Alfred settled back in his chair and picked up his favorite long-necked pipe from its pipe rest on the spindly side-table. He packed the bowl with his favorite cut, and then lit it. When he puffed, sweet-smelling smoke wreathed around his head. Today the smoke was going to his head a bit. Alfred blinked slowly, once, twice, and then cleared his throat. He breathed deep before taking another puff on his pipe.
Already his lap felt cold and empty. These visits with his great-niece were far too fleeting. It was a shame, he thought, and not for the first time, that he and Gertrude had never had any children. His lap, at least, seemed suited for it. For now it was enough to pretend, on Hildegarde's one half-day off a month, that Victoria was his little girl. His and Gertrude's. Always lovely to see sweet old Hildegarde, as well.
Yes, far too easy. To make believe, for the space of an hour, that life hadn't unfolded the way it had. To imagine he and Gertrude had lived here all their married life, that Hildegarde had stayed with them, that Victoria was their daughter, that Gertrude's brother and his wife were still alive, that Emily still came to call. That Maudeline was happy. Odd, all this imagining. Alfred could concede that he was an old romantic, but he wasn't all that fanciful. These elaborate what-ifs were his exception.
From his parlor window he had a nice view of the street. If he leaned just so he could see the edge of his house's front stairs. When he leaned, he felt an odd little twinge near his breastbone that made him wince. He massaged it until it passed, even as he watched Hildegarde and Victoria make their way down the steps and into the lane. Victoria, her fat brown curls showing under her little hat bedecked with a fine big bow, turned around and looked at him there in the window. She smiled that shy little smile which lit up her eyes, and raised her fingers in a little wave. Alfred returned the gesture, sending her off with a salute.
"Sneaking away as if they were thieves," said Gertrude. Alfred looked to find her beside his chair, back from seeing Hildegarde and Victoria out. She too was gazing out the parlor window. Indeed, Hildegarde was scurrying Victoria along at a good clip toward the square. They disappeared down a little alley. Plainly they were going to approach the Everglot mansion from the back. Just in case.
Gertrude sighed, and Alfred reached to put his arm around her waist. She perched herself on the armrest, and added, "They must get back before Maudeline and Finis do. Hildegarde was having kittens over it. You should have seen her, keeping one eye on the drawing room clock the entire time we were together."
"Well, you remember what a to-do Maudeline made last year, when she found out Hildegarde was bringing Victoria here," said Alfred. Then, he chuckled. "Good thing Hildegarde has always been tougher than she looks, eh?"
He tapped the stem of his pipe against his teeth. Maudeline seemed to think she was too good for them now. An Everglot in a middle-class villager's home! Or perhaps, more likely, she thought that Victoria might pick up bad habits, bad ideas, merely from being in his and Gertrude's presence. In their house. Alfred wasn't sure. He'd got Maudeline's words third-hand from Gertrude, who had been railing and frothing and not making too much sense as she told him what Maudeline had said.
"After all we did for her," Gertrude said now, more resigned than angry. She slid from her perch on the armrest into the chair next to Alfred, half on his lap and all curled up against him. Still as nimble as she'd been at twenty. Alfred did love it. He shifted a bit to make room, and put an easy arm around her as she went on, "Maudeline wouldn't even be Lady Everglot if it weren't for us."
"Ah, what's done is done," Alfred said, taking a draw on his pipe and doing his best to blow the smoke away from Gertrude. "You never know, she might come around, once she...when...Well. She might come around."
Gertrude let the statement hang. Alfred sensed he was being thought a bit of a fool. He cleared his throat again.
"Victoria is the spitting image of Hedda, isn't she? More every day," Gertrude remarked. Then her face darkened. "Let us hope the resemblance is only in looks."
"Oh, she's a plucky little thing," said Alfred, eager to banish bad thoughts. He bussed Gertrude on the cheek. "She takes after you. She's got that same spark as you, Buttercup." Gertrude snorted.
"Precisely what Maudeline's afraid of, I think," she replied. Still, she sounded pleased, even when she added, "Please, dear, put your pipe down if you want to kiss me. The smoke is awful, I've told you so before."
So she had. Ever obedient, Alfred set the offending pipe in the crystal ashtray before kissing her again. In Alfred's opinion, the real worry was that Victoria would end up like Maudeline, rather than Maudeline's mother. Not the troubles, no, there was no way such a thing would ever happen under the Everglot roof. But rather, the hardness. The coldness. That clinging unhappiness which nothing, no matter how wild and desperate, could lift. He and Gertrude had arrived too late to help her, it seemed. And now she was quite beyond them. Alfred didn't want to let Victoria get that far away.
At any rate, Alfred didn't think any harm would be done if Victoria were to end up a woman like his Gertrude. Quite the opposite. Alfred told Gertude so.
"Of course you would think so," she told him with a small laugh. She reached up and smoothed down his mustache, first one side, and then the other. An old, familiar, coquettish gesture which never lost its charm. "You're rather biased."
"Oh, it was a story, though," he said, catching her hand and kissing down her arm as he went on, "The village still talks. Escapes through windows, jilted fiances, meetings in the middle of the night..."
"Scandal," finished Gertrude, in an eerie imitation of their niece's newfound aristocratic diction. "It might be catching, we wouldn't want Victoria exposed."
The laugh they shared was tinged with regret. They were both quiet, then, cuddled together in the armchair, looking out of the parlor window. Thinking of his and Gertrude's rather unorthodox courtship and marriage made him think of Emily Van Lynden, the sweet girl who used to live next door. The parlor's smaller side window faced the house next door, shut up and vacant for quite a while now.
Emily had up and run away with some stranger nearly five years ago. Hardly anyone in town had even seen him, never mind met him. Alfred had only been vaguely aware of his presence. Someone or other had mentioned a young man who'd narrowly escaped that dreadful train crash, and was roughing it out in the pine woods outside the village. Nothing too odd in that, even if it happened rarely. Sometimes rich young men with an inclination toward poetry or naturalism made camp in the woods, stayed for a while without much bothering the villagers, and then moved on again.
Word had been that he'd called upon Finis and Maudeline, but they had been away. At the country house with a brand-new Victoria, if Alfred recalled correctly. The chap had blown in on a Monday morning, swept Emily up, and the pair of them had disappeared not two days later. Gertrude had been the only one Emily had confided in. Gertrude, in turn, had confided in him. By the time Alfred had decided to go next door and speak to Emily's father, it was too late. Emily had gone. She'd taken her mother's jewelry and wedding dress, and most of the gold in the family safe. No note, no word. Emily's father had gone not long after. Back to his home village, Alfred assumed. The house next door had been shuttered ever since.
Often he wondered what had become of her. There was no way they could come back. Not easily, at any rate. He and Gertrude had left for nearly thirty years, and even then they were greeted with gossip and cool shoulders upon their return. But surely...surely she'd write, when she could. Newly married life was busy and selfish. She might even have children. That's what Alfred chose to believe. It was an easy thing to pretend. Emily happy and well-cared for, in love and building a life for herself.
Alfred held Gertrude even tighter. For all of his imaginings, his what-ifs, Alfred wasn't dissatisfied. He had Gertrude. She was really all he needed. When he kissed her this time, it was on the mouth. She managed longer than she usually did before pulling away, unable to keep from making a face.
"I'm sorry, darling, but that taste!" she said. "It's as if I've put my mouth in a tobacco tin."
Alfred, far too old and wise to be offended, pulled her closer, and said, "Tinned tobacco? No, this is my particular blend. Here, taste again."
But before he could press his mouth to hers again, Alfred was brought up short by a sharp pain in his chest. It felt as though a hot bullet had ripped into his heart. Alfred, a veteran of Afghanistan the first time around, knew what a hot bullet felt like. The shock and suddenness of the pain made him gasp.
"Alfred, are you quite all right?" Gertrude asked, sobering and sitting up immediately. She looked at him closely. "You look pale. And you're perspiring."
"Warmth of the day, my dear," he assured her, pulling his handkerchief from his inner pocket and dabbing at his forehead. Even as he spoke, however, he was aware that his luncheon seemed to be trying to crawl its way back up from his stomach, and had paused in a burning lump somewhere near his breastbone.
"You go have a lie-down, dear, you don't look well at all," Gertrude said, taking his arm and leading him out to the hall. Alfred let himself be led, grateful for her steadying hand on his arm. Of a sudden he felt a touch dizzy, just as he had with his pipe earlier. He'd assumed then it was the smoke...
The trip upstairs seemed to take more of his breath away than it usually did, and he was still struggling to get his wind when he stepped into the bedroom. Head swimming and his jaw throbbing, Alfred sat down on the edge of the bed to rest.
Perhaps he was merely showing his seventy years. Not only had climbing the stairs made him short of breath, it had also made his heart beat uncomfortably hard and fast. With effort, and breathing hard, Alfred took his handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the sweat on his forehead. Relax. He had to relax.
He loosened his tie and collar, slipped off his house slippers, and lay down on the bed, easing himself carefully back against the many feather pillows that Gertrude favored. If anything, the change in position made the burning pain in his chest a bit worse, but he breathed deeply and assumed it would pass. Closing his eyes, Alfred tried to rest, to ignore the pain in his jaw and the way his heart refused to settle. A bitter taste filled Alfred's mouth, and a fresh wave of pain made him open his eyes and sit up. Heart beating wildly, painfully, his left arm numb, he made a grab for the bellpull, intending to ring for one of the servants. His reach fell short, and after that it seemed too much effort to move.
As his vision grew blurry, then dark, he thought of Gertrude that early morning they'd sneaked off to wed, a vision as clear as if he'd been transported back in time. And after that, his mind went blank, his thoughts seemingly borne away on another wave of pain.
Alfred was still numb when he opened his eyes. Only now the numbness had spread to his entire body. He couldn't feel a thing. At least the pain was gone. Apart from being numb and tad disoriented, he felt fit as a fiddle. Better than he had in years. Right as rain after a rest, just as he'd thought.
The room was still dark. Quite dark. Alfred decided it must be very late indeed. He reached out an exploratory hand to see if Gertrude was next to him. His hand, though, didn't get very far. Only an inch or so, and then he bumped up against something. Exploring further, he found he was flat on his back, boxed in. Above him, he realized now, was not the darkness of a room. It was the inside of a lid. Filled now with a dread certainty, he pushed the lid open.
Alfred sat up so fast he expected to be lightheaded. But he felt nothing. Of course not. Looking around, he saw that he was just where he'd expected that he would be. In a grave, in the cemetery. Though this cemetery was much different from ones he'd seen in life. Here the tombs and headstones all looked fresh, no matter how old. Many were decorated with colored lights or elaborate bone displays. The coffin in which he sat was set upon the ground, rather than six feet beneath it. In actual fact, the way the coffins were set up, rows and rows of them, made them look rather like lounge chairs at a resort. Above most of them were headstones of different shapes and sizes, bearing the occupant's name. Looking up, Alfred saw that his was the same. A peaked one of marble, decorated with a death's head, bearing the name WADLEIGH in old-fashioned script. And next to his coffin sat a vacant one. The lid was open, and there was a little card set upon the satin pillow. "RESERVED," it read.
For a long moment he looked at Gertrude's waiting coffin. The only thought that would come to mind was that the management had put him on the wrong side. He always slept on the right. It wouldn't do to be backward for eternity. He glanced at his headstone again.
"Blast it all," he said quietly. "I wasn't finished yet."
"Oh, you're finished," said a cheery little voice from above him. "I'm afraid you don't get to decide!"
Alfred looked up to see a good-sized black spider lowering itself on a strand of spider silk from some point unknown. She (for the voice sounded female) seemed to come from out of the blue. The spider stopped, suspended in mid-air, so that she was at eye-level with him. This spider had very oddly human eyes.
"Hardly anyone is ever really finished," she added, her tone comforting. "But soon enough you'll adjust. It's really quite a natural thing, after all."
Alfred found himself quite unable to be comforted by these platitudes. The little spider seemed to take the hint, for she stopped talking. She lowered herself onto the edge of Alfred's coffin. Somewhere off in the distance a bell began to clang. Soon, a tiny little bell, the sort that might hang over a shop door, began to tinkle nearby. Alfred looked up and saw that the bell, jingling on its own, was hanging over his tomb. Elsewhere in the cemetery other bells were going off.
"Anyone to meet?" asked the spider. In response to Alfred's questioning look, she elaborated, "At the pub, dear. With all the bells going off everyone will know someone new is here. They'll all want to celebrate!"
"Celebrate?" Alfred echoed, not as surprised as he probably should have been. He'd been in the military, after all. Celebrations could, and did, break out at the oddest moments. Most of the time when you weren't even aware how badly a celebration was needed. A death party was probably along those same lines, he supposed.
"The only one I'd like to see just now is my wife," he said, looking at the empty space next to him. Had he really, just now, fleetingly wished his Buttercup was dead? He pushed the thought aside and turned away from the empty side of the plot. "She was the only one I ever celebrated with."
"Married, huh? I don't see a ring, dear," said the spider, crawling down his hand. Alfred only now noticed he'd turned a purplish sort of blue in death. The spider lifted his ring finger with her forelegs. She was quite right.
His wedding ring was gone.
For a moment he panicked. That little gold shackle hadn't left his finger in nearly forty-five years. He couldn't imagine having a hand without it. Quickly he patted his best plum-colored frock coat, felt about in the pockets, and peeked into his inner jacket pocket. While he didn't find his ring, what he did find very nearly made his dead eyes mist over.
Dear little Buttercup had buried him with his pipe. She'd taken his ring, but left him with his pipe. His Gertrude knew him very well. An inspection confirmed that she'd even filled it for him, and added a few matches for good measure.
Oh, poor, poor Gertrude. Alfred tried to picture her in mourning garb, and the image simply wouldn't come. Not Gertrude, whose favorite gown sported yellow and white stripes. Alone in their house, the rooms empty, the windows shut up and the mirrors covered. The knowledge of how tough and sweet she was comforted him a bit. Dearly he hoped she wouldn't end up one of those bitter old women always in black, hunching about being cantankerous and shaking her fist at people.
Whenever he'd imagined death, and during his time in Afghanistan he had imagined it plenty, Alfred had always imagined oblivion. And, always, he'd imagined Gertrude with him somehow. At the very least, he'd never contemplated being conscious of being without her. Now that he knew the afterlife was, well, much like life, he found it even more impossible to imagine being without Gertrude. Even when he was stationed in foreign parts, she'd come with him. They'd not been apart once since the morning they'd married.
How long would he have to wait to see her again?
"Well?" asked the spider, who was now perched on his shoulder. "Coming to the pub, then, or not?"
"Not, I'm afraid," Alfred replied, and hoisted himself out of his coffin, the spider still on his shoulder. He held out his hand, invitingly palm-up, to the spider. She took his hint and, with dainty spider-steps, walked onto his hand. He made to set her on the ground.
"Oh, no, no!" she said. Then she pointed with one of her forelegs. "Onto the bell, if you don't mind. I do love a good nestle in a dark place!"
Alfred, a gentleman, did as she asked. Once near the bell she crawled inside, curling herself into the hollow space. From within came an echoey little "Thank you!"
"My pleasure," Alfred said. With that he took his pipe from his pocket. The match he struck on his own headstone. Puffing reflectively, only lamenting a bit that there was very little sensual pleasure to pipe-smoking now, he walked through the graveyard.
To one side was the imposing Everglot mausoleum. Unlike its counterpart in the realm of the living, this one was all tilted angles. Festive lights were strung up between the columns, and the whole of it had an otherworldly sort of green glow.
The Everglots. Maudeline. Victoria. Victoria. Troubled, he took a long draw from his pipe, then tapped the stem against his teeth. Poor little Victoria. What would she do without him? He could only hope that he'd been right, that she was like his Gertrude. That she'd be able to take care of herself. To stay sweet and capable, no matter what came along. That Victoria Everglot would turn out a fine young woman.
"I had rather hoped to be there to see it," Alfred said, not aware he'd spoken aloud. He'd come to a stop by a very dead oak, all hollow and gray. "I wanted to see it."
Startled, Alfred looked this way and that, and then finally turned to peer around the trunk of the oak. A face he hadn't seen in years, a familiar lovely face, was peering round at him in turn. He nearly dropped his pipe in shock.
"Captain Wadleigh!" Emily cried. She came around the tree to join him. He watched her approach. She was decked out as a bride, hair loose and flowing, a wreath of flowers holding her veil. The dress she wore was of a style he'd never seen before, perhaps several decades out of date. The more delicate bits, like her sleeves and collar, were already mostly rotted away. Several layers of skirt had gone, too. Emily was still very pretty, even with the blue cast of death, despite the fact that she was quickly losing flesh on her limbs and her neck. One side seemed to be going faster than the other, and was nearly down to bone.
And that wound. There was a dreadful hole in her side. The dress around it was tattered, still marked with blood. Alfred had to stop himself from putting an instinct-driven hand to it. It wasn't as if battlefield medical help would be any use now.
"Emily!" he managed, still agog. He took a step closer, and put a fatherly hand on her less-rotted shoulder. "I...My dear, I...I'm so terribly sorry."
All Emily did was clasp her hands before her and shrug her shoulders, tilting her head as she did so. It was a movement she'd often made in life. Usually girlish and endearing, here it made Alfred terribly sad. Emily wasn't supposed to be here.
"What happened to you?" Alfred asked. It was all he could think of. The glow left Emily's face, leaving her looking melancholy and troubled.
"I don't know," she said quietly. She touched the wound in her side. "Charlie was supposed to meet me, we were going to be married. But...he never came. Someone else did instead. At least I think so. It was dark...I was frightened. My jewelry. I'm...I don't like to think of it."
"No," said Alfred after a moment, "I wouldn't think so."
The poor thing. All this time, she'd been dead. Why had none of them thought to look? To think, she had suffered and died and now sat alone among the dead. No husband, no children, no life. Before Alfred could speak, apologize a million times for not doing more than he had for her, Emily spoke again.
"I was so sure he'd come back," she said, sounding so unbearably sad. "Though I'd have thought...I'd have thought he would have found me by now. That someone would have found me."
"By Jove, we should have," said Alfred, ashamed of himself. Shame which gave him a sense of immediacy and purpose. He knocked the ash from his pipe and stowed the pipe back where Gertrude had put it. He took Emily by one nearly fleshless elbow and made for the town gates, crooked and glowing ahead of them. "We'll alert the elders, girl. They'll find the cad that did this to you, don't you worry. And they'll find your Charlie—cad himself for leaving you, forgive me—and we'll get you properly buried."
"Captain Wadleigh," Emily interrupted, pulling her elbow free before taking one of his hands in both of hers. "That's very sweet. But it's too late for that." She smiled a sad smile.
Alfred watched as she walked—no, glided—back to her post by the oak tree. Gracefully she sat upon the ground, her skirts fanned out around her. Only now did Alfred notice the long tear in her skirt, from hem to hip. If his stomach had been alive it would have flipped, sickened and sad at the possible implications. Alfred shook the thought away. Emily, seemingly in her own world now, smoothed her skirts. With gentle fingers she picked up her rotting bouquet and set it in her lap.
"I was just on my way to find the pub. Do come with me," Alfred said, looking at her there, under that tree. "It's not good for you to be alone."
"I'm all right," Emily assured him. "This is where I belong. This is where he'll come looking for me. I don't like to leave."
From somewhere hidden and directionless came a new voice. This one was male, strange and distinctive and oddly echoing.
"I thought you said it was too late," said the voice. Emily, unperturbed, giggled a bit.
"For telling the elders Upstairs, silly," she replied, rolling her eyes. Alfred still had no idea to whom she was speaking. "But for true love, it's never too late."
Poor thing. She sounded so sure. So resolute. Alfred looked at his ringless hand, and then patted his pocket. One arm behind his back, he strode over to where Emily sat. As he neared she looked up and smiled.
"Do you know, I think I'd rather have a quiet sit here," he said. "If that's all right." Emily nodded and patted the ground next to her. Alfred sat down beside her, recalling all those many times they'd sat together over tea in the parlor. It was a bit like old times, if one could forget, a little, that one was dead. He took his pipe out again, glad there was still a bit of packed tobacco toward the bottom. Gertrude had left him a handful of matches, too. He struck one on the dead oak and lit his pipe.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Alfred asked, ever the gentleman.