The Third Cook
9. The Third Cook
"Hear ye, hear ye!"
The town crier's call echoed throughout the square, as did the clang of his ever-present bell. Vincent Van Dort was startled out of his daydreaming by the noise, and gave such a start that he nearly toppled from the driver's seat of the Van Dort's Fish delivery wagon. He steadied himself against the dash, and, once collected, leaned out of the wagon's open side for a better look. From the little alley that ran between the clockmaker's and the Everglot mansion, he had a nice view of the village square. The clanging grew louder as the crier came into view.
"Funeral service suitably somber success!" the crier called. The crier turned this way and that, one hand cupped around his mouth. "Internment in the Everglot Vault to follow! Ten minutes!"
"Whoa, now," Vincent soothed the horse, who had started at the shouting. "Peony, take it easy, now."
After a bit more soothing the horse quieted, and Vincent leaned and gave her an affectionate pat on the flank. The crier's calls and clangs faded as he continued his seemingly constant one-man parade through the village streets. It would appear that Vincent and the crier were among the few villagers who were not attending Lord Everglot's funeral. It was traditional for villagers to turn out to mourn the loss of the local baron, despite the fact that only a select few would actually be allowed in the church. Tradespeople seemed to be the odd folks out. The news needed reporting, Vincent supposed. The Tavern needed to be open, such a fixture it was. And fish, which didn't keep, needed delivering. That was Vincent's job.
The fish wagon had been cousin William's crazy idea. He'd even built it himself, with Vincent's rather unenthusiastic help. It was an icehouse on wheels, more or less. In a village this size, the idea of deliveries seemed rather silly. Servants and housewives went to the market to buy fish from Uncle Theodore, and had done so for as long as anyone could remember. The two of them were among the crowd gathered out at the church. Trust William to be the one who tried to change things, particularly when he wasn't the one to actually drive the wagon...Though Vincent couldn't resent him entirely. Not when his job meant weekly deliveries to the Everglots'. Without this job, he'd never have caught a glimpse of her.
Her. Miss Everglot. Lavinia. He hardly dared even to think her first name. For a fishmonger to think about a baron's granddaughter the way he thought about Lavinia...it was unheard of. All the same, a man could dream. Even outlandish dreams.
Smiling a private little smile, Vincent drummed his fingers against the dash. He glanced up to the balcony on the mansion's second floor. It was just above the portico. Ivy crawled up the pillars and onto the balcony, and from there up the side of the house. That was where he usually saw her. Sitting in a little chair. Or standing behind the French doors and staring out when it was raining or chilly. It was a routine, a lovely routine. He'd finish his delivery at the tradesmen's entrance in back-most often brown trout, and always herring, both fresh and kippered-and then he would make his way back toward the square, pausing beside the portico. Up he'd glance, his heart skipping beats with excitement and anticipation.
Sometimes, he was certain, she'd seen him. She'd noticed. A few times she had seemed to smile, though he was always far enough away that he couldn't be sure if it was meant for him. Vincent hoped they were. The memory of those smiles kept him going through lonely weeks. Recently he'd grown a bit bolder, and had nodded to her if he fancied that she'd caught his eye. Once or twice he'd got up the gumption to even touch his cap. After those occasions, he'd barely been able to sleep for reliving it over and over.
"If we don't see her soon, we'll need to move on," he said to the horse. Seeming to understand, the horse nickered and tossed its head. "Miss Plum doesn't like us to be late. Neither does Monsieur."
Next to the Everglots', the Tavern was Vincent's favorite delivery stop. Next to the Everglots', the Tavern was Vincent's only delivery stop. Miss Plum was friendly, Monsieur even more so. The Tavern was really a remarkable place, at least to Vincent's admittedly inexperienced taste. So gentrified, so genteel. Vincent had been allowed in the kitchen once, and he'd been immediately enamored. And then he'd seen Monsieur, so foreign and trim and professional in his livery. No dirty aprons or frozen fingers. Last week, as Boris unloaded a delivery of sardines and salmon, Miss Plum had taken a break from supervising to pull Vincent aside.
"I've spoken to Paul," she'd said. "He agrees we could use another pair of hands round here. Someone to be our third, you know? Help out Paul here and there, but mostly down in the kitchen with me. If you'd like."
"I'd like very much!" Vincent had said eagerly, so much so that he hadn't even waited for her to completely finish her sentence. Miss Plum had beamed, he'd beamed back, and suddenly the world looked brighter. The sun was sunnier, the drab colors of the village looked ever so slightly brighter, and even the fish he hauled about smelled a little fresher.
Monsieur Paul had even taken a moment to speak with him. Monsieur had even been kind enough to endure Vincent's admittedly fishy smell with only the slightest and most unobtrusive wrinkle of his nose.
"Ah, oui, you will be parfait, this I know!" Monsieur had said, putting a slim hand on Vincent's shoulder. "You I shall train to follow me, a Maitre d'Hotel, oui? And if Madame needs you here and there, you may also be her helper. Agreed?" Vincent had nodded and shaken Paul's hand with the distinct feeling he was joining an entirely new family. Van Dort's Fish was only a placeholder, he wasn't even a direct heir or anything like that. He was meant for better things than driving a wagon around.
Over the course of the week, his professional and romantic
daydreams had blended together. Monsieur Paul would train him to be a
"Mater de Hotel," and then Vincent would kick the dust of
this dreary village from his feet and go see the world. Eventually
he'd end in...oh, Spain. Maybe Germany, or Russia. Open a hotel, with
his wife by his side. Lavinia Van Dort, who wouldn't mind in the
least that he was poor and common.
But such a thing was impossible. Noble women didn't marry fishmongers. Or Mater de hotels. Vincent frowned. What a fool he was. He'd never even spoken to her. Smiles and little waves didn't mean a thing. Not a thing.
Heavy of heart, he took one more look up at the empty balcony, the dark windows. Miss Everglot was most likely at the funeral. What a fool he was not to have thought of it. An utter, impossible fool. That was Vincent Van Dort.
He picked up the reins, feeling ridiculous and disheartened. At least he had the Tavern to look forward to. Perhaps Miss Plum had made blintzes today. Just the thing to help him feel a bit less bruised. He made to click his tongue to get Peony started.
"I do hope you brought trout today," said a husky, genteel voice. Vincent paused, his tongue in mid-click, and turned. Next to the wagon, next to him, stood Lavinia Everglot. His jaw dropped, his throat dried up, and his brain seemed to stop working for a few moments.
She was dainty and plump, and clad in mourning garb. She seemed swallowed up by the enormous hoop skirt and the big sleeves. Her black bonnet was draped with a black veil, so that he couldn't see her face properly. Somehow he was grateful that he couldn't see her eyes. Such a sight might send him swooning.
"I enjoy trout," she went on, running one small, black-gloved hand along the lettering on the side of the wagon. "My grandfather always did, as well."
Vincent was dumbstruck. Lavinia Everglot was standing right there. Talking to him. Touching his wagon. He gulped.
Say something! he ordered himself. Vincent was terribly aware of how fishy the wagon smelled, how his apron was dirty, how silly he must look with his cap and his black hair frizzing out crazily to either side of his head. He blurted the first words that came into his head.
"I...I...I'm sorry about your grandad, it was a real shame," he said. Immediately he cringed at his ridiculousness. Lavinia didn't seem to mind. She nodded, her bonnet dipping.
"Yes, it was," she agreed, her voice sad. For a long moment she was quiet, and Vincent followed her lead. After what he felt was a respectful pause, he cleared his throat gently.
"M-Miss Everglot," he said, "If I may ask...why aren't you at the funeral? Most of the village is there."
As soon as he asked the question he knew he'd said a dumb thing. How dare he? It was none of his business. He braced himself, prepared for Lavinia to tell him the same. But all she did was reach and lift up her veil, baring her face. Her lovely, round face, with those beautiful eyes. Despite the sad, hollow look in them, they were still beautiful. All Vincent wanted, in that moment, was to see those eyes sparkle.
"Death makes me sad," she said simply. "The cemetery upsets me terribly. Mother and Finis were afraid I would make a scene. I wouldn't have, I don't think...but it's not good for me to be upset."
"Oh," was all he could think to reply. As he looked at her drawn face, and considered her odd tone, he recalled those rumors that she'd been unwell. That she'd spent some time in a spa to the south. None of this put him off, though, not in the slightest. All he felt was an insane desire to help, to make her happy. And, hearing her speak for the first time, he truly felt that he could listen to her talk for the rest of his life.
"Also," Lavinia was saying, a shy note creeping into her voice, "I didn't want to miss you."
Had...had he heard her correctly? He couldn't have done. Vincent looked her shyly in the eye as deeply and as long as he dared, which wasn't very long at all. Eyes on the reins in his hands, he asked, "Miss...me? Y-you wanted...er...to see me?"
"I like to see you," she told him. A smile finally lit up her face, and Vincent couldn't help smiling back. "I look forward to Fridays. You're always so kind to nod to me. I am alone so very often...it's pleasant to have a kind of caller."
She'd noticed. Lavinia Everglot looked forward to his visits. This was mad, he was dreaming, this was all impossible.
"Ahem," came a voice. They turned to see the butler, nose in the air, standing on the portico. The French doors were open behind him.
"Miss Everglot," he said, "You are wanted inside." With that, he stepped smartly to one side and gave a little bow, extending an arm toward the mansion's gloomy interior.
"Thank you, Emil," said Lavinia. Her tone gave the impression of a dismissal, but the butler did not move. She turned back to Vincent, and their gazes locked.
"Pleasure to speak with you, Miss Everglot," said Vincent, touching the brim of his cap. He was pleased that his tone was a deferential and pleasant one, particularly because his brain was screaming, I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU OH HOW I LOVE YOU.
"With you as well, Mr. Van Dort," she replied. "Perhaps I will see you again Friday next?"
Vincent had to work very hard not to float away, so light with happiness did he feel. Not only did she apparently enjoy speaking with him, not only was she speaking in a tone meant just for him, Lavinia Everglot wanted to see him again the following week. Him. Vincent Van Dort.
"Oh yes, Miss Everglot," he said, trying and failing to keep his voice low as well. He'd quite forgotten that he might have a new job by next week. And he didn't care. He'd deliver fish anyway. Catch it himself if he had to. He'd come sweep the street in front of her house just to see her again. "I'll even bring trout."
They smiled at one another, and a little spark seemed to fill the space between them. That same sort of jolt that came with touching a doorknob in winter, after one had scuffed one's feet against a carpeted floor. Was it Vincent's overheated imagination, or did Lavinia lean ever so slightly closer, her lips ever so slightly parted, as if to speak again...? From behind them Emil cleared his throat noisily, making Vincent start a bit. As if on a signal they each took a step backward. With the dropping of Lavinia's veil came the feeling that a deep connection had just been broken.
"Goodbye," Lavinia said softly. From behind the heavy veil only the barest hint of the outline of her face was visible. But it did look as though she was smiling. Vincent could only grin, and nod.
He watched her turn and disappear into the gloom of the mansion, careful to take in every last swish of her black skirts, every flutter of her veil. The butler gave a sniff, and met Vincent's eye with a withering and disapproving look. Vincent, still overcome, could only keep grinning.
Next week. Friday next. Lavinia. She wanted to speak with him again. He'd bring trout.
The distant clanging of the crier's bell brought him back to himself. Hastily he rearranged his features into something more sober. It was a day of mourning, after all. It wouldn't do to be seen smiling wide as a harlequin on such a day.
"Easy, Peony," Vincent said, having to tighten his grip on the reins as she sidestepped. "I'll go secure that herring for Miss Plum, and we'll head on, all right?"
In the back of the wagon Vincent, humming a little tune, pulled on his work gloves. The ice kept things nice and chilly in the back of the delivery wagon.
The crier must be nearly on top of them. Vincent heard Peony whinny, and the wagon tilted a little. He'd have to get back out there before she reared or bolted.
"Internment completed!" came the crier's call. "Mourning party returning! Reception to follow! Hear ye!"
The noise proved too much for poor Peony. She whinnied again, and the sound of her hoofbeats on the cobblestones as she reared twice were plainly audible. When the wagon lurched, Vincent lost his balance and fell to the floor, hitting the back of his head, hard, against one of the icebox compartments. Dazed, he gingerly touched the sore, stinging back of his head. His fingers came away wet, and he winced to see blood glistening on his fingertips. He must have hit the sharp edge of the latch just right.
The carriage jolted again, and Vincent jolted with it. A creak from above made him look up. A few chips of ice dripped and fell around him. Before he could move out of the way, the ten-pound block of ice that had been keeping the herring cool followed. Instinctively he put up an arm to shield himself, but it didn't do any good.
"Bly me, a fresh one!"
Vincent's eyes snapped open. He was lying on his back in the middle of the square. The sky above him was dark, and someone had strung up colored lights. He must have been out for a while. Two faces leaned over him. The evening light made the men's faces appear blue.
"All right there, lad?" asked the same voice that had spoken earlier. It belonged to the man with the enormous chin and handlebar mustache. Vincent nodded, surprised when he felt no pain. With ease he sat up, the men leaning over him stepping back a bit to give him room.
"I'm j-just fine, sir," he replied, checking the back of his head again. He felt no wet blood this time. And, oddly, no sting at all. "Thank you for-"
Vincent froze, mouth agape. Slowly he looked from face to face. These were faces he knew. In a village the size of the one they resided in, there were few faces one didn't know. These were faces he wasn't supposed to see ever again.
"B-but you're...you've been...you're dead, sir! Sirs!" he cried, scrambling to his feet. "Both of you died!"
"Well, what of it?" asked the late General Elvstead, twirling his mustache and looking Vincent up and down. "You're dead, too."
"Don't make a spectacle of yourself, boy," added the recently deceased Lord Everglot. For that was who the second man was, Vincent saw now. Periwig and all. Death had hollowed his eyes a bit, but he still looked more or less the same as he had the last time Vincent had seen him being wheeled about the square. At least here he could walk on his own again.
Vincent opened and closed his mouth a few times. Fear was rising within him. Glancing around frantically, he knew they were right. This was a strange perversion of the village square he knew. Tilted and dark and crawling with spiders and purple and green lights and empty coffins everywhere and the statue was a skeletal horse and there went a half-rotted corpse pushing a wheelbarrow and nothing was where it was supposed to be and neither was he and this was all wrong.
It was then Vincent learned that the dead cannot faint. For some strange reason this was a comfort, but a comfort that left him deflated.
"It...it was just herring on ice," Vincent said, his voice feeble. He cradled his head in his hands. "It...it's not possible, I can't be. I'm dreaming. Soon I'll wake up, and this will all have been a nightmare."
"Denial," said Lord Everglot wisely, and Elvstead nodded. "I'll catch you up, Elvs-er, Vitgenshtein. Order us a dry sherry, will you?"
Elvstead, or Vitgenshtein, walked away, leaving Lord Everglot and Vincent together by the statue. Bones creaked as the dead horse turned to look down at Vincent. With a pang he was reminded of Peony. He'd never see her again. Vincent sank to the ground.
Over. Life was over, over. Finished. After a mere twenty-five largely useless years, Vincent Van Dort was finished. Just when his life was starting to seem not quite so useless after all. To seem as though there was at least the hope of a new start.
And Lavinia. Lavinia Everglot might have loved him. At least a little. And now he'd lost her forever.
Once, Vincent wouldn't have thought it possible for a dead heart to break, to be ripped in half and then to shatter to pieces. But it was possible. Everything he'd lost seemed represented by Lavinia's face, as she'd smiled at him, told him that she looked forward to his visits. Rage, a relatively foreign emotion for Vincent, tore and gnashed its way through him. Even he was surprised by the force of it. Before he could think, before he could stop himself, he raised a fist and threw a wild punch at the base of the statue. He heard a finger break, but didn't feel it, so he reared back and punched again.
"Now then, that's a bit much," said Lord Everglot, his voice a disapproving grumble.
"But it isn't fair!" he shouted, his voice sounding strangled and tight. He'd never so much as raised his voice in life. Especially not to Lord Everglot. But who cared now? If only he'd been able to stay, if only he'd gotten to know Lavinia better...he might have been part of the family.
If only...if only. If only he'd had a little more time.
"Please!" Vincent begged, falling to his knees before a befuddled looking Lord Everglot. "Please, your Lordship, there must be something you can do. Just a little more time, please. I need to be alive again. Just for a little while. Just to...just to...talk to someone. I promise, it won't be long." Frantic and desperate, he grabbed Lord Everglot's hand in both of his own, begging on his knees.
Embarrassed, Lord Everglot glanced around at all of the skeletons who'd gathered on the edges of the square to watch the show. "You're embarrassing yourself, boy, get up," he said, trying to pull his hand away. But Vincent didn't let go.
"I promise, your Lordship!" he said. "Please help me, I'll owe you...well, not my life, but my death. I don't know. Anything. Anything you like. Just please tell me how to get back to the living, just for a little while. I swear to you that's all I need."
Lord Everglot managed to free his hand with an almighty wrench. He stepped out of Vincent's range. Something almost like pity seemed to cross his features as he adjusted his periwig. "Nothing will help. You've died. That's all there is to it. My condolences, but there is nothing to be done."
There were murmurs of both pity and agreement from the assembled dead. All Vincent could do was kneel there on the ground, watching a little parade of worms and maggots squirm their way across the cobblestones. Lord Everglot's words rung in his head. His Lordship was right. An impossible fool, that's what Vincent Van Dort was. Even in death. Vincent buried his face in his hands. He felt empty. No more anger, no more despair. No feelings at all. It was as though his heart, useless and unbeating now, was gone.
"What's the point?" he said in a monotone to no one in particular. He heard footsteps and voices as the crowd dispersed, off to find more interesting things. Not that Vincent cared. "What was the point? What was all of that for, just to die? Why did I bother?"
Lord Everglot gave a grumble, as if to speak, but Elvstead's voice broke in just then.
"Plowing right through the process, eh?" he asked. Peeking through his fingers, Vincent watched him hand Lord Everglot a sherry glass filled with a purple fizzing liquid. Elvstead kept a stein for himself, and hoisted it to his mouth. Wiping yellow foam from his mustache, he regarded Vincent there on the ground.
"Must be a record, I'd say," he said. "At this rate you'll be at acceptance before you know it...Van Dort, isn't it? The fishmonger?"
At that, Lord Everglot nearly spat out the sip of his drink he'd just taken. Vincent and Elvstead stared as he collected himself. "Not Vincent?" he asked slowly. Wondering, but lacking the energy to be fearful, Vincent nodded.
For a long moment Lord Everglot and Vincent stared at each other. Then, abruptly, Lord Everglot quaffed the rest of his drink, adjusted his periwig, and turned to leave.
"Thank you," he grumbled to Vincent over his shoulder, "for brightening up my granddaughter's Fridays."
Without waiting for a response, Lord Everglot walked away, swiftly disappearing into a doorway beneath a rickety sign shaped like a death's head, which read Ball and Socket Pub. Vincent gaped, his dead brain swirling with questions. Elvstead took a draw from his stein. Much to Vincent's embarrassment, he then tipped a sly wink.
"'Brightening up her Fridays,' eh?" he asked, and Vincent wanted to die. Again. Elvstead only chuckled.
"Meet us in the pub, if you've a care," he said, starting off the way Lord Everglot had gone. "My missus plays quite a polka." And he winked once more.
Vincent sat there on the ground, staring off into the middle distance. Skeletons came and went, some offering greetings. But Vincent hardly noticed them. Lavinia had cared. Enough that her grandfather knew. And her grandfather didn't mind. With the clarity death seemed to bring, Vincent knew Lord Everglot only didn't mind because they were dead. It didn't seem to matter much.
But what did matter was that he'd had an impact. A tiny one, but still. Monsieur Paul and Miss Plum had wanted to work with him. Peony had depended on him. Vincent Van Dort had been liked.
Vincent Van Dort had brightened up Lavinia Everglot's Fridays. Somehow, from here on the ground in the land of the dead, that seemed to be worth quite a lot. His only regret was that he wouldn't be able to do it again. He hoped, desperately, that his death wouldn't upset her too much. She was delicate, after all. It was too bad there wasn't much he could do from down here. Except follow Lord Everglot's lead. It seemed the best, indeed only, thing to do at the moment.
Nodding to himself, Vincent pulled himself to his feet, and made off for the pub.