Chapter 5: Discovery
"Master Van Dort? Your mother is waiting for you in the west drawing room."
Victor didn't look up from his sketchbook. "And who else?"
"Just your mother, I assure you." Victor didn't reply. "Please, Master Van Dort, cross my heart. There's no one else down there."
Victor sighed and set his pen in the inkwell. "All right. I'll be just a moment."
"Very good." Barry pattered away. Victor blew lightly on his sketch to dry it, then examined it critically under the lamp. Generals Bonesaparte and Wellington grinned up at him from their usual table at the Ball & Socket, mugs clutched in their bony fists. Bonesaparte looks good. . .Wellington's eye sockets still need a little work, though. Who knew getting just the right curve would be so tricky? He propped it up against his book tower. Still, I think he'd be pleased with the portrait. If only I could pop down there and present it to them. And then perhaps ask for sanctuary for a few days. Or years. He sighed and forced himself to stand. Best not to keep Mother waiting. Barry had better been telling the truth about her being alone. . . .
To his relief, the butler had. Nell was perched in her usual seat, a high-backed chair with easy access to the sandwiches and biscuits – Victor had silently nicknamed it "The Throne." She glared at him as he settled into his usual spot on the sofa. "You're late. Do you think that'll impress Lord and Lady Everglot when we find them?"
"My apologies, Mother – I was in the middle of a drawing," Victor said, taking a biscuit from the tray. "I haven't kept anyone waiting, have I?" He glanced at her, eyes narrowed. "Like a man with a new electrical apparatus?"
Nell huffed as one of the kitchen maids came in to pour the tea. "Are you still hung up on that? We didn't know he was going to suggest shooting a few volts through you. Besides, would it have been that horrible to try?" Victor stared at her. "Look, they say electricity can cure near anything! Lord Windenburg uses it for his rheumatism! Fit as a fiddle, from what I hear!"
Victor decided not to deign that with a response. He picked up his teacup and stared into it. A worn, stressed face in brown stared back at him, a testament to the nights he'd spent staring at the ceiling and the days spent dodging the latest physician to be summoned to Burtonsville. Where his parents were finding all these alienists willing to visit a tiny village only on the map because of its fish cannery, Victor didn't know, but he wished they'd stay there. After Dr. Wilson, the quality of his medical care had gone decidedly downhill. He'd been willing to give the second one, Dr. Wright, a fair chance, but the man had persisted in talking to him like he was five years old. "Now Victor, let's not get upset. There are no such things as living corpses. You probably just had a bad dream after fainting in the woods. Here, would you like a sweet?" Wright's diagnosis had been more to Nell's liking – "dangerously deluded and terribly stubborn" – but his only solution had been "Just put him in the attic and wait for it to pass. A bit of solitary does a man good." Nell had refused to succumb to the Gothic novel stereotype, and so out the door he'd gone.
The third fellow, Dr. Carcer, had been more coolly professional. He hadn't said one word to Victor throughout his whole visit – listening to the story in an almost smothering silence, and then delivering his conclusions straight to William and Nell. "He's suffering from a terrible imbalance of the humors – seems to me an overdose of bile. His mind needs to be settled so that everything can be restored to its proper place. A cold bath once per day, and only the blandest food for meals should do the trick. And for God's sake, make sure he doesn't engage in the great sin!" How one could after a bowl of plain oatmeal and ice water poured down your back, Victor didn't know. For three days, he endured the torture for the sake of family harmony – but after the fourth breakfast of plain toast and mush, he'd snapped. It had been the work of a moment to let Harland catch him sneaking out the back for a walk around the cemetery – and when he'd returned, the cook had given him a knowing look and asked if he'd wanted a steak. And so Carcer too was thrown onto the pile of failures.
But the worst had been number four, Dr. Sturmkeng. The Transylvanian-bred psychiatrist had shown up at their door with a clanking bag and a worrying smile. He'd gathered them all in the east drawing room, listened politely as William and Nell explained the situation, allowed Victor to plead his case, then pulled out a strange helmet covered in wires and hooked up to some odd box with a crank. This he'd attempted to fit on Victor's head. And when the baffled young man had asked what on earth it was for – "It's a rehabilitation device of my own invention. Electrical current passes between these two prongs through the brain, interrupting the formation of the irregular thoughts that plague the patient. A few passes on low, and you'll forget all about corpse brides."
Victor had immediately ripped the damn thing off, run to his room, and locked the door until the foreign lunatic had been escorted from the premises. To think his own parents had let someone like that inside! They'd called in four more after him, but Victor had learned his lesson. He'd sequestered himself in his room each time until they'd gone away, grumbling about a trip for nothing. His mother was furious with his lack of cooperation, but he was steadily growing not to give a damn about her opinion. She and Father had had their chance to let things be. But they'd chosen to make it a fight, and now he was digging his heels in. If they could be stubborn, so could he.
"Honestly, Victor, you'd think we were trying to feed you to a lion, the way you're carrying on," Nell continued, stirring a healthy heaping spoonful of sugar into her tea. "Do you want to be known as a social embarrassment the rest of your days?"
"No. . .I just want to be left in peace," Victor muttered into his cup.
"You think we like dragging all these doctors down to see you? The crier's taken to hanging around the doorstep like your dog used to. I've had to have Barry chase him off twice." She sniffed and sipped her drink. "Don't think the Everglots will be very impressed by all this."
Victor bit his lip. He didn't care much what the elder Everglots thought – Father's money would talk louder than his actions, of that he was sure. But what would Victoria make of this mess? Surely she wouldn't believe he'd lost his mind too. But would she find his insistence on hanging onto his memories the actions of a brave man or a fool? Maybe she'd already recanted what she'd seen to get a little peace from her parents. . .or maybe she'd think that it was the final proof he desired Emily over her. . . .
No, he couldn't believe that. Not after how understanding she'd been the night it happened. Not after all the little moments they'd shared – a flower gifted over the piano, an all-too-brief touch in her doorway, a kiss that almost saw the light of – night. She'd understand why he felt this fight was so important, even if her own dedication to family duty meant she was keeping the memories of her half close to her chest. And if she did prove to be just a tiny bit jealous of Emily – well, she was entitled. But hopefully she'd understand, too, when he sat her down and explained: "I thought I'd frightened you off. Made you think that, love or not, I wasn't worth the walking dead invading your room. And – I knew your parents had to be pressuring you, but I thought s-surely you wouldn't be marrying Lord Barkis unless there was s-something you liked about him. . .yes, I know, I'm silly, I can only blame missing a night's worth of sleep. . .a-anyway, I never – t-there wasn't anyone else left for me in the world of the living without you, and Emily. . .I liked her so, and wanted to give her a happy ending. . . ." And then Victoria would take his hand and reassure him that he was indeed worth it, and that she would be glad to be his second wife (or, well, technically first, but details). Then there would be a wedding, not presided over by Pastor Galswells, and he'd say his vows perfectly because he'd damn well better know them after three "rehearsals." And after that. . .long walks through the woods, piano lessons, sketching and sewing in the parlor, dinners together, nights no longer spent alone. And, eventually, a little Emily of their own, who would grow up proud to bear the name of a woman who had died so unfairly, and given up her greatest dream to ensure someone else's came true. Victor smiled to himself, warmth wrapping around him and pooling in his chest. That dream, that hope, that life – that what was keeping him sane throughout this whole mess. Even if it makes me more anxious by the day to figure out where she disappeared to. . .you'd think a month would have been enough for the best in the business. Father's certainly –
Wait. He blinked and looked around the room. "Mother?"
"Yes?" Nell asked, halfway through a cucumber sandwich.
Nell paused, then glanced at the clock. "6:15 – where is your father?" she asked, turning back to him as if he hadn't just asked her. "I can't remember the last time he was late to tea! He gets in a mood if he doesn't have his cup and biscuit."
"Maybe something happened at the cannery?" Victor was suddenly struck with the memory of his father slumping in late one night, smelling of fish guts and complaining about how a hopper had broken and overflowed across the whole line. Ugh – I hope we're not in for a repeat of that!
"It had better be a real emergency. Otherwise, he's going to get an earful and no mistake," Nell grumbled. "Victor, don't get crumbs all over the carpet."
The door abruptly burst open, and William darted in, grinning from ear to ear. "Nell! Victor! We've done it!" he cried, waving his cane in circles in the air.
"Done what? What was so important that you kept us all waiting?" Nell demanded, glowering, as Victor tried stealthily to mop up the tea he'd spilled on the sofa.
"We've found them!"
The anger vanished from Nell's face, replaced with shock. "Found them?" she repeated. "Found the Everglots?"
"You know where they are?" Victor added, looking up with a rush of hope.
William nodded, pulling a piece of paper from his waistcoat. "Depp caught me just as I was leaving the cannery – he finally tracked them down this morning! You were right, Nell, they're at one of their old country houses! Little summer home in a place called Sandford. We passed it by before – been closed up since before Lord and Lady Everglot got married, it seems – but Depp decided it was worth a look after exhausting some other leads – and there they were!"
"Fantastic! What did I tell you?" Nell declared, all smug smiles. "It's about time they turned up! Now all we have to do is get over there and convince them that Victor's not going to have another episode. You'd better not, anyway," she added, glaring at her son.
"I have no intentions of marrying any more corpses by accident," Victor said, massaging his forehead.
"I'd be more inclined to believe that if you were taking your therapy seriously."
"I don't need therapy, Mother. I've told you – Emily's rising was special circumstances. And I would gladly never speak a word about her again in your presence if you'd just drop the matter."
"Hmph," Nell sniffed. "We'll see how you do with the Everglots first." She turned back to her husband. "How soon can we leave?"
"Tomorrow morning," William said, tucking away his paper. "I've already told Harland to be ready to go right after breakfast."
"I knew I kept you around for a reason," Nell said, pleased. "Let's finish our tea, and then we can pack."
True to his word, William had them out of the house early the next morning, right after some hastily bolted-down pancakes and eggs. Victor parked himself by the window, staring out at the endless fields of half-dead grass as his parents murmured to each other about how best to woo the Everglots. Excitement and worry warred within him as they clopped along, fighting viciously for control of his heart and brain. We've found them! I'm going to see Victoria again! If the Everglots let me, of course. . .but surely they still need Father's fortune to avoid the poorhouse! Unless they've found a new source of income out here in the country. . .Victoria will be happy to see me, though! She'll help argue my case! And maybe convince Mother and Father that she's just as loony as I am. . .but the Everglots saw the dead rise too! They can confirm it actually happened! And probably join Pastor Galswells in calling me demon spawn after whatever chaos the dead caused in their home. Maybe I can convince Victoria to elope? Yes, that would work out perfectly – illicitly married far from home, without any money or land at all to our names. But at least we'd be together. . .right? He buried his face in his hands. Oh dear, I'm just making myself dizzy. . .one thing at a time, Victor. You're going to see her. If nothing else, you'll see Victoria again. Just. . .will I be allowed to marry her?
Finally, after five interminable days, they reached Sandford – a modest town not that much bigger than Burtonsville. Nell sniffed as they trotted up the main road. "Why would the Everglots bother with a home someplace so – tiny?"
"They bothered with one back in our village," William pointed out. "Besides, it's nice to have a place away from all the hustle and bustle of the city. Nobody can host balls and attend dinners every day of the week."
The look Nell gave him said that she would gladly try. "I'm just saying, I would have found someplace closer to London. It's not that long until the Season, and if I were a poor aristocrat, I'd take advantage of the chance to get a dress made on the cheap."
"I don't think–"
The carriage jerked to a stop. "Excuse me, sir, madam, but I think this is it," Harland said timidly from his perch in front.
"Oh, fina – really?"
For once, Victor was inclined to agree with his mother. They house they'd parked in front of was incredibly modest – nothing like the grand, sprawling mansion on the Burtonsville square. Victor wasn't even sure if it had a proper second story, or just an exceptionally large attic. The roof bore signs of recent and hasty repair, and two of the upstairs windows sported cracked panes. The paint was badly faded, and the stone steps in front worn and pitted by harsh winters and rainy summers. Around the dwelling, the garden grew wild and untamed, with only the short path to the door spared the creeping carpet of green – and then just barely. It was hard to see the incredibly snooty and self-conscious Everglots living here, short of coin or no.
William studied his paper, then squinted at the number by the door. "The address matches. . .maybe the inside's a bit more homey," he added with one of his 'eternal optimist' grins.
Nell raised a dubious eyebrow. "They really do need a loan, don't they?" she remarked, then smirked. "Good for us we can give them one. Help me out, William – the sooner we get this sorted, the better."
The matriarch of the Van Dorts was extracted from the carriage via the usual ceremony, then the three of them braved the tiny jungle to the steps. Nell glared at Victor over her fan as they reached the door. "Don't you dare ruin this for us again," she warned, voice low and dangerous. "Stand up straight, don't fiddle with your tie, and don't say a word unless you're spoken to, got it?"
"Yes, Mother," Victor nodded.
"Good." Nell gave the bell-pull a hearty yank while Victor and William stood to the side. Victor clasped his hands behind him to stop them fidgeting. Please be at home to visitors, please. . . .
The door opened, and a familiar nose stuck out. "The lord and lady are not expecting–" Emil started, then stopped dead as he registered just who was standing in front of him. He gaped for a moment, struck utterly dumb. "What – you–"
"Hello, my good man," William said, tipping his hat and pouring on the charm. "Do you think we could talk to your employers for a bit? We've got some business that needs ironing out, aheh heh."
Emil looked at him, then over at Victor. "Ah – I'll – I'll announce you," he stammered, eyes locked the young man's lanky form. "Lord and Lady Everglot are, um, in the drawing room. . .you're looking – well, Master Van Dort," he added, apropos of nothing.
Victor blinked. "Er – thank you," he said, glancing over at his mother. She just shrugged. "So do you."
"Very well indeed. . . ." The butler shook himself, and managed to regain a touch of his snooty air. "Do you have a card?"
"Yes, actually, right here!" William said cheerfully, pulling one out and handing it over. "Had them made up just the other week! Thought the lord and lady might appreciate them."
"Very good. Do come in." Emil stepped aside, allowing them into what just passed as an entrance hall. "Just wait here while I–" The butler's eyes flicked toward Victor again. "Tell them the news." He pattered away, leaving the Van Dorts to huddle in the corner.
Moments later, there was a loud "Who?" that could only have come from Finis Everglot. The lord himself appeared shortly after, trailed by his wife. The pair of them goggled at the Van Dorts much the same way as their butler had. "You're not – how are you – what are you doing here?" Finis demanded, looking from Victor to William and back again. "You were supposed to be gone forever!"
"We just wanted to talk to you, Lord Everglot," William said, smiling as brightly as he could manage. "About the wedding?"
"Wedding?" Maudeline repeated, arching an eyebrow.
"Our son and your daughter," Nell put in, slapping her fan against her hand. "You promised! How dare you go behind our backs with some wealthy newcomer?"
"Now now, Nell, don't get all aflutter," William soothed her. "That's all in the past now, and we can start over anew. But yes, our Victor and your Victoria. Maybe you forgot when you, ah, left?"
The Everglots glanced at each other, then straightened to their full heights (not that it helped in Finis's case). "We didn't forget," Maudeline replied icily, glaring down her nose. "Though we'd very much like to. We simply broke the engagement in the fastest and cleanest way possible under the circumstances. The fact that you think we would still want to join your family to ours after what your son did–"
"That's all over and done with, Lady Everglot, we swear," Nell cut in. "We've had all the best doctors in to have a word with him. He won't be going near any cemeteries to have a chat with the inhabitants. Or digging anyone up and insisting he or she wanted to come to tea." Victor opened his mouth to speak, only to be whacked in the stomach by her fan. "He'll be just as normal as anyone else."
"Doctors? You'd have been better off locking him in the basement and throwing away the key!" Finis boomed, glowering at Victor. "Though for sure we'd never see you again. . .I'm tempted to have Emil fetch me musket!"
"Shall I, sir?" Emil said. Victor jumped – how could the butler just appear like that? Worse was the smirk on Emil's face, like he wanted nothing more than to see Victor lying in a pool of his own blood on the ground. Lovely people you employ, Lord and Lady Everglot.
"Now, now, let's talk like civilized people," William said quickly, holding up a hand. "No need for violence. We know our Victor's gone through a bad patch–"
"I never knew the middle class to be one for understatement before," Maudeline snapped. "Your son nearly drove my husband and I out of our minds with terror. What happened that night – it must have taken ten years off my life!"
"I'm sure he's sorry," Nell said, with a significant look at Victor.
"I am indeed," Victor nodded, glad for the chance to speak up at last. "I never m-meant – I didn't know they were going to p-pop up throughout the village! I went straight to the church!" He swallowed. "Whatever the dead did to your house, I apologize on their behalf. I didn't want your family thrown i-into the thick of it."
Nell shoved her face into her fan. "Of course you'd lead off with that ridiculousness about the walking dead. . .we're terribly sorry for his behavior," she added toward the Everglots. "Hadn't the slightest idea he was like that. He's always been a little odd, granted, but I always thought it was because he was terrified of everything. Wet his combinations regularly when he was a boy."
"You mentioned," Maudeline said, wrinkling her nose. Victor blushed and lowered his eyes to the floor. Why did his mother love bringing that up in conversation?
"Yes, well – as we said, he's getting help for his problems," Nell continued, undaunted. "He won't bother you with talk about corpses and brides and all that nonsense anymore, will he?"
"Never again," Victor promised. "Not a word."
"That won't stop us from thinking about it!" Finis said, stabbing a finger at them. "We left that village to get away from such horrible memories, and here you are crawling back! We've lost a house thanks to you, Master Van Dort – and we only just kept our butler! The sole reason he agreed to stay in our employ was because we were leaving!"
"Yes," Emil nodded, narrowing his eyes at Victor. "Your insistence on dragging the dead out of their graves nearly cost me a very good position."
"I didn't mean to!" Victor held up his hands. "Please, Lord and Lady Everglot, you've g-got to believe that I'm sorry! That I never wanted to h-hurt anyone in any way!"
"That's not what we've heard Pastor Galswells saying," Finis retorted. "He declared you damned."
"He's – it won't happen again," Victor tried. "I'll never speak a – a s-syllable about it in front of you if you don't wish!"
"That won't change the past, will it? Like how you ruined a perfectly good wedding reception with your – activities!"
Anger flared up inside him. "I don't think any reception with a groom that only married your daughter to get her nonexistent fortune is good," he replied, eyes narrowed. His mother hit him again, but he ignored her. Just go ahead and defend forcing Victoria to marry Lord Barkis. I dare you.
Maudeline sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Yes, Victoria told us about his – demands afterward. Trying to make himself rich at our expense. . .idiot. We'll allow that that situation wasn't your fault." She lifted her head with a fresh glare. "But don't think that we're willing to forgive you for anything else! You made us look like fools, and you caused the ruin of our old manor! One that has been in our family fifty years! We can never return to Burtonsville – nor would we want to, after what you've done!"
"Nobody says you have to," William said in his most soothing tone of voice. "We can work out all the details right here. We don't mind staying for a while, do we Nell?"
"Not at all," Nell simpered on command. "It's a lovely estate you have here. Very rural. It's smashing."
"Yes, you see?" William nodded. "I'm sure we can come to some agreement. I've plenty to convince you with," he added temptingly.
"No, you don't," Finis said, folding his arms as best he could across his broad body. "There is no way we'd tolerate your tainted family being joined to ours in any manner."
"And besides," Maudeline added, tone cold and final, "you're too late. Our daughter is already married."