8. Grandfather Everglot
Troubled and wakeful, Phineas, Lord Everglot, slowly wheeled himself in his Bath chair down the portrait gallery. The hall clock had just gone half-past two in the morning.
Slowly, painfully, he pushed himself along. Finally he had to stop for breath at the end of the gallery, under the portrait of his grandfather, Felix, the very first Lord Everglot. The very first nobleman in the village. Before they were barons, the Everglots had been knights. Leaders of men, descended from the very best families of four nations. This village was theirs from its very beginnings. The Everglot name and legacy had been handed down and maintained and cultivated for centuries. Phineas valued that name more than his own life.
Names, old families, endured. They endured as nothing else did. At this very late stage in his life, his name was the only thing Phineas had left.
He glanced about in the gloom, and then, once he had confirmed that he was alone, Phineas pulled a decanter of sherry from beneath his lap rug. He'd not bothered to bring a glass. Pulling the crystal stopper he lifted the bottle to his lips and took a guilty swig.
If his Grandfather Felix could see him now, what he'd become...oh, he'd most likely roll in his grave. Old, decrepit, confined always to his bed or his chair, enjoying his sherry far too much. Phineas took another swallow, a dribble running down the corner of his mouth and dripping onto his dressing gown. For all the indignities of age, he still deserved the respect of his title, of his place as patriarch. This latest insult was more than he could stand.
No one had bothered to ask him to choose a wife for Finis. No, his daughter-in-law hadn't even thought to ask. Not that she ever did in anything else, either—she'd become much worse since Fergus had died. She did precisely as she liked. Margaret had made the match. No blood relation! No true Everglot! No longer even the baroness! And she had had the audacity to choose the next Lady Everglot.
No permission was asked. Merely his blessing. Bah! Today's tea with Miss Elvstead and her aunt and uncle, Alfred and Gertrude Wadleigh, had had the air of an afterthought, of humoring him. Letting him think he had an opinion worth hearing. Past his prime or not, he was still Lord Everglot, by God. In practice, of course, Finis had taken on many of the duties and responsibilities required of the position, but the title still belonged to Phineas. It was his until he died. They'd have to pry the Everglot ring from his cold dead finger.
Phineas grunted angrily and tried to shove the stopper back into the decanter. His shaky old hand lost its precarious grip, and the stopper fell to the marble floor with a clatter. Phineas swore, his words echoing down the gallery. As the echo faded he heard a new sound, soft slippered footfalls from the gloom. He turned to see his granddaughter Lavinia step from the shadows. Rumpled and drawn, wearing a tattered old dressing gown, she looked more like a woman of fifty than a girl of twenty-two. Moving slowly and deliberately she bent and retrieved the stopper, and stood for a moment turning it over in her hands before she held it out to him.
"Thank you," he grumbled, taking it. After his next fumbled attempt at stoppering the decanter failed he swore again, and held it out to Lavinia. "Bah! Here, you do it."
The dainty little hands that took the decanter were so pale that they seemed to glow in the darkness. As a little girl she'd always been so rosy. All the Everglot women were, always had been. Rosy-cheeked, small-featured, plump and blonde. Lavinia had been a real beauty, before her troubles. When she handed the decanter back Phineas averted his eyes from the angry scar that marred one pale wrist. He knew very well she had a matching one on her other arm.
"What is your opinion of Miss Elvstead, Grandfather?" Lavinia asked abruptly. Ever since she'd returned from the sanitarium, it seemed, she'd had little patience for niceties or decorum. Frankly, Phineas didn't mind, so long as she wasn't shaming them in public. Her mother had only allowed her in the drawing room today because she had agreed to remain silent, control her tears and temper, and to leave after shaking hands with Miss Elvstead. Phineas, head of the household and head of the family, had been under similar orders, as outrageous and insulting as that was.
A decrepit old man and a mad young woman. They had quite a bit in common. Not least all the time they spent kept in the house.
"She is not the match I would have chosen," he replied, shifting in his wheeled chair and disarranging his lap rug in the process. While Lavinia knelt and straightened it for him, he went on, "The Elvsteads are an old, good family, but with each generation they seem to lose more and more of their breeding. It's deplorable, what they've become. Scandal every time you look at them."
Lavinia remained kneeling next to him, arms folded on top of the wheel, her long blonde curls falling loose. A cross, hurt expression twisted her round face. "Why, add the lost money to the list, and you might as well be speaking of our family, Grandfather."
"You are not a scandal, Lavinia," he told her gruffly, ignoring the crass but true comment about money. "Your brother might think so, your mother, and your father, God rest him, but they are quite wrong. You've had troubles, that's all. Such things do happen, but we've fixed it all, haven't we? You behave as you should now, there's no scandal in that."
Lavinia smiled without any mirth whatever. "You are very generous, Grandfather. But an Everglot in a sanit-" Phineas stopped her with a raised hand.
"Enough," he said, again removing the stopper from the decanter. He took a long swallow of sherry, smacking his lips when he'd finished. "You took the waters. For reasons of health. That's all."
There was a silence. The two of them sat there in the shadowy gloom of the gallery, the chill of the hall settling in around them, their ancestors gazing down upon them from their frames. Each and every one of them had walked this gallery. Sometimes, when it was late, and dark, and quiet, such as now, their footsteps and breath could almost be heard. Phineas and Lavinia, and Finis, the heir, had the Everglot legacy in their keeping. For that legacy to even be in slight question, why...it was intolerable.
"You're of delicate health, all noble women are," Phineas added in a low voice. Nodding with finality, he grunted and took a touch more sherry. Ah, finally, the world was beginning to go soft, his feelings and thoughts were losing their hard edge. Fuzzily he looked at the mostly empty decanter, then at his granddaughter. Scandal indeed. It was only a scandal if people knew.
"The Elvsteads, for instance," he went on, gesturing with the stopper, "Just look at them. Minor nobility in the first place. The Wadleighs, the ones who took tea with us today? Eloped, after quite a bit of public shame. Miss Elvstead herself, with her piano playing and her riding sidesaddle and her foreign schooling...and her father? General Elvstead, a general who was never in any army the rest of us knew about. And he married below himself, too, a dismal woman who finished up by putting a pistol to her-"
He broke off, remembering himself. Lavinia's pale face had gone slack and expressionless, but her eyes were filled with pain. Phineas, uncomfortable, coughed and adjusted his lap robe.
"The Elvsteads put their troubles out in public," he finally grumbled. "That is all I meant to say. It's not befitting. And it seems as if all the troubles are in the female line. That Maudeline will be bearing future Everglots. Bad blood outs eventually. It always does. When Finis returns, I'll be sure to speak with him before he meets her."
There was another silence, this one punctuated by the tiny noise of Lavinia chewing on her thumbnail. Phineas turned his head a bit so that he didn't have to see. Sometimes she would chew until she bled, and never notice.
"I don't think she's quite the lady she pretends she is," Lavinia murmured, almost to herself. Phineas looked at her in surprise. Lavinia continued to talk around her thumbnail, staring into the middle distance. "Maudeline. I can tell. I don't know if it's bad blood, Grandfather, as you call it, but...there's something underneath all that propriety. And it's not the riding, or music. It's almost as if she's...cornered. Afraid. I could tell when I saw her eyes."
"So could I," admitted Phineas. Yes, he'd noticed. You would have to be a fool, or his daughter-in-law, not to notice. So long as it, whatever it might be, was kept quiet, and that he and Lavinia were the only ones to suspect, scandal could be kept at bay. If Maudeline Elvstead was truly as well-bred as her bearing, education, and chin displayed, then she would also desire to avoid open scandal at all cost.
In the end, the Everglot name was all they had. The only thing that would last. It must remain untainted.
Phineas opened his mouth to tell Lavinia that it was quite late, they should retire, but instead of words a tumble of gibberish fell from his lips. And then, the worst pain he had ever known exploded in his right temple.
"Grandfather?" Lavinia cried. It sounded as though her voice had traveled down a long tunnel. Phineas tried to turn his head to look at her, but his body seemed beyond his control. The dark was increasing, he could no longer see. The decanter tumbled from his slack, useless hand, the crash as it shattered on the marble floor reaching him only dimly.
"Don't let there be a scandal," he tried to tell her, knowing he was out of time. But his mouth no longer worked, his throat could only croak. As Lavinia fled for help, Phineas sank into himself, everything around him a dark fog.
The next thing Phineas knew he was standing in the very middle of a crowded, dingy tavern. It was louder than any place he had ever been, with shouts and piano music. Every angle was off-kilter, and the colors were somehow brighter than normal colors could ever be. Where on Earth...?
And then he realized. He was not on Earth. Not strictly speaking, at any rate. He was somewhere...other. He'd never see Earth again. A different sort of man might have swallowed with emotion. Phineas merely cleared his throat, held his distinctly Everglot head high, and took in the scene, unable to keep from thinking about how dreadfully common this all was. Once he might have said he would never be caught dead in such a place...
Four pairs of skeletons danced an exuberant polka, their tattered clothes aflutter, laughing as they spun. The dead woman at the coffin-shaped piano was small but sturdy, and had been buried in a grey silk gown. From where he could see her profile, Phineas saw that she had one doe-like eye left, and a heart-shaped, nearly fleshless face. What skin remained was pale blue. When she turned her head to flash the dancers a skeletal grin, Phineas saw the bullet-hole in her temple.
She never seemed that gay when she was alive, he thought, not without a hint of disapproval. As he glanced around at the corpses making merry, cavorting, and pouring pints down their decaying throats, Phineas frowned.
"I have died, and I have gone to Hell," he said, adjusting his periwig. He took a step backward, intending to find somewhere quiet so that he could rest in peace, but instead trod on the foot of the corpse behind him.
"Oh! Sorry!" said a croaky voice from below him. There were not many men who Phineas Everglot could physically look down upon, but here was one of the few.
Standing there looking sheepishly up at him, a saber sticking out of his middle, was dwarfish General Adrin, nearly overwhelmed by the hat of his dress uniform. They had never been on social terms, not by any stretch. Adrin had lived at the Tavern, a lifelong bachelor.
"I do beg your pardon-your Lordship?" he finished with rising inflection, and stepping back in deference. "So sorry for your loss of life."
Phineas nodded his acknowledgment. He wished he could say the same to Adrin, but he knew that barmy old Adrin had gone just the way he'd wanted to go, he and his even madder friend-
"Lord Everglot!" broke in General Sutherland, coming up to them. A huge hole was ripped through his middle, spoiling his Dragoon uniform. With one easy movement he swung Adrin up onto a convenient table by the saber handle, and then offered a salute. "Bly me, pleasure to see you. Hasn't ever really felt natural down here without an Everglot! Welcome!"
Again, all Phineas offered was a nod. Out of their trees, the pair of them. Completely. He would have to make sure he did his best to spend eternity far away from this pair.
"General!" called Sutherland over his shoulder, "I say, man, come see who's joined our ranks!"
Another of them? It could only be...Phineas drew himself up to full height and put on his most imperious face when the third general came to join them.
"You! Elvstead!" barked Phineas. The corpse paused, stein halfway to his mouth, and looked Phineas up and down. As in life, the man was very tall, with a handlebar mustache. His chin was his most arresting attribute, hanging down almost to his collarbone. Like the other two he wore his dress uniform. As his had been a quiet death, it was still in rather good condition, but for a patch of mold here and there.
"No one's called me that in a dog's age," hiccuped General Elvstead. "Around here they call me Vitgenshtein! Right, lads? Wellington? Bones-apart?" He laughed and hoisted his stein at his fellow veterans, who returned the gesture with raucous laughs of their own. Phineas waited for the hilarity to subside.
"What's all this about your daughter marrying my grandson?" he demanded, quite forgetting in his annoyance that Elvstead had been dead for three years and had nothing to do with it. "Tell me now, is there anything she's hiding? Will she make a proper Everglot?" Phineas knew he was barely making sense, and that Elvstead was barely sober, but he had to know. He'd never rest completely until he was sure that his great-grandchildren would be of good blood.
The mention of his daughter seemed to sober Elvstead up. "Maudeline? Marrying an Everglot?" he said wonderingly. He stroked his enormous chin. Then he grinned. "I say, what good luck for her! She's a fine girl, all told! Here, old boy, let's have a pint to celebrate!"
Before an aghast Phineas could think of a reply to this effrontery, Elvstead had clapped a hand on his shoulder, turned to the room, and cried, "Drinks for everyone! My daughter's getting married!" A cheer went up from the assembled dead. A young dead man in a worm-eaten frock coat bent over the piano and tinkled the opening bars of the Bridal Chorus.
"I? Drink with you?" Phineas demanded, pulling away from Elvstead. "Are you mad? And answer my question!"
But Elvstead merely grinned again, passed around drinks that seemed to appear from nowhere, and began happily informing every corpse in the place of the fortuitous wedding going on "Upstairs." Lip curled, Phineas glowered at his moldy back until he disappeared into the scrum of the dead, seemingly headed for the piano.
"Oh now, your Lordship, we're all of equal rank here," said Sutherland, two mugs of something vile and frothy in either hand. "We put it on for fun now and then, but it's all behind us now."
"Death is the great equalizer," agreed Adrin. "Lords and commoners, generals and privates...they all drink here in the end!"
"Not I, thank you," said Phineas coldly. Still, he took the glass of what looked like sherry from the bartender before he turned away. "I have a position to uphold, dead or not. Goodbye." And, after a moment's pause, he took a second sherry glass in his other hand.
"'Bye, then," said Adrin, draining his glass. Sutherland, his hands still full, offered a beery salute.
"Good-bye, your lordship!" chorused what sounded like every single dead villager in attendance. He also thought he caught a few laughs and whistles. A barely sober skeleton near the door hiccuped and waved as he passed.
"Of all the disrespectful and outrageous...bah!" he grumbled as he went through the door out onto the square. Resolute, and ignoring the corpses who waved or greeted him as he stalked by, Phineas made for where, in the land of the living, the graveyard would be.
He was an Everglot, and he wanted to be alone. He'd always been alone, in the end.
Soon enough he came to a mass of gravestones, some in better shape than others. A graveyard in the land of the dead looked like something out of a storybook-wrought iron gate, grey tombs. And yet every angle was tilted, every color was bright, not the somber one would expect. Names began appearing on the stones and gates, ones that he recognized. Some were his relatives. Nearly every family in the village was connected somehow. Death didn't change that.
Phineas walked until he found the Everglot crypt. It was similar to its counterpart in the land above, except that here it seemed to glow bright green. He considered it for a moment, taking in the lack of shadows, the eerie glow, the little string of purple lights someone had put up between the marble columns on the exterior. Death's version of the Everglot mansion, more or less. Melancholy flooded him, and he felt on his finger for the Everglot ring.
It wasn't there. By God, they had pried it off his cold dead finger. Anger and a fresh feeling of loss replaced the melancholy, but subsided soon enough. At least the ring was on Finis's hand now.
The door of the crypt was open. Peeking in, he saw that several of the coffins were open and empty, including his late wife's. Even Grandfather Felix's. In all it had the look of a room at an inn awaiting its inhabitants at the end of the day. If he sat long enough, his family might return. Oh, he did hope they would.
His own casket was set into an alcove in the far wall, waiting for him. Careful not to upset his glasses, he climbed in, noting how very handsome a box it was. Finis and Lavinia had done well.
Sipping from his sherry glasses, Phineas, Lord Everglot, sat in his casket in his family's resting place, and waited. For what, he did not know. He would need to think about that. Perhaps for his fellow Everglots to return, supposing that they ever did. Perhaps for Elvstead to chance by, just in case. He supposed he did not have the patience to wait all the way until Judgment Day. Perhaps he could go back to that little pub, eventually. Just to make his lordly presence known. To remind his departed villagers that the Everglot name held power and prestige, even beyond the grave.
Besides, his glass of dead man's sherry could use a top-up.