The Drunk Skeleton
14. The Drunk Skeleton
Harold Koronsky sat in his little rented room above the haberdasher's, staring out at the square. Sheet music covered the small table, the footstool, and most of the floor. The air was close and reeked of pipe smoke and cheap liquor.
He hadn't seen her in six weeks. Missed piano lessons marked the days for him. They had missed six. No note, no message, no answer at the door aside from a brusque one delivered by her aunt. That had been two weeks ago. He'd given up knocking at the door after that. Shortly thereafter he'd retired to his room, unsure of what to do next.
Most of this music was for her. Harold looked at it all, scattered about the dingy space. All of this he'd collected since his first year of music teaching. He'd put such effort into finding the very loveliest duets he could. Nearly ever since they'd met he'd laid them before her as if they were flowers.
Six weeks. Harold slumped even further down in his chair. Had her aunt and uncle found out? Were they keeping her close to home? Under house arrest? Worse? From what he'd heard and seen of them, that didn't seem like the sort of action her family would take. Then again, they were genteel. Those people played by different rules. But for Maudeline to go six weeks, without any sort of contact...There wasn't any other explanation. There couldn't be.
Harold's stomach twisted, his face crumpled. He rubbed hard at his cheeks, breathed out noisily. It took a lot of effort not to throw something.
He missed her. He'd grown fonder of her than he had thought possible. When they'd first met, he'd been struck first by her manner and her bearing. And then by her breathtaking talent for the piano. Maudeline had a gift. The sort of pupil one met perhaps once or twice in a life's career. Every week he looked forward to her private lesson and the complicated and passionate duets they would play together. There was a mere five years of difference to their ages, nothing at all.
Harold thought of her often after her schooling was finished, always with fondness. And then, as fate would have it, the pair of them just happened to be at the same country house gathering last spring. As far as Harold was concerned, destiny called during the very first duet they played. They'd settled back in so easily. Maudeline hadn't changed a bit, except to become more elegant. He'd dared to kiss her after that first duet of the weekend. The charge between them had been like lightning. That same charge as years before, the charge he'd never dared act upon. The rest of the weekend followed in public concerts and private interludes, a swirl of music and ardor. Insane and improper and somehow inevitable.
Maudeline never once complained, never once expressed doubt, never once said no. Quite the opposite.
When the weekend was over and Maudeline headed back to her home village at last, Harold followed. He rented his rooms, lived off his savings, tried to decide what he would do when the new term began. Most important, the piano lessons continued. So did the intrigue. He'd not planned it that way, but he wasn't sorry. The threat of discovery and the scandal it would cause did not deter them—rather, it added excitement. At least Harold was excited by it. Maudeline certainly seemed to be. Oh, how much she seemed to be.
Finally, six weeks ago, the last time he'd seen her, they'd forgotten themselves completely. Right there on the stairs, where anyone could walk in the front door and discover them. They were too swept up by passion to care. Even now the memory was attractive. Afterward they hadn't said anything to each other. Apart from "goodbye," that was. Maudeline didn't like to talk, not about these matters. Harold had tried and she'd closed off immediately. So eventually he didn't try any longer.
But now he wanted to try again. Harold didn't want that to be the last word spoken between them.
From outside in the square came the clanging of a handbell. It was only two in the afternoon. The town crier must have a "special report." What a curiosity that fellow was. No other town he'd ever heard of anywhere still had a crier. Now, Harold barely bothered to listen. What did he care about this village's news?
Until, through the clanging, he thought he heard Maudeline's name. He crossed to the window and pushed it open, and the clanging was loud enough that the crier seemed to be in the room with him.
"Engagement official!" the crier called. "Lord Everglot to wed! Special report! Lord Everglot engaged to marry The Honorable Miss Maudeline Elvstead!"
Slowly, cold and numb, Harold sat down on his narrow bed. He rubbed at the few days' stubble on his face and let the words sink in. Maudeline was engaged to be married. To Finis Everglot.
"How could she?" he wondered aloud to his empty room. After all that had passed between them, she was marrying someone else? Without even a word? After all that had passed between them. After what they'd done. Had it meant nothing at all to her? Or, perhaps, had it meant too much?
All he was certain of was that he needed to see her. He threw on a clean collar and found his hat, straightened his tie. No time to shave.
Before he left his room he took a quick belt of liquid courage from the flask he kept in his bureau. A bad habit he'd fallen into since coming to this village. It had grown worse over the past six weeks. He'd had a tipple or two after lunch that day as well. The world was a little fuzzy around the edges as he stepped into the town square and began to make his way to Maudeline's house.
As he walked he thought about her. Tall and intelligent and charming when she cared to be. Such a lovely low voice, so very well-bred. That she'd touch inelegant, reedy him with even a ten-foot-pole...it was astounding. He couldn't believe he'd gone this long without seeing her. It was like missing a limb, a vital organ. He wished he'd brought his flask along.
Today Harold decided to bypass the front door. He was in luck. Maudeline was there, in her aunt and uncle's tiny courtyard around the back of the house. Shawled but hatless she stood before the little horse stall beside the carriage house. Her back was to him, her attention focused on her horse. She did cut a fine figure on a horse. Harold hadn't seen her riding for ages. The low gate was unlocked, so he pushed it open and headed into the courtyard.
Hearing him, she turned. When she saw who it was her face turned to stone. Her gloved hand dropped from the horse's mane, and, without a single word, she marched with her head held high toward the back door.
Harold loped after her. "Wait!" he cried. To his surprise, she did. Slowly she turned around.
"Yes?" Maudeline asked, as if he was a stranger. No. Not as if he was a stranger. As if he was someone who knew her far too well and she wished he didn't. Harold didn't know which was worse.
He stood before her, taking her in. Her impossibly long dark hair was down, loosely gathered and slung over one shoulder. Harold's hands itched to touch it. She was wearing the same gray house dress she'd been wearing at their last lesson. Something she'd most likely not wear to receive a visitor other than him. On their afternoons she wore accessible clothes. Harold realized too late that he was staring quite openly at her belt, her buttons. He could feel them giving way under his fingers again.
"Yes?" Maudeline said a second time, not so much a question now. She crossed her arms protectively over her front. Harold looked into her face.
"That's all?" he asked, trying desperately to keep the unmanly break from his voice. "That's all you have to say?"
Overcome with her presence and his memories and the whiskey he'd consumed, Harold dispensed with pleasantries and propriety. The two of them were well beyond it. So he spoke the words which had been whirling about his brain for a month.
"You never wrote," he said. Maudeline just regarded him, stony-faced. She wasn't very pretty when she frowned so deeply like that, he noticed. "All this time. Weeks. Not a word. I sent you a note. I tried to visit. It's not as though I left you after. What...what happened?"
There was the slightest flicker across her face, so brief he might have imagined it. Maudeline twisted her mouth but did not speak. Nor did she move to leave, which Harold found encouraging.
"You're marrying Lord Everglot?" he asked. He wanted to hear it from her lips.
"Yes," Maudeline replied shortly. She gave a cry of outraged surprise when he lurched forward and grabbed hold of her arm. Not hard. Just to make it known that he was serious. He'd never hurt her. He just wanted to touch her.
"Have you spoken to him? Do you like him? Do you even know him?" Harold asked, not bothering to give her time to respond. At last, he eased his grip and his voice, and tried to catch her eye. "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you at least tell me that much?"
Maudeline drew herself up and wrenched her arm out of his grip. Harold backed off a step. "Stop this at once," she ordered. But there was just the slightest hint of a waver at the edges of her voice. "How dare you speak to me that way. It is no business of yours what I do. Nor whom I marry."
"No business of mine?" he repeated. Shock and hurt flooded him. "Maudeline-"
"Maudeline," Harold insisted. One of his hands curled into a frustrated fist. How he wished he had his flask. "I think, after what happened, I may call you Maudeline."
A heavy silence settled. Harold felt his heart begin to pound, echoing in his ears. Maudeline looked as though she was going to be sick.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Maudeline finally said, the waver clearer now. "Leave immediately or I shall call for the constable."
He was brought up short. "I beg your pardon?" he asked in a low, slow voice. He looked at her face, going over every detail. Desperation in her eyes. The grim set of her mouth. How pale and drawn she looked. Oh, she knew what he was talking about. She knew very well. Acid was starting to crawl up Harold's throat.
"But a marriage, so quickly," he ventured. He removed his hat to run a hand across his head, through his greasy hair. "You never said you were engaged. Quite the opposite-"
"I think you'll find I must," she said abruptly. "As soon as possible."
Understanding dawned slowly through the fog in his head and heart. Could she possibly mean what he thought she meant? Was it possible? Harold flicked his eyes over her, attempting to decide, trying and failing to meet her gaze. Maudeline was keeping her eyes resolutely on his shoes. She was not one for blushing or dramatics, but the tightness of her face gave away her force of feeling. Oh, if anyone knew the depths Maudeline was capable of, Harold fancied that he himself did. He softened, looking at her clutching her shawl more closely about herself.
"Marry me," Harold said, not aware he was going to speak until the words were out of his mouth. As he spoke he felt the rightness of them. "If you...must...then it should be me. It's only right. Marry me."
Maudeline stared at him. Her mouth made a perfect "O" of shock. The silence that greeted his words swiftly became oppressive. Belatedly he removed his hat in a gesture of respect.
"Marry you?" Maudeline asked, aghast. She had to reach out to catch at the doorknob for support. "You? A teacher? I am the daughter of a decorated general, engaged to marry a baron, and you ask me to marry you."
"Status, now?" he asked her, twisting and crushing his hat. Sensual memories he couldn't stop flashed through his mind, his flesh. His voice rose as he continued, "You never minded that before. You didn't seem to mind when we were playing together. You didn't mind when you let me-"
"Stop!" Maudeline cried, in a deep and forceful tone. And Harold did.
"I love you," Harold blurted out. He hadn't known it was true until he spoke the words. Not just because of their intimacy on the staircase. He'd love her just the same even without that. For whatever strange, impossible reasons, he was in love with her.
Again, Maudeline was silent and gaping, her face a comical representation of utter surprise. She was speechless. Her jaw worked uselessly for a few moments. Never once in the years he'd known her had she ever been without a word to say.
"As...as if that has anything to do with being married," she finally sputtered. Then she recovered a little, enough to look him in the eye and add, "I am going to be Lady Everglot. In a few weeks' time Maudeline Elvstead will no longer exist. I shall be happy to see her go." She turned her back on him at last and turned the doorknob.
"You'd best hope arithmetic isn't Lord Everglot's strong suit," Harold spat, a wave of nastiness coming over him. He saw Maudeline's shoulders jump a little.
"Do not bother me again," Maudeline said, not bothering to turn around. She strode into the house and slammed the door behind her. Harold heard the lock catch. For a long moment he stood in the courtyard listening to the horse nicker to itself. Harold had an icy hole where his heart used to be.
When Harold got back to his room he emptied his flask in two gulps. From beneath his bed he retrieved his reserve bottle, scattering sheet music and dust. He didn't bother with the flask this time, but instead took a huge pull directly from the neck of the bottle.
Gasping and wiping at the corners of his mouth, Harold took stock. A dingy lonely room far away from anywhere else he'd known. A village where he didn't really know anyone, was still an outsider. He'd been reckless and stupid and had got the girl he loved in trouble. Now she was marrying someone else. It was like something out of an opera.
Harold recalled her face, her voice, nothing tender anywhere for him. No feeling at all. It all meant nothing. Too many thoughts and images crowded in at once, a din inside his mind. Two more slugs from the bottle quieted them a little.
It stank in here. He needed some air. Clutching his bottle he turned and weaved his way back downstairs and into the street. Then he began to walk. He was floating, there was cheesecloth over his brain, there was pure acid in his stomach. Mercifully his mind shut off for a little while, and he wasn't aware of much.
When he came to himself again it was dark and cold. The bottle was nearly empty. Harold could see his breath. With difficulty he focused his eyes. He was in front of the Everglot mansion, right at the front steps, no idea how he got there. He breathed deep of the cold night air. It wasn't refreshing. Slowly bits and pieces came back. He'd spent some time at the Tavern, until Paul had kicked him out. Had he sat by the statue and cried at one point?
Footsteps came from the square behind him, and he turned to look. A pair out walking. A courting pair. Harold finished the bottle as they approached. They'll see, he thought, unsure of where it came from. They'll be ruined, too. Awful, this romance business...
"Everything all right?" asked the man when they were close. Harold squinted. It was the chap from the fish stall. William Van Dort. With a very young and very plump lady on his arm. His focus went in and out as he tried to get a better look at her. Harold weaved where he stood. A rank smell drifted up, making him dimly aware that at some point he must have been sick all over himself.
"Just looking at where my son's going to grow up," Harold explained, trying not to slur too much. Clumsily he tipped his hat to the woman, who pulled a face and leaned away from him. "My son will be an Everglot, you know. I guess I don't mind." That was a lie. But he didn't want to look crazy. William and his lady friend glanced at each other.
"Right," replied William slowly. To the girl he said, "Nell, dear, do me a favor and walk on my other side, eh?"
"Gladly," said Nell, putting quick distance between herself and Harold. She took William's other arm and added, "Public drinking. So common."
"Why don't you head on home, sir?" suggested William. Harold hiccuped, wiped at the corners of his mouth. "Get some sleep and maybe a wash, it'll be all right."
"No it won't!" called Harold after them as they walked away. He sat down heavily on the Everglots' front steps. "No it won't." There was a clink as the empty bottle dropped and rolled away. Let Maudeline clean it up when she was lady of the house...
Right. Now he remembered. Maudeline. Trouble. Broken heart. Harold was getting out of here. He heaved himself to his feet and, hardly able to see, staggered his way out the village gates. He only stopped long enough to be sick against the village wall. A wash. A wash sounded good. Capital.
The river was bound to be icy and clear. The water would help sober him up. For a long time he stood on the bridge, leaning over and bracing himself against the cool stone. Harold rested his cheek on it, enjoying the chill. He was sick one more time. What a mess. Fuzzily William's suggestion of a wash came back. It would feel so nice. He'd clean up, sober up, go home and sleep, and maybe be able to face Maudeline again.
Decided, he tipped himself over the side of the bridge into the swirling river below.
When Harold recovered from his latest lapse in memory, he still felt drunk. He'd gone numb. No more nausea, though. No more warmth. There was a clarity to his thinking that he didn't usually have while under the influence. Yet he still didn't feel quite normal.
He hadn't gone home. He had evidently headed to a tavern. It didn't look like Paul's place. The ceiling was low and the lights were strange, and there was a lot of noise. Someone was playing a fiddle. Harold had parked himself on a bar stool. There were three empty glasses before him. Experimentally he rapped his knuckles on the bar.
They'd gone purple. Suddenly he remembered his dunk in the river. He ran a hand over his still sopping head. His hat was gone. It was a shock he hadn't drowned, he'd been so-
Harold stopped. He looked around. The other patrons of this lively place were all dead. Rotting corpses dancing, drinking, talking up a storm. Just like in the land of the living, he didn't know a soul. So it wasn't too unfamiliar. And he didn't feel bad when no one greeted him beyond a half-hearted nod or tip of moldy hat. The barkeep, a jovial-looking corpse in tattered pinstripes, set a goblet of shimmering amber liquid before him.
"Damn it," Harold said, pounding the bar and making his drink bounce. "I didn't mean for this to happen!" And he hadn't. Down as he'd been, he hadn't intended to die.
"Few do, friend," said the barman wisely, heading down the line to deal with a couple of nattily dressed skeletons.
Harold, for lack of anything else to do, tasted his drink. Nothing. No taste at all. But still he was weaving in his seat, and still he was slurring. How odd. The dead could be drunk?
How wonderful, thought Harold. He didn't have to remember a thing if he didn't want to. He could keep on keeping on, and stay drunk for all eternity if he liked. He'd never have to see Maudeline again, think about her betrayal, or see her around town with the baby. He wouldn't have to live with it. He could be dead with it instead. That seemed a lot easier. Distance and all the benefits of constant drunkenness with none of the drawbacks. Yes.
As long as he could keep away bad memories, the afterlife would be fine. What else was there in life, anyway? He'd lost what good there was. That's where passion got him, where following his heart had led. So Harold drained his tasteless drink and enjoyed the immediate rush of giddiness it brought. Not long after came the happy fuzz, that welcome damper on feelings. He rapped his knuckles again and like magic the barman appeared with fresh goblet.
"Rough time, eh?" he asked, watching Harold down it in one. Harold chuckled mirthlessly.
"Women!" he announced, pounding the bar again. "Need I say more? Maybe I will later, if the drinks keep coming. But for now...women, right? Can't live with'em, can't live without'em."
"Sure," said the barman noncommittally. Before he turned to leave he left the bottle on the bar, shoving it toward Harold with a grin. "Enjoy yourself, friend."
And so Harold would, he decided. He'd park himself right here on this stool and this is where he'd stay until he turned to dust. And when Maudeline got down here he'd give her what-for, yes he would. He'd tell her that she was cold and cruel and had used him and was icy and wasn't that nice looking, anyway.
When the wave of nastiness passed, Harold poured himself another drink. Who was he kidding? He'd tell her what was true. He loved her. Even when he was bare bones, he knew, he'd love her. And he'd still be trying to drink the pain away.