Chapter 4: A Chat With "Harry"
Knock knock. "Victor? May I come in?"
Victor glanced up from his doodling, then sat up straight. "Yes, Father."
William entered the room, his cane clicking against the floor. "Just thought I'd see how you are," he said with a smile. "Doing a bit of drawing, eh?"
"Sort of – I can't concentrate well enough for a proper sketch," Victor confessed, looking back down at the circles and curlicues all overlapping each other on the page. "I heard you talking to those detectives earlier in the lounge."
"Ah, yes – I'm assured Depp and McGee are the best in the business when it comes to finding missing people," William said, drumming his fingers against the top of his cane. "They've promised to track down the Everglots for us come hell or high water. Want a considerable fee for it, but I think it'll be worth it in the end, don't you?"
Victor nodded, a lump in his throat as he imagined Victoria smiling at him from her doorway. "We'll be together again very soon. . . ." "They c-couldn't have gone far," he said, trying to keep his spirits up. "It takes days to get anywhere from the village."
"Depends on how fast your horse is – but you're right, they can't have fallen off the face of the earth in a single night," William said, clapping him on the shoulder. "And once we find them – why, an apology and a few kind words, and your engagement will be back on. Just as if nothing ever happened."
The same "kind words" you gave the town crier when I accidentally fell on poor Miss Porter, no doubt, Victor thought, shaking his head slightly. Still, those are likely to be the only kind the Everglots will listen to, so. . . . "I'd like that. A lot."
"I'm sure you would." William coughed. "Of course, we have to address that something did happen. . .can't have you losing your catch a second time, aheheheh."
Victor blinked, then frowned. His father was sporting that nervous grin he got whenever he had to tell Nell bad news. "How do you mean?"
"Well, all this talk about – dead people rising from the grave – it's just not natural, Victor," William said, scratching his balding pate. "The whole village agrees. Surely you've noticed the, ah, looks?"
Victor nodded slowly, his mouth tightening into a thin line. Oh yes, he'd noticed. And the whispers, and the cuts – there wasn't a person in the village who would make eye contact with him anymore if they could help it. Victor was used to being treated like slime by Gordon Tannen and his cronies, but getting it from adults was something else. Within the space of a day, he'd gone from Cannery Prince to Village Pariah. And why? Because he'd dared to try giving a poor murdered girl some semblance of a happy ending! Because he'd brought back friends and loved ones that had died for a few brief, cheerful hours! Because he'd given this dull, gray little place a glimpse of the color that waited down Below! Was that really worthy of punishment?
Yes, according to Pastor Galswells. And while the village had a mayor, and until recently some rather well-respected nobility, everyone knew it was their church leader who really ran things in town. Every man, woman, and child walked on tiptoe around him, lest they incur his quite-considerable wrath. Even dogs were reluctant to bark in his presence. The man's railings against sin and shame had curtailed the interest in spirituality that had infected the rest of the country, and driven out almost all of the "pagan" festivals that other villages celebrated with glee. Only the May Day picnic had survived, and Victor suspected that was simply because Galswells hadn't yet found any passages in his Bible condemning flowers. The pastor's word was law in Burtonsville – and if he said Victor Van Dort was a sinner, a stain upon the fabric of the earth, nobody was going to disagree with him.
Being an outcast, however, Victor could take. He'd been alone most of his life, and looks and whispers were relatively easy to ignore. And he honestly found it easier to pray in his room on Sundays without Galswells looming over him. No, what bothered him about the whole business was how easily everyone was condemning those who lived (for lack of a better word) in the Land of the Dead. The mutterings that followed him around the village were always things like "assaulted by demons" or "felt the glare of Satan in those eyes." One particularly brave employee of the grocery had even accused him of trying to drag the village into Hell when he'd tried to purchase some apples. And after he'd seen that very same man throw his arms around a dead woman and proclaim her as his long-missed grandmother! His fists clenched without his knowing. How could anyone have walked into that church arm-in-arm with the dead, seen Barkis's removal and Emily's ascension, and then turn around and call them all, with no regard to if they were stranger or friend or relative, devils and monsters? Granted, who knew how many of the villagers actually believed what they said, and how many simply didn't want the great Eye of Galswells to be turned on them – but still. It was like a slap in the face to hear those words after everything he – and everyone else – had gone through. I'm rather glad the Dead can't come up and visit whenever they like now, he thought, anger and sadness curling in his belly like twin snakes. I can only imagine just how hurt they'd be to hear all this.
"Yes, that's not the sort of attention we need," William continued, drawing him out of his thoughts. "Hasn't really hurt business at the cannery yet, but if you keep jabbering on about it, who knows how far it could go?"
"Which is why I've brought someone here for you to talk to!" William said over him, that nervous smile growing bigger. "A fellow who's had more than a while to get used to – this sort of thing." He turned toward the door, ignoring Victor's attempts to ask him what he meant. "Come in, Dr. Wilson!"
A round, elderly man, sporting a thick beard and mustache but just the merest fringe of white circling his otherwise-bald head, appeared in the doorway. A clipboard was tucked away under his arm, and he regarded Victor through a pair of brass-edged spectacles. William hobbled over next to him. "Victor, this is Dr. Hier-Heirnon–"
"Heironymous Wilson, but feel free to just use 'Harry,'" the man said, with the air of someone who has walked this road a thousand times. "I have not the slightest idea what Father was thinking when he christened me with that, even after a lifetime spent probing the secrets of the human mind. My best guess has always been a few too many fortifying drinks."
Victor snapped straight with indignation. "A psychiatrist, Father?"
"Just someone to have a look at you and see what's wrong," William said in soothing tones. "Dr. Wilson here just retired from his post at Rutledge Asylum! Treated some pretty hard cases too. I figure, if anyone can puzzle out what happened in that head of yours, he can."
Dear Lord – he preferred the looks and whispers! "Father, I'm not insane," Victor protested, letting his hurt show.
"No, no, just a little – unbalanced," William replied diplomatically. "Won't take long to put you on the straight and narrow again, I'm sure! And then you'll be all ready to make a fine husband to Miss Everglot." He put on his best 'please just do as we ask' smile. "It'll make us all feel better, Victor. No need to kick up a fuss."
Victor looked at him a moment, then turned to Dr. Wilson, still waiting patiently by the door. The man was no plump, jolly elf. . .but there was no malice in those eyes either. Just calm, professional interest. And his father was practically straining something with that pleading grin. . . . He sighed. "All right." Besides, if I keep protesting, you'll probably send Mother up here.
"There we are! Do you good to get it all out," William said, pleased as punch with himself. "I'll leave you to it, Doctor. Feel free to come down for tea afterward!"
"Thank you – though hopefully it won't take that long." Dr. Wilson nodded at William as he clicked his way out the door, then turned back to Victor. "Well," he began as he shut them in, "you're not my most reluctant patient, but you might make the top twenty."
"I don't like being thought of as mad," Victor murmured, eyes on his shoes.
"Who does? But I agree with your father – it would do you good to get it all out," Dr. Wilson said, lumbering closer. "Repression and silence simply poison the mind further. I saw enough examples of that in Rutledge." He smiled. "And, in a less professional capacity, I confess I'm simply eager to hear the whole story. Your mother didn't offer up much in her letter, but what little I know is – if I may say so – fascinating. You really believe you visited the afterlife?"
"I did," Victor said firmly, lifting his head with a scowl. "And almost all the village saw the dead rise, no matter what they might say to you now."
Dr. Wilson nodded and made a note on his clipboard. "And – well – the business of you marrying a corpse?"
"More I almost – it – it never really got to that point," Victor replied, rubbing the back of his head. "It's – rather complicated."
"The workings of the human mind always are." Dr. Wilson sat down on the bed, the springs creaking dangerously. "But it's a poor psychiatrist who shies away from the complicated. Tell me everything, Victor. Down to the last detail." He leaned forward. "Perhaps you don't believe it, but I'm here to listen. To help, in any way I can."
Victor blinked, surprised. Dr. Wilson sounded – completely sincere. He didn't know much about the men alternately called "alienists," "psychiatrists," and "Bedlam's bobbies" (though maybe only their cook referred to them like that), but he'd built up a mental picture of someone pompous and stiff, with a love of cold plasters and leeches. Someone who'd instantly agree with whatever his parents said, without a thought for his feelings. To get instead a man who actively wanted to hear his side of the story. . . . He peered into Dr. Wilson's eyes. Nothing but genuine interest lurked behind those glasses. Who was the last person who'd looked at him like that? Who'd acted as if what came out of his mouth was worth hearing? Who'd considered this whole mess fascinating instead of frightening?
Big blue eyes watching him all the way down into the village, thoughtful yet so very sweet. . .delicate hands playing with the blue, dried flowers clutched to her belly. . .rose petal lips smiling at the funnier parts, frowning at the sad, and if he hadn't been so intent on explaining he would have leaned down and kissed them right then and there. . . .
The lump invaded his throat again, bigger and harder than before. Victor swallowed it back down. Perhaps he should talk. Dr. Wilson was at least unlikely to interrupt with accusations of devilry and witchcraft. And – and if it in any way helped smooth things over with Lord and Lady Everglot. . .he twisted in his chair to face the doctor properly. "All right. It all started about a week ago, with my w-wedding rehearsal to Miss Victoria Everglot. . . ."
"'Begone, you demons from Hell! Back to the void from whence you came! You shall not enter here! Back! Back!'"
"And how did they respond?"
Victor grinned as he let his arm drop. "Well, I didn't quite see what happened, but I certainly did hear it – 'Keep it down, we're in a church!'"
Dr. Wilson's copious stomach jiggled as he laughed heartily. "Oh dear. . .that must have knocked the man for a loop!"
"Oh yes – he was so stunned he dropped his staff and just wandered off in a daze," Victor confirmed, collapsing back into his chair with a few giggles of his own. "I didn't see him again until – well, until he came here and started calling me damned," he continued, the mirth draining from him. "I wish he'd stayed wherever he'd gone."
"You don't like him much, do you?" Dr. Wilson asked, picking up his clipboard.
"He's so intimidating," Victor muttered. "I've never seen him not glaring at someone. His sermons are always full of how we're all lowly sinners unworthy of God's glory, and – it – it wears on you, after a while. I was terrified of him when I was small." The side of his mouth quirked up. "Still am, a bit."
"Sometimes I think the ability to frighten children is a requirement to getting into the clergy," Dr. Wilson remarked as he scratched down some notes. "You should hear some of the stories patients have told me about their time in parish schools. . .but we're getting off-topic. What happened once everyone was settled inside?"
"The ceremony began," Victor said, turning his gaze toward the window. The sun was peeking wanly through the thin gray clouds that always seemed to blanket the village – it was the work of a moment for his imagination to transform it into moonlight. "Emily came in, all aglow, I helped her to the altar, and we started our vows." He glanced down at his hands, knotting themselves in his lap. "I was so proud of myself when I got through the first half without stuttering. I – I thought it was a sign I was doing the right thing. And then Emily began her part, pouring the wine as she proclaimed she too would lift my sorrows, and that my cup would never empty – and right there, she stopped short. I didn't know it then, but Victoria had followed the procession up, and Emily had just spotted her, watching things from behind a pillar. And seeing her there. . .she stumbled and stuttered and did her best, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't finish her vows."
"Because it was wrong," Victor explained quietly, touching his cheek as he recalled cold bone against his skin. "That's what she said when I tried to finish them for her and drink. She'd had her dreams stolen – and she couldn't bear to take them from someone else. Even if she loved me, I wasn't hers."
The pen busily crossed the page. "How'd that make you feel?"
"At first? Crushed," Victor confessed, hand trailing down to play with his tie. "I couldn't believe not even the dead wanted me. But when she motioned Victoria to my side. . .it's – I don't know. The moment Victoria's hand was in mine, it was like – some inner fire relit. That spark we shared at the piano was back and stronger than ever. It was right for her to be there. But at the same time. . .I was supposed to be giving Emily her dream. And I couldn't bear to see her unhappy again – especially after what I said in the tower," he added, wincing. He was never going to forgive himself for letting those horrible words come out of his mouth. "I just – I wanted to be with Victoria, but at the same time – I had to know Emily was going to be all right too."
"In the end. But there was one last thing we had to take care of first. Lord Barkis Bittern, Victoria's new husband, who was very quick to make that fact clear." Victor scowled at his reflection in the glass. "I can't believe I was silly enough to think she'd throw me over for him, frightened of Emily or not."
"Clear thinking is not a common response to extreme stress," Dr. Wilson said clinically. "If it was, I would need to find other employment. So what happened with Lord Barkis?"
"He grabbed Victoria, said he wasn't going to leave here empty-handed – and Emily suddenly gasped and whispered 'You.' And right then and there I knew who he really was." Victor turned to face Dr. Wilson again. "The man whom Victoria's parents got her to marry – was the same man who murdered Emily."
Dr. Wilson stared, pen hovering over the page. ". . .You're joking."
"I swear it's the truth," Victor said, holding up his hand. "Officer Thompson's cousin from the Coventry force happened to visit right after the whole mess, when they were getting ready to look into Lord Barkis's next of kin, and recognized him as the man who'd almost eloped with his sister's best friend. Miss Masters apparently came back in the middle of the night screaming that 'Bartholomew' tried to kill her." He knotted his fingers together. "I – I know that's not exactly proof, but – it's as close as I can get without you having actually seen Emily's face."
Dr. Wilson's expression turned thoughtful. "I think I read about that incident in the London Illustrated a few years back. Nurse Darling was relieved the girl had escaped. Too bad your Emily was not so lucky."
"Indeed," Victor murmured. "I'm just glad he's been outed as the – the scum he is. He practically confessed after seeing Emily – he tried to claim she was delusional, but we all heard him say he'd left her." His jaw clenched as his eyebrows formed a straight line across his forehead. "And we all saw him put a sword to Victoria's throat."
"I take it you didn't like that," Dr. Wilson deadpanned, studying his expression.
"Just the thought of Victoria ending up like Emily – of him getting away to do this again–" Victor struggled to speak as the fury coursed through him once more, boiling-hot. How dare that man touch his love, how dare that man destroy innocent lives, how dare that bastard even walk the earth – what did it matter if he died in her defense, so long as she got away – "I was in front of him demanding her let her go before I even knew what I was doing. He threatened me too, but Scraps bit him and Victoria managed to pull free and Ms. Plum–" He flushed. "W-well, she meant to throw me a knife, I'm sure, but I ended up with a barbecue fork in my hand."
Dr. Wilson smothered a laugh. "Well, you certainly couldn't fight him with that," he said, starting to scribble down more notes – then paused as he saw the satisfied gleam in Victor's eye. "Did you?"
"Not for very long, but I stuck him three times before he finally managed to kick me to the floor," Victor said, pride suffusing his words. Mother might accuse him of being on the level of a common thug (when she wasn't accusing him of having made it up completely), but after Emily's story, he couldn't help but be happy he'd made that disgusting excuse of a "lord" squeal. "And when he went to stab me – Emily got there first, and took the blow." How she'd gotten there in time, Victor couldn't say, but he knew from her sudden appearance on the bridge she could move fast and silent if she needed to. The sight of her blue body stepping in front of him, the crunch of the blade against her rib bones, and the mingled relief at surviving the fight and guilt at making Emily relive her own death would probably stay with him forever.
Dr. Wilson nodded, returning to his notes. "And then what?"
"She took the sword and threatened him with it – told him to get out. But he decided he needed to be cruel one last time, and grabbed the wine to mock her. 'A toast to Emily! Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.'" Victor's fingers dug into his leg. "If I hadn't been so concerned with keeping Victoria behind me. . . ."
"What about the others in the church? Surely they weren't any happier about it," Dr. Wilson asked, adjusting his glasses.
"Oh, the dead were rightly furious, but Elder Gutknecht told them they couldn't interfere since he was still alive. And most of the living had fled the church by then – I think they all bolted for the door when Barkis got his hands on the sword. But it didn't really matter in the end."
Victor smiled, thin and cold. "His toast ended with him drinking the wine. He died just as he made to walk out the back. The dead were very – eager to welcome him Downstairs."
"I'm sure," Dr. Wilson murmured, writing again. "And after that?"
"Well, they dragged him – his soul, I suppose – Below. . .and Emily turned to leave as well, but I stopped her and said that I'd made her a promise. I wasn't sure how I was going to keep it, but – I couldn't let her think I would just throw her over so easily. That she was going to be betrayed yet again. But. . . ." He swallowed, fighting a sudden swell of tears. "But she said I'd kept it already – that I'd set her free. She returned my ring, walked to the church doors, threw her bouquet to Victoria – well, on the second try – and then. . . ."
And how did he describe this next moment in words? How did you sum up something so profound, so ethereal, in mere human language? But Dr. Wilson's expectant look would not be denied. "And then she – she dissolved into the biggest rabble of blue butterflies I've ever seen. Dozens upon dozens, all flying up to the moon. And – and she looked so – so peaceful as it happened, like she was finally dropping some horrible weight. . . ." He closed his eyes briefly, letting it play over again in his mind. "I don't know where she went, what really happened, but – she was happy. In those final moments, she had to be happy."
Dr. Wilson nodded slowly. "And then?"
"Well – I took Victoria back to her house, came home, and slept. And then my parents showed up the next morning and refused to believe me – and I know you don't either," he added, slumping over himself. "I – I don't blame you. It must sound like lunacy if you weren't actually there. It feels a bit like a mad dream to me at times." He looked back up. "But it happened, I swear! It all happened! Everyone except Pastor Galswells might deny it, and he'll tell you I've been f-fooling around with things man is not meant to know, but it happened!"
Dr. Wilson looked at him carefully for a moment, then turned back to his notes. Victor waited on tenterhooks, chewing the inside of his cheek. Oh God. . .please just say it, just say it and get it over with, I won't hold it against you you weren't there just don't suggest leeches just say it already –
"I believe it happened for you."
Victor blinked. "I – huh?"
"It's a fantastic tale, Victor," Dr. Wilson continued. "Your descriptions of this land and its inhabitants. . .you're making me hope this really is what we have to look forward to. Barring the consumption of each other's body parts, of course." Victor let out a nervous titter. "Yes, I believe you suffered a breakdown rather than actually went to the hereafter, but that doesn't negate the effect of the experience on you. Even if it was just in the confines of your own mind, you went through this." The doctor favored him with a smile. "And I think it's made you a better person."
What was it about Dr. Wilson that defied all his expectations? "You – do?"
"You admitted to me at the start that you were terrified of getting married – that you didn't feel ready for such a commitment. Judging by some of your other comments – particularly those regarding your interaction with your parents – I think it safe to infer that you didn't believe you were worthy of a wife. That anyone could love you in a romantic sense." Victor hid a wince – Dr. Wilson could be quite blunt when he wished. "Both of those were probably at the root of your behavior at the rehearsal. Part of you likely hoped that if you made enough of a fool of yourself, they'd call the whole thing off."
"That part of me doesn't know Mother very well then," Victor blurted.
"Again, if everyone always thought rationally. . .at any rate, after you fled to the woods, your mind, engaged in a struggle to accept this new inevitability in your life, broke from reality so it could work through its fears in a more – direct way." Dr. Wilson held up a finger. "Enter a bride who in most stories would be a figure of terror and disgust – which became, in your case, someone you could genuinely see spending the rest of your life with. The Land of the Dead – a foreign, frightening realm, much like the married home, that you eventually grew comfortable enough with to claim as your own. The Wine of Ages – the final step of leaving your old life behind and starting anew in your new role. Being willing to drink it even after you were given a way out – twice – symbolizes you accepting the idea of new responsibilities, new hopes and dreams – and the fact that you are capable of being loved and wanted by another. And of course, once you demonstrated this willingness, the mental construct was no longer needed. So she handed you back to the real woman and left."
Victor nodded, thoughtful. Well, he had to admit, the man had a point. He had become more comfortable with the idea of getting married throughout his little adventure. More as a side effect than the main thrust of things, but. . . . "And Lord Barkis?" he asked, curious to hear the psychiatrist's spin on him. "He was real enough. He's buried outside the village walls." And good riddance to him.
"As for the real him, I'll let the police puzzle that one out. But in your mind, I would say he represented a lot of your fears about marriage. Both in the sense of being left for someone else, and in the sense of being a poor husband. Your battle with him – well, I wouldn't say it's eliminated those fears completely, but you're now much better-equipped to deal with them." He smirked faintly. "Or perhaps you're just very good at spotting unpunished murderers."
Victor laughed softly, then leaned on his hand. "But – why would my mind go through such elaborate charades just to h-help me get my vows right?"
"Because sometimes, that's what people have to do." Dr. Wilson leaned forward. "Back in Rutledge, I had a patient who worked through her psychoses using a fantasy land as well. One pulled from her childhood daydreams. Mental demons became literal ones there – creatures she could actively harm and kill. Her last months in my care, she regaled me almost daily with stories about her adventures – slaughtering her way through armies of ants and automatons and ghostly beings the like of which I'd never even heard of before – and her desire to take down the monarch that represented the heart of all her troubles. It was a very unorthodox method of dealing with her traumas – but it worked. When she defeated her Queen, she became – well, not fully sane, but functional again. She was able to leave the asylum and go into private care. To hold down a simple job and interact with other people. My proudest moment as a doctor was seeing her walk out those gates with her suitcase in hand and a smile on her face. I can't actually take any credit for her cure, but after worrying for months she was going to spend the rest of her life trapped in there with me. . . ." He sighed softly. "I didn't expect to see anything like her world ever again – until you came along with your Land of the Dead." He lifted his head, smiling fatherly at Victor. "You have an amazing imagination, Victor Van Dort. Don't let anything happen to it."
The words almost felt like a hug, they were delivered with such warmth. Victor stared at the doctor. Had he really just. . .had anyone ever complimented him on his imagination before? Mother certainly hadn't – beyond "stand up straight" and "stop dawdling," her favorite command to him was "quit daydreaming." She had no patience for any fantasy that didn't include having tea with the Queen or being recognized by the nobility as one of their own. And Father. . .he was more supportive, but "imagination" wasn't one of his talents. He liked to deal with the real-world practicalities of running a business. Trying out new canning techniques and balancing out profits and expenses was what made him thrive. Victor's childhood games of "explorer" and "dragon-tamer" had been met with puzzled fondness – whatever you like, son, but don't expect me to keep up. And as he'd gotten older, William had joined his wife in discouraging what he considered the "unprofitable" dreams – "The Amazon's a long way away, Victor. You should be happy with the woods out there!" "I don't think there's really all that much left to discover in butterflies. They all look about the same anyway, don't they?" "University? Oh, Victor, you can learn from the best right here! On-the-job experience! And if you really want a professor we can bring him to you." Victor had gotten used to considering his imagination, and all the hopes that came with it, if not exactly shameful, at least something he ought to keep quiet about. To be told it was something he should cherish. . . . He smiled back at Dr. Wilson. "Thank you, sir."
"You're welcome." Dr. Wilson got to his feet, knees creaking in protest. "Oof. . .now then, I do have a recommendation for you: keep what happened to yourself, all right? I won't be the one to tell you to stop believing, but your insistence that it happened hasn't made you many friends among the other villagers, has it?"
"No, I suppose not – but it's really Pastor Galswells who's making a fuss," Victor told him. "I'd happily let it fade into the past if he wasn't going on about demons. What do you suppose is wrong with him?"
"Not taking well the fact that one of his parishioners talked back to him and took over his church in a hallucinatory daze, claiming he was surrounded by the living dead," Dr. Wilson said, looking over his notes. "Sounds like an authoritarian complex of some sort. Can't abide his position in the town being challenged. As for the rest of the villagers – you were running around acting out large parts of this, it sounds like, and while it helped you, you probably frightened them a bit. Particularly with your insistence their dead friends and relatives had risen near the end."
Victor opened his mouth to challenge this – then paused. He'd heard some whispers from the pews as everyone got settled in, things like "The greengrocer tried to stick me with a carrot!" and "My Gertrude nearly cracked my skull before I got her to recognize me." And Bonejangles, sitting with Hildegarde, had apologized about "leaving you such a mess to clean up. . . ." That's why they ran. At least some of the dead appeared in Everglot Manor, and – they never came to the church, they never saw they weren't monsters. . . . "I didn't mean to," he murmured, leaning back against his chair. "I thought we were all going to show up in the church. . .oh dear, I owe Lord and Lady Everglot such an apology. . . ."
Dr. Wilson patted his shoulder. "You're better now. It's worked its way through your system. A few months of normal behavior – particularly normal married behavior – and I think most of the village should accept you again. Even Pastor Galswells's ire should die down."
Victor snorted, then managed to turn it into a cough. If that wasn't proof Dr. Wilson didn't know Pastor Galswells as well as he ought. . . . "I hope so. I'd like this all to be just a memory soon."
"I don't blame you. But I think you're on the right track. And if worse comes to worst, there's always the option of a fresh start in another town."
Oh, Father wouldn't like that. . .but Victor himself had always wanted to see a little more of the world outside Burtonsville and London in the Season. Maybe it was time to stretch his wings. Provided Victoria agreed, of course. "True." He stood and extended a hand. "Thank you for listening, Dr. Wilson."
"Thank you for such an amazing story, Master Van Dort," Dr. Wilson replied, shaking it. "Between you and – Miss L-, I'm starting to think I should publish these casebooks."
"Father could work out a contract about dividing up the sales, I'm sure," Victor joked.
Dr. Wilson chuckled. "Let me see if there's any market for them first." He checked his watch. "Will you be joining us for tea?"
"Maybe later," Victor said, sitting down and patting the cover of his sketchbook. "I'm feeling a bit more inspired now."
"Have fun, then. Good day to you."
"Good day to you too." Victor watched Dr. Wilson leave, then let out a happy sigh. Well – not what I was hoping for the most, but the perfect consolation prize, he thought, scooping up his pen and flipping to a fresh page. What a nice man too. Those in Rutledge must have been very grateful to have someone so attentive and interested as their doctor. He swooped his hand over the paper in a large circle, then began carefully detailing tiny butterflies over it. At least this should get Mother and Father to calm down about me. And hopefully the Everglots will accept his diagnosis too, if they don't want to accept the reality of it. And the villagers. . .maybe if I apologized for that initial fright? It couldn't hurt. . .oh dear, but would Pastor Galswells even listen to me if I tried? He's not one to forgive easily. . .perhaps I should get down on my knees and promise I will never, ever–
An ugly slash of black tore across the moon's surface. Victor whipped his head toward the door. "How can you pronounce him fine?" his mother's fire-alarm voice continued. "He believes he married a corpse, for God's sake!"
Ice formed in Victor's stomach. He dropped his pen and hurried into the hall, hanging over the railing to hear better what was going on below. "Not precisely. . .I agree that his insistence on it all being real is unusual," Dr. Wilson admitted. "But he shows no signs of any other mental imbalance. I asked him straight out, and he said he didn't believe just any corpse could rise from its grave. He does know dead is dead."
"Then why is he going on about corpse brides?" Nell demanded.
"Because his hallucinatory episode was brought on by extreme stress stemming from the arranged marriage. This was his way of dealing with his fears."
"By thinking he could marry the dead?" This was a baffled-sounding William.
"By going through what amounted to a couple of 'practice weddings' and coming to terms with the fact that marriage was nowhere near as frightening as death," Dr. Wilson explained. "You'd be surprised at how many men consider the two one and the same. . .at any rate, he's come to grips with the life change. The mental construct actively dissolved away in front of him once there was no further reason for it. I suppose there is a chance of relapse, but I don't think it's a significant one. There were no episodes like this before, right?"
"No. . . ."
"And with someone to help him through difficult periods, I doubt there will be any after. I know you're worried about him, Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, but my professional opinion is to just leave the issue alone. He's not hurting anyone, and I can't see him bringing the incident up to strangers. Certainly not after how his own village has treated him in the aftermath. . .I've convinced him to keep it more or less to himself. It's an unusual world he's built – but what's the harm in him believing privately? He's quite well enough to function as a normal human being. Rutledge sent a number of patients back into the world in much worse states."
William and Nell were silent. Victor held his breath. Surely they'll listen they have to listen he's a doctor they brought him in especially for me –
"You haven't got a clue what you're going on about, do you?!"
Victor raced down the stairs, just in time to see Nell backing a startled Dr. Wilson toward the door. "I can't believe this – I write to you especially because I heard you're one of the best in the business, and it turns out you're nothing more than a fraud! A quack!" she snapped, stabbing him in the chest with her fan. "A waste of good postage!"
"You asked me to diagnose your son – that is my diagnosis!" Dr. Wilson replied, holding his clipboard up as a shield. "Really, you and your husband seem more obsessed with the idea of the walking dead than he does!"
"Because if this gets out we'll be laughingstocks!" Nell was crimson now, a volcano pouring lava over anyone in her path. "But you don't care about that, do you? No, you just wanted a better fee!"
"I was expecting more from you," William said from his post by the stairs, face pulled down in a disappointed frown.
"I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear," Dr. Wilson said, glaring. "I am a professional, and I owe it to you to be honest. And my honest opinion is that your son is not insane! Certainly not to the point where he needs professional help! For this issue, anyway," he added in a mutter.
"Just get out! We'll be telling the world how competent you really are, that's for certain!" Nell spotted her son on the bottom step, watching the scene in horror. "And you! Don't think you've gotten off easy! There's plenty of doctors out there who'll give us a real diagnosis! I'll start another letter right now!"
"Mother – wait–" Victor stopped as Nell bustled off to the nearest drawing room, still muttering to herself. "Oh dear. . . ."
"It doesn't have to be like this, Victor," William said, moving a little closer. "All you have to say is it didn't happen. That you, ah, let your imagination run away with you. Lord knows it happened enough when you were a boy, hmm? All those monsters under the bed and dragons in the garden. . .should have discouraged the fantasy books, I think. Seem to have given you a turn for the worse. Ah well, neither here nor there now." He gave his child a hopeful smile. "What do you say, Victor? Ready to accept reality?"
Victor looked at his father – then over to Dr. Wilson. The psychiatrist was by the door, accepting his hat and coat from Barry. He glanced up as he put the former on his head. "It's your choice, Victor."
Victor looked back. William was watching him, still sporting that grin, clearly assured that once again his progeny would bow to the pressure and give up what he believed in for family harmony. Victor's jaw tightened. "I am sorry I've caused such a fuss – but I will go to my grave believing Emily was real. And nothing you nor anyone else says will make me change my mind."
William's jaw dropped. Victor turned and hastily made his way back upstairs before the urge to apologize could take him over. Behind him, he heard Dr. Wilson chuckle. "I thought that might happen."
"What?" William replied, sharper than Victor had ever heard.
"I know you don't put much stock in my opinion, but you see, after listening to his story, I think Victor learned two rather important life lessons. The first being that marriage is something to look forward to, not fear."
"And the second?"
"How to stand up for himself." The door creaked open. "Good luck, Mr. Van Dort. I think you're going to need it."