Yes, Victor thought as he stared into the mirror that hung above the washstand in his bedroom, I am definitely beginning to lose my hair.
Critically, he pulled his bangs away from his face and took another look. His forehead seemed to take up more space than it ever had. Letting his bangs fall back into place, he sighed. Those little tufts of hair, which Victoria had always affectionately called his "puppy-dog ears," were less impressive than they were once. Thirty-three felt much too young to start going bald. Not that he was going completely bald, though. A little thin on top near his crown, but not totally bald. Not yet, anyway.
It was nearly nine in the morning, but Victor had only been up for a little while. He'd just finished shaving when the sight of his hair had distracted him. He was still in his shirtsleeves, his jacket waiting hung over the back of his desk chair. It was just about time to officially start the day. Victoria and the children had all been up for a while, if the sounds he'd heard were any indication. Victor was usually the last one up. Luckily nobody minded waiting breakfast for him.
Thinking of how much he could really use a cup of tea, Victor reached out for his jacket. Just as he was about to pull it on, there was a gentle knock on the door that adjoined his room to Victoria's.
"Victor?" came Victoria's voice. "Are you up?"
Putting the jacket back down, Victor walked over to the door and opened it. There stood Victoria, fully dressed.
"Yes," he said, quite unnecessarily. "Good morning."
"Good morning," she replied with a smile. Then she dropped her gaze to the floor for a moment. Looking back up at him, she said in a low voice, "I wonder...would you mind, um, helping me? Just for a moment?" She sounded a bit breathless.
"Certainly," Victor said. "What with?" He was thinking that she might need help with that sticky window in her room again. Victoria pulled the door open a bit wider and gestured him into her room before replying.
"With my dress," she said, when they were standing together in front of her full-length freestanding mirror. "I'd call for Alice, but she's helping the children dress. And she's already been in to help me once...but I can call her if you'd rather not--"
"Oh, no, I don't mind," Victor interrupted, even as he wondered what she meant by needing help with her dress. Alice was Mrs. Reed's daughter, and they'd recently hired her on as a maid. She usually helped the Van Dort women (as Victor liked to call Victoria and the children) prepare themselves in the morning. It must have been quite the situation, if Victor was being called into service. Even living with five females, he had only the most basic understanding of women's clothing--and that understanding usually tended toward telling his daughters, "That's a pretty dress. Is it new?" (Of course, he was then usually met with, "No, I wear this all the time. Mother, Father never pays attention!")
But Victoria just smiled that quiet smile of hers by way of thanks. Then she turned her back on him, looking at her profile in the mirror. Looking down, Victor saw that the back of her dress was open, her corset visible. In spite of himself, he was a little embarrassed. It was a tad jarring to get a glimpse of Victoria's underthings in this type of setting. It was the middle of the morning, after all.
"Could you...fasten my dress for me?" Victoria asked. Victor took a moment to answer. He was finding it rather hard to stop staring at her corset strings. "Victor?"
He shook himself a little. "Yes. Yes, I'd be happy to," he said.
Victor nodded, and then set himself to studying the...er, task before him. The dress was one he recognized, vaguely--it was gray, and one of the few Victoria owned that didn't have buttons down the front. Instead, it seemed to fasten up the back with a row of hooks and eyes. She hadn't worn this one in a while--actually, Victor couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her wearing it. She'd fastened the part around her neck on her own already, so obviously his job was fastening up what remained. As he continued to look, he noticed that it seemed a bit...tight. The seams looked to be a little frayed, and, on closer inspection, he saw how tightly the dress seemed to be clinging. No wonder she'd sounded breathless before. It was a wonder she was able to breathe at all, considering how tightly her corset must be laced.
"You're...sure you'd like to wear this one?" Victor asked. Victoria turned her head to look at him in the mirror.
"Yes," she replied, sounding a bit puzzled by his question. "I haven't worn it in years. I'm rather surprised it still fits, actually." And then she turned away again.
Victor just stood there, thinking that his definition of "fitting" was quite different than hers. The truth was, Victoria was a bit plumper than she had been when they'd been married. Well, though, after four children, it was to be expected. Not that she was any less pretty--in fact, he actually enjoyed this more filled-out version of Victoria. But of course, he'd never voice such an opinion.
"Why do you ask?" Victoria suddenly inquired. He paused, wondering how to put "Well, because this dress makes it seem as though you've been poured into it" into more delicate wording. Then he decided it was none of his business. If she wanted to wear it, she wanted to wear it.
"Er, no reason," he finally said. Victoria seemed satisfied.
And so Victor gamely attempted to fasten up Victoria's dress. The thing about corsets, he'd discovered, was that whatever gets cinched in at the waist has to go somewhere--usually either up or down. He just barely managed to pull the dress together over her hips; he could see the material straining just a bit. Up toward her waist was easier, where the corset was doing its work.
He didn't run into a problem until he reached the middle of her back. Try as he might, Victor couldn't get the hook to meet the eye. He pulled as hard as he dared, but nothing was happening. Making a tuh sort of noise, he finally gave the sides of the dress a good tug.
Victoria let out an "Oof!" as she staggered backward against him a little. Evidently he'd tugged a bit harder than he'd meant to. He apologized as he put a hand on her back to steady her.
"What's wrong?" she asked, nearly gasping for breath. "The waist? Do I need to tighten my corset again?"
"No, no," Victor replied hastily, rather afraid that tightening the corset any further would cause Victoria to turn purple. Or faint. Or perhaps both simultaneously. He'd never quite appreciated exactly what went into women's dress. The present moment was giving him a more intimate knowledge than he'd ever thought possible. I'm never going to complain that my tie is too tight ever again, he decided.
"Your waist...er...isn't the problem," he added, taking a quick look at her.
"What is it?" Victoria asked, twisting her head around to look up at him.
"Your...I mean to say...ah..." Finally Victor just made a vague gesture toward her bosom. For a moment she simply looked puzzled. Then, apparently interpreting the look on his face, she got it.
"Oh!" she said, putting a hand to her mouth briefly. As she turned away, Victor thought he could see just the faintest blush starting to rise on her cheekbones.
"Oh," she said again. Then, after a pause, she went on, "Well, I suppose it can't be helped..."
"Shall I try again?" he asked when she trailed off, hoping that the answer was no. This seemed an awful lot like abuse of some kind. But Victoria nodded resolutely.
"Yes," she told him. She took as deep a breath as she could. "Just once more, if you don't mind. If it doesn't work, we'll stop."
"All right, then," Victor said, tightening his grip on the sides of her dress. "Best brace yourself, dear."
So Victor grasped the sides of the dress in his fists, and pulled as hard as he could. It was difficult to keep a grip on the material while at the same time trying to get the tiny little hook to meet the eye on the other side. The hooks were digging into his right hand, and he could see the fabric almost beginning to fray as he tried to get the dress to close over Victoria's bosom. For her own part, Victoria was gasping for breath, one hand on her stomach and the other on her chest, as he pulled the dress more tightly around her.
"Is it working?" she asked in a breathless, ragged voice. Victor didn't answer. He needed to apply all of his concentration to the present endeavor. He almost had it. His neck and shoulders were beginning to ache a little, since he had to hunch over slightly to see what he was doing (Victoria was considerably shorter than he was, after all). But still, it was almost there. Just a bit farther, and he'd be able to secure one of the little hooks. Just a little farther...And then, like magic, the resistance was somehow broken, and he managed to pull the sides of the dress together easily.
Victor was so pleased when he managed to finally fasten the hook to the eye that he didn't really register the sound of ripping fabric. Nor did he completely hear Victoria's quiet groan. He wiped a bit of sweat out of his eye, then put his hands on her shoulders.
"There, I did it!" he told her, probably a bit more proudly than the situation warranted.
"You certainly did," she replied in an almost sad voice, not turning to look at him. "Oh, dear..."
"What's wrong? I got the...oh. Oh, I'm so sorry," Victor said, finally taking a look over Victoria's shoulder at the front of her dress.
Apparently, the dress was a bit too old and frayed to put up with the generous amount of tugging Victor had been giving it. Somehow, Victor had managed to pull the bodice completely apart. There was a long tear running down the front, from Victoria's collarbone almost to her waist. The hook chose that moment to pop free, as well, adding insult to injury.
"All right, then, never mind," Victoria finally said, sounding defeated. "I should have known better than to think I could still fit into this." She ran her hand along one side of the tear with a sigh. Although she was making an effort to appear nonchalant, Victor sensed that she was a bit bothered--and not just because he had managed to ruin a perfectly good dress. Perhaps he should say something. Leaning forward, he wrapped his arms around her waist.
"It doesn't matter," he said, resting his chin on the top of her head. Smiling a bit, he added, "At least you're not losing your hair."
They both chuckled quietly. As they stood there, Victoria running her hand gently over his arm, Victor wondered if she was thinking the same thing he was--about how they were both getting older. It happened so gradually, this aging business, that one never noticed on a day-to-day basis. And then, all in the space of a morning, it became apparent. Oh, well. At least they were aging together.
"I might as well change into something else," Victoria said quietly, patting his arm. "Thank you for helping me."
"My pleasure...though I'm sorry I ruined your dress."
"Oh, it was old, anyway. I think I just wanted to try it on as a bit of an...experiment, perhaps. Just to see if it still fit," she told him with a little shrug. Victor, who had spent most of his time that morning judging the length of his forehead, thought he understood.
"Shall I help you..." Victor began, wondering how to phrase his question in a way that didn't sound completely lecherous. He tried again. "That is, do you need help...?"
"Undressing?" Victoria finished in a whisper. Victor just gave her a tiny grin and a shrug, gestures that made her smile again. "I think I can manage, thank you."
In spite of himself, Victor was a little disappointed. Quickly, thinking how improper it was, he managed to shake the feeling off. Before he turned to go back to his room to finish his own dressing, he watched as Victoria took hold of one of her sleeves and tried to pull her arm free.
"Oh, I don't believe this," Victoria said, sounding quite irritated. As she tugged again on her sleeve, she noticed Victor's questioning look.
"My arm is stuck," she told him.
"Here, let me," Victor said. Victoria dropped her hand, allowing him to take hold of her cuff. After spending a fruitless moment or two tugging on the end of her sleeve, he had a brainwave.
"Perhaps if we try from the shoulder?" he suggested. He was beginning to worry that he'd pull her arm out of its socket if he kept on like this.
Victoria nodded. Then, suddenly, she wobbled a little where she stood. Victor had to throw his arm around her waist to keep her upright.
"I'm all right," she said. "Just a little light-headed." And no wonder, really, in Victor's opinion--considering how tight the dress was, she must have felt a bit like a sausage in its casing.
"Do you need to sit down?" he asked.
"No, no...I'll be all right."
"We'll have you out of this in no time," he assured her. "Let me just...er...find a grip, here."
With that, Victor steadied Victoria with one arm. With his other hand, he took hold of the shoulder of her dress. Or at least, he tried to. It was very tight. After a second, he managed to close his fist around a handful of the dress, and began to attempt sliding it down her arm. Easier said than done, however. When I woke up today, this isn't how I thought I'd be spending my morning, he thought, giving the sleeve another downward tug and eliciting another "oof!" from Victoria.
The sudden exclamation from the doorway startled them both. Almost in unison, they turned to look. Alice, the maid, was standing there, hands pressed to her face and looking horrified. Before either Victor or Victoria could say a word, Alice was backing out the door.
"I'm so very sorry!" she cried, pulling the door swiftly shut behind her. Victor and Victoria were both still frozen in their places. Victor was sure that Victoria's expression mirrored his own--an open-mouthed gape of surprise and embarrassment.
For whatever reason, Victor's gaze traveled to Victoria's mirror. He almost gasped at what was reflected there. Oh, dear, he thought, glancing between the top of Victoria's head and the mirror.
No wonder Alice had seemed so horrified--it wasn't a very pretty picture. There was Victor, standing behind a disheveled Victoria, with one arm around her waist and the other clutching her shoulder, tugging at her dress. Still not quite recovered from her dizzy spell, she was leaning back against him. Add to that the fact that he was in his shirtsleeves and her dress was torn to shreds...No. Not a nice sight at all.
"My goodness," Victoria whispered, sounding mortified. "What in the world will she think we've been doing?"
"I'd rather not answer that," Victor replied, glancing again at the mirror.
There was a pause as they both looked anywhere but at one another. What a position to be caught in. It was quite embarrassing. Victor finally broke the silence.
"Let's...er, why don't we...?" He couldn't quite seem to bring himself to lend words to the activity at hand. Victoria nodded quickly, saving him.
Finally, with both of them working together, Victoria was freed from her dress. After she'd thanked him again and had taken a new dress out of her wardrobe, Victor made his way back to his own room, still feeling quite embarrassed.
He pulled on his jacket, wondering how long he could delay going down to breakfast. He rather felt like spending the day hiding in his room. Victoria probably felt much the same way.
It would be weeks before he'd be able to look Alice in the eye again.