyes. . . . "He only got what he deserved!"
"So you admit you killed him!" Pastor Galswells roared. "You admit you judged him, instead of letting our Holy Father do so!"
"I–" could have told him that the wine was poisoned "–he killed himself," he said instead, pushing down the guilt. Even if Galswells had something of a point, he didn't want to waste it on Lord Barkis. "He could have left, but instead he decided to be horrible one last time, and – and if that's not judgment, I don't know what is."
Galswells steamed. "The Lord always knows the truth," he growls. "You have been destined for Hell since birth, no doubt. A dark and evil soul born to test the faith and courage of those around you. Well, I will not be beaten by you. I am a man of God, and I will protect those of this village. Thank the Lord the Everglots fled when they did, rather than send their daughter into a lifetime of horrors with you at her side!"
Victor just shook his head, completely lost for words. What could he say to this – this madman? He turned toward his parents, desperate for help. Please, Mother – for once, put your stubbornness and love of arguing to good use!
Nell, however, was looking at him like he was something Scraps had done on the carpet. "You tried to marry a corpse," she said, fan pressed up against her face. "Where did we go wrong with you?"
"Now, now, I think everyone's overexcited," William said, holding up a conciliatory hand.
"I am simply delivering the righteous word of God! Warning all those who cross this creature's path of his corrupted nature!" Galswells shouted, banging his staff against the floor. "You need to know more than anyone!"
"I hope you don't think we're responsible for this," Nell snapped, pushing her hat back as if she intended to go fan-to-staff against the pastor if he said yes.
"No, you and your husband are largely blameless in this," Galswells said, lowering his voice a tad. "Perhaps you have not always been the most devoted servants of God, but it is a rare soul indeed who stoops to such levels as your son. You did your best with what you had, I'm sure."
"Of course we did," William said soothingly. "Why don't you give us a moment to talk to him, then? See if there's anything we can do to – stop him being wicked."
Galswells snorted. "You would be better off sending him to some dark, deserted corner of the earth and then adopting a new lad as your heir. Once the evil has shown itself, there's no turning back."
"I say, let's not give up hope," William replied, putting on an overly-cheerful smile. "Besides, he's my flesh and blood and all, eheheh. . . ."
Pastor Galswells rolled his eyes. "Very well. But don't complain to me when he ruins everything you hold dear."
"He's already done that," Nell grumbled, shooting a glare at Victor. "There's not much more he could do."
"Don't be so sure of that! Watch him every moment! Keep him away from my church! And whatever you do, don't let him anywhere near those woods!" Pastor Galswells stabbed a long finger at Victor. "Enjoy your time on this earth, Master Van Dort! For when you die, you will get what's truly coming to you!"
With that, he was gone, marching down the street in a swirl of sacramental robes and muttered oaths. William closed the door after him. "Oh dear, this is just what we need," he mumbled, then looked over at Victor, disappointment etched into every line of his face. "You told us it wasn't like that, son."
Victor's jaw dropped. "What – I – it's not!" he cried, flinging his arms wide. "Father, I swear to you, it wasn't – I'm not–"
"He said you made profane the holy sacrament of marriage," William said, folding his arms. "That doesn't suggest good things, Victor."
"I'm not a necrophiliac!"
Everyone jumped – including Victor. He hadn't actually meant to shout. It was just – everything was spiraling out of control so quickly, and – and his own father believing – He forced himself to lower his voice. "Look, I a-admit I tried to marry Emily, but – i-it was just the ceremony! The bit with the v-vows and the declaration of m-man and wife! There wasn't a w-word said about – c-c-con-consummation." Oh God. . .it had been bad enough to hear that word from his father's lips when William had pulled him aside a couple of days before the rehearsal to explain something Victor already knew a little about in the most awkward way possible. To associate it now with Emily, who had been pretty and kind but still very much dead. . .they really, really needed to put a chair in here.
"But you still admit to dragging a corpse into a church and declaring you wanted to marry it!" Nell shrieked, her fan catching him in the chest. "All these years, I thought you were afraid of everything. . . ."
"Mother, I – dragging?" Victor stared. "You – you still – Mother, Pastor Galswells himself just told you the dead rose!"
"At your command! Obviously you scared the poor man literally out of his wits by digging up half the village graveyard to attend your 'wedding!'"
"Be reasonable, Nell – if he'd dug up that many graves, he wouldn't have had time to set things to rights before we came home," William said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"All right, perhaps," Nell allowed. "He must have just had the one and told Pastor Galswells the others were coming. Poor fellow, always thought he was a bit on-edge. . . ."
This was mad. This was completely and utterly mad. Victoria was gone, Pastor Galswells thought he was the child of the devil, and his own parents still refused to believe that last night had actually happened. "Ask the others in the village then!" he begged. "Please! They'll tell you all about it!"
"I don't want to hear all about it!" Nell snapped, waving her fan as if to get rid of a bad smell. "Gallivanting through the town with a corpse on your arm, talking to it as if it were alive. . .how long has this been going on, Victor? You take a lot of walks through those woods, and you never say exactly where you go. Mr. Shallots said the earth on Mr. Elfman's grave looked disturbed last week – did you dig him up because he asked you for a bit of fresh air?"
"No! This – I–"
"This is your fault," Nell added, glaring at William. "I know lunacy doesn't run in my side of the family!"
"It doesn't in mine either," William snapped back. "The Van Dorts have been a proud fish-selling family ever since we came over from Dordrecht! Victor's. . . ." He glanced at his son, then sighed again. "I never thought it might happen to us. . . ."
No. He could not let them think this. He could not let them believe he'd lost his mind. "Barry!" Victor cried, seizing the butler's arm as he tried to slip away. "Please, Barry, you were there, weren't you? At least you must have seen the dead walking through the streets! Tell them it happened! Please!"
Barry pulled away – and to Victor's shock, he saw fear in the older man's gaze. "I – the pastor said – I wasn't at the church," he whispered. "All I heard was that you – there was a corpse, and you were going to die for her. . . ." Barry's eyes flicked to the elder Van Dorts. "I don't know anything, sir, ma'am. I don't."
It was as if someone had shot pure ice water into his veins. Victor stared after the butler as he hurried off, no doubt to tell all the rest of the staff what Galswells had said. It's going to be like this all through the village, isn't it? he thought numbly. Galswells will tell everyone his version of events, and they'll all start agreeing with him. . .or they'll be like my parents and say it never happened in the first place. Anything to stop themselves acknowledging something exciting happened here for once. . . .
"Now, really, Victor," his mother scolded. "Keep scaring the servants like that, and they'll all quit their positions. Bad enough you got someone accidentally poisoned – where'd you get your hands on that, anyway?"
"We can get you help, son," William said, reaching out to touch his arm. "Someone to talk to, show you how such things just cannot be–"
Victor jerked away from his father and darted up the stairs, toward the safety of his room. This was all too much. In the space of a morning his entire world had been shattered so thoroughly the pieces had to be a fine powder by now. He needed some space. He locked the door behind him, then fell onto his bed. This isn't happening, he thought, hugging himself. This is all a dream. Some horrible nightmare I'll wake up from soon. And then my parents will be waiting for me downstairs again, and I'll explain, and this time the villagers will speak up and they'll believe me and Victoria will be at her home ready to try our wedding again –
"PASTOR GALSWELLS DECLARES VAN DORT BOY DAMNED! MASTER VAN DORT CONSIDERED EVIL INCARNATE!"
Despite every cell of his body protesting, Victor forced himself to get up and look out his window. Down in the square, the town crier was parading around, ringing his bell and spreading this latest bit of news far and wide. And there was Pastor Galswells, on the side, talking to the greengrocer and the clock maker and a bunch of others besides. Victor couldn't hear him over the crier's shouts, but the expressions of the crowd were easy enough to read. Already some were looking at the Van Dort house, and the figure in the window, with fear and revulsion. Victor turned away, resting his head against the nearby wall. They'll never speak up for me – not now. And even if they did, Mother would never listen anyway. I'm – I'm alone.
He remained where he was for a moment, listening to his life fall apart outside. Then he turned around, dropped to his knees, and clasped his hands so tight his knuckles went white. Please, God, he prayed, closing his eyes. Please let us find the Everglots – and quickly. Victoria – she's the only one I can count on anymore. The only one who might make all this worth it. Please – bring her back to me.